Letting Go of Grandma, in Northern Spain

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Grandma (Angelita) far left, 1947

It is November 15, 2017 and Grandma “Angelita” Newton would have been 96 today. So, I am marking the occasion of her birthday by finally sharing this very personal story. We made a family pilgrimage up to the north of Spain last summer, to retrace grandma’s unusual childhood. The trip was a memorial, a tribute. But mostly, it was a goodbye.

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Grandma’s house in La Frecha, Asturias, Spain

Maria de los Angeles “Angelita” Gilbert Alonso was born in Barcelona in 1921 and lived on Valencia street. But she was abruptly taken from her mother, by her father, and brought up to the north of Spain when she was only 19 months old, along with her brother Wilson, who was just three years old. These two young children were left in a town called La Frecha, located in Asturias, Spain.

My mom and dad, my aunt Pam and uncle Ben, my cousins Janine and Christine (and their husbands) and I met up in Madrid.

The nine of us, ranging in age from 34 to 75, meandered around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor taking selfies and eating large quantities of tapas, as Americans tend to do.

We strolled through Retiro Park, taking photos with the big stone lion statues beside the pond (just as grandma had done on a visit to her beloved home country in 1947 at the age of 25).  IMG_5618 2IMG_0108Mom and I watched flamenco dancing under a full moon

We had cocktails at sunset, overlooking Ciebles FountainIMG_5613 3 and had a good laugh while looking at art in the Prado.

and then walked back to the Hotel Ritz to sleep.

On June 17, 2016 (my brother Bentley’s birthday) we piled into a rented stick-shift van, and affectionately referred to it as a “prison van” because of how uncomfortable it was. IMG_5634

But as we ascended into the north, with plenty of comraderie and funny comments–I even started a book of quotes–the vans’ lack of comfortable seats mattered less and less. And as the scenery of the stunning mountainous region of Northern Spain began to unfold before us, it was clear our adventure had begun. IMG_0573We arrived in La Frecha after five hours and climbed out of the van, having a tough time standing up straight, but in very good spirits nonetheless. IMG_5636

And then there we all were, standing before a 300-year old stone house. Grandma’s House. The house and its surroundings looked just as they did in all the old photographs from when grandma was a child.

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Me, in front of Grandma’s house in La Frecha

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Grandma, as a child standing in front of the house in La Frecha

We were warmly greeted by a mom and her daughter—two women from the village who mom had corresponded with by letters and emails.

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Mom with Marie Carmen Dodero, current owner of the house in La Frecha

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Grandma with Marie Carmen, 1985

They remembered Grandma and Uncle Wilson. They brought us into the kitchen and fed us a Spanish feast of bread and cheese and meats, and the traditional pungent sidre, that they poured from high above, without even looking—a lifelong skill.

These women, so warm, so welcoming, so wonderful, reminded me of grandma, the way they moved their hands, and the way they pulled us inside with their mannerisms, their warm touch and the lilting sound of their voices. It was the same way that Grandma behaved when we arrived to her home in Bermuda, every year of my own childhood.

I felt that warm nurturing sense of being taken care of and of being invited into a home where I was truly wanted. It was so enveloping and so calming. The way they fed us felt familiar too. The food was all prepared in advance and laid out, and they encouraged us to drink sidre and then to eat ‘til we could barely move.

IMG_0156They spoke mostly Spanish, while we spoke mostly English, but the communication was strong nonetheless and the welcome was heartfelt. We walked around the damp thick-walled house after the meal. I stood stock-still in grandma’s old bedroom, trying to picture her in it.

Then we opened the windows to the little balconies and leaned out. We then took a family photo of us perched in the windows and doorways like that and it was a full circle feeling to compare it to the photo of grandma standing in front of that house, so many years ago.

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We walked down to the river in front of the house. We scattered grandma’s ashes and Uncle Wilson’s there. I did not cry.

We drove on, to Oveido. We ate dinner at a restaurant, all nine of us, with sidre being ceremoniously splashed from high above every table.

IMG_0524We were all reminiscing about grandma and grandpa and uncle Wilson and we were smiling and laughing a lot. It was so good to have this common denominator, to share our matching and mismatching memories of grandma. It reinforced our feelings of being a family. I needed this trip. I needed to put her to rest here. I still need her, but I have the women in my family to lean on and to remember her with. To talk of her sayings, and of her cute little quirks and of her mothering ways.

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Family Gathering on the Bench in front of the house, 2016 and 1947. Grandma is 4th from right in the black and white, looking at her camera

                             Grandma and Uncle Wilson, on a visit to La Frecha, 1985

I miss being mothered by grandma. She was great at it, in spite of not having her own mother in her life as she grew up. Grandma was our collective mother hen, and we all loved her for it. I wanted to mother like her when I grew up—feeding, worrying and clucking about.

The next day we drove in our now-beloved prison van IMG_5643to the seaside town of Gijon to find the boarding school, with adjacent church, that grandma attended from age 6 to 13. Standing inside that church where grandma had attended daily mass was a powerful pause button for me. IMG_5625 2Mom had also lived in Gijon for a summer when she was 14, and so did my Aunt JoAnn. It was a quiet beautiful town with a beach (and surfing!!).IMG_0543I felt grandma’s presence very strongly while I stood at the water’s edge, feeling the ocean breeze moisten my hair, my face, smelling the saltwater and gazing at the majesty of St. Pedro’s cathedral. IMG_5624 2An elderly husband and wife, she in yellow, held hands and walked slowly along the boardwalk in the foreground—and it felt like God giving me a special moment with my grandparents. The fisherman and the surfers, and even St. Pedro’s were all suddenly blurry, while this elderly couple came into sharp relief. I took a photo and felt that moment take a strong hold over me.IMG_0213

Afterwards we went to a restaurant and ate lunch with family members in Gijon. IMG_0222 I cried alone in the restaurant bathroom, missing grandma fiercely. I guess it hit me then, in a wave of grief, that Angelita, my grandma, in all her regal Spanish beauty and motherly homemaking wonderfulness, was really gone.

