Paris, je t’aime, comme toujours.

It was important to me on this trip to not overbook/over schedule anything and truly enjoy playing it by ear day to day. I had been lucky on previous trips seeing all the “must see” sights and activities, and with how busy Paris was feeling I was glad to not have to stand in many lines or crowds, aside from the occasional metro ride.

One of the few plans I had made this trip was purchasing an advanced ticket to the Orangerie first thing on Monday morning. I wanted to revisit the zen-like infinity sign rooms containing Monet’s famous water lilies. I was there first thing as they opened the doors and my fellow early visitors and I seemed to have the same idea; to enjoy a quiet and peaceful early visit before the day and people get louder and busier. 

As always, it is just as wonderful as I remember. 

After that I wandered through the Tuileries Gardens, religiously following the pathways of shade on another very warm day. Truly, the trees and dry leaves on the ground felt like we were much closer to the autumn season than I was expecting. Maybe the next time I visit it should be in the fall….

On my way home I grabbed breakfast (croissant, coffee, and iced earl grey tea) and explored a bit of the 9th arrondissement (just south of the Blvd de Clichy. There are so many beautiful small garden areas lining streets or on strange wedges of intersections, with trees and flowers of various shapes and sizes.

Along the way I came across La Musee da la Vie Romantique, and spent the rest of the morning looking at their free collections, afterwards having some tea in their beautiful garden. 

I made my way back through Montmartre and zigzagged my way down other new streets of restaurants, cafes, art galleries and souvenir shops.

One evening I made my way over to the Champs Des Mars to see the Eiffel Tower at night, and though I thought I had seen my fill of tourists around Montmartre, there were even more surrounding the base of the Eiffel Tower; people were lining the side streets, filling the bridges, and crouching between lanes of cars to get the perfect photo of their travelling buddies with the Eiffel Tower as a proof-I-was-here memento. 

The highlight of the week was meeting up with my good friends Hugo and Arnaud at a cafe in Montparnasse as they were passing through from a wedding out of town and then a couple hours later were headed back to the train station for the last bit of their summer vacation.

We met at Cafe Odessa for some iced beverages and to catch up on the 6 years that blasted by us since we last saw each other. Life and love and work and travels were a full list, and we chatted until their had to grab their luggage and book it back to the train station. No matter what, making time to meet friends, if only for a coffee or an iced lemonade, is completely worth it when you are travelling. It’s a boost to your mood for sure!

While I was in the Montparnasse area I took a walk through the cemetery there. A bright sunshiney and very hot day, the mood was much different than the misty, moody visit to the Montmartre Cemetery on my first day here. I also stopped to watch a mason work under the shade of a big beach umbrella, meticulously hand carving lettering into a new granite tombstone. 

I then walked back to Jardin Du Luxembourg for another visit, armed with an iced coffee and my sketchbook, and I found a great seat close to end of my favourite fountain and relished in the shade of the tree canopy overhead, the ivy garlands framing the space, and the sound of the water. I had always wanted to do a line drawing of the shield/coat of arms at the top of the fountain and finally took the time. I can’t remember the last time I had sketched something. It was awesome.

I meandered through the familiar area of the 5th, past the Odeon Theatre, past the Pantheon and Saint-Etienne-du-Mont church, to outside the Odeon metro station for the best beurre & sucre crepe so far in Paris- and for the best price as well. 

On my last full day, which just so happened to be clear skies and a sunny +33 degrees, I followed the suggestions of two other travellers from an amazing travel facebook group. First thing, I took the metro out to the 16th Arrondissement, and visited the Marmotten Monet Museum. The main level had an assortment of beautiful pieces, including a very cool collection of art from the Middle Ages, and a room swords in designed for specific academics and artists and scholars (including Marcel Marceau), but down in the basement was truly my favourite part.

There was an incredible collection of more paintings inspired by Monet’s garden and famous water lilies. This gallery was much quieter than the Orangerie, with so few people it almost felt like a private viewing. 


The collection even included Monet’s “Impression, sunrise”: the painting they say inspired the name for the “Impressionism” movement.

What a coup! I couldn’t be happier than to have followed this suggestion. 

This was my first time in this part of Paris and as I was researching the 16th I decided that next time I am in Paris I want to rent a bike and check out the Bois de Boulogne just west of here, which looks like another incredible park full of nature trails and botanical gardens, lates, and art installations!

It was in this area that I also found a (free) water station that gave you the options of still water or sparkling mineral water! Fancy, Paris. Fancy.

On the second #GLT recommendation of the day, I booked a ticket for that evening to see a concert at Sainte-Chapelle. As we walked in my jaw dropped and I was in awe at the beauty of the wall-to-wall stained glass windows, elegant arches and ornate gilded trim and artwork.

A string quintet consisting of three violins, one viola, a cello, and accompanied by a harpsichord, played an incredible evening including the most passionate, vibrant, and playful version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I have ever heard in my life and I was in heaven. Between the sound in that space, and the glorious atmosphere I felt transported back to another time. I cannot recommend this enough!

I very happilly headed home through the Marais and Les Halles areas, with every kind of restaurant and bar you could imagine opening and bustling. 

Just like before, I felt safe in Paris the entire time. I’mdefinitely a steretypically ‘nice’ Canadian who will smile at strangers and say hello or good morning, which is not helpful in places like Paris and can lead to glares, confusion, or unwanted attention and so it took some active practice! 

I travelled with my earbuds in (either playing music on low or not at all), and worked very hard on my “Resting Unimpressed Parisenne” face. The more you look un-wowed by Paris,the more you fit in, I feel. 

Other than that I continued to practice my French all week and found that for the most part the locals were quite patient with me, or alternatively assumed I knew way more than I did and started speaking quickly until perhaps my eyes widened a bit in confusion or polite panic… lol

And then just like that, it was my last sunset in Paris, an early rise the next morning, and I was off to the airport to pick up my first ever European car rental to whip out of the city and head to the countryside south west of Paris, where I had last been a whopping 6 (how is it 6??) years ago!

A bientot, Paris!

2022 & at it again! TRAVELLING!

After much-anticipated trips to Ontario for joyous family wedding celebrations the past two summers, I was inspired to go further and head across the Atlantic Ocean again.

Originally anticipating a road trip with a friend, I knew I wanted to include visits with my small town France pals, get some Paris time in, and then explore a country I hadn’t been to before.

I flew out of Toronto’s Pearson airport (‘only’ 3.5 hours delayed, aka a story for another post), slept a little bit on a very full flight with the definite help from earplugs and an eye mask, and arrived only a little ragged at the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris the next morning!

With sheer force of will (and a very durable brand new Osprey backpack), I travelled with only carry-on for this month-long trip, determined to have a trip without any lost luggage strife that seems so common these days. It felt extremely efficient to leave the plane, head through customs (including a lovely albeit brief chat with an Italian customs agent who was quite satisfied when I told him my favourite part of Italy was Sardegna), and then straight to the metro line.

I took the RER train from the airport into the city, which is usually an easy way in and time-wise pretty efficient with minimal stops. As it was, there were train issues so the only option was the regular train that has multiple stops on the way in. I wasn’t bothered at all, and figured that it just meant I had extra time to let it sink in I was really back in France after 6 years!

It still hadn’t really felt real until I got to the top of the stairs at the Blanche metro stop. My first sight was the Moulin Rouge across the street, and in my periphery I saw the glisten of souvenir keychains, the rainbow selection of felt berets, and racks and racks of postcards on the nearby street corners. There was the familiar smells of perfume and crepes and cigarettes, as well as the sounds of passing bicycle bells and chatter in multiple languages as tourists tried to get unique selfies in front of the famous red windmill.

With an hour to spare before checking into my hotel, I walked along the cobblestones throughout the Cimitière Montmatre. The day was overcast but bright, with a drizzle of rain saturating the moss on the oldest gravestones and dropping some drier leaves on the ground making it feel more like autumn than summer.

I stayed at the Citadines Montmartre Hotel, and it was the perfect fit for this week. 

The rooms are simply designed, clean, and modern and I loved the view from my room. 

 

One very cool thing the Citadines do in their kitchenettes is seal the cupboard so you know they cleaned the dishes after the previous guest. Love this.

The lobby and breakfast area has cute style with a great accent wall and a couple of luxurious aubergine-coloured velvet couches. Breakfast was available for an added fee but I either made my own in my kitchenette, or I walked to a nearby bakery or cafe; one of my favourite things to do in France.

But truly, I was drawn to this hotel for a particular reason, and that was the rooftop patio. It sits above the neighbouring tile roofs with numerous clay chimneys and garden terraces, with a stunning view of the Sacre Coeur and the cityscape around it. You can even see the Eiffel Tower if you peek around the building in the opposite direction.

I stopped by some fruit stands and small shops and dove head first into practicing my French speaking with locals, and the rusty wheels of language in my brain started to squeakily turn after the last several years without much practice. 

Feeling a little more Parisian: armed with melon, camembert, bread, grapes, cherry tomatoes and cured meat, I had the perfect simple dinner to enjoy on the patio and my evening with the roof all to myself was a perfect way to end my first day in Paris. 

Day 2 started late as I was catching up on lack of sleep and jet lag from my 12 hour overnight travels, and I only got up at midday, heading to a nearby boulangerie and café for a croissant and espresso. (It still feels strange to go into a Starbucks in Paris, even though they are as commonplace here as back home.)

The sun was shining and the streets were bustling with tour groups and locals making their way along the road and sidewalks.

I walked up Rue du Coulaincourt, and explored streets of Montmartre I hadn’t walked along before, falling in love with the city all over again. I felt like a character in the movie French Kiss, with trailing flowers and vines on windowsills and over walls making every street feel more romantic.

“Beautiful! Wish you were here!”

I thought it would be fun to visit the Sacre Coeur again, as it’s  a wonderful spot to people watch. As I got closer to it, the streets got busier and busier and by the time I got to the base of the church, it felt like the absolute peak of the high season in July, when Paris gets a huge influx of international tourists on summer vacation.

Many people know about the Pont Des Arts “love locks” bridge in Paris, but that memorable place is no longer (bridge sides replaced with glass panels) and now it seems like a new location for this is along the fences across the road from the Sacre Coeur. They are now thickly engulfed a brass textured blanket of locks; some locks are engraved, others have names scrawled across them with permanent marker. 

Multiple sellers are set up around the church with trinkets like miniature twinkling Eiffel towers and wooden toy trains, and a musician with a guitar plays music that echoes on the nearby buildings. 

It was definitely too busy for me so I continued my walk away from the hilltop.

I made my way to Place Du Tertes and I am sure that there were some of the same artists there were 6-8 years ago when I was here last, including several portrait artists with various styles and techniques, surrounded by admirers and keeping very busy. 

The sun was its own artist, painting buildings with a golden hue at sunset, and more street musicians’ instruments and voices underscored my walk home past many restaurants and bars lining the streets with tables and wine and food. 

I headed home to bed for an easy night and proper unpack, but I had forgotten it was Saturday night and the noise from bars and restaurant patios went late into the evening. The city of Paris partied well after I called it a night, but there’s a familiarity to that too, and I don’t really mind it at all.

On Sunday I headed over to the Jardin Du Luxembourg, one of my all-time favourite spots, and took in some wandering, lying on the shaded grass, and lounging in the green metal chairs strewn around the fountains and garden beds.

I revisited the Medici Fountain and sipped an iced coffee as I listened to the water trickling over the steps and admired the sculpture and surrounding landscape and gardening.

I spent some more time in Montmartre, making mental notes of restaurant options, looking at art galleries and shops; finding some old favourite places like the playful Pylones and picking up a couple *tiny* souvenirs (though I really would love a charmingly frivolous toaster and cooking set if I was not travelling with carry-on only…).

At the recommendation of a friend, I searched out Cafe de Luce in Montmartre for a terrace dinner, French language practice (or blatant eavesdropping, I suppose), and being humbly reminded it’s a “carafe”  d’eau, not “bouteille”.

The evening also included one dancing waiter, who sheepishly grinned and shrugged when he saw me watching his impromptu performance. The terrace seating was across the street from the restaurant in a square under the natural canopy of very tall trees, and the sun beams squeaked through the streets nearby as the sun started setting.

I was completely full after a loaded burger with pickled onions and thick bacon, fries with heavenly in-house French mayo (if you know, you know), a rosé, and vanilla crème brûlée for dessert.

A trio including a melodica (or what I first called a ‘flute piano’) serenaded us for part of our dinner and then a solo accordionist arrived just after I finished my crème brûlée. Perhaps he is the same one that I walked by earlier tonight at another cafe… 

Dinner felt delightfully indulgent and special, and I definitely added some longer streets to my walk home to help digest the generous servings of a delicious dinner. 

