Life is full of surprises and travel holds more than its fair share of them. I was reminded of this fact on a recent trip to Canada for a cruise on the St. Lawrence Seaway and through the Bay of Fundy around Nova Scotia from Montreal to Boston. It was supposed to be a fall foliage cruise, experiencing fall in the northern reaches ushering in the Fall all bundled up as we leisurely skimmed the seaway watching the pastoral sights of Canadian coast drift lazily by our suite.
My travel buddy, Barb and I met up in the Toronto airport and landed in Montreal during a heat wave of 95 degrees. We wandered the cobblestone streets of the old city glad we had packed hot weather gear, one of our first surprises. We were fortunate to have landed during their summer fest of cinema and short films shown upon city buildings, trees, streets, and alleyways. Between the quaint sidewalk cafés and being ensconced in art of every kind including one of the most spectacular Basilica’s I’ve ever seen.
When we checked into our hotel early, the nicest front desk associate I have encountered in a while asked us if we would mind having the largest suite in the hotel with a 60-foot balcony overlooking the old town and the river. Would be mind? We didn’t ask any questions and just said yes, please, that would be lovely. We had a hard time keeping our composure on that one and fell into giggles the moment we shut the door to our suite and sweet balcony. We also discovered that the oldest working pub in North America was attached to our hotel and we were pleasantly surprised to have a very nice chat with the bartender over happy hour concoctions that were her suggestion. Montreal was a nice surprise in more ways than one.
Next on the cruise we noticed the average age was decrepit and had never seen so many walkers, wheelchairs, and Rascals in one place in all our lives. Most of the cruises I take are active, adventure trips and this one was more for the relaxed scenery and to visit Quebec City in all its walled glory and for high tea at the Chateau Fontenac. I’m guessing the relaxed pace was just the right pace for those in their 80’s. I hope I’m still racing down the corridors on my Rascal or with my walker in my 90’s on an international trip. The Fall foliage was not as intense as we had expected, no bright red Maples due to the weird weather that summer. Instead we saw muted shades of olive, rust, and brown. Not spectacular, but pleasant nonetheless.
Our next unexpected experience was a surprise sea day compliments of Hurricane Maria. Who knew the rain bands and winds would kick up swells over six stories high so far north and inland? I was on the promenade deck ready to take a picture of the amazing sunset when a wall of water crashed over the side of the ship in the sixth deck. Those were some big swells, and so we couldn’t dock and kept on chugging eastward rocking and rolling with the waves churning around us. We felt we needed seatbelts in bed and everyone walked like a drunken sailor trying to keep upright. I felt for those people in walkers and wheelchairs, it would have been a difficult slog to the dining room. One thing about a surprise sea day….you can spend your time lamenting what you didn’t get to see or you can take full advantage of what you can do on board.
We immediately called the spa as soon as the captain finished his message and we booked the works. We also took advantage of port wine and chocolate tasting, high tea, the pool and hot tub. In times of surprises, do you fret over what could have happened, should have happened, or do you go with what actually happened and move on from there and enjoy what you do have and not what you don’t have. It was interesting to hear different view points on board from those who were flexible in their plans and thinking and those who were not. I dare say the flexible ones were in a much better mood than those who were not. We noticed a distinct difference between the crotchety types and the kind, friendly types and decided we needed to be mindful to be the friendly, kind type now and when we get to the decrepit stage of life. Looking for the positive in our situation, no matter what it may be.
We had planned a relaxing beach-side getaway in Florida to soak in some sun and fun. What we got was soaking wet for a few days as we hunkered down to ride out Hurricane Matthew which had the audacity to ravage Florida’s coast in the middle of our vacation. It was eerily calm, warm, and sunny as we watched the shop keepers install the hurricane shutters and at poolside, we sipped umbrella drinks and ordered nachos. It was weird that each time a guest would get up from their lounge chair, an attendant would swoop in and scoop it up, along with all the potted plants.
One by one, all the patio furniture was carted away and doorways boarded up as us die-hards watched the Weather channel non-stop while floating in the pool. I’ve never watched so many hours of weather in all my life, but we were in the “cone of uncertainty” and several of the tracks showed us getting slammed by the evening. The hotel staff told us the windows were rated up to 200 miles per hour and this storm was estimated to “only reach 140 miles per hour.” I wondered who did the math on that calculation.
