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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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

 

March 2018: A Much Needed Tropical Trip

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I decided in January that I was overdue for a tropical vacation, and after one of the snowiest, coldest winters I have experienced in my entire life in Calgary, I needed OUT!

I decided to try somewhere new for a seven-day escape.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to convince my mom to join me. 🙂

Our route to Belize from Calgary made for a long day; three flights, three airlines, and an arrival 12 hours after first take off. We left for the airport at 3:30am, and were on the plane at 6:00am headed for Texas. From Houston we flew to Belize City. From there we walked to the local airline and flew 45 minutes (with one stopover) to arrive at the south end of the Belizean peninsula: Placencia.

We stepped off the plane along with one other gentleman who was greeted by a big enthusiastic group of American ex-pats. My mum said “well, you folks seem like a lot of fun! Can we come home with you?” to which one gentleman replied “Sure! Welcome to Belize! Wanna beer?” and preceeded to walk straight over to his golf cart and crack two Belekin Beers and hand them to us without waiting for a reply.

He introduced himself as Eugene, and he and his wife own the Pickled Parrot in Placencia, a bar ‘with the best burgers in town’! He invited us to the bar that evening for dinner and live music by a buddy of his visiting from the U.S.

We arrived at the Serenade Hotel and met the hotel manager Anna, who became our go-to lady for all things local. She showed us to our room that came complete with microwave, mini fridge, and air conditioner. The A/C was quite the pleasant surprise as in previous vacations we were used to having only a ceiling fan (if we were lucky).

The humidity and warm evening was perfect for a little exploring, and after spraying our ankles with Deep Woods Off (in perhaps a too-optimistic, attempted defense of the inevitable sand-flea bites), we took off down the boardwalk behind the hotel. This pathway is poured concrete faux-finished to look like wood, and goes all through Placencia to the south end at the pier.

Lots of local artists carve conch shells, calabash and coconut shells, and natural wood into jewelry, serving dishes, and beautiful art.

The forecast here was 28 degrees celcius. Every day. (The LOW was 23 or 24 degrees.) Magical. We never needed a sweater in the evening and the days were sunny at best and partially cloudy at ‘worst’- in the way you actually don’t mind when a few clouds roll over and give you a little reprieve from the heat.

We found the Pickled Parrot and were welcomed first by Eugene’s two dogs and later a cat as we found a seat at a picnic table on the side of the bar. This place was busy! We had our first pina coladas of the trip and ordered burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The Belizean dollar is worth half the American Dollar, so our original thought of a $20 burger being a bit pricey turned into the realization that it was closer to $12 CAD which was totally reasonable. The Pickled Parrot is cash only, and we were told that it is pretty common for places in town to only accept cash (both American and Belizean currency.)

The music was great, the burgers were excellent, and Eugene made us feel very welcome, introducing us to some regulars sitting nearby who quickly gave us the rundown of must-see and must-do things for our week on the peninsula.

We were walking back to our hotel when the sound of drumming pulled us further up the boardwalk and we found ourselves at the Tipsy Tuna and a performance of drumming that we later learned was Garifuna (also spelled Garafina) traditional music, and dancing. It was mostly kids, dressed in traditional Garifuna costume, and tourists and locals were enjoying the rhythm on the dance floor. Although we were too tired to join in, we couldn’t help but bounce along to the music. This is a weekly event at the Tipsy Tuna, so we felt fortunate to catch it on our first night in town.

One of the things we always love about the Caribbean is that the sound of the waves and the wind in the palm trees feel like they immediately lower our heart rates. ❤️

We also noticed that over the week we were there, our walking pace definitely slowed.

Plancencia has some of the nicest people I have met in the Caribbean, and people always said hello and good morning and good night as you passed on the boardwalk or on the main road. It felt even safer than Nassau!

Our first morning found us over at a tiny little building that was no more than a counter that seats about 5 people, a stove with two burners, a sink , and a fridge. And the best burritos I have ever had for $4 each! Anna told us they had the best fresh juice in town, and we ordered orange and watermelon to go with our breakfast. (This was another place that only took cash- and exact change only!)

We were anxious to get to the beach, and as we were told the ocean side of the peninsula was too hard to swim at due to all the seaweed, we headed down to the south end next to the pier and found a good patch of sand to throw down our towels and summer dresses and we leapt into the water.

To give you an idea of the ocean here, these are views of the Belizeans shoreline from the tiny plane we took to and from Placencia.

I’m pretty sure the ocean around Belize is more shallow for further out than anywhere I have been in the Caribbean, and the temperature reflected that. It was practically warm! We were slightly constrained as to how far out we could swim as the boats coming in and out of the harbor are constant (and the harbor master on the pier will yell at you, we quickly learned!).

There wasn’t much to see using our snorkels in this spot, but we had been assured by Anna that the real beautiful water and snorkeling was out off the mainland at reefs. It requires the hiring of a boat, and she knew just who to call. She phoned her friend Rudy as we chatted with her at the hotel and told him “Get over here right away! I know I know, but you are only five minutes away, so you can spare a little time to come and talk to these ladies!”

Rudy and Rudy Jr. arrived and we were informed that Rudy Jr is a certified boat operator who can take us out for either a half-day or full-day excursion. We opted for a full day trip which would include lunch and a stop on an island that had a natural pool and hammocks. We booked for the next day.

Rudy & Rudy Jr.

After a full lazy afternoon of sunbathing and swimming in looped repetition, we decided to try the Tipsy Tuna for dinner, and ordered wings and conch fritters and iced tea. We shared a big table with a couple from Lake Tahoe who were quick to chat us up and tell us about their road trip adventures exploring Belize and Venezuela over the past 12 days; this was the end of their trip. Theresa and Joey had two days in Placencia, and were considering taking a boat out to go snorkeling, so we suggested they join us the next day, hoping our guides would have room for two more.

Friday morning we got all our snorkeling gear together (yes, we bring our own snorkeling gear) and headed to the meeting spot for our day on the water. Our plans were quickly kai-boshed as the wind was strong that day and the ocean was choppy with white caps. We all agreed that the 30-minute ride out would be too rough and likely the water cloudy from all the waves, so we post-poned until Monday, as the Rudy’s were already booked Saturday and Sunday.

We decided to have another lazy beach day, and wandered along the main street and stopped into the Above Grounds coffee shop – which truly felt like a treehouse – and was a perfect spot to have an iced latte and enjoy the breeze. (They also make delicious baked goods and sell local coffee you can take home as a souvenir.)

Most of the houses in Placencia are on stilts, and we learned that the reasoning behind this was three-fold:

1) The higher you go, the better ocean breeze you get, and since most people cannot afford air conditioning, opening windows and letting the wind blow through was the best way to stay cool.

2) When they get sudden heavy rainstorms there is often flooding, so having your home off the ground means less damage/stress when this happens several times a year.

3) Sand fleas (or ‘no-see-ums’) and other bugs are only active a few feet off the ground so to be a floor above them makes it easier to avoid bug bites.

Friday night we went to Nic’s Restaurant, another recommended spot. We arrived to a pretty full, tiny wrap-around porch where we took a seat at a small table so close to the couple next to us we joked we were joining them for dinner. We ended up ordering a Greek Pizza and Caesar salad to share, and learned that our almost-table-mates ordered a similar meal; they got a Cobb salad and a Belezean Pizza (think: Hawaiian pizza with jalapeno peppers and red onions).

Pete and Sandy were from Missouri and were back in Belize after 12 years, and had just spent one week on a sailboat cruise swimming and snorkeling out along the islands and reefs off the Belizean coast. They were lovely company and we had a great time getting to know them as we ate our respective meals, and then ended up exchanging pizza slices! How often do you share/swap your meal with people at another table?! The magic of Belize. 🙂

We had been told about Taste Belize Tours  and as soon as we saw “Chocolate Waterfall Tour”, we knew what our Saturday plans were. Our tour guide/tour company owner was Lyra, a born-and-raised Belizean who was raised on a cacao farm outside Toledo Belize, and had gone to university in the US to get her doctorate in Anthropology and Food Studies. She was full of information about Belize’s history, the various cultural influences, the indigenous people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat (or, alternatively, be unlucky enough to have the worst motion sickness in the group). There were 12 of us total; my mum and I, a couple from Ontario, and two American couples who were on vacation together with their 3 kids.

It was a two-hour drive to the chocolate farm and along the way we drove past more and less touristy areas, through the a Garifuna town of Barranco- the birthplace of the most famous Belizean musician Andy Palacio. We went past many tiny villages, saw several banana plantations, and drove past large sections of land that are currently being developed into resorts. There is a big boom in real estate in Belize right now, in Placencia specifically.

