Author Archives: jules09

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/

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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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Adventures in Self-Publishing: How “Forget Me Not” Almost Wasn’t

A few days ago I was ready to launch my laptop into the river behind our house. Though, given my track record as a soccer player, and track runner, this would have been a dangerous outburst. Ask Kim. She’s witnessed my walnut-chucking skills. I think I used to be able to throw a baseball—but, somehow over the years I’ve forgotten about that all-too-important release time. I am now famous for my inadvertent backwards throws (No! Not the 150-year-old windows!) or, completely sideways tosses (cover your teeth!). Besides, there’s a six foot flood wall back there and I imagined the laptop simply bouncing off the wall and knocking me or my teeth out.

A few weeks ago there was a general rumbling underfoot. I felt the need to be proactive about a story I wrote back in 2009. I had just let it sit. It’s sat at four different addresses now, in the same box. Once upon a time it was even easily found on the desktop of my computer. However, that desktop is still in Abbotsford, BC and I was ready to throw that desktop into the ravine behind the house there, way back when.

An unspecified ex-girlfriend of mine, not yet exed, had randomly decided to download/upload/shitload our desktop with a new program called Open Office because she loathed Microsoft Word.  An IT-savvy co-worker came home with her after work one unsuspecting day and installed Open Office. It corrupted every single Word file I had saved to the desktop. Which, included the manuscript for “Forget Me Not.”

What’s the big deal, right? I had everything backed up on a jump or disc, right? Of course I did. But, the Open Office didn’t recognize Word anymore. The memory stick that I had trusted my manuscript to suddenly had a malware worm, or something to that effect.

Of course I had the story printed a la hard copy, and, in the end, I re-typed all of it, just like the olden days to the .odt files which are a nightmare to format.

Oh, yeah, and all the formatting was corrupted.

So, flash forward to present day. In fact, Monday of this very week. I sat down to the blurb.com self-publishing software as I have been on my recent days off. I was hopped up on Nicaraguan coffee from Monigram’s and my attention span was unswervable. Except for the odd distraction of cueing up an Alison Moyet or Pet Shop Boys song.

The laptop, circa 2008, froze. The blurb program and my story appeared a hundred times on the screen, like a terrible kaleidoscope of what was to come. I couldn’t close or open anything, not even with the Ctrl+Alt+Delete trick that I have grown to love.

I swore a few times at Rogers cable—surely they are to blame. We pay an extra $8 for a wi-fi modem that is no-fi most of the time. Rogers blamed the stone walls of our house. Surely, in a world of infrastructure, bricks and mortar, steel and skylines, a stone wall can’t be to blame.

Before this total freeze event I had been dealing with intermittent wi-fi. I was having African flashbacks. The connection was better in Uganda for crying out loud.

In the Congo, blogging with a sleeping chimp on my lap. How often does one get to say that?

In the Congo, blogging with a sleeping chimp on my lap. How often does one get to say that?

I had three more severe screen freezes while working on the blurb site, painstakingly transferring chapters the ol’ cut n’ paste way. Without disc, memory stick or the actual hard drive with the (*%%#$ Open Office files on it, I had to rely on Facebook.

Back in 2009, I took a schmaltzy workshop for $40 I think—it was a one-day “How to Write a Book in 40 Days” scheme. It sounded like a neat and tidy approach to novel-writing and the price was right. I had met an engaging woman (it was platonic, people) at a recent workshop led by the University of Fraser Valley writer-in-residence, Richard Van Camp. I think that one was about writing for children. Whether I was writing for 40 days or about 40 children, I needed some writerly inspiration and like-minded souls to commiserate with.

Johanne was the perfect candidate, and though the details are now sketchy, somehow we signed up for the 40 Day Novel Writing dealio.

The instructor had a sleazy car salesman vibe about him—how could he not? The likes of this workshop would make Margaret Atwood’s curls fall limp. I took the goods at face value and recognized that really, the workshop was just about commitment and setting a goal. Duh.

So, I did. And, I decided over a panzerotti (fettucini for Johanne) at some quasi-Italian joint in Abbotsford that I would do it. Johanne was keen on it to, when time permitted, and, certainly it wasn’t going to transpire the next day.

For me, I had to get going the next day. I figured 2,000 words a day would be a solid approach. I would post each daily installment to Facebook to keep my public commitment. I had no plot burbling in my head. I had no characters that had previously conversed in my mind. I had nothing but red-hot ambition.

Jann's book Falling Backwards is essential reading, in case you missed the memo.

Jann’s book Falling Backwards is essential reading, in case you missed the memo.

 

Somehow Jann Arden became involved. She wanted me to include God and a flask in the story. She figured that would be enough for a plot. In the end, it was. As I sat down to the computer the screechy kids next door started in on their incessant dolphin-like shrieks. They were new neighbours—and my god, the woman was operating a daycare. My total nightmare—and, the fuel for Forget Me Not.

I couldn’t believe my magnetic pull into the story and continuing with the 40 day stint. I didn’t waver—in fact, I could hardly stand being at my true work—then, at the Wild Orange Spa, massaging people all day. I must admit, there were several occasions where my right hand would leave a client’s body to jot down a plot idea before I lost it. Sometimes I wrote with my left hand, if need be.

I became quite obsessed with the story, totally unaware of where it was heading each day. I surprised myself and became so involved that I kept calling Mila, our white lab, “Millie,” who was one of my characters.

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I cranked the story out in less than 40 days. I did it in 29 because I was flying to Banff to visit my sister and my bro, Dax, was hooking up with us from Toronto. Writing 2,000 words in their company and downing martinis at the Saltlik after a day of snowshoeing Boom Lake wasn’t realistic.

