“The kingfisher tried to warn the Mala men about the devil dog approaching, but it was too late. Some weren’t able to escape. You can still see them there,” Rachelle, our guide, pointed to the contours of the cave wall. It was as if the men were petrified for eternity in those reliefs, struck in […]
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“The kingfisher tried to warn the Mala men about the devil dog approaching, but it was too late. Some weren’t able to escape. You can still see them there,” Rachelle, our guide, pointed to the contours of the cave wall.
It was as if the men were petrified for eternity in those reliefs, struck in a terror pose as they tried to flee. While my rational mind acknowledged a scientific explanation for the geological formations around me, I slowly began to admire them in a different way, as if the stones were living, given life through story.
It’s odd I admit to consider Uluru, a 600-million year old monolith in the middle of the Australian Outback desert, as being “alive.” It’s a rock, after all. However, the more we learned about the Tjukurpa — the lattice work of laws and stories that hold together the knowledge of the creation period for the local Anangu people — the more I understood that this seemingly barren and empty land carried both life and history.
As Rachelle continued and reflected on the over 30,000 year presence of the Anangu in the area, she reminded us that the version of the story she told was intended for beginners: “To Aboriginal people we non-Aboriginals are newborn babies. We’re only just starting to learn.”
Aboriginal Australia. It’s inspiring and fascinating. It’s also tragic and complicated I would come to find. As this discovery unfolded for me, I struggled with how I might celebrate the beauty and wisdom of the oldest living culture in the world at nearly 50,000 years while acknowledging the discrimination and socio-economic challenges that so many of today’s Aboriginal people face.
Perhaps, even with my newborn eyes, this was the beginning of my arc of understanding of Aboriginal Australia – its past, its present, and maybe a glimpse into its future.
An Aboriginal map of Australia was laid out before us on the table at Café Chloe, a new Aboriginal community job training and traveler interaction center in the town of Tully, Queensland. The map was not only visually appealing with all its blocks of different colors, but it was also instructive. In school, I’d learned that Aboriginal people in Australia were one. Instead, Australian Aboriginals are drawn from hundreds of different cultures, approximated by the presence of over 250 distinct languages at the time the first Europeans arrived.
This was new information for me, as I suspect it was for most of the other travelers in our National Geographic Journeys group. They leaned in as Dr. Ernie Grant, a Jirrbal Rainforest People elder and Aboriginal scholar, offered something more shocking. Until 1967, Aboriginal people in Australia were legally categorized as flora and fauna. That is: plants and animals, not human. Fathom that. Aboriginal people, considered to be the oldest continuous-living culture in the world (between 40,000 and 50,000 years old), did not possess any human rights in the eyes of the modern state in which they lived until 50 years ago.
Theirs is a story of mass disruption to what was once a long-standing way of living. Long-standing perhaps being the understatement of our times.
I should add that I’m aware this history sadly echoes the history of my own country, the United States, and its treatment of Native Americans. My thoughts here also recall a piece we’d written several years ago while traveling in Chile and Argentina: Unspoken Patagonia.
After our discussion with Dr. Grant, a local Jirrbal high school girl read one of the creation stories to our group so as to inform and inspire an interactive Aboriginal painting session that would follow. She was nervous, her delivery halting. She had trouble reading some of the Jirrbal words. Standing just at her side, her mother leaned in to provide pronunciation guidance. Although the pockets of silence felt awkward, the experience exuded a sort of authenticity. Many Aboriginal youth are just now learning the language and stories of their ancestors.
Sonya, Dr. Grant’s daughter and project leader, explained that training students to lead painting classes and share Jirrbal stories is not just about providing job training. Sharing with travelers from around the world also empowers Aboriginal youth by helping them to take pride in who they are and to appreciate what makes their culture valuable and worthy of cultivation.
Flying from Cairns (Queensland) to Uluru, an expanse of red-tinged desert landscape sailed beneath us. Scrub trees and tiny, scattered homes drifted by. Onto this vast landscape filmstrip I overlaid the map of the diversity of Aboriginal peoples that Dr. Grant had shown us just days before. I tried to imagine the different nomadic groups who’d made this place their home for tens of thousands of years, how they’d lived from this seemingly barren land.
On the ground, we got a glimpse into how this worked. As we walked around Uluru, Rachelle told us Anangu stories that were directly related to our surroundings: we could see each part of the story in the physical markers around us. These tales were an attempt by Aboriginal ancestors to make colorful yet practical sense of their surroundings. Cave paintings taught the next generation how to find watering holes, when to hunt, how to dig for food, and which plants were poisonous. Through story and image, they passed on lessons of how to survive and to get along with one another as a community.
Theirs was an entirely different way of thinking about life, its origins and the implications for one’s day-to-day. No better, no worse than the framework I’d grown up with. Just different. And perhaps something we could learn from.
Our last stop in the Northern Territory Outback: Alice Springs, an unlikely urban center that rises from the middle of the desert. The situation of Aboriginal people on its city streets was a shock and contrast. Many looked itinerant; some hung around in parks and slept on benches while others walked in a substance-induced haze. You could hear yelling back and forth between groups in a nearby park. The raised voices, we’re told, is a cultural feature and doesn’t always indicate anger or violence, but it added a palpable sense of tension.
Once you understand what has happened to local Aboriginal people – that the basis and traditions of their communities was stripped from them through forced deportations, murder and discrimination — you might begin to understand how they could become lost. Displace a people, introduce a substance they aren’t biologically well equipped to metabolize (alcohol), deteriorate their social structure, and you’ve executed a perfect recipe for societal decay. Our experience served as a reality check on what life is, and has been, for many Aboriginal Australians.
During our final morning in Alice Springs, we walked through town toward one of the museums recommended to us. On the way, we saw a tiny sign, hastily positioned on the sidewalk inviting us to a non-profit Aboriginal art gallery. We made the turn and found ourselves in the middle of a Salvation Army soup kitchen and social service center. A sea of people swirled around us, many waiting in line for food. The path to the art gallery, if there was one, was not clear.
Eventually, one of the employees spotted us (i.e., disoriented tourists) and led us to an unassuming office art gallery with some impressive work. Images included representations of villages, women gathering, communal hunts, and desert animals such as snakes. On the back of each canvas the artist had written in pencil the story represented, bringing context to patterns of colorful dots and strokes. Artists are paid immediately upon delivering the work to the gallery, so with each sale, money is paid forward for a new commission.
As we read the biographies of the artists, we saw talented yet ordinary members of the local community who were visually translating the stories told to them, often by their grandparents.
“Mandy [Anderson] has been painting for many years and was taught to paint by her mother and grandmother. She paints the stories handed down to her from her grandmother such as the story of six women being chased by a man. She also paints the bushtucker.”
We imagine that these artists, many of whom are parents and grandparents themselves, use their paintings not only to earn income for their families, but also to pass on their stories to the generations that follow.
So the story cycle continues.
We walked away with a handful of paintings, each with a story of an artist, each with a story of continuity. While we knew our purchase would not change things on a grand scale, we felt it a tiny, personal productive step forward.
A trip to Aboriginal Australia can unfold a double-edged story of cultural pride in the face of discrimination and exclusion, a story of changing the equation to create opportunities for Aboriginal people. It’s about celebrating Aboriginal culture and recognizing the strengths and uniqueness of this worldview so that Aboriginal communities might enjoy a newborn grounding, pride and satisfaction.
It’s also the story of how we travelers — wide-eyed, open minded novices — can learn from the Aboriginal sense of relationships based on respect and balance between people, plants, animals and the land. The more I peer into this world, the more I see how we all might benefit by applying this ancient wisdom to our modern lives so we might be better stewards of our ever-fragile world.
The story of Aboriginal Australia today is a story of how each of us, through our engagement, can take part.
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Australia offers the perfect storm for those who tend towards the fear of missing out (FOMO). It’s a huge country. It’s far away for many of us (that’s also part of its draw). And it fills a bucket list all its own of iconic experiences and destinations: the Outback, Aboriginal culture, cities, beaches, coral reefs, […]
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Australia offers the perfect storm for those who tend towards the fear of missing out (FOMO). It’s a huge country. It’s far away for many of us (that’s also part of its draw). And it fills a bucket list all its own of iconic experiences and destinations: the Outback, Aboriginal culture, cities, beaches, coral reefs, and wineries, just to mention a few.
Overwhelmed by all this, I’d imagined I would need several months or more to grasp the continent. I deferred my visit, resisting invitations for years until the time was right.
Basically, I psyched myself out.
I eventually realized that in saving my grand Australia trip for “someday” when all the stars aligned perfectly, I might end up deferring it forever. (This excuse may sound a familiar put-off for other life projects of broad scope.)
So I took a step back and reconciled that while I might not be able to experience everything Australia had to offer in a shorter visit, I could certainly experience a lot, and do so deeply.
Our recent travels in Australia confirmed it’s possible. But where to start?
That’s where this experiential guide comes in.
Although our entire trip to Australia lasted six weeks, we focus here on the experiential highlights from our first two weeks when we were on Explore Australia, a National Geographic Journeys tour with G Adventures. Even in this seemingly limited amount of time, we experienced depth and breadth, moving from the iconic to the uncovered. We dug deep into Australia’s natural history, burrowed beneath the surface of its complex relationship with Aboriginal culture, dove the Great Barrier Reef, sampled the vast expanse of the Outback, and took in Melbourne and Sydney, the country’s two largest cities.
The following experiences are in chronological order over the course of two weeks, beginning in Sydney and ending in Melbourne. If you suffer from Australia FOMO as I did, I hope this set of select experiences can help satisfy your Down Under travel sweet tooth and assist you in putting together your own Australia trip…even if you don’t think you have much time. Trust me, you’ll be able to experience more than you think.
Skip Ahead to the Region or City that Interests You Most
Although buildings aren’t often at the top of my experiential list, the Sydney Opera house was. Based on a recommendation from a friend, we took a stroll through the Botanical Gardens to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and then around the harbor walk to land at the Opera House. Check it out from a distance, but also get up close to admire the detail, including the texture of its tiles. This route allows you to appreciate a few of the central Sydney neighborhoods like Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo, and the greenery and contours of downtown Sydney along the way.
Note: If you are a runner, this circuit makes for a worthwhile morning jog, particularly if you suffer from jet lag and need to kick start the day.
Bonus: Rewards thyself afterwards with a heap or two of gelato at Gelato Messina in nearby Darlinghurst (Address: 241 Victoria Road). Hint: pistachio on top, dark chocolate underneath!
Interested in getting away from the city for some beach and hiking action? Take the public ferry to Manly (bonus: great views of Sydney Harbor and the CBD from the water). Enjoy a look or walk along Manly Beach, then begin your walk of the 10km trail around the east side of Manly Beach to Spit Bridge. This urban walking path and hiking trail is excellent and features a bit of bush walk mixed with wood plank boardwalk, topped with plenty of gorgeous coastal and harbor views along the way.
Bonus: If a secluded cove and beach to yourself is what you’re after then you’ll have your pick of several along the way.
For a beautiful, easy walk outside of downtown Sydney that has it all, the Bondi to Coogee walk is it. In a morning (or an afternoon), you can catch the surf (or watch others throwing themselves into the waves) at Bondi Beach, then set off along the coastal walk to Coogee. The path is a blend of natural and urban, quintessential Sydney.
There’s also a protected spot at Bronte Beach that’s perfect for a refreshing mid-hike swim.
I was surprised to find out that the oldest living rainforest in the world — at 135 million years old — is in Australia. (To put this into perspective, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is only 10 million years old). During our walk through the Daintree Rainforest we learned from a local Kuku Yalanji guide how her ancestors lived from and took care of this land for over 4,000 years. This inter-generational sharing of knowledge included information on sustenance-providing plants and animals, as well as those which could poison slowly or kill instantly. Quite literally, these were matters of life and death.
Bonus: Try and find a cassowary. Sadly, this large prehistoric-looking bird with a center toe claw so sharp it can supposedly cut a human in half proved elusive and we found none lurking around the rainforest.
Dan had done a live aboard advanced diving certification at the Great Barrier Reef during his first visit many years ago; I’d dreamed of diving there ever since. When you approach the reef in a boat it’s impossible to fully grasp its size (2,300 km long, thus the largest living organism on earth). Snorkel or scuba dive the reef and a whole other world emerges, one filled with various forms and shapes, brushed with the surreal colors of coral and fish.
Note: If you wish to visit some of the more remote areas of the Great Barrier Reef, begin your trip from Port Douglas rather than from Cairns. We went with Calypso Snorkel and Dive on a boat that was outfitted for both scuba divers and snorkelers. We were impressed by the quality of the boat, its on-board facilities, and the staff who were safety conscious and knowledgeable about marine biology and Australian life in general. We had a fabulous day. Even if you are not dive certified, we still recommend a snorkeling trip as others on our boat reported, unsurprisingly, that visibility and diversity of marine life were incredible.
Although it’s kind of funny when friends send you articles before your trip noting all the deadly creatures in Australia, it’s also a bit disconcerting. Just about every creature — snake, spider, jellyfish, snail (yes, even snails are dangerous!!) – that crosses your path could be poisonous and kill you. For a humorous take on this, listen to this tune.
That is where spending the afternoon with Dr. Jamie Seymour, a world-renowned toxinologist, helped put things into perspective. He taught us firsthand about the mechanics, physiology and biochemistry behind how Australia’s deadly animals create and release venom. In a 45-minute presentation, he planted enough seeds of fascination that our planned one-hour visit lasted over three hours.
