Life Thru a Travel Prism

Posts tagged “vacation

Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island Road Trip

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Peace and quiet, serene outdoors, quaint fishing villages, and miles and miles of breathtaking coastal views on a drive that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

Cabot Trail view, Cape Breton island.

Cabot Trail view, Cape Breton island, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Cape Breton island is the size of Hawaii or Jamaica, but with only 132,000 residents. That compares to 185,000 residents on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, or 2.8 million for Jamaica. Thus: small villages and towns, mostly forested hills and empty two-lane roads, not a lot of services, and certainly not a lot of hustle and bustle anywhere. Just our kind of place.

Margaree Harbor, near Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor, near Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

We spent a week driving some 1,000 miles around Cape Breton Island (CBI henceforth) along the famed Cabot Trail, staying in different B&Bs along the way. NS route map

Check out our trip photos. Be sure to read the captions 🙂

Our goal was to explore various hikes in the vast National Park, to venture out on a whale watch in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to hop aboard a boat to spot Puffins, Eagles, sea birds galore and Grey seals off the northeast coast, and to learn more of the history of the people who settled and who today make this unique corner of Canada their home.

Fingers crossed, I had chosen the first week of July for our visit, when I hoped the weather would be warm, with little rain or wind.

White Point harbor, Cape Breton island.

White Point harbor, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor from the dunes, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor from the dunes, Cape Breton island.

As it turned out, the very week we arrived the weather turned hot (80 degree days), and the seas surrounding this island were placid. The rains came the day we headed home, and stayed rainy for the next week. And- it had snowed a mere 2 weeks before we arrived. Talk about good weather mojo- we lucked out!

Neil's Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Robin, Neil’s Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Robin on the wharf, early morning, Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Our road trip around CBI allowed us to settle into an area for a couple of days at a time, and to experience the rhythm and the unique character of the villages nearby.

Robin, Yellow Cello, Baddeck, Great Breton Island.

Robin and her coffee, at a great Baddeck breakfast spot.

BnB, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Our BnB, Pictou, Nova Scotia

Near Cheticamp, Cape Breton Island, Canada.

Harbor scene, near Cheticamp, Cape Breton Island, Canada.

Our photos of the awe-inspiring sunsets, our hikes, the whale watch, the captivating Cabot Trail views out to the sea and the villages capture the low density of people, the character of the fishing villages, and the serene scenes as we drove along or stopped to enjoy vistas, an early morning harbor or a hike in the Canadian arboreal forest.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Our photos with captions and short video snippets are designed (and laboriously written, edited, etc by me!) to share a sense of what it’s like to travel to this area of the planet, in awesome weather. Hope you’ll take a moment to indulge, and feel free to leave comments and share.

Black Flies, Hikes and an Eye-popping Sunset

The first two nights spent on CBI, our cottage-on-the-shore HQ was in Belle Cote, one of a handful of small fishing villages dotting some 30 miles along the west coast of the island.

Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

Belle Cote windswept coast, Cape Breton island.

Nights were quite chilly and by late morning, 80 degrees was commonplace. Being along the coast was a grace, as the chill onshore breeze helped to keep us cool in the shade and chased off the worst of the black flies. But look out on those hiking trails in the woods– we came away a few pounds lighter after the flies took off with chunks of our flesh in their jaws!

Over the next two days we explored scenic harbors from Margaree Forks to as far north as Cheticamp. I bet we drove up and down that stretch of the Cabot Highway at least 6 times, heading up to Pleasant Bay to catch a whale watch boat, stopping at little restaurants to eat or finding a co-op to buy water or snacks.

Of course our focus was hiking the various trails in the National Park on this section of the coast, the highlight of which was the sunset hike on the famous Skyline Trail.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Lynn, sunset view, Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

This hike was a three hour undertaking, but thanks to the newly-minted young ranger who led our tiny group, we popped out of the forest and along the ridge line overlooking the sea wayyy down below just in time for the start of a simply breathtaking sunset. Wow. The pictures really do the scene justice, for a change!

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Awe-inspiring sunset on the Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Good thing full dark didn’t occur until an hour or so after sunset, so we were able to hoof it back to the car well before we needed our flashlights. We were, after all, at a high latitude, in the summer, with full sunrise by 5:45am and full dark at 10pm.

Trip pix with captions

Lynn, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Lynn in the woods, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Hiking is generally a central feature to our vacations, and this was no exception. The hikes in the National Park were challenging, with amazing views out to the ocean and luckily, no run-ins with the 3,000 or more moose who are crowded into the National Park.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Moose-proof fence, Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

We learned that the moose love to eat fir trees, which is fine, except they favor the young, tender trees, so the high population of moose in a park sized for 500 means the moose are basically eating themselves out of house and home. Park rangers have set aside large enclosures to protect the young trees, which will be replanted after they’ve matured to help ensure moose chow over time, but apparently it’s a losing battle. So the moose are being culled. A controversial topic with the locals, unsurprisingly.

Canada Day Harness Racing

The locals trotted out the bunting and street decorations for Canada Day, and we were fortunate to stumble upon a harness racing event in the town of Inverness, just south of our digs at Belle Cote. We followed hand-made signs up a hill to the rear of the coastal village, where a regulation track spread out before us, with paddocks, barns and large viewing stands.

When we arrived, the contenders were warming up, so we settled in to watch the activities and to catch the first race.

Harness race, Inverness, Cape Breton Island.

Harness race, Inverness, Cape Breton Island.

Robin had never seen harness racing before, so this was a fun intro to the sport for her. The feeling was a bit provincial, what with the gravel parking areas, with cars (pick-ups, mostly) able to pull right up to the fence to watch the race from the comfort of their front seats. The “crowd” may have been a couple of hundred spectators at the most, but the beer was cold and the sausages freshly cooked, available along with pari-mutual betting at a few tiny windows in the cavernous concrete room beneath the stadium seats.

Check out the video snippets at the track on my YouTube channel!

Such unexpected pleasures like tripping over this harness race are what make independent travel rewarding and so much fun. I’m thankful we have been able to travel independently in many countries, and experience these kind of unplanned moments. I hope we have lots more to come!

Fleeting Finbacks

So about that whale watch out of Pleasant Bay: we left early of a morning, when the fog lay thick, chill and heavy on the little harbor. The boat plowed slowly along the coastline, the young PHD students up in the flying bridge keeping a sharp eye out for whales.

“One o’clock! One o’clock!” someone would yell, and by the time I pointed my camera, the slick black dorsal fin and a glimpse of a whale’s back would have disappeared. This happened a few times. I gave up taking pictures and enjoyed the boat ride over pellucid seas, on what turned out to be a stunning, sunny, hot morning. We all came back sunburned. Still. A lovely boat ride along the underpopulated CBI shoreline.

Pleasant Bay harbor mouth, Cape Breton island.

Pleasant Bay harbor mouth, Cape Breton island.

Along the Cabot Trail

Continuing our clockwise drive around CBI on the famed Cabot Trail, we briefly visited the tiny fishing harbor of White Point (no facilities, no restaurant, but scenic and atmospheric).

Even more picturesque scenes here.

Further along the north coast, Neil’s Harbor was definitely worth a stop, and a good lunch in the restaurant situated on a rocky promontory. The heat of midday was relieved by walking over to the sea cliffs and enjoying the cool, stiff onshore wind from that chilly Atlantic.

We spent two nights in the harbor town of Baddeck (Beh-DECK). What a pretty little town! The town wharf reminded me pleasantly of that in Marblehead, MA where I lived for awhile. So scenic, so mellow.

Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Sunset scenic, Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Robin at the wharf, Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

The light and the sunset our arrival afternoon were simply phenomenal, and the seafood takeout at the wharf side restaurant was delish!

Puffins, Eagles and Grey Seals

A highlight of our stay in Baddeck was a tour of the Bird Islands, really interesting rocky outcrops just at the mouth of  St. Anne’s bay, in the Atlantic Ocean. We certainly saw lots of the cute Atlantic Puffins who breed here, as well as Bald Eagles, Arctic Terns, Common Loons, Common Eiders, White-winged and Surf Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers.

 

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Eagle to snatch fish.

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One of the Bird Islands.

The seas surrounding these craggy, grassy and windswept rock formations were full of Grey Seals, which added their grunts and barks to the noise of nesting birds. When the boat swung downwind of the islands, the odor was astounding.

A lobster boat briskly wound its way between us and the islands, hauling in the day’s catch. A proud lobster man held up a truly massive lobster pulled from one of the traps for us to see. Here’s a video short of a Grey Seal on a small rock and the lobster boat working.

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Lobster boat, Bird Islands, Cape Breton Island

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The Submarine rock island, Cape Breton Island

We then bid a fond farewell to Baddeck and CBI and drove back onto Nova Scotia, to Pictou, a cute little fishing village with a small but admirable museum the Ship Hector, a “… ship famous for having been part of the first significant migration of Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia in 1773.”

Lynn, Caribou Park, Pictou, Nova Scotia

Lynn and lobster picnic, Caribou Park, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Boat yard, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Boat yard, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

We discovered an expansive seaside park just a few kilometers up from Pictou, where we enjoyed fantastic sunset and a lobster picnic catered by the local grocery. Our B&B host gave us the tip to pick out our lobster, and the co-op (rather like a Kroger) cooked it.

We paired our lobster with a couple of sides, wine and (for me) a beer and wow, what an amazing evening we had! Even the black flies couldn’t dull my delight, as I shot frame after frame of yet another breathtaking Canadian summer sunset. I wondered later why my phone smelled of lobster and butter. Oops.

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Robin rests in long shadows, Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Robin, sunset, Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

For the History Buffs

Ok so I admit to being a “student of history”, which is to say I read a helluva lot about the places we visit, and retain little, so it’s a good thing for me that the history of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton island was ever-present in our travels. Or perhaps we were tuned in, as visitors do pay attention to many things locals take for granted.

Named places, settlements, landmarks, foods etc reflected the earliest known tribal people, the Mi’kmaq and the many European colonial periods. Europeans fished out their stocks and headed to the fertile waters here as early as the 1520s. French priests showed up, soon followed a Venetian Italian explorer whose Anglised name John Cabot is ubiquitous on CBI.

In the 1600s French colonists were shoved aside briefly by the Dutch, and Scottish folk created a colony but of course they and the French were soon at odds and the fight was on. The French won, then most of the European peeps stayed quiet for awhile until the English decided to lay claim to all of Nova Scotia (hmmm, a familiar pattern here). Colonial wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812– you’d be surprised just what roles this area of our continent had to play in what Americans think of as “American History”.

I did find the Scottish colonists story arc to be rather poignant, considering how and why so many chose to dare a dangerous ocean crossing to an unknown country, with so much to learn and create, literally from their own hands. Sorta like those survival reality shows, many of these families arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, sick from the trip, showing up in the winter, with no home, no crops, no livestock.

Highland Village Living Museum, Iona, Cape Breton island.

Robin, Highland Village Living Museum, Iona, Cape Breton island.

Thank goodness they had the folks living in small, existing settlements like Highland Living Village to lend a hand, with costumed volunteers who undoubtedly remained in character. OK just testing to see if you’re actually reading this or only looking at the pretty pictures!

To Conclude…

The light, the sunsets, the fresh air, the cooling breezes from the ocean, the scenic little villages and towns– all left an indelible impression on us. The entire trip was low-impact, few people but pleasant ones when met, and a true sense of solitude and quiet, pretty much everywhere we went. Even the towns had few people roaming about, with few cars. No planes overhead. No trains honking off in the distance. Maybe a fog horn near a harbor, and at night just crickets and, if we were near fresh water, frogs croaking. The stars  were brilliant those nights when fog didn’t creep along the coast.

Middle Head trail, Ingonish, Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Lynn and Robin hike the Middle Head trail, Ingonish, Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Yep, I’d definitely vote this as one of the nicest road trips we’ve taken, and would recommend it for anyone who values independent travel and who is willing to get off the beaten track, who enjoys the outdoors and nature, and who can take care of themselves (remember, few services, places close early, and no ATM’s.)

Pix here and check out video snippets on my YouTube Channel.

Tips:

Canadian currency is King, with few places that “do exchange”, or give you Canadian change for your US dollar. You can often find your currency exchange advantage being eaten up when your $US is spent as if it were the face value of a Canadian dollar. Yeah, go ahead and exchange as soon as you can, especially before you head to rural areas.

AirB&B was a terrific resource for us, but don’t overlook TripAdvisor, VRBO and other sources for unique yet reasonably priced places to stay. Not every place is listed with AirB&B. Remember the summer is High Season so prices will be up and places booked months in advance. Same with excursion boats– book early!

Plan to arrive at your destination and check in well before 5pm, to allow ample time to get settled, perhaps glean tips from your host around places to eat etc. Not all useful or current info is on the Internet. Interact with the locals for the real skinny on what’s what! And remember- places close EARLY, assuming you are in a town large enough to have a co-op or a store. Best to do your homework.

You will encounter road work as you drive around CBI so be prepared to stop and wait. Again, local information trumps your mapping app on this one.

Cellular service is skippy, at best, and WiFi will be hard to come by and likely not the best unless you are in Halifax or a decent sized town. Many restaurants have WiFi, or say they do, but we discovered the WiFi was often not working, “needed to be reset” or whatever. So be prepared and do NOT count on continuous access to the internet or your phone while on CBI.

Enjoy your trip!

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Simply Messing About in Boats, Pt 1

Anni and her folks’ boat, the Sailor’s Hat.

Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.

Trip Photos

We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.

 

We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.

The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.

Lynn on bow of Sailor's Hat

Lynn on bow of Sailor’s Hat motor yacht, the Keys, FL. Circa 1985.

It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.

Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.

Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.

I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!

My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain.

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Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.

Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Chub Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!

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My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land!

After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard.

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Mother Dunan, galley guru.

Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!

Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.

From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.

I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.

It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, so the boat was driven from the steering station in the shade below, in the main salon, which was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!

I soon appreciated there was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.

Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.

My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.

Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.

I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.

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Anni cleans while Cap’n Pete checks wind drift.

Chores Aboard & other photos

Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!

Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.

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Anni heads over to a member of the fleet at anchor.

One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.

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Our approach to Hopetown Harbor,  view from the flying bridge.

The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”

I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, Miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!

It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.

Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise.

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Anni at Double Breasted cay.

It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.

As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.

This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through my fogged mask and the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.

One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.

Amazing Abacos & other pix

About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.

A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!

The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking in temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!

FleetAtFrozenLo

Anni and Cap’n Pete in dingy, Frozen Cay.

The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.

Dingy Delights & more pix

So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in.

We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.

ManO War Cay Lo (1)

Picturesque Man-O-War cay.

Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.

I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.

The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.

A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.

So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.

As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.

As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.

Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.

The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.

Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.

I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.

Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.

I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.

Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.

Lynn, Bahamas out islands

Lynn aboard Sailor’s Hat, Bahamas.

We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.

I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.

I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.

But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.

I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!

Trip Photos Archive


St. Kitts and Nevis – May 2003

St. Kitts, BWI

St. Kitts, BWI.

Off-season Caribbean island travel has its rewards…like less expensive stays, fewer people at the popular spots around the island, a personalized rain forest tour and having restaurants to yourselves.

It was May, early off-season for our destination, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. These sister islands can be found in the Leeward Island group in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, to the west of Antigua. Perusing the Internet in preparation for our trip, we discovered that just 2 miles separate the islands at their closest point, and according to official websites, offer visitors …” a relatively authentic island experience, (with) luxuriant mountain rain forests; uncrowded beaches; historic ruins; towering, long-dormant volcanoes; charming if slightly dilapidated Georgian capitals in Basseterre (St. Kitts) and Charlestown (Nevis); intact cultural heritage; friendly if shy people; and restored, 18th-century sugar plantation inns run by elegant, if sometimes eccentric, expatriate British and American owners”.

Lynn St. Kitts

Lynn on beach at St. Kitts, looking across the channel to Nevis.

 Thus adequately prepped by our research, we arrived on St. Kitts with realistic expectations. As seasoned Caribbean travelers, we’re accustomed to traveling off season (southern natives don’t mind the heat and humidity), quickly adjusting to the slower pace of life that typifies most cultures in the Tropics.

After clearing Customs at Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport on St. Kitts, we were met by a helpful employee of our car rental company and, before we knew it, we were tooling merrily along (on the left, of course) toward the brilliant sunset, headed for the Timothy Beach Resort (TBR), our home for the next week or so. Having arrived on a Saturday, we looked forward to a delightful introduction to the island via the highly-recommended Sunday Brunch at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, a lush, tropical oasis on the Atlantic side of the island.

Pix Here

Ottleys Plantation, St. Kitts, BWI

Ottleys Plantation, St. Kitts, BWI

Ottley’s was virtually deserted when we visited on that windy, rainy morning. Heavy mist swept across and obscured the peaks of the rain-forested mountains in the near distance, leaving behind large dewdrops on the flowering bougainvillea and carefully tended lawns and ornamentals.We were enjoying the silence and solitude accented by bird calls when we were approached by a large, friendly, wet and smelly golden retriever, who greeted us with a gentle tail-wag and a wet nose then led us down the royal palm-lined track that skirts the main building.

Our canine host paused to munch on a ripe mango then followed us as we explored the rainforest trail located behind the property.We spent a few minutes quietly stepping over fallen mangoes and looking up at the towering trees festooned with ferns and liana vines, then made our way back to the swimming pool area, where we were greeted warmly by the staff and served one of the most outstanding meals we enjoyed during our stay.

Noon is a bit soon for us to be drinking alcohol, but the rum punch or mimosa comes with the meal, so we threw all caution to the wind and went for it!

During our meal, we were amused by the black and white cat that slept on a low wall of the open-air dining area. A quiet older couple dined right next to the cat, which snoozed quietly. Four businessmen showed up and started a loud conversation, which startled the cat and grated on our ears, formerly accustomed to the sound of the wind through the rainforest. The cat sauntered over to us to extend greetings, which we cordially returned. The reception it received at the loudmouth table, however, was a rude kick. We decided to steer well clear of such dismissive and arrogant interlopers.

TRIP PIX

After the meal we walked the grounds some more, as the sun came out and bathed the hillside in heat and a white-gold light. We ran into the operations manager, who greeted us warmly, inquired about our stay, where we were from, and offered to take a photo of us with our camera, which we accepted. The manager inquired if we were enjoying our stay, and indeed throughout our time on the island, we were continually asked by servers and others we met “How are you enjoying your stay? Are you having a good time?”

Thoroughly stuffed with excellent food and mellowed from the serenity of Ottley’s, we hit the shore road and continued our island tour, counterclockwise, a direction that friends on the island suggested would help us to unwind. We passed numerous sugar processing ruins that dot the island.

St. Kitts sugar plantation ruins.

Ruins of sugar plantation on St. Kitts, BWI.

After a couple of photo ops, we came to Black Rocks. Parking the car at the top of the headland in what appeared to be a small park, we dodged a flock of the ubiquitous goats that inhabit the island. The goats had more sense than we did — they didn’t even get close to the loose, steep track that led down the dangerously sheer hillside to the volcanic rocks below.

At Black Rocks, huge waves crashed all along the shore, as far as one could see in both directions, tearing themselves into spume and mist against the jagged, massive volcanic rocks below. The scene was one of immense energy and I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding. Normally, I readily clamber over rocks and boulders encountered on hikes and tramps, but this place engendered in me a caution that kept me well away from the edge. Besides, the wind was blowing so hard that it I was afraid of being blown overboard, so we hung out, snapped a few shots and returned to the car.

Further along we came to Dieppe Bay, passing the Golden Lemon Inn, which we aimed to visit for a luncheon later in the week.

Around the top (northern end) of St. Kitts, we spotted Brimstone Hill fortress on our left– a Must See and, on a clear day, you enjoy the most magnificent views available (unless you do a rainforest hike — more about that later.)

Brimstone Hill Fortress view.

View of the Caribbean from Brimstone Hill Fortress, St. Kitts, BWI.

We typically bring along a small, collapsible cooler on our trips, and this visit was no exception. Fortified by bottled water, a Yoohoo, local soft drinks and Carib beer (potable if Very Cold), we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy digs at Timothy Beach Resort early every morning to spend the day exploring the island. Power bars and other snacks kept us going until we chose a time and place to stop, eat, and chill.

Lynn, St. Kitts BWI. Nevis in background.

Lynn, St. Kitts BWI. The nearby island of Nevis in background.

One day we drove over Monkey Hill just below TBR, and made our way down to Turtle Beach. The rusted A-frame of a destroyed building, litter and the overpowering smell of cattle crowding around a fresh water tank greeted us at Turtle Beach. It was a holiday, and large groups of partiers were having their revelries.

We bumped along through the soft sand, skirting the shore, to a quiet place where we could get out of the car, hoping to enjoy the view of Nevis across the way – only to be scoured by sand whipped up by the gale blowing across the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts. Oh well, not much snorkeling here today! In fact, it was difficult to keep one’s feet.

As to snorkeling – I’m a SCUBA diver from Way Back but do enjoy exploring island shorelines for snorkeling. Having done my homework by reading posts on the St. Kitts/Nevis message board for several months, I determined we might head to the southern end of South Friar’s Bay area for snorkeling. Hmmm. Not much to see, except a couple of coral-encrusted canon which we were told had been recently “studied” by students from I-forgot-where. When we snorkeled over the canon, which were lying in about 10 feet of water approximately 70 feet from shore, we spotted dozens of small plastic Zip-Lock bags strewn all around the site. Each bag had a white, flat plastic “stake” in it. Each plastic “stake” had cryptic writing on it. Some of these bags were tucked in among the surrounding rubble, but most of them had floated free and were lying on the sandy bottom. It wouldn’t take much of a sea to scatter these bags all along the bay bottom and onto the shore, or out to sea. This “research” effort struck me as little more than litter, for certainly those plastic bags and tags would only add to the flotsam and litter we found everywhere piled above and below the high-water mark. Not to mention the danger to turtles and other animals, fish and coral reef structures. Not to mention the half-life of plastic litter.