We also drove through the tropical part of Belize and then suddenly, like a switch had been hit, we were driving through a savanah with dry grasses and tropical pine trees. Apparently the soil quality changes over a few meters to make this huge environment change. And we also found out that we were visiting in the dry season, which meant that many plants were blooming that don’t normally have flowers, like the “Buttercup Flower” tree.

We were greeted at the Ixcacao Farm by Juan, who owns the land and factory with his wife, Abalina.

Juan showed us the cacao tree and we learned about the process of growing cacao in Belize, and things like how succeptible the cacao plants are to disease and fungus, how they require mixed sunlight and shade to prorperly mature and thrive, and how, like coffee and grapes used for wine, the soil and area and local plants influence the final flavor of the cacao.

Two varieties of cacao plants:

Also growing on their property were the calabash tree, which has these beautiful round fruits that are the traditional container (the shell is cut in half and dried) to drink hot chocolate. We also saw these shells carved and decorated as souvenirs you could purchase at various places in Belize.

We went upstairs to a beautiful patio and sat down to try traditional Mayan hot chocolate. When it was poured, it looked like a cloudy caramel-coloured coffee.

There is no milk or cream products in any traditional mayan chocolate, so the ingredients that make up hot chocolate is ground cacao nibs and hot water. It was slightly bitter and tasted like a watered down version of a dark chocolate hot drink without any sugar.

We were instructed to add a tiny pinch of crushed chili powder. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of ‘chili hot chocolate’ that I have known previously, the point is not to make the drink spicy. There is a reaction in the chemical compounds between chilis and cacao that cuts the bitterness so the cacao flavor can be deeper. It was remarkable.

After that we added a tiny bit of cinnamon; this is another ‘classic’ addition to Mayan hot chocolate but is also not traditional, as cinnamon is not naturally found in central American and was introduced by Indian/Middle Eastern influences.

Lastly we were offered sugar to add but we didn’t feel like it needed it.

Juan then opened up a cacao pod to show us the wet seeds and then took us step by step through the entire process of making chocolate.

He let us try the wet seeds straight from the pod and the exterior was a soft, slightly stringy, and sweet coating that tasted somewhat like soursop, or sort of a combo of sweet melon, citrus, and pineapple. And if you bit right through the cacao seed it was bright purple and had not even a hint of chocolate flavor!

They harvest the pods by hand, cut them open and scoop out the wet seeds, letting the sugars in the juice of the pulp ferment, and then they take that liquid to make chocolate liquer, and dry and then roast the remaining seeds.

Dried and roasted seeds:

We were given the roasted seeds and asked to shell them to collect caco nibs that we would then grind to make our own chocolate.

Shelled cacao nibs:

The two granite pieces on the table in front of us were over 150 years old and had matching granite grinding stones that they had used before the factory acquired machinery that could grind large quantities of beans 24 hours a day and increase their output exponentially. (We were informed that 32 cacao beans are required to make one ounce of chocolate. No wonder high quality chocolate is expensive!)

We got a chance to grind the cacao seeds ourselves, and it is hard work! Lyra told us that Abalina ground all the cacao seeds by hand for the first 5 years they owned this farm, which is one of the reasons she is called The Chocolate Queen. (She must have amazing biceps!)

Juan finished grinding the chocolate at a speed that made it look like his arms would fall off, and the emulsification of the cacao seeds and the cacao butter in them was so creamy, it almost looked like it could be scooped up and dropped in a swirl like thick Nutella icing.

We got to try samples of the many kinds of finished chocolate they produced, including orange, ginger, coconut, sea salt, cardamom, and milk chocolate.

We learned about the European discovery of adding powdered milk to chocolate to make it creamier, but that other stabilizing ingredients have to be added when milk is added, which is why the percentage of cacao drops so significantly when it is processed into chocolate products. (And how a Hershey or Nestle milk ‘chocolate’ bar contains less than 10% actual chocolate; artificial flavor and colour has to be added because the finished product no longer tastes or looks like chocolate!)

And then there was the lunch that was included with the tour. This was definitely one of the highlights of our vacation!!

Lunch was created by none other that Abalina; the Chocolate Queen herself. It was a phenomenal spread of the best food we had the entire trip, including chocolate chicken, hearts of palm, cooked greens, beans, tortillas, zucchini and squash, coconut rice, and fried plantain.

As we were leaving we heard a little tune playing on repeat and slowly getting louder. The source of it turned out to be a small truck that was driving by. My mom joked “it’s the local ice-cream truck” and we all chuckled because it had a similar sound. Lyra then looked over at the truck and said “Yes it is, actually!”

We could see a bunch of coolers in the bed of the truck as it went past, and she told us that many of the people in rural Belize do not have refrigeration so this man drives through all the villages and sells ice cream!

On the way back to Placencia, Lyra stopped on the side of the road and introduced us to a group of women who sold palm leaf woven products like baskets and trivets and art. They were kind enough to show us their kitchen where they were making green corn soup and smoking/drying chilis.

A few details-

Drying chilis:

Most rural buildings have these palm-branch roofs:

We loved the way this hinge had been attached to their shutter:

Baskets and trivets and placemats:

These girls were shy to talk to me but were happy to pose for a picture.

On to the waterfall!!

The Coxcomb Ridge is the largest collection of foothills through Belize and we drove up the side of the ridge to spend the afternoon on a private property at a set of three gorgeous jungle waterfalls.

You turn off the main road at the fake Mayan pyramid along the main highway, and you find yourself at a small gate where a man who doesn’t speak a word of English meets you and you hand him $20 per person and he will open the gate so you can drive up to the waterfall.

The Maya King Waterfall:

We drove through a rain storm on the way to the farm, another downfall happened while we were having lunch, but by the time we arrived at the waterfall the weather was perfect and we proceeded to swim in all three pools, sit under the waterfalls, and even try out the natural stone slide in the lower pool area.

Have you heard of the trend at some Asian spas where you can pay for a fish pedicure; tiny fish nibble off the dead skin from your feet? Well in the pools of this waterfall, you get that for free! #notjoking

We got back to the hotel just in time to change for dinner, as we met our Lake Tahoe friends at RumFish at 6pm! Both Mum and I couldn’t resist the special; sesame crusted tuna that had been caught that day! It was absolutely delicious, and we paired it with watermelon mojitos. Dessert was key lime pie and banana crème brulee.

Sunday morning we got a surprise phone call from the Rudys and were told that their day had opened up and the weather was PERFECT for snorkeling, so we dropped our plans to explore up the peninsula and the recommended Turtle Bay beach and Restaurant, and loaded up to take a boat out for the day.

We stopped at three different locations out on the reef, and Rudy Jr let me try my hand at spear-gun fishing. 😁😳

He and his dad went fishing while my mom and I explored the reefs and discovered jellyfish, many varieties of Parrot fish, Angel fish, grouper, conch, and even a couple of medium-sized Nurse Sharks sleeping in a cave of coral!

We arrived at Lark Cay and pulled up to this sweet island with a man-made natural pool on one side, hammocks, and a perfect place to lie in the sun and dry off.

You can actually rent a cabin on this island for $20 USD a night!

The Rudys had caught a grouper, a snapper, a jack fish, a pompineau, and conch for lunch, and proceeded to fillet and cook them up with okra, purple yams, plantain, tomatoes, pineapple, potatoes, shallots, and cilantro in a coconut and spiced broth. We drank water from coconuts they cut down for us while we waited for lunch, enjoyed some iced fruit punch, and then ate this amazing lunch. We even got to take home the leftovers for dinner that night!

By the time we took the boat back the wind had picked up and the water was choppier, so it was perfect timing to head home and apply after-sun aloe vera lotion….

Note to self for next time, bring way more sunscreen, and make sure it is waterproof! We were two cooked Canadians after that day.

Sunday night we stopped for dessert at the gelato place and heard amazing jazz music coming from Chachi’s, the bar upstairs. We made our way up there and got to watch the last hour of a phenomenal 8-piece band jamming out. Soprano and alto sax, flute, 2 guitars, piano, bass, and drums. It was phenomenal! We ended up meeting one of the owners of the bar on our last night there as he and a buddy practiced in the open area downstairs for a gig they had later that week. A couple of music majors from the US decided to come to Placencia, open a pizza restaurant that had a good space for live music.

Monday we enjoyed a shady beach day. Swimming in the salt water felt good on our more-than-sunkissed skin, but we hid under palm trees for most of the day, chasing the shadows as they inched over.

