Fyllis Hockman

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I was delighted when my husband and I received Betty’s invitation to join her for a picnic at the Sunset in the Palms Resort in Negril, Jamaica. The setting was lush, the food and wine enticing. Conversation, though, was a tad strained. But then her recent history was a bit dicey. Recently married, rumor has it was a shotgun wedding. Seems Betty had been knocked up and the kids already there. It was hard for her to attend to them and also focus on her guests. Still she was already back at work maintaining the grounds — Betty is a very resilient goat. And one of Sunset’s favorite staff members.

Sunset is an airy, compact oasis in the middle of a jungle, wood-filled and woodsy, the abundant foliage making the transition from outside to inside seamless, with towering masses of greenery at every turn of the head. So different from the many large, bustling, antiseptic resorts often lining Caribbean beaches. Here, you’re a part of Jamaica, mon!

The beach a short walk away, free of the seaweed currently plaguing so many Caribbean shores. Spotting a red flag usually indicates a warning sign of some kind. Here, placed in front of your chaise lounge, it simply means please bring me another Pina Colada…

Tranquil was a word I heard a lot. Maybe because the all-inclusive resort is adults only — except for Betty’s kids of course, and they’re not likely to be running down the halls… And as appealing as reggae music is in the Caribbean, it is often ear-splitting along the beaches and the bars. Here, it is mellow – though, admittedly, for some, that might seem an oxymoron.

The resort comes by its name honestly. All the rooms resemble palm-fringed treehouses. The hammock on our tree-topped balcony was just a bonus. One morning I was awakened by an unaccustomed sound only to find, Betty, husband Royal Brown and kids bleating greetings below our balcony.

Sunset is all about service. Everyone sports a badge saying, “I am your personal concierge,” which I initially mistook for … well… the actual concierge. And indeed there did seem to be a more genuine camaraderie between staff and guests than I’ve seen at other resorts, possibly because so many are repeat customers.

Taking the pampering of guests to an extreme, there is a crossing guard to usher you across the street to the beach. Admittedly I felt like I was in grade school again and petulantly assured the poor guard that I had been crossing the street by myself for decades without mishap.

Like every all-inclusive, there are a number of restaurant options, but how often do you go to a restaurant with no menu in sight? Welcome to the Chef’s Showcase, where every night is a surprise in which the chef prepares a five-course meal in a candle-lit setting that sparkles with class and romanticism. But be prepared — it’s a while between courses. This is island-time, the precision timepiece upon which Jamaica runs. Overheard at a bar one afternoon, a local remarked that he’d be ready in 3 minutes. He then added: “That’s 6 minutes in Jamaican.”

Just sitting at the bar is an island experience in itself. Locals instinctively move to the music as if they were on a dance floor. And not just any dance floor but one in the middle of a dance contest. And perhaps not without some embellishment. Everywhere on the island there is that unmistakable whiff of the ubiquitous substance for which the island is so famous. It was nice to hear that possession of small amounts is now even legal.

There are three things for which Jamaica is famous: Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, the aforementioned ganja and Rick’s Cafe in Negril, where everyone at one time or another has to go to see the sunset. So go we did, despite the noise, the crowds, the commercialism and a sunset like many others (okay, so it was a pretty nice sunset…) for which the masses erupt in applause. What a marketing idea! Which is what I applauded as I happily headed for the exit. Check the Rick’s Cafe box — been there, done that.

A much more authentic experience happened on our Rasta Tour at Zimbali Retreat in Negril. Although Zimbali is a fascinating destination in its own right, based on organic farming and the Rastafarian philosophy, we were there to meet Fire.To say we climbed to the top of a mountain to do so is no exaggeration; to say it was worth it is also not an exaggeration, not only for the views and the excellent all natural meal prepared by Fire but mainly for his story. He’s been living away from civilization for 33 years in a lean-to that doesn’t even qualify as a hut. Long ago, he felt a need to get away from his mainstream life and learn how to survive — literally — in the 21st century. He grows what he needs to live, espouses a simple, less-stressful life living off Mother Earth, and adopts the Rasta approach of kindness, simplicity, eschewing financial gains.

When he started grating coconut on a grater, it sounded a lot like a Reggae beat – which somehow seemed fitting. Life as a Rasta, says Fire, became much easier after Bob Marley. The plantain, soy meat, carrots and callaloo flavored in coconut milk was perhaps not your usual luncheon fare but it was tasty. Fire lost me just a bit when he answered his smartphone. He acknowledged, with a smile: “There goes my reputation.” But technology is ubiquitous even on top of a mountain.

A more typical outing was the trip to YS Falls and the Black River, one of the hotel tour options. YS Falls offers a multitude of ways to swing over, jump into, swim under and play in a wide variety of waterfalls. And if none of that appeals, the falls alone provide sufficient photo ops. The boat ride along the Black River is billed as a “river safari” – using the term very loosely. I suspect just having crocodiles in the river justifies the safari designation. Otherwise, it’s nice boat ride with all the de rigueur bird sighting that accompany all such ventures.

As we left the resort kicking and screaming, our voices were overshadowed by the gentle bleating of the entire Royal Brown family who all gathered below our balcony to say good-bye. A fitting exit, mon! For more information, visit http://www.thepalmsjamaica.com.

 

Admittedly, I’ve never heard of Lo-Wei, a unique exercise class that combines yoga, strength training and flexibility that stretched my body in ways my mind never thought possible. But it is only one of almost three dozen fitness classes, all part of the dawn-to-dusk workout, weight loss and education focus of the one-of-a-kind, all-inclusive Deerfield Health Retreat and Spa in East Stroudsburg, PA where my friend Kathy and I spent three nights recently.

The education aspect offered almost as many options. Okay, I wasn’t all that interested in the discussion on Pilates as an aid for back pain or the importance of self-massage but just the fact that it was offered, along with lectures on sleep deprivation, portion control, Top 20 Exercise Mistakes and many other topics was impressive.

The first morning’s dilemma? So should I start with a sunrise hike, morning stretch, water aerobics, Pilates, yoga or a circuit class? Or just go back to sleep. Ah, unacceptable — especially with a mouth-watering breakfast awaiting at 8 a.m. I followed morning stretch with Butts and Guts — and all I kept thinking was, “Man, am I going to feel this tomorrow!” which, right there, is a high recommendation for the class. Kathy, a water maven, started her day with an aerobics Pilates class — I took notes.

You’re never far from food at Deerfield — 3 meals and 2 snacks included — and our first exposure at lunch upon arrival was a tomato Florentine soup filled with veggies. I thought if everything else is this good (and it was!), I’m never going home! But more on that later.

Time for some exercise. I’m a novice yoga-ite so admittedly I had some difficulty visualizing the cleansing of my lungs but I could still appreciate the relaxing — and oh yes, centering — nature of the exercise as I learned to follow the instructor admonishing me to “enjoy the stretch.” But I’m a veteran hiker and beginner, intermediate and advanced hikes are offered, depending upon the day, water bottles and walking sticks provided. We were forewarned that the Beginner Hike was a stroll in the park compared with the Intermediate and admittedly the guide took one look at Kathy and me (70 plus can be deceiving…) and tried to talk us out of it. But our experience on the Appalachian Trail over years stood us in good stead and the hike was not only eminently doable — but beautiful as well.

