Tag Archives: family travel
August 3, 2013

On Re-Entry . . . Back in the USA

I made coffee this morning. A whole friggin’ pot.
It’s hot; it’s strong, and I’m completely caffeinated.
I’m not sitting in a Parisian cafe with a tiny little espresso cup.
I didn’t make it in that crazy gravity-defying-espresso-pot that required YouTube tutorials to use.
I’m not stirring it with a tiny little spoon reminiscent of tiny little spoons from Florida parties in the 1980s.
I’m drinking it black from a huge mug that says Bald Head Island, plucked from a cabinet of mugs from other uniquely American destinations.
I just refilled the mug. For the third time.

It’s loud. Everything and everybody is loud.
The Jetson-bus that transports passengers from the plane to the terminal at Washington Dulles was loud. (And for the love of god, can they not dig a tunnel and connect the airport like every other airport and get rid of those ridiculous buses that last seemed cool in 1983?)
The immigration line was loud. And long and slow, but I was tired, so maybe it was just like every other immigration line.

People are oddly friendly. Well, maybe.
The line at Hertz Gold was long (and loud) but not as long as the regular line at Hertz. Those poor souls are still there.
The woman smiled as she assumed I wanted all their extra insurance and rolled her eyes when I declined, then smiled again as she assumed I wanted to get a larger car for $7/day more and rolled her eyes and sighed when I didn’t.
The woman who let us through the gate after confirming I was, in fact, licensed to drive a car in the USA asked “How you doin’ today?” and Emmi was reminded immediately of our Versailles host, who’d opined that the question always seemed nosey to her. We laughed, answered her — our official American Welcome Wagon — and told her to have a great weekend.

The highways are huge and loud and the cars are huge and loud and for a moment I thought I’d forgotten how to drive on these roads. But like riding a bike, for better or worse, I remembered.

Our iphones work without roaming and we can pull email and use the apps and text and call and check Facebook without incurring a national debt.

Netflix works. Enough said.

There’s a washer and dryer that make sense to us, and a refrigerator larger than some Parisian apartments, and ice in every glass.

We speak exactly one language between the three of us. Everyone here speaks that exact same language.

It’s our flag flying around the monuments and on top of buildings and in the parks.

We are home.

And with my mug refilled (for the 4th time, now), I’m looking at fares and options and miles and figuring out how early in June we should return next year so we can actually see and do all the things we want to see and do in Paris before my writing month begins and we do it all over again.

July 14, 2013

Uniquely Paris — The Fireman Balls on Bastille Day

Fireman's Ball -- Bastille Day Paris -- Port Royal 13eme

13eme Port Royal Fireman's Ball, Paris 2013

Among the many things uniquely Parisian  . . .  the Firemen’s Balls over the Bastille Day holiday.  The Firemen of Paris– who work out daily in Luxembourg Gardens to an audience of jogging, swooning admirers — open their Fire Houses and host raucous, music pounding, dance throbbing parties for anyone willing to drop a few euro in the bucket on the way in. Consider us willing. Us, and our fellow writers and classmates from the Paris American Creative Writing Program, our home away from home every July.

It’s our second time to stop by the Fire House on Port Royal, just around the corner from our temporary home.  We know it’s close because we can hear the music pounding well into the evening. We sipped champagne (well, I did anyway) and danced and mingled until the wall of people was too crushing and our ears too deaf to endure any more fun.  Simply put, it was fabulous.  Maybe not quite as fabulous as the croissants.  Then again, maybe it was.

June 25, 2013

One Turned Right — A Sheep Stampede

It was faint at first, and indistinguishable.  I’d already heard the pheasants making racket earlier, so perhaps it was them again. But this was different, guttural, and a lot of it, and it was getting closer. It takes a lot to get me out from under the plush covers of my castle bed, but this other-worldly noise did just that.

My upstairs bedroom window overlooks the entry gate, the main road just past the gate, and across the road, a lane up towards pastures and rolling hills and all that.   There’s never anyone, or anything, out there.  Just the occasional cars on the road and the mail truck every morning. It’s quiet and remote and perfectly Scotland-lovely.  Except today.

Scotland

The Scene of the Stampede

Across the road and on the lane that leads to all things rolling and lovely were hundreds — and I mean hundreds — of sheep stampeding and ba’ahing and doing whatever sheep do when they make a wrong turn.  They over-flowed the lane, trampling the grasses on either side, and stretched back up the lane as far as I could see. And they were stampeding towards the main road and the world beyond as though their lives depended on it.

