Our Journey As House Hunters and Gatherers

We’ve somehow become house hunters and gatherers. Obviously, after finding our stone cottage on the river in November of 2012, we went on a realtor. ca hiatus. The real estate site is like a step into quicksand. Hours later you can find yourself cross-eyed (and a bit tipsy–unless it’s morning, then most likely, hopefully, wired on caffeine)  and already packing virtual cardboard boxes.

PORT STANLEY, ON–not for sale, but spied upon from our beach towel

Our revised master plan is to find a knock-out property that will gel more with our retirement agenda–which involves winters anywhere but here, doing meaningful things. That’s the easy part–whether we volunteer at a sloth sanctuary or count migrating wildebeest, we first need to find a three season property that doesn’t have abandonment issues.

SHREWSBURY, ON $169,900 (we’re not sure if this has a roof or not–oh well!)

Yes, we love and adore our house and the sanctuary that we’ve transformed it into. But. This 153-year-old home is like a finicky supermodel. She needs lots of attention and manicuring. We couldn’t take off to walk the Camino de Santiago for two months without the perennial gardens turning into the likes of the Amazon. The boiler system simply can’t be shut down for the winter so we can document Zanzibarian sunsets from our hammock office.

THE ROCK, ZANZIBAR (probably the best perch abroad)

So, the search begins again, with a less frenetic pace and without the confines of work parameters and perimeters. Kim laughed at my range before–I had a mere 70km radius to scan then (to keep her commute reasonable. For me, as long as I was under the 10km mark, I could walk-run-bike to wherever I might find gainful employment).

ATHOL WARD, PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY $349,900

And now? We’ve already been combing the Saugeen Shores, Prince Edward County and townships we hadn’t even heard of from Wellington and Athol Ward to Bayham. We cruise the shorelines and rivers for listings. Often, Kim has already tucked into bed (a 4:30am alarm trumps my 10am wake-up call). I’ll leave an excited note for her to find in the morning before I cozy up beside her: “Oh my god, I can’t believe we’re moving to Amherst Island!” (Or, Selkirk! Arran Lake! Southampton! Keppel Township!)

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ON

There is great hilarity to be found in looking up these tiny places on Wiki. Often the town’s claim to fame is an annual Port-a-Potty race down the main street. Or, a nail-driving contest. Or, it’s home of the world’s biggest deep-fried-pickle monument (I made that up, but surely there is one. Most likely in dear Nashville.

FORMER GRIST MILL, PAISLEY, ON, $1.2M

 

STELLA, AMHERST ISLAND, ON $184,000

Amherst Island gut job ++ $119,500

AMHERST ISLAND (gut job +), $119,500

What we’ve learned is that what you think is necessary in a potential area (coffee house for a Papua New Guinea bean supply, microbrewery, cheese shop, take-out Thai food, cinema) usually pales. Often those things are replaced by the unexpected–long walks on trails through the Carolinian forest, dew worm vending machines and the best butter tarts outside of grandma’s kitchen at Dee’s on St. Andrew’s. Having a backyard fire pit or hand-built pizza oven is critical though. And better yet, a wood-burning fireplace inside…

WAUPOOS ISLAND, $500,000

Moving from Toronto, all the glittery city spoils were within reach. Toronto has everything–except for what we have here. A full-sun backyard, indigo buntings, peaceful sleeps–even church bells sounding across the river. As I type this I can hear an osprey cry out as he zooms along the water behind our house.

I don’t need bookstores, necessarily. I’ve become a mad library lover instead. I thought I’d be at a complete loss without my go-to in the Annex– Queen Video. Ha! The library has loads of DVDs (even Sons of Anarchy), documentaries and indie flicks.

GALT, ON $389,900

I thought I would miss my weekly entertainment fill with copies of NOW and The Grid. For anyone who follows me on Facebook, you’ll know that there’s a lot of comedy to be found in The Ayr News, The Cambridge Times and the Waterloo Record. Between the “For Sale” and Personals ads, I’m set. Not to mention the listings for ham suppers and the Gay Paranormal Society ghost tours. I still don’t know if they are looking for gay ghosts or it’s just gay people who like ghosts.

ARRAN-ELDERSLIE, ON $285,000

Anyway. It’s obvious–Kim and I can live anywhere. I know this for sure. We’ve lived in 900 square feet, we’ve slept in our rental Suzuki in an Icelandic hurricane…a pup tent suits us just fine. We stay up to ungodly hours because we never run out of things to talk and dream about. We genuinely love and thrive in each other’s company–so, if our dream house is off the flight-path or wi-fi, bring on the remote. (And I don’t mean the television remote).

What we do like and need is a patch of grass (less than an acre), a place with a cool exterior–we can work magic with the inside guts. Something on the water (lake or river, we’re versatile) pointed west for serious sunsetting. Maybe a wrap-around porch–though Kim could build that in a pinch.  A church conversion would be awesome. A lighthouse would be better yet. And I’m a sucker for anything with a barn–even if the living space is an actual barn. And an attic loft? Complete swoon. Maybe there’s a vineyard nearby and we can offer picking and responsible sampling services during the summer months.

THE WAUPOOS ISLAND $500,000 MONEY PIT

 

ALLENFORD, ON (formerly known as “Driftwood Crossing”) $109,900

FORMER SCHOOL HOUSE, BRIGHT, ON $399,900

We know family and friends will migrate to wherever we end up. We’ve actually seen my parents more frequently since they moved two hours away–more than we ever did when they were just half an hour from us. My brother Dax will bitch about anything that involves public transit, but, he’s getting accustomed to hopping in a cutesy Fiat rental for a weekend to  get out of the 416.

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ON $249,900

There are just so many dynamic, inspiring places to live in this world. If you’re bored, disenchanted, restless or the opposite– happy, flexible and simply eager for shiny new horizons more cohesive to your lifestyle and game plan…it’s time to enter the danger zone…realtor.ca

And share your finds! What’s important to you? Where do you need to live NEXT?

KEPPEL TOWNSHIP, ON (near Georgian Bay) $299,000

 

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Cornering Nirvana in the Magdalen Islands

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 212It has become apparent that our new angle in travel is cornering nirvana. With Kim’s looming retirement almost edibly on the horizon, every place we visit undergoes scrutiny for future real estate potential. With southwestern Ontario winters becoming increasingly like a barren Arctic experience, we’re setting our sights on more palatable landscapes and temperatures. Don’t even get me started on the barometric disappointment of this summer. Ugh.

However, even at a bone-deep 13 degrees, under a duvet of fog, we found an immense love for the Magdalen Islands. We were already heading east to Prince Edward Island, an annual pre-determined event to visit Kim’s parents and bloodlines. Kim has been to PEI over 50 times. It was my fourth visit and the lure of crab cakes, lobster rolls and the cinnamon cliffs of Cavendish will never pale for me. But, we wanted to jazz up the annual this time and tack on a few days nearby. Flights to Newfoundland out of Charlottetown were prohibitive. We’d both been to Halifax a few times. I investigated ferries to Boston and Maine, but, we needed more days than we’d already stretched.

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I’d heard of the Magdalen Islands years ago but somehow lumped them in with Saint Pierre and Miquelon which sit in the northwestern part of the Atlantic, near Fortune Bay, Newfoundland. The neat part is that the islands are owned by France. The Maggies (or Iles de la Madeleine) are an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence just five hours from Souris, PEI. But, despite being geographically closer to PEI and Nova Scotia, the francophone Magdalens are part of Quebec.

With a tight population of less than 13,000 and a land mass of 205 square kilometers, we knew we could bomb around the chain of islands in three days. Plus, I had found an Air Canada seat sale for $240 bucks (the same airfare as a Toronto to Charlottetown ticket). The ferry was an additional $100 (for two), but, the only option for us to get from PEI to the Maggies.

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We arrived poorly packed for the pissy east coast climate, leaning more towards an optimistic June forecast of 25+ degrees. Not a wavering 13-15 degrees with pelting rain. We were both wearing all the long layers that we had brought, knowing full well that we were travelling to islands known for excessive and relentless wind. The Magdalens are a kite-boarding and hang-glider haven. Every B&B and restaurant had “wind” in the name. Though my Francais is extremely scratchy at best (despite Madame Massicotte’s best efforts in highschool), I did know that “vent” translated to “wind.”

Wind indeed. Rain indeed. Jean-Francois was at the ferry gate as promised. It all seemed so dodgy, just weeks before, booking a rental car with him without a confirmation number or email receipt. Nothing, just Jean-Francois assuring me that he had been in the business for 30 years, that he didn’t have a computer, and he would be at the ferry at 7pm.

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The kindness of the locals was ten-fold. In the fog and ensuing night fall, we couldn’t find our B&B after three U-turns on the main road into Bassin. Kim stopped our little Fred Flintstone rental (an Aveo?) in front of a convenience store where I ran in, armed with maps. Me being the “more French fluent” of the two of us. (*Note: totally need to check out this Rosetta Stone thing).

I asked the cashier, “ou a la B&B?” while pointing to La Rose Des Vents address I had scribbled down. The cashier started blankly looking at my entire page of notes which outlined our itinerary of smoked herring, the cheese factory and beers to try. She shook her head and rang through a bag of Doritos and a Pepsi for the buying customer.

Conversation between them ensued. It sounded heated, but, was just normal chatter. Hands waved, eyes went back and forth to me and suddendly the cashier was give me the “shoo” sign. But, she was shooing me in the direction of the Doritos guy. Doritos guy gave me a “come, come” sign (I was transgressing into a golden retriever) and I followed him into the parking lot. He gave me a head nod as he got into his vehicle and I pointed to the Aveo and Kim and he nodded enthusiastically. I had no idea what we had just agreed to, but, he had chips and didn’t look serial-killer-ish.

I told Kim to follow him, for lack of better ideas.

“He’s taking us there?”

“I dunno. I think so.They didn’t speak English, but, it seemed like we were supposed to follow him.”

Oh, so trusting–but, we had a witness in the cashier. Sure enough, the Dorito fan brought us directly to the B&B (which we would have NEVER found in the soup fog, missing the critical street name that we needed to turn on to (which wasn’t on our touristy cartoon-like map). He stopped, honked, pointed and pulled a U-turn and roared off.

Between Jean-Francois and Mr. Dorito, we were already charmed.

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Just before we flew east I had immersed myself in the Magdalens courtesy of Claire Mowat and her memoir, “Travels with Farley.” From their outport life in Newfoundland, the Mowats ended up spending several magical years in Old Harry, near Grand Entree Island. I love when book pages come to life and you can drive directly into the descriptions with that bizarre literary deja vu.

Kim described the Magdalens best (once the fog lifted the next morning and we could actually see beyond 10 feet). “It’s like a chunk of Iceland broke off and floated south.” Indeed, the colourful homes against the elephant grey sky and gulf waters was pure Reykjavik. We swooned over countless homes–lime green, purple and orange beauties atop cliffs and so isolated from the density of Cap aux Meules. By the mid-afternoon, we had agreed on over 50 homes that we could instantly move into, without debate.

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Route 199 (again, so similar to Iceland’s Ring Road) was empty of traffic, save for a scavenging fox and a few stalking herons at the roadside. Scrubby pine forests thinned into soupy bogs. Sand dunes and bleached grasses gave way to brick-red cliffs and verdant hills. I could see how the Mowats were seduced into making a life in the Maggies.