As in life, once you begin to understand how these creatures work, you may find some of your fear displaced by respect.
Note: This is not an experience that is open to the general public. You can access it by taking the same tour we did — Explore Australia, a National Geographic Journeys tour with G Adventures. Alternatively, you can check out Professor Jamie Seymour’s entertaining and educational YouTube channel.
Aboriginal history and culture is a crucial component to comprehending Australia’s history and present day. A new G Adventures for Good / Planeterra Foundation cooperation in the town of Tully, called Cafe Chloe, provides an opportunity for an open and honest discussion about Aboriginal culture, history and socioeconomic challenges.
This isn’t a traditional “Aboriginal cultural experience” whereby an Aboriginal man dresses up, puts on some body paint and demonstrates how to throw a spear or boomerang. Instead, you’ll find yourself sitting around the table with a Jirrbal elder and other community members to learn about and discuss the diversity and reality of Aboriginal communities on the Australian continent since the arrival of Europeans in the 1700s.
From history we moved into learning about Aboriginal culture and the importance of story to pass on wisdom and lessons from one generation to the next. We took our hand at Aboriginal-style painting, inspired by a Jirrbal creation story.
This background helps one understand the challenges that Aboriginal people face in Australia and how their nature and land-based traditional way of life was turned completely upside-down. It also puts into greater perspective the importance and necessity of projects like Café Chloe that emphasize pride, cultural exchange and job training for Aboriginal youth.
They are actually quite good, too. Our favorite was from Mocka’s Pies in Port Douglas.
Better yet, nosh on your kangaroo pie with this view, a slice of the Queensland coast.
To cover the sorts of distance between New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory and Victoria, a few flights are necessary. And here’s why you should always try to get a window seat.
On our flight from Cairns to Uluru, we flew over ever-deepening red rust Outback. After a stretch of beautiful mountains, a few strange patches of iridescent liquid appeared, including Lake Amadeus.
Champagne. Sunset. Crazy light over Uluru and its surrounding desert brush. Yes, to all of these.
The traditional Uluru sunset that we so often see in photos is one where the giant rock outcropping of Uluru glows red against a clear sky in the day’s final light. Our sunset was instead filled with dazzling clouds and a storm that rolled across the horizon. Don’t feel bad for us. The light was spectacular if not surreal as the clouds moved quickly and dramatically across the landscape. It was our own real life time-lapse video, complete with rush of air, and the fading aroma of a warm desert afternoon.
I wouldn’t change a thing.
Note: The sunset viewing area parking lot can get crowded. Make a wee effort, and a few hundred meters away you’ll have heaps of space to yourself to enjoy your champagne.
At the root of my dreaming about Australia: the National Geographic Documentaries about Uluru and Aboriginal culture that I’d watched as a kid. My expectations for this portion of the trip were dangerously high. Fortunately, Uluru delivered not only in terms of its physical appearance (even more impressive in real life), but also in its energy and the psychological hold it draws from the telling of the Aboriginal Anangu creation stories.
As we set off on walks around the base of Uluru, our guide shared a handful of Anangu stories that on the surface were about lizards, snakes and other animals of the Outback. She then noted the physical marks on the rocks around us, which were interpreted as equivalent physical manifestations of these stories. Finally, she explained how Aboriginal people used these stories to teach survival in the harsh environment. From generation to generation, elders taught youth where to find water, how to hunt, which plants and animals were dangerous, and the delicate balance required between nature and humans for both to exist in harmony.
In this way, Uluru was alive, a sort of teacher.
Note: Even if you travel independently to Uluru I recommend signing up for one of the walking tours (e.g., the rangers run free Mala walk tours each morning). It’s a worthwhile experience to walk Uluru as someone tells stories and gives background to what locals hold sacred and symbolic.
You also must invest in a fly net when you first arrive. Don’t worry about looking silly in it. Although the flies don’t bite, they are aggressive and possess an uncanny ability to find the innermost reaches of one’s ears, nose and mouth.
Before my visit to Uluru, I’d barely heard of its lesser-known neighbor Kata Tjuta, another sacred Anangu site. Instead of monolithic, Kata Tjuta looks a convergence of multiple rock formations. As Uluru does, they dominate the visual space of the open landscape around. Creation stories also exist for Kata Tjuta, but since they are considered sacred for Anangu ceremonies they are not told to visitors.
Instead, we just enjoyed the landscape and hike through the Walpa Gorge.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about the geology and history of how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed, visit the museum at the Wintjiri Gallery near the town square.
With our minds full of imagery, physical and abstract, we set off on a five-hour journey to cross a swatch of the desert Outback from Uluru to the city of Alice Springs. This was our on-the-ground taste, albeit limited, of Australia’s vastness — a feature that some travelers ingest in weeks or even months of driving across the Northern Territory. After spending all that time criss-crossing Australia up in the air, a road trip like this is required to begin to understand this country’s vastness.
Imagine this barren landscape for thousands upon thousands of kilometers with only a few roadhouses in-between. Imagine it, too, for the Aboriginal people who once were the only ones who lived here and learned how to survive in this harsh environment.
As we learned about Aboriginal culture we understood that most paintings were not only art to admire, but visual stories designed to pass on lessons. We were interested in buying Aboriginal art, but we wanted to do so in a way that was connected to the local community and where we knew that our money would benefit the artists directly. That is where the Waterhole Gallery at the Salvation Army in Alice Springs comes in. (Located at 88 Hartley Street, right across from the Royal Flying Doctors Museum.)
It’s easy to miss the gallery, as it’s marked only by a small sign outside. Additionally, it can feel a bit intimidating since the grounds also serve as a sort of soup kitchen and community center for disadvantaged Aboriginal people. If you continue you will find a small art gallery in the back with some beautiful paintings of all sizes and colors. Each painting is accompanied by a hand-written story on the back side of its canvas. You can also request a printed biography of the artist. Not only are the paintings high quality, but we also found it more satisfying to buy here than in a traditional gallery because of the direct, personal connection to the community.
Imagine having 125 students (K-9th grade) spread out over 1.3 million square kilometers. What do you do? You engineer a classroom and school over the airwaves. It may sound odd to visit a school during one’s travels, but the will and infrastructure required for studio-taught lessons over satellite internet connections is remarkable. It makes you appreciate how Australia doesn’t let a few thousand kilometers get in the way, even for school. For more information, check out School of the Air.
In this case, we were simply lucky with our timing. Lake Eyre in northern South Australia fills with water only every few decades. But when it does, it becomes the largest lake in Australia. Seabirds from thousands of kilometers away somehow sense this (scientists still don’t know how) and fly there to breed and nest. While we didn’t have a close up look at this seabird dating frenzy, we were able to see the pink lake while flying from Alice Springs to Melbourne. Our pilot was so excited he woke everyone up to look out the window. Here’s why.
When arriving in a new city, one’s options to explore and comprehend it can be overwhelming. Rather than a random walk around Melbourne, we opted for a self-guided street art walking tour of the city. We spread the walk, along with some exploration of neighborhoods further afield, over a couple of days. This provided us with a general route through the city, anchored by street murals and fabulous alleys that serve as the playground of graffiti artists. As we sought out the next stop on the map (whose art was often replaced by something new), we were got pleasantly lost and distracted by other sites and cafes along the way.
Many cities around the world have launched bike share programs, but we were impressed by how easy and inexpensive (AUS$3 per day) the one in Melbourne is. If the weather is nice, find one of the bike stands in the city (download the Spotcycle app to make it easy), take a bicycle and one of the free helmets, and ride the coastal bike path towards St. Kilda. Continue on to the Brighton Beach changing huts.
Be sure to stop along the way in Port Melbourne for fish and chips. Treat yourself to coffee, ice cream and a long stretch of easy-going coastal views.
Note: There are no bike drop centers in Brighton, so if you don’t feel like riding all the way back to the city, catch public transportation (tram) to St.Kilda, deposit your bicycle there, and continue on to Melbourne city.
Melbourne takes its coffee seriously. Walk down any commercial street — in the center or outer neighborhoods — and you’ll be flush with coffee choice. If strong coffees are your thing, then you’ll feel at home here as a double shot of espresso is standard in a flat white (and most other drinks). Coffee art is formidable, too.
Another serious Melbourne institution: brekkie (otherwise known as breakfast to the rest of us). Walk through the CBD on a weekend morning in summertime and alleys overflow with cafes, restaurants and brunch joints offering every manner of Eggs Benedict, and the Australian brekkie favorite, smashed avocado on toast. It’s enough to drive you to eat breakfast all day long.
Proud Mary Cafe, Collinwood: Get here early as it fills up quickly for lunch. If you’re craving something savory try the fish tacos with a delicious slaw and toppings. For a sweet tooth, you can’t go wrong with the ricotta hotcakes. So incredibly rich, you will have grave difficulty moving from your seat.
Victoria Night Market on Wednesdays (November-March): During the summer months Victoria Market turns into a street food night market with hundreds of food stalls, live music, beer on tap, jugs of cold sangria and much, much more. If your time in Melbourne coincides, check it out.
The Great Ocean Road has become a popular destination within Australia for good reason. It just lives up to its name.
Park your car at the cafe at Kennett River and walk over toward the trees off to the left side. Look closely in the branches as you might find a koala bear or two sleeping in the trees. Due to the poor caloric and nutritional value of their eucalyptus-leaf diet they need to sleep up to 20 hours a day to properly digest their food and conserve energy. Resist the urge to touch them (as we saw some other tourists do) and let them sleep — and digest — in peace.
Even if you ache to get to the 12 Apostles, allow some time to stop off at Gibson Steps just before. Take the walkway down to the beach and enjoy a view of the sandstone cliffs from below. “Romantic” doesn’t even begin to capture the feeling and atmosphere here.
The 12 Apostles, the pinnacles standing at the western end of the Great Ocean Road, are among Australia’s most recognized landmarks. Regardless of how many photos of the 12 Apostles circulate, you’ll find yourself unable to take enough. As a capstone to a beautiful road trip, they still surprise, impress and dazzle visually. You’ll also notice The Apostles a few short of 12 (eight at the time of writing) due to erosion.
In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson: If you want to read one book that will provide you with a historical, geographical, cultural, and sociological overview of Australia before visiting, this is the book. Bryson manages to weave these elements in naturally into the humorous narrative of his road trips and adventures throughout the country, from Queensland to Western Australia. Really well written and provides a lot of context for visitors to better understand Australia.
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin: I found this book fascinating and it really helped me begin to get my head around the role and importance of Aboriginal “songlines” and stories. This book isn’t always the easiest read since Chatwin intersperses long-winding notes about other nomadic cultures he has researched. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find yourself appreciating the Aboriginal worldview and culture more than you otherwise might.
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This week, we are co-hosting a photo exhibition in Berlin, Germany featuring images and vignettes of women from around the world, entitled Planet Her, along with G Adventures and Lonely Planet. As we prepare our thoughts for the opening of the event, I reflect on the broader import of International Women’s Day and why, during […]
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This week, we are co-hosting a photo exhibition in Berlin, Germany featuring images and vignettes of women from around the world, entitled Planet Her, along with G Adventures and Lonely Planet. As we prepare our thoughts for the opening of the event, I reflect on the broader import of International Women’s Day and why, during the course of our journey, we became interested in women’s issues and involved in projects that aim to invest in them.
When we set off on our journey around the world almost 10 years ago, we did so with the idea that to understand a place, we needed to experience it on the ground, at eye level. To walk its streets, eat its food, and talk to and interact with its people. As we spoke to both men and women everywhere we went, the importance of story to understand various sub-narratives that course throughout our lives and the world’s communities became clear to us.
Early in our journey in the Caucasus and Central Asia, we observed women and their evolving role in society. It feels strange saying this as a man — and forgive me for the sweeping generalization — but in so many places (certainly not all), as men played backgammon, dominoes, and cards and drank tea or coffee all day, the women were caring for what needed to be cared for. Whether it was the home, the market stall, the community center or the school, more often than not the women, it seemed, were the ones doing.
In the Republic of Georgia, our friend Lena captured our sense in historical context when she said, “When the Soviet Union collapsed, our economy and way of life changed drastically. Men held their heads in their hands, saying ‘What are we going to do?’ Meanwhile, the women were out doing it. We didn’t have a choice: there were children to feed, things to take care of that no one else would do.”
As the excitement of discovery of our travels took hold and we lengthened our journey, we focused on the issue of women in development, particularly through the lens of social enterprise and microfinance programs. In one of our first photo projects in Northern West Bengal, India, we met a group of women in a kind of self-help micro-lending group whose ties to each other were not only economic but also deeply personal. The women, through their work and cooperation, lifted each other up and helped one another to grow small businesses. They used the opportunity to develop bonds and friendships across castes — something almost unthinkable in traditional Indian society — in ways that even began to surprise them.
We observed these connections and societal changes again and again, whether we happened to be profiling microfinance projects in Latin America or visiting social enterprise projects connected to Planeterra Foundation/G Adventures for Good in Tanzania.
But there was something more going on, another trend we observed.
There is a reason we continue to use the word “investment” in the context of these projects. While visiting a Kiva microfinance partner outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, we spoke to a Servanda who was a borrower and part of the program.
