PLANES, TRAINS, AUTOMOBILES, AND FERRIES: A Trip to Italy, May 2022

PLANES, TRAINS, AUTOMOBILES AND FERRIES: ITALY, MAY 2022

It’s ironic.  We’ve tried to take this trip to Italy 3 times.  We’d initially scheduled for May, 2020.  When the pandemic started, we figured we’d still make the trip, thinking that it was like some of the other scares in past years that would pass without major disruption.  We were mistaken, and looked to go in June of 2021 instead.  In both cases, we cancelled all of our arrangements and got our money back without penalty or question.

The Colosseum, and the rooftops of Rome.

Finally, in early 2022, the world was opening up again and we felt safe enough to travel.  As is my wont, I meticulously researched and booked our trip.  The middle part was already set: a week in Tuscany on an Italian cooking course hosted by Tuscookany at their villa Torre del Tartufo, where our group of 11 had the run of the place.  The rest was falling into place, and I had an itinerary to look forward to:

  • Flying to Rome from Dulles, via Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc (part of the American Airlines alliance, and costing a modest 115,000 miles for both of us, one way, in business class – we hoard our miles to be able to fly long-haul in business class);
  • 3 nights in Rome
  • A private walking tour of Rome the day after arrival
  • Train from Rome to Arezzo, close to our Tuscan base, where we’ll stay for a week
  • Rental car, to be returned to Pisa airport before flying home
  • After Tuscany, drive to Portovenere, where we’ll stay for 3 nights to explore Cinqueterre
  • Return car to Pisa, and fly home to Dulles on British Airways via Heathrow (also 115,000 for both of us)

Of course, me having dicey travel karma meant that nothing is ever easy.  Although we were able to mitigate some of our losses, airline shenanigans ended up costing us:

  • A full day lost in Rome
  • A full day lost in Portovenere (Cinque Terre)
  • Over 235,000 additional frequent flier miles
  • A full night of hotel in Rome lost
  • Private walking tour having to be canceled due to late arrival, after the refund deadline
  • A full day of rental car paid for but unused
  • Lots of sleep and stress

I know some of my readers like to see all of the gory details, and perhaps take a tip or two from my misfortunes.  If you are one of them, read on; if you’re not, skip ahead to the next section.

Travel Demons

The troubles started about 6 weeks out, when I got an ominous email from Royal Air Maroc: the flight on our intended departure date had been cancelled.  But they kindly rescheduled us, on the same flight, TWO FULL DAYS LATER.  That would have had us arriving in Rome and then – assuming our flights were on time – turning around to get to Tuscany less than 24 hours later, which was not acceptable.  I armed myself with information, waited on hold for over an hour, started arranging to rebook to a different routing (Dulles to Charlotte to Rome), only to have an American Airlines agent hang up on me.  Another endless wait on hold, another long conversation, and we were rebooked.  But, despite me pleading our case, AA didn’t honor our original mileage price, and I had to cough up an additional 235,000 frequent flier miles. 

Three days before departure, I get another ominous email.  They always seem to hit around 4:30 a.m., so I tear out of bed to deal with it.  British Airways is no longer running the Pisa – Heathrow – Dulles flight we’d booked, so if we wanted to fly through Pisa, we’d have to leave on an evening flight, stay overnight in London, and get home a full day later.  I scrambled to find alternative airports, and found reasonable replacement flights via Bologna. 

Just rebooking this leg was an adventure.  I waited on hold for over an hour, and finally got an agent and thought it was all worked out.  But when I looked at my new flight record, I found that while the Pisa-LHR leg was indeed rebooked for Bologna-LHR, the agent cancelled the LHR-IAD leg altogether.  Rather than endure another hour-plus on hold, I made an appointment for a callback 5 hours later, and found an agent who finally put it together for me.

Of course, to accommodate the new routing, we’d need to leave Portovenere a day early to reach Bologna, and find a hotel there.  We’d also eat a day of rental car, because I couldn’t change the return destination from Pisa to Bologna without rebooking altogether – and guess what! There are no cars to be had in the size we needed to transport 4 of us and our luggage.  We’d return the car to Pisa a day early and take trains to Bologna.

The day before departure, we’re all packed and ready to go.  But it’s never that easy for me.  Yet another early morning email: the flight from Dulles to Charlotte will be delayed, so there was no way to connect to the Rome flight.  But American had kindly rebooked us for a routing via Philadelphia, in economy.  Nooooooo!  I didn’t hoard my miles for so long to be stuffed like a sardine in coach on an overnight flight.  After exhausting all options and considering all DC-area airports, we decided we’d rather fly a day later in business class, even if it meant we were sitting miles apart in the 2 remaining seats.

Rather than cancel our hotel in Rome, we chose to keep the reservation, but called to make sure they would hold the room for late arrival so that we’d be guaranteed check in on arrival in the morning.  And I tried to rebook or cancel our walking tour with Context Travel, but the only way to communicate with them was via a general email box (there is no phone number on their website, and a Google search yields only a phone number which directs you to email them).  We had no response from Context, and would have to wait until 24 hours before our scheduled (but unable to be taken) tour, when they’d give us the name and phone number of our guide.  Ugh.

Finally On Our Way to Rome!!!

So, after all these years, and all of these machinations, we are finally on our way to Rome!

We have a long-ish layover in Charlotte.  Though I’d wanted to hang out in the Admiral’s Club, one of the CLT locations is closed, and the other one actually had a line to get in.  So we chose an empty gate to hang out.  During this time, I finally got the contact information for our guide in Rome, Doni.  (HINT: If you don’t already have it, get WhatsApp on your phone.  Many people outside the US prefer it to phone calls or texting.)  Context also belatedly responded to my messages and refunded the amount paid.  We made tentative arrangements directly with Doni for an alternative tour.

As relatively comfortable as business class is, we still arrived in Rome groggy and rumpled. At least I had a chance to brush my teeth and freshen up before landing, as well as getting my first look of the Roman countryside in the misty rain. My first observation is that all of these little towns have the same HOA: stucco exteriors with red barrel tile roofs, with those cool umbrella-shaped pine trees everywhere. Passport control and customs were easy and quick for those carrying EU and USA passports. But we made one stupid mistake: we allowed ourselves to be lured from the official taxi line to an enterprising gypsy cab. To his credit, he had a nice car (Audi), and gave interesting commentary, but his unofficial meter ran at double speed and we blew €120 on the ride to our hotel (granted, it’s a long trip). (HINT: Take the Leonardo Express train from the airport to Termini Station, the main train station in Rome. It’s cheap and fast, and you’ll then have only a quick taxi ride to your hotel.)

We stayed at the Baglioni Hotel Regina on Via Veneto, wanting a non-chain experience close to the attractions we wanted to visit. But first, we wanted a nap! A couple of hours tucked between the cool, silky sheets, and showers in the luxurious marble-clad bath, and we were ready to face the world.

Our only real plan is to walk around and get the lay of the land and a taste of this overwhelmingly beautiful and historic city. The edges were softened by the misty rain (and later, a full on rain). My first day’s impression, and one that was reinforced throughout the stay: OMG IT’S SO CROWDED!!! Every major and minor attraction is crawling with people, many of them blocking the sidewalks and passages taking duck-faced selfies. As it’s early May, it’s not even the peak season for visitors, and Asian tourists are largely absent thus far, so I can’t imagine how much crazier it gets.

The Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Colosseum are heaving with tourists. We are warned to take care not to be a target for pickpockets.

Rome is a very walkable city, and we walk our feet off. (HINT: Ignore anyone who says that wearing sneakers will mark you as a tourist; everyone wears them these days. And if you don’t wear sneakers, make sure to test your shoes on some long walks — including cobblestones — before bringing them here.)

But we also take breaks along the way. Crowded as the city is, there is always a cafe, trattoria, or bar to stop in along the way for a welcome drink. And most places you stop for a drink have the very civilized custom of providing snacks to go along with your drink. The €10 glass of wine doesn’t seem that expensive when accompanied by a bowl of chips or nuts, finger sandwiches, and/or olives (always with the olives…. ick!)

A lavish spread to accompany the two glasses of wine we enjoyed in the lobby bar at the Baglioni Hotel Regina

Given our already-short, and now further shortened time in Rome, we could only hit a few highlights – the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, and many churches (most seemingly named after St. Mary). In addition to our personal walks, and some kitschy-though-informative time aboard a double-decker tour bus, or private tour with Doni was most informative. His knowledge of Roman history was thorough, but it was the little asides that were often most interesting to me — like how giant pilfered Egyptian obelisks were transported to Roman piazzas, or how the city of Rome is paying for restoration of Vatican-owned buildings outside of the Vatican, or how the family whose building adjoins the Trevi Fountain objected to having it built there but were happy to reap the rewards. Our tour had started in the early evening, and the evening brought a warm, festive energy to the city, with views of the Pantheon and Piazza Navona being especially magical.

We only had a cursory taste of Roman food as well. The restaurant in our hotel offered a tasting menu that gave us an overview of typical cuisine, and chose random restaurants in our travels for sustenance. Of one thing I am certain: Roman pizza rocks. The whisper-thin crust is a winner for me.

Cooking Tuscan-Style

Of course, Rome was merely an appetizer. This entire trip was built around a week’s stay at Tuscookany’s Torre del Tartufo, a spectacular villa far away from civilization in the Tuscan hills outside Arezzo, where we and our group would take a week’s course in Italian cookery. We met up with Skip and Harriet at the train station in Rome (they’d been in the south) and took the train to Arezzo. The week was organized by Chris and Heather, friends of Skip and Harriet, whom we’d met for a second on the docks at Emerald Bay in the Exumas many years ago. There was a total of 11 of us, all with a connection to sailing and/or Alaska, and our group was large enough to have the exclusive run of the place.

And what a place! Simply the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed. Up a precipitous narrow road, Torre is built on a terraced site overlooking the Tuscan hills and is a feast for the senses. It has all the rustic elements one might expect of an old Tuscan villa — vine-draped walls, terra cotta tile floors, rough wood doors with black iron hardware, beamed ceilings, wood fireplaces. And yet it also included lots of luxurious touches, like heated floors, marble bathrooms, good WiFi, a king bed with two duvets (so we weren’t fighting for one!), and 24/7 access to the kitchen, espresso machine, and bar.

Torre del Tartufo, in its springtime lushness.

It would have been easy to take a few day trips here and there and do nothing but lounge at the villa. At the lower level, there are two large grottoes with comfy mattresses and pillows, curtained off but looking over the pool and the hills. We could hang out and read, sketch, chat, and write in comfort. With the low hum of bees in the wisteria and the cuckoo birds cuckoo-ing, and perfect weather, staying awake was not easy.

But, for starters, no one would want to miss lunch. Served on an awninged terrace, lunch featured free-flowing wine and the fruits of our labors in the kitchen (or, in the case of our first day, the efforts of the class before us).

The dining gallery, and a typical lunch (including pasta fagiole and braised beef, the fruits of our labors.

And then, on 4 days, the main reason we were here: cooking class.

We were led by inspiring and and brave Chef Franco Palandra, and his brilliant and tireless partner Paola. I call Franco brave because it takes a certain fortitude to tackle teaching a group whose skills range from accomplished (a cookbook author, a CIA certificate-holder) to enthusiastic beginners. Then there are challenges like me — with enough skill in the kitchen to know some stuff but with a lot of ingrained habits (not all of which are good); in my case — even 30+ years since I finished formal education — you can throw in a somewhat competitive need to excel and gain the teacher’s approval (I lived to hear “Brava, Eve,” even if it was only for my mirepoix or psychotically-shaped chocolate tuilles).

Every day, we’d be divided into 4 different teams; each team (which was different every time, and separated spouses) would tackle either appetizers, primi, mains or dessert. We’d make multiple recipes, for the upcoming evening’s dinner, the coming days’ lunches, and to have in inventory (the cookie jar with the first day’s cantucci — almond biscotti — was quite popular). Some of the recipes were traditional and rustic, and some were elevated or modernized takes on classics. Not a single one of us left without learning new skills. Among other things, I learned how to clean an artichoke and Rick learned how to filet fish. My goals were to tackle making pasta from scratch (we learned pappardelle, ravioli, and tortelloni) and making something with cinghiale — wild boar — a Tuscan specialty.

Hard at work.

Nothing ever goes to waste in Franco’s kitchen — a view of keeping a kitchen which I have always admired and which has been heightened during the pandemic, since I tried to take fewer trips to the supermarket. Carrot peels, onion scraps, and other vegetable leavings were kept for the ever-simmering stock pot. What others might call trash — like parmigiano rinds — were transformed and put to delicious use in stocks, soups and as snacks.

Some of our creations:

One day, we had a truffle hunting demonstration by a local truffle hunter and his very valuable dog. Another day, an olive oil tasting, together with opportunity to sample local vinegars and other products. The ingredients available to us were unbelievably good, making me sad to hit my local shops in search of produce or meat (especially now that my favorite seafood market has closed).

Searching for truffles.

The highlight of each day was dinner. With a chance to decompress after cooking and clean up, we’d head to the dining room fresh and excited to taste the fruits of our labors. Wine poured, and after dinner, so did the limoncello and other liqueurs, of which there seemed to be an endless variety.

Our first dinner: eggplant pudding (wrapped in eggplant skin) with burrata and tomato sauce; gnocchi with St. George mushrooms; chicken roulades with pecorino cheese and truffles; and nectarine semifreddo in a tuille cup.

Midweek, we took a field trip to visit some local sites. First was a visit to Villa la Ripa, a Renaissance villa overlooking vineyards. Though slow and reluctant to take it up, the owners — a pair of physicians — started a small-production winery. We tasted their offerings, and Rick and I ended up with 2 cases of their super-Tuscan (sangiovese and cabernet blend) named Psyco, in recognition of the owner being a neurologist.

Villa la Ripa was a beautiful setting for wine, and wine-tasting.

Next, a visit to Montemercole agricultural cooperative. We had lunch hosted by the family which products regional cheeses from their cattle and sheep.

Cheeses in various stages of ripening.