Hickory smoke permeated the air as we neared the Havre-aux-Maisons herring factory. We needed provisions for our day, and nibbles of marninated smoked herring was as authentic as we could get. We picked up extra packs for my mom (who had seen the very factory we were at in a TVO documentary) and some dried razor clams for Michelle, our fisheries friend on the west coast.

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We cued up in line at the cheese factory next, procuring  a bag of squeaky cheese curds. It was all so pastoral and storybook.

As we turned on to the Sea Cow Path I read aloud notes from Claire Mowat’s book. It was the site of the massive slaughter that led to the walrus extinction on the islands in 1799. A dozen hunters could kill 300-400 walruses in a single night because of the animal’s poor vision and defenselessness on land.

Our side trip to the Maggies held all the essential elements for us, and we mused about summering in Bassin at the aptly named L’abri de la Tempete (“Shelter in the Storm”) brewery. Rain spat outside and the powder grey sky looked increasingly ominous. But, tucked in at the bar that oozed whimsy and cozy, we were rather content with our beer paddle. It was an unexpected and lovely pit-stop. I had only expected a 15 minute generic tour of the microbrewery led by some bored or hungover summer student. Here, the view of the western dunes was unmatched. We ordered a brie and old cheddar plate with tiny, chewy in-house baked bread bites (made with beer) served with a puddle of local cranberry preserve and pea sprouts. The saisson made with fleurs picked by the brewmaster was like beer champagne.

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Again, it was the sheer kindness of strangers that led us to the brewery. Bungled with vague directions, we ended up in Fatima, thinking the brewery was close to the city core. We pulled into the Decker Boy restaurant and asked a server if she could point us in the right direction. She had an idea of where the brewery and agreed it was difficult to find. She pulled out a phone book to find the proper address while asking a table of locals eating pizza if they could assist us. Ironically, it was a woman who I remembered from our five hour ferry ride that came to our aid. On the back of a menu they drew a very efficient map (who needs GPS when you have the Decker Boy team of strangeres?) and sent us on our way with many “mercis” on our part.

The western dunes by the brewery were desolate. After being spoiled on Zanzibar’s empty east coast beaches, we’ve become accustomed to being the only visible humans for miles. Here, we found that solitude. Kim skipped stones and we pocketed several smooth rocks. The sand was like that in Basin Head, PEI–“singing sand.” The high silica content makes the sand actually talk underfoot. Like cheese curds.

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We walked several stretches of beach west and east and in Old Harry. When rain threatened again we made our way to La Grave, near our B&B. The first settlers landed here on the pebble beaches and began a thriving fishery. Today, the half moon bay is a hot bed for artists selling silver jewellery, blown glass and acrylic works from their studio spaces. Cafe La Grave became our reliable stop for truly ambient pints amongst the stacks of National Geographics and hardbacks. The robust waft of the on-demand espresso maker mixed with the sweet nutmeg of baking minced pies. On a Wednesday night, a table of jovial twentysomethings suddenly broke into song. Several songs actually as hidden instruments emerged and soon there were flutes, accordions and snare drums in the mix. Pure fun and my god, if you order the mussels–expect a place of over three dozen straight up in a divine briny broth with diced celery and onion. The skin-on fries are killer and the taps are from Shelter From the Storm–the stout is as black as tar and served up in a mason jar. We needed more days to eat our way through the menu which included wild boar sausages and kraut, tartiflettes, salt cod cakes and seal pate even.

Are you hooked yet?

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Our B&B innkeeper was gentle, engaging and a dynamo at breakfast, plying us with plates of local cheese, fresh cranberry studded loaves, yogurt with a stir of thick apple sauce and granola. My sister would have purred over the daily fresh fruit shake and foamy lattes. Best yet was breakfast with the horses–watching her two lovelies graze and gallop just feet from the solarium. Two cats circled our ankles inside the house and Genvieve’s Irish Setter made us feel welcome with eager headbutts and enthusiasm.

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We found ourselves cross-legged in bed early. The sky would still be pink (the sun so desperate to break the clouds) when we’d retreat to our suite. We could still hear the horses huffing and moving about as we tried to down the marechal plonk we bought at PEI from Rossignol. Kim read Coelho’s memoir of his journey on the Camino while I was deep into Bruce Chatwin. The day’s thrills, timeless beach-combing on Sandy Hook, and deep satiation from the punishing climb up the Demoiselle trail for an unobstructed 360 view were the perfect stew for sleep.

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Of course, the day we left the temperature cranked up to 25 degrees. We spent our last hours on Sandy Hook beach imagining life in a purple house, idle days watching plovers and reading good, inspiring books and endless shoreline walks. Fresh catch on the grill. Nights at the pub.

It came as no surprise when we returned home and fired up the laptop to check out real estate listings in Sandy Hook. Cornering nirvana, it’s the best research to conduct.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dirt & Demolition, Renewal, Repurposing & Refining: Adventures in Gardening

When we bought our stone cottage in the near dead of winter, the backyard’s long-neglected seasonal perennial jungle was half-composted into the frozen ground. When we moved in at the end of January, the snow was a lovely duvet fluffed over what would emerge come spring. And emerge it did.

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My mother advised us to “let everything come up. You have to see what you have and then you can be selective.” Kim and I, minimalists to the core, were frightened at the prospects. We were already sneering at the single aliums and wayward tulips that squirrels had probably plopped into the ground cover and iris clumps with a snicker.

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Neighbourhood informants let us know that the previous owners had “really let the place go.” Really? If you’ve read any of the posts on our home, you’ll nod with two simple words: dog fur. Finding dog fur in the freezer and halfway up the Hunter Douglas blinds was a dummy indicator of what the backyard would reveal. “Oh yeah, they never even took the storm windows off.” We soon found out why–the screens stored in the shed had provided snacks for the squirrels. Half of the screens were eaten with holes gaping enough to kick a soccer ball through.

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I’ve already mentioned the appalling state of the shed–which had at some point become the black walnut warehouse for all squirrels living in this postal code.  The aftermath–of us, below.

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The planter boxes behind the house were a soupy mess that smelled like swamp and cat shit. The grass was a patchy ruffian mess and we couldn’t wait to scale the walnut tree to hack down the broken duct-taped swing from our view.

The dog fur inside had a parallel dog shit bingo equivalent outside. We found an old rad, piles of laminate flooring, cracked rain barrels (“Oh, you can keep the rain barrels!”) and other hunks of junk that we turfed into a rented Bagster.

But, back to the gardens. We let everything came up as suggested, knowing we would have to tame the herd sooner than later. We did everything you shouldn’t do. I’m sure our master gardener neighbour, Liz, was shaking our head as we yanked yard bags full of growth out. And it was just that–growth. Kim and I, as Capricorn and Virgo stalwarts, rearranged “families” of bachelor buttons, lungworts and peonies. We couldn’t wait until fall when you are supposed to transplant. No, by midday July, humidex full force, we had to smarten the garden up. We split hostas, knowing they were great space hoggers. We removed lonely singles and posted a slew of photos on Facebook, begging botany-blessed friends to help us out with the likes of Siberian Squill, Pasque flowers, Leper’s lilies and Jerusalem Sage (thank you Kay, Connie, Tanja and Beth!).

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Kim was well-versed in hostas while I was more experienced in serious grass cutting. I’ve mowed so many acres in my life. If all the hectares were added together, I have probably cut a swatch across Canada by now. In sharp contrast I can whip through our patch in 20 minutes flat versus 5 hours and 6 acres on the John Deere.

This year’s backyard theme has been less about demolition and damage control. The shed is tidier than the White House with everything in its place. The storm windows are off and the screens resurrected. The swing is down (thanks to a quick $20 handshake to local city guys cutting down stuff on the street who I begged to help us out).  We’ve added 75 bags of black earth, probably just as many bags of black mulch, fixed the floating fence panels that were going to be flat after one more westerly gust and planted six cedars. The Saab has become an unexpected workhorse, reliably shifting from a sporty coupe into a semi-tractor with a load of 40 retaining wall stones in the trunk.

Being asked to partake in the Galt Horticultural Society’s annual Open Garden Tour certainly put us on full tilt mode–once the perma frost began to thaw. We were thrilled that our dodgy transplanting techniques took root–the hellebore and turtleheads look bone meal happy! Our tulips, aliums and day lilies came up waist-high this year…despite us plucking leaves with mild sunburn and the slightest wilty posture. Our bear’s breeches and its four offspring have become legendary Chia Pets.  The peonies have gone bananas, and despite popular belief and suggestion–we have trained them to grow in shady conditions as well. A rosehip that we clipped to Edward Scissorhand specs has bounced back from near-dead–and stumped a few avids who wondered why kind of rose standard we had.

On  Monday we had over a hundred esteemed members of the Society cruising through our gardens. We picked their brains and learned that we had a mock orange tree (and, members, can you believe the blooms rocketed out the day after the tour?).

It was reassuring to get an official pat on the back from the experts who praised us for our commitment and eagerness to maintain the perennial zoo. They were probably more amazed at our progress from the daffodil level of identification.

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What we’ve appreciated the most this season has been our opportunity to make our creative footprint. Yes, every gardener edits a space to their liking and leanings (which explains our African daisies, fingerpaint coleus and lavender plantings). But, a garden is truly like snooping in someone’s medicine cabinet. It’s as revealing as a shopping cart’s contents.

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We needed to make the backyard our own and we plugged along finding purpose for found and free objects. The Weston bread baking tray became a herb planter.

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A window frame that my mom had intended for a stained glass project was resurrected to frame the poppies. Kim put her brick-laying skills to the test to complete the unfinished patio stones beside the shed with the pile we had dug up last year in the gardens (especially because after a dozen stores, we couldn’t find patio stones that matched the size we had).

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The post from the front veranda of our home that was found behind the shed became the post for our travel signs. The signs were painted on scraps of barnboard from my childhood kitchen walls.

The wine box planters were derived from a wooden wine box Kim and I found two summers ago walking through Kensington Market in Toronto. We put together the arbour that Kim had moved garage to garage without assembling over the years due to not having adequate or appropriate space.

The birdcage was found buried at a creepy but awesome junkyard off Highway 24 near Brantford. We begged the owners to sell us a bike buried by twenty years of stuff in their metal graveyard behind the house.

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Everything just came together. Lost, found, repurposed. We hammered a collection of bottle openers on to the shed and let the cracked mirror live a longer life outside (the only item broken in our move). The planter boxes were dismantled in favour of a cedar deck that Kim designed (thanks to the biceps of our backyard interns Dixon and Tommy).

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The firepit went in immediately, because, it has always been around a fire that Kim and I have nursed glasses of wine and talked about our schemes and dreams–most often until dawn.

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And, now we are sitting in the very dream that surprised us both. Living in a stone cottage built in 1860 on the banks of the Grand River in Galt. And hosting a hundred members of the Galt Horticultural Society in our backyard.

And now, for the parting before and after shot, for those who find themselves in a similar state of weeds, neglect, bewilderment and overwhelmedness:

November 2012

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Spring 2013

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Late spring 2013, sans composter

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Late spring 2014. Fence repaired, cedars planted, mulched, tamed, etc.

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Spring 2013. Planter boxes removed, deck plans in the works. Tommy drinking beer and selecting tunes.

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Funny how this photo is applicable before and after. Recreational reading and cocktailing in the sun, my default status.

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Top 10 Books For Not Just Summer, But Life in General

003“The most important experiences in your life are the ones that change how you look at the world.”

