A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

We depart for Bella Coola from the south terminal of Vancouver International Airport, where the old-school spirit of travel is alive and well. We’re aboard a twenty-seat prop plane but we never cleared security and our bags were never x-rayed. We’re flying into the wilderness on the honor system — something that feels uniquely Canadian and appropriate for the weekend.

With just four people on our flight, we can see out every window around us to the earth below. On the left side, a series of islands and waterways. On our right side, a magnificent display of mountain tops and glaciers with ribbons of blue ice leading downhill. We leave the summer heat behind and float into oncoming rain, descending deep into the gray. For five minutes we’re suspended in a disorienting cloud layer until the yellow meadows of Anahim appear below us. This was not our intended destination. Fogged in and surrounded by mountains, the approach to Bella Coola airport is too treacherous to take a chance on today so Anahim will have to do.

We taxi over to the airport office and I suspect the yellow school bus parked next to it may be our golden chariot to Bella Coola. When weather shuts down Bella Coola’s airport, you have to go by bus — they just never said it would be a school bus.

We get on the school bus and Doug introduces himself as the driver. For the next two hours we wind along the dirt road to Bella Coola, topping out on Heckman Pass which has just one lane, with a terrifying drop-off along the south side. Doug tells us this “Freedom Road” was built in the 1950s after the government failed to fund its construction so locals took on the project themselves. They worked from both sides — Bella Coola and Anahim — until the roads connected in between at Heckman Pass.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

At 6:00 p.m. we arrive in Bella Coola (population 2,000) where we pick up our rental car from Steve. No need to show a license — the honor system works here, too. We drive a few minutes up the road to the Rip Rap Campsite where we find Amber and Jim in their home office, ready to check us in while also celebrating their anniversary. Happy anniversary! Jim suggests we hurry up and head across the road for hamburgers at the Legion — the only place open for dinner tonight. Friday nights are busy and they only keep the grill going until they run out of burgers.

After our epic school bus ride, burgers sound amazing but we’re momentarily caught up admiring our accommodations for the weekend. The Cedar Cabin at Rip Rap is more than 100 years old, with logs two feet wide and a front door so thick we can rest assured no grizzly bear will ever enter from the front porch. With two beds, one bath, an open plan and a wood-burning fireplace, we have more than we need to make ourselves at home.

We walk across the road to the Legion where we queue up for burgers and help ourselves to corn, which is free with a donation. Bus Driver Doug is leaning into a plate of food and tables of locals smile at us as we find our way through the ritual. This is Friday night in Bella Coola … small town life at its best. We hit the Shop Easy after dinner to pick up some groceries, build a great fire at the cabin and simmer in the warmth until the next morning.

Atnarko River :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

At 6:30 a.m., I can hardly contain my excitement about the day. We’ve come to Bella Coola because the salmon are running and the grizzlies are feeding along the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. We’ve booked a half-day float on the river with the hope of seeing these bears in their native habitat. It’s pouring down rain outside so I’m covered head to toe in rain gear with a dry bag for my camera.

By 7:45 a.m. we’re on our way to the river with Fraser. If you book a bear tour in Bella Coola there’s only one question people will ask you: Are you going with Fraser? He’s a biologist, bear expert and long-term Bella Coola resident with a great reputation for float tours with Kynoch Adventures. But as we arrive at the put-in, there’s been a small mix-up with some late arrivals and we have too many people for the small raft. We’re gonna need a bigger boat. Fraser works it out, stationing us at the nearby wildlife viewing platform while he goes back to Hagensborg and gets a bigger raft. This minor inconvenience is not an inconvenience at all, and our late timing works magically in our favor all day long.

The land we’re standing on is territory of the Nuxalk First Nation and a Nuxalk man welcomes us to the Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform, which is managed in cooperation with B.C.’s provincial park service. As grizzly habitat, the area is closely monitored for everyone’s safety. We’re escorted up a path to an outdoor shelter and plateau surrounded by an electric fence. I feel pretty electrified about potentially, hopefully seeing my first grizzly bear ever.

And after waiting and looking for about 15 minutes, we spot one down river.

A rustle in the bushes gives way to a dark shadow and then I see the big front feet of a grizzly bear making his (her?) way up the river. He moves quickly, easily, until he stops on a log and bends down on his forearms to have a look at the fish in the water, just like a dog might look after a tennis ball floating beyond its reach. He gets up and returns to shore and then, within seconds, gracefully swims to the middle of the river. He stops, stands up, has a look around, grabs a fish and moves to the shore, beyond our view.

In three-minutes, this distant grizzly encounter has already revised my expectations about these incredible creatures. They move with such ease, such grace, from land to water and back again, without hesitation. Nimble, not lumbering, with purpose and power.

The bigger raft has arrived so we return to the shore and find a place to sit among the swivel seats on the raft. Rain pours down. It’s going to be a soggy pursuit today but no one is complaining. We push off from the shore and start drifting down the Atnarko, past the Belarko platform to a wide, deep pool in the river. We stop and wait in silence. Hundreds of salmon swim past us, heading upstream. We scan the shores but see nothing so we move on.

As we round a bend in the river, we see a grizzly standing on a huge tangle of trees and logs. He steps off the log, out of view. Fraser steers the raft toward the opposite shore and hops onto a shoal to see where he’s gone. No luck so we keep floating down river and eventually catch up.

It’s time for breakfast. This grizzly catches and eats a fish before moving upstream toward our raft. He catches another fish and deftly picks it apart on the shore with his claws — skin first, then the flesh. He changes directions, walking back downstream so we follow in the raft. He pays no attention to us as we drift past him in faster water and stop next to a big boulder where we get a great view of him coming straight at us.

