wish list: faraway, so close

13063619536535391028_1If you’re like me you’ve long dreamed of Cuba, the faraway, so close island off the coast of Florida that’s been off-limits to US citizens for more than fifty years. Rich in history, culture, and all that glorious music, it’s an American traveler’s version of Snuffleupagus: a rare creature able to be seen by everybody but us. Insight Cuba, a leader in small group people-to-people travel, is about to change all that. As travel to this enigmatic island is made legal for only the third time in fifty years, this licensed tour operator has me salivating at the chance to explore the once-forbidden island with a sweepstakes, running now through June 17th. To take part, ‘Like’ the Insight Cuba Facebook page and enter via the “Win a Trip to Cuba for Two” tab at the top. A winner will be selected at random on June 18th and receive a free trip for two on the tour of their choice: Undiscovered Cuba, Cuban Music & Art or Classic Cuba. The grand prize includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Havana; first-class accommodations, meals and activities; an Insight Cuba tour leader and Cuban guide; entrance fees; in-country ground transportation and transfers; 24-hour emergency service and maybe most important of all, a U.S. Department of the Treasury License and Letter of Authorization. Underdeveloped, stubbornly unchanged for decades, the revolution and the resulting embargo may have decimated the travel industry in Cuba, but it didn’t kill it. And the irresponsible policies of our own government have done nothing to squelch the abiding curiosity about our neighbors 90 miles to the south.

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don’t forget to tip your driver

sanctuary of aphaia

A quick chat with a taxi driver let us in on the fact that the Temple of Aphaia is Aegina’s major archaeological site, and before you know it we found ourselves driving at breakneck speed through fields of pistachios trees and toward the northeastern corner of the island. I’m glad we took his advice – and his cab – as the ruins were certainly impressive: a Doric temple has stood on this spot since the 5th century BC. Legend has it the temple forms an isosceles triangle with the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, which makes for a great story, whether or not it holds true. On a clear day it feels like you can see forever, or at least all the way to the port of Piraeus. Click the panorama below, then click again for greater detail. And don’t forget to tip your driver.

aphaia panorama

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second thoughts

pony and trap

The first sight we see upon docking at Aegina is a line-up of pony and traps waiting to tramp tourists around the main town. Uh oh. Perhaps the proximity of the island to Athens makes it more of a tourist hub than originally anticipated. (Even though by all outward appearances there seems to be at most five identifiable tourists wandering the esplanade, and the klatsch of carriage drivers are too busy smoking and talking to pay us any heed.) We opt for ice cream – pistachio, natch – and a pause to look at our options.

pistachio ice cream

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let’s go to that beautiful sea

aegina

The phrase “Greek Isles” summons up visions of an idyllic Neverland of ethereal sunsets, white-washed buildings, olive groves, turquoise water, and all the romance that comes from being shipwrecked on a remote island.  There are an astounding 3,000 such little Edens scattered across Greece’s corner of the Mediterranean, which means to each his own: everyone has their particular, or peculiar, favorite. The most famous are far afield – Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos, Corfu – but for the daytripper there are a few easy options close to Athens, too. The most popular excursion is one of those three-in-one boats, which stops off for about half an hour at each of three nearby islands. I wanted something a little more adventurous – and immersive. So, instead of going the package experience route, we decided to head off on our own via the fast ferry to the island of Aegina – without a map or an agenda and knowing little more than that it happens to be famous for its pistachios.

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no man’s land

no man's land

I can think of no better way to end my short visit to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago than today’s catamaran sail around the Caribbean coast. My destination: a little peninsula affectionately known as No Man’s Land, which more than lived up to the promise of its nickname. As always, click then double-click the image for greater detail.  And yes, the water really is that Crayola shade of  blue-green.

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tucking in, up a tree

Jemma's Sea View Kitchen

Don’t let the boarded up window on the side of the road dissuade you, Jemma’s Sea View Kitchen has one of the best views in Tobago. And yes, like the sign says, it’s a proper treehouse, too, resting in the boughs of an Indian almond tree. (Which goes a way towards explaining why the breeze from the sea – and the panorama of Goat Bay and Little Tobago – is so fine.) It’s also a popular location for home cooking, Trini-style: curried shrimp, fish stew, grilled lobster, and a handful of old-fashioned herbal drinks like maundy fizz. Beyond having a nice piece of fish or fruit, I’ve never had an affinity for Caribbean cuisine. It’s so boring – and starchy. Not so Trinidad and Tobago, however; the influence of French and Indian flavors combine to create dishes that are unique, like roti, a thin Indian bread piled with potato, chana and curried chicken, doubles, which I’ve already gone on about, and pelau, a rice and chicken jambalaya that’s closer in spirit to paella. Two new additions to the favored list, thanks to Jemma: breadfruit pie, which has all the texture and taste of a really creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and tanya fritters, a crunchy hush puppie made of ground provisions with a healthy kick of cayenne. Does the rest of the Caribbean know what’s going on here – or do they just not care?

