Greece Ahoy!

Aside from travelling, I have a few other pastimes that occupy my time and my mind. One of those is sailing, and as my experience has grown I have been able to enjoy the hobby while travelling. Sailing in picturesque warm locations is a real treat and a reward for the work put in learning the skill. My first sailing experience was as a passenger on an Egyptian felucca, dawdling on the calm waters of the Nile. We admired the great city of Cairo on each side of us, the water shielding us from the mayhem of its streets. Our skipper spoke no English; he scurried about his little wooden boat barefooted, making sure he caught the best of the gentle afternoon breeze. Having just hopped off a taxi in a city that doesn’t stop bustling, this memory has always been coated with a very healthy dusting of romance.

However, it is only now that I have learned enough to go on a sailing holiday rather than go sailing on holiday. Now I am someone who has chartered a yacht! My poor wife has been subjected to varying levels of torture since I’ve taken up this pastime – she’s had to put up with me going off to do courses, she’s had to listen to me talking about it, and now she’s even been dragged along to live on a cramped boat for a week when she could have been staying in a nice hotel. She got just one night in a hotel in Athens before we boarded our vessel in Poros, a small island very close to the Greek mainland.

Our total time in Athens didn’t amount to very long, and we took advantage of the economic situation there, booking into a five star hotel at a very reasonable price. But even taking that into account, it is worth noting that the city that we saw was not bleak in appearance or atmosphere. I’m not commenting on the problems that the Greek people are facing, just saying that there is a busy cosmopolitan centre to Athens that is still quite tourist-friendly. In our short time sightseeing there, we visited the Acropolis and the original Olympic stadium. I even ran a lap on the track! (Athletics is another pastime of mine.) Our visit to the Acropolis was marred by miserable weather, so unfortunately I don’t have an impressive photo of the Parthenon to put up here.

We travelled from Piraeus by hydrofoil to Poros. The town sits on the southern edge of an island and faces the mainland and the town of Galatas just a few hundred metres away. The island is really two islands connected by a small bridge. The mainland, however, is only connected by an overhead power line but is reachable by water-taxi. Our yacht was berthed on the edge of Poros town in this narrow channel separating the island from the mainland.

I began my sailing ‘career’ in a wetsuit sailing small one-man dinghies getting quite wet. Last year, I crewed on a few yachts most of which were about 21-27ft long, quite a modest size for a sailing yacht. Towards the end of the season I successfully completed my ‘Day Skipper’ course on a lovely 36ft boat with a full complement of crew to help handle her. Earlier this year my Dad and I bought an 18ft boat. I have done some sailing in other vessels, but that’s a pretty rough picture of my range of experience prior to this charter. My wife had crewed for me on boats of 10-22ft in length. So, naturally, when choosing our charter boat I looked for something small and easily manageable. But people have to live on charter boats for a week or more, so the minimum size isn’t that small! Eventually I settled on a 29ft Jeanneau Sun Odyssey and booked it with a company called Greek Sails through the Globe Sailor website.

In the months preceding our vacation, I took my wife out sailing on our 18ft boat a number of times in an effort to get some practice in. It was useful, and it was fun but I was still left feeling like a 29ft boat would be a big step up. So when we arrived in Poros and we were told we’d been upgraded to a 31ft boat, I’m not sure it got the expected reaction! I didn’t want to seem incapable or ungrateful, but I suspect my face may not have hidden all my concerns. In hindsight, I’m glad we got the bigger boat – ‘Ellin’, a Sun Odyssey 32. It meant more living space, and from a sailing point of view we were always going to be a bit nervous on our first charter anyway, so it’s better to have come out the other side having overcome the challenge of handling a larger vessel. We got a quick lesson on parking the boat Greek-style before we were let loose and after that it was up to ourselves. Having said that, the guys in Greek Sails were always interested in our plans and I’m sure they would have been quick to tell us if we were being overly ambitious.

Cautious would be a more accurate word for our boating behaviour. On our first outing, we didn’t even hoist the sails. We took a good long look around our locality and got used to the boat. It was a windy afternoon and I think the swell was probably much bigger than we experienced on any subsequent ventures that week. The first time we did hoist the sails, we got a taste of what our boat might be capable of. Just west of Poros, in confined waters with only a light breeze blowing, I raised the canvas with my wife at the helm. With very little persuasion Ellin was already making her diesel engine look like the more ancient technology. Still in the bay, our manoeuvres needed to be timely – this stress combined with her inexperience at the wheel made my wife more than a little uncomfortable so our first sail was quite brief. That afternoon we had another go, with smaller sails. This was more relaxed, a little bit more like what people probably imagine goes on when they see sailboats from a distance.