The best off-shore snorkeling we found was the shallow, man-made reef structure that parallels the shoreline along the northern end of South Friar’s Bay, from the Shipwreck bar north. This “reef” is located approximately 25-30 feet offshore (depending on the tide) and in about 8-10 feet of water. We found the structure best suited to early morning exploration, before the winds and seas kick up.

One can ride the gentle current that slowly pushes you northward, drifting and peering under the shallow ledge for shy critters like boxfish, trumpet fish, damsels, blennies, angelfish and all manner of juvenile reef fish. If the waves kick up, the visibility gets pretty low, so we learned to stick with the early morning dip for best results.

We were dismayed by the amount of garbage and trash piled up behind the Shipwreck bar, at the base of the hill. Rusted out beach chairs, boxes, broken wooden seats and every manner of plastic container were heaped with no consideration for aesthetics or safety. As a commercial photographer, I am typically careful to crop such eyesores out of lovely beach scenes, but I did take several shots of the “alternative” views. On one hand, I can’t help but believe this is a sign of laziness and Not My Job attitude on the part of people who own and operate these beach-side “businesses.” On the other hand, throughout my travels across the eastern and Western Caribbean, over the past 25+ years, this sort of visual has been all too common and reflects the difficulty of solid waste disposal on islands, the lack of infrastructure, funds and planning for such disposal, the dismal attitude of poor and struggling islanders and the nonchalant attitude of tourists who are, for the most part, completely oblivious to their contributions to the plight of these closed ecosystems.

Pix Here

But, back to the travel log flavor of this story:  We made a point of visiting Romney Manor, the 350-year-old estate once owned by a British earl, and the home of Caribe Batik.

Romney Manor, St. Kitts, BWI

View of estate grounds, Romney Manor, St. Kitts, BWI.

What gorgeous surrounds, lovingly cared-for, well- tended lawns and exotic plants and fruiting trees! The batik goods at this tropical “factory” are breathtaking – we just had to buy a gift for ourselves as well as family and friends back home.

However. Once again Reality bit us in the butt. Like the approach to Ottley’s and the Golden Lemon and other destinations, we passed through horribly run-down and poverty-stricken areas, with sights like a huge sow sleeping underneath a wrecked and rusted truck carcass and the troubling sight of a naked toddler wiping herself clean (and dropping the rag) after defecating in the bushes across from her home (a shanty, really), which apparently sported no running water or sanitary facilities. Such scenes do not hearten the tourist, however enchanting some areas may appear.

Leaving such painful sights behind, we opted for a rainforest hike so early one morning we met our erstwhile guide Hugh Rodgers for a personal, guided hike on Mount Liamuiga, the dead volcano that is such a massive feature of the island.  Over the course of a couple of hours, we were guided up and down well-tended (but not well-worn!) trails under and through the triple-canopy as Mr. Rodgers shared with us his prodigious knowledge of the fauna, flora and history of our surrounds. 

Mount Liamuiga rain forest hike, St. Kitts, BWI.

Mount Liamuiga rain forest hike, St. Kitts, BWI.

We appreciated that Mr. Rogers could strike just the right balance between informational chat and allowing periods of silence to stretch out so that we could enjoy the sounds of the animals, insects and the smell of nutmeg on the wind– an enveloping, sensory experience.

After our rainforest hike, we decided to spend a day visiting Nevis. This smaller island is just across a deep water channel from St. Kitts but, in many ways, seems slower and much more a reflection of the imperial era of European influence.

Sugar plantation ruins, Nevis, BWI.

Windmill ruins, sugar plantation, Nevis, BWI.

Small as it is, Nevis almost proved more than we could see in a day, even though we were perfectly mobile in a rental car. Our research unearthed key points of interest, so after a quick early morning bite to eat at a cute restaurant overlooking the ferry dock in Charlestown, we set off on a day-long drive around the island, taking in the Botanical Gardens (beautiful and worth banging down a rough track, with little signage to point the way) and places to stay, several of which are built around historic sugar plantations.

Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, Nevis, BWI

Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (built in 1778). Nevis, BWI.

By the time we’d visited the Golden Rock Estate’s one hundred acres nestled high up in the foothills of Mt. Nevis, the all-inclusive Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (built in 1778 and the home of Fanny Nisbet, eventual wife of Admiral Horatio Nelson), the Four Seasons Resort Hotel with its extravagant pool and exorbitant drink prices, and a few smaller, out-of-the-way beach properties, we were satisfied we’d pretty much “done” Nevis. Tired but happy wanderers, we turned in the rental car, boarded the ferry for the short trip over to St. Kitts, and a lovely dinner at one of several restaurants near the center of Basseterre.

Phone booth in Basseterre town, St. Kitts, BWI.

Phone booth in Basseterre town, St. Kitts, BWI.

Segue to the town of Basseterre, one of the oldest in the Eastern Caribbean, which retains much of the Georgian character of Nelson’s days. The town is the main commercial and industrial center of St. Kitts, and features bustling port traffic, ferry traffic, foot traffic in and out of stores and along narrow streets, and animal traffic in the form of goats and chickens that wander about, dodging, well, traffic.

TRIP PIX

Driving to, from and about in Basseterre proved a challenge, even for this driver accustomed to tight spots in and around Boston and squeezing into tiny parking places on the streets of Atlanta. Roundabouts do little to sort traffic but do provide picturesque distraction as one attempts to avoid being side-swiped while negotiating the myriad of 90 degree turns that define the entrance or exit of these somewhat dysfunctional traffic managers.

“Our Lady of the Drainpipe”, St. Kitts, BWI.

Queen Victoria decorative fixture in a roundabout; “Our Lady of the Drainpipe” amuses drivers on St. Kitts, BWI.

Of particular interest was the center of a roundabout featuring a half-size concrete statue of a faintly Victorian lady, clad in a (as-best-I-recall) diaphanous, wind-blown gown. Adopting a Statue-of-Liberty stance, the figure, situated on a chipped concrete pedestal, held what once must have been a light fixture. Somehow, through the years, the light had been lost, the fixture broken and replaced by what appeared to be, yes, a rusted metal drainpipe! Just as our island-dwelling, ex-pat Brit friend had informed us, “Our Lady of the Drainpipe” stood forth for all to see, but try as I might, I could only capture a wildly tilted image of her outside the widow of our car as we furiously went around and around. Tiring of the life-threatening adventure, we soon bailed from that roundabout and headed to one a bit more genteel.

The centerpiece of Basseterre’s evocative Georgian architecture is its Circus, a positively spacious and well-organized roundabout modeled in proper Victorian patriotism after Piccadilly, in London. In the middle of the Circus stands the bright green bronze of the Berkeley Memorial Clock, an ornate, cast iron tower with four clock faces and more than a little architectural decoration. Decorously immobile, it posed for several pictures, much to my satisfaction.

Berkeley Memorial Clock, the Circus, Basseterre town, St. Kitts, BWI.

Berkeley Memorial Clock, the Circus, Basseterre town, St. Kitts, BWI.

With one of the longest written histories in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis reflect some of their pre-Columbian past and a great deal of their European history dating from the 1400s to the Spanish, French and British periods. Whether you choose a little bit of history, a lot of local color, ancient volcanoes surrounded by rain forests, wind-swept hillsides dotted with the ruins of old sugar mills, modern romantic getaway resorts, or a mix of them all, St. Kitts and Nevis offer a variety of material from which any visitor can craft a unique Caribbean vacation.

