#OnTheRoad On Instagram: Reunion

This week on Instagram, Gadling is off to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

The Indian Ocean bridges Africa in the west and Southeast Asia and Australia in the east. Much less familiar to Americans than Europeans, the region’s islands challenge the Caribbean for the attention of upscale Europeans, and can lay claim to some of the world’s dreamiest properties. Some of its countries, like the Comoros, are very poor; others, including Seychelles and Mauritius, can be found at the top of Africa’s per capita income tables.

Most popular among French-speaking tourists, Réunion is a French overseas department whose closest neighbor is Mauritius. Like Mauritius, Réunion is a true creole hodgepodge of a place, with a melting pot population; unlike Mauritius, it boasts a volcanic, mountainous interior so dramatic that it is often likened to Hawaii.

I’m here for the hiking, the mountain villages, réunionnaise cuisine, the tropical fruit and the heat. It’s been an interminable, wet, gray winter and I want to warm up. I’ll be sure to pass along some warmth to you.

Do you have any photos you’d like to share with a wider audience? If you mention @GadlingTravel in your own photo AND use the hashtag #gadling, your photo will be considered for our Photo Of The Day.

[Image: Flickr | Aleix Cabarrocas Garcia]

Mar Mikhael: Beirut’s Shopping District

Beirut‘s Mar Mikhael (Saint Michael) looks at first glance like a pretty quiet neighborhood, a place where the sounds of machinery coming out of auto repair shops emit the only real noise of note. Scratch the surface just the tiniest bit and it becomes obvious that Mar Mikhael has gone the route of many other neglected urban corners. In between the exhaust and the whirring motors, the neighborhood boasts lots of innovative shops. Taken together, they offer the perfect antidote to the much-hyped Beirut Souks shopping center with its Beverly Hills-in-Lebanon glitz.

Here is a clutch of exciting stores for shoppers and culture browsers in Mar Mikhael.

1. Papercup (Agopian Building, Pharaon Street) is a bookstore/café, the obvious place in the neighborhood to launch or conclude a Mar Mikhael shopping adventure. It’s well lit, has a community bulletin board, serves very good coffee – try the Vietnamese espresso! – and stocks an impressive selection of magazines and books, some keyed to current museum exhibitions around the world.

2. Tan (Alexandre Fleming Street) is conceptually geared to the current financial moment. Partners Ghada Rizk and Rima Sabbah decided that the global recession was a good moment to start a business and proceeded to start a label of affordable clothes for women: “We can’t afford to pay $500 for a dress, and neither can our friends,” they told me. Sensible. Their signature item is a lovely versatile tank top, good for work and going out both, priced at $80. Tan set up shop in Mar Mikhael in October 2011.

3. Plan Bey (Armenia Street) is to my mind the star shop of the neighborhood. It is an extraordinary bookshop and exhibition space that also sells music, photographs and various little objects. Owner Tony Sfeir has curated an appealing selection, and is exceptionally friendly. When I visited, Ethiopian jazz was playing and the star products for sale were super seasonal jams and oils from Syria. I didn’t leave empty-handed.

4. Nayef Francis (Armenia Street) opened in December 2011. The store sells Francis’ own very expensive mirrors, furniture, aluminum cups and lamps. Everything is beautifully finished and made in Lebanon.

5. Some great mid-century modern furniture pieces, plus some one-of-a-kind vintage signage and other industrial cast-offs can be found at Studio Karim Bekdache, a vast space on Madrid Street. Some of architect Bekdache’s original designs are for sale here.

6. Find jewelry nearby at Rania Choueiri’s L’Atelier Fanfreluche (Madrid Street). The shop doubles as an exhibition space. Last year saw an innovative exhibition of buyable upcycled goods, including furniture and lamps.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

Shaking The Disease

From August 1984 through the summer of 1985, I lived with my family in Saarland, in the southwestern corner of West Germany. A French protectorate in the years following the Second World War, Saarland was a strange place for a family’s sabbatical year. It felt more like a cul-de-sac on the edge of German-speaking Europe than it did the “heart of Europe,” the notion underlying its contemporary self-presentation. Back then, many of my classmates had never crossed the border into France, which was just two or three miles away. The border felt sealed, even though passport checks were perfunctory and even though French words enlivened local dialects.

Saarland was a good launching pad. The dollar was strong and my parents’ modest discretionary income went far. We jumped on trains, sometimes on consecutive weekends, to explore the surrounding regions and beyond.

In the summer of 1985, we made a particularly exciting journey to Karl-Marx-Stadt (earlier and now again Chemnitz) in East Germany to visit some cousins. My father had become strongly interested in genealogy over the previous decade, and his research had yielded friendships with a slew of West German relatives. We had gotten to know one distant cousin especially well, and he invited us to stay with his aunt and her family near Karl-Marx-Stadt.To visit them we first traveled across West Germany to the border with East Germany and then continued on through East Germany’s train corridor to West Berlin. There was a friction in West Berlin that I hadn’t seen in other European cities, a counterculture that seemed stable and permanent, rooted in its weirdness. We walked near the scary, modern Wall, and combed through the city’s sights.