We drove back to Oveido. We sat in a square by a church. We ate.

We then ran into a woman named Maria and her husband, while walking along the street. It turned out that they were relatives of ours. Well. How. About. That. So, of course we took a selfie…

Then we took a formal family photo with cousin Ignacio and left Oveido, feeling connected and complete. IMG_5627 2We drove in the prison van, past breathtaking poppy fields, and as we drove past La Frecha we made an unexpected stop.

We turned up a dirt road and parked. Then we got out and walked up a long road to the end of it, where a small lone church stood on a hill, surrounded by nothing but mountainous vistas. It was called Santa Cristina de Lena.IMG_5637 It was such a special moment, standing in that space out in the middle of nowhere, in a town that grandma inhabited as a child. I understood why mom wanted us to do this trip. As we retraced grandma’s roots—her young years before she moved to New York at age 17 and married my grandfather at 18—we all felt closer to her. We understood her more. We felt more connected, to her, and to each other.

We then drove back to Madrid, maneuvering over mountain ranges while managing fights with “Greta” (the name we gave the navigation system), carsickness, claustrophobia, and some fairly unnerving toll booths and while my dad and uncle took turns burning the clutch. We made it to Madrid safely and retreated yet again to Retiro park for sunset.

We drank champagne on the hotel balcony IMG_5628 2before a late outdoor dinner in the Ritz garden, where jasmine bloomed.IMG_6014

The next day I woke up early to run, unfettered, around the streets of Madrid. I found myself drawn in by the old buildings, all strung together and full of storied history. IMG_5615 2I let myself get lost among the winding cobblestone streets of the old quarter—the ones that connected the plazas and the squares.IMG_5617 2A weightlessness took hold, and I decided I’d like to live there. I loved being alone, exploring, feeling so calm and so full of adrenaline at the same time. I loved being so unencumbered, so free. As I ran with no plan or idea of where I was, I suddenly found myself at the corner of Calle San Ricardo and Calle Santa Maria. And felt grandma’s presence strongly, yet again.

I continued on and found great little nooks and crannies and stellar views and my knees were holding up somehow, and I felt like I was twenty years old again. I loved Santa Ana Square and all its little feeder streets. I loved Madrid.

I found a youth hostel full of kids in line—all talking with each other instead of lost zombies on their phones. Heads were up, eye contact was being made, and smiles were appreciated in real time while body language was being read. They were connecting, in person, and it made me wonder if travel is truly one of the last ways that these twenty-something year olds can find freedom from their phones.

Somewhere between the limbo of cruising altitude, jetlag, patchy WiFi, roaming charges, time zone issues, and cultural interference (such as the 11pm dinner hour in Spain) we become free from our hostage-holding devices. That freedom further enhances the empowerment found by traveling with only the pack on your back. It is so much easier to process and to sit with the culture and revel in the scenery when not “plugged in” to our phones. It allows one to rediscover the lost art of conversation and to truly share in the experience at hand with the people beside you.

In my case, it was my extended family, and it was a gift. I am so lucky to have such adventure-loving, wander-lusting family members. IMG_5642 2The irony here is that Grandma would have SO LOVED this trip. Oh my goodness she would have reveled in the adventure of it, and of being back in Spain, and being in all of these places surrounded by her family.

Grandma, I so wish you could have been there.

I love you and I miss you every day. You live on in all of us.

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Post Script

Dear Mom,

You are incredible. Your self-appointed role as family historian is mesmerizing and such a blessing—one that benefits us all. You are a pillar of strength. You are funny and smart and compassionate (almost to a fault). You are my best friend. You are the one I want to talk to when I’m sad and also when I’m happy.

I can’t believe how you pulled off this amazing trip to Spain so beautifully. It all came together so perfectly. I still can’t believe how great it all was. I honestly had so many “feel closer to grandma” moments while we were there. I loved seeing so much family and feeling so connected to our Spanish heritage. You really amazed all of us. Honestly.

I just wanted you to know that all of your hard work in putting us together with the past was not in vain. I love you mom, and I’m so grateful to have such a funny, smart, adventurous, ‘keeper of the family tree’ for a mother. 

Love,  Lisa

Seeing Spectacular Salzburg, at an American Pace


Holy cow, we did it, we saw a sizable amount of Salzburg in just under 36 hours! We hit the ground running, arriving by train from Vienna (209 miles to the East) into the sparkling station, set against a Bavarian alp backdrop that took our collective breath away.

We taxied over to the Old Town (Altstadt), cradled by the Monchsberg mountain ridge on the left bank of the Salzach River, taking in the stunning 17th and 18th century steepled skyline of this festival city famous for Mozart and The Sound of Music. We checked into the quaint and lovable Hotel Goldener Hirsch at Getreidegasse 37, just a few doors down from Mozart’s house of birth. Oozing with character and luxury, the hotel was in a prime location and made us all, from teens to septuagenarians, feel “Austrian cozy” in an instant.