The sky that night had tufts of magenta clouds and a periwinkle blue backdrop, and the clouds slowly dissolved, the sky fading to more of a powder cobalt.

I strolled over to see the Sacre Coeur and by the time I got there it was lit bone white in bright contrast to a now navy sky.

 

By the end of the weekend, I had heard “La Vie En Rose” played live by wandering accordion players, buskers in train stations, and musicians in the Place Du Tertre, which meant I had heard it each and every day I have been in Paris so far. And I don’t mind in the slightest!

My heart is so incredibly happy to be back here. ❤️

And just like that, it’s been 2 years…

There is no doubt that things felt like they changed almost overnight in March 2020!

(Haven’t read my last post? Check it out here!)

In my second (and solo) holiday week in Costa Rica, pandemic tensions around the world grew exponentially and all this Canadian traveller wanted to do was get home.

I had moved to a sweet Airbnb slightly further down the west coast in the town of Coco, close to the beach and with a pool. The all-inclusive resort we had been staying in the week before had to shut down the day after we left which meant we were lucky enough to enjoy it and go on our way!

Some cute buildings in the town of Coco.
Our lovely pool.
My digs!

Even though I missed my family, I was definitely happy to be in a warm country with very few covid cases (and drinkable tap water!) and with many French-Canadian snowbirds as my neighbours, I felt like I had honorary uncles and aunts that I saw daily in the pool. Many of them had to make plans to cut their winter escape short to get safely back to Canada before the world shut down, which felt quite inevitable.

I spent a few hours every morning in the pool, and went to the beach in the afternoons, but as you can imagine I was a little tied to the internet and connecting with people back home. 

Throughout week I kept in touch with my amazing travel agent and friend Heidi, and felt that keeping myself informed & up to speed on any news was helpful to me as a planner/worrier.

By Wednesday night there were no more incoming flights into Costa Rica, and my direct flight home to Calgary was confirmed as the last scheduled flight WestJet would fly before any necessary but limited repatriation flights. One of my neighbours -a pilot with WestJet named Bruce- assured me not to worry and that we indeed would head home on Sunday (and no later), which was comforting.

I still loved the nightly pastel gradient of the sunsets melting down behind the horizon, and got some more sun time and ocean swims in before the inevitable long winter that awaited me back home. I also practiced a bit of French with my fellow Canadians as we took turns on the floaties around the pool, and thumbed through books left behind by other guests on the bookshelves in my airbnb.

The talk around the pool centred on the news that all the public beaches and pools in Costa Rica would be closed to the public by the end of the weekend, and all national parks would close as well on the Monday morning. It’s hard to imagine natural spaces like the coastline and forests being ‘closed’, and truly, those places were the reason to go to Costa Rica in the first place so it felt quite apropos to be heading out!

On the last morning I was in Coco I spent the morning in the pool and then went to the to the beach one last time. By the time I got back to the property, the pool had been cordoned off with “caution” tape wrapped around the surrounding trees.

Uber is popular in parts of Costa Rica and I was lucky to get a ride from Jonathan (if you are ever in the Liberia or Playa Hermosa or Coco areas let me know and I can connect you with him)! He drove me into Liberia the afternoon before my flight home and brought me to the airport when it opened the next morning so I could be early to check in (and I was third in line).

I created a care package of snacks for the WestJet flight crew as I was sure they had all sorts of stress at the time and would likely have grumpy travellers ending vacations early and not thrilled to be on a plane that day. I was just so grateful for them to be getting us home safely I could have hugged and kissed each one of them. But you know, covid. 🙄

I handed the team the gift bag full of cheese cracker sandwiches, trail mix, chocolates, cheesestrings, and mints. They were all delighted, and each flight attendant came to thank me personally during the flight, with one of them asking “are you one of us?” and another “are your parents pilots?”. It was fun to make them so happy with such a little thing, and I will be sure to keep doing that in the future.

(At some point during the flight a Kit Kat bar was surreptitiously slid onto my tray table and the flight attendant practically winked as she walked away like we were part of an exclusive club, so that turned out to be an added bonus.)

It was nice to brighten their day, and there were definitely some frustrated folks on that flight. With all the extra baggage of bonus snowbirds on a very full plane, they actually had to de-fuel the plane in order to be able to take off, and therefore we had an additional stop in Denver on the way home to refuel.

I’m not going to lie, even this adventurer breathed a sigh of relief when they announced we were descending into Calgary, and I was one of those people who enthusiastically and sincerely (or obnoxiously, depending on how you see it) who applauded when we landed.


A comfortable (masked) Uber ride home, and then I spent the next two weeks in isolation at my apartment. To keep busy, you name it: I did it- from finessing my sourdough bread skills to trying out online workouts to zoom calls with friends to having socially distanced balcony visits with my family; it was a strange time. I couldn’t have been happier to be home in Canada, but let me tell you, quarantining is a different adventure altogether!

Phew!!

A family vacation to Costa Rica

The world is definitely a surreal place right now, and being on vacation in a foreign country a seven-hour flight away from home during a world health crisis is definitely the most conflicting experience I have ever had.

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A frangipani tree blooming (and a sweet reminder of Bali)

Now, to be fair, the trip didn’t begin with such a sense of tension.

Our March family trip to Costa Rica had been booked in November 2019, an amazing gift from my generous mum and her partner, Orville.

I knew that I would have the month of March completely free so I decided to extend the trip by one week and do some solo exploring once my family went home, so my return flight was booked separately.

Near the end of the first week of March of 2020, the number of cases of covid-19 in Canada was less than 40, and the only travel advisories were regarding avoiding non-essential travel to China, Italy, and Iran.

We felt confident we would do all that we could to remain safe as informed & proactive travellers. We armed ourselves with plenty of soap, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, and an added air of caution about not touching anything or anyone unnecessary, and we headed to the airport for a red-eye flight.

We arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica on March 6, 2020 at about 7am, and drove to our resort, still sleepy and adjusting to the time and temperature, and folded ourselves into the shaded hammocks by the pool. When we left Calgary, it had been about -4 degrees Celsius. In Costa Rica it was +34.

Hammocks are one of the greatest inventions of all time, by the way.

Pina coladas aren’t too shabby, either… 😉

We stayed in the area of Guanacaste, at Playa Hermosa on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, where it is nearing the end of the dry season. Aside from the hibiscus bushes, palm trees and manicured gardens trimming the edges of the resort property, the view of the hills and landscape around us was primarily brown; almost entirely scratchy bare-branched trees and dry grass. We were informed that they even have forest fires occur at this time of year and there were some hazing smoky days while we were there, strangely reminding me of summertime back home.

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The local fruit stands were always full of delicious choices, and we loved the local mango and pineapple, and even tried new-to-us fruit like purple starfruit!

Our first adventure was on Saturday, when we had a tour booked to Monteverde and the Selvatura Adventure Park for ziplining. On the way, our amazing driver and tour guide Harold pointed out some beautiful photo op spots and promised to stop on the way home, in addition to finding a little spot in a town on the way to get a snack of delicious chicken skewers and grilled corn on the cob.

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As a bonus to the day we got to watch dozens of shimmering emerald and sapphire feather humming birds flutter around feeders at the edge of the bridges trail. If you were patient enough and stood at a feeder with your fingers balanced between a couple spouts, there was a chance a tiny jewel-tone humming bird would use your hand as a landing place! I couldn’t believe the magnificent rush of joy when one bird’s micro feet perched on my knuckles as it drank out of the feeder! It felt like such a gift. 🙂

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We spent almost 90 minutes walking back and forth across the cloud forest through numerous suspended bridges, marvelling at the view and the height we got up to, occasionally hearing the whiz of zipline travellers passing through the canopy on either side of us. It was misty and surprisingly cool up in the mountains, and even rained while we ate lunch before heading out to zip line. (We agreed we would all highly recommend bringing something with long sleeves, and windbreakers/rain jackets just to be safe!)

 

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After some hot Costa Rican coffee to warm us up we then geared up for ziplining. I still marvel at my fearless mum and Orville suiting up for this thrill seeker activity!

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There were 13 lines and a lot of hiking in between platforms, so this trip is not for the mobility-challenged adventurer! A few of the lines were short and quick in little zigzags through the canopy, but a couple were much longer and even required pairing up with a zip line buddy to get across with your combined weight.

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I was the odd man out in our group so I spent two of the long trips across clipped to one of our guides. This is the first zip line I have done where we were given gloves and were taught how to keep from spinning by holding an ‘okay’ sign with our dominant hand up above and behind us and brake ourselves by pressing the thick reinforced leather palm of the gloves onto the wire.

 

I have always thought the best lines are the longer lines where you actually have time to look out at the view and down at the tree tops below. The whir of the trolley rolling over the cable and the wind in your face became this wonderful humming underscore to a view that was hundreds of shades of green and gilded with trailing mist and clouds. Disappearing through the low mist on one particular line made it feel like we were entering some mystical place for a few seconds.

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By the end we really wanted to go back to the beginning and go through it again! We left absolutely delighted and still felt like we were flying as we stopped for photos to admire the mountain and valley view, complete with a rainbow to frame the scene.

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It was an incredible day, and we thought Harold was such a great tour guide we made sure to book him for an adventure later in the week.

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I relished the quiet early mornings at the main pool, as the daily blaring party music had not yet been turned on and all you could hear was the bird calls and bubbling water jets of the pool. This was a great time to see flocks of lime green parakeets flitter around the treeline, and see pretty little kiskadees swooping around the pool.

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Seriously, the birds here are all beautiful. Even the scavenger black birds (aka ‘great-tailed grackles’) had tails that looked like swooping black ink brushstrokes, and the white-throated magpie jays (looking like a sophisticated version of the blue jays we see in Canada), had beautiful crests of feathers on their heads that somehow made them look like royalty.

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The beach at Hermosa has dark sand (it looks lighter in photos) and boy oh boy is it HOT! Thankfully, the granules are fine and smooth and once you are in the water it’s heaven. If you are lucky, you’ll catch pelicans corkscrew-diving to catch fish, and a couple times we were stunned to see the shining white diamond bellies of stingrays doing full twists and flips out of the water!

The beach has these great bending tree branches that offer sandy shade and are perfect to hang your stuff on, towels to dry, and even better to secure hammocks to dangle above the lapping waves as the tide swept in each afternoon.

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There were kayaks available through our resort so of course at my first opportunity I took one out and spent about an hour following the shoreline all the way to the other end of the shore and back. The rip tides of the Pacific Coast are strong so you boat and swim with caution. My habit is always to stay along the shoreline to be safe in case a storm or wind picks up and I need to paddle in to shore.

I actually ended up joining in to play beach volleyball after kayaking, which if anyone had offered it up before as an activity I would have thought “no way- it’s way too hot” (35 degrees and all, in full sun)! Somehow the time flew and I played for over an hour with a combo of locals, tourists and the activity staff and we had an amazing time, cheered on by my mum and Orville and other folks enjoying the shade and lounge chairs along the tree line!

I love travelling with my family. On our stay-in days at the resort we had a great rhythm of meals, pool time, beach time, sunset watching, and card games. Naps were often added bonuses, and then we felt extra rested and relaxed when we went out on our exciting exploration days.

Sunsets here are beautiful, with a perfect gradation of pastels in peach to yellow to rose to periwinkle. And the vast sky sure showed off a great deal of stars after dark!!

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We could hear the howler monkeys call out from the treetops in the evenings and occasionally could see them jump and swing from branch to branch high up in the hills. Once we even saw them down at the beach make their way over our heads!

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photo compliments of Orville

I was always on the lookout for wildlife and I regularly amused my family when I took to calling out “monkey monkey monkey!” before I was certain of what it actually was, and in two cases it turned out I was pointing out racoons and coati (a similar type of animal with a longer nose) that were regularly seen in the area. We also came across loads of iguanas here ranging in sizes from small to very large, and tiny lizards that clung to walls like magnetic decorations.

Also, many stray cats seemed to live on the resort property and were always around at meals. We named them as we saw them, and somehow the theme for naming them all became: nuts. We saw ‘Cashew’ and ‘Pistachio’ regularly, and ‘Peanut’ often joined us at the pool, hanging out in the shade under our chairs.

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Another regular sighting during meals were the magpie jays. These birds were so bold they would swoop down through the windows or down from the rafters in the restaurant and confidently perch on the back of an empty nearby chair, landing on a table the moment people stepped away. We saw them steal sugar packets, bread slices, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and even a huge pineapple wedge right out of someone’s drink.

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Our next adventure away from the resort was a beach and snorkel adventure, and we were told that Playa Conchal was the place to go. A whiter, shell beach was about an hour drive south of us, and then we actually had to walk in from the beach town Brasilito that is the closest place accessible by road.