Finally, time to explore the medieval walled hill town of Anghiari, home to the Busatti textile mill which we toured (OSHA would have a fit if they ever saw how close they allowed us to get to the looms!) I could have gone really crazy shopping here, but limited my purchases to a gorgeous grapevine-patterned table running in just the right shade of green.

Although I’m certain that each hill town in Tuscany (and Umbria) is unique, there is a comforting similarity to many of them, Anghiari included. They are on hilltops, with a campanile — the better to spot an approaching enemy — and walled, though often only parts of the walls remain. The houses, shops and other buildings are made of light-colored stone or stucco, with red barrel-tiled roofs, all piled up around steep cobble streets. There is always at least one, if not more, Catholic church. And everywhere, flowers and those iconic cypresses.

After that day’s travels, some of us braved the wood-fire-heated hot tub (Franco called it the stockpot, and he wasn’t wrong — it was hot!), and then, even more crazily, the unheated swimming pool.

Harriet, Bridget and I braved the cold water, and Chris was known to jump in as well. Brrrr!

Good thing neither was especially comfortable, or it might have been the end of any wish to leave the villa! At least that evening’s promise of our individually-made Roman style pizzas kept us from getting too lazy.

Beautiful and delicious!

Our free day, Friday, took us to another hill town: Assisi (which is technically in Umbria, and not Tuscany), the birthplace of one of the most revered of Catholic saints, St. Francis of Assisi. The town itself dates back to Roman times, and among the many churches, including the basilica of St. Francis (San Francesco) and the church of Santa Chiara (St. Clare, Francis’ most famous acolyte), also features former Roman sites as well as the standard trattorias and shops.

Because Assisi is a pilgrimage destination, it’s also full of tacky shops highlighting holy refrigerator magnets, among other dreck. Nevertheless, the message of St. Francis, of love for all of creation, carries on from the 14th century.

Soon, our stay in Tuscany draws to its end. We’re now a lean, mean, fighting kitchen brigade, and the ambitious menu for our last day of cooking gets knocked out in record time. Dinner Saturday night was especially festive, as we dined outdoors (with heat lamps, since evenings are chilly), and our wonderful crew of hosts (Franco, Paola, Lena, Alex) joined for post-dinner drinks.

it’s also, by far, my favorite meal out of all of the superlative meals we made: tomato soup with parmesan gelato; tortelloni with beef filling in a truffle butter sauce; pistachio-crusted pork loin with a marsala chocolate sauce, with an artichoke pudding; and “Tiramisu 2.0” (a deconstructed treat with espresso gelato, nut crumble, and mascarpone cream).

The next day, we will leave behind the beautiful Tuscan hills and our new friends and compatriots as we head our separate ways.

Cinqueterre and Beyond

The Jeep we rented nominally had room for 5 suitcases, but getting my, Rick’s, Skip’s and Harriet’s 4 bags took some masterful Jenga arranging by Rick.

Rick managed to get the suitcases in, but we still had to stuff some of the hand luggage in the back seat with us.

We fire up Waze to take us away from the (relatively) gentle slopes of Tuscany to head for the more rugged Alpine peaks — which butt nearly against the sea — to Liguria. We passed the town of Carrera, which marble is quarried to this day. Our destination is Portovenere, a spectacular coastal village, from which we will explore the 5 villages of Cinque Terre. We’ve booked the Portovenere Grand Hotel, one of the attractions of which is included parking, which is such a tight squeeze that we needed to tuck our side mirrors in to get in the garage.

Portovenere in the morning, before the crowds arrive

I suppose I should have done better research, but I learned the hard way that cruise ships and their throngs of people call on the region regularly — both a national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. I’m not sure I’d have chosen a different place to spend a few days, because despite the crowds, Portovenere, is spectacular and empties out in the evening.

And Portovenere is also a jumping off point to reach Cinque Terre, with the ferries picking up just steps from our hotel. For our venture into the villages, we’d arranged for a private guide from Bellaitalia tours, Elisabetta. Elisabetta was not only a font of knowledge, but she also had a most valuable skill: being able to shepherd us through the unruly packs of visitors who wouldn’t know a queue if it bit them. (They act as is if muttering “Scusi” entitles them to shove you out of their way over a cliffside.)

The villages of Cinque Terre are incredibly remote, and except for robust-seeming cell and WiFi signals, have a very tenuous physical connection to the rest of the Italy. They are perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the deep blue-green Ligurian Sea, with pastel-colored buildings stacked uphill in the clefts of the mountains. Grapevines, olive trees, and other food crops are planted in terraces held up by drystone walls.

Sheer cliffside terraced to grow crops

The main way to reach the villages is by ferry service (which is weather-dependent), train, and on foot. A few cars get in, but most are required to park in lots up the hills, a good walk’s away.

Starting from the southeast, Riomaggiore is the first of the Cinque Terre villages. There is virtually no harbor (the ferry pulls right up to the rocks), and fishing boats are stored in the streets. Yet, life goes on as normally as possible, with stores stocked with products, and enviable hydrangeas.

We went from southeast to northwest, with the villages being successively easier to walk around (i.e. from steepest to less so). Of the five villages, we climbed and strolled and climbed some more in Riomaggiore, Manarola and Vernazza. It was one of the warmer days of our travels, and the crowds were wearing on us, so we elected to skip Monterosso (Corniglia not being accessible by ferry) to head back to home base in Portovenere.

Manarola is less precipitous than Riomaggiore.

Vernazza feels expansive by comparison, and even has a bit of a harbor.

Our overnight rest is but preparation for a few long days of travel. Skip and Harriet plan to fly home to Florida via Pisa, but because we need to return our rental car, elect to spent their last night in Pisa (at what turned out to be a grungy airport-area hotel that they chose because of misleading reviews). Since we are going to the airport to drop the car anyway, we decide to get our US-required Covid tests here. (HINT: Be sure to check the hours tests are available, as they are not a 24-7 service. Note also that as of this writing, tests can be taken any time on the DAY before you depart, and need not be exactly 24 hours before.)

After saying our goodbyes to Skip and Harriet, Rick and I catch a quick train shuttle to Pisa’s main train station. (HINT: The ticket machines here didn’t take credit cards, so we needed cash.) Onward to Florence by 2nd class train. We’d been spoiling ourselves by traveling only by First Class or Business Class trains in Europe, which for only a few euros more guarantee a reserved seat and comfort. On a 2nd class train, there is no such luck, and the tiny overhead racks meant each of our suitcases ended up with their own seats. The station in Florence felt every bit as busy as the one in Rome, but we spent significantly more time here, since our train to Bologna was delayed. And delayed. And ultimately more than 90 minutes late.

We still had plenty of daylight left when we arrived in Bologna, and our chosen hotel, the chic boutique Hotel Metropolitan (any hotel that includes macarons in its breakfast buffet is OK with me!) was minutes from the train station and in the center of the action. The rooftop of the hotel features a stylish bar, and after the day’s travels and delays, I succumbed to the siren song of a very large, icy Hendrick’s and tonic. (As delicious and refreshing as the Aperol spritzes others were enjoying looked, I can never get past the herby bitterness of Aperol.)

An Aperol spritz looks way better than it tastes (to me)

Bologna was a revelation, and in hindsight, I wish we’d been able to devote a little more time to it. It’s far less crowded than Rome, is a university town, and a culinary capital — it’s the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, which brings the world proscuitto, Parmigiano-Romano cheese, and Modena balsamic vinegar. And, of course, don’t forget pasta with Bolognese ragu. We strolled the Piazza Maggiore and the colonnades and alleyways that radiated from it, finding a trattoria for dinner, and later, the obligatory post-dinner gelato.

Our last day was devoted to travel, and we arrived to the airport early to straighten out some technical problems with our ability to check in with British Airways. (Hint: If your airline supports it, use the VeriFly app. Even with technical problems, you’ll speed the check in process.) With extra time on our hands, we used the VIP lounge (which is airline-agnostic, and accessible to anyone flying on a premium ticket). Masking restrictions had been eased, so masking was considered optional, but “highly recommended” in both the airport terminals at Bologna and Heathrow, and on the flights.

On arrival home, we are reminded of the pleasures of this trip regularly, from the arrival of packages of goodies we’d ordered, to taking into account the lessons we learned at cooking school. I would do it again, but would like to find a way — either by timing or destinations — that avoids the crowds (of which I am admittedly a part).

We tried our hand at papardelle at home (with chicken sausage and wild mushroom sauce of my invention).

SOCIAL DISTANCING IN THE BAHAMAS OUT ISLANDS (CAT ISLAND 2021)

It’s hard to believe my passport has lain dormant for 2 years.  A stressful, transformative, endless 2 years.  Trip after trip has been canceled or postponed.  So when we finally felt brave enough to venture out, I could hardly think of anyplace safer than the socially-distanced-by-definition Out Islands of the Bahamas, taking a re-scheduled trip to one of our happy places, Fernandez Bay Village on Cat Island.

I wasn’t sure we’d actually take the trip until we got on the plane.  The Bahamian government takes protecting its people seriously, requiring all visitors to obtain a Bahamas Travel Health Visa.  We needed negative Covid tests no more than 5 days old, among other paperwork to be submitted online.  (While waiting for our own tests, a couple ahead of us were getting theirs to go to Europe – in 3 hours!  That process went smoothly, and we received our visas online in short order.

American Airlines, which we were flying to Nassau, encouraged us to use an app called VeriFly.  Through the app, we submitted all necessary pre-flight documentation (passports, vax records, health visa, test results) for pre-approval.  Though the app was clunky, ultimately, approval allowed us to check into our flight using the AA app instead of at the airport while shuffling papers; it also allowed us a streamlined process to drop bags and move through the airport.  All of that kept us out of crowded lines, so we had as little close contact with strangers as possible before arriving in Nassau.

The Prelude

Our prior arrangements had us flying Western Air from NAS to Cat Island.  Between Fernandez Bay’s opening on a Monday, and Western’s only flying a few days a week, we were going to spend 2 nights in Nassau.  I’d initially booked us at Compass Point, a small resort I’d long wanted to stay at; however, they canceled my reservation because they would be closed for our dates.   As an alternative, I reluctantly booked us at what is definitely NOT my style, the mega-resort Grand Hyatt Baha Mar.

Look at this place! Hundreds of rooms, a water park, a casino, multiple pools and restaurants. It’s heaven for some, but definitely not our scene.
They even have flamingoes in an enclosure for visitors to gawp at.

Rick and I are not big resort people,  mostly because we don’t like to be surrounded by lots of people.  And the Hyatt part of Baha Mar has 1,800 rooms, and that doesn’t include the SLS and Rosewood hotels.   But I was going to be in the warm Bahamian sun, so with managed expectations, I was going to make the best of the experience.

Like the airlines and the Bahamian government, Baha Mar took our safety seriously.  Our taxi wasn’t even allowed on property without our showing our vaccination cards.  In the hotel, there was a mask mandate for all indoor spaces, though not all of our fellow guests were compliant, many employing what I call the “CLT Bypass.”  (I first observed this phenomenon at Charlotte’s airport – hence the reference to “CLT.”  There, apparently a large portion of the population have had their noses separated from their respiratory system, thus entitling them to wear their masks below their noses with impunity despite mask mandates.  I snark, but, really….?)

Check-in was super-friendly and efficient, and we were issued wrist bands that resembled white FitBits.  They were our room keys, and since they were waterproof, we didn’t need to worry about swimming with them on. 

Room key or tracking device? It would be better if you could charge stuff with it too, but that might be trouble….

I liked this little bit of efficiency, though it’s not as efficient as the “system” employed at Out Island properties, where your room simply doesn’t have a key at all, because it’s never locked.  We promptly dumped our gear and changed into swimwear, and headed out to find a late lunch.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sands was the beer of choice here; don’t get me wrong, I like my Kalik as well, but it’s foreign owned, and Sands is locally owned.  We inaugurated our triumphant return to the Bahamas with conch fritters and conch salad. 

The “fun” really began when we went for a swim.  Due to recent storms, the sea was choppy and the sandy bottom was stirred up, the water looking more like opaque opal than transparent aquamarine. 

Choppy seas, and something even more ominous: a cruise ship.

After a few minutes, Rick said something had bitten him; since he is the stoic sort, it had to have been more than just a graze.  When he got out of the water, he had a least 3 puncture-like wounds that were bleeding.  Since the pain did not abate, but increased, we took it seriously and returned to our room, where I dosed Rick with Benadryl and did some internet research. 

We reckoned it was a lionfish sting, so that was the direction I took (luckily, the initial first aid was essentially the same for a stingray barb, which is what we ultimately concluded administered the sting).  After removing any debris (found none), the idea was to apply as much hot water to the area as Rick could tolerate, as that would help dissolve any neurotoxin.  He got in the shower and directed the showerhead on the wounds.  At that point, Rick’s knees buckled, he slid down the shower wall, made sounds of distress as his eyes rolled back into his head, and passed out – don’t know whether it was from the extreme pain or from a toxin, but it was scary.  Since he was non-responsive, I called the front desk and they dispatched EMTs to our suite, who were accompanied by 2 staffers, including an assistant manager.

By the time help arrived – which was very fast – Rick had regained consciousness, but he was still in increasingly severe pain.  His vital signs were normal, so we elected not to go to a hospital.  The staff were extremely helpful and solicitous, even sending us a “get well” fruit plate.  Rick endured significant pain for the rest of the evening, and we cancelled our dinner reservations and had room service while Rick tried – and failed – to get comfortable.

The fruit plate was a nice touch.

Thankfully, by the next morning, Rick was almost back to what passes for normal for him, with only some residual stiffness.  We’d planned a lazy day in a cabana, which was a perfect respite.  The cabana faced the beach, but was also situated by one of the many novelty pools on site and a couple of convenient restroom cabanas.  The cabana experience was a first for me, suggested by my sister who’d stayed at the SLS BahaMar earlier in the year, and I loved it.  Our butler, Nathan (“Nate the Great”) was friendly and attentive, taking care of us all day with drinks, food, towels and warm care. 

We wandered to a pool, designed to evoke Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island; we could pass through a waterfall to a grotto (evoking Thunderball in the Exumas?) to view an aquarium – though I much prefer the originals to the pale imitations.

We also swam in much calmed waters.  In between, we could hide in the shade of our cabana, where our stuff was safely stowed and a steady flow of vacation libations arrived.