Later that evening, we walked the strand admiring the kite surfers and as we meandered, the wind started picking up. We had heard a hurricane may hit landfall, but it was supposed to be further north, so we kept walking as dusk settled in and the wind picked up. It only intensified the tricks the kite surfers could do in the gusts…looked like a blast to me. Note to self – try kite surfing – but not in a hurricane.
Live jazz was playing across the street from a sidewalk café and we felt the first droplets of rain, so we dashed back to our villa stopping by the CVS to round out our provisions we had hoarded to ride out several days without electricity or water. The storm grew stronger as the sky grew black and the rings of the hurricane most certainly were upon us. Bless the CVS store owner for remaining open until the last possible minute while every other shop around them was boarded up so we could get just one more jug of water for good measure.
Then it hit with a ferocity I hadn’t experienced. Our doors started blowing open before we could get them locked. We sat atop the intercoastal waterway and watched boats being tossed about and whipped from their moorings. We didn’t get the brunt, but you could see the rain bands and feel the building swaying. After holing up for a day and a half, we were able to venture out again and it was as if nothing had ever happened. We went to the spa and when we reached the pool deck, all the furniture was in place and the steel drum band was playing and umbrella drinks were flowing. Later that night we toasted a narrow miss with bellinis on the balcony and watched the boat traffic flow effortlessly in the intercoastal waterway like nothing ever happened.
Sometimes you need to ride out the storm and wait for the sunshine and sunset after the worst part. We didn’t want to throw in the towel because we still had vacation days left and wanted to use up every single minute for our holiday. We prepared, assessed the probability of a direct hit, and decided it was going to be another adventure and a good story. We were very fortunate, indeed. The next day we went air boating in search of gators, a perfect Florida trip complete with the requisite hurricane and gator sightings, that’s what I call livin g Hartfully, feminine and fierce.
There’s always been a certain charm of Europe that grabs hold of you, a sense of great architecture, grand design, great food, amazing culture, and women who know how to wear a scarf effortlessly. I particularly like to be in Europe for the holiday season. It’s done so well, so elegant, old-world charm, light-handed, and all your senses are immersed in holiday cheer. Not the unabashed, neon, tinsel-town fakeness in America.
So my BFF and I decided to spend this holiday in Italy and Belgium to surround ourselves with Christkindlemarkts, gluehwein, kaesestanger pretzals, and French fries with mayo in a cone and little forks as only the Belgians and the Dutch can do so well. When we arrived in Bruges, one of our favorite towns in the world that we thought couldn’t get any more charming and quaint. Well… cue the horse-drawn carriages clip-cloppping down the cobblestone street, the smell of chestnut roasting on an open fire (no kidding), and the smell of chocolate, the sight of 18th century canal homes decked out in greenery, simple white lights and red ribbons, ice skaters on the square encircled by holiday market stalls, and holiday music piped through the streets. Bliss, simply bliss from all angles. All we needed was reindeer and some snow. It did spit rain, so we ducked into a 15th century convent turned hotel for high tea by the roaring fire in the walk-in fireplace along the canal. We were the only ones in the sumptuous drawing room replete with champagne, tea, and crumpets – just what we needed to complete the holiday mood.
Several trips and years ago we had decided to up our game in several areas of our lives. It’s funny how little things can be improved and when you string together all the areas you have stepped-up, it turns out your life has been up-leveled in interesting ways. This trip was no exception. We continued to step up our scarf game because they are plentiful in Europe, take up no room in the suitcase and don’t break. I’ve come to know that eyeglasses are much more creative and interesting in Europe than in America. Why can’t American’s have imagination when it comes to eyewear. There is no comparison. This trip was no different when we met a woman whose dad has been the creative force behind some wild and crazy designs since the 60’s. Of course, we couldn’t leave the country without a pair of hot pink and purple frames to add to the collection.
