Great British Staycation; Fairy Cottage Weekend

If you are looking for a staycation in Britain and want to discover some less-travelled parts of the realm, I found an appealing alternative to holiday camps and hotels.

My usual accommodation preference is luxury boutique hotels but I wanted to try something new.

As for holiday camps and villages in the UK, like Butlins and Center Parcs, marketed to families as domestic vacation destinations, a definite no. Maybe they are strange to me because they don’t exist in the US; the closest equivalent would be timeshares, resorts with activities and entertainment available on-site. Or maybe strange because I’m not a packaged holiday enthusiast and always choose to do-it-myself over manufactured, seemingly generic experiences.

In searching for something different and wanting to combine local exploration with a comfortable weekend break, I happened upon Unique Home StaysLike many travel secrets, bountiful once discovered, I had no idea there are an infinite array of rental properties in all shapes and sizes, scattered across the country. I chose a cottage in Cornwalland so began my journey.

Destination: The civil parish of Warleggan on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England. Population: 203

Getting there, on the roads less travelled:

 Accommodation: The Fairy Cottage

Officially named Pixie Nook, this one-bedroom cottage whimsically decorated in floral pastels has a cozy fireplace and a private cedar hot tub. Whether you enjoy cooking your own meals in the quiet country kitchen, or prefer to patronise a local pub, there’s a perfect balance of accessibly secluded. 

Locale: Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Explore this amazing, picture-perfect landscape and create an adventure of your own. Take a walk in the woodlands, cycle the countryside or drive to the Cornwall coast. Other activities, culture and entertainment include: Bodmin and Wenford Steam Locomotive, an old slate mine and subterranean lake at Carnglaze Slate Caverns, Bronze Age stone circles known as the Cheesewring and the Hurlers, grand houses at Lanhydrock (National Trust) and the Georgian house of Pencarrow, plus miles and miles of footpaths and trails for both serious walkers and amateur hikers.

In short, private home rentals, luxury self-catering accommodation, regional local colour. I’m hooked.

To view properties and plot your own close-to-home escape, visit Unique Home Stays

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Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: Travels with my Mother

Just forty-five miles, a river, and a border crossing separate Jerusalem from Amman, or a twenty-five minute flight from Tel Aviv via Royal Jordanian Air. Like Israel, Jordan is a young nation, independent since 1946; it’s officially named the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In a country famous for its hospitality, we were repeatedly greeted with “ahlan wa sahlan” loosely translated as “may you arrive as part of the family, and tread an easy path (as you enter)” or in another word “welcome.”

Taking residence in the gorgeously serene Kempinski Ishtar Hotel, Dead Sea, we easily explored many of the country’s star attractions:

Amman 

Known as Philadelphia during the Graeco-Roman era, the progressive capital city of Jordan boasts modern buildings, stylish restaurants, high-end boutiques, a “millionaires row” in an area called Abdun, and even (my measure of civilisation) a Starbucks. Amman’s Citadel offers lovely views above Amman, and archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic settlements.

Jarash (ancient Gerasa)

Built by the Greek armies of Alexander the Great in the 2nd century BCE, Jarash is considered one of the best preserved Roman provincial towns in the world. Walk though Hadrian’s Arch past the hippodrome to wonder colonnaded streets, hilltop temples, plazas, baths, fountains, and markets.

Bithani: The Baptism Site 

Identified as the site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, pilgrims also visit on the Israeli side just across this narrow section of the Jordan River. The entire area is a military zone due to the international border. Don’t even think about crossing though, we were told either side is happy to shoot first.

Ma’daba

In the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, find the 6th century mosaic map of the eastern Byzantine world, the oldest surviving and largest scale map of Palestine. Several local workshops handcraft stone-inlaid mosaics and other types of decorative artwork.