After settling into our spectacular Alpine rooms (#53 and 39) we took off to climb around Saint Peter’s catacombs, cut into the rocks of Monchsberg, and check out the abbey. We photographed and skulked our way through squares and past horse drawn carriages, winding alleys and outdoor eating spots, soaking in the scenery and feeling that out of body sensation and timelessness that only travel within foreign countries can create.

We chose to ascend in the Funicular, in place since 1892 and an attraction in its own right. We had no wait time, which in the height of European summer season, is nearly unheard of, then rose effortlessly and in total style. 43 seconds and bam, just like that, we were inside the commanding fortress known as “Festung Hohensalzburg.”13528425_10153793536627252_7560450267208477039_oBegun in 1077 and then expanded over the following centuries, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. We wandered and explored, winding ourselves further and further up until finally, we could go no further. My bum knee complained a little, but the commanding views served to quiet it down quickly.

The Rainer Regiment, Fortress and Marionette museums added to the well preserved interiors and atmospheric courtyards, forcing us to savor the Austrian essence, flavor and slower pace of the place. 13528302_10153786969717252_2412986132648339696_oThen my mom and I found ourselves in the top turret, taking in the 360 degree views of  mountains, swift running rivers, valleys, castles, and steeples of the storybook village of Salzburg and its environs. We were so high up and barely able to contain ourselves with such gorgeous views. We took panoramic photos and videos on our iPhones, in vain, to try to capture the magnificence.

When sated, at last, we climbed back down to wander our way back to the hotel, which had a great shower and a stunning fortress view from its little square stone window. We charged dead phone batteries and then rushed over to sit in amazement during a performance of Mozart in Residenz, at Kuenburg Hall, to soak up Salzburg’s claim to fame, Mozart.

Classical music filled our souls and spirits, and then just as we were settling into the calming Austrian rhythm, we snuck out early and raced (like the Americans that we truly are), to catch the 6pm boat, running along the riverside bike path like we were escaping a fire. We nearly got hit by relaxed, bicycling locals, just before we hopped aboard the scenic tour boat, in the nick of time.

The boat ride was worth the rush though, and it gave us a great overall view of Salzburg and the surrounding alps. As we sped up and down the river, we enjoyed the vistas and especially loved sitting in the back of the boat while the captain set it spinning against the fast currents.

After the boat tour we made a quick pitstop back at the hotel before ascending an elevator built inside the rocky Monchsberg ridge, to reach a breathtaking view at the glitzy bar and restaurant venue of M32 (also the location of the Modern Art Museum). We drank Austrian amber beer and reveled in the grand scenery and the minimal crowd.13585039_10153793586372252_6276773117858921429_oAfter drinks, we hit St. Peter Stiftskeller, the oldest restaurant in Europe, started by Benedictine monks in 803AD, to dine alfresco in cloistered bliss enjoying the best goulash in Austria where the ceiling frescoes were so beautiful they made me cry.

Following dinner we wandered around town in its evening glow, crossing the love lock bridge and checking out Hotel Sacher. We had the pedestrian streets, such as Getreidegasse, all to ourselves.

We watched the lights of the Fortress turn off at midnight, marked by church bell chimes. I fell asleep shortly after that, breathing in cool mountain air, still tasting the pistachio marzipan treat I’d found on my pillow. Scents lingered, damp hollow alley moss from Mozart Gate and horses from the clip-clopping carriages, wafting up to find me, as I perched in a small square red-curtained Austrian window, feeling time stand still, gazing at the church spires and domes, feeling so beautifully insignificant.

We woke up the next morning, recharged. I had an awesome run thru Mirabell Palace and Gardens and past Mozart’s Residence and even into Holy Trinity Church. Then I wound my way over to search for the “YOHO” youth hostel that I remembered so fondly from a brief New Year’s Eve stay in 1989 while backpacking during college with my best friends, Joanna and Ellen. To my amazement, I found it. It has been 26 years, but there I was again, standing inside it, at Paracelsusstr 9, taking photos and texting them to Joanna and Ellen. It was such a great full circle feeling. I ran back to have a coffee and toast with Nutella with my family in the hotel restaurant, set in a historic vault, also a former horse stable.

Fueled up, we took to the souvenir shops on Getreidegasse and Residenzplatz to load up on dirndls and lederhosen from Trachten Wenger, 13582080_10153793578612252_1449933967574647334_otraditional hats, swiss army knives, necklaces, Swarovski crystal, dancing Mozarts and marzipan treats. 13494942_10153786338497252_1497760124899663455_nWe definitely got our fill of beer steins, cow bells, aprons and Austrian outfits, that’s for sure.

We then hurried to drop our treasures off at the hotel before starting off on a private tour with our guide, Deter, who piled us all into his van and whisked us off to Mirabell gardens where we stood on the top of the steps, just as Julie Andrews had in The Sound of Music, to admire the flowering gardens. 13559013_10153793578742252_8553738299225291737_oThen we headed off to see Leopoldskron Castle, which was depicted as the von Trapp family home in The Sound of Music movie. Audrey sat with the ducks and we all relaxed for a brief moment.13522883_10153789280292252_7633382382504242428_o

We then headed to Hellbrunn Palace to spend a little time with the actual gazebo from the movie. My mom pointed out that Jeffrey is 16 going on 17, just like the famous song described, and so we took pictures of the kids in front of the gazebo IMG_8113and then got back in the van to drive up into the hills. 13584944_10153793536722252_5432244459345991130_oAnd we all piled out to prance around in a field, singing “the hills are alive,” a la Julie Andrews.