Our trip was most of all a learning experience. For the first few days we never strayed far from our home port, and we always returned to the charter dock at night. We practiced anchoring with little success. We eventually got around to using our gas cooker, starting out with grilled toast and eventually progressing to sausages and potatoes! With a bit of experience under our belt we decided it was time to take on our first passage. We set out early for the mainland town of Methana, roughly six nautical miles from Poros. We motored out of the bay and hoisted the sails. It was a beautiful morning, but not a sailing morning – there wasn’t a breeze in the air. After a while we gave up on sailing and just motored on towards the little town in the distance. It was an enjoyable journey regardless, the sun beat down on us and the tunes of Rihanna and friends blared out from the stereo below.

The wind picked up as we approached our destination giving us some choppy waters to add to the stress of our first time entering an unfamiliar marina. We got the fenders on, got everything ready and slowly made our way through the narrow marina entrance. Methana is a sleepy town, overpowered by a smell of sulphur. The blaring sun, the smell, the quietness, the strange turquoise colour of the water inside the marina all gave the place an eerie feel. The final task of dropping anchor and mooring between the other yachts was always likely to be our biggest challenge. I tried to be calm and methodical, but I let the situation get the better of me and soon our anchor was caught on some ropes beneath the surface and things were getting a bit tense. Fortunately, two sailors ashore helped us out and eventually our anchor was free and we got tied to the marina wall. It turned out there were mooring lines available so we need never have dropped the anchor in the first place. Oh well!

With that drama behind us it was time to get out and explore our new home. Ice cream and cold drinks were necessary to recover from all that hauling of ropes under the Mediterranean sun. Our hosts at the cafe that we chose were very hospitable and pointed us to a great swimming location just north of the town. It was the grandest little cove, picture perfect with crystal clear water. Very cold crystal clear water I might add, but every now and again a warm current would rise up from the rocks giving away the secret of the sulphurous odour in the area. Methana is famous for its thermal springs, health spas and the healing qualities of the water here.

That evening the wind came sweeping in over the hills west of Methana. We secured our warps as best we could and headed into town for dinner rather than sit listening to the boats creaking. We ate well and tried to relax though the wind did not subside at all. When we returned to our boat everything was as we had left it but the wind was getting stronger if anything. We had a game of cards then quickly fell asleep to the rocking of the boat as the wind howled outside. It blew for hours but was pretty calm come morning. We paid our fee to the harbour police (less than €2), then made for Poros. Leaving the marina was simpler and less dramatic than coming in! My poor wife had a migraine so she went down below as soon as we were clear of the harbour and slept while I motored home. Making a passage alone like that was a nice experience – a feeling of freedom or trailblazing might best describe it. Although it would have been nice to sail the return passage if we’d both been well.

The following day we had a pod of dolphins for company. They were in playful mood, darting and jumping and racing alongside us. With the water being so clear you could even see them swimming in under the bow of the boat.

Aside from sailing, we ate in numerous restaurants around Poros but the options were quite limited. There was no shortage of restaurants and the food was fine, but there was little other than Greek, Italian or seafood to be had. There’s a fine clock tower in Poros and we climbed up to it and enjoyed the fantastic view. Downtime was spent drinking coffee with ice-cream in it or eating sweet things. On our last day sailing, we finally anchored in a bay successfully and went for a quick swim. To the typical charterer reading this account it may seem like we wasted our money, but for us it was a holiday of firsts and we achieved nearly all of our goals and gained lots of valuable experience. My poor sailing partner may have had a few too many nervous moments, but hopefully at least one of us will be back in Poros for bigger adventures in the future!

Finally, this blog entry has been quite a while coming. This is because I have recently found out that I am to move to Brussels for a new job. With all the planning to be done and getting things sorted before I go, it took a while to get this post written. I am very excited about this new travel opportunity for me and I hope to use it to see some more of northern Europe as well as experiencing working-life in a foreign country. I have to make a quick trip to Brussels this week but I’m not sure if it will be worthy of a post here!

