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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Celebrating my favourite kind of breakfast in Bali!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The school courtyard

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I survived!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So long, Firefly!

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

 

 

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Treehouse lounge!

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Just a small bamboo ladder to the top….

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My sunset mojito.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

And that is when my heart dropped into my ankles.

My itinerary said the following:

Departure Date: Monday January 28

Check in: 11:15pm.

Flight: 1:15am.

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

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

NOT the entire next day and evening. THREE HOURS.

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

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

 

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

Selamat tinggal & terima kasih, Bali!

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

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From the mountain to the seaside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best mango ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The women’s dorm I had all to myself!

The view from my room

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

Pad Thai!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO TO COME

The central mosque on the island

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

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

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

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

Barren, practically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh the sunsets on this island!!

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

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

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

I couldn’t resist.

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

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

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

Oh yeah, and the sunset.

Breakfast fresh fruit

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

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

Oh, the flowers on this island!

Stunning mural at a local yoga studio

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

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

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

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

And oh, the pool. ❤️

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

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

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

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

Vegan strawberry coconut cheesecake at Musa

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

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

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

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

Goodnight, private pool. ❤️

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!

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! 🙂

Bahamas 2016; New Providence Revisited!

A return trip to Nassau was in order after our dream of a vacation last March. We booked our stays again with Airbnb: one week again at Sarah and Derek’s, and a second week with Shaun and Christine.

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We arrived to windy and cloudy weather, and a rainstorm that started late in the evening and woke us up with it’s heavy hitting raindrops throughout the night! We woke to cloudy skies and wind, but the smell of the sea and warm breezes just can’t be beat!

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Breakfast on the patio was yet again delicious as always, and we did meet some of the other guests in the house, though there were fewer than the previous year by half!

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Like last year, we made dinner one night for Sarah and Derek: my dad’s famous Caesar salad and my mom’s famous Lemon Meringue Pie! Without an electric mixer, that meringue was truly made with love. Hand whipping egg whites to create meringue takes tenacity and strong wrists! 😀

 

We had our favourite spots we planned to see, but also had a few new locations on our to do list, including an organic farm/market/restaurant, the Primeval Forest, The Island House, sea kayaking, and a sailing cruise. We did however, make sure we touched the ocean every day.

 

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Walking back from Love Beach.

With windy and slightly rainy weather, we booked our exploration to ‘inside’ sights in our first week. We re-visited the National Art Gallery, which was showcasing the life’s work of Brent Malone, a Bahamain artist, and it was a real assortment from sketches to prints to sculpture to paint, from abstract to realism and everything in between. It could have been a collection of different artists, his work was so varied. I think our favourite pieces were his more recent work with Junkanoo as the subject matter. You could hear the drums and cowbells!  🙂

We took the bus most places (#10 and #12 travelled most of the length of West Bay street), but often we chose to walk because the weather was nice enough and we had the time! The funny thing? There are no sidewalks. No one walks on New Providence. They drive or take the bus. (There are very few cyclists, even.) This meant taking your life into your hands when traffic got busy, as there is barely any room on either side of the road for any sort of pedestrian traffic.

Bus drivers overall were very kind. We often noticed they drove out of their way to drop someone off or pick someone up, and no one on the bus seemed to mind. We were often driven off the main road closer to our destination simply because the driver knew where we were headed and said “Well, wouldn’t want to walk that far!” and would drive an extra 5 minutes out of their way. We even had one bus driver offer to take us the extra distance to Jaws Beach (not on the normal bus route, but sometimes alright if you gave the bus driver an extra $5), and then he asked us what time we wanted to be picked up and he came back to get us!

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A very quiet Jaws Beach

Goodfellow farms was amazing! It is owned by a Canadian family and they use Aquaponics to grow their food. They keep Tilapia fish in several giant tanks, and the water is used to fertilize lettuce, cabbage, kale, spinach, tomatoes, strawberries, and I’m sure much more. Then the water, cleaned by the plants growing in it, is recycled in the tilapia tanks.

We had some of the best food on our trip in the restaurant on the grounds there (I don’t normally gush about vegetables, but OH, the salad!!). They also have a small store with specialty foods, and locally made ice cream.

