August in the Amalfi Coast

It was early August and my 18 year old daughter and I suddenly saw a chance to celebrate her final days of summer vacation by sliding through a small window of found time—right into an astonishingly-open-for-business Italy. Another lock down for this delicious country with such jaw-dropping scenery seemed impossible to rule out, especially since COVID-related rules affecting Italy-New York travel had just become stricter on August 9th.

But for now, for this one brief and beautiful moment in time–we were off! Because, let’s be honest, there is no Zoom meeting or virtual experience that can compare to ACTUALLY BEING IN ITALY. On the Coast. In Summer. Eating Pasta. Savoring Fresh Fish. Drinking Limoncello. And Soaking up those Dazzlingly Incomparable Sights.

Audrey, our youngest of three, was due back at college in North Carolina on August 20th for the start of her sophomore year. So I spent a few days finding flights and spent hours choosing the perfect Positano hotel as our base. To ensure it was the best mother-daughter holiday adventure, I also did a fair amount of research on various excursions, boat tours and restaurants. https://www.capri.com and http://www.Chase.com/card-benefits/sapphire/service were both very helpful.

Tuesday, August 10th

We arrived at JFK and had to show our vaccine cards at check-in, but surprisingly did not need proof of a negative COVID test to depart. Fear evaporated, while relief over after passing through security, realizing how easy it was to leave the country. Our pre-conceptions, based on hype and ignorance, were happily dismantled.

We then boarded our 9pm Swiss Air flight, settling into our seats with a champagne toast. The flight was a short six hours, not enough for much sleep, and then a one hour layover in Zurich which gave just enough time to buy some Bircher muesli and board our next flight to Naples. That is the closest major airport to the exquisite Amalfi coast.

Wednesday, August 11th

Our arrival was an exhausted one, full of jet lag and sleep deprivation. And when we exited the airport a heavy drapery of 97-degree heat collapsed upon us forcing us into slow motion. Seeking shade became the number one priority—from that point on—for the rest of our trip. But in spite of the debilitating heat, I was still determined to show Audrey the ruins of Pompeii, a city buried in volcanic ash on August 24, 79 AD.  I had not seen it for at least twenty years myself.

Through the hotel concierge, I had arranged a car to meet us at the airport. So we met our driver, Alberto, and piled our bags and exhausted hot selves into his clean black car. We pulled up to the Pompeii entrance gate about twenty minutes later, at 2:30pm, disoriented by the heat and severe lack of sleep in the past 24 hours. But onward to sightseeing! To enter the grounds, we had to wear masks and show our vaccine cards (“green pass” was their term for it) and my pre-purchased “skip the line” tickets (money well-wasted given the emptiness of the entry area), but after that we were fairly free to wander mask-free around this ancient city.

So, armed with my trusty Rick Steves guidebook “Snapshot: Naples & the Amalfi Coast, Including Pompeii” (6th edition), https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/italy-amalfi-coast we set off into the oppressive heat. We were so disoriented that we entered the wrong gate to take advantage of Rick’s proposed Self-Guided Tour, but we did end up enjoying being lost in that maze of rock and ruin, and it was fun to work together to find our own path out. The Foro (the Forum) was a showstopper and we really loved the “Teatro Piccolo” (small amphitheater.)

Pompeii was not crowded. In fact, it felt like we had it almost entirely to ourselves, which made sense because of the debilitating heat at that tough time of the day. The sun was actually sizzling our scalps and scorching our shoulders. Whenever we saw a drinking fountain I had to resist the urge to crawl into it.

Audrey surprised me with her stamina and willingness to explore and wander the ancient stone streets and pose on the basalt stones. Just like my great grandfather and my mom had done. But we did both reach a breaking point and had to escape the heat by retreating to the air-conditioned car and proceeded on to Positano. I admit to getting carsick from Alberto’s deft driving on those cliff-hugging roads that hung and twisted and turned for just over an hour to get us to Positano.

He deposited us at the Piazza dei Mulini, the closest spot to the beach that vehicles can reach. And since our hotel, the Covo dei Saranceni, was perched right on the main beach, Spiaggia Grande, we began our descent by foot. With four pieces of wheeled luggage and two hand-held bags in tow, we began winding our unruly way down the steep narrow street, clogged with tourists.

It was about 5pm and we were running on fumes, but I did note how we were passing such cute shops selling lemon-themed linens and ceramics. There were so many ice cream opportunities and lemon slushy offerings along the way amid the jewelry stands and art galleries. It was so charming and picturesque and pretty.

And hot.

Audrey was an absolute dynamo, especially when we reached the large stone staircases of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta when she hauled our two biggest suitcases down the many steps all by herself.  It was wild to think that everywhere we had just walked was once a roman villa complex, buried by that same Mount Vesuvius eruption that put Pompeii into pause.

We finally made it all the way down to sea level, to enter the cooling sanctuary of our hotel lobby. We were covered in sweat and delirious. But the views everywhere that we turned were absolutely intoxicating.

And to quote Rick Steves about Positano, because I cannot say it better myself, “the village, a breathtaking sight from a distance, is a pleasant gathering of cafés and expensive stores draped over an almost comically steep hillside. Terraced gardens and historic houses cascade downhill to a stately cathedral and a broad, pebbly beach.” And because it is ”squished into a ravine, with narrow alleys that cascade down to the harbor, Positano requires you to stroll, whether you’re going up or heading down.”

The 5-star hotel www.covodeisaracenit that we chose was, from start to finish, utter perfection and the absolute best location and choice. Our room, number 43 on the 5th floor, was just a few steps away from the exquisite outdoor pool complex which included 3 pools a pool bar and restaurant. We settled into our cool spacious room and took in the unbelievable sea view and large canopy-covered terrace that boasted a Jacuzzi tub, hot shower, two lounge chairs and a dining table and chairs.

Then we spent the remainder of the day poolside, soaking in the crazy impossible views and swimming and reading. We ate a late dinner (the best ravioli of my life) at Covo, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, which overlooks the busy Positano pier. My throat was raw from exhaustion and recycled airplane air, but that ravioli slid down and hit the spot.

Dinner and post-dinner shopping and wandering all start so late here, so our 8:30pm dinner fed into a 10PM stroll around the adorable narrow steep streets. We checked out the Rada restaurant and stumbled upon its adjacent, infamous Music on the Rocks Club, which was not yet even open at that time of the night!

Thursday August 12th

The hotel’s complimentary buffet breakfast got an A+ in our book. And to celebrate our first full day in Italy, we focused on the pool, relaxing beside it with our books and swimming often to combat the heat. We also loved exploring the scenic cliff-hugging paths by our hotel until we found the perfect beach. That first time we stepped across burning hot smooth gray stones to slip into the Mediterranean sea was an absolutely show-stopping one for me.

The cool water was healing and perfect in every way. The scenery of jagged cliffs, colorful umbrellas shading lazing Europeans, deep blue water, and passing boats was riveting and exquisite. Being a part of it made me feel beautiful and perfect just as I am. I lost all sensation of self-consciousness and just floated in that salty freeing sublime.

That night we put on pink sundresses that matched our pink skin and wove our way up toward the hotel that has stuck so vividly in my mind for so many years: Le Sirenuse Hotel www.lesirenuse.com . Because of our poor timing with the Italian holiday, the hotel was full, but in retrospect it all worked out perfectly, as we just loved our hotel so much.

We passed a kaleidoscope of blues and yellows, limoncello liquer, and lemon-themed ceramic ware. We also passed Neil Patrick Harris, and accidentally captured him in a photo with Audrey, as he blended in with all the other strollers. We then stood in line for about ½ hour before being allowed to enter the iconic Franco’s Bar, https://francosbar.com/en just after 7PM.

We sat down just in time to witness the perfect orange glow of a twilight sky spark backdrop to a swath of pastel-colored buildings clinging to the cliffs, anchored by the captivating blue and yellow Duomo di Positano of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta below us. 

We drank the fancy drinks and drank in the lemon-tree dolce vita scene. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, and refined. Then we had a few extra minutes before dinner so we ducked into a little boutique, Idillio www.idilliopositano.com across the street to purchase adorable blue and yellow linen get-ups in moda fashion, but of course!