Mount Nebo 

According to the Bible, specifically the last chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses died here in the Land of Moab after seeing the Promised Land (Canaan). An important place of Christian pilgrimage, excavations and reconstruction led by the Franciscans who own the site have uncovered remains of the early church and its magnificent Byzantine mosaics. Look across the Jordan River Valley to the ancient city of Jericho and on a clear day glimpse Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Petra

Once a thriving Nabataean City, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, Petra is spread over 38 square miles with over 850 registered monuments. Understandably the most popular site in Jordan, and astounding to consider that 2000 years ago Petra was carved-out of the pink and tan rock. Preferable to visit for a few days, otherwise be prepared for a long walk (we clocked 5 miles) to see the main monuments. Transport in the form of camel, horse, or donkey is offered by the local residents, the Bdul, a small, isolated community who are differentiated from the traditional tent-based Bedouin tribes. The mysterious Bdul people occupied the caves and dens of Petra until 1980 at which time they were controversially relocated to a local village.

Wadi Rum

Whether a short visit via jeep or a few nights camping with the Bedouins under the vast expanse of a star-filled sky, the spectacular desert sands and landscapes should not be missed.

Aqaba and the Red Sea 

The seaport town of Aqaba (or the more developed town of Eilat on the Israeli side) has several beach resorts and for scuba-divers and snorkelers, the clear sea has plenty of coral reefs and colourful marine-life.

Dead Sea 

At the lowest point on earth, 400m below sea level, have a healing and buoyant float in the highly dense salt water. For maximum health benefits, dip your hands into a pot of mineral-rich therapeutic mud, slather it all over your body, and after it dries, wash it away with another plunge in the Dead Sea. For optimal pampering, stop by the luxurious Anantara Spa.

Jordan has even more to offer, sadly on this trip we had to miss gorge-hiking, waterfalls, ancient castles, and the nature reserves. For more information, check out Visit Jordan.

And so ended a second holiday with my Mother. Somehow I am starting to relish a future adventure with her. She’s easy-going and keeps up with my ambitious itineraries. Plus, she makes me laugh because weird-crazy is funny. Here is one of our random conversations over dinner:

Mom: I don’t know about you, but I didn’t evolve from a monkey.

at dinner, view of Dead Sea

at dinner, Dead Sea

Me: Evolution is science.

Mom: Science has been wrong, many times. 

Me: Not lately.

Mom: If people evolved from monkeys, how come monkeys aren’t still making people?”

Me: [silence] 

At least I had a lovely view.

The winner of best quote of the trip goes to this treasure: my mom referring to one of the five daily calls to prayer chanted in Arabic and projected over each mosque’s minaret loudspeaker, “oh, it is time for the Muslims to sing again!” Why yes it is.

happy travellers

happy travellers

 

 

Israel and Palestine: Travels with my Mother

Been distracted from blogging lately, happens sometimes. No better way to close a life-chapter than a semi-therapeutic holiday diversion with my Mother. Thinking the world holds somewhat limited destinations to amuse and captivate both of us, I decided on Israel and Jordan. Short flight from London, loaded with culture and history, and the Holy Land has assembled an abundance of churches.

Learning from my last foray into parental travel, I reserved one hotel in each country to establish a base, instead of one or two nights per place (like I had done in India). Immeasurably easier on both of us to gain familiarity with the staff, know how breakfast worked, unpack our belongings, and fashion a temporary home. I also embraced my role as chief planner, negotiator, money changer, excursion organiser, and general-person-in-charge. For her part as my travel companion, I witnessed people going out of their way to treat us both with kindness and respect (I would have been far more self-conscious as a lone female traveller in either country).

American Colony

Landing in Tel Aviv, we headed straight to Jerusalem, the Holiest City in the centre of the Holy Land. Historically turbulent, the Holy Land refers to all of Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories, and parts of Jordan and Egypt. Given the dimensions of Israel, 290 miles long, 85 miles wide at its widest point and 35 miles wide at its narrowest point, determined travellers with limited time can visit a lot of the country. From our charming hotel, the American Colony, once home to a wealthy Turkish merchant and remodelled borrowing Arabian architecture and Ottoman decor, we started our expedition. Driving north towards the coastal towns of Haifa and Akko, we stopped in every beautiful church from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. The next day, we explored the West Bank [of the River Jordan] from Jericho to Bethlehem, ending with a dip in the Dead Sea at Kalia Beach.

