You Tarzan, Me Julie: Vieques, Puerto Rico.

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View from El Malecón boardwalk in Esperanza (Vieques)

For many, many months now, I have been avoiding writing about my trip to Vieques.  It was such a disappointing and prescient journey that I have almost become superstitious about it, as if just writing about the trip might bring on another stroke of bad luck (or at the very least, a torrential downpour).

I’ve realized that this post just doesn’t want to be about the tropical getaway I was trying to plan. It wants to be about plane crashes and the desolate, disturbing things you realize when your life flashes before your eyes. Now trending: near-death experiences and natural disasters! Tag this one with #bad #timing and #black #clouds.

Last spring was grey, inside and out. On the outside, winter had left a trail of bleak, skeletal trees and, sort of like my sister’s cancer, the snow and rain felt like they were just never going to go away. On the inside, I was nervously orbiting around a number of difficult decisions, jumping from A to Z and back to B without being able to connect a single dot. Everything was so heavy, and the snow that fell on Montreal in April was the last straw. I needed to go stare at the ocean. More than that, I needed some sunshine.

Given my mind frame, I was immediately (and perhaps overly) receptive when one of those ‘world’s greatest vacation spots’ emails hit my inbox. Had you asked me prior to receiving said email where the island of Vieques was, I wouldn’t have had a clue. But this is one of those stories about how life takes you somewhere that you never expected to go. It’s the story of how a moment presents itself, and you decide to dive in to that deep, sinking feeling, because for some reason, you have to see it through.

The five words that sold me on Vieques were: “the world’s largest bioluminescent bay.” Who doesn’t want to see magical, glowing creatures underwater?  I Googled further. When I came across Hix Island House, I thought I had found the perfect place to start my Puerto Rico journey. Built by Canadian architect John Hix, the open-air eco lodge prides itself on blending seamlessly with nature, but after reading multiple reviews, I deduced that the lack of window screens was going to be a bit too open-concept for my taste. As you can see, I had no choice: it was either sleep with horrifying, tropical bugs, or splurge on a wildly extravagant beach spa retreat at The W Vieques. The W it was.

There are only two ways to get to the island of Vieques: by ferry or by six-seater plane. Always a fan of efficiency, I opted for the latter, not realizing until the propellers were literally blowing wisps of hair across my face just how intimate the plane ride would be. Prior to takeoff, passengers and luggage were carefully weighed and strategically placed to balance out the rickety, car-sized aircraft.

The pilot revved the engine, fiddled with a handful of knobs, and without announcement, pomp or circumstance, suddenly we were seven people in the belly of a metal bird barreling at breakneck speed down the runway. Wind whipped through the cabin’s open windows and as we gained speed I realized that I was actually going to be flying. As in, there was nothing between me and the sky except for a weathered seatbelt.

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Twenty long, white-knuckled minutes later, the turquoise shores of Vieques rolled into sight and soon after that, we had landed at the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. The airport consisted of three areas: a small outdoor bar, an indoor waiting area which contained no more than twenty folding chairs, and the W Hotel’s conspicuously glossy, new welcome lounge.

The island of Vieques is still very much a work in progress, and as locals often explain (unapologetically), progress moves slowly here. One of a group of islands known as the Spanish Virgins, Vieques (pronounced vee-ay-kiss) lies 8 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, and it served primarily as a bombing test site for the US Navy from 1940-2003. The island has since been triumphantly reclaimed by its citizens and has been designated as a national wildlife refuge. Despite its growing tourism business, the island’s lush, jungle terrain remains largely untouched and is therefore impossible to navigate without a four-wheeler. The island struggles to keep up with the demand from tourists for rental cars, and wild horses still rule, with the equestrian population of 10,000 slightly surpassing the number of humans who live there.

Unspoiled, private beaches are the main tourist attraction, but as one local tour operator, Kiani Tours, openly admitted, the island is still lacking in many basic amenities, all of which are difficult or costly to transport from the mainland. The two towns on the island, Esperanza and Isabel Segunda (commonly known as Isabel II), are relatively undeveloped with a limited selection of food and entertainment (unless watching roosters fight to the death is your idea of fun?).

The W hotel, I’m repeatedly told by locals, is a warmly welcomed newcomer on the scene, and the boutique chain has nicely capitalized on the sleepy, tropical atmosphere along the coastline. The W’s lush, bohemian décor was perfectly designed for doing nothing but lounging from morning until night with cocktail(s) in hand(s). Dare I say that this is the kind of place where someone who normally hates sweet, fruity drinks and hard liquor might find herself in a wicker cabana blissfully sipping a pineapple Malibu, and momentarily forgiving the fact that the male hotel staff appear to be wearing lavender-coloured contact lenses.

This is the kind of place where an otherwise semi-conservative woman might shower outdoors, be kissed by a wild horse while napping on a hammock, or even find herself lying shamelessly topless on the “adults only” beach just for a little excitement.

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Easy breezy does it at the W Vieques.

My “Fabulous Ocean Front Escape” deserved its name: the hotel room was truly spectacular. I especially enjoyed the sexy bathtub nestled behind a driftwood screen at the foot of the bed with a red, shaggy lampshade swinging above it. The sound of waves outside my window drowned out the television set, and better yet, the incoming text messages and calls from my work colleagues. Sometimes Mother Nature beautifully dictates what you should and should not be doing.

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico really does know how to put the rain in rainforest.  From the soggy outdoor yoga classes each morning, to the complimentary cocktails by the fizzling, rain-drenched fire at sunset; the hotel was constantly battling the elements in their attempt to provide guests with a slice of paradise.

Visiting in March, I had apparently avoided hurricane season (which runs from June to November), but the bouts of extreme heat interspersed with heavy storms did not make for easy sightseeing or swimming. I was heartbroken to miss out on the W pool’s underwater sound system, but swimming and lightning bolts just don’t mix, even when there aren’t wires running along the deck.

I waited out the inclement weather at the hotel’s ‘Away Spa’ where I was treated to an enjoyable massage, and a rigorous pedicure. The treatments themselves were definitely not amongst the best I’ve had, but the sheets were so soft I could barely wait for the masseuse to get his hands off me so I could check under the massage table to see what brand they were. Comphy Co., you are doing something very, very right.

The hotel food, on the other hand, was very wrong, and with no other restaurants or shops nearby, there was no choice but to eat the paltry yet pricy fare. You don’t expect to get sick in a hotel like this, but man did I ever, with the kind of illness that has you deliriously praying to Gods you didn’t even think you believed in while draped over the toilet bowl. Thankfully that storm also passed, as storms do eventually pass.

On the second day of my trip, I tried to venture out for groceries, which turned out to be one in a long list of fool’s errands that I was seemingly on. I rented a bike and planned to do some shopping in the nearby town of Isabel Segunda, but instead ended up panting by the side of the road under the blistering sun before I was even halfway there. Where’s the rain now?

I cursed, pushing the bike pedals harder, until I was so far ahead of myself I couldn’t quite tell what I was trying to prove. After tackling a couple of short hills, my lungs burned and my chest began to cramp. I got off the bike and started to walk, my shins baking against the hot ground. Nobody was in sight in either direction save for an iguana creeping slowly across the road, and even he looked hot.

I walked for a few minutes, considering crying, until my oasis came into sight: “Isla Nena Cash & Carry”. I locked my bike to a scorching, chain metal fence outside, and staggered in an overheated stupor towards the door.