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

More fish, more breakfast. It’s easy on the Atnarko, with an estimated two million salmon heading upstream. It’s a much better run than last year. It’s still pretty early in the season so seeing a few bears is pretty lucky. Later in the season, Fraser has seen up to 20 bears on one float.

We’ve followed this bear for an hour so we give him some space and float on in the rain. My supposed waterproof layer has succumbed to the relentless pour and I’m soaked all the way through my thin down jacket underneath. My shoes are waterlogged and it’s a constant battle to keep my camera and lens dry. I put it back in the dry bag only to pull it out again when we round another bend and see a mother bear and cub. She’s leading the way up river and stops to catch and share a fish on the opposite shore.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

The mother pays us no attention but the cub occasionally looks right at us. I see a little curiosity in his eyes but I also see a directness I would not want to confront face-to-face. Yet not one of these bears has shown any aggression, not even while fishing — they make it look so easy. I think that’s what makes grizzlies so intriguing. Their confidence is clear and ever-present. Their power to kill is unquestioned but, at ease on the river, they are nothing but calm.

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Mom and cub swim to the shore near us. I’ve put my camera away (of course) when there’s a sudden commotion in the bushes. I capture one more rainy, grainy moment with my phone as mama bear stands on her hind legs to see if she can get a better look. No threats detected so they keep wandering up river as we float on to the Belarko pull-out where our tour comes to an end. It’s been an amazing morning, with most of it spent in the company of grizzlies.

Back at the cabin, we get out of our wet clothes and set out to explore Bella Coola. This tiny town only has a few stores and a dock where you can catch a ferry to Port Hardy. The Bella Coola Valley Tourism office is located in the Copper Sun Art Gallery with drawings, paintings and carvings by artists of the Nuxalk Nation.

We stop at Mountain Valley Organics where we meet the owner, Abra Silver. Everything in her shop is local, organic or handmade including fruit and veg, spices, snacks, meat and fish, baskets, knit hats, soap and home cleaning supplies. Her shop is next to her house of sixteen years — a charming cottage with flowering plants sprouting from every pot and planter. Although Bella Coola may feel a little trapped in time, Mountain Valley Organics feels hip and cool as a vital resource for sustainable mountain living.

Back at the Rip Rap Campsite, the sun comes out shedding light on everything there is to love about this place including an awesome little cabin full of games, books and flags from around the world. Amber and Jim have meticulously groomed the Rip Rap while retaining all the character that makes it super Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British ColumbiaRip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

We spend the afternoon at the Rip Rap’s viewing platform on the Bella Coola River — the icing on the cake at the Rip Rap. I don’t think I’ll ever stay anywhere else in Bella Coola. With a bottle of wine and some good company, there’s no better place to be for those golden hours before sunset. The river is running fast from today’s rain and we spy a black bear on the far shore.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Sunday morning, with no tour to pull us out of bed, we sleep in and then head back out to the Belarko viewing platform. We talk with a few folks who were on the afternoon tour yesterday. They didn’t see any bears. We were lucky to be out in the morning. But here at Belarko now, we don’t see any bears either although, according to a ranger, a “big guy” wandered through this morning.

We leave after an hour and start driving back to Bella Coola. But a little voice inside my head says maybe we should make a quick stop at the pull-out where the tour ended yesterday. We turn into the parking lot, do a quick scan of our surroundings and walk to the river’s edge. That unmistakable rustle in the bushes is back, just to the left! This is a popular fishing spot and bears have the right of way. Everyone stops what they’re doing and waits.

Mama bear and her cub are coming down the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

She’s swimming while the cub makes its way along the shore. With poised strength she pulls herself out of the water, takes a moment to shake it off and continues across the log back into the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Shake it off

Shake it off

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mama bear fishes with her nose and eyes underwater until she snatches a Pink with her claws, puts it in her mouth and returns to shore where she can share it with her cub. Satisfied for the moment, they continue down the river out of view.

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

We head back to the Rip Rap where we’re looking forward to another afternoon at the viewing platform. The sun is out and we’ve got another bottle of wine, and right on cue a grizzly bear wanders into view along the far shore.

For the next hour, we’re captivated. We watch this bear splashing, pouncing and playing a long game of catch and release with an occasional stop to eat. He spends the afternoon in solitary playfulness like a cat with a ball of string. The moment is elemental, so far removed and blind to everything happening in the world. Just the bear, the river, the fish, the sun, the fog gathering and the cycle of life in the wild of Bella Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Monday morning we take in one last view from the platform before leaving Rip Rap for the airport. The grizzly is out for another frolic on the shore. As I watch the sun light up the river, I can’t believe what an amazing trip we’ve had to this tiny town called Bella Coola.

Remarkable weekends like these are really having an effect on me. Vancouver has been slow to grow on me, mostly because I’m living here right after loving another city so completely (Singapore). It’s a bit like a rebound relationship. But the deeper I venture into British Columbia, the more I like it. Canada is expanding, if not entirely redefining, my definition of wilderness and my relationship to it. This is beautiful, vast, wild country that is winning my heart, one adventure (and grizzly bear) at a time.

My paternal grandfather had roots in Canada. Maybe it’s closer to home than I ever expected.

Miscellaneous Nature Outdoors Travel

Sintra: A Tale of Two Castles

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

We’re standing on a mountaintop west of Portugal. We’ve lucked out. It’s one of those perfect days when the blue sky extends all the way to the horizon.

