Streets and Markets of Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Our taxi stops in the middle of traffic and we step out into the mayhem of Mumbai at rush hour. Across the pulsing artery of cars and pedestrians, I see the ruddy stone exterior of Crawford Market with its clock tower silhouetted against the hazy blue sky.

Crawford Market opened in 1865 and in 1882 it was the first building in the city to be lit by electricity. The market goes by two names : Crawford Market (the original name, after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner Arthur Crawford) as well as  Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market (the current name, after Indian activist and social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule).

There’s a bust across from a small shop in the market where we stop to buy water. I have no idea what the inscription on the bust says, but I think this is Mr. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule himself.

The order and color of Crawford Market is a nice relief from the chaos just outside the entrance. Fruit is arranged in piles, big and small. A pineapple vendor is totally surrounded. Which ones are new? Which ones are old? It’s a secret only he knows. The watermelons are bright green and stacked with such precision it seems like removing one would release the whole pile into a rolling mess.

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Behind the fruit stalls, the betel nut seller sits on a stone step with his basket full of concoctions. He’s a willing subject when I motion with my camera so I crouch down and see the leaves, the white lime residue and the intensity of his stare. Even now as I edit these photos, I’m struck by the directness — not only in his eyes but in the eyes of a number of men in these photographs. Sometimes people smile with uneasiness when photographed, but in Mumbai there is fearlessness… a willingness to engage. He asks to see the photo and is happy with the result.

I watch the porters who work for hire carrying heavy loads for shoppers and shopkeepers. Dressed in plaid sarongs and sandals, they come and go with their big circular baskets — hoisted up high with one hand, placed on the top of the head or at rest on the ground.

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

In between loads, the porters hang out together. Maybe he’s checking the score of the cricket match.

This is a spice market, too, where we find jar after jar of exotic smelling masala and curry powders. There is no such thing as a teaspoon here. The spice sellers place heaping scoops in shallow dishes and we inhale the complexity: vindaloo curry, chicken tikka masala, green curry, madras medium curry, tandoori chicken masala, hot curry and even just “normal curry.” And then there’s the Special Spice King Masala 96 — a proprietary blend. With their intense, earthy hues, the spice powders look as rich and powerful as they smell.

We leave Crawford Market. The displays of fruits and vegetables continue on the street. We wander through Mangaldas textile market (where a female officer warns me that I can’t take photos) and emerge on the other side. Cows wander the street, a guy roasts peanuts over a fire on a wooden cart, and another guy stirs the pot… making big swoops with his ladle through a steaming pot of dahl while he stares at me with all the intensity of Mumbai.

Flower Market, Mumbai

Flower Market, Mumbai

Big, beautiful baskets of color greet us at the flower market. We duck into a narrow alley where men sit on elevated platforms, fulfilling orders for customers. They string flowers together in fragrant garlands used for festivals, marriages, rituals and to honor deities at temples.

Bees buzz around the piles of blossoms, the aroma of jasmine lingers in the air and life in Mumbai carries on.

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

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
Bali Villa

Add a Bali Villa to Your Travel Bucket List

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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.

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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
Kyoto Japan Travel

Treasures of Kyoto

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Few places in the world mix charm and history like Kyoto, Japan. Spending just a few days here juxtaposes the past with the future for an unforgettable experience. Where else can you see a stunning trio of geishas walking through Gion while fixated on their smart phones?

I visited Kyoto last December and while the stark beauty of winter was apparent, I couldn’t help but imagine the beauty of this town in the bloom of spring or the shifting colors of fall. This alone would be good enough reason to visit Kyoto more than once. Many of the sites around town have a strong connection with nature and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces illustrates the essence of Japanese design.

If you’re visiting Kyoto, don’t miss these remarkable treasures of history and beauty.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion

Hope for clear weather if you visit Kinkaku-ji, for the glow of this charming pavilion rivals the sun itself. Originally a shogun villa, Kinkaku-ji became the prominent feature of this 32-acre site at the end of the 14th century. Classical Japanese gardens border the mirror pond which integrates the pavilion within the surrounding landscape of islands, rocks and trees. The pavilion displays three architectural styles in three stories, with the top two covered in gold leaf and lacquer. Through the past centuries, war and arson have threatened to destroy this beauty but the latest rebuild of 1955 shines on for all to enjoy.

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Daitokuji Monastery

Find your zen among the rock gardens of Daitokuji Monastery, founded in 1319. This vast complex requires patience and curiosity to seek out the gems hidden among its many sub-temples, but the rewards are great and the silence is palpable. Spend an afternoon meditating from the engawas or marveling at how all those beautifully raked stones show no trace of a footstep.