We then dined at 9PM on more delicious seafood and pasta at L’Ancora, the sister hotel to ours. It sat adjacent to Franco’s so it had the same incredible view, but now with the moonlight and all the twinkly lights of the Positano skyline sprawled before us to enjoy during dinner.   I couldn’t resist indulging in Black Lava gelato on the walk back down to our hotel. It was the richest chocolate ice cream I’d ever had.

Friday August 13th

We were again content as could be to start our day off with the hotel’s strong coffee and extensive buffet breakfast. Then we set off by 9:15am from the Positano Pier, just a few steps from our lobby (where all ferries and boats pull in) for a tour of the island of Capri.

After much thought on the options of ferry, private boats, shared boats, full and half day options, we chose the “Shared Gozzo Boat Capri Full Day Tour” offered by https://www.grassiboatpositano.com/en/boats . The boat was a 10,2 Meter wooden Milano Aprea Gozzo boat named “Mary.” The captain was kind and spoke English and there were eight other lovely passengers aboard. And bow was cushioned, allowing for us to lie up there which was key. This was a far less expensive way to go at a cost of 200 Euros than securing a private boat would have been (2000 Euros). And it was a bit over twice as much as the cost of a round trip ferry ride (80 Euros.)

We stopped to swim twice, once in a green grotto and once in a white grotto and we slipped through the shadowy hole of the iconic Faraglioni Rocks and circled the whole island to admire its stunning limestone ruggedness and impossibility from the sea. We pulled up to Marina Grande at noon and had until 4pm to explore Capri on our own.

We could have attempted to battle the crowds to take a bus across the island and go get in line to see the Blue Grotto on our own, but I really wanted Audrey to see Anacapri, the only other main town on the island, so that became our mission instead. My sore throat had turned itself into more of a cough, which I had to keep stifled for fear of COVID-shaming looks from Audrey and others (and that darn cough left me uneasy up until my COVID test came back negative.)  

Of course it was broiling hot, so the first thing we did was find a crowded beach and wedged our way into the water. Then we stood in a long hot line waiting for a bus to go to Anacapri. But some entrepreneurial souls sought us out, along with another female tourist from Mexico and for an extra few Euros, we agreed to walk across the street with them, hand over our just-purchased bus tickets and pile into an air-conditioned Mercedes sprinter van to reach Anacapri. After I got over my abduction anxieties, I decided it was a very good move.

Upon arriving in Anacapri, we immediately found the solo-seated chairlift that I’d remembered enjoying so much back in 2000, bought tickets and jumped right on. The view and experience were just as astonishing as it was all those years ago. The gently unwinding view of Capri and the sea during the 15-minute ascent was just captivating and joyful. It was only topped by the glorious view at the 1,900 foot summit of Monte Solaro.   We took it all in, and then ate pizza and lemon torte in the shade, surveying Mount Vesuvius and Naples to our left and the Faraglioni Rocks to our right.

We reluctantly left and took the precious and dramatic chairlift back down to the base, to do a little bit of souvenir shopping in the small, quaint Piazza Vittoria in Anacapri. Audrey bought a beautiful sunhat with“Capri” in black script on the brim. The hat proved to be Instagram-worthy for the rest of our trip.

Then we stood in the bus line, but the heat and wait again were just unbearable. I gave in to my inner princess and grabbed us an open air taxi with a canopy top. It felt like a 1950’s movie and we relished our decision to splurge on this much more preferred mode of transportation to whisk us, with breezes blowing and cooling our shaded happy selves, back down the mountain for the 15-minute ride to Marina Grande. Carpe Diem indeed.

Again it was Just. Too. Hot. So we jostled our way back into the sea at the crowded beach beside the marina. Then we had just enough time to reach the dock to get back onto our boat. We enjoyed the boat ride back to Positano, especially the green grotto swim and the scenic return to port in Positano.

We reveled in our hotel’s pool and our own room’s jacuzzi with a view of all the boats and action. Then we ate dinner at the buzzing beachside Chez Black www.chezblack.it It was another ridiculous meal and lively colorful scene. At dinner we realized how critical it is in Positano to hold a dinner reservation in order to be seated in a good part of the restaurant.

Saturday, August 14th

Finding our new rhythm here by day four, we embraced Positano today, from pool to beach to art galleries to quaint shops. Audrey wanted extra chill time at the pool after we explored the shops and galleries so she stayed there, while I hiked up an insane staircase, embracing my inner mountain goat, and let myself get a bit lost. It was wonderful. I ended up going all the way up to the main road, then back down another long winding staircase to reach Fornillo Beach. Of course I also fit in a lot of fun shopping for sandals, ceramics, shirts and limoncello and linens along the way.

At night, Audrey and I wore blue and yellow outfits, blending in more and more with our surroundings, and dined at Pupetto Beach at 8:30pm on lemon pizza and lobster ravioli with truffles. The octopus salad with olives and potatoes made me cry—it was that good. And a limoncello spritz was the perfect compliment, cooling, sharp and strong.

Sunday August 15th, Ferragosto (a public holiday in Italy, marking the Feast of the Assumption)

We began the day with yet another lovely breakfast at our hotel, where the staff were starting to feel like friends, followed by a private half-day tour along the Gulf of Salerno on a small wooden Gozzo, the Aprea 7,5 meter via Grassi Junior Boats again. Salvatore was our captain and he kept us snug along the coast at a nice leisurely pace, stopping in various caves for Audrey and I to swim, explore, float and get cool.

We made it to Amalfi and celebrated how pretty it looked from the water, then headed back to Positano. The Italian holiday meant our hotel’s pool was quite full, so we retreated to our own room’s ridiculous terrace to read and nap away the afternoon heat.

Then we had dinner at Lo Guarracino www.loguarracinopositano.it/en at 7:30PM, perched like a little hidden eagle’s nest overlooking Fornillo Beach. The views were breathtakingly out of control. The fish was so fresh that we were caught off guard. And the red wine paired so perfectly with my octopus salad and gnocchi. 

Monday, August 16th

I woke to see the sun rise over the mountains to the east and we took our COVID tests (needed for re-entry to the United States) just across the hall from our room in the hotel. So convenient! We then embraced being by the pool until our departure by ferry at 11:30am to go explore the town of Amalfi.

It was only a 25-minute high speed ferry ride —a mere 9 Euros per person each way—but we did have to wear masks, which we had gotten very happily used to not doing here in Italy. And the ferry was very hot, except for when the ferry was moving full speed.

Once we got to Amalfi, we walked across the street from the ferry dock to walk around Amalfi’s must-see monumental complex of St. Andrew Cathedral. The crypt of St. Andrew and the Cloister of Paradise were especially beautiful and definitely worth seeing.

To cool off–and to give in to the non-stop offerings—we bought giant lemon sorbets in oversized frozen lemons–the ultimate in lemon worshipping.   Then we walked up the hill out of the main part of town till we reached the paper museum. We hit our heat exhaustion and sightseeing wall and so we took the ferry back to Positano and settled back into our beloved poolside once again, chilling by 3pm. I went back to our beach to soak one last time in those magical healing waters and I also bought some amazing Positano-made shirts (it was my son’s 22nd birthday that day) from Blue Positano www.bluepositano.it

We then had dinner at Max www.ristorantemax.it –a very cool chic setting where the dinner tables are inside an art gallery. The restaurant had an open air feel because of the outdoor garden, but was perfectly blended with the sophistication from all that beautiful art surrounding us. Audrey chose the pasta with lobster and I chose the catch of the day in a butter lemon caper sauce with potatoes. My bellini went perfectly with it. I highly recommend the chocolate soufflé for dessert.

I came to the conclusion that in Italy it is always quality over quantity. No establishment ever seems feel the need to compensate for poor taste or flavor with oversized portions. After our perfect portions at Max, we had some final strolling and shopping before crawling exhaustedly into bed.

Tuesday August 17th

Saying farewell to Italy is always a sorrow. And to make it worse, we had to leave our hotel by 3:15am in order to get to Naples airport to catch our 6am Air France flight to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. But we had a 3-hour layover, which gave us just enough time to buy some lipstick www.buy-paris-dutyfree.com , macaroons www.laduree.fr and a small treasure www.fr.louisvuitton.com before boarding our 7 1/2 hour flight back to New York. 

What astounds me is that with all that eating and indulging and luxuriating that Italy involves, I came back feeling thin and fabulous. I think it must just be a mindset (or maybe all those steep stone staircases and pedestrian paths!) Well, I’ve decided that I’m going to hold onto that Italian mindset as long as I possibly can. Thank you Italy, for being all that you always are, and for being open to tourism for now. I pray it stays that way.