Pix Here


Long Island, Bahamas-Livin’ Like A Native 2002

 

Columbus Harbor

Columbus Harbor, Long Island, Bahamas

Experienced Caribbean travelers generally prefer to avoid heading toward the equator in the heat of July. However, the timing of our visit was determined by our Bahamian friend from the States, who invited us to join her for a family reunion on the island. The event was scheduled for the week of July 4, so off we went, in planes that decreased in size and became hotter and more cramped as we traveled from Tampa, Florida to Miami to Nassau, and then on to Long Island.

On our previous visit, we’d experienced Long Island in the heat of May, which is off season, where we had enjoyed the relative luxury of the Stella Maris Inn resort situated at the northern tip of the island.

OceanView, Stella Maris, Long Island, Bahamas

Ocean view, Stella Maris, Long Island, Bahamas.

This trip we looked forward to “Livin’ Like The Natives Do”, discovering local hangouts and foregoing expensive resort amenities.Our destination was one of only two airstrips on the island- the one closest to Cartwrights, the settlement named for our friend’s family, where I hoped a rental car awaited us.

Arriving on Long Island during a torrid summer mid-afternoon afforded a small taste of the heat and sun we were to endure for the week. But hey, we were used to the heat so we came prepared. Of course the (high-mileage, beat-up, standard shift) rental car had no air-conditioning but it did have fairly new tires, very critical to getting around on the extremely rough, boulder-strewn and potholed limestone roads that crisscross the island.

It is worth noting that the island is a bit over 100 miles long, with one major asphalt road (The Queen’s Road, which our friend’s uncle helped develop in the 1960s) that runs the length, along the leeward shore of the island. In places the island may be six miles wide. Rough roads that connect from the Queen’s Road to the rocky, windward shore are few and far between, due to the cost of bush hogging and putting in a (typically very steep) road. A consequence is that the beaches are deserted. It also helps that, the year of our visit, less than 5000 people were living year-round on the island, which made it rather sparsely populated.

After we collected our little Geo-type car at the tiny airport, we managed to make our way “up island” to hook up with our friend at the new Shell station, one of only two gas stations for many miles.

Family truck, Cartwrights, Long Islan, Bahamas

Family truck in grandmother’s yard, Cartwrights, Long Island, Bahamas.

Numerous family members had turned out to meet our friend at the airport, and at least five adults and four kids were piled in the family pickup truck, squeezed in the rusting cab and packed into the open bed. After hasty greetings in the broiling sunlight, we formed a caravan and headed down the road, looking like a vanguard from the Grapes of Wrath.

We soon arrived at the Cartwright family compound and the home that our host and his wife shared with their 2 pre-teens and Maw-Ma, the 85-year-old matriarch of the clan.

 

The three photos illustrate a 20th century homestead, the remains of a home circa late 1800s; and the ruins of a home from the early 1800s.

The family home was quite 20th century: a small, unfinished cinderblock house, like most homes on the island, situated close to the Queen’s Road and surrounded by several acres of banana and fruit trees. Across the road squatted the little community store, which, during our stay, the clan cleaned out of chicken, soft drinks, bottled water and Vienna sausage until the next arrival of the island supply boat. Next door was an uncle’s house and down the road was Aunt So-and-So and Cousin so-and-so and on it goes.

Pix Here

Living on an island means making-do and learning to live with little or no access to services and amenities to which we in the States are accustomed. One must wait for the weekly mail boat to arrive, which brings car parts and machinery and doors and furniture and the like. There are finite limits to what the boat can bring, and to what people can afford. Thus, it’s very expensive to purchase many items that we take for granted, like clothing or shoes or floor mats or nails. Example- a plastic patio chair retailing here for $4.99 is over $17.00 there.

Most of the vehicles are pretty old and beat-up. It costs thousands to ship a vehicle to the island, after having bought it typically very used, in Florida. Upkeep is sporadic, parts unheard-of and very expensive, so many vehicles are cobbled together and in extreme states of wear and tear. In fact, the family truck broke down trying to climb one of the steep, rocky, rough-hewn tracks on the windward side of the island. Luckily, we were following the truck in the little rental car, and were able to run “up island”, or south, to find a relative with jumper cables. Once underway, the truck had to be backed up a steep incline in reverse because it only ran forward in third gear. With a few people pushing, the truck got over that hill. That was the end of visits to the rocky shore in the truck!

As for their homes, island residents build as they can afford, so it typically takes a few years to complete a house. We observed many cinderblock shells about the island, overgrown and apparently abandoned, but we were informed they were merely “under construction”.

This was the first time our friend had been back to her home since she was ten years old. She was excited to be back and to show her own children where she had grown up and attended school. A real treat for us was to watch her interact with her family and revisit her childhood haunts and activities, like clawing around in the cave system that, for generations, has protected island families from hurricanes.

Hurricane cave, Long Island, Bahamas.

Cartwright’s cave, a necessary hurricane haven. Long Island, Bahamas.

Our friend managed to locate carvings and scratching made by members of several generations of her family, and we even teased her uncle about a decades-old carving we discovered that advertised his attraction for a long-forgotten schoolgirl. We found a goat skull in the cave, and many bats, spiders, salamanders and land crabs. In places it was pitch black, and the damp limestone floor was uneven and slippery — thankfully we had our flashlights.

We spent our days and evenings with the clan, providing transport for the beach-or-blue-hole-of-the-day expedition. Because of the heat (and non-air-conditioned homes and businesses), the goal was to find a swimming spot with some shade and to relax for a few hours during the heat of the day, or at least until 2:00 pm when the truck was needed to go to the Shell to pick up Auntie from work. The truck also was needed at 4:00 pm to pick Uncle up from the construction site where he worked, a few miles from the house.

While Uncle and Auntie worked during the day, Maw-Ma sat in a breezy, shaded spot by a door or out back near the banana grove, weaving palmetto into strips that she would eventually use to weave hats or straw bags. Her handiwork was beautiful, and a source of income for the family.

Trip Pix Here

Maw-Ma would often have visitors, including her elderly sister and her sister’s daughter. The sister was wheelchair bound, toothless and fond of snuff. She wore a John Deere baseball cap and, like everyone else, she wore threadbare clothes (folks wear their clothes ’til they literally fall off their bodies).

The elderly sister and her middle-aged daughter were intimidating when we were first introduced– I suppose because we were unaccustomed to being stared at, but we soon realized this is the way of the locals, who apparently find visitors an infinite source of interest and amusement. We soon came to know these women as gentle, simple folk — and hearty! The daughter typically wheeled her overweight mother down the sun blasted Queen’s Road for several miles, to and from these daily visitations. Plus, the daughter was always barefooted, as are all the kids and most of the adults we encountered. We were told that shoes were saved for church, work and school!

I have now digressed well beyond our first evening, which found some thirteen of us piled into the truck and the car, slowly making our way to nearby Clarence Town to one of the few restaurants on the island, and the only one open after 7:00 pm on a Saturday. It took a couple of hours for the friendly staff to cook and serve food (chicken, grouper or conch) for the clan, but time flew by as we all chattered and laughed and did our best to decipher the range of accents represented. It wouldn’t be long before we Floridians were speaking in the soft patios and deliberate delivery common to the island.