~ Jimmy Chin, alpinist and filmmaker

Books change our world too-even those innocently read ones, coveted under childhood blankets with flashlights illuminating far away worlds. Pilgrimages to the local library were a Saturday staple–and we always left with arms nearly out of their sockets carrying our marvelous cartel to the Pinto.
I’ve said this before here, and I probably will again, because, it’s probably the most important thing that was ever said. “Just be interesting.” My parents didn’t force-feed us academia or insist on Tiger Mom pursuits in law, teaching or doctorates. Though, Dax did get the fancy credentials, and Dr. Dax was in that scholastic vein early on.
Though I appreciated the curricula of the registered massage therapy program I enrolled in four score and seventeen years ago, I couldn’t wait to resume my recreational reading habit. The text books were shelved and I was able to submerge back into the sublime–creating my own life curricula via books.

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“Only boring people get bored,” was another mantra of my mother’s. And, if you are a reader by default, then, it’s difficult to get to a bored state unless you are bookless in Seattle. When I was in highschool I remember my mom asking me to have my hyper-intelligent English teacher create a list of her favourite books. Joan was in the know and a culturally literate wundermind. Surely, given the way she spoke (she was the one who introduced me to such 25 cent words as “surreptitious” and told me my writing was like a white-water rafting adventure instead of a smooth paddle on a calm lake), many books were behind her insights, and her undiluted passion left me spellbound. Joan laboured over the list, though, I know a hundred titles came easily to her mind, and handed it to me a few days later. (*Mom, do you still have that list?)
I too am constantly asking reliable sources for their favourites. You can easily identify your reading soulmates after a few shared titles. I drift all over the genres but always gravitate towards quirky, memoirs, travel junkets and anything Africa.
Which led me to this. A book curriculum for life, in general. The books that you should read as a human. I’m not listing Shakespeare (snore) or those imagery lessons like The Great Gatsby or any of the others that we’re pushed upon us in highschool. No, this is my bespoke list, and, if you are a friend of mine, clearly we share some love and common ground.
I do believe in responsible reading, sometimes–you know, those important books that shaped a time. I’m talking about Love in the Time of Cholera, Keruoac’s Dharma Bums, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Theroux’s Mosquito Coast and stuff about urban gurus like Jane Jacobs and bike-pushers like David Byrne.
Books that have found media fame like Eat, Pray, Love completely annoyed me. I never did finish The Celestine Prophecy. And, I’m definitely not going to read 50 Shades of Grey.
My bookshelf is mood-obvious and decade-indicative. Like a walk through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh’s shift in spirit and palette between the decades (from cheery sunflowers to utter gloom and miserable skies) is so evident.

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Yes, I have beach-y, cotton candy mindless reads that sit beside soul sandwiches like Siddartha, Leo Buscaglia and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Those searching books–those were the Vancouver years of 18-23. Living with a bohemian lot of artists, writers and activists, my book choices eclipsed that time period: Salinger, Tom Robbins, everything Douglas Coupland, How to Live on Nothing and a cannonball into the gay world. I found Sappho, Ruby Fruit Jungle and the world of Jane Rule.
The Virgo in me reflexively makes lists, for everything–especially books to read and books that have been read. I have the years well-chronicled. I could probably list my entire bookshelf as each title has been critical at a particular time for growth, inspiration or (ugh, loathe the world), closure.
My brother reads depressing books as they always make him feel better about his own life (*note, he is not depressed, he just likes how books can consistently do that). I like the sob-inducing ones more out of writerly respect. If an author can make you break down with words–that’s a powerful skill. I’ve cried over so many dying dogs in books (Emily Carr’s sheepdog, Marley & Me), and had to take a crying jag break from Jane Goodall’s account of her favourite chimp, David Greybeard, dying of polio and his inability to climb up trees as the disease strangled him.
*Note: do not read the last 50 pages of Marley & Me in a public space. I made this error on a Westjet flight. Read it in the safety of your own home, preferably with cucumbers and Visine at the ready. And gin, probably.
So, this is my list–and, of course, it will be never-ending and constantly evolving with every book I read. However, as of this very moment, at age 39, these are the books I think everyone should read to build a foundation of gratitude, inspiration, awe and fuel fireside conversation and intimate and intelligent dinner talk.

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1. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout.

I was disappointed when Oprah described Lindhout’s terrifying memoir as “juicy.” Being kidnapped and held captive by Islamic militants for 15 months is nowhere near juicy. But, the account of her time in Somalia and her inherent will to survive will shake up how you live your life. A life free from the nightmares and stronghold that such an experience must have on a person. It’s raw, agonizing and a remarkable display of resilience.

2. The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein.

I initially thought the book would be too Disney, too schmaltzy. Afterall, it’s narrated by a dog. And, worse, the dog is dying. I remember standing in Indigo on Bay, already hot-eyed and swallowing hard a few paragraphs in. The dog, Enzo, is aware that he is on his last legs–but he’s okay with this. He is beyond eager to come back to earth as a human. He has been carefully observing his human for communication skills to navigate his next life. Enzo’s insights are comical, heartrendering and beautiful. If you’ve ever loved a dog, you’ll squeeze them even harder after this one.

*Also, do not read the last chapters of this book in public.

3. Still Alice, Lisa Genova.

When Alice, a Harvard professor learns that she is experiencing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the awareness and slow ride into the grips of the disease is nearly unbearable to read. Life’s fragility is evident in being witness to a seemingly perfect life suddenly shook-up by the diagnosis. The only comfort I found in this book was learning that, at some point, you don’t remember that you are losing your mind. There is a period of time when you are aware, but, as the words and memories slip, so does the awareness. For those surrounding Alice, it’s like watching a living death but the family rallies to keep the grace and spirit of Alice present.

4. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls.

I read a very yellowed,mothbally copy of this in Entebbe, Uganda. It was one of few books on the shelf at the Jane Goodall Institute that was in English. Pages fell out as I turned them–and now I know why. This is a memoir, not some fantasy childhood of eccentricities. The anchor of poverty and mentally unstable conditions that she and her siblings endured is shocking. It’s a reminder of the turbulent past that so many are trying to resurrect themselves from.

5. The Chimps of Fauna, Andrew Westoll.

Well, as a chimp crusader, this choice is a no-brainer. But, even if your only knowledge of chimps is that chimp lady, Jane Goodall (or even if you still mix chimps and gorillas and monkeys up), Westoll’s memoir shares an intimate experience–his time at a retirement facility for chimps rescued from biomedical facilities. The abuse and neglect is unnerving–and your blood will boil repeatedly–but hang on for the touching encounters and relationships that develop in this rescued family. The dynamics and personalities of a severely wounded bunch and their recovery is a shining promise of hope.

6. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer.

I’ve read this book a few times and still get sucked in like quicksand. Christopher McCandless was a well-groomed academic–all his stars were in line for a promising career in law. Instead, he donated his entire bank account ($24,000 to Oxfam), ditched his Datsun pick-up and, walked “into the wild.” Eager to live off the land and escape the poisons of society, he left the conveniences and familiarity of life as he knew it with a bag of rice, a rifle and a few books on plant identification. If you’ve seen the movie (directed by Sean Penn–bravo), there’s no spoiler in learning that he dies only 100 days into his dream. What he etches into the table of the makeshift bus shelter he calls home is an affirmation of why we are here.

7. Falling Backwards, Jann Arden.

Memoirs are a natural source of inspiration, and, a deep behind-the-scenes look at lives we are curious about. The genesis of Arden’s career wasn’t all lollipops, sunshine and unicorns. But, her grace, her insightful way of being—and that inherent humour, makes for a riot of a read. The hot dog in the thermos is a passage you will want to read out loud to whoever is near you. Even if it’s a stranger–do it. Her honesty and what she shares of her life in Falling Backwards adds such a dimension to her lyrics. You will laugh like there is a laughing gas leak in the room— and cheerlead for her beating heart and continued, deserved success.

8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom.

It’s a natural reflex when you hear the title of this book to think of your five. Mine are all dogs, but…who you think you will meet could be entirely unexpected. Albom really spins the idea of heaven on its side–and, religious or not, you’ll find yourself re-examining your life and all the lives you’ve crossed and uncrossed. As his book explains, you may have changed a complete stranger’s life in a way that you will never know about. Until, maybe, heaven.

7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.

I read this on my way to Africa–and as the plane descended it was like landing in those very pages. Though the book is set in 1950s Congo, not a lot has changed over the decades in regards to tribal tensions, wayward ministers trying to “tame the natives” and a population continually struggling for independence and survival. This is quintessential Africa, and the story of a shiny, white family plunked down in the jungles of the Belgian Congo. It’s hairy, frustrating (ugh, the father!) and delightful (young Ruth’s narrative is pure charm). If you want a glimpse into why Africa gets in your bones after just one visit, you’ll see why in the Poisonwood Bible.

8. Land of a Thousand Hills, Rosamond Carr.

My sister found this book on the shelf of a store on our way to Lake Louise. She said, “Have you heard of this woman? She was a friend of Dian Fossey?” I was hooked–who knew Dian Fossey even had any friends (that weren’t gorillas). Carr’s determination to stay and make a life out of her circumstances (a failed marriage to a big game hunter), is proof of an indominable spirit in the harshest climate and unforgiving world of farming. Her attempts to maintain a flower plantation in Rwanda against stampeding elephants and bankruptcy is a far cry from her world as a fashion illustrator in New York in 1949. And what she does with her plantation after the bloodbath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is a beautiful transition. Hers was a life lived large and unselfishly.

9. Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding.

I love the reckless and feckless life of Bridget Jones. Though the latest, Mad About the Boy, was a bit of a lunchbag let-down, Bridget Jones is still brassy, fiesty and a fine example of what not to do. But, her character (probably not far from fiction) is reassurance that someone else out there is smoking 158 cigarettes a day while packing back 18 croissants and 3 bottles of vino. And that true love does conquer all–once you land the true love and pin them down.

10. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold.

The first chapter made me want to throw up. It was so graphic and terrifying that I didn’t know if I had the steel guts to continue. But, Sebold takes the unsettling event of Susie Salmon’s kidnapping and murder by a neighbour in 1973 Pennsylvania and braids it into a supernatural-laced novel of coping, understanding and possibility.

Okay, that’s 10 off the top. I didn’t even get around to Chuck Thompson, Farley Mowat or Douglas Coupland’s biography on Terry Fox. Then there’s the Sand County Almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the unbridled adrenalin of Colin Angus. Oh, and anything Anne Lamott, David Sedaris or Burroughs and the clever Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And, I really, really loved Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And, if you’ve lived at more than 10 addresses in your life, you’ll really lean into Isabel Huggans Belonging.

See? It’s a run-away list. But, I promise the ten books I listed will change your life is some unexpected way. You’ll see. Let me know–and please, share your favourite with me. Like I said, I’m a Virgo, and I like lists.

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Seven Wonders of the World

At some point all of us have fallen into the quicksand powers of distractify.com. Who doesn’t want to put off _____________________(insert any task of importance) in favour of scrolling through gauzy photos of the world’s best beaches or caves you can sleep in? I’m a sucker for all those treehouse and igloo hotels. I can’t get enough of the sunsetty images that channel humidity and kick up that inner well of travel-induced adrenalin. It’s nice to put our brains on slide show mode and dream from the comfort of our home and pajamas.

