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]

The Trick To Surviving Thanksgiving On The Road


I woke up last Thanksgiving with plenty to be thankful for. The sun was shining. The air was fragrant. Outside my guesthouse window, rice paddies extended as far as the eye could see. I was in Bali, for Christ’s sake. There wasn’t much to complain about.

Yet, I felt empty. Thanksgiving is one of the toughest days to travel, especially when you’re alone. For a while, I puttered around my room, checking my email and looking at photos of friends and families on Facebook. It was the seventh Thanksgiving I had spent away from family, and it had yet to get easier.

I do, however, have a strategy for Thanksgivings abroad, and it’s pretty simple. I indulge. If I’ve been on a tight budget, I splurge on a nice guesthouse. If my neck is stiff from a 14-hour bus ride, I spring for a massage. I sleep in. I watch movies. I basically give myself permission to do whatever the heck I want, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed to do” while traveling.

And in the spirit of the holiday, I eat – well, and often.

In 2008, it was a midnight Egyptian feast on a rooftop in Luxor. My friend and I were dirty and dusty from a day spent exploring the temples. We scarfed down specialties like kofta and stuffed pigeon while our waiter played a special iTunes mix of Usher songs for his American guests.

The following year, it was a breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage in the beachside town of Anjuna in Goa. It was one of the few times I ate meat in my six weeks of backpacking through India. I spent the rest of the day in a food coma on the beach.

And last year in Bali, it was a lunch of crispy duck at Ubud‘s Bebek Bengil, which is famous for the dish. The duck is first steamed in Indonesian spices, then deep fried for a crispy finish and served with rice and Balinese vegetables. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. I savored it slowly and washed it down with a midday beer while reading a collection of short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri. By meal’s end, my self-pity had all but vanished.

It’s not easy being away from home on Thanksgiving. But indulging in the world’s pleasures – particularly its culinary ones – can certainly help.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Being And Nothingness: Questing For Indolence In Ubud

OCTOBER 5, 10:30 a.m. — I’m sitting by my private villa’s footprint-shaped infinity pool at the Royal Pita Maha resort in northern Ubud, Bali. I’ve been on Bali for five days now as an invited guest at the gloriously cornucopic and chaotic Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, a five-day literary love-fest that brings together 130 writers from more than 20 countries with hundreds of literature enthusiasts to celebrate words and humanity. We’re in day three of the festival and I’m totally loving it. I’ve already had stimulating conversations with dozens of wonderful worldly people and I feel that my personal planet is broadening and broadening with each encounter.

And that’s in addition to the sublime joy of being in Ubud itself, which – once you get away from the main drag, which is clogged with motor scooters, taxis, touts, trucks and tourists – bestows still a little piece, and peace, of heaven.

I taught an all-day travel writing workshop (with students from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, England and the U.S. – we were a world-girdling odyssey without going anywhere!) two days ago and pontificated on a panel about travel writing yesterday. Tomorrow I have a full day of back-to-back panels on travel writing, the intersection of food and culture, and the future of publishing – but today, my schedule is enticingly, exhilaratingly, panel-free.

I have been thinking that I should spend the day exploring the less-touristed northern and western corners of Bali, or paying homage to some of the island’s renowned temples, or re-visiting the villages I wrote about on my first journey here 34 years before….

But sometimes as a travel writer you have to do things that just don’t come naturally, that take you way out of your comfort zone. And today, I’ve just impetuously decided, is one of those days. Sitting on my terrace under the batik blue sky, contemplating a day that stretches as infinite as the pool before me, I’ve resolved to try to do something that I haven’t done in a very, very long time: nothing.

That’s right, I’m immersing myself in indolence.This is a challenge. I haven’t been indolent in so long that I can’t even remember what it feels like. But I suspect it’s kind of like riding a bike. Or not riding a bike …

Indolence is the inspiration for innumerable vacations every year, but as a travel writer, I’ve always taken a gritty pride in never being indolent. Perhaps because most people assume that all travel writers ever do is lie under palm trees doing nothing, for most of my professional life I’ve sneered at the notion of lying under a palm tree doing nothing. I’ve pitied the poor salarymen and women who spend their holidays basting on beaches and call it travel.

But after two of the most hassled, harrowing, hectic, pushing-me-to-my-limits-and-beyond weeks of my life just before I galumphed onto a plane for the 24-hour passage to Hong Kong and Denpasar, I’m having a mini-epiphany about indolence: it’s time to embrace it.

11:30 a.m. — Indolence isn’t easy. I let my guard down for a moment and before I realized it, I’d swum a dozen laps in my private villa’s oh-so-private pool.

I swam naked, if you must know. I started to ease myself into the pool in my bathing suit, and then I realized that no one could see me and that normal patrons probably pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of jettisoning their swimsuits and surrendering themselves to the bath-warm, arak-clear liquid in all their newborn glory, and it seemed heresy for me not to do the same. And now I’m lying (naked, if you must know) on a very comfortably padded chaise longue, on a soft towel striped in shades of sand and brick under a wide green sun umbrella, worshipping the gods and writing in my weathered and oh-so-understanding journal …

I’ve got my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Bali by my side, and I just thought that I could write a brilliant meta-postmodern-deconstructionist-neo-existentialist story about a travel writer exploring Bali by lying poolside in Ubud for an entire day reading the Lonely Planet guide to Bali – and then that seemed so entirely not indolent that I dropped the idea like a hot corn fritter.