I grabbed clothes and ran downstairs, out the gate and into the road. It was only then that I realized a few critical facts:  (1) I was the only human in sight and hundreds of thundering sheep were running towards me;  (2) I’d left the front door open, so in just a few moments, those hundreds of thundering sheep could be in my adopted castle; and  (3) thundering sheep aren’t cute and cuddly; they are terrifying.  I leaned against the wall surrounding the property and hoped for the best.

Perhaps the sheep found me equally terrifying, because when they had to choose between my castle and me or the main road, they thundered onto the main road and took off for parts unknown.  Sheep really do run in a wall-to-wall herd, filling every inch of space with their bodies and their hooves and their snorts and ba-ahs. It was a moving carpet of sheep, coming down the lane, onto the main road and off on a wild and woolly adventure.

The occasional cars appeared, and stopped. Sheep herds in the roads aren’t uncommon here, so they probably weren’t as shocked as I was. But they did seem to understand that no responsible human was anywhere in sight, so they chose to stay in the safety of their vehicles, rather than join me standing in the middle of the road, watching this thundering herd trample anything in its way.

The responsible humans could be heard trailing the sheep, screaming commands at them. The sheep weren’t listening. It was clear even to me, the American, that things weren’t going as planned. For these two men, who seemed to have been having a perfectly normal morning until something went askew, things were not going well. Even through their thick Scottish brogue, I knew those words weren’t meant for polite company, or even polite sheep.

But these were human men and a couple hundred wild sheep. The humans would eventually prevail. One skirted around the fields and got in front of the herd, effectively cutting it off at the pass,  while the second guy barked at the three sheepdogs who obediently corralled the sheep into submission.  Or at least stopped the stampede. There they stood, several hundred sheep in the middle of the main road, having just come thundering down the hill, past my castle and me.

They looked cute and cuddly again.  Until the men started yelling at them again and the dogs started barking and snapping and the thundering herd turned to go back from whence they came.  Straight towards me standing in the middle of the road. Once again, I took cover by the wall and hoped for the best.

Those three little dogs, 2 men and one truck worked like magic. Particularly the dogs. They barked and snapped and got the sheep to turn back up the lane at exactly the right moment, and when a few strayed, the dogs brought them back, yapping and lunging at them and forcing their compliance. The dogs seemed to love it. The sheep had gotten their joy ride, so they obeyed.

“Well you don’t see that everyday,” the man in the truck said to me as he finally got the last few strays to head back up the lane. “We were just moving them from one field to another, like we do all the time, when one of them decided to turn right. And before we knew it . . . ” He trailed off and shook his head.

Later in the day, I wandered up the lane, to see where they’d come from, and perhaps where they’d ended up.  Sure enough, on one side of the road was an open gate and empty field, sheep wool still clinging to the gate and brush along the sides.   Up the road to the left, another field, gate closed, with a few hundred sheep contentedly ba’ahing and grazing and napping.  Most were laying down. They were rather tired, I figured.

“One turned right,” the man had told me. I got it now. Rather than going left and to the safety of the next field, one obstinate buggah turned right, and the rest of the otherwise mild-mannered herd turned suddenly crazed and followed him.

It’s like the Tea-Party. One turned right and it became a thundering, frightening herd running towards something, but no one knew quite what. If only a few wily sheepdogs snapping at their heels could solve that problem too.

June 21, 2013

Newbies in the Hostel World

Mention hostels to casual travelers and images of Jim Belushi fraternity parties may spring to mind. Twenty-somethings traveling with no money, perfecting the art of booze consumption on every continent, and passing out in hole-in-the-wall dives littered with moldy towels, dirty dishes, and bathrooms that shouldn’t be entered without protective clothing. That’s what I thought, anyway.

Until I found myself traveling the world, on a tight budget, with two teens in tow. The essence of travel, I think, is to blow up pre-conceived notions on all variety of things and start anew. Such was the case with me and hostels.

We’ve dipped our toe in the hostel world on previous adventures.  We ended up in a hostel in Wellington New Zealand once, where I spent the entire evening checking the door locks and keeping tabs on my kids – who thought I was crazy (and they were right.) Then in Fiji, our Yasawa Island “resorts” included backpacker dorms, and while we enjoyed our private bure in lieu of the dorm life, it was the dorm travelers we hung out with. They were more fun.