“Not easy being on vacation, huh?” said a brown, wrinkly man sitting on a bench outside, his face dripping sweat. “I’m from Canada,” I huffed, by way of explanation, my cheeks searing.

Inside, I moved unsteadily towards the fridge, scooped up two bottles of water and pressed their coolness against my wrists, forehead, and neck. At the cash register, I swooned, everything becoming a sweaty, hot fuzz behind my steamed glasses. “Do you mind if I stay here for a few minutes?” I asked the owner, already worrying about how I would get back to the hotel. “I need to cool down before I get back on my bike.”

“Stay as long as you like,” he said. “My name is Baby.” And then Baby, a gigantic, bald man, escorted me to his immaculate, air-conditioned wine cellar where I sat with his wife, Anita, until I cooled off. Anita explained that locals don’t normally venture out under the noontime sun because it’s much too hot at that time of day. She told me about how just the day before, a cyclist had thrown himself down on their cement floor, face first, dehydrated, and how they had dumped gallons of water on his body to “bring him back to life”.

When she offered me a lift back to the hotel, I graciously accepted, and felt a little less embarrassed when she told me I was the third tourist that day she had chauffeured the very short distance. She was kind enough to drop me a few meters from the bike rental stand so I would be spared the mortifying task of explaining to the young, sporty guys at the bike rental counter why I was getting dropped off in an SUV less than an hour after leaving for my self-guided “bike adventure tour”.

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Red Beach

When I returned to the hotel, the café staff packed me a picnic (W service at its finest) and I decided to try another outing, this time by car, to Red Beach. I had been told that this was by far the best beach on the island and I’d say that was an accurate assessment because this beach was absolutely perfect in every way. It was quiet, with soft sand, and warm, clear water. If only it hadn’t started to rain five minutes after I arrived…

Thankfully, there were some straw beach huts along the boardwalk so I ran to a nearby shelter and decided to read for a while until the rain cleared up. I had just opened my book when a couple of friendly girls approached to ask if they could share my dry spot. I said yes, and the next thing I knew, my little tiki hut was bursting at the seams with twelve rowdy tourists from Argentina, including one particularly hairy, jovial guy named “Captain” who seemed to be leading the entire pack.

They shared their sandwiches, beer, and stories with me until the sun came back out, and as soon as it did, we made our way back into the water to play some Frisbee. To be more specific, they threw a Frisbee towards me and I failed to catch it because, a) my feet could barely touch the ocean’s bottom, and b) I was genuinely distracted by the line of firm, tanned bodies and sparkling green eyes spread out before me. People in Quebec don’t look like that. Blame the poutine?

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400-year-old ceiba tree.

On the way back to the hotel, I visited the island’s famous Ceiba tree. Its 400-year-old roots stood twice as tall as me, and as my local guide explained, its massive branches would spontaneously sprout large, brown pods every few years that felt exactly like “the backs of fuzzy puppies”. Tragically, those were not in season during my visit.

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The world’s smallest aquarium (Esperanza).

I also made my way to the town of Esperanza in search of the world’s smallest aquarium. I had read online that it hosted a collection of baby sea creatures, and I sure do like small things! Much to my disappointment, there were no baby fish, no baby octopuses, and in fact, there was no baby anything. The “Museo de Esperanza”, which is part of the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, contained precisely one pile of broken seashells and two fish tanks. One tank had a starfish in it, and the other one was empty.

No fuzzy puppy pods, and no baby sea creatures. I consciously lowered my expectations about the bioluminescent bay tour I had been looking forward to all week.

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Clouds roll in, El Malecón boardwalk in Esperanza (Vieques)

While I was exploring the Esperanza boardwalk it started to pour, so I ducked into a restaurant called Bili for shelter. I was very pleasantly surprised when they created a special vegetarian wrap for me containing fresh vegetables and homemade hummus. It was by far the best thing I’d eaten all week, and the sensory experience was further heightened by a couple of guys dragging a net full of live lobsters through the restaurant as I ate. Fresh.

With my hunger finally satiated, I set off happily for the bioluminescent bay tour. It started in a deserted parking lot, where I stood marinating in a haze of citronella oil and drizzle along with twenty other tourists as we waited for the arrival of a rusty, old van. When it pulled up, we wedged ourselves in, like slimy sardines in a tin, and made our way slowly over the bumpy back roads towards the shore of the bay.

The bay, aptly named “Puerto Mosquito” won a Guinness World record in 2008 for being the brightest bio bay in the world (at this writing, there are only 12 known.) Although there has been only one shark attack in over 80 years, that single incident was enough to inspire a permanent ban on swimming in the bay. Sharks can’t bite you while you’re in a kayak though, right?

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I was assured by the tour operator that the outing would be very safe, and suitable for even the very unfit. I was greatly comforted to see that a small French boy, not more than five years old, was coming along for the ride with his parents. If he could do it, so could I.

As we waited on the shore for our kayaks to arrive, we were swarmed by flocks of giant, hungry mosquitoes. I decided to distract myself by speaking in French to the five-year-old boy, Émile, and letting him play with my Star Walk astronomy app. Did somebody say roaming charges?

Together we marvelled at the tiny screen, its glow out of place in this deep wilderness, and watched real-time constellations and planets shifting above our heads. This exercise formed a lasting bond, and later, when our boats drifted apart in the dark, his tender voice called out for me as if he could sense my fear, “Mon amie! Mon amie!”

Our tour guide Jeffrey also seemed to notice my apprehension, and offered for me to join him in his boat rather than heading out onto the bay on my own. I accepted his invitation, gladly, and his plastic kayak rocked unsteadily as I stepped in. My shoes filled with water, and my ass immediately began soaking up dampness from the passenger’s seat. Unbothered by this display of ineptitude, Jeffrey pushed off the shore, his strong arms carrying us out, far and fast, into the middle of the blackness. With each stroke, his oars painted shimmering blue lines behind us that faded quickly like shooting stars.

I’m afraid to be in a big, black lake at night, I realize. But I keep on breathing.

As he paddles us out, Jeffrey explains that there are hundreds of thousands of tiny dinoflagellates or “dinos” in the water which produce bursts of bright white light when they come into contact with other organisms. His storytelling calms me, and I allow my fingers to trail along the edge of the boat in the water’s warm ripples, creating glowing blue wakes in their paths. No sharks. No sharks.

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Bioluminescent bay. Image: Doug Perrine.

It begins to rain, gently, and as the large drops break the water’s surface they create splashes of electric blue light around us. It’s profoundly beautiful, and Jeffrey is humming and paddling rhythmically, as we go farther out, until my fear of getting lost out here – in the middle of nowhere – almost disappears. I feel so grateful for this precious moment; floating inside a small, wet pocket of outer space on earth.

“When will we get to see the glowing stuff?” A drunk tourist breaks the silence.

“It’s all around you, man,” Jeffrey replies, and the two of us laugh. The subtlety of it all is lost on some.

Is that sparkle beneath the surface science? Magic? Or just the glowing remnants of the bombs they’ve been setting off here for sixty-five years? I don’t know, exactly, but there is definitely something about life and death you can learn in the middle of that lake.

That feeling stayed with me the next morning as I boarded another six-seater plane to return to San Juan. As it turns out, there’s a reason why Puerto Ricans start clapping whenever a plane lands.

