Category Archives: Summer Vacation

The Doughnut’s First Year: A Retrospective

Just over a year ago, I started traveling with a giant plastic pink doughnut floatie. I can’t tell you where I got the idea, but I can tell you the doughnut made its debut in a private pool in Coral Springs, Florida, Christmas 2016. It’s public debut happened in Sedona, Arizona—a rather magical place to step out—specifically, the Amara Resort, which had a shallow pool with a great view, an ideal setting in which to begin.

Pools have always been a thing. This goes back decades. I wrote about my obsession with pools for the Los Angeles Times, and more recently for National Geographic Traveler. I’m like The Swimmer protagonist in the John Cheever story, but without the delusions. Water calms me. And connects me.

You might see the doughnut as a silly plastic toy, but over the past year, my floatie has introduced me to people around the world. Kids are more likely to approach me and say “Hey, is that yours?” and then we start talking, though sometimes an adult lounging by the pool will strike up a conversation. I’ll always remember Abdu, the Indonesian pool guy in Macau, who used a pump to inflate my floatie and commented that the Koreans brought floaties the size of deck chairs.

Sometimes, I’m alone dragging my floatie about but sometimes, I’m not. One of my favorite moments happened at Ormistan Gorge near Alice Springs in Australia where I passed a few swimmers carrying their own large floaties. We exchanged smiles. Floatie kin. Another time, I spotted a woman crossing a busy street in Greenwich Village carrying an inflated swan floatie as large as a bike. So, we’re out there, in the desert, in the city, you name it.

In its first year, the doughnut has traveled to four continents, including four countries (Cuba, Italy, Australia and China), and five states (Florida, Virginia, Arizona, California, and as of last weekend, Texas). Family, friends, and complete strangers have floated and frolicked on this doughnut. I travel with it in my carry-on bag. It rolls up better than a pair of jeans. It dries as easily as a bathing suit. After an afternoon at Playa Del Estes on the northern coast of Cuba, I deflated the doughnut, draped it over my hotel room shower, and by morning it was dry and ready to be rolled back up into the suitcase. We have a routine. In fact, the doughnut makes its second trip to Cuba in May. We’re excited.

The doughnut doesn’t judge. It doesn’t care what you’ve got going on in your life or where you’ve been or where you’re headed. If you like being in the water, “chillaxing,” as my daughter likes to say, and looking up at the clouds, then the doughnut is your friend. A best-selling author, actresses, advocates, artists, and kids from Cuba and Venezuela have floated on my doughnut. It embraces anyone. As long as you don’t have any sharp objects on you, you’re welcome to join and take it for a spin.

Private pools, public pools, freshwater, the ocean—the doughnut and I are open to it all. I’ve always been a swimmer, a bad one who isn’t very fast, but I beeline to the water, indoors or out. I took water ballet as a kid. I swam laps (slowly) for college credit. Along the Great Ocean Road, I couldn’t wait to wade into the Southern Ocean. When I saw the movie “The Shape of Water,” I nodded with understanding.

There are places the doughnut and I would really like to go. In no particular order:

– Lake Louise, Banff, Alberta, Canada
– Various chic hotel pools around Singapore via Flung’s new Singapore guide, which I would trust more than TripAdvisor or even Lonely Planet.
– Back to Northern Territories, Australia, perhaps Litchfield National Park this time for waterfalls and swim holes.
– Hampstead Heath in London. I swam there in 2000; so I’m overdue, and the doughnut hasn’t been to England.
– Anywhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or Central America.
– Hawaii, Hawaii, Hawaii.

Today is my 45th birthday. I’m grateful for continued good health, family, friends, and the opportunity for adventure and to meet new people. My pool floatie connects these dots. We’re out there having fun, soaking up sunshine, seeing the world, making friends, and we’re just getting started.

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Anna and the doughnut, Omni Hotel, Richmond, Virginia

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My college roommate from London, Yvette, enjoying the doughnut in Sedona

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Playa del Estes, Cuba

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Four Seasons, Macau

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Siestre Levante, Italy’s northwestern coast

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Ca di’Pesa, Tuscany

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Ormistan Gorge near Alice Springs, Northern Territories, Australia

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Making friends in Barton Springs, Austin, Texas

When a Blog Feels Like a Utility Bill

To say I stink at blogging is an understatement, plus it feels so 1998. Social media is microblogging and vlogging, and now, in 2018, everyone has either a carefully curated online lifestyle or a reactive opinion to something. I don’t know where I fit into this, and remembering to blog about something feels like remembering to pay our utility bill.