breadfruit pie

tanya fritters

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from fallow to cocoa

tobago cocoa estate

In the early half of the last century cocoa was one of the major crops grown on Tobago and many of the island’s larger plantations, such as the Roxborough, Richmond and Goldsborough Estates – all over 100 acres and more in size – devoted their efforts to the cultivation of prized Trinitario cocoa beans. But something inexplicable happened and by the 1970s, the situation had changed drastically: cocoa production on Tobago was all but abandoned and the great estates were left to ruin. Hoping to rejuvenate the once lucrative industry, native Tobagonian Duane Dove returned to the island after several years living and working in Europe. Over the past decade he invested in reinvigorating a fallow estate and the result is Tobago Cocoa Estate: part plantation, part history park. Though no actual chocolate is produced on site – the roasting and blending of the beans happens in France – a visit to the estate still makes for an enlightening look at how an artisanal producer manages to retain the hands-on traditions of caring for the plants, harvesting the pods, and drying the beans for export. The best part, however, is saved for last: samples of the estate’s Gold Medal-winning chocolate paired with a smooth single-barrel rum.

cocoa pods

cracking open a cocoa pod

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panorama: maracas beach

maracas beach panorama

As always, double-click the image then click again for greater detail – this time for the best beach on which to beat that Carnival hangover.

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upon a floating gypsy village we come

After leaving JBI we came upon Ko Payni, a floating gypsy village at the head of Phang-Nga Bay. Anachronistic as that sounds, it was nevertheless established by nomadic Malay fisherman near the end of the 18th century. (Check out the brief video clip or double-click the panoramic below to get a sense of the scale of the environs.) At that time Thai law limited land ownership solely to people of Thai origin, so the resourceful gypsies built a settlement on stilts, skirting the law on a technicality while giving themselves easy access to the fisherman’s life. As the community grew prosperous, it expanded and today the village is home to some 1,500 people, a mosque, and even a football pitch, all built on barnacle-covered poles over the sea. As I arrived late in the day, I had time for little more than a coffee and a quick poke around, but it left me wondering what the village must be like in the moonlight – and at bed time as the water laps beyond the gaps of the wooden slatted floors.

gypsy panorama

ko payni

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how do you like my island, mr. bond?

speedboat express

Hidden away in my treehouse above the sea, I’ve seen very little of the island of Phuket aside from a brief trip to the market. That changed today in a fit of inspired whimsy: I chartered a speedboat off the eastern side of the island and spent the day freewheeling the Andaman Sea. After dropping anchor for a quick picnic and swim on a stretch of beach at Ko Thanan, we headed north towards Phang-Nga Bay, past dozens of islands created by mainland fault movements. Each island is, in fact, a single, massive limestone monolith, upended vertically and pocked round the base with caves which only reveal themselves during the low tide. (Limestone being soluble, the caves are the result of thousands of years of tidal erosion.) You can take a sea kayak and paddle inside the caves if the tide is right, but my timing was off, so I settled for a pee break masquerading as a swim stop beneath the dramatic cliffs before continuing northwards – in a sudden lashing rain – to Ko Phing Kan, or James Bond Island. Used as the setting for the secret lair of Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun, JBI has become the most famous part of the newly established Ao Phang Nga Marine National Park. In point of fact it’s two islands: the towering Khao Phing Kan, literally “hills leaning against each other,” and Ko Tapu, or “spike island,” where Scaramanga hid the solex laser. If I had to be a super-villain I couldn’t think of a better place to hideaway and plot world domination.

beach at ko thanan

limestone eroding

phang nga bay panorama

james bond island

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morning moon

morning moon

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paresa

paresa 3

Perched high on the cliff side, over azure blue waters and a picturesque panorama of the Andaman Sea, Paresa is more than just a hotel: it’s Phuket’s best kept secret. Imagine the Swiss Family Robinson, if they were smart enough to build themselves a treehouse made of teak in the tropical forest, an outdoor shower, a fully stocked bar, and a private infinity pool cantilevered over the cliff, and you begin to get a sense of the luxury adventure that awaits. Add a team of Angels on call to do your bidding – plus a private beach club along the marvelously under-crowded Kamala Beach – and your search for the perfect idyll has ended. Or at least my search has ended. What need have I with the rest of this island when my jungle villa awaits? Cocooned, the outside world falls away. And while I’m due at the spa any minute now, for the first time in my life I’m thinking a massage might actually be redundant.

kamal beach - paresa

paresa 2

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these colors don’t run

They explode. Click the image for greater detail and you’ll understand why the Cabot Trail is considered one of North America’s great scenic road trips.

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a highland fling

The headlands and cliffs of Cape Breton Highlands National Park are a sight to be seen. Home to the famous Cabot Trail – Canada’s answer to Monterey’s 17-mile drive – the park on the northern tip of the island is blessed with a dramatically deciduous landscape. Completed in 1932, it joins a handful of previously isolated fishing villages along an approximate 300 km loop. Today the Trail connects eight major communities with intriguing histories, ranging from the Acadian Region, to Irish and Scottish settlements. At the tail end of the foliage season it’s almost deserted, too, which turns out to be a bonus for anyone seeking little more than silence and sweeping views.

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live blog: hitching a ride

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