Take care,
Corms

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Wonderful Jamaica

This entry was meant to be about Panama, I should be telling you about seeing three-toed sloths and riding the Panama Canal. But unfortunately, I was too sick to go exploring in Panama. I think it may have been the combination of antibiotics, sunshine, exercise and not drinking enough water that got me. Whatever it was, it meant that I could only manage about fifteen minutes on Panama soil before I needed to return to my cabin.

Panama

Well that was a gloomy opening paragraph, but there’s no need to feel too sorry for me – just two days later when we arrived at our next port of call, Montego Bay, Jamaica, I was already feeling a lot better. Montego Bay itself didn’t sound that appealing to us, so when we saw there was an excursion to Negril Beach we figured, based on our experiences in Curacao and Aruba, it would be easier and not much more expenseive to join the excursion rather than traipsing the city looking for transportation to a nice seaside village.

Our tour bus was packed with aging Americans, more women than men it seemed. Many of these ladies were very vocal, but despite having been to Jamaica numerous times (on previous cruises I’m guessing), they came across as being unfamiliar with the un-American ways of the Jamaicans. It was frustrating and annoying to listen to at times, but sort of amusing too. Our Jamaican guide was great – she stood at the front of our minibus and entertained and informed us all.

We trundled along the winding coastal road listening to our guide answering questions and telling us various tidbits about the Jamaican way of life. The ride was magical, we drove through villages of colourful shacks and shops, saw youngsters with shiny black skin and super-cool haircuts playing football on dusty pitches. Our road cut through lush tropical vegetation and crossed inlets that disappeared in the direction of the green forested hills where they began as streams. Still blue water sparkled under the sun in leafy coves where the only thing missing was a pirate’s galleon.

When we reached Negril Beach, the bus pulled into the carpark of a large beach bar. We were given some lunch vouchers before we made our way through the bar and out to the beach. It was spectacular – white sand, turquoise water, palm trees – truly stunning. As you can guess, we didn’t feel the need to venture far in the next few hours! Activities such as sunbathing, swimming, drinking fruity drinks and politely declining the wares of the dodgy hawkers that passed took up most of our time. We also had a go on the trampoline floating offshore but thankfully there are no pictures to prove it! We very nearly made our parasailing debut as well, but too long spent haggling over the price and stalling on the decision found us back on the bus drama-free.

Our lunch was Jamaican jerk chicken and rice. It was lovely and it was great to get a local dish. Our final stop in Jamaica was Rick’s Café where cliff diving is the main attraction. Acrobatic locals and brave tourists leap from a forty-foot precipice into the clear blue of the sheltered cove below. It was very exciting to watch and it even inspired timid me to jump from a smaller ten-foot ledge. I was petrified!

It was still bright when we pulled out of Montego Bay and the view was beautiful. Our final cruise destination had been our favourite by far. If you’re struggling to choose a Caribbean destination, consider Negril Beach, Jamaica, it’s pretty special!

Hope you enjoyed this entry, I’m off to Greece!
Corms

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Not so crazy Cartagena

Does danger appeal to you? People who’ve known me for any length of time would probably tell you that I’m a very cautious person. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment. There is, however, a little adventurer trapped inside me always fighting to get out! This brave little guy would love to take a trip to Freetown or seek out isolation in remote mountains and deserts. The real me has, over time, become more aware of the limits of my comfort zone. I do try to push those limits pretty regularly because I believe many of my fears are unfounded or overstated, but I also realise that right now I probably wouldn’t enjoy, or get the best out of, a trip that I considered to be unsafe. I often ponder ways in which I can become more self-sufficient and empowered.

When my wife and I were browsing possible itineraries for our Caribbean cruise, I would say the presence of Colombia as a destination was the single biggest factor in my choice. When I saw Cartagena on the list along with Aruba and Jamaica I was immediately sold – Aruba would be the Caribbean we imagined, Jamaica would be, well Jamaica! And Cartagena would keep that little adventurer in me happy. All that was left to do was convince my travelling companion. I was really looking forward to reaching South America. I was super-excited that it was Colombia we were visiting. And even though I didn’t know a whole lot about the city, the name ‘Cartagena’ painted a romantic picture in my mind’s eye. Despite Colombia’s reputation, I figured if a cruise ship was pulling up here, it must not be too daunting. A small amount of online research later and this conclusion was reinforced.