And then, of course, it’s time for the “Morning Boost” snack because after all, it’s been at least two hours since we last ate. But in truth, Kathy and I rarely had the time or inclination to fit snacks into our schedules. We opted instead for a little circuit training to add some cardio and weights to the mix.

And then there’s lunch. There are multiple choices for each meal plus daily specials, all calorie counted. All dinners — salad, entrée, veggie, dessert (and ohhh, those desserts!) are 600 calories; 1200 for the day. Did I mention there are also two snacks (fresh fruit, smoothies, grilled pineapple, veggie and dip, dried fruit, etc.)? Are they sure this is also a weight loss center?

And it is, as many guests attested. Despite the campfire at the fire pit with S’mores. WHA? Okay, all sugar-free but still… And if you can get your attention away from the s’mores, the stars above were mesmerizing. We just don’t have stars like that at home.

And, as if we hadn’t had enough food already, there’s the cooking class with Karen, the nutritionist, who kept up an ongoing informative patter about the pros and cons of multiple foods. I found out that all rice contains arsenic which is nutritional information I could have done without. She made jerk chicken with mango salsa, rice (go figure!) with pecans, and asparagus. It was like eating another whole dinner — a mere 200 calories extra. And the rice was so tasty it was easy to rationalize ingesting the life-threatening ingredient.

A different night included an hour’s introduction to meditation, the goal being, in addition to relieving stress and finding inner peace, to experience a relaxation response that was transformative. All of this is above my pay grade but still, it was something I knew nothing about and that fact alone made the experience worthwhile.

I felt obligated to actually count my day’s intake at least once — I choose a day that didn’t include either the cooking class, s’mores or the Saturday night Mocktails. So: Breakfast of bruschetta omelet with cheese plus cantaloupe balls; Lunch — Mexican corn soup, a huge plate of cottage cheese, tuna salad and fresh fruit; Dinner — Spinach salad with strawberries and walnuts; baked fish with string beans; ice cream with a sweet strawberry topping. Throw in some half and half with my morning coffee and voila — 1065 calories. Hard to believe. Plus I was stuffed.

But still, there are more work outs on the horizon with motivational signs sprinkled throughout the gyms. “Failures are but the pillars of success;” “Believe and act as though it were impossible to fail.” I had a little trouble reconciling the two but it didn’t keep me from appreciating the overarching message. “Age wrinkles the body; quitting wrinkles the soul.” Okay, that’s more like it! I relate to anything that has age in it.

As I headed to class one day, I overheard a guest excitedly exclaim: “Just being in the hammock is one of my favorite places.” I hardly even knew there was a hammock. And that’s one of the most appealing aspects of Deerfield. If you want just to relax and de-stress, that’s fine. If you want to work your butt off, that’s fine, too.

But I didn’t have time to think about it as a Cybex Circuit class was calling followed by Core on the Floor, which one older participant laughingly characterized as “elder abuse.” I discovered, that contrary to popular belief, the core extends well beyond the abs and includes, butt, back, lats, spine, obliques and every body part in between — all of which were unmercifully tested. Getting up off the floor was the biggest challenge. It was great! But rest assured, all classes can be adjusted to accommodate any work-out level.

Another option unknown to me was Tabatas, a high-intensity interval training class. Kathy instead found time for her pool aerobics, including a 90-minute Restorative water class which was equivalent to walking 4 miles. According to Kathy: “Constant motion without excessive effort combine for a total body workout.” She was water-logged but happy.

But what also makes the Deerfield experience so special is the ambiance, the camaraderie, the laid-back atmosphere where everything feels natural and comfortable. At times in the evening, after that night’s lecture or other activity, folks just hung out in the lounge and with 80% of guests being repeat customers, staying from three nights to two months, the talk often turned to war stories accumulated over the years. It felt very much like a family.

And that includes the staff, from whom a love for the spa readily radiates, which in large part is due to owner Joan Wolff, whose mother started Deerfield in 1979. I was surprised to discover there was no tipping allowed. As Joan explains: “The wait staff, trainers, masseuses and house keepers are never tipped as much as they deserve so it’s all processed into their salaries.” Which might explain why most of her staff have been there for more than 10 years.

So what do you need after a full day of hiking, weight lifting, water aerobics and yoga? A massage, of course. So naturally that’s also included. The next day, Kathy dragged me kicking and screaming to the car — but not until we had enjoyed another two meals and four classes before we left. For more information, visit http://deerfieldspa.com/, 1-800-852-4494. A three-night, all-inclusive, weekend stay, double occupancy, ranges from $770-$1145, per person. Deerfield is open from mid-April to late October.

 

It happens all the time with Overseas Adventure Travel. I start out expecting to write about the trip itself – in this case, Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions — and I end up writing about all the things that are not on the itinerary – what OAT refers to as Learning and Discovery. Sure, I wanted to focus on the extensive ruins of the Greeks and Romans from the 8th century BC; the city market initiated by the Arabs in 900 A.D. which still operates today almost as it did then. The Norman Church built in 1174 which was proclaimed by acclimation of the trip participants as “The most magnificent cathedral ever!” and a boat ride to a Phoenician island dating back 2700 years. And that barely brushes the surface of the extensive itinerary that brought new adventures to our group of 16 day after day. But that’s where the story veered into trouble…

I found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing — and yes, often eating — that were NOT on the itinerary, the L&D moments that reflect the culture and deepen the immersive experience already embodied within the OAT itinerary.

While exploring the capital city of Palermo, we stopped at a tiny, nondescript storefront with antique-looking sewing machines and irons but okay, the owner is a tailor. How then to explain all the old instruments strewn everywhere? The tailor is also a musician. He sang along as he played a 50-year-old mandolin. Come for repairs; stay for the repertory…

As soon as we arrived in Castelbuono, a 14th century medieval village whose history dates back to the Arab influence of the 800’s, it was time for another discovery: a variety of Sicilian pastries washed down with samples of liqueurs ranging from Lemon and cinnamon to tangerine and prickly pear. By this time, it was hard for me to work up an interest in the surrounding history, usually a passion of mine. Stopping for a “taste” can translate into a marathon multi-course mini-meal. So yes, often L&D has to do with food – which is understandable: aside from the Mafia, food is what Sicily is known for.

Because another OAT philosophy is its emphasis on controversial topics, a discussion of the Mafia was not unexpected. Meeting with Angelo Provenzano, the son of one of the most notorious Mafia bosses in Sicilian history from 1993-2006, was. Kept in hiding for the first 16 years of his life, he recounted the difficulty of separating his feelings FOR his father from his feelings ABOUT his father – and the impossibility of leading a normal life despite his having no connection with the mafia himself. It should come as no surprise that the Cosa Nostra is still alive and well in Sicily but not to the level that a Godfather IV is anywhere in production. In response to a question as to the accuracy of those films, Angelo replied: “Except for certain Hollywood effects, the films are basically realistic.” Angelo’s birthplace? The city of Corleone, of course. A name everyone in the room knew well.