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Every time I distractify I’m eager to see how many of the coveted places I’ve been to. It’s like a scavenger hunt I didn’t even know I was actively a part of. On a recent post of 41 Secretly Incredible Travel Destinations I felt an inner glow to see the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt included. Ohhh, and Giant’s Causeway in Ireland! Been there! And Grindavik, Iceland. But having scored only 3 out of 41 destinations I thought I should create my own list. Because what’s secretly incredible to me didn’t make that list and wherever we choose to travel, it’s like love and our devotion to certain coffee beans or dog breeds or Sons of Anarchy. It’s deeply personal but the neat part is in the sharing and finding overlaps with each other. Surprisingly, album-creeping on Facebook has presented unexpected travel ideas and networking—from lattes at D’Espresso in New York to a $100-a-plate fish and chip joint in the Yukon to the merits of running a marathon in France.

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In no particular order, I’ve flushed out my personal seven wonders of the world. With time, I’m sure this list will be revised again and replaced with more marvelous encounters, but at this very moment—these places are deeply embedded in my mind. Come see why.

1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

I’ve always been enamoured with Dian Fossey’s brave and brazen attempt to protect the mountain gorillas of the Virungas from poachers. I have the January 1979 issue of National Geographic that refers to her as “Miss Fossey” throughout. In tandem, Miss Fossey and Jane Goodall brought Africa to my bedroom in Brantford, Ontario. Of course, just as every 10-year-old envisions a fancy marine biologist or vet career, I thought I might be a primatologist and observe gorillas eating bamboo all day long. Somehow I became a massage therapist instead (and sometimes massage backs as hairy as gorillas I suppose), but, for one surreal moment, I slept in those verdant mountains of Fossey’s tuned into the echoes of life and death.

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Only 32 $500 US permits are issued per day at Bwindi. Our permits were included in a package with G Adventures—otherwise, they are issued on a lottery basis. The encounters with the gorillas are strictly timed to ensure that they are not inundated with human distraction. The hour begins upon the first sighting and armed rangers are quick to get the group moving out of the area immediately. You can’t help but feel Dian Fossey’s presence, struggle and the patience in her passion.
But that hour? That musky smell of gorilla deep in your nose? The wet jungle, hot piss and humidity stays with you. Being spitting-distance away from a docile silverback and youngsters somersaulting about is a pure wonder. Have you ever held your breath for an hour? Have you ever been so transfixed by your surroundings that the trance feels like a super drug you might not be able to shake? This is Bwindi.

2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

The guide book warned us that sometimes startled drivers slam on brakes or skid off the road when they come over the rise and see the lagoon for the first time. Despite expecting it, and realizing that we were nearing the lagoon, the sudden appearance of sheer dream-like icebergs bobbing along stops everything dead in its tracks. Your conversation, your mind, the rental vehicle. Wow.

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On the edge of Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland the 18 square kilometre lagoon is full of calved icebergs making a silent procession towards the Atlantic. The layers of sky blue and black ice make for a photo frenzy. Unfortunately, we had 160km an hour winds whipping off the lagoon and threatening to blow us into the Atlantic as well.
The lagoon has been a Hollywood star, providing the setting for James Bond, Batman and Tomb Raider flicks. On a side note, in the wind shelter of the nearby cafe, we sucked back perhaps the best latte on the island. Though, the view over the latte froth might have greatly influenced us.
Even with gale force winds and bare skin pelted with fine gravel and debris, the magic of that lagoon still shakes my marvel meter.

3. The White Desert, Egypt

We were already high on life after staying at a Shali fortress in the Siwa Oasis. We’d spent days traveling around by donkey, watched the sunrise over the salt flats, drank hibiscus tea and smoked the sheesha pipe by a fire after being buried in a traditional sand sauna. We had eaten camel stew on the rooftop of the fortress under a bazillion stars, soaked in cold springs and discovered a thermal lake. Yes, we were fully spoiled by the makings of a very dreamy time in Egypt already.

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Of course, we already had knotted stomachs and daily blasts of diarrhea, but, travel can’t be 100% sunshine and lollipops. Oh wait, we did have 100% sunshine and 100 degree days. It was the desert after all. After barreling along unmarked ‘roads’ ( I use the term as loosely as our bowels), we entered the White Desert. The alien landscape is 200 square kilometers of bone-white natural sculptures that resemble hawks, hearts, mushrooms and pythons. Without a guide, you would never find your way out. The silence here is almost overwhelming. Far from any source of light or noise pollution, the White Desert is a retreat for all your senses.

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After hours of being awe-struck, the pink and tangerine hues that dusk brings upon the stone and sand makes way for an incredible cosmic show. Here, you sleep under the stars and remember how tiny and insignificant your presence is.

4. Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

I had five solid Jeopardy categories that dominated my childhood. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birds of North America, Pop Tarts and The Galapagos. I made sure my dreams came true the year I turned 30. I was headstrong about seeing the blue-footed boobies, frigates and tortoises that I had become consumed with.

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When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (flights depart from Quito to Puerto Ayora—a 1,000km flight west to the Pacific isles), I met a charming Aussie who insisted we drink pisco sours and try guinea pig. Something went sour in my gut and I’m not sure who or what to blame. The following morning I had a bowl of entirely raw eggs, so, whether it was the pig, the pisco, the Aussie or the eggs, I’ll never know. Add a huge, rolling Pacific to that mix and I was throwing up most days of the nine day trip. But, despite heaving overboard, I was stunned for nine days straight.
The boobies and the frigates performed and displayed. The animals and birds of the Galapagos have no predators, and, incredibly there is no fear of humans. You can be mere feet from sea lions and iguanas. I was in birding la-la land.

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Bartolome was probably the island that struck me with the biggest wow wave. Like Neil Armstrong said, it’s the closest landscape to the moon that you’ll find on earth. The hardened lava tubes and windswept harshness is nearly unsettling. Barren and beautiful—a sharp contrast to the chain of islands that are alive and vibrating with bird life.

5. Michamvi Peninsula, East Zanzibar

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a postcard? The beaches are icing sugar white. The water is so many shades of blue that a paint company could find a whole new line of Indian Ocean tints.
It’s breezy and soupy with African heat. The sky is an opposing mix of brilliant blues and sometimes it’s difficult to determine the ocean from the sky. Sunrises here made me want to write poetry and smoke long menthol cigarettes (not really Mom).

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The tide tables were erratic and amazing to witness. At night, the ghostly roar of the waves pushing back in woke Kim up, even with ear plugs. Watching the tide pull out was like listening to the ocean funnel down a far away drain. It was a torrent of water rushing reverse through the tidal beds.
We spent hours squatting by the pools, looking at the black urchins and tiny starfish. Some of the pools were hot tub hot by noon. The water was as clear as the Perrier I’m drinking—no guff.
Here, life revolves around the tides and the flux of fisherman and women collecting seaweed were indicators of this balance. After heading to the Rock for a beer, we learned quite quickly of the speed and power of the ocean as we high-stepped it back to our lodge. The coral cliffs and coral underfooting made for a nervous and grateful walk back. Inlet to inlet the level of water pushing into shore proved that Mother Nature is boss.
Whether you find yourself on a dhow at a distance, on the balcony of the Rock, having a blue marlin burger at Ras Mchamvi or distracted from your book at Kichanga Lodge, the Indian Ocean and its ever-changing “oh-my-god-look-at-it-now” beauty has established the benchmark for all oceans.

6. Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

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It’s Out of Africa in 3D. It’s blonde savannah, blurs of zebras, trumpeting elephants and sun-bathing lions. I had binoculars fixed to my eyes until dark. And at night? Falling asleep in a tent with Masaai keeping watch by a snapping fire and hearing a cheetah in the distance (think of a log being sawn in half—that’s how they sound). This is the good Green Hills of Africa-esque Hemingway life. In the morning the flies are incessant jerks though, swarming your milky tea and dive-bombing the surface until you have a pool of 30 flies in your mug. Oh, and their fly friends are buzzing in your ears and hanging off your eyelashes.

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But, if you can surrender to the fly annoyance and forget about all the red dirt up your nose (where the flies are sometimes too), a safari in Kenya is a bonanza of animals. It’s a full time job to take in all the meerkats and water buffalo and dik diks and impala without rest. Because you don’t see just one—you are bombarded with fauna.

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Before VCRs were invented (or, maybe they were and we were just unaware, content with the old TV aerial and snowy five channels in the country), I used to record Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness on my tape deck. I’d listen to old episodes about this very view in my lower bunkbed. The real thing will make you want to return—physically and mentally whenever you close your eyes.
I can’t tell you how many about-Africa books I’ve read since I’ve been to Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. But, to get in the groove—shortlist these:

The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight—Alexandra Fuller
West With the Night—Beryl Markham
Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda—Rosamond Halsey Carr

7. Caye Caulker, Belize

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There are no cars here and this is so refreshing. And, the fact that there is ‘nothing’ to do (hurray!). Kim and I get so lusty thinking about a Belizean retirement. The beach shacks are simple, life is simple and the curries are outstanding. Every single thing we ate on Caulker was instagram-worthy. I’m talking tangy shrimp ceviche, ham and Cheese Whiz waffles, perfect fried chicken and fire-breathing curry from Fran’s. Oh, and then there are the panty-ripper rum drinks to enhance the sunsets where everyone gathers for an applause-worthy show.

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We spent time on the mainland (Placencia, Cahal Pech and Hopkins Village) and zoomed out on a choppy ride to see the Blue Lagoon and the red-footed booby colony on Lighthouse Caye, but memories of the coral island just 8km by 1.6km wide resonate bigger and brighter.
If you want a break from the wi-fi and masses of people, you can truly live here barefoot. No shirt, no shoes is really no problem. Ever.

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Okay, so now I get why those distractify lists are always 40+ destinations long. At seven wonders, I’m cutting myself short. My best advice? Travel with someone you adore and can’t get enough of. And, advice to myself? Buy a new hoodie and hat already!

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Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beer in a Zanzibar Prison, Petting Tortoises and Spice Haggling

Even though we had 12 days of excessive lounging at Kichanga Lodge, it took some will and mutual prodding to journey southwest to Stone Town for a day. We knew it would be hectic and congested but less grating than the commotion of Cairo (where pedestrians are advised to find local “human shields” to help them cross roads) and Kampala, Uganda (where the main transit hub consists of seemingly a thousand, honking minivans crammed into a dust ball of a football field). Still, we were slightly resistant to abandon our bikini attire and paperbacks for the bombardment of touts.

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In 2000, Stone Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The decaying core was once a hot bed of slave trade and lucrative spice trading centre. The Arab and Persian influence is obvious in the design—and the ‘doors of Stone Town’ are Zanzibar’s equivalent of a Big 5 safari. In 1866, Livingstone prepared for his final expedition into the interior of East Africa in Stone Town.

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The narrow alleys are like a rabbit’s warren. Many of the roads are nameless and too narrow for cars to travel through, though mopeds and bicycles tear through the maze at lightning speed. Many of the buildings are constructed from coral and have long stone ‘barazas’ at the base that act as benches or, when necessary, elevated sidewalks during the monsoon season.
The carved wooden doors are both medieval and outlandish with big brass studs that served as deterrents to elephants. Indian-designed doors are rounded at the top while Arabian style is defined by a rectangular shape. Doors with chains carved into the length indicated a slave chamber, while others with Indian lotus flowers hoped to channel prosperity.

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We decided to visit Prison Island before venturing into the hamster’s maze. Finding a boat captain involved simply taking one step on the beach. Negotiations were quick—for $35 we booked a dhow (with a motor) and would be free to return to Stone Town (a 25 minute, nearly 6km ride) at our leisure. The ride across the Windex-blue waters was smooth and not the white-knuckler warned about in the guide books.

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Some reports say that the prison was home to rebellious slaves in the 1860s, other references say it was never used—and, though it was designated as a quarantine station during a bubonic plague and cholera outbreak, it remained vacant. Nowadays you can now stay on Prison Island at the posh Changuu Private Island Paradise Hotel for $300 a night.