Fast-forward about ten months and we were, at last, in Colombian waters. The approach was frustratingly slow, as they always are on ships. But the view was spectacular. Initially it was deep forest and beautiful beaches, and even tribal-looking characters fishing in tiny boats. This view then gave way to white skyscrapers, long piers and expensive marinas. This was one place where I definitely didn’t expect to be dawdling around the port – I couldn’t wait to see the ‘real’ Colombia. But I also wasn’t expecting the cruise port in Cartagena to be so much more tourist-friendly than the others we’d been through. Instead of concrete and stalls, we were met with wood and greenery and smiling ladies in white and blue uniforms introducing us to their pet parrot. Who was also blue. And yellow. So I figured it was worth a few minutes to get some pictures with the parrot on my arm. On our way back through the port later that day we realised that they had many more exotic animals, but they were a bit more confined and at the mercy of thoughtless tourists than we would have liked.

Outside the port, the taxis were lined up and most people, like us, seemed to be headed for the Old City. So we shared a ride with two American women to keep costs down and speed things up in the queue. The drive in was quite enjoyable, in a theme park kind of way – last second manoeuvres and close calls were the norm. And the views were great too!

We wandered into the Old City with food on our minds. My wife can be quite fussy about what she eats, so I was anxious to find somewhere quickly rather than waste our few hours in Colombia arguing over restaurants. Most of the restaurants hadn’t opened yet but the stunning streets and churches and buildings distracted us somewhat from our hunger pangs. Cartagena is a beautiful city and it gave us many of the best photos from our cruise. Our search ended when we happened upon a very charming courtyard restaurant near the Cathedral of Cartagena. The exchange rate was something like $1:55,000 and we weren’t even sure that was right at all, so trying to work out how much our food was costing us was a source of minor concern.

Our basic plan for the day was just to get a feel for the place. So we wandered the pretty streets, climbed the ramparts, visited a maritime museum and had an ice-pop in Plaza de Bolvar. The place was much more relaxed and tourist-friendly than I expected – I had been looking forward to the madness of Tijuana or something similar! I was anxious to see the modern part of the city as well for a bit of perspective. But we found it difficult to pick up a taxi on the street so we had to walk back to the Clock Tower where there were a number of taxis waiting for a fare. Time was running out on us, so I decided that a tour of the rest of the city by taxi, finishing up at the cruise port, would be the thing to do. Neither of us speak Spanish so it took a while before we found a taxi driver who could understand our slightly unusual request. Happily, we came upon an agreeable fellow with broken English who offered to take us to the places we wanted to see for a surprisingly low fare.

Our friendly driver pointed out the sights as we headed for the skyscrapers. We saw the beaches, the glitzy business hotels, the heavily armed guards – present for some high profile international conference. In the bay we saw a US Coastguard vessel and were told that it was a constant presence in Cartagena. Our last stop before leaving the city was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This was a grand old fortress and a good spot for a few photographs and ice-cream. This part of town was much more run-down but it was no harm to see it along with the postcard views of castle walls and sparkling seafronts elsewhere in the city.

In summary, Cartagena is a very picturesque city and makes for a very pleasant visit. It’s also worth noting that my view of the place may be at odds with that of someone who has had time to experience it more fully. I came away with a somewhat anticlimactic feeling, but that was possibly somewhat due to me building it up in my head for so long beforehand.

Later,
Corms

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Tropical treats on Palm Beach, Aruba

Unlike Curacao, I certainly had heard of its near neighbour, Aruba. Admittedly I didn’t know a whole lot about the place, but I’d seen lovely pictures of the beaches there and of course I’d heard it mentioned in that Beach Boys song. The rain that we’d seen in Curacao the previous day was soon a distant memory – we disembarked in Oranjestad with the sun beating down on us and it made even just looking for a taxi to the beach an arduous task. Our nice taxi driver drove us to Palm Beach and told us about the island. The journey wasn’t long, but from what we saw, the landscape of the island seemed to be much more arid than Curacao. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but it was difficult not to keep an open mind when the taxi driver was speaking about his home with such positivity.

