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Posts tagged ‘Islands’

Celebrating the Mundane on Peaks Island, Maine

Peaks Island, Maine.

Portlanders are a lucky lot. I’m not talking about Portland, Oregon, although if I am to believe all the magazines, those west coast Portlanders are pretty spoiled for microbrews, local produce, and bearded men. (I for one have never been there, an egregious oversight I intend to rectify soon). But little Portland, ME, is a star. It’s navigable, it’s home to undoubtedly the best lobster roll on the planet (more on this in a future post), and most importantly, it’s easy to escape. Escapability is one of the first things I consider when evaluating a city.  No matter how many exciting pop-ups, start-ups, and taco trucks a city may precipitate, it’s still a city, and therefore must be evacuated from time to time in the name of sanity, fresh air and a clear night sky.

Not only is Portland easily evacuated by land – trails pump bikers, joggers, strollers, and their four-legged friends from downtown to the great outdoors- it is even more easily escaped by sea. The port city is hugged by a smattering of islands by such charming names as Catnip, Little Diamond, and Chebeague. Most fascinating of all is that some of these specks of land are actually part of Portland city proper.

Peaks is one such city island. Home to some 1000 year round residents, Peaks is the perfect “suburb”, just a 30 minute ferry ride from the mainland. Apparently, 30 minutes and a little salt water is all it takes to feel a world away.

My first step off the ferry triggered a temporal recalibration. My internal clock gradually succumbed to island time, so that the fastest pace I could hope to muster was a languid toodle. Mom and I wafted around the island, past red trimmed cottages, untamed rose bushes, and rocky outcrops spilling headlong into a glittering sea. The four mile loop took almost two and a half hours. Talk about some seriously languid toodling!

Our walkabout led us to the sunny porch of Cockeyed Gull, where we sampled some more of Maine’s most celebrated crustacean from our perch over Casco bay. (One can never be too thorough in one’s lobster roll research). After lunch we picked up the trail toward the ferry. Along the way our path was bisected by a gray cat with an uncanny resemblance to our family cat Bella. Thinking perhaps that this was Bella’s spirit, Mom and I made a note of the time (1:47 pm) and told ourselves to call home later to see if Bella had expired at that very moment. (Alas, our premonition did not come to pass and Bella continues to lead a fulfilling life of mouse-hunting and upholstery-shredding.)

After the Bella-doppelgänger incident, we came upon a provocative sign bearing the words  “Umbrella Cover Museum”. The sign was attached to a building roughly the size of a tool shed. Mom rolled her eyes and continued faithfully toward the ferry (I’ll never understand how my mother can be so selectively pragmatic, especially after we had just been visited by a ghost cat) while I allowed myself to be drawn into the mysterious Lilliputian museum. Inside I was greeted by a beaming woman who introduced herself as Nancy 3. Hoffman, owner and curator of the museum. Hoffman, whose innate quirkiness seems to emanate from her integer of a middle name, guided me on a tour through the museum, which took approximately five steps. She explained that years ago she realized that she had unwittingly amassed a collection of umbrella cases which had long since been abandoned by their umbrellas. What to do with all the lonely sheaths? Why, make them the headliners of their very own show! In 2012 her efforts were rewarded with a Guinness World record for the largest collection of umbrella covers, 730 at the time.

Hoffman’s vision has a motto – “Celebrate the Mundane” – which she has incorporated into a lovely ditty with accordion accompaniment. After the performance, I donated $5 to the museum which earned me a “Basic Sheath” membership. Some people support the National Museum of Art, I support the Umbrella Cover Museum. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the accordion!

Watch curator Nancy 3. Hoffman perform the umbrella song: 


The Penguin Auguries

Washington D.C. / Chiloé Island, Chile. While Washington D.C. celebrates President Obama’s second inauguration, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on what that word means. “Inauguration” comes to our language via French from the Latin word inaugurationem, meaning “installment under good omens,” directly related to the word for augury which is the process of divining the future from the flight of birds. Strictly speaking, it is only advisable to celebrate an inauguration if you have witnessed a favorable flock of birds in a certain combination.

