Surf at Your Own Risk

Rincon, Puerto Rico February 12, 2019

On arrival into Rincon, PR, this small surf town was eagerly anticipating the swell forecast for the following day. Swell Info predicted 5 to 7 feet for Rincon South. I woke the next morning to see some sets breaking overhead at Maria’s with about 30 surfers scattered about the break.

I felt fearful, as I often do, since I probably did not have any business going out there that day, but I’m so sorry Mom and Dad, I did go. I love it too much and I can’t seem to stay away from this intense sport that I fell in love with some eight years ago.

I managed to catch a few waves and I felt so good, and so grateful. Then after lunch I paddled out for a second session. I was alone at that point, but eager to join the lineup at Maria’s. At least that was my plan.

I entered the ocean at the keyhole, which is a small opening in the coral that edged the beach, then paddled out, heading toward Maria’s. I made sure to keep the pistons (an actual shipwreck’s engine pistons which stuck straight up out of the shallow reef), to my far left. I knew how dangerous it would be to get close to them. I was doing fine, or so I thought. The current and the swell in this easier area was much stronger than I anticipated.

I was pushed back toward shore by a strong breaking wave while the current pulled me further left than I realized, and all of a sudden my paddling was pointless. My 9’0” longboard would not move forward toward the lineup. I was suspended, stuck. I knew I couldn’t afford not to be moving forward right now. Waves were coming and I was in the highly precarious impact zone where waves arc up and crash down onto the very shallow coral reef three feet below.

I paused in confusion for a moment, then panic set in as I looked back and saw that the pistons were less than 2 feet behind me. I was literally on top of them, and the reason I could not move forward or get clear of them was because my leash had somehow fully encircled the left piston and was now holding me tight to it. Another wave of panic flooded me when I realized a wave was coming and would definitely smack me straight into both pistons.

IMG_1720I only had a split second to act to prevent a horrible injury. So I reached down to my left ankle and released the velcro of my leash.  Just at that moment the wave came and so I shoved my board to the right to get it clear of the right piston just as I felt the force of water propel me up, over and between the two pistons, toward shore.

I had gotten free. I was now closer to shore, with the pistons safely behind me. So I hucked myself back on my board with the leash dragging loose behind and paddled as fast as I could to cross back through the keyhole and onto the beach. I then raced to wash my coral cuts and catch my breath. I was shaking from my close encounter and feeling awash with shock and gratitude that I had escaped such a close call.

I was in the middle of scrubbing my hand, and hadn’t even gotten to the slice on my back yet, when I suddenly heard a cry from the beach. It sounded either angry or scared. I couldn’t tell which, but either way it sounded serious. So I ran over toward the voice. I saw that it was a surfer bobbing on his short board in the water, very close to shore, yelling “Call 911!!!”

Already at a high level, my adrenaline spiked.  I had friends still out there surfing Maria’s. IMG_1769A guy on the beach called 911 and several others began heading toward the water’s edge. On the horizon we could see a mass far out in the water, moving toward shore. The mass was slowly coming closer to where I was now standing, at the keyhole I’d just used to exit the ocean.

The mass was now close enough to make out. It was a cluster of 7 to 8 male surfers helping to propel a body lying on a surfboard. I whimpered and watched, helplessly as they hoisted this heavy, unconscious male body wearing just a pair of striped swim trunks across the coral threshold of the keyhole.  One of the guys carrying him yelled “who knows CPR?” and a small brave blonde woman jumped up and said “I do!” Then they lay him down in the wet sand. It was such a dire sight to behold. I felt yet another wave of adrenaline.

The woman began chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him, this wet sandy surfer without a name. He had a cut on his forehead and his surfboard lay abandoned nearby on the sand.

A big circle gathered and so many different people worked tirelessly with chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth. All these good Samaritans were hoping and waiting for a sign of life. When white foam spewed from his mouth and also from his nose, I felt a burst of hope. His eyes were slightly parted, gray and sandy. I noticed that his belly rose as the CPR continued and everyone kept taking turns with the chest compressions and the breathing. But this unnamed surfer was still not coming to.

Someone asked for a defibrillator and so I ran like crazy to look for one, but had no luck. My adrenaline was on overdrive now and it was making me run circles, touching the shoulders of this group in support and solidarity as the life-saving efforts continued.

The ambulance finally came, after about 15 minutes, and took him away on a stretcher, breaking up our circle of hope and help. Many of us followed the paramedics to the parking lot of Maria’s Beach, then told the paramedics what we knew and what we had seen.

It was at that point that one guy stood beside me and said his full name. He then told them that he’d been the one to find him, in the dangerous impact zone of Maria’s break, floating facedown still attached to his surfboard with his leash. I had chills. It didn’t explain what actually happened to him, but it somehow gave more clarity.

IMG_1491Then a young woman offered me a hug on the beach and I was so moved by the support of this surfing community, with all that I had witnessed up till now, and then with this hug.

A few hours later, many of us were standing at Calypso Bar overlooking Maria’s beach, where live music played loudly. IMG_1553We heard from a local guy that his name was Poncho, he was from San Juan, and he was a great surfer. And yes, he’d died.

Why? What happened out there? Over the next two days I heard “a paddleboard hit him,” then, simply, “he drowned,” then “he had a brain aneurysm.” All I knew was that this man was gone. And perhaps the most likely scenario was that a surfboard struck him in the head in the mayhem of Maria’s, causing him to lose consciousness and drown.

It was awful. It had also been beautiful to witness how a community had come together to do everything they could do to save this stranger, this fellow surfer.IMG_1426

My tiny coral cuts and near miss at Pistons was a faint blip, put in sharp relief to such a larger tragedy.  And on this big wave day in Rincon, my being prevented from joining that lineup might just have been a blessing.

I surfed for the next several days, with coral living in my hand and constant thoughts of a life taken at sea.IMG_1348

 

Going Out West to Ski: Worth It?

Steamboat Resort, CO February 2019

As I packed up my five bags including a large unwieldy ski bag and a big boot bag, I began to wonder if all this schlepping was worth it. I mean honestly, I have a home in Vermont—why on earth would I travel all the way to Colorado on multiple flights just to ski? It seemed ridiculous to me. The snow can’t be that good, or different. But some incredible friends invited me, and I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to spend time with them, so I went.

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My close friend Robin Azer, who writes for Snowbrains.com, came too, making it that much better, and so she and I arrived at LaGuardia on a cold Super Bowl Sunday morning. We checked our many awkward-sized bags of ski and winter gear before boarding our United.com flight to Denver.

Robin is a true gung-ho skier, and I found her knowledge and excitement about all things skiing to be infectious.IMG_0839I may be a lifelong skier, but at this point in the trip I’m doing my fair share of whining, resisting and still wondering why I am enduring all this hassle. But nonetheless, we head west to the Rocky Mountains.