Tuesday we were brave enough to venture out in the sun again and for our last day we decided that some kayaking was in order. The ocean side of the peninsula was a bit rough when we went to pick up the kayak from the handsome Frenchman who ran Awesome Adventures rentals on the beach, so he suggested we start on the lagoon side (a 5 minute walk across the road to the other side of the peninsula).

We slathered on the last of our sunscreen and set about exploring the lagoon side of Placencia. A quieter side, there were properties on either side of us, as many long islands are inhabited in the lagoon. Sorry, no photos until the second half of the afternoon; we were too busy kayaking. 🙂

The water’s edge wherever it is left wild is like what I imagine mangroves to be. Viny roots with big tough leaves bend in and out of the water, and we moved out to the south end and into the open ocean water quite easily.

We pulled our kayak up on the shore at the pier and went for a swim before heading back around to the ocean side to complete our loop.


As we came into shore I realized our mistake in not returning to the lagoon. As I mentioned before, the west shoreline is covered in thick seaweed which makes it less than ideal for swimming, but it also happened to be covered in plastic garbage. Pop bottle and water bottle lids, straws, plastic juice containers and broken pieces of every colour man-made garbage you can imagine. We were told that “it is not normally like this”; apparently a recent flash flood in Guatemala washed all their garbage into their rivers and therefore into the ocean. It made my heart hurt to see this, as I have never seen such litter on such a grand scale, especially in such a beautiful, natural place.

(I took these photos later that day, when the waves weren’t as high and most of the garbage was held against the shore by the seaweed.)

We had an audience as we paddled up to the shoreline as a group of volunteers had just arrived that day to clean up the shoreline. As my mom stepped out of the kayak I realized what was coming and braced myself for the incoming wave. Let me tell you, there was a collective gasp and grimace on all the faces of the volunteers as garbage and seaweed washed up my shirt and across my back, not once, but twice before I could step out of the kayak properly. If that doesn’t make one seriously consider changing their plastic consumption, I’m not sure what else will. Imagining the wildlife affected and how this isn’t even the worst situation that exists in the world, it just makes my heart hurt.

After rinsing off (!) and some lunch, we took some fresh pineapple and made ourselves pina coladas, and headed to the beach at the pier for a final afternoon of swimming and sunning.

Our last treat that afternoon was finally trying Bakerman John’s famous cinnamon buns! Delicious.

When we walked by the “garbaged beach” later that night we saw bags piled and only seaweed along the water’s edge.

Our last dinner was pizza at Chachi’s, and a shot of homemade bitters with the owners! We then got to hang out while 2 of them practiced for a gig later that week. One played the cajon (box drum), and the other, a Charinga; a Peruvian ukulele! It was a perfect way to relax on our last night in this totally chill place.

The flight on the tiny plane to Belize City gave us great departing views of this tropical place.

So long Placencia!

And then I went to Italy… Sardegna, to be exact.

The alternate name for this post could also be: A heckuva lot of beach photos … 😁

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Helloooo, Italy.

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The opportunity came up for me to volunteer at another workaway in an Italian town I had never heard of: Cala Gonone.

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I received the request in mid-August to come stay in Sardegna for the end of September; the two weeks after I was to fly back home.

Sometimes you feel the need to jump at an opportunity that might be once in a lifetime, so I jumped.

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I’m lucky to have a good friend who is a travel agent so she organized it all for me. 😊

Buongiorno, Olbia!

I arrived at the Olbia airport to meet my lovely only-Italian-speaking airbnb host Monica, and another guest arriving that same day from Berlin: Lou, a German online photo-editor who was in Sardegna for a two-week vacation, and one week of that would be rock climbing in Cala Gonone!

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The next morning, after a brief exploration of the old part of Olbia with Lou and a proper Italian cappuccino, of course, I made my way back to the airport (with a free bus ride 😁 because I think the bus driver was mad I wanted to pay with cash instead of a ticket and refused my money- whoops! 😳).

I purchased a ticket for the Deplano bus from the airport to Cala Gonone. It’s a €16 trip from the Olbia airport and took about 2 hours.

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And the entire trip I was in absolute awe of my surroundings.
The drive was an adventure all its own, worth every penny, and I’m not surprised that people can take a bus around the entire island like a tour. The scenery is gorgeous!!

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Not sure if you can see them, but there is a pile o’ sheep on that hill.

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I arrived in Cala Gonone and my host Claudio introduced me to his  parents who had come over for a visit. His mother only speaks Italian but his dad speaks Italian and French so he and I could communicate well! 🙂

The garden and apartment are beautiful, and there are fruit trees and fresh herbs and olive trees surrounding us.

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Possibly one of the most delightfully surprising discoveries of my trip was the lemon tree in the next door neighbors’ yard. We were grateful to pick one or two almost every day, and by far, they were the most flavourful, delicious lemons I have tasted in my entire life.

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I also met the adorable pets of household: Flora, Claudio’s dog, and Leo, his cat.

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I didn’t have much time to relax or even unpack, as almost immediately after my arrival, Claudio took me to the final evening of a festival in the local town of Dorgali.

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Sardinians are very proud of their culture and traditions and it was amazing to see everyone celebrate it together.

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Right away we came across a group of guys playing live local music. And they just didn’t stop!

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The launeddas (triple pipe) was the most impressive, and it reminded me of a bagpipe with one pipe playing constant sound like a drone.
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Live traditional Sardegnian music within 24 hours of arriving in Italy? Incredible!



Claudio knew all the locations of various traditional food and historical displays, and we spent the evening walking all over the town from one place to the next!

There was free wine all over the place- all private collections by owners of the shops/homes along the street. And just try saying no to Italians. I dare you. 😜

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Many people opened the main floor of their homes and set up food or art or historical artifacts from the region and invited everyone in!

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We watched women make cheese tarts with fresh mint (even the  pastry was made by hand) and cook them in a traditional wood burning oven.

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Claudio showed me where they were roasting traditional pork (porchetta) outside around an open fire and we watched a man throw pottery, handing off completed pieces to the young boy standing next to him…

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We watched some women dancing and more launeddas (a group performance this time), saw original (ancient) and traditional handmade clothing of the area, tried many versions of local cheese (picorino) and I had my first taste of pane carasau (a light crisp flat bread that is served at every meal; farmers used to bring it out to the fields because it was light and lasted a long time), we perused  local artwork, and drank lots of wine…

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There were some festival contests in the street, too, like “guess how much the cow weighs and if you guess right, you win the cow”, and “guess how high this cheese is hanging off the ground and you can win it”.

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Yep. 🙂
I have been told that there is not much produce-style agriculture in the area, other than wine. Lots of sheep, though. 🙂 (approximately 3 million sheep, actually)
I also had a seada, which is a baked cheese pastry served with honey. The cheese is local new/young locally made pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese, and it’s actually a dessert! It was absolutely delicious.

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I felt like the only non-Italiano speaking person in the whole village, but apparently this festival brings in all sorts of tourists.
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My fellow workawayer and roommate for my two weeks here was Ravit, from Israel. She is a photographer and anthropologist and has fallen in love with the island here and is taking some tour groups around in October.

 


The food here is very good and quite inexpensive. Ravit and I often made meals together, and we only shared two meals with Claudio in his house upstairs.

 

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Ravit made amazing tuna cakes and tahini dressing!

One afternoon Claudio made us risotto with onions and zucchini, and another day his mom and dad came over for a visit and his mom made us all culugiones (which are Sardinian ravioli) and breaded aubergines. The culugiones reminded me of the love child of manicotti and perogies, served with tomato sauce and cheese on top. Sooo good!

 

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Just a typical street sign with a painting underneath it. 😉

The town of Cala Gonone is a tourist hotspot on the island and is very busy in the summer months and then closes up at the end of September, so shops and restaurants are becoming quieter and quieter and one by one closing up for the ‘winter’ season.

 

 

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Cork and leather purses. Beautiful.

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Masks like the ones worn in Carnivale in the new year.

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Our apartment was a 5 minute walk to the beach as well as the restaurants and shops, and it’s also easy to walk down to the port and take a boat to get to the beaches further south on the island that are not accessible by the road.

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Alternatively, to get to these beaches, you can rent a kayak.

 

😁

😎

So of course I did.
Twice.

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Cala Luna
is the first popular beach south of Cala Gonone, and it took me only an hour and ten minutes to get there, and it was over some of the most incredible blue water I have ever seen!

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There are also caves here if you want some shade. Enormous, wonderful caves.

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The second time I was headed to Cala Luna but decided to stop at the little beach just before. You can only access it by boat or hiking, so it was pretty quiet with only a few people there, and the swimming is perfection.