And then the story sat. And sat. I’m not sure what I was waiting for—probably a knock on my door from an agent or a publisher, wondering if I had a manuscript to share.

The knock didn’t come so I had to make my own opportunity knocking moment. I warmed to the idea of self-publishing for the instant gratification it could bring. Two years ago I had pursued a similar venture—but only to create a gift for my parents. They had printed every single one of my blogs and had a stack of blog posts that threatened to fall through the wooden floors from the second level. I thought a book, with all those posts would be so much more manageable. The neat thing about the blurb Booksmart software is that you can upload your entire blog even without any techy smarts. But, all the pictures come with it. Which meant the book had to be printed in colour, ideally. Which meant that the book was glossy and a glossy price. $97 for the image wrap hardcover. $91.71 for the hardcover with the dustjacket. $83.71 for the softcover. These were just the base prices—no mark-up! I earned $0 profit, but it wasn’t about profit anyway.

Like I said, it was a one-off gift for my parents. Though I know my dear pal Heidi purchased one too. And, I have a copy for posterity as well.

So, esteemed blog readers, I persevered to make Forget Me Not more than a neglected story in a box. Even when, on this very Monday, my laptop froze again and, when I powered it down (my only choice), the computer actually let out a little scream. Really. And I held my breath for two minutes until the sucker re-started.

And then I swore a whole lot more because apparently, somewhere along the way, I downloaded a Disappearing Ink app. I lost over 12 chapters of the book to the internet ether.  Back to the cut and paste drawing board and re-loading all that was lost.

The font kept flipping from Georgia 9 (which I never used) to JohnHandy LET 22. Oh to have my favourite librarians, Dee and Linda, flanking me, as I did when I took that technical writing course at Douglas College in New Westminster back in 2007. Oh, to have any memory at all of style guides and how to set them.

Some of the text was clipped with the shuffle and blurb likes to format in grids, which means some dialogue gets pushed against the last. Many of the periods and other punctuation disappeared. And, editor’s apologies here—despite what I hope to be a thorough edit, I may have missed a few periods between glasses of wine–and hopefully you can overlook these minor blunders in my bolder attempt—to publish this book despite all technological odds.

The book has been uploaded and is now available on blurb for a paltry $20US. I think you’ll fall in love with Millie and Sheldon. I did.

Forget Me Not by Jules Torti

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New York City in 60 Hours

Oddly, New York City was never a big travel magnet for me. However, when I discovered Alison Moyet was performing at the Manhattan Centre, a whirlwind visit was a no-brainer (especially because she had no Canadian tour dates). Secretly scheming, I knew Kim couldn’t swing enough days off at work to catch Alison Moyet in San Francisco, so, it had to be New York.

Of course, this was all supposed to be a surprise for her birthday, but I completely blew it in a conversation over our space heater. Kim wanted to leave it plugged in as our carriage house and the exposed stone walls make for sub-zero temperatures. I pushed for unplugging it and shutting the door to retain heat in the rest of the house. “Besides, we aren’t having company sleep over until November 16th and we’ll be in New York before that.”

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I blurted it out, just like that. The “New” and the “York” and there was no other distraction to confuse the clarity of my sentence. So, then I disclosed it all and gave Kim the new Alison Moyet CD to listen to in her Saab so she’d be primed. Everything else was established. I had researched all our happy hours, pizza joints and scaled back the romantic detours as Kim’s sister would be joining us on the surprise.

Not that it was an intended theme, but, somehow we ended up staying at the oldest operating hotel in New York. We had Rolling Rocks at the oldest gay bar in New York. And, margaritas at Rodeo Bar oldest honky tonk bar—in New York. If it was the oldest _____________(insert anything), it was on the to-do, to-drink, to-eat list.

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The Campbell Apartment on Vanderbilt promised “cocktails from another era.” Thirty feet wide, sixty feet long with a twenty-five foot high ceiling, the former speakeasy on the west balcony of Grand Central was a marvel. It didn’t fall into the oldest category, the former office of John W. Campbell, chairman of the board of the Credit Clearing House, served double function. This was no ordinary office—in 1923 decorators were on their backs for months, painting, mellowing and aging the newly timbered ceiling. Furniture was sourced from Italy—and the elaborate pomp of the thirteenth century. By night the office became a reception hall where John Campbell and his wife gathered with like-minded socialites and musicians.

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As modern-day socialites we embraced the prohibition hideaway by ordering pints and a stiff $17 Manhattan. It could have killed 56 rats with the booze in it.

There are so many hip gastropubs and bars that we barely made a dent in my list of fifteen options. We had 60 hours to work with—which was not enough time to eat a wild boar and/or buttermilk fried chicken burger(Bareburger), blackened catfish tacos (Rodeo Bar), homemade pretzels stuffed with cheese (Redhead Cafe), a coal-fired pizza at Lombardi’s or to suck back a roasted marshmallow shake at The Stand by Union Square.

However, we did find time and necessity in joining the queue at John’s of Bleecker Street. Keep in mind, I had polled Facebook friends, the Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives site, tripadvisor and random Googles like “Best Pizza Joints in NYC.” I can’t remember who to credit, but, the queue moved quicker than a rollercoaster line-up and soon we were pouring Yuengling (from America’s oldest  brewery in Pennsylvania—since 1829). Don’t fret, we drank the local brews too—especially Brooklyn Lager when it was on tap.

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John’s is lively, yeasty,  cozy and a good sensory rub. Portly staff sling pizzas in an open kitchen and stoke the pizza oven routinely. Fred Flintstone-worthy trays of pizza zip around the room. There’s a wall of graffiti and pics of Johnny Depp and other Hollywooders who have been to John’s. The tabletops, seats and walls are covered in carved initials and messages. It’s semi-like having a pitcher and a pizza in a bathroom stall.