Three days later when I hugged Audrey goodbye outside her dorm room in North Carolina I did feel that she was armed with some nice memories and photos of a very pretty and peaceful time spent in Positano with her mom. And I hoped it would make a difference and matter to her in the long run that we had shared that adventure. We did say we would make it an annual trip to explore pretty blue water places. And I will do everything in my power to keep that pact.

Things to do next time:

Spend time in the town of Capri.

Enter Capri’s Blue Grotto.

Dine at Rada Rooftop.

Dine at Donna Rosa.

Go to Music on the Rocks for the club scene.

Stay at Le Sirenuse or Il San Pietro https://www.ilsanpietro.com or at Villa Tre Ville. Drive up to Ravello and spend time at Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo.

See Herculaneum (it’s closed on Wednesdays otherwise we would have gone there instead of/in addition to Pompeii).  

Eat more of that fantastic pizza at Covo dei Saranceni’s Brasserie. 

Have lunch at Hotel Santa Caterina in Amalfi.

Spend even more time in and on that gorgeous Gulf of Salerno.

Empty Nest

The blonde plywood triangular space is glowing with golden sunlight. It is freezing cold and hollow. It has an eerie echo, now that it is freed from its long-term job of aiding and abetting this family’s life. 

Euphoria. That is the feeling I get from surveying this empty attic. 

That sprawling area atop our home took up a tremendous amount of mental storage space in my head. And just like a computer, with not one byte left, I needed this new free space to think and to breathe.

The attic held momentos, memorabilia, and memories. It held nods to our own youth and to our children’s childhood. There was art, from crayoned papers to gallery pieces, wrapped carefully in butcher paper. There were also awards and our children’s umbilical cords. Yes. umbilical cords. And every single lost tooth was up there, held in safekeeping, along with three pairs of some pretty dope hot pink crutches. 

There was more luggage than could ever be used in a lifetime, along with my petrified wedding dress, a stuffed purple crinoline prom dress and trunks of junk from my high school and college days. There were trains from Rob’s youth and boxes of wedding memorabilia and a case of champagne from that day of our union in August 1997.

There were also boxes upon boxes of old files and paperwork piled high beside way too many bags of bedding, much of which came from a summer house in Block Island we had sold in 2009. And there were towers of boxes of old Christmas cards. And by that, I mean: Every. Single. Card. Our. Family. Had. Ever. Received. 

And each child had their own tower of boxes, about 15 or so for each child. All their celebrated moments were there, from newborn footprints at their birth moving right up through elementary school graduation and tapering off toward the end of high school.

Shamefully, I write this. I admit to all the piles of proof of my inability to let things go. Being free of the past is a powerful and wonderful trait that if taught, is a Godsend. 

But sadly I never learned it.

So instead, there was a section up there entitled “Memorabilia” that included giant bags of Webkinz, Power Rangers, and Pokeman cards. There were countless American Girl Dolls and their outfits. Every single Halloween costume ever worn by any family member was neatly folded, encased in clear plastic. And “Christmas Decor” had its own aisle, of course.

Yes, this attic of mine had aisles. And my favorite aisle was what I referred to as “Buy Buy Baby” complete with cribs, bassinets, changing tables, strollers and every size created in baby and toddler clothing. All of this, in spite of our children now being 18, 22 and 23 years old.

But today, the attic is empty and that aisle is gone. And the small leg of the broken white wicker changing table is sticking out of the large dumpster in the driveway. It looks like a small white flag being waved in this battle to unravel so many celebrated and documented milestones and memories made by one single suburban family.

In the midst of so much purging those last few harried days, I did manage to rescue a few small treasures, like the “Boppy,” a pillow I used to rest each of my three babies on while nursing them, and a small stroller, to break out when I become a grandma.

I guess my “just in case” ways were handed down to me by my own mother and grandmother and will never really leave me. This saving, storing, “hold on to it for Pete’s sake, you never know!” mentality is an attribute that I both treasure and curse.

But letting go of that attic of childhood treasures means releasing my hold on the past. And since there is no more attic in my future, I am free. Or, so they say.

Lost. That is the feeling I get from surveying this empty attic.

The children around whom this attic was filled are leaving the nest. And this nest is being sold so that a new family can fill it with their own children’s treasures and family memories. 

Grief. That is the feeling I get from surveying this empty attic.

Small White Kitchen Stool

The stool, Montauk, June 2021

My grandmother, who I always called “Grandma” and who we referred to in my family as “Grandma Newton,” was born Maria de Los Angeles Gisbert Alonso, but everyone else affectionately and simply called her “Angelita.” And because of her Spanish heritage—growing up and learning to cook in Barcelona and Asturias—Angelita was opinionated and passionate about all things kitchen, to say the least.  

Of all the many things she taught me and ways in which she shaped me, one was quite an oddly placed piece of advice. And throughout my different phases of life, I have come in and out of seeing it as sage. 

As she toiled away in her Bermuda kitchen, she pointedly said “Lisa, my dear,” with a stern face, “a polite young lady should never eat while standing up.” I was around ten years old at the time. She had caught me red-handed with food stuffed into my mouth that I had swiped from her counter while she prepared the nightly meal. 

I retreated to the small white kitchen stool beneath the window to sit and chew, both on her words and on the pasta in my mouth. My shoulders slumped at having disappointed her. Then I sat there, quiet and absorbing her stance as she stirred the sauce on the stove, wooden spoon in her right hand and soft wide aproned hip in her left one. I was lulled by her deep sing-songy Spanish voice as she filled my ears with other dining etiquette tidbits, along with countless questions, gossip and complaints. The aroma that wafted toward me from the oven made my stomach somersault in delight. 

Over forty years later, I still think about her words of wisdom in how to be a proper lady, as espoused from that tiny kitchen with her mad cooking skills at play. If I had taken her advice more seriously, I think I would have many less moments in my life of hasty eating. The “shove and go” technique, which I like to think that I perfected in my teens, lasted through to my thirties while I raced around after my own toddlers until they were pre-teens. And I will now finally admit that eating while driving does not count as eating while sitting. But I still did plenty of that over the years, while telling myself I was abiding by grandma’s rule. 

But the message behind Grandma’s words is so very clear to me now. She meant the advice as a way to prevent her grandchildren from disrespecting the cook. It was always a true labor of love for her to toil away in the summer humidity and heat like she did.

And all that she had meant was that we should not ruin the sanctity of a good meal by rushing it or starting it prematurely. And all that she ever asked for was our patience and our presence at her beautiful dark wooden table, the one with the delicate chairs with the needlepointed seats she had handsewn over the years.

Angelita simply wanted our company at that table, while we paid homage to family and to ceremony and to the social setting of a home-cooked meal. And now that I have the benefit of age, I can see that it was the least we could do, after all the hard work she had put in to prepare it. Angelita only needed us to appreciate the food at the table with friends and family. 

And come to think of it, Grandma never even asked for help with the dishes. That was always her way. “No, no leave it,” she would say indignantly with her Spanish accent, “I will do it. Please just go sit outside with Grandpa and look at the stars. I’ll bring you your ice cream. Just tell me, chocolate or vanilla tonight?” Then “OK, I got it, now go. Go sit. Lisa. He is waiting for you to see the shooting stars. I’ve got this.” I can still hear her voice, like it was yesterday, ushering me out of her dirty post-dinner kitchen.

Today, at age 52, I now engage in long sit down dinners at home and I truly celebrate each and every one. I appreciate the ceremony and the social element that surrounds the consumption of a long prepared meal. I do my very best to not let that insidious iPhone steal the attention, and I don’t let appetites get ruined before dinner.  

And now that I finally live in a house facing the sunset and the sea, like she did, I have no excuse to not make the time to sit and savor a meal made out of love, with family and friends. 

Angelita’s little white stool sits in the corner of my kitchen now. And dinners are eaten at her mahogony table, which has finally made it out here to the dining room in Montauk. I make sure to sit at the head of the table, in her spot, on her needlepointed armchair, and watch the sea and savor the meal.  

Candles flicker, laughter floats and the cook is most certainly appreciated, late into the twinkly night of gentle sea breezes, shooting stars and memories of Angelita. 