Vigilance is all …

1:00 — I just went for another quick swim – the water was calling me — and now I’m lying on my chaise longue and the thousand shades of green on the hillsides around are massaging my mind and the sun is a heated compress on my back and the palm fronds rustling in the wind and the intricately thatched roofs and the artistically arranged rocks are all gamelan-ing in hypnotic synesthesia, and I’m thinking the truest way to achieve indolence would simply be to be, to be here now, and I’m realizing there is really only one way to do this, and that is to simply put down my pen and do nothing at a

[Photo credit: Don George]

Dreaming of Bali – In search of paradise

What is paradise? Is it a place we can visit? Somewhere with palm tree-lined beaches, frosty cocktails and simmering volcanoes? Or is it an idea? A vision in dreams that never quite materializes when we wake up? Bali, an intriguingly exotic island tucked into the Indonesian Archipelago in Southeast Asia, is just such a paradise. This elusive island is everything you’ve ever dreamed – a land of otherworldly temples, postcard-worthy sand and exotic colorful wildlife. But just when you start easing into the charms of this idyll, Bali shocks you back to life with its increasing modernity and ever-evolving culture. Dreams take unexpected turns, don’t they?

Everyone in Bali, it seems, is looking for their slice of paradise. The island last year welcomed a record 2.3 Million visitors and it shows. In Bali’s tourist capital of Kuta the signs are everywhere, manifesting themselves as gaudy Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurants and mushrooming surf shops on every corner. But that doesn’t mean this paradise is lost. Simply drift your way towards the island’s serene interior, a place dotted with terraced rice paddies and gently humming frogs. Or find yourself lost inside a labyrinth of street food vendors in the city of Denpasar, your nose perfumed with scents of spice, and smoke, and kerosene heat.

Paradise isn’t just a place. It’s a way of seeing the world, particularly when you’re dreaming of Bali. Keep reading below to learn how to begin your Bali exploration.Getting There
Getting to paradise isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? This is particularly true for Bali, an island that’s hidden itself way down “in the corner” of Southeast Asia. While there are no direct flights from the United States, airlines like Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong), Korean Air (via Seoul), China Airlines (via Taipei) and Singapore Air all fly via connections to Denpasar (DPS), Bali’s main airport. Typical prices as of February 2011 start at about $1300 from the East Coast. It might be a long journey to get to Bali, but trust us, it’s well worth it!

Orientation
The vast majority of Bali’s tourism (and visitors) end up in the island’s South, centered around the coastal city of Kuta. While not all of Kuta is bad, most of the city is a mass of schlocky souvenir stands, gaudy restaurants and package tourists. Avoid it if you can. North of Kuta is its swanky cousin Seminyak, home to many of the island’s expats, upscale eateries and shopping.

Beyond Kuta and Seminyak is Ubud, a loose collection of villages, rice paddies and greenery centered on the oddly named Monkey Forest Road. Even further north the island is dominated by the massive Gunung Agung volcano, the geographical and spiritual heart of Balinese life. Beyond that is Bali’s largely undiscovered interior, full of interesting spots like Munduk and of course, Bali’s infinite stretches of coastline, populated by towns like Lovina. In the far Northwest is the wilderness of West Bali National Park.

Where to Stay
Accommodations in Bali range from the insanely luxurious (picture that last Travel + Leisure photo shoot) to modest surf shacks. Most visitors find themselves staying in the island’s south, simply because it has the biggest selection of high-quality accommodations.

The best option for those not rolling in dough but still looking to enjoy some of Bali’s legendary retreats is one the fantastic, plentiful and reasonably priced private villa options on sites like VRBO or Homeaway. For less than you think, you’ll be living it up in your own beautifully manicured tropical estate (here’s where we stayed) or condo.

Beyond the villa scene, there’s a huge range of accomodations on offer in Bali. In Ubud in the island’s relaxed interior, try the Alam Indah. Travelers near Kuta swear by the All Seasons Legian. Jimbaran tends to be the island’s most luxurious (and expensive) area, hosting upscale properties like the Four Seasons and Puri Bali.

What to Do
Whether you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure or a nice beach where you can eat Lotus Blossoms, Bali has an activity for you. In addition to our tips below, check out these 10 suggestions for your Bali visit.

  • See the Kecak at Ulu WatuKecak, a form of Balinese musical theater retelling the myths of the Hindu religion, is re-enacted at sunset at the island’s Pura Luhur temple, perched dramatically on towering cliffs above the ocean. A truly awesome and interesting spectacle to see.
  • Learn to surf – Due to favorable ocean currents and a uniquely suitable coastline, Bali has emerged as one of the world’s great surfing meccas. Try a class at the surfing mecca of Kuta beach, or head to points further South for some legendary “breaks” at spots like Ulu Watu.
  • Head to the spa – tired and sore from that surfing lesson? Why not hit the spa? Bali is increasingly known as one of the world’s “spa capitals,” whether you’re looking for an insanely luxurious spa treatment or simple inexpensive massage on the beach, Bali has it all.
  • Inland adventures – Bali isn’t just about great beaches and spas. Travelers who venture into the island’s interior will find a wealth of challenging activities and beautiful views ranging from laid-back bike rides among the rice paddies in Ubud, to hikes up volcanoes at Gunung Agung to whitewater rafting.

Dreaming of your own visit to Bali? Read more about Gadling’s “visit to paradise” HERE.

Photo of the day (1.6.2011)

Photo of the day 1.6.11

Part of the joy of travel is trying new foods, like wild boar spare ribs or roasted chestnuts. Or barbequed monitor lizard. Flickr user LadyExpat spotted these enterprising young men in Ubud, Bali, taking the unfortunate reptile to market where it is apparently in hot demand for its skin and meat. Perhaps Mike Barish can tell us if it tastes like chicken when he returns from Bali.

Why not add your exotic food pictures to the Gadling Flickr pool? If they look tasty, we might choose one for a future Photo of the Day.