To get here, we drove west from Lisbon to Sintra, parked the car, walked partially up the hill, stopped to think about it, hired a mototaxi, arrived at the ticket booth of Pena Palace and climbed the final path to the entrance. This is not an easy place to get to but no good view comes without a cost.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

According to the experts, Pena Palace is an example of Romanticism in architecture. It’s definitely romantic and inspires visions of Rapunzel unfurling her hair from the turrets. With its fanciful spires and crenellations, it looks more like a castle than a palace to me. But either way, Pena Palace is a Unesco World Heritage Site that was built as a chapel, developed into a monastery in the late 1400s, destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt in the mid-1800s by King Ferdinand as a residence for Portugal’s royal family. It became a national landmark in the early 1900s.

The palace’s madder and yellow exterior projects happiness but I imagine all the history, all the love and fear, all the sunny days and terrible storms, all the glorious moments and sad departures that have happened at this mountain monument throughout the last 600 years.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

The interior tells less of a fairy tale and more of a biography. Weathered tiles cover the interior courtyard and residential spaces display the furnishings of the day. The dining room drips with character and I imagine a royal dinner for twelve or a candlelight tryst between two lovers with Madeira wine and the silence of the stone walls. The kitchen, bright with sunlight and an enviable range of copper cookware, feels almost luxurious with its farmhouse style and arched ceiling. But there’s no refrigerator, or dishwasher, or even running water back in the day.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

I remind myself to mind the gaps here at Pena Palace. The battlements are thick but plenty of precarious viewpoints will be death drops for anyone who gets carried away with photography or a quest for the perfect selfie.

Mythical Triton at Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Mythical Triton at Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

And then there’s this guy — a mythical Triton on the front of the palace. I’m not sure what he’s doing in that clam shell but he’s eternally posed and begs for a photo.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

We mototaxi back down the hill and find some lunch in the lovely town of Sintra. We tuck around the back of Lawrence’s Restaurant and have the balcony to ourselves.

After lunch we debate about driving back up the hill to see Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish Castle. Can it really be that spectacular after seeing such an overwhelming example of Romanticist architecture? We drive up the hill, park the car and follow the path.

There are no pretty colors or spires, just old stone walls and staircases following the contours of the mountain. Archaeological evidence reveals this site was occupied as long ago as 5,000 B.C. The castle we see today was built by the Moors in the 8th or 9th century. It’s far less comfortable than Pena Palace but just as strategically positioned.

The Castle Keep, Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Castle Keep, Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The entire castle is open for exploring so after walking through the entry we turn right and climb up to the Castle Keep. Much like Pena Palace, Castelo dos Mouros requires careful steps along the narrow wall-walks and parapets throughout the site. High on the hill, the Castle Keep was one of the prime places to watch over the land for approaching invaders.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

We descend the north side of the castle and climb the south side to the Royal Tower. The staircase is like a ribbon of stone up the mountain and turning around to see the view is truly breathtaking. The village of Sintra sits directly below us.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Looking south we see a complete view of Pena Palace that was impossible to see when we were standing there looking up at it. From here it looks proud and less of a caricature as it catches the thin fog that’s drifting around the mountain.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

These sites are so close to each other yet they have such different stories to tell. I can’t help but wonder, was there ever castle envy as the shiny new Pena Palace took form in the 1800s while Castelo dos Mouros looked on with its raw fortitude? We’ll never know.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Miscellaneous Travel

Final Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972

This is the last post of a four-part series. To read the first three posts, go here, here and here.

It was summer, 1972 — exactly 45 years ago. As my grandmother Peg set out on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe, I was almost two years old and learning to talk in the U.S., and my future husband was about a year old and learning to walk in Germany. When my grandmother landed in Frankfurt at the start of her itinerary, she was just 80 miles from his house. Small world.

Coincidences and connections are everywhere in the postcards she sent home and the journal entries she wrote. Reading them now, so many years later, I’ve discovered things we had in common that I never knew before. Among them, that we shared a deep affection for Rome and if she, or I, had to choose a site in Europe that left us most awe-struck, without question we would both choose St. Peter’s Basilica.

My grandmother had a fabulous time on her solo journey to Germany, France, England, Greece, Italy and Switzerland. She made friends along the way and embraced everything unfamiliar with curiosity and grace. But she had challenging days, too. In this final post of the series, she is worn out from looking for a hotel room, worn down from battling the heat, and worn thin from trying to communicate. All of us travelers have been in her shoes, so it’s easy to understand her frustration when she gets locked in her room and also experiences a major miscommunication with a hotel manager — who speaks English!

But Peg gets back on the right foot again and leaves us with some priceless thoughts about Italian men, Italian food and that feeling we all get when — even though the trip has been amazing — we’re done living out of a suitcase and ready to go home.

Well done, Grandma. You opened your heart, blazed a trail and left me with the most endearing account of your trip in postcards and journal entries. When you wrote, “Please save the cards I send” I don’t think you had any idea how many people would eventually read them and love them, 45 years later. You’re a star! But that’s nothing new to me. I love you.

Rome, July 16th

Rome, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 16
Hi! Start saving your money so you can see St. Peter’s! This is worth the whole cost of a trip to Europe. I am absolutely stunned at its splendor! Everyone just gasps as they enter. Saw the Sistine Chapel this A.M. — simply magnificent! Saw yesterday the Forum, Coliseum, so many piazzas I can’t name them. Wish I could stay 2 wks. Food is the best in Europe so far — but expensive. Italians are great — love them! Thanks for your letter. Love, Mom

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Rome     Pleasant     Rain at 5:30
July 15 — Saturday
Went through the Vatican & Sistine Chapel this A.M. Such crowds of people it was hard to hear the guide. The Raphael tapestries were gorgeous. Of course, the Sistine Chapel was fabulous but jammed with people & had to stand an hour & 45 minutes, but it’s worth it. I am still most impressed by St. Peter’s. Its impact is just unexcelled & unrivaled by anything else.