We transfer in Denver to board a small plane to Hayden, the airport that services Steamboat Springs. Once we are ensconced in our tiny window seat spaces the captain comes onto the loudspeaker saying “Good morning folks, the conditions at Hayden are white out with less than 1 mile visibility, so I’m going to have to run the numbers before making my decision.” I start to think of plan B, which I run by a lovely woman named Sue, sitting beside me, since she’s been a Steamboat resident for 26 years.

“We can rent a car and drive,” I say. But her response is “let me share my story about driving the pass with you.” And so she goes on to tell me her harrowing tale of a near death experience in a white out storm years ago. So there goes plan B.

We are stuck. I feel anxious and helpless as the captain runs the numbers. He finally comes back on the intercom 15 minutes later saying, “Well folks, looks like there’s been a dramatic change in the weather and Hayden is now sunny and clear with plenty of visibility, so we will be taking off shortly.”

The planeful of passengers lets out a collective sigh of both disbelief and relief. Mountain weather is so fleeting, severe and unpredictable. And so we take off on our 28-minute flight. I watch out the window as the gray clouds part, giving way to jagged mountain peaks and brilliant sunshine. We land into our airplane’s shadow enlarging across a shimmering white blanket of snow.IMG_0679The GoAlpine shuttle that Robin had smartly reserved is there to collect us and all our gear. We board it with about ten other passengers, and greatly enjoy the driver’s cheery disposition as well as free coupons and advice about the area during our scenic 30-minute drive to Steamboat. The shuttle drops us off at Wyndam Vacation Resorts Steamboat Springs.

The awesome concierge who greets us gives us more après ideas. And just as we are orienting ourselves, my dear friends Ben, Jake and Kristin arrive after flying from Boston to Denver and then braving the pass in a rental car. All five of us then settle into a beautiful three bedroom space on the top floor of Building 5, just four minutes from the base, with options of a free shuttle or gondola to get there. There was a hot tub outside beside the building, and it suited us all perfectly.

Being loyal Patriots fans, finding a spot to watch the game was key. So we went to the very lively Slopeside bar over at the base. It had a friendly crowd, but we found it way too noisy to focus on the game. So we settled in at our new Wyndam home instead, to cheer the Patriots on to victory. We got to sleep early that night, in anticipation of our first day on the slopes.

Day 2 was our first day of skiing and snowboarding. The highlights of the day included Taco Beast for lunch where we ate delicious tacos served straight out of a snowcat, without having to leave the trail. We spent the day skiing and boarding in the wide open trails and tucking into some gladed terrain, finding pretty good conditions. But I still wasn’t sure this was that much different from what Stratton, VT offered. I wasn’t convinced this was worth all the effort it took to get here from New York.

But I loved the crew of fun-loving souls I was with so much, all so full of positive energy and a zest for life that any would envy. IMG_0825This hardy group had enough camaraderie to make a trip to the supermarket a fantastic time.

At the end of the day, we braved a half hour drive and rough roads in 4-wheel drive to reach the highly touted Strawberry Park Hot Springs at dusk. It was worth it though, to sit in the middle of the woods on such a cold night—under a sky full of stars—soaking in a natural mineral spring of 104 degree water. IMG_0757

Day 3 was a powder day. And a shift began in how I felt about this place. The trails began to feel more like smooth powdery snow slides, as we swish-swashed down their silky, fluffy buttery wonderfulness. And it felt more like floating than skiing. I felt weightless and all our smiles seemed to get bigger with each run.  Robin was excitedly saying “fresh pow”, “playful” and “flow rides” a lot, and my resolve to not be too impressed with this place began to thaw.

The lifties wore cowboy hats and cool outfits, with matching attitudes. It felt to me like they all knew something I didn’t, and I began to think I might want to find out what that was.

Then a local guy, who worked for Wyndam, and who we were skiing with, said “watch this,” as he held up a handful of granola up high. A bird instantly flew straight out of the woods to land in his hand. It was so unexpected and fun to see wildlife acting so tame and predictable.

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As we rode, our group got more rowdy from the adrenaline, as we jostled with each other on every chairlift ride and gondola ascent. At the end of Day 3, I felt like my legs were made of jello, and the altitude helped to make the Happy Hour margaritas in town at Salt and Lime go straight to my head. The tacos were inexpensive and delicious and we hit up a local dispensary afterwards, just because we could. But the chocolate shop—Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory was the bigger hit in my book.

Day 4 brought us even more powder and that took us into the trees. We spent the entire day skiing gladed trails that were often very steep. The powder was deep and the woods felt like a giant playground. I woo-hooed a lot and definitely felt fear, but the thrill was greater. We had a Denver local with us this time, a cousin of Ben’s, who guided us well into every gorgeous trail like Shadows, Closets, Triangle 3, the Fletcher Glades, Biscuits, Gravy and Christmas Tree Bowl. We decided to lap it on Morningside lift until our legs gave out and so we stopped at the insanely delicious Four Points Lodge for lunch.

But other than that short break, we could not stop chasing the high of feeling our skis turn and land between each aspen and pine in such deep pillow pockets of champagne powder. The experience had us all giddy with exhilaration and breathing heavy from high altitude exhaustion. We often watched in awe as Jake sent it off jumps like a pro everywhere he could find them.

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One of us, dear Erin, IMG_1284sadly lost a cell phone in all that powder between the trees, but the high we were all on made it almost a non-event.

We hit the beloved TBar for aprèsIMG_1097 and reveled in the warmth, solidarity and post ski day story-telling of that established, intimate slope-side space.IMG_1117

Day 5 brought more powder and so we took our tired legs into the trees, yet again, where we got lost…and then found. And I finally understood the joke, during a catch-your-breath moment in a small clearing in the middle of The Gulley (a glazed trail marked “Double Diamond-Ex” meaning experts only, not kidding). Colorado is worth it. And Steamboat is a magical spot full of such beautiful secrets and special places.

We ascended in the gondola at the end of our last ski day, racing to rise above the red orange glow of sunset that lit up the Colorado Rockies.

When we got to the top, we reveled in a purple and pink glow while the local happy hour crowd danced to live music. IMG_1202We then rode the gondola back down in thrilling darkness, under a sliver of new moon and twinkling lights the Steamboat Base area below.

Winter Carnival had begun, and so we stumbled into fun snow sculptures in the quaint cowboy downtown later that night as we explored a bit of nightlife.

On Day 6 we departed, with such profound gratitude for the sunny skies, those powder-filled days of tree-skiing, and the overall high of Steamboat Ski ResortIMG_0935

 

“Family-mooning” in the Tahitian Overwater Bungalow

 

Ah, the exotic South Pacific, it brings out the dreamy romantic in everyone.  And so, after years of talk and dreaming—not to mention a full year of planning—we went. And no, it was not our honeymoon or an anniversary. We went with our children—yes, our teenage children.

Armed with fuzzy memories of the 1980’s film Blue Lagoon, along with songs from the more recent Moana, we headed to Tahiti. And to be honest, I’m not sure many other trips could have lured our college and high school kids to spend nearly three weeks with “just us.” It actually reminded me of the many Disney trips from long ago, when destination was driven by their preschool pleas. But this time they didn’t want Buzz Lightyear or Ariel, they wanted overwater bungalows, just like Kim Khardashian. Thanks social media, and Kim.