The Chunky Cotton Summer Sweater

It is ivory and old now. But I remember standing in that fancy shop, Calypso St. Barth, on the circle in downtown Montauk, in July 2011 seeing it so striking, snuggly and full of promise on the mannequin in the window. It was my first time ever visiting this extraordinary end of the world, surrounded by salty sea. I purchased the sweater even though it was ridiculously expensive and impractical. It had weight and thickness to it, but it also had holes and lacked warmth. It was not a smart purchase–like a jacket or a wool sweater would have been–to keep out the cold. It would also show all the dirt, since it was a solid off-white color. And it was also an absurd 500 some-odd dollars.

But there I was, purchasing it gladly like the pathetic tourist that I most certainly was. I know now that I was just trying to buy my place in this new world with that chunky sweater and its pointless hood. I wore it to the Surf Lodge that night, back when it was casual and surf-focused, and sat beside Bethanny Frankel and felt like I could be cool–but I was most definitely cold in that sweater. I pictured myself casually tossing it on, post surf, to flop around warm bonfires at cookouts on the beach. I would be the essence of cool. I could not wait for it all to begin.

Well, I was a total kook. And in many ways, I was the worst kind of kook. I was a kook with money to burn. And because I harbored a deep unhappiness as a Westchester housewife, I was extra eager to throw myself into a whole new world. Montauk felt like the perfect one. It ticked all the boxes: wild risk, ocean danger, anti-everything, and endless nightlife. I entered in, and was crazed and crazy, reckless and careless, and not just because I bought this stupid sweater and started surfing.

I took my first surf lesson that weekend and was deeply hooked– the life-long kind of hooking– from that moment on. Surely this cotton sweater would seal the deal and make me a Montauk surfer. I’d be part of the ship, part of the crew with this thing hanging on me all lounge-like and chill. I could see it all before me. I could see my new cool self relaxing on the beach all salty and sun-kissed wearing this sweater and talking about all the great waves I rode that day.

“Oh please” says my current day self to that clueless old me.

Fast forward to a sunny day in late May 2021 just before Memorial Day weekend, the official start to a post-pandemic summer. It has been 10 years since that sweater purchase. And I live in Montauk now. My home here in this small fishing town is modest, beachy and fun, facing the sunset and the sea. I have filled it up with all my grandparents furniture from their home in Bermuda. The one I grew up going to. I keep their memory alive every day by sitting at their old table and eating off their old dishes. I think they would be pleased and proud.

I still consider myself a kook, and in many ways I am still on a mission to fit in here in this brave new anti-world. But today I am wearing that chunky sweater while sipping hot tea and walking my dog at Ditch to check the waves, like I do every day. The sweater reminds me of the foolish 42 year old mom that I was, thinking I could buy a seat at this surf town table, where a counter-culture has forever lived and breathed, and laughed out loud at others and the ocean, and partied hard and long into the moonlit night.

I have spent the last ten years, ever since that first surf lesson in July 2011, pulling away from another kind of life–one where soccer sidelines reign and crazy risk is curtailed. I have put countless miles on my car to travel and transform from one world to another along that Long Island Expressway. I did it to be in the throes of the ocean, where wild exhilaration reigns supreme. Surfing carries the craziest highs and lows, and I would not trade this wild ride for anything.

If this sweater could talk. It would tell of so many wild days of adventure, world travel and recklessness. It could also tell of my fair share of beach bonfires and cookouts where a carefree spirit was unleashed. Of course surfing became my obsession, and my guiding light to a new life. But the sweater was certainly there for the beginning of this metamorphosis.

I almost got rid of that sweater so many times because it took up too much shelf space and did not pull its weight in my closet, from a practical standpoint. But it somehow made the cut in my recent move, and so I am wearing it again right now, while writing this little tale of admission, as the rain pours down here in my sea swept neighborhood. I watch the wind whipping the saltwater into whitecaps and I wait for the rideable waves to arrive.  

The sweater has come full circle. And I am exactly where and what I wanted to be ten years ago when I walked out of that fancy store–just another surfer. But I will always carry my kook heart on my sleeve along with a very deep appreciation for how long it took, how much I gave up, and how hard it was to get here.

Are Winter or Summer Waves Better in Montauk?

winter sunset session at Ditch

It was mid-afternoon in early December of the quite-universally-agreed-upon-wretched-year of 2020. The sun was shining low and strong across the sea and sand of Ditch Plains and the air was a crispy 35 degrees. The dark green water at the jetty had just formed into a rideable wave right before my eyes, and the wind of the nor’easter had finally just calmed down. So I decided to go back to the house and wedge my winter weight into a 4:3 suit and haul my board out of the basement.

So there I was, standing in my booties and hood, rubbing a fresh bar of cold water wax onto the frozen fiberglass surface with such enthusiasm and pent up surf urgency that I was noticeably breaking the silence of my surroundings. This exact spot in the summer is normally packed with beachgoers and surfers, but right now it was tranquil and empty except for me–and the birds.

I left my board resting on the wooden bench as I ran back to put the wax in the truck and grab my thick winter neoprene mittens. An elderly woman appeared out of nowhere and when she saw me flying around in my frenzy and she turned around and said, “Are the waves better in the summer or the winter?”

I honestly had to stop in my tracks. I did not have time for a question like this. This question was too complex to answer, there were far too many factors to consider, too many aspects to analyze, but I wanted to appease her. So I paused for a second and then said “Winter, because there are less people.”

Anyone who surfs will admit that surfing is far better with less people in the water, because you simply have more opportunities to ride a wave. So, while I love the social side of surfing in the summer, the isolation and sheer emptiness of the winter ocean is compelling, even with those drawbacks of frozen toes, fingers and nose. So, into the freezing 53 degree sea we go!

In our current global health crisis, with COVID-19 essentially having eliminated crowds and gatherings, separateness is left as our only healthy choice. And what better way to stay apart than by being on a board–any board–in a body of water–any body of water–at ANY time of the year because that has ALWAYS–by definition–been a naturally self-isolating and socially distanced experience. For me, the habit of being on my surf and paddle boards more days than not since the pandemic began has single-handedly kept my mental and physical health intact. I would have been lost without it.

The frozen toes I had to thaw out two hours later was worth the fresh perspective. Those invigoratingly dense, cold and slow waves ridden by us lucky few under a fiery red sunset sky filled me with unbelievable gratitude. I was outwardly giddy to be a part of the ocean’s pulse yet again, before returning to the somber sobriety of terra firma. There are plenty of warm waves elsewhere in the world to ride, but for now, this cold wave could not be more perfect. And it’s not even technically winter quite yet 🙂

Borrowing a Lifestyle at Sea through AirBnB

Any vacation is a leap of faith, if you think about it. So when you have exhausted your research and finally decide on where to go, what transportation to book, and which accommodations to secure, then all you can do is hope it all works out for the best. Well in our case–for this short kids-are-still-home-from-college trip to Key West–it most certainly did. And there were many little surprises and lessons along the way.

We normally like AirBnB, which by definition is a gamble, since it involves staying in someone else’s home and can be riddled with potential pitfalls. But this time we took it one step further and booked an AirBnB sailboat. So, not only did we decide to stay in someone else’s home, but we chose to stay in it out at sea, in someone else’s lifestyle.

My college-senior daughter and I stayed on this sailboat moored out near Fleming Key off of Key West, Florida to kick off 2020. We made the decision to do this unique experience while we were driving through a snow squall near Stratton Vermont in mid-December. We were pretty darn cold at the time and dealing with so much snow and ice. A sailboat in warm sunny Key West sounded ideal and the 88 positive reviews of Captain Danny on AirBnB had us sold! So we pushed the button while deep into our snowy drive.

The night before our departure I had butterflies in my stomach and a bad dream built off my nerves and the fear of perils that could befall us with our choice of an AirBnB out at sea. Doubt had crept into my subconscious and was taking over.

But we landed in Key West airport with only carry-on luggage, at noon on a gorgeous hot sunny day in early January.

We were up for an adventure and thrilled to be greeted with such strong sun and heat and palm trees. We bought groceries, flip-flops and suntan lotion before heading to the Thai Island marina. There, we met Captain Danny, who would be our host for our 4-day stay on his 45’ Gulfstar sailboat.