Even in good weather, it feels pretty wild and vulnerable to sit so close to the cockpit, with the wind in your hair and a thin veneer of plastic between you and the clouds. So it’s not too surprising that six, tanned tourists went silent and clammy with fear when the front window of our minuscule plane smashed into a sheet of water and dipped violently as we attempted to navigate blindly through a white, wet wall.

It hadn’t even been minutes since we’d taken off when we heard that gut-wrenching crack – lightning – followed by the fizzling, eerie din of what were previously glowing lights on the plane’s control panel as they turned to black.  The plane tipped sideways, and the horizon became a diagonal line. Engine failure,” I heard a voice say.

I’m going to be sick, I thought; and a terror I have never before known swept over me, followed by a weird, floating calm. My ears rang, sounds softened, time slowed, and then I thought the same thing everyone else on the plane was probably thinking: Are we going to die?

I ran my fingertip along the beige, plastic windowsill as I thought of my dog’s wagging tail, and how I wanted to see it again. I thought of the people who loved and needed me. What they would say at my funeral.

I felt a strong urge to hold someone’s hand, and just as that thought crossed my mind, the woman in the front seat reached back and clasped her husband’s hand tightly, her eyes rimming with tears. They hadn’t been seated together in order to balance out the weight.

I swallowed, my mouth dry with fear, looking out the window into a grey waterfall of blindness. The plane lurched, rain pelting against my window hard.  I can’t die right now, I thought. And all of the things left unsaid created a deep well of sadness inside me. It was sadness, though, and not regret. That difference felt important to me.

The plane rattled, turning further on its side. “I’m going to need your other hand,” I said to the stranger sitting next to me. He immediately obliged, letting go of his wife’s hand and taking mine. “No, your other hand,” I said, annoyed that he had put all three of us in such an awkward position.

And then suddenly, in that bumbling, desperate moment, while we were all thinking those deep, morose thoughts, we blasted out of the stormy abyss into blue, piercing sunlight and landed safely in San Juan.

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Anam Spa, San Juan.

By the time my feet reached the ground, I was ready for home. Ready for death, and ready for bed. All of the above.

I didn’t feel like sightseeing so all I have to say about San Juan is that they invented the piña colada. Also, across from Parc Palomas, you will find a Vietnamese spa called Anam where they serve free sangria, 2 for $5 beers, and offer massages for $1 per minute. While it may not be heaven on earth, I would say it’s as good a place as any to sit and look for the silver lining after a long, hard fall.

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You Have Five Minutes To Smell The Flowers: The United Kingdom

Photo by Amanda Kelly

Chance

My recent trip to the UK left me thinking a lot about time.  How it moves, how our feelings move it, how it can be slow or fast, sometimes both at once.

Einstein once wrote: “the separation between past, present and future is only an illusion”.  If that’s true, that might explain why it’s so difficult to live in the present moment and find our footing in “the now” without worrying about what comes next or forgetting what has happened before.  It’s a bit tricky to seize the day when time is so pliable and elusive.

Something tells me that Einstein was thinking more about scientific facts than he was about spiritual growth when he came up with the theory of relativity.  One fact that I know to be true is this: we can’t erase the past, and we can’t access tomorrow, so it seems to me that we have no choice but to put one foot before the other and be as real and good in the present moment as we possibly can.  Of course there is interconnectedness between then and now, but everything other than this moment right here is a black hole that you can’t quite touch.

Even so, I love trying to bend time in my favour.  My second favourite thing about the UK is getting a 5-hour leg up on everyone in North America.  You wake up fresh, tackle the important stuff, and right around the time that your productivity is waning and the Pimm’s starts calling, those lazy sloths over in the West are just wiping the sleep from their eyes.  From a competitive standpoint, they seem so far behind, and that is so satisfying!  From an efficiency standpoint, absolutely nothing could be more valuable than having those five glorious, uninterrupted hours.

You can gain that kind of head start relatively easily, by getting on a plane and catapulting yourself through the air five hours into the future (the closest thing to time traveling we will likely ever experience).  Be careful though because somehow in the process of crossing the Atlantic, I travelled out of a scorching heat wave and landed right in the middle of sweater weather.  Here’s another universal law: whenever I pack cardigans I need more sundresses, and whenever I pack sundresses I need more cardigans.  It never fails.

Alas, welcome to cold and rainy Poundstock, Cornwall, where one can definitely never have enough sweaters (or leg warmers for that matter).  I counted and the population (including the friends I was visiting) is officially 8, one of which is a horse and one of which is a donkey.  Their names are Nemo (short for Geronimo), and Chance.

This place is quiet; it may in fact define rural.  The house where I am staying is nestled so deeply into the green hills that life seems to pause with each sip of tea, and the stone clock perched on the kitchen windowsill is the only obvious indication of forward motion.  I find myself checking it often, just to orient myself.

After a couple of days, my pulse has slowed to match the pace of the grey clouds passing overhead.  I am swallowed whole by the vast quietude, disappearing into the damp, windy pocket of the seaside.  The old house once served as the town’s chapel, and there are still remnants of its earlier purpose to be found, including a cemetery in the back yard.

From under a heated blanket, I pass time by counting the gravestones outside my bedroom window.  How long have they been gone?  Who was their one true love?  More importantly, where are the people who left those flowers?  I didn’t see anyone come by.

Given my hankering for recreational divination, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that I was only four miles north of Bude, where the artist Pamela Colman Smith is buried.  Smith is half of the team who created the world’s most famous and widely referenced tarot card deck (the Waite-Smith tarot) in the early 1900’s.

In Smith’s honour, I pulled a few cards from my travel-sized tarot deck while I was in Cornwall.  My own reading had a very clear and unmistakable message: “NOT YET”.

Southwark

I had a number of opportunities to practice patience on this journey.  One day, my hosts and I packed a picnic basket and walked to Millook beach and this was, to be sure, the longest walk I have ever taken in my life.  Thankfully, I had ample warning of the magnitude of this trek so I was mentally prepared for the five-hour hike.

We crossed endless fields, picking blackberries and passing no one along the way, except for a crusty, old man who bristled past us quickly with his walking stick.  We continued on for miles, chasing the distant glint of blue on the horizon as my companions and I became tiny specks in the rolling countryside.

At the halfway point, we stopped and devoured an entire lemon drizzle cheesecake, stuffing every morsel of yellow and white cream into our mouths with our hands.  Clearly we were now at one with nature; connecting to our wild, animal roots.

We crossed a small wooden bridge, and followed a trickling stream along a shady path that led us to the water’s edge.  When we finally arrived, a heavy wind bullied us back from the massive waves that were thrashing against the rocky shoreline.  We took shelter near a lone, dilapidated boat, shouting inaudible words at each other as our voices disappeared into the salty, howling air.  We huddled there for a few minutes before turning around and heading back towards home.

On another day, we ventured into Padstow, a sleepy fishing village on Cornwall’s northern coast.  The cobbled streets were lined with gourmet ice cream, tea, and confectionary shops intermingling with an array of touristy wares and handmade crafts.  After indulging in some white chocolate Malteser ice cream and trading in our pence for some tiny trinkets, we escaped the sudden downpour by ducking into a cavernous pub where we passed the rest of the evening doodling and philosophizing over plates of fish and chips.

I was hurtled out of this slow, easy world via speeding train into the frenetic activity bubbling over London’s Paddington station.  It almost seems as if Big Ben’s ominous presence casts a spell over all of London, making the city restless and hungry for swift and steady progress.