Though our intention was to make our way to the McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest Irish pub in NY(1854) on East 7th, we had walked Kim’s sister, Lynne to near death through Central Park, Madison and Fifth Ave. She called a time-out and our closest option besides a street corner hot dog (and, well, we did one of those too, within our 60 hours) was Connoly’s. Irish pubs are nearly as dominant as Starbucks in the city. They consistently have an impressive line-up on their taps and heavy gut-filling fare. The lamb burger with pepper-jack cheese and a sweet curry sauce didn’t disappoint. Lynne’s Turkey Cuban was a gluten torpedo while Kim found solace in cheeseburger quesadillas.

Fuelled, we pushed on.

In 60 hours we took in the staples—hopping on the free ferry to Staten Island (a 25 minute voyage) was optimally planned at sunset. The Statue of Liberty was a mighty silhouette against the blaze of orange. (Curiously, the ferry boat is escorted to the island by a heavily armed coast guard dinghy). Of interest: there is also a free ferry from Wall Street’s Pier 11 to the IKEA’s own Red Hook dock in Brooklyn. “No assembly required.”

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Ferries are the best way to catch the city from afar, without the horns and congestion. And, to see the Statue of Liberty up close and personal. We skipped the Rockefeller and Empire State Building figuring our aerial view flying in to La Guardia was close enough to the ‘Top of the Rock’ experience that takes you to the 80th floor of the Rockefeller for $27. And, we’d all seen the Empire observation deck from Sleepless in Seattle.

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Speaking of Hollywood, next to the lure of the buttermilk fried chicken burgers, the Bow Bridge in Central Park was something we simply had to do. Luckily we had a double-digit November day and perfect movie set conditions for our stroll. The leaves were still on the turn and many of the pushy vendors and rickshaw operators (that must swarm like mosquitoes in summer) had thinned out. Seeing the bridge where so many famous smooches have happened was a neat moment. As was the Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields—a juxtaposition to our Iceland trip.

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In Iceland, the ferry service to Videy Island didn’t jive with our days in Reykjavik. A friend who visited just weeks later was privy to a sing-along at Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower monument to John, with Yoko in person! The tower is only lit from October 9—December 8th, 21-31 December 21-31st, February 18th and 21st until March 18th. It is lit two hours after sunset until midnight each night except on John and Yoko’s birthdays and New Year’s Eve, when it remains lit until sunrise.

John and Yoko lived in the Dakota Apartments adjacent to this area of the park. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was fatally shot walking into his home. Yoko Ono donated $1 million towards the creation of the tear-drop shaped Strawberry Fields area of Central Park. A bronze plaque lists over 120 countries that have planted flowers and donated money to the maintenance of the area.

A walk through Central Park is the polar opposite of Times Square—the gauzy overload of every excess. It’s worthy of a walk-through, but also of a quick exit. Those with corporate claustrophobia will be hyperventilating. However, if you are a M&M fan, you can design custom messages and have them printed on the chocolate candies within 20 minutes at the flagship store here.

Other impressions?  In no particular order:

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I loved the mobile fruit and vegetable vendors setting up shop on random neighbourhood sidewalks. I loved seeing the urban dog walkers with their motley mutt crews. Hot dogs are cheap–$2.50, but they are a skinny and skimpy knock-off to the condiment-laden greats we had in Iceland.

New York is surprisingly clean—the subways (cheaper than Toronto at $2.50–same price as a hot dog!) are pristine. Unless you’re ordering $17 Manhattans at the fancy pants Campbell Apartment, craft beers are on par and the likes of Rolling Rock go for $3 a bottle at Happy Hour. Lamb burgers, fries and a briny pickle go for $13.

New York is sleepy—even Chinatown didn’t start to hum until 10am. Every storefront is shuttered and bolted until then, with just a few delivery trucks and token fire trucks rambling about.

Go for a reflexology treatment. On the edge of Little Italy there are several to choose from on Mott street– and 20 minutes for $20 is rather cheap, instant euphoria.

Check out Mark Lakin Photography at 750 Greenwich Street (corner of 11th). The gallery space is a showcase of the luxury travel company, Epic Road, that he co-founded with Marc Chaffiian. Wanna honeymoon in the Arctic or Africa? (I guess you could get married twice if you can’t decide). Mark and Marc design tailor-made luxe safaris and expeditions to the Serengeti, the volcanoes of Rwanda—and, Iceland. Lakin’s pictures are stunners.

The air is permeated with the distinct heady smell of roasting chestnuts. All of Little Italy smells like Nonna’s kitchen and bubbling sauces.

The Spotted Pig (West 11th at Greenwich) and its quirky design and menu (potted pickles, deviled eggs, devils on horseback or crispy pig’s ear salad with lemon caper dressing anyone?) make for a boisterous mid-week pitstop. On a Wednesday night it was elbow to elbow at the bar rail.

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New York City is very black and white, culturally speaking. There is a definite absence of Asians, Indians and Middle Easterns compared to Toronto. Though there is a Little Italy and Chinatown, I failed to notice an obvious Little Korea, Little India or Little Portugal or Greektown.

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Crash at the Sohotel—the oldest operating hotel in the Bowery district. It has funkadelic down pat with the Victorian-zebra print cross-over furnishings and exposed brick walls. On the edge of Little Italy, it’s boutique, industrial and a unique sleep. Sidebar: The staff all sport purple checked shirts and purple converse.

Maybe I am immune to masses of people, sirens and horns after visiting the madness of Cairo and living in Toronto, but, I was expecting New York to be jammed with people. I expected it to be taller (skyline wise). Really, it is Toronto, but with more girth and less pigeons.