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Here, Zanzibar’s colony of Giant Aldabran Tortoises roam about at a carefree centurian pace. Imports from the Seychelles in the 19th century, tortoises were a pirate’s idea of take-out. The tortoises could survive on boats for long stretches with very little food, and provided valuable meat when necessary. The tortoises of Prison Island were gifts from the Seychelles government in 1919. For $4 US visitors can share space with the ancient and docile creatures. I was surprised at how mobile and active they were. The Galapagos tortoises that I had seen before seemed to be more like stationary sculptures. Here at Changuu, they are in slow-mo road races, often resembling bumper cars as three tortoises vie for one narrow opening between the trees.

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I was hoping to find a good tortoise postcard or two to fire off to our parents back in Canada (an unlikely proposition as the African postal system is as reliable as Rob Ford), but when we asked for directions to the “Prison Boutique” we were told, “it is there (pointing to the right), but, there are no things.”

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Indeed, the Prison Boutique was long, and possibly forever closed. However, wandering about the ruins was a neat exploration. Especially when we realized that we were drinking beer, in prison. The prison bar (a new addition) was registering sauna-worthy temperatures, so we took our tall Serengeti’s to the edge of the water. If you ever want to have a staring problem, do it here, facing the Indian Ocean.

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After our fill of historical jailhouse enlightenment and tortoise intimacy, we went for a dip in those tempting waters. When shiny brochures say “powder white sand beach and bathtub warm waters”—it can be a true. We found tangible proof.
We didn’t return to Stone Town until 2:30. Aside from the House of Wonders, buying some saffron and curry, lunch at Mercury’s and a sundowner at the Africa House Hotel, our agenda was rather loose.
But, do you think we could find The House of Wonders? Freddie Mercury’s father worked in the old Sultan’s palace as an accountant. It was the first place in Eastern Africa to have an elevator (thus, the House of Wonders!). Martyna, the manager of Ras Mchamvi resort beside Kichanga gushed about the rooftop view and how we MUST go to enjoy the suspended view of Stone Town.
Despite our efforts to walk with conviction, we did appear lost in the alleys as I was trying to look at our tiny map on the sly. Nailed. “What are you looking for?” We hoped that we would get a simple answer and a pointed finger south or west.
“House of Wonders.”
“It is just to the right. And then left. I will show you.”
Kim and I rolled our eyes in tandem. In Egypt, no one gives directions, they must physically show you, which also means they would like a tip for their time. Innocent offers to take our picture in front of the pyramids or the Sphinx were disguised as money grabs. “Now you pay me for my time.” We had an all out battle of profanity with one hothead Egyptian who insisted on spouting off all the history of the Sphinx despite our insistence that we didn’t want a guide. “No, no, I am just a friend. I am just telling you as a friend.” Riiiiiight.
So, we had a new “friend” in Stone Town. The right turn, left turn, turned into nearly 30 minutes of a condensed tour of Stone Town that went in a crazy, convoluted circle BACK TO THE EXACT POINT WE HAD STARTED FROM. Oh, and the House of Wonders wasn’t right and then left—it was immediately in front of us. Fenced off, and looking closed and/or under construction, the building itself said “National Museum” on the front, not House of Wonders.
We gave our friend a few dollars, though we were ready to strangle him. Kim gently accused him of taking on a wild goose chase (entirely true). “Why would I do? I take you where you say.” Which, in his apparent direct route went by a restaurant his cousin owned, Persian baths where we could go for a tour, a coffee shop we should stop at (he likes the vanilla milkshakes there—hint)…Kim and I came to a dead stop a few times and communicated via our eyes to each other “should we ditch him?” He was like static cling though, and he had wound us around the alleys so deep, we were like spun tops. I had no idea which way the ocean, our western landmark was, anymore.
“You said you were going to show us where the House of Wonders was.” Kim said directly and exasperated.
“Why are you so tough,” the guy replied and at that point, in the deserted, sketchy alley we were in, we thought we might be snuffed, mugged or defriended. “I take you.”

*Lesson: if you ever find yourself in Stone Town, unable to find the House of Wonders, or whatever, don’t ask directions.
We quickly renamed our venture The House of No Wonders. We had to wake up the three security guides sitting inside. Though the museum was actually closed for “refurbishment” (probably 10 years in the making), they still wanted to charge us $12 US to enter. I said we just wanted a photo from the rooftop. I’ve seen elevators before, that wasn’t a huge deal.
Though I shouldn’t admit this, we were feeling a bit ripped off from our “friend” and the admission fee to a closed site. I stuffed two folded up dollars into the donation box. We took the winding stairs to the top which, at 140 degrees felt like the staircase to Hell. The security guy was right on our heels and when we got to the third floor Kim realized that there was no rooftop access. We told the guard we wanted to see the rooftop and he shouldered a door open for us after unlocking the bolt.
The roof was ready to collapse. We followed make-shift cement block steps to the edge and could hardly embrace the moment with the toe-tapping guard waiting at the door behind us. Kim shook her head—“not worth $12. What a joke.”

I said, no worries, sharing with Kim that I had craftily only put in $2. We enjoyed the view a little more knowing it was at a discount.
I snapped a few shots and we agreed we’d had enough of the city. “Let’s grab a beer and something to eat.”
As we reached the main floor of the empty, cobweb-clad museum one of the dozing guard’s cleared his throat and said, “You only pay $2. Price is $6 US, each.”
Still annoyed from the House of No Wonders Kim played nice and said, “Oh, sorry, we misunderstood—I read the child’s price here which is $1. So sorry.” I fumbled in my pockets trying to find more dollar bills and tried the trick again, adding another three. I stuffed them in the box and we hurried out.
“Let’s go!” Now we definitely couldn’t walk anywhere in the radius of the House of No Wonders for fear that we might be sent to Prison Island for real.
*Lesson: Colossal rip-off even at $5 US. Here’s our $5 picture instead:

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We found solace and genuinely good thin-crust banana and pineapple-topped pizza at Mercury’s. Cashing in on Freddie Mercury’s fame, the seaside resto near the ferry dock was not the big tribute I thought it would be. They had maybe a dozen framed photos of Mercury and Queen, a little blurb in the front of the menu and a few cocktails named after songs, but, that was the extent of it. No non-stop Queen blasting from the speakers. Still, as a rabid fan of the group, I felt it was a necessary place to see. And, after House of No Wonders, we could find wonder much easier, elsewhere.

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Like, the Big Tree on Mzingani Road. The massive fig is actually marked on the map. I thought it might be a bar or cafe, but, no, it’s a really big tree. It provides shade for over a dozen vehicles and I’m certain a hundred people could circle its base. Now there’s a wonder.

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Our last Stone Town goal was to find spices (and avoid museum security and our dear friend). After about 5 minutes of walking down the alley the demands by shopkeepers “Where from? Come look. Looking is free!” almost put us over the edge. Though we were interested in finding some silver rings, it wasn’t worth the battle. I accidentally touched an item and it was an instant attack of “How much you want to pay for this? How much?” The calculator was pulled out and nearly stuffed in my hand. I wasn’t even interested in the carved giraffe or whatever it was, but, the vendor was right on the back of my flip flops. “I’ll make you special deal.”
Kim was ready to make tracks to the Africa House Hotel and claim early seats for the sunset. “Let’s forget about the spices.”
I begged to try just to the end of the alley—we had already gone to Grenada, the other “Spice Island” and come home empty-handed. We couldn’t travel 17,000km to this Spice Island and have no curry to show for it.
I found a spice display and the vendor quickly handed me a basket. I found some ginger tea for my sister, vanilla beans for Dax and my mom, paprika and curry for Kim’s family and saffron for us. The guy hurried the full basket inside and punched away on his calculator. “Euros or US dollar?”
“US.”
“Forty-five dollars.”
“WHAT?”
He showed me the calculator screen and I was flabbergasted. “No way.”
Kim and I laughed at the outrageous amount. Had we thrown in a bag of panned gold as well? I know saffron is expensive, but, c’mon. We did not have $45 of spices.
“No thanks.”
We did the ‘walk of instant negotiation’ and headed to the door. “How much you pay then? How much? How about $40.”
We kept walking.
“What’s the most you pay?”
“$15.”
He let all the air out of his lungs and huffed. “No. $40.”
We resumed walking and were back out in the alley when he shouted, “Okay, $15.”
He still tried to push us into paying $15 in Euros and then conceded. But, he also made use of another nervy tactic by holding our $20US bill, handing us the bag of spices and saying, “okay, and $5 more for me. I keep change.”
We got our five dollars change back and instead spent almost $45 on cocktails at the trendy ex-pat watering hole, The Africa House Hotel.
We eased back into a more relaxed state knowing that we didn’t have to haggle anymore. We found primo seats on the deck for sundown and watched the park below fill with muscle-bound boys practicing a form of Thai martial arts. Another group kicked a soccer ball around barefoot.
We sucked back pina coladas in coconut vessels and I tried the much-publicized Dawa (local gin, honey, lime juice). The drinks are super overpriced at the Africa House, but, it is the best vantage point for sunset. And, the sun put on a blazing, brilliant show. If you’ve never seen an African sunset, you can almost count the seconds and see it dropping—much like the apple at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It is a true marvel. A wonder, even.
We waved to our driver below and were happy to drive out of Stone Town and back to Kichanga under the spell of sensory exhaustion from warding off touts,  local gin, spice procurement and the rigours of sunsetting.

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Zanzibar: Slave Caves, Monkeys and the Italian Riviera

I’m not sure if it’s age, over-exposure or, masses of people in general that push Kim and I towards destinations that are essentially “the middle-of-nowhere.” Like actively choosing to sleep in the White Desert of Egypt or pushing on from the bustle of Akureyri, Iceland to the fishing village of Dalvik because the population is only 1,400.

I knew Zanzibar would appeal to Kim for the untainted stretches of beach alone. The island itself is about half the size of Prince Edward Island at 90km long and 30km wide. (In contrast PEI is 224km by 6-64 km in width). But, selling the rest of Zanzibar due to its part-of-Africa status took some fancy footwork.

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I insisted that the Spice Island was truly, “soft Africa.” There were no lions or hippos to gobble us up at night. There were no stampeding elephants. The malaria rate was relatively low and the long list of inoculations was just a geographical kink. Beer was readily available despite the Muslim population. Also on the plus side, we’d be ready to travel virtually anywhere after having jabs of meningitis, polio boosters, typhoid , Twinrix (hepatitis) toppers and Dukarol (cholera protectant) cocktails.

It’s usually what you read after you return from a destination when you count your lucky stars. And question your previous rationale. Though we knew about the hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines plane from Addis Ababa to Rome by the co-pilot just weeks before we departed, we assumed a hijacking couldn’t happen twice, on the same flight path. But, what we didn’t know (and I just discovered in researching this post) was that two homemade bombs blasted the Anglican Cathedral (which we bypassed because it is supposedly always closed—though I did want to see the cross carved out of the fallen mango tree that David Livingstone was buried beneath). However, we were actually at Mercury’s, completely unaware, eating legendary banana and pineapple pizza. The popular seaside bar named after Freddie Mercury of Queen fame, was the other bombing location.

The bombings were on February 25th of this year. Of course, now in the safe cradle of Canada I read further related articles about an attack on two British teens in Stonetown in August, 2013, where acid was thrown into their faces. In the past year attackers have also thrown acid into the faces of both Christian and Muslim leaders. Several churches have been torched in the archipelago with mounting tension. A pastor was shot dead. I guess I missed all those headlines in reading about the darling little elephant shrews and turaco birds.