Having lived in Montréal for most of my adult life, a city where leisure is highly revered, I guess I am used to being surrounded by people with a more laissez-faire attitude.  Unfortunately, this attitude can sometimes manifest itself in the form of unruly facial hair, cycling to pick up a baguette with a baby in your bike basket, or spending an entire Sunday sitting in the park listening to an amateur hand-drumming circle.

Granted, I did arrive in the wake of the recent UK riots, and a recession, but there does seem to be a heaviness that hangs over the heads of many Londoners that is impossible for someone from my background not to notice.  I have not yet decided if my overt positivity stems from my cultural upbringing, or if it is simply part of my genetic makeup.  Optimism is definitely a very Blake trait.  I used the word Blakeness recently as an adjective to describe the unstoppable perseverance and twinkle that exists in all of the members of my family clan.

I’m not judging English stoicism harshly here.  Brits have a slightly less emotional and more realistic approach to life that in some ways I really admire.  We could even say that Londoners are highly evolved because they are capable of living with an intense focus on the demands of the present moment (or millisecond).  I just find myself wondering if anyone ever really stops.  Do they ever make time to lie in the grass and do nothing but dream?  If they do, how long will they allow themselves to lie there before they are overcome with the fear of missing something important or being left behind?

I did not lie around in the grass in London, or buy any heart-shaped rocks (but that was just because my suitcase was full).  I didn’t want to feel or look like a tourist so I took a cue from the locals and busied myself immediately upon my arrival.

First I checked into the stunning 3000 square foot loft near London Bridge where I had the amazingly good fortune of staying.  The crown jewel of this loft is its rooftop hot tub where you can soak up spectacular views of three of London’s architectural highlights: The London Shard, Tower Bridge, and The Gherkin.

I took a short walk along the Thames in and around Southwark, exploring the delicacies at Borough Market, and then made my way to the Urban Physic Garden.

The Physic Garden

The truth is, I went to see this living art installation partially by accident because I thought it was called the psychic gardenAfter visiting, I still think that would have been a much more appropriate name for it.

When I arrived at the garden, I entered tentatively, mainly because it was very weird, and also because I felt like I was trespassing on some sort of hippie cult’s private gathering place. To my right, some longhaired folk were playing ping-pong amidst a slapdash collection of potted herbs and plants.  To the left, people were gathered around a picnic table drinking herbal tea next to a rusty, deserted ambulance (“The Rambulance” aka “Rambling Restaurant”).

Collections of wild, renegade plants were grouped together into “wards” based on their medicinal properties and the specific types of ailments they could cure.  I spent some time studying the plants in the cardiology ward, and then left rather abruptly after passing a sinister looking row of poisonous plants, which I thought emitted a spooky, evil vibe.  They were profoundly creepy and you’ll have to take my word on that because the garden was open for a very limited time only.

I finished my walkabout with dinner at Village East, a trendy restaurant in Bermondsey.  While it may be the perfect place to host a 25th birthday party for hipsters, it is not perhaps the most appropriate place to sit alone reading Michel de Montaigne’s essays on solitude.  I decided to finish my reading elsewhere…back at the loft in the rooftop jacuzzi.

It always amazes me how easily I can slip into a joyous state of calm anywhere in the world, even in the most unlikely scenarios: all I need is a glass of wine and a hot tub.  Throw in some of The Sanctuary’s sandalwood vanilla body butter and I am really on my way to heaven.

It was four years ago that I first discovered this delightful cream, and I will never forget the bliss that overcame me in that Boots drugstore when I took off the cap and inhaled its spicy, sultry scent.  To this day, I am literally overcome with happiness and excitement each time I apply it (and don’t even get me started on the Sanctuary’s hot sugar scrub).

Sanctuary’s products have earned a coveted place on my “favourite things I can only find in the UK” list, and are in very good company alongside: Waitrose’s Rhubarb Champagne Yogurt, Kettle brand’s Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar Crisps, and Boots’ Moisturizing Nail Polish Remover Pads.  The UK has some superior commercial goods, and they know how to sell them to you; this cannot be denied.

I wanted to go straight to the source of my greatest pleasure and see where the body butter magic happens, so I booked myself an appointment at The Sanctuary spa in Covent Garden.  The staff at Sanctuary (a women’s only spa) did have a few good tricks up the flowing sleeves of their blue kimono tops.  First of all, the massage therapist asked me if I wanted to wear any “paper knickers” during my massage, or if I’d prefer to take off my “swimming costume”.  Um, sorry, does that mean get dressed, or undressed, or are we getting ready to do a puppet show with dolls made out of paper?

This masseuse had some intensely good moves; maybe that’s why she thought she could get away with a “less is more” approach.  I am a huge advocate of efficiency and I like to apply it with force in pretty much all areas of my life, but not when I’m having a relaxation massage.

I swear, the oil on my back was just starting to warm up under her hands when she suddenly turned off the pan-flute solo midway through and said “all done”.  Not yet, I thought.  NOT YET.   I’ve never even seen a twenty-minute massage on a spa menu before.  Is that even enough time to lie down?

Another thing about this spa: there are no cold dunk pools.  Yes, there were saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and two full-sized swimming pools on the premises (one body temperature, and the other cooler, for exercising), but what I really yearned for was a freezing cold, ice water pool.  After spending time in a sauna or steam room, a cold shower just doesn’t cut it.  Remember, Canadians are like polar bears.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sanctuary is a veritable oasis of peaceful calm spread over five floors, and the spa definitely earns its name.  Virtually no sound penetrates the soaring white archways, save for the gentle swish of vines swaying from the sky-high ceilings, or the faint ripple of majestic, white fish gliding across a pool past euphoric women swathed in towels and robes.

I find this kind of quiet much more comforting somehow than being deep in the countryside.  I think it’s because I know that noise does exist just outside the walls and that I am actively choosing to escape from it.  I am lavishly content to escape on this particular Monday afternoon, sipping tea amongst a handful of serene, silent strangers.

I finish the day with a visit to the Sanctuary’s signature “Sleep Retreat Beds”, where I am told that in just thirty minutes, I will experience a total body revitalization similar to getting a good night’s sleep.  The sleep retreat beds vibrate the skin using low frequency sound waves that resonate in harmony with the body’s cells, coaxing the body into total relaxation.

Five women are lying in a row, silent, and as the beds start to hum, a woman’s soothing voice emerges from the darkness to guide us.  She asks us to leave our cares behind as we enter a garden, and to watch the clouds pass by overhead.  She describes the garden, the sound of a fountain, and the feeling of the soft, green grass under foot.  Someone in the room begins snoring, and my meditation is disrupted for a brief moment while I marvel at how anyone could fall asleep so quickly.  Out of curiosity, I press a few buttons on the bed’s remote control to see what will happen, but it just keeps whirring at a steady, languid pace, lightly rocking my legs side to side.

I close my eyes and go back into the garden.  I can feel the sunshine on my face, and I am just starting to make out shapes in the clouds, when I hear our guide say, “Now, prepare to leave the garden”.  Am I the only one laughing, because surely this lady has to be kidding, right?  She may as well have said, “Come to the garden and relax deeply, you have five minutes to smell the flowers.”  Couldn’t I stay a little longer?  I think I was just about to get somewhere good.

Before I know it, I find myself folding time as I traverse the ocean, hours and days turning back and the dark sky changing to light.  Part of me is neither here nor there, and I feel as though I exist in a temporal void between then and now.  As I crawl into bed the blurry edges of my jet lag close around me and I wonder how it can feel both like I have been gone too long and like I left too soon.