Rome
July 16 — Sunday
Went back to St. Peter’s today & spent about 3 hours. What a stunning place. It is surely my favorite place in Europe to visit.

Florence, July 19th

Florence, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 19
Hi! Haven’t seen a thing in Florence yet. Spent the day just getting here & getting a hotel room. Waited in line 1 hour for a hotel reservation. Italy is hot & humid. Walked 2 blocks down the street to see what I could find & saw the most elegant shops with marble & silver artifacts. Saw the marble eggs you gave me — big containers of them. Beautiful — in all colors. Love Italy & the people — just great! Love — Mom.

Florence, July 20th & 21st

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Florence
July 20 Thursday
Took the Am. Express morning tour. Saw the Baptistry, the Medici Palace, Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore, the Pitti Palace, & Galleries. In the afternoon I went to see Michelangelo’s David & then walked to Uffizi Gallery & window shopped. Such elegant shops — beautiful clothes, purses, & jewelry.

Florence
July 21 — Friday
Shopping today. Bought the big platters for each family. Am not real excited about my choices — but at least it’s something from Florence. Am. Express is trying to get me reservations in Lucern & Frankfurt. The hotel got me one in Venice, thank goodness.

Venice, July 22nd

Venice, ItalyPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972July 22
Am reading The Agony & The Ecstasy for obvious reasons
Hi! I’ve just loved Italy. The people are just great — so warm & so happy. The men really know how to treat a woman! Even the porters are gracious! No pinches — just consideration for a woman. I have loved the food. Our lasagna is all wrong. Must work on that when I get home. Venice is unique & colorful, but it doesn’t equal Rome or Florence. Love, Mom

Venice, July 24th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Venice     95°
July 24 — Monday
This has been the worst day of the whole trip. Without the Klingles I would have committed hari-kari (harakiri). Train 45 minutes late in leaving. Train like a 120° steam bath. Trip until Lake Lugano so hot & unbearable. Last 1 1/2 hours were refreshing when we got to Swiss border. Got to hotel at 10:00. Big mix-up about the room. I was starving & needed food — no water on the train, either. Washed my face & wanted to get some food. Locked in my room for 45 minutes …

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972… Nobody could unlock my door. Finally, a man was called into the case & he told me to throw my room key out the window. They finally got the room open & I ate a hamburger next door & then fell into bed — completely exhausted but loving the cool night air of Switzerland.
Hotel Cachet

Lucerne, July 25th

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Lucerne
July 25
I was appalled at the price of this room but I do love it. Went out to find a cheaper one. Found one on the 4th, 5th or 6th floor of a hotel down the street for 30 Francs a night. Am going to have to take it. Back at the Cachet, I packed my bags but decided to wait to talk to the manager about my bill & pay her directly. She was due in at 11:00. When she came …

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972… I explained I could not pay the price she was asking. After much adding of figures I finally paid what I owed & prepared to leave. She said, “It’s a shame you don’t pay the 30 Francs still owed from now until Friday when you leave.” I was stunned. All this time she was talking about the cost of 4 nights & I was talking about the cost of one.

Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972Lucerne
July 25 — Tuesday
Today I tried to recuperate from the heat. Have done nothing to exert myself. Just heavenly to have a shower and be cool. Window shopped & got mail from the Am. Express. Only one letter from Fred. Lucerne is beautiful, but I can’t see enough of the mountains. The city is so clean & the people so friendly.

Lucerne, July 27th

Lucerne, SwitzerlandPostcards From My Grandmother, 1972Hi! Will be glad to see you all. Love Lucerne. The lake is gorgeous. The food is fabulous. Having a nice rest here. I don’t think I could take another week. Love, Mom

Thank you all so much for reading and commenting on
Postcards From My Grandmother, 1972!

Miscellaneous Travel
Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

The Kanheri Caves of Mumbai, India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Rajesh and I choke along the highway in his rickshaw, breathing in the air pollution as we zip past the slums bordering the highway. I probably should have taken a taxi, but driving in a rickshaw is so much more fun with the noise, the air, the essence of Mumbai right in my face. I lean out the open door and try to photograph what I see while clinging onto my camera, my backpack and my life in the precarious frame of his vehicle.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

The traffic heading south is at full stop — everyone trying to get to work — while we head north, away from the jam. I expect the drive toward Sanjay Gandhi National Park to be easy and green, with signs that we’re heading toward nature. But nothing in Mumbai is easy or green. The ragged edge of life extends as far as I can see. We make a crowded right turn off the highway to the park entrance.

Through the gates, I finally find the peace and quiet of nature which is interrupted by a driver who wants to charge me 2,500 rupees to drive me 10 minutes farther up the road to the Kanheri Caves. He assumes I don’t know there’s an hourly public bus for far less money, but with the sun rising fast I decide I’d rather go now than wait for it. I negotiate to 1,000 rupees and we’re on our way. Ten minutes up the dirt road we arrive at the ticket booth where I climb the stairs to the caves.

The Kanheri Caves are among the oldest in India, used for Buddhist life and meditation from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. Carved from the basalt of the surrounding hills, the caves are surprisingly angular in design with simple stone benches cut along the interior walls of many of them. Several caves have columns at the entrance and beautifully carved figures posed in various mudras.

The Kanheri site holds 109 caves, each numbered with a stencil outside the entrance. Cave 3 is a prayer hall, with remnants of a stupa in front of it and a smaller cave to the left of it.