One this trip we decided to step up our balsamic vinegar and chocolate game. Visiting a tiny artisanal vinegar house in Modena was a perfect entre into the world of fine balsamic vinegars. They produce only 2000, 100ml bottles per year and the entire operation is in the attic of their 1800’s home. The sweet, tart scent of vinegar wafted throughout the home where they took such pride in aging their stash for 12-25 years completely naturally. Of course, we had to buy bottles at $65 – $130 each. The complex taste is out of this world and the consistency of heave syrup is divine. I had long stepped up from the watery balsamic of the grocery store to specialty vinegars, but had no idea this amazing concoction existed. It rocked my world.
The same held true for chocolate. The Europeans have the Americans beat to shreds in chocolate-making, bread-making and many other things. When we strolled the Galleries near the Grand Place in Brussels, the high-end chocolate shops looked like fine jewelry stores with Mary chocolates holding the seal of the royal family. Another divine sensory overload. Eat your heart out Hershey’s.
The cherry on top was the sensory overload in the Grand Place at night with a light show set to holiday music while eating a warm waffle and turning in circles to not miss a thing trying to catch a glimpse of the fabulous buildings from the 1600’s bathed in flickering lights timed perfectly with the music. It was magical, it was marvelous, it was setting the bar very high for holiday experiences European-style. Yet another area where we had up-leveled our experiences and our awareness of bigger and better things available.
What kinds of things have you up-leveled in your life? How have you stepped up in different areas of your life? What are you consciously letting go of in order to make room for newer, better things, experiences, ways of being, doing, having? From things such as pens, furniture, fabrics, foods, jewelry, books, what you watch on screens, how you choose to use your time, dishes, thoughts, habits, colleagues, job/work, friends, behavior, bed linens, towels, lingerie, bags, paper, lotions and self-care products to hotels, villas, restaurants. Treat yourself to some up-leveling at any level this year. One small thing or big leaps and be conscious of what works for you and how it feels and what feels right for you. It’s all part of continuous improvement in all areas of your life. Make an effort to notice your space, your closet, your kitchen and refrigerator. What can you improve to represent who you are or who you want to become?
I’ve decided I probably need to be in Europe the month of December from now on. It feels like home. I’ve always tried to stay off the road and out of the malls and stores between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Day in America. It feels bad for me and I refuse to get caught up in the self-imposed stress of running around for sales and buying obligatory gifts that you wouldn’t normally be buying. The rushing around and fake blow-up decorations are a big turn-off for me. What feels more right is the old-school way of celebrating the holidays is how it is done in Europe. One more way of stepping it up and stepping out to enjoy what feels best for me. What do you do to feel your best and take care of your soul, your psyche, your body and your mind?
Travel adventures have occupied my mind quite a bit most of my life and there are many destinations that have set up camp in my brain. I keep them tucked away and keep researching and being open to opportunities and the gut feeling when my intuition tells me it’s the right time and the right place to take action. I experienced this strong, overwhelming feeling of urgency in my gut lately that I just HAD to get to Cuba as soon as possible.
The feeling has been getting stronger and stronger with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in the past couple years. I wanted to see the island before it was changed by too many outsiders. I wanted to experience the authenticity of the people, the culture, the colors and the cars. I do love great cars – that comes from my dad who always had quite a collection and he was also a former race car driver in the 40’s. Cars are in my blood.
It was two distinct experiences a couple months apart that drove me to take action. The first was when I was watching the movie Fate of the Furious – the one we had seen them setting up for in Iceland when my college roommate and I were up in Lake Myvatn in the northern reaches of Iceland on the frozen lakes. I just had to see what they were going to do in the movie on that frozen lake. They did A LOT with it – very cool. Anyway… the beginning of the movie begins in Havana, Cuba with all those glorious, colorful 1950’s cars. The next incident was President Trump announcing he was clamping down on some of the openings that former President Obama had negotiated. As soon as I heard that, I started researching trips to Cuba to get over there before the bureaucracy but the kibosh on any travel for Americans.
I found a cruise that circumnavigated the island and made many stops along with sanctioned people-to-people cultural excursions for Americans. I decided to stay in Jamaica before and after the trip to luxuriate in the amazing resorts to soak in the ocean breezes and beaches and allow the trip to imprint on me. Just being in a place where JFK took Jackie on their honeymoon, where he wrote his inauguration speech and where Stella got her groove back in the movie of the same name; so I could feel taken care of in a most luxurious way.