Our interactions with Nate were typical.  We usually find that many hospitality staff in Nassau are from the Out Islands, or have family there, so we always inquire and it always leads to a much more personal encounter.  Indeed, Nate was from Cat Island; our serve at dinner, Dominique, was from Elbow Cay; and our bartender at the Sugar Factory was from Exuma.

Shower wine. Because, duh!

I’d managed to re-schedule our dinner, and am glad I did.  We went to Marcus at BahaMar Fish + Chop House, helmed by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelson.  Here, the menu married Bahamian ingredients with the chef’s own vision, and the result was one of the best meals we’d ever enjoyed, including a conch salad that was stunning (featuring pineapple and sour orange in addition to the classic ingredients).  A creative cocktail list and super service rounded out a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  If anything, I would have enjoyed service on “island time” (as opposed to the efficient service we got), so as to make dinner last longer.

Cat Island, at Last!

So BahaMar turned out much better than I’d hoped.  I’m sure it helped that the resort wasn’t near full, and the staff were so thoroughly lovely to us.  And from now on, should I ever find myself in a mega-resort, I will rent a cabana for at least one day. 

Cabana life was something I could definitely get used to.

But we were ready for the main event, returning to Cat Island and Fernandez Bay Village for the 7th? 8th? time.  As much as I love the timelessness of Cat Island, I knew we were in for some changes, due to ownership of FBV changing hands and the pandemic changing some protocols.

Western Air was right on time, which I’m led to understand is a rarity, with the 50ish-seat plane carrying mostly Cat Islanders and a handful of visitors.  Shortly after collecting our bags, Kisha from FBV came to take us back to our island home.  Kisha is like a freshly poured glass of prosecco – bubbly, crisp, fun, and just what you need.  On arrival, the bartender Dominique (aka Skip) poured rum punches, Kisha showed us the lay of the land, and we were soon reunited with our friends Skip and Harriet, with whom we were sharing 2-bedroom Beach House.  We also met the new owners, Richard and Sandra.

Yes, there is now a bartender.  For our first happy hour, it was all I could do to NOT step behind the bar and make my own drink, taking the well-trod path from room to tiki bar.  But now Skip pours the drinks.  While I missed the freedom of drinking what I want, when I want, by my own efforts, Skip was charming and we enjoyed his company and his concoctions.  An additional change is that now breakfast and dinner are made to order and plated, rather than buffet-style.  But you still don’t need to dress up or wear shoes, so I coped.  Other than missing catching up with the former owners, Pam and Tony, these were about the only noticeable (to me) changes at FBV.

Most days followed a regular “schedule.”  Lazy morning.  A walk on the beach, or a paddle in the mangrove creek, an outing to one beach or another, swimming.  We’d have lunch somewhere in our travels.  Then more of the same until happy hour.  Round one of happy hour would be in our villa, where I’d throw together something that sometimes turned out OK with the ingredients available (the winning mix was Cruzan gold rum, Crystal Lite raspberry lemonade, mango nectar, and Coco Lopez).  Then onward to the tiki bar and dinner.

Unlike past visits, most guests kept to themselves, even at the bar, and dinner tables were spaced far apart from each other.  While FBV seemed a bit less social than times past, the rest of the island retains that quiet and seclusion we seek.  The beaches we visited were crowded if there was another person or two (besides us) on them.

One required outing was the trip to Old Bight beach, which stretches for miles of unblemished white sand on Exuma Sound.  We pulled our jeep over to the side of the road, set ourselves up (including the obligatory Rick cairn, as well as a bench made from found materials) under the casuarinas and dove into the silken water.  Under typical weather conditions, the water is calm and clear, though when the weather turned later in the week, there was some wave action.

After swimming here, it’s convenient to have lunch at the regatta site.  There’s a handful of food shacks right on the water, with menus featuring the typical array of Out Island fare.  Sadly, a number of them burned down just days earlier, so our choices were limited, but we still had a nice, leisurely lunch at Blue Waters, a decidedly local hangout as most of them are.  The Kaliks were cold, the food good, and the proprietor’s very young daughter Jemeaiah (sp?) found a worthy playmate in Rick.

Another touchstone is Yardie’s near Bennett’s Harbour.  Gas station, car rental and conch shack, Yardie’s is justly famous for conch salad.  Yet this time, there was no fresh conch since the seas had been too rough for the fishermen to gather any.  As we considered what to order for lunch, we settled for conch fritters, and decided to stop there, as the batch we got was so large that we needed nothing else to fortify us for the trip to the beach.  The stunning Atlantic Ocean side strand is worth the off-road bump-and-grind past the dump and plenty of untamed brush and bramble.

By Thursday, the weather started turning, with an early-season cold front turning the winds westward. 

A post-storm rainbow.

We drove to the north end of the island for pizzas at Shanna’s Cove through intermittent downpours.  Like FBV, Shanna’s Cove has also changed ownership, and appears to be in good hands if the quality of the welcome and the pizza is any indication. 

From the high vantage of Shanna’s, we get an eyeful of the stunning Port Royal, but it’s much better to swim than to gaze, even as the rains came and went.

As the weather continued with its westward trend, the beach at FBV started to feel like an ocean-side one, with “surf”!  

The kicked-up water at Fernandez Bay. At high tide, the waves washed close to the beach chairs, as well as the porch of Shane Shack, the FBV lodging closest to the beach.

The tides seemed unsually high, and my and Harriet’s forays into the mangrove creek offered a somewhat drowned feel. I seldom kayak at high tide here, but at least there’s no risk of running aground.  At the southern outlet of the creek, there was enough current running that we could take mini-flume rides.  But it was also too much to fight as we tried a reverse route back to base, and we instead paddled on the “outside” in deeper waters.

Skip and Harriet left a couple of days early, since they were joining a Blues Cruise in Ft. Lauderdale.  With our rental car still at our disposal, Rick and I attempted a visit to Fine Bay.  On our last trip, the beach was so covered with sargassum we didn’t even bother going down the steep and sandy cliff at the end of the road.  This time, we found the cliff had been somewhat tamed, with a much easier grade.  Though we’d hoped for calmer seas, as is often the case when the wind turns west, Fine Bay was too rough for swimming, so we headed back “home” to FBV, before ultimately girding ourselves for the trip back to Maryland November.

That is one Fine Bay.
Few things on Cat Island are easily reached.

Logistics

Getting home is often such a trial that it undoes all the good that a relaxing Out Island trip does us.  Pandemic era requirements add another layer of complexity.  Airlines recommend arriving at NAS 3 hours before your flight to take all of that into account – and there is good reason for that.  A lot needs to happen before you board your U.S.-bound flight here: collect bags from your domestic flight, change terminals, check-in, document check and bag drop-off, U.S. immigration and customs, and security.  Knowing this, I dutifully do everything that is recommended to increase the odds of smooth transit.

After Kisha administered our COVID tests 2 days before departure – required for re-entry into the U.S. – I once again uploaded all of the documentation into the VeriFly app.  Our Western Air flight from Cat to Nassau was scheduled to arrive 3.5 hours before our American Airlines flight to MIA. Scheduled was the key word.  We and 2 other couples waited anxiously in the FBV lobby for news of our flight – Kisha had driven us to the airport (less than 5 minutes away) to drop bags and check in, and then returned us to FBV which served as the de facto airport waiting area – and we kept hearing of delay after delay.  By the time we finally landed at NAS, we had 1 hour to run the gauntlet to get to our gate.  And to complicate life further, I’d picked up a GI bug that was rampaging through my system.

And yet, despite all of the stomach-knotting stress, by some miracle, we made it.  That it was a Monday, surely helped.  Our bags arrived quickly and we race-walked to the main terminal; the lines at American Airlines were sparse, and the dedicated VeriFly check-in line speeded us along.  Having TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry helped even further.  All told, we negotiated the maze in about 30 minutes.  BUT I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS!!  Next time, we we’ll either fly Makers Air from Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport, or we’ll build in a day’s buffer on the way home as we did on the way to the Bahamas.

And one thing is absolutely certain:  there will be a next time!

Another glorious Cat Island sunset.

I’ve Gotta Fly? Sail? Drive? To St. Somewhere

For obvious reasons, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a capital “V” Vacation. The kind that involves airplanes, passports and feeble WiFi. All things considered, I know I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to take lowercase “v” vacations — a Baycation last summer (https://sabrecalypso.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/baycation-for-real-this-time/), and a road trip to Amelia Island last year.

The beach on Amelia Island is long, deep and uncrowded, at least in November.
Surfers, properly dressed, enjoy the waves. We found November too chilly to go swimming.
Beachcombing on Amelia Island yields shark’s teeth. My special gift is finding the tiniest teeth, while I have absolutely no luck finding bigger ones.
Not so ferocious looking from the proper perspective!

This year, we had a loose plan to once again take a Baycation. But before we knew it, we were looking at a July week, which from experience tends not to be the optimal time for Chesapeake cruising. Nevertheless, we persisted, and planned to sail away from St. Michaels (Maryland) after Annapolis Yacht Club’s annual newcomer’s cruise. As our vacation week approached, the weather forecast looked less promising (hot! even at night!), and reports from the field (sea?) indicated an overabundance of jellyfish. Between not being able to sleep due to the heat (we only have AC when connected to shore power — i.e. at a marina, which we prefer to avoid on vacation), and not being able to swim (the highlight of a Baycation), we made Plan B, albeit not without second-guessing ourselves the entire run-up to departure.

We proceeded to sail to St. Mike’s, where we docked at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum with about 50 other AYC boats. Arrival day was hot and steamy, and out doubts about pursuing Plan B were squashed when our AC stopped because a giant nettle snotball clogged the AC’s water intake and required manual cleaning.

If only nettles were beautifully and safely encased in glass….
Instead, we get this slimy, stinging mess.

Despite St. Michaels harbor being plagued with jellyfish, the following day (Saturday) was miraculously breezy and pleasant despite it being July. I spent a few hours shopping on Talbot Street. I often joke that I tend to buy clothes for the lifestyle I wish I had (resort, beach) as opposed to the one I actually have (work, though casual, and some travel), and this was no exception.

Patterns and styles fit for St. Somewhere. And perhaps nowhere else!

We had work to do afterward. As part of welcoming newcomers, we had a group activity of creating a centerpiece for our table. As an icebreaker, one of the permitted themes of our centerpieces was to reflect a passion of the people at the table — ours was beach bars. Our theme was reflected in sand, miniature wooden bars, tiny drink bottles, umbrellas, soggy dollars, little shot glasses, etc.

How we didn’t win with this inspired artistry is beyond comprehension.

After having too much fun in furthering the cause of getting to know the newcomers on Saturday night, we slogged home in weather that had returned to July form, but the pod of dolphins we spied frolicking in the Miles River made my day.

As for Plan B … well, it wasn’t easy to arrange. As pandemic restrictions have eased, the demand for vacations (especially when Vacations aren’t as available) let me scrambling to find a last-minute beach rental within a day’s drive of home. At the last minute, I scored a cute cottage on VRBO 2 lots from the beach on St. Simons Island. I’d never been there before, but the island is located on that Spanish-mossy, lowcountry stretch of coast that I love between Wilmington, NC and Amelia Island.

If we drove without stops, we could make it to St. Simons in around 9 hours by car, so we drove. As I’ve written before, Rick and I actually enjoy road trips. We load up with red candy (Twizzlers, swedish fish), crank up the tunes, solve the problems of the world, and make wise observations of the world of I-95.

Has any adult without children ever stopped at South of the Border? If you have, tell me about it!

“It’s a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning” quoth that great sage, Jimmy Buffett. Above is Exhibit A in support of that proposition!

For a last-minute rental — for which I had minimal expectations — we got lucky. It was lovingly restored and fresh, with original wide-plank pine floors, beadboard walls, and crisp beachy colors — updated with a well-stocked modern kitchen and baths, and complete with outdoor showers. Best of all, we could see the ocean between houses from our screened porch, with only a short walk to get to the small beach area near the “village” of St. Simons.

The “downtown” area of St. Simons features a lowkey but bustling shopping and dining scene, a fishing pier, and a lighthouse. It’s a little more commercial than is my usual taste, but to its credit, there are no busy arcades, boardwalks, or chain restaurants.
At low tide, the beach seems endless. It’s also flat and hard, suitable for long walks or bike rides. There’s not much in the way of beachcombing (or at least there wasn’t when we were there), and I didn’t find a single shark’s tooth.
Most buildings are not very tall, and while there appeared to be a few swanky resorts on the beach, chain motels were a distance from the water.

Our ambitions for this week were non-existent. We had thoughts of exploration, and one day we actually did make a trip to Jekyll Island. But sand gravity played its part and we never got out of the car, instead driving back to the beach.

I think we were more interested in crossing this bridge to Jekyll Island than actually spending time on the island.
The Georgia “mainland” is separated from the “Golden Isles” — the sea islands — by glorious lowcountry marshes and streams.

The hardest choices we faced every day were where to have dinner. I’d made some reservations before arriving — and was glad to have done so. The best meal we enjoyed was at Halyards — where the shrimp and grits were expectedly wonderful (with shrimp harvested just offshore hours earlier) and we were introduced to a hyper-local (and delicious) fish called triple tail.

A great lunchtime view from Fiddler’s — where shrimp were the name of the game.

Rick had to handle several business calls, so I took the opportunity to explore other beaches (rather than strangle him (or his co-workers) for not giving vacation the respect it deserves). My favorite was the one at Gould’s Inlet, a small inlet that connects the Atlantic to the marshes. It’s the kind of beach that I love: ever-changing, with sandbars and endlessly mutating contours, and not too many people. We returned here a second day.

The sandbar disappears at high tide. Signs warn against going there, suggesting that many an explorer has been stranded by the tide.
A tidal creek and marsh backs the beach at Gould’s Inlet.
We never saw a lifeguard.

Ultimately, we spent most of our time close to “home.” Once I learned that there were no restrictions on the type of liquid refreshment we could bring to the beach (only that the container had to be plastic or glass), all I needed was a Yeti full of chilled rose and a good book. Rick and I spent hours each day bobbing in the surf until our fingers became pruny; then we’d get out of the water, dry off, and go back in again.