And since summers have become more about internship opportunities than family bonding, Christmas break was the only chance to go. So, although the best weather in French Polynesia is actually in June, July and August with less heat, humidity and rain, we took our chances and landed in Tahiti in full rainy season.

If you are contemplating taking a family trip to this part of the world and want to know if it is worth going, our answer is a resounding yes. To stand amid all that natural beauty is as breathtaking and exhilarating as you think it will be. Actually more so. And it is most definitely worth the expense, long haul, and jet lag (which was surprisingly minor.)

Of course we endured family fights and teenage drama, who doesn’t? But when you are in such a stunning part of the world, the sulking is softened by picturesque coastlines, paddle boarding and fresh fish every night.

And if you do retaliate, it might just mean tossing someone’s book out a bungalow into the glistening green water below. This may have happened…OK, it did happen. The point is that this tropical paradise of volcanic origin is just too gorgeous to let spoilsports win out for long.

We began this family vacation by flying from JFK to LAX on Jet Blue, then hopping onto an 8 hour Air France flight to Papeete, Tahiti, which is the gateway to the Society Islands. We chose hotels for their overwater bungalow experience,

but many we met along the way were quite content with their cruises, such as Windstar and Paul Gaugin. A seven or ten day cruise to Tahiti and the society islands, paired with a week exploring New Zealand would be a perfect plan for next time.

Upon arrival, the immense heat and humidity set us into a slow motion while calm enveloped us in the form of Tahitian smiles, relaxed attitudes, and fragrant welcoming leis working their magic at just-below-nose level. Time felt more precious, and our heartbeats found a new rhythm, one set to the pounding Pacific surf. img_3896

We were whisked from the airport in an SUV, amidst a frenzy of ‘la ora na’s (hello) and maururu’s (thank you), bound for the remote and lush Tahiti Iti, where our rustic hotel, the Vanira lodge, felt more like a tree house. It had sweeping ocean views and a relaxed atmosphere of open-air thatched huts. And no matter where you were on the property, from hammock to restaurant to outdoor shower, you could train your eyes on the waves crashing on the outer reef in the distance.

First things first, the heat was oppressive, so we shed clothing and searched for sunscreen. We plowed through our luggage for converter plugs and bikinis, as endearing geckos scampered along rock walls, adorned with pungent greenery. It was all so intoxicating, but I held on to my reason for being here—to see the infamous Teahupo’o wave up close—even if my enthusiasm was unmatched.

The hot moist air made us lazy so gazing off into the ocean horizon from the hammock became a thing, and so did crawling into the pool, lazily trying to decipher the French being spoken by the staff and other hotel guests. The outdoor shower was a standout with its extraordinary water views.

We then climbed into a pick up truck with a local guide, all three kids in the flat bed, hanging on tight and then laughing in the sudden rain. We piled aboard a simple motorboat in the marina, taking in the stunning shoreline and glimmering shades of blue in the lagoon, as we headed toward the reef. The breeze was a blessing and I honestly hadn’t expected to get this close, pulling up right beside the Teahupo’o break.

The force of so much water approaching such a shallow reef created such a glorious wave. To see its curling shape and power, feel the mist and sense that exhilaration—that was why we’d come. It was so beautiful, and so extremely wild and perfect. I could have stayed right in that spot for days. But we pulled away, and motored over instead to a sandbar in the lagoon where we could all jump in and swim our first of many swims in salty sweet surrender.

We reluctantly returned to Tahiti, staying at the Inter-Continetal Hotel, which lies a mere five minutes from Papeete airport, and boasts prime sunset viewing over the Sea of Moons and volcanic peaks of Moorea.

 

While in Tahiti I found the surfing with Tamahee Surf School was fantastic at Mahina’s Orofara break, with a sandy bottom and big warm waves.

The next day we flew to Bora Bora, which came from Tahitian word Pora Pora, meaning first born, indicating it may have been the mort important island after Ra’iatea. But to us, it felt like landing in Oz, with such mind-blowing exquisite colors, especially after the crowded, hot, free for all nature of the island airports. We all stood like wide-eyed five year olds at Disney, in full wonder, awe and amazement at the beauty before us.

We were silenced by the vibrant colors all around us and the natural beauty of Mount Otemanu, sticking out up out of the sea like a hitchhikers thumb, surrounded by a lagoon comprised of every shade of blue imaginable, and some I was sure didn’t even exist. It felt like work to turn my gaze away from this majestic mountain majesty.

In bleating heat, we soared across the pale green lagoon in the shuttle boat from the airport to reach our home for the next 5 nights—The St. Regis, Bora Bora. The balmy sea breeze kept us breathing, while the turquoise water kept us riveted to our spots.

As we disembarked, we were greeted with the most heartfelt smile from our own personal butler, the exuberant and efficacious Scott Shen.

This young guy was an amazing human who managed to make each of us feel like royalty. He whisked us around the extensive hotel grounds by golf cart–

and seemed to have no one else to care for but us (not true) and nothing else he’d rather do (also not true). The illusion was perfect though, and we all adored him and felt so grateful for his presence, constant attention and almost eerie anticipation of our needs.img_5601While there, we packed each day with activities into each day, like snorkeling in the lagoonarium, paddle board racing against other hotel guests, sailing, kayaking and riding bikes.

But we also lounged a lot in a hammock strung up between driftwood poles in the lagoon, feeling as if we’d climbed right into a travel magazine spread.

At night, we dined on French cuisine at Lagoon by Jean-Georges,img_5875as sharks swam beneath glass just below our feet.

We spent plenty of time—including Christmas Day—enjoying our overwater villa’s front row seat to all that marine life, complete with a large suspended infinity pool and drop dead view of Mount Otemanu.

Soaking in that view each morning while drinking coffee then jumping into the sea was a truly unreal way to start each day.

It was the perfect paradise perch, complete with glass panels in the floor so that you could watch the fish below, even while in the bathroom!img_5380We also did down dogs alongside celebrities, jet skied around the entire island,

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performed in a Polynesian dance show,img_6496and had massages in the spa (backdrop for the movie Couples Retreat).

We bonded with marine life by helping heal sea turtles for a day at Le Meridien Turtle Center,

then swimming with lemon sharks, sting rays and moray eels.

We channeled mana while eating more coconuts, pineapples and vanilla bean than we knew we could, while giving in often to the urge to buy local black pearls.

The view somehow kept getting better with each sunrise and sunset, while relaxation and Instagram photo ops were endless. We got better and better at throwing our bodies off the deck into the warm sea, in surrender and celebration.

One morning while swimming in front of the villa, I was followed by a pair of sting rays and got nervous. img_6550But it quickly turned to jealousy, as I wished for gills so I could stay down there and glide permanently around with them in all that silent pale green glory.

Another time I lost my goggles and within minutes a hotel jet ski arrived, thanks to Scott Shen of course, in a futile search for them, proving the Kardashian-level of pampering at this resort.