So the first resort was a complete disappointment and I ended up getting a full refund due to the comedy or errors, the terrible food and the lack of service. Fortunately, the new General Manager was Swiss, who know how to do hospitality well. He had been brought in to shake things up and evidently, I was the unpaid consultant that helped him make his point to his managers about what has run them downhill from their heyday. The last resort was purely heaven, gracious hospitality, and sumptuousness to the nth degree. It was just what I had imagined with the spa, the cliffside walking paths, the organic food grown on the property and the Ralph Lauren-designed rooms overlooking the lush gardens and beach. I was pampered to within an inch of my life and I loved every single leisurely minute of it as I tried to drink in every ounce of luxury.
The cruise ship only had 200 guests instead of their usual 1200, so we were very well cared for by the staff. It was a delight to actually have time to get to know them and the other passengers as we soaked in the long-hidden culture of Cuba…at least hidden from Americans. We stopped in several ports around the island, but the jewel is Havanna….at least the few blocks that were renovated for tourist eyes to see.
I was taken aback by the oppression, falling buildings, and poverty. I had only seen the Havana that the news and the movies had wanted you to see. But there were those amazing cars – beautiful, restored 1940’s and 50’s relics that had to have magicians as owners to keep them so pristine. A weird reality is that the old car taxi drivers make $50/hour from the tourists to drive around and doctors only make $60-$100/month while the average income is around $10/month. The economic pyramid is being turned upside down. Air BnB’s are popping up as residents are now able to own a business. It was a little strange rambling around the old city taking in the culture at the same time feeling communist eyes and ears upon you. It was uneasy. Signs of Castro were still everywhere. Very strange to pull into the harbor and not see any yachts or boats…nothing except another cruise ship and the dilapidated terminals with nothing but timbers from many decades ago. The irony of the culture clash was not lost on me — pulling up to the rickety pier perched upon the deck of my Royal Suite. Disconcerting…. The whole place is falling apart. I’m certain many buildings came down after the hurricane as report were that the spray of the waves reached above the lighthouse at Havana Harbor.
The best part of the cruise was the ship’s officers offering me the Royal Suite – the largest suite on the ship because a few of my shower tiles had come up and they didn’t want me to be disturbed by the repair. The place was palatial as far as ship cabins go – you could easily fit 50 people on the deck along with its own outdoor shower, hot tub, lounge chairs and dining suite. One of the perks of having a mostly-empty ship and I’ll gladly take it. If this was part of the Cuban cultural experience, I’m in! I’m forever grateful that I listened to my intuition and took the trip….a lifetime of memories from all my senses.
In order to feel refreshed and recharged; I need to travel and surround myself with new discoveries, recreation and experiences. I need a vacation to regroup and put things into perspective so I can come back renewed and able to give my all. How about you – what do you do to reconnect, re-create and reconvene better than when you started?
On a recent trip to Moorea, French Polynesia; I felt I was in heaven. Everything was just perfect. The over-water bungalows were just as they were shown in the travel mags. Just as beautiful and the water and view looked like a screen saver. I had sent some photos back home to friends and they demanded I send some photos with me in them to prove that I didn’t swipe them off some internet photo gallery. The staff could not have been any nicer and accommodating. I thought to myself, THIS is why I like travelling five stars. You get treated much better from people in places that sport more stars. You feel better about yourself, even. The room was fabulous with a glass-bottom floor where you could see the fish and eel swimming below. You could have your breakfast brought to your deck by outrigger canoe, and the atmosphere was one of tropical elegance and ease.
I thought it couldn’t get any better and just then a knock at the door and a chilled bottle of champagne and sweets were brought to the hut. As I relaxed on the deck with the water lapping beneath me sipping champagne and eating chocolate crumpets; I thought to myself, “This just can’t get any better, I’m at the point of exploding with joy, contentment and happiness.”
I was about to take another sip and there before my very eyes, a full rainbow appears over the lush, green mountains -big as life. There was no rain around the vicinity, but there must have been some droplets someplace. I captured that moment to share with you and to remind myself that things can always get better than you’d ever imagined. I remember Oprah saying that there is no way she could have dreamed as big a dream as she is living in this moment, but God had a bigger dream for her. She just needed to listen and follow her path, follow her inner guidance.