In the tide pools, the water was bathtub warm, but further out, it was cool and refreshing. And we only saw a single, dead jellyfish on the beach.

Any doubts about having chosen Plan B blew away with the sand. Despite being hundreds of miles south of Chesapeake Bay, we enjoyed better weather in Georgia.

Too much sun, sunscreen, salt and sand — but we’re happy and mellow at Barrier Island Brewing Company.

Here’s hoping the next trip is a Vacation.

Baycation — For Real This Time

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I am obsessed with real estate shows, especially the ones that explore my favorite places.  Bahamas Life, anyone?  Every now and then, when someone is buying a house on, say, Long Island (Bahamas), I say: “I could have that.”  Then Rick reminds me: “If you didn’t have a boat.”  Because a boat is not only a commitment of money, but also of time, and we’re in it wholeheartedly.

This year, as trip after trip got cancelled for good reasons — especially the biggie to Italy — we were reminded that our boat is not just a time and money sink.  It’s also a vacation home.  Although a summer cruise on the Chesapeake can be a dicey proposition given the heat (see Summer Baycation: Wine Not?), we decided to take our chances and head out the week before the 4th of July.

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Introducing Calypso’s new paint job.

Although I had dreams of heading up to the sweet, nettle-free waters of Still Pond and the Sassafras River, advance reconnaissance ruled those spots out because our principal location-al requirement —  robust cellular service — was not a given.  Since we both had work commitments that would require us to bring our office laptops and log in to the office a few times, being a little closer to “civilization” was going to be necessary.  With the likely heat,  we still wanted to be able to swim, and we’d already heard of jellyfish infestations south of the Bay Bridge.  So, we were off to the mighty Chester River, to visit anchorages both familiar and beloved, as well as new ones.

The day before setting off always reminds me of the beginning of a a sailing charter vacation, and not in a good way.  It pretty much sucks.  The mountains of gear and groceries that have to be humped and stowed aboard in the heat.  The filing (of water) and emptying (of waste) tanks.  The checking and double-checking to make sure all is in order.  The hopes for tolerable weather.

At last, we drop the lines and clear the dock in time to make the 9:30 a.m. Spa Creek Bridge opening.  Despite the wind feeling like a convection oven, it was absolutely perfect.  We positively flew up the Bay, under the Bay Bridge, around Love Point and quite a distance up the Chester River on a single tack, at 7 knots or better.  (For you non-sailors, that’s really fast for a sailboat.)

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Sailors will understand — we are always texting each other images of our chartplotters so we can show off our blistering speed.

Eventually, we’d reached our intended destination: Queenstown Creek.  We’ve been here many times, but not in the last few years.  It’s not an especially popular spot for sailboats because the entry can be daunting — it’s narrow and shallow.  But once you’re in, it opens wide and features a roomy bay, a sand spit of a beach, and branches to tuck into.

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A sailboat tucks into one of the branches of Queenstown Creek, providing an example of social distancing.

 

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Boats clustered around the beach show why Maryland initially prohibited recreational boating….

With our longest sail of the week behind us, it’s easy to slip into boat vacation mode, albeit punctuated with bouts of work (some of which require the familiar undertaking of hoisting  the hot spot to higher ground to grab a cellular signal).  Relaxation, swimming, paddling on kayak and SUP,

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A quiet Sunday morning in Queenstown Creek.

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Some of my friends won’t swim in the Bay or its tributaries.  The stains in the lining of my swimsuit are Exhibit 1.

The only thing that really gives our days structure is mealtime, and even that is flexible.  I strive to keep boat dining a cut above “camping on the water.”  And, of course, since it is vacation, we have a lot more flexibility in scheduling happy hours.

Showing off some “fine dining” aboard Calypso.

“Uneventful” is the goal of these weeks on the water.  Eventful is NOT restful.  Eventful means storms, anchors dragging, running aground, heavy seas, other boaters anchoring too close.  Once the weekend is over, the likelihood “eventful” caused by other boaters declines in a big way.

I suppose it was a successful week when the only noteworthy occurrence was the mud dauber invasion.  Early on, we noticed flying waspy critters making solo round trips into and out of the cabin, or around the mast.  We were able to knock a few out of the air, and I followed one to find it had snuck into a 3-ring binder and was building a nest inside.  Although I am freaked out by wasps, I researched these buggers to conclude that they were not aggressive; just messy.  We continued our battle with them, but it was not as urgent.  When we finally unfurled the mainsail a few days later, we discovered several nests right on the sail and made quick work of them.  (I fear what is happening now that the boat is unoccupied for a few weeks….)

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Hello!  Not the kind of visitor we relish.

Next up: Reed Creek.  This creek is totally new to us, and also has a reputation for a difficult entry.  Instead of cliffs and wooded shores, this creek is bounded by marshy reeds (or is it reedy marshes).  Thus, while you get the impression that the anchorage is not especially protected, it is.  And because the weather was getting warmer and warmer, being open to the breezes was more than welcome.  We were virtually alone here, and liked it so much we stayed for 2 nights.  Uneventful.

Reed Creek doesn’t look very well-protected, but it’s fine for a summertime anchorage.

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Just another sunset.

Similarly uneventful was our next day in the Corsica River.  Weekday sailing feels like we’re pulling a fast one.  We were alone as we anchored in a bight opposite Emory Creek, which featured a Tilghman Creek to explore by paddle.  (I say Tilghman Creek because there are multiple Chesapeake Bay tributaries with the same name, including a favorite one off the Miles River.)

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The cliffs bordering the Corsica River.

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Kayaking in Tilgman Creek.  Lots of submerged roots here, so I had to take care not to puncture my kayak’s inflatable bottom.

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Loving the ingenuity behind this private green channel mark: green hose pieces nailed to a piling.

It’s now Wednesday, and we are thoroughly mellow.  But things are becoming “eventful” in that one event is NOT happening: sleep.  I suppose it’s no surprise to find stifling nights in July.  Steady breezes and frequent dips are keeping us comfortable during the day.  But nights down below are another matter, and hungry mosquitoes make sleeping above deck a non-starter.  By now, however, even the daytime breezes are waning.  As much as I’d planned to visit marinas solely for the purposes of pumping out, the siren song of being able to plug in and run the air-conditioning was growing ever more tempting.

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Long Cove Marina was pretty empty.  We were told to choose any slip we wanted, so we took 2.

And so we succumb and book a slip at Long Cove Marina on Lankford Creek.  It’s a bare bones yard, and features a boat-building operation, but it has all the necessities: pump out, bath house, and slips with electricity.  Even for a weekday, the marina is empty; the manager told us that the clientele is generally from the New York and New Jersey area, and older than average, so the pandemic kept most of them from even putting their boats in this season.  Empty is OK when you’re trying to socially distance.

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Our views at Long Cove.

In addition to visiting marinas, the heat has induced us to cut our trip a day short.  After a lunch and swimming stop anchored off Cacaway Island in Lankford Creek, we enjoy a gorgeous sail to Castle Harbor Marina.

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Castle Harbor is a resort-style marina — with a pool, shop, and restaurants on-site.  We’ve been sequestering ourselves fairly strictly since early March, so this is our first foray into civilization.  And I have to say, civilization had not proved itself very civilized.  As someone who reflexively follows rules, this is very frustrating.

To borrow a passage I saw on a friend’s Facebook page:

Aspects of our COVID exhaustion are due to the reality that many of us are carrying the weight of other’s irresponsibility.  Many go about their lives, unencumbered with any feeling of social responsibility, then feel justified in their carelessness, at least partially protected by the herculean efforts of others. Not only are we carefully navigating a context foreign to us, sacrificially bearing a collective burden, we have to watch those efforts devalued by those who then pretend their carelessness is justified. We’re holding a societal umbrella in a downpour; they’re laughing and pretending it’s not raining because they’re not wet.  It’s exhausting.

As we docked in our assigned slip in the sweltering heat of the late afternoon, with sweat running down our bodies and pooling inside our masks — a stressful exercise in ordinary circumstances — we saw our mask-wearing was the exception.  As uncomfortable as we made ourselves, it was all for the benefit of those around us, few of whom bothered to return the courtesy.

And so, on July 3, we sailed for our home marina, frankly glad to get ourselves safely home before the hordes ventured out for the 4th.

 

 

Carolina Dreaming

One of the few things I regretted about our sailing sabbatical was that our trip home up the ICW from Florida was a hurried one.  We had to prioritize a handful of stops, and didn’t have time to explore them fully.  One of the stops that captured our fancy was Wilmington, NC and the neighboring beaches.   We finally made room in our travel schedule to re-visit them during the last week of February 2020.

While February might not seem an optimal time to visit, since it’s way too cold to swim, it’s actually better than you might expect.  Although Wilmington might seem like a “hidden” gem, it is an historic college town and located close to popular beach resorts; coming off-season is a way to explore it without fighting crowds.

I had some weather misgivings as we drove down.  We’d had rain in Maryland the day before, but further south it was snow.  Indeed, the further south we drove, the more snow there was.  Rick and I were so busy with out weather and scenery observations, as well our road-trip-typical deep and enthusiastic conversations — interspersed with my singing along with the iPod — that we’d missed our exit to head east by a dozen miles.  But Waze kindly provided an alternate route, and in no time we were in Wilmington’s historic district,  where any snow they might have had was long gone.

Our VRBO rental faced Front Street, with a rear deck and entrance that faced the mighty Cape Fear River.  We were located in the heart of the action when staying at Riverwalk.

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The unit had good old bones — high ceilings, hardwood floors — but featured all the amenities you might need for a long weekend.  And all we had to do was walk out the door to get to whatever we wanted to do.  Our first day featured an al fresco small plates snack, with artisan cocktails, at Stalk and Vine right on the Riverwalk, and then a simple dinner focused on AMAZING Oysters at Dock Street Oyster Bar.

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A month with an “R” and fresh local oysters.  They are not for everyone, but they are definitely for us!

Generally speaking, we’re not organized activity people, but I’m always up for a boat tour.  And it couldn’t be more convenient for us to take a boat ride with Wilmington Water Tours, as it picked up right at the Riverwalk.  The weather wasn’t especially warm, but it was bright and sunny and there was an open cash bar. We took a ride upstream and learned about the region’s history and ecology.

Views of fast-growing Wilmington and the USS North Carolina from our excursion.

The history lesson at the Burgwin-Wright House on Market Street was even more instructive, since the grand home has preserved layers and layers of the past — its foundation had been a jail! — as well as demonstrating the difference between the wealthy and those who served them before and after the Revolutionary War.

The house and gardens were beautiful, and restoration and maintenance efforts were ongoing.

The jail, on the other hand, not so appealing.  More like appalling.

For all the focus on New England in Revolutionary times, Wilmington was also a key center of activity.  In any event, any romanticized visions of colonial times one might encounter in novels or movies or television (Outlander), I’m grateful to live in our times (coronavirus aside) with clean running water, indoor plumbing, mattresses not made with chigger-laden spanish moss, and all the other modern conveniences.

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Living in a single-room, brick floored abode with primitive tools would not be my idea of a good time.  But back then, no one was the wiser.

Of course, ultimately, my favorite non-eating/non-drinking activity when visiting a city is just walking around and soaking it all up.  Several square blocks of colorful homes and lush gardens comprise Wilmington’s historic district,chock-a-block with “plaque” houses (i.e. those with a historic designation evidenced with a plaque that describes the significance of the location) with which comes the responsibility of retaining the historic character of the residences.

Real estate porn.

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This is the kind of plaque I can get behind:  ON THIS SITE IN 1837 NOTHING HAPPENED

As far as eating and drinking go, Wilmington is great for that.  The waterfront features large tourism-friendly establishments that we avoided, but we loved ducking into the narrow and cozy storefronts on Market Street and beyond, where we often grabbed a seat at the bar, and sampled the local microbrews.  The most memorable thing we at all week was duck wings at the Fork and Cork, but we also enjoyed meals at Circa 1922, Copper Penny, and Caprice Bistro (amazing NC flounder).

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Duck wings and “Texas poutine” – it doesn’t have to be elegant to be memorable.

On Tuesday (Mardi Gras) we were moving on to Wrightsville Beach, but not without a detour to Southport first, a brief stop we enjoyed during our ICW journey.  It’s nearly impossible to recapture the magic of a life-transforming voyage, the memories of which seem to be filtered through honey-colored light.  So, a grey-sky blustery day in February didn’t conjure any magic, but lunch at Fishy Fishy Cafe (justly famous for their shrimp tacos) salved some of the pain.

Southport’s main attraction?

And next door was a seafood market, and I was able to get my hands on fresh shrimp (which would go in the Mardi Gras jambalaya I was planning for dinner) as well as conch which inspired chowder later in the week.

I loved the idea of renting a waterfront house with a dock in Wrightsville Beach, and the one we chose didn’t disappoint (https://www.vrbo.com/609980).  After stocking up with groceries at Harris Teeter in Wilmington, we arrived late afternoon and Skip and Harriet soon joined us, having done their own travels in Charleston and Wilmington.  I was very glad we were traveling off-season, because the 10 minute drive from Wilmington would have taken forever; this way, we had Wrightsville Beach largely to ourselves.

The house was just what I’d hoped.  Outdoors, a long pier jutting into Banks Channel, which separated us from the barrier island with its beaches and the ocean; and decks and balconies everywhere.  Indoors, multiple levels of comfortable living spaces, including the largest beach house kitchen I’ve ever seen, a huge family room overlooking the water, and a game room with a pool table (we played — badly, most of us — every night).

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Our rented house and pier.

Normally, a beach getaway would involve swimming, kayaking, SUPing and other water sports, Those were out of the question in February, but being with Skip and Harriet doesn’t require a whole lot of diversion, because we can hang out aimlessly for hours.  We did spend part of one day driving around and exploring, ending our travels with a visit at the North Carolina Aquarium in Kure Beach.  With lots of interesting specimens, many of them local, it was well worth the couple of hours and the modest price of admission.

 

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The aquarium featured both outdoor and indoor exhibits.  Count the turtles basking in the sun.

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The cooler weather did not deter beachwalking.  One day it was so foggy that it seemed like we were the only ones out there.