I started this blog in 2005 to talk about my family’s vacations, and now I’m being introduced as a “travel writer” to people. This floors me because in 1998 when blogging and my journalism career were in their nascent days, a travel writer to me was an elderly white dude who had worked his way up the chain at a particular newspaper for the past few decades, and who wrote about eating poi in Oahu. Or, it was cracking open National Geographic Traveler (which has published me–twice!) and reading something awesome in long-form by someone who didn’t have an Instagram account but was somewhere far away, and perhaps had hammered out observations on a Smith Corona (and if you’re of that age where you think I’m referring to a type of beer, think again). Now, everyone is a travel writer because everyone has Instagram.

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(A favorite room at The Roxbury called “Amadeus’s Bride”)

Lately, I’ve been writing about hotels. For reasons I’m still trying to understand, this brings me absolute joy. And it’s so weird to arrive at this point at almost-45, to feel wow’ed by sharing your opinions on hotels, for tourism boards to invite you to places. You see, my parents did not attend elite four-year universities–or any university–to be groomed for greatness. We struggled financially, and I was raised to attend college, get a job, get married, pay the bills, remain within a short drive from the family, have at least two children, and ride out the years without complaining (I complained). Travel was a luxury, and if you could afford it, was something you did one week out of the summer to some place within driving distance; for us, that was usually Mystic, Connecticut. I was the first on either side of my family tree to actually leave town to attend a four-year, in-state college and come out the other end with a bachelor’s degree. It sounds sad that this would be considered pioneering in 1995, peak Clinton years and the dawn of the Internet, but that’s how I grew up, raised by parents who preferred bubbles of their own making. I didn’t even know what the Foreign Service was until my late 20s when I was building my journalism career, and I look back and wonder if anyone during my high school years had explained to me what the Foreign Service was, would I be schmoozing in nice hotels with ambassadors in places like Riyadh or Dubai? Because I do have schmoozing skills. Sadly, I’ll never know.

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(Sails in the Desert near Uluru in Northern Territories, Australia)

So hotels. I can’t get enough of them, and I realized my fascination with them goes back to November 1998 (a pivotal year, now that I think about it), when Mike and I took a boat ride up to Victoria, British Columbia, and as we got off the boat, I saw Fairmont’s Empress Hotel. We weren’t staying there; we stayed at the Bedford Regency, which also sounded classy and was right on that main thoroughfare, Government Street. But still. The Empress was as regal as its name (and on Government Street). It had opened in 1908, an Edwardian chateau-style party house for passengers of Canadian Pacific’s steamship line, which had a terminal a block away. Canadian Pacific Hotels eventually became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. If there’s a chain hotel I’m addicted to, Fairmont is the one. One glance at the Empress and I was hooked. I would have afternoon tea and spend a night there two years later.

Since then, I’ve sought out hotels that had character and swimming pools. There are no points programs for going off-brand. One of my favorite hotels is The Roxbury up in the Catskills, which is adding a pool (thank God!). Other favorite hotels are in the fall 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveler, and I recently gushed about this lodge on Australia’s Victorian coast for Flung magazine. I’d love to return to Paris’s Grand Hotel Des Gobelins, which had this majestic staircase, tiny rooms, and this phenomenal breakfast buffet that was served in the bowels of the building (this was 2011, so maybe they changed that). Or go back to the QT in Melbourne where I stayed last November and soaked in another amazing bathtub. Or walk out on to my balcony to listen to the birds before the heat of the day hit at Sails in the Desert Resort near Uluru. I’m eager to try out The Rookery even though I have no immediate plans to return to London. I’ve wanted to check out El Convento in Old San Juan for about a decade. Macau has hotels sprouting up like weeds. Trying out hotels wasn’t something that was encouraged at home or at college: hotels were cheap places with the same non-threatening taupe decor and dentist office art where you crashed for a few nights. Hotels weren’t the vacation.