The stars were close overhead and the almost-full moon high in the sky as we caravanned home along the dark Queen’s Road. We were invited to bunk in at another uncle’s nearby house, which proved to be a sleepless night. Amenities like a shower head, a light in the bathroom, a toilet that flushed and screens on the windows were conspicuously missing. We were hot, tired and dirty from a long day of travel and didn’t sleep a wink as we tossed and turned on an ancient, soggy mattress and were devoured by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. Yikes! Tough times for even us, who camp in mosquito-infested areas in the tropics! Of course, we use a tent with fine mesh screens — no such luck here.

Sunday dawn found us on the Queen’s Road, having unceremoniously abandoned our host’s home. I drove slowly along the Queen’s road, blearily looking for one of two fishing resorts I knew were in the area. Before too long we managed to locate our home-away-from-home at the Greenwich Lodge. We spoke with the proprietress as she was cooking breakfast for her only other guests, a rowdy group of high-school students from Washington State on a church outing. She was happy to have us check in right away, as we were to be the only guests in this 8-room facility the rest of the week, after the kids departed. Once she knew we were on the island to visit with the Cartwrights, we were treated as family.

We were soon happily showering in a brand new motel-like room, one with air conditioning. We caught the morning’s breakfast, which we soon discovered to be grits and something, usually dry scrambled eggs and greasy bacon or, interestingly, tuna salad. No bread. Coffee or juice but not both. Then we took a long nap.

By mid afternoon, we were ready to go play with the Cartwright clan. Everyone piled into the car and truck and off we went to what turned out to be one of several fantastically picturesque beaches. Maw-Ma rode with us in the rental car and we had the chance to hear of her stories of being raised on the island with no electricity, before her son put in the Queen’s Road.

We learned how many of the settlers, white and black, including her grandparents, arrived at the island. They jumped from their convict ship as it stopped to provision en-route from Puerto Rico to Nassau. Many of these people were poor and had been incarcerated for petty theft (food, mostly). Some were escaped slaves. They eventually populated the island and turned it into what is now the breadbasket of the Bahamas. Nearly all of the fresh fruit and most of the veggies served in the Bahamas come from Long Island, which has numerous sources of fresh water, including cave systems, springs and blue holes.

Fresh water is what brought Christopher Columbus to the island on a number of his crossings, which is why the west tip of the island and the harbor there are named for him and a monument erected.

Columbus Harbor Pan

Columbus Harbor, Long Island, Bahamas.

The harbor goes on for miles and is one of the most hauntingly picturesque and pristine areas I’ve ever seen. Except for flotsam and some litter, I doubt it looks one iota different from when he visited. No homes, no boats, no people, no power lines, and only one narrow, dangerously rutted, track of a road. We were captivated by this area on our last visit and were delighted to return, even if the drive was 1.5 hours to the north, or “down island”.

Subsequent forays took us to a couple of the island’s blue holes, including our favorite, Dean’s Blue Hole, located on Turtle Cove, which we had visited on our first trip to the island. Unbeknownst to us on our first visit to Long Island, the property surrounding Dean’s Blue Hole is owned by yet another Cartwright family member, so of course this visit we had permission to access this place that the world-famous Jacques Cousteau had made famous by featuring in one of his TV specials.

Deans Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas

Deans Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas.

These blue holes are found throughout the Caribbean, but this one is the deepest in the Bahamas, well over 600 feet. Fresh water wells up from below and mixes with salt water flowing from the adjacent protected lagoon, which I thought looked exactly like a pirate stronghold!

One day we adults slipped away from the kids and spent the morning at this wondrous place. Our friend and her brother were brave enough to climb up the razor sharp rocks that tower some 50 or more feet above the blue hole. After much egging-on by those of us on the sandy beach at the edge of the blue hole, they each jumped into the crystal clear, cold water below, scattering tropical fish and startling the large Nassau grouper that hung about in the depths below the cliff wall.

Lynn at Dean's Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas

Lynn at Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas.

Another day and another incredible beach, named Lowes Beach.

Lowes beach, Long Island, Bahamas

Lowes Beach, Long Island, Bahamas.

This one was tucked into a small cove which was protected by a 30-foot high wall of the typical sharp iron shore rock. Here, a section of the wall had been worn down over the centuries, so the ocean waves poured through an opening approximately 40 feet wide. The tumble of rocks found on the lee side of the rock fall had formed a small reef that featured a swim-through at about 15 feet of depth and was festooned by colorful corals, urchins and small tropical fish.

This horseshoe shaped, protected lagoon with its gently sloping sandy bottom and crystal clear water was a perfect place for the kids to swim, snorkel and jump off the rocks. We all spent an entire afternoon there. Some folks walked over the dunes to the next cove, and the next, each uniquely beautiful. I sat in a small patch of shade and drank cold beer, avoiding the sun and enjoying the wind and the crashing of the ocean just over the wall.

Pix Here

Another day trip took us up-island to a very large, deep blue hole. This one was tucked into a large cove. The cove was protected from the open ocean by an outer ring of reef that was about a mile away. Again, the sand was white and fine, the sun hot, the water crystal clear. But here, the edges of the blue hole dropped away to 50 feet and more, mere inches from the edge of the water. One could sit in waist-deep water, with their feet on the steep slope and see clearly through the pellucid water. A mere 20 feet from the water’s edge, the bottom was 60 feet down, and it just kept going. Fear of sharks and other unknowns seemed to keep people away from the depths here. It was a spooky place. Only one home was built on the cove. Otherwise, the entire area was deserted.

July 4 was the full moon, and plans were underway for 18 clan members to camp on the beach! Uncle and Auntie took the day off (remember, Independence Day is not a holiday in the Bahamas!). Fresh Bahama bread and mac n’ cheese (a staple) were baked, a huge coleslaw salad whipped up, chicken prepared and hotdogs purchased, in case the men were unlucky in spearing fish at the camping beach.

Late afternoon found the caravan at the windy, rocky beach. The men grabbed snorkel gear and spears and buckets balanced in tire inner tubes and swam out to the nearby reef. The kids played in the shallows in the lagoon. Women prowled the rocks, prying large “whelks” and “curbs” (we’d call them barnacles) from the rocks for steamed appetizers.

In a little over an hour the guys had speared a variety of fish and had grabbed a large slipper lobster and a larger crawfish. The lobster and crawfish were out of season, so they were referred to as “hush-your-mouth crabs”! A search party went out to find some land crabs (ghost crabs in other parts of the Caribbean) but none were found. That’s because they had migrated to the other side of the island, a fact we determined the next day when we ran over scores of these large-as-your-hand crustaceans as they crossed the Queen’s Road, heading back to their spawning grounds.

The fire was quickly made in a hole among the rocks on shore. As dusk fell, the kids were brought in from the water: (“Don’ let the shaaks get ya’! Com-in now!”). Foodstuffs in cardboard boxes and small coolers were placed among the rocks. The fish and veggies and spices were prepared and wrapped in foil and thrown on the big grate that served as a grill. Whelks, curbs and the lobsters were placed on the grill and soon we were all stuffing ourselves as the full moon drifted in and out of the clouds hanging low on the horizon. The evening ended as clan members settled into sheets and ground cloths above the high-tide mark. We soon left for the comfort of our air-conditioned motel room.

On Tuesday night, we were invited to join the adults at Doc Mel’s “club”, to drink beer and play pool. So off we went, caravanning in the two vehicles. Turns out that Doc Mel’s place was less than 2 miles from the clan compound, and years away from anything Americans might call a “club”.  A simple, concrete building painted a bright lime green, Doc Mel’s neighborhood bar features open doorways sporting unfinished 3/4′ plywood “doors”, windowless openings without screens, a bare and unfinished concrete floor and two small toilets, each with its attendant sign crudely written on the unfinished plywood door: “Ladys” or “Mens”. The proprietor himself is a gentle, ageless black man who seemed old to our friend when she was 10!