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Then we took off toward St. Wolfgang and St. Gilgen to admire Lake Wolfgang’s emerald water and the surrounding alps. IMG_8242Listening to the Sound of Music soundtrack while driving up into the mountains was just the BEST. It mellowed us all out…transforming us from angst-filled Americans to melancholy-filled European mushes. My dad was humming. Audrey was sleeping. Jeffrey was smirking and wearing that goofy hat. Pam and Ben were just chilling in the back and mom was singing along to the music. Rob was relaxing, smiling inside, I’m sure, probably mostly at the thought of me in a dirndl twirling through the fields of edelweiss like a loon, channeling my inner Julie Andrews in true cult film fan-ness.

All that Sound of Music song-singing I did when the kids were toddlers finally paid off, because while alp-ascending, I could feel a powerful head cocking coming from the backseat due to the recognition and comfort of songs harking back to their jogging-stroller days. Days when I could sing Do Ray Mi and Edelweiss, off key, to my heart’s content, and THAT was their entertainment. Whether they liked it or not, this music and this movie was inside of them. I’d put it there, instilled it deeply early on, when they couldn’t fight me on it or tune me out with their iPhones. And I was glad for it.

Now here we were prancing around Austria and they were quieted and calmed by the music and the majesty, in spite of themselves. Kids, it’s still in you, and now you have traveled into the birthplace and heart of the story, and the birthplace and home of Mozart too, for that matter.

The Sound of Music is timeless and romantic. It is a classic film that I loved as a child. It is filled with such powerful messages of  hope, change, and the importance of family and pride in one’s country. May we have a little Maria and a little von Trapp in all of us.

Salzburg gave us everything. Scenery, souvenirs, fortresses, cathedrals, abbeys, gardens and river fun. But mostly it gave us music and even gave me a throw back to those carefree college backpacking days, with that YOHO visit and also with the compartment-style train ride back to Vienna. 13532878_10153789262687252_2817958913850709917_nIt gave us good old-fashioned family fun and great bonding with music sung about making music. And all with clean crisp mountain air, blue skies with puffy white clouds and glistening cathedral rooftops. It left us enchanted, and in just under 36 hours.

Epilogue: This trip was taken June 2016 and on my next trip to Salzburg I vow to: 1) stay longer 2) visit the Durrnberg Salt Mines 3) check out Eagle’s Nest, 4) see the ice caves of Eisriesenwelt 5) spend more time in the Lake District 6) go to a Mozart Dinner concert 7) attend The Sound of Salzburg Dinner show 8) get a Salzburg card to make getting around a little easier. Oh yeah, and slow down a little. 🙂 maybe…

 

 

 

Wondering about Wanderlust?

I’ve always wanted to go to Wanderlust, you know, to find my true north and all, but it was never a convenient time, due to assorted graduations and other summer travel plans.

But this year it finally happened. I squeezed in ONE day of the four-day long festival, up at Stratton, Vermont in between other summer plans. And here’s what I thought…

On June 21, 1017, significantly both the summer solstice and International Yoga Day, I drove north alone, watching an endless sunset, as the world got greener, cooler, cleaner and just plain easier to breathe in. I rolled the windows down and relaxed into the warm clean air. I had signed up online weeks earlier for a full line up of assorted festival activities, so I eagerly got to bed on the early side.

Best laid plans…I overslept my alarm the next morning, but chose to see that as my body’s way of feeding itself a dose of much-needed sleep in this oxygen-rich mountain air. So I sadly missed out on my much-anticipated 8am “Rise & Shine SUP Yoga” experience, but made it to the base, just in time for my 10am Ridgeline Loop hike.

The gondola ride up to the top of Stratton Mountain was filled with fun conversation with eager ladies of the same mindset. They had come here from as far as Austin to create a healthier mind and body by engaging in rejuvenating and restorative experiences in this tranquil summer space. We all hoped to nurture our inner strength and peace. What I quickly discovered is that Wanderlust is SO much more than just yoga!

And so we hiked along the trail inhaling that strong pine tree scent and getting familiar with what drew us each here. Then we made it to the Firetower and climbed up it to cloud level, taking in the majestic views of green mountains for miles and ski resorts in lush summer splendor.

Giddy with the forest scented scenery, our little sub group followed the trail back to the gondola and rode it back down to the village, savoring our accomplishment and all that still lay ahead for us in Wanderlust land.

Mary Jo (my new hiking friend) and I proceeded to get face and body glitter and golden flash tattoos touting “#nohormonesPLZ.” We were behaving like middle school besties. Tribal markings now in place, we meandered around the various vendors getting free samples of everything from Goodnessknows granola bars to Calendula creams.

 

We then spotted a “popsicles” sign, and since it was a sunny 73 degrees and the hike had warmed us up we ended up indulging in homemade popsicles made out of champagne and berries! It was decadent and delicious. Then I left my newfound friend to go to listen to Katie Dalebout talk about her “Journey through Journaling” in the Chapel of the Snows. I bought her book and left feeling that my soul had been massaged.

I wandered over to check out the slackline and AIReal yoga and got to see a dear friend at the INDACreations booth, where she was selling sage bundles wrapped in sunflowers.