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D’espresso (317 Madison).  Just step inside. Books printed on tiles—on the walls, on the floors. Drink enough espresso and you will feel like the walls and shelves are closing in on you.

Though we ran out of hours, our next visit will require a beeline to the High Line. As I mentioned, we had walked Lynne’s legs off in Central Park, and asking if she’d like to walk another 1.45 miles along the High Line was out of the question. The High Line is part of the New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line, a linear park built on the elevated rail that runs from Gansevoort near West 13th and splits the Chelsea district to West 30th. Next time—and after jaunt we’ll have gourmet peanut butter sandwiches at the Peanut Butter and Co. (between West 3rd and Bleecker). I’ve already decided on “The Elvis”—peanut butter, banana, bacon and honey. Yep.

And, that’s 60 hours in New York City.

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Plus a plate of fries with truffle oil, rosemary and parmesean with a Smuttynose Stout at Slip Mahoney’s at La Guardia before departing.

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Random Reykjavik: Where to Eat, Drink & Crash

It was a sharp scenery contrast as we moved on from our fishing lodge cum guest house to the urban thickness of Reykjavik.

Ensku Husin (‘old English lodge’) was like stepping into a time machine—70s furnishings, prerequisite wood panelling, beat-up armchairs, trophy fish mounts, vintage pics of men grinning with monster fish and a pot belly stove. It was a fab crash pad with serene views of River Langa. And, like much of the real estate in Iceland, the property came with its own personal waterfalls.

ICELAND 2013 415Fast forward 100km from the idyllic countryside to the end of the Ring Road. From 70s kitsch to the modern spoils of Radisson Blu 1919 in downtown Reykjavik. We happily exhausted our RBC Visa Rewards points account for two nights at the boutique hotel (room rates from 110 euros!). The studio-concept room was a welcomed contrast. Unlike Ensku Husin, we probably wouldn’t hear our neighbour’s snoring. Or, dishes being washed or the ruckus of the innkeepers’ children below.

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In Reykjavik, we had to part ways with our reliable steed, the Jimny 4×4. We were sad to see her being driven away—no doubt re-assigned to a brand new, fresh-faced couple about to tackle our same route. The Jimny must have been thinking, “What? Again? I just did the Ring Road.” However, Kim was now footloose and fancy-free from chief driver responsibilities. We were ready to be pedestrians again, stretch our Ring Road legs and partake in Reykjavik’s happy hour scene.

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To commemorate reaching the end of the Ring Road (sigh), we mixed “Ring Worms” and “Reyk-ed” cocktails in our tony room while watching an old Ellen Burstyn flick. Our duty free Icelandic vodka had to be drank! I’d read about the Nordic love of malt extract and Appelsin (akin to orange soda) as a nourishing winter warmer/yuletide favourite. Adding vodka upped the yuletide and we created variations while waiting for the drizzly skies to take a rain intermission so we could explore.

We eventually did the “Rodeo Drive” stroll—popping in and out of shops along Laugavegur and arty Skolavordustigur. The window shopping extremes ranged from bric-a-brac at Frida Fraenka on Vesturgata (two storeys rammed with peculiar antiques—an inventory nightmare!) to fawning over the flashy outdoor gear of 66 Degrees North. If you are a licorice fan there’s a sugar epicentre on Laugevegur with licorice dipped in every sort of imagined confection. Get your hands on a “Dramur” (‘dream’  in Icelandic)—it’s black licorice whips dunked in chocolate in a bar form.

Happy Hour Chronicles (in no particular order):

Skipbarrin: It’s slick and smartly designed with salvaged wood, industrial flare and cow hide stools. Part of the Icelandic Air Marina hotel, it’s a lively and vibrant pit stop—though the marina view is lacking. Here, outside of happy hour you can expect to pay almost $22 CAD for a mixed drink. We heard rumours of this, and the outrageous price of booze in Iceland—and it’s true. Just a basic rum and Coke or gin and tonic is prohibitively priced. Safer choices are the pints of Viking or Gull which are universally 900isk ($8 CAD). Happy hour deals = 2 for 1 beers.

Dillon Whiskey Bar: Though Lonely Planet described this whiskey hole as a place where you might encounter “beer, beards and the odd flying bottle,” we witnessed only beer during the 4-6 happy hour time frame. It’s a little rougher around the edges, darker, but authentic. Make note of the “Mind Eraser”– Vodka + Kahlua with a lime wedge dipped in coffee and sugar.

kim at whiskey bar

Olsmidjan Bar–Kaffi & Vin: We hadn’t seen Polar Beer on the menu anywhere but here. I imagine it’s a budget lager brewed by the larger conglomerates. But, we were okay with this—for 900isk you could get a pint of Polar and a shot. We decided to upgrade our shot option (licorice schnapps or a gimmicky, syrupy “Northern Lights” shot with floating green and blue liqueurs) to try the premium priced Brennivin. It’s the local hooch derived from fermented potato mash and caraway seeds. We found it rather palatable. Please note: Signs of maturity were witnessed as Kim and I actually purchased a Polar pint glass from the bartender instead of stealing it.

Bunk Bar: Adjacent to the Reykjavik Backpackers Hostel on Laugavegur, the salvaged wood doors of the Bunk Bar easily lured us in. Inside we found a very hip and inviting chill zone with a gently thumping electronic soundtrack. This place oozed cool! Renovated in May of this year, the combo of iron and wood textures, repurposed tractor seat bar stools and black and white photos make the bar a stand-out. Go here! It’s not the scrubby hostel type-bar you remember!

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Post Happy Hour Eats (in no particular order, and not all in one day):

My sister and her fiancee had been in Iceland just weeks before us and we were armed with a list of cafes and fish n’ chip joints that couldn’t be missed.