Needless to say, when we had to leave the St. Regis, after five nights of such royal treatment, there were many tears, as we said farewell to Scott Shen. He waved to us non-stop until our boat was out of sight. We felt like we were saying goodbye to family.

We took the quick Air Tahiti Nui flight to Raiatea img_7978where we boarded a 40-foot motorboat to explore both a vanilla plantation and a black pearl farm on nearby Taha’a—known as the “vanilla island.”

We spent that night at Opoa Beach resort in Raiatea in side-by-side open-air cottages beside a deep blue lagoon fringed with layers of turquoise and seafoam green on the distant horizon.

The bright white porches and hammocks at Opoa allowed for some amazing decompression time. I will always remember reading in that hammock, glancing up at the lush motu wedged within a triangle of sand, sea and palms, a salty sea breeze cooling my skin to the perfect temperature.

To avoid stepping upon the life-threatening stone fish (Brooke Shields, Blue Lagoon), we are told to protect our feet when snorkeling. The ride in a small skiff out to Bird Island was breathtaking, as we spotted sting rays, fish and mesmerizing coral gardens.

We then headed by boat to the super remote and tranquil overwater bungalows at Le Taha’a Island Resort, a Relais & Chateau. It’s set on a small island near the main island of Taha’a, where coral gardens were out of this world. We snorkeled through the labyrinth, with a strong current guiding us, while we fought to not let it push us straight into the reef.

It was also a paddle boarding paradise, where rainbows shot from sky to sea img_7815img_8762So connected to the sea were we, as we swam blissfully in shallow green lagoons with baby black fin sharks. To the west, lay  the perfect view of Bora Bora, while the lush tranquility of Taha’a sat to our East.

And after two days of Taha’a calm, we made the very long journey to Moorea via boat, plane, car, and ferry. We settled into the Hilton to celebrate New Year’s Eve in overwater bungalows, set in a shallow lagoon between Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay.

Some highlights in Moorea were our dinner of champagne and parrotfish at Moorea Beach Café

and our waterfall hike with VIP tours, rich with island history, fresh fruit, and flora and fauna lessons.

 

We especially loved our ATV ride on our last day, which left us on such a high, wild-eyed from the adventure of ascending to Magic Mountain peak. We’d covered a lot of ground from the center of the crater that birthed Moorea through pineapple fields, up to dizzying heights and the usual pitstop for fresh pineapple and fell in love with soursop ice cream.

 

We had also hit our stride in Moorea in the overwater bungalows, swimming and exploring the coral gardens of the lagoon with even more bravado, like little Mermaids.img_3104

 

One crazy moment while I was far out by the barrier reef, a manta ray just slid beneath my board as I hovered a few inches above the coral. I caught my breath and swallowed all those glorious shades of blue and green like they were delicious dessert flavors. img_9104Sinking into that salty, buoyant, and buttery smooth blue-green water each morning was such a natural therapeutic tonic. I actually whimpered as I climbed back up the wooden ladder to the bungalow for the very last time, realizing that life would now have to resume, without this water in it.

 

But we did leave, wishing we could somehow pack up that night sky of stars and Milky Way like a blanket and stuff it into our bag. img_4909We rode the ferry back to Tahiti to spend our last night at the Intercontinental Hotel in Papeete, then flew back to LAX on a 7 hour Air France flight. We topped the trip off with a whirlwind weekend in LA, staying at Casa Del Mar to look at a few colleges and connect with family and friends before our final leg home to JFK.

Landing in New York, after three weeks of warmth and salty seas, we were assaulted by windchill and leaden skies as our Tahitian skin shed off us in thin sheets, rebelling against the dry air. I held my breath and shut my eyes, trying hard to hold on to my imaginary gills and pale green underwater memories.

 

In Love with Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma)

 

 

You often hear people say “we live on the lake”. But by on it, we mean on the edge of it, on terra firma, and in America that probably means a house with running water and electricity and a pretty view. Well, in Inle Lake, living on the lake has a whole new meaning. And for those who have read about it, I can personally attest that the descriptions just don’t do justice to this incredible part of the world. The United Nations added Inle lake to its World Network Biosphere Reserves in 2015, the first biosphere reserve to be added for Myanmar.

We were lucky enough to get a first hand glimpse into this 45 square mile freshwater lake set up high in the mountains, at an elevation of 2,900 feet. It is the second largest lake in Myanmar and ranges from 7 feet deep during the dry season to as deep as 17 feet during the rainy season.

Most of the 70,000 Intha people who call Inle Lake their home are devout Buddhists and self-sufficient farmers. The floating farms and gardens they have created are breathtaking. And according to Wikipedia, it has been designated a Ramsar site since 2018, meaning it is a wetland area worthy of international importance in terms of conservation and protection.

And that is all wonderful, but as I move within the peaceful waterways of this civilization by long wooden boat, words like impossible and ingenious come to my mind.

As visitors, we can’t help but fall a little in love as we marvel at the quiet sense of simple certainty and serene being of the Burmese people. Each productive Intha soul, complete with stoic smile, flip flops and a traditional longyi, further enhance our admiration of this kind, beautiful, and hard-working culture.

 

Our little group absorbs this new take on lake living with our mouths agape. We are speechless at the sight of a whole community perched up high, listing on stilts and growing entire farms hydroponically, tended to by wooden boats. These gardens rise and fall with changes to the water level, which means they are resistant to flooding and yet constantly benefit from such optimal access to the water.

These boats are usually made out of teak and held together with handmade wooden dowels and cat tails mixed together with a type of tar, one that is both flexible and waterproof. And they are an essential part of living, as each home is reachable only by boat, hoisted above the black lake dotted with clumps of water hyacinth and lotus flowers. The magnificent lake reflects so perfectly, gloriously disorienting us, as we search for the true sky.

 

For a while, I imagine myself into this life, as I gently climb onto precarious wooden planks of primitive walkways and gently cross bridges to reach homes of bamboo thatched walls and windows and tin rooves. I slide out of flip flops at the threshold as I enter. I’m grateful it’s warm, as it can get quite cold here at certain times of the year.  And I’m happy that the lake level is not too high and flooding everything, nor too low, threatening the floating market.

IMG_1779To make a living I can see spending my days, my years, operating a loom. The loom has strings, bamboo pedals and a hanging bucket of river rocks to help power it, as my shuttle quickly passes across the warp and weft. Life is hard, raw, straightforward. The complex pattern I use helps me weave a colorful traditional longyi, using threads of silk and lotus. The pay is nominal, the work is hard but my complaining is non-existent. Buddhist beliefs drive my quiet acceptance and surrendering stance. I don’t know any differently.

 

I smile and my mouth is red from the betel nut I’ve been chewing for years. My teeth are broken or missing. My gums are not healthy, but my smile is still joyful. My face is painted with layers of thanaka today, as it is every day, for both sun protection and to enhance my beauty. The special paste is made in my home each day, by rubbing tree bark on a small circular stone and mixing it with water.