In a local museum in Mazara, we viewed the Dancing Satyr, a Greek bronze statue from the 3rd century BC that was pulled from the sea in 1998 in the nets of some fishermen. As fascinating as the story was — an archaeological event that captured the attention of the world — it didn’t compare with the unexpected meeting with the boat captain who made the discovery. His discovery story was even more enthralling.

Picnic lunches are not unusual on tours. But when they take place on an island settled by Phoenicians some 2700 years ago and your picnic table is a stone from one of their former structures, the picnic takes on slightly greater significance.

By the end of the trip, after visiting sites representing Roman, Greek, Norman, Arabic, Carthaginian, Phoenician, Byzantine and Spanish occupation – and I’m sure I’ve left some out – we arrived in Syracusa, an ancient city that boasted remnants of all of them. There were ruins from everyone everywhere. And during the boat ride around the island of Ortigia, we sampled some Sicilian almond liqueur to get us through the 40-minute excursion. And why not? Just another L&D surprise. Who said alcohol can’t be part of a cultural experience? Again.

Admittedly, exploring the old Medieval city of Modica was fascinating, but it couldn’t compare with the unexpected joy rides in vintage iconic Fiat 500 sports cars over hilly, twisty, curvy, windy, narrow, cobblestone streets. First made popular in 1957 as a readily affordable automobile, these refurbished convertibles – smaller than a Smart car – still barely fit on alleyways that were unfathomably two-way. Warning: “Do not put your hand outside the car or you’ll end up losing it.” Sort of like a Disney ride threatening to go off the tracks. The fact that we were driving through a former 12th century Norman city was just a bonus.

 

An itinerary highlight worth mentioning? The Landing Museum, a moving testament to the end of Italy’s involvement in World War II. We – I – tend to forget that Italy, a Fascist nation, actually fought on the side of Germany and we invaded in 1943, effectively ending Mussolini’s rule. Upon entering a replica of a Catania street in the 1940’s, we suddenly heard an air raid siren – and were quickly ushered into the bomb shelter before the door closed. That was all the time we had if we wanted to live. What then ensued for a minute and a half – planes shrieking, bombs dropping, dogs barking, hysterical cries of anxious people – actually went on for hours. The shelter shook and as much as I knew this was only a simulation, I could still feel the terror of those who had to endure such trauma day after day for years. We emerged to find ourselves surrounded by rubble. The rest of the museum accurately relates the people and events who suffered through this sad part of Italy and Sicily’s history. And indeed it was nice to hear how welcome the Allied forces were once they arrived!

Because OAT thrives on controversy, we met with members of an organization that aids young immigrant girls who illegally land in Sicily, where a sign on the port declares “Welcome Refugees.” Oh how much we could learn from this small island, I thought. And it was harrowing to listen to 19-year-old Joyce’s story of being lured from her home and family in Nigeria with promises of an education in Europe only to find herself part of an agonizing nine-month ordeal spent in many refugee camps in Libya and Syria along the way under abusive, horrendous conditions as a part of a sex-and-drug trafficking operation. She was fortunately saved by the Casa di Maria organization upon her arrival in Sicily; most are not. No one exited that room without feeling emotionally drained. Again!

And then there’s Mt. Etna – at over 10,000 feet, the largest active volcano in Europe. Although the last eruption was in May 2017, we were repeatedly assured we were in no danger of a repeat. I’m a hiker. I’m used to climbing over rocks and roots. But this was my first experience with lava stones and fields – a topography I had never seen before. As we climbed the almost two miles, we passed two centuries worth of vegetation from tiny tufts of green still recovering from earlier eruptions to huge, long-standing pine trees of old. I’m a travel writer and I’m supposed to be able to bring experiences to life but this was so surreal, other-worldly, so without comparison to anything I’ve seen before that I feel inadequate to capture it in mere words. A stop afterwards for a shot of Etna Fire – a 70-proof concoction — shook me out of my volcanic revelry.  Notice a beverage trend here? After our Farewell Dinner, it was hard to believe there would be another L&D moment. After all, it was late – and we all had early planes the next day. But indeed we headed into town to a small, stand-alone outdoor shack where the vendor more replicated a bartender – even more a mixologist, a creator of drinkable art. Tamarind syrup, fresh squeezed lemon, soda water and then the piece de resistance…Baking Soda. Alas, no alcohol. All shaken up with gusto. The whole point? To make you burp. A lot. A Sicilian tradition. A very successful Sicilian tradition. Who wouldn’t want to go on such a tour? For more information, visit 2018 Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions.

 

 

 

When most folks think of Cajun Country, if they think of it at all, it’s probably Lafayette, Louisiana. But most people visiting Louisiana make a stop in New Orleans, and Lafourche Parish, just 45 minutes west of the Big Easy, is a more accessible, more authentic Cajun experience than its more well-known and commercial cousin several hours away. Bur it’s a far cry from Bourbon Street, beignets and bar stools. This is real bayou country, where everything is defined by the 106-mile-long waterway affectionately called “the longest main street in the world.” In answer to any question involving directions, it’s either up the bayou, down the bayou or across the bayou. This is laid-back shrimpin’ country where when you say “See you later, alligator,” you mean an actual alligator!

Which we learned on our initial ride on an airboat, a combination of a large rusty old rowboat with multiple mismatched seats at varying elevations on an otherwise unidentifiable Rube Goldberg contraption. With Captain Jeremy presiding, we proceeded on a thrill ride in, around, along, through and often over the extensive native greenery and wetlands at 40 miles per hour, stopping along the way to see bald eagles, herons, egrets, ducks, nutria (a type of semi-aquatic rodent heretofore unknown to me) and, of course, alligators.

First, we communed with Big Al — a 13 1/2′ gator weighing in at 1000 pounds. To accentuate his largesse, Jeremy picked up his tail as well as his very large pointy-nail four-toed foot to further illustrate how close they’ve become over the years. Big Al barely flinched.

Then his buddy, Sneaky, upstaged him by practically joining us on the boat as Jeremy deposited bits of chicken into his very large and very menacing mouth. A bit further down the bayou, Brutus actually came when called. Okay, so he knew there was chicken waiting, but still…

Being Cajun means something different depending upon whom you ask. First, it’s the proud heritage imbued by the French Acadians who settled here in the 1750s when driven out of Nova Scotia. For others, it’s the food — the special gumbo (no okra — that’s New Orleans Creole style) but always served with potato salad. That and catfish chips. Often, it’s the music – – old-fashioned accordion, fiddle, guitar, and triangles, slightly different than New Orleans Zydeco. Or the bayou way of life — fishing, shrimping, oystering. Or the long-time reliance on the sugar cane industry which thrived for generations making rum and molasses. And for everyone, it’s southern hospitality taken to extremes; the sense of community, the emphasis on family and values. Cajun Country is one of the few local societies from which the young folk are not moving away; they’re just moving down the street. Always, there’s an emphasis on the giving nature of the Cajuns: they’ll take you in if have no shelter; feed you if hungry. And to the visitor, it just may be the ubiquitous nature of crayfish, the strange accent and the prevalence of white rubber shrimp boots, known locally as Cajun Reeboks.