On day three we embraced Israel’s capital city. In Mark Twain’s commentary about Jerusalem he wrote in Innocents Abroad (1895), “There will be no Second Coming. Jesus has been to Jerusalem once and he will not come again.” Funny, harsh, wrong. Jesus spent a week, the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) just one night, nevertheless a person could spend a lifetime discovering and studying Jerusalem.

Here are my top five experiences:

1. Western Wall (Wailing Wall), Old City – The holiest place in Judaism and the last remnant of Herod’s Temple on the western side of the of the Temple Mount which would have housed the Holy of Holies (Arc of the Covenant).

view of the Temple Mount and Western Wall

view of the Temple Mount and Western Wall

2. Rooftop Walk, Old City – After getting lost strolling through the four Quarters (Armenian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim), the maze of souk-lined streets, and the Via Dolorosa interspersed with sacred religious landmarks, find and climb the narrow iron staircase off St. Mark’s Road to be rewarded with views of alleys below and city-scape above, particularly the Dome of the Rock at sunset from the unique perspective of residential roofs.

3. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Old City – Believed sight of Christ’s Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection, now allotted to six denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Christians (forget the Protestants, who knew there were so many sects from the Byzantine schism-side of the world). Sensibly, Muslims hold the key to the church and act as an intermediary for all those Christians.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, viewed from the Coptic Patriarchate

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, view from the Coptic Patriarchate

4. Yad Vashem, New City – Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” and spending 45 minutes or 5 hours at this Holocaust museum will change you, your lens on the world. First walking through the children’s memorial, a path in darkness illuminated by 5 solitary candles and their millions of candlelight reflections that engulf you on every side, in flickering memory of the 1.5 million children killed. In the main building, the well-designed long corridor of exhibits affects with acute poignancy the dichotomy between efforts to humanize the victims, contrasted with the Allies’ attempt to evidence the horrors of the Nazi regime. Striking, sickening, powerful images, particularly of the concentration camps, quietly asking how you would want to be remembered, immortalised? At your worst, shaved and gaunt in depravity and despair, or in another way. With your family, in a photo from a wedding, or on a birthday as a patriotic German unaware of the upcoming brutalities that would accompany the Final Solution. I would choose the latter, the human. Easy to avoid this memorial, particularly whilst on a holiday, but don’t.

5. Mount of Olives, New City – On this eastern hilltop, visit the Jewish cemetery near the Valley of Jehoshaphat ready for the Day of Judgement, the Mosque of the Ascension, the Basilica of the Agonies with the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of Paternoster; plus catch spectacular panoramas of the Old City.

Our trip coincided with Pope Francis’ tour and despite efforts to stalk the Holy See (my Mother made me) via his official itinerary, an entourage of police accompanied by the force majeure of the Israeli Army repeatedly foiled even a glimpse. “Were you frustrated?” asked Amir, our Bein Harim guide, “Good, you would not truly experience the Middle East without feeling that!”

Amid the candy-store-mother-lode of things religiously significant to pilgrims of the Crescent, Cross, and Star, the co-mingling of ethnically diverse Israelis is the most fascinating aspect of the neophyte country. Lots of narratives, some aligned, some conflicting, and mixed with politics of a nation. Despite the prolific proclamations of partisan news media, you find truth in many stories; mostly people want a peaceful life.

Go Israel – Ministry of Tourism


Bit of Editorial (in my opinion); historical context and sorting out peace

Around 1200BCE the Philistines (Palestine means “land of the Philistines”) and the Tribes of Israel arrived in the area, living in harmonious co-existence under Hebrew Kings – Saul, David, Solomon. Yes, it’s true. Anyway, you may know the Jews are the chosen people. The chosen people. Perhaps that doesn’t resonate with you, and for me the statement barely registers. God chose the Jews, they are HIS people, good for them. However the statement infers that everyone else is not chosen by God, and some God-lovers (enter Christianity and Islam) may take an exception to that notion, and so emerges anti-Semitism. Add to that the desire to possess the precious Promised-Land where you can walk in the historically accepted footsteps of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (PBUT). Three great monotheistic religions, hundreds and hundreds of years; pray, fight, repeat.