She gave us a hint of the importance of this concept and approach: “Never before did anyone invest in us, believe in us. Even we didn’t believe we were worthy of investment, that we could build something. Now we know, that we are able to create our own businesses.” She emphasized that she and her counterparts were not looking for handouts, but access.
Access. To education, to credit, and to opportunities to participate equally in society.
What happens when we invest? Where will that money go when placed in the hands of women who care?
As we asked women involved in these projects, from India to Guatemala to Tanzania, what they would do with the fruits of their business efforts and their newly earned income, the responses echoed a similar theme.
“I want to send my children to a better school.”
“I want to be able to buy better food and take them to the doctor when they need it.”
“I want my daughter to finish school, unlike me.”
The G Adventures for Good Moshi Mamas project near Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania provides business training and market access to sell crafts and services through a locally run social enterprise. Shoshe, one of its participants, summed up her aspirations and hope in the program: “I want to break the cycle for my daughter. I want to prove women can work and earn money.”
To put this into numbers, according to Kiva, a microfinance organization that lends money via the internet to low-income entrepreneurs around the world, women reinvest 80% of the income they earn into the education and wellbeing of children.
TL;DR: Investing in women is an investment in our future generations.
It’s no wonder that the great verbal constructs of stewardship and care — “Mother Earth”, “Pachamama”, “Mother Nature” — all position the force that underlies humanity and brings us together is that of a woman.
As we consider the world’s most pressing issues, including social and economic justice and environmental stability, maybe we ought to look more closely at this force and give it the resources it needs to innovate and craft sustainable solutions.
And when we honor women and their untapped potential, I suspect will better serve the needs of everyone on the planet.
Planet Her is a photo-jounalistic journey around the world, from Ethiopia to Tajikistan, that celebrates women of the world and explores their strength, resourcefulness, and resilience. The exhibition features images of women from 20 countries and the inspiring and informative stories they shared with us, often in unusual destinations.
Our experience has demonstrated to us that travel is not only a force for discovery, but when done well and right, can also be a force for good. This exhibit seeks to probe the confluence of tourism and its potential to provide opportunities for women’s education and employment as a path to breaking down barriers of inequality and poverty across the globe. To put this belief into action, G Adventures is launching a new campaign of the same name — Planet Her — to fund three new social initiatives focused on investing in women and helping create new opportunities…together.
We are excited to work with our co-hosts G Adventures and Lonely Planet to be able to bring all of these images and stories from around the world together in one place in Berlin, and to spur a discussion on issues that can create positive impact on us all.
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“How do you like your mother-in-law?” Shanti, a Bangladeshi university student asked me while our train made its way across western Bangladesh. After eyeing me for some time, she’d finally worked up the courage to sit next to me when our train compartment emptied at the previous stop. Odd question, I thought. But she was […]
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“How do you like your mother-in-law?” Shanti, a Bangladeshi university student asked me while our train made its way across western Bangladesh. After eyeing me for some time, she’d finally worked up the courage to sit next to me when our train compartment emptied at the previous stop.
Odd question, I thought. But she was deliberate and determined in the way she asked. I figured there was something more meaningful behind it, something at the root that she wanted to share. I also noticed her apprehension; I would need to open up and share my story first to find out.
This is how two-way storytelling often begins.
For many of us, listening to and sharing stories of the people we encounter is one of the greatest joys of travel. Stories connect people like no other mechanism, and storytelling helps us to communicate experience and a sense of place and culture.
But often, this is a one-directional process.
Two-way storytelling, however, goes a step further and adds a twist. In addition to listening to the stories of others, it involves telling your story as well. I’m not talking about the random share — say, how great a time you had at the bar last night or how much you loved this morning’s visit to the local museum. There’s nothing wrong with that. For this purpose, though, I’m suggesting you offer something revealing about you or your background. When invited, perhaps by a question, respond with something discontinuous that might inform or shift the way someone thinks about your culture, where you come from.
What does this kind of two-way storytelling achieve? It helps dislodge preconceptions and dispel stereotypes by breaking down barriers on both sides of the conversation, not just on the part of the traveler. It deepens the experience and the connection. And it helps to slowly dissolve fear.
Simple questions can get the process started.
“Do you have mountains in America?” a middle-aged vegetable vendor at a fresh market in the town of Telavi, Georgia once asked me as I admired the mountains surrounding his town. At first I thought he was joking, but his expression indicated a genuine question. He didn’t really know much about the United States, including its geography. Why would he? Why should he? Similarly, what might the average American know about the Republic of Georgia?
I answered his question in my broken Russian the best I could, extolling the cultural and natural diversity of the United States while making comparisons, where appropriate, to places I had seen in Georgia. I tried to describe the vastness of the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Utah, the vineyards of Napa Valley (as we were in Georgian wine country at the time). I added, in simple terms, that the United States is huge, especially when compared to Georgia. I also noted it’s difficult to generalize the country on the whole since each region can look and feel so different.
“There are so many different people from all over the world living in the United States, so sometimes it can feel like many countries in one,” I explained, trying to shed light one of the aspects of the U.S. that makes it unique, yet doesn’t always seem widely understood. He got the connection, as eastern Georgia’s refugee and immigrant population had recently increased.
Just as others halfway around the world fascinate us with features of their lives they consider ordinary, so we have the opportunity to fascinate them with ours. This is especially true for people who may never have the option to travel to your country to see for themselves.
One-way storytelling encourages travelers to be keen observers and question assumptions. But it’s two-way storytelling that allows locals to benefit from this learning process, too.
While visiting the northern Indian city of Chandigargh, we met a couple of young women who’d recently graduated from business school. I was the first American they’d ever met. They bubbled with curiosity and excitement to know what life as an American woman was really like. Their questions for me ran immediately to dating, marriage, and love. I noticed them closely observing my behavior and dress, something I kept deliberately conservative and respectful. They attempted to square their observations with the prevailing stereotype in India of American women as being sexually available.
“Do American women date lots of different men at once? Is it really like what we see on Sex in the City?” they asked.
I was not at all offended; there was an innocence and sincere curiosity behind their questions.
“Well…not really,” I said. And then I went on to talk about my own dating experience, as well as that of my friends.
After sharing this, which perhaps disappointed them by not being more racy, I tried to turn things around: “What about Bollywood movies? Is that real life? Sexy outfits, provocative dancing, and all — is that the real India?”
“Well, we all know that’s not real life,” they said, laughing.
Then there was a pause. My point about Hollywood movies not really representing the real United States, the entire United States, finally landed.
One of them shared an experience of how she met her fiancé at graduate school. She explained how “dating” was relatively new in India, that she had challenges ahead to convince her parents to let her marry someone who was of a different, lower caste.
“But I’m confident I’ll succeed with my parents. Times are changing in India; not everyone wants an arranged marriage. They have to agree,” she concluded. (Spoiler alert: they did marry and have a couple of beautiful children.) My understanding of modern Indian relationships evolved.
We are all susceptible to prejudging, and to being prejudged. None of us is immune; stereotypes run in all directions. And two-way storytelling helps uproot all of it so we may recalibrate our thinking.
“Can you explain something to me?” Our Hmong trekking guide asked in the hills outside of Luang Prabang, Laos. “We’ve had other trekkers on this tour who are black. Even Asian like me. Not white. But they also say they are American. How is it possible?”
He was admittedly confused. Why were the Americans he met on his tours so different than the ones he’d seen on American television shows? The show “Friends” in particular came up often in our conversation.
“You mean it’s not really like that?” He asked.
I laughed deeply inside, but focused on how to unpack a perfectly reasonable question whose answer might take the form of a book.
“Well, not really.”
I told him about the growing racial diversity in the United States, how historically it’s a country of immigrants. People moved there at first mainly from Europe, but eventually from just about everywhere on the planet. I told him that some people are rich, some are poor, and some in-between – even though our television shows may not always indicate it.
Along those dimensions, “Friends” didn’t quite represent. To the point, I mentioned that there were Hmong living in cities across the United States.
The storytelling baton then changed hands.
Our guide shed light on why this is. As he was growing up, family and friends helped him understand what happened in Laos during the Vietnam War. There were long, sustained bombing campaigns. Local Hmong were recruited by the CIA as informants and to fight against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao army. Many had to flee after the war as they faced persecution for their ties to the United States.
Although I’d heard fragments of this history before, the picture was now clearer. And, for our guide, he now understood how the whole of America didn’t match the image projected on a popular television show. That distant relatives of his who’d fled could all be “real” Americans.
“When you go home, please tell your friends the story of the real Iran, real Iranians.” If we heard this once traveling through Iran, we heard it dozens of times. We shared our experiences in conversations, on our blog, and on stages around the world. We believe that sharing these stories does make a difference.
Likewise, just as we’ve told their stories, we imagine that some of the Iranians we’ve met have told ours — the stories of real Americans who visited their country and answered their questions. Take, for example, a shy, high school girl at the Shiraz market who was determined to make sense of what she’d seen on local government news.
“Do you like Islam?” she asked. “Is it safe in your country for you and your family? We see on our news there are lots of guns, but I don’t know if it’s true.”
After two-way storytelling, each party to the original conversation goes home and tells her friends and family about the interaction. Then those people tell others.
Call it amplification. Reverberation. The ripple effect.
This is the ultimate power of two-way storytelling.
So, what about Shanti and the train?
I responded to Shanti’s immediate question about my relationship with my mother-in-law, one that I’m happy to report is a loving, respectful one. Beyond that, I shared a bit more about myself — my background, education, and work. I told her about when I got married and how, referring to the evolving norms and family roles in American society.
In response, Shanti told me about her current university studies and her plans to marry her fiancé after graduation. But she had concerns: “My mother-in-law seems very nice, but I don’t know if she will like it if I work.”
In Bangladesh, as in many countries in South Asia, a mother-in-law can hold significant sway on a young bride’s life. As Shanti harbored dreams of applying her university education in some professional pursuit, she was clearly worried that her future mother-in-law might have other designs for her.
To Shanti, I was a woman outside her situation and from a very different background, but one she could relate to. Out of a sense of trust, she felt safe sharing her concerns and her dreams set in the form of a question — a question about my mother-in-law.
I encouraged her. They were her dreams, after all. I suggested that although she might face resistance in pursuing them, she should at least try.
We talked for another 30 minutes until the train pulled into her station. As it did, Shanti gathered her backpack and set off for another day of classes at university. She gave me a hug and thanked me. And I thanked her.
I hope she was wiser for the interaction. I know I was.
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At the end of last year as winter days grew shorter and the holidays approached, we set our sights on checking in with each other before we found ourselves immersed in the uptake of a new year. Taking off to the Caribbean to spend some time together away from our laptops, reflect on the past year and take a deep breath before a busy year ahead was just what we needed.
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We recently explored the island of St. Maarten as part of the #ChoiceCaribbean campaign. The following article is sponsored by Choice Hotels in conjunction with the campaign, and we were provided our hotel stay and airfare stay in connection to this. The experiences, stories and opinions are entirely our own.
At the end of last year as winter days grew shorter and the holidays approached, we set our sights on checking in with each other before we found ourselves immersed in the uptake of a new year. Taking off to the Caribbean to spend some time together away from our laptops, reflect on the past year and take a deep breath before a busy year ahead was just what we needed.
It was with this frame of mind that we left our home base in Berlin mid-December for St. Maarten, the Dutch side of an island in the Caribbean divided in two with its French counterpart St. Martin.
While we weren’t fully disconnected from the internet and the world during our time on St. Maarten, we found that removing ourselves from all that was familiar and routine — and giving ourselves a dose of sunshine and warmth — helped us to relax, gain some perspective, and enjoy time together as an ordinary married couple (i.e., not as business partners). Not to mention, a sort of decompression seems to occur naturally when staring out over water to the horizon for long periods of time.
In this way, pressing the pause button from time to time in one’s life creates space to disconnect, reconnect and to clarify what matters most.
The idea of this trip, as with most of our travels, was to go beyond the obvious — in this case, the beaches. This involved exploring both sides of the island — Dutch St. Maarten in the south and French St. Martin to the north – and following suggestions, on and off the tourist trail, to experiences that would move us.
The cliché of white sand Caribbean beaches stretching along dazzling, turquoise water is far too accurate. We were tempted to park ourselves on one of the several we sampled, and never leave. But we also knew there was more to discover on St. Maarten than appears on the surface.
Next, we would be fibbing if we told you that St. Maarten is not heavily touristy. It would be very easy to visit and only see the developed and trafficked areas of the island and draw your experience and conclusions from there, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a dimension to the island that few others see. On several occasions we found ourselves surrounded by rugged natural beauty, without a soul around.
We enabled our experience of St. Maarten in full by talking with as many people as we could. Our goal: to connect with and better understand this island of 80,000 inhabitants that welcomes an astonishing 3.7 million travelers a year, and to uncover a diversity of experiences that speak to both adventure and relaxation.
That’s where this guide comes in. Pick and choose from the experiences below to piece together a St. Maarten trip itinerary that best suits your travel goals.
Skip Ahead to What Interests You Most:
Some of the following experiences were provided to us (as indicated below); some we paid for ourselves. Some we learned about by talking with locals or long-time residents, and others we discovered on our own.
A note on costs: Prices for experiences vary slightly depending upon season (high or low), number of people in the group, and other factors. Legend: $ = up to $50, $$ = $50-$100, $$$ = $100-$150, $$$$ = $150+
If running isn’t your thing, then swap it with walking or cycling. Whatever you do, get up early and head to the cliffs. You’ll be rewarded not only with the soft glow of early morning light, but also with a Caribbean beach to yourself.