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These beaches are excellent spots to bring a picnic, but to kayak there and back was the best excuse to warrant going for gelato back in town, or better yet, go for pizza. The pizza here is just the way I like it: fire burning oven-cooked, thin crust style. And inexpensive! A marguerita pizza is only €5 or €6! (And they are not small!)

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The town of Cala Gonone may get busy in the summer and cater to tourists, but it doesn’t feel commercial like other beach-towns I have been to before.

There were still many (mostly German) tourists, and I met up again with my new friend Lou partway through her climbing week.

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Now I have a friend to visit in Berlin!

One day Claudio picked us some cactus fruit on his way back from work and prepared them for us.

img_5876Ravit has has them often because they are all over in Israel, but I had never tried a “prickly pear”!

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You have to wear gloves to handle them because they have tiny needles you can barely see and are painful and irritating if you get them stuck in your fingertips. The flesh of the fruit is sweet and soft and full of giant seeds you swallow whole (I can assure you from personal experience don’t even attempt to bite!).

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Another fruit I discovered was the corbezzolo ‘berries’ that happened to grow in Claudio’s garden. They look almost like a lycee and are ripe when they turn red. They are squishy and the pokey-looking exterior is actually soft. They are like nothing I have ever had. Not too sweet, with a slight citrus-crossed-with-fig flavour, and the texture of a strawberry. (How’s that for a description?)
The workaway jobs at the apartment have been mostly painting. Some simple things like refreshing the white paint on exterior garden walls, while others are tougher like sanding off years of old paint from metal benches and lots of detail-work like adding Greece-inspired blue trim around the garden, and faux-finishing furniture to look antiqued.

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It seems I was destined to paint blue this summer, be it called “Picasso”, “Sky” or “Sea Breeze”.

 

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This was the beauty of mixing an exterior wall paint to match the bright blue furniture inside.

What’s amazing is that every day our schedule was entirely affected by  how much it looks like ‘beach weather’. For example, on particularly nice days we would  work for a couple hours in the morning, and then go to the beach at the heat of the day, go swimming, sunbathe, and then come back home and finish the day’s work. This is possibly the dream kind of job, really.

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One afternoon we went out to the countryside property of Claudio’s family and helped organize wood for the winter. The work was removing giant nails and screws and fencing wire from old boards and fence posts and chopping various lengths of wood that were piled all around the garage there, all while taking turns playing soccer with Flora.

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But the view here? Woooo!

Every day there were beautiful skies, gorgeous sunsets, and stunning sunrises. Great photo ops for this beach-lover.

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Buongiorno, Olbia!

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On the last full day in Sardegna Ravit and I joined Claudio and his parents to harvest all the grapes from their vineyard!

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Thank goodness it’s a tiny vineyard. 😁😳

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Afterwards we went to his parent’s home in Nuoro where they have an entire room and basement to make wine.

We had a delicious pasta lunch, including some of their home made wine.
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First they washed all the equipment with a high pressure hose, and we set up the grinder on top of the juice barrel and stainless steel ramp/trough from the front garden into the basement window. Then Claudio and Ravit dumped the 18 cassettes of grapes onto the trough and Claudio’s dad and I used pieces of wood to push the grapes through the grinder (grapes and stems, but no leaves).

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Once they are all through the grinder, Claudio raked them out evenly, and put weight on them to create the juice.

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Claudio says that he has been helping his parents make this wine every year as long as he can remember.

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One thing I have never heard of before is using the same grapes to make both white and red wine!
Claudio’s family immediately drains 20% of the juice from the large barrel of grapes within the hour of macerating them. They make the vino bianco from this.
Then they wait 5 or 6 days for the grapes to sit in the barrel and then drain all the juice then, and then they will use a press to squeeze the remaining juice and flavour from the pulp and wood left in the barrel, and add that to the dark juice and make the vino rosso.
I then learned that the rest of the grape fibre/wood/skins is what is  used to make grappa.

We got to try some of the grape juice after the ‘vino bianco’ was drawn. It tasted unlike any grape juice I have ever had.

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It doesn’t quite look like white wine to me yet…
I stayed overnight in Nuoro before taking the Deplano bus back to Olbia for my flight to Paris. (Being October 2, we were now in the ‘winter season’ and the bus didn’t run to Cala Gonone any more.)
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It was only an €8 ticket from Nuoro, and just less than 2 hours drive. Before checking in for my flight I even had time to get a pizza at the outdoor restaurant next to the airport. 🙂

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An easy flight back to Paris for one night, and the inspiration to leave my luggage at the airport for the night so I wouldn’t have to lug it around the metro with less than 24 hours on the city. For €18, I could leave it at the security baggage check at Terminal 2, and I felt like a genius. 😎

I then made my way to the Eiffel Tower where I caught a gorgeous sunset and snapped a couple photos before heading to my friend Hugo’s apartment where I got to enjoy a visit with him before we both crashed for the night.

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The next morning we headed off at the same time- Hugo to work, and me back to the airport.

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I savoured one last croissant and café crème before boarding my flight home!

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And thus ends my unforgettable summer travel of 2016! ❤️

…Okay, a few more beach photos because I can’t help it. 😁

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 Okay, and a video.


 😘

Grand Lyon! Je suis revenue !

Lovely Lyon!!


When I was last in Lyon it was pouring rain and we spent our time under umbrellas and ducking in and out of shops and boulangeries in the Old Town area. We even loved the city sopping wet, and grey, and gloomy, so I looked forward to seeing this place again, and I got to see it in sunshine! 


I stayed at the beautiful airbnb of Carine, a French music teacher in the 7th Arrondissement, and she immediately invited me out to a concert that night of Armenian and Persian music. 

On our way we walked past the Lyon Opera.

 

The group was called NaZani and was a trio, with one musician playing several hand drums and a lute-type instrument, and one playing a Qanoun, and the third dancing. 

Not an exceptional photo, but you get the idea. 🙂


Small space, an excellent little black-box theatre venue, it ended up with a full house, most of whom had a subscription to the music series here. 

We met up with a friend of Carine’s at the concert and walked around Lyon afterwards, to have drinks at Place Bertone in the 1er Arrondissement. 


There were absolutely loads of people out (it being Saturday night), and the streets and squares and all along the Rhône River were busy. There were groups of people having riverside picnics and drinks and we walked past a hearing-impaired meet-up group right by Pont de la Guillotière ( I saw ads for it on the metr- as a regular thing.)


I spent two sunny days exploring Lyon, starting with taking the verniculaire up through Vieux Lyon to the Cathedrale, my favourite church in the world.

You are welcome to walk up from Old Lyon, but this way is soooooo nice. 🙂

Just as I stepped out of the metro entrance, the bells started ringing. 😊
I went inside just before the 11’oclock Mass began, and I sat at the back where the tourists/guests sit. Basically, unless you are there to attend Mass, if you only want to ‘see’ what it’s like and stay for only part (or even the entire service), they ask you to stay in the back pews. 

That is fine with me, and was perfect to gaze up in quiet awe at the breathtaking ceiling and walls adorned with detailed mosaics, rainbows of stained glass, and carved statues, wood and marble, gilded and gorgeous. No photos are allowed inside, which just makes you appreciate the moment even more.


I actually stayed through the entire service (my very first Mass).
There was beautiful choral music, a feisty sermon (some of which I understood) delivered by a passionate priest through a mic that offered just the right amount of reverb to sound extra formidable, and I had the sudden  understanding of the strength of burning incense filling a space (*cough cough*). 

 

Some exterior photos give you a hint to the detail inside, but this is as close as I came to taking photos inside this grand place. Outside an accordion player greeted tourists at the gate, and a small church group (of unknown denomination to me), sang a Capella over by a statue in the courtyard in front of the church.

And then of course, there is this view.

Following that start to the day, I found the ancient stage and ended up standing on the stage all by myself for a brief and awe-inspiring few minutes. 




Old Lyon is full of boulangeries specializing in anything and everything praline, meaning a lot of pink pastries. 

I think the last time I took a photo of this Boulangerie stain glassed sign, there was nothing but dark grey clouds above.



The Musée Miniature et Cinema  was recommended to me by Carine and I spent the better part of two hours inside. From the actual very-aromatic (and totally creepy) sets from “Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer”, to original movie costumes, animatronics, and props (like guns and wands), to the most intricate movie set miniatures I have ever seen, this place is fantastic!!!

Believe it or not, these are ALL miniatures. Every single one.

I then discovered that though I had missed the usual Sunday market hours (that finish at 2pm or earlier), there was a HUGE pottery market/festival in Old Lyon spreading out in all directions from Place Saint-Jean. 

Dishes, sculptures, jewelry, art… Happy place. 🙂

Oh if I had room in my suitcase…… There was something for everyone here. Sooooooo fantastic.