New York, New York: The Land Of Milk & Roses

Fireworks Over Williamsburg Bridge

A few years ago, I decided that Sundays were going to be a day free of rules, with one exception: that I could not work.  On Sundays, I do whatever I want, eat whatever I want, and blow off any and all responsibilities I don’t feel like dealing with.  This generally means that on Sundays I am found surrounded by pillows, reading and drinking tea (or wine) in some beach-y, stretchy clothing with my dog napping on my lap.

In my mind, a vacation should feel like one really long Sunday.  It absolutely has to be characterized by quiet, delicious lazing around (even better if it involves a pool or beach) or else I end up feeling robbed of my hard-earned right to relax.  The problem is that when you’ve invested money and time to transport yourself somewhere, you feel obliged to, um, see and do things.

I need to solve this dilemma once and for all and buy myself a beach house in the middle of nowhere so there is nothing to see but the sunset and nothing to do but read, eat, swim or nap.

The fact of the matter is that I had specifically chosen a sweltering, urban landscape as the backdrop for a summer getaway, so damn it, I was going to get spiritual and use this as an opportunity to find my sense of inner peace.  It was a good challenge.

Whereas being in nature is naturally rejuvenating, navigating the complex, cramped subway system in New York while choking back the smell of sweat wafting on waves of 30-degree air is not.  The whole city smelled like four-day-old Big Macs rotting in garbage bins.

I wanted to find something to do that was uniquely New York, but still kind of relaxing.  Where could I sit and do nothing, yet still take the city’s energy in?

I gave Blue Note jazz club a whirl, but the mirrors and décor were far more “cheap resort” than “world renowned jazz club”.  I have been known to get on board with shabby chic when it’s done right, but this place was an outright tourist trap.  My advice: don’t order any food, or many drinks – both were terrible and disgustingly overpriced.  We probably would have considered the $35 tickets a rip off as well were it not for the surprise appearance of flautist Dave Valentin.  Never before have I seen anyone so desperately in need of being in the spotlight; he twitched and scuttled from side to side uncomfortably whenever the audience’s focus shifted away from him for even a moment.  You forgave him for being so needy though because he was really good.  I have now seen two woodwind shows in one month (I also saw a solo gig by saxophonist Colin Stetson recently), so I may be evolving into someone with sophisticated musical taste.

I am ashamed to say that I missed Canada Day celebrations for the first time in my life, but I guess I made up for it (sort of) by participating in a sparkling and festive rooftop 4th of July party.   If only there had been a little less blue mixed in with the red and white…

I was hoping to design a relaxing picnic plus fireworks experience, but I soon discovered that there is no such thing in Manhattan on 4th of July weekend.  All of the green spaces along the water were closed thanks to the citywide Americana and holiday hubbub.  I had tried to scout out some nature in the form of a “lake” in Prospect Park a couple of days earlier, but after spending hours trying to manoeuvre the stuffy, cramped subway, I stood in pained disappointment before a cesspool of fleshy, floating garbage lapping against gravel and tar.  All I could think was, we’re not in Canada anymore, Toto.

Blessed am I that I have friends of friends with a rooftop patio right on Broadway in the heart of Williamsburg.  From there, we could see not only Macy’s dazzling array of 40,000 fireworks, but also the other smaller fireworks displays crackling on the horizon above Brooklyn and Queens.  It was a truly magical night, and I left with a newfound appreciation for all of the possibilities a city like New York offers.  The glittering skyline was endless, unapologetic, and triumphant.  On that particular evening, it seemed to be daring me to achieve something equally huge and magnificent.

But first, let’s get back to delicious, cozy lazing about.

Milk & Roses

One of places where I felt most at home was Milk & Roses café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (look for the unforgettable tuba hanging outside).  The walls behind the bar are lined with books and fine wine, and the café’s centerpiece is a well-loved grand piano.  After spending a couple of afternoons there, I realized that perhaps I felt so at home because this place felt strangely similar to my living room.

The café was opened just over a year ago by a husband and wife team (Tommaso Mazzoni and Helena Yelovich, from Italy and Pennsylvania, respectively) who met on a New York subway train.  The design-savvy pair transformed what was once a dingy kitchenette into a whimsical, lavender-scented library bar complete with a lantern-lit garden (where you will even find outlets for your laptop).  It’s true: there was once a rule posted on the door that laptops were not allowed after dark, but owner Tommaso has given in to the pleading eyes of creative work-at-homers like me who couldn’t possibly find a better place in the city to attempt productivity in public.  When I ask him about the missing notice about the laptop ban (which I had seen on a visit there last year) he throws his hands up and says, “Do as you please, and God bless you!”  For Tommaso, the café has always been about socializing.  Guests who understand this are treated like friends, greeted with his signature Italian hospitality and sometimes, even a little cheese and prosciutto.

Speaking of edibles, there are two other tasty treats in Brooklyn that should not be missed.  First off, the Peruvian chicken with flaming green chili sauce at Pio Pio Riko (it was so good, I actually ate it twice in one week), and secondly, People’s Pops which come in scrumptious flavours like blueberry chai and rhubarb chamomile.  These artisanal popsicles can be found every Saturday at Brooklyn Flea (Fort Greene) and are made with fresh, local fruit.

I didn’t just eat on this trip, I swear.  I tried to explore some historic and literary sights in the city as well, including Dave Eggers inspired writing centre, 826 NYC .  I don’t want to start a sibling rivalry here, but 826 Valencia in San Francisco is way better.  The Brooklyn branch sells “superhero supplies”, but the displays were just a bunch of boxes (you couldn’t see what was inside), whereas 826 Valencia’s pirate supply store was interactive and much more fun to visit.  826 NYC did have a secret passageway leading into the kids’ writing room, though, and a wall of photos of all of their members wearing goofy glasses, which was pretty awesome.

My visit to Library Way was meant to lead me straight to the New York Public Library, but as it turned out, universal forces pulled me on a detour to have my future told by the mystical Julieanna. Aside from answering her cell phone multiple times during our session (which, even given her snazzy crystal collection, made me question her overall cosmic-ness), she was one of the best psychics I have ever met.  She was highly opinionated and specific, which are risky traits for someone trying to appeal to anyone and everyone walking in off East 41st street.

Julianna Palm & Tarot

I  cannot reveal the many wonders that she expressed during my palm and tarot card readings, but I will say that the term “soul mate” was used.  I hope her prediction that my life will be very long is an accurate one, because I will definitely need to go back to New York someday to see more of its many sights.

One important mission in particular remains incomplete: singing Alicia Keys at Papacito’s karaoke night.  We will definitely have to meet again, New York.

Croatia: In Search Of The Sea Organ

The Adriatic Sea

There are times in life when everything feels like hard work.  I had been having one of those years.

By standard measures, I was successful, but my career had grown into a monstrous commitment that was asking more time and energy of me than my friends and family combined.  I may have been winning the rat race, but what I really wanted was to get off the hamster wheel.

I was sitting in the airport when I found my new mantra published in the pages of The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss: there’s more to life than work, and if you’re smart, it shouldn’t take you eight hours a day to get the important stuff done.

I knew this.  I idolize my grandmothers for having never once used a computer, and never once sending an email.  I’m lucky enough to still have one very precious piece of living proof that it is possible to function without the Internet, and she spends half of her time in the garden because she knows how to prioritize. 