Yes, this experience can take you on THE winning boat from the 1987 America’s Cup. This alone is kind of exciting. Board the boat, and each of your group is assigned a crew position. From there, you get a quick lesson, you practice a bit, the helmsman issues the commands and with a traditional 6-minute start, it’s off to the races. You witness and participate firsthand in the teamwork required to make a craft like this take flight on the water. This became even more evident – and dramatic — as we sailed right into a brief tropical storm with the wind whipping the sails and our boat carving slightly terrifying angles.
What really set this experience apart, however, was the competition. We raced against another America’s Cup boat (True North, from Canada) under standard regatta regulations, giving us a wee taste of the adrenaline of an actual race.
The only danger with this experience is that it may make you want to take sailing lessons and rent your own sailboat to go around the Caribbean. Not that we speak from experience or anything…
How to do it: The 12-Metre Challenge is located at Bobby’s Marina, Philipsburg. You can book through their site or by email. Note: Cruise ship passengers must book through their cruise line. Cost: $$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
It’s easy to get caught up in St. Maarten tourist trail areas and question, “Is this all there is to the island?” However, a short drive over the hill to the southeastern corner of the island and Guana Bay served as our first glance at a different sort of St. Maarten / St. Martin.
The trek from Guana Bay to Pointe Blanche is one of the areas on the island where you’ll find yourself surrounded by rugged natural beauty without a soul around, save perhaps for a few goats.
How to do it: This trek is organized by Tri Sport. They offer a couple of departures each day during high season. We recommend choosing the morning departure (9AM) as you’ll avoid the strong heat and sunshine. Joost, our guide, provided terrific historical and environmental context. Not to mention, he’s a font of useful information and recommendations for other treks. Cost: $ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
Never have we been to a destination where the airport is such a tourist attraction. But sit on or near the beach at Maho Bay and you’ll quickly understand why. The photo below pretty much says it all. It looks Photoshopped, but it’s not. Some planes are bigger still and fly even lower, if you can imagine.
How to do it: While you can stand on the beach to watch the planes land overhead, we recommend Sunset Bar as an ideal spot to capture a photo without the jet blast. The surfboard outside the bar is updated daily with the flight schedule. Good looks can also be had from Driftwood Bar on the other side of the beach. Air France and KLM fly the largest jets (i.e., most dramatic landings and photos).
On our first day in St. Maarten we heard Shoal Bay beach described to us as “heaven on earth.” That the recommendation came from a long-time resident with experience throughout the Caribbean told us we must go. But we’ve been to plenty of “best beaches,” so we managed our expectations.
Shoal Bay Beach over-delivered. Not only was the beach a carpet of soft, pristine white sand, but the light and water played a range of blue shades of the likes we’d never before seen, except for glaciers in Antarctica. The blue glow can appear almost artificial and HDR’d, but it’s not. It’s simply the way Mother Nature worked out in this part of the world. Now we understand why this beach is ranked #1 in the Caribbean and #5 worldwide.
The other notable feature of this beach during our visit: it was almost empty. The restaurant where our tour went was a simple, local family-run establishment, which lent a fitting and traditional laid-back Caribbean feel.
How to do it: We took a day trip package that included a speedboat from St. Maarten (dock near the airport) to Anguilla + bus transfer to/from Shoal Bay + lunch + free use of beach equipment such as snorkel gear and paddle boards. Cost: $$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
There is something about making your way to the highest point to get some perspective. Having an aerial view of St. Maarten (and St. Martin) from the lookout at Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island at 1,391ft / 424m, helps you see the contours of the land and how all of the places you’ve visited fit together.
How to do it: We followed the Pic Paradis signs from the main road between Marigot and Grand Case and parked on the side of the road up the hill from Loterie Farm (it was closed the day we visited, Monday). From there it was a relatively short, but steep, walk to the top. Alternatively, if you have a 4-wheel-drive car you can drive virtually the entire way to the peak and lookout.
“I designed this myself and it’s impossible to tip. That’s why we call it a Rhino,” Oliver, the owner of Rhino Safaris explained when we first arrived. He did this so that everyone – from children to 90+ year olds – could enjoy the experience.
I had memories of tipping a jet ski on a college break many years ago, so I was of relieved to find out this hybrid Jet Ski/zodiac could not be flipped. It took a few minutes to get used to the Rhino and what it could do in terms of speed, turns, and tricks, but once we did, it was fun and addictive.
Additionally, having spent time sitting in traffic driving the western part of the island, it was a pleasant change to enjoy the same areas from the freedom of the water.
How to do it: Our “Rhino Safari” depart from Cole Bay just behind Pineapple Pete’s restaurant. The tour includes not only driving your own Rhino up the western coast, but also snorkeling at Creole Rock at the northern end of the island. Cost: $$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
One of the things that attracted us to St. Maarten/St. Martin was that the island has been divided between the French and the Dutch for over 350 years. Today, the Dutch side is an independent country, while the French side remains a territory of France. We wondered what that would look and feel like.
While there are no border controls between the sides and countries, you’ll still see signs posted across the island welcoming you each time you cross. Cross from the Dutch side north and you’ll have a chance to practice your French. You’ll also see a different style of architecture and town planning. Not to mention, the bread and pastries are unsurprisingly better on the French side of the border.
There is no shortage of postcard-like beaches to choose from on the island. One of our favorites for relaxing, swimming and sunning was Mullet Bay. Since there’s a golf course on one side of the beach, it is somewhat protected from development and the shadow of any large buildings.
Of course, we aren’t the only ones to have discovered this beach. But, we noticed that if we went before noon or after 3PM it emptied as day passengers returned to the cruise ships. Ideal for a morning read or late afternoon nap.
A note on St. Maarten / St. Martin beaches: All beaches on the island are public, meaning that you have access to try any one you’d like. Some beaches have sun chairs and umbrellas for hire, usually organized by restaurants or bars, but you have the right to plunk your beach towel at random and enjoy the beach for free.
With so much of St. Maarten covered in new buildings and developments (something like 90% of the island was destroyed by Hurricane Luis in 1995), I was curious to learn more about its history and the strategic role the island played in the colonial wrangling between the Spanish, Dutch and French empires over the centuries. This is where the historical bicycle tour of Philipsburg with Barend, our guide, helped fill in the gaps.
One of the focal points of the bicycle tour is 17th century Fort Amsterdam, originally built by the Dutch, then lost to the Spanish and successfully defended to ward off a return Dutch invasion. The Dutch leader from that lost the fight (and his right leg), Peter Stuyvesant, went on to become mayor of New Amsterdam. Eventually he traded New Amsterdam (now, New York) to the British for the wee island of Curacao, in perhaps the very first of the worst of Wall Street deals. This story reinforces how the islands are historically more connected to our present day circumstances than we realize.
Additionally, the bicycle tour takes you through Back Street, Philipsburg. While the souvenir shops and tourist restaurants in Philipsburg harbor and Front Street may feel overwhelming, this residential area just a few blocks away will give you a sense of what the island might have looked like before the rebuilding and tourism boom. Many traditional homes have remained in the hands of the same family for multiple generations.
How to do it: The historical bicycle tour with TriSport leaves from the cruise ship harbor in Philipsburg. There’s a choice of several departures, but we recommend taking the early one (8:30 AM) to beat the heat and the crowds. If you would like a more challenging ride, check out the other bicycle tours offered. Cost: $-$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
“I’m sorry. It looks like visibility isn’t as great as it usually is,” Bob, our dive master, apologized to us before we descended to the dive site known as Tent Reef.
A few minutes later we swam over coral gardens bursting with colorful coral and fish. We encountered sea turtles noshing on jelly fish, and saw puffer, parrot and lion fish dart in and around the reef. I thought: “Hmm, if this is considered ‘bad’ visibility, I can’t imagine what ‘good’ must look like.”
Diving in Saba was a top priority for us as we’d heard that the dive sites there are considered some of the best in the Caribbean. It took a little logistical juggling, but we did find a way to combine two dives there within a day trip from St. Maarten. The only downside of this plan is that you don’t have time to explore the island itself. There are supposed to be some gorgeous coastal treks, so consider extending your Saba trip to several days.
How to do it: There are ferries that offer day trips from St. Maarten to Saba (on the Edge or Dawn II) that run most days in high season. The ride takes 1.5 hours and can get rough. If you get seasick easily, consider taking some motion sickness medicine or carry Sea Bands. We arranged our dive in advance with Saba Divers. They meet you at the ferry, gear you up, manage two dives, and get you back to the ferry for the late afternoon return to St. Maarten. Fun and experienced dive masters.Cost: $$$$
“I used to experiment with flavored rums in my kitchen to make gifts for friends or for guests at my husband’s restaurant. After I decided to do this professionally, I taught myself enough Mandarin to navigate the factories in China to get the bottle design exactly as I wanted it. I’ve always been hands-on,” Melanie, co-founder of Topper’s Rhum, laughed as she explained the genesis of her rum business.
Teaching yourself “enough” Mandarin is no easy feat, but this focus on detail fit with what we saw and tasted during our visit to the distillery.
Melanie has been successful with her current lineup of white, spiced, coconut and flavored rums like white chocolate raspberry. Her experiences continue with new flavors in her office-cum-laboratory. The coconut rum was our favorite for drinking straight, but we later sampled the Mocha Mama (think Kahlua without the cream) over vanilla ice cream. Nice!
How to do it: We’ve heard that Topper’s Rhum now offers distillery tours for the public that you can book directly by sending an email. Otherwise, you can sample (and buy) any of the rums at one of the two Topper’s restaurants.
On our first night in St. Maarten we asked our waitress, Samantha, which beach on the island was her favorite. Her quick response: “Orient Bay. I didn’t realize how lucky we are to have this beach until I left the island and visited other places. I love it.”
Located on the French side of the island east, the beach at Orient Bay is long, wide and lined with restaurants and cafes that offer beach chairs and umbrellas. It’s more of a place to “be seen” than Mullet Bay, but it’s not too over-the-top. It also features beach segments that are clothing optional, so if nude bathing is your thing, this is the place to be…or to be seen.
In the late afternoon light, school kids head to the beach at Grand Case to play in the water and jump off the pier. There is something so light and innocent about the scene. Listen to the giggles and feel the energy. An inimitable local sight and memory.
How to do it: Park your car in the public parking lot on the north end of the main street in Grand Case. Walk out by the pier behind the cluster of outdoor grill restaurants. Plenty of food options here, too, from the informal grills at the beach side to more formal options along what is known as “Restaurant Row.”
St. Maarten is one of THE places in the Caribbean for yachts and boats of the “mega” variety to be docked. So it’s a fun juxtaposition – not to mention great perspective — to paddle through the nautical playground of the rich and famous before coming back down to earth with the jellyfish and sea cucumbers in the mangroves.
How to do it: Tri-Sport usually offers a lagoon kayak tour a couple of times a day. We recommend choosing either the early morning or late afternoon option to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Chris, one of the guides, is a St. Maarten local so he can advise you on anything you might want to know about the island, including local food. Cost: $-$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
There’s something naturally calming about staring out over the sea at a sunset as the glow of the sun melts into the water. Now, do that same thing with from the webbed deck of a catamaran with a rum punch in your hand and you’ll find yourself exhaling – literally and figuratively — even deeper.
How to do it: Aquamania offers sunset and dinner catamaran trips on Wednesday and Friday evenings, departing from Simpson Bay Resort marina. Cost: $$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
Truth is, a massage is good any time – beginning, middle, end (or all three) of your vacation. We chose to get a couples’ Swedish massage (55 minutes) just before heading to the airport — to allow the hands of the masseurs to work it all out of our muscles as the oils of a Swedish massage locked in all the goodness of our tanning efforts from the previous week.
How to do it: Good Life Spa is located in Maho Plaza under La Terasse. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time as it’s possible to use the spa’s pool and sauna facilities after the massage.Cost: $$$$ Disclosure: This experience was provided to us as media.
Although a separate section below is devoted to recommended dining and island eats, we include Hilma’s (technically, Hilma’s Windsor Castle) because eating at one of the four stools is an experience well beyond the food. Hilma has been operating from a converted trailer on the same spot in Simpson Bay for 22 years, and she’s lived on the island for more than 40. She purposely keeps operations deliberately small and personal for manageability. She has so many stories to tell, so plan some time for a conversation or two.
“I was all by myself when I first started here. None of this was here,” Hilma told us as she looked out over the road now filled to the brim on both sides with restaurants and shops. When we asked her about Anthony Bourdain, she confirmed, “Yes, he used to come here often. He vacationed here before he became really famous. He’s eaten everything here. The advice he gave me was to not change, that I should stay true to my roots.”
How to do it: You can find Hilma’s Windsor Castle on the lot between the RBC Bank and Jerusalem / The Palms restaurants on Airport Road in Simpson Bay. Hilma is open Monday to Saturday from 7:30AM – 2:00PM.
This falls under the “hidden” and “I had no idea something like this existed on the island” categories. We woke up early to do this trek — Sentier de Froussards, from Anse Marcel to Eastern Point and back — during our last morning on the island. The hike consists of a surprisingly beautiful and secluded 3-mile footpath out along the northern coast of the island and features a couple of bathing-worthy beaches, rugged coastline and fabulous windswept landscape.