The Primeval Forest was actually ridiculous to get to. We were told we could walk from the organic farm to the entrance, (“about 5 km”), but it turned out these directions were beyond optimistic, and when we asked to confirm the walking route on our map with the folks at the restaurant, they gawked and told us we would need a car for sure, and called us a taxi.

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The forest was fascinating, with very strict instructions to”stay on the steel-reinforced pathway unless you want to chance falling into a sinkhole”. There was also a type of tree there that was supposedly 10 times worse than poison ivy or poison oak, which made our wander through even more trepidatious. With a  $10 entrance fee, it is an interesting way to spend 30-45 minutes seeing the last un-touched area and oldest trees of the Bahamas, but not  a vital must-see.

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It felt like a place Tarzan would be very comfortable in.

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We also checked out the caves– a step off the main road and 5-10 minutes tops to explore. Free, and easy to check out if you are interested in seeing where the pirates liked to hide on the island back in the day.

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A highlight of our trip was definitely the All-Day Sailing Cruise we took with Barefoot Sailing Tours. It was something my mom wanted to book last year but I wasn’t interested. Boy was I glad she convinced me this year!

The weather was perfect for our travels over to Rose Island, with 3 hours of sailing, and 3 hours at the island to swim snorkel and tan, and a bbq lunch on the boat made by the captain himself.

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The water was straight out of a travel magazine, and we couldn’t believe its beauty even as we swam. The snorkelling was fantastic, and we saw everything from (small!) Barracuda to parrot fish to baby squid.

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Our sailboat is on the right!

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We thought that we had planned well with regularly re-applying sunscreen, but we got cooked that day! Happily ‘sail-boat-cooked’. 🙂

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Our second week had calmer weather days, and the temperature jumped and we spent almost every day at the beach. We learned in our first week that no amount of 100% Deet bug spray kept away the no-see-ums (aka sand fleas) that like to hang out in the sand and LOVE to bite us, and keeping off the sand was vital to our happiness. (In fact, we are now educated that we should likely start taking Benadryl several days before our trip to get our immune systems boosted against the allergic reactions we have to the bites.)

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We frequented the beach by Sandyport Resort, where we would make good use of the beach chairs and umbrellas they so generously supply. 🙂 The restaurant there, The Blue Sail, makes excellent pizzas.

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I don’t recall finding this out last year but ALL beaches in the Bahamas are public. There is no such thing as a private beach; the law states that 30m up from the high water mark is public beach on every single one of the 700+ islands. Even the beach at Atlantis is free to the public, whether you are staying at the resort or not (though we hear it is always crowded).

 

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The Island House is a dreamy resort that is not on the beach and it doesn’t matter. Our friend Sarah suggested we go see a movie in their 40-seat theatre on one of the stormier days, and we felt like we had stumbled on a movie set; it was such an out-of-this-world hotel.

It was definitely a ‘happy place’ of ours for the trip, and we saw two movies there and tried out the restaurant Mahogany House for lunch on our last day in the Bahamas.

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Deluxe and comfortable seats, with tables to hold your wine or beer as you watch and leather footstools to be extra comfortable.

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My mother, the model/movie star.

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I could get used to this! 😉

Unless I win the lottery or marry a millionaire, I will never be able to afford to stay here, but I will pay it a day-visit whenever I am in Nassau!

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Speaking of food, we, of course, had to have another freshly made conch salad, this time, complete with a grapefruit Radler beer, at Dino’s. Now, we learned a very important new tip: if we wanted to see our lunch without having to wait 40-80 minutes (the epitome of island time, people, island time!): Call ahead and order in advance. Then when you arrive your order goes to the front of the line (and you wait 15-20 minutes instead of an hour)!

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We also splurged on the insanely classy Sapodilla restaurant, with the most elegant atmosphere (and menu) of our entire vacation.

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Live piano was being played in the lounge throughout our entire dinner, and we were even offered a ride to and from the restaurant when we made our reservation. We were also asked if it was a special occasion (birthday, anniversary, etc) so they could plan accordingly for our arrival.

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They made Caesar salad at the table, and it was just like Dad’s!

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Seriously, go to this restaurant. It is spectacular.

(Expert tip: don’t order water; order Persecco: they cost the same.)

 

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We did revisit the fish fry and Sonja’s bbq Jerk truck, and Twin Brother’s and their fabulous pina colada/daquiri slush on a couple of our evenings, as well. We love our Bahamian food. 🙂

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We spent as much time on or in the water as possible, and were able to rent a kayak and explore the west end of the island via the ocean, and it felt like a private island as we paddled along! It was peaceful and gorgeous!