I wanted to honour that family wisdom, and shut out the constant cyber-babble infiltrating every corner of my life via mobile device.  I wanted to rid myself of technology’s shackles, to tell time by the heat of the sun, wash away my sense of obligation, and to bury the memory of my eternally overstuffed inbox deep under the sand.

The Adriatic Sea, I decided, was just far enough away from my reality to accomplish all of these goals.  I made a plan to work my way up the Dalmatian coastline, starting at Croatia’s southernmost tip, Dubrovnik, and ending in the capital city, Zagreb.

I first became obsessed with the idea of visiting Croatia after reading an article about The Sea Organ, a large musical instrument on the coast of Zadar that is played by the wind and waves.  The organ, built in 2005 by architect Nikola Bašić, transformed what was once a gloomy stone barricade into a popular gathering place and a living work of art.

Much of Croatia’s beauty exists behind walls and fortresses that were built in response to the relentless attacks on the country’s schools, hospitals and churches during the Second World War.  In addition to the cities, the residents themselves seemed highly guarded to me; smiles and trust were not easy to earn.

I received an inhospitable welcome upon check-in at Hotel Splendid in Dubrovnik where I was greeted by three surly hotel attendants arguing over an envelope full of Kuna.  When I was finally acknowledged, it was by the angry, sour-faced woman who demanded my passport and then disappeared into a small doorway behind the counter.  After a few minutes, I asked one of the men she had been yelling at if I could have my passport back to which he simply replied, “Ne.”  I later discovered that it is typical for hotels in Croatia to keep your passport as collateral until you pay your bill.

One of the men handed me what looked like a small metal bat and pointed down a yellowish hall. Why was the keychain on my room key so ridiculously heavy?  Did they think I was going to lose it?  Steal it?

There was nothing to steal in the room but a crusty wool blanket or a dilapidated lampshade covered in dead flies.  The bed was almost too small for one person, but after a quick inspection of the rest of the hotel and its deserted basement bar, I decided that sleeping was my best option.

Lesson one: don’t arrive at night.  I felt vulnerable leaving the airport with my luggage and getting into a cab with a driver who didn’t speak any English.  I became increasingly uncomfortable during the long, winding journey up the mountainside.  It was impossible to gauge our whereabouts when all I could see out the window was an eerie, endless, black abyss.  It wasn’t until the next morning that I discovered that the emptiness had actually been the sea, hiding under the cover of night.

I awoke to its navy blue splendor, stretching out beyond the field of yellow and white striped sun umbrellas perched behind the hotel.  Across the water, white stone houses with terracotta roofs dotted the mountainside, resting peacefully in the grass like lazy sheep.  There were no skyscrapers, no unsightly billboards or signs, just a few gentle dabs of civilization, seamlessly intertwined with nature.  The view was so beautiful that I went straight out into the early morning air, climbed over the rocky shore, and dove into the water to float under the perfect skyline.

I spent the rest of the day exploring Dubrovnik’s Old Town, starting with a chocolate milk shake at Dubravka 1836.  Run by the same owners as the famous Nautika restaurant (renowned for being the most romantic restaurant in the world) and sitting just across the public square, 1836 boasts the same stunning views of Fort Bokar, a fairy tale castle floating in the middle of an endless sheet of sparkling sea.  Since 1836, the café has been a popular place for literary types to go to write, read the newspaper, and drink coffee, or on Sundays, for families to eat ice cream.

Weekends are viewed as a sacred time for family, and generally speaking, Croatians don’t allow work to interfere with spending time with loved ones. Going out for ice cream (or “sladoled”) on weekends has been a longstanding tradition in Croatia, and there is a dazzling array of delectable flavours and colours to choose from.

You can get a bird’s eye view of the countless vendors and their tasty wares from The Old City Walls.  To walk the city’s entire perimeter costs about $20 and takes about two hours (depending how quickly you can climb the hundreds of stairs.)

The view is definitely worth the hike.  Watching the moving diorama around Onofrio Fountain, I felt as though I was looking right at the heart of Dubrovnik, its beauty safely nestled inside the city walls like a precious photo inside a locket.

Big Onofrio Fountain

George Bernard Shaw once called Dubrovnik “paradise on earth” and indeed, the city is so beautiful it’s hard to imagine ever wanting to leave.  Maybe this is why no one felt it was necessary to offer rail service in or out of the city.

Lesson two: Don’t bother buying a rail pass. Trains in Croatia are unreliable, and rail travel seems to be used only by those tourists who don’t know any better. Bus is by far the quickest and least expensive way to get around.

Taxis are hard to come by, and inconsistently priced (though reliably expensive), and some drivers will take you the long way if you don’t know the route yourself.  I was surprised to find that many drivers did not speak English but understood French, which is often taught as a second language in Croatian schools.

It was impossible to flag down a cab in any language at the Zadar bus station.  After the eight-hour bus ride from Dubrovnik to Zadar via Split, I was beyond eager to get to my hotel, but the only cab that passed by refused to take me to Borik where my hotel was located because it was “too far away.” It turned out I had one more bus ride to go before I would get to my spa paradise.  Luckily it was worth the wait.

When I finally arrived at Hotel Adriana’s breezy yellow entrance, I was greeted with a friendly “Bog” (hi) and a glass of champagne.  I had booked an online special called the “Zadar Kulturist” which included: a transfer into Zadar’s Old Town and access to its museums, three nights in a junior suite, a private breakfast on my spacious balcony overlooking the sea, gourmet five course dinners, unlimited access to Adriana’s private garden pool and world-class Aquapura water spa, and a 60 minute massage followed by a manicure or pedicure.  This was every bit as magnificent as it sounds and an amazing value at less than $500.

Encouraging a ‘more play, less work’ mentality, Internet access came at a premium ($10 an hour or $30 a day), but Adriana had a public computer in the lobby for checking emails for those who couldn’t resist.  The only other things that were not included in the package were lunch and beverages, but that problem was easy to solve with a Konzum grocery store located one block from the hotel.  I stocked the mini fridge in my room with caviar, champagne, Heineken, salami, bread, fruit, and cheese for less than 50 Kuna (approximately $8) and had decadent picnic lunches on the beach every day.

From start to finish, Adriana was the perfect getaway, and I definitely would have stayed longer had they not been fully booked (a common problem during the peak season in Zadar.)   I decided to try their sister property “Club Funimation” which was part of the same Falkensteiner resort complex.

The name should have tipped me off that “fun” was the name of the game here, as opposed to say, relaxing or sleeping.  Funimation was designed for families, and was more like a theme park than a hotel, with kids on water slides and blaring arcade games in the lobby.  It was difficult to believe that I paid more for Funimation’s boring buffet and fizzy, watered down wine from a tap than I had for fresh caught fish, organic vegetables, and Adriana’s blissfully peaceful atmosphere.

Thankfully, the Aquapura spa (which was shared by both properties) provided a lovely escape from the noise.  The spa had a number of sunny, sleep-inducing relaxation areas with couches and waterbeds cocooned behind silky curtains, as well as a Kneipp treading pool, cold plunge pool, aromatic Turkish steam bath, Finnish sauna, and a heated outdoor whirlpool.  The spa also featured a tea lounge where I was ecstatic to discover some “real” herbal tea.  In Croatian, “tea” is a term loosely used to refer to any drink made of boiled water with plant extracts in it.   I’m not sure which extracts exactly are used in their version of black tea (čaj), but it seriously lacks punch.