My longyi is a little dusty from sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor where I eat my htamin jin from a tiffin box for lunch every day with the other workers. It has MSG in it. I also love fried crickets. Dogs roam free around the small space that constitutes our weaving factory, appearing to carry the same devout acceptance of their fate. This is life lived in Inle Lake.

 

Then I come back to reality and remember I am here merely as part of a small group of visiting foreigners. So the sturdy wooden boats that we ride in, which are usually filled with about 15-20 passengers, are just for five of us, plus the driver.

 

He sits or stands in the stern, operating the outboard motor. It is simple and does not have much of a muffler, but is ingeniously designed to operate in what appears to me to be a mere 6 inches of water at times. The put-put-put noise of the various engines on the lake become hypnotic, lulling us all into silence.

 

Water hyacinth, bamboo, lotus, palm trees and teak trees are ubiquitous here. The lake air that rests between these mountains is so fresh and clean and the clouds have never been more white, the sky never more blue. And the freshwater lake is a black mirror, serving to duplicate each night’s spectacular sunset.

 

At night the stars are more than I’ve ever seen, and when the sun comes up lush green, misty mountain folds appear and flank the lake.

 

I spy a bird, black and motionless, drying its wings while perched on a lake rock and behind that a fisherman squats alone in the stern of his long wooden boat. He is wearing a conical straw hat and the traditional longyi and holding his oar up high for a split second before pounding it down with gravity and might onto the solid dark water. The splash seems like the only sound that has ever been. The ripples seem endless. This is fishing.

 

Then he stands and wraps his leg around the oar to row the boat forward, leaving his two hands free to work the net. I’m spellbound at the artistry of it. The sight of him standing on the stern of the boat is so breathtakingly beautiful and impossible, defying gravity and physics. And yet there he stands, with a lifetime of practice, casually and with confidence, like a surfer perched on a wave with all ten toes wrapped over the nose of his board.IMG_2173

In this early morning pink light with such pungent stillness and vibrant greens against blackest blacks, I’m transfixed.  This is not what I thought Myanmar could ever be, but here it is, in all its delicate majesty- a space on this earth that I’m so grateful to have witnessed and experienced, if only briefly. I cannot recommend it more.

 

Re-Entering Yangon, Myanmar

IMG_9969What does travel to the controversial destination of Myanmar (or Burma, as some still affectionately call it) mean today as a US citizen? It means getting a raised eyebrow from the Verizon Wireless salesman when you ask if your travel pass will work, as he fidgets saying, “um, well that country’s not supported.” It means signing on with a well-established tour company. It means getting a visa far ahead of time. It means loading up on cow colostrum. It means getting a flu shot. And it means landing in at least one other country (ours was Singapore) before reaching Yangon.IMG_9946

And for me personally, it means walking out of a Singapore Airlines flight this morning to the same musty smell and moist heat that I experienced on my last trip here to Yangon (Rangoon) back in May 1997 as a newlywed with my husband Rob. A lot has certainly changed since then. It was so much more deserted and empty back then, and Aung San Suu Kyi was still under a form of house arrest, a mere 6 years after earning her Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a defender of human rights here in Yangon, in response to military brutality. Today she is State Counsellor (similar to being Prime Minister) of Myanmar.

During my college days (1987-1991) I was tangentially involved with Amnesty International and her struggle was paramount back then.  She was a Gandhi, a Joan of Arc, an Evita, a champion of doing the right thing in the face of so much wrong. She personified human rights to college-age me.

Now, I stand as a mom of three, as they stamp my visa and passport and allow me into this country once again. My parents and I are warmly greeted by a man in a long skirt who smiles and thanks us for coming to visit his country. His gratitude has an urgency to it as he gushes,  “It is so important to have visitors now, especially now, your visit means so much for our country.” He is referring to the recent military events that have happened up north and how that has so negatively affected tourism to this country.

But we are here, my eager and adventurous parents and I, to explore this country that has suffered so much under such a corrupt government. Our guide proclaims, “we are better now, we are the 13thmost corrupt government. For a long time we were 2nd, behind Somalia,” he pipes up optimistically, smiling his biggest smile. I try to echo his optimism as I let his statistics sink in.

I change the topic and inquire about the yellow paste I spy on so many Burmese faces out the van window and am quickly told it’s Thanaka. We are then given a lesson in how to apply it while we are checking into our hotel, as we sip ginger concoctions through lemongrass straws and settle into the intimate allure of this space along with the smell of wafting incense. Our other guide rolls the bark onto a smooth stone and she adds a little water to create a paste. IMG_9958I find it calming and clever and realize that this is a lot like what I used to do when I was 8 years old playing pretend in the backyard, crushing stones with Krista Jones and applying the powder like it was make up. The bark is a natural sunscreen and also a skin smoother. Later on at Scott market I can’t resist buying a container of the stuff for a dollar.

We settle into our lavish teak bedrooms complete with mosquito netting adorned beds, IMG_9979then manage foot sugar scrubs and a swim before sauntering off to Bogkok Aung San Market, (aka Scott market) to hunt for jade and gold, clothing, fabrics and purses. The prices are extremely low and we buy a a few items. But my real focus is on the pink dresses and shaved heads of the young nuns who seem to be everywhere in the market. IMG_9998The youngest girl looks to be about 4 years old. I give them as much kyat (Burmese currency) as I have in my purse.

We finally birth our way out of the market, all the more sweatier for it, IMG_0007and head to The Strand Hotel. It has been 21 years and I wanted to see if it had changed since our stay there just after it’s first restoration in the 90’s. (Coincidentally it just underwent yet another facelift in 2016 and is now even more polished, and has a pool and is much busier, that’s for sure.)

Then we head back to the sanctuary of our hotel, the Belmond Governor’s Residence located in the quiet tree-lined embassy section of Yangon to nap. Boy my parents have a lot of energy! We are lulled to sleep by the jasmine and sandalwood scented serenity that this hotel provides.

When we wake, we watch a movie about Ang San Suu Kyi entitled “The Lady.” I cry three times at such stoic bravery and selfless choices made for her country.

Afterwards, we dine alfresco in the soothingly warm, still, humid night air on a teak porch surrounded by floating lotus flowers and small shimmering green ceramic tiles which line the pool’s shallow floor. IMG_0023It could be 1921. Nothing except our cell phones tell us otherwise.

It’s the end of our first day in Buddhist Burma, and it’s also Halloween 2018. And I realize that the only costumes I saw today were real ones, small, pink and dusty. And worn every single day…and not necessarily by choice. 🇲🇲IMG_9985

Visiting Cuba Safely, as an American in 2018

The somber, quieter Havana that I experienced on a pre-normalized U.S. relations trip in April 2013 with my parents is now a louder, more robust one. Construction cranes hover high above halfway-built hotels in Old Havana, in large part thanks to the thaw in diplomatic relations furthered by Obama in July 2015. IMG_2550Meanwhile trucks and handcarts compete for space along narrow roads. Russian LADAs from the 1980’s mix in to the scene with mint-condition classic American cars from the 1950’s, all shiny and colorful.