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Another day, it was bright and crisp, with unexpectedly decent shelling.

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Ultimately, we savored the restful and healing power of salt air.  (Nearly all of which was wiped away by the snarled traffic on I-95 from north of Richmond onward.  Sigh.)

How My Sea-batical Prepared Me for Covid-19

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During the run-up to this period of self-isolation, and my first full week of it, I keep getting flashbacks to our sabbatical aboard Calypso, spent mostly in the Out Islands of the Bahamas.  When I think about how we lived then, and about some of the features of our life now, there are many similarities — except that back then we were in some of the most beautiful places on earth, and now we’re in springtime suburban Maryland.  Spring in Maryland isn’t all that bad, but, well, not quite the same.  (I’ll be using some photos from the Bahamas to illustrate this post, rather than shots of my pantry….)

Creative Cooking

Since I work long hours and have a number of evening commitments, I’ve long had a practice of cooking large batches of food when I did cook.  That way there would be dinner on the day I made it, and one or two additional dinners stocked in the freezer.  If I don’t make it to the grocery store, we’re not stuck with carryout every night.  So my freezer is already full of goodies, and my pantry has enough staples to throw something together.

In the last few weeks, I started thinking about adding additional stuff to the pantry, and as I did so, it reminded me of the things I stocked aboard Calypso before we left Florida for the Bahamas.  We had to address a number of factors: limited refrigerator and freezer space, a teeny tiny galley, sparsely stocked shops, and the reality that our schedule would be dictated by weather.

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Packable, versatile and shelf-stable groceries were key, as well as foods we counted on having but didn’t know we could get in the Bahamas: crackers, sundried tomatoes, canned fish, long-life milk, canned vegetables, dried pasta, spice blends and pastes, coconut milk, pickles, etc.  I find a lot of that in my pantry at home, but I don’t need a spreadsheet to track it because I don’t have to stuff it behind settees or in bins.  And Pringle’s simply don’t cross our threshold here.

Of course, having the inventory is only the first step — you’ve got to figure out what to do with it!  When living in the Bahamas, we seldom ate out.  For the most part, the variety of restaurant meals is pretty limited.  You can have conch or fish dozens of different ways: conch fritters, conch chowder, conch salad, cracked conch, conch burgers, fish sandwiches, fish fingers, fish souse, fried fish, grilled fish, and so on.  Aside from spending most of our time in sparsely inhabited spots, that diet would have gotten boring pretty quickly.  Cooking was both a necessity and a way to keep things interesting.

Armed with an arsenal of ideas and tried and true recipes, as well as a cruising cookbook that my dear friend Vickie (also a cruiser) had given me, I was off to the races, combining what I had and what I could get with lots of flexibility.  Sometimes, all the “fresh” ingredients I could get were potatoes, cabbage and some frozen (and freezer burned) mystery meat, though I was lucky enough to score fresh-caught fish and lobster from time to time.  When a stern-faced shop lady informed me that I’d pulled some bony turkey pieces from the freezer, she warmed right up to me when I told her I’d make souse with it.  I didn’t have fresh chicken, but I had bullion cubes, allspice, baby carrots, hot sauce, lime juice and potatoes.  I could feed us, and entertain guests.  We ate pretty well, and with reasonable variety.

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When Rick and I got to Wegmann’s last Saturday, there was virtually no meat left in the store.  I found mostly off cuts of meat and didn’t buy much, but I was sure I could make something from it — a soup or a stew that would yield leftovers.  When I see chicken necks or smoked ham hocks, I think: “I can work with that!”

Casual Everyday

Even though I work in a “business casual” workplace, I never slid into being too casual.  For one thing, I like pretty shoes too much!  That means an office uniform of  a dress or skirt with a jacket or cardigan, accounting for about 60% of my work days.  With “social distancing” and telework now part of life,  it could be a while before we get to see someone we know, so there’s a lot of leeway in dressing for work.

I won’t slip into working in my pajamas; wearing pajamas during daytime hours makes me think of being sick, not of being free.  But beyond that, all bets are off.  So far, it’s been workout or travel clothing — it’s not warm enough yet to wear shorts.  But like living aboard, for footwear, it’s flip-flops all the way.

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One practical limitation — which this period has in common with cruising — is that I don’t know when my next haircut will be.  I can trim my own bangs, and I like Rick’s hair (and beard) grown out, so we’ll definitely survive.

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Let Me Entertain You

Once the sun went down in the Bahamas, there wasn’t much to do.  At the time, there wasn’t much in the way of WiFi or cell signal.   One of the draws of anchoring at Black Point in the Exumas was the “free” WiFi.  Except the pipe was so limited that even when I got up at 2:30 one morning to try to upload some photos to this blog, it took hours just to post a half dozen.  Weak signal + high demand = no streaming!  I did bring along a bunch of DVDs that we could watch, and we did some limited binge watching (Parks and Recreation, for example).   We even got our hands on a bootleg copy of the then-current season of Downton Abbey, but we had to ration our viewing, because we had no idea when we’d run out of stuff to watch.

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These days, of course, we have an unlimited number of choices for entertainment, not just streaming TV but books galore available for Kindle.  (Interestingly, though the choices are endless, finding something worth watching remains a challenge.)  Now, however, we have to cut ourselves off not for fear of running out of things to do, but to avoid becoming slack-jawed drooling zombies.

Maintaining Standards

Of course, there is another compelling reason not to become total couch potatoes: the bulk of our weekdays is spent working.  Because of that, we are working to maintain as much normalcy to our workdays as possible.  In order to retain mental acuity and discipline, we are getting up at the same ungodly hour as usual, keeping up our exercise schedule (though already I desperately miss tennis class), eating meals during standard mealtimes, and working the same (or, in Rick’s case, longer) hours.

When we were cruising, I could easily see how our life could have slid into entropy if we didn’t maintain standards.  When your life is led in a tiny space, order is essential.  I made sure to make up our bunks Every. Single. Day.  Even though I outsource house-cleaning when living on land, I made a point of scrubbing the head and cleaning out the fridge on a regular basis.  Despite the temptation to let grooming slide, I fought it.

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Let’s Not Kill Each Other

Back in February 2014, I did a Q&A with my readers, one of whom asked about what surprised me about our cruising life.  One of the things I’d noted was that Rick and I hadn’t killed each other yet.  Considering the close quarters we were sharing, some of the struggles we were facing, and how well we push each other’s buttons if we’re so inclined, this was no small achievement.  There were a few things that kept us alive.  First was the knowledge that this was truly an amazing opportunity, so we shouldn’t ruin it.  Second was to remind ourselves that we love each other (even when sometimes one of us would have to chant under our breath “Remember that you love her/him” repeatedly so as not to scream in frustration).  And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we gained (or maybe had) the ability to IGNORE the other even if he or she was sitting just inches away from you — we could carve out mental space for ourselves even if physical space was in short supply.

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Now that we are limited to our house, with our home offices just feet away from each other (though each has a door, thank goodness), we need to remember those lessons so that we don’t drive each other nuts.  All things considered, we have it easy: no restless kids, working electricity and free-flowing water, and a comfortable and relatively well-stocked home.  No excuse.

Stay Safe, Everyone!

Remember, just because our enemy is invisible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  In fact, that makes it more dangerous.  Behave!

 

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I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever

I wish lunch could last forever
Make the whole day a first time love affair
We’ll begin with a kiss, such a warm place to start
Let me into your life, let me into your heart

That’s the last chorus of the old Jimmy Buffett song.  It’s believed to be inspired, at least in part, by the old-school New Orleans Creole restaurant Galatoire’s.  And if ever a song suited a getaway, that one did my and Rick’s post-Thanksgiving long weekend in the Big Easy.  New Orleans gives you permission to have an endless lunch, accompanied by crisp cocktails and whispered confidences.

For all the travel Rick does for business, some of it to some pretty great places (though he does work, a lot), I’d never managed to tag along.  But this particular trip to Baton Rouge was right after Thanksgiving.  And aside from hosting on Thanksgiving Day, I had no plans for the long holiday weekend that couldn’t be moved.  After a long run of annual trips, including 10 consecutive Jazz Fests (including one while we were on our sabbatical: https://sabrecalypso.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/detour-and-frolic/), this would be my first time back in 2 years.

People who don’t know the allure of NOLA asked what we do there, especially since we go so often.  The short answer is:  Eat, Drink and roulez les bon temps.  To those who like to visit sites and see sights to check them off their Must-See lists, this is truly baffling.  For us, who have checked all the boxes that will be checked, New Orleans is a place we allow to bathe our senses so that we can absorb.  It’s a feast.  The smells alone are evocative.  In Uptown and the Garden District in November, it’s the crunchy spice of fallen live oak leaves, the soft perfume of laurel, the green of moss, and the ever-present funk of decay and decadence.  To me, New Orleans is at once warm, welcoming, comforting, indulgent  and stimulating.

Flights booked, VRBO arranged, restaurant reservations made, and we were off early the Friday after Thanksgiving.  With the rest of the world sleeping off their carb overdoses, travel was smooth and easy, even despite throngs arriving for the Bayou Classic football game.  Having been gone for 2 years, and not really having paid attention, I was shocked on arrival to find a brand sparkling new airport, full of light and white and space.  After leaving dreary November Maryland, the shock of sunlight in the restrooms alone was a balm.  I might have missed the old down-at-the-heels dark old airport with Lucky Dog carts at every bend in the corridor, but not much.

We couldn’t check in to our apartment until 3, so we had the first of our endless lunches.  In a food-mad town like this, where Top Chef contestants and James Beard Award nominees and winners can be found in the most un-assuming spots, we could hardly go wrong.  Where once the Warehouse District in general, and Tchopitoulas Street in particular, evinced a shudder, the home of Cochon restaurant is now part of a vibrant district of restaurants, hotels, bars, galleries and the World War II Museum (visit!  It’s exceptionally well done and can be very moving).  Not surprisingly, Cochon features all things pig, paying homage to Cajun foodways while at the same time forging its own path.  It was on the vanguard of Post-Katrina New Orleans, which now has more restaurants than it did before the storm.

Yes, Cochon has an extensive list of “moonshine” to accompany dessert.  The other offerings range from gumbo to fried chicken livers with pepper jelly.

This being New Orleans, as well as a mini-vacation, we had a long and leisurely lunch with a number of small plates, cocktails, wine, and a moonshine dessert with our wheelie bags nestled near the hostess stand, where they were not alone.  But we couldn’t mark enough time to check in, so our next stop was home-grown New Orleans coffee shop chain P.J.’s just a block from our rental.

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The weather was perfect, so we parked ourselves at an outdoor table, sipping coffee and watching the world go by.  We were on Magazine Street, so the people-watching was outstanding — from students to artists to hipsters, but not so many of the tourist hordes.

Finally, we went “home.”  This VRBO rental (Magazine Street Chic) is part of a multi-unit house, arranged in “shotgun” style.  Clean, stylish and well-appointed, its best quality was its location in the Lower Garden District but brushing the Irish Channel.

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Our rental was part of this larger building.  We had a sitting room, kitchen, 2 bedrooms and 1 bath.

I easily walked to a quality wine shop on St. Charles Avenue to stock up our fridge, as well as a small bodega for other essentials.  The streetcar runs along St. Charles Avenue, providing access to places we wanted to visit.  (Note, however, that the streetcar is under repair, and shuttle buses were covering the stops near us; we used Uber more often than I’d planned, because the buses were not reliable.)  And we were able to walk to some great restaurants.

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Along the walk to the streetcar … New Orleans never fails to give me house lust.

Although we’re always up for something new, New Orleans is also about tradition and touchstones.  One of our traditions is lunch or dinner at Coquette, a few blocks from where we were staying.   We love supporting a Maryland-bred chef, but we also love the food.  It’s always local and seasonal, and that’s a whole lot more fun in semi-tropical New Orleans in November than it is in chilly Maryland.

One of the appealing qualities of Coquette is that is off most tourists’ radar screens.  But we are not immune to the lure of New Orleans’ tourism mecca: the French Quarter.  I generally avoid Bourbon Street like the plague, as I’m more attracted to the antique shops and galleries of Royal Street.  We make a pilgrimage to see the Mississippi River, and stand in awe of her might.  This year, we were sidelined for a bit by the Bayou Classic parade; New Orleans parades are always a spectacle, and the riders always throw stuff.

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St. Louis  Cathedral, in Jackson Square, readying for the holidays.

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Wrought iron railings, shutters, tropical colors and hanging baskets are featured generously in French Quarter architecture.

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Despite it’s starting point near the French Market (touristy dreck), Crescent Park is seemingly unused.  Not unlike New York’s Highline, Crescent Park is a linear park that provides spectacular views of the city and the river, while also remaining true to the industrial past of the riverfront.  We passed maybe a handful of people as we traversed much of its length.

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Standin’ on the corner
Of Toulouse and Dauphine
Waitin’ on Marie-Ondine
I’m tryin’ to place a tune
Under a Louisiana moonbeam
On the planet of New Orleans

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Our day’s walk eventually took us to the corner of Toulouse and Dauphine memorialized in the Dire Straits song Planet of New Orleans (Side bar: the only context where it is even remotely acceptable to pronounce it “New Or-leens” is in song.)  A few steps further took us to Bayona restaurant and its delectable courtyard.  It’s easy to waste away an afternoon here, snugged among the ancient cobbles, trickling fountains and clattering palms.

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We first found ourselves at Bayona at the beginning of this century, and no trip to this timeworn city is quite complete without a taste of Susan Spicer’s velvety cream of garlic soup.

As lunch took us somewhere relatively old, Saturday’s dinner took us to a more recent addition to New Orleans’ dining scene: Compere Lapin, helmed by Top Chef favorite Nina Compton.  Talk about a perfect pairing for us: Caribbean Creole food.  An outstanding bar doesn’t hurt either.  As we need a reminder of how cozy NOLA can be, we ended up seated at a table next to a couple we’d been seated next to at Bayona.