But, this is the inherent risk of travel. Terrible things happen right here in sleepy, innocent Galt too. If you put too much weight into media headlines and travel advisories, there would be no place left to safely visit. So, back to that sell on “soft Africa.”

Zanzibar offered a competitive blend of fauna, landscape, curries, HEAT and history. Jozani forest had the endemic colobus monkeys, there was a marine turtle sanctuary in the north, slave chambers and a coral cavern and an old prison with a tortoise sanctuary to poke about on Prison Island. I had also scoped out all the places we needed to drink beer: The Rock, Mercury’s and the Africa House Hotel.

Staying on the east coast meant that we were far from the crowds and excess of Kendwa (the “Italian Riviera”). Hurray. But, it also meant that every excursion was a costly one due to transport alone. While a private hire cost upwards of $120 US a day, we still had complete freedom in our ‘schedule’ and no other tourists to contend with. We customized our days.

(*For those who are just tuning in: Kim and I highly allergic to group travel. A cruise (anywhere), Vegas and India are all absolute living nightmares to us. We lean heavily into the far-flung, shoulder season and not-for-everyone type destinations).

Field Trip!

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1. The Rock

Visiting the Rock was a no-brainer. Though, in Googling the place you’ll need to be more specific or you’ll be inundated with Dwayne Johnson “The Rock.” Situated on Michamvi Peninsula, Pingwe Beach was a 20-45 minute beachcomb from our lodge, depending on our distraction level with tide pools, twirly shells and urchin sightings.

The small resto is built upon a coral outcrop. At low tide you can walk to the stairs, but at high tide, you’ll need to hop in a boat back to shore or be a stealth swimmer.

The large deck in the back is like pulling up a lounger inside an oven on broil though. Even for sun-mad people like Kim and I, the heat was relentless. It actually led to excessive hydration by means of Safari beers.

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We didn’t eat at the Rock as we fell in love with the cheese and tomato-stuffed chapattis at Kichanga Lodge. On the second visit to the Rock we were still stuffed from blue marlin burgers. But, we can attest that for a cold beer, this is the best perch.

It makes me think back to the TVO program we watched last night called Indian Ocean with host Steve Reeves. He took a group of Somali boys living in a refugee camp to the ocean (for many, it was the first time they’d seen the sea). When he asked one of the young men how it felt, to experience the ocean he said, “I think it is good for my eyes. To see this. Beautiful.”

Yes, the Rock and the view is very good for your eyes.

2. Jozani Chawkwa Bay National Forest

The main road actually has monkey crossing signs and speed bumps to calm the traffic. Acquiring an admission receipt to the national park was the equivalent of being granted a passport. At $10 US each, we were more than happy to contribute to such a successful conservation education project. Our guide was a flora and fauna junkie and if we didn’t feel like fainting the entire time from the heat and encouraging him to continue on, we would have probably still been in the forest.

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The red colobus monkeys live here—I had no idea we would have such a close encounter with them. Though they are habituated, there is no contact between humans. Of course, we did witness a fine example of two dumb humans thinking they were in a petting zoo, eager to pet the wild monkeys.

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The neat part of Jozani is that there’s a little magic in the woods. Though reported extinct, there have been sightings of the legendary Zanzibar leopard. The only proof of its existence is a taxidermy display at the Zanzibar museum and a few skins in the UK and Boston. Locals believe that the leopard is the pet of sorcerers and aren’t exactly as keen to spot one as we were.

Unfortunately, spotting the elephant shrew is probably the equivalent of seeing a moose on a visit to Canada. Same for the night-friendly bushbabies and hyrax. But, the leap-froggin monkey encounter and walk through impossibly tall mahogany and mango trees was enchanting. At times, standing below African pines buzzing with honey bees collecting sap I wondered what continent we were on.

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Admission to Jozani also includes a visit to the mangrove forest a humpy-bumpy 7 km away. Yes, we’ve all seen the likes of them in Florida and the Caribbean. In Jozani, the mutant mangroves choke out a dark salt water tributary canal. At high tide the waters are full of red snapper. At low tide you can see the filtering process of the trees in the white residue left on the leaves “sweating out” the salt extracted by the tree roots.

Kim thought we’d entered Sleepy Hollow territory. “Aerial branches” of the mangrove trees grown downwards like stalactites to connect with the ground root system, creating a complex matrix of impenetrable forest. It’s downright spooky.

We followed our guide along a boardwalk above black, soupy muck, passing skeletal remains of dead Indian almond trees. Lizards with skin identical to bark clung frozen to tree trunks. High speed yellow and blue lizards teased us with attempts to get a photo.

Top marks for Jozani.

3. The Mangapwani Slave Chambers and Coral Caverns

It seems that travels with Kim seem to always involve being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Just 20 km north of Zanzibar Town, we first went to the slave chamber (an unsettling square cell cut out of coralline rock). Here, boats carrying human cargo would unload slaves on the beach where they would be transferred to the stuffy, dank chamber for re-sale or work in the plantations.

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Eight kilometers away, in the natural coral caverns where slaves were hidden after abolition in 1873, I figured we would get a similar condensed history in the main chamber of the cave and exit. The floor was a jagged, ragged coral that split into two tunnels. Abdul handed me the first flashlight ever invented—a big boxy pink thing with less light than a candle. Kim was golden with her Petzl headlamp at the ready.

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Abdul insisted we penetrate the cave depths—just a five to seven minute walk and we could see the freshwater pools and exit through a hole. Or, we could walk over a mile through the opposite tunnel to the beach. No thanks.

We were all in flip flops—Abdul could probably climb Everest in flip flops. Africans do everything in flip flops. But us? I looked at the cave floor and visualized a sprained ankle or a Polysporin-sponsored vacation after our exit. Abdul insisted we would be fine.

I can’t even compare what the terrain was like to walk on. But, then I had a smack of reality remembering the slaves who did this route without complaint or footwear years ago.

I was totally terrified of a wipe-out and scurried behind Kim with my transistor radio-sized flashlight. The cave lacked any remarkable stalactites or geological colouring, but the history made the walls nearly whisper.

The exit didn’t come soon enough for me. Even then, we had to crouch and emerge into a hole that was seven feet from the surface. Now we were rock-climbing in flip flops, hoping for rooty hand-holds and not a handful of one of the fat sausage-sized millipedes we’d seen.

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We survived, narrowly. This was also a $10 experience of sheer terror and unexpected adventure.

4. Mnarani Natural Aquarium Marine Turtle Sanctuary, Nungwe

This sanctuary is housed in a natural lagoon in the most northern tip of the island. Since 1993, local fisherman who accidentally net green and hawksbill turtles are offered money to safely bring the turtles to the sanctuary. In Zanzibar, they were prized for their meat). The exchange program has been a positive conservation effort and locals take immense pride in the success of the partnership.

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Mnarani (‘the place of the lighthouse’ in Swahili) is very much a homemade zoo. But, they are doing remarkable work in giving hatchlings a boost in survival. Nests on the Nungwe beaches are monitored and hatchlings are brought to holding pens in the lagoon where they are kept for ten months before being released back into the ocean. At 10 inches and 10 months old, their chance to thrive is increased dramatically.

Enthusiastic guides are eager to share their knowledge. You can hand-feed the turtles here and watch an entire school of jackfish skip to the surface upon feeding.

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The sanctuary has a big bone collection to boot. In addition to a humpback whale (though space limits displaying all the vertebrae), several coffee-table sized turtle shells, there are shelves of dolphin skulls—remnants of a haunting die-off of over 700 dolphins that washed ashore at Kendwa and Nungwe. The 2006 incident is still unsolved—whether it was naval sonar, seismic activity or a red tide, scientists are still baffled.

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5. The Italian Riviera—Kendwa Beach

We wanted to spend some lounge time on the west coast beach that gets so much press. It easily confirmed how happy we were to be at Kichanga Lodge on the east. Monster hotels run along the strip with characteristic thumping music, vendors scurrying about selling sunglasses (Kim did find a flashy pair of “Roy Dans”—Ray Ban knock-offs), snorkelling tours and the like. Make-shift shops are staffed by five or six men desperate to pull you from the beach to see their tiny warehouse of ebony carvings and Masaai bead work.

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The beach is of course, beautiful, but it’s the ugly side of tourism. We saw a monkey on a short leash and a bus load handing money to a crew of local kids asking for “dollaros.” The kids here are smart—they’re nearly fluent in Italian.

As per usual, Kim and I made our way to a lonely lagoon, far from the crowds, bobbed in the ocean undisturbed and absorbed the horizon with progressively warmer beers on the beach.

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After such idyllic, suspended days on the Michamvi Peninsula, were we ready for the buzz, touts and congestion of Stonetown?

Stay tuned.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Genesis of Zanzibar

We were almost ready to give up. Our original destination was supposed to be the Philippines in January. Typhoon Haiyan and the mass destruction that followed quashed any notion of travel to Managua for a few years. We zeroed in on Thailand and axed the idea after travel advisories were issued from the Canadian government urging non-essential travel due to political unrest and uprisings in Bangkok. We tried to figure out flight times to Bali that didn’t require 48 hours of travel and incongruent layovers in Tokyo.
Yes, Kim and I have a long list of coveted spots, but lousy weather patterns were wreaking havoc. Monsoons knocked Tanzania and the likes of Gombe stream and a safari in Arusha out of the line-up. Brazil’s weather maps didn’t look promising with daily thunderstorms, long overland travel legs for what we wanted to see, not to mention unsavoury crime reports. Then the Corn Islands in Nicaragua had a ferry strike that would impede getting to our preferred base camp at Little Corn.
The Maldives was our default. Again we trekked to the local library and took out another stack of guide books and dated documentaries. I played around on tripadvisor and booking.com and found a few half board resorts that included flights for $3,700 each for nine nights. Plus another $300 seaplane ticket. Each. Kim suggested we look at hotels that could be accessed by ferry on Male or Maafushi, or atolls closer to the airport, eliminating the seaplane expense. But, after deeper research and a few random queries to tripadvisor reviewers we learned that, if you are not staying at an exclusive all-inclusive, there is no beer to be found. Many of the atolls are prohibition era, even with tourist influx. Though the hotels are cheaper, due to the dominant Muslim population, bikinis on the beach aren’t appropriate either. So, for very selfish reasons, we scratched the Maldives off the list due to the no beer, bikinis or bacon situation.
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And that was the genesis of Zanzibar. Though the archipelago is also very Muslim, the European influence has shifted strictness. Some women still wear a full hijab, others pump gas and wear Pradas. Even the Masai have been swept up in contemporary times with cell phones, iPods and lime green Crocs.
Seventeen hours of flying via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, was worth the crampy calves and chewy bubblegum beef and crunchy rice Ethiopian Air entrees. (On the plus side we were able to watch four of the Oscar buzz movies we’d yet to see.)The entire plane smelled like a diaper and stale hair by the time we felt the first smack of African heat. The soupy temperature was a sharp contrast from the -30 wind chill slam we narrowly escaped. We felt buzzed and electric from the sixty degree difference in temp.
The airport taxi tout bombardment was tamer than Cairo, though, it was still a flash mob for our business. The main road out of the airport north was the typical African obstacle course of oxen pulling carts, braying donkeys, runaway goats, dazed cows, Pee Wee Herman-style bikes (carrying impossible loads of fish, crates of eggs, bunk beds) and kamikaze mopeds. Trucks barrelled by stacked with foam mattresses or loads of coral rubble (used to build homes).