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It was also cool to learn the names of the creatures that we came across, as our host Shaun was an avid diver and had these great snorkelling cards to identify fish and wildlife in the waters around New Providence.

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Until next time, Nassau… 🙂

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A long overdue beach vacation.

The bahamas are a highly underrated tropical destination by Canadians. Not that I’m a regular visitor or anything- I haven’t been here in 20 years…. But it is amazing. The Caribbean waters are warm and refreshing, and it’s ‘winter’ here right now, and about 28 degrees Celsius.IMG_7576

My best friend and her husband gave me the most generous gift- a one-week slot of her timeshare at any of the participating hotels and resorts they belong to. They had offered it to me last year when I was in Europe, but it wasn’t to be. As a result we decided it would be best used for an escape from the winter in Calgary; by early March you just don’t want to be cold anymore, as it has been winter for almost 6 months…

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The view as we left Calgary: a fresh dusting of snow…

On our descent: beautiful ocean!

On our descent: beautiful ocean!

It was going to be a family trip with my mum and sister, and when the idea was suggested we go somewhere with a beach, the unanimous decision was the Bahamas. We had been twice before for family reunions to a smaller island my aunt and uncle have property on, but with the relatively new non-stop Calgary-to-Nassau Westjet flights, we jumped at the chance of staying on the island of New Providence for the first time. About a month before we booked, however, my sister got a new job at a company she had been hoping to work for, and she couldn’t get the time off, so we adjusted the plans and it became a mom-daughter trip for two.

At Compass Point resort

At Compass Point resort

So: timeshare booking. I’ve never owned a timeshare and have very little knowledge on how they work, but basically they entered in the week we hoped to travel (online), and the search began. Once we got a booking at the most incredible looking resort we have ever seen, we decided to book a second week of accommodations somewhere to make the best use of our travel time.

We found a room on Airbnb that I would recommend to everyone! Our hosts, Sarah and Derek, have several rooms to rent in their property about a 25 minute drive west of Nassau. You are far enough from the city to feel more like a local than a tourist, and there are so many beaches on this island (including across the street!) that we never had to go far.

The first morning at the BnB we awoke to beautiful guitar music. Two of the guests were writing a song on the balcony while having breakfast. We joined them!

The first morning at the BnB we awoke to beautiful guitar music. Two of the guests were writing a song on the balcony while having breakfast. We joined them!

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Our favourite beach, thanks to Sarah’s recommendation, was (Nirvana) Love Beach, a ten-minute bus ride down the road. We spent almost every day there. It was so quiet on weekdays it almost felt like a private beach.

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Our new friends Kelsey and Nigel walking along the beach.

Our new friends Kelsey and Nigel walking along the beach.

There were a few excellent restaurants near Love Beach, and we made a couple trips to the grocery store to get some snack food and lunch items to picnic on the beach.

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Dino’s Conch salad! Delicious and refreshing!

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The all-fruit version: mango, apple, pineapple, covered in lime and orange juice.

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First time trying conch!

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They make it fresh to order chopping up onion, green pepper, tomato, and conch, and it is served doused in lime juice with fresh pineapple on the side.

We met so many incredible people at the B&B, and now have friends in Austria, Washington, Missouri, Montreal, Louisiana, and Germany.

From left to right: Tyler & Renee (Louisiana), Kelsey & Nigel (Edmonton), Marianna & Maria (Montreal), Kamel & Hasan (-with guitars,  Washington), Katrin (Austria)

I can easily see visiting any of these people on future trips, and love the camaraderie shared between travellers that you don’t have with anyone else.

It also makes me want to travel more, of course. 🙂

We spent a couple afternoons with Derek snorkeling along the shoreline and got to see a sunken plane, numerous sunken statues, several colourful starfish, a beautiful turtle, and even came across a couple of nurse sharks (!!) resting in the coral. (We felt a little better having two experienced Bahmaians on either side of us with fishing spears in case the sharks became agitated.) We didn’t bother them and after a while they gracefully swam away and we went back to ogling the smaller sea life.  We saw dozens of different colours of fish, though we never saw the infamous spiny lobster of the Caribbean… Well, we did eat some (and it was delicious!) but we never saw it in its natural habitat. 🙂

This was right across the road!