How to do it: Big thanks to Joost from TriSport for recommending this trek to us. Drive towards Anse Marcel and after coming over the big hill (and before entering the marina and resort area) turn to the right where you see a small trekking sign and parking lot. You’ll walk a ways on a dirt road before reaching the trailhead on the right. Here’s a screenshot of area map from the PocketEarth app. Go very early (arrive around 7:30AM) to avoid the traffic and heat. En route to Anse Marcel from the south, fetch yourself a pain au chocolat or croissant from the boulangerie on the right side of the N7 main road in Grand Case.
This began my morning routine. I noticed it most on that final day, perhaps because it marked the final time I would feel it this trip.
It was the combination of the sound of the curtains moving on their track along with the reveal of the morning, the water, the horizon, the sun, a new day. The sensory combination of sight and sound of our morning routine foreshadowed the day to come and offered a moment to reflect on what we have, here and now.
This is a lesson for life. One reaffirmed on the island.
As we stayed in St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island, we took all of our meals there. Much of the food in this part of the island is international, a reflection of both the people who now call this island home and the demographic of the tourists that visit it.
If you are interested in traditional French cuisine, however, then head up to “Restaurant Row” in Grand Case on the northwestern side of the island. We didn’t have the opportunity to eat there during this trip as were often there too early for dinner, but the menus posted outside were very similar to what you might see in France. Long-time European residents confirmed the quality is also top notch. Auberge Gourmande, Bistro Caribe, Sol e Luna, Ocean 82 and Tastevin were recommended. Our quick look at the Auberge Gourmande menu told us this is the place we’d likely visit, but we might be swayed by what is fresh and the plat du jour elsewhere.
Vegetarians and vegans delight. If salads, vegetables, juices and healthy eating are your thing then this is your place. The focus at Top Carrot: fresh ingredients, either grown on the island (when possible) or just off the boat from nearby Dominica. Specials change daily. After each meal, not only were we truly satisfied, but we also left feeling as though we’d done our bodies a favor. The French co-owner, Lydia, is usually there and has some great stories from living on the island for 20+ years. She’s exceedingly kind, too.
Recommended dishes: Baked goat cheese (St Marcellin) salad, veggie wrap and mahi mahi with passion fruit sauce and caramelized onions (daily special, was terrific). Where to find it: 3200 W South Airport Rd (near Simpson Bay Marina), Simpson Bay.
What happens when a Canadian Trinidadian opens restaurant in St Maarten? You get Caribbean favorites like drunken ribs and Trinidadian bites served in a Canadian (and Torontonian) paraphernalia flair. Greg, the owner, and his mother change the menu daily based on what’s fresh. He’s also a great resource for other restaurant recommendations. Recommended dishes: Drunken ribs and pholourie, spiced split pea flour puff fritters with house special cumin-tamarind sauce. Rib portions are large, so consider splitting one between two people or pair with an appetizer instead of a 2nd main dish. Where to find it: 25 Airport Road in Simpson Bay (near RBC Bank).
The feel of this place is like a tropical garden. Peaceful. Jimbo, the owner, has been on the island for the better part of 27 years and is a great storyteller, including what it was like losing everything in the 1995 hurricane. He might drop by your table so take the opportunity to say hello and ask him anything about the island.
Recommended dishes: Calamari starter and shrimp fajitas. Jim makes his own roasted habanero hot sauce, so be sure to ask for it if it doesn’t show up on its own. The margaritas were also tasty, chock with freshly squeezed lime. Where to find it: Simpson Bay Marina. Disclosure: Our meal was provided to us as media.
When we first eyed the sign for this place on the road to Cupecoy Bay, we misjudged it by virtue of the fact that it’s in a casino complex. The Italian food here is the real deal, prepared by a talented Sicilian chef in the kitchen. Recommended dishes: Dentice Alla Griglia Con Sicilia Dressing (red snapper covered in with fresh herbs, lemon juice and garlic) and proper al dente Linguine Frutti Di Mare (seafood linguine). Drawn in by the wood-fired oven, we returned days later and ordered the happy hour pizza ($10/pizza). Where to find it: Next to STARZ Casino parking in Cupecoy. Disclosure: Our first meal here was provided to us.
Local food is actually pretty hard to find in St. Maarten, so we were heartened to find johnny cakes, a traditional cornmeal flatbread. Although the breakfast sandwich with sausage and egg is formidable, our favorite was the salt fish, dashed with cumin and other spices. Perfect with Hilma’s homemade pickled red onions and hot sauces.
Where to find it: On Airport Road in Simpson Bay, in the lot left of RBC Bank. Look for this trailer-cum-restaurant.
This place features a prime location next to Maho Bay beach, making it the viewing lounge of choice for oglers of airplanes landing at SXM airport (see #4 above). It’s also good for sunset gazing with a drink in hand. Recommended dishes: Most people come here to drink rather than eat, but we found the seared tuna atop salad greens to be really abundant, nicely-cooked and fresh. Consider asking for the dressing on the side. Where to find it: Maho Bay, just behind the runway for the airport. Disclosure: Our first meal here was provided to us.
Note: there are two locations for this St. Maarten institution, each with similar menus. Toppers by the Sea is great place to start the day as breakfast served here is hearty, reasonably priced and features a nice view of the beach. Keep a look out for Topper, the owner of both restaurants, who has endless stories to tell of his time on the island and elsewhere. Recommended dishes: For breakfast, the poached eggs are nicely done. At night, the seared ahi tuna is fresh and (barely) cooked perfectly, as is the mahi mahi. Where to find it: Toppers by the Sea is located by Flamingo Beach Resort at Pelican Bay while Toppers Restaurant is on Welfare Road in Simpson Bay. Disclosure: Breakfast and lunch were provided to us as media, dinner was not.
If you’re looking for a tasty, cheap eats on St. Maarten, we can vouch for the chicken schwarma sandwich. A healthy chunk of grilled, spiced chicken covered with lots of vegetables and dressing. The location also offers another venue to watch the planes land at the airport in case the Sunset Bar on the other end of Maho Bay is packed. Where to find it: Maho Bay, west side, just behind the runway.
Beautiful setting right on the lagoon at Simpson Bay. This seafood-focused venue offers a vast menu, including Caribbean lobster. While we didn’t dive into the lobster, they come big and seem to make for a group event. Both Maine lobster and Caribbean lobster are on offer. According to staff, Maine lobster features more of its own flavor, while Caribbean lobster depends on and takes on the flavor of whatever sauce it happens to be served with.
Recommended dishes: The crab cakes are excellent, meat-heavy (that is, bread-light) and well seasoned; they pair nicely with a glass of the French rosé. Asian-style seared tuna – be sure to order it rare as we did – is also a fine choice. Disclosure: Our meal was provided to us as media.
For the nine days we visited St. Maarten, our home was the Alegria Hotel, a member of Choice Hotels’ Ascend Collection of boutique hotels in Maho Bay, just walking distance from the famous beach where airplanes fly overhead to land at the Princess Juliana airport (See #4 above). Rooms are outfitted to facilitate comfortable longer stays (e.g., full kitchen, washing machine). Many are laid out like residence apartments with a dining table, living room, balcony and separate bedroom so as to provide a feeling of “coming home” at the end of the day.
This is why, during our visit, we referred to Ascend Collection Alegria Hotel as our “home base.” When we returned to the hotel after a full day of experiences, we unwound in comfort and space to reflect on the day and plot our path for the next. Although, what was very different from home is that we did all this with a balcony view over the Caribbean Sea, often with a sailboat or catamaran tracking across the horizon at sunset. Or, there was always the option to relax in the saltwater pool.
While the island is divided into two countries, there are no border controls between them. The Dutch side is home to the major international airport (SXM, Princess Juliana) and cruise ship port, so it services most of the visitors coming to the island. However, there is a smaller airport, SFG (L’Esperance Airport Grand-Case) on the French side. To understand one difference, as residents tell us, “The Dutch side takes more influence from the United States. Anything goes here.”
The French side is technically part of France, so it adheres to E.U. requirements. This means that building and development is more regulated; you’ll often find fewer crowds.
St. Maarten is a relatively small island (34 square miles), but if you’re interested in doing a variety of activities as we did, a rental car is essential. There’s plenty of rental car competition on the island, so prices are decent, starting from around $30-$40/day for the economy cars. Gas/petrol prices are currently pretty reasonable, particularly by European standards.
One caveat: traffic on the island can be very stressful, and parking can be equally challenging. Ask locals about traffic patterns, timing and rush hours up front so you can plan your route and schedule your outings to minimize irritation.
Disclosure: Our rental car was provided by Empress Rental Car just near the Princess Juliana airport.
If you don’t plan to explore the island much (i.e., you’re focused on a nearby beach), then consider taking the occasional taxi or flagging down one of the public transport minivans making their way around the island. There are plenty of both.
The official currency of the French side is the Euro(€) while on the Dutch side it’s the Netherlands Antillean Florin (NAF). Don’t bother taking out NAF from the ATM as all prices on the Dutch side are posted in $USD and every place accepts dollars. Most places on the French side will also accept $USD (often on a 1:1 basis with the Euro).
We purchased a TelCell SIM card on the Dutch side for $15 and bought 500MB of data for an additional $10. However, mobile data does not work when you cross over to the French side. Although we have no experience with the UTS/Chippie, they are another option for SIM cards, calls and mobile data on the island.
Our visit to St. Maarten/St. Martin was in mid-December. We found it just about perfect, as our timing was right before high season, which runs from just before Christmas (Dec. 22-ish) to the beginning of April. The weather during our visit was excellent – sunny and warm during the day, beautiful water temperatures, and breezy and temperate at night – and came with the added bonus of fewer crowds and reduced traffic.
We were told that August-October us usually incredibly hot and at the tail end of the hurricane season, so probably best to avoid that period. One long-time resident told us that his favorite season is April to June as it’s not too hot and high season crowds have begun to dissipate.
We would also like to thank Karen Hana, General Manager of the hotel, for sharing with us her 20+ years of experience living on the island and for her suggestions on experiences across the island. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
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We fly to Australia next week, my seventh and final continent. It’s also a country that first entered my consciousness when I was six years old and my travel dreaming had just begun. First, we travel on an inaugural National Geographic Journeys trip with G Adventures for two weeks, followed by one month on our […]
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We fly to Australia next week, my seventh and final continent. It’s also a country that first entered my consciousness when I was six years old and my travel dreaming had just begun.
First, we travel on an inaugural National Geographic Journeys trip with G Adventures for two weeks, followed by one month on our own. We’ll be on the trail of Aboriginal stories and some of the usual travel suspects in the East and center of the country, then likely on a trajectory further afield in Western Australia, The Kimberley, and Darwin. But we remain open.
When Dan and I met all those years ago, he was in the throes of planning his first trip abroad. India was his setting off point. From there, he considered other destinations in Asia in which to downshift.
But I steered his onward itinerary in another direction: Australia.
Mine was a sincere piece of counsel for the uninitiated traveler — whether he knew it or not, he would need a place to decompress after India — but I also had an ulterior motive. Australia had always held my dreams since I was a little girl. Although I’d lived and traveled abroad my share, a visit there always evaded me. So my recommendation was vicarious, too.
When I was six years old my family lived in Sri Lanka. In an era predating ubiquitous satellite television, engaging programs were, let’s say, limited. Occasionally, however, the local station would broadcast a National Geographic documentary, the sort whose moving images were drawn against dramatic scores.
I was struck by one episode in particular featuring images of a vast desert whose sand appeared the color of rust and a massive red rock whose surface in the early morning light glowed like smoldering iron. The episode spoke of the sacred nature of the rock that glowed. It echoed stories passed on through oral tradition and traced them in the etching of cave paintings cast by Aboriginals, the native people of the land. I was mystified, transfixed by it all, sound and imagery. This place held a novel sort of beauty to me, more like that of another planet rather than somewhere on our own.
The episode, you might have guessed, was about Australia and specifically Uluru / Ayers Rock. I held this memory and never let go of the dream. The imagery, the thread, the longing — I kept it all tucked somewhere under the surface of my wanderlust and moved about, trusting I would someday get there.
Meanwhile, Dan did take my advice and visited Australia on that, his first international trip. A framed photo he’d taken of The Twelve Apostles hung on the wall of his apartment in San Francisco as a subtle reminder…and perhaps of a promise that we would go together one day.
Next week, I fulfill that promise and my childhood dream. We fly to Australia! We’re doing so in connection with the new National Geographic Journeys. As I seem to experience quite often, life comes full circle in ways I could never have imagined years before.
Australia will also mark my seventh and final continent, placing me even with Dan (Africa was his). No, I’m neither a country counter nor focused on the number of stamps in my passport, but a wee competitiveness with one’s spouse is healthy. So it pleases me some to even the score.
During our first two weeks in country, we will be on the first of the National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures in Australia. This 12-day tour, entitled Explore Australia, will include a few well-known destinations in the eastern half of the country like Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne, and Uluru, and a few unusual experiences in lesser-known areas along the way.
National Geographic Journeys are a new style of tour developed through a recent partnership between National Geographic and G Adventures. These small-group tours include unique travel experiences that highlight the sort of scientific expertise that the National Geographic brand is known for: marine biology, archeology, history, anthropology, geology, and more. What this means in practice is that travelers will be able to meet with National Geographic experts and on occasion visit research or other National Geographic facilities. As is the case with other National Geographic tours, a portion of the proceeds will go to the foundation to support its continued research.