I then walked across the river to a music festival in Place Bellecour. 


With tents from around the world, and information about the culture, music, local products, and food of each country.

 The winning tents in my opinion: Pakistan- for live music and dancing, Belgium- for samples of cold beer on this super-hot day, and Turkey- free Turkish ice cream samples complete with a performance!


There were performances on the main stage every half hour, and I caught a group of dancers performing J-Pop (from Japan), and a Swedish choir that included a couple of my host Carine’s voice students.

This city has so much charm I’m happy I got to come back and see it again. 


And now, on to Switzerland!!

Cette maison, ces personnes, ce lieu. C’est le bonheur ! :)

There are some days when I get absolutely covered in paint. Or drywall dust. Or clay or glue or sawdust. 

And I just love it.

 I am so happy to be in such company, working on all sorts of creative and odd jobs, speaking français/anglais, living like a local, and getting to know the awesome people who live here and completely understand why they fell in love with this part of the world.  

I have so found my happy place here.

I’m not kidding when I tell you that this house is absolutely buzzing with truly great people. I have now met and worked with people from 7 different countries, from my workaway friends to our hosts, to the folks in the neighborhood. 

 It’s a really cool thing to spend time with people from entirely different places and cultures, and there’s an awesome energy in this house.

Corinne and Gilles are the most generous, warm-hearted hosts. I often work alongside them and I think we are kindred spirits. Corinne and I both have a hard time sitting still when there are lots of projects we want to accomplish all at once, and Gilles and I have recently enjoyed watching the Olympics (with him teaching me all sorts of sports terms in French). 
I was the second workawayer to arrive, as my ‘beach-buddy’ Viktor arrived a few days before me. He started off here for the summer with plans to travel around Europe for the next year or two with Workaway (while back home in Hungary he had been a bike courier and website designer.) He’s now volunteering down on the island for a few weeks and comes by to visit every once and a while.

Sini arrived ten days after me and is from Finland. She is a fashion design student and not only do we enjoy the occasional “French Hour” together (where we quiz each other and practice new phrases from a French book she brought), but she has a great sense of humour and she regularly organizes tea time every day. (Corinne jokes that she’s practically British for being so adamant about tea. I think I’d fit in well in Britain- tea-wise – too.)

While at her last workaway Sini met a plasterer named Craig who’s from the UK and suggested to Corinne that he join us at the house as well. 

Craig and Sini. (Please pardon the blurry photo).

Craig is a super chill Brit who has been doing workaway for the last two months with holidays in between to check out music festivals across Europe. Sounds like an amazing way to spend the summer if you ask me! This also means he makes a good DJ, introducing us to new indie band tunes while we work. 🙂

And since he arrived, any plans of wallpapering over old bad surfaces has been completely thrown out the window. He is now skillfully plastering over all the old walls and then I or Sini pretty much follow him around with a paint roller!

The plaster is a beautiful terra cotta colour- imported from the UK- and looks nice as a wall treatment on its own. It’s still drying in this photo.

We take Wednesday’s and Sundays off (because that’s the French way). It’s been a very hot summer so we often grab our bathing suits and head for water. 
 

Our favourite swimming hole is a 15 minute drive away at the St Martin-Lars lake, and we have also tried out the shallow, fast-moving river down by Moussac, as well as the local swimming pool complete with water slide. 😏 

Lastly, if time is of the essence, we can always take a dip in the small pool in the back yard. And by ‘dip’, I mean: sit. (It’s about 8 feet long.) 🙂

Saint Martin-Lars swimming area and restaurant.

Ice cream at the restaurant. Only 12 Euros for a starter, steak and fries, dessert, and wine or coffee. 🙂

The river down by Moussac

We have also taken several day trips to local villages and towns for Vide Greniers and markets. We even had a Vide Grenier in L’Isle Jourdain which had loads of great stuff, neighbors to bump into, and all we had to do was walk over the bridge. 🙂

All the copper pots and pans you could imagine.

Buttons, thread, fabric….

locally made pottery

One morning Corinne suggested we take a walk around the lake in Lussac to check out the old grottos in the caves there and it’s a beautiful and easy little 40 minute path. Lussac also has a Prehistoric Museum, but I have yet to go.

One sunny Sunday Corinne and Sini and I went to Rochechouart on recommendation that the Vide Grenier there was good, and the hope that we would find a couple more bikes for the household. 

There was a competition for “Best Garden in a Wheelbarrow”. 😄

While we were there, we checked out the museum of contemporary art in the majestic Château de Rochechouart . 

The Chateau is a beautiful venue for art and had three luxurious floors all currently showing an exposition called “L’Iris de Lucy” showcasing female African Artists. Corinne even discovered that a friend of hers, Zineb Sedira, had some work showcased (and they happened to be some of my favourite pieces there: large  haunting saturated colour photographs of rusted out and abandoned cargo ships.)

Last week we drove to Montmorillon for their Wednesday market and had lunch at a popular restaurant by the water: Crêperie du Brouard. With galettes (savory crepes) named after famous people like Brad Pitt and Gerrard Depardieu, it’s fun and casual, and packed throughout midday. We ordered 4 completely different kinds and everyone was happy with their choices (mine was one of the few without a celebrity name: Scandave, with smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and lemon). 

Montmorillon is known as the City Of Writers and Bookmaking. There were new and used bookstores all over, calligraphy shops, and with the medieval town and beautiful winding tiny streets to wander around, it was easy to lose track of time. 🙂

 
We took a moment to get out of the sun inside the cool and quiet Église Nôtre Dame, after perusing tables of old books outside numerous bookstores (finding everything from old romance novels to rock and roll band biographies). 

My favourite find was a beautiful Japanese store full of art supplies and imported and local Japanese art and pottery. They have built the store over an old rock wall and have indigenous ferns and ivy growing out of it inside the shop. I am sheepish to say that I only snapped a photo of some hilariously translated notepads you could buy.

Well, the messages are certainly … positive.


As the market was actually the reason we went, we went searching for cheeses, sausage, honey, local fruits and vegetables, wine, and artisan bread. Samples were offered and of course we tried everything we could. The lady that we bought the cheese from was delighted to hear us speaking English and started enthusiastically saying all the English phrases she knows. “It is a beautiful day!” “You are very welcome!” “I am happy to meet you!” “The sun in shining!”

I’m hoping to get back to Montmorillon again sometime for more exploring of the city, check out their old 50-seat theatre I have since heard about, visit the famous octagonal chapel they call Octogone, and of course to try out a different galette at Crêperie du Brouard. 🙂

The renovations are coming along well, and the house is buzzing with activity, between our hosts, us workawayers, and contractors working upstairs and down, inside and out, and of course the dogs winding their way around our feet through rooms of paint and tools and sawdust and drop cloths.

At the moment we have all the following projects ongoing: plastering and painting walls and ceilings, building an ensuite in the bedroom I am staying in, creating a couple closets, replacing a few windows, tiling the remaining wall in the kitchen, building a storage cabinet for tools, sewing curtains and pillowcases for the various bedrooms, securing barker board in the upstairs bathroom, and sanding years of paint off of old doors and window frames. 

Craig was showing the state of the beam he was uncovering.

one of the cabinet doors sitting outside while the kitchen was getting a bit reorganized.

Gilles removing the wallpaper in one room.

 

One Monday we had a delightfully artsy day of helping create moulds for decorative details for the house, and worked with Corinne in the backyard with clay, plaster, andvinamold.

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My French is slowly getting better, with a few new words of vocabulary every day, some phrases, and along with Sini’s and my occasional “French Hour”, I try to speak mostly in French with Gilles, (aka the most patient man ever 😁), and with the French-speaking friends of Gilles and Corinne. I still definitely understand more than I speak but all the Francophones here have been very patient with me and they say my French is very good. 

Local apricots and peaches for a snack.

This is also the first place I have ever been where I have heard fluent French speakers with British accents. There are so many Brits here who have vacationed or lived here for years (and even decades) that have learned to speak French fluently but still have a strong accent. Before this summer I only knew people who spoke French in the Parisian dialect, or perhaps a French Canadian one, but that is sort of it. It’s fascinating! When French is spoken with a Yorkshire accent or a London accent it is totally different! 😀

Un cafe crême et un croissant, bien sûr!

Another delightful thing during the summer hereis the regularly scheduled free concerts in towns nearby with well-known artists that people come from all over to see. 

