We live on an amazingly beautiful rock surrounded by stars and planets of unimaginable wonder and oceans whose variety of life overwhelms. To see only a few glimpses of these gorgeous places has been a great honour.
Mexico has become something of a passion for me. No longer content with the two week stint, I dove in headlong with stays in Ajijic and out in the hinterlands east of Chapala for a month.
Ajijic is the safe bet. A favourite of Gringos fleeing the bitter winters of the north, the town lies on the northern banks of lake Chapala, the country's largest lake at a whopping 60 miles long. Ringed by mountains both to the north and south, the area has an enviable climate that rarely runs hot and never cold.
I was there in the 'rainy season', June through December, when rains fall almost always at night and days are clear and pleasantly warm.
The town of Ajijic is so popular with gringos that speaking Spanish is an option, often an impossibility as locals want to hone their English skills. Get a few kilometres east or west, however, and that changes. It is not one one the jewels of Mexican architecture, but Ajijic does have many lovely buildings and a couple churches near the central plaza that all towns have.
The food is fantastic. Whether you desire local comida or staples from north of the border (NOB), you will find great offerings everywhere.
You like festivals? Those are a plenty, especially during the high season of January to April. Music, dance, sport are all on offer. Shopping of all sorts abounds. Want more? Head into Guadalajara, especially Tonala or Tlaquepaque for shopping overload. Farmers markets happen weekly on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at locations around Ajijc and Chapala.
US media has painted Mexico as a very dangerous place. This is utter crap. Facts show that Mexico is much safer than most US cities. The incidence of crime, especially against women, is a fraction of US statistics. Drug use is very low amongst Mexicans. Yes, cartel violence is gruesome, so here's a hint: don't participate in the drug trade. Also, if you could get all the US citizens to stop buying drugs the cartels would fold up and blow away. Mexicans in general are a graceful, kind and hospitable people - polite to a fault, scrubbed clean and well-dressed, and ready with a greeting.
With Guadalajara International Airport only 30 minutes away, travel in and out is a snap. Schedule that visit and enjoy!
A month in Portugal and another in Italy barely scratched the surface of either.
Portugal was my favourite. It was a comfortable country; the landscape of the southern half was very similar to central California. Oak trees and golden rolling hills ran for kilometres in all directions. Unlike California, however, rivers filled with with rapid flows divided areas. The towns of Tomar, Constancia, Portelegre and Evora filled my eyes with their amasing history.
Tomar is the site of the Monestary do Cristo, an important site of the Knights Templar. Evora was once a Roman outpost and retains many of their buildings. Constancia, located at the confluence of the Tagus and Zefere rivers, is the quintesential Portugues town complete with narrow roads, cobblestones and white-washed houses galore.
We spent a week living as locals in Tavira. This fisherman's town is on a river and has barrier islands just off the coast. Lively, historical and filled with downtown restaurants along the main street, it is a great place to spend a week, a month or much longer.
We also traveled west along the Algarve and spent some time in Vilamoura and Lagos. Vilamoura is a very upscale are that caters to tourists from around Europe and the globe. A huge marina is the centrepiece of the area with golf courses and equestrian areas outlying. Lagos is a very popular tourist area filled with many restaurants, a marina and fine beaches below dramatic cliffs.
From the Algarve, we traveled north to spend days at Nazarre and Alcobaca. Nazarre is famous for the world record setting surf that breaks just a short ways from downtown, Imagine riding a 111 foot wave that juts up from an under water cavern. Ten minutes inland is Alcobaca and its monnastary that is more than incredible. A bit to the south is the highly visited town of Obidos - pretty as a postcard and highly overrun.
Our last week was spent in Sintra, a place filled with castles, palaces and monasteries. Amazing place.
And that was the first half.....
We started out Italian adventure on Vanessa. This is the wedding capital of Italy, but we were fortunately there in the low season. It is postcard perfect, perched on Lake Como and is a fine spot from which to travel to other towns on the lake. Menaggio was my favourite.
Next we traveled south to Bologna. It is a foodie's heaven, but the city is nothing special other than its kilometers of covered walkways: porticos.
Following that, we spent 5 glorious days at a small B&B run by Francesca on the edge of Firenze. There is a city worth a lifetime of explorations. So much to see, do and eat; we barely started. We did visit David, which was enthralling; the Uffizi Gallery, The Duomo and about a thousand other sites. Of course, a stroll across the Ponte Vecchio is mandatory despite being a tourist trap.
Cinque Trerre was a welcome respite after the hectic atmosphere of Firenze. Hikes along the trail that links the villages of Monterossa (our base), Varenna and others gives one a chance to stretch the legs and soak in fantastic views.