There was a great clothing boutique set up across from Stratton Real Estate selling beautiful wrap dresses and 70 styles pants in wild prints to complete the hippie look and feel. I bought a few fun frocks then went to my 2pm class and hung upside down in the AIReal yoga hammock. Talk. About. Fun.

We were all plied at every turn with unusual but insanely delicious tidbits, like butter coffee, chai flavored protein powder concoctions and tofu wraps pretending to be chicken. I felt that I was eating my way through the day, yet still feeling hungry. Foods like Buddha Bowl popcorn, in all its organic bliss, didn’t offer much in the way of calories, after all that yoga and hiking.

IMG_2962Much to my chagrin, just as the Justin Michael Williams daytime music set late was getting started, I had to hit the road to get home. The handmade and repurposed blue jay feather and leather earrings from Kelly Horrigan were a last-minute “must have.” They matched my new dress and were irresistible.

I left the base area as a hundred fellow Wanderlusters were assuming the down dog position in the main tent, wearing headphones “for a private experience.” I looked longingly for a minute before moving on, away from all the fun. IMG_2964 Wanderlust was a perfect solo experience, but I could also see it being great as a couple’s retreat or as a girl’s getaway.

www.Wanderlust.com 2018, I will be back!! 🙂

#FindYourTrueNorth #Wanderlustfest #WanderlustFestival #StrattonMountain #Wanderlust2017

U’i Kaua’i: Aloha and Mahalo for this Garden Island

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 1.04.40 PMIf you are wondering whether it’s worth that very long flight to take your next vacation in Hawaii, the answer is YES. It’s worth it, so book it today and just GO!

In case you didn’t already know, Hawaiian Airlines has a direct flight from JFK to Honolulu. It’s easy and awesome and yes, well, it was an 11 1/2 hour flight sitting upright in a small space, but it flew by, really. I made friends with my seat mate (no, sadly it wasn’t Laird Hamilton) and bonded with my laptop for many beautifully uninterrupted hours. Then the quick connection to Kauai allowed just enough time to feel that delicious humidity hit our skin, grab a starbucks and put on a real lei. IMG_0002The smell was heavenly. We then boarded the next plane for a 20 min blip of a ride, not even enough time to unbuckle or use the bathroom!

When we landed at Kauai’s airport in Lihue, the first thing that struck me was the airport’s open air design, which tells you everything you need to know: this place is such a tropical paradise that baggage claim has no need for walls or doors! Honestly? Aloha AND Mahalo!

Then came the rental car experience: chickens running wild around the Avis parking lot. It was unsettling at first, all that cockadoodledooing while we tried to sign papers and pile into our bright white pick up truck, but it quickly became unbelievably perfect. 🙂

The 25 min drive to Poipu Beach from Lihue was jaw-dropping. The tree tunnel (a beautiful canopy of Eucalyptus trees that line Maliuhi Road to create a natural gateway to the south shore, including the towns of Koloa and Poipu.) Fun fact: the original 500 trees were planted in 1911 as a gift to the community from Pineapple Baron Walter McBryde.

This tunnel and the rest of the drive felt like it was all straight out of a movie. Oh wait, yes, of course, this “garden isle” has been the backdrop for a million movies! Even the Safeway has a magical setting with views of the mountains that made me suddenly want to find the closest house to buy and move right into, just so THAT could be MY Safeway to shop in! Everything was so lush and green. It really was Jurassic Park. Holy Cow. No wonder they love to film movie after movie here–everything from classics like Blue Hawaii, South Pacific, and Raiders of the Lost Ark to more current releases such as 6 Days, Seven NightsThe Descendants and Jurassic World.

We chose to avoid the big hotel chains and opted for Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort in south coast’s Poipu Beach to take advantage of the better weather on that side of the island, along with the stellar surfing breaks.  I can’t recommend the hotel more highly. It was intimate, classy and peaceful.  And the free flowing pog juice in the lobby hit the spot every single time.

We settled into room 174, which was ground floor and oceanfront, complete with whale watching, non-stop surfer spectating, flickering tiki torches and yes, of course, plenty of chickens and roosters galore.

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This rooster fest, combined with jet lag, allowed us to see every sunrise on the trip! Mahalo! We kept our surfboards lying on the lawn in front of our room…a mere 20 steps from the water’s edge where we paddled out to catch waves each day (or tried to!).  I ate way more humble pie in those waves than felt a surfer’s high, but it was heavenly just to be sitting out there, astride my board, among so many natives doing their daily thing.

We did our absolute best to cram our 5-day stay in with an adventurous itinerary.  We’d planned it out way in advance with some help from the hotel concierge. This included surf lessons for the girls on our first morning by Hoku water sports. They rented boards and gave SUP and surf lessons right from our hotel, and it was just a few steps (so manageable!) across the grass from our room.

After tackling the ocean, we set about seeing the island by ATV, on the “Koloa Tour”, starting off at the old Koloa Sugar Mill. The scenery was epic, but our guide was horrific and our ATV broke down. She somehow seemed to blame us for having to wait for a new one to be brought out to us while we sat in the middle of nowhere. So, I hesitate to promote this experience, but with the right guide, it would have been better.

We finished the day off in better form, with a dinner at the Beachhouse, located on a beautiful surf break on nearby Lawa’i Beach Road. Sunsets from here are insane.

The next day we departed out of Port Allen to see the Napali Coast, aboard a 65 foot catamaran. It was a full day adventure with Blue Dolphin Tours.

We added in the optional scuba diving with sea turtles (of course!), which we captured on GoPro, and it was a total highlight.