It’s been this trek through Australia that converted us. It started as necessity, as with most hostel guests I guess.  Australia is just plain expensive, and our dollar doesn’t do what it used to.  I’d always heard about the Sydney YHA, in the Rocks, near the Four Seasons, with a killer view. At $125/night for a private family room, it was still over our budget but the best deal in town, so I booked it. On a roll, I booked another one in Perth and a campervan park backpacker dorm in Exmouth. We wandered into yet another one in Adelaide (one of the highlights of our 24 hours there) and now have a couple more booked across Europe.

I know, I know. Not all hostels are alike, and staying in a half dozen or so doesn’t exactly make us experts. And like everything, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. But so far, it’s been a good thing for us.

 

MY PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS — BLOWN TO SMITHERERENES

 

Backpacks Optional. It’s still part of the vernacular, but not necessarily part of the scene.  Leaving our bags in the luggage holds, we found a department store assortment of rolling bags and luggage, and an occasional backpack or two.  The occasional backpack looked oddly retro actually, like the true adventurer is still out there while the rest of us have discovered wheels and never looked back.

 

Baby boomers just keep plugging along. Think I was the oldest resident in the joint? Not a chance. Maybe there’s fewer backpacks these days because there’s fewer folks young enough to trek their possessions on their backs.  We ran across an incredibly fit 60-something cycling his way across Australia (his luggage, panniers for the bike), numerous “mature” women traveling solo, an assortment of families, men beyond the age of beer pong, travel photographers and videographers on a budget, and a wide assortment of Europeans of all ages looking for work.

 

BBQ Night at Wickham Retreat, Perth

Beer and Ramen for Dinner?  Not a chance. While I ate my toast for breakfast in Perth one morning, a group of women from Malaysia made a most exotic assortment of soups and veggies and meats for breakfast.  In Exmouth, we were joined by a couple who’d just grilled the fresh fish they’d caught earlier in the day, while the table next to us had some sumptuous stir fry, and yet another had a roast lamb with all the fixings.  And of course, a bottle of Australia wine was always close at hand.

In Perth, the proprietor hosts a weekly BBQ for his guests.  We were dubious, and had planned to go out that tonight.  Until we saw the grill. Steak, sausages, burgers, chicken, grilled veggies, and all the sides. It was one of the best meals I’ve had on the road. And it was free, part of the hospitality that brings guests back to his indy hostel again and again.

OK, so there was the moment later in the evening when the snarky French guests with whom we dined asked Austin and Emmi what it was like traveling with their grandmother. My children wisely withheld that tidbit of info for a few days.  And they both observed the finer art of hostel pick-up lines as the various guests mixed and mingled over the evening. All part of traveling, I figure.

 

Wild Parties Every Night? Not Even Close. Admittedly, a private family room insulates us a bit from the late night comings and goings, but I’ve heard wilder parties at Hyatts when there’s a car dealer convention in town. Like most guests, we were drawn to the communal spaces – comfy sofas, fast wifi, maybe a game of ping pong or pool or darts – but we never came upon a boozing rager.

And check out the book swap table.  Sure, there’s the expected assortment of travel guides and airport lit, but there’s also a surprising assortment of well-loved copies of Hemingway and Dickens and other classics.  And not a single copy of Fifty Shades of Gray to be found. (Our only sighting of that one was a woman at the airport who clearly had no clue what she’d just picked up; we figured her husband was in for a long flight.)

 

HazMat Equipment Needed for the Bathrooms? We didn’t think so. Okay, so in one spot, Emmi and I decided to wait til our next city for a good shower, but Austin used the showers and reported they were fine.  The next spot was spectacular though, with fluffy towels for hire (and we could even change out our towels for fresh ones at no additional cost), hot water, great pressure, and spotlessly clean facilities.  And in the family rooms, we usually scored a private bath – even better.

 

Scary Beds & Linens & Pillows, Oh My! True, it’s not the Four Seasons, and I’ve yet to find a hostel with pillows that really meet the definition of the word.  But, at least where we’ve been, the linens are clean and fresh and without stains and rips, the beds are reasonably comfortable, and the blankets seem to be cleaner than anything I’ve ever gotten on an airplane.  That works for me.

 

But Are They Safe? To borrow from another blogger, that’s like asking if the world is safe.  Sure, as long as you’re reasonably attentive, know what to expect and use common sense.  Basically the same rules for travel anytime, anywhere. We travel with a bike lock to secure our bags together when we leave them somewhere, and with a couple of padlocks, just in case we need them. Most hostels have some sort of provision for securing your belongings – often a locker in your room – and I’ve found the locks to come in handy.

 

June 19, 2013

Castle Magic

Kailua, our little beach town in Hawaii, is the sweat pants of female fashion. Seriously, if you are living aloha there, you’re either sweaty, sandy or sopping wet most of the time anyway, and should you try to wear make-up, it slides off your face sometime before noon.