The first concert I went to this summer was in L’Isle Jourdain through the Les Heures Vagabonds festival, and the artist was Yaniss Odua, a French Dub Reggae artist who is originally from Martinique and is *very* popular (I was made aware of this pretty quickly as everyone around me knew the words to all his songs). 
About 2000 people were there to see the concert, and it was definitely a mix of all ages, though the teens & 20-somethings were the most active, right up in front of the stage.


It was an excellent show with fantastic performances by the entire band, and really great sound mixing. There was a very positive energy to the evening, and we had a perfect outdoor night sky. 

Following the last song, I walked home across the river faster than  the one-lane line of cars of the out-of-town-attendee majority slowly crawled along attempting to get home.
Just one week later there was another free concert (this time: Les Innocentes) in St Martin-Lars, and it turns out the attendance was over 6000 people! 

This time Craig and Sini had the brilliant idea of bringing a picnic dinner (complete with wine) to the concert. When we were parking at the site we saw signs posted forbidding any glass in the fenced-in concert area so we found a spot down by the lake, within hearing distance of the stage, and we sat down to dine just as the concert began.
With a lovely underscore in the background we had an amazing meal: complete with chèvre Camembert, salami and prosciutto, peaches, traditional baguette, and wine. The evening was absolutely perfect, and when we wandered over to the concert ground we were amused to  discover that there were only two songs left. Our hosts and their friends all agreed that it wasn’t as good as the previous concert, so we were doubly glad that our dining took priority!

The summer is flying by, and the work on the house, the eating the socializing, the exploring, and the happiness continues…. 

More adventures (and maybe some house reno pics) to come soon! 

Some fireworks and some beach-time.

The days here fly by and we are definitely seeing progress with the house. However, I seem to take more pictures and have more stories on my days off… 😁

Here are some photos and details about the national holiday and a long weekend camping trip to the coast!

“Bastille Day” brought a show of fireworks to the village and we were invited to another delightful evening at the island home of Helen and Moyed, again with plenty of food and wine and good company.
I baked chocolate hazelnut brownies for dessert. (They were something I hoped would not have to compete with the local boulangerie that people had become accustomed to. And I was relieved when they went over very well! 🙂 )

We were told that every year the lower bridge between Bourpeuil and L’Isle Jourdain is filled with locals and people who come into town for the fireworks. 

While we waited for the fireworks and ate a delicious dinner in the front yard, we could hear his strange music coming from the bridge. 

We ventured out the front gate to see what was going on and discovered a group of bugle players performing a sort of pre-show entertainment in the crowd. 

You may not have considered it before (I certainly didn’t), but it is actually extremely difficult for numerous bugle players to create the same note at the same time as bugles are only ‘tuned’ by the way a player holds their mouth.

One player stood at one end of the bridge and played a tune, and then the group at the other end would echo it back. It was really fun!

The fireworks (or feu d’artifice en français) were set off from both the base and the top of the viaduct, and the water in the Vienne River was so still that night we got to see an incredible double display with the reflection in the water. They were gorgeous and lasted 20 minutes! 

This video gives you an idea of the coolness factor of seeing the fireworks and their reflections at the start of the show.

The next morning my ‘co-workawayer’ Viktor and I took off for the Brittany coast for a long weekend of beachy camping on Isle D’Oléron and Isle De Ré.
We packed up the little van with Corinne’s and Gilles’ bikes, blankets, sheets, and beachwear, and headed for the coast. I drove (stick shift as a right-side driver 😳), with Viktor as navigator. 

After what seemed like endless roundabouts (the true French road way, apparently), we first arrived in La Rochelle and saw the beach and wandered around the Old Town, and then took the viaduct over the water to L’Isle D’Oléron, and towards the Grand Village. 

We stopped for a coffee and some wifi with a view of the ocean, of course!

The Old Town area of La Rochelle.

I was happy to note the giant sign that read “La Ville Des Huitres” as we drove onto the island of Oléron. Oysters (and mussels) are *the* thing to get on the islands as they are farmed all along the shorelines. (You also get amazing Fleur De Sel here, direct from salt farmers). 🙂 Another happy place. 

We arrived at a very busy campground called Les Pins (pine trees) as it was located in the forested lower end of the Oléron island, yet only a ten-minute bike ride to the beach! 

Campgrounds here are even more deluxe than along the East Coast of Canada.

 It seems like the French like to arrive to fully furnished cabins, trailers, and structured tent units with running water and electricity. Some are really beautiful, and clearly big families come and stay for a while here. (There is even a regular schedule of some sort of family activities and/or entertainment every day.)

I spent a little time at the naturally-filtered pool (complete with waterfall!)

Bikes are pretty much essential on these islands not only to go where cars can’t, and due to the limited parking spots available near all the best beaches on the islands, but because the winding roads and endless pathways along the island are perfectly lovely to cruise on two wheels. 😎

An afternoon siesta? I think so!

There were a handful of restaurants just down the street from the campground, a boulangerie, and a little supermarket. It was quite convenient, as I ended up buying a sleeping bag the second day we were there because the nights were colder than I expected (wimp that I am, I should have known better).

Chez moi pour le week-end!


We set up camp in a sandy and shaded campsite (tent for Viktor, van-avec-curtains for me), and made our way over to the beach just as the last of the daytime visitors were leaving. The beach was almost completely empty, aside from a few guys flying a large kite, and so we checked out the water temperature (freezing) and wandered he shoreline, watching the sun sink down towards the water before we headed back to our campsite.

The next day we spent at the beach (La Plage de la Giraudiere). The water was very shallow for quite a distance out, and with the heat and wind, and waves all along the shoreline it was the perfect location for surf lessons. It was fun to watch both kids and adults run and jump onto small surf boards and glide along the shoreline (or slip right off and tumble into the water, which happened much more often). 

It was a packed beach, and actually reminded me of family vacations to Florida when I was younger. Lots of families, and lots of kids.

Every morning there was a market at our campsite, where you could purchase 6 varieties of local oysters 😁, fresh veggies and fruit, and bread. 

Viktor tried his first ever oyster, but wasn’t too keen on it, so I happily had oysters for lunch, while he had the tried-and-true cheese and bread.

Perfection

Friday night at a tapas bar and pizza place called La Choza we caught the most excellent live djs I have ever seen- 5 guys sharing 4 turntables, multiple pieces of effects equipment, and numerous boxes of records, and on top of that there was also a saxophone player who would improvise along brilliantly with the music when he felt like it. 

It was clearly a popular locals spot and was a very surfer/island/party atmosphere. After an excellent pizza dinner I ended up hanging out there until well after midnight watching them skillfully mix sweet music for hours!


Saturday we changed islands and made our way up to the northern tip of Isle De Ré. 

Clearly the more popular/touristy of the two islands, you have to pay a toll of €16 to drive onto the island. (It’s free if you walk or bike over. The bike ride would likely take 20 min over the bridge, and walking would likely be closer to 45, but as the island is almost 30km long we figured a vehicle would be more efficient this trip.)

The beach we spent the day at was idyllic. The sun was hot, the water was perfectly refreshing, and the beach was busy but not packed. The only thing I wished we had brought was a large parasol (as everyone else did), as there was no shade to be found otherwise.
After playing volleyball in the water with a bunch of Francophones, sunning on the beach, swimming and wandering along the shore (and checking out the huge dead jellyfish that had washed up hours earlier)….and possibly turning a bit pink (but not as pink as Viktor!), we searched for a campsite.

After the June road trip  where we never worried about pre-booking campsites, I didn’t have any concern for finding a spot. This was when I learned that this was the start of the summer holidays for not only public schools, but now private schools, and it took us until our third campsite to find an available tenting spot! 

Luckily, our campground was awesome (Camp Du Soleil), near the stunning town of Ars-En-Ré

Complete with restaurant, pool, arcade, and two perfect trees for the hammock we brought, this was our favourite spot to stay.



An evening bike ride over to Ars En Ré was absolute perfection Saturday evening, with the streets looking ready for a movie crew to set up a scene for a romantic French film at any moment. 

Pristine buildings, lavender and hollyhocks lining the cobblestone streets, and nothing but a few pedestrians and cyclists winding their way through the little village that has been named one of the most beautiful villages in all of France.


We came to the town centre and the regal Church of Saint-Etienne, where a boys choir was performing a small concert. If you come during the day you can sometimes climb to the top of the tower and have a great view, but I only learned this after we left. 

This is definitely a place I’d return to!!

I think that will have to do for now. So much to share, but I’m definitely finding it hard to sit still! 🙂

Cape Breton calls!! 

After a short ferry cruise from Woods Islands, PEI, to Caribou, Nova Scotia, we stopped for ice cream just outside the tiny town of Pictou before driving to our next KOA campground in Cape Breton. On the ship we read up on Cape Breton must-see spots, live music venues, and campgrounds. Free wi-fi on the ferry was a great amenity to have. 🙂


We have found that one of the best surprise-discoveries on our trip is how very much we enjoy staying in different places every night and seeing the varied scenery and natural beauty of the Atlantic Provinces.