The rest of the boat tour was just magical, except for my debilitating seasickness (from the 8 foot swell) and extremely stiff neck (from the scuba diving).  IMG_0019I whined to another seasick passenger that I just couldn’t look left, and his retort was “don’t worry, it’s nothing to see, just the Napoli coast!” That gave us a good laugh while we nursed our ginger ales and watched whales and dolphin from the stern of the boat, covered in throw up.

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We got back to the hotel and I retreated like an injured seal to Kaola Landing for a much needed massage, before we ate dinner in the playful outdoor setting of Keoki’s Paradise across the street.

We started the next day off by admiring the giant sleeping (pregnant!!) Hawaiian monk seal on the beach before breakfast. IMG_0054

After that, we did our usual surf watching then spent the bulk of the day zip lining. The experience was truly thrilling, yet safe, and I can’t recommend it more highly. Koloa zip lining was such a professional outfit. The day was such a success because our guides were truly inspiring, kind and wonderful.

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Later that night we made our way a hundred yards along the beach to the Auli’i Luau at the Sheraton, where we made friends with some local ladies over dinner, then swam in the ocean after dark.

After the Luau, the girls met some girls their own age from California while we were in the hotel’s hot tub in the rain.

The next day was spent helicoptering to Jurrasic Falls, the Napali coast & Waimea Canyon. It took our breath away to get those views from the air.

It’s hard to admit, but the real highlight for me was when the helicopter pilot said, almost as an aside, “and down there is the waterfall (Wailua Falls) that they used in the opening credits of the TV show “FANTASY ISLAND”. IMG_0068What!?!?!  I started to take even more photos than I usually do. I could suddenly hear Tatoo yelling “Da Plane, Da Plane!” Oh my goodness. I was instantly a kid again: I’m in Fantasy Island!?!?! At last!! After spending so much of my childhood hoping to get there, I’d FINALLY arrived!!  Ok, so that added perspective clearly put me in my happy place.

After we got back to earth, we went to do some scenic horseback riding which included trotting around by Secret Beach, on Gillian’s Beach and along Mahalopo Beach.

It was awesome and we had incredible vistas at every turn. The Hawaiian cowboy who led our group was a hoot.

We chose to dine at Merriman’s (upstairs) that night in The shops at Kukui’ula and it was really fabulous. The colonial island atmosphere was created by live music, open air setting and beamed ceiling, ceiling fans and throwback photographs of Hawaiian history adorning its walls. It was a charming ambience mixed with amazing food–the ahi poke was my favorite and the chocolate purse finish was irresistible.

Our last day was reserved for vegging…

This included surfing, snorkeling with the most beautiful variety of tropical fish at Poipu beach, climbing out to lie in little coral pools (and sunburning), getting beach side massages, and shopping for bathing suits and souvenirs at both Poipu Shopping Village and The shops at Kukui’ula. The local puka dogs and shaved ice were big hits. The ubiquitous macadamia nuts and the Honolulu cookies we bought in the airport on our way home were also fabulous.IMG_0092                 …ahhh, and our high school Hawaiian spring break was complete 🙂 IMG_0086

Notes for when you go:

Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines get a thumbs up across the board and especially for offering that nonstop from New York to Honolulu. www.hawaiianairlines.com 

Avis Rental’s rugged white pick up truck was super fun and just perfect for this “garden island.” https://www.avis.com/en/home

Accommodations:

Koa Kea Hotel & Resort: beachfront sublime in the very popular Poipu beach area. Our 6 night stay of April 10-17, 2017 was at a rate of $532/night including full breakfast for 2. I found this extremely reasonable given the location, the amenities and the time of year. Bottom line: I loved this hotel. http://meritagecollection.com/koakea/

Activities:  

Kauai ATV (part of the same outfit as Koloa Ziplining): NOT my favorite. the ATV’s broke down, the guide was actually mean, and the experience was not ideal, but the scenery was still epic. https://www.kauaiatv.com

Blue Dolphin Charters: Na Pali Coast tour with optional Scuba diving. I got soooo seasick, and cricked my neck from the weight of that scuba tank when I got out of the water. So yea, other than being sick and injured it was a fantastic experience! and they guarantee dolphins, so that’s nice. most people snorkel instead of scuba. I wish we’d gone with Captain Andy’s as I’d heard many good things about that outfit. Next time!! https://bluedolphinkauai.com

Island helicopters: just so very professional and fantastic. We felt so safe and we loved the 75 minute Jurassic Falls landing trip that included their Kauai Grand Tour. It’s the only company that has the rights to land there, so that makes it very special. www.island helicopters.com 800-829-5999.

Koloa Zipline: absolutely fantastic fun. What a thrill, and the guides were just amazing!! Such a difference from it’s sister operation (Koloa ATV). https://www.zipline.com/kauai

CJM Country Stables: a great outfit with awesome horses and an unbelievable setting allowing for the “scenic beach and valley ride” to be truly off the charts. http://www.cjmstables.com

Dining:

Red Salt: We ate there the first night since it’s the only restaurant in Koa Kea hotel and we didn’t want to stray too far our first night. It was good, but honestly I was so jet lagged that I wasn’t a great judge of it. Good ambience though. http://meritagecollection.com/koakea/dining-at-red-salt/

Beach House: We loved it enough to go 2 nights (our second and our last night). The setting can’t be beat, as it’s situated right on a surf break with perfect sunset views and an open air setting serving very good food. http://www.the-beach-house.com/

Keoki’s Paradise: a good choice for the live music, warm spinach artichoke dip, Dinosaur Kale salad, and Kimo’s Hula Pie. www.keokis.com/

Auli’i Luau: at the Sheraton hotel in Poipu. It was OK, but felt fairly contrived. The Hyatt might be a better choice. www.auliiluau.com/

Merriman’s Fish House, Poipu: We ate in the upstairs section, which had awesome live music, an open air “island colonial” atmosphere and crazy good food. The whole experience was quite ethereal. https://www.merrimanshawaii.com

What I heard was awesome and will do next time:

+Do Captain Andy’s rafting experience in the sea caves of the Napali coast.