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(Ah, Le Sirenuse)

Maybe I still want to blog about travel after all but it’s taking on a new form: waxing poetic about beloved hotels (or scrutinizing them for something annoying, though if I’m there in the first place, it’s because there’s something I like). For some people, the excitement of travel begins when they arrive at the airport or board their train or pack the car. For me, it’s sliding the key into that door and seeing what’s inside. Is this hotel about local history? Is it pretentious? Is it an architectural puzzle? Does it want me to have fun? To relax? To sit up straight and take this place seriously? To forget or admire where I am? To disconnect or reconnect? Does it smell like carpet cleaner or someone’s cigarettes? What’s the view?

And that’s the fun, isn’t it?

Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

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Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

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Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

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I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)

Big, Black, Bright Stillness

City life has many things to offer and engaging with the cosmos isn’t one of them. Lately, I’ve been feeling about the night sky the way I felt about the sun when I lived in Seattle for three years—I miss it. I saw part of that lunar eclipse three weeks ago, which was amazing, yet on a night-to-night basis, I can count on one hand the number of stars I see from my backyard or from my front step. Neighborhood street lamps and that massive light bulb across the Hudson River known as Manhattan block out a substantial chunk of natural sky. New York City is America’s biggest city, something I feel acutely whenever I ride the subway, wait in line for a bagel, or try to enjoy anything remotely celestial. Look up from my backyard and you’ll see United Airlines crisscrossing with some transatlantic flight crisscrossing with some rich guy’s Cessna (we’re also near Teterboro Airport) crisscrossing with the occasional police helicopter. Sometimes, on a clear night, you’ll see a star or two, which, one of them you later learn turns out to be Venus. In the winter, I can usually spot Orion, but that seems to be the only visible constellation from my little corner. This weekend while driving around the Catskills, I stood under a black, cold sky punctuated by millions—no gazillions—of stars. I saw the Big Dipper for the first time in ages.

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I’ve met people here who find the silence and vastness of rural landscapes and open sky overwhelming. They need the buzz of urban life to feel tethered. I increasingly prefer the country. If walking around the forest changes the brain (and I did that in the Catskills, too, and genuinely felt calmer afterward), my guess is stargazing at night also positively affects our synaptic energy. But under proper conditions, like what I enjoyed Saturday night. No planes. No helicopters. No anything trying to go anywhere. Just big, black, bright stillness.

Escaping the city for the something more pure is about as old as New York City itself. The word “vacation” is said to have been created here during the previous turn of the century because the rich regularly vacated the city for more pastoral backdrops, Theodore Roosevelt among them. I find myself craving starscapes, feeling pulled toward big open spaces so I can drink in that sense of awe that is the night sky. I’ve never been a very successful student of the sciences; I earned a C in my freshman astronomy class. When looking up, I have no idea what I’m looking at and I’m okay with that. I trust everything Neil DeGrasse Tyson says. I like the mystery of what’s above. Night skies are humbling, with a depth and complexity that surpasses mountains and oceans, perhaps because unlike mountains and oceans, the sky is untouchable. Simultaneously aloof and daring with a rhythm that we are a part of but where we have no say. The last time I witnessed a sky so pregnant with stars was when we were in Taos, New Mexico, a town that preserves much of the outdoorsy mysticism once in abundance in this country, and perhaps explains the alien lovefest that still thrives there. New Mexico is a place where people look up. New York City is a place where people look down, eyes glued on smartphones, away from each other.

Inside the Catskills farmhouse where we were staying, I thumbed through a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”. On the subject of stars, would it please Thoreau to know that on Amazon—an arbiter of the unnatural world—“Walden” averages 4.2 out of 5 stars, with more than 530 reviews? Even online, more stars is better. And would he be intrigued by the conversation happening in the reviews of “Walden” where people discuss the generation gap among those who appreciate Thoreau’s observations and ideals? I appear to be in the middle of this gap. Thoreau’s phrasing is thick—paragraphs go on for a page—and while I enjoy a long read and resent the current listicle-ADHD online reading culture, the pages were a commitment.

But I want to keep going and read more. Thoreau struggled with respiratory illness much of his adult life and wrote about the restorative powers of being outside. “I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” he said, “unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Truth. Though who does four hours of anything anymore that doesn’t involve WiFi? I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very good at being outdoorsy. Camping is a lot of work. I don’t own gear. I hate bugs (I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings). I can’t read a map. I don’t really care for trail mix.