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We were told that we could rent flippers and any necessary snorkel gear on the beach once we got there, which was great because though we all brought our own masks, we did not pack flippers. If you have ever done that you’d know it dictates a much larger piece of luggage!

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It turned out there was no place to rent snorkels but it was just as well. This month had apparently been particularly windy for Costa Rica, which was a blessing for us with the heat, but it made for choppy, murky, and cloudy water.

Staying somewhat close to shore we bobbed and kicked our way through the silt and sand curling around the black rocks and saw a couple of small schools of fish swim by, and then one zebra-striped angel fish gliding along the swirls of the sand on the bottom. And that was sort of it. I imagine you need to either be on the Caribbean coast or take a boat further out to islands off the coast to really get to prime snorkelling areas. Next time, we decided. 🙂

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We dried off in the partial shade of the beach trees and drank from coconuts we bought from a wandering seller.

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On the way home, our driver Luiz stopped on the side of the road to show us a cashew tree, one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Each flower produces one cashew nut that needs to be dried and roasted in order to be eaten. The fruit that grows above the nut is also edible and often made into jams and chutneys. Raw, this ‘cashew apple’ tastes like a chalky, sweet and tart and soft red pepper.

 

The activities team at the resort had many events planned during the day and I was asked to join into the foosball competition one afternoon while everyone else was having a nap. I love foosball so I was happy to join in. I ended up winning the tournament and I was awarded a beautiful bottle of sparkling peach wine, which we ended up enjoying on our last night all together on our balcony at sunset.

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Our third booked adventure was aimed to check three boxes: waterfalls, sloths, and toucans. (Yes, those very specific things! We even told Harold that we weren’t going home until we saw all three, and we were only very slightly joking.)

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We left early in the morning to get to the Llanos de Cortes waterfall, which was only a 45-minute drive from us, and gets busier as the day goes on. The water was beautiful and we soaked and swam and floated, snapping a few photos in the morning sunshine (it was already 32 degrees at 9am), and then ventured back to the van headed towards the jungle again in hopes of catching sight of some more wildlife.

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Costa Rica has a strong “no animal selfies” policy as they want to protect their wildlife and don’t want any unnecessary impact on animals and wildlife, so we jokingly took photos of toy/stuffed/souvenir gift sloths when we came across them (and we came across them a lot).

We arrived at Bijagua Ranas, a Frog observation site in the Alajuela area and were showed around by our volunteer tour guide Stéphanie. She pointed out all sorts of local flowers and plant life as we walked through the lush grenery. My favourite was the ‘maraca’ plant that holds water and a liquid between its petals that is a natural bug repellant and actually smelled wonderful in a sort of citrusy way. (Somehow I did not get my own photo so this reference photo will have to do.)

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maraca (yellow heliconia)

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Stéphanie showed us a bright green bump on the underside of a leaf, and then she washed her hands and picked up the hiding frog, setting him gently back on the leaves so we could see him stretch out and move and it was amazing!

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As we wandered the winding pathway we kept our eyes up to the treetops and caught sight of howler and capuchin monkeys swinging in the trees, and then one sloth, then another, and by the end of the afternoon we had seen a total of six sloths up in the trees!

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another shot captured by Orville on his amazing zoom lens camera

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Cute capuchin monkey! (Orville’s photo, again!)

This area is actually along a travel route the sloths take to get from one jungle area further north to another jungle further south and east of us, so there are both two-toed and three-toed sloths that regularly pass through the area.

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The first sloth was a ball of grey-brown fur high up in a tree, likely sound asleep, hard to see in a photo even with a good zoom because he was tucked into the shade and was similar in colour to the branches he was wrapped around. We learned that sloths go higher up to sleep safely, and also will climb further up in trees when it rains.

The most exciting sight was a mama sloth and her baby hanging upside down and eating leaves only about 10-15 feet above us.

Photo courtesy of Orville

And before we left we even were able to see a toucan way up in a treetop before making our way back to the van to head home! All boxes checked! 🙂

Zoom in camera for the win!

 

 

Lunch was delicious local food at a local restaurant (which they call ‘Soda’s in Costa Rica). We were given the option of chicken or fish, plantain, queso fresco, pasta and beans and rice and veggies!

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There was a butterfly enclosure attached to the restaurant so we were delighted to watch several kinds of butterflies flutter between tropical flowers and bushes and occasionally land on the slices of pineapple set out for them.

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We had another beach day where my mum and sister and I went out kayaking, which was a blast! I was really surprised more people don’t take this opportunity to use the freely available kayaks at the resorts here, because it was easy and relaxing!

Shade was a vital part of beach time because the sand is so hot, so we would chase the shadows created by the trees along the shoreline as the sun moved across the sky (even if that meant changing hammocks! 😉

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well, I don’t hate it. 😉

On this day, we enjoyed an iced snow cone made by a local walking up and down the beach pushing a cart that had a huge ice chunk inside. He would shave the ice into a cup, and then mix it with powdered milk, cherry syrup, coconut cream, and sweetened condensed milk! (Garnished with a wafer cookie and a marshmallow).

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Unlike anything I have ever had before!

On Saturday night we went for dinner at the beachside restaurant of Aquasport, and it was one of the best meals of the trip. We shared easily the most delicious onion rings we have ever eaten and then all had different dinners, from Mahi Mahi Chaufa rice to Tuna Poke, all the while listening to live music and watching a group of kids enjoying the huge tree swing in the middle of the restaurant’s courtyard. Carly and mum had a bit of a swing before we walked back to our hotel along the shore, enjoying the smell of a couple bonfires locals had going on the beach, and the vast clear sky of stars.

 

 

 

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Last sunset together in Costa Rica (photo courtesy of my sister)

As I bid my family farewell on Monday morning, they jokingly threatened to kidnap me and bring me back on their (likely) full flight home. I was definitely a little bit nervous to stay another week solo with everything escalating and I promised to keep in touch and stay informed about airlines and airports and border closures and look into the possibility of getting an earlier flight back just to be safe.  Until then, I would get as much sun and beach time as possible before heading back to winter and self-isolation!

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Trying to do it all: my last seven days in Bali

Here it was: my last week in Bali, and I was headed back to Ubud!

I had been looking forward to returning for another week of yoga at the Firefly Resort and when I arrived back, it felt like coming home!

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The rice fields around the resort were in the process of being harvested when I arrived, and over the course of the week the farmers harvested all of the rice plants surrounding us and began tilling for the next season. IMG_9893

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It had a completely different look from full rice plants growing tall and green, though it did allow for extra lovely reflections of the sunrise in the morning.

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I was able to snag the very last room available as it was a full week at the resort (8 other participants plus a family of 4 staying at the hotel), and I got the quietest room at the end of the property with rice fields on two sides and floor-to ceiling windows to frame this peaceful view.

 

It was wonderful to be greeted like family when I arrived. I’d only been gone 7 days but the guys welcomed me back with such enthusiasm I knew I’d made the right choice coming back for another week.

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Celebrating my favourite kind of breakfast in Bali!

I was thrilled to see my friend Laura again and have another week of awesome yoga practice. She greeted me with the best hug when I arrived to set up my yoga mat for our first morning practice.

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This week I planned to focus on yoga, relax in the pool, and explore Ubud and this part of Bali a bit more thoroughly.

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There is lots to discover in Ubud, from the market to the many yoga studios to artisan jewelry shops to unique gift shops to restaurants of every kind, and you can enjoy anything from local cuisine to Sicilian pizza to sushi. One night I enjoyed fantastic Thai food on a cute little side street that was great for people watching.

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Laura convinced me to join the group at Firefly for the “Balinese Experience”. She hadn’t gone before and was excited to join in, and since I had such an exceptional time two weeks prior, it didn’t take much to convince me to come along too!

We started at the elementary school we visited last time and got to peek into the library and office before being invited into a classroom to talk with with the students.

 

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The school courtyard

 

We went around and introduced ourselves to the class, told them where we were from, and told them our hobbies. The kids seemed most enthusiastic when someone mentioned soccer, scuba diving, or dancing as their favourite activities, but the biggest response was when Jessica introduced herself and the kids all freaked out and yelled and cheered and pointed to a girl in the back of the class who’s name was also Jessica. The poor girl definitely looked like a deer in the headlights with the sudden attention, but then Jessica gave her a high five and she beamed with pride.

They excitedly sang us a Balinese song at the very top of their lungs, and leapt energetically into photos people took of the class afterwards.

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We wandered through the banyar (community) to arrive at the same lovely village for a tour of the nearby rice fields, village temple, and the home and traditional kitchen of the family we visited last time, complete with demonstrations, lunch, and entertainment.

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When we watched the preparation for the offering they used different fruit from last time, so we got to have snake fruit and try ambarella for the first time (a firm, slightly sour fruit that reminds me of green mango).

 

Our group was again blessed with water and invited into the family temple and given gifts of the Tri Datyu: the red, black and white yarn bracelets.

 

The weather was a bit stormy so after lunch the band and dancers set up under the covered eating area with us and Laura got to try out some dance moves!

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The next morning while the group did the jackfruit cooking class, Laura and I went into town to try a yoga class at Radiantly Alive Yoga. We were originally going for an Ashtanga class but they changed up the schedule that day and we ended up in an aerial yoga class!

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This was one of the yoga studios here. Not a bad view…

Aerial yoga, for those of you that don’t know, consists of doing moves with the addition of a hanging hammock or sling of fabric that you use to achieve balance poses and allows for a different style of inversion poses as well.

It was something I have always wanted to try so I was excited!

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Thus began the hardest yoga class I have ever taken. 😀

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I survived!

The following afternoon, Laura invited me to join her to visit Tirta Empul (Holy Spring Temple) and handed me a helmet to join her on her motorbike! I had never been on one so I was definitely nervous to begin with.

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This is my nervous/excited “I’m on a scooter!” face.

Motorbikes are cheap to rent here ($3-5/day!) so Laura used it to get from where she was staying to the retreat every day as she was only working at the retreat for a month.

I held tightly to the back as Laura maneuvered through the winding, tiny streets. I was the navigator, getting more and more comfortable to the point of not white-knuckling the frame around the back of the seat and even capturing some video of our ride.

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When we arrived at Tirta Empul it was pretty busy, and there were many locals standing around, waiting to guide you through the process for a small fee. The temple is famous for its holy spring water and ritual purification in the pools there, and we were excited for the experience.

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We walked through a courtyard with a pavilion and this beautiful natural sculpture made entirely of branches, reeds, and woven palm leaves.

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You pay a small fee to enter, and you can rent a sarong if you didn’t bring your own to wear in the fountain. (Sarongs are mandatory, and you must be dry when you enter the water, among other rules.)

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Before entering the water you change, and then create or purchase an offering to place at the waterside. You are welcome to pray, give thanks, or simply reflect before stepping into the pool. The local gentleman that we paid to guide us through the process said that although the Balinese Hindu people are praying to their gods, you don’t have to be Hindu (or even religious at all), as long as you believe that the water is purifying. Everyone is welcome as long as there are respectful, and there was a wonderful feeling of awe and respect by all the people there.

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We arrived after a large group of people went through, so by the time we went in, it was quieter. The water was COLD. Definitely the coldest of any temperature I had experienced in Bali so far. Huge koi fish swam in colourful figure-eights of gold and orange and white around your ankles as you stood there.

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There are 16 fountains in the temple, and you wait in the water for your turn to go up to each one in sequence and perform the following process:

  1. You collect the pouring water in your hands and wash your face three times
  2. You drink the water (it was safe to consume as natural spring water but you were also welcome to simply rinse out your mouth if you were uncomfortable ingesting it)
  3. You duck under the spout and let it pour over you as long as you liked.

Each of the first 12 fountains focus on cleansing different sins, and we were told to skip the 11th and 12th fountains as they are reserved for purification when people die and are only for rituals surrounding death in the Hindu faith. The final four fountains in the neighbouring pool are based around karma; the focus of each of them was both for acknowledging wrongs you have done others and vowing to fulfill promises in the future.

It was a very soothing experience and I would highly recommend this to anyone.

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We had a lovely ride through the rice fields and stopped for lunch at Green Kubu, a restaurant surrounded by rice terraces on our way back to be at Firefly in time for the evening yoga practice.

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The weather this week was the rainiest of this “rainy season”, and there was numerous picture perfect mornings, followed by a mid-day wind that brought dark clouds and rainstorms.

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Occasionally, the power went out, which meant that the wifi went down and for the first time since my few beach days in Bali, I journaled, read, and did a little painting to pass the time.

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I still managed a daily sunrise swim and occasionally a night swim in the infinity pool because why the heck not?!