This time instead of paying homage to our family history here, I brought our daughter Emily, a sophomore at Boston College, to show her how truly safe and stunning it can be to explore Havana.

 And thankfully Emily fell in love, as I already had, with this tarnished gem full of architecture frozen in time, whispering what once was and beckons at what could be again. Possibility is written across the facade of every magnificent crumbling building.

Cuba, as I hoped Emily could see, is a living, breathing lesson of communism and socialism, a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida. “But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” as Hemingway once wrote. The Cuban people have been through so much oppression and destruction, but what we saw in their eyes and from their lips on our visit was far from defeat.

And although not admitting failure, the government of this Caribbean island nation under communist rule is clearly recognizing the value of tourism, and relaxing its grip on the country. But yes, I could still feel the socialist stranglehold in places that hurt my spoiled American self, like the scratch-off government issued WiFi cards that we had to buy to get a fleetingly precious hour of connectivity in our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Mercure Sevilla in the heart of Old Havana, just down the street from the Capitol.

This afforded us the chance to throw open our giant corner room windows each morning (what building codes?) to take in the sights and sounds of this charming neighborhood. There were birds chirping in the trees along Paseo del Prado (picture Barcelona’s Las Ramblas), red-uniformed children laughing and playing, ballerinas pirouetting between wide open yellow windows of the famous National Ballet school next door and salsa dancing captivated us from across the way.

As we drank our morning cortado, I felt a bit high from the exhaust rising up from the street resembling a classic car parade (what emissions inspections?). It’s certainly less claustrophobic and more “cowboy” here, and it reminded me of the freedom and possibility I felt when I lived as an expat in Saigon in the 1990’s. I was also reminded that the loneliness of being a foreigner can be mitigated by open-air buildings and welcoming neighborhoods.

So yes, our location was ideal, and so inviting—with balmy rustling palms, a lively band and wafting cigar smoke encircling dancers in the open-air salmon-colored courtyard.

It felt as if Hemingway himself would round the corner at the bar, with a mojito in hand. He had indeed stayed here, many years ago. But with all that said, Cuba still has rough around its edges—our toilet backed up each day, the beds had no blankets, the elevator broke down (yes, while we were in it), and the smell of mold and mildew overpowered us each time we approached our door.

But we took it all in stride. Safe? Yes, we felt safe here. And our U.S. Embassy was open, albeit minimally staffed. I felt like I’d entered a small town that took their time with everything and everyone. There was always a long wait at the front desk, but only because the receptionist staff was taking their time with each individual. They seemed to know how to relax, even while working.

The hotel maids were the same way, lounging around the hallways chatting and smiling. Then we’d walk into our room to find that that they had not only left it spotless, but had turned our bathroom towels into insanely ornate animals with long hand-written notes wishing us a great day.

I wanted to find the secret, to learn from them, from each person we met. I might be an uptight, impatient American but I too could learn how to relax and be cool, be Cuban. Perhaps this was what Hemingway was after too, to be in on all this Cuban coolness and to find the ability to simply relax and enjoy life as they do. Perhaps this is why my great-grandfather was lured here in the 40’s to open up his nightclub at 1 Bernaza Street, a few doors down from La Floridita.

I wish our governments could finally relax and trust, the way Emily and I did on this trip.

And as American tourists, we felt compelled to visit the requisite sights: cabaret show at the Tropicana,

canon-firing ceremony at night atop the old Spanish fortress, sitting with Hemingway’s statue at La Floridita, IMG_8830the fascinating Gaudi-like Fusterlandia,

“the happy son of Sugarcane,” tour at Havana Club Rum factory,

standing in Revolution Square staring up at the image of their beloved Che,

taking in the Gulf of Mexico vista from the Malecon,

Plaza Vieja, Cathedral Square, seeing chicken sacrifices in the Havana Forest along the Almendares River, IMG_2443San Franciso de Asis Square, Obispo street, Hotel Nacional,

and Hemingway’s “Finca Vigia” (lookout house).

In between sights, we ate long leisurely meals with mojitos at local paladares (private restaurants) and also in a few government restaurants, to learn the difference.

The garden on the rooftop of one paladar in particular, showcased Cuban ingenuity and resourcefulness with greenery growing beautifully out of old toilets, bathtubs, and sinks.

IMG_1459

We also noticed are so many more European and Canadian tourists, thanks in large part to European cruise ships in port. Havana, especially Old Havana, is being slowly refurbished, but that bump in investment that occurred since Obama’s 2015 relaxation of the ban has been scaled back since Trump’s hardline speech in mid-2017. Living conditions are still extremely difficult, and so much of the breathtaking Spanish-colonial architecture is literally disintegrating, having had almost no upkeep since the revolution of 1959.

We had a truly magnificent dining experience with a wonderful fellow AirBnB traveler from Nevada at La Guarida, the best paladar in Havana. We dined on rabbit and mojito, at this remote mansion where Jack Nicholson and countless other celebrities had dined before us.

Midway through our meal, some Americans from California smiled toward us from the neighboring table, reveling in our mutual good fortune at being here in Havana, happy, safe and supporting the Cuban people, in spite of the recent cooling of diplomatic relations.

But the best moments of the trip by far were those spent walking along the pastel-colored streets of Havana with Emily, day and night, feeling cradled in that delicious small-town sensation.

One night we walked down to the Malecon seawall at sunset, where we were immediately enveloped by musicians and fishermen. It felt like we were part of one big happy block party full of Spanish guitars and African drums.

We also took advantage of a few AirBnB experiences. During one of them we spent an afternoon with Josue, who charmed us with his cowboy hat and story of his family’s 1954 Chevy, affectionately called Marilyn.

The vintage cherry red convertible was his grandfather’s, who had named it after Marilyn Monroe. Apparently Josue’s grandparents used to argue a lot over how much time his grandfather spent polishing the car each night in hopes that when Marilyn Monroe arrived to Cuba, she would come take a ride in it. As the story goes, one night his grandmother got so fed up that he wouldn’t come in for dinner (because he was too busy polishing Marilyn) that she locked the door and made him sleep in the car overnight.

Our favorite moment with Josue was our heart to heart conversation over coffee at Café Fortuna in Miramar about his family, his love for Cuba and it’s nightlife. He sold us on La Fábrica de Arte Cubano (La Fabrica, for short), housed in an old cooking oil factory in Vedado since 2014. A close second was our drive with him along the Melecon at sunset, with Hotel California playing on the radio (and cool winds in our hair).

Seeing Havana through Josue’s eyes while listening to his open and honest love of his family and his country was priceless. He has never left Cuba, and has no interest in doing so. That was food for thought.

We also loved it when he drove us up to Morro Castle, where we felt the influence of 400 years of Spanish colonialism most profoundly. He showed us the precarious cliff (not a guardrail in sight, mind you) that held so many wonderful memories from his youth (and drop dead views of Havana and the Gulf of Mexico too).