Old City, viewed from the Mount of Olives

Old City, viewed from the Mount of Olives

Shortly after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the neighbouring Arabs declared war on it. Israel’s territory got bigger utilizing might makes right expansion; no one questions the determined resolve of the Israeli Army. Still, lots of free space in this postage-stamp of a country that has an outsider humbly asking, why are you fighting over this mostly barren, yellow-brown rocky desert? Even now, everyone wants the fertile spots, the revered Holy spots, and most importantly to conquer-acquire Jerusalem.

Bedouin life; typical terrain of the country

Bedouin life; typical terrain of the country

One side, the Western-friendly side, would argue there was nothing on any of this land 150 years ago, [read as, well done Israel]. Further, the population of Israel is 8 million while the populace of surrounding Arab countries is around 217 million, talk about a hostile neighbourhood. The same neighbours who at one time collectively vowed to cast Israel into the sea. Then remember Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial); what country wouldn’t have a complex that manifests in exaggerated reactions and a preoccupation with survival. Side note: Did you know, there is no letter “P” in the Arabic alphabet, making it ironically impossible to say, “the state of Palestine” in Arabic.

 What a sign. If I was Israeli, you'd have me at "forbidden" - we loved the West Bank towns


What a sign. If I was Israeli, you’d have me at “forbidden” never mind dangerous to your life or against Israeli law – but we had no problems traveling and enjoyed visiting towns in the West Bank

The other side may contend Israel has become a tiny, tyrannical bully. For example, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank expanded as recently as 2012 [and continued in 2017] despite being considered illegal under intentional law. Ma’ale Adummin, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank, is a self-contained community built for purpose to supply affordable housing in close, commutable proximity to Jerusalem. Taking the land, building lovely villas on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem in a guard-gated community in the West Bank. Now why would that annoy Palestinians. Moreover, why should Palestine remain stateless?

Of course the Middle East situation is complex. Historical hurt, unhealed war-time wounds, difficult to forgive or forget. Current events still prompt a default response of violent rhetoric along with an-eye-for-an-eye escalation, and no one wants to give in (in the weak sense of concession) to the other side. Perhaps those who continue to want war and unrest, profit from both. Regardless, pray for peace in the Middle East, it is time.

thanks for visiting my blog

 

 

 

 

Best of Berlin: Twenty-nine hours & 5 Must-Sees

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner” ~ JFK

Time for a weekend away, a mini-break, destination: Berlin. Here are my 5 must-sees in the German capital.

1. Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) – Modelled from the Athenian acropolis and topped with the Quadriga, this iconic symbol of Berlin was built as a monument to Prussian glory.

2. Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) – Located in the Baroque-style Zeughaus building (formerly the arsenal) with German history from early civilization to present day, and an adjacent exhibition hall designed by architect I. M. Pei.

Berlin has over 170 museums and several are situated on Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a pretty area on a narrow island in the Spree River. Here are three more of Berlin’s must-see museums: Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) named for the Pergamon Alter (the monumental structure excavated in present-day Turkey was part of the acropolis of an ancient Greek city there), the museum’s collection of antiquities also includes the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) displays artwork of the German Masters and French Impressionists. The Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) presents an unflinching look at Jewish history in a building resembling a shattered Star of David, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

3. Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) – The Evangelical (Protestant-Reform) Church of Germany also located on Museum Island features an ornately decorated interior, including an elaborate alter, mosaics and sculptures, and a massive Sauer organ with 7,269 pipes (worth it to stay for service or visit for a concert). Don’t miss climbing to the top of the copper dome for beautiful views of the city.

4. Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) – Originally named Lietzenburg after the area and renamed after the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte, Elector Friedrich III (Kaiser Frederick I of Prussia) built this palace as a summer residence for his wife. Walking through the richly-decorated rooms, accompanied by the free audio-guide, imagine royal life amid the largest collection of 18th-century French art outside of France.

5. Die Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall) – Bernauer Strasse and East Side Gallery are the best places to see the symbolic remnant of the cold war that was once a 27 mile long (43.1 km) border between East and West Berlin. The total border length around West Berlin was 96 miles (155 km). On Bernauer Strassse you can see stretches of the wall, an observation tower, and the infamous “death strip.” At the East Side Gallery look at the colourful murals on the longest remaining section (0.8 miles/1.3 km).