These trips will continue to feature dimensions of a G Adventures experience, including working with locally-owned providers, a healthy dose of independent time to explore, integration with a Planeterra Foundation community project where possible, and reliance on the knowledge of both a tour leader (Chief Experience Officer, or CEO, in G Adventures parlance) and local guides to provide cultural, historical, and environmental context. Additionally, for those who seek a bit more comfort when they travel, National Geographic Journeys will feature accommodation and transport of a higher standard.
Sydney: When we lived in San Francisco, Sydney was often offered as a southern hemisphere analog because of its position, natural beauty, cuisine, wine, lifestyle and atmosphere. Yes, I will be that sun-soaking, wide-eyed tourist taking it all in, snapping photos of everything including the beaches, the Harbor Bridge, the Opera House and anything else that catches my eye through the city’s neighborhoods. Our tour kicks off with an evening cruise around Sydney Harbor so we’ll be able to enjoy the city from on the water, at a distance.
Port Douglas: Port Douglas is best known as a jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef, a feature we hope to see up close either by snorkeling or diving. We will also visit nearby Mossman Gorge where we’ll take an interpretive walk with a local Aboriginal guide to learn about his culture and traditions, as well as various survival techniques in the Daintree Rainforest.
Cairns: By the time I leave Australia I hope to be able to properly pronounce the name of this city without making myself and other people laugh. Cairns is where we’ll dive into the geeky marine biology stuff. We’ll take a private tour of the James Cook University research aquarium set up by National Geographic grant recipient, Dr. Jamie Seymour. We’ll get up close to the underwater world and learn about the latest research and insights in this ever-relevant area of study.
Tully (near Cairns): We’ll spend the day immersed in the story, traditional hunter-gatherer culture and lifestyle of the Janbanbarra Jirrbal Rainforest people. This also includes a brand new Planeterra/G Adventures for Good project called Café Chloé which works with local Aboriginal leaders to build a community center, training center, art workshop and cafe in the space of a former railway station. The objective is to train at-risk youth in practical skills and to reinforce the value of their culture, stories and traditions. The goal is to provide opportunities for them to work locally instead of having to move to a big city to find work.
Uluru (Ayers Rock): We will take a sunrise walk with a local guide around the base of Uluru where, through traditional Aboriginal stories, we’ll learn about the sacred nature of this location. Additionally, we’ll explore the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta National Park. Given how many decades I’ve been waiting to see this, I’m trying to keep my expectations in check. But it’s difficult.
Melbourne: Everywhere I turn these days, there’s an article with Melbourne hovering near the top of some “best cities to live” or “coolest cities” list. Considering that we live in what I’d like to consider the European version of today’s coolest city — Berlin — I’m curious to see the Down Under equivalent. Melbourne is also the jumping off point for the Great Ocean Road and some of Australia’s best-known wine regions, both of which we’ll take a fair helping.
After we wind up our visit to Melbourne, we’ll spend the remaining month traveling in Western Australia, through The Kimberly, and the northwestern segments of the Northern Territory. A few places that are high on our wish list right now include: Perth, Rottnest Island, Margaret River (wine tasting), Karijini National Park, Exmouth (diving), Broome, Gibb River Road, Kakadu National Park, and Darwin.
While a month may sound like a lot of time, the country is vast and distances remarkable, so we must be selective and deliberate, avoiding the temptation to bite off more than we can chew. We wish to enjoy our trip, not be exhausted trying to race around to see everything. Our working list of destinations and experiences will likely shift and evolve as your recommendations come in and we speak with more people on the ground.
Of course, any and all of this is subject to change.
If you’ve traveled to Australia and have been to any of the cities or areas mentioned above, we’d love to hear your advice on wineries, restaurants, beaches, neighborhoods, treks, or any other great experiences you’ve had. We’ll even take advice on transportation options and arrangements, including camper vans, rental cars and flights in Australia. We ultimately understand that Australia is huge, so while we may not be able to pursue all your suggestions this time around, we can certainly use your advice for likely follow-on future trips. In any event, we greatly appreciate your taking the time to share your advice — not only for our benefit, but also for that of our readers.
You can follow our adventures in Australia using the hashtags #gadvOz on Twitter and Instagram. We will also share updates on our Facebook and Google Plus pages.
It’s an understatement to say we’re excited to have the opportunity to share this experience with you! To visit Australia in connection with National Geographic Journeys makes the little, dorky documentary-watching 6-year old in me want to bounce off the walls and squeal. I’m trying to keep calm, cool and collected for Dan though. It is a long flight to Australia after all.
Photo Credits: Gary Arndt from Everything-Everywhere, Vera and Jean-Christophe, Kyle Taylor, Jason James
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In your year-end and new year’s travel reading, it’s likely you’ve encountered more than a few “best of” or “hot” lists enumerating countries and destinations you must visit in 2016. As tempted as I am to question the logic and criteria of the entries cataloged therein, I will instead offer my own alternative list — […]
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In your year-end and new year’s travel reading, it’s likely you’ve encountered more than a few “best of” or “hot” lists enumerating countries and destinations you must visit in 2016. As tempted as I am to question the logic and criteria of the entries cataloged therein, I will instead offer my own alternative list — one to complement them all, one that focuses less on “the where” and more on “the how.”
Sure, the nature of your travel experience will be impacted by where you decide to travel. Destination lists provide inspiration. They introduce us to places we may never have heard of or otherwise considered, which is one of the reasons why they remain popular. (Note: if you’re a hot list junkie, here’s ours: Our Offbeat Hot List: 8 Destinations You’re Not Considering…But Should)
More and more, however, we travelers seek something to impact and transform us, to transcend the physical location of where we happen to be. By the notion of “the how,” I don’t mean the mode of transport you choose or the ways to get a great travel deal. Rather, I’m talking about carrying a mindset that yields an expanded sense of possibility of what your travel experiences can look and feel like, and the arsenal of travel behaviors and philosophy underlying the decisions you make to get there.
The following list is based one finger on the pulse of our conversations and observations in the past year and another finger in the wind, pointed to the future. It features emergent themes in experiential and mindful travel — that is, approaching travel in ways that alter your sense of self, of the world and your place in it.
While you could compose an entire trip based on any one of these themes, they are better considered as travel seasoning for any journey or experience you set off on.
This taps the age-old debate of depth vs. breadth in travel, but adds a twist.
It’s fair to say that most of us will not make it to every corner of the Earth during our lifetimes. There’s a physical limit to the range of our travels. We can, however, gain a deeper understanding of the corners we do manage to visit, and we can allow ourselves be more deeply affected by them.
Think of this as “geography of the mind.”
We often imagine this sort of mental state as one that arises from interactions with nature. It’s also possible to find it amidst the urban or manmade — from the wind in the treetops, to the vibration of the temple bells to the rhythm of footsteps on the streets of Tokyo.
Recently, I stopped in my tracks reflecting on a church built into a stone hillside as I walked the walls of Luxembourg City. I’d seen the church only at a distance, yet I found myself intensely imagining its history, including what the town may have looked and felt like 500 years ago, what it must have felt like during a church service at that time. I considered its past, my present and what this might mean for the future. And this was only time, one dimension along which I took a brief mental journey.
The trick is to take in as much signal as possible while simultaneously shutting out the noise. What noise, you ask? The noise that brings us somewhere else other than where we are. When we avoid this temptation, we can immerse ourselves, hold on, and be blown away by the tiny bit we are appreciating, then roll it up into being astonished by all that is our planet.
This raised consciousness can healthily — and somewhat paradoxically — leave us wondering “where did it all come from?” just as we accept that the answer is not easily there before us.
It may feel outside of the grasp of the average traveler to do something to “change the world.” This should not prevent us from caring deeply about the places we visit and the people with whom we interact. In fact, this orientation helps counter-balance the challenging circumstances and turbulent world we are likely to behold when we get amongst it.
The events of 2015 underscore this. Many of the places we visit do, too.
Adopting this approach isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s often among the least comfortable options available. So why do it? The more we attempt to understand each other without judgment the better able we are to truly connect with one another. This connection is a win and delivers immediate returns to the one making the attempt. The effects are also long-term, for the generosity built into caring is selfishly good for one’s own health.
What does this have to do with travel?
It is this deep caring – for people, our environment, ourselves – that determines what of the world we and our children will have left to live in…and to visit.
In this way, actions that cascade from a mindset of caring really do “change the world.”
“Authenticity” and “authentic travel” are thrown about quite regularly these days. But what does authenticity really mean?
One resonant definition I heard a couple of years ago, appropriately in Haiti: “Authenticity is showing the reality of a place — good and bad.”
Why is this relevant for travelers?
To truly understand a place we need to appreciate both its beauty and its blemishes, and to comprehend this from a local perspective. This last part is especially important, for this is what “having perspective” really means, observing the same subject from multiple points of view.
In the province of Guizhou, China, I recall our being approached by a young student who wished to practice her English. She offered to show us “the beautiful buildings” in her town. Our expectations were primed for some secret old town streets, something in short supply in China, even at the time.
We followed the girl out of the town center to an overlook with a perfect view…of a development flush with new apartment buildings. They were built on land recently cleared of traditional homes and historical living quarters. For better or worse, for nostalgia or progress, this is authentic.
Sometimes our quest for “authenticity” is at odds with our expectations of what travel ought to hold. Are we willing to accept what is and the perspective of local inhabitants — including all the surprises that run against the grain of our preconceived notions?
This re-interpretation of authenticity implies focusing less on what destinations once were and comprehending more of what they are now.
And after all, isn’t this the sort of adaptability that travel is intended to teach?
The understanding of volunteering and voluntourism will reflect that such engagements are more often about the volunteer acquiring a new perspective or honing a skill in some faraway place rather than helping or “saving” the host community there. The concept that the greatest shift during a volunteer placement occurs in the volunteer himself is something deep and almost counter-intuitive that organizations such as Peace Corps have long recognized.
Awareness that volunteers are there first to learn and remain open to local knowledge can only aid volunteer effectiveness as it requires one to listen before doing. Witness, as we have, so many projects around the world that were meant to do good, yet went awry or away altogether because the organizations involved didn’t first seek to understand the local community’s needs, challenges and values.
Additionally, this shift in perspective also empowers host communities by recognizing their strengths and honoring the knowledge their members can share with volunteers and visitors. This orientation helps rebalance power in traditional volunteer-host community relationships. It also supports the idea that “everyone has something to share,” a philosophy first impressed upon us by Rabee Zureikat, the founder of Zikra Initiative, during our visit to Jordan years ago.
If we truly wish to do good we must open ourselves to doing it well — by first learning from those we seek to help.
We hope the discussion continues to evolve beyond “hang up your hotel towels” and other energy-saving “greening” checklists when it comes to sustainable tourism. Those are important, too. But let’s focus on the core value underlying sustainable tourism: RESPECT. Respect for culture, humanity, environment and economy — and all the nuanced interconnections between them.
All are needed for a holistic and long-term approach that imagines tourism as a tool for community development and conservation. As Judy Kepher-Gona from Kenya Conservation Land Trust (KLCT) is fond of saying: “Great places to visit must first and foremost be great places to live in for host communities.”
What will this mean in practice? An evolution in the minds of travelers and service providers that sustainable tourism is more of a process, rather than a distinct endpoint or destination. Sustainable tourism will be focused more on improving the lives of the people in the places we visit. From there, we can more easily set a foundation for creating travel experiences that are not only enjoyable for visitors, but also more immersive.
How to do that? Here are a few thoughts: The Good Global Traveler, The Power of Deliberate Spending and Tourism, It’s the People’s Business
TL;DR: adventure travel is the travel of exploring all of one’s limits, not just the physical ones.
We’ve all seen images of people hanging from a cliff face, an inspirational adventure slogan underneath. This image cliché just might leave you thinking: “I can never be adventurous.”
Adventure, though, is intensely personal; it entails the exploration of one’s own peaks and achievements. Adventure implies something different for each of us, with the same apparent challenge stretching everyone in unique ways to unique ends.
So the adventure questions of the future: Did I stretch myself? Did I learn and grow? What did I achieve? And how? What were the challenges — my personal challenges — along the way?
Whether you make your way solo or in a group, personal is the future of adventure travel.
This is the new form of escape. The idea: disconnect to re-connect. As our lives are ever-consumed by the screen and the invisible tether of our social media feeds, apps and the digital messaging spaghetti beckoning in our smart phones, the great emergent luxury of the 21st century: stillness, nothing, peace, offline, digital detox.
I noticed when I began traveling a lot 30 years ago, I would talk about going to Cuba or going to Tibet, and people’s eyes would light up with excitement. And nowadays, I notice that people’s eyes light up most in excitement when I talk about going nowhere or going offline. – Pico Iyer, OnBeing interview
In the coming years, we will see more travel that involves getting away from the noise, the buzz, the notifications. More travel that is about doing less. Travel that offers time and space to be still, to be present, to breathe, and to re-evaluate your life and how you wish to live it. I’m not talking about necessarily checking yourself into a detox or yoga retreat (although I did appreciate my 10-day silent meditation retreat last year), but about taking time during your travels to be present, to absorb what you have experienced.
Listen to, identify and honor the emotions inside you — including the ones surfaced by your exploration.