After a day of much needed soaking, steaming and pampering, my travel weary body was satiated.  I had gone three whole days without checking my email – a personal record – and I was ready to go out in search of the Sea Organ.

From the moment I set foot through its gates, Zadar’s Old Town revealed a seemingly endless stream of delights to me. As I grew closer to the water, my internal compass hummed, and every step was like peeling back the cardboard doors on a Christmas advent calendar.  At every turn, gifts appeared: bedazzled leather slippers ($3 and just my size), a gaggle of children walking their dogs, The Garden’s pillow-covered terrace overlooking the harbour.  It was as though the cobblestone pathways were strewn with small surprises designed specifically to bring me joy.

In my version of the world, joy, connection, and meaning exist in unlikely hiding places and my job in life is to find these things.  So far, whenever I have succeeded in this task, it has been as a result of following my gut instincts. Sometimes I find what I’m looking for, and sometimes I don’t, but I suppose that is all part of the journey.

As I walked along the boardwalk towards the Sea Organ, I began to hear what sounded like the far away yawns of a waking whale.  The glistening blue to my left was beckoning me to jump in, but I continued to walk, mesmerized, towards the source of the soothing, ambient drones like a child under the spell of the Pied Piper’s flute.

I joined the crowd of local kids gathering on the sea organ’s massive white steps, under which hides the complex maze of underwater pipes responsible for the organ’s strange, arrhythmic outpouring of sounds.

The kids began daring each other to jump, and soon there were cannonballs, and tiny, tanned bodies soaring through the air, disappearing into dark blue splashes below.  Their courage inspired me.

I descended onto the bottom step, water lapping at my toes and my skin shivering with anticipation as my feet touched the mossy, slippery surface.  I took a breath and dove into the cold, salty water.  The mountains and people disappeared from view until all that was left was me, pure me, and the surge of frigid, muffled bubbles that enveloped my body, shaking my senses out of their slumber.

When I emerged, a large boat was passing.  In its wake, waves rose and crashed against the sea wall, causing the organ to emit an erratic burst of moans and howls.   The children screamed with glee as they bobbed up and down, all of us scrambling against the powerful current towards the shore.

I climbed up onto the Sea Organ’s steps, finding that most of them were now empty and wet, including the one where I had left my clothes, purse, and towel.  Before I even had time to panic, a man began waving at me, my belongings clutched tightly in his hand.  I approached him, dripping and smiling. “Hvala” I said.  Thank you.

The Sun Salute

I waited for sunset, when the sea organ is reputedly at its loudest, and when crowds gather nightly to witness the Sun Salute’s technicolour light show.  Built by the same architect as the Sea Organ (and just a few feet away), the Sun Salute is a large, round solar panel that collects energy from the sun throughout the day and emits beams of coloured light at night.

True to its promise, the Sun Salute crackled to life as the sun melted into the water, and colours began dancing across the ground in lines of light, pulsing in time with the wave’s rhythm.  While others jumped and clapped with excitement, I stood completely still, in awe of nature. Not since I was a small child have I experienced so much wonder in one day.

Was it the reminder of my carefree youth that prompted my misguided decision to visit a roadside carnival on my last night in Zadar?

When I got to the front of the line for the bumper cars, the attendant pointed to the kids in front of me and asked me which one was mine.  “None of them,” I said, as I stepped past the rope and wedged my legs behind the steering wheel of the tiny car.  I whizzed around the rink, and had only enjoyed one or two neck-rattling mini-collisions before the buzzer sounded.

I had some tokens left so I tried another ride.  It wasn’t long before the memories came flooding back of my dad consoling me on a ferris wheel: “Just look at the horizon,” he had said.  Here I was more than twenty years later, zipping through the air in Zadar, repeating those words to myself over and over as my sweaty, white hands clasped the miniscule metal bar that was somehow defying gravity and holding me in place.  How could I forget?  I have always hated rides.

Live and learn, as they say.  I wish I had finished off my trip in Istria eating gourmet truffles, olives and cheese, but I had already booked my return flight home from Zagreb, hoping that the country’s capital city would have some good scenery to offer.

Unfortunately, if Zadar is the Montréal of Croatia, Zagreb is the Ottawa, and it felt quite stuffy in comparison.  It didn’t help that I went from lying on the beach sun tanning in Zadar one day to walking around getting lost in the rain in Zagreb the next.

Whereas Zadar opened up a world of splendour, Zagreb seemed to shut me out, and I found that many of the shops and cafes I wanted to visit were closed. I wandered around in circles trying to find Škola (a hip bar I had seen listed in the 2009 Croatia Lonely Planet guide) but finally discovered (thanks to some locals) that it was no longer there.

I had better luck with Booksa, a small café/library run by three women writers that also doubles as the home of the Zagreb Literary Association.  As it turned out, the eccentric meeting place for local creative folk also happened to have some earl grey tea!

Sufficiently warmed by a tasty cup, I ventured back into the rain to seek out the famous Dolac market.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived (at 1:30 PM) it was already closing for the day, so I had to settle instead for watching the vendors pack up their carts from the terrace of Kerempuh restaurant.  A local institution, Kerempuh uses the market’s fresh ingredients to make classic Croatian dishes, and was named after a character made famous by Zagreb’s controversial writer Miroslav Krleža.

My waiter did not seem to agree with me that the patio umbrella would provide sufficient protection from the drizzle, and he tried on multiple occasions to urge me inside.  We battled it out, me insisting on sitting where I could watch the dismantling of racks full of painted souvenirs and produce, and him snarling back at me, “why outside?!”

He remained agitated throughout my meal, scurrying to the table and wiping it furiously each time a raindrop made its way onto my calamari or štrukli (dumplings with a brown, gritty sauce.)

Knowing that I was leaving for Canada the following morning, I decided to give him a handful of left over Kuna (about $10 worth.)  It was a generous tip, epecially given the semi-hostile service, but I got the distinct sense that this guy could use a break.  When I handed him the bills and said “keep the change,” his face softened.  First there was astonishment, and then appreciation, followed by a huge, surprising smile.

“Doviđenja,” I said.  See you later.

His parting look was one of pure joy; a big reward, I thought, in exchange for such a small gift.  All I hoped for in return was to remember the feeling of the Adriatic against my skin, to hold on to its deep blue calm, even long after I had returned to my desk.

Twenty-Four Hours In Taipei

Danshui Seaside At Sunset

Within hours of arriving in Taipei, I had shed my fifteen-pound laptop bag, my bulky Canadian sweater, and my fear of public nudity.  It was heavenly.

When you travel twenty-three hours to get somewhere and you only have twenty-four to explore, you want to make the most of it.  There was no time for standing in lines, so I skipped some of the more popular tourist attractions including the Taipei Fine Art Museum  (TFAM) and the city’s signature skyscraper, the “101“, and headed straight for the hot springs in Beitou.  I wanted to immerse myself in the deeper spirit of the city, to soak in 1000-year-old water that had been warmed by the heat of a 200,000-year-old volcano.

People have long recognized the therapeutic properties of natural hot springs, and Taiwan’s hundred plus sites are ranked amongst the best in the world, containing rare minerals that are said to provide a wide variety of health benefits.