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A few of the girls and I also went wandering across the ravine from the Firefly to look at local art, and spent some time watching a few of the locals paint, carve and sketch in the afternoon sun.  The famous Mas Village is a local wood carving community in the area of Ubud (Gianyar Regency) and we saw dozens of local shops selling the most incredible wooden sculptures, furniture, and art pieces. I found it fascinating that there is no traditional word for ‘artist’ in Balinese, as art is a regular part of daily life in Bali, and everyone is considered artistic; music, dancing, storytelling, and handcrafted art is a central part of the culture.

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I really wanted this rice field and mountain piece in the middle.

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One of my friends left with two of these painted dancers (yellow and blue).

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The artist told us that his traditional Balinese wood carving is placed over entrances in Balinese homes or shops, and will take over 200 hours of work.

It was difficult to decide on pieces we all wanted to take with us!

On Saturday I said goodbye to all my new (and ‘old’) friends at the Firefly Resort, and Dewa picked me up for an afternoon of exploring on the way from Ubud to Sanur for my last weekend in Bali. I couldn’t believe this incredible month-long adventure was coming  to an end.

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So long, Firefly!

Dewa took me to this gorgeous eco-lifestyle boutique hotel just on the edge of Ubud called Bambu Indah. We bought drinks and one of the staff gave me a tour. From a movie room with deluxe seating, to tree-house style lookouts, views overlooking a ravine and rice terraces, local organic garden and beehives, lofts with basket chairs and hammocks, and a very calm and open-air feeling, I dreamed of staying here even for one night next time I come back to Bali.

 

 

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Treehouse lounge!

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Just a small bamboo ladder to the top….

We also stopped at a coffee plantation and jungle swing spot that was so quiet, when I asked to purchase a swing ride (usually $10-15 for 5 pushes total at the popular tourist spots), I was practically up in the air for 15 minutes, and the guys running it began competing to see who could send me swinging the furthest up into the sky!

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They would actually leap off the ground to get more height as they hucked my chair out over the jungle. I was harnessed in completely so I felt very secure the whole time; my only issue by the end was almost a feeling of motion sickness for how fast I was thrown up there.

 

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I also got a very Instagram-worthy shot up in a cute basket bird nest. How very touristy!

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When we arrived in Sanur, Dewa suggested lunch at a local spot that was unassuming and not a flashy tourist attraction, but had amazing roast pork.

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I arrived at my cute little hotel in Sanur and wondered why I didn’t hear about this city as a place to check out! I had booked two nights there so I could possibly take a day trip out to Nusa Penida (famous island/beaches) and also only be 20-30 minutes from the airport when I left on Monday night.

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My room had a dozen orchid plants outside on the balcony, and a clay rooftop view.

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This was our open air lobby/pool. Not bad. 🙂

I wandered down to the long beach strip and had a hard time keeping track of all the great looking restaurants, spas that looked worthy of visiting, and the many many hotels and various offerings on their beach fronts (from yoga, to dance lessons, to kids parties and beach movie nights, to live music).

It turned out that on the Saturday night, Laura was coming into town for a few days, meeting up with some yoga retreat ladies from the week in between my time there, so we all met up for cocktails and pizza, with vegan desserts to end the night. A salsa dance class in the sand was our entertainment for the evening, along with a gorgeous sunset.

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My sunset mojito.

Sanur reminded me of a more relaxed version of Seminyak, with lots of touristy/souvenir shops, spas, and restaurants, but it didn’t feel quite as busy, or is it touristy.

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And the beach!! You could find shady frangipani tree-covered groves, fancy resort beach chair and wedding pavilion sections, surf lesson areas, popular fishing spots, and shallow areas where families with littles ones splashed around to cool down in the hot sun.

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This table had been recently set with fresh flowers and table settings. Honeymoon?

I managed to book a speedboat day trip with Bali Hai Cruises for Sunday to explore Nusa Penida, Ceningan Island, and Lembongan Island. I had heard about the crystal clear waters and picturesque views and I thought that would be a perfect last full day in Bali, followed by a lazy beach day (and maybe spa afternoon) on Monday before heading to the airport late Monday night.

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Everything started off well for the boat trip, and I was prepared with gravol for the hour and a half ride across the ocean to the trio of islands, as it was supposed to be windy. As we left the dock you could see dozens of parasailing boats starting up, and the wind was definitely strong. As we got out onto open water the waves got bigger and bigger.

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I don’t know how I completely forgot my absolute loathing of speed boats from previous experience, and I proceeded to be white knuckled and stiff with fear for the entire 90 minute rollercoaster ride from the Benoa Harbour to the shores of Nusa Penida.

There were multiple times the wave surges on the water were so high I was reminded of scenes from White Squall and was planning my escape from my seatbelt and the canopy overhead should we (inevitably) capsize as the boat cracks completely in half or one of the waves overtakes us and we are flipped upside down.

When we arrived in one piece (with many additional grey hairs/years off our lives) I practically dove off the boat at Crystal Bay for our first snorkelling stop.

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It was still windy and the water was not still but I managed to enjoy puttering around and saw entire schools of baby barracuda, angel fish, and a puffer fish to boot! Plus, it was better than sitting in a rocking boat on the water like some of our group chose to do, and looked a bit greener for it.

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When I finally looked back to the boat I realized that everyone was on board watching me, waiting to move on to the lunch spot at our midway point, Nusa Lembongan…

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This is the bridge connecting Ceningan Island to Lembongan Island. Only foot and motorbike traffic move across it.

I was still queasy from the ride over and stuck to crackers and bread from the heavily American-style influenced menu of mayonnaise-laden ‘salad’ options, including potato salad, chicken salad, coleslaw, and two kinds of pasta salad. I also shared my gravol with a couple of friendly but sea-sick Italians, and took more myself. We had a bit of rain and storm clouds danced around the peripheral view as if to tease us with the threat of stranding us in this paradise. I’m glad I hadn’t booked this for Monday, just in case.

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The ocean had a hint of gorgeous turquoise colour, but with the overcast sky and turbulent waves, I had to imagine what sun rays and still water would do to enhance it’s beauty, and continued to enjoy getting out of the damn boat and back in the water to get my last snorkelling in on my trip!

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I bought Reef Safe sunscreen at The Dive Shop back home in hope of having a less detrimental impact on the environment and was really happy with it. It stayed on, wasn’t greasy, and I knew it wouldn’t be harming the fish and wildlife around me. And for the first time ever I didn’t once get a sunburn while snorkelling on this vacation! #winning

Our second snorkel spot was a large, buoy-marked area and only one other member of our group got in the water with me to explore. I think everyone else just wanted to sit and drink Bintang on the boat.

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I saw hoards of fish and even caught sight of a magnificent blue starfish as I explored the various areas around us, living in absolute denial that soon I would have to get back on the boat and experience near-death yet again for the 90 minutes back to port.

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We spent the last couple of hours of the afternoon at the Bali Hai resort on Nusa Lemongan, complete with access to a pool, showers, free tea and coffee, a bar and restaurant, and a sandy shoreline with plenty of beach chairs.  The sun even came out for a little bit while we were there.

 

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Armed with another gravol pill and determination to be less scared on the return, I got back on the speedboat. Thankfully, even though there were still some heavy dark clouds on the horizon, the ride back was not nearly as terrifying, and there were far fewer screams for our lives as we went over slightly smaller waves. I feel like the crew may have taken a slightly slower approach to make it a bit less stressful…

When we arrived back on land I practically knelt down and kissed it. Reminder for the future, Sara: NO speed boats. No tiny bouncy smashy terrifying little speed boats/rafts/cruisers. Big boats only!

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After a shower at my hotel and a quick bite to eat, I went for a foot massage across from my hotel (and next to an Irish pub playing live music that reminded me of Newfoundland!).

I planned to explore the night life here, as a lot of places seemed to have live music on Sunday nights, and I went back to my hotel to grab a bit more cash, and decided to double check my itinerary to see when I could do online-check-in that night for my flight the next evening.

And that is when my heart dropped into my ankles.

My itinerary said the following:

Departure Date: Monday January 28

Check in: 11:15pm.

Flight: 1:15am.

All this time, all this month, and up until 7:00pm on this Sunday January 27th, I thought that my return flight home was Monday night, focusing on “Check in at 11pm”. I had NOT realized that the check-in was SUNDAY night at 11pm. For a 1AM Monday flight.

So this meant that I had three hours before I had to leave for the airport.

NOT the entire next day and evening. THREE HOURS.

Luckily my pragmatism kicked in: I told the staff at the hotel I would be checking out early, I booked a taxi for 9:30pm, reorganized and repacked all my gear into my (now two!) large bags and backpack, and then was able to jog up and down the main road to find the last few souvenirs I had been putting off getting before I left.

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After passing by twice and hearing great music, I managed to stop and sit on the side of a packed bar for the last 30 minutes before I had to leave for the airport. There was a Beatles Tribute band (called FaceBeat) performing for the evening, and not only was the band exceptional, but the bar was spectacular, filled with interesting art and really cool lighting design that kept changing.

 

Arriving at the airport was bittersweet as I was sad that I ‘lost’ a day at the beach in Sanur, but equally grateful I didn’t completely screw up my 36-hour trip home and have to re-book and pay for another set of tickets back!! I was on my way back through Seoul, then Seattle, then home!

Selamat tinggal & terima kasih, Bali!

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I absolutely plan on coming back here soon, and I am happy to tell anyone who will listen all about the absolute magic that is Bali, Indonesia, and how happy I would be to come back with anyone as their tour guide!

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From the mountain to the seaside

Week three in Bali began on Sunday afternoon when we checked out of The Firefly Resort and Rachel, Kaska, and I hopped into a taxi with our good pal Ketut and headed out to hike Mount Batur at sunrise in the northern part of Bali.

On our way just had to stop at the Tegallalang Rice Terraces and wander about.

A rice season here takes about 3-5 months and because weather is pretty consistent year round, every area is on a different planting/harvesting schedule. At one end of the terraces there were young seedlings freshly planted, but the area we were in had been harvested recently and was drying up.

As we got further and further north, rice fields turned into mandarin orange orchards, and we drove past fields of tomatoes and onions and cabbage.
The mineral-rich volcanic soil closer to the mountainous north is excellent for growing all sorts of things.

Seriously, it feels like they can grow anything in Bali!

We started driving by numerous beautiful  fruit stands and had to stop.

We picked up 2kg worth of mangos, about a dozen mandarin oranges, and a big bunch of mangostines.

We had the most hilarious time trying to find yet another accommodation; the Triangle House hotel was another tucked away secret, apparently, as the google maps location was incorrect and the property was so small and so low (and surrounded by tall bamboo fencing) that we drove right past it. Twice.

When we finally found it and saw our accommodation in real life, I was reminded of Swedish design. If the palm-leaf roofs were wood shingles instead, it would have completed the look as if we were staying in a cedar sauna house.

The hotel has only been open since December and everything was in pristine condition. This was already the most charming place I had stayed in so far.

These buildings contained only a bed, a side table, and two shelves. There were hooks outside to dry clothes/towels, and shared washrooms/showers behind. They put a soft, freshly washed duvet on the bed just after we arrived, and for the first time in Bali we didn’t even think about air conditioning. It was actually slightly cool in the evening… perhaps thanks to the elevation and mountain air.

Because originally, Rachel had booked the hotel for a solo trip up here, the booking was only for one person. Instead of booking another hotel somewhere for Kaska and I, we hoped we would be able to convince them to let us stay here and just pay them extra. (When I had tried to book another room in advance they were all full up- which was no surprise, it turns out they only had 4 rooms!)

English was not a strength for any of the staff there, but we got by with some charades and exaggerated gestures, and they seemed to be fine with having three girls share a room- and they even moved us to a slightly larger building.

I had been connected with Dewa, a local driver and guide who was friends with one of my best friends back home. They had met when she was here on a yoga retreat, and when I told him we wanted to climb Mount Batur he suggested that night as the weather was supposed to be perfect. He was taking two other Canadians up and asked if we wanted to join them. We had originally planned to go on the Monday night but at that point hadn’t secured a guide so we took him up on his offer.

(When you climb Mount Batur you need a guide. If you read any stories or blogs about people attempting to climb it solo, you will see how much hassle/issues they have with the locals. It’s considered extremely disrespectful to the local people, and particularly if you do a sunrise hike and go up in complete darkness, it can be dangerous. )

The total cost was 900,000 Indonesian Rupiah, which works out to about $90 Canadian. Between the 5 of us it only cost $18 each, which was a full $50 cheaper than what I found online when I was researching my trip before Christmas. Clearly it is best to wait until you get here to book a guide and you will get a much better deal!!

We went to bed at about 8pm, as our alarms would be going off at 3am that morning. Headlamps, water bottles, and running shoes at the ready, we awoke to our earliest morning yet, and headed out the door to meet Dewa at the gate.