Although a Dallas native, Captain Danny is clearly comfortable at sea, and his laidback charm instantly put us at ease. He whisked us by 16-foot center console out to the sailboat, moored by Fleming Key. We boarded this beauty, with original wood throughout and plenty of charm. We settled in quickly, stashing groceries and luggage and getting the lay of the land from Captain Dan, while keeping our “camp” caps firmly on our heads.

The trip began with a calming and spectacular sunset cruise with Captain Danny at the helm and we as his guests.

But he allowed Emily to sail the boat quite often! IMG_0068We had some real peace and tranquility.

And then we BBQ’ed skewers of shrimp for dinner in the stern of the boat before settling in for some Marvelous Mrs. Maiseltime.

As there are flat screen TV’s all over Capt. Dan’s boat—then sleep. This was no ordinary sleep—it was a deeper than deep kind, because we were gently rocked like babies while the boat slurped and sloshed against the sea under a sky full of stars. We were really sowing our adventurous oats!

Then we woke the next day for coffee and to enjoy the cotton hammock in the bow. IMG_0294We then set sail for a snorkeling and fishing excursion beside what remains of Hemingway’s stilt house, perched far out at sea over a shallow reef.

It was a sensational day filled with nurse shark sightings while snorkeling, plenty of fish caught, and a very fun rope swing made from the boat’s boom. It was truly a world class outing. We even whipped up our own ceviche for lunch with our just-caught fish and ate it on the boat!

But as we finished lunch, we noticed a line of dark clouds that threatened the sky. And suddenly the day took a hard left and we found ourselves trying to outrace this completely unexpected late afternoon storm.

The wind picked up so much that we had to make a call to book a slip in the marina instead of staying overnight at the less protected mooring again. Captain Danny pulled the boat into the slip at Conch Harbor just in the nick of time. The wind kicked up to 30 knots and the rain began just as the sun set. The relief and gratitude we felt for this safe haven was immense.IMG_0130

We were so crazed with relief at being safe on land that Emily and I went out to celebrate at Schooner Wharf for a beer and to watch the football. We found fellow water adventurers to bond with and swap storm stories with. IMG_0140Emily and I were on land, but felt that woozy, still-on-the-boat feeling of swaying back and forth that happens after being on the water. It made us even hungrier and so we ate dinner at the Waterfront Brewery and slept like babies again on the boat. IMG_0143We felt so safe and protected in our new temporary home, sandwiched between million dollar yachts, safe from the wind and the storm.

Then we woke the next day, our second full day in Key West, to enjoy the island on foot.

We explored and experienced the full New Orleans-party feel of Duval Street, with all the bars and that relaxed open container drinking policy it felt like one giant open bar on a college campus. There is a darty on Duval Street every day.

But Emily and I were more interested in exercising and exploring. And we got 9 miles of walking in as we explored Key West from its historic seaport harbor walk and the main drags of Whitehead, Duval and Simonton. We especially loved visiting Hemingway’s house and his writing studio, the southernmost point, the shipwreck museum and the aquarium.

And we most definitely had our fill of key lime and conch–from limeades to keylime pie on a stick to conch fritters with key lime sauce!

We then went on over to check out Mallory Square for sunset and especially enjoyed the unicycle-riding street performer.

We had heard that The DirtBags band at Dirty Harry’s was exceptional but chose to return to our boat instead. There, we had our own BBQ in the marina slip and chilled out with the big flat screen in the master bedroom and went to bed early.

On our third day, we moved from the wonderful marina, back to our mooring out at sea and had yet another amazing sunset cruise with Emily at the helm. Then we hit Bagatelle for dinner, which is an awesome restaurant on Duval street in a home built in 1884. We ate unbelievable fried artichokes on the upper balcony and did some people watching. The Hogs Breath Saloon entertained us with live music from across the street, and that gave our dinner experience even more atmosphere.

Then we wandered down Duval to find some out of this world nitrogen ice cream (dairy free coconut!) for dessert. IMG_0281Captain Dan picked us up at Simonton Beach on his 16’ center console and took us back to the sailboat so that we could sleep like babies aboard what now felt like a true home away from home.

The next day, our 4th, was also our last and we got to begin it with a spectacular view of the sunrise

and then to relax with coffee and fruit in the bow’s hammock. Then Captain Dan arrived and took us out on the sailboat. We saw dolphin leaping alongside our boat and it was so very cool and beautiful! Then we took Capt. Dan’s paddleboard and hugged the mangrove shoreline and saw a giant orange Iguana in the tree, lots of baby sharks, sting rays and even a crocodile!

Being on the paddleboard allowed us to travel in about a foot of water so it was extremely clear and shallow and extraordinarily cool to be inside the mangroves.

Then Captain Dan took us in a small motorboat and we were lucky enough to see a manatee surface right beside us! It was a breathtaking reminder of the ocean’s majesty. Dan is a real marine life Dr. Doolittle! Having his open-hearted kindness and salt life expertise to navigate these Key West waters was alone worth every penny that we paid AirBnB for this ultimate lifestyle-borrow.

The takeaway is that life on a boat is pretty grand and we most definitely will do it again!

Thank you Captain Dan!!! We will be back!

When Solo Travel meets Study Abroad in Florence, Italy

 

What is there to discover on a beautiful autumn trip to the London countryside and Northern Italy? Once again, it is clear that the people make the place. But I also learn how rewarding solo travel and my own good company can be.

The adventure begins with a visit to my dear friend Sophie and her precious and welcoming family in the Cotswolds. (Sophie and I met in 1994, back in our wilder days living as expats in Saigon, Vietnam.)

We laugh a lot and cover quite a lot of ground over two days in that stunning part of the world. Chipping Norton’s The Wild Rabbit ,Chipping Camden, and Broadway’s Wild at Heart gift shop and Broadway Tower are highlights along with the fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding on my last night.

And then it’s an easy flight to Pisa, Italy to sightsee and then visit with my son in the midst of his NYU  semester abroad program in Florence.

In total it is a beautiful eight-day planes, trains and automobiles jaunt. Following are the highlights, along with my suggestions for those who may be contemplating a similar trip.

While meandering solo, I discover far more artistic exploration in my photography.

I enjoy working on my selfie-stick skills IMG_6666and revel in having limitless time to soak up the art and architecture.

It feels great to stop wherever, whenever and to linger longer. I love changing tack at any moment I decide, just to walk a different road or see a different sight.

And it is pretty great to crank up the heat in the bedroom at night, without a fight.

My first few hours in Italy are spent at Piazza dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles, to take in the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I ascend the tower at sunset, climbing all the way up the almost 300 white marble steps that are worn smooth, and slant steeply as they circle up to the belfry.

The views and the whole experience are spellbindingly worth it. And it made even more special knowing that I was retracing my mom’s footsteps from 60 years earlier.

So my advice is to purchase a ticket to climb the tower in advance at opapisa.

Then dining alone at the grand Bagni di Pisa Hotel in San Giuliano Terme turns into a powerful personal moment, sitting at a large round table as sweat collects and other patrons talk and pause. Thin attentive waiters hustle and speak Italian and I realize it is relaxing to not understand them. Self-consciousness bubbles up, like the effervescence in my water glass bouncing off the crisp linen tablecloth beneath it.

But a sense of freedom and a feeling of empowerment rise up to match it, and accompany my main course. And I swear the food and wine taste better, without the distraction or exertion of the usual dinner conversation. The gastronomic experience feels more pure—more in focus.

And later that night when my son texts, “Hey mom, I’m actually free tomorrow after all,” I scrap my plans to wander solo around Cinque Terre, indulge in a hot chocolate massage and take a thermal steam in the Bagni di Pisa’s Grand Duke’s Grotto to hop an early morning train to Florence instead. And I was thrilled to discover how extremely gracious the hotel was about my sudden departure.


And I can vouch for the fact that Italian trains are still the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get around Italy—thank you Tranitalia and your easy self-serve station kiosks.

We spend an unbelievable day touring Tuscany with his friends, which includes a farm to table meal at Madonna Bella Farm with olive oil and wine tastings thanks to Tours by Roberto.

Roberto was highly touted in my Florence and Tuscany travel book by Rick Steves. We also have sensational walking tours of Siena–home to the Palio di Siena–and San Gimignano.

Our group cannot be happier with Roberto, IMG_5817as he has an unmatched knowledge, sense of humor and a larger than life passion for Siena and the surrounding area that makes him a total hit with every visitor.

