Journeys and Stories

Writer. Traveler. Tourist. Addicted to sunlight and road trips.

Summer Travel Must-Haves

There are many things I am not good at, and blogging is one of them. In fact, I’m wondering if I should open every blog post with a self-deprecating “I stink at this,” just to see who sticks around—a litmus test of your dedication, dear 2.5 readers.

But now and then, there’s something worth blogging about, so here you go. Check out Flung magazine’s latest on what some very seasoned travelers are lugging around these days. I’m very honored to be listed among such pros, including Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during a press trip to Cancun in October 2015. (Reflections on that trip here.) Sarah is an actual pro, meaning that she brings high-quality gear to properly capture a moment, and—most likely—remembers to pack enough clean clothes and seasonally-appropriate toiletries. I don’t always pack good gear, I have failed to bring enough clean clothes and once even forgot to pack underwear, and for some inexplicable reason, I bring my A-game when it comes to having enough of the right toiletries. My packing lacks logic.

However, what I never forget on any trip no matter how near or far is my giant plastic inflatable donut and my bathing suit. Usually, I pack two or three bathing suits because we all know bathing suits never dry fast enough when you’re on the go. I may not have enough socks and shirts or decent walking shoes for the trip, but by God, I am ready for the beach or hotel swimming pool!

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I just returned from Cuba Tuesday night, and the Cubanos were visibly amused by a gringa walking around downtown Havana with a blown-up donut. The beauty of being 45 years old is that there are many things you stop worrying about, and looking ridiculous is one of them.

I’m currently working on a donut floatie travel memoir because my donut has traveled to more places than many, many Americans. It’s a lucky piece of plastic, and I’m a lucky, lucky gal, pinching myself every day that someone wants to send me somewhere to write about someplace beautiful. I won’t lie: it doesn’t suck. So stay tuned for more donut floatie adventures.

Meanwhile, I’m returning to California soon, and there’s a hotel in Palm Springs I’m eager to visit. Why? Because this hotel’s Instagram feed is filled with photos of Floyd the Flamingo Floatie. The place is called the Monkey Tree Hotel, it recently underwent a renovation, and apparently (based on the Instagram feed), Floyd and Elvis impersonators hang here. These are my people, so I’m eager to introduce my donut to Floyd, get into the pool, and daydream under the sunshine. Those are things I’m good at. See you there.

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

My Love Letter to Mexico and Guillermo del Toro

About eight weeks ago, newspaper headlines scared the crap out of Americans–or fueled their pre-existing fears–that Mexico was a dangerous place, putting five of Mexico’s states on the same warning level as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. A U.S. State Department travel advisory, issued January 10, begins like this: “Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime. Some areas have increased risk. Read the entire Travel Advisory. Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread.”

Mexico, overall, has a Level 2 warning, as do popular areas such as Cabo San Lucas, which is a New York Times “must-see” for 2018, and Cancun . Level 2, according to the U.S. State Department, means “Exercise increased caution” and in Mexico’s case, it’s “due to crime.” Well, I could also say the same about certain parts of 8th Avenue at certain hours of the day. Also, you know who else is a Level 2 destination? Our Anglophile cousins in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, Belgium (Belgium!!!) and Denmark are all Level 2s due to terrorism. Level 1 destinations where you are as safe as you’ll ever be since leaving your mother’s womb are Canada (no surprises there) and Japan, where it’s not only safe but the streets of Tokyo blind you with their cleanliness, especially if you’re coming from Newark Liberty Airport, like me.

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Journalism credit where credit is due; newspapers including The Miami Herald eventually brought some nuance to the discussion—nuance sorely lacking in most national discussions these days—to remind readers “Hey, folks, not all of Mexico is scary. Go ahead with your spring break to Isla Mujeres.” (Which is beautiful, by the way.)

I’d like to know where are the domestic warnings about visiting Chicago, which, in 2016, accounted for more than 20 percent of the nationwide murder increase? Or the warning about going to a concert in Las Vegas? Or a warning about simply going to school in America? Instead, we get headlines about arming our teachers and keeping our eyes open while lounging on a beach in Mexico. What are other governments telling people who want to travel to the U.S.? Arrive armed with an AR-15 just in case???

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These headlines matter because I’ve encountered these perceptions right here in my neighborhood, a blue-ribbon school district that’s supposedly educating our future to be open-minded. You know how many people make decisions about places they’ve never been to based solely on what they see on TV? Everyone. Most recently, I had lunch with some Australian tourism folks who came to New York, and one said “It’s not like ‘Sex and the City’ at all. No one dresses up here.'”

Many don’t even realize how influenced they are by mainstream media. I’ve had people who have graduated from schools far more expensive and fancier than mine make disparaging comments about Mexico. In 2015, at a dinner, I mentioned I was heading to Cancun, a woman asked if that was safe “because you’re blonde.” At a holiday party two months after that trip to Cancun, another woman asked me “If that was safe, because you know, the drugs.” The drugs??? Suburbs are pumped with benzodiazepenes, pot, and heroin, to name just a few. Vincente Fox frequently comments that the U.S. is Mexico’s biggest customer. More than a decade ago, my mother-in-law, who taught Spanish to children, commented on “dirty Mexicans.” There is a misguided perception here in the suburban Northeast which no one wants to own: Mexicans are people who clean our houses and make our tacos. Folks struggle to see beyond that.