A week in Tuscany was next. Outside of Pienza we lived at a agri-tourism inn dating from the 16th century. It's position amongst a vineyard and overlooking the rolling wheat fields was as anticipated. Small towns surround Pienza, each offering a new seasoning to the experience. Food and wine, of course, were exemplary. We even learned to hand make pece pasta, a local variation like a fat spaghetti.
Sorrento was our next stop. It is not much special and very touristy, but was a fine base for visiting Pompeii. That is special. I only wish the rain had held off so we could have explored more.
Atrani was our next base for 5 days. This is a tiny village next to the more famous Amalfi. Hikes into the mountains, poking our noses into every church or pedestrian walkway and visiting Ravello high in the hills above filled our time; that and having coffee with our landlady in the cafe just below our apartment. My, but she had stories.
Lastly we stayed in Roma just a couple blocks from the Spanish Steps. The Vatican, Colesium, The Forum and dozens of historic buildings were crammed into a few days. I approached Roma with trepidation because of it's reputation as seedy and a nest of pickpockets. I left having greatly enjoyed a place so filled with treasures and the basis of western culture.
Cook Islands - 2015
Fifteen major and countless other uninhabited islands compromise the country. The land rises over 4200 metres from the ocean floor to the highest peak, which is only 653 metres above sea level. Approximately 13,300 people call the country home although many others live in Australasia and beyond. English is universally spoken in my experience. Cook Island Maori, similar to other languages of the Pacific including Hawaiian, is the native language and is widely used. Government is self-rule since 1965 (more about that below) using a parliamentary system, and the country is under New Zealand protectorate.
This was our second visit to Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Friends Bernard and Susan from Waiheke recently relocated to Raro, with Bernard taking on the role of the country’s Chief Medical Officer. They had told us that coming for the 50th anniversary of independence from New Zealand was a must – a separation conducted with proper decorum and without bloodshed, of course. They were right. People from all the outer islands packed into Raro for a two week-long party of dancing, music, festivals, markets, and parades. I’m not sure anyone was left home on some of the islands. Palmerston has a population of 62 and sometimes that many dancers were on stage. The outpouring of joy stunned us, especially considering that Cook Islands are damn joyous all the time!
Besides out wonderful days on Raro during which we did little or took hikes or enjoyed beaches, we spent 4 days on Aitutaki. Only about a thousand people live there so its man-made embellishments are very modest. The lagoon, however, is thought by many to be the loveliest in the world.
We meet up with friend, fellow Waihekean and US exile Charley. At about sixty, he quit working in I.T. to pursue a PhD in marine biology at the University of Auckland. No dummy this guy, he studied giant clams in the Cook Islands. Warm water, beauty everywhere, nice people - good choice I'd say. We toured the clam breeding facility and dived the lagoon on successive days.
México - 2014
México never held much allure for me. Perhaps that was due to the constant drone about drug cartels, immigration, and corruption. I could riff on about the causes of the country's problem and how their corruption is hardly unique in North America- you know I could - but I'll save that for another day and a THOUGHTS post. Anyway, it was my loss.
What we did find was a genuine culture, well several cultures. Mixing in some incredible architecture, history, food and lovely people produced an incredible vacation and plans to delve deeper soon.
We started in Mexico City, staying at The Red Treehouse in Colonia Condesa where every evening was like a party at a private home. Guests and neighbours mingled with the hosts. The Colonia is an oasis in the huge city. Within a short walk are all needed goods and service. Beautiful inner-city area. Must see areas are Teotihuacan, Belles Artes and its murals, the main zócalo and catherdral, and the Archeology Museum (at least four hours). That doesn't even scratch the surface of the treaures that await.
We traveled on to Oaxaca, south of Mexico City. Nice, small city. In its surrounds we visited the ruins at Monte Alban and Mitla, the rug town of Teotitlan de Valle and Sunday market at Tlacolula. Our hostess at Estancia de Valencia was marvellous as were the prepared breakfasts.
San Miguel de Allende is back to the north of Mexico City. A favourite of artsy types since the 1940s, it has a large component (about 10%) of expats. I am certain that wandering the cobblestone streets to peer into the numerous shops, churches, and galleries would take years to completely investigate. We stayed at Casa Bella, a private home, in Colonia San Antonio. Great area with many restaurants, yogo classes, and shopping of all sorts.
Flying domestically was a snap on Volaris and InterJet. Taxis are everywhere. From the airports, one goes to the taxi/shuttle desk inside the terminal to arrange and pay for the transfer. Done - simple and safe.