The day ends in Florence, eating dinner at the unbelievable Michelin star restaurant in my hotel, The St. Regis, perched on the Arno River.IMG_6101

I love knowing that no matter how much I wander the streets of Florence by foot, getting lost and found, seeing art and popping into tiny shops, I can sink like a put-aside puppet into a bed fit for a princess. 59326335116__09B07EF3-7FDB-489E-991A-9A97D0628E82

The St. Regis makes me feel like a Medici, with a balcony overlooking the sunset and the Ponte Vecchio, with its near perfect reflection in the stillness of the river.

 

The next day I buy a Firenze Card which I highly recommend. I buy mine at the Uffizi, allowing the line-cutting to begin there, and last for 72 hours. I love cutting the lines and the flexibility to pop into any sight on a whim, so the Firenze card is a total win for me. It’s also good remember that a lot of museums are closed on Mondays.

I take my time in the Uffizi, led around like a best friend by the mini-tour section in my guide book by Rick Steves,

then spend less time exploring the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace.

But on the upside, I do have the place almost all to myself. And as the sun sets, I collapse with Jello for legs onto the vast stone open space in front of the Palace, just as they shut the front door on me.

Then I fall further in love with cozy art-filled Florence, IMG_9758so much more so than the last time I was here 30 years ago.

And I vastly prefer it to the overwhelming grandeur of Rome—which I manage to make into a whirlwind day trip (by train) the following day.

But back to Florence and its Renaissance essence, I find strolling is best done at all hours of the day and night, preferably with a gelato in one hand, a new leather trinket in the other, and a tummy full of pasta. It never gets old to come upon riveting pockets of history, gorgeously tucked in every square, and around every corner.

I find the winding streets of its pedestrian center are rich little pieces of neighborly heaven with mouth-watering smells wafting non-stop along each adorable narrow street. And the overall warmth is added to by the sounds of Italian voices, so dramatic and songlike. It seems they are always trying to plead a case or make a point. These vocals mix with the cacophony of clattering dishes and clinking glasses to create for me, a Thanksgiving Day symphony.

Then I reach the Galleria dell’Accademia on my last day in Florence. I walk right up to Michelangelo’s David and look up to study his face, trying to decide for myself if he’s just conquered Goliath— or is just about to. And I pause to treasure that my son is carving out time from his studies and his friends to spend this moment with me.

I also do not tire of wandering back and forth over the Ponte Vecchio, both day and night—never getting quite enough of this bridge’s cozy historical beauty.

And I buy little treasures on it, just as I’d done 30 years ago, in some vain attempt to bring that bridge home with me. IMG_6172And I keep finding myself drawn to the sun, and to being near the water. I appreciate the art, the statues, the buildings, the churches, the ancient ruins, the architecture, and the flood stories.

At times, I feel lost in it all, surrendering to the genius of these artists and to the incredible beauty they managed to create—and it feels pretty good.

I especially enjoy wandering around the Santa Croce church complex where so many of these masters of art and science have their final resting place.

Naturally, I find the shopping in Florence superb, especially at Peruzzi where I find great quality leather. The food is excellent everywhere of course, but I find it especially amazing at LaBuchetta where the Angels and Demons gnocchi leaves me utterly speechless.

Ristorante del Fagioli and Trattoria da Benvenuto IMG_6971are also excellent choices. And I cannot stop eating the ubiquitous gelato. I advise everyone to pack pants with forgiving waistbands!

The non-stop walking is the only reason anyone can leave Italy without being 20 pounds heavier. It’s just easier and makes more sense to walk everywhere when you are in the heart of Florence and I love that about this city. And then of course, there is all that climbing.

I climb up and down nearly every bit of the Boboli Gardens. Then my son joins in for the jaw-dropping climb to the tippy top of the Duomo. His genuine smile as we summit is everything.

I then get a runner’s high on my quick solo clip up the steep pedestrian path to reach Piazzale Michelangelo, on my final night. I get there breathless, just in time to see a spectacular sunset bathe Florence in a Baskin Robbins Rainbow Sherbet glow.

Church bells ring out while a two-man band plays catchy tunes. What a perfect way to end this fantastic journey.

Advice to my semester abroad son: Oh how I love your student housing. The building, the neighborhood and the location could not be better, right by the river and beside all that terrific shopping and eating.

Take advantage of being so close to so many sights and go see them all. I’m so proud of you for adjusting so well to life abroad.

Please do make sure to go see the Uffizi. Go on a cold or rainy day, just not on a Monday. Get a longer term Firenze card to cut the lines. Also, go see the Santa Croce complex, while the weather is still warm, as the outdoor area is the best part and it’s just around the corner from your apartment and you will see Michelangelo’s tomb and Galileo’s too. IMG_6989

Go see the Baptistery and the Duomo museum, since we ran out of time for that. On a pretty day, go sit in the Boboli Gardens with a good book and take your time there. Hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo and enter San Miniato church while you are there—I was not able to to in it.

 See all the sights as much as you can. You will regret it later on if you don’t. Drink wine slowly and soak up your surroundings more. Worry less and focus all your energy on your studies, on being present, and on the happiness of others. Try to make a difference.

 Watch the Italian movie called Blessed Madness. I saw it on the flight home and you might understand bits of it now since you are taking Italian. I think you will enjoy it.

What to Do Before You Go: 

I brought only a small rolling carry-on hardcase on this adventure. I got mine from Tumi and was reminded of the beauty of traveling light. It does mean packing light, but being so streamlined gives greater appreciation of purchase made, and allows more time to be in the moment.

Some advance planning and research are essential and will most certainly shape your experience. Reading blog posts from Road Unraveled and On the Luce and checking travel websites like Backroads and plenty of travel articles online got my pre-departure juices flowing.

But as a product of the 80’s, I still find a trusty guidebook absolutely essential, especially when paired with my iPhone camera. I love having a physical book in hand to underline, scribble in the margins and dog-ear the pages. IMG_9758 I still have the beloved, tattered Let’s Gobooks that my best friends and I poured over like Bibles when we backpacked around Europe during and after college.

So before departure, I went to Patrick at Arcade Booksellers to purchase Florence and Tuscany by Rick Steves with research afforded it by Adventures with Sarah. The mini-tours in the book are just fantastic and they are the best companion. I saw the Uffizi following his written tour and felt like I had a local best friend pointing out the best parts as I went along.

I’m so happy that I went to Sport Tech Sports Store for brand new sneakers from Saucony which were the only footwear I took with me. I put countless miles in them to traipse across smooth stones and streets, up all sorts of stairs and hills, over grassy hillsides, along rivers and down museum halls.

In addition to the train travel around Italy, multiple flights were involved in this trip—for which I must give the biggest shout out to Dennis Konnov at Book Me First Class for securing the perfect seat on the perfect part of the perfect plane each time. Delta and British Airways were solid, but Air Italy won me over with its enormous legroom in business class on its Milan to JFK route.IMG_7139

In addition to booking my flights with Dennis ahead of time, I booked top rated hotels Bagni di Pisa and St. Regis Florence based on location and reputation. I chose Bagni di Pisa in San Giuliano Terme, for its four-minute train ride to Pisa San Rossore Station which is just a four block walk to the Leaning Tower. It was a plus that it boasts a thermal spa, and a forgotten gem feel with frescoed ceilings throughout.

It is a good idea to book some tours ahead of time. I pre-booked both our Florence Cathedral Guided Tour with Dome experience with Accord Solutions and my climbing time for the Leaning Tower of Pisa with Opapisa.

For next time: I vow to see Puglia, Cinque Terre, Lucca, and Montepulciano. As for Florence, I’d love to go back and and have a few AirBnB experiences, which I always love, and take advantage of some walking and bike tours.

Timing: This trip took place Oct 15-23, 2019 and was ideal in terms of both temperature and crowds–not too hot or cold while crowds were minimal and manageable. I do always find September and October to be the best months to travel in Europe.

My itinerary:

Oct 15: JFK to Heathrow, via Delta Airline

Oct 16 Heathrow to Burford, via H & R Minicab

Oct 18: Heathrow to Pisa, via British Airways

Oct 19: Pisa to Florence, Train; Siena and San Gimignano, via Minivan

Oct 20: Florence sightseeing

Oct 21: Florence to Rome, train Rome to Florence, via train

Oct 22: Florence

Oct 23: Florence to Milan, train Milan to  JFK, via Air Italy.