Although it may seem we do little besides eat and drink in New Orleans (as if that isn’t enough), we walk thousands of steps as well.  It might be more accurate to say that a visit to the Crescent City is a series of long walks punctuated by stops for coffee, drinks and meals.  Our last full day — Sunday — included a marathon hike, commencing at the Riverbend (where St. Charles Avenue meets Carrollton Avenue, Uptown).  Most visitors to this corner flock to iconic Camellia Grill, or worse, the daiquiri shop.  For me, nostalgia is served with a po-boy and beer at Cooter Brown’s, with the beginning of the Ravens game for good measure.

As the Ravens marched on their remarkable path, we marched on the levee overlooking the river, along the Audubon Zoo, and for most of the length of Magazine Street (though we eventually took a bus for the last few blocks back to our apartment).  Magazine Street is my favorite of New Orleans streets, because it offers so much.  Sure, St. Charles Avenue has the streetcar line and gorgeous homes.  Magazine Street also has stretches of  classic homes and looming live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, especially Uptown and in the Garden District, but there’s more.  There are shops and bars and restaurants (where local offerings far outweigh chains) and a wide variety of humanity.  We could easily break up our long walk with a coffee or wine stop, especially with the weather being as accommodating as it was.

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We made it back to our apartment to catch the last bit of the football game.  This was our last day, and I didn’t want it to end, so I set about looking for a nearby bar or restaurant where we could sit outside with a drink and absorb the waning sunshine and warmth.  We found ourselves 2 blocks from “home,” at what appeared to be a neighborhood dive bar with food provided incidentally, and a small pergola-covered seating area outdoors: Turkey and the Wolf.   We grabbed some cocktails and seats outside, and watched the passing parade of the few people who straggled along, given the late afternoon hour.  It was only when I got home and was perusing a few listicles online that I found this unassuming — kitschy even — little cinder block establishment is one of the most celebrated dining hot spots in the country, taking such honors as topping Bon Appetit magazine’s list of best new restaurants and gaining rave reviews elsewhere.

Knowing this now makes me wish we’d done more than drink.  We could have, once again, made lunch last forever.

Slow Down, FU©K€R$! — SANTA TERESA, COSTA RICA, OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2019

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The Light at the End of the Trail

I’ve long book-ended dreaded winter with an early November escape to the tropics, and this year was no different.  But instead of heading to the Atlantic/Caribbean basin, 2019 took us and 6 of our friends to the Pacific side of Costa Rica.  This part of the world is largely unfamiliar to me, but some of our gang had already visited Costa Rica, and Rick and I count a couple of visits to Belize on our Central American resume.

As often happens, it only takes a few suggestive comments to set me off and running.  Rick and I, as well as Jeff and Ginger, and Brett and Erica, celebrated major milestone anniversaries this year, so there was talk of a group adventure (and no trip without Skip and Harriet is ever complete).  Rick has always had a hankering to learn how to surf, while I’ve often drooled over rental villas in Costa Rica.  Armed with a few key words to pop into Google and VRBO, and supervising an aspiring Master Cruise Director (Erica, who has now completed her apprenticeship with flying colors!), we zeroed in on the surfing village of Santa Teresa at the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula, and Beachwood House.  https://thebeachestates.com/beachwood/

On arrival day, we all eventually found ourselves at the domestic terminal of San Jose’s airport, having followed assorted routes and schedules to get there.  I thought – naively – that the hardest part of our trip was over.  With only a brief commuter flight on Sansa, and a less-than-20 mile (12 miles as the crow flies) van ride to our property, the rest should be easy, right?  How wrong I was!

For starters, security at this little airport was a lot trickier than navigating TSA, with the most innocuous items drawing intense scrutiny.  Ultimately, we got through, short a few corkscrews and the itty-bitty nail files attached to nail clippers (they let us keep the clippers, but snapped the 1.5 inch files off).  Waiting for our flight, we watched dark storm clouds roll in – not unexpected as it was still rainy season.  But the rain delayed our flight, and might have contributed to the flight being “overweight” for the conditions.  Although we assiduously packed our bags to be below the 30 pound limit (I even bought an electronic scale, confirming that my bag was a mere 22 pounds – which I later confirmed in a more practical way, finding I had way too few clothes…), 5 of our 8 bags were held back, to be sent on a flight the next day.  And by the time we finally boarded the tiny plane, the rain was pouring down.

Finally airborne, the stunning scenery of mountains and jungle meeting the sea caught rapt attention.  The plane threaded a slot in a mountain valley, landing at a tiny strip with seemingly no permanent structures comprising the Tambor airport.  In moments, the last part of the journey began under clearing skies.  I had no idea that this short distance would take nearly an hour to cover over tortuously bumpy and potholed tracks.  The driver took it in stride; our teeth and tailbones did not.

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If this blog post were a novel, the roads would be one of the main characters.

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There is actually a speed limit on the roads.  As if!

Thoroughly jarred, the van made a left turn into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it drive, slogged through mud and past a gate, amidst a tunnel of dense and dark vegetation, finally reaching the glow of the Pacific Ocean shining through the front door of our beach house.

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Through the door, with a straight-on view to the beach.

Everything was waiting just for us.  Coconuts full of chilled coconut water; Veronica, our beautiful and efficient concierge; Rafa, the chef we’d hired to make us dinner that night, and his girlfriend/sous chef Camila; Lubis, our housekeeper; the groceries we’d pre-ordered; even the two rental 4WDs Veronica had arranged for us.  All we needed to do was give in to the siren song of this stunning site.

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Starting our evening with icy coconut water; some of us managed to siphon rum into ours.

And stunning it was.  Seldom do beach rentals live up to their PR; in this case, our expectations were exceeded.  From the greenery of the front entrance, we simply walked into the light and the best of indoor/outdoor living.  Except at night, when we closed a large set of glass accordion doors, the entire living space of the house is open to the outdoors, passing seamlessly from seating and dining areas to the deck surrounding a 360-degree infinity edge pool, and on to the short path leading to the beach.

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Infinity pools are so cool, blurring the edges between man-made and natural.

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A view of the house from the beach.

We drew lots for the 4 bedrooms; though 2 of them faced the ocean and 2 faced the garden, they were all roomy, cool and comfortable.  The decor was spare but luxurious, letting the natural environment take precedence.

Next up: much-needed cocktails.  In the last 5 years, I’ve started to prefer Central American rums to Caribbean ones, finding a product that is at least as good as the Caribbean version (with the sole exception of Gosling’s – from Bermuda, so not really apposite anyway – which has no equal when mixing a Dark & Stormy), and in many cases less expensive.  Flor de Caña (Nicaragua) has replaced Mt. Gay, and Ron Zacapa (Guatemala) is the special-occasion choice; and we were introduced to Costa Rica’s own Centenario by a sommelier in Baltimore.

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Stocked with Flor and Centenario, we were in business and ready to enjoy the gorgeous meal prepared for us by Rafa.

Rafa made us ceviche, a Thai noodle salad, resh grilled mahi mahi, and a chocolate mousse cake. 

Sleep took us early, but Rick and I had suffered a 4 a.m. wake-up that morning.  And the 2-hour time difference made our official bedtime seem positively toddler-like.

Surf’s Up

 Just as we went to bed early, we rose early.  Part of it had to do with our bodies never fully adjusting to the time zone and going to bed early.  Another part was excitement to finally be here.  And finally, it just seemed like the sun rose earlier here, rousing us from our beds earlier.  It made it easy for Rick, Jeff and Brett to have their surf lesson at 9 a.m. – close to low tide.  Veronica arranged for their instructor, Ramon, to come directly to our house (and “our beach”) with the boards.

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The boys in blue take lessons; Jeff had surfed in his younger days, and Rick once took a lesson in Rincon PR.

They quickly took to surfing (or the idea of it) and ended up keeping the boards for the entire week, tackling the waves at least once a day.  And talked about it a lot more….

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They look so natural….

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The girls didn’t want to be left completely out of the loop.  Harriet went so far as to take a quick lesson from Rick, and even stood up and caught a wave.  And Harriet, Erica and I did some boogie-boarding (and I have a massive bruise to show for it).

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That’s some rugged surf.

Ginger and Skip were too smart to hurl their bodies at the surf.

My self-assigned task was to document this surfing adventure with my new (and wholly-satisfactory! finally!) Olympus TG5 camera.  My limited experiences with Pacific Ocean beaches in California and Australia had me expecting cold water; happily, I found it deliciously warm, and I spent almost as much time in the water as the surfers, taking lots of pictures.

Despite the temperature of the sea, it was no Caribbean.  The waves were pretty tall (6 feet or more at high tide, reserved for the more expert riders) and crashed heavily and constantly, sounding more like a waterfall than the rhythmic wash-and-retreat of small wavelets.  To reach our beach, we first had to cross a small lagoon.  Two small creeks bordered the sides of our property and collected behind a small sand bank that rose and fell with the tides.  Unlike the ocean water, the creek and lagoon water was chilly, finding its source inland, in the hills.

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When the tide was low, the beach was hard-packed – perfect for walking – and wide.  I didn’t expect much, but was delighted to find lots of shells.  I spent my first few beach walks searching for treasures, but then did some research and found that we couldn’t take any shells out of the country, so I stopped my hunt.

I hated leaving these behind!

In addition to shells, we found sea beans, tons of them.  Sea beans are seed pods, and are a hotly-sought commodity in the Bahamas because they come all the way from Africa and are fairly uncommon; in Costa Rica, no one knows they are a “thing,” and they are everywhere.  Turns out they come from local plants, so they don’t travel all that far.  I didn’t take any of them home either.

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Santa Teresa is a small village with a big beach, so the beach felt nearly as empty as I like.  At high tide, the waves were studded with surfers.  And near sunset, people – and their dogs, lots of dogs – came out to see the day off.  A perfectly mellow vibe.

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Wine at sunset; my only wish was that it were better wine.

Being in Santa Teresa didn’t ask much of us, and that’s the way we liked it.  Unless we were attempting an excursion, we ranged between the beach and pool, with healthy doses of day drinking

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We really lucked out with the weather, even though it was rainy season.

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Our fridge was filled mostly with wine, beer and mixers, as we mostly ate out.

(A beer after surfing?  Sure!  It’s vacation and it’s all good.)  We spent almost as much time in the water as the schools of fish that comprised most of our meals.  Ceviche was on every menu, as well as other imaginative preparations of fish.

Chowing down on the ceviche Rafa made for us.

Every ceviche we had was different.  Rafa’s included radishes; at Manzu (the best I’ve ever had) it was passion fruit juice and cashews; and at Shambala it was finely diced avocado.

And unlike in the Bahamas Out Islands – where the only way to have had sushi or sashimi when I lived aboard there was to have made it myself – we had stellar sushi here.  Maybe it’s a Pacific thing.

 Going Bananas

 Costa Rica is considered one of the world’s premier eco-tourism or “green” destinations.  Between that mindset and the fact that the climate and growing conditions allow it, much of the food here is fresh and local.  The fruit we ate was perfectly ripe, tasting so much better than anything we could get at home in November.  I was taken with the cute little baby bananas (last seen in the wild in Grenada, though available in supermarkets in Maryland sometimes).  The pineapples were to die for – so juicy and ripe that even the core was edible (like Eleutheran pineapples, but much bigger) – and muddled into delicious cocktails.

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Happy Halloween!  I couldn’t resist assembling this creepy tableau using baby bananas and shells we found that looked like fungus-infested fingernails.

Inspired by my surroundings, I offered to make dinner Monday night.  I love to make something local (or locally-inspired) when I travel, from shrimp in Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, to conch in the Bahamas. I had no idea what to make, but enlisted Rick to go with me to the “super” to see what jumped out at us.  Despite the bounty of foods in Costa Rica, the supermarkets felt island-typical.  Dim lighting, modest and haphazard selection, relatively high prices, and limited (and somewhat scary) selections of meat.  But months of shopping and cooking in the Bahamas left me well-equipped to handle these limitations.  Spying some yellow (i.e. not fully ripe) plantains and finding a tropical seasoning mix, I decided to make a pork and plantain stew using other common local ingredients.

I set about chopping and mincing and sauteeing (after spending a good bit of time honing and sharpening the beach-rental-issue dull knives), and then started preparing the plantain.  Except, it turns out, it wasn’t a plantain after all, but the biggest, straightest ripe banana I’ve ever handled.  Well, this was an experiment, so what the heck – I chopped it up and added it to my Tico stew.  Surprisingly, it turned out well, adding a welcome touch of sweet to the savory and a bit of thickening.  Besides, everything tastes great at the beach!

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That is one big banana!

We ate at home base seldom — my dinner, a few lunches, and carryout Italian from Pronto! for our last night.  What is travel without venturing out to try out the local offerings?  Even though many restaurants in Santa Teresa were still closed for the rainy season, there were still plenty of choices for us.  My personal favorite turned out to be Banana Beach, one I liked so much we had lunch there twice.  The beachfront location with sand underfoot, and friendly server Emilio, the off-season hush, and an amazing tuna burger won me over.

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Some of our dining selections were driven by a different imperative.  Beachwood House does not have a television and our trip coincided with Games 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the World Series.  The Washington Nationals being in the Series was a first-in-a-lifetime event for our Maryland-based (or Maryland-originated, in the case of Skip and Harriet) crew, especially for season ticket holders Jeff and Ginger.  This was too big an event to be relegated to an iPad screen (though it was for travel day, Game 4), so Jeff scoped out Nativo Sports Bar for Game 5, and Soda Tiquicia for Games 6 and 7.  The 1.7 mile drive — which took 20 minutes — to Nativo stressed our bodies and psyches.

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Jeff in full Nats regalia at Nativo.

Soda Tiquicia was just outside the gates of Beachwood House.  (A “soda” in Costa Rica is a local restaurant featuring local foods.) Jeff and Ginger hung in there for the entirety of Games 6 and 7, armed with Scherzer shirts (say that 3 times fast…), rally towels, and plenty of positive energy.  The games were broadcast in Spanish, but we got the gist!

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Whole red snapper is a classic Tico dish.

 

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A casado is a bowl that features a protein and several sides (not unlike a plate at a St. Martin lolo, except it’s a bowl.)

Dust or Mud?

The Santa Teresa beachfront is a stunner, but you’d never guess what is in store for you when you drive through the village.  Surf shops, medical offices, bakeries, restaurants, bars, hostels, and adventure purveyors line up in an almost impenetrable wall, with a few chinks that provide beach access via public paths or the ocean-facing resorts and villas.

