Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits - Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]