Walking up to the entrance of Cave 3, I’m struck by the size of the columns and figures at the doorway. I feel tiny — reminiscent of the feeling I had when I walked into St. Paul’s cathedral in Rome. To the left and right, larger-than-life Buddhist figures watch over the entrance.

For the moment, I have the prayer hall to myself. I feel a sense of awe and a sense of loss at the same time. It’s clear this was once a very significant space and it hums with the subtle energy of a dying life force, but a few bits of trash on the ground and noisy tourists approaching the entrance interrupt the reverence this prayer hall deserves.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I wait in the hall until I’m alone again in silence. I wish I knew more about what happened here, how long it took to carve the prayer hall, how the design originated, who carved the columns, what the purpose was of the notches on the ceiling. It’s a maddening paradox that today we so easily record such endless, useless details — what we ate for lunch, which handbag we bought over the weekend — but here, old and vital details are lost. Historic places like this hold incredible stories we’ll never, ever know.

Outside the prayer hall, I climb the steps up the hill toward the other caves. Mumbai’s skyline pokes above the treetops behind a veil of pollution.

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I reach the next caves which are carved on the right and left banks of a natural ravine between two hills. An archaeological team is repairing a walkway next to a series of irrigation chambers leading downhill to larger cisterns. I try to ask questions about what exactly these holes in the ground might have been used for but we share no common language.

One of the men on the team recognizes my curiosity and manages to communicate to me that there’s a painting inside the cave where he’s working. He waves me toward the interior and points to the ceiling.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

It’s very dark but I can just make out the lines and shading of the art. I sit on the ground, put my elbows on my knees and point my camera up. I adjust my camera settings. Since I don’t have a tripod, I exhale and hold as still as possible as I try to capture a clear image without using a flash. After a few tries, I get a decent shot and discover that the painting is done in tints of red, probably with madder root. And it’s just pretty amazing to be sitting here looking at someone’s skill and creativity from hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of years ago.

I thank the man as I leave the cave and turn my attention across the ravine. Deep and square, more caves lead to more mysterious chambers inside. I take in as much as I can for the speck of time I’m at Kanheri, in awe that these ancient caves have been sitting here quietly through world empires, dictators and revolutions… old and new.

Miscellaneous Travel
Maldives

My Top 12 Travel Experiences by Month

Happy New Year everyone!

Thinking about where to go in 2017? Here are my top twelve travel experiences (ever, not just this year) by month. I hope you find some ideas among these journeys. Thank you all so much for reading, following, commenting and being such an inspirational community!

January: Finding Zen in the Maldives

If you want to forget about everything except the horizon in front of you, this might be the place. Yes, it’s painfully expensive but if you can get to the Maldives you’ll find every tint and shade of blue within an intense peacefulness that will inspire you to do nothing but stare at the view, put your toes in the sand and maybe swim around with the resident tropical fish.

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February: Longtail Boating Through the Canals of Bangkok

This was a short but sweet experience that I’d love to repeat someday. Hop in a longtail boat at the edge of the Chao Praya and ask your captain to take you on a tour of the canals of Bangkok. You’ll get to see a different side of the city with a much less frenetic pace from a cool and relaxing perspective. Don’t forget to stop at the floating market for a bite to eat.

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March: Touring Bagan’s Temples by Horse Cart

If you like history and architecture, you’ll love Bagan. The landscape is crisscrossed with paths from one ancient temple to the next. A good local guide with a horse cart can take you to the most notable temples, or you can follow your whim by looking for spires and biking your way around. It would take months to see them all, but don’t miss the Shwezigon Pagoda — covered in gold and by far the most opulent.

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April: Safari in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations of all time. With temples, history, tea country, train rides through the hills, lush jungles, pristine beaches, friendly locals and abundant wildlife, Sri Lanka has a rare combination of everything that makes traveling wonderful. My favorite experience was a three-day safari at Yala National Park with its incredible diversity — elephants, sloth bears, water buffalo, deer, wild boars, foxes, crocodiles, hornbills, and leopards that are bigger in size and more densely populated than anywhere else on the planet.

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May: Chasing Waterfalls in Yosemite National Park

When the snow stops and the spring sun shines, Yosemite National Park is in its prime. Venture to the valley floor where you’ll feel like a tiny human in the context of the thousands of years of geology surrounding you. Yosemite’s waterfalls — Upper Yosemite, Lower Yosemite, Bridalveil, Nevada and Vernal among them — usually reach peak flow in May. From the road, from the trail and from Glacier Point especially, they are spectacular in their power and beauty. Just don’t get too close!

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June: A Homestay in Borneo

Saloma shares her family home with anyone seeking an authentic experience in the jungle of Borneo. We spent a few days with Saloma and marveled at her way of life and knowledge of the land. From cooking rice in a stalk of bamboo, to foraging for plants and enjoying a barbecue lunch in a hut deep in the jungle, to walking through a longhouse and meeting the neighbors, this homestay was a direct connection with a way of life unfamiliar to us but hundreds of years old in tradition. Saloma is a real-life Queen of the Jungle.

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July: Following the Tour de France Through the Alps

Fly into Geneva, rent a car or a camper, buy some wine and cheese and hit the road into the Alps. The Tour de France is a road trip party with people from all over the world. It’s so much fun that loving the sport of cycling isn’t even necessary (but it does help). There’s a lot of waiting around partying and when the péloton finally shows up it blows past in a matter of minutes. But seeing all the pretty French villages on the route, being able to camp anywhere you want, having cheese and wine every afternoon and and doing it all over again the next day … Mon dieu! C‘est magnifique!