Okay, of course there are exceptions to this – goddesses who look perfect every single day – and we worship those women. But mostly, after a while, most women just quit trying. Maybe it’s because we live by the beach, where natural beauty is extraordinary, so we are lulled into believing our natural beauty is all we need, and the thought of blow drying our hair in our equally natural non-air-conditioned homes, dripping sweat immediately after our shower, seems oddly masochistic. Or maybe we just get lazy.

For the longest time, my new year’s resolutions included one to dry my hair completely.  Like, til it was dry. Another girlfriend and I did it in solidarity.  We’d text each other every morning we succeeded in our quest.  The texting ended before Valentines.  We never spoke of it again.  Now, when I’m home, I mostly use my hair dryer to dry my t-shirt after spot-treating it for some stain, so I can wear it one more day.

Another girlfriend, already naturally beautiful anyway, came back from LA once and started wearing make-up, drying her hair, and looking simply stunning every day.  I asked her about it.  “Honey, we just gotta try harder,” she told me. “I saw it in LA. We’ve given up.”  She was right of course, and she looked particularly stunning in her renewed efforts.  Last time I saw her, her hair was pulled up on top of her head, partially wet, her skin glowed without make-up, and her old t-shirt and shorts looked terrific.  But like I said, she’s naturally beautiful anyway.

I’m thinking about this, you see, because we’ve been trekking thru Italy, where even little kids wear sweaters over their shoulders and everyone has designer something. And they actually glow. Beautifully. (I chose to leave my toe shoes safely packed the entire time we were in the country, saving my kids from the mortification of traveling with me.)  I still didn’t dry my hair or wear make-up of course, but I noticed the beauty of others, and felt a bit guilty about my au naturel  lifestyle.

Now we’re in Scotland. Living in a castle. A castle with a name, even.  Dollerbeg Lodge, it’s called. It says that right on the stone pillars you drive through to enter the grounds.  (Yeah, I know. Google that and you don’t really find images of it, but I don’t care. That’s the address to which mail is delivered, and I’m reveling in a castle with a name actually etched in stone, so I’m going with it.)

And here’s the best part.  The Lady’s Dressing Room is in the Turret of the castle.  The Turret!

Yes, the room is round and cushy and plush, with a little window looking out over the gated entrance, with a couple of watchful spiders weaving their webs in the windows.  There’s a dressing table, a comfy chair, a big, beautiful mirror, plugs for the dryer and flat iron, and room on the dressing table for my meager make-up supply.

Yes, I do travel with make-up; I just never actually use it.  Contacts too, but glasses seem so much easier. Until today.

It’s a dressing room in a Turret, for gods sake. In a Scottish castle, with a name. If ever a girl’s to feel like a girl and do the girly thing, that’s the place.  Right?

That’s what I thought too. And so I did.

I took a long, luscious hot shower, in the beautiful bathroom with the claw foot tub and the heated tile floor. (You knew it had a claw foot tub, didn’t you, because it’s part of the castle requirements – turret and claw foot tub mandatory; moat optional.) The bathroom scale looming in the corner momentarily challenged my fairy tale. I stepped on it, warily, but was relieved by the low battery warning, a clear sign my fairy godmother had readied the home before my arrival.  I thanked her quietly.

The various moisturizer samples I’ve been lugging around the world were retrieved from the bottom of my toiletries kit and lathered on. It felt heavenly. Bathed, weighed and moisturized, I gathered all my hair products and make up and brushes and retreated to the Turret.

And it was glorious.  I took my time, like a little girl with make up for the first time, which was a good thing since I’m not terribly skilled at actually applying the stuff. I dried my hair, actually using my brush and even a bit of oil that’s supposed to do something special to my hair. Or at least that’s what I think it’s for. I forget.  Then the flat iron, smoothing out those kinks and curls and waves til my hair looked, well, stunning.  (I’m typing this with one hand while the other hand keeps fingering my hair to be sure I didn’t make this up.)

Lastly, the make-up – foundation, eye shadow and liner, even lipstick.  And of course, the contacts.  I had to go through a few pair to find some that hadn’t expired, but I wasn’t to be deterred.

My teenagers simply stared when I descended the staircase, trying to act like I look like this every day. Perhaps it took them a moment to realize I was their mother, the one with toe shoes and stained t-shirts. Or maybe they were concerned she’d been snatched away, and this odd-looking blow-dried creature had been left in her place.  And perhaps that’s exactly what had happened.