The beach, though not visible from the road, was just a short walk between two hotels from where the taxi dropped us. I spotted two green parakeets before they disappeared into the leafy trees by the path but my poor wife missed them because some guy was following us down the path trying to be our guide (probably so that he could sell us a sunbed when we got to the beach). We headed straight for the watersports hut and I told them I wanted to rent a catamaran. This time, my wife said she’d come with me as long as I could assure her that there wasn’t much danger of capsizing. We reapplied our suncream, handed in our stuff and made a beeline for the water’s edge. We launched our little Hobie Wave, and in moments we were clear of the beach with bright blue water on every side of us. The wind was light but our little boat didn’t need much to keep it bopping along. We tacked back and forth horizontal to the shore, chatting about where along the beach we’d most like to own an apartment. The view was spectacular and the sea was blue and turquoise. This was the Caribbean as we’d imagined it. Eventually, the company rescue boat told us that our hour was up and it was time to sail in. Our pale complexion were taking quite a beating from the sun by this stage, so it was probably for the best.

We didn’t have a lot of time on the island, so there’s not too much more to this story. We relaxed on the beach and went for a swim of course. We took a few minutes respite in the shade and got some fruity tropical drinks. And before we left, we took a stroll over to the wooden pier reaching out from the beach that had a bar where sailors could come alongside for a drink! My very first impression of Aruba hadn’t been exactly what I expected, but the beach was pretty special and that’s all I’d ever looked at in the photographs. We got what we came for!

Coming soon: Jamaica.

Take care,
Corms

 

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What do you know about Curacao?

Our cruise ship eased into her berth outside Willemstad after two nights at sea. Our first stop in the Caribbean was Curacao and I still didn’t know how to pronounce it! But I wasn’t going to let that hold me back. Before I left home I checked out some good sailing destinations online and I discovered that sailboats ccould be rented in Curacao on a lagoon called Spanish Waters. We strolled into the city of Willemstad and hopped into a taxi. Our taxi driver reminded me of Queen Latifah. She was pretty cool plus she told us how to pronounce Curacao. The traffic on the way out to Spanish Waters was moving slowly, then it started to rain really heavily and everything slowed down even more.

We never got to rent a sailboat. We reached Spanish Waters without fuss, but the rain never stopped. The place still sits fondly in my memory, however. Just as we pulled in at the rental shop I saw a big iguana wander across the car park. Awesome. Then we went and sat outside under a shade that we would have imagined was surely designed to protect us from the sun rather than the rain. We waited, looking out at the teeming rain, checking the grey sky for any signs of hope. The tropical rain, the green vegetation, the humidity, the lagoon and its boats, all combined to bring a calm over us. We chatted and relaxed with a drink, not in any panic that our few hours on the island were being wasted. This was the Caribbean, we were meant to relax, and for once we had the good sense to do so. Eventually we got the guys in the shop to ring the taxi to return for us. One was a dutch guy over for a few months, the other was a local kid. I talked to them both for a little while as we waited for our taxi to return.

The taxi journey back to Willemstad was very slow because the road had become quite flooded in places. But our excursion had given us a chance to see the suburbs of the city where the lush greenery took over from the urban jungle. Back in the city, there was no sign of rain – the sun was beating down on us and even a wander through the streets was hard work at times. Aside from the magnificent waterfront, Willemstad has a sort of scruffy charm about it. The expensive tourist shops such as Calvin Klein don’t quite fit in but there are plenty of them about. I don’t know if there’ s much to keep you entertained here for more than a day or two really.

The waterfront is where we decided to get lunch. We sat in front of the delightful facade of old dutch buildings and watched the moving bridge go back and forth across the river mouth. I ate something local that was nice enough, think it might have been some sort of lamb stew. We never made it to the beach either, but I think we saw something a little bit different in Curacao that made it interesting and worthwhile.

Up next: Aruba.

Bye for now!
Corms

 

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Belgian waffle

There was no Easter Bunny in our house growing up. Our parents would give us an Easter egg each, usually one we’d chosen during Lent. Our aunt usually got us a big one each too. And most years our uncle would have some waiting for us whenever we next visited. I remember lots of my school friends got way more than that. Maybe that’s why I never grew out of them – I was always left wanting more!