+Check out Opaeka Falls.

+Visit Kilauea Lighthouse.

+Explore the whole Hanalei Bay area.

+Drive in and hike Waimea Canyon.

+Go explore Ke’e Beach and hike up from there.

+Go surf at Pakala (Infinities) Beach, on the west side.

+Eat at Hukilau Lani restaurant.

+Go cliff jumping at shipwreck beach.IMG_0075

Atlantis or Ashram? Chaperoning Spring Break in the Bahamas

It was March 13, 2017, the day of winter storm Stella’s arrival along the eastern seaboard, when we touched down in Nassau. The blue green waters were mesmerizing and everyone on that Jet Blue plane let out a collective sigh of relief. We had all escaped the storm and were now embracing the warm sunshine, balmy breezes and high humidity with relish.

After standing in an immigration line at Nassau airport teeming with other teens and their designated parental units, my high school senior son, Jeffrey, and I taxied to the behemoth Atlantis, Royal Towers. We took in all the grandeur of this colossal development on Paradise Island, which I’d always heard about, but had never seen.

 

We walked into the lobby

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to instant echoes of  “Hey Jeffrey!” Friends bounced off a bench in greeting. So I took my cue to exit and went to explore The Cove, where the moms were staying. My friendly seat mate on the plane had talked up a world famous ashram a short walk down Paradise Beach from The Cove, so that is where I headed.

 

And I’m so glad that I did. Maneuvering through this calming labyrinth of seaside serenity and simple living nestled quietly between the behemoth Atlantis and the Cruise ship bustle of Prince George Wharf, was like finding an oasis in a desert. The irony was bubbling over.

 

Colorful tents were set up all over the property, and the murals were bright and cheery. The setting was Gilligan’s Island gorgeous, so inviting yet untouched, raw and rustic.  I immediately wanted to stay forever. I picked out the exact little yellow bungalow that spoke to me, the one with the billowy white curtains and perfect view of the crashing waves with its own hammock beckoning in the shade of a swaying palm.

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I saw a woman journaling and I could almost feel my inner being growing vicariously. I could just stay and write and find my inner self too. Even the wind and the saltwater was more magical over here.

Instead I vowed to come back for an 8am or 4pm yoga class on one of the outdoor platforms. (I did go back the next day, and it a phenomenal 2 hour class, especially the post class tofu breakfast!)

I reluctantly meandered back to the world of spring breakers partying in The Cove’s Adult Pool. Barely clothed bodies writhing around, soaking up plenty of rum and sun and loud music made me flinch at the irony. I saw no “adults” in sight, just teens being given way too much leeway to get into serious trouble.IMG_0011But I joined the other moms near the pool and smiled and tried to accept this reality. But inside, I was yearning to pluck each one out of that pool and bring them over to the ashram so that they could shavasana and namaste their time away, and eat broccoli for breakfast while feeling their inner beings shine and grow.

But no, the “island mon” rum slugging and bikini prancing continued. And there they would stay, hugging and laughing, hanging onto each other and swaying and singing in the sun, in a haze of rum.

So I nibbled at my club sandwich and nursed my Bahamian beer in submission. All the seasoned chaperones seemed relaxed, over their conch salads and Bahama Mamas, looking the other way through their mirrored sunglasses, condoning this reality. And I was no better, no better at all.  I was right there in the middle of it, not speaking up.

But I had a very bad pit of worry inside my gut the whole vacation, and it worsened every time I texted Jeffrey, but got no answer. My pit, this feeling of dread, shrunk ever so slightly each time we chaperones gathered together to commiserate. Diffusion of responsibility was hard at work there. The news of a dear friend’s college deferral hit us all hard and lots of hugs and “I’m so sorry’s” echoed across our beach chairs in the Disney-esque setting.

After I swam to the ashram the next afternoon, we saw a girl in the adult pool being held upright between 2 friends. Her eyes were big and glazed over, and she was clad in a teenie weenie bikini and weighing in at no more than 90 pounds. I approached, an uninvited boxing trainer at the bell, offering non-judgmental parental help. She was in bad shape from drugs or alcohol or a mix, but her friends immediately clamored, “ Oh don’t worry –she’s like this every weekend,” and dragged her off, and my pit grew, making my knees weak.

The next day I got a text from a fellow chaperone that my son had gotten hurt and was on his way to the hospital.

My pit tripled in size and I raced to find the right hospital. From a series of texts from fellow chaperones it became apparent that he was at Doctor’s Hospital. I pulled up in a taxi and as soon as I laid eyes on him my pit disappeared. He was hurt, but he has okay. The dread and fear that made up that pit was gone. I had my son with me. I got this. I can help. I can finally help my child out instead of just sitting helplessly on the sideline (albeit a sideline with turquoise water and pretty palm trees) while he parties with the other privileged teens.  I swung into medical advocate gear and got him through the x-rays and the doctor assessment and the splint.IMG_0039

I was so relieved that I was there in person to help him. This, this was why I’d come. We were both definitely upset, but we were also both thinking it could have been so much worse. I’ll take this sprained thumb of his over the countless other possibilities that could happen here in this crazy teen party scene.