Runner-up for July: Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

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August: Car Camping Through Italy

Che cazzo! I don’t have any photos of this trip since it happened way back in 2001. But if you’re looking for slow travel through Italy, car camping might just be the thing. We rented a car in Milan, drove to Florence and Rome, cut east to Francavilla, stopped in Vieste and ended the trip in Bari (before catching the ferry to Greece). We car camped the whole way, astounded by the comfort of the campgrounds — many with markets, pools, laundry facilities and restaurants. Among the best was camping on the beach in Vieste (aerobics every day at 4:00) and our spectacular campsite across the river in Florence (best view of the Duomo anywhere). Why August? Nearly all the shops and restaurants of Italy are closed in August since everyone is on vacation, but this means you’ll be immersed in local culture, make new friends and see the refined art of Italian family camping. Quite an experience — just make your campsite reservations well ahead of time.

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September: Trekking Nepal’s Khumbu Valley

This is a true journey of a lifetime. Trekking farther into the Himalayas each day gets progressively harder and being in tune with your body is especially important. Each step and each breath gets you closer to Mount Everest and on some mornings those are the only two things you can even think about. But when you crest that mountain and see that view of Everest from Kala Patthar, there is nothing like it in the world. Mother Nature sits right in front of you with a greeting that took millions of years to get to you.

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October: Seeing the Fall Colors from a Ryokan in Kyoto

Japan is art. There’s no other way to describe it. Immerse yourself in the composition by staying at an authentic ryoken and venturing around Kyoto’s many landmarks and gardens to see the bamboo forests and changing colors of fall. We stayed at Seikoro Ryokan and loved every minute of our stay. From the tatami mats to the sliding screen doors to the unknown dishes of our Japanese breakfast, it was a visit that has inspired us to return to Japan whenever we can to unlock the meanings of its many customs and traditions.

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November: Touring Sa Pa’s Weekend Markets

If you want to find culture then find the night train from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Plan your visit around the weekend so you’ll be there for the market when minority hill tribes come down into Sa Pa from their surrounding mountain communities. Textiles, clothing, embroidery, beading and color give subtle clues to hill tribe identity. One of our best experiences was sharing a beer and hot bowls of pho with a hill tribe woman at the main market. And discovering the sewing shop and buying a quilt and a custom pair of pants — made overnight. Visiting Bac Ha, the Sunday market in the neighboring village, takes the whole experience to the next level.

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December: Desert Camping in Oman

December had a close runner-up: Christmas markets in Germany. Whether you sip glühwein while eating a bratwurst and shopping for ornaments, or drive your 4WD vehicle into the uncharted desert to drink Omani coffee and do some sand dune sledding, you can’t go wrong. Both experiences are unique, memorable and evoke a sense of place that won’t be forgotten. I still think about Oman’s desert silence, the unexpected cold of the morning, the sunsets and shadows, and the feeling of being very far away from everything.

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Wherever you are in 2017, I hope you find yourself in love — with life, with yourself, with each other, with the world, with the kindness and beauty that persists and will always be there for discovery. Happy New Year!

Miscellaneous Travel

History, a Photograph and the View Over Guantánamo

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Guantanamera performed by Manos Libres, a musical group we loved in La Habana Vieja. Guantanamera is one of the most well-known songs of Cuba — played every day, all over the island — with lyrics by Cuban writer and national hero José Martí. With this post we’ve come full circle — from Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, to Havana, to Trinidad, and now back to Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba ambles down the hill toward the port. The view from above is stunning in every direction — ocean, mountains, and a mishmash of architecture with a collective appearance that doesn’t immediately communicate its location. This could be the view in quite a few cities around the world. But the accompanying rum, searing heat and ever-present music reveal its identity as unmistakably Cuban.

We’re staying in an elegant casa particular in the Vista Alegre neighborhood outside downtown. The grand dame of the house is Bérta — a highly successful, retired arts educator in her eighties. The home is quietly welcoming, just like Bérta who stands to greet us upon arrival. She speaks a bit of English and seems happy to be hosting travelers from all over the world.

Bérta’s daughter Nani and son-in-law Reynaldo run the guest house business, among their other pursuits which include writing about and documenting Cuban history. Their office is a treasure trove of preserved newspapers from many important days in Cuban history. In the hall outside our bedroom, moments of the Revolucion hang on the walls in frames, frozen in time.

In one frame: Buscan al Camilo — Searching for Camilo, the headline from October, 1959. Camilo Cienfuegos, a key figure of the Granma expedition and Revolucion, went missing on a night flight to Havana. He was never found.

In another frame: Proclamado Presidente El Dr. Urrutia with a photo below of Fidel Castro. Urrutia was proclaimed president of Cuba in January, 1959 and served for six months before resigning due to disagreements with then Prime Minister Fidel Castro. If this home and its archives could talk, and if I knew more Spanish, there would be epic stories to uncover here.

We stay at Berta’s casa particular for two nights and then move on to another one a few streets away. At the next casa particular, we meet our hosts Oti and Adalberto. Through Adalberto’s very limited English (and a Google search later when I return from the trip), I learn that he’s a former colonel of the Guantánamo Frontier Brigade, who studied in Russia many years ago. And his wife Oti? She was in the Cuban army as well — and looks like she could totally kick some ass. But Adalberto is irresistibly gentle in his old age, with soft hands the size of baseball gloves. We ask to eat dinner at the house one night so he proceeds to cut plantains from the tree, scale a fish, fire up the charcoal barbecue and roast the fish on top of the plantains. He serves the fish with a magnificent marinade — some magical creation of garlic, lemon, oil and Cuban miracle spice — that is better than any marinade I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the recipe is lost in translation, to remain captive in Cuba.