I’m just back from an Easter weekend in Brussels, and sure enough, silly amounts of Belgian chocolate were consumed.My wife and I first visited Brussels a number of years ago, before we were married. That was an Easter weekend too and maybe it’s part of the reason we got hooked on the place. We’ve been back three or four times since and no-one seems to understand what the appeal is. I think it’s just a holiday that we got right frist time and now it’s an easy getaway that we know we’ll enjoy.

Every time we’ve been to the city, we’ve booked into the Marriott on Rue Anspach. It doesn’t have a long list of amenities, it’s pricier than what we normally go for, and I’m not sure exactly why we picked it on our first trip. Regardless, once there, we found it particularly pleasant, very central, plus it had the biggest comfiest bed we’d ever known! Just a stone’s throw away, the Grand Place or Grote Markt is as pretty a town square as you might wish for. Its numerous approaches all wind up as narrow alleys dotted with chocolate shops and cosy cafés.

Finding your way around the city isn’t a big problem and we’ve found the Metro service quite convenient. I suppose, in comparison to other tourist destinations, sights are a little bit thin on the ground. But unless you’re staying for more than a few days, there should be enough to keep you entertained.

Sightseeing wasn’t on the agenda this time, but over the last few years we’ve seen a few of them. Manneken Pis is worth a quick stroll through the city centre. The Atomium is impressively huge but I wasn’t really glad I’d paid and queued to go inside it. Just next to the Atomium, Mini-Europe was good fun. I’d imagine the AutoWorld museum is less of a tourist draw – we took a trip out to it once, I think we enjoyed it but I wouldn’t put it on a must-see in Brussels list.

I visited one sight in Brussels this year by accident. I wandered down to Sainte Catherine hoping to catch the Easter Vigil but found that the church was closed for renovations. A nice helpful man directed me across town to St. Michael & St. Gudula Cathedral and I found myself in a very spectacular place of worship. As I walked in the direction of the altar, gigantic organ pipes dominated the left hand wall above the pews. An imposing black pulpit with a winding staircase on the right hand side looked stark and medieval. I took a seat on the left and took in the enormity of the whole building. The bishop and his fellow clergy drifted between French, Flemish and Latin and every so often gave way to the booming organ. The choir’s attempts to compete hardly seemed worthwhile.

For entertainment in Brussels, there are lots of places to drink. I gather beer is a big thing in Belgium. There’s a great place near the Grand Place called the Music Village that’s good for jazz. For a different kind of entertainment, take the train out to Walibi – it’s a theme park with lots of super rides. We went on almost everything there and loved it!

So that’s why we love Brussels – a beautiful historic town square, relaxed atmosphere, great chocolate, a few fun things to do, easy sightseeing, good transport. And a chance for me to practice my French.

Next up: Curacao

Take care,
Corms

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The Caribbean, but let’s start with Miami

Like a new born child, our Caribbean cruise holiday arrived after nine long months of waiting and saving. We booked it in February 2011 and paid for it in installments before finally packing up our sunny clothes in the cold of November. Ten days on the blue sea would fulfil my wife’s dream of a luxury cruise, and a few days in Miami beforehand would help us get over the jet lag. Although I only spent a few hours in each cruise destination, I feel they are all worthy of a post of their own. So I’ll focus on Miami now, and over the coming weeks I’lll talk of the other paces we visited and the cruise itself.

Fifteen years ago I visited Miami and Orlando as a young teenager. In Orlando, I watched Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic, I rode Thunder Mountain, and spent the days shooting hoops and eating pizza. Miami was too hot and too grown-up for me. And I didn’t get all those pastel buildings. This time round though I couldn’t wait for Miami. I’d done my research and I had a loose but awesome itinerary. It included Le Bron James, Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat, alligators in the Everglades, sailing in the ocean, and hanging by the beach. Before going anywhere we set ourselves up with a South Beach apartment, some wheels and tickets to see Bron Bron.

Things started to fall apart even before we left home. The NBA lockout dragged on over the summer and more and more of the early games got cancelled. I held out hope, but eventually Heat v. Raptors got struck off the schedule too. It was a massive disappointment but I was still looking forward to Miami.

We arrived on a lovely warm evening and I can still remember the weight of the humid air and the smell of the airport parking lot as we chose our rental car and rolled out under the reddening sky. I love having a car when I’m abroad and driving over to Miami Beach was a great way to start our holiday. Our apartment in SoBe was reasonably central, but after an evening stroll and a meal out, I got the impression that this whole area had lost some of its cool. Further north, the luxury resort hotels with their boardwalk and waterfront looked fabulous but were a little bit out of the action. During my daily runs I covered much of the South Beach area, and maybe it was because it was the weekend of Thanksgiving, but the place never got as lively as I’d expected it would.