The trip from JFK to Westchester was made fast and easy with Global Entry and Uber. Then post-trip, when I needed a taste of Italy, I just went to Sunrise Pizza for their great food served with authentic Italian attitude and kindness.

Weather:  It was hat and gloves weather in the sunny, cool and crisp Cotswolds. Then arriving into Pisa, the warm humid air had me stashing my jacket, hat and gloves. I did not take them back out for my Florence stay, that warm day trip to Siena and San Gimignano, the hot day trip to Rome or even on my last day in Milan.

What to buy:  Leather is of course such a good item to buy in Italy, so I bought a leather jacket in Florence—just like I did 30 years ago. And I absolutely love my stovetop Italian espresso maker from Alessi that I bought duty free in the Malpensa airport departure terminal in Milan.

Happy Trails!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attitude Over Ability at Lady Liberty

Climbing the Statue of Liberty and then reaching the 9/11 Memorial is a tall order for any sightseer, but going via the wheel-chair accessible route is even more so.

But somehow, on a brilliantly sunny, calm and cool day in early November, everything just fell into place, and we did just that.

Carrie, our beloved nanny and Godmother to our youngest child, arrived into JFK from Portland, Oregon on November 4, accompanied by her two best childhood friends, Buffy and Brooke. IMG_8437Our hello was one long good hug and cry before we packed up their luggage and a red motorized scooter into the car and drove out to Montauk for our first adventure. IMG_8061That morning, we moved hand-in-hand out into the big powerful cold waves.

Carrie was game. IMG_8073And I was amazed by her. IMG_8082 2She submerged in that salty healing 56 degree ocean and it caught her breath and she sputtered, then laughed. IMG_8085Then she smiled to the sky as she stood in wet winter sand, as cold rain pelted her face. IMG_8106Then we all laughed as we chased rainbows all the way to the lighthouse, and felt the sun on our faces.

Then we stopped at the Camp Hero overlook where I took a photo of the cliff only to turn around and see Carrie on the ground, a victim of her condition. It was just a “dirt nap,” she joked while Buffy and Brooke stood sentry, patiently holding her as she recovered from this all too familiar unexpected fainting episode.

The scooter came on the trip because it helps Carrie move around safely. She has dysautonomia, which doesn’t make any sense at all because why would God want to give this difficult condition to someone with such a beautiful good heart. It is impossible to comprehend. But yet somehow there she is, just smiling and laughing her way through it all and so I do too. We all do.

She leads us all to a joyful place. She leads us all by example of how to keep a positive attitude in the face of hardship and unfair handouts by God. She is my soul keeper. She is more of who I want to be. She makes me want to be a better person. The next day we drove to Rye and she was able to visit our daughter, her Goddaughter.

We then woke up early the next morning to board a peak train departing Rye at 7:55am to arrive into Grand Central Station.  What carried this day off so well were not only the sunshine and calm winds but the big smiles, infectious laughter, joyful attitude and positive energy of Carrie, Brooke and Buffy.

I gave guidance, as the local, but many decisions and discoveries on this adventurous day of sightseeing were made as a group. We met beautiful people like the Metro-North conductor lady who personally led us to the temporary elevator at Grand Central so that we could take the 4/5/6 subway line downtown to Battery Park. We purchased gloves and hats when we got out of the subway at the Bowling Green station, since it was pretty chilly out.

Brooke talked a lot, sharing a bounty of knowledge and opinions, while Buffy talked sparingly, but wisely. And both were clearly caretakers and givers. They were constant, hands-on overflowing bowlfuls of love, caring and kindness.IMG_8429What I noticed along the way on this very special day were genuine smiles from strangers, and helpful moments with Metro-North, MTA and Park Rangers—and so many, many gaps. We made a “Mind the Gap” joke, which is the warning they give you in the London underground. But it really is a monumental thing when you are relying on small scooter wheels to get you safely over it, onto the train. At one point Carrie gunned the gap in her scooter on high speed and almost took out a few unsuspecting subway riders.IMG_2377 We laughed for the whole subway ride about that incident, somehow making friends with our near-victims.IMG_8262We were aware of gaps everywhere—where trains and subways meet platforms, where the ferry meets the ramp, and where the ferry ramp meets the sidewalk. Stairs were to be avoided at all costs, but sometimes we had no choice but to get a little creative and enlist the help of strangers to help carry the scooter up or down them. IMG_1920I saw the positive, bubbling, joyful energy of this Oregon trio soften strangers and pave the way time and again that day.

The National Park was true to their website’s claim—they really did make the entire Lady Liberty experience easily wheelchair accessible. IMG_1910And the crowds were small since we came so early in the day, in early November.

A highlight of the day was when we had returned to ground level,IMG_8356after reaching the Pedestal Level of the Statue

and had to run and scoot like crazy to catch the ferry only to miss the ferry line cutoff by 10 seconds. But then, when the park ranger saw that we had a scooter, we were moved over to another line that allowed us to board the ferry after all!

Once we got back to the ferry terminal in Battery Park, they held up the line to add extra ramps for the scooter to manage the ferry ramp on both ends. We then took a moment to  feel grateful for accomplishing this special trip to Lady Liberty. IMG_8379We then meandered through the park and turned right to scooter along the sidewalk of the FDR to arrive at the 9/11 Memorial.

Carrie was overcome with sympathy for those lost in the tragedy and she collapsed over the side of engraved names that lined the perimeter of the black watery hole, sobbing.IMG_8409Carrie was very cold at that point, and so we went into the Occulus to find warmth.IMG_8418

We ended up at Irish American on John Street to eat and drink in spite of the flight of stairs it took to get in there. We had determination and we had Carrie. That was all we needed.

We managed the stairs with more help from strangers and got to the subway nearby, cheering when we discovered the elevator was so close-by. We had time to admire Grand Central Station’s compelling ceiling and its constellations before we boarded the 6:19pm train to Rye.IMG_8494It had been such an eye-opening day, so full of smiles, love and laughter. We bonded as we minded every gap and chose over and over to treasure what really matters: friendship, love, and a positive attitude. And Carrie showed us all how to handle hardship with grace, dignity and a whole lot of gorgeous giggles.IMG_8492

 

Aloha Uncle Ben

June 14, 2019

We’d all had almost a year to prepare for this goodbye, since Ben passed away in July 2018, but it was still hard to say it. And we were also saying goodbye to Liam, Ben’s grandson who passed away at age 14, in December 2017.

Aunt Pam had planned and fretted over the logistics, but in the end, it was a seamless ceremony at sea, held on a sunny afternoon at Poipu Beach on June 10, 2019. Those in attendance (my parents, my three cousins, my Aunt Pam and some close family friends of Pam and Ben’s) had flown in from all over the country bringing our love for Uncle Ben and young Liam with us.

We all gathered on the beach around a bright white catamaran canoe, which was decorated with white plumeria flowers and bunches of tea leaves.

A conch shell was blown, signifying the beginning of the ceremony, orkapu. Ben’s three children and his wife boarded the boat quietly at the edge of the water, then the boat was pushed into the surf and the local owners paddled it straight out toward the horizon, stopping just shy of the big waves breaking on the reef. Ben’s best friend Bill sat in the center.IMG_2423

I swam behind the boat, trailing behind, but trying hard to keep up. I almost swam into a honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle) and then watched him surface to take a breath—a good omen. I took it as a sign of Ben and Liam’s presence.

They stopped rowing and the boat was now facing me, staying sideways to the break. As I treaded water in the swirling warm sunlit green sea, I felt the rush of the surfers bearing down on us to my immediate left, along with power and force of heavy walls of water breaking onto the reef. Behind me I sensed the peaceful sleep of three monk seals on the island and to my right, I felt calmed by the sea turtle sentry circling silently in the shallow shoreline. So much of ocean’s glory seemed to be laid out before us.

And directly in front of me, the catamaran canoe rocked back and forth in the choppy swirling water, with Kauai’s southern coastline fading off in the distance in pre-sunset glow. In the boat sat Ben’s wife and three children, silent and stoic and scared.  And Ben’s best friend, Bill, who was charged with the responsibility and honor of sliding off the wooden cross bar into the sea, to release ben and Liam’s ashes underwater.IMG_2427

I looked on as Bill lowered down into the water between the connected canoes. Then I watched underwater, as Liam’s ashes disbursed into prisms of sunshine that pierced the saltwater. Then it was time to say our final goodbye to Uncle Ben. I sunk down underwater again and watched as his ashes, the last of his physical being, were released into the gorgeous green sea. I felt quiet, and still, and sad. When I came to the surface everyone on the boat was silent. Then a huge set rolled in, and I thought the boat was going over. But it was OK. I had a sudden intense feeling that spirits had played a part in that set’s timing.