As one local explains: “Our Cajun runs just a little bit deeper than the rest of the state, and it shows up at every bend in the bayou.”

The Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center explains all of this in a rich tapestry of exhibits which bring Cajun Country to life. The center relates the history, lifestyles, traditions, aided by films, interactive programs, walking tours, boating expeditions, and weekly gatherings of French descendants who share coffee and conversation in their native language.

Another throwback into sugar cane history comes compliments of the Laurel Valley Village and general store, the largest surviving sugar plantation complex in the United States — and where sugar cane is still farmed today. The general store alone, built in 1905, merits a trip to Lafourche Parish. An eye-widening assortment of a wide variety of old objects many of which are delightfully unidentifiable. From edibles such as pickled quail eggs, jams and jellies and homemade pralines and dilly beans to old walking sticks, corn husking machines, cane harvesters and tractors. The multiple shelves were a jumble of thousands of items from saws and knives to cavalry saddles and sewing machines, water pumps and deer antlers. Hard to know what most of them were — but don’t even think about wanting to buy any. These are living remnants of a storied past and the history is to be preserved. The earrings, photos, and dried flowers, however, are for sale.

And then we stepped outside. Antique engines and farm equipment everywhere. I felt like I was engulfed within a metal jungle and the other-worldly iron dinosaurs were on the attack. I could do nothing but shake my head at all the personifications of a 250-year-old industry.

A couple of miles down the road are about 55 original buildings dating back to the 1840’s, most of which functioned as slave quarters for the 135 slaves working the sugar mills. Unfortunately, nothing is identified and the invaluable history is lost among the decrepit remnants of the buildings themselves.

More recent history, still enmeshed in Lafourche sugar cane and other local products, can be found at Donner-Peltier Distillers. It opened in 2012 after two local doctors, whose families had been in the sugar industry for years, were sipping rum while vacationing together with their wives. Said one: “I have sugar cane in my backyard; why is no one in Thibodaux making any rum of its own?” Several years later — after thorough and thoroughly enjoyable research into the rum industry — they opened their own distillery. They use only Louisiana products in their rum, vodka, whiskey and gin, which are now distributed in 11 states and Canada.

Sugar cane from across the street of course for their rum, local long-grain rice for the vodka and Satsuma oranges in the gin — the only distillery in the U.S. to do so. Tours and tastings of these very unusual products are available, whose names are intertwined with the delightful legend of the Rougaroux, a Cajun-type werewolf. And like the alligators, the metal stills also have names — Betty produces vodka, Veronica gin and Stella whiskey. Fyllis – that would be me – was glad to meet – not to mention sample — them all.

More Cajun history can be found at the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding and Museum in Lockport which celebrates the Pirogue, a long, thin boat made from Cypress trees with which Acadians have traveled the Bayou for centuries — and which, like the sugar cane, is still being made today. The resident boat maker, Ernest Savoie, demonstrates the labor intensive artistry employed in constructing the boat by hand. He also talk about his French heritage harking back to Nova Scotia, his pride evident is his relating that he was born into a family that extended along three blocks. Again — it’s all about family! And building his pirogues is keeping that culture alive.

A de rigueur stop at the Mudbug Brewery encapsulates Cajun Country. Those previously mentioned white shrimpin’ boots are so much a part of the culture that the Brewery even has an ale named after them — White Boots Ale. My favorite, the coffee-tinged Cafe Au Lait beer recalls the famous beverage accompanying the even more-famous beignets at the Café du Monde. And during Mardi Gras – yes, Lafourche has its own — not surprisingly their King Cake Ale is an especially big seller. How can you not love Cajun Country when a brewery alone epitomizes its culture? For more information about Louisiana’s Cajun Bayou, visit www.lacajunbayou.com or call 877-537-5800.

So I heard that you could spend from dawn to dusk on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and never get bored and I thought, “Okay, I’m up for that challenge.” Well, maybe not the dawn part — I’m not a morning person – so I had no problem leaving those early hours to the joggers and those seeking an early start to catch their red snapper for dinner.

But yes, the Malecon is a 1.5 mile delight in so many different ways as to make any number of hours pass quickly. Mid-morning: Northern tip. The Hotel Rosita, built in 1948 and the oldest hotel on the island, is steeped in history. It is the famous locale of the even more famous illicit liaison between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the 1963 filming of The Night of the Iguana. The resultant publicity put the very sleepy town of PV on the map, and it became the only Mexican resort destination that grew up organically rather than created for the very purpose of attracting tourists. Take that Cancun and Mazatlan!

Rebuilt as a pedestrian walkway 10 years ago after Hurricane Kenna, much of its old world charm has been maintained. Bordered by shops on one side and the Bay of Banderas on the other, I was initially struck by the preponderance of unusual brass sculptures that dominate the landscape. First conglomeration: a boat signifying humans’ desire to search, a whale symbolizing ambition, a combination of a bird/propeller/airplane denoting technological evolution and an obelisk representing time. There are sculptures everywhere – clowns, mermaids, unicorns, lovers – celebrating relationships, history, Spanish culture, religion, animals and just plain fun. Chilo, our guide, transfixed us with the many stories surrounding each and every creation, but after a while, they tended to flow together, not unlike the waves hitting the shore as we walked.

And brass is not the only source of creative expression. Sand sculptures also abound. Large depictions of a welcome to Puerto Vallarta sign and a graceful Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of the city. A sand sculpture wishing well was accompanied by the sign: “Your tips are my only salary.” That combination, I thought, was an interesting double-dipping marketing play. Both the tip jar and the well get coins tossed in them…

Encased in the pavement all around us are free-flowing Indian designs made from small pebbles. Even the tops of sewers provide artistic expression in the form of the town shields built into the stone. While oohing and ahing at every sculpture, I came to a whole garden of bronze benches in assorted sizes and shapes, each with a different symbolic, mythical or whimsical meaning. As enthralling as it was to see and hear, even better was the opportunity to sit and rest.

A quick turn of the head at any point brings you up against colorful assortments of plants, flowers and palm trees running the course of the Malecon. Look up instead and see five men atop a pole, about to perform an ancient Indian religious ritual in which one man plays the flute and drum while the other four descend from above flying in concentric circles, symbolizing the seasons and the cycle of life. Did I mention they are hanging by one foot upside down? It looks a little like an amusement park ride, but Chilo explained they train their whole lives for the privilege.

The stores as well reflect Indian art. The Tierra Huichol sells animals of every variety and wall hangings hand-made of miniscule multi-hued beads. The Opal Mine not only sells all varieties of the semi-precious stones but it is set up to replicate the mining operation that produces them. There’s history of Mexico reflected in every step of the Malecon.

Plus, of course, your de rigueur street musicians, painters, balloon makers and food vendors. Skeletons, a staple of Puerto Vallarta folklore, in assorted attire and assemblages are on every street corner. Yet, I was hard pressed to even find a t-shirt store. Unlike most beach boardwalks, the Malecon opts for funky rather than tacky.

By this time, I was delighted to imbibe in a refreshing glass of tuba, coconut milk flavored with pecans and apple. Okay, so maybe it would be even better mixed with tequila. But then, isn’t everything?