With temperatures reaching as high as 200°F, some visitors find the water uncomfortably hot, but there is one place where you can enjoy nature (and naturalism) a little more comfortably.  Nestled behind a stone wall on an otherwise bustling mountainside, only the rising tendrils of mist give away its best kept secret: Villa 32. Located in the Zin (or “new”) Beitou area, this discreet and luxurious spa hotel boasts a mere four rooms for rent, and has cleverly filtered the area’s natural hot springs into eight temperature-controlled pools, each retaining its natural color and unique blend of healing minerals.

While the cost of a private room might scare the average spa-goer away, anyone can enjoy the public hot spring pools (which are divided into men and women’s areas) for $60 USD. The luxurious amenities alone are worth the price of admission.

After shedding the constraints of street clothing, I donned my white robe and sandals and curled up in the reading lounge to savour a cup of delectable TWG Grand Wedding tea.   I then began my first cycle through the eight hot spring pools: four indoor, four outdoor, Azure, Jade, and Crystal, named after their colours.  Some of the baths were hot, some warm, cold, bubbling, still; each had its own unique complexion and combination of calcium, sulfur, sodium and iron.  My skin was soon tingling from the sheer goodness seeping in, minerals from deep within the earth’s core fizzed around my ankles while stress escaped from every pore, and worries lifted from my mind like the steam rising up off my wet shoulders.

I indulged in a very thorough Chinese massage, and then completed another cycle through the hot springs, this time my body even more at ease and ready to receive the benefits of a soak.  When I finally melted into that last pool of milky turquoise water, I decided that paradise was definitely not lost.  In fact, from downtown Taipei, it only takes 45 minutes to get to there, and if you use the city’s excellent high speed train system (MRT) it will cost you $2.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and inexpensive it is to get around in the city: you can take a taxi all the way across town for $20.  Just make sure you have any addresses written down in Chinese because most cab drivers don’t speak English.  The staff at my hotel were happy to help with this, or you can also print the addresses from Chinese web sites.

English travelers will find the MRT very easy to navigate, and many of us could take a lesson from the “waiting lines” where people line up nicely to get on the train as opposed to the rushing and pushing that I’ve experienced just about everywhere else.  As an added bonus, many of the trains run both below and above ground so you can take in some sights along the way.

There is no shortage of things to see: massive green mountains and towering skyscrapers compete for height, palm trees sway over endless rows of tin roofs, and motorcycles whiz past under a flurry of eye-boggling billboards and flashing signs. The city has a mystical way of interweaving chaos with serene calm. But no matter how busy the city seems to be, people always take time out in the afternoon for a cup of tea.

As a great tea lover, I thought I honored my daily cup to a fairly rigorous extent, but my staple method of preparation (dipping a tea bag directly in a mug) is considered near sacrilege in Taipei.  The drinking of tea in Asia is an artful ritual, and there is a meticulous step-by-step process for both the preparation and serving of tea that is carried out with great care.

I began my education at Wisteria Tea House, a charming and homey spot where tea can either be served tatami style (sitting on the floor) or at a traditional table in the cozy interior or outside in the peaceful garden.  The historic tea shop (as seen in Ang Lee’s film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) has an extensive tea menu, and each table is equipped with its own candlelit burner and a clear glass pot so you can watch the water boil.

Wisteria Tea House

I opted for Chrysanthemum tea, a blend of small purple and white flowers,  which I was told is “good for the eyesight.”  The tea had a dense flavour, not unlike chicken broth, and eating the floating buds (which I was instructed to do) took me quite a while.  The waitress and I were equally surprised, I think, when she looked at my empty cup and said, “you’re done already?”

After leaving Wisteria, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a local tea merchant right around the corner, Dignitea Garden. The owner invited me to share several cups of Oolong tea with her in the back of the shop, and had personally picked the leaves only a couple of weeks earlier on her own farm.  She gave me a small packet of tea leaves from each harvest of the year (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall) so I could compare how the taste of each was subtly different, even though they had been grown in the same soil.  I realized quickly that I was now in the company of a real tea connoisseur.

I learned here that tea should never be poured directly from the teapot into the cups.  First, hot water should be poured into the cups to warm them up and then discarded.  Second, the tea should be poured into a second pot (without any tea leaves) before being served to into the cups to ensure that everyone’s brew tastes exactly the same.  Who knew?

I showed the woman a teapot I had bought earlier on my trip, which is precisely when I learned lesson number two: teapots should never be painted.  Tea purists only use raw pottery or earthenware pots (and only one pot per kind of tea), because the clay will gradually absorb the flavor of the tea.

I wonder how she would get along with the staff at the Wedgwood Tea Room, where they take tea equally seriously but serve it up in heavily decorated and frilly pots along with designer finger sandwiches.  These teapots are so dressed up that they are practically ready to go out with you for a night on the town in their cute tea cozy outfits.

This British-style high tea room sits pretty, and looking slightly out of its element, on the top floor of the massive SOGO shopping complex (connected to the Zhongxiao MRT station.)  I probably looked equally out of place sitting on the ornate cushions in a sea of baby blue and white, sipping Earl Grey and eating a square of crustless, smoked chicken sandwich off of a floral plate.  Maybe it was criminal to be enjoying so much decoration on my chinaware, but it was glorious.

SOGO was full of pleasant surprises, and no one who enjoys shopping should miss out on this nine-story spread of boutiques, including an obsessive compulsive’s dream store, Muji, which is full of organizational solutions for even the tiniest, neatest parts of your life.

For any shop-a-holic, there are equally exciting, and far more gritty treasures to be found at one of the city’s many night markets. I started off with one of the smaller ones: Tonghua Street.   Let’s just say it’s not a good place for vegetarians to go.

The market’s singularly meaty fares included liver and heart kebabs, lollipops made of congealed pig’s blood, and crunchy chicken feet (legs included.)  Looking closely at the leathery skin and nails, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat a chicken’s foot, much less how they could digest one.  A local merchant explained to me that chicken’s feet are to be eaten on a rainy afternoon because “it takes a long time.”

Tonghua Street Market

In front of every market stall, there were metal pots bubbling over with bobbing bits of pig knuckles, and tiny, smoking grills covered in rubbery squid tentacles.  I was woozy from the sheer meatiness of the place, and the medley of fishy smells wafting through the air, but I would have been disappointed in myself had I not at least tried to indulge in some of the culinary excitement.

I swallowed my fear and bought some unidentified soup which was served to me in a small plastic bowl.  I don’t know what the white or grey meaty bits were – that may have been for the best – but it actually tasted pretty good.

I preferred the seaside market, in Danshui, where I found delicacies like cranberry frozen yogurt, fresh seafood, and plenty of fun souvenirs as well.  The vendors along the waterfront are lively, yelling the price of wares into megaphones while children play carnival games, trying to win teddy bears and burst water balloons, with noisy bells and whistles announcing their success.

There are some amazing traditional Chinese sweets on offer on Danshui’s Old Street, which I discovered only thanks to a local pointing to a hidden door in the wall.  That’s the thing about being a foreigner in Taipei: you can look things up, but you may not necessarily know how to pronounce 那裡乾酪.   You won’t find many of the best restaurants on a Google search, but I kind of like this problem because it renders the internet impractical and useless and forces you to go out and explore.

Even the most avid planner and itinerary-maker will likely come to the conclusion that the best thing to do in Taipei is walk around and see what you find.  Unless you have mastered the 47,000 plus characters in the Chinese alphabet before your trip, you may have no choice but to let your spirit guide you.