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I was surprised the road was paved. I had already set Kim up for a disc-squashing, bladder-pounding, pot-hole smattered ride to our lodge. Instead we followed the smooth snaking vein of cement through giant mahogany forests, spindly coconut trees, neon rice paddy fields, African pines and the storybook leafy canopy of a three kilometre stretch of ancient mango trees.

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Masai boys leaned against incomplete cinder block buildings, schoolgirls carrying sugarcane stalks walked in tight groups along the roadside. I smiled at the young boy wearing a makeshift hat that he had crafted by cutting the top off of a plastic windshield washer fluid container. Genius.
Though our driver wanted to crank the air-con, we insisted on the windows being down. The smell of red dirt, humidity and sweet smoke was such a relief from the canned air on the plane. And, hearing Kenny Rogers on the radio brought back a flush of Kenyan, Egyptian and Ugandan memories. How “The Gambler” made the equatorial airwaves baffles, but, it’s a sweetly reassuring sound to me.

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Arriving at Kichanga lodge in Michamvi (an hour north of the airport), weary and stoned from travel, the staff graciously welcomed us with ginger-spiked carrot juice, several “Jambo’s” (hello) and “Karibu’s” (welcome). And, to my delight, we had three resident dogs to greet us as well (though the old gal, Cleo, was happy to let the younger mutts do the wagging and barking session).

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Kichanga also has three donkeys—really, what more could you look for in accommodations? The trees were alive with weaver birds and bow-legged crows. The assault of colour in hibiscus flowers, Zanzibarian fabric, and the nearly vibrating verdant landscape made our winter-logged souls sigh.

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We dumped our bags in our rustic and romantic bungalow (think Mosquito Coast—palm frond roof and all) and made our way to the icing-sugar sand beach that had lured us all the way from Canada. There was not an iota of photoshopping here—the Indian Ocean was a surreal streak of cerulean and Listerine green. The clarity of the water! There was no need to snorkel—you could see a shark coming from a mile away! The brine and wet seaweed smell in our nose was instant rehab.
The beach was peppered with a beachcomber’s bonanza. Clown nose-red coral fragments, piles of swirly shells, skittering ghost crabs, and wayward oil-black sea urchins. As we compared shell finds a local stopped to kindly tell us, “be careful—some are still homes.”

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The terrible trifecta of jet lag: feeling stoned, drunk and exhausted (and still required to conduct yourself in public) put us to bed early. We ate like royalty first, slightly sauced on our new invention of “gin lag” (gin and Stoney Tangawizi ginger beer—a Tanzanian soda pop that is like swallowing fire). Satiated by plates of punchy King fish curry, rice and golden chapattis, we absorbed the night sky and milky way seemingly resting on our heads.
We were off the grid for two weeks. Zero traffic of any sort—no vehicles, no motorized boats. Just red—breasted sunbirds and darting warblers on the move. Noise pollution? Oh, yeah, the crashing waves and cicadas—what a nuisance!
With our mosquito netting pulled down and snugged under our mattress we collapsed into the dream we had designed. The intensity of the cicada buzz amplifyied in the darkness. Already, though we had seen just a blurred glimpse of the Spice Island and the marvel of the Indian Ocean at high tide, we knew we were in trouble. We had ruined ourselves for all future travel.
We had found the most tranquil place on earth.

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The Best Places We Slept in 2013

I can’t help myself—it’s almost a reflex for me to be combing booking.com when our temperatures slide under the zero mark. When the windchill eats at your face and makes your eyes seem to bleed from the extreme Arctic blasts, Turks and Caicos for $340 return sounds increasingly better.
I should be a little more resilient, having just returned from sun-baked, rum-immersed Grenada just weeks ago. But, that was December—and this is January 2014 already! But, before I begin scheming for our travels this year, I always like to reflect back on the best places we’ve slept in the previous year.
In no particular order, with varying definitions of what ‘best’ entails.
1. Our Suzuki Jimny 4×4, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland

Not our Suzuki Jimny, but, the exact same model that didn't weather the weather as successfully as ours did.

Not our Suzuki Jimny, but, the exact same model that didn’t weather the weather as successfully as ours did.

In plotting our farmhouse and B&B stays in Iceland, we didn’t anticipate on encountering a sandstorm, 160km/hour winds or a September blizzard as we cut through the mountain pass to Egilstaddir. Luckily we were travelling with our sub-zero sleeping bags and had enough duty free booze to hold a frat party in Skaftafell National Park. After a very spoiled stay in Vik at the recently renovated Hotel Edda (with it’s super sexy masculine walk-in glass shower), we were storm stayed at the park. In the moment that we were nearly blown off the top of a cliff to view the Skaftafell Falls, we should have known that things were about to abruptly change. Roads were closed, angsty Europeans were demanding an evacuation—and they got one. A military tank rolled up to the park resource centre where we were all holed up, eating the last of the white loaf smoked lamb and mayo sandwiches (with smear of green peas of all things) and skyr on offer.
We decided not throw caution to the 160km/hour wind and ride out the storm in our vehicle. Besides, two sturdy Germans and a Mexican were doing the same—and they were parked opposite us behind the dodgy windbreak of the ‘tree line’ (read: shrubs).
Our posh accommodations that night were in the driver’s and passenger’s seat of our Suzuki Jimny 4×4, zipped up in our North Face and Whiskey Jack bags. We fashioned an ambient night light out of a reuseable cup and our trusty headlamp. We had 1.4 kilos of trail mix, several bottles of red, hot cocoa and Kahlua and beer. We’d survive the dip in temp to -3 that night, though sleep was another matter. Kim sat rigid and wide-eyed for most of the night, waiting for our Suzuki to blow over. Our wheels were definitely lifting with each blast of wind. It was terrifying and exhausting listening to such a ferocious wind. In the morning, bleary-eyed and still a little shaky from the Drama in Real Life that just occurred, we awoke to find the abandoned trailer parked behind us, blown over. Not to mention finding several vehicles in the parking lot with blown –out windows and one missing a driver’s side door.
Was it the best sleep? Not necessarily—but, if you ask Kim or I about Iceland, that is the first visual in our minds.

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2. Vogafjos Guesthouse, Lake Myvatn, Iceland

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Sleeping with the cows. My grandfather would scoff at this notion—really? You paid $150 to sleep with cows and have breakfast with them? We did—and, it was a perfectly designed birthday, in my mind. My sister had been to Lake Myvatn just a month before and had raved about the brunch at Vogafjos Guesthouse, an active dairy farm. They didn’t stay the night as they were pushing on to the east, but, we made sure we carved a good chunk of time to recoup in this area (sandstorm, wind storms and blizzards behind us). Having already been on the Ring Road and all its elements for five days or so, we were in need of a good geothermal soak and a private display of the aurora borealis.
The guesthouse was a promising venue with zero light pollution and a severe stillness that made the stars in the sky seem to vibrate. Loons called from the nearby lake, adding a haunting element to the silence and serenity. Our cabin space was smartly designed with a rugged (but rugged designed for royalty) feel. The surrounding lava rock made us feel like we’d been transported to the moon. Add a night time blanket of snow, the heady smell of cow manure (a welcome smell to me, having grown up in the country) and a cozy retreat after a feed of Arctic char and geothermal-baked rye bread.
Just before we were about to close our map and guide books for the night and fall into bed, I checked the window and mad-dashed to the door, “Get your shoes on! The Northern Lights!” We stood outside, shivering under the pale wave of lime aurora sweeping across the lower sky. We slept in fits, each of us checking the window periodically for another glimpse of the aurora.

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And my sister was bang-on with her brunch review. The spread at Vogafoss is worthy of Vikings returning from battle. Several hunks of decadent cheese, endless wheels of brie, hearty granola, preserves, hard-boiled eggs, smoked lamb and char, moist wild blueberry cornmeal muffins, sweet and fruit-studded rye bread and kicker coffee. The best part is that you have breakfast with the cows—the milking parlour is on full display to entertain while slurping a second cup of coffee. Happy birthday indeed.

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3. Le Phare Bleu Marina and Boutique Hotel, Calivigny Bay, Grenada
We earned our band groupie badge by travelling to Grenada primarily to see our favourite folky Canadian rockers, Madison Violet perform. The VIP stay included luxe accommodations in a massive and masterfully-designed beach villa, breakfast (picture piled pancakes and sausage here, swimming in sweet and citrusy nutmeg syrup), a boat tour of Hog Island, a dinghy concert with the girls, a behind-the-scenes rehearsal with a local steel pan band, The Wizzards (with a generous cooler of Prosecco and chardonnay to accompany), and another show at The Deck (Le Phare’s resto).

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This boutique hotel has really ruined us for future stays in the Caribbean. Situated in a quiet bay on a property that sees more hummingbird traffic than vehicles, Le Phare is a grand escape. Poolside we assumed a very sloth-like existence of Carib beers, cat naps and distracted reading. From the pool you can watch the glide of mooring yachts and catamarans on truly azure waters. There’s no photoshopping here.
The dinghy concert was a unique opportunity to see the band in a playful, casual bill. Bobbing on a ship in the sea, sandwiched by a barge, yacht and over thirty dinghies, the Sunday afternoon sun was blistering hot. Rum was chugged, songs were belted out and the marina hosted a post-concert barbeque that wooed guests with the likes of whiskey burgers and frothy coconut-milk and rum pain killers.

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All of Grenada smells like a walk through a busy kitchen—the air is perfumed with cilantro, nutmeg and wafts of oregano. The stars are unreal and when the frogs take over at night, it’s the best way to fall to sleep under the mosquito net canopy.
The staff are over-the-top gracious while the owners are sure to swoop in and out to ensure that your experience exceeds expectation. Thanks Jana, Dieter, Lisa and Brenley!
4. The Sohotel, New York

Okay, maybe 2013 was Year of the Destination Concert. In November I surprised Kim with tickets to see Alison Moyet at the Manhattan Centre in New York. Kim’s sister joined in on the secrecy and soon we were both creeping through booking.com and tripadvisor places for a hotel that was more than 15 square feet, less than $400 a night and not bordering New Jersey.
Situated between the Bowery District, Little Italy and Chinatown, the Sohotel sold us with its praising reviews and art deco-heritage mash-up. The online pics showcased zebra print wingbacks, exposed brick, a slick industrial look with fun, quirky furnishings.

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The attention to detail is seen in the flashy bellhops uniform. The staff wear low-rise purple Converse, cardigans and purple and white checked buttondowns.
We went in with the notion that it is New York (cue up sirens), the hotel is in a heritage building (cue up clanging rads and drafty windows) and that space is at a premium. Sure, the hotel room and bathroom required agile, cat-like balance to manoeuvre, but, reception was eager to please and upgrade us to a larger room when our online booking was ‘miscommunicated.’ We ended up with a triple room which allowed for one bed to be used as an open wardrobe. Perfect.

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Despite having no in-room coffee makers, the most-awake one in our lot (usually Kim) was sent downstairs to the lobby to grab caffeine for us. Close to the subway line (for the urban brave—as Kim says, “the subway lines in NY are like spaghetti.”), close to dozens of reflexology businesses, and a brisk walk to John’s on Bleeker for sensational pizza, Sohotel was tops.