Penguins this way!

Penguins this way!

Though traditional auguries are more convoluted than a cricket match, my personal guidelines are simpler: the greater the flock of handsome birds – or even the appearance of a single exceptional bird – the better the omen. By contrast, a trio of circling buzzards is grounds for locking oneself in a panic room for a few days. I also liberally apply my auguries to all bird species, flightless or not. In a pinch I’ll even take a platypus.



I’m not sure if Obama’s spiritual advisors conducted a proper augury before he swore in yesterday, but if I were his augur I would have insisted on a trip to the island of Chiloé in order to “chance” upon heaps of auspicious penguins. They fit all the criteria of a great augury. They’re endearing, they’re numerous, and their particular evolution prevents them from flitting off before you’ve snapped hundreds of pictures of them in typical tourist fashion.



A good luck sea otter relaxing on his backside

A good luck sea otter relaxing on his backside

Incidentally the appearance of a sea otter in the middle of an augury bodes very well for the future.

Chariot out to the "spectator" boat

Chariot out to the wildlife “spectator” boat

Buh bye penguins! Thanks for the good omen!

Buy bye penguins! Thanks for the good omen!

I visited Chiloé in December of 2011 and let me tell you, 2012 was a fantastic year for me. I got into grad school, explored some amazing islands, and started interning at a travel magazine. I can’t help but attribute my good fortune to all those merry penguins. So good luck Mr. President. I sure hope you did your auguries!

Practical Info: EcoTurismo Puñihuil takes boat trips out to the protected islets just off shore of Puñihuil in the northwest corner of the island to see Magellanic and Humbolt penguins as well as cormorans, flightless steamerducks, and sea otters!

Moments in the Sand

Chiloé Island, Chile. 

Sands, Chiloé

Sands, Chiloé

The coast of Chiloé is blustery, and the wind tends to sweep ephemeral strokes of texture across its beaches. Erosion and change play out on a continuous basis, so two photos taken moments apart won’t look alike. Chiloé’s mostly exposed coastline reminded me of the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem “Ozymandias,” which goes like this:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Beach, Chiloé National Park

Beach, Chiloé National Park

Shells, Chiloé

Shells, Chiloé

Fisherwomen, Chiloé

Fisherwomen, Chiloé

An Azorean Adventure: Part 4.

Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal.

Bridge outside Nordeste on Sao Miguel, Azores

 On our penultimate day on Sao Miguel, Char and I ventured to the easternmost edge of the island. Sunny Nordeste was a dramatic break from the fog-capped center or rainy west coast to which we had grown accustomed. We took full advantage of the sunshine,  pulling over every 10 minutes or so at one of the ubiquitous miradouros, or lookout points, each one more handsome than the last. The great impression this had on me was not necessarily the raw beauty of the vistas, but rather the infrastructure that existed to maximize the viewing. If travelers seek to worship at the altar of beauty, Sao Miguel has more than enough pews to accommodate. Picnic tables and barbecue grills hewn out of ancient volcanic rock, thoughtfully pruned public gardens, and abundant easy parking made clear the Azorean appreciation for aesthetics.

Just outside of the town of Nordeste, a road weaved around to a miradouro and then abruptly forked. One direction led down a steep and snaky trail to a carved out natural swimming pool which greeted the ocean, while the other made a precipitous declivity to a camp site. The modern camp grounds abutted what appeared to be an abandoned mill, charming in its rusticity and dilapidation. A tidy bridge connected the mill to the far side of the creek.

A lattice of shadows. Close up of the bridge.

Back on the road, we continued our study of gorgeous Azorean miradouros. Perhaps it was the time of day, or maybe the season, but at each lookout we were totally alone, exploring what felt like secret gardens. Though it was evident that the gardens were thoughtfully maintained – the rose-covered tool sheds confirmed this – the plants seemed to possess a certain organic orderliness all their own. Take for instance the mossy steps at Miradouroda Ponta da Madrugada (below). What could be more natural than vermillion leaves kissing the mossy earth just so, like lipstick pecks on a big green toad.