IMG_8886Then we stood beside El Cristo de Havana, which is a large statue of Christ overlooking Havana (think Christ the Redeemer in Rio) before we saw La Cabana de Che Guevara.

The nearby statue of hand-holding, symbolizes, according to Josue, how Cuban people only have each other to hold on to in the face of hardship.IMG_2389

And yes, with so much taken away under the Castro dictatorship, all they had was each other to depend on. The same is true of all the devastating hurricanes this island has had to endure. And now with the growing influx of tourists, I hope that they continue to lean on each other and appreciate the power and the gift of their small community.

Emily truly impressed me with her poise, as she keenly navigated our way along the picturesque streets of Old Havana.

As we explored different neighborhoods, we could feel that strong sense of community and it was so comforting. We felt such genuine kindness and helpful attitudes in every Cuban we met. And I now realize, that is the thing that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s the feeling that the guidebooks don’t tell you or can’t quite explain. The whole town feels a bit like a family reunion, with the same kind, helpful faces popping up at every turn.

Even with over 2 million residents, we kept running into the same people all over the city. And that small town feeling was better than all the rum, coffee, cigars and sights put together.

I hope that no matter what the future holds for Cuba, especially in this ever-increasing climate of tourism, that they can retain their powerful sense of community. It is what gives them strength and protection in the face of oppression and natural disasters.

Jet Blue took us back to JFK, on International Women’s Day, where we touched down between Nor’easters, in the land of snow and cold,

bringing back only our warm memories of Havana, our slightly better Spanish, rum, cigars, coffee and yes, a much greater love for Cuba and it’s people.

To ensure that your tourist dollars are being directed toward the Cuban people, not their government, please follow these tips when you are ready to book your trip:

  1. Buy a ticket on Jet Blue out of JFK, it’s direct and inexpensive, but be prepared for a long wait at the “CUBA Help Desk” thanks to current diplomatic relations.
  2. When prompted, select “Support for the Cuban People” when making your reservation.
  3. Use AirBnB to book a room or apartment (I prefer superhosts.)
  4. When you get to Cuba make sure to eat in paladars (they are better than government restaurants)
  5. Bring cash to cover your stay since U.S. credit and debit cards are not accepted in Cuba.
  6. Buy handicrafts from self-employed shopkeepers.
  7. Get to know the difference between Cuban Peso Convertibles and Cuban Pesos. To get an authentic (and far less expensive) experience, look to the shops that sell things to the locals in pesos, not convertibles.IMG_2646
  8. And if you decide to hire a guide, do so privately (one option is: Enrique Nunez: iroko011@gmail.com/ cell: 535-391-3768

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Transportation: I like Jet Blue if you are coming from Florida or New York.

Hotels: Hotel Mercure Sevilla, Hotel Nacional, AirBnB’s, Ambos Mundos (especially the top floor), Hotel Inglaterre.

Attractions/sightseeing: Tropicana, Havana Club Museum of Rum tour, Revolution Square, Old square, Cathedral square, San Francisco de Asis Square, La Bodeguita del Medio, La Floridita, Hemingway’s house, Fusterlandia, Callejon de Hamel sociocultural project,

Morro Castle and Cristo de la Habana (Christ of Havana).

Restaurants & Bars: La Moneda Cubana (rooftop Paladar), 12 Apostles, La Guarida, Paladar Café Laurent , El Rum Rum de la Habana on calle Empedrado, La Flauta Magica, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and the fairly empty American Embassy.

 

 

Winter Break in Barbados

The easternmost Caribbean island of Barbados, located just 250 miles northeast of Trinidad & Tobago, landed back on my winter getaway map after the havoc of the 2017 hurricane season left it unscathed. You do need a passport to visit this island nation which boasts warm sunny weather year-round and a dry season from January to June. A British colony since 1627, Barbados achieved independence in 1966, allowing it to be an independent state within the Commonwealth Nations.

As a lifelong disciple of Bermuda, I had only been to Barbados once before, on my high school spring break with my parents. I had some fond memories of it and of the house we had rented and of visiting Crane Beach. I remember celebrating the golden sunsets and the sunburn I got from playing lacrosse on the front lawn with my best friend, Joanna.

So I booked a mother-daughter trip on the direct Jet blue flight, determined to surf and explore the island with our 15 year-old daughter, Audrey, for her high school winter break. We landed in this tropical oasis on February 20, 2018, affectionately termed “the rock” in reference to it’s coral core and volcanic creation and were welcomed by gentle trade winds and vibrant colors.

Upon disembarking the plane in Barbados, the similarities to Bermuda began assaulting my senses: the fragrant mix of coral caves, frangipani trees, and farmlife; the harrowing feel of those roundabouts; the sound of the public buses revving at every stop and the warm lilting yet formal accents of its people; the comforting sight of churches and colorful houses in every parish; and the tastes of rum, mixing with freshly caught mahi-mahi and truly fresh fruit. That island colonial feel that is such a part of Bermuda is still noticeable in Barbados, with familiar British influences everywhere I turned.

We rented an Isuzu D-Max pick up truck the color of the ocean, from the only car rental spot at the airport, Drive-a-Matic, and drove off to our hotel in Christ Church Parish. I think I put the wipers on 15 times in that 15 min drive, in my attempt to get used to driving a car where I sat on the right hand side to drive on the left hand side of the road. I was so nervous that I was frantic, especially at those tricky and ubiquitous roundabouts.

We somehow navigated safely along those crazy narrow bumpy roads to get to our hotel, Ocean Two, positioned at the edge of Dover Beach, a short walk to the hopping nightlife of St. Lawrence Gap.

We settled in and got a fantastic room overlooking the ocean, and an empty wave, with it’s own kitchen and large balcony. IMG_1861We went to the rooftop to watch the sun drop into the horizon and it was truly magnificent.

I then attempted to watch the Olympics, because I wanted to see Lindsey Vonn race, but was met with futility. My frustration was met with Barbadian (Bajan) balm and all the air was taken out of my sails. Perhaps the welcoming rum punch and the humid sea salty air contributed, but whatever it was, it was wonderful and I was glad for it.

The next day Audrey and I woke up and met the kind driver from Calabaza Sailing charters in our lobby. He drove us to Bridgetown to board a beautiful spacious catamaran for a five hour lunch cruise. The staff was stellar, captained by Danny who was extremely funny and helpful and assisted by Chris and Cody, who filled us with local knowledge, like how to play cricket, and served us non-stop delicious food and drinks. It was most certainly the royal treatment. There are plenty of other tours you can take but this one caps the number of guests at 12 so it is an intimate and personal experience that made it exceed our expectations.

The snorkeling, which included all gear, was wonderful and had us hovering over shipwrecks, which were close enough to the surface to make for easy picture-taking, and we loved seeing the sea turtles, tropical fish and even starfish. We anchored at Sandy Lane beach for a while to take in the stunning west coast scenery there. Audrey hopped on a jet ski for a thrilling ride when one pulled up alongside the boat.IMG_1952

We made it back to our hotel salty, relaxed and much more in island mode than we’d been before the cruise. I meandered next door to pick up the two surf boards I’d arranged with Barry’s Surf School and met a cool monkey named Lucky there, then took a board out at sunset, alone.