Thanksgiving itself was a day of highs and lows for us. First of all, we took a spin out to Rickenbacker Causeway where I rented a Hobie Cat. On the causeway, we took the wrong lane approaching the toll booths and were left to worry about accumulating fines – this really frustrated us because over the next few days we tried to out what the appropriate procedure was to rectify the situation but got nowehere. But anyway, back to the sailing! I rented a simple little catamaran called a Hobie Wave and my wife took pictures from the beach. The Wave is great fun, nice and fast but could do with some sort of tiller extension on the rudder. I left my toll troubles back on land and zipped along the water, harnessing the north-easterly breeze.

From there it was immediately on to the Everglades. We could have done with a decent map, but it wasn’t too dificult to find our way to the national park. Visiting wild places is one of my favourite things to do so I was really looking forward to seeing the alligators and everything else that the Everglades had to offer. Our short time in the park consisted of two parts – a walk along the trails where the alligators lurk, and then a drive up and down one of the park highways in the late afternoon, keeping an eye out for wild creatures of any sort.

Along the trails we got some great alligator viewing – we saw one swimming towards us and also got to view one basking right below the trail boardwalk. And those were just two of the better sightings. We also saw some interesting birds and a really cool Everglades grasshopper. Then disaster struck! I got bitten. No, not by an alligator, just by a really big mosquito or something. Not a big deal, you’d think, but in the hours to follow, my bitten hand grew and grew and grew. I ended up going to the hospital on the morning of the cruise and got put on an intensive course of antibiotics and antihistamines and was told to stay out of the sun. On a Caribbean cruise!

Back in the Everglades, from te safety of our vehicle, the second part of our adventure was free from such disaster. On the highway, we didn’t see much in the way of terrestrial wildlife, but we did see raptors galore and great big herons. And the peacefulness of the setting as the evening came down really was something to remember. It is worth mentioning though that these roads aren’t well set up for wildlife viewing – it is not possible to pull in off the road completely and other drivers seem to treat this road as a typical thoroughfare rather than somewhere to expect slow moving traffic and stationary vehicles. Doing anything other than driving at a good steady pace on this road felt a little bit dangerous and so made looking for, and looking at animals somewhat frustrating.

Our last full day in Miami was dedicated to taking on the Black Friday sales in Aventura. The mall was, for the most part, a little too designer for our budgets and the early birds had grabbed a lot of the deals, but we did manage to find a few bargains. We didn’t get into downtown Miami at all; but I did go to hospital – that’s a unique US experience that not every tourist gets!

Later,
Corms!

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Paris, je t’aime!

I first visited Paris as a baby, or so I’ve been led to believe. As a teenager I got a brief glimpse of the city when passing through during a family holiday to Brittany. I finally visited the city for a propper look in my early twenties with my then girlfriend, now wife.

I liked the street stalls selling paintings on the Seine. I liked the Champs Elysées at night and the Arc de Triomphe. Notre Dame in the sunshine and the roller-bladers doing tricks for tourist tips outside. The Eiffel Tower looked better from afar, the new glass pyramid in the Louvre was hideous. The restaurants were expensive and the touts that called themselves artists were relentless. But the streets, the people, the language – it was all ‘Parisien’ and I loved it!

I had a feeling that there was more Paris for me to see, and just last Christmas I got a chance to go back and find out. This time I would be doing it on the cheap with my brother and, on his advice, we were staying in Montmartre.

With just two nights in the city, we didn’t waste time getting started. First stop was a perfect little patisserie to pick up some sweet pastries, a quick refuel while we searched for our hostel. Once we’d checked into our room and rushed through a few unavoidable ‘chores’, we were back out on the dark streets of Montmartre, the buzz of anticipation adding energy to our footsteps.

A few Metro connections later and we found ourselves surrounded by ticket touts. Not a problem – around the corner Paris Saint-Germain were battling Lille for a place at the top of the French league. With the game already started and the touts much less organised than I expected, we were able to pick up some cheap tickets without much hassle. I think we paid about fifteen euro each. I’m not a big football fan but the stadim was packed and the atmosphere was great. We never found our actual seats, neither fans nor officials seemed to get too fussed about who went where or did what. At half-time I got chips with mayonnaise just to be French.