The hike started shortly after 3:30am and we were moving at a very speedy pace. It may have had something to do with the other two Canadians being trail runners and they seemed to be racing to get to the top. I was the slowest of the group as it felt like the humidity in the air cancelled out any of my athleticism, and the struggle to breathe was actually worrying. Dewa suggested regular 20 second breaks, and I took them often, immediately turning back to look up at the stars.

The sky took the little that was left of my breath away. The canopy of bright stars were clearer and more plentiful than I have seen in years. I was awestruck.

My friends were happy to pause and we all marvelled at the view (while I tried not to pass out).

We still reached the top in about 90 minutes, climbing 700 meters over 4 km. The average group takes 1.5-2 hours to get to the top.

We were one of the first groups up there and we added our up-until-then seemingly laughable warm outer layers to counteract the cool mountaintop weather‘s effect on our sweaty bodies.

We were told that once there was a bit more light we could wander further along the ridge above the crater where steam still pours out.

(Mount Batur is actually a volcano, and another volcano in Indonesia did erupt within the last two weeks, causing a tsunami in Indonesian islands further north of Bali. No big deal.)

The sunrise was absolutely incredible. We took countless photos, including the ‘vital’ though obviously cliché yoga pose silhouettes.

It was so much fun, and we snuck further along the ridge so we could get some photos without having to dodge and deke around other people to get a good shot.

We came across the steam curling up off the mountain and it was like walking past a nordic spa and facial steam. And it was so warm!

It turns out our guided hike included breakfast: our guides cooked us eggs using only the steam on the mountain, and served them to us with sticky coconut rice. It was delicious.

Just as we were finishing up, about 15 monkeys came up out of the forest and hung out, waiting for leftover food. It was hilarious to turn around and see a monkey peeling and eating an egg like he had just come on the hike with us.

The hike down was hot but only about an hour, so we arrived back at Triangle House just after 8am and took showers.

Best mango ever

We looked over photos while we drank strong black tea with raw sugar and were just dividing up a mango when our hosts asked if we wanted the complimentary breakfast that came with the room. The options were: banana pancakes with honey or chocolate, toast with various spreads, or a “jaffle”: a soft-cooked egg inside two pieces of bread toasted in a round sandwich press. The other two had banana pancakes and I had a jaffle.

We all felt deserving of a late morning nap, and then at about noon we went out to the garden to have a tea when it started to rain. A lot.

I didn’t have my phone with me to document it but let me tell you, as we sat there the wall of water between us and our bedroom became an opaque silver curtain, and it just wouldn’t stop.

As the rain pounded down in monsoon-like fashion, we sat and sipped 2nd and 3rd cups of tea, watching geometric rivers form in between the raised paving stone pathways around the garden and hotel buildings.

The owner of the hotel went out during this time and returned with beautiful multi-coloured umbrellas and brought them over to us, insisting we use them for the rest of our stay.

We befriended the owners’ 3-year old as he played in the rain and made faces at us. It was that evening that another little boy joined him and by the time we were heading to bed they were hanging off our table and making faces and playing monsters & zombies and being silly with us.

When the rain finally let up (after several games of Crazy Eights and multiple cups of tea), we took the umbrellas and wandered over to the lake, in search of the famous Hot Springs and some dinner.

We didn’t feel inclined to jump in any of the pools (starting at $19 to get in), and went for food instead. We found ourselves on the very edge of the lake at the quietest restaurant I have ever been to (we actually thought it was closed when they waved us over) and while we waited for our food we watched locals setting out fishnets along the shoreline.

I had chicken saté there, and I’m pretty sure that the sauce was the best I’ve ever had in my life.

We got a ride back to Ubud the next morning by a friend of the hotel owner and from there I was heading to a hostel for the night and Rachel and Kashka were catching the shuttle to meet our fellow yogis Ange and Aneta in Kuta before their flights home.

The women’s dorm I had all to myself!

The view from my room

I got to enjoy one night in Ubud wandering charming streets, perusing unique souvenirs (like cool multicoloured travel/camping hammocks!) and finished the evening with some live music and great food!

Pad Thai!!

An early morning shuttle pickup mean that once again I was up before the sun, and then off to Padangbai to catch a fast boat that would be a 75 minute ride across to the Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok.

Along the port for the fast boat to Gili, there were locals selling Bintang beer, Pringles and Dorito chips, and fresh fruit.
Verbatim, a woman selling snacks:
“Something something chips? Yes? Pring-less? Doreet-as? Doreet-as?”

We moved along the shoreline of the mainland of Bali and as we passed by the coastal town of Candidasa I noticed how black the shoreline is. Volcanic sand. 🙂

The highlight of this voyage was not only the discovery that I could hang out on the roof of the boat and listen to tunes cranked by the crew on their stereo, but the pod of dolphins that appeared out of nowhere and leapt across the waves along the side of the boat for several minutes! There were at least 12 of them!! (No video or photos as this moment was too magical to look through a lens for!)

The boat ended up being about 90% full and most people were headed to Gili Trawlangan – the biggest and liveliest of the islands where people go to party. 

Then there is the middle island, Gili Mano, which is apparently the quietest and most romantic. Not ideal for a solo traveller… unless maybe you are learning to love yourself…

I was headed to Gili Air, which is apparently the best of both worlds. Chill and relaxed, with some nice shops, yoga studios, dive/snorkel clubs, and restaurants to enjoy.

But really, I was going for some quality ocean time.

Swimming, snorkelling, and kayaking were on the top of my list.

The island also had many charming pathways and inviting entrances to all the home stays, hotels, and resorts here.

No vehicles or motorbikes are allowed on the island so it’s quite quiet. Occasionally, you will hear the sound of a horse and cart go by only because the horses wear bells that jingle as they prance and their hooves click on some of the paved roads.

VIDEO TO COME

The central mosque on the island

Most of the people on the islands are Muslim so there are no temples like in Bali.  Every day we could hear the morning and evening calls to prayer at dawn and dusk at the large central mosque.

Because flowers aren’t used in daily offerings, this means that the beautiful frangipani trees are always blooming with plenty of flowers that I can pick and put in my hair…

Gili Air is also called Rock Island because of all the coral that washes up on shore here.

In the low season, on a rainy afternoon, this island felt very *quiet*.

Barren, practically.

I learned that there was a huge earthquake in Lombok only four months ago, and it impacted the Gili islands greatly. Several shops and restaurants are still closed and you can see some places where entire buildings came down. The beautiful beach was lined with empty restaurant loungers and tables and hammocks. Beach umbrellas were closed, chair cushions were stacked, and my footprints were the only set on the beach.

I was glad to have my umbrella because at any given moment a heavy downpour was ready in the next set of clouds, and I made good use of it, and often found myself tiptoeing through puddles and pathways that were quiet as the rain poured down and everyone took cover.

I found a sweet little restaurant called Musa and I decided to try their vegan carrot cake. I picked the most comfortable looking spot in the restaurant; a beautiful big swing with comfortable cushions.

My server, Ending, [yes that is his name] suggested that next time I come, I try the treehouse. Because this restaurant has a treehouse.

The carrot cake was some of the best I’ve ever had. I swore I would come back the next day and try something else.

The first morning here looked like we were getting a bit of sun, and a storm was forecast for the afternoon. So I decided to sign up for a snorkelling adventure that morning! I brought my own full face mask which I was eager to try out. The trip promised sea turtles, underwater statues, and lots of fish! We took off at about 9:30 AM and went to our first location, just off the east shore of Gili Mano. I decided to put my $12 waterproof phone case to the test and try to capture the stunning under-the-sea sights I so often discover but can never share.

Not only was I delighted to discover the case worked, but I caught the absolute highlight of the day: a stunning, graceful sea turtles gliding by.

The downside, was the jellyfish. Tiny, aggressive, though almost invisible little demons. I was wearing a T-shirt, as I often do to snorkel in order to not burn my back. There was a point where I was sure I had trapped about six angry creatures inside the shirt so they could just keep stinging away to their hearts content. I ripped it off and tossed it up into the boat for the remainder of the day.

Sadly, by the time we got to our third spot, the jellyfish were so bad that no one had any interest in staying in the water and we all turned around simultaneously and beat our guide back to the boat. In the end it was probably for the best, as the aforementioned storm came up and it started to rain just as we began our return to Gili Air.

Back in Bali I was always catching incredible sunrises. Well, here: it was all about the sunsets.

Oh the sunsets on this island!!

The Friday night I was here I glimpsed the sun going down through the palm trees and I booked it over to the west beach to catch one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen.

Even the locals seem to come to the beach at this time to sit and watch the sun go down. Some people stood in the shallows casually tossing fishing lines out into the water although they didn’t seem to be expecting anything at the other end. Some smoked cigarettes or sat in the sand drinking bottles of Bintang.

A further highlight to the evening was a beachside barbecue at one of the resorts nearby. The Oasis Resort had a huge screen set up and as I walked by the staff said “yes? You stay for movie night and dinner?”

I couldn’t resist.

The options for dinner were: locally caught tuna, saté chicken, prawns, or tofu/tempeh skewers and an all-you/can-eat buffet for $10.

When I mentioned I couldn’t decide between the tuna and chicken saté, they said they could give me a deal and I got both! A beautiful tuna steak seared on the barbecue, and two delicious saté chicken skewers.

The film was Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, and though I had seen it already, I grabbed a lounge chair and settled in to indulge in this beachside movie night with the soothing waves lapping the shore on my right. About ten minutes into the movie the staff brought out individual coconut bowls of popcorn for each of us! So awesome.

Oh yeah, and the sunset.

Breakfast fresh fruit

The next day I woke up to sunshine and heat and no sign of a storm or any rain at all! I was headed to the beach for a kayak, and then discovered they don’t rent kayaks until the afternoon as the tide is too low to get out there. They suggested I return just before sunset.

There are lots of yoga studios on the island, as well as diving training pools and shops, restaurants, and spa services everywhere you looked.

Oh, the flowers on this island!

Stunning mural at a local yoga studio

Back at Musa, I finished reading my ‘vacation novel’, a birthday gift from my friend Allison, while enjoying a cold fresh young coconut, in the treehouse. 😎

After exploring the island (you can wander across the entire thing back and forth in less than an hour), I found a lovely restaurant that was part of a resort.

I decided to splurge and booked a villa there for my last night. When I was looking at the website I knew they had me at ‘private pool’. With the stormy weather we had been having I hadn’t done nearly as much swimming as I had wanted on the island, and the pool was saltwater so I felt like that was a proper nod to the ocean (and definitely better: sans jellyfish)!

When I arrived at my new hotel in the early afternoon I was handed a fresh watermelon juice and my bag was carried to my villa through a shaded canopy walkway made of bougainvillea branches.

And oh, the pool. ❤️

One look at this place and I was tempted to stay longer on this island…

Everyone here is so friendly and I can see why people stay longer on the islands and really get to know the locals.

My hotel lent out free bikes so it was easy to get around the island last couple of days and do a bit of speedier exploring. I shared a pizza with a couple Canadians at a beach-side bar, took some photos for other solo travellers on the water swings, and was invited to come listen to a jam session with some of the locals at one of the restaurants later that evening.

Not my bike…. “bike in a palm tree” art installation?

Vegan strawberry coconut cheesecake at Musa

My last evening on Gili Air, I headed over to the beach and the hotel that rented kayaks. Pink Coco is the name of the hotel  and everything is magenta, from the beach chairs and the umbrella to the Instagram-worthy swing in the water, the hotel front, and the pool. $15 for an hour was just perfect for my final night, and I definitely had the best view of the sunset.

(My first ever kayak at sunset. Not too shabby.)

Indonesia, you raise the bar for sunsets to a whole other level. 😍

I was very sad to leave this magical place but was looking forward to heading back to Ubud for another yoga retreat week!

Goodnight, private pool. ❤️

The Balinese Experience day trip

The big adventure at the Firefly Resort was on Wednesday.

After breakfast we met our taxi to begin a tour day that included a local village, a school, a rice processing farm, and a local family compound and temple. Called “The Balinese Experience”, this was a definite highlight of the week.

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The school sign

We arrived at the school (ages 6-12) and while we were waiting for the guide to talk to us the students were on break and hovering around the courtyard watching this group of tourists with curiosity. A couple young girls came skipping up to me and tugged on my shirt. “Your name?” The smaller girl with her two front teeth missing asked. I told her my name was Sara and asked her what her name was.

She puffed out her chest and said “My name is Rosa.” And then the two girls giggled and backed up to join some others watching us at a safer distance.

We were told about Saraswati, the god of education. You can recognize her because she has four arms and is always holding a book (represents learning), a linked chain (representing connections), a string instrument (representing art and music), and has a peacock and a swan at her feet (representing travel and learning from other cultures).

Behind the statue was the courtyard in between all the classroom buildings, the library, and the office.