Cafe Babalu: The decor of this cafe made for one trippy latte. It was like stepping into Quirk Central: pink flamingoes, Smurf figurines, cuckoo clocks, needlepoints, random 60s lighting, vintage board games—with an Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack.  It’s  well-worth the time out—and be sure to head upstairs, to get fully immersed in the rug hooking groove. Don’t miss the Star Wars themed restroom either. It’s part of the Babalu experience.

Prikid:  On Bankastraeti, we found the best burgers since our reindeer burg experience in Hofn. Kim opted for a hefty Blue Moon topped with guacamole and blue cheese. I went for the sweet and savoury twist of the Jam burger loaded with camembert, blue cheese, brie, parmesan and raspberry jam. We’d recommend a table upstairs so you can have a fine perch for people-watching while pint drinking. And, if you’re really ambitious, Prikid is one of the later-closing bars: at 5:30am. Don’t miss the men’s washroom (really, take a peek) and the graffiti in the smoking area on the way upstairs.

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I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to cram in all the lattes, battered cod and hot dogs that we needed to eat before flying home.

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Baejarins Beztu: Right across from the Radisson Blu we watched the congestion around the Baejarins Beztu hot dog joint. Famous for Bill Clinton’s drop-in and some other Hollywood hot doggers, the stand has been in operation since 1939. For 330isk ($2.50CAD), a hotdog with ‘everything’ is handed to you loaded with remoulade, crunchy fried onions, ketchup and a sweet brown sauce akin to honey mustard. After eating hot dogs around the Ring Road, we nodded that yes, it was one of the best and that we needed to take home some fried dried onions in our cargo.

Icelandic Fish & Chips: Located on Tryggvagata, you gotta go here for the tempting line-up of ‘skyronnaises.’ Skyr is a thick, Balkan-style yogurt and Icelandic staple–flaky plaice and tusk (1,480isk per main) dipped in coriander and lime skyronnaise (280isk), is really the only way fish should be eaten. Add a side of rosemary and Saltverk potatoes (490isk), a pint and you’ll wonder why you didn’t eat here everyday for every meal.

Koffinn: We had our last minute fill of Icelandic fare here before catching the bus to the airport. Known for a riveting list of paninis, the Indian Hut is where it’s at. Fiery red curry and chicken in a Panini with perfect grill lines? This was the best send-off. Deep, jazzy soundtrack and piles of old magazines to flip through.

Of course, we accomplished more than happy houring and filling our faces in Reykjavik. There were tranquil morning runs along the sea wall, keeping pace with seabirds skating along the water’s surface. Glimpses of distant glaciers and boats chugging along towards the futuristic glass Rubik’s cube-looking opera house.

After 800+ miles of driving headlong into a postcard on the Ring Road we were really craving that soul-nourishing stillness that we had become accustomed to. You can find it in Reykjavik! At the Holavallagardur Cemetary (off Ljosvallagata street), this graveyard is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, smack dab in a city centre. Laden with verdant moss, elaborately carved headstones and gnarly trees, its well-worth a wander through.

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Also, be sure to walk around the pond by City Hall. Dotted with grey legs and bossy swans and several unusual sculptures, it’s like an open air gallery and bird sanctuary. There are also several dream homes to be pointed at near the pond. The simplistic and colourful corrugated iron construction set behind dwarf birch trees with leaves begging to turn orange made for a sweet stroll.

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The cosmo city, endless walls of graffiti and top notch pubs and eats instantly put Reykjavik on our return list. The laughing, flush-cheeked, straw blonde kids in babushka buffs are poster children for purity, wool sweaters and fresh air. With few visible minorities, Reykjavik is a non-stop parade of Nordic beauty, furs and a catwalk for 66 North fashions.

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Iceland gets under your skin in a very good way. You’ll see. And be sure to tell me all about it!

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shark Bites, Love Balls and Spelunking in Iceland

Kim has become quite accustomed to my elusive food foraging quests. She has been game for the likes of camel stew, fig moonshine, frog legs, some unfortunate thing in Belize that tasted and looked like cat barf in a pastry shell, tongue on rye and even braved a blizzard for the promise of caribou burgers in Quebec City.

“Will you try the putrid shark though?” I asked as we headed towards the shark museum near Berserkjahraun.

“Of course.”

That’s my girl.

Fermented hakarl (shark) can be found in most grocery stores in Iceland, however, I wasn’t convinced that we’d love it enough to buy a pre-packaged pound’s worth for upwards of $20. A free sample would satisfy, and because the Foss Hotel was shuttered in Dalvik, the shark museum was our only probable tasting station.

For 1,800isk ($8 CAD), our admission to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum also included a tasting. I had remembered the boys on Departures grimacing and near-hurling hakarl over the experience—though they had Brennivin chasers to cleanse their palates (a local hooch of fermented potato mash and caraway, known better as “Black Death” or by its English translation, “burning wine”).

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The museum itself was a marvel—a hodge podge of massive whale vertebraes, sheep bones, seal skins, old harpoons, ancient navigational equipment (hello GPS!) and the family fishing boat, circa 1870. Before a motor was tacked on the back, the vessel was rowed by six men which must have been a parallel feat to the pyramids being built.

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There were the prerequisite taxidermied birds and decrepit foxes, shark heads and fins. Really, it was the best touch-me, feel-me display of curios. I was especially drawn to the exhibit that displayed things found inside one shark’s gut—polar bear skin and bones!

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The doting curator hovered around us, at the ready for questions and then reeled us in for the real attraction—shark snacks. After drying in a shed for five months, the otherwise toxic Greenland shark becomes edible with the fermentation process. The species has no kidneys which results in an elevated ammonia level–survival adaptations for a shark that lives almost 2km below the surface.