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Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest and Walkabout

Green and lithe above you, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest dwarfs and awes you all at once. But go beyond this unique landmark and you’ll find even more to explore. Okochi Sanso, marked by a little booth that might deter you with its entrance fee (it’s worth it), offers a labyrinth of stone paths and gardens set around the former villa of a Japanese actor of the early 1900s. North from here, you’ll find artists’ studios and shops among the streets of Arashiyama. Venture farther still and you’ll arrive at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji cemetery and temple. From the late 700s to the late 1800s, people who were brought here received no tombstone or burial. Instead, they were memorialized with Buddha statues, of which there are around 8,000 — along with another bamboo forest that’s prettier and more peaceful than the first one down the road.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

Inari, the Shinto god of rice and deity of business, inspired this shrine with its seemingly endless series of torii (traditional gates). Founded during the Nara period, it is the head shrine of Japan’s 30,000+ Inari shrines and every torii has been donated by a company or individual, as inscribed on the columns. If you enjoy photography, you will lose your mind here — repetition, color, scale and a path that leads all over the mountain make every angle an image to capture. Larger-than-life foxes — Inari’s messengers — sit at the entrance to the shrine and smaller statues appear frequently along the path. Plan to spend a few hours if you want to walk the gates from start to finish, or you can shorten the four kilometer loop at Yotsutsuji intersection.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Established on the hillside in 778, Kiyomizu-dera offers panoramic views across Kyoto from a complex of halls and pagodas. A natural spring flows into the site and visitors can sip the water at the Otowa Waterfall. Adjacent to this, the Kiyomizu Stage is a marvel of engineering with a framework of 12-meter pillars erected using traditional Japanese timber construction (no nails or fasteners). After touring this scenic temple, wander the quaint streets at its base where you’ll find more examples of traditional architecture and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of the enduring legacy of Kyoto’s geishas.

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With a bit of planning, the sites listed here can be reached by local train and/or bus from central Kyoto. Daily bus passes are available for ¥500 at most ryokans. You can hop on and off as many times as you like, making it more economical than paying per trip (¥230). Arashiyama is farthest from central Kyoto but rewards with a half-day of exploring at the very least.

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Travel

Vancouver Hiking: Joffre Lakes

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Upper Joffre Lake

Just a couple hours from Vancouver, our group finds the trailhead and sets out into the forest seeking a trio of glacial lakes in Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. The lower lake appears just ahead, not far from our starting point — a little amuse bouche of what’s farther up the trail. Reed grass paints a lime green swath through the water while the sun hides behind clouds just above the mountains.

We continue on the trail — easy under foot and blanketed by thick undergrowth on both sides. The park clearly sees a lot of precipitation as the vegetation looks almost like a rainforest. The trail shifts into high gear and we’re soon progressing through a valley on a steep incline. Getting to the middle lake is an uphill haul, but the views entice and encourage and we find ourselves at the shore, out of breath.

A glacial lake is a sight to behold, anywhere in the world. Deep blue-green and opaque, it’s not only hard to describe but hard to believe even when seeing it in person. The blue tones accentuate the yellow in the vegetation surrounding the lake, and it seems today that even my camera is having difficulty interpreting the values of this extraordinary landscape. It just doesn’t look real.

Just up the trail, water cascades down through the trees along a nearly perfect staircase waterfall. The sky tries to clear and we continue on our way to Upper Joffre Lake.

The highest lake offers the greatest reward, with a view into a cirque topped by an old glacier. It’s the perfect place to stop for lunch so we settle on a coarse moraine next to the trail. The sun finally shines and hits the water like a spotlight — blue-green changing to aqua in a brilliant show of colors. The glacier holds a hint of icy blue and with my long lens I see the many layers of winters past fused together in a moving, melting canvas. We explore the campground at the far end of the lake (paradise!) and then begin our descent back to our starting point.

It’s such a thrill to find wilderness so easily reached from Vancouver. It’s just the beginning of my adventure here and Canada’s backcountry is vast. I think there’s plenty to keep me busy for however long I’m here.

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To get to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, take Highway 99 from Vancouver through Whistler to Pemberton. The parking area is located on the right side, several kilometers past Lillooet Lake. For more information, visit the park website:

http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/joffre_lks/

 

Miscellaneous Travel
Alishan, Taiwan

The Old Trees of Alishan, Taiwan

Alishan, Taiwan

It’s two days before Christmas and we miss the last bus to Alishan. With no backup plan, we resort to hiring a taxi to drive us up the mountain. It’s an expensive endeavor, but so are the holidays. The road turns and twists for more than an hour and at times we wonder if we’ve gone too far off the beaten path with our latest adventure in Taiwan. Our driver even stops to light a cigarette in unspoken agreement that this road is something to be reckoned with.