Near the end of the Malecon is a small amphitheater where performers entertain most weekend nights, but more on that later. Now, it’s time for lunch. The Malecon ends at a large beach, and the hotels lining the street, umbrellas crowding the sand, music blaring from the bars and the cries of children playing in the waves add a very different character to the far more relaxing and less touristy stroll that got us here. I felt I had left the real Puerto Vallarta behind but there was a beach bar, and hunger won out. Though not without its challenges.

The cordoned-off beach at our hotel protects its guests from the overly aggressive, ever-optimistic vendors hawking everything from purses to pottery, sombreros to sunglasses, trinkets to toys, jewelry to…hmmm…okay, junk. Not so at the public beaches of which the Malecon is one. I was at a loss as to how they could come up with so many things to sell – some easily recognizable, others more questionable – and all of it “almost for free!”

Especially ironic are the many venders selling food items – pastries, grilled fish on a stick, nuts and candies – to people actually sitting at tables and ordering food from the menu. A poorly thought out coals-to-Newcastle marketing venture, I thought. A suggestion: Do not make eye contact and be prepared for some minor whiplash just from shaking your head no. And do not order that third margarita – no telling what you may end up buying! Be prepared also for the bizarre — there was the woman at the table next to us having her hair braided into multiple strands while eating lunch. Want some highlights with your hot dog? A little beauty parlor in your dining parlour? One more reason to love the Malecon.

You can, of course, forego the pleasure of eating with your toes in the sand and dine off the beach. You may not hear the waves as well but you’ll dine in relative quiet. A lunch for two people with two beers will run you about $11 U.S. The entertainment is free. And post my margarita-laden lunch, a siesta on the sand was a perfect way to round out the afternoon.

So on to the Malecon at night when yet another whole world emerges. The sun goes down, the lights go up, the crowds pour in – and the good news is they are not just tourists. Or at least not just American tourists. Families by the droves with balloons, light rays and ice cream; couples young and old holding hands; people sitting at the water’s edge gazing at the city skyline off in the distance and multitudes of all ages, sizes and ethnicities dancing to the music at the square, the variety of dance steps as diverse as the people executing them. The amphitheater is home to entertainers ranging from folklore dancers to Mariachi bands to clowns – or as we were surprised to find ourselves in the middle of, a protest rally against Mexico’s president. It reminded me a little too much of home. I certainly didn’t have to come to PV for that!

That’s the thing about the Malecon – it’s full of surprises – and some of them so unexpected. Sand sculptures are one thing – stone art another. Precariously placed boulders of varying size and shape balanced one upon the other – I had no idea what they meant but the visual was surprisingly impressive. During the day your attention is on the permanent appeal of the Malecon, shops and gardens and sculptures of various kinds; at night, it’s all noise and moving parts.

At dinner in a second story restaurant looking down upon the boardwalk, I watched a man in a monkey suit taking pictures with tourists, a violin player, bikers and inline skaters trying to keep from crashing into each other, grown-ups wearing outlandish hats made from balloons as though coming from a toddler’s birthday party, a sculpture of a bronze man sporting a sombrero and a rifle – until he moved and became a mime instead. I hardly had time to focus on my margaritas. And then, an unexpected explosion in the sky – fireworks! Who knows why – it’s the Malecon. There doesn’t have to be a reason! For more information, visit http://visitpuertovallarta.com.

A few years ago, the fact that an island was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton would have elicited very little excitement. But now since the advent of the hit Broadway musical “Hamiliton,” Nevis is all of a sudden a must-see destination. The very first line of the musical leads you here: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…” That spot would be Nevis.  But more on that later.

Nevis is the baby sister of St. Kitts, two tiny islands in the West Indies. St. Kitts is the more outgoing, gregarious of the two; Nevis, more shy and retiring. Whereas I won $100 at a casino on St.Kitts, the only things worth counting on Nevis are an assortment of goats, sheep, donkeys and monkeys. Lots of monkeys. But Nevis has a recent suitor -– the afore-mentioned Hamilton — who is making her irresistible to throngs of others. They’re known as tourists.

But before Hamilton brought history and fame to the island, that position was held by old sugar mill plantations. Sugar cane was king in the 17th-19th centuries, and what remains of several of the plantations are now housing all those Hamilton-seeking throngs. History begets history.

The Nisbet Plantation, the largest of the lot, has its own claim to history. Here, Captain Horation Nelson (later, Admiral and Lord), a British Naval hero, met Frances Nisbet, the daughter of the plantation owner. The wedding took place in 1787 at nearby Montpelier Plantation, also on our itinerary. But Nisbet, where remnants of the 18th Century plantation windmill greet you upon arrival, has its own wedding tradition: if you get married on the property — and there are very few more beautiful settings — they plant a coconut tree with your names on it. And of course you’re welcome to come back and visit any time. How’s that for a marketing ploy?

Nisbet, despite its sugar mill connection, is the most modern of the inns, with 36 rooms, each named after a local village, spread out over 30 acres. Its wealth of palm trees as opposed to profusions of flowers also sets it apart and it has the very real benefit of being the only plantation inn on the water.

Montpelier, the site of the Nelson-Nisbet nuptials, was turned from an historic ruin into an inn in the 1960’s. And it remains the lodging of choice for the current British aristocracy from Princess Diana to her son Harry when visiting the island. The beautifully landscaped, manicured property with profusions of color popping up everywhere mixes handsomely with the stone remnants of the sugar mill factory it once was. So much of the equipment is sprinkled around the grounds and enmeshed into the decor that you might not even recognize it for what it is unless you knew to look for it.

The current Great Room boasting original stonework from 300 years ago — as attested to by a series of lithographs on the wall — is where guests gather in the evening for canapés and drinks before moving on at their leisure to dinner. And what a dinner that is! Imagine dining in the only sugar mill in the world that houses a restaurant inside –- where every morsel is a history-laden, stone-studded candle-lit magical memory.

But even more history and magical edible moments await at the next sugar mill plantation/cum Inn. The Great House of The Hermitage Plantation, dating back to 1640, is said to be the oldest wooden house in the Caribbean and there is evidence that a processing mill was once below the house. And that’s just for starters. When Richard Lupinacci bought the run-down property in 1971, he recognized the value of the original Great House –- but it was when he chose to expand his home into lodging that he became really inspired. To make room for more guests, he moved eight old wooden houses from other areas on the island where they lay in disrepair. Each cottage, lovingly restored, promotes an old island feel, an authentic lifestyle not found in other more modern settings, making the property a living architectural museum. Adding to the authenticity is an old slave privy from the 1740’s sitting amidst the cottages. Fortunately, it is not still functional…

What is still very functional is the Wednesday night Pig Roast — a very big head-to-tail pig on a very large spit, to be exact. Sitting in the Great Room awaiting its theatrical entrance, I couldn’t help but reconnect with the plantation owners and their guests of yore who feasted on roasted pig and its many local dishes over 300 years ago. With a special shout out to the Johnny Cakes, of course…

So how do you decide which connection to sugar cane history to immerse yourself in – at the Inn? Want to be on the beach? Nisbet. Want to be surrounded by history in a cozy, intimate setting from the time you step foot on the grounds to the cottage in which you abide. The Hermitage. Want to be surrounded by profusions of color rivaling a botanical garden interwoven among the remains of a 300-year-old windmill –- that’s Montpelier.