But I do love being outside and grabbing what little pieces of it I can. Thoreau might find today’s ideals of communing with nature somewhat ridiculous. So much as been pushed out that great effort is made to create sanctuaries for what’s left, such as the one square inch of silence in Washington State’s Olympic National Park. Noise pollution is just as much of a problem as sky pollution (though the suburbs are quieter here, just not very dark). Who besides Zen monks and hunters spends hours of uninterrupted time surrounded by trees and silence? My last four-hour stint with Mother Earth was hanging out in a nest at a Big Sur glamping resort where I could walk uphill for sushi. Saturday night, I lasted less than 10 minutes just standing alone on the frosty grass watching the stars, no street lamps interrupting my view. Temperatures had dropped to the thirties, and while I wore a hat and warm coat, my body was still holding on to September.

Yet that ten minutes mattered. I felt my nerves disentangle a bit, my pulse settle, my thoughts slow down. Watching the whorls of stars, a wave of calm moved through me, something I hadn’t experienced since being out on the California coast last summer. The night sky made me feel small. And for that I was thankful.

Ich Bin Ein Californian

The pilot sounded giddy, like some waiter stoked about what the chef was concocting in the kitchen, as if the weather forecast was this awesome meteorological entree he couldn’t wait to dish up. And he was right. It was the smoothest transcontinental flight I had ever been on. Ever. The seat belt sign was barely on. The skies were clear and blue the whole way. I almost enjoyed myself. I almost felt my faith in flying restored.

We said goodbye to that fuzzy green humidity suffocating the Northeast and made our way west to San Francisco where you wear sweaters, hats and scarves in August. Even today, I’m wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa eating hot soup while 2,900 miles east, my backyard chickens sweat in their coop and my cat hides in the shadows to stay cool.

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We’re renting an apartment in the Cole Valley neighborhood, which is a seven-minute walk from Haight Street, still very much alive with hippies, hipsters and homeless. Tour buses cut through all this, as does the voice of some guy on a microphone explaining Haight-Ashbury’s colorful history to an audience of white people wearing normcore without irony. I was hat-shopping there Tuesday when some guy on the street shouted to the tourists on the bus “You’re being lied to!” That’s the beauty of walking around the streets and just hanging out. You see, hear, smell, sense more. We’re among the rows of Easter egg-colored dollhouses, Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings hugging the hills, where there’s plenty of sensory stimulation. Originally, Mike’s employer was going to put us up in a chain hotel in the touristy parts of town because that’s near corporate offices and that’s why we’re here, but after some online hunting, I found this great, third-floor walkup that saved the company about $1,200, and now everyone is happier. The more I travel, the more I lean on individual rentals than hotels; it offers greater authenticity and, quite simply, it costs less. Hotels distance themselves from their surroundings, they are their own little gated communities; apartments are integrated with their environments and you get to savor a city in an entirely different way.

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The accommodations are as integral to this trip as California itself. After 10 days in the city, we’re off for a return visit to Big Sur where we’ll sleep in a nest, which makes me giddy. I’ve been chatting with the artist who made the nest, and I may get a chance to watch him work next week because he does things to eucalyptus branches that you didn’t think could be done. Even the birds seem impressed. So we’re going to go check that out.

It’s always wonderful to sleep in your own bed, but I’m feeling way too at ease in our temporary housing, as if my daughter and cat and chickens should all come here instead of us flying back east. But I’ve known for a long time I’m a closeted Californian living in the New York City burbs. Last night, Mike and I took the trolley to the beach. The line ends and you literally run out of America because the Pacific is right there. There wasn’t much of a sunset because it was so cloudy, but it was still beautiful. We watched surfers flirt with the current and the current flirted right back; it was like overhearing some sultry conversation at a bar. To surf with so little light takes guts. That means understanding the waves without having to see them, listening for nuance in undulation. I loved eavesdropping in on this. I once tried surfing off the coast of La Jolla and nearly threw up from seasickness. I envy those who ride waves. Later, we walked through the gray, past several broken sand dollars covered by beaten-up beach. My husband remarked that it was very difficult to find an unbroken sand dollar and seriously, just seconds after he said that, I reached down and picked up what looked like a perfect one, unmarred by beachgoers and their hyper dogs. Mike rinsed it off in the ocean and was impressed. No chips, no cracks. It felt like finding a lucky coin on the ground. It’s now on our windowsill drying in the sun. I look at it and think, “Soon, California. Soon.”

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