We finally top out and arrive at Alishan House. It’s a bit too dark and foggy to gauge our elevation but we agree that having our head in the clouds is always a pretty good indicator that we’re somewhere worthwhile. It’s not until the next morning that we see the quiet Alishan forest when we set out by foot to explore the mountaintop.

We board a five-car train for a quick ride to the start of the hike, an unexpected beginning to what turns out to be a charming walk through the forest. An elevated plank path leads the way through the trees — a mix of new and old growth, cedars and cypresses, with a profusion of greenery at every turn. Giant red cypresses are the highlight — towering over us, impossible to photograph, firmly rooted in the mountainside, some for thousands of years.

Logging has ceased here and tourism is the economic force at Alishan. This has clearly been the salvation of these old growth trees. I think of the history through which they’ve existed, their lifetimes in pace with the redwoods and sequoias of Northern California on the other side of the Pacific.

We return to Alishan House for sunset where, above the clouds, we find a stunning view and finally sense our location high on the mountain. The old railway — no longer in use — clings to the opposite mountainside, a broken and dangerous reminder of years past. The sun sets as clouds roll past us and mountaintops just their heads above the fog to breathe freely from the sky, just like we do.

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Alishan National Scenic Area is located in south-central Taiwan, and can be reach by car, bus or taxi from Chiayi station on the Taiwan High Speed Rail route.

Miscellaneous Travel

Telunas Island Getaway

After just 45 minutes, our ferry drops us at Batam where we’re greeted by smiling employees from Telunas. They lead us out of the port to the gritty local dock where a long boat pulls up to the elevated walkway. Our luggage is lowered over the high point, into the hands of the crew and down to the boat. Fishermen clean their boats, a woman sells homemade samosas, a few smokers linger about and we’re eyed with curiosity as we walk to the end of the dock where the boat picks us up. There’s nothing fancy about the start of our weekend getaway, and we like it this way. We’ve shrugged off the glitz of Singapore and we’re on our way into the Karimun region of Indonesia’s Riau Islands.

The long boat sits low in the water. The loud but hypnotic motor pushes us through the waterways at a determined pace. The boat ride is as much about seeing life on the water as it is about getting to Telunas. We pass several villages constructed above the sea on mazes of posts and beams sticking out of the water. Laundry hangs, women stand in their doorways and watch the world drift by, and minarets of the village mosques reach into an empty sky. After two hours we’re in the middle of nowhere — no services, no boats, no one around except our passengers and crew. The crew know these waterways by heart, finally steering us toward a wooden pier in the distance.

We pull up and disembark, greeted by the dense foliage of a tiny island somewhere southeast of the Malacca Strait. A warm welcome leads us up the pier and into the heart of Telunas where we find an open-air lodge with a panoramic view toward Pulau Sugi. We’re offered a tropical drink and then escorted to our bungalow — one of sixteen in a row perched above the eastern shore. We open the front door to a charming two-story abode that rivals just about anything you might find in Maldives. The spacious interior includes a sitting room, loft and wonderful master bedroom that opens to a large deck overlooking the water.

We’re free until dinner so we fill the afternoon with cocktails on the deck (we’ve brought our own bar) and a few games of Uno in the lodge. Every now and then we can get a signal, but the relief of unplugging outweighs the work of trying to plug in. And that’s the idea — be still, be present, be here… go for a walk, paddle out, read a book, enjoy the company of who you’re with. Some guests might be bored — the island is tiny — but succumb to the remoteness of Telunas and you might end up feeling more connected than ever.

Over the next two days, we walk all the way around the island — passing through jungle, wading around the rockier parts of the western shore, and ending back at the pier. We jump off the pier, whooping it up like children. We play Crazy Eights, drink gin and tonics and dive into the Indonesian set menu every chance we get. The food is delicious and I devour the Nasi Uduk at each breakfast. We get to know the employees — young local men and women who clearly enjoy working here. We watch a beautiful sunset at the pier and trade smiles with a boat captain who drops off a load of sand. A Telunas employee translates for us — the captain has owned the boat for 10 years and also runs a homestay just down the waterway.

And that’s it. Nothing fancy, nothing frivolous. Just a true island getaway where you have exactly what you need, and what you make of that is entirely up to you.

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Visit the Telunas website for more information.

Miscellaneous Travel

Lesser Known London

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London. Just saying the name conjures up all sorts of iconic images — Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, to name a few. I recently returned from spending a week in London — my first time back since living there for a year and a half from 2006-2007. What struck me upon return was that I found myself going back to see and experience some of London’s lesser known attractions. While living there, I had time to dive a little deeper and I found some nuggets of art, architecture, science and culture that remain my favorite experiences of the city. They showcase notable creativity and expression in various forms. If you’re headed towards Piccadilly Circus, I hope instead you’ll consider veering off the beaten path to these lesser known highlights of London.