A surf shop in Santa Teresa.

The road in the village is almost equally impenetrable.  The rainy season condition is muddy and pitted, but it only takes a couple dozen hours to turn it into a dusty mess.  Driving is nominally on the right, but you do as you must, weaving among motorbikes bearing surfboards, ATVs, 4WDs like our rentals, bicycles, pedestrians, dogs, delivery trucks, and — of course — the occasional tractor-trailer.

Santa Teresa street scene.

Our Suzuki was very nearly a casualty of the roads.  Rick and I headed down the road to explore the village only to find one of our tires was nearly flat.  We knew that the nearest gas station was 40 minutes away, and I hadn’t seen any gomerias (I have no idea why I know the Spanish word for tire repair shop), so we needed to be creative.  I had the inspired idea to stop at one of the adventure/ATV shops to see if they could offer up an air hose, and it turned out that during off-season, they are bored and more than willing to help out.  In no time, the guys at Savannah Extreme Tours re-patched the tire and filled it up with air, offering helpful advice on food and attractions and not accepting any money.

The few hours spent exploring the village confirmed how genuinely kind and friendly Ticos are.  Also, since Santa Teresa is a surfing destination, they are absurdly fit and beautiful and generally young.  Most places we wandered, random strangers offered up the shaka sign (“hang ten” or “hang loose”) and a greeting of “Pura Vida.”  They also tolerated, even encouraged, my attempts to speak Spanish, my only training having been in 9th and 10th grade.  I was amazed what I could dredge up from the depths of my memory, and that I could handle basic transactions (though when entering the country, the immigration officer flustered me on the 3rd question, which I couldn’t understand or respond to….  No entiendo!)

Despite the roads, we were undaunted, 5 of us claiming the 2 jeeps to attempt to reach Cabo Blanco, a nature reserve notoriously difficult to reach.  We’d decided, among other things, that Beachwood’s very own monkeys, parrots, lizards, and variegated squirrels were not enough and we wanted more critters.  Also, who can resist the lure of secret beaches?  After all, it’s only 15 miles.

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Scary looking Costa Rican squirrel.

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Shy monkey.

I suppose we are slow learners.  With some vague directions from a guide book, we set off, knowing there would be steep hills and ravines, and 2 creeks we’d need to drive through.

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We made it past those obstacles, only to find a mud pit about 3/4 of the way to our destination.  Rick and Brett used materials at hand to assess it and decide we couldn’t get past it with any assurance that we’d be able to get back over on the way back, especially since rains were forecast.

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Too risky to proceed.

So, Cabo Blanco would go unvisited, though the scenery along the way was lovely.

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And the rains never came.  Indeed, though it was still rainy season, the rain only came obligingly at night, in great torrents that kept everything green and lush.

Montezuma Falls Revenge

I could hardly spend the entire week lounging at Beachwood House.  So, we dared a second attempt to leave our enclave, heading to a destination that Santa Teresa’s most famous homeowner (Tom Brady) was pilloried for jumping from with his young daughter: Montezuma Falls.  Brett and Erica rented ATVs for the day, while Rick, Harriet and I took our trusty Suzuki.

Not wanting to be thwarted, we didn’t take the road we tried to reach Cabo Blanco by, which we now knew was called the Monkey Path.  Instead, I fired up Waze to take the “main” road.  I found it endlessly amusing that while the road was paved in only a handful of spots, Waze captured every twist and turn of it, every dirt path branching from it.  When we had to avoid a front-end loader dumping dirt, I amused myself by sticking a pin in it: “Watch Out: Road Construction Ahead.”  But if I’d noted every road hazard, poor Jane (the voice of my Waze) would spend her day saying.  “Watch out, pothole ahead.  Watch … pothole ahead.  Pothole ahead.  Pothole. Potpotpotpotpot.”  It would be more efficient to say “Watch out, paved section of road ahead.”  Not an option, alas.

The lower section of Montezuma Falls was described to us as difficult (because of slippery rocks) but quick.

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We stopped at the beach outside of the village of Montezuma, where Rick built one of his trademark cairns.

I question most descriptions provided.  After gaping at the crashing waves of the Gulf of Nicoya, we scrambled along the falls, concluding that we needed to approach them from above.

The lower section of Montezuma Falls.

That would cost money.  Over 2,300 COLONES per person!  (OK, that’s just $4 … I had a laugh when I brought over 800,000 colones with me on this trip, so crazy is the exchange rate.)  This included parking in Sunnytrails’ lot, a map, and use of their canopies and trails.  Worth it!

Dressed in Keen sandals, with swimsuits under our clothes to take advantage of a waterfall swim, we found the beginning of the trail easy enough.  We walked through the canopy over suspended bridges that swayed with every step.

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But soon we were walking a steep muddy trail with steps carved into the slope, soaked in sweat and splattered with mud.

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A curious coati was sniffing us out as we hiked.

At a fork in the trail, we found a park worker under a plastic canopy who assured us that the lower falls (with a 100 foot drop) were just 5 minutes away.  But as the steps kept going down down up down down down (my knees hate down), I could see it was much further than cinco minutos, so I turned back, knowing that when I made it all the way down, there was no way my knees would allow me to get back up.

Rick promised to come back for me, and in the meantime, I enjoyed the breeze and shooting the breeze with the park guy.  He spoke no English, and my Spanish is minimal, but we were able to communicate well enough.  After a fairly long while, Rick texted that he was on his way back — even in the jungle, there seems to be cell service.  He and Harriet had come upon Brett and Erica, who’d hired a guide and found the easy way to the 100 foot falls; Harriet bailed and joined them, while Rick slogged his way back to me.

But we found our way to the local microbrewery and enjoyed some yummy local beer before joining the others in Montezuma (the “hippie” village) for lunch.

A nice spot for a recovery break.

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Our lunchtime view after a “rough” morning of hiking.

Rude Awakening

Eventually, we had to face leaving our surf and jungle adventure.  It didn’t take long to get an unwelcome reminder that though we were enjoying this remote village in relative luxury, things are different here.

Late Friday afternoon, we heard a yelp from Harriet’s bedroom.  As she was packing her bags, she found an uninvited visitor.  I called for Rick Mc-F’ing-Gyver, and using the whisk broom and shoe Ginger and I had armed him with, Rick pushed an annoyed black scorpion out the door and stomped him out.

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This guy looks like the one that had taken up residence in Skip and Harriet’s room, sized about 3-4 inches.  Veronica told us they are “not too poisonous,” but painful if they sting.

I had become complacent, not heeding the advice I’d frequently read about checking my shoes before slipping my feet into them.  No more!

Lest we think we were leaving with the worst behind us, on Saturday morning, Rick had to be summoned again, as it appeared that another scorpion had taken up residence in Skip’s backpack.  Rick eventually disentangled him from the mesh webbing inside the pack, only to realize that what appeared to be crumbs or dirt inside the backpack were also dozens of newborn baby scorpions.  Ewwwww!

Just as Skip had to say goodbye to his backpack, we had to say goodbye to Beachwood House and Santa Teresa.

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Though we faced the bumpy ride back to Tambor, due to flight timing, we ended taking a charter flight back to San Jose, easing re-entry.  Now, with sunny skies, the views from above were amazing!

A charter flight is a very civilized way to travel!  Throw in some earplugs and a beer, and you’re good to go.

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Rick and I and Skip and Harriet spent our last day in San Jose, at the Marriott Hacienda Belen near the airport.  The site had been a coffee plantation, and the current owners did an amazing job of retaining the look and feel of the plantation without sacrificing modern conveniences and comforts.

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But they did nothing about the screaming brat pounding on a piano in the courtyard outside our room past 10:00 p.m. — our 4:30 a.m. wake-up to fly home was especially rude after a night of compromised sleep.  Welcome back to civilization….

FINAL THOUGHT:  I’m sorry that my blog is such a cliche:  https://www.buzzfeed.com/jemimaskelley/travel-photos?origin=web-hf

NOT the Fyre Festival – A Week in the Remote Exumas (May 2019)

The last time I was in the Exumas, 2 years ago (see: https://sabrecalypso.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/crossing-our-wake-back-to-the-exumas/), there was buzz about a music festival to be held about the same time on a “remote” private island once owned by Pablo Escobar (in reality, remote Norman’s Cay, once owned by narco-zillionaire Carlos Lehder).  Having been to Norman’s during our sabbatical, and finding the single restaurant there open only sporadically, I wondered how the festival sponsors had managed to create the infrastructure needed to host an event of such magnitude – such basics as housing, water, food, sanitation, runways for arriving private jets were missing.  Of course, they hadn’t, and the actual site, a scoured white wasteland just north of Emerald Bay Marina on Great Exuma, was no more prepared.

We now know that the lauded Fyre Festival was a colossal scam.  The flurry of investigations and media attention that followed showed the world that the Exumas are potentially a spectacular watery playground, but not one ready to meet the “requirements” of the young, beautiful, and moderately wealthy.  Certainly, there is a handful of glossy resorts on Great Exuma and basic amenities in its (relatively) bustling village of Georgetown; those with serious means can have access to anything they want in the Exumas via large yacht.  But, finding your way to charms of the untrammeled Exuma cays for mere mortals otherwise takes some major effort.

Naturally, as one who professes a general dislike of people (except my peeps, of course!), as well as a beach lover, the distant Exuma cays are like catnip to me.  My goal this time was avoid visiting a single inhabited cay, other than Warderick Wells – whose inhabitants are merely a handful of Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park staffers and ravaging critters known as hutia – and maybe a lunch stop at Norman’s Cay.  No swimming pigs; no trendy resorts; no shark swims.  As it turned out, my wishes were shared by my fellow crew — Rick, Skip and Harriet – and we avoided even Norman’s Cay, devoting our week’s sail to Exuma Park.

As we did last time, we chartered a catamaran out of Nassau, the only place in the region which reliably has access to all of the necessities of a sailing charter: air service, provisions, water, fuel, ice, and a marina.

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One good thing about Nassau:  someone to make my drinks for me (other than me)!  (And, yes, I like to take photos of pretty drinks against pretty backgrounds.)

Starting from Nassau poses challenges — depending on the time of year (and the associated prevailing winds), you can face a miserable upwind slog to or from the Exumas.  Last time, we had calm seas; this time, we were not so lucky, facing heavy seas and 20+ knots of wind on the nose.  As Rick and Skip noted, were we the “cruisers” we’d once been (i.e. living aboard our own boats with weeks to wait for a good weather window), we’d have stayed in the marina.  As it was, given our precious 7 days, we plowed on.  Even fortified with seasickness meds, Skip and Harriet were sidelined for the 7+ hours of pounding it took to get to the Exumas, while Rick manned the helm and I miraculously stayed on my feet

(NOTE TO READERS: I’ve heard lots of people suggest that a catamaran is the answer for seasickness because of its more stable platform.  While it’s true that you can sometimes put a drink on the table without it crashing down, because cats don’t heel, that kind of misses the point.  Catamarans have 2 hulls, which in heavy seas can take the waves at different times, resulting in hobby-horsing that can be more difficult tolerate that the more predictable motion of a monohull.  But there’s no question that at anchor, nothing beats the comfort of a super-wide boat.)

The seas were so rough that our cabinets flew open and our stuff flew out.  We secured some of it in the sink. 

Despite our plans to go further south, to enable a leisurely sail north up the chain of cays for the rest of the week, we ended up choosing to head to the closest of the Exumas – Allen Cay – for our first night.  Being the closest to Nassau, and also inhabited by endangered Exuma iguanas, Allen and the neighboring SW Allen and Leaf cays attract excursion boats carrying hit-and-run tourists.  We watched them land on the beach, harass and feed the iguanas (both of which are illegal), and then leave.

Excursion boats landing on the beach at Allen Cay, and the poor rock iguanas they came to gape at.

Luckily, they don’t stay long.  Once they left, we shared the anchorage with only a handful of other boats.  Finally, after cleaning up the wreckage of the day’s sail, we had peace, quiet and cocktails.  At last, we’re in the Exumas and in full vacation mode.

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Our first night’s sundowners, and the sunset they accompanied.

In the quiet of living aboard, however, we start to see that our boat has a lot of issues.  Beyond the typical wear-and-tear issues associated with charter boats.  Some are merely inconvenient (e.g. grill not working, so we have to cook stovetop) and unpleasant (joker valves in toilets not functioning, so they back-flush – peew!).  While others are a bit more significant (batteries not charging; deck fill cover allowing saltwater get in our freshwater tank).  We are experienced and resourceful, so we cope with all of them with varying degrees of success, but we’re also prepared to share all of them with the charter company when we return.  But we don’t let them get in the way of finally having reached paradise.

With the crossing from Nassau behind us, after a relatively quiet night at anchor, we decide to knock our next long passage out of the way to reach the only place outside of Exuma Park that we plan to visit: Pipe Cay.  Rick and I once had a secret little nook to anchor here, but over the 2 years since we’d last visited, currents and storms changed the bottom, and we now found ourselves in a new spot – accessed by carefully winding through newly shallow waters – shared with a couple other catamarans.  We arrived mid-afternoon, on an outgoing tide (yippee!).  Pipe Cay checks 2 of my boxes.  I am utterly beguiled by sandbars, and at low tide, Pipe Cay’s east side dries out to acres of rippled white sand intersected with flowing streams of water and warm tide pools.

Irresistible!

As well, I’ve found lots of sand dollars here, and unlike the Park, you can take them with you.  There was lots of promise for dollar hunting on this day, as I’d found a perfect specimen as soon as we’d landed the dinghy.

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A sand dollar in the wild — this one about the size of a silver dollar.

But it was false hope, with sparse supply; however, there was a special on sunrise tellins, so I wouldn’t go home empty-handed.

Our modest haul.  I’d like to say that night’s bartender’s (i.e. mine) creation was inspired by the colors of the sunrise tellins, but in reality it was just what we happened to have on hand: rum, mango juice, and ginger ale.