Then there was chanting, followed by the conch shell being blown again to signal the end of kapu. But everyone was still so quiet during the ensuing noa. Then the boat was steered toward shore.

I swam behind it, and when everyone finally got to shore there was a lot of hugging and crying. Ben and Liam were laid to rest. And there was a general sense of release and surrender and sadness, and peace.

It had been a ceremony at sea of scared silent stoicism, befitting Uncle Ben, a scared silent stoic.  And just like him, there was chaos all around, from every angle, but there in the center of the storm his presence was felt: silent, scared and stoic.  And the ceremony site was special because it had been held where Liam had surfed. Liam, who passed into Heaven at the age of 14, just seven months before Ben’s own passing, had absolutely loved that place.

We gathered on a rooftop and spoke about Ben and Liam and read little readings and looked at old photos. We hugged and drank champagne and ate steak that Bill barbecued, and salads that Brendi, Pam and Debbie had made. And there was Debbie’s chocolate pistachio Bundt cake, Ben’s favorite. And we remembered. We packed everything up to go to bed, just as a light rain began.

Aloha, Ben and Liam…

Rest in Peace.

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My Tribute to Ben, read in Kauai on June 10, 2019

Uncle Ben was such a patient man. He was someone that I loved when I was a kid, just because he was family. But took my cousin Tanya and me on a great college visit to Brown when I was a teenager and I had the best time with them both. And have carried with me the fondest memories of them from that trip. When I thought of him, I would think “my uncle Ben who teaches psychology in Southern California and plays with train sets and model airplanes” That was what always came to the forefront, but I knew he was also a great professor, and a thinker. And that he reminded me a lot of Grandpa Newton.

Then I became a mom in April 1998 and cousin Christine came to help me the summer of 1999, just before Jeffrey was born, and she would always call home to talk to Ben for any kind of  “how do you fix this thing in the house?” support. Christine was so house-handy and she attributed it all to Ben. I was extra thankful and grateful to him for that expertise.

I remember on our world tour trips, the ones where I really got to know and love and appreciate his quirks and methodical ways, how much he helped me. Our trip to Northern Spain where he and dad drove the “prison van” and we all had such a good laugh in that garage up in Gijon. And on our trip to Istanbul, I will always remember that moment when he came running up the hill (very un-Ben) in a sweaty panic because he’d gotten separated from the group, then he broke into such sweet relief upon finding mom and Pam and me in the Mosque. And in Portugal, I loved watching him walk tall around the streets in that big hat to stay safe from the sun while he talked about his guns.  He always had a kind of cowboy way about him. He was picky and particular, and fastidious, but I grew to appreciate all of that about him.

But the thing I loved most about Ben was in the way that he talked. I tend to spin and be too hyperactive for my own good, and Ben had a way of calming me down with his monotone voice and long-winded professorial diatribes. It didn’t seem to matter what the topic was, so long as he went on and on and kept the tone consistent.

I fought them at first, but at some point, on some trip, I realized it was like fighting yoga class. Ben was like was a yoga class. I’d fight to go, but once I finally went, I realized how absolutely fantastic and relaxing it was, and that it was exactly what I needed. I grew to love Ben for who he was, and for what he said, and why he said it, and how he said it—not just because he was family.

I was so completely devastated by last year’s course of events. Hopes were so high in April and May for a cure and full recovery. He was so upbeat as he described his upcoming “stem cell birthday” to me as I sat at his feet in his San Diego living room. Then the realization sank in during June that things were going the other way.

I deeply regret that I didn’t rush to JFK when I heard the news that he was on the way home from the hospital in July. I may not have made it, but I wanted to be there to say goodbye to him—this husband of my Aunt Pam, this father of cousin Christine and cousin Jesse and cousin Tanya, this grandfather to Liam, and to Thomas, this brother in law to my dad and father-in-law to Paul.  And, this dear friend to Bill and Debbie, Brendi and Don.

So I’m here today, in this very pretty place, with all of you, to say it “Goodbye Uncle Ben, I love you.”

 

Paddleboarding in Prague? Huck Yeah!

May, 2019

If you are like me, and travel is about having an authentic adventure and feeling that special connection with your new surroundings, then look no further. I met a bonafide Huckleberry Finn of river life, right here in the center of Prague.

IMG_1674At 21 years of age, Samuel is an old soul who holds an astonishing amount of history in his head and a clear love of the Vltava in his heart. The safety of all participants is his paramount concern, and he keeps all who join him very calm and reassured with his genuine smile, bare feet and relaxed, casual demeanor.

This river is a jewel—a clean and friendly waterway to be celebrated and revered. Dotted with swans, ducks, little fishing boats, paddleboats, sailboats, riverboats and small ferries, it feels more like a cozy little neighborhood. And being on a board, paddling at your own pace, is a much better vantage point to view the buildings and bridges of this incredibly well-preserved medieval city. And it’s also a much better work out, and better way to truly experience the river than standing on a bridge or boarding a boat.

This is a safe experience for all, with inflatable boards of different sizes and lightweight adjustable paddles. The upwind paddling can be a good arm work out in heavy wind, but the downwind glides are fun and easy. Every guest is assured of a great upper body workout, including great balance and core strengthening. But the beauty of paddleboarding out on the water, is that you don’t even realize you are getting such a good work out in, because you are just having too much fun!

When you get back on land, it feels like you have conquered the river and are taking a very unique piece of Prague home with you.

On a warm and sunny day you will find many people gathered to relax and enjoy the ambiance from the riverbank. They come for the view (and that view will now include you!) as you paddle along and they marvel at your balance and wise choice to paddle with the veritable Samuel.IMG_6633

You, on the other hand, get to see Prague from a much more elevated vantage point. You are experiencing the force and power of the river’s water firsthand, and feeling at one with it, while viewing the city from a buoyant perch, as you float and glide and dip your paddle in to propel along her gentle, graceful surface. And as you do, your heart and mind will find a new gentler and slower pace, more in line with the water. And you are released from the struggles of land life, both physically and mentally. You find a new Zen, with so much wide-open space to breathe and relax into.

IMG_8323You find the river’s flow, feel the glide, sense the float, and discover your own inner strength and power—you are empowered. The wind is on your face and tickling the hair on your arms and you feel it cool your neck, while the sun warms your back. You are in that most gorgeous special atmosphere, the one where the water meets the air, and where the water’s power can be more easily felt.

IMG_1670This Bohemian Sea, as it is commonly referred to, is the longest river in the Czech Republic (at 270 miles long), and has flowed from so far away to get here. You feel it’s power and age as it holds you up and carries you along. And you think about all the damage this river has caused when it floods its banks (most recently in 2002), but also of it as the lifeline of Prague in terms of historical significance. “Prague without the Vltava River would be like an orchestra without its conductor.” And you care so much more about her history, and her future. And you are so grateful for the opportunity to have experienced her so up close and personal.

As guide and guru of this important and powerful river-force in Prague, Samuel also helps his guests feel more connected to the city’s history with relevant stories, fun facts, and tid-bits along the way while paddling. And his comfort level on the water will ease all worries that might pop up out there on the river. He really is your own personal Huck Finn, and your own River Ambassador to the magnificent and magical Vltava environs here in Prague. Learning a new waterway most definitely requires an ambassador!

IMG_5567 2I highly advise signing up for at least two SUP excursions, as we did, since the weather is fickle here. And temperature and wind conditions do make the river a markedly different experience. And as they say, you can’t step in the same river twice, because both you and the river will be different each time you enter the water. So the beauty of this experience is that you can never paddle this river the same way, no matter how often you go.

Prague itself is quiet, clean and industrious. It is a serious place with seriously gorgeous architecture to admire just about everywhere. So embrace your inner ghoul, get ready to eat a lot of goulash and Trdelnik (Prague pastry), and savor the silence. There are extraordinary sights, smells and history to be soaked up while you spend time here. Just don’t forget to get out onto the river to see it all from a paddleboard, with Samuel of SUP Prague. You won’t regret it!