Our campsite on the Cabot Trail was another example of this. Check out this rock; blasted in the 1950s to allow for the roadway and bridge across the Bras D’Or Lakes.

 (This moment of morning sunshine was a brief reprieve from all the rain and cloud that quickly rolled in within the hour.)

Especially along the Cabot Trail that circles the northwest part of Cape Breton, the rain makes for the most lush looking forests and hills, and the misty, rainy weather makes for a romantic, almost mythical landscape.


One delightful discovery was Baddeck, and the coffee shops, outdoor gear clothing stores, and art shops. 

We stayed out of the rain for a bit with a great breakfast at the cafe there, and made our way along the Cabot Trail getting purposefully lost on gorgeous forested trails and backroads before stopping into The Dancing Goat and picking up the last still-warm loaf of their famous Porridge Bread, which we planned to enjoy for toast and sandwiches as we trek north. 

The weather forecast was underwhelmingly monotonous, with expectations of rain straight on from lunchtime on Sunday through … Wednesday. We bravely sought a campground with the hopes of a well-sheltered tent site. And when we arrived at Plage St-Pierre Beach and Campground, we were immediately encouraged to rent their tiny, single wood cabin with a queen bed, mini heater, and barbecue. 

We took it.


The brute-force winds that created crashing thunderous waves along the beach, and the downpour that began shortly after nightfall made us feel like the smartest campers ever. We turned on our mini heater, listened to some music, and played a couple of games of cards before heading to bed, warm and dry inside. 🙂

 The wind and torrential rain pounded down all night, and even the power went out at some point. Spending the night in a tent would have likely been terrifying. In the morning we woke up to calm seas, no wind, and lighter skies. And we didn’t have a wet tent or anything to pack up!
I do have to say that the peanut-butter-and-apple-on-porridge-bread sandwiches I made us for breakfast got things started nicely, as they were delicious. The bread has a sort of molasses flavour and is hearty like a pumpernickel. It is so good!

We took off to get up to the Highlands National Park and hopefully get a couple small hikes in. Our other goal was to check out the furthest northern point at Meat Cove, and the small fishing village of Dingwall before heading into our campground by Ingonish.


The coastline is epic, with huge cliff faces and drop offs and the current weather causing great waves to curl and break and crash against the shoreline, be it sand or rocks.

 It is wonderful to drive the winding Trail so close to the ocean. There are many hikes along the trail, varying in length and difficulty, so we decided to check out a couple shorter ones on our first day. 
Along the Bog Trail, (known for its summer orchids and dwarf trees) as we walked along the fully constructed wooden boardwalk, we heard what sounded like dozens of rubber bands being plucked. We discovered they came from a small army of green-bellied frogs croaking back and forth, and if you paid attention to where the croaks were coming from, you could see them hiding in the water. 
 Another short trail to a Sole Sheiling – a hut built to represent the shelters of for an early farmer to watch over his sheep was our next stop, and it was here that we discovered the apparent local concern for coyotes in the area, as several large walking sticks were left at both ends of the parking lot for people to hike with (and many signs encouraged their use!).

 As we drove through road construction further and further up the ‘mountainous’ terrain, the low clouds above us suddenly surrounded us like the thick evening fog we discovered in Nova Scotia the week before. The view disappeared or became ghostly like a Tony Only painting. 

Some of the craziest winding and crumbling roads led us past North Cape up to Meat Cove, but the cold wind convinced us not to stay to long, and we bundled up and drove to Dingwall. The weather grew angrier and the fog thicker, and we could just barely make out the fishing boats tied up at docks and rocking in the waves, and see the tumultuous ocean pound along the shoreline.

Side note: I love the sound of waves crashing. It is like hearing a sharp intake of breath as the water is pulled up from the sand, and then a thunderous rumble as the frothy waves twist over to tumble down in long rolls over and over again. 🙂
We got to our campsite as the rain settled down and the fog thinned a little. For the first time so far we decided to put up a tarp over the tent, and found a sheltered campsite to also protect us from wind. 

We went in search of dinner and arrived at The Coastal Restaurant and Pub,  which coincidentally (!) was the only place open nearby

As we ate a dinner of their made-famous-by-You-Gotta-Eat-Here Ringer Burger, they seemed to be closing up for the night. (It was 7:30pm). We asked if there was a place open for drinks and they suggested the Keltic Lodge, because it has live music every night. Well, we were sold. 🙂


As we drove towards the Lodge we broke through the fog and the sun had fought its way through to make for a beautiful evening. The grounds of the restaurant and nearby golf course were gorgeous and we wandered around and took some photos before heading into the Atlantic Restaurant to catch some local music.
We proceeded to spend the next three hours listening to Rob Maclean, a Cape Breton local, play songs on request until the guests thinned out and he played a few original pieces. He was fantastic and we stayed to the very end, enjoying every minute of it (and also enjoying a slice of they spiced Guinness cake with whiskey caramel sauce).
A cool night’s sleep with lots of rain had us looking forward to spending another night inside. 

We had been told the night before of a hike along the Skyline Trail, and that people come from all over the world to do it, and that it’s a 4km walk on the northwest side of the island. Although it would be backtracking, we decided to do it and made our way back towards Cheticamp. The fog enveloped us about halfway there. Happily, it wasn’t very cold out. Perfect hiking weather.
With at least two dozen vehicles parked in the parking lot we knew it would be a busy trail. Tara-Lee wasn’t feeling well and she suggested I go alone and she’d rest back at the car.
What we had been told was “about a 4km return” was actually a 7.2km hike, so I set out to be efficient, and didn’t do the optional 9.5km loop, so I wouldn’t be leaving Tara-Lee for the entire afternoon.
In the highlands there is an abundance of moose (1,800+) and apparently after a very major tree loss in the 1970s and afterwards the moose just kept eating all new growth; in some areas the forest has been reduced to mostly grassland and small shrubs. There is one fenced off area you pass by where they are seeing/studying how the land can adjust back without moose interfering (yet allowing other smaller wildlife to still enter and exit the area). 

Further along the trail there is a much larger fenced in area you pass through via gates, where parks staff are planting trees and native plant life to regrow (safe from the moose) to possibly return the park to what it was before, for the benefit of wildlife and the ecosystem of the area. It was really cool, but I forgot to take photos.

As well, as the path got closer to the sea, it became a walk along a structured wooden path to keep hikers off the local vegetation. 


I made it to the lookout at the bottom of the stairs just in time to see a lovely view of the ocean, part of the Cabot Trail, and the shoreline, and then the looming fog blew in. Truly, only minutes passed before the view was nothing but white cloud.

This girl just hiked her very first solo hike! It was wonderful!

By the time I got back to the car, Tara-Lee was feeling much better and we decided to attempt to get down to Judique to see the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre before heading towards North Sydney to board the ferry to Newfoundland.

We made it with 25 minutes to spare before they closed, and found the exhibit to ourselves. We sped through reading the history of Celtic Music in the Maritimes, the fiddle, the bagpipes, traditional dancing, and even got to try out learning to play the fiddle- with REAL fiddles and bows they just left hanging on the wall for us to try. SO FUN!!


Now I want to take fiddle lessons… 

That’s all for this post! We will definitely miss the views and can’t wait to get back for more hiking and local music!! 


  

Amsterdam in 3 days. Next time it should be 5.

Amsterdam in three days. Nutsy. But we loved it.

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So maybe we tried to pack in too many things… And maybe we weren’t so great at our time management. But we did a lot and explored a lot and had a great time. Lots of window shopping, lots of food (we declined the kangaroo burgers at the Australian restaurant, though), a few museums, and touring the city. And no, we did not go into any “coffee shops”, though they were everywhere, and the whole alternative culture was overwhelmingly present in that city. 🙂

The famous architecture really was stunning, and along the many canals we saw countless tall and narrow buildings with colored brick, painted trim, and beautiful details that gave each house a unique charm and personality . And I have never in my life seen so many bikes in one city. (No photos to fully prove this at the moment, but I promise. It’s crazy.) 🙂

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In the trendy neighborhood of Jordaan. We liked it a lot here.

The university residences.

The art at the university residences.

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It rained a whole heckuva lot while we were there. When we had brief sunny breaks here and there we would immediately take all our photos, and then the water would pour down again and we’d run for cover.  This led to some fun shop and museum discoveries, and many delicious snacks (poffertjes, stroopwaffles, and cheese, to name a few…), so no complaints here.