Cocktail party convo starter: Did you know that sharks have no bones and just a ‘spine’ of cartilage? I love these Jeopardy contestant tidbits.

Gearing up for what everyone had said was a revolting mouthful akin to an ammonia-soaked sponge, rancid blue cheese and feet, Kim and I were both pleasantly surprised. Now, I wouldn’t choose to sit down to an entree of putrid shark, but, it was essentially like a cube of raw fish. Roll it in sticky rice, wrap it in nori, add a dot of wasabi and it would be a hit in Toronto’s Koreatown with a Sapporo.

What next? After visiting the farm’s drying rack with shark bits in various stages of aging, finding some warm love balls seemed appropriate.

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Stykkisholmur was the only place I was able to sniff out the traditional love balls—and indeed, they are full of love. Deep fried tennis ball-sized glories for 340isk ($3 CAD) a pop. The Nesbrud Bakery in Stykkisholmur is a pastry wonderland with several varieties of twists and sugared rolls dunked in severe amounts of icing, and, astarpungar. The dense doughnut balls are a sweet and mildly tart hit of lemon and cardamom. Totally worth the pit stop and shark breath. And if you climb to the old lighthouse overlooking the darling little marina, love ball eating can be justified.

ICELAND 2013 458Now well-fuelled we were ready to climb into Iceland’s underbelly at the Vatnshellir (‘Water Cave’) Caverns in Snaefellsjokull National Park. Who doesn’t want to poke around lava tubes 12 storeys below?

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The spiral staircase painstakingly erected by volunteers and cave enthusiasts takes spelunky-types 130 feet deep. The cave had been closed for several years due to geological ransacking by visitors. In May of 2013, it was privately contracted out to a former mountain rescue guide with 25 years experience. I smiled at his transition—all those years at such elevations, and now, his pursuit in the opposite direction!

At six degrees, you’ll be glad to zip on a fleece and pull on a toque, however, there’s no need to worry about getting slimy, stalactitey, soaked or shat upon by bats. There are no bats in Iceland, and the terrain is solidified lava (which makes for some wobbly ankle terrain en route to Jules Verne’s Centre of the Earth).

The tour is a little bit schmaltzy—Kim was hoping for some fox hole belly slithering routes  or a fear-factor-esue squeeze like our Belize experience, but, it’s rather tame. Regardless, even if you’ve been in dozens of caves, there is no getting used to the unsettling feeling of 100% darkness. Our natural desire ‘to see’ causes such strain and mild panic in that minute of headlamps being turned off.

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Above ground an hour later, we returned to our now-familiar inundation of natural phenomena. Rounding the coast, the Malariff sea stacks instill another 3D postcard. And Anarstapi? Step aside love balls, this 2.5km cliff walk from Hellnar along the stone arches and basalt escarpment is visual balm after being in the dark and damp Vatnshellir caves.

The turbulent coastal waters and frozen lava flows is a surreal sight. Next to the sea stacks of Dyrholaey and the black sand beaches of the south, I really swooned over Anarstapi.

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Rounding out the day of sharks, caves and love balls, we shared a cauldron (really) of lamb soup at The Settlement Centre in Bogarnes after we found accommodations at Ensku Husin, an old fishing lodge.

Iceland was getting seriously deep into our bones. Could we somehow rewind the Ring Road?

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Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dalvik, Iceland. Population: 1,400

Destination Dalvik. Population: 1,400 (Sheep population? Double that figure.)

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I’m almost disappointed to report that our northwesterly loop of Iceland (after leaving Lake Myvatn) was void of obsessive-compulsive road closure checks, manic meteorological banter with fellow travelers, snowstorms or impromptu sandstorms for that matter. By the time we reached sleepy Dalvik, the wind speed was nearly zero and the sun bathed Eyjafjordur and Svarfadardalur in buttery, hopeful light.

After being immersed in the serenity of Lake Myvatn’s isolation we couldn’t bring ourselves to find a hotel in Akureyi (pop. 17,500 by contrast).  Though, had we been drifting through during the summer, I’m certain Kim would have been keen on a round at Jadarsvollur. With the solstice you can play golf around the clock in perpetual daylight—and, golfer or not—there has to be a thrill in booking a midnight tee-off and playing in broad daylight. (In late June the 36-hole Arctic Open is played here).

There was also the Lonely Planet promise of curry huts and Thai noodles and a trendy joint called Rub 23 that my sister was seduced by. Diners get to create their own custom rubs (marinades) for their fish or lamb. As tempting as a fiery feed of butter chicken was, or spice-massaging some mutton, we pressed on to Dalvik. I had been convinced by a thumbnail photo of the Vegamot cottages in my glossy brochure stash that we should stay there. The Lithuanian kit houses looked like cutesy red Lego cabins at the foot of the mountains.

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When we arrived, a note on the door of Vegamot suggested crossing the road and asking one of the gas station attendants where the innkeepers might be at. They would know, and/or, phone Heida. Which they did. Our other option, the Foss Hotel, had simply closed up shop altogether due to the predictable plummet in tourists, so, we were really putting all our chips on Vegamot.

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GisuEirikurhelgi Kaffihaus

Heida was an Icelandic Meryl Streep doppelganger. It was her 49th birthday that day, and, she insisted that we pop in to her cafe at the end of the street (in pointing distance) for happy hour—which would be hours long, until close. We concluded later that Heida was the Trump of Dalvik with a cafe, Vegamot cabins and the downtown hostel under her reign.

There was room at the inn. Did we want to go whale-watching? Her husband led tours—we could go that very afternoon.