But we were talking about Hamilton, yes? He didn’t stay at any of these inns but his own family’s plantation is still on the island, and at the time was the country’s largest. Much to the government’s chagrin, however, it hasn’t been restored. You can visit, of course, but to really connect with the renowned American — as everyone who comes to Nevis wants to do –- a visit to the Charlestown Nevis History Museum is required.

The museum doubles as Hamilton’s birthplace, where depending upon whom you ask, he was born in either 1755 or 1757, both dates repeated to me by multiple knowledgeable sources claiming definitive information. The museum building, like so much else in Nevis, was originally built in 1680. The history and culture of Nevis is enticingly displayed but of course, the piece de resistance is the Alexander Hamilton section, which chronicles his remarkable life, contemporaries, influences, accomplishments and impact on the history of the United States. Which, ironically, all of us are currently reminded of today every time we reach for a $10 bill.

Because he was brought up in the islands, he brought a very different perspective to American politics than his Founding Father cronies. His early life influenced his views on racial equality (having been born across the street from a slave trade podium which horrified him at a young age), economic diversity and financial stability — ideas that were considered very progressive in early American politics. Hamilton had more of an impact on American history and politics than most Americans realized before the advent of the Broadway play. Historical footnote: He was our first Secretary of the Treasury, and was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr in 1804.

If you have seen the show, you will fall in love with Hamilton all over again. If you’ve just visited the museum, you will want to buy tickets to the show — which unfortunately, I suspect, you can’t afford! A fact which I doubt Hamilton would have been pleased by. What would please him is everything else his early island home has to offer. For more information, contact nevisisland.com, montpeliernevis.com, nisbetplantation.com and hermitagenevis.com.

 

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Large resort hotels. Check. Three to four cruise ships a day. Check. Beach bars galore. Check. Extensive nightlife. Check. Chain restaurants. Check. High end jewelry and clothing stores. Check. Casino Gambling. Check. Those are just a few of the things you won’t find on the Caribbean island of Nevis. And all the more reason to go there.

So yes, it’s a better description of St. Kitts, Nevis’ much more commercialized sister island, a 45-minute ferry boat ride away. And although Nevis may be synonymous with tranquility, that does not mean it’s boring. Far from it.

Case in point, we started our visit with a Pub Crawl from Nisbet Plantation, an inn founded on a former sugar mill plantation. But these are not the usual beach bars most tourists frequent. Instead they’re the local rum shops, small shacks along the road that seldom have a sign on them and rarely attract any drive-by traffic. My husband and I regularly seek them out when in the Caribbean because we relish the sense of island flavor and the excuse to talk to laid-back locals, but we’ve never seen them part of an organized activity.

Being with a large crowd detracts from that intimacy a bit but it nonetheless is a wonderful opportunity to feel comfortable going off the beaten path. Each of the five bars has its own ambience — or in most cases, lack of one — which only adds to its appeal. As one imbiber exulted: “This is great because we’re visiting places we would never go to on our own.” Not sure how the local residents felt about the influx of tourists but everyone was welcoming and eager to engage in conversation.

The Pub Crawl was a perfect segue to the Funky Monkey Tour, a three-hour ATV tour with Waz who kept us all enthralled throughout the wild ride. First stop — Lover’s Beach, where Waz said, “They don’t promote nude bathing but…” The fact that there were no people on it at all precluded any prurient interest on my part. Lack of people was to become a theme.

Next stop, more historical, less lascivious. The Thomas Cottle Church, built in 1822 and operated as the first integrated church on the island. Plantation owner Cottle believed that he and his slaves should worship together, not a common practice in those times. Okay, the inspirational part of the tour.

We traveled over a lot of roads that no self-respecting normal car would ever consider driving over. When I asked the name of the road, Waz responded, “The ‘I’m Lost’ Road.” At one point, after an exceptionally rocky part, he forewarned us that the next stretch was going to get really bumpy. We were like, “HUH?” I’m not just talking back roads here but trails glutted with rocks and roots and gulleys so as to be seemingly untraversible — or so I thought until they weren’t. But the views at the end of the stomach-churning drive were worth it.  And the monkeys scurrying in the bushes provided additional distraction when needed.

Hard to categorize the total appeal of Funky Monkey. Part nature tour, part exciting adventure, part history lesson – all intermingled in rapid succession. Oh and did I mention the rum punch out of the cooler in back?

Onto another stop at Nisbet where remnants of the 18th Century plantation windmill greet you upon arrival. Waz related the custom that if you get married on the property — and there are very few more beautiful settings — they plant a coconut tree with your names on it. And, of course, you’re welcome to come back anytime to watch it grow. How’s that for a marketing ploy?

We visited a local wild herd of sheep, which not surprisingly were missing the usual wool covering. Little warm in the islands for that. Which makes them almost indistinguishable from goats except, we learned, goats have tails that go up; sheep down. In my hometown of Washington, DC, there’s a restaurant called Tail-Up Goat. Now I understand it.

When I queried Waz as to how far our lodging was, he replied, “Nowhere on Nevis is far.” And upon actually seeing another car on the road in front of him, he lamented, “Traffic? In Nevis?”

And indeed, rush hour is more likely to be a herd of goats or a family of donkeys than another car. Making up for the lack of cars are an abundance of donkeys, monkeys, goats, sheep and chickens. Another reminder of Nevis’s laid-back charm.

Waz took us to a hidden area of woods that he claimed was his private sanctuary; no trails, no paths, no clearing. And once again, no people. Since we had seen not a soul on any beach or other destination, I was beginning to wonder where the 11000 Nevisians were. This is not an island where you feel over-run by tourists! Or people, for that matter. Rum, on the other hand, was still flowing freely. Also monkeys. There are 30,000 of THEM.

Exciting adventure #3 on this island that allegedly has nothing on it? A nature hike with Baba who provided lots of information about the flora and fauna as we walked. Unfortunately, I hate flora and fauna. I was in it for the exercise so my eyes glazed over pretty quickly. We walked about two feet and smelled four plants. There are plants to cure every ailment: hangover, mosquito bites, toothaches, constipation. I was beginning to feel a little ill myself…

But looking up from the medicinal plants are bushes and trees and leaves of white, orange, yellow and red flowers among towering trees all vying for attention with the medicine cabinet below, We were walking through the Golden Rock Estate, a sugar mill plantation from 1801-1815, the remnants of which are integrated into the buildings and grounds. An old in-ground windmill, we were told, is the highlight of the honeymoon suite — having the earth move takes on a whole new meaning…

So much greenery as to encapsulate every variation of the color in the largest box of Crayola crayons — and every shape and size of multiple leaves extracted from the world’s largest protractor. It’s like being in your own personal botanical garden. The entire setting is the very definition of romantic! As we climbed higher and higher, however, I found myself longing for more medicinal plant information — urinary tract infection anyone?