I laugh when Adalberto pantomimes later that making the fish dinner for us gave him a few new gray hairs. He’s new to this casa particular business but seems entertained enough to give it a chance. He asks what he can do better. Nothing, Señor. You have done plenty.

While we’re in Santiago de Cuba, we make a day trip to climb 450 steps up Gran Piedra — one of the biggest rocks in the world. Its weight is estimated at 63,000 tons and you can stand right on top of it for a panoramic view of the entire southern end of Cuba. On a clear night, they say you can even see the lights of Haiti.

Getting to Gran Piedra requires a really good vehicle because the road is steep and rough. Nani helps us locate just the guy we need. He owns a truck made by Willys-Overland, an old American car company that used to make military vehicles. Our driver pulls up with his vintage ride and we’re off to Gran Piedra, through verdant fields and up the mountain, passing a few cars that have overheated along the way. He drops us at the hut where we pay a small fee and begin the short climb to the top.

At the base of the final staircase to Gran Piedra, I buy a few bracelets from a father and son. We continue to the top of the rock where we find another couple of vendors selling their crafts in what is one of the most splendid settings you could wish for on a clear day. We’re lucky to have missed the fog. The lush, green hills fall away from us in every direction, the clouds are suspended like pillows and we can see all the way to the coastline where bright white crescents of sand look like little slivers of deserted paradise.

With so much beauty in every direction, it is difficult to fathom that Guantánamo Bay — the American prison — lies just beyond the hills to the southeast of us. We’re essentially looking right over it from where we’re standing. With such dark history, my mind expects to see a shadow, some kind of ugliness, some malevolent indicator of its location on the view in front of us. But here, the darkness of history has no power against the beauty of nature and all we can see is infinite blue and green.

Gran Piedra, Guantánamo Province

Gran Piedra, Guantánamo Province

We descend Gran Piedra, wave goodbye to one of the women at the top, and depart with the experience of having seen beauty and history in an evocative duet. It seems like every step we take in Cuba is accompanied by this pairing, which I think is what has made Cuba so compelling to me in the span of 12 days. History is always just right there at the surface.

Padre Pico Steps, Santiago de Cuba

Padre Pico Steps, Santiago de Cuba

Back in downtown Santiago de Cuba, we meander down the hill from Parque Céspedes to the Padre Pico steps. This is where Fidel Castro fired the first shots in his movement against two-time President of Cuba Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the incumbent until he was ousted by forces of the Revolucion — led by Che Guevarra — on January 1, 1959. Not far from the top of the Padre Pico steps is the childhood home of Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro's childhood home

Fidel Castro’s childhood home

A brick and mortar path leads to the home’s simple square facade. Pastel tints of pink and yellow seem a thousand shades away from a man we’ve seen in a lot of army green. The home shows no signs of life but an elderly woman sits on the front porch of the adjoining home, as a little boy looks at us over its railing. J gives him a toy Matchbox car. He is over the moon.

A few men (landscapers?) linger in the front yard of the woman’s home, enjoying the shade of the flame tree. One of them asks me for a ballpoint pen. He is delighted when I present him with the one, very nice, extra ballpoint pen I have with me that, for some reason, I placed in my backpack right before I departed for Cuba. The pen has found its more appreciative new owner. Small gifts go a really long way in this country.

While I’m taking photos, J strikes up a Spanish/English/charade conversation with the woman on the front porch. She presents J with a photograph from many years ago when Fidel Castro returned here to his former home. This woman is about the same age as Castro is today (90) and her children are pictured in the photograph. From what we can gather, this woman has lived here her whole life and was Fidel Castro’s childhood neighbor. Guantanamera!

We are reminded yet again that Cuban history is right there at the surface, alive and well, waiting to be discovered by whoever seeks it out.

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I’m sad to be wrapping up my stories of Cuba. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, lingered over them, like a good Cuban cigar.

Miscellaneous Travel
Trinidad, Cuba

Postcards From Trinidad

Trinidad, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Hasta Siempre Comandante performed by Dúo Real, a guitar duo we listened to while dining on the outdoor deck at La Ceiba in Trinidad.

After Havana and Santiago de Cuba, we venture to Trinidad on another long ride through the countryside. Acres and acres of corn and sugarcane fields surround us on the road to the west coast. A few stops for lunch and coffee along the route allow us to see a way of life still rooted in the last century.

After experiencing the magnetism of Havana and the enthusiasm of Santiago de Cuba, venturing to Trinidad brings the chance to see another identity within this island full of personality. In the context of these three Cuban cities, we find Trinidad is the introvert — less inclined to chat us up with life and music on the street; more inclined to leave a lasting impression through quiet color and beauty.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad feels subdued, almost suburban, with mostly single-story shops and cobblestone streets that are easily explored on foot. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site with well-preserved architecture on a smaller, simpler scale than Havana. Trinidad is a big draw for tourism and it seems like we see more tourists here than we do anywhere else. This is good and bad — it may feel slightly more crowded than other towns, but Trinidad is accustomed to entertaining guests so there are lots of shops and restaurants to explore.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

The heart of Trinidad is the Plaza Mayor and the Church of the Holy Trinity. A wide stone staircase next to the church feels like Cuba’s version of the Spanish Steps — a social meeting point where you can grab some shade under a tree or a mojito from the bar on the corner.

The Church and Monastery of Saint Francis draw people up to the bell tower to have a look over Trinidad. As we discover on a morning walk, there are other, less crowded places to see the town from up above. We wander into a gallery where a volunteer guide shows us to the roof.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Exploring Trinidad is less about what there is to do and more about what there is to see. It is one of the most visually expressive towns I’ve ever been to … where the color of a classic car may match the color of the home where it’s parked. Every photo is a postcard and the color combinations of the buildings enlighten my opinion of what goes together and what doesn’t. Everything here just seems to work. It even seems like the people who live here have subconsciously adopted this unique color blocking in the way they dress. Their shirts and pants give an extra dab of tertiary color to the streetscape.