Red leaves on mossy stairs, Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada

Cat and kitten, Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego

Palm resembling a morning star weapon, Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego

Palm at Miradouro da Ponta Do Sossego

Char snaps a shot

Cat taking a nap, Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego

Here is a yet-to-be stitched panoramic shot taken at Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego, looking east out to sea. What an amazing, end of the world sort of place. It’s a wonder destination wedding tourism hasn’t arrived here yet!

Check back soon for the final installment from our Azorean adventure! A glimpse at what’s on deck: impromptu jazz club drum circle, hitchhiking to a secluded islet, and really good hot dogs.

An Azorean Adventure, Part 3

Sao Miguel, Azores. Ignoring our aforementioned jet lag, Char and I met our second day on Sao Miguel with gusto. After copious amounts of coffee and a few ham and cheese toasties at our hotel, we set off in the direction of the sun. Furnas was our destination, a town famous for its geysers and hot springs. The road snaked around the town confusingly, but the unmistakable rotten-egg stench of sulfur meant that we were closing in on our mark. Soon sight caught up with smell and we beheld the gurgling springs of water and steam snorting from the earth like the breath of a haughty dragon. With stinging nostrils we advanced cautiously, afraid of tripping and falling to a soupy death. The earth here is so hot that locals sometimes use it in lieu of an oven. The regional dish known as cozida involves burying a pot of meat and veggies underground and slowly cooking the ingredients down to a stew.

Volcanic hot spring, Furnas

As marvelous as the springs were, the putrid smell eventually drove us into the town of Furnas for some fresh air. We wandered its narrow streets, admiring the blend of handsome old buildings and quirky modern architecture.

Rua Formosa, Beautiful Street, Furnas

Upside down house, Furnas

Upside down house, Furnas

Watermill, Furnas

Once we had thoroughly explored Furnas, we hopped back in the Peugeot in hopes of crossing the island and catching a view of the Lagoa das Furnas from above. Of course as luck would have it, an impenetrable fog rolled in. Forgetting our valuable lesson from the day before (you know, the one about there being no shame in turning around before you run your rental car off a cliff) we trudged on and blindly inched across the island. Eventually we broke through the clouds to the welcome sight of a very pretty North shore.

Fog driving over to the north shore

While the perils of driving in the fog were self evident, the perils of hugging a picture perfect coast were no small matter either. Such a gorgeous view has a way of seducing the eyes from the road. It reminded me of a time driving along the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island with my mother, she behind the wheel, eyes glued to the sea scanning the horizon for whales and rainbows. Every time one spouted or materialized (every 20 seconds or so), my mother would tap on the window as if in a morse code communion with the natural wonders, all the while swerving dangerously into the next lane. Not wanting to push our traveler’s luck, Char and I pulled over before a particularly photogenic vista at the Gorreana Tea Estate. There we sat alone on a terrace, nibbling cookies and sipping iced tea, while we absorbed the scene in peace: plump hydrangeas fencing off rows of tea bushes that stretched to an attractive port, aptly named Porto Formoso.

View from the Gorreana Tea House, over hydrangeas, tea fields, down to Porto Formoso (Beautiful Port)

Portuguese tiles at the Gorreana Tea Estate

Caffeinated from tea and drunk on beauty, we climbed back into the car to make our way back across the island before sundown. We didn’t like the look of fog during the day, and we dreaded it at night. Once again however, Sao Miguel’s natural beauty succeeded in luring us off the road. In our defense, how could we possibly resist Caldeira Velha, a natural swimming pool fed from the warm waters of an upstream hot spring, where, as the guidebook put it, “visitors may enjoy a pleasant bath.” Well it was bath time wasn’t it? And we wouldn’t want to upset Mother Earth by wriggling out of bath time. That would be most impudent!

Bathers in a natural hot spring fed pool, Caldeira Velha

Practical Info: The Gorreana Tea Estate has been around since 1883 and is Europe’s oldest tea plantation. There is a small museum and café open to visitors. For more information, please visit their site.