Collarbeg Castle, ScotlandIn a castle with a turret, anything is possible.

 

 

May 25, 2013

Whale Sharks

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Picture 1 of 16

“Great idea,” Owen (my 23 year old son who’s off doing his thing in the world) commented when we told him we wanted to swim with whale sharks.  “All of you in open waters, hundreds of feet deep, swimming with sharks larger than school buses. What could possibly go wrong?”  Truth is, Emmi and I wondered the same thing.  They are huge, and Emmi is pretty tiny, and I’m, well, not tiny, but still, they are really big. And they are, after all, sharks.

Austin and a whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

But it was Austin’s 16th birthday request, and so it was to be.  That’s the deal in our family. I adopted the idea from a client, back years ago when I had clients and my kids were still young, that on their 16th birthday, they could choose an adventure and I’d do it with them. There are rules and limitations of course, and it requires some mutual planning, but if it’s doable and within reason, that’s their big pay-out.

Austin was 12 when he learned about whale sharks and started planning.  Now, here we are, in remote western Australia, in a tiny outback town called Exmouth, the jumping off point for all things sharking on Ningaloo Reef.  Yep, that’s what they call it: sharking.

Exmouth itself is half the story. The town came into existence because the US military, during WW II, decided a refueling station was needed, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, selected this little outpost on a pristine reef as the perfect spot. They built a base, complete with a water tower (which was never used but was erected to make American soldiers feel more at home in the Outback), a bowling alley, and standard issue US military barracks. A tiny little town evolved to support the base, even establishing the point on the edge of town where cars moved from the left side of the road to the right in recognition of this American outpost.  Eventually, the US military abandoned the base – just shutting off the lights and walking away – leaving Exmouth to reinvent itself. The abandoned barracks became a traveler’s inn, and whale sharking and diving on the reef became the new source of revenue and prosperity.

We did what we came to do. We forked out the requisite small fortune and went sharking.

And I am here to tell you, it was worth every penny and every moment of trepidation.

It’s a funny dance, this sharking thing.  A plane flies overhead and spots the creatures, directing the boat captain to the vicinity. On signal, a group of ten “sharkers” jumps in the water and assembles itself into a pre-arranged order (which my group never seemed to fully grasp) and when done correctly, the whale shark comes swimming through the tunnel, almost like kids at the end of the soccer game running through the throngs of proud parents.  Unless the shark has other ideas. Then at the direction of the guide, the sharkers start swimming with the shark or around the shark or away from the shark, trying to stay with the amazing creature while also keeping the requisite distance – 3 meters from the body and 4 meters from the tail.

Trust me when I tell you that being any closer than four meters from that massive tail is something of a death wish.

Our first time in the water, it all worked just as planned. And I swear that massive, beautiful creature heard me mutter “holy f***king shit” when I saw him. We locked eyes as he swam by, as though to say, “yeah, I hear that all the time.”

Our next encounter, same drill. In the water, get in position, guide spots shark. But this time, the shark had other ideas. He took off swimming in the other direction, leaving us to catch up. This time, his swimming abilities and mine were not in the same league. Not even close.  The kids stayed right with him, but I was the forgotten bait, dragging up the rear. The kind and handsome guide in the dinghy took pity on me and towed me back to the group.

I was determined that would not happen again.

Two more encounters, each time same drill, and each time, “holy f***king shit” when I saw the shark. I couldn’t help it. There are no words to describe these magnificent creatures.  I’ve snorkeled the Great Barrier reef and seen some amazing things. I’ve been in a cage encircled by feeding sharks. I’ve had the privilege to swim with dolphins. None of it compares.

They are massive, yes, and they are beautiful, with unique patterns of spots all over their huge bodies. But it’s more than that. They swim with a grace and a power that is almost spiritual. They lock eyes with you, lazily open their massive mouths (easily 3 – 4 feet wide) and strain the krill from the water, then silently move on.

It’s magic.  And we were there to see it.

Oh, I did have one more encounter with the handsome dinghy captain, after swimming with one of the sharks I was a bit slow getting back to the boat. Once again, he came to the rescue, this time hauling me into the dinghy and giving me a lift. Trust me when I say there’s nothing ladylike about being hauled into a dinghy, but I didn’t care. I’d just been swimming with whale sharks.

 

(Photos courtesy of Three Islands, the magnificent outfitter we spent the day with. Luke, our photographer, was stellar.  The other cool creatures pictured — including turtle, reef shark and octopus — were spotted during our morning snorkel before heading out to the outer reef.)