We explore the markets around town, with embroidered tablecloths, woodcarvings, fans, jewelry and ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirts for sale. We make a trade at one of the stalls — two carved wooden hummingbirds in exchange for J’s sunglasses.

We’ve come to realize that hats, sunglasses and pens — especially pens — are sought after all over Cuba. Here in Trinidad, I pass a home on a morning walk and the two elderly residents look at me from their front door while emphatically gesturing as if they’re writing on paper. I reach in my bag and give them a pen. They are elated with this simple gift. On an afternoon walk on the outskirts of Trinidad, a man asks J if he can have his hat. Sure! We have more hats. You take this one. Thumbs up and big smiles all around.

Trinidad, Cuba

Morning music in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad has music, too. We are in Cuba, after all. The music here is a little more country, a little less rock and roll. The act of getting together to play and enjoy the time seems almost more important than the music itself.

Trinidad is a coastal city and in our research of it we find a few suggestions about visiting its outer-lying beaches. One beach is near town and the other — Playa Ancón — is a longer taxi ride away. We go to both. As with everything in Cuba, there isn’t much information about what we’ll find at these beaches. But as with everything in Cuba, the adventure is usually worth it. Here’s our discovery at Playa Ancón. I’ll let you decide whether or not it’s worth it. In the meantime … hasta luego, mis amigos! I’ll be in the water.

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Next post: The View Over Guantánamo

Culture Miscellaneous Travel
Bali Villa

Add a Bali Villa to Your Travel Bucket List

villa21

Full moon rising above Villa Dermawan

One of the things I love most about blogging is the support of fellow writers. Over the years, many of us travel bloggers have gotten to know each other pretty well despite never having met in person. Hearing from these people puts a smile on my face and inspires me to write more. Yesterday, Gallivance liked a post I wrote several years ago about Bali and Lombok. Their “like” got me thinking about Bali — which is never a bad thing. In doing so, I realized I haven’t written about one of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting Bali: renting a villa! If you haven’t yet experienced this, I hope you’ll add it to your travel bucket list.

sms2002

Our one-bedroom hut at Sacred Mountain Sanctuary Resort in Bali

The first time I visited Bali, I was on my honeymoon and we stayed at two boutique hotels during the trip. The hotels were wonderful and there are certainly many great options around the island if you choose this type of accommodation. But while living in Singapore, I was fortunate to return to Bali for several long weekends with friends. Instead of staying at a hotel, we rented a villa each time and relished every moment of having a private home and pool all to ourselves.

Our villa experiences were made most enjoyable by the hospitality of the Balinese staff tending the villas. Every villa typically employs at least two people who take care of the home and make sure you have an excellent stay. Their service is included in the cost of the villa, and they can help arrange other things like transportation and massages by the pool. Best of all, you can usually hire your villa staff to cook authentic Indonesian meals for you throughout your stay. Your villa vacation, already pretty spectacular, becomes even more delicious when you wake up to nasi uduk and fresh fruit or savor a poolside dinner of nasi goreng and satay.

So, need some villa recommendations? Villa Dermawan is located down a tiny brick lane about five minutes from the beach in Seminyak. A high gate and a Buddha statue greet you as you walk through the large front doors. An open-air kitchen and living room overlook the pool, which is next to the main master bedroom. A second master bedroom, open bathroom and sitting area are located at the far end of the grassy lawn. This villa is paradise for couples wanting space and privacy with authentic Balinese character.

Also in Seminyak, Villa Ipanema is modern in design with two stories and five huge bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom. An open-air living room, dining room and kitchen face the pool. For a group of ten adults, this villa brings the pool and the party together for a super fun experience. (I saw it happen. I took part.)

Villa Phalosa hosted the wedding of two of my friends, on a large lawn with a pool facing the ocean. Both of their extended families stayed at this villa during the week leading up to the wedding. Rain was a possibility on wedding day so the bride and groom hired a Tukang Terang (rain stopper) — a Balinese man who held off the precipitation by performing a ritual at a local temple. He did a great job, as you can see in the photos — such a great job, in fact, that temps were sweltering and the wedding party and guests dove in the pool fully clothed shortly after dinner. What a night! (Bali creates these kinds of memories. I took part in this, too.)

And finally, Villa Kaira near Canggu offers everything needed for a luxurious group stay — private cottages, koi pond, spiral staircase, grassy lawn, pool and leafy view of the ocean. I attended a wedding here last May and thoroughly enjoyed seeing another awesome villa amid the idyllic beauty of Bali.

I’m barely scratching the surface here. Whatever your needs and preferences, there is likely an irresistible villa awaiting your arrival. Should you choose to tick this box on your bucket list, you’ll find there are loads of rental agencies with an endless number of villas to choose from. I have experience booking with Villa-Bali and recommend this company as they thoroughly inspect all the villas they represent (dream job!) and I can vouch for their office in Singapore (which may offer some comfort if you’re considering booking a villa but you’re a little scared of wiring your money overseas to places unknown).

So there you have it — a brief look at what you can expect when you rent a villa in Bali. And bonus! In terms of price, villas are often cheaper than neighboring hotels, especially if you’re traveling with a group that can share the cost. What you gain in private amenities and beauty is priceless, and should definitely be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Go, and see for yourself!

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Thanks, James and Terri, for the “like” that inspired this post!

Miscellaneous Travel