It was a fire wire 9’1 and as I sat astride it staring at one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, a rainbow appeared to my right, then a large sea turtle popped it’s head out of the water to my immediate left and I honestly sat in awe at this paradise I had found myself in. Then behind me some local Bajans were short boarding and whooping it up as they carved and glided, at one with the wave. The water was so warm, so perfect, then the sky filled with puffy pink and blue clouds and I felt as if I’d just gone to heaven. I wasn’t catching many waves, but I was too taken with my new surroundings to care.

We ate at Cocktail Kitchen, in the lively little jewel known as St. Lawrence Gap, because we’d heard he was the best chef on the island. We sat at the bar, and I highly recommend the coconut ceviche and alfredo pasta. The place had an awesome vibe. Then we had the tricky business of driving home in the dark without hitting pedestrians or the curb.

Our second full day in Barbados began with an epic surf session at Freights Bay, thanks to the care and planning of Barry’s Surf School. It’s best to arrange surf packages (which can include airport pick up/drop offs at the airport) in advance of your stay. Christie, Barry’s wife and business partner, is organized, responsive and very easy to work with. I loved the boards, especially the 9’1” Modern, and all were in excellent condition. I will certainly go back to do their five or seven day package next time.

Barry took the greatest care with his surfing students and was a true gentleman in and out of the water. It makes sense that he has a successful business and is highly respected here on the island. He’s a born and raised Bajan with a pretty cool history—his great uncle, Colonial Banfield, helped choose the Barbados flag that flies over the island today!

Barry and his instructor, Andrew provided an easygoing vibe in the water and I felt safe and learned quite a few new things while we were out there catching waves at Freights.

It was also drop dead gorgeous out there, especially when surfers appeared above us on the coral cliff, poising in defiant silhouette, short boards held like shields, before leaping into the churning ocean far below. I will always have that mental picture, but I was too busy catching waves to capture it.

The Sargasso Sea “moss”, as Andrew called it, was clumping up near us while sea turtles seemed to play in the waves like fellow surfers. I was back to Ocean Two in time for lunch with Audrey followed by some beach and shopping time. We especially liked the Dover Market in front of our hotel for local homemade chocolates, groceries, sunscreen and trinkets and the quaint and colorful Chattel House Village where we found colorful handmade jewelry and wooden turtles to buy.

We went by taxi over to the west end of the island to watch the sunset and dine at Sandy Lane Hotel’s L’Acajou restaurant, overlooking the beach. We had made the reservation in advance and arranged to come early for a drink and to watch the sunset. I have always wanted to see what all the fuss was about with this hotel. Why do Tiger Woods, Simon Cowell, and Rihanna like it that much? And well, OK to be honest I was hoping to run into my all time favorite, Mark Wahlberg as he strolled along the beach. And although we didn’t have any celebrity sightings, Audrey gave the place a big thumbs up after our deliciously indulgent meal.

For me, Sandy Lane felt like one giant pink upholstered chair perched on a just-polished marble floor, flanked by century old trees straight off a southern plantation. As my dad puts it so well “the whole place seems so precious, like it doesn’t belong beside a beach.” But there it stands, “a club by virtue of its price”, meticulously maintained, in over the top decadence and luxury.

The trees are what took me—they envelope the entire property and are so magnificent and magical, and so seemingly out of place. Sandy Lane also smells amazing—they must pipe it in somehow.

Our third day included more surfing in the care of Barry’s, this time at the protected break in neighboring Dover Beach. The swell had gotten bigger and I was just shy of brave enough to surf the waves directly out in front of the hotel. Nonetheless, I surfed some fun waves when the sets rolled in at Dover.

Afterwards, Audrey and I drove over to The Crane Resort to re-visit that place I remembered from my youth. It had changed a lot but still had that breathtaking view of the ocean from the cliff and that pool with the columns around it. So I stood by the pool and Audrey took a picture—its hard to resist a good “then and now” moment. IMG_2277

After we ate lunch at L’Azure we drove over to Enterprise Beach to check out Café Luna at Little Arches. What a great spot that is. We got back to our hotel just in time for a quick rainstorm that felt like a mini-vacation from our vacation.

Then we drove over to Oistins Fish Fry, to eat some pretty fabulous fish, hot off the grill with Bajan seasoning, from Pat’s Place, while taking in the atmosphere of live music and a mostly local crowd. Oistins is the most crowded and liveliest on Friday nights, so we chose that night to go. There were so many food stalls to choose from but we’d gotten a good tip from Barry to eat at Pat’s Place so that was where we hunkered down to eat our tuna and mahi-mahi at an open air picnic tables under a tent.

The heady mixture of warm sun, sandy surf, salty sea air and slower pace had begun to work its magic on us, and relaxation arrived, like a long lost relative. We couldn’t fight it even if we tried. The fresh food, especially the fish, were so flavorful and made us feel lighter and healthier while the local Banks beer was refreshing and the rum drinks were delicious. And after all that fresh air and sunshine, we were sleeping long deep sleeps.

The fourth day was the last one of surfing fun waves with Barry’s, getting familiar with the reef break right out in front. Audrey and I indulged in massages, which they offered on the balcony of our room for total convenience. It was great to listen to the waves during the treatment!

Then we hopped into our truck and drove north, winding our way all the way up to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, arriving in time for the 2pm feeding. It was magnificent to be surrounded by free-roaming green monkeys, tortoises and peacocks while we just tried to take the whole scene in.

We also saw a Mara (a startling cross between a rabbit and a deer that made me think of Alice in Wonderland) and alligators.

We took the scenic route back to Christ Church parish, by way of the jaw-dropping view from Cherry Tree Hill and then Lewis Morgan Mill, before making our way along the feisty pounding surf of the east coast.

We had plenty of blind steep hairpin turns that took our breath away before and after we reached the truly breathtaking rock formations of Bathsheba. It should made a mandatory part of a visit to the island. We stopped to look north at the top the hill as we wove up and out of Bathsheba and I’m so happy that we did.

We got back to our hotel just in time for sunset, and I can safely say that I had finally mastered the art of driving on the left.

Dinner at Castaway’s was delicious. Sit on the second floor balcony and you will not be disappointed, as it has a great view overlooking the clear shallow green water that laps at the Gap.

Our final day was one of pure relaxation. Audrey sunbathed and swam in the pool while I surfed and swam in the ocean. To each her own. I got waves—clear turquoise waves that crashed over the shallow reef bottom while sea turtles popped their cute heads up while sounds of tinkling steel drums drifted out from shore. I was clad in just a bathing suit and rashguard, a far cry from wetsuit land, and had basically worn the wax off my board, but somehow I had the ocean all to myself, except for an occasional skiff and jetski. It was magical. I took a few breaks, to hydrate with a freshly cut coconut or jump in the pool but mostly I just stayed in the sea.