A few honorable mentions:

Save your money to stay at the Hotel Adlon the address in Berlin located in the Mitte district and on the grand boulevard, Unter den Linden. From the glass cupola of the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, take in vistas of the city. If you’re after more panoramic views, head to Fernsehturm television tower, the city’s largest structure (368 m/1207 feet), an icon of communist East Berlin. Next to the Fernsehturm, visit Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) one of Berlin’s oldest churches. On to Bebelplatz, once named Opernplatz (Opera Square) and renamed in 1947 in honour of social activist August Bebel, this large open square was the scene of the infamous Nazi book burning on 10th May 1933 when some 25,000 books were burned. Here, find the bronze memorial with Heinrich Heine’s quote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” The imposing buildings around the square include Alte Bibliothek (Old Library), Altes Palais (Old Palace), Staatsoper Uniter den Linden (opera house), and St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale. Lastly, in the Kreuzberg district which is loaded with Turkish shops and cafés, discover a “Marianne” Stasse and Platz – it’s lovely.

To quote President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring speech from June 26, 1963, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum’ ” [I am a citizen of Rome]. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”

Top Ten Reasons I Love LA ~ Memories of Life in Los Angeles

After returning to London from a quick trip to Los Angeles, I contemplated why I give L.A. such a hard time. As a former Los Angelena, I admit to considering California in general and L.A. in particular a sun-soaked drive-thru paradise, lacking a soul. I’ve even said LaLa land is style over substance over-flowing with pretty-but-vacant people. In fairness to me, it’s not totally untrue that swarms of self-absorbed, botox-loving, globally unaware people do flood the tree-lined, perfectly manicured streets. Yet there’s more to the city of Angels; I’ve met many of my dearest friends in Los Angeles, truly amazing individuals. Plus I lived there for eight years, how bad could it be?

Here are ten things I miss about LA-living:

1. Amazingly fresh, delicious and diverse food choices; I especially miss-crave LA’s authentic Mexican food.

2. The Mondrian, Firefly, Bar Marmont at the Chateau, and all the latest I’m-too-cool trendy places.

3. Freeways going everywhere, 12-lanes of stop-and-go on the 10, 405, 110, 5, 101, and 134 to name a few.

4. Driving north on the 405 FWY and just after Mulholland descending into “the Valley” of San Fernando in the evening when the lights of Sherman Oaks twinkle invitingly; I have no time for snobs who dismiss Valley-life.

5. Super-supermarkets like Gelson’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods teeming with lush and organic choices.

6. The variety of niche areas like downtown (DTLA), Hollywood, Bel Air, Silverlake, and beach cities from Malibu and Santa Monica to Marina del Rey and Huntington.

7. Road trips to San Diego, Orange County (the OC), Palm Springs, Big Bear, Vegas-baby, Mammoth, and Tijuana (TJ).

8. Walk? Not a chance. Valet parking EVERYWHERE.

9. The grand Boulevards: Sunset, Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Melrose.

10. Yes, sunny again; oh how I miss the sun.

Time to say it, sing it with me, “I love…LA!”

another sunny day...I love LA!

another sunny day…I love LA!

Golden Geometry; India on $1200-a-day; Travels with my Mother

In 2009 my parents gave me their travel wish-list and my darling Mother, petrified of flying who only a few years prior obtained her passport, announced her desire to jet-off to India and see the Taj Mahal. Here’s how we toured India’s iconic golden triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) in luxurious style.

DelhiFirst stop Delhi and a stay at the Imperial Hotel. The grand lobby of this stately oasis oozed with scents of jasmine, nothing was too much trouble, and we enjoyed the relaxing ease of al fresco dining and afternoon tea in the lounge. So much history and culture in Old and New Delhi, here are some of the sites:

Notice the absence of pictures from the sound and light show at the Red Fort, the majestic Tomb of Humayun, my mom in her giant blue-flowered robe at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India (we were fully covered, yet the provided adornment helps locals quickly identify tourists in the courtyard which has capacity for 25,000 people), and from Gandhi’s house (Gandhi Smriti) where we walked in the garden and followed the Mahatma’s final footsteps prior to his assassination on 30th January 1948 — I deleted those photos in an stone-cold-panic as I hastily cleared a memory card at the Taj, smooth move.