Count on the atmosphere at Doc Mel’s to be warm and friendly. In fact, count on it to be hotter than Hades, with barely a draft of breeze moving across the shrunken and beat-up pool table. But what did we care, we could barely see the balls anyway because the one bare bulb over the table was blown. So we opened the doors to the toilets and used the light spilling out to guide our pool game. A rusty fan tried to move the heavy air around but lost the struggle. Mosquitoes nipped. We passed around the one available roll of paper towels and gamely mopped brows, arms and necks as we slugged cold beer (Heineken or Kalik, awful island brew, or Bud, before we drank it out of stock.) We laughed and played dominos and visited with the one or two locals who stopped by to see what all the commotion was about.

The next day, word came to us that special preparations had been made at Doc Mel’s for our entertainment and comfort and we were asked to return. This time, the bulb over the pool table was lit and another fan added to the anemic airflow. A few more locals showed up to laugh at our behaviors, and someone had brought a boom box. Next thing you know it was Electric Slide time and we tore the house down! I’m sure our antics provided fuel for many a story passed through the community.

Doc Mels, Long Island, Bahamas

Doc Mels entertainment complex, Long Island, Bahamas.

So, yes we had a great time, being embraced as part of a large and extended family. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Having traveled the Caribbean, we were not put off by running on island time, the inevitable delays, or silly questions. We learned a lot about how to live on a sparsely populated island with limited resources and were reminded that we are very fortunate to enjoy our standard of living.

All too soon it was time for us to head home. Aboard the Bahamas Airways flight, I watched Long Island grow smaller and drop below the horizon and I thought that, of my many trips throughout the Caribbean, this one would linger long and fondly in my memory. PHOTOS HERE


Akumal, MX, Yucatan May 1999

 

Tulum beach, Mexico

Tulum beach, Mexico.

Click, whirrrrr. The camera shutter closes on yet another brilliant moment. To the west, the setting moon dangles on a deep blue background while eastward the rising sun guilds the facades of the scattered buildings below, highlighting the edges of palm fronds. Magenta, bronze and azure streak the sky overhead. Caribbean colors. Maya colors. The colors of our dreams.

It’s our first morning on the playa (beach) in Akumal, Mexico. From our balcony, we enjoy the breathtaking view of Half Moon Bay, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of birds, the tropical fauna. Akumal, “the place of the turtles” is located on the Yucatan peninsula, one hour and ten minutes drive south of Cancun.

At the time of this post, Akumal was still very much a secret getaway, discovered only by those who ventured south of Cancun along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Here, the “Mundo Maya” steeps the intrepid traveler in a small, primarily Mayan seaside community with sandy white beaches, swaying palms, sun, surf, and serenity. Check out pix Here!

The “Mexican Riviera” of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen (“PDC”) are left far behind in Akumal. Instead of casinos, hotels and high rises, Akumal offers a friendly, village atmosphere complete with a local vegetable market, eateries and a delightful muffin shop. Resorts are non-existent (until the developers arrive!). Instead, visitors stay in local “casitas” and small condos that rent by the week.

Half Moon Bay Mexico sunrise

Half Moon Bay, Akumal, Mexico.

On our arrival day, we rented a car at the Cancun airport and drove south along highway 307, a seemingly endless, dry, limestone-dusted concrete umbilicus that ties Cancun to the Belize border and beyond.

We had monitored Akumal message boards on the Web for months and knew to stop at the San Francisco market in PDC for cheap groceries and cervesa (beer!). We found an open Banco, exchanged dollars for pesos and left the hurly-burly. Soon we passed through the lovely arches at the entrance to Akumal Centro (village central) and were unpacking in our room at Hacienda De La Tortuga.

Hacienda De La Tortuga

Our digs at Hacienda De La Tortuga, Akumal, Mexico.

Our third floor view encompassed Half Moon Bay and a world class beach at Akumal Bay. A reef line just offshore tantalized these snorkelers–we planned to join the fishies after lunch!

On Sunday, we pack a few drinks in our collapsible cooler, we head 23 Km south to the ruins of Tulum. We roar along at 110 kilometers/hr, the jungle a blur on either side of the road. We pass infrequent landmarks like Aventuras Akumal (rental condos) and Aktun-Chen dry cave (tours!). We whiz past the community of Chemuyil and, further south, Xel-Ha (Shell-Ha), a Disney-esque water and eco park. Before you know it we’re at the entrance to the ruins at Tulum.

Sundays, entrance to Mexican national parks is free for Mexican nationals. We’re here early, at 8:00 am. It’s already hot. We head into the remains of the only major ancient Maya religious center on this coast. Tulum looks just like the books and documentaries–mysterious and magnificent. This walled ceremonial site was ancient when the Spaniards first spotted it in 1518. Numerous buildings are scattered throughout the site. The most prominent structure is The Castillo (Castle), which sits atop a 90-foot cliff overlooking the ocean below.

Gazing out over the layered blues of the Caribbean from the heights of Tulum is a peaceful reverie and a terrific photo op! We walk around, taking pictures and reviewing the history of this ancient citadel. We notice local Mayan families coming in and, behind them, the tourist buses. We take the tram in and out–it’s only 10 pesos, and worth avoiding a mile-long walk to the archaeological site in the heat. Hire a guide if you’re so inclined–we did our homework and didn’t really need or want one.

Coatimundi pet Kootie

Coatimundi pet Kootie.

We head a few miles north from Tulum to Casa Cenote to swim and chill and join the famous Sunday BBQ. The turn-off to Casa Cenote is easy to spot, so we bangity-bang in second gear down the rutted and potholed track toward the beach, follow the curve to the left and we’re there. The cool, fresh water cenote is on the left, restaurant on the right. We dunk in the cenote then duck under the thatched roof of the restaurant to get a seat, enjoying the very welcome breeze and the exquisite view of the Caribbean. Whoa! There’s Kootie, the resident coatimundi (South American raccoon) jumping from her hammock to a nearby table as her human “mother” chases and admonishes her charge. Everyone in the place is cooing and laughing at this wonderful, friendly and mischievous creature. We shoot pictures like fools…

Early evening, and we’re back on the beach in Akumal, sitting at the La Buena Vida, swinging in the swings at the bar, drinking a cold one and trailing our toes in the sand. We witness an awesome rise of the full moon–orange, then yellow then white, hanging over the horizon like a spotlight. Click, whirrr. I take a mental photo of the moon with a silhouette of a coconut palm frond waving to and fro, a streak of white moonlight dusting the darkened ocean in front of the restaurant.

Bushed, we retire to H. de la T. to discover the sleeping accommodation–a raised cement slab with a four-inch mattress. Oh well, we’re tired and crash without further discussion.

Photos Here

Noisy birds in the nearby jungle wake us at dawn. We pack for a trip around the corner to Yal-Ku (“Chal-Ku'”) lagoon.  

Yal Ku lagoon, Akumal, Mexico

Yal Ku lagoon, Akumal, Mexico.

Snorkeling in the most gorgeous and pristine setting imaginable, we are amazed as we watch fresh and salt water being mixed by our movement, turning the formerly crystalline view into Jell-o, and blurring the view of brilliant juvenile tropical fish. After a day in this fantastic setting, we find ourselves back in the swings at the bar, laughing and reliving the day. We have another drink then head back to our unit, where we sip beer and eat chocolate cookies for dinner. Too wound up to sleep, too tired to go out to dinner, but hungry. Oh well–it’s vacation! We kill off the entire package of cookies and head for bed.

pyramid-of-the-sun-chitzen-itza

Pyramid of the Sun, Chitzen Itza.