Kim and I skipped the whale watching offer. I’m not saying every whale tour is the same, but, I had seen them in Kennebunkport and Kim had been whaling in Provincetown. Also, we had both been whale watching in classic summer temps. The rough sea and cheek-chilling single-digit forecast was not putting whales at the forefront.

We also skipped the Byggdasafnid Hvoll museum—though I was naturally fascinated by the lure of visiting the Johan Petursson room. Petursson was a local giant (7’7), and the museum housed artifacts from his days as a circus act and (drum roll here) taxidermy. Every museum, bar and restaurant in Iceland has some mangy sinister-looking stuffed thing. Arctic foxes that look rabid. Wilting ptarmigans. Fish with globby eyes and stiff fins.

Kim thought the hike around the Svarfadardalsa lake across from our cabin would be more rewarding in the end. And after circling the mirror-surface of the lake with binoculars trained on whooper swans and godwits, she was right. We didn’t see a single person—we had the lake and most of Dalvik to ourselves.

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After the 8K slog we exhausted our cracker and cheese supply and heated up tomato soup in our kitchenette (that was not built for the likes of Johan Petursson). Our ‘en suite’ was very functional in that you could sit on the toilet and brush your teeth at the same time as the sink was within spitting distance.

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And, from the toilet, the hot plate and boiling soup was also within sight.

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The shower, in the adjacent rental loft (Heida’s great-grandmother’s home), was an instant lesson in human origami. At a generous one metre squared, if you dropped the bar of soap while showering, there was no bend-over space to retrieve it.

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Regardless of bending design glitches, Heida’s strong design chops were a nice change from the somewhat sterile Scandinavian-take many Icelandic hotels adopt. Poking around great-grandma’s (a space available for 4-6 people) was like snooping, even though it is a rental unit. Grandma’s vintage hair rollers are above the sink, her dressing gown hangs on the door. The stacks of mid-1800 books, bibles, tin cups, iron crosses, reindeer hides and milking stools were a far cry from any Ikea showroom.

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Heida’s Great Grandma’s House

Showered, souped and crackered we walked down the main drag to Heida’s kaffihus (slowed only by head-butting cat traffic on the sidewalk).

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Happy hour was happy indeed. We met Heida’s football-mad husband, Bjarni, whose mop of hair deserved a museum of its own. The cafe was the kind of space I wish we had in Galt. The ambitious couple (though Bjarni would say it’s all Heida’s insistence) plan to re-open the abandoned live theatre that is part of the building. We pulled up vintage tractor seats and slugged the local craft brew—Kaldi. Adding to the small town embrace—the Kaldi brewmaster arrived to much fanfare and found a stool at the bar next to us.

Bjarni  gave us a crash course on whales (many of the whale watchers had barfed the day before due to the choppy waters confirming our wise decision to opt out), hot dogs and Icelandic real estate.  We were staying at “Vegamot” which translates to ‘crossroads.’ All houses in Iceland have a family ‘house name.’ If we were to send a letter to Bjarni, there would be no house number or street name. The letter would be posted to Heida and Bjarni at Vegamot, Dalvik, Iceland. Which means the letter carrier would have to be the town’s nosey parker or a real Rainman with names.

Our happy hour performance wasn’t at its optimum. After one Kaldi we felt like we needed toothpicks to keep our eyelids pried open. We were sacked and back home to our red lego hut by nine.

Besides, we had shark to eat the next day and caves to climb into the dark belly of!

*Additional tidbit: Every August Dalvik hosts The Great Fish Day. Locals and travelers alike are invited to rub elbows and gills with the fisherman and fishmongers that make the daily catch a reality. Tables and grills down at the marina groan with the FREE all-you-can-eat buffet of catfish, herring, redfish, salmon and shrimp.

Shark!

Shark!

Categories: Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Partying Until the Cows Came Home in Lake Myvatn, Iceland

“Party until the cows come home” is not just an expression—you can actually do it in Lake Myvatn, in northern Iceland. In fact, you can have breakfast with the cows too.

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But first, Kim and I had to grind our molars through a sandstorm warning in the east fjords. A cheery cherub of a woman at the Hofn tourist info centre suggested, “If you see the sandstorm coming, just stop and wait before you continue driving.” Right, because sandstorms conveniently give you that kind of head’s up. This particular section of the Ring Road had been closed the day before, due to “sandfoki.” We were reassured that the worst stretch was only 0.2 to 1.4km long.

A few other windstorm-haggard travellers found their way into the tourist centre while we were there. Collectively, talk was about turning around and heading back along the south coast to Reykjavik. Our eavesdropping tourist info lady piped up: “The roads are closed in that direction as well. Oh, and if you are heading to Egilstaddir, the shortcut on 92 is closed as well…due to snowstorms.”

Fast forward through sheer cliffs, falling rock warning signs and HOT PRICKLES from a sudden blast of gravel as we entered the sandfoki zone (but managed to roar through, unscathed–muttering a few fokis en route). Enter BLINDING snowstorm, complete white-out conditions and fish-tailing with tractor-trailers.

The only blizzard shot I took. Mostly because I spent the next two hours holding on to the  passenger door so it didn't blow off.

The only blizzard shot I took. Mostly because I spent the next two hours holding on to the passenger door so it didn’t blow off.

By the time we reached Egilstaddir with hot dog and vodka gut rot, the Vinland Guesthouse in Fellabaer was like an oasis: non-stop hot water and a respite from shallow breathing for four hours. Though the shower was heavy on the sulphur (I swear all of Iceland was built upon a giant egg salad sandwich), the good and starchy towels and highly efficient thermostat in our room were welcome. It was still spitting snow outside when our guesthouse host, coincidentally an air traffic controller at Egilstaddir, informed us that the road ahead of us was closed and impassable due to snow.