Look for things to get better, keep an open mind that things can and will get better. Be grateful for what has come to you as it was done for you and not to you, and always be open for more and better to come into your life. When you live with an open heart and open mind, all kinds of rainbows can come into your life. Watch for the signs, be on the lookout for what falls in your path and keep your eyes open for rainbows of all kinds to bless you. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better….cue the rainbow…or a double rainbow!
Most of us are guilty of creating loooong lists of things to do and not managing to put much of a dent in the compilation of busy-ness. Then some of us even do something that wasn’t on said list and end up wanting credit for it (not that anybody is keeping track or watching), so we add whatever it is we did that wasn’t on our list to our list just so we can cross it off. I’m talking about another type of To Do list. A fun one. A list of trips and adventures I want to do during my lifetime. I don’t call it a Bucket List because that seems negative to me. I call it a Life List because I want to do it living Hartfully, vitally, and fully alive.
So, on our most recent trip to Tahiti and Bora Bora, my BFF Barb and I decided it would be apropos to use the stationery aboard the M.S. Paul Gauguin while we were sailing around French Polynesia and brainstorm our To Do list of adventure travel trips we want to experience. The ideas were flying fast and furious and I could hardly keep up with the trips that were spewing forth from our lips. Later that day one of our travel buddies had spotted us on the deck during our writing drill and asked us what we were consumed with and intent on writing. We showed them our list and they asked if they could join us on some of our future explorations.
Barb’s philosophy is that you always need something to look forward to and she grew up always planning the next trip while her family was still on their current trip. It was something they always did and something she/I now carry forth. One of the maxims I’ve heard throughout the years is that happiness is having something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to. It keeps you young, vital, excited, and exciting. Sometimes we don’t have it all figured out immediately on our trip, but the mindset is there and we usually come up with something within a few days to a few weeks after our return. We are both good problem solvers and we find that travelling to far-away lands is always chalk-full of opportunities to solve some problems. Issues always come up, missed connections, bags not showing up, wrong bed configuration in the room, mixed-up meals, and communication disconnects. It gives you a chance to test your creative thinking skills and ingenuity. I also find it’s better to have the luxury of two or more brains working on the solution than just me. If it’s just me, then it gets a little weirdly nerve-wracking, and if it’s with my buddies, then it becomes an adventure.
What do you have to look forward to in your life? How are you living Hartfully and doing the things you want to do? How are your dreams playing out? Who are you inviting along for the ride? How do you make your ride enjoyable? I’ll share more Tahiti tales in future posts. There were so many amazing experiences to share that just lit me up. Once again it was one of those lifetime trips I’d been dreaming of for decades and it truly was a dream come true. What are you doing to make your dreams come true? Do you have a strategy in place, a visual, an accountability partner? I’ve uploaded our list – maybe it will spark some ideas in you.
We were deep in the Amazon jungle. I had wanted to do a jungle tour ever since I first saw the movie The Jungle Book with Mogli and Balu the blue bear when my brother took me to see it when I was five or six years old.
As we usually do, my BFF and I charted a wild itinerary into the wilds and invited some other friends to join us. Vacation planning is our forte and I call her a travel savant. This was one trip that was near and dear to my heart and I knew that living fully and living Hartfully just had to include the Amazon forest.
Our thatched hut was so far into the rain forest that there were no roads. The only way to reach the compound was by motorized canoe. We had to walk the plank just to embark on the boat. Our guide told us we were not to ever walk alone around the camp. It was the buddy system for safety. The sign posted in our bathroom next to the whistle hanging on the door gave instructions on how to summon help if we encountered a wild animal and food in the huts was forbidden.
Being a vegetarian, I always travel with protein bars, trail mix and peanut butter crackers from past experience of going hungry for lack of appropriate food in unknown places and the middle of the jungle was one of those places. We took a nighttime canoe ride and saw a white alligator and a 60-pound rodent, a capybara which is related to the guinea pig. Seriously, think of a 60-pound rat. It gave me the willies just thinking about how huge it was. It was the largest rodent I had ever seen – the size of a German Shepherd and they roam free. A sloth hung from the branches as we made our way back to our hut. It was like a steam bath and still hovering in the 100’s at night, so I decided to take a cold shower only to find a frog in the stall. I wondered what other creatures had made their way into our hut, which was had only a screen on three sides.