(There was actually a change to the school system while I was in Bali. The students used to have school six days a week, Monday-Friday 9am-2pm; on Saturdays they would focus on a hobby like art or dance. But then the school system changed and school is now only Monday-Friday from 8am-3pm, with optional classes incorporated into some of the days.)

The students clearly enjoy this tourist intrusion that must happen pretty regularly, and they enthusiastically belted out a couple of Balinese songs for us when we came to say hi at a couple of the classrooms.

We then wandered further through the village and came to a rice processing area with some farmers raking out rice on slightly sloped concrete ground. If it rains they pile the rice up at the highest point and throw a tarp over top.

The rice was drying in the sun before the husks would be removed (by machine) in a nearby building.

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Balinese eat so much of the rice they produce, none of it is exported; it is all made for local consumption. img_7516-1img_7515

We then met up with a traditional procession including women with offerings balanced on their heads, men playing instruments, and Barong dancers. The Barong is the good spirit that protects against evil spirits, and in these parades two people are inside the head and back of the Barong, creating a dance that would be most similar to a Chinese Lion dance. Like the Korean Heatch, a sculpture of the Barong is often placed on either side of the entrances or gates of homes and temples for protection.

We were given sarongs to wear and we followed the parade, where we all got the chance to try and balance the tall ‘banten’ offerings on our heads.

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When we arrived at the front gate of the house we had garlands of frangipane flowers placed around our necks and had flower petals tossed as a blessing over our heads.

Three generations of a family lived here. Grandparents, parents, and sons lived in three different bedroom buildings, and they shared several other buildings in the compound. The buildings all have separate uses. Three of them here are bedrooms.

This one is where they play music or relax, and store the family’s rice up above where it is dry and away from animals.

This ornate space is for celebrations as well as religious ceremonies like funeral ceremonies.

The youngest son of the household gave us a tour and talked to us about Balinese home life.

For example, the head of the beds always points north or east only because the head is considered holy. In a similar fashion, in Bali you do not touch the head of another person; especially if they are older than you, out of respect.

Two friendly family dogs followed us around the entire time.

The family has their family temple in the compound, and worship here every day. In a temple (family or village or public) there are 3-10 ‘sanga’ (3 is a small temple, 5 is a medium, etc. The largest temple would have up to 10).

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The grandmother blessing us with holy water before going into the temple.

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A sanga

We were also welcomed to the family home by being given a gift of a bracelet called Tridatu; made of red, white, and black yarn and tied on the right wrist.

The colours represent the 3 gods Brahma, Wishnu, and Siwa.

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They tie it on your right wrist because Balinese give and receive with their right hand only as a sign of respect.

We were all handed those conical hats you often see rice farmers wear, and we went for a walk to local rice fields and a village temple nearby. It had a moat around it and two huge Banyan trees nearby that were wrapped in black and white and gold fabric sarongs in respect/gratitude to the trees for the fresh water they store for times of drought.

The hats kept us so cool under the hot sun. The top part of the hat actually sits above your head over a ring that sits snug to your head, so air can flow underneath.

When we returned to the family compound we were offered coconuts and watched a woman building a banten (headpiece) offering with fresh fruit and flowers. We were told that the fruit is brought to the temple as part of worship/offering, and then brought back home and shared among the family. This is a modern version with rimmed levels that hold the fruit in place. The traditional style was a vertical banana stem in the middle and fruit would be held to it with bamboo skewers pushed through the fruit into the banana stem.

It was here that we were invited to share mandarin oranges, mango, and my new favourite fruit: Mangostee!!!!

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This is a very soft, sweet fruit that is unlike anything I have ever tried. And yes, it does look like giant white garlic cloves in real life, too. It’s delicious. The bitter fushia peel is soft and breaks open easily, and is often dried and made into delicious herbal tea.

We went into the family cooking area where they showed us all the ingredients and preparation involved in making chicken skewers and a spicy tomato sate sauce. They use fresh garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander seeds, peppercorns, fresh chilis and shallots, regular and aromatic ginger, lemongrass, and lime juice. It was enuk(delicious)!

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Chicken skewers waiting to be eaten!

They also were making canang offerings and had premade the baskets and were adding the gorgeous flowers to them.

We got to try the dessert called Kalpon- a boiled dumpling of sorts made with rice powder and pandan leaf for colour. They are filled with sugar syrup and boiled. When they float they are put in an ice bath and then rolled in shredded coconut.

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You pop the whole thing in your mouth before you bite it or else the sugar syrup will burst out. They are delicious cold or warm, we discovered!

A few of us even made a couple ourselves.

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After that we were able to visit the stable they have where they keep their cows and pigs. They brought the two cows out to the field to show us how they prepare a new plot to plant rice, and I got to try guiding the cows around as they pulled a wooden beam behind them along the top of the mud, as well as try my hand at planting new rice shoots in the field. The mud was warm from the sun and surprisingly easy to manouever through.

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Folding palm leaf mats

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Opening coconut husks

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Grinding roasted coffee beans

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We were served the most incredible meal with the best rice I have ever tasted, and an assortment of almost-tapas style items; pork sausage, tofu, tempeh, dried fish, chicken sate, omelet, potato and corn fritters, and jackfruit and long bean salads. We also each got our own basket of seasonings and spices. img_7487img_5095img_5093

We each got a personal basket of seasonings including hot chilies, garlic, chilli, and shallots minced together, peanuts, toasted coconut, and the saté sauce made earlier

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This chicken noodle soup was delicious

We were treated to traditional music while we ate.

Then down the pathway came these 4 young Balinese dancers dressed in traditional lace tops, sashes, and sarongs. The music shifted and the girls posed and prepared to dance. They were incredibly articulate in their movements right down to head tilts and eye movement.

The music never really stopped and the little girls bowed and then dance-exited off down the pathway back to the main house. Then an older girl wearing a more ornate costume and carrying a had fan entered and performed for us. She was smiling mischieviously the entire time, and for a good portion of the dance she often made eye contact with me as I was crouched closest to her in front of everyone else. I almost felt like I was in on some wonderful secret.

At one point she stopped dancing and pulled me up to dance with her, tying a scarf around my waist and handing me the fan to dance with. There were about 20 people watching.

No pressure. 😳

After I danced with her, my friend Rachel went up, and then a young girl was pushed up by her older sister. She was clearly shy and pretty reluctant to dance so her dad went up with her and tried out the moves too, which was adorable. Her sister joined them and then an American girl jumped up and then a tall German guy (who was sort of shoved up there) started dancing too. Rachel and I joined and it became a nice little Balinese dance party. Not that we had any idea of what we were doing, but we were having a good time faking it. 😁

The music seemed like it would never end so we dance-exited off like the little girls did earlier.

We went back to the resort absolutely elated about our day. How do you top this?! 

L to R: Me, Aneta, Ange, Kaska

 

Firefly Resort: A True Hidden Gem.

Everyone is a morning person in Bali.

Even when this night owl got up at a shockingly early 5:30am to catch the sunrise, when I stepped outside my room I could see rice farmers already bent over the fields surrounding the retreat.

I’m amazed when I think how many times this trip I have been up to see the sunrise.

Who am I?!

Our first day of our yoga retreat began at 7:00am with 30 minutes of meditation before our one-hour yoga class. It was a nice way to meet everyone and start our week with focus.

I very quickly realized that all yoga is hot yoga in Bali.

After the first practice slipping and sliding in my downward dog and warrior poses I realized it would be necessary to bring a towel to class from now on.

Laura- our yoga instructor

From the moment I first met our yoga instructor Laura, I could tell that she was a warm and generous soul, and with her beautiful Argentinian accent, all the poses sound like moves in a sexy Latin dance class.

After yoga we all went straight for a buffet breakfast of pancakes, fruit, banana-coconut ‘yogurt’, toast with homemade spreads, and granola.

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Everything was freshly made, and some of the fruit was even picked at the resort. The granola continued to be the surprise highlight of our mornings for the entire retreat and we joked we would have brought baggies and containers to take every last grain with us on the final morning.

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All the meals at Firefly are vegetarian, and made in a tiny kitchen off the eating area by a small number of staff, including 3 guys we slowly got to know named Wayan, Ninja, and Agung.

There were only six participants in the yoga retreat this week, which was magical, as normally the resort has 10-12 people per week.

The girls!! L to R: Rachel, Laura, Ange, Sara, Jackie, Kaska & Aneta in front

(And when I met four of them Sunday night when I got back from dinner, I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one who struggled to find the place. One of the girls ended up at a completely different address, and the other 3 all thought when they arrived at the bottom of the hill that a) they were either lost or b) the resort didn’t actually exist. I have already offered to paint a sign for Firefly to put at the bottom of that hill, but they just chuckled, like I was making a joke.)

I shared a room with Rachel; a fun, energetic girl who just finished a 4-month trip in Australia. She was a kinesiology student and happened to be the only other Canadian of the group.

Roomies!

This photo is the view right outside our room.

We spend every moment that is not scheduled by or in the pool.
Of course.

On Tuesday, our favourite staff member and tour guide Coco led us through a traditional offering/prayer process at the local temple, and then were taught how to make two kinds of ‘canang‘ (pronounced CHa-nang): traditional coconut leaf baskets for offerings!

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You often see Balinese people with flower petals behind one or both ears, and we learned that it was part of the prayer and offering that Balinese people traditionally do one to three times a day. Every day we saw people (women primarily) setting out offerings outside homes, on the street, on cars, and at temples.

They start every day with gratitude and offerings. No wonder the Balinese are such happy people.

Canang materials

Completed canangs with incense burning

Every day we had two yoga practices: one at 7am, and one at 5pm. Typically in the morning we had Flow Yoga, and then in the afternoons we did classes ranging from Hatha to Vinyasa to Yin yoga. Most of the women here were intermediate level yoginis, and Laura made it a challenging, varied week (with a total of 12 classes).

On our third morning we did partner yoga, which I had never tried. I was paired up with Jackie, a teacher from Tasmania. We were a pretty excellent team, if I do say so myself.

POOL TIME!!

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Journaling next to the pool. Rough life!

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After we expressed concerns on the first day, the plastic straws were replaced with beautiful glass straws.

We got one young coconut every day at the retreat and we would often ask for it at breakfast and store it in the mini fridge in our room until the afternoon where we could enjoy it chilled by the pool.

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Coco telling us all about the coffee they grow here.

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We got to try a coffee tasting at the resort, with traditional coffee made from the coffee plants on their property(in fact, growing right next to the yoga studio)!!!

We tried coffee with ginger added, lemon and honey, and turmeric. I was surprised how much I liked honey and lemon in coffee! But the ginger coffee was my favourite.

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SUNRISE TIME!!

We went on a bike tour on the Thursday through the area where a lot of filming for the movie Eat Pray Love, and apparently now has many new hotels because of that.

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A cashew tree with the fruit on it!

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We stopped to talk to these rice farmers who were prepping rice for planting

We arrived at Bali Geo coffee plantation and got a tour of the grounds.

As we walked through, our guide pointed out cool things like the beehives on the property, cinnamon trees, and types of spices and coffee beans they grow.

They not only grew two kinds of coffee beans (Robusta and Arabica) but also sold the famous Luwak coffee that comes from the undigested beans that the Luwak animals eat and poop out.

They kept several Luwak (animals that almost look like dark brown versions of red pandas) on site for 2-3 months at a time to eat and ‘process’ the coffee beans, and then they release them back into the wild and they collect more animals to keep on the grounds for the next few months.

We were given samples of various types of tea and coffee they have on the plantation. From lychee and mangostee tea, to mocha and vanilla coffee, we tried 14 different drinks, including durian coffee. (Durian being the really stinky fruit that is banned in some countries on transit and in hotels).

We decided to share a cup of Luwak coffee just so we could all try it. You had to pay for this fancy “ca-ca-coffee”. Depending on the fruit the animals eat and the type of coffee beans they ingest, the Luwak coffee flavour varies. The animals eat the beans because the fruit on the outside of the coffee bean is sweet and digested by the animals. The bean itself does not break down and the seeds ferment in the stomachs of the animals in the fruit juices of what they eat. They poo them out and the beans are gathered, washed, dried, washed again, and then dried and roasted.

We tried it. But we did not like it.

We all thought it tasted like bad coffee. So, to each his own, but we don’t get what the fuss is about.

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We got to take a Balinese cooking class at the retreat and learn how to make jackfruit curry. I have heard that jackfruit is becoming a real trend as a vegetarian option, and when it is picked before it is ripe it is perfect for cooking.

Here’s our host and instructor Ariel showing off ingredients. He looks serious until the camera comes out!