Leaving Delhi, just 40km outside Agra stands the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory), the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Worth the drive to wonder through the immaculately preserved monuments and architectural wonders of the abandoned citadel city.

Onwards to the town of Agra with hectic festival-like chaos, streets teeming with people, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cows, and one lost monkey. The opulent Oberoi Amarvilas boasts each room views the Taj plus the hotel offers private golf cart transport to the Taj gate.

Pictures of the Taj Mahal (no these don’t do it justice; yes we have ten thousand more).

In the Pink City Jaipur, we entered the regal world of the Rambagh Palace Hotel. Welcomed like a Maharani, hotel guests are driven from the front gates in a vintage 1937 sedan, led by royal guard on horseback in procession with umbrella canopies; upon arrival walk atop strewn rose petals to the lobby where ointments and a tropical drink await.

The sites of Jaipur, Rajasthan:

Post-holiday I reflected on this new phase of life, a grown woman traveling with her mother. Although I’ve always had a dear connection with my Mom, we’re not personally close, as my strict, tight-lipped Catholic upbringing allowed us to share practical information, food and love, but not ideas or god-forbid personal longings or desires. However I did see another side to her in traveling, as you do. A wilful, independent side of her personality, haggling for rugs and marble and jewels in each respective city. Incidental, random stories emerged too, for example she shared this gem over dinner.

At home, as she was leaving a local restaurant, she passed by a table and noticed they ordered the fish. 

Mom: I said to the man, I was going to get that fish but didn’t know if I’d like it. Here, try mine, he replied.

Me: You ate fish off his plate? (asked in an incredulous tone)

Mom: Only a little bite.

Me: Who was he?

Mom: No idea.

Me: What? You ate off a stranger’s plate? Did he seem shocked when you said yes?

Mom: I don’t know. Glad I didn’t order the fish though, I didn’t like it.

Another day, we were driving between cities and she said “when I leave this place…” her voice trailed off and she paused before snapping “pay attention!” Ok I replied and she repeated, “when I leave this place, can I take the flowers” (she meant the beautiful fresh-cut frangipani and temple tree flowers from the hotel room). Gees, I replied I thought you meant leave, as in leave this place and were giving me instructions on arrangements. To which she replied, oh who cares about that! We both laughed.

Quite possibly people don’t see many mother-daughter travel partners, as everyone we met went out of their way to be kind to us. We were respectfully welcomed and well-wished in each locale. I did have to contend with “being the guy” for the trip sorting all the itineraries, tours, logistics, payments and tips. Hard work being the responsible one in charge. Not sure my Mom will ever fully understand me; she loves me though and I will cherish the memory of our Indian adventure.

homeward bound

homeward bound

5 Ways Sri Lanka Crushed My Travel Bug (nearly)

The adage if you can’t say something nice, say nothing rings in my ears, especially as it pertains to travel and experiencing the unfamiliar, foreign or out-right weird. Conscientious travelers have a responsibility to be tolerant and non-judgmental, right? With that in mind, and coupled with the self-imposed obligation share the best of countries not my own, I reluctantly reveal 5 ways Sri Lanka nearly crushed my travel bug.

1. Oh the Driving

You need to hire a car and driver to expeditiously see the country, however road conditions and lack of direct routes (one main highway connecting not much) meant 31 hours of car travel, my least favourite form of conveyance, to cover just 700 miles up, down, and around the country. Beyond the sheer volume of road time, there’s also the take your life in your hands adrenaline rush involved. With narrow lanes, road-hogging lorries, and high-speed overtakers, nothing prepares you for driving (or riding as a terrified passenger) in a country where head-on collisions seem inevitable, avoided only by a system of flashing lights, hand signals, and an unwritten code of driver decorum. My road weary travel partner asked on day five, “have we been in Sri Lanka this whole time?” You do know it’s an island, I replied, but I know what you mean!