Walking the Champs Elysées that night, we discovered that the Metro doesn’t run all night. But a long walk through empty Paris streets is sightseeing too… They have big rats in Paris. Speaking of ratatouille, my taste buds are not refined enough for me to really appreciate French cuisine. But I love their snacks and sweets – day after day I feasted on crepes, pastries and even liqourice cooked in a big cauldron at the local Christmas market.

It can be difficult to relax in a hostel the way you would in a hotel. That said, I like the opportunity it gives you to meet other people. We befriended our Australian roommates and had a nice interesting meal out with them and a few exciting games of table-football too! Last time I’d visited Paris I hadn’t made it over to Montmartre and I didn’t realised what I’d missed at all. The narrow streets, the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur make this an area that I’m glad I didn’t miss second time round. Sacre Coeur is very impressive and offers great views as an added bonus but my clearest memory of the place is the hawkers about half way up the steps trying to put twine around your finger. I don’t know what the purpose was or what they were trying to sell, but they were far too persistent/intimidating for my liking.

Our last morning in Paris was spent wandering around the grounds of the Louvre, along the Seine and up to the big ferris wheel and the Champs Elysées. We took our time and climbed around a bit to get a good look at things. Then it was time to go. Our bus back to the airport got caught in severe traffic jams and we had to run around the airport to make our flight. A lively end to a cracking trip. This city has really charmed me, I look forward to going back.

Up next, the Caribbean!

Corms

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Maltese moments…

I find it hard to describe Valletta and do it justice. If I go into great detail I think it will start to sound dull. If I sum it up in one or two sentences it will be difficult to get across why this place is so likeable. I think the city’s trump card is that it’s so visually attractive and old. I’m also a bit of a sucker for a maritime town. Valletta has a lovely blue sea that rolls in under lots of dazzling white sailing yachts as they come and go. Next door to the hotel that I stayed in was a tiny sailor’s pub called The Plough And Anchor.

Eating in Valletta is great fun – lots of options, and prices that are often quite reasonable. For dinner, the area around Spinola Bay is full of nice restaurants. For lunch, snacks and sweets, the seafront in Sliema across the water from the city walls offers a fabulous view while you eat. Another lovely place I happened upon was Cafe Jubilee in the centre of Valletta, a real cosy place to lose track of the time and kick back.

Malta is best suited to those who want to take life at an easy pace. Wandering the pretty streets is a real highlight – Vittoriosa could be one of the best places in the world for this. The centre of Valletta is fantastic also. Rabat has lots to offer in this department too and M’dina is spectacular if a little lacking in atmosphere. In the week I was there I didn’t do a whole lot else. Scuba diving and snorkelling are very popular but not so much in early Spring when I was there. Trips to the Blue Lagoon in Comino or across to the beach at Golden Bay look great but sadly we didn’t get the weather for such activities this time.

Corms

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Supertramp

I’m not much of a reader and I have a terrible habit of reading more than half of a book but not getting around to finishing it. But I find there’s nothing like a good book to stoke the fires of my most romantic notions. I worked through Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while travelling in the USA and it made me want to take on bigger adventures, go deeper, experience more.

More recently, I read Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer. I already knew a little bit about the life of Chris McCandless. His story is fascinating but it wasn’t the dramatic and emotional tale that really got to me while reading the book, nor was it the epic adventures that he undertook (though they were awe-inspiring). It was that I felt I understood and could relate to the motivation behind his final tragic adventure.

I travel because I am curious to see the world. I travel for the novelty of new places. In my mind, I have a special fondness for wild places where humans haven’t overthrown their environment. But more and more, I long for an expedition, an epic journey, an adventure of travel.

I live a relatively normal life, I couldn’t cope in an Alaskan wilderness but that doesn’t stop me dreaming of living closer to nature. I can be wooed by modern luxuries, it would be difficult to lure me into a life on the road. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming. Chris McCandless did the things I try to imagine. But in the meantime I’ve been entertaining myself with foreign holidays and a few mini-adventures. I’m hoping to keep a record of them here and I’d love to read your comments.

Enjoy!
Corms

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