This was right across the road!

We felt like part of some crazy extended family at the B&B and had a couple barbecues on the beach out by Clifton Heritage Park on the west end of the island, and one included almost an entire evening of dual guitar music by two brothers who are also musicians. It was incredible. Everyone on the island is so friendly and generous, and we fell in love with it there.

At the first beach BBQ; talented musicians included!

At the first beach BBQ; talented musicians included!

Our hosts were happy to show us the best local spots and activities, and even gave us a tour of the Atlantis Hotel on Paradise island, which is the gargantuan resort with its own golf course, water park, aquarium, casino, shops, and the “Michael Jackson suite”- a $25,000 USD per night room in the hotel.

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The main lobby.

 

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The “Michael Jackson Suite” is that centre piece between the two buildings.

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Aquarium sights…

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Every day has been absolutely beautiful, and the sunsets and skies and jewel turquoise waters have been the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen since Provence. Every day we would wake up and look outside, and say ‘looks like another beautiful day in paradise’. Because it was.

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The dock out at Compass Point… *sigh*

We do so love hibiscus flowers.

We do so love hibiscus flowers.

After one slow-motion week that seemed to be at half-speed for the amount of time we were there, we said goodby to Sarah and Derek and arrived at our room at the Sandyport Resort.

We were greeted with friendly front desk staff and the happiest bellhop I’ve ever seen helped us to our room, which was a deluxe suite facing the canal, with a king size bed and full kitchen. It was unreal.

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The Sandyport beach

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Piña colada, anyone?

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The view outside our door.

Lunch on our patio

Lunch on our patio

After the first week of major exploring mixed into beach days, we felt like we had seen a lot and could easily relax. It didn’t stop me from joining a group of folks from our Air BnB and head to karaoke one night, nor did it stop us from checking out the local Fish Fry street of restaurants, where we had the most delicious grouper, fantastic cracked conch, classic baked macaroni and amazing jerk chicken and pork (though not all at the same time). We went to Twin Brothers fish fry restaurant and tried their ‘world famous’ daiquiris, and let’s just say we went back for those more than once….

With Maria and Katrin!

With Maria and Katrin!

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this was the second time…. or was it the third? mmmmm… strawberry and pina colada daquiris …… 🙂

Derek picked us up the second Saturday and took us to see the Junkanoo Parade down by Atlantis and it was so much fun!! It’s a small sample of the kind of music and costumes and dancing they do twice a year in the Bahamas, where hundreds of musicians parade through the streets for hours twice a year: on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Tubas, trumpets, drums, and cowbells thundered through the streets and you couldn’t help but dance along. Great photo opportunity!

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We made it into Nassau a couple of times, and were thrilled to discover the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas and some of the strongest and thought-provoking social art I have ever seen. (No photos from inside the gallery, of course.)

The most beautiful old house converted into a gallery.

The most beautiful old house converted into a gallery.

The statue of a Junkanoo costume outside

The statue of a Junkanoo costume outside

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Some pieces for sale in the gift shop.

 

We also visited the Graycliffe Hotel, the oldest hotel on the island. It was grand and decadent, and the garden and pools were beautiful. We also tried a couple of handmade treats at the chocolate shop there.

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The larger pool with hand painted tiles

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Posing by the pool, of course. 🙂

Our last few days included dinner at The Poop Deck, where we had the most incredible seafood dinner, another visit to the Conch restaurant but this time for a tropical salad and conch fritters, and several batches of piña colada with the best coconut rum I have ever tasted.

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Spiny lobster: WAY more expensive than Maritime lobster, and no claws… but very very flavourful!

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this way…

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Our view at dinner

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Dressed up with somewhere to go! My beautiful Mama!

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I caught the sunrise our final morning and felt like I had stumbled upon a secret beach. I made sure to walk along the water’s edge so my footprints would be washed away when I left and the next person to arrive would feel like I did.

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We packed up our luggage, enjoyed French toast at the breakfast bar by the pool, and then made one last piña colada blend and headed to the beach for the last few hours. To dry off we were happy to swing in the resort hammocks and dream of coming back.

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No final morning beach time is complete without one last batch of pina coladas with Bahamian Coconut Rum!

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Already dreaming.

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A bientôt, Bahamas, a bientôt.