The Best Islands You’ve Never Heard Of (according to the World’s Most Traveled Man)

McClean, VA.

This spring I had the good fortune of meeting with the world’s most traveled man, Charles Veley, for a wee Q&A. I imagined that such a title must exist, but I hadn’t given much thought to it until I read Ken Jennings’ Maphead, a study of geography geeks in all their quirky forms. (Yes this is the same Ken Jennings who won 74 consecutive rounds of Jeopardy.) In Maphead, Jennings makes reference to the Traveler’s Century Club, an eccentric group of vagabonds who have each visited a minimum of 100 countries.

For one Charles Veley, the TCC’s criteria for designating separate countries and territories simply wasn’t strict enough. How could someone say that he had visited France when he had only been to French Polynesia? And for that matter, French Polynesia itself sprawls over 2.5 million square kilometers, so a visit to Tahiti alone could hardly represent French Polynesia as a whole. Dissatisfied with the TCC’s and other organizations’ criteria for distinguishing geographical entities, Veley set about formulating stricter rules. Armed with a more robust list, he founded the Most Traveled People club, an online community for people who travel “everywhere.” Today the club’s master list designates 873 destinations. Veley has been to 827.

What do you ask the World’s Most Traveled Man?

When the most traveled man agreed to meet with me, I began preparing general fill-in-the-blank superlatives like “most gut-busting bout of food poisoning,” “most abominable corner of the earth,” and “most thrilling moment on the road.” Generic stuff. But when I read in his Most Traveled People bio that Lord Howe Island ranked among his favorite places on earth – a place I visited this past February – I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to pick away at the brain of a fellow island lover. Besides, everybody and their grandmother had already interviewed him about his vision and general travel prowess. I was more concerned with confirming whether my ongoing list of dream islands was worth tackling, and if there were any gaping holes that needed to be addressed.

The islands he confirmed were well worth the effort:

(* = UNESCO World Heritage site)

Fernando de Noronha, photo via @TheBestTravelDestinations

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.* With a “physical beauty that rivals [Kauai’s] North Shore,” another Veley favorite, this crescent shaped volcanic paradise 220 miles off the coast of Brazil is a top destination amongst Brazilian beach lovers and ecotourists alike. Swarms of tuna, sharks, sea turtles, whales, and dolphins feed and breed in the waters around the archipelago. As if that isn’t impressive enough, the island’s Baía dos Golfinhos (Bay of Dolphinsaccommodates the highest population of resident dolphins in the world. The surrounding coral reef invites world class diving while exposed reef tidal pools offer a unique glimpse at marine life for the landlubbing set. When it comes time to sleep, Veley recommends the upscale Pousada Maravilha replete with the most goddamn beautiful infinity pool and view.

Socotran Desert Rose with distinctive swollen trunk

Socotra, Yemen.* This windswept island off the coast of Yemen, famous for its Dr. Seussian assortment of endemic flora and fauna, has earned itself the title of Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, but with even more biodiversity. Its crowning jewel is probably the Dragon Blood tree, so-called for its oozy red sap. Veley was lucky to travel here in 2004 when Yemen was more politically stable. While it was difficult enough then to access this remote wonder, today it’s next to impossible. In fact the Department of State “warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.” That didn’t stop a National Geographic writer/photographer team from traveling there and documenting the island’s peculiar and otherworldly wonders for an article in the June 2012 edition.

Trou d’argent, Ile Rodrigues, photo credit Jan Erik Johnson

Ile Rodrigues, Republic of Mauritius. This tiny island off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean first caught my attention while reading passages from Le Clézio’s Voyage à Rodrigues for a French class. Le Clézio traveled to the island, home of his ancestors, and discovered a “savage,” untamed, unforgiving, and utterly pristine terrain. Besides the unspoiled appeal, little sister islands have a charmingly plucky way about them, like Nantucket’s Tuckernuck, or Malta’s Gozo. What’s more, Veley confirms that the people here are very friendly.