We found ourselves at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum’ which had a full history of how tulips became such an important part of Holland’s identity. (Did you know that the tulip is originally from turkey and the name comes from the same word they used for the Turkish turban?)

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Did you know that tulips originated in Turkey? Their name comes from the same word for the turban-style headwear of the Turks.

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Several tools used in tulip production- to carry, clean, and sort different bulb sizes.

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Next door to the tulip museum was the Cheese Museum. A bit smaller and most of our time was spent sampling cheese. 😀

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No filter. You see before you magenta, green, and bright blue cheese.

No filter. You see before you magenta, green, and bright blue cheese.

My sister getting a little silly with their dress-up box.

My sister getting a little silly with their dress-up box.

We found little discount tickets to things at our hostel and one was for Sara’s Pancake House, so of course we had to go. 🙂 It was a little pricey but the crêpes were quite good (I had a walnut caramel one and my sister had a pineapple banana crêpe), and it was fun to get a photo outside of me grinning ridiculously at ‘my’ pancake house (same spelling and everything)!

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We took in an open mic night at an Irish Pub called Mulligans: we just couldn’t turn down free entertainment, especially not Celtic music. 🙂 Three young guys from Ireland were the main performers and sang such gorgeous harmonies we were in heaven. The lead singer was on an acoustic guitar, they had an acoustic bass and a mandolin. A percussionist on a box drum (forget the real name of it, sorry) and a guy on a hand drum rounded it out, and then part way through a fiddler came in to join them. It was absolutely fantastic!!

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We checked out the famous floating flower market, and found tulip bulbs, fresh flowers, seeds and more souvenirs, but it wasn’t too exciting for us- perhaps if we were avid gardeners… 🙂image

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We went to the Rijk Museum of Art, which had a huge collection of art from the  1200s-1800s. One thing I noticed that I have never before seen in such a classic museum was that every piece of artwork had a description under the usual artist/title/material sign. It often said what the artist’s intention was, or what the images symbolized, and as a non-art-history major, I really appreciated that. It completely enhanced my experience. That, and some giant post-it notes around the museum with commentary from two modern art-history students on the art and the collections there.

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Wedding dresses from the 1700s in Holland

Wedding dresses from the 1700s in Holland

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Explanation! SO awesome!

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We then had to get some shots by the I AMsterdam sign (as one must do when one is in Amsterdam), and then we headed to dinner, which ended up being at an Australian grill where we got burgers. Not very Dutch, I guess, but there were delicious. We opted for beef, and not kangaroo, (no, I am not joking)…. we just couldn’t bring ourselves to being that adventurous… 😛

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We had tickets to go on a walking tour of the Red Light District but we were misinformed as to where our group would start out, so we actually missed it. We tried tagging along with another tour company for a few minutes, but they kicked us out rather quickly. We walked around the area for a bit after that, and then headed to our next evening event: the Amsterdam Ice Bar. 🙂

We had seen posters about the Ice Bar and wanted to go, so made reservations for 10:30pm. The main bar is like any other, with music and drinks and bar seating (and maybe some bear skin rugs and giant polar bear and penguin statues)… And when your reservation time starts they give you giant parka ponchos and matching mittens, and lead you into a smaller room at the back of the bar that has ice sculptures, frosted walls and ceiling, and a mini light show. You get two drink tickets for inside the ice bar, and the options of Heineken, vodka or whip cream flavored vodka with orange juice. You get your drinks in ice glasses, and you only really want to hang out in there for long enough to have two drinks before you want room temperature again. It was really fun, and a totally unique experience. We then got “Amsterdammed” drinks in the main bar (cranberry-something-delicious), and headed home for the night, as the next day would be packed with Van Gogh museum, Anne Frank House, and a canal tour.

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We wanted to see the Anne Frank house before we left Amsterdam and decided to brave the long line up to get in. We arrived during a torrential downpour. We were already around the block from the entrance to the museum so I wasn’t too optimistic about how much patience I had for over an hour wait in the pouring rain. The rain slowly tapered off after about 45 minutes of heavy pouring, and then 30 minutes of continuous drizzle, and the sun poked its head out of the clouds. It was at this point we had moved about 15 meters. But we persevered, had some hot chocolate from a well-placed local little shop, and made friends with the people in line behind us, a woman and her sister from Copenhagen, and a girl from Dublin. While we were in line, a busker played us some amazing Vivaldi on violin, and the church tower near us played some amazing ‘popular’ music for some time before a musician on a tiny boat in the nearby canal started playing a trumpet. Then all of a sudden he and the church bells were playing to each other, and we found out the bells in the tower were being played live by a musician up there. This went on for quite some time and was brilliantly entertaining! (And obviously, not the first time they had done this.)

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We had been waiting for two hours when we got to this sign.

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My sister caught this photo of the musician in the boat while I held our place in line.

In the end we were in line for over 3 hours!!! We agreed that the museum was worth it. It was unbelievable to walk through each room in the home and hiding place of Anne and her family and see short videos of her father, one childhood friend, and one of the staff who helped hide her family above her father’s business talk about Anne and what it was like during the war, and the impact her diary and writing have had on the world.

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Because of our 4+ hours at the Anne Frank house we didn’t make it to the Van Gogh museum. 😦 Since a canal tour had been so highly recommended to us we did that as our last excursion in Amsterdam as our night train left the main station at 7:00pm. We were looking forward to seeing the streets we had already wandered around from a different perspective, and get some history on the city. Going past all the house boats and barges was my favorite part. I would imagine it would be fun to take a tour in the evening when the city is all lit up.

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Well, Amsterdam, it’s been a whirlwind three days! See you again!

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Fête de la musique – le 21 juin, 2014

Saturday the 21st was Fête de la Musique, and there were free concerts all over the city.

This is a huge event in Paris every year and I was so happy to take part in it!

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My classmate Robert told me to go to the concert at the Invalides Metro station, because it would be all Canadian bands. The weather was spectacular and I walked past four other concert venues on my way to the “Nuit Boreale” Stage (aka, the Canadian stage), including a military band performing at the south end of the park at the Eiffel Tower.

The first group of the night was Marijosee (marijosee.com), a woman from Manitoba with a wicked voice and awesome band! When I arrived she was just killing it with crazy high notes and an amazing stage presence.

There were lots of people standing in front of the stage, and dozens more sitting on the grass in the huge field off to the side. There also some really adorable kids dancing their faces off just in front of me – they really had some great moves! 🙂 In between each of the 5 acts that night there was also a DJ from Toronto (Skratch Bastid), who was truly the very best DJ I have ever seen, and watching him is uber entertaining because you an tell he obviously loves what he does!  He will be in Calgary July 19th at The Marquee! Go see him! (skratchbastid.com)

The next group at our stage was a rock band called Mise En Scene, another Manitoba group (an English band with a French name). I ended up hanging out with Marijosee and her rockin’ drummer Kathryn for the changeover into the next band’s performance and we had our own sort of dance party during the DJ’s tunes. Marijosee told me that they had also been at a festival in Switzerland before Paris and were heading back to Canada the next day. Sounds pretty good to me!

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The next group was called Klô Pelgag, with a fantastic lead singer/piano player and a crazy band including violin, viola, cello, upright bass, and drums. The costumes really were the cherry on top, with the three female string players in bridal gowns and baseball caps, the drummer in a speedo and bathing cap and sporting a fake mustache, the bassist in a speedo, bathing cap, cape and flashlight spectacles, and the lead singer in a skeleton jumpsuit. They clearly have a lot of fun, and the lead singer has a great sense of humor and rapport with the audience. And in the middle of one song, the bassist did a magic trick centre stage. Yup, they are the whole package. (klopelgag.com) 🙂

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I ran into my friend Robert by the stage, which was great, and we enjoyed grooving to Franklin Electric -the next group. They were from Montreal, and were phenomenal. The lead singer started the first song wailing brilliantly on a trumpet. I was delighted to realize that I had made my way to the very front and had an awesome view of the stage for the rest of the night. (I promptly went home and bought their latest cd on iTunes.)

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The last group was a punk bank (Dracula Legs), and the crowd at this point was mostly made up of highschool/university students and they got a little crazy. A mosh pit was created, and several kids tried crowd surfing but didn’t get very far. It was a bit much by the end (yes, I am too old for this).

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I ended up chatting with another ‘solo’ Parisian attendee, and we left at the same time and ended up walking up and down the Seine talking in French for about an hour, before walking home. Since the concert ended at about 1:00am, and we took the long way, it turned into about a two and a half hour stroll so I got home just before the sun came up. Haven’t done that in a very long while. What a night. 🙂