Then we got him back to the hotel and he rejoined his friends and I was immediately invisible, (and helpless and useless) once again. So I took my lame duck self to the straw market downtown for a quick souvenir acquisition of cigars, rum, rumcakes, straw hats and knick-knacks.

While I was about to look for the infamous fish fry, still feeling shaken up from the hospital jaunt, my phone started pinging: a boy in attendance at another fancy private school was in rough shape from way too much alcohol. He had apparently been taken to a chaperone’s room to recover. My pit regrew and I raced back to the hotel. How can all this partying, with its pitfalls and dangers, be so outwardly condoned by us parents? My presence here was an act of pardon, and it made me feel like a failure as a parent. We were supposed to protect our children from all of this, not sign them up for it and take a plane ride to partake!!

Thoughts of the ashram, the boy, the girl, the hospital, the waitlist, all ran through my head as I watched the sun set.

Yes, it was beautiful, but my discomfort at what we were allowing as parents to occur was eating away at my insides. The pit was gargantuan now. Why couldn’t we all just enjoy the Water park and Dophin Cay together, or maybe even some snorkeling, or perhaps a round of golf?

So, I walked into Nobu at Royal Towers on our last night to meet my fellow chaperones in sympathy, and to celebrate that the 3 day trip was almost over.

After dinner, well, I admit, we tried our hand at the casino. It was hard not to get sucked in. We tried poker then blackjack and had so much fun winning and losing and ultimately walking out of there at 2am with an extra 780 dollars in our pockets. We felt pretty good.

But wait, I digress, don’t we owe it to our teenagers to be better role models? To teach them that this all isn’t really ok? Somehow the reigning ideology is this: “they are going to do it anyway so let’s just fly them first class to a place where 18 is the legal age to drink and gamble and we will let them loose there.” How did this even become a thing? ARGH!!

So for anyone thinking of going on spring break with their teen in this manner, well, I hope this story helped shed a little color on the experience. Forewarned is forearmed. And be prepared for the moral alarm bells to ring loud and clear.

The straw bags and sunshine just weren’t worth it.

 

 

A Sacher Sweet Brexit

Vienna, Austria   June 2016IMG_7452 While strolling the Karlsplatz with Opera in the air and eating sacher torte, we learned of Britain’s exit from the EU. It felt so apropos to be in Vienna, the place of conferences and conventions and convening, when we first heard this big news. We checked into the Grand Hotel Wein at Karntner Ring 9 and strategized what Viennese sight to see first.

As we began to sightsee, we found this pedestrian-happy city of Vienna to be prim and proper. It’s imposing atmosphere of formality reminded me of how Singapore felt when I spent time there in my 20’s.

This city boasts Mozart and tap water from the alps (the only Austrian province that does) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (we can’t forget about him!) It feels like a sense of humor is not appropriate to have here in Vienna. Ask a local for directions and he or she gives a brief pointed look and rushes on.
Partly due to that,  I got lost while running, then got caught in a rainstorm, and ended up at the canal instead of Karntner ring. I’d gotten turned around somewhere near St. Stephen’s church.

It wasn’t my proudest moment, and I do know that if the locals were less intimidating I may never have gotten so lost, felt so foolish, and gotten so wet. Vienna felt impervious to free spirits. I found other European haunts, such as Salzburg and Budapest, to be way more welcoming.

We did find some poetic elements to this city such as the Opera House, where we could stand outside in the warm summer evening air and witness incredible ballet and listen to riveting opera. IMG_7246IMG_7302
This soft summer evening experience made us fall in love with Vienna while strolling the Karntner Strasse with all the other pedestrians. St. Peter’s church and Stephansplatz were fantastic. And the horse and carriage (a Fiaker) ride at night was historical and intimate.

As we clip clopped past pretty churches through narrow streets we relaxed and felt peaceful. It was expensive, but we felt it was worth it. IMG_7288Vienna was most enjoyed eating Viennese cooking, which we did with fancy dinners of wiener schnitzel and apple strudel,

then finding sachertorte at Hotel Sacher (where it was invented) to enjoy it in the shadow of the opera house.

I strongly advise walking places or taking the public transport instead of taking taxis. The attractive red trams are even better while eating marzipan 🙂

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Some advice for making the most of your time in Vienna: 1) make sure to book tickets for museums and attractions in advance; 2) take advantage of walking tours; 3) travel with like minded travelers so that you can cover a lot of ground on foot with time for photo stops, souvenir stops, and occasional Viennese coffee and bratwurst from vending carts. We loved that! We never biked, but should have! 🙂

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For the most part (other than when I got lost in rainstorms) I enjoyed my morning runs on the rings to beat the summer heat. We had a great time exploring Schonbrunn Palace and the Imperial Gardens.
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Spending time touring around with our former au pair, Zaneta, who had come from Bruno, CR by bus to visit with us, was especially wonderful. Oh how I love her beautiful spirit and energy.

Zaneta and I watched the England versus Iceland Eurocup Football match on a big TV outdoors together at Stadtboden on Krugerstrauss and caught up on each others lives. It was a great summer evening and our last one in Vienna.