Lord Howe Island, my photo

Lord Howe Island, Australia.* There are few places as naturally blessed as Lord Howe, an island with more biodiversity than you can shake a giant stick bug at. (Wouldn’t you know it, after 80 years of obscurity, the giant stick bug (or “tree lobster”) was rediscovered on the rocky stack of Ball’s Pyramid 20 km off the coast of Lord Howe, bringing the little known island to the front pages of science reviews this spring.) Like the Galapagos, mankind did not set foot on Lord Howe until very late in history, 1788 to be precise, which means that the endemic species found here evolved without any relationship to man. Of course, as soon as ships did make landfall, they unintentionally introduced stowaway rats that continue to haunt and hunt the island’s population of land birds and insects. Needless to say, Lord Howe’s numerous endemic and naturalized plant and bird species, in addition to its spectacular coral reef, have earned the island a spot in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Islands he added to the list:

Emily Bay, Norfolk Island photo via The Mercury

Norfolk Island, Australia.  Though similar in its subtropical landscape, Norfolk island lacks the biodiversity of Lord Howe due to its longer history of human occupation. Of course it is exactly that human heritage which makes Norfolk island such a fascinating destination. Originally settled by Polynesians, the island was rediscovered by Captain James Cook, and later became a British penal colony. (The prison recently earned World Heritage status.) Then in the 19th century, the island received a fresh injection of residents in the form of immigrants from Pitcairn island who had been relocated due to overpopulation on tiny Pitcairn. These newcomers were descendants of none other than the famous (or infamous depending on how you look it at) Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian lady-friends. Today, this tight knit community seems to verges on clannishness, boasting that the “Norfolk island phone book is the only one in the world listed by nicknames.” Other cultural peculiarities include the celebration of Thanksgiving due to the islands historical whaling connection to the United States and an endangered language known as Norf’k, a “lilting” blend of Old English and Tahitian.

Jamestown, St. Helena, photo credit Barry Weaver

St. Helena, British Overseas Territory. The word “archipelago” typically conjures up an image of clusters of little islands dappling a sea like spots on the rump of an appaloosa. Not so of the Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, and Ascension island group. Not only is this archipelago the most remote in the world, lying some 1750 miles from the next nearest landmass, but its three main islands are staggered along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at astonishing intervals. 1510 miles of uninterrupted Atlantic ocean separate Tristan da Cunha from St. Helena, and Ascension lies even farther beyond that.

Getting to St. Helena, Britain’s second oldest remaining colony, is no easy feat; visitors must embark on a 5 day sail from Cape Town. To date, ships are the only means of transport to and from the island. It was this extreme remoteness which attracted Napoleon Bonaparte’s persecutors, having failed to thoroughly exile him to Elba. This second attempt proved successful. Napoleon never managed to escape from St. Helena until he was dead, buried, exhumed, and eventually transferred to his gold-tipped resting place in Paris. His original gravesite on St. Helena is one of the island’s top tourist attractions.

Åland, Finland, image credit

Åland Islands, Finland. Though a geographically more typical archipelago than our last entry on the list, the Åland islands are a cultural and political anomaly. Teetering at the convergence of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia, the islands lean simultaneously Swedish and Finnish. While Ålanders carry Finnish passports, they speak exclusively Swedish. Their history is mired with awkward treaties which finally rendered the islands autonomous, demilitarized, and neutral. Recently the archipelago made the news when a 170 year old shipwreck was discovered in Åland waters, revealing the world’s oldest drinkable bottle of bubbly. Talk about potent potables!

Sable Island wild ponies, image via Green Horse Society

Sable Island, Nova Scotia.– This aptly named boomerang of a sandbar off the coast of Halifax has a population of a whopping five people. What it lacks in people it makes up for in wild ponies, herds of which have roamed this treeless sliver of land since the late 18th century. Though the island measures 26 miles long, it has a girth of less than a mile, leaving little room for much in the way of infrastructure. Needless to say, it is still possible to fly here and land in the island’s “aerodrome,” a somewhat misleading term used to describe the wide flat beach on the southern edge of the island. As Veley explained it to me, a guy in a jeep drags a runway in the sand, sticks a windsock on his car antenna, and directs planes to land. Gotta love island ingenuity!