Ninja had to wear gloves and spray a large knife with oil in order to cut open the jackfruit because there is a sticky sap-like juice around the fruit that is just like glue. Once the jackfruit is rinsed it is ready to cook. We chopped and juiced the rest of the ingredients in the meantime.

img_7429We each had our own pot on a hot plate heated up with oil, we poured the juiced ingredients in the pot, then added water, the lime leaf, and the lemon grass.

We chopped the jackfruit into large pieces and tossed it in the boiling pot for 20 minutes, and then got to eat it for lunch with rice and shrimp crackers! It was awesome!!!

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Jackfruit curry recipe:

Purée the following:

Ginger (2 tbsp raw, peeled, chopped)

Garlic (4-5 cloves, chopped)

1 medium mild pepper, chopped

1/2-1 hot pepper (depending on desired spicy level), chopped

1 tbsp fresh turmeric root, peeled and chopped

3 small shallots, chopped

Heat 1 Tbsp of sunflower oil in sauce pot. Add puréed ingredients.

Add:

1 L water

1 lime leaf

1 stick lemongrass (cut lengthwise)

Used oiled knife to cut unripe (young) jackfruit and rinse off sticky residue.  Add sliced chunks of jackfruit to pot.

Simmer for 20 minutes.

Serve with rice.

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In the afternoon we learned to make Jamu, a Balinese herbal drink that is served both hot and cold in Bali. It is often used to cure colds, and has turmeric and ginger, and tamarind in it.

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Again, we minced and then pureed all the ingredients except the pandan leaf, lime juice, and fresh ginger. We added the juiced ingredients to the pot with  pandan leaf and a piece of peeled ginger and let it boil, adding salt to taste. We then poured it through a sieve into mugs and added lime juice.

It’s crazy strange but definitely tastes healthy. Almost like a sweet & sour soup.

Our instructor tried every pot of Jamu and gave us marks out of 10 on taste. It turns out we all needed more salt. (Jackie and I tied for first place with a score of 7/10)

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Jamu recipe:

Boil the following:

Pandan leaf (used for colour and smell)

Turmeric (puréed)

Tamarind massaged/crushed into ¼ cup water (pulp/seeds strained)

Fresh ginger (1 tbsp, peeled)

Salt (1-2 tsp) to taste

1L water

Pour through a sieve into a cup.

Then add Lime (1 tsp of juice).

Drink warm or chilled.

 

Our last full day at the retreat had no scheduled activities outside of our two yoga practices and a nighttime firefly excursion to close the week.

We booked my friend from the weekend before, our driver and ‘tour guide extraordinaire’ Ketut to take us on a tour around some temples and waterfalls. We also hoped to get to the Monkey Forest and do the Campuhan Ridge walk.

As soon as we were done breakfast, Rachel, Aneta, Jackie, Kaska and I headed to the Temple Goa Gajah (also known as the Elephant Temple).

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We all donned our sarongs (they are provided for free with your ticket if you do not bring your own), and Ketut brought us through, giving us the history of the grounds (as a local who brought us there, he doesn’t have to pay the entrance fee to get in).

These fountains used to be where the king would bathe.

This is the famous temple where the king would worship.

We then went on the search for some waterfalls!

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Me and Aneta

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First, we went to Kanto Lampo waterfall which is a beautiful cascading wall of rocks and fine spray.

It was very busy and we spent most of our time there waiting for a couple taking photos at the centre of the rocks who had a photographer down below keeping other people off the rocks.

People were polite for about 10 minutes and then Rachel was one of the impatient folks who just started crawling up to get some fun shots.

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We moved on to my favourite spot of the day, the Air Terjun Tibumana waterfall. When we got to it there were only a handful of people there, including a cute engagement photo shoot on the shoreline.

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The photo opportunities were endless and it was a stunning spot.

Kaska and Rachel having some fun with rocks, and Aneta being a model for me

Because everyone was staying on the shore I asked if we were allowed to swim in the water. When I was told we could I threw off my dress and then leapt into that gorgeous water as fast as I possibly could. It felt like I had my very own personal waterfall.

I could have stayed in there for the entire day!

We then went to the Monkey Forest Sanctuary and it didn’t rain this time!

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Rachel stoked to see some monkeys!

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There were loads of detailed sculptures throughout the forest

 

I can’t believe we still had time to make it to the Campuhan Ridge, but we did, and it was magnificent. About a 60- to 90- minute walk to the end and back, unless you stop for a coconut at one of the restaurants at the end.

One word I can use to describe Bali is lush. Everywhere you look, it’s this gorgeous green.

Somehow after all that we made it back for our last yoga class of the week, and our final evening was spent walking around the grounds after sunset finding fireflies. The bonus of the night was definitely Coco singing us some Balinese songs.

On our final morning we all practically ran to the pool after stuffing our faces with our last delicious breakfast.

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We had a little pool photo shoot and then Rachel, Kaska, and I were picked up by Ketut to begin our drive north to Mount Batur for the start of another fantastic week on this inspiring island.

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Up next: the absolute highlight of this week in detail!!

 

 

 

 

My first week in Bali!

Good morning, Indonesia!!

I woke up on the other side of the world and couldn’t believe I had an entire month ahead of me to explore this island.

At this point I had only planned the first two weeks: I would spend the first two days in the trendy/touristy area of Seminyak, then four days further south on Balangan Beach. The second week I had booked my first ever yoga retreat in the rice fields near Ubud.

A continental breakfast was included at the Aswana Seminyak hotel, which I thought would be the easiest way to start the first morning of my vacation. It was picture perfect and was served to me with a cup of hot tea in the quiet lobby of the hotel with a view of the pool.

We had wind and a little rain on those first couple of days which kept it a bit cooler, but I was still very aware that the moisturizer I brought was completely superfluous and any sunscreen I put on my face would inevitably melt off as the day went on.

Oh the humidity!

Just a beautiful stone carving in between restaurants…

People watching on the beach…

It wasn’t weather for swimming, and in fact the beach had red flags up all along the shoreline, some with skull and crossbones on them, and ‘swimming is prohibited’ in English and Indonesian.

This of course meant it was ideal weather for surfers, and many folks took to the waves to practice. I was thisclose to trying it out myself…

Instead, I bought my first young coconut and sat at a coffee shop on the beach watching the waves.

In addition to January being the off-season, the stormy weather made for quieter waterfront restaurants, although they looked like they were ready for throngs of tourists at any moment.

Walking down the streets I saw many small and large temples and small offerings on ledges, shelves, or even just on the sidewalk, and it was clear how much the Hindu faith is part of the culture here. Colourful flowers, food, and incense were the most common offerings I could see.

Shops and spas and restaurants lined the streets and you couldn’t go halfway down a block without coming upon Balinese women saying “massage, Miss? Spa treatment, yes?”

Well, twist my rubber arm.

When a one-hour reflexology massage is $10, you are tempted to get one daily.

And maybe because the day before I walked 17,000 steps in Seoul, I went deluxe and tried out the fish tank foot treatment first…

😳

I wish there had been a camera on me when I first put my feet in the water and the tiny fish started nibbling. I squealed like a little kid. It’s the strangest thing ever. Not sure I’d do it again, but it was an interesting experience.

The pool at my hotel was gorgeous and no one used it while I was there except me. It felt like I had booked it for my private use. I did not hate this.

My hotel was a 20 minute walk to the beach and I saw a good sample of what sort of souvenirs and crafts I could get here. From handwoven dreamcatchers and lantern covers to carved wooden statues to candles and jewelry and beautiful fabrics, I realized that it may be a very good thing I can check two bags on the way home…

The beach here felt like it was definitely more of a touristy/party area and it reminded me of the resort spots in Mexico or the Bahamas. I even walked past a sports bar with a huge pool in the middle.

This restaurant had coconut trees on top and a ladder set up and ready to go to collect them!

I enjoyed my first Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and a mango lassi at this beautiful little hotel and restaurant. With its own little waterfall.

A mango lime lassi! Delicious!!

It was while I was in Seminyak that Anna, a childhood friend (that I had not seen in, oh, 25 years), messaged me on Facebook. She has been living in Germany for the last seven years, happened to be in Bali on her honeymoon, and suggested we meet up! We planned to get together later in the week.

In the meantime I enjoyed some excellent meals, massages, and window shopping in Seminyak.

Amazing salmon poke

Before I knew it I was heading to my second location on Balangan Beach, a surf hotspot on the south peninsula of Bali, and I was hoping to get in some surf lessons while I was there.

My driver had trouble finding the resort and ended up dropping me off on what looked like a rocky cliff face, where I was instructed to hike my gear down the pathway to my hotel.

As I waved goodbye to my driver and carefully stepped my flip-flop wearing feet down the rocky hill, I thought “Well this place sure is remote!”

I got to my hotel at the bottom, and the girl in the lobby/restaurant/poolside area basically took me at my word that I had a reservation, and ‘checked me in’ by writing my first name (“Serrah”) and “Room 2” in an ancient looking ledger.

“Retro!” I thought.

And then she took me to my room.

We walked behind the main building to a long thatched-roof building. The doors were woven palm leaves and looked very old. I felt a twinge of concern as she unhooked a very rusty padlock from the door and opened it into my room.

I may have let out a slight gasp.

Now the kindest word I could give this place was RUSTIC.

Like, shockingly rustic.

I feel I should have been more prepared for the rusticness I came upon.

In fact this may be the place where the word ‘rustic’ originated… 😂

All (somewhat true/panicked) jokes aside, this place first made me think of Belize and their small villages and typical rural homes (see: huts). Just add one light switch and running water.

The walls/roof of my room were rattan/palm leaves. There were places I could see right through them.

My shower was a bamboo pole with a switch halfway up that opened and closed the hose that lets water pour out the top.

There was a large knothole in my floor that I could see the jungle below through.

The way I ‘locked’ my door from the inside was by jamming a piece of bamboo in a notch. I locked it from the outside with the rusty padlock and a key that look older than me.

The one tiny and dim lightbulb hanging crookedly from the ceiling, the grey mosquito nets, and the ancient dusty floor fan in the corner were the most humorous juxtaposition to the ‘welcome to your honeymoon suite’ look of two ridiculous towels folded into kissing swans that had been so delicately placed at the foot of my bed.

I honestly had to take several deep breaths and tell myself I’d be fine.

My first thought was: This is the place I got all those vaccines for.

#jokingnotjoking

I tried to put myself in the mindset that maybe this is more like what I should expect in Bali. Maybe my hotel in Seminyak was an overly fancy and rare example of what places are like here.

Either way the photos of this hotel that I saw online did not tell the whole story and did not meet my expectations. (Buyer beware.)

To get my mind off what I had gotten myself into I took off for a walk down the beach to the north end where the water and waves were stunning, and many people were making using of the photo opportunities with that view.

Along the way I saw several people learning to surf and particularly enjoyed watching one guy triumphantly punch his fists into the air as he succeeded at his first surf in to shore. I hoped I would enjoy it as much as that!

I couldn’t believe the number of stray dogs here. They almost outnumbered the people. They would lie in the shade of people’s beach umbrellas, tussle in the sand with each other, and hang out next to the restaurants likely hoping for scraps.

Just a pooch chilling by the pool.

And then I got to the end of the beach and the wedding photographers almost outnumbered the stray dogs!

I counted 9 or 10 couples taking either wedding photos or engagement photos; on the sand, in the water, and up along the cliff overlooking the water.

I got some Mie Goreng (fried noodles with egg) at one of the restaurants on the beach and booked a surf lesson for the next morning.

That night was …interesting. The mosquito netting was an absolute must-have as this place was SO buggy. That and probably full of other creatures I didn’t want to think about. A foot-long gecko occasionally creeped in and out of my bathroom and I just hoped he would be hungry enough to eat all the scary bugs. The hole in the floor made me wonder what sort of things regularly crawled through so I put my flip flops over it so I wouldn’t be reminded of it. Plus it was a dusty, stale oven in that room; I was so hot that the ancient floor fan was just effective enough to keep me from dragging my pillow down to the beach and hoping for the best.

Needless to say, I was delighted when morning came and I could get some fresh air and breakfast. And my first banana pancake of the trip.

This beach is definitely a hotspot for surfers and folks learning how to surf. The waves aren’t very big this time of year, but they are constant so it’s a good place to try out your skills as a newbie at high tide.

Armed with a surf shirt and surfer booties (neoprene slippers) we found some shade on the sand to do some intro lessons on how to lie on a board, paddle, and stand up and balance.

The best part was when we went out to the ‘white water’; broken foamy waves. My instructor Jack would hold my board ready and then give me a push when a wave came along and yell “up!” when it was time for me to stand up on my board.

I was absolutely overjoyed when I first succeeded, getting up to standing and riding my longboard into shore, jumping off before reaching the spot where the coral reef broke through the sand. I turned around and raised my arms in triumph and Jack cheered from the waves!

I was able to get to a decent balanced standing position about seven or eight times during our 60 minute lesson. It was amazing!!