At 4:00 am the jungle starts coming alive. It was completely black outside and I heard it. The lowly rumble of the beginning of a roar. Frozen in my bed with anticipation of a jaguar jumping through the screened wall, I turned on the video camera on my phone. There is was again, only this time much louder and closer and more grumbling. I just knew the big cat was after my M&M laden trail mix I had locked in my suitcase. Could they really smell it inside baggies and a rollaboard? I recorded the sounds and kept recording until the sound faded away. Maybe it wasn’t that hungry. I peered out the window and only saw a baby Capybara and heard the birds. It was a symphony of sound as the wilderness cacophony grew louder as the sun rose. I’ve never heard so many different natural sounds in my life. It was deafening. The one sound that I was glad not to hear any more was the growl.
My BFF, Barb and I finally mustered the courage to exit our hut and go to breakfast using the buddy system and keeping our eyes peeled for jaguars. All we encountered were monkeys and birds. We thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast of Brazil nuts, pastries and fried yucca. Next time I’m double-bagging my trail mix to throw the wild animals off the scent.
What lights you up? What really gets your heart pumping and enthused about your life? What fills you with a sense of awe and wonder and giddy excitement? My BFF and travel buddy, Barb and I both experienced amazing underwater surprises on separate diving and snorkeling excursions during our recent visit to the South Pacific. We had both wanted to see the Islands after watching the movie as children and it was finally our time to see that part of the world and what was underneath it.
I know when I am living Hartfully when I’m awe-struck by nature’s beauty and bounty, and in the midst of grandeur or maybe even danger. It’s a fine line. Much of our trip was spent underwater or at least on top of the water to view the incredible creatures. Why neither one of us thought to bring a Go Pro underwater sport video/camera, I’ll never know. We were the only ones on the dive boat to not have one and I’m sorry we could not capture those moments.
I’ve been SCUBA diving since the early 80’s and have seen my fair share of marine life, but what we experienced just outside our over-water bungalow and on deeper dives is nothing short of incredible. I’ve never been surrounded by so many sharks in any of my dives anywhere in the world. At one point I counted six black-tipped sharks and eight lemon sharks circling our group until the largest barracuda I’ve ever witnessed came swimming right towards me with something hanging out of its mouth. A half-eaten lunch, maybe? I stretched out the length of my 5’2” body and that barracuda was every bit the length of me. Where was that camera when you needed to document being one of the smallest things not at the top of the food chain at that very moment? Then we saw a herd, pod, gaggle, school, whatever, of eagle rays float effortlessly by on their way to someplace away from the sharks. I was in absolute heaven and I couldn’t wait to regale Barb with my story. Little did I know she would come back with a story of her own.
When we reconvened back on the ship after our separate underwater adventures. Barb’s story won, hands down. It seems that their snorkeling group landed amidst a school of lemon sharks who liked playing about the dive boat. So naturally what do divers do but jump in the water to get a closer look and better pictures. (If you’ve brought your Go Pro – note to self, go buy a Go Pro camera.) Just when Barb thought it was clear to jump in the water; off she goes and immediately after she is already committed, a 10-foot lemon shark swims from underneath the boat and SHE JUMPS ON THE BACK FIN OF THE SHARK! Yup, Fonzi famously jumped the shark in the TV sitcom Happy Days, and my friend jumps ON TOP OF A SHARK! Luckily he was only merely annoyed and swam away. Then a bit later the dive master, who weirdly stayed INSIDE the boat top side, announced to the snorkelers who are IN the water that “The sharks are getting agitated. Get in the boat NOW!” You can bet there was a bee-line for the ladder on that boat. Last one up the ladder is shark bait!
So, we learned a lesson that no matter how good you think your story is, there is bound to be somebody with a better story, and sometimes a good story is better than a good time. Although we did come back from that trip with a ton of stories and a heaping good time. Sometimes you luck out when you are in search of a Hartful life. Look for the good stuff, always seek good stories and ways to keep you lit up. What lights you up? What have you done lately to create a good story?