Islands which I was sad to hear weren’t that cool:

St. Pierre and Miquelon, Overseas Collectivity of France. As Veley put it, “just your typical Canadian fishing village.” “But you can get baguette there!” I protested. “You can get baguette in a lot of places.” He quipped. Touché, Mr. Veley, touché.

Further Reading:

If you’d like to see how your personal travel map stacks up, you can download the list of TCC designated destinations

For a more thorough account of Veley’s vision and travel prowess, check out a 2010 interview he did for the Guardian.

An Azorean Adventure: Part 1

Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal. 

Driving into Sete Cidades

Have I been living under an igneous rock? How had I never been to the Azores until last week? The facility of the whole thing was boggling. To think that one moment I could be cruising along the Boston harbor front and not 7 hours later plunging into a natural hot spring pool in a jungle in EUROPE…well that would just be asking too much of the universe. Turns out it’s not at all  an outlandish request, it’s entirely possible and even better than I had imagined. This paradise is readily accessible, dynamic and beautiful, cheap and cheerful, and what’s more, the people there speak the most intoxicating language in the world: a very shwishy European Portuguese.

Sete Cidades

A 4 hr and 20 minute direct and painless flight from Boston carried my adventurous friend Char and me to Ponta Delgada, capitol of the Azorean archipelago, located on the largest of its islands, Sao Miguel. Within 20 minutes of landing, we were snugly strapped into our rental Peugeot, weaving towards Sete Cidades, a sleepy town on the banks of a teal green lagoon that lines the bottom of a volcanic crater. Where the water ends, the hydrangeas begin, blanketing the steep crater walls in a dense flush of blues, pinks, purples, and greens. It seemed our Peugeot had lept off the road and into a snow globe that sprinkled with berry-hued hydrangea petals. In lieu of traditional fencing, thick hedges of blue hydrangeas carved up the hillsides. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier way of enclosing one’s livestock, and I mused as to whether this level of horticultural form and function would be feasible back in Virginia.

Hydrangea hedges separate paddocks

We pulled over at what appeared to be the only restaurant in town in hopes of finding breakfast. Their morning selection was scarce, just coffee, beer, and pastries, so we opted for all of the above while we spread out our road map on a patio table. Our plan was to seek higher ground in order to catch a better view of the lagoon. Confident in our navigational skills, we clambered back into the car to tackle the ascent. The car rolled along smoothly on a well-maintained road, that is until the pavement abruptly ended and we found ourselves skidding and bottoming out on loose gravel and deep trenches. To make matters worse, a heavy fog set in, dashing any hope of seeing the lagoon from above. Not that we were too concerned with sightseeing at this point. Our leisurely Sunday cruise had morphed into a white knuckled fight to stay on the road and return our wheezing little car back to the crater base in one piece. When at one point Char was forced to pop the right side wheels onto a 3 foot high embankment to avoid a wide gully that gashed through the center of road, I clenched my eyes shut and silently cursed my foolhardiness in declining additional rental insurance.

A very foggy crater ridge, Sete Cidades

Our car kept climbing and we gleaned from our map that  we must have somehow picked up a tertiary road used only by the local tractor-equipped farmers. Every once in a while a lone horse would emerge from the fog as an ominous reminder of our solitude up there on the ridge. Graciously and gradually the angle of the road tipped in our favor and we began a delicate descent. As the fog slowly lifted our car nosed its way into a mossy pine forest reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. What a bizarre transition, we thought….happy green lagoon to terrifying road in the clouds to peaceful pine forest in the span of 30 minutes.

Pavement ho!

Over the next four days we would discover that Sao Miguel is abounding with such curious topographical and meteorological shifts. We would also learn that the only other people crazy enough to drive the crater-top road around Sete Cidades are professional rally car drivers in the annual SATA Rally Azores. Our reaction to this news fell somewhere between horror and smugness, as you’d expect of two young blonde American tourist chicks who got lost and were too stubborn and stupid to turn around like sane people.