I booked a second lesson with Jack for the next morning and went in to get some shade.

A large bottle of water, and a chicken sandwich and fries for lunch, followed by a swim in the hotel pool, brought me to the early afternoon. I had been thinking of finding a new hotel as I didn’t quite feel like I could do the dark, grass-walls, hot room for another two nights. Plus, my friend Anna invited me to their resort in Nusa Dua on the Saturday and I thought maybe I should just find a room in that area.

I was sitting by the pool (where I could access the wifi) and started looking up hotels when I wondered if I’d had a bit too much sun. I needed to lie down so the hotel search was paused.

At about 4:30, I still couldn’t pull myself out of bed and felt awful. I ended up staying in bed through the night and what turned out to be food poisoning made me fully sick at about 10pm. It was after that that I dragged myself to the lobby to send off an email to my friend and travel agent that basically said “I cannot stay here another night, please book me something with real walls and air conditioning in Nusa Dua.”

I texted my driver Purna and asked him to pick me up the next morning and take me to Nusa Dua. I apologized to Jack and cancelled my 2nd surf lesson.

We got to Mercure Nusa Dua and I was relieved to find a cool and quiet room in this 5 star resort. I’d got a good deal on the room but I would have given them all my money to have a good night’s sleep at that point! I was happy to drop off my gear and know I was coming back here that night.

When I arrived at Anna’s resort and was brought to the Villa lobby, I knew that I was upgrading my day exponentially.

Anna came to get me and bring me down to the beach to the reserved chairs she and her wife had booked for the three of us that day. She also had surf board rentals organized, and ordered us all fresh coconuts to drink when I arrived. Deluxe!

How does one start catching up on 25 years? The last time Anna and I saw each other we were in elementary school!

We had a great time chatting and sharing stories of our lives and clearly Anna and Samantha were having a fabulous honeymoon with one week in Nusa Dua, and then heading up north to do some “glamping” for their second week.

We went back to their villa and went swimming in the unbelievably gorgeous lagoon that runs all along the back of the villas there. (Sorry, no photos of the lagoon!)

Their private pool

The secret lagoon is through that gate. Best discovery ever!

Anna and Samantha were doing a day trip to Ubud the next day and offered to take me to my yoga retreat if I wanted to share a driver.

We were picked up at 8am by their driver Ketut, and we proceeded to have an adventure-filled day.

A driver costs about $60-70 (CAD) for the day (10 hours max), and we got more than our money’s worth with Ketut!

Ketut was like a driver and tour guide in one, telling us all sort of fascinating aspects about the sights along our way and the Balinese people. In addition to all the temple offerings we were seeing in the streets and in buildings, there were also tall decorative bamboo poles lining all the streets and Ketut explained that these penjor are for a festival that happens in Bali every six months. People put these up to celebrate and they stay up for weeks at a time. The last festival was Dec 25.

We stopped at the Tegenungan Waterfall and got in some good photos and a little refreshing mist to our faces on a beautiful, sunny day.

Please note the smaller sign.

We were elated when we discovered we were able to order cold coconuts after climbing the 115 tall stone stairs back to the top of the hill afterwards.

We went for lunch on the edge of beautiful rice fields outside Ubud, and had delicious crispy duck, and chicken saté that came steaming hot on a tabletop clay oven.

Out next stop was the Monkey Forest in Ubud, which I had heard was a must-see spot.

As we pulled up, Ketut said we could borrow his umbrellas in case it rained while we were in the forest. It was still really hot and not very cloudy so we declined, not wanting to have anything extraneous the monkeys could grab, as we had been warned they will try to steal anything from purses to cell phones to the glasses right off your face.

Do not panic. The first rule of the monkey forest.

The amazing sign at the front gate.

Right away we were delighted to see monkeys all over the place, many filling their faces with papaya and sweet potato and corn.

I never felt like they were going to grab something off me (or even were interested in me at all). Apparently you used to be able to buy bananas to give to the monkeys but they got too agressive… so that’s no longer a thing.

One particular monkey showed a little agression at Samantha only after she stood near him for a picture for a little too long. He hissed and bared his teeth at her and she quickly moved out of his reach. He then proceeded to not only stay sitting there, but he leaned back and crossed his legs like he was just relaxing!

It was only about 15 minutes after we walked through the front gate when the skies opened up and there was a huge downpour.

We were soaked to the skin by the time we got back to the car and we sheepishly told Ketut that the next time he offers us umbrellas, we are taking them.

It was about time for my to check in at my retreat, and then we were going to go back into town and grab dinner.

So now, the story of Finding the Firefly Hotel.

To say I was a little gun shy after the sketchy beachside literal-hole-in-the-floor hotel is an understatement.

So when Ketut used google maps to find the gps location of my yoga retreat and we drove further and further away from anything that looked like civilization, Anna and Samantha’s voiced concerns about my next accommodation were completely valid and I was a little worried.

When we had to drive down this steep tiny road to the bottom of a hill with what looked like an abandoned outdoor community centre, I was thinking ‘oh noooo’.

When we arrived at the bottom, and turned right along a grassy path to arrive at a dead end next to a house and a hill, I thought, “I have been scammed, this place isn’t real. I look like an idiot.”

The gps looked like we should have driven directly into the massive grassy hill to our left.

Ketut got out and walked up this sidewalk along the side of a tall building (that was definitely a private residence) to ask someone for directions.

He came back with another man who said he could carry my bag up the hill to the resort.

We were still skeptical, but at least this man claimed to know that the resort existed.

We walked up this ‘road’. (The only “road” to the hotel, by the way)

And at the top, saw this:

My first view of The Firefly Resort

It turns out, the man who came for my bag is the owner. His name is Ariel, he is from Israel, he is an astrophysicist (because of course he is), and built this place himself.

He checked me in, handed me my welcome package and our week’s itinerary, and then picked some wild passion fruit that was growing in front of the office building for all of us to try before taking me to my room.

Anna and Samantha still wanted to make sure the actual buildings were safe and came with me to see where I was staying.

That’s when Samantha saw the infinity pool and decided “this place is probably okay” and then joked she wanted to stay here too.

With that we went back into town to do some shopping and exploring, and stopped into a Starbucks that just happens to look out over a gorgeous lotus pond and temple. No big deal.

Yes, this Starbucks has a gong.

Pura Seraswati

Samantha found a restaurant called Hujan Locale she wanted to try for dinner and it was by far the best meal I have had so far in Bali. Soft-shell crab, locally-caught tuna ceviche with watemellon, and fancy cocktails. Even the menu was perfect with very conversational descriptions of each dish.

The description for “Sate Buntel” is my favourite.

A perfect way to end this reunion/meeting/weekend with friends!!

So clearly, one of my next trips needs to be to Munich, Germany, to visit these two!!

One fantastic week down, 3 incredibly eventful weeks to go!

A 40-hour journey to Indonesia with a day in South Korea

Five hours after my first plane took off from Calgary and this crazy adventure began, I found myself on a plane much larger than I usually take. I walked past the First Class and Business Class sections, and then past one full section of Economy to get to my seat, which was moved forward in the aircraft 10 rows from my original location. And there were two aisles; 9 seats across in Economy.

It was all becoming very real that I was heading to the other side of the world.

Dear Korean Air, You had me at “Here are three seats to yourself on this almost-full 13 hour flight”.

Love, Sara

This girl was feeling very lucky on this New Year’s Eve’s Eve!!!

Not only that, but there were piles of things on every seat to make our flight more enjoyable: a pillow, a blanket, some headphones, a bottle of water, a pair of slippers, and a mini toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.

This would be the longest flight I have ever been on, the longest travel ‘day’ I have ever taken, and will be the furthest trip I have ever made from home.

I was headed to Bali, Indonesia for the first time ever, for one entire month on another solo adventure.

And a bonus to the extremely long journey there: I was stopping in Seoul, South Korea for a 12-hour layover.

Remembering how much I loved my 5 hour layover in Belgium a few years ago, I knew it was the perfect excuse to speed-explore another new-to-me city on the other side of the world!

There were screens on the back of every seat with attached remotes. You could watch tv or movies or news, play games, or watch the flight path (including the live video of the on-board camera as we landed!)

They served us dinner as soon as we were up in the air. It started with distribution of warm hand towels, and then they gave us the option of two American dishes or Bibimbap!!

I have heard all about bibimbap from friends who lived in Korea and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. Steamed sticky rice with sautéed vegetables like oyster mushrooms and shallots, along with sesame oil and some spicy chilli sauce. It was delicious, and possibly the best airline food I have ever had.

Who gets giddy over airline food? This girl, apparently.

After dinner, for the first time ever: I took a sleeping pill on a plane. We were leaving at midnight and the flight was going to be plenty long enough to sleep and still have hours to be awake on the flight.

Side note, this airline has the best dressed flight attendants I have ever seen. i wish I had thought to snag a photo.

Having three seats to myself made me feel like I hit the economy ticket jackpot. I sat in the window seat and leaned against the window, and my feet could stretch without even sticking out in the aisle. Armed with a neck pillow, three pillows (from the three seats!) and my Korean Air blanket, I put in my earbuds and played a white-noise type app that sounded like rain on a tarp, and I was out to the world for about 8 hours.

When I woke up I decided to watch a movie and Crazy Rich Asians was one of the options. I had been wanting to see it for a while and it did not disappoint!

And before I knew it, breakfast was served – after warm hand towels again (an omelet, hash browns, and sausage with fruit and orange juice on the side).

We arrived at 6:30am in Seoul and I was off to the city centre for my walking tour with Ben. It turned out to be a private tour as no one else signed up, which was actually amazing.

Ben first took me up to a viewing deck in the governement building next to the Changdeokgung Palace. Because it was a Tuesday, he told me that the main/primary palace that was promised on the tour would be closed.

We could see many world embassies in the downtown core surrounding this ‘secondary’ palace. The juxtaposition of the modern buildings, Korean style traditional building, Russian influence, and mountain backdrop was amazing.

Symmetry is extremely important to Koreans and the four directions of the city of Seoul were repeated in many ways. There are four gates into the city; North, South, East, and West. And Ben told me that Seoul has a wall surrounding it, which I had not known before.

After giving me a fascinating and thorough history of Seoul and Korea, we went back down and through the main gate to explore the grounds.

The heatch is an imaginary animal- created out of the strongest parts of other animals, like the lion, the pig, the dragon, etc. It is the symbolic animal of Korea that sits on either side of the gates of all the palaces as well as in front of the government buildings.

The Korean architecture is designed after nature, so roofs are curved like the mountains, and even the colour of tile and building material is considered.

Ben emphasized that the number three is considered to be perfect in the eyes of Koreans. Like a triangle, there is balance and stability to the number 3.

Balance + blending + harmony are the three most important concepts to Korean design. Even the flag is white with three colours: black, red, blue.

Black and white/red and blue represent yin and yang, light and dark, fire and water. The solid lines in the flag represent yang and the broken lines, yin.

Odd numbers like 5 and 7 are very powerful too, and in the main palace Ben pointed out that the dragons on the ceiling had seven prongs to their tails so they were the most powerful dragons ever.

As we headed to the village, then realized that the primary palace gates were actually open. It turns out, they open them especially for the holiday. So Ben told me that I got “a bonus palace”.

The grounds of the Geongbokgung Palace were exceptionally larger than the other palace and we explored every corner.

I couldn’t get over the lines in the roofs, the detail to the building and bricks and tiles.

Balance of the materials is important too. Stone, brick, and wood/paper.

Ben told me how Koreans were the first to design a heated (stone) floor, where the chimneys are outside the home and tunnels run throughout the home, and the fire burns so long and so cleanly, there is almost no smoke whatsoever.

Paper screens kept out cold air but were also breathable so people didn’t feel like they were suffocating inside.

Some of the chimneys were incredibly ornate. This main chimney to the Queen’s quarters is actually the 810th national treasure of Korea.

(The first one is the South Gate.)

I also learned that the King and Queen has separate living quarters. The Queen’s residence was closer to the mountain and the earth was brought in and built up around the back side of her buildings to connect her to the mountains’ energy.

After exploring practically every square foot of the grounds we went to look at the  architecture of traditional Korean homes.

It was a good thing I ended up bringing my winter jacket and toque and scarf and mittens and boots to Seoul. It was cold!

Ben suggested we end the tour with lunch, and brought me to a Michelin-star-awarded restaurant for noodle soup.

The line up outside was long but it moved quickly. We were seated on the floor in a traditional room and served two kinds of kimchee and two steaming bowls of delicious soup with hand cut noodles, mushrooms, veggies, and beef.

It was the perfect way to warm up. And I couldn’t resist ordering some handmade jumbo dumplings to go- to have as my dinner when I got to the airport before my last flight of the journey!