So yes, most people coming to Nevis envision living by the following five rules: 1. Pack several books. 2. Take a deep breath, exhale, relax.  3. Order a rum drink.  4. Try to forget what’s happening in the rest of the world.  5.  Repeat.  But be open to my own Rule #6. Be prepared to have a hell of a lot of fun! For more information, visit nevisisland.com, nisbetplantation.com/blog/pattersons-pub-crawl and funkymonkeytours.com.

Walking home to our apartment in Venice, we share a wave through the window with the owner of Baba, our local osteria. Leaving for a day of sightseeing, a cup of my favorite pistachio gelato awaits me despite the early hour. At the Bar Dugole, we relax after a day of sightseeing and order the regular: vodka for my husband and Amaretto for me. And we sit and watch everyone else in Venice try to figure out where the hell they are! But more on that later.

Welcome to UNTOURS, a wonderful well-kept secret that may change your concept of travel forever. The program offers tourists a unique opportunity to not be tourists. Serving close to two dozen European countries, Untours inundates you with information, puts you up in unusual accommodations, provides whatever transportation is necessary to get around and voila! You are a local. (Yes, that works as well in Italian as it does in French…)

1. Filler-up Wine Shop - Copy

We were learning about our neighborhood, but on our terms. Rise early or sleep in. Sightsee or stroll around town. Cook in or eat out. And whatever the choice, we returned to our apartment, a much roomier and warmer ambiance than any hotel would provide. The orientation told us where to get the best produce, meat, fish, pastries, and of course, wine and gelato, the afore-mentioned shop which just coincidentally was directly next door to our apartment.

Our favorite local discovery? The Filler-Up Wine Shop. Bring in any empty bottle and fill it with the wine of your choice for $2.50-$4.00 a bottle – less than you would pay for a glass at a local trattoria. What a terrific way to recycle empty water bottles!

We stayed at a small but cozy 2-story apartment with a full kitchen, lovely balcony and wood-beam ceilings. First it just felt homey – then it was home. The fact that it was built in the 1700’s was just a bonus. The building across the alley was so close I could reach across the balcony guard rail and tap on their window.

But then everything in Venice is in tight quarters. Venice is an old city – it looks old – sometimes very old. The water-logged foundations date back to the 11th century; the newer building facades are as recent as the 15th. So many buildings stripped of paint and plaster on both sides of a small alleyway, I expected them to crumble before my eyes until I reminded myself they have looked pretty much the same for over 500 years.

Going from the crowded parking lot area with throngs of cars, buses and vans — the last vestiges of the auto industry I was to see for a week — I was transformed into another world filled instead with canals, gondolas, water buses, cobbled streets, alleyways, bridges and cafes.  Picture everything that makes any city run – buses, taxis, fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, postal services, Fedex deliveries, garbage pick-ups – but they’re all boats! And the city still runs.

Expect to get lost. And thank goodness because that is the best way to explore the city and find those gems that are not part of the major tourist itineraries. Among those gems is Pinocchio Island, home to a local Geppetto whose real name is Roberto Comin, maker of magical marionettes. These brilliant little string creatures represented all aspects of Venetian historical and theatrical culture lovingly produced by Comin for 25 years in a workshop over 350 years old. Requests now come in for characters from Shakespeare to Cleopatra and yes, a Johnny Depp look-alike that was given to the actor for his birthday. The costumes rival the intricacy and elegance of any Medici gown or regal accessory. Want a marionette dopple-ganger of yourself?  It’s doable but it’ll cost you about $600.

3. Marionette

Another unusual find, especially surprising in such a Catholic city, home to well over 100 churches, is a small square that is actually referred to as Ghetto Campo de Nova where there are five synagogues, several kosher restaurants and residents sporting traditional Jewish skull caps known as yarmulkes. The kosher menus include antipasto and spaghetti as well as bagels and potato latkes. Talk about an ecumenical meal! With a little imagination, and a lot of Manischewitz wine, you could be in Israel!

Getting lost is a given – did I mention that? People spend as much time looking up at the signs designating different sections, squares and churches of the city as they do looking down at maps, phones and GPS’s. My favorite response from a young street vendor: “Go right, over the next bridge, then ask someone else.” And then when you don’t think things can get any worse, you see the sign you’ve been searching for and it points in both directions. I thought about giving up and going home but I had no clue how to get there.

4. Narrow alleyways - Copy

We wandered everywhere, sitting at cafes to eat or drink wine, always aware of how little English we heard – again reinforcing the idea of living like a local. And the more we wandered, the more enjoyable the discoveries: a delightful mask store, street musicians in jeans playing Vivaldi, an out-of-the-way Leonardo DaVinci Museum.

Not every stop in Venice is off-the-beaten-path. There’s the de rigueur visit to Piazza San Marco, a World Heritage site and symbol of Venice. Like the Spanish Steps in Rome and the Uffizi in Florence, it’s the symbol of the city. So if you want to avoid tourists, don’t go there – especially not on a weekend. But part of the reason they’re there are the pigeons. Now in my unfiltered 19-year-old memory, the square was covered with them. Decades later, my first thought was, “Where are all the pigeons?” Then I saw them. “Oh yes, over there by that guy with all the bird food.”

5. Man feeding pigeons - Copy

As we took the vaporetto to the island of Murano, we left the canals behind and felt the freedom of open waters as we entered the lagoon surrounding the city. Murano, world famous for its glass figurines, jewelry and home décor since the 11th Century, is a must destination if you want to be absolutely sure you’re buying Murano glass  and not a knock-off. A visit to the factory offers insight into how the glass is made, the colors created, the intricacies of the designs and the skills of the master glass blowers. Makes you better appreciate the high prices you then encounter in the gift shops…sort of….

6. Murano Glass - CopyI was amazed at the intricate convoluted shapes in colors so vibrant and translucent that the light passing through intensifies the whole experience. I wanted to decorate my whole house with cups, vases, dishes and elaborately designed decorative pieces but I settled for a pair of earrings.

As we exited another vaporetto at Lido, the beachfront community, we were transported to another era. That of a modern beach town hawking flip flops, beach toys and sunglasses. And then I saw a bus! One with actual wheels. Dorothy, you’re not in Venice anymore!

Wide sand beach with crowded umbrellas and chaise lounges on one side and isolated blankets on the other. Large elegant hotels front the tree-laden boulevards with greenery everywhere, a color sorely lacking in the squares and alleyways of Venice. It was a fun diversion but I was so happy to get back home, pick up some Branzini from the fish market in Santa Margherita Square plus a water bottle full of wine from the Filler-Up shop, and dine out on our balcony.

Perhaps, that’s the essence of the Untour experience. There’s something more special about discovering such treasures on your own than being herded there as part of a group, according to a pre-determined time schedule that dictates how long you can spend looking before it hurries you through because the bus – in this case, one on water — is leaving to go to the next stop.

It was so much nicer just to pick up some fresh fish, wave to shopkeepers we had befriended and return home to sit on our porch, sip yet another glass of wine and savor our most recent exploits. And feel reassured that no one has ever been irretrievably lost in Venice, but if so – how lucky for them. They’re still there!

For more information, visit www.untours.com.

It is not often that a toilet and a tea ceremony form perfect metaphors for the culture of a country, but so it is in Japan.