After a few days in Berlin, we took the train south to Karl-Marx-Stadt. Shortly after we crossed into East Germany, four teenagers boarded the train. There was a flash of negativity about them, a subtle alienation. These teenagers were not like West German kids. They were quiet, first of all, and apparently shy, glancing uncomfortably at us. I couldn’t stop looking at them, drinking all their details in – their hair, their clothes, their attitudes. They were less in-your-face than their West German contemporaries but their defiance was unmistakable. One of them held a little transistor radio. He and I faced each other, our eyes meeting above the seats.

A few minutes in the radio began to play “Shake the disease” by Depeche Mode, which was a big hit that summer. We both started to mouth the words, still viewing each other tentatively. We sang the song silently, observing one another throughout. Along the way he lost his shyness. I was filled with a sense of wonder. Previously I’d considered how fractured we were from another, and now it seemed as if we understood each other very well. The bridge between our two adolescences was this song, bound up in Martin Gore’s strange pairings of words: “you know how hard it is for me to shake the disease / that takes hold of my tongue in situations like these.”

I recall many incidents from the rest of that visit. We met relatives. We witnessed a small wedding in a village church and my mother cried. We walked in the woods. We had difficulty changing money. We drove to a tourist restaurant in the forests near the border with Czechoslovakia. The one completely focused memory, however, was that experience on the train. For that song’s four minutes and 48 seconds, two 15-year-olds shared something. It was everything. It was nothing. It belonged to us.

[Image: Flickr | Hunter-Desportes]

Edmonton: Three Boars, Perfect Cocktails

Before a recent trip to Edmonton I did my standard restaurant research. All trails seemed to lead to a place called Three Boars Eatery, located happily enough just a few blocks from my hotel in the neighborhood of Old Strathcona. I left a message requesting a booking the day before my arrival and two minutes later my phone pulsed. “Hi. You called. We’re full upstairs tomorrow night but there’s always room in the bar.”

The next night, after an airport shuttle ride through snow-choked streets and a quick check-in, I entered Three Boars’ bar area. It was populated solely by men, all of whom sported either a beard or a plaid shirt. Some, like me, boasted both. It felt like a homecoming. I overheard talk of poorly-behaved roommates at the far end of the bar, while the two gymrats next to me discussed in very technical terms the effect of steroids on a friend’s growth. The Rolling Stones ranted in the background; in the foreground, the service was attentive and nerdy. A revolving cast of three waiters asked questions and probed, made suggestions, and explained that the menu changes several times a week, sometimes daily.

Three Boars is about offal and local provenance. It’s full-fat and high protein. Three Boars is relaxed but it is also self-conscious, telling guests where all their food and drinks originate. I sipped local beers (fine, though nothing truly exceptional) and ate several small and very good courses: smoked pork jowls with grainy mustard, smoked steelhead trout, and bacon-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese. So far so good.

Then came the truly exceptional part of the evening, the part that made me sit up: a miso-braised pork belly sitting on steel-cut oats cooked in dashi, with scattered pickled mushroom, roe, and seaweed. The flavors were bold and beautifully balanced. The result was a wildly delicious and quite comforting savory breakfast, but for dinner. It entered the upper reaches of my global favorite food items chart with a bang.

Naturally I asked my waiters where else I should eat. “The food community is small in Edmonton, so everyone knows each other,” said one. To illustrate, he pointed out a chef sitting at the far end of the bar and then grabbed a fellow who was just leaving. “And this is Tarquin, the best bartender in Edmonton. You should have him make you cocktails.”Two nights prior, Tarquin Melnyk had won a Canadian Professional Bartenders Association prize as the best bartender in Alberta. He suggested that I visit Manor Casual Bistro, the restaurant where he tends bar, which I did the following night. I tried three of his complicated cocktails, thinking that each looked on paper as if it had too many ingredients, only to be walloped each time. These are remarkable, ambitious cocktails, some with either semi-exotic components (elderflower liqueur); others with remarkably exotic ingredients (phytoplankton).

Melnyk is personable well beyond reasonable customer service expectations. I had the feeling that, had I requested it, he could have devoted an evening to discussing new developments in the world of craft cocktails with me.

Edmonton’s dosage of friendliness was pleasing for sure, but what made my few days in Alberta’s frozen capital downright exciting was the vibe of being invited in, however briefly, to spend some time with a group of people making good food and drink for each other all bitter winter long.

[Image: Flickr | Hobolens]

Photo Of The Day: Victoria Pier

This Victoria pier, the Ogden Point Breakwater Pier in James Bay, Victoria, British Columbia, is today’s Photo of the Day. Piers are strange metaphors for travel, as they function both as cul-de-sacs and tethers to the familiar, but there can be no question they are great for centering images. This photo was taken by Flickr user `James Wheeler on Christmas Eve. He observes in his image notes that this pier has been deemed dangerous. As a consequence, it will soon feature handrails.

Upload your favorite images to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. We choose our favorites from the pool as Photos of the Day.