5. HOME
If you’ve been reading my blog for a year, you’ll know that Kim and I turned looking for a home into a part-time job. We began our search in April of 2012 and were ready to go on a sabbatical when the market thinned out in September. We put Iceland on hold that fall, thinking we’d been buying a house and it wasn’t until a last-ditch effort just before Halloween that we fell in love with the 150-year-old stone cottage that I’m sitting in right now.

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We looked at mls.ca until we were as cross-eyed as Siamese cats. We trudged through so many houses, disenchanted. Our hopes were dashed on more than one occasion by potential junker neighbours, a bowing exterior wall, dodgy dirt basement with a possible crypt in the corner, sagging roofs and spaces that were really smashing—but had no place for snow tires, Kim’s chop saw and tools, hockey equipment, let alone car.
Having only lived in brand new builds, Kim was convinced on my push for a home with character, history and personality. We never dreamed we’d be living in Galt, but, in our early wanderings we found a microbrewery across the river, a cheese shop, impressive library, a coffee roaster and a riverside path that winds through Paris and beyond, to Brantford. Galt had good bones—and I could work at the top hotel in Canada, Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa.
We fell for the house instantly, despite the wet dog smell and clutter that clogged the rooms. We could see beyond it all and loved the old pine floors, the exposed stone, the wide baseboards, the crown molding and ceiling medallions. The carriage house with the Murphy bed ignited our pursuit. This house would be ours! The backyard promised full sun, a cute Bunkie—space for a cedar deck to be built to entertain, towering black walnut trees and privacy. Our search was over.
On January 17th, 2013 we found our home, and it really is the best place in the world to sleep.

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If you missed the best places we slept in 2012, from Texas to the Belize Zoo, they’re here: http://julestorti.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/the-best-places-we-slept-in-2012/

And 2011? From the Ice Hotel, Honduras to the Egyptian desert: http://julestorti.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/the-best-places-i-slept-this-year/

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rum Diaries Part 3: Grenada, with Madison Violet

It seems as though we’ve been on a destination concert-roadie streak as of late. There was the 60 hour jetsetter trip to see Alison Moyet in Manhattan in November, and booking flights to see Madison Violet in Calivigny Bay, Grenada last week was a no-brainer. Both were top-secret birthday surprises for Kim, though I blew New York early on. I had to avoid all words that began with “Gr” since August to avoid another slip-up.

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I surreptitiously researched the Spice Isle with a squirreled away Bradt guide from the library while she was working and sleeping. I learned that “lambie souse” had no lambie in it. The traditional dish is actually made from conch (lambie). Pig souse is a dish of knuckles and trotters with grated cuke. I made note of the “oil down” (pronounced “oil dong”)—the marriage of breadfruit, salted meat, coconut milk and spice–which sounded more palatable than the manicou (opossum).
I secretly read The Spice Necklace by Ann Vanderhoof. Years ago I salivated over her cookbook meets travel memoir, The Embarrassment of Mangoes.  Her second book is a continuation of her glam yachtie life cruising the West Indies, St. Lucia, St. Martin, Dominican, Haiti and beyond with her salty dog husband. The Spice Necklace includes several moorings and delicious reflections on their time in Grenada. Her crash-course galley encounters with tropical fruits and veg (if you’ve ever attempted anything with breadfruit, you will nod along here) and spice discoveries is as seductive as the Barefoot Contessa and her talk of all things butter and cream.
Now I get Vanderhoof’s love affair with 12 degrees latitude. Situated 100 miles north of Venezuela, Grenada is so perfumed with wild cilantro, oregano and nutmeg, that a simple walk outdoors smells like you are deep inside a kitchen. My near-achilles-snapping runs along the roller coaster road through Egmont were infused with intoxicating natural incense. It’s a shame that the only recognizable waft in Canada is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Oh, and passing by a mushroom farm. Ugh.

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I knew before we left that we’d be well fed and rummed in Grenada (there are three official rum distilleries—Clarke’s Court being our paralyzing go-to). And entertained. Madison Violet was scheduled to perform twice during our stay at Le Phare Bleu Boutique Hotel. I first crossed paths with Madison Violet in Dunnville, Ontario at a tiny bookstore called The Reader’s Cafe. Dunnville is still primarily a one stoplight town with five tired chicken wing and pizza roadhouses, a legion and a (now shuttered) Bick’s pickle factory and that’s it. To have a bookstore open in the town was revolutionary. To have talent and the likes of Madison Violet in house was probably the last great thing to happen in Dunnville.

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Superficially speaking, it was a foxy picture of the Madison Violet girls—Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac that lured me to their show. They were hot babes with guitars and sly smiles, so that alone was grounds for a night out.
Rather instantly, Madison Violet became the soundtrack of our love life. Their folk + pop smash-up lyrics intertwine classic themes: love and home—with musings pulled directly from Brenley’s roots in Kincardine (Lake Huron, Ontario)and Lisa’s Creignish, Nova Scotia upbringing. Brenley’s distinct voice (think of the sexy purr of Kim Carnes, Demi Moore and Holly Hunter) and Lisa’s high-octane fiddle and violin riffs are unmatchable.

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Their syrupy vocals of longing, desire and anticipation pumped out of Kim’s BMW on repeat a decade ago. I’ve run to the girls on my iPod from Uganda to Grenada. To see them in such a unique environment—bobbing on a barge at a dinghy concert, set the concert-goer bar even higher.

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We were well-spoiled at Le Phare Bleu—the Madison Violet VIP package and beachfront villa accommodation has really ruined us for any future hotel stays. Owners Dieter Burkhalter and Jana Caniga fused their passions of sailing, restaurant ownership and live music into a property that holds you captive with its commitment to guest satisfaction (you don’t even have to worry about packing your own adaptor plug for recharging stuff. And, the soundtrack poolside from The Deck restaurant at Le Phare is like listening to my own playlist. None of the annoying thumpathumpa all-inclusive resort slop on repeat).

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Really, Kim and I could only bear to pry ourselves a way from Le Phare for a day—mostly to get a more educated glimpse of the island, outside the boutique hotel property.
Rum-punched at Grand Anse

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We subjected ourselves to the adventure that is synonymous with the local bus system. Let’s just say, for $2.50 EC (East Caribbean dollar–about $1.10 CAD), we received full value for our wide-eyed hell ride through the rabbit warren-like neighbourhoods and hilly hairpins of St. George. Picture this: a reggae-blasting kamikaze mini-van cum sardine can-missile.
With velvet humidity upping the “feels-like” temp to 42 we made our way to Morne Rouge to get rum-punched and search out salt cod cakes. A few sinewy boys did beach calisthenics, another lean baggy-shorted group were bending it like Beckham. The cerulean water matched the sky.
Three hours later we discovered that we’d been dropped off at Grand Anse beach (a 3km stretch of sand—Grenada’s most famed beach), not Morne Rouge as we requested—but, regardless, we had the beach entirely to ourselves.
That is, until we had visitors. No one wanted to braid our hair (something white people should never do) or charge us for a photo with a cranky iguana wearing sunglasses. There was none of the usual beach nonsense (annoying figure-8-ing jet skis, snorkelling trip pushers) found in hot spots like Mexico, Dominican or Cuba. Instead we were offered pot, nutmeg syrup, shark teeth, a hand massage slash palm reading (slash sex offer) or a full-body aloe vera rub.

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And sometimes, even when you say no ten times, you find yourself getting sexual advice from the hand masseuse anyway (apparently I’m sexually frustrated according to my wrist bones), or, slathered/slimed in aloe by a persistent aloe salesman. Picture this: Ghostbusters-style sliming. Word to the wise: though aloe gel is clear it stains purple and yellow, like a massive bruise—as witnessed in my shoulder bag the day after being slimed and on Kim’s tank top and surf shorts.
After a good sliming and accepting my apparent sexual frustration, Kim and I found a rum source. Reminiscent of a lemonade stand—but better. For $20 EC ($10 CAD), we were totally rum-punched in the face. I actually asked Kim, semi-frightened for our health–“Oh my god, do you think this is actually gasoline?” If anyone lit a match near my mouth, whoa…

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We found palatable fish cakes, more greasy than memorable. A few dashes of any West Indies hot sauce and it was like eating flames—which led to more gasoline-rum chugging. Vicious circle.
After our day at Grand Anse we found a group of taxi drivers circled around a bottle of Vodka. They offered us some octopus soup (which was delicious—and who doesn’t like sharing parking lot soup with boozing taxi drivers?) One of them agreed to giving us a lift to the Aquarium. I had asked to go to Bananas, a night club where you could supposedly drink Carib in an actual cave, but, everyone we spoke with said, no, we wanted to go to Aquarium, not Bananas for the cave.
Aquarium was lovely, but, it was more of a rock face than a cave (we didn’t bother to pursue the Bananas cave). And, more of a fish tank (with two goldfish) than an aquarium. We trusted our vodka-schmoozed driver to return and pick us up an hour and a bit later (which he did, an hour +++ later). The lamb kofta and pesto spanokapita (Greek in Grenada?) were precious. Especially after our questionable fried fish cakes that seemed to spell diarrhea in the near future.
That was probably the biggest surprise about Grenada—no diarrhea! If you’ve read any of my blogs from Belize, the Congo or Egypt, you’ll know that I’m prone to shitting my pants around the world. In fact, you can actually drink the tap water in Grenada and not worry about having to finish your frozen pina colada on the toilet.

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Staying at Le Phare Bleu for six nights, we were privy to working our way through the menu. Hello whiskey burgers on the grill! Margherita pizzas studded with savoury oregano and heaps of stretchy cheese set on fire with hot sauce. Pancakes with the citrus perfume of rose-tinged nutmeg syrup. Nutmeg-kicked coffee. Chicken roti that was both fiery and filling. Perfectly turned and fluffed mushroom-stuffed omelettes and Cumberland sausages. Chunky fish cakes hot and golden off the griddle. Ginger beef with generous chunks of ginger and a sautéed buttery cabbage that begged for seconds.
At the hotel mini-market the creamy rum and raisin ice cream beckoned. Buckets of Carib at happy hour ($24 EC–$12 CAD) accompanied many a sunset. The Pain Killers (coconut milk, rum and nutmeg) did just as they suggested.
We ate like royalty, drank like robbers and fell to sleep to a mad chorus of tree frogs. The beds at Le Phare were like sleeping atop angel food cake. We made our way around all the seating in our villa—the balcony was a favourite perch for taking in the hummingbird traffic. It was difficult to read with the constant drive-by of hummingbirds, finches and flycatchers. And poolside–with the distraction of flashy catamarans gliding in and out of the marina. Yes, tough terrain.
We never did get to the oil down, lamb souse or soursop. But, you always have to leave something to return to—and though we had daily mongoose sightings and found a millipede as long as my arm, we need to go back to see the Mona monkey and an armadillo. And, to see the Madison Violet girls again, in their element. Stay tuned, they’re promising a return gig in 2014 at Le Phare Bleu.

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*The villas at Le Phare Bleu have fully equipped kitchens, luxe modern bathrooms (ultra-urban walk-in showers), cloud-like beds, complementary shampoos, shower gel and lotions that smell exactly like key lime pie. They also provide an oregano oil mosquito repellent. Wi-fi, kayaks and two Hobie cats are available for use. Each villa has a fridge with ice-maker and filtered water. The mini market on the hotel grounds sells beer, spirits and wine, snacks and has an ample selection of groceries–with a fresh fruit and veg market once a week. The Deck offers casual dining and poolside bar service with a Friendship Table on Wednesdays night (communal, family-style meals with a set menu). The Lighthouse Ship Restaurant only operates during high season while the lower ship deck serves as a museum. The hotel is located 20 minutes from the airport.

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Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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