The toilet falls into the realm of delightful personal discoveries – albeit all of them in the hotel bathroom of the Kyoto Park Hotel. First, a warm toilet seat with a variety of buttons that cleaned more areas with water spray than I have nether region body parts, a portion of the large bathroom mirror that remained perfected clear even after an exceptionally steamy shower which co-incidentally was the most invigorating I’ve ever had. Plus a sophisticated hair dryer with more settings than I had hair styles. All a testament to Japanese ingenuity – they apparently don’t only make better cars. However, as I was to discover on our hikes through the countryside, these benefits were not always available. In fact, toilets in general were not always available – or stall showers (but more on that later).

1. Toilet

A stop at a tea house illustrated another pervasive element of Japanese custom — the precision with which they do everything. Just the preparation of a simple cup of tea can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive, rule-bound ritualized ceremony – the same is true of a cocktail at a bar. Whether you prefer your drink shaken or stirred – and if shaken, the procedure resembles a professional maracas concert — an air of pomp and circumstance surrounds its presentation. You don’t actually stop for a beverage of any sort on the way to the airport!

From Kyoto and its temple overload, we headed into the countryside to follow the paths forged by feudal lords, daimyos and samurais of the 16-18th centuries. Traversing the Kiso Road section of the Nakasendo Way – the ancient highway that connected Kyoto with the then-town of Edo, now Tokyo – at a rate of 8-10 miles a day, we travelled past post towns that afforded pilgrims refreshment and accommodations, through mountain passes and alongside Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

2. Matsumoto Castle

Every day was an adventure. Past so much greenery as to require a new color delineation to accommodate the different shades. Past sacred stone markings, old rice mills and monumental rock structures representing any variety of gods or demons or homages to emperors and other human or spiritual deities. And then the de riqueur waterfalls that crop up through the beautiful forests that provide a kind of tranquil experience equivalent to the many temples enroute.

4. waterfall -

As we hiked in and out of shrines, restaurants and tea houses, there’s a lot of taking off of shoes and putting on of slippers – and then taking off those slippers and slipping into so to speak, other slippers. Whoever has the slipper concession in Japan provides added dimension to the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes…

5. Shoes on Shelf

The evenings we spent at small travelers’ inns, with fluffy futons floating on the floors serving as our beds. The inns might have been small and simple but the dinners there were not. They most often were banquet-style with multiple courses ranging from traditional (and to my palate, unidentifiable) to more recognizable offerings that usually took the shape of small fish. Despite not being an advocate of Japanese food in general, I still never left the table hungry.

Having luxuriated in the bathrooms in Kyoto, such ablutions take on a slightly different tenor in the countryside. I don’t usually shower and wash my hair before getting into a bath, but at the traveler’s inn in the rural town of O’Tsumago, I found this was the custom. And as I’d learned, customs are one of the primary characteristics of Japanese society. Okay, so maybe shower is somewhat of a misnomer – really, you’re sitting on a low stool next to a series of other low stools and rinsing yourself off with a shower head. And maybe bath is misleading as well. It was actually an assortment of hot pools in a tranquil outdoor setting accessed by multi-levels of stones and surrounded by interspersed boulders ranging in size from large to humongous. And although to me this seemed like a very unusual experience, our guide assured me it was an everyday occurrence. In other words, bathing had become a communal rather than an individual occurrence.

That sense of community carries over to meals to which the inn occupants tend to wear their yukatas, dressing robes provided by the inns, while sitting cross-legged on tatami mats. No dressing for dinner. Saves a lot of space when packing…

Day two took us through more post towns that feel and look as old as they did in the 17th and 18th centuries. I sensed the samurais traversing the same stone steps, stopping for tea at the same wooden tea houses, sitting on the same tatami mats. At the Waki-Hajin in Tsamago, where feudal lords used to stay, allegedly the infamous Emperor who moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868 stopped by once. They’re still celebrating that half-hour rest stop by showcasing special seats and implements he may or may not have used. It reminded me of the George Washington Slept Here claims often heard in the U.S.

Our daily meanderings continued, sometimes over trails or through towns and often shrouded by forests, thick and lush, with ever-present rumblings of brooks and rivers and waterfalls accompanying our journey. It was a measured pace with lots of stops for historic perspective and although the uphill climbs often required a wish for even more historical perspective, it sounds harder than it was. Oh alright, so there were one or two sharp inclines but you tend to forget about them shortly thereafter. Sort of like childbirth…

Day three – more ups and downs, more historical towns, more stunning views, more shrines and temples. As much as my eyes tended to glaze over after too many temples, shrines and castles, each is actually so well done that despite myself I found I was both interested in and understanding the many details of the lives of the various emperors, shoguns, samurais, daimyos and oh yes, also the concubines who dominated the history of Japan from the 9th century through the 20th. And I was actually beginning to look forward to yet another pair of slippers…

And all the while, continued inter-connectivity with the other men and women on the tour, conversing with different people at different times, the comraderie certainly welcome as you cross another mountain pass for yet another scenic overlook.

There is no tipping in Japan. I mean you can’t tip even if you want to. Service people just won’t accept it. At one point, we stopped for tea and our guide Kate had collected more money from the group than was needed. The waitress practically chased us down the street to return the equivalent of a $1.50 overpayment. Can you imagine THAT happening in the U.S.?

Time to return to the big city. There’s definite culture shock going from the tranquility of the countryside to the sensory overload of Tokyo, the city center doing a very convincing impression of New York’s Times Square.

6. Park in Tokyo

Despite Tokyo’s hi-rise modernity, the Edo Period (1602-1868) is still alive and well just below the surface. And this is what our guide Paul delights in explaining. Using a collection of wood cuts and old photographs dating from the 1800’s that he’s amassed in a mammoth book, he illustrates how every street corner, bridge, hidden side streets and major boulevards all had their beginning from the time Tokugawa arrived in 1590. Assuming the title of shogun, he unified the country by manipulating the daimyo (the baron class) and the samurais (the warrior class) so that they stopped fighting each other (for the most part) and worked together to make Edo (later renamed Tokyo) the center of Japanese life and culture.

The rich history is not present in the buildings but in the layout of the city, the nooks and crannies underneath. He related his pictures directly to what we were looking at so that we no longer saw what was currently there but what used to be. He brought to life all the far-reaching accomplishments of the Tokugawa family shogunate, the daimyos and samurais who served them, the merchants and the horse traders who lived there. “See this,” he pointed to a historical illustration time and time again. “This is where we are now!”

When I was finally able to pull myself away from the enthrall of the Edo Period, I looked up and was surprised to find a very modern Tokyo all around me. The intriguing and creative architecture of so many striking skyscrapers was in sharp contrast to the wooden dwellings of the daimyos.

Although the two major cities, Tokyo and Kyoto, add breadth and scope to the experience, it is the richness of texture and depth of culture of the Nakasendo Way that makes the journey so meaningful.

As I was going through security at Narita Airport enroute home, somehow having to remove my shoes did not feel as oppressive an activity as it usually does. I felt right at home – until I asked a surprised TSA agent for a pair of slippers. For more information, contact walkjapan.com.