right of way goes to the biggest

safer to avoid the roads

2. Geckos, everywhere! Yes, I understand it’s a jungle out there. I understand geckos are harmless and necessary. Nonetheless tiny lizards in my shower, zipping around near my bed, and  scurrying towards my luggage, in every hotel room, every day. Give me strength.

hello little one

hello little one

3. Entrance Fees like Disneyland

While I appreciate and accept there will be “foreigner” prices, I don’t expect them to equate to home-country prices. For example the towns and ancient ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa both cost $25 per person and you’ll pay $30 per person for the joy of climbing Sigiriya rock. In comparison the entrance fee for the Grand Canyon is $25 for a 7-day pass (USA); $12 to visit Stonehenge (UK); $16 to see the Mona Lisa and the rest of the artwork in the Louvre (France). Dear Tourist Board, A little perspective and if you would like to see more visitors, re-evaluate prices and consider some regulation.

No shoes allowed, best deal in town

no shoes allowed, best deal in town

4. Hawkers

The convergence of beggars and touts in every spot likely to be crossed by a tourist. According to my Bradt guidebook, “unlike hawkers in other countries, at least they are trying to sell something.” I could have funded my trip with the number of times I heard “it’s nothing to you.” The facts are you go on holiday for two weeks a year, take an expensive flight non-direct to somewhere like Colombo, and money is not nothing to you. I don’t live every day sparing no expense, so on holiday I want to enjoy myself. The steady stream of so-called vendors who invasively intruded into my adventure left me harassed and exhausted. Special mention goes to the “guides” and “helpers” at Sigiriya; despite my 2012 guidebook suggesting a small tip of Rs100 to Rs500 (a few dollars) depending on your rate of satisfaction, both asked or rather insisted on $20 compensation for their services at which point I really started to dislike Roytson Ellis author of Bradt Sri Lanka.

lower steps at Sigiriya, pre-daylight robbery, forced tip

lower steps at Sigiriya, pre-daylight robbery

5. 5-Star Prices

People travel to parts of the world where they get the best value for their currency. I didn’t expect absolute luxury, however with hotels rates of $250-$300+ per night I did expect more. For an out-of-the-way country determined to attract foreign visitors, it does not provide value for money asked. Honestly, if you are a back-packer, with tour-group, or a beach-going holiday-maker, you’ll be fine, avoid intrigue, and probably enjoy the country. Independent travelers like myself, who are desperately needed in a still-depressed tourism industry, may constantly feel abused beyond expected. My theories confirmed just prior to boarding my flight from Colombo where I needed $1.97 to buy a 500ml bottle of water; I subsequently purchased the same bottle 2 hours later in Mumbai International for a mere .39 cents. It’s the principle.

Day 6, "I'm never coming back!"

day 6, “too weary to smile for photos!”

Alright, time to make amends by saying several nice about traveling in Sri Lanka.

I am glad to be among the first throngs of tourists to rediscover the country. It is beautiful and I’d go as far to say, Lord Buddha painted Ceylon in a palette of yellow and green with the vast country-side specked with plantation style properties of the gentrified land-owning farmers.

road near Dambulla

road near Dambulla

road near Kandy

road near Kandy

landowner & property

landowner’s property

I am glad plans are underway to build a new super-highway.

I am glad there will be another airport connecting the deep south coast with the rest of the country but glad I saw the unspoiled, pre-developed southern coastline.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

When I eventually return once the country has a handle on the “tourism thing” I have two must do’s that I missed this trip:

1. Start an ascent of Adam’s Peak at 1:00am to reach the summit at dawn. The country’s holiest pilgrimage, you’ll find an indentation at the summit that Buddhists believe is the footprint of Gautama Buddha, Hindus believe is the sacred footprint of Lord Shiva, and Muslims insist, and Christians agree, is Adam’s footprint left when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. A convergence of religions in amicable disagreement ~ and a spectacular view.

2. Stay at another Taprobane property. Having patronized the Dutch House  which exudes excellence in abundance, I can not say enough about these wonderful boutique hotels.

Taprobane Island, private mansion Weligama Bay

Taprobane Island, private mansion Weligama Bay

~ 31st August 2013: Happy 2nd birthday to my blog-baby.