Participatory travel is on the rise. Travel has long featured classes and courses and “the art of making” to acquire a new skill or to delve into one’s interests. Think cooking classes, batik painting, sailing lessons and the like. We take this theme but adjust the lens slightly to think about it as the idea of participating – doing things that get your hands dirty and engaged with people – rather than observing.
In addition to the itinerary item or scheduled experience, this also implies engaging on the fly. For example, asking the women at the market to teach you new words for foreign vegetables; learning for its own sake. Or engaging a local fisherman at the market to teach you how to clean a fish. This involves putting yourself out there, with all the vulnerability and discomfort that entails. Experiential travel and learning means gaining confidence and building connection through engagement.
I’m not talking about a dump of the photos from your trip on Facebook, Instagram or other social media platform. That has its place. Instead, I speak more about incorporating a little something from your trip back into your daily life.
Ask yourself: “Is there anything I take for granted at home that captures my fascination on the road?”
Chances are, there is.
Maybe you discovered something about food or a cuisine that you can bring back to your kitchen at home. How about infusing your life with a little bit of what you discovered on the road, including an adventure out to the ethnic grocer across town to find the ingredients in your favorite faraway dish?
On the mental front, “bringing it home” can include recapturing a feeling or emotion from your travels by identifying facets of the experience that are independent of place. Take the feeling of relaxation or decompression on that amazing beach. While you may not have a beach at home, there are plenty of opportunities to relax and decompress in beauty. But we’re often not conditioned to take advantage of this at home because it sounds kind of silly.
Take the sense of amazement you felt while admiring a bit of astonishing natural beauty like the dunes of the Namibian desert.
You may not have fabulous orange dunes at home. I don’t either.
But the potential for awe is all around us, everywhere. It’s just that we aren’t conditioned to look for it at home as much as we are when we’re somewhere far-flung. In fact, at home we’re accustomed to ignore it because it’s right there; we’ve taken it for granted.
Harnessing this can be as simple as going out to your backyard on a clear evening and staring into the sky for a long, long time. Or taking a walk in a nearby forest, breathing deeply as you’ve never breathed before.
Sure, it’s easier to find exhilaration, adventure, relaxation and disconnection halfway around the world. But isn’t the greatest resonance of that awesome vacation found in translating a bit of its satisfaction into your everyday life?
We are all different from one another, and we often know different selves throughout our own lifetimes.
Each of us has inherent yet evolving preferences — what makes us tick, brings us joy and fulfills our objectives. What satisfies you about your travels may not do so for the next person. Nor is it guaranteed that what works well for you now will work for you the next time out. Travel is intended to help us grow. But as we grow, we also experience change. It follows that there’s no rightful place for snobbery or rigidity in travel.
With all the access and flexibility built into modern travel, here’s the not-so-secret: there’s no sure-fire recipe. As in life, grasping deep satisfaction in travel is about engaging your sense of possibility and experimentation. It’s about picking up and honing a set of tools (mental, physical, digital and otherwise) to fashion enriching travel experiences that work for you.
And to realize that the joy is the journey — or “the how” if you like — rather than the destination.
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There are moments when I compare our current travels with the early days of our journey when we were constantly on the move, and I feel as though we’ve slowed down, just as we promised. So I’m surprised at the end of each year as I scroll through our Instagram feed — by both the […]
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There are moments when I compare our current travels with the early days of our journey when we were constantly on the move, and I feel as though we’ve slowed down, just as we promised. So I’m surprised at the end of each year as I scroll through our Instagram feed — by both the breadth and the depth of what we’ve seen and experienced in just one year. Add to that the diversity of it all, no less the diversity and beauty of our planet, and I find myself a bit overwhelmed.
The latter point stands out more to me each year. By not always being on the road, our breaks feel something like a travel palate cleanser. When motion stops, our minds are allowed the time and space to better notice details, appreciate the contrasts, and keep the fires of our curiosity stoked.
I know that I’m biased, but I believe that Dan has an incredible eye. Through his photos and captions on Instagram, he’s able to capture details, feelings and moments that are often overlooked. His photos have a way of bringing me back instantly to a place, filling me with gratitude for all of these moments. I hope they connect you to the experience by communicating atmosphere and essence.
So without any further ado, here they are — the best of Uncornered Market on Instagram in 2015!
So we’re curious: where will 2016 take you?
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What are the best Christmas markets in Berlin? I’ve answered this query countless times on email and social media. So I offer here my handy guide and pay homage to my favorite Berlin Christmas markets. I also use this as an excuse to wish all our friends and readers a kick-off to a happy holiday […]
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What are the best Christmas markets in Berlin? I’ve answered this query countless times on email and social media. So I offer here my handy guide and pay homage to my favorite Berlin Christmas markets. I also use this as an excuse to wish all our friends and readers a kick-off to a happy holiday season.
Mulled wine, sweet roasted almonds, flickered lights in a chilly winter vapor. A retreat from the shortening days of the year to the company of gathered friends.
Yes, there’s something that just about everyone looks forward to in December in Berlin: Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt or Adventsmarkt). You’ll find these “markets” less about shopping and more about community, as friends and families make plans to meet at the market after work or on weekends. Over steaming mugs of glühwein (spiced wine) and hearty German street food like bratwurst, they catch up on life and give air to what awaits at the turn of the new year. Christmas markets serve as the perfect antidote — or accompaniment if you like — to the approaching Winter Solstice.
I confess that I am a bit of a Christmas market geek. I started one when I lived in Estonia many years ago. We’ve even taken Christmas market-themed road trips. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I am American and didn’t grow up with the Christmas market culture so I get giddy each time I get close to one. Whatever the cause, this is one of the reasons we stick around Berlin in December.
At this point you might be thinking, “German Christmas markets are famous, but I’ve never heard anything about Christmas markets in Berlin.”
OK, then. Berlin’s Christmas markets haven’t traditionally carried the same reputation or history as those in other German cities like Munich, Nuremberg or Stuttgart. But that’s changing as Berlin makes its own way, blending the traditional into its forward-lurching, unusual self. Just as Berlin doesn’t have one town center, it also doesn’t have one main Christmas market. Instead, its more than 60 markets spread throughout the city, each with its own distinct personality, atmosphere and specialties. Some run the length of the Advent season, while others feature the spirit of their local neighborhood for only a weekend or two.
Of course, a certain commercialization and schlock lurks inconspicuously at some markets. So we share our personal recommendations, a few of favorites to help you get started in your Berlin Christmas market exploration.
The markets listed below are open for the entire Advent Christmas market season, usually every day from the end of November through Christmas (and sometimes to the New Year). We find them especially atmospheric when it’s dark and everything is tastefully lit, which is easy since the sun sets in Berlin before 4PM throughout December. Glühwein seems to taste better in the evening, too.
Why: For a bit of the traditional in a beautiful setting, especially at night as the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) and nearby churches and buildings are lit. Gift stands tend to be handicraft or more luxury focused. Food quality is generally pretty high as well. Be sure to check out the big feuerzangenbowle (fire-tongs punch) tent and seek out the wooden barrel of rum to the right of the bar should you need to “enhance” your steaming mug full of punch. In general, if you encounter a choice of gluhwein “mit schuss” that simply means with a shot, usually of rum or possibly amaretto. Note: Gendarmenmarkt charges a nominal entrance fee of €1.
Where to find it: Gendarmenmarkt is close to Stadtmitte U-Bahn station (U2/U6). Neighborhood: Mitte.
Why: To drink mugs of steaming glühwein in the shadow of a 300+ year old Baroque palace. Schloss Charlottenburg Christmas market is one with big time European fairytale charm. Some of its stands feature traditional — and huge — Christmas pyramids that entertain as figures go round and round all night long. Also fun, but kind of cheesy, is the light show at night.
Where to find it: Just in front of the palace’s main entrance on Spandauer Damm. Closest U-Bahn stations include Sophie-Charlotte-Platz or Richard-Wagner Platz, as well as Westend station on the S-Bahn. Neighborhood: Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf
Why: Because you always wanted to taste the difference between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish glögg (Scandinavian mulled wine)? Top it off with reindeer sausages and a host of other Nordic games and treats and you might forget where you are. Compared to other open-space Christmas markets, the Lucia Christmas Market is set up in the winding courtyards of KulturBrauerei, a 19th century brick industrial complex.
Where to find it: The market has multiple entrances at Knaackstr. 97, Sredzkistr. 1 and Schönhauser Allee 36-39. Closest U-Bahn station is Eberswalder Str. (U2) or Trams 12, M10, M1. Neighborhood: Prenzlauer Berg
Why: To feel as though you’ve been transported to a small German village even though you remain in the Berlin city limits. The streets of old town Spandau are taken over by its Christmas market. While the atmosphere along the main thoroughfare can feel a bit commercial, the little courtyards in and around the churches convey something a bit more traditional.
Where to find it: Take the U7 to Rathaus Spandau (the end of the line) and then just follow the crowds to the Christmas market. Neighborhood: Spandau
Why: To take a break from the big city. Visit the Potsdam UNESCO sites of Sanssouci Palace and gardens during the day and enjoy eierpunsch (spiced egg punch) at the Christmas market at night. The market takes over the streets of the old town for blocks and blocks with some of the most elaborate and biggest stand displays that we’ve seen. There’s also an ice skating and other fun stuff for kids…or adults.
Where to find it: Take the S-Bahn to Potsdam, which is about a 45-60 minute ride from central Berlin.
In addition to all the markets that run the entire length of advent, Berlin has its share of short-run special weekend markets. These are often smaller events in neighborhood-oriented venues. If you’re visiting Berlin for a couple of days during the Christmas season, it’s worth doing some research to see which markets happen to be timed with your visit.
Why: The Rixdorf Christmas Market serves as a nice kickoff to the Christmas season. It also illustrates how a neighborhood Christmas market can be done well and at scale with local organizations selling homemade crafts to raise money for schools, charities, firemen’s groups, and more. Stands tend to be locally run and offer a perfect excuse to get to know the Neukölln district a little better. The square where the Alt-Rixdorf Christmas market is held — featuring pony rides, petting zoos and all — also helps take you back in time.
Where to find it: On Richardplatz near the Karl-Marx Strasse station (U7). Neighborhood: Neukölln.
Why: To experience an intimate Medieval Christmas market in the courtyard of an 18th century manor house. Though medieval costumes are involved here, the market somehow seems to pull this off without being a caricature of itself. As Schloss Britz Christmas market doesn’t typically see the hordes at other markets, you’ll have time to speak to the various artisans and learn more about their handicrafts, preserves and other wares. The food served is usually inventive and a bit different than standard fare. There is a €3 entrance fee, but we feel that the atmosphere and quality of the stands warrants the price.
Where to find it: Schloss Britz, near Parchimer Allee station (U7) or bus 181 Britzer Damm/Mohriner Ave.
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Puglia (or Apulia), the southern Italian province referred to as “the heel of the boot” first entered my consciousness more than ten years ago when a friend from San Francisco up and moved there on the initial leg of his retirement. In an email now deep in the archives, Will wrote: “Puglia is excellent. And […]
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Puglia (or Apulia), the southern Italian province referred to as “the heel of the boot” first entered my consciousness more than ten years ago when a friend from San Francisco up and moved there on the initial leg of his retirement.
In an email now deep in the archives, Will wrote: “Puglia is excellent. And by the way, not too expensive, my friend […] I have a very spacious apartment in a nice section […] excellent weather and the food almost never disappoints.”
I’ve since lost touch with my friend; perhaps Puglia was so good that it drew him in. But before it did, he planted a seed.
As our 15th wedding anniversary approached earlier this year, Audrey and I considered a handful of regions in Italy in which to celebrate. While we could have returned to Tuscany, the original scene of the crime, we aimed to explore somewhere new to us. Puglia came up often, reigniting the embers of my friend’s correspondence.
Along with the neighboring province of Basilicata, Puglia would serve as the setting of a road trip to celebrate the occasion. Equipped with a rental car reservation for late September to early October and no plans other than a bed and breakfast reservation for our first night in the provincial capital of Bari, we set off with a touch of abandon and two maps – one physical, one digital.
During our Puglia travel research, we were grateful for and overwhelmed by all the recommendations we received. Particularly thanks to our Puglian friends Franca and Gianni, there was plenty to sift through. We allowed the chance twists and turns of the road — “let’s pull over here…maybe we should stop here for the night” — to serve as our sorting mechanism.
If you’ve never been to Puglia, maybe the following photos, experiences and stories can draw an image in your mind’s eye — and help you plan a trip of your own.
The following experiences are in chronological order. If you have 7-10 days, you can conservatively accomplish something similar, or pare back a few destinations to make the trip more leisurely and manageable. We include suggestions of notable restaurants and accommodation in Puglia to help round out your itinerary.
We will also publish a companion article devoted solely to Puglian food, a crucial dimension to any Italian experience and a unique one given the province’s history and location. Similarly, we will also cover Italy’s Basilicata region in a separate piece.
We get lost. It’s a fact.
On our first night in Bari, after a long four-course meal accompanied by a carafe of Puglian wine, we got turned around on our way home and stumbled upon a ramp that took us atop the medieval stone walls surrounding the old town. It may not have been the most direct way home that night, but it proved a beautiful and romantic diversion. The medieval old town glowed on one side of us while the Adriatic Sea lapped on the other.
“Now, why haven’t we heard more about Bari before?” Charming, alive, good food. Spend a night or two in Bari, or as we did bookend your trip with a visit there.