Our time at Pipe Cay was short-lived, since it appeared that our anchor had dragged, and the changed bottom conditions didn’t offer much promise for good holding.  I hated to give up on Pipe Cay, but I didn’t mind the hour trip to our next stop, Cambridge Cay within Exuma Park.  The Park had refurbished the moorings, so we’d enjoy a secure night in an already protected anchorage.  And we’d get to play in yet another of my favorite playgrounds.

The Bahamas have many “blue holes,” anomalously deep spots in otherwise shallow areas. The most famous is probably Dean’s Blue Hole on the east side of Long Island; it’s the deepest in the world.  There’s a less famous, and less deep, blue spot off the beach on the south side of the Cambridge Cay harbor.  I love to ease into the water off the beach here and just hover in the buoyant water over the blue hole.  In May, the water is silky and comfortable, with minimal current, and it’s only my pruny hands which limit my time in the water.

Swimming in the blue hole off Honeymoon Beach at Cambridge Cay.

A short walk leads to another beach which faces the cut between Compass Cay and Cambridge Cay.

So sad (not!) that we were the only ones on the beach.

Current is not something to take lightly in the Exuma cays.  When we swim off the boat, we toss out a rope tied to a life ring so that we can hold on and not be carried away.

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Hanging on so as not to be swept away.  (Photo borrowed from Harriet.)

As we learned on our last Exuma charter, at the famous snorkeling spot known as the Aquarium, vigilance is essential – as Harriet took an unplanned ride with the tide.

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No shortage of fish life at the Aquarium.

This time, Rick and Harriet were more cautious, so we didn’t have the adrenaline rush of Harriet’s rescue following us to the haven of sandbars and swimming holes of neighboring O’Brien’s Cay.  Instead, we landed the dinghy and just floated happily away.  Were it not for our poor hands and feet and hides (over-exposure to sun and water), we could have stayed for hours.

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Swimming at O’Brien’s Cay.

Despite the dreamy water, some day-to-day activities are required of us.  Since we’ve opted to avoid civilization almost entirely, that means making ALL of our meals, and mixing ALL of our own drinks.  We provisioned carefully for this, even including supplies for sundowners that wouldn’t require ice if we ran out of the bags we’d picked up at the marina in Nassau.  (Chilled prosecco with Chambord, if you’re wondering.)  As it turned out, our provisioning was nearly perfect, since by the end of the week, we were happily fed and watered (no hot dogs for this crew, though Pop-Tarts turned out to be a popular breakfast choice) and left behind but a single can of Sands and a single package of salami.  I had the sense to bring my own chef’s knife from home, but what would have been really handy was a can opener that worked (or a Leatherman).

The struggle to open a can of pate when the proper tools aren’t available.  Note the professional use of a screwdriver.

Ice, should we have needed it, is sometimes available at our next stop, Warderick Wells, the headquarters of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.  It’s a shoestring operation, with fewer than a half-dozen people working here.  More importantly, a number of touchstones must, indeed, be touched here.  The anchorage is iconic and spectacular.  The whale skeleton on the beach, and the baby whale skeleton in a glass case (assembled with the help of Skip and Harriet’s close friend, Mike, who had just died days before).

The assemblage of cruiser artifacts atop Boo Boo Hill, and the fruitless search for any we’d recognize — including our own — due to the harsh environment.  And the gift shop, with the annual shirt/hat purchase.

Cherie, who mans the office with her stern demeanor, was there when Rick and I were cruising 5 years ago.  Of course, I had no expectation that she would remember us.  But when I reminded her that I was the woman who stubbornly preferred the Emerald Rock mooring field to the main one, I saw her lip quivering into a smile of faint recollection.  Apparently, everyone but me is always jockeying for position in the main mooring field — not only is it the most recognizable sight of the Park, it’s protected in a blow, and is the hub for all social life for the dozens of people who visit on a daily basis.

While most visitors prefer the Warderick Wells main mooring field (left), I prefer the more distant Emerald Rock field (right, where our boat is the only one).

Aside from being less popular, one of the reasons I prefer Emerald Rock is because I like to spend lots of time in the water.  The first time Rick and I moored in the main field and I jumped in for a swim, the current would have carried me to Andros (slight exaggeration) had I not grabbed the swim ladder.  The current roars through here.  That’s less of an issue at Emerald Rock.  Here, we could swim with less effort and care.  Also, we did most of our bathing off the swim platform of the boat.  I generally prefer that to a smaller-than-phone-booth-sized shower down below; but also on this trip, our shower sump didn’t switch on (except maybe 1 out of 20 tries, and that for only a few moments), and I had no interest in standing in my own grey water.

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By this time, I’m starting to feel well and truly crispy.  No matter how much sunscreen you apply, the sun finds you.  Even under the shade of the bimini, the sun bounces of the water to find you.  I’m looooooong past the days of courting a suntan by slathering myself with baby oil, so a long sleeved shirt and hat became the attire of the day, even while swimming.  Except I was enough of a doofus to insist on wearing my new ECLSP visor — which left my scalp, where my hair parts, unprotected for a few hours.  Bad decision!

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Me and Harriet swimming, with our long-sleeved shirts, hats, and matching (coincidentally) floats.

Having touched our required stones at Warderick Wells, our next stop would be Hawksbill Cay.  Rick and I had only spent a single day here on our months-long cruise, and only explored the interior and the east shore, and Skip and Harriet never had.  But my careful study of Google Earth confirmed that the sand flats at the north end of the cay would require intensive study — though even if we were to find sand dollars or shells, we’d need to leave them behind since the Park is a no-take zone.

Even though we’d paid in advance to moor at Hawksbill Cay, there were no moorings available, as the Park staff had taken them away for refurbishment.  No matter, as the hard sandy bottom greedily took in our Delta anchor, and I was happy to have made the unplanned donation to the Park.  I was more taken aback at the huge crewed charter yachts here, and their evidence of (Bravo network’s) Below Deck style of beach picnic, complete with umbrellas and racks of paddle toys on the shore, and jet-skis.

We escaped the Got Rocks scene by taking the dinghy to the northern tip of the island on an outgoing tide, and were the only ones there.  At times, the sand was hard-packed, while in other spots we sank in ankle-deep.

Juvenile lemon sharks danced in the shallows.

Sun-warmed tide pools beckoned. Seabirds camouflaged themselves against the white sand.

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No sand dollars to tempt me to break Park rules.  In short, a small taste of heaven for me.  When we returned to the anchorage, the Yacht People had cleared the beach, leaving only their professional crew to clean up after them, so we enjoyed the beach.

From Hawksbill Cay, we made our way north, saving my favorite stop for our last day: Shroud Cay.  I have, and will always, dream about this spot when I dream of the Exumas.  Always, our journey takes us through the shimmering mangrove creek to its outlet on the Exuma Sound.  We planned our arrival there to coincide with an outgoing tide, and got there just as it was turning so that we could ride what I call the Flügen Flümen (language unknown).  The current in the deep pool at the end of the creek carries you out to the sandbar just off the beach.  On this day, there was quite a bit of wave action in opposition to the current; as well, the sandbar seems to have transited further east than it was before.  So the flume ride took a bit more effort and we needed a little more rest in between runs, but it was totally worth it.

Getting ready for the flume ride at Shroud Cay.

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Taking a ride!

(I will note that one of the megayachts’ crews had parked a large tender in the creek, and then ferried the guests to the Flügen Flümen beach by jetski — which is strictly forbidden by Park rules.  Even though no one was there to enforce the rules, there was cosmic retribution — they had to leave the beach before the tide turned or else their watercraft would run out of water in the creek, and so they didn’t get to ride the flume.  Sorry not sorry.)

Not cool.

As always, leaving the Exumas behind was hard, especially since we had to run the New Providence gauntlet before getting home.  There was consolation in the easy trip back, with the wind at our backs.  The satisfaction of being able to dock the boat for fueling and then into her slip with enough competence to get the base staff’s approval.  The small pleasure of not having to make our own lunch and dinner that last day, and enjoying the last conch fritters and grouper fingers we’d eat for a while.  Until we return!

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Rick’s last cairn of this trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends in Warm Places

Despite some outlying examples (Summer Baycation: Wine Not? – planned on one day’s notice), most of my travels are planned well in advance.  And there is a pattern to what I tend to do, based on weather, work, cash, etc.  So when Rick’s family planned a ski trip in Lake Tahoe this past February, it was a major wrench in the works.  Rick knew immediately that a cold-weather trip was a non-starter for me.  I don’t ski, and I don’t do snow.  (And, flippancy aside, I genuinely suffer from SAD, and having a warm-weather trip in the winter helps me cope.)

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This was the last day of Rick’s winter wonderland adventure.  Gorgeous.

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But they endured days of heavy snowfall before getting to the bluebird day.  It would have felt like The Shining to me.

Since Rick gallantly gave me a pass on the ski trip, I got to look forward to something sunny.  Although I’d miss going somewhere warm with him, I started plotting a long weekend getaway with my Florida BFFs, Julie and Harriet.  One of my favorite beach activities is shelling, so my first thought was to visit Sanibel Island.

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This is my haul after a few minutes of walking along Siesta Key’s beach in December. I wanted MORE!

In what turned out to be a blessing in disguise, I couldn’t find a rental on Sanibel that met our requirements that was available for less than a full week.  So I looked a little further up the coast and found Gasparilla Island, a lesser-known — and consequently more laid-back — island getaway.  Plus, we’d get to tool around in a golf cart!

The day before departure was a cruddy, icy snow day (not that snow days are a thing anymore for me — with remote access to the office, I get to work from home).  The weather cleared enough for me to leave BWI — and I’d built in enough of a layover at CLT that the inevitable de-icing delay would not be an issue (I even got to sit on one of the rocking chairs!).  Finally, on to Ft. Myers, where Harriet picked me up en route from Vero Beach, while Julie drove down from Siesta Key — both bearing such necessities as beach chairs and wine.

We picked up our golf cart, and our holiday had begun!  We were Thelma and Louise, crossed with the Sex and the City girls (BTW, I’m Miranda, but with Carrie’s shoe issues), wind blowing through our hair — except mine in the wrong direction because I volunteered to be the one who rode backwards — and a Margaritaville soundtrack.

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Wild women with really slow (but stealthy) wheels.

What would one of our trips be without identical, or at least coordinating, footwear?

The condo we’d rented proved to be pretty damn perfect for us — two large bedrooms with en-suite baths, and a huge loft with beds and its own bath.  A small but efficient kitchen — since H, J and I are all experienced galley wenches, a tiny kitchen doesn’t phase us at all.  A family room with a giant sectional sofa that we all lounged on while watching the Academy Awards.  And best of all, a pair of screened porches; one for sunrise and one for sunset.

Sunrise at Del Boca Vista.  Our unit came with its own slip (too bad we couldn’t use it), as well as access to a tennis court and a pool.

The weather started and stayed perfect: sunny, warm and breezy enough to kick up waves on the water. Starting Thursday evening at the South Beach Grille, which kindly provides colorful beach chairs and chilled drinks, we spent part of each day on the beach.

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White sand, blue water, and blue sky … the Beach Parfait is enhanced with candy-colored chairs.  But sit with care, because there is competition for the prime seats.  (NOTE: My challenges with cameras continue.  I bought a new one, and am learning how to use it — heaven forbid I read the manual!  Some of the results are a little funky….)

We’d reconnoitered that particular location because the following day, we’d rendezvous there with my cousin Greg and his wife Perri, who live in southwest Florida, for lunch and beach time.  Funny, that over the years I’ve met my friends’ siblings, relatives, and in- and out-laws, but this would be the first time we’d spend any quality time with my family.

Beach party with family and friends.

But, if I feared that secrets about my past would spill out, well …. it didn’t matter.  There was enough wine and beer consumed that all would be forgotten or dismissed.  Phew!

Our beach party was about as exciting as things on Gasparilla Island got for us, which was exactly what we wanted.  There is a bit of shopping in the town of Boca Grande, some restaurants, lots of beaches and plenty of water sports.  Most days we spent out and about, followed by showers, sundowners and dinner out.

The restaurants we went to could all be counted on for competent Florida seafood, and superlative key lime pies.  We made a point of sharing a slice of pie everywhere we went, and each was different and delightful — one had mango mixed in with lime; another had a pastry crust instead of graham cracker; some had meringue instead of whipped cream.

Our “fancy” night out was as the Gasparilla Inn, a grand old-school hotel reminiscent in many ways of similar properties, ranging from the Green Turtle Club in the Abacos and the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.  Knowing that the decor would be the love child of Lilly Pulitzer and Tommy Bahama, we challenged each other to see who could wear the loudest pants to dinner.

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I may not have won the loud pants competition, but my starfish-embellished green suede loafers were easily the best shoes!

The highlight of our long weekend was again a case of being locked out of what we initially thought we’d wanted: a cruise to nearby Cabbage Key.  We were too late for the excursion, but instead ended up chartering our own boat.  Captain Fred Scott’s El Fin ended up costing us just a few dollars more for a boat all to ourselves, and Capt. Fred took us to the best spots before anyone else got there.

En route, he took us to a snug little anchorage where we spied an alligator and manatees (who would never pose for us, damn them!).

Bird life at the dock; the characteristic round wake of a manatee diving underwater; and a suspicious gator basking at the edge of saltwater.

Cabbage Key offered turtle-y wildlife, hiking trails, views from a tower, and a lunch that featured pretty drinks and stone crab claws.

Seems my photographic abilities are best expressed by taking photos of cocktails.  What do you make of that?

After all the excitement of our boat ride to Cabbage Key, we had to return our go-go-cart, but we still had time to visit one more beach — at the southern tip of the island near the lighthouse.  Great shelling here, and — trust Harriet to find them — shark’s teeth.

As we debated what to do about dinner, a sign caught our eye.  It led us to a funky (some might say scary…) old marina on the ICW side of the island.  Here we found the shrimp boat had arrived and was selling its wares are ridiculously good prices (eliminating the middleman).  In the weathered old store at the docks, we found Zatarain’s crab boil in which to cook our shrimp, and we made a perfect dinner of leftover edibles and the freshest shrimp imaginable.

In addition to our screened porch, the little community in which we stayed had a waterfront perch, bounded by white Gulf sands, from which to watch the sunset.  A perfect end to a perfect weekend.

And yes, I did have to make room in my suitcase to haul home some shells….

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