The next day, we’re off to world-famous Chichen Itza, a couple hours through the jungle by car. Up before the sunrise, we find the Coba road and head west through the awakening jungle. I jump out of the car to take a picture of the ribbon of concrete piercing the endless green. I hear roosters crowing at a nearby ranchero, the only sign of life for some miles. The mist is rising off the jungle, insects are droning in the background. I hear no engines, no airplanes, no voices, no human sounds. Just the jungle and my own breathing. The camera shutter sounds unusually loud.

An hour or so west, we come to the quaint town of Vallodilid. We eat breakfast at the buffet advertised on a big sign on a hotel on the southwest side of the town square (zocola). Decent food for a few pesos and a clean el banyo (restroom). Onward to Chichen Itza!

We catch the toll road out of Vallodolid and twenty minutes brings us to the Chichen Itza parking lot. We arrive early, as the place is opening. We get our tickets, stop in el banyo, hire a guide (350 pesos but be prepared to tip a lot more!). Juan is knowledgeable, in a rote way. Clearly he knows little beyond the script. This place is everything we expected, everything we’ve seen on TV and read in magazines. We’re riveted. We learn about the “acoustics”, apparently deliberately designed sound effects created by clapping in certain spots on the plaza between the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of the Warriors. A single clap causes an echo of 7-11 claps, clearly heard. The same clap, if one tunes one’s ear toward the pyramid, brings forth a wonderful, mystical birdcall or whistle. We wonder why the ancients designed these effects and to what purpose.

storms-over-jungle-from-atop-chichen-itza-pyramind

Jungle storms approach Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza.

We carefully climb the scary, steep stone steps up 90 meters to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in time to observe two large rainstorms sweeping across the jungle toward us. I stay and shoot film while people scurry to get down those steps before they get wet and slippery (not to mention the steps!) We enjoy the energy of the approaching storms, breathing in the smell of the rain mixed with the dank damp of the temple interior. Luckily, the storms hold off long enough for us to make our way gingerly down the steep decline to a timely rendezvous with our car, just as the sky and another tourist bus unloads.

On the way back to Akumal in a rainstorm, we get lost and nervous, watching the road practically wash out from under us. We drive past a totaled SUV being pulled out of the jungle by a wrecker in the middle of nowhere. Dodging two large fallen trees across the road, we see a few scattered huts and some pigs out in the rain. We finally get directions from a young boy riding his bike on the road, oblivious to the rain. We tentatively make our way back to Akumal…

Gran Cenote near Tulum, Mexico

Gran Cenote near Tulum, Mexico.

The following day, snorkeling at the Gran Cenote is on our schedule, so we drive south along highway 307 and park in the shade of the grounds. We tromp down an ill-defined “path” among limestone boulders and loose rock that threatens to turn an ankle at every step, arriving at a large, uninviting hole in the rocky ground. Large, shy iguanas dart from our path. Soon, we arrive at rickety, narrow wooden steps that lead straight down into the cenote. We carefully haul down cooler, backpacks and snorkel gear, arriving some 40 feet later at the bottom of the opening. Narrow “walkways” have been roughly crafted from short lengths of tree limbs- watch your balance! Butterflies flit in the sun, birds swoop from unseen nooks and caverns, chirping crazily. Grey iguanas race across sun-bleached limestone rocks then freeze, posing just long enough for a quick photo, then off again, chasing moths and other breakfast tidbits. Small trees and stunted greenery accent this wet, strange place. We follow one “walkway” to a platform over crystalline waters.

TRIP PHOTOS HERE

We manage to get into the water of the cenote without slipping off the hand-hewn rough ladder that leads some five feet to the surface. Small fish swim placidly around us. We paddle around in clear, cool water looking at the rocky bottom some 15 feet below. The sun pours down from the hole in the trees above, spearing ribbons of light through the mirrored water surface.

Snorkeling into the deep shadow under the cavern overhang, we drift through a litter of bat guano and bird droppings on the water’s surface. We think positive thoughts like protein treatment for the hair. However, we will put hydrogen peroxide in our ears later!

We change clothing at the el banyo on the property and head toward Tulum pueblo for some planned shopping. The 90-plus degree heat of May fails to wilt our enthusiasm for bargain hunting at the “Stop and Shop,” located near the bus station. The lady proprietor is really sweet and kind to gringas who speak terrible Spanish!

The next day we tour the dry cave at Aktun Chen.

Aktun Chen caves near Akumal, Mexico

Aktun Chen caves near Akumal, Mexico.

If you are claustrophobic, as we are, you will probably do okay as there are few tight places. Generally the cave is very open, with lots to see and learn about. Just look out for the “road” into the attraction. Go slow. Speaking of road conditions, the track through the jungle to Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) cenote is treacherous, a series of crazed limestone moguls, twisting and potholed and crumbling at the edges. The cenote itself is isolated and spooky and seems to emit attitude, as if it’s waiting patiently for something. We had the place to ourselves and snorkeled in the gloom of the overhanging cavern, watching swarms of swallows swoop around the circular opening to the cenote.

Then it was on to Zamas restaurant on the beach south of Tulum pueblo for lunch. What a magical place! Beautiful scenery, a windswept coastline and rocky crags reminded us of the coast of Maine. We enjoy a very nice meal in a paradisiacal setting, with the onshore breeze whipping through the stunted coconut palms that surround the restaurant. No Kootie here–just acres of peace and the roar of large breakers thundering upon cliffs.

Some afternoons we snorkeled over the shallow reefs at the mouth to Half Moon Bay. One day we spotted a school of giant parrotfish, each as large as a calf. The loud crunching sounds of powerful beaks pulverizing their coral snacks could be heard distinctly underwater.

Our last day we saved for the Mayan ruins at Coba. We arrive early, just as the archaeological site opens. Coba is serene and magical, with mist hovering around the tops of huge trees that sprout from the rubble. Mayan workmen rested from sweeping and raking leaves from temple steps–we could hear their quiet voices drifting through a grove of trees. Something about this place encouraged hushed tones.

Mayan ball court, Tulum ruins, Mexico

Mayan ball court, Tulum ruins, Mexico.

We walked softly for several kilometers along an old sacbe-ob or road, wondering how many ancient feet had trod the very path we now walked. After hiking through the jungle for four kilometers, we came to the Great Pyramid, all 138 feet of it. Taking a deep breath and a large swig of water from our packs we clambered up the rough-hewn, awkward steps to the top. The view of the jungle from the temple summit was spectacular! We walked around the edges of the small temple at the top of the pyramid. The only sounds we could hear were bird calls and the background drone of insects. Looking across the sea of green, we could see lumps along the horizon and just below it, near the two lakes that are part of the archaeological area. We pondered if these were un-excavated ruins, like the numerous mounds of rubble we passed on our hike to the Great Pyramid.

All too soon it was time to leave the Mundo Maya. We have so many stories to tell: of leaf-cutter ants creating endless trails through the jungle, of hermit crabs tickling our toes while we ate dinner on the beach, of moonrises over the sea, of sunsets over the jungle and the faint sound of palm fronds clacking in the warm night breeze. Some day, we will return to the mystical, serene Mundo Maya.

Photos Here