While mixing numbing vodka concoctions to quell our nerves, we heard a tentative knock on our door. Two ‘representatives’ from the girl pack staying next to us had come to ask for help. From Mekong, Hong Kong, nobody in the group had ever driven in snow—did we have any tips? Kim gave a spontaneous and colourful lesson half in charades to the reps—and to the rest of the women who poked curious heads out of the door adjacent to us. It was a SNL sketch—questions coming at all angles in rapid Chinese, Kim driving an imaginary 4×4 to demo, pumping an equally imaginary brake pedal.

On our left, we had two jovial Brits—accustomed to Iceland’s unpredictable weather as they had been to the area over a dozen times. Every hour or so, with a ciggie in hand, the Brit wife would pad over with her iPad and a weather report that we would extend to the Hong Kong girls. They had already been storm-stayed two nights, and we resigned ourselves to the same fate. We tried deciphering the local news on TV—we could only guess whether the Icelandic words were indicating Mon-Tues-Wed or wind-temp-snow.  What we were able to translate regarded the sheep. They were already being herded down from the mountains to avoid last year’s disaster when an early blizzard left 12,000 sheep trapped.

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We slept like the dead after a very fancy dinner of canned tuna, butter crackers and a wheel of gouda in bed. By the time I had come back from a crisp suburban run through Egilstaddir in the morning, the Hong Kong convoy had left. Our air traffic controller and the smoking Brit meteorologist said the roads west of us would be clear by noon. Besides, Kim grew up driving up and down the Hamilton mountain—surely this northern pass would be a cinch!

Scene: ochre dirt, bleached grasses, neon green and scarlet lichens

Scene 2: Ansel Adams territory, reindeer tracks in virgin snow, snow-saddled summits reminiscent of our mighty Rockies

Scene 3: snaking gorges, cantering  peg-legged sheep, an impossibly blue sky, Icelandic horses en  masse

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It was my birthday. 39. I’ve been privy to some exceptional far-flung birthdays (Galapagos–Uganda–Alexandria, Egypt)…but spending it in Lake Myvatn? I couldn’t design a better birthday—we found a top-notch bird museum (where you can rent duck blinds for serious duck observation), tromped through the spooky lava fields at Dimmuborgir, poked around bubbling mud pots and smokin’ fumaroles in Hverir (scratch and sniff scent here: egg salad sandwiches), had a solid feed of smoked arctic char on dense rye bread and pints of Kaldi at cozy Gaemil Baernin (the loaves of rye are baked in the geothermal ovens of the ground!), hiked a crater rim that made us both pant from the elevation and capped it off with a geothermal soak just 100km south of the Arctic circle. Oh, and throw in some Northern Lights for good measure.

The lava fields of Dimmuborgir ('the Dark Castles')

The lava fields of Dimmuborgir (‘the Dark Castles’)

Hverfell tephra ring--463m from the ground, 1040m across

Hverfell tephra ring–463m from the ground, 1040m across

Hverir mud cauldrons and steaming geothermals

Hverir mud cauldrons and steaming geothermals

Kim and I made an executive decision to skip the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik—the epicentre of most travellers’ Iceland itineraries. But, take away the obnoxious crowds, visualize a killer sunset and an infinity hot pool overlooking Lake Myvatn and the Hverfjall crater– and you can nod in agreement as to why.

Steam billowed off the surface of the 104 degree waters at Myvatn Nature Baths (geothermal water is pumped from 2,500m below). The steam clouds were so thick that we felt alone—despite the hushed German, Spanish and Chinese conversations surrounding us. We retraced our day with laughter and watched the dropping sun catch the sky on fire.

Home base was with the cows at Vogafjos Guesthouse. Owned by the same family since 1890, the manure-heady air reminded me of childhood. The guesthouse opened in 2005, after the new ‘Cowshed Cafe’ and its picture-window dairy shed received unexpected fanfare in 1999. With over a hundred sheep and 40 cattle, we were truly partying until the cows came home.

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Inside our swank guesthouse I unfolded and highlighted maps. I read bits about the whale museum in Husavik and lake trails in Dalvik aloud to Kim while she rinsed and hung our wet swimsuits. As the sky grew darker I continued to hop up and peer out our window, feeling certain that we’d witness the aurora borealis that night. Amongst the lava on the Vogar farm, there was a desert-like stillness at night. Cue up a solitary loon on Myvatn and that was the only noise pollution to be had.

“COME! LOOK!” I unexpectedly hollered.

Kim followed my lead, both of us stuffing shoes on and running out the door. We had seats to the best drive-in theater going. Milky bands and waves of white and soft emerald rolled across the sky. For fifteen solid minutes we refused to leave our post. Shivering and thrilled, we held strong to watch the Northern Lights as we knew the show would soon be washed out by the rising moon.

But of course, it’s like finding money on the sidewalk. You get obsessive! I couldn’t stop looking out the window, waiting for an encore.

The rest of the night was spent with window-checks. Both of us agreeing that if another show took to the sky during the night that we’d wake the other.

Happy birthday indeed. Round that out with breakfast with the cows. Watching them be milked as we shared plates of skyr (like a thick Balkan yogurt), figs, dates, cashews, big hunks of edam, brie and gouda, smoked lamb and char, split hard-boiled eggs and rye bread studded with dried fruit.

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Oh yeah, a bespoke kick-off to 39.

*Extra tidbit: The bird museum in Lake Myvatn is a lovely tribute to Sigurgeir Stefansson who drowned in the lake at the age of 37. The museum (housed in a traditional turf home with a modern uptake) is Stefannson’s private taxidermy and outstanding egg collection.

Wanna sleep with the cows? Check out Vogafjos www.vogafjos.net ($130/night includes breakfast and sometimes, the Northern Lights)

 

 

Categories: Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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