The Wallace Collection
This exquisite gallery is a window into aristocratic lifestyle and art collecting by Sir Richard Wallace and the Marquesses of Hertford between 1760 and 1880. It all sounds very regal, and it is, but this is a family collection of art within their home at Hertford House. Viewing the Wallace Collection is less like a museum experience and more like taking a step back in time, where the interests and passions of the collectors are evident in the work presented.

Featuring European artists from the 14th to 19th centuries, the Wallace Collection includes work by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and Watteau, among others. It was here that I first saw the work of Canaletto (still a favorite), with his meticulous scenes of life on the water in Venice.

The Wallace Collection is comprised of more than paintings. Every room is a discovery in itself, from furniture to porcelain to opulent chandeliers and interior decoration. But the largest part of the Wallace Collection is armor — an incredible display of design and decoration forged by the requirements of battle. These are some of the finest pieces in the world, up close and very personal. Come into the house and have a look. There’s something for everyone to appreciate.

Closest station: Bond Street

Liberty
This historic store might be overshadowed by Harrod’s and the big names on Regent Street, but Liberty is a shopping experience unlike any other. It began in 1874 when Arthur Lasenby Liberty created his store in the likeness of an eastern bazaar, captivating London shoppers — way back then and still today.

The tudor-style exterior holds a treasure trove of unique products and the entrance on Great Marlborough Street is always flanked by colorful cut flowers in crates and buckets. The interior maypole is a glorious welcome and exploring the building’s nooks and crannies could keep you busy for a whole afternoon. From housewares to rugs to fabrics to clothing, Liberty is London shopping at its best.

Closest station: Oxford Circus

The Prime Meridian, Time Galleries and the Great Equatorial Telescope
There’s just something fun and cool about standing with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. You’ll have to venture south of the Thames to tick this experience off your bucket list. Head to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, located among the leafy lanes of Greenwich Park.

Pay for admission to the Flamsteed House as it includes access to two galleries that illustrate the history of longitude and accurate global time keeping. It’s hard to imagine a world without either. Groundbreaking innovation is on display here — creative thought applied to science, technology and geography.

Don’t miss the stairs up to the Great Equatorial Telescope. Built in 1893, it’s one of the largest in the world (and impossible to photograph in one frame). It’s housed in the “onion dome” and host to observing evenings where the general public can view the night sky.

Closest station: Greenwich

The Borough Market
Lesser known may not describe this market anymore. It’s grown in size and popularity since I lived in London. But what you’ll find here are locally-made, gourmet products from small farms and producers you may not find anywhere else. From organic fruits and veg to delectable meats and cheeses, make sure you arrive with your appetite and get ready for a culinary experience. It’s a crush on the weekends, but the full market runs from Wednesday to Saturday. Where else are you going to find a grilled cheese sandwich made from melted raclette for £6? Just look under the tracks at London Bridge station.

Closest station: London Bridge

The Chapter House and the oldest door in Britain
Beyond the main architecture of Westminster Abbey, the Chapter House is a bright octagonal room filled with stained glass windows from the 19th and 20th centuries. Enter through the vestibule from the cloisters and don’t miss the small, dark door on the right. It’s the oldest door in Britain and dates to the 1050s yet there’s very little indicating its historic status.

Closest station: Westminster

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The Ardabil Carpet
The Victoria and Albert Museum holds one of the oldest and finest carpets in world history. Made by hand in Iran, the Ardabil Carpet dates to the 16th century and is one of a pair. It’s made of silk and wool, in ten colors, with a knot density of 340 per square inch. This gives a carpet a supple, luxurious feeling in hand. But you can’t touch the Ardabil Carpet — it’s is entirely enclosed and only lit for ten minutes on the hour and half hour.

The carpet measures 38 feet by 18 feet and the motif is one connected design. At such a large scale, only a master carpet weaver could conceive or create such a work of art. This weaver wove his name and an inscription into the carpet, but I’ll leave that discovery to you when you visit the V&A. It’s a memorable museum not just for the Ardabil Carpet but for its focus on fashion, furniture, jewelery and textiles.

Closest station: South Kensington

The Choral Evensong
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a popular stop on London itineraries, but not many people know about the Choral Evensong, held daily under the dome. Admission is free, seats are arranged in a semicircle and sometimes attendees are invited to sit in the quire — a special opportunity to be seized when available. The 45-minute service includes prayers, psalms and canticles. Regardless of your faith — all are welcome — hearing the Cathedral Choir sing in the grandeur of the space is a stunning acoustic experience.

Closest station: St. Paul’s

 

Miscellaneous Travel