Where to eat: Vini e Cucina, via Vallisa 23, Bari. What to eat: The standard offering, scribbled on a chalkboard, is a four-course meal focusing on seafood. The grilled pulpo (octopus) was tender and perfectly cooked. For an introduction to Puglian food, this is a good place to start.
Run, jog, walk. Whatever method you choose to carry yourself, make an effort to get up early and trace the coast around Porto Vecchio. This will prove essential to your health, particularly if you’ve overdone it as we had with too many courses the night before. You’ll also find fishermen stocking the seafood market from their boats, fresh from the morning’s catch. A few others choose to sell direct on the stones next to the promenade.
Everyone around the world does laundry. (Don’t they?)
In Italy, laundry unfurls like pastel banners in the breeze of medieval alleys and it dries in the warmth of Mediterranean light. Those flags of everyday life are accompanied by voices of local families. The curtain is pulled back on Italian life and the backdrop feels cinematic. This is culture of the unofficial sort, beauty and poetry embedded in a task many of us consider mundane.
We confess to not going into the water here. (Later we did). However, we enjoyed watching others dodge the chop and waves and take in the fading warmth of the season by sunbathing on the rocky beach of the cove at Polignano. It’s as if they said, “I know winter is coming, but I won’t allow it. Not yet.”
This is one of three distinct views to catch in Polignano a Mare. The two others are from the opposing cliffs above.
Where to eat in Polignano: Osteria dei Mulini, via Mulini 2, Polignano a Mare. Located just inside the old town walls. What to eat: Orecchiette di grano arso or “burnt” flour orecchiette with tomatoes, bread crumbs, anchovies + purè di fave e cicoria or pureed fava beans topped with sautéed chicory.
Although I understand that commercial fishing now dominates the world’s waterways, including in the Roman-Venetian living history museum that is Monopoli, it’s heartening to see independent fishermen still play a role. Amidst the tiny fishing boats along the old port, watch veteran fisherman mind the knots and fix the holes in their fishing nets in preparation for tomorrow’s catch.
La pausa (“the pause”) is the Italian institution version of siesta and nap time. After the “storm before the calm” as people leave work, a stretch of stillness descends on Italian towns from noon until 4:00 PM. We found ourselves roaming the streets of Monopoli just as the streets emptied for lunch; the remarkable old town and coastal promenades were ours almost entirely.
Road trip note: Public parking is often free and more easily found during the pause since everyone has gone home for lunch. It’s an excellent time to take advantage and find a place to eat.
Lecce is most known for its Baroque architecture, something opulent and grand and looking as if it has just popped out of a 3-dimensional fairy tale book. This is especially true at night when buildings are lit and details laid bare.
The huge 2nd century Roman amphitheater on the edge of town reminded us of the depth of history and the many layers of civilizations buried just under our feet in this part of the world.
Where to stay in Lecce: UP Room&Suite, Via Cavour 16, 73100 Lecce. A double room, including a breakfast buffet, was 60€/night.
Where to eat in Lecce: Osteria Da Angiulino, Via Principi di Savoia, 24, Lecce. Local specialties, friendly owners (a few words of Italian does wonders), and reasonably priced. Be sure to call ahead and make a reservation as there is a line out the door before this popular place even opens. What to eat: We went for the traditional orecchiette con sugo alla ricotta forte — orecchiette in tomato sauce blended with strong, local ricotta cheese. Homemade, hearty and inexpensive.
Whether or not it happens to be your 15th wedding anniversary, it’s always a good idea pull the car over along the coast, walk barefoot in the sand together, breathe in the fresh sea air as you explore, and steal a kiss.
Recent archaeological finds date the ancient site of Roca Vecchia and Grotta della Poesie as far back as to the Bronze Age. Now the area serves as a popular swimming hole. The ancients apparently knew where to party. Modern Italians, too.
Go to the cliff side and watch, if you can stand it, as your fearless-of-heights wife tests your nerves by going right up to the cliff’s edge for a better view of what’s below. (Spoiler alert: A 200-foot drop and the sea.)
During Roman times, Otranto served as an important port for all trade headed east. Nowadays, it’s known more for wide beaches and a picturesque old town overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Unfortunately, the 11th century cathedral and its renowned mosaics were closed during our visit because of the pause. We opted instead to follow a group of stray cats who happily served as our impromptu guides.
Where to eat in Otranto: La Pignata, Via Rondachi 12, Otranto. One of the most delightful meals of our trip, including a discovery that Primitivo Rose (yes, that’s like white zinfandel) is an appropriate match for local seafood and pasta dishes. What to eat: The highlights of this meal were a starter of cozze gratinate (gratinated mussels) and Vellutata di Ceci e Fagioli con Pomodori Secchi e Gamberetti (mashed chickpeas and beans with sundried tomatoes and prawns).
In all our research prior to our trip, why hadn’t anyone told us the drive south of Otranto was so beautiful? We almost skipped the coastal route for something more direct. What a missed opportunity that would have been.
If you have a car, do it. Take a little time, pull off the road frequently to satisfy your curiosity, breathe the air, take photos. Be sure to check out the 16th century watchtowers and elaborate, colorful 17th century Moorish palaces like Santa Cesarea Terme along the way.
There seemed no better way to end a beautiful drive along the Puglian coast than with a sunset Aperol spritz at the tip of Italy’s heel. Our trip was meant to celebrate 15 years of marriage. This moment captured us as we were and are, taking stock at an unassuming port-side cafe, sitting in plastic chairs and soaking up a perfect sunset.
Where to sunset Aperol spritz: Albergo Ristorante Pizzeria Al Porticciolo, Torre Vado. Other than the view to the sunset over the sailboats, there’s nothing spectacular about this place. Maybe that’s what made it so special.
When we pulled into Gallipoli and made a late reservation via the Booking.com app we weren’t expecting to stay in a palace and given a sprawling room whose balcony windows opened onto the ochre-washed light of the old town. It was a welcome surprise upgrade; the owner hadn’t even been aware it was our anniversary.
Where to stay in Gallipoli: Palazzo Flora, Via D’Ospina, 19, Gallipoli. The garden courtyard of the palazzo is terrific. Breakfast was abundant and fresh, one of the nicest along our trip. Rooms range from €50-€82/night depending upon the size of the room…and the number of frescos inside.
Although you go to eat seafood, the experience is more about the atmosphere. Burly fishermen-looking guys serve as waiters and dish out heaping piles of sea urchins, mussels, fish, and other seafood. While the menu is written on paper tablecloths, the best approach is to point and shoot at the piles of fresh catch out front or to someone else’s dish nearby. For lunch, be sur to arrive early so you’re sure to get a table.
Where to eat in Lido Conchiglie: La Maruzzella, Via Cristiforo Colombo, Lido Conchiglie (just outside Gallipoli). What to eat: Best was the huge bowl of mussels and clams. The seafood sampler was acceptable, but perhaps a little over-grilled. Sparkling wine from the tap also a nice touch.
Our initial intent in visiting Salice Salentino was to source some on-the-ground information about wine tasting. Instead, we found a town stuck in time. Salice Salentino is the town that time forgot. Everyone else seemed to forget about it, too — except the old men at the local bar and a handful of people on bicycles crossing a desolate main square.
I appreciate old towns like this because they exist on their own terms — not for the tourist, not always spiffy, yet certainly authentic in an untouched sort of way. Salice Salentino is also of the same name as the Italian DOC wine made from the Negroamaro grape, one of the many wines we’d enjoyed along our trip.
Watch locals line up at the wine pumps with their 5-liter jugs for a few Euros fill-up. If you aren’t in the market for pumped wine, you can also taste wines from a local lineup that includes Manduria Primitivo (the local zinfandel-like grape). If Primitivo is too heavy, hot, or fruitacious for you, try a Primitivo Rosato (rosé) that goes especially well with a mezzo plate or seafood in a light red sauce.
Where to find the wine consortium: Produttori Vini Manduria, via Fabio Massimo 19, Manduria.
Clay-pan olive groves dot much of the landscape of inland Puglia. I’m sure the chunky clay soil is essential to the character of the tasty olive oil that run rivulets through notable Puglian cuisine.
As I indicated to my sister in a lengthly dozen-email exchange about Puglian food, “Everything is fresh. But — and I’ve been thinking about this a lot — the magic, persistent ingredient: olive oil. You get a sauce with a couple of pomodorini [cherry tomatoes] and a bunch of olive oil. And it’s incredible. It’s as if the olive oil is a flavor activator. And the olive oil here is very good.”
If the Hobbits had to suddenly take up residence in southern Italy, they’d likely do so in the trulli dotting the countryside of the Itria Valley. Many of these stone hut structures — often dating to the 14th-15th centuries — were originally built to house agricultural workers or as storage buildings.
Why this style of home became so popular is still a bit of a mystery, however. One appealing theory posited: people built trulli so they could easily dismantle them before the tax collector arrived.
How’s that for a clever tax dodge?
In Puglia, a working farm that also serves as a bed and breakfast is called a masseria. (Think of it as Puglia’s version of what Tuscans call an agritourismo). The masseria we stayed at, Masseria Ferri, included not only our very own 450-year old trullo, but also a friendly dog named Tommy who remained by our side for the stay.
We recommend a picnic dinner with a glass of Primitivo wine while watching the sky change color. Kicking back at a masseria is an excellent way to rest the mind at the end of a road trip. Masseria Ferri also makes its own cheese, wine and olive oil. Note: At the time of our stay (off-season, early October 2015), the price for a double was €70/night (including breakfast) for a trullo suite that includes a small kitchen.
Road trip note: We used Masseria Ferri (closest town: Martina Franca) as a base from which to explore various destinations in the Itria Valley. All notable towns are nearby; it’s easy to visit several in one day.
The town of Alberobello offers a motherlode of trulli. You’ll find its UNESCO old town made up almost entirely of these traditional Puglian homes. The town’s popularity, however, means vast crowds of tourists. So be sure to begin your visit on the northern side of the old town where things are a little less touristy. There, you’ll find families who still live in their 400-500 year old trullo homes.
If you go in early fall, you’ll also find elements of the harvest like walnuts or chestnuts, or as we did, gargantuan garlic heads drying in the open air. When we asked the woman drying it, she told us that it’s sweet garlic and can be sliced and eaten raw in salads.
Like so many towns in Puglia, Martina Franca was another that made us wonder why we hadn’t heard more of it before.
Architecture in Italy had always been a thing, but the Renaissance re-ordered it and took it up a notch. Martina Franca stands as a fine example of Baroque and Rococo style. Our suggestion: park on the edge of the old town and just get lost in its alleys and plazas. Although we did not eat in Martina Franca, the restaurant menus looked formidable and tempting.
Shop like a local, too. Buy black chick peas, a wheel of cheese (or two), a string of peppers, and some smoked meat. And take a photo of the guys who sell it all to you.
Local outdoor fresh markets are on rotation in the region and appear in a different town each day of the week (e.g., in Cisternino on Mondays, Martina Franca on Wednesdays, etc.), so just ask around at your hotel or nearby tourism office to find out which town is hosting the market for that day. Note: go early in the morning as open-air fresh markets usually wind up around lunchtime.
When you finish shopping, drop your goodies off in the car and explore another beautiful old town.
Grandmas in kitchens peering through the beaded door curtains. They peer from upstairs windows, they stand on balconies. Grandmas, Italian grandmas everywhere. Pay attention and you’ll see them as you make your way. They watch, they survey life, and they see you.
It’s one of the life features we loved about Puglia. Old towns were well lived in with grandmothers poking their heads out of doors to say hello, scold their errant dogs, and mind the laundry. Children’s giggles echoed off cobbled pathways and the smell of home cooking slowly permeated the air just before lunch.
Why go to a museum when you can see life as it has been lived, and it is lived today?
Even in early October, graced with sun and favorable currents, the Adriatic Sea is worth a dip or wade.
Perhaps we were just plain lucky with the weather, but we found late September/early October a perfect time to explore this region. Plenty of sunshine and warmth, and no crowds.
Along this stretch of coastline south of Bari you’ll find divers – some in wet suits, others without — ranging for octopus (pulpo) along the rocky coast. Vegetarians, turn away. The rest of you pulpo-eaters, this is where lunch and dinner have come from. Divers clean the pulpo and strike them against the rocks, so they’re tender by the time they make it to your plate.
A friend on Instagram suggested we seek out “the orecchiette ladies,” local women in Bari whose morning ritual consists of making the signature ear-shaped Puglian pasta. On our final morning, just before heading to the airport, we wandered through the old town in search of the ladies. Instead, we were lucky enough to meet Grazia and her daughter Maria. Grazia had just finished making three kilos of hand-made orecchiette for her family and neighbors and was drying it outside her home on a wire rack, around which Audrey and I puzzled about.
Through broken Italian, we had a conversation with Grazia and her daughter and understood how they make the orecchiette and prefer to serve it. The favorite: the traditional, orrechiette con cime di rapa (with turnip greens).
Now, before any more time passes, I owe Grazia and Maria a copy of the photos we took. I must put them in the mail, since they don’t have an email address.
A fitting way to close from Puglia.
If you travel to Puglia, take some of our advice and find a few of your own adventures. Let us know how you get on. And if you come across a guy from San Francisco named Will somewhere on your travels in the province, don’t interrupt him. I suspect he’s still having the time of his life.
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