There are always exceptions. A family around the corner from us—we’ve been friends for 12 years—go to Mexico every year. They’ve explored the country top to bottom, from sampling different moles in Oaxaca to strolling Mexico City to scuba diving off Cozumel. They haven’t roamed Colima, one of the five states on the State Department’s recent naughty list, but they’re not shying away from visiting Mexico either or ascribing to affluenza notions. Also, Colima is about 150 miles south of Guadalajara, which is where Guillermo del Toro is from. You might have heard of him after last night: his movie, The Shape of Water won Best Picture. He wrote the screenplay and won Best Director. Here he is talking about being an immigrant and finding success.

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Clearly, I’m a del Toro fan girl though I still haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth because I already have trouble sleeping and had a feeling this movie would stick a little too much, though that was a few years ago. I might be able to swing it now. When I saw The Shape of Water in a movie theater on a rainy January day, it was me and three elderly people there for an 11:45 a.m. showing. The weather had sent my seasonal affective disorder into a spin and I decided to cocoon inside a theater and escape not really knowing what I had signed up for when I bought my ticket. An hour and a half in, I nearly stood up and applauded when The Creature and Eliza break out into a black and white dance sequence. I have to thank del Toro for that; an artist known for darkness brought sunshine into a dark room on a dark day.

Del Toro isn’t the first Mexican filmmaker to win this honor. Three years ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director (Birdman was wonderful and imaginative, but I really liked The Revenant, my idea of a girls’ night out). Change happens slowly, but it’s happening.

After the disappointing 2016 election, I talked with several people who pined for Canada. The running joke was that there would be a beeline to the Canadian border, and while I’m a six-hour drive from the Canadian border, I’ve often said I’d rather go to Mexico. A longer drive, yes, but Mexico is more me. Not just for the sunshine and palm trees, which I seem to be biochemically dependent on, but because everything about me and Mexico clicks: the people, the bright colors, the architecture, the music, the dancing, the fascination with ghosts and the dead, and the abundance of gluten-free food. Last week, I had lunch at Cosme, a restaurant on East 21st Street that serves what’s dubbed as “high-end Mexican food” because in America, we assume that Mexican food means Taco Bell. The restaurant was founded by Enrique Olvera, a pioneer in the haute cuisine scene, and is run by Chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won a James Beard award at age 25, and who moved to the United States from Mexico at the age of 12. Her corn husk meringue, inspired by her mother’s corn soup, is worth your time and money.

Mexico is America’s neighbor, yet America hasn’t been acting very neighborly these last 14 months. Someday, I’d like to go a neighborhood gathering or a dinner out and not defend my willingness to go to Mexico, which I have done more than once, or explain my love for Mexico, which is only based on three trips to the Quintana Roo region and several visits to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. I’ve got a lot to learn and much more Mexico ahead of me: San Miguel de Allende, Isla Holbox, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Nayarit, where some of my Christmas ornaments were made. So don’t trash-talk Mexico and then tell me about your upcoming weekend to Las Vegas. I don’t want to hear it. Racism and Otherism is both explicit and implicit, and it’s the subtle, insidious comments, like the ones said to me or U.S. newspaper headlines, that build up and misguide. Our options for nuanced discourse may be disappearing, but our thoughts are still ours, and we get to choose what to think and to not buy into misinformed hyperbole.

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?

Moonstruck

The word “lunatic” doesn’t have the best reputation, and unfortunately, there’s no appropriate word to describe individuals who are mentally balanced, not overly weird, and simply enjoy the night sky when the moon is out. Selenophile doesn’t work either. Moon spotting seems ok, but has a menstrual quality to me. #Lunafan? #Lunaproud? #LunaLover? See? Nothing fits.

As I type this, Europeans are apparently enjoying a beautiful night for a “supermoon,” one of three to brighten up this winter between tonight and January 31 (the second one happens New Year’s Day). The “supermoon” nickname simply means the moon will appear about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than a typical full moon. The supermoon at the end of January is predicted to be quite spectacular, which is good news for me because I’m feeling moon-cheated tonight. Clouds cover the New York City region; this morning it didn’t even look like the sun showed up for work, so chances of witnessing a supermoon tonight are dim.

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Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m addicted to sunlight otherwise I rapidly sink into seasonal affective disorder symptoms. But I’ve also become intrigued by the moon the more I travel. Years ago, I was at the Griffith Observatory on a night during the middle of the week; in between weekend crowds when there was no line to peer through one of the massive telescopes set up and pointed at the almost-full moon. The image was startling; a white rock with hard grooves posing like some aging nude model in an art class. Two years ago, I was sleeping in a nest in Big Sur and woke to moonlight hitting the Pacific Ocean so hard that almost everything appeared silver, as if someone had turned on a light. This past September, I laid in a hammock in Tuscany and watched the moon. In October, I walked around glitzy Macau and spotted the moon. A month ago, out near Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territories, I had an unforgettable moment with the moon. We were having dinner in the desert. Moonlight poured over everything. Shadows moved across the earth. Someone had set up two telescopes: one pointed at the moon and the other pointed at Saturn. It was a very clear night, the perfect conditions for a spectacular sky, in which there was a very full moon.

I approached one telescope. To the naked eye, Saturn was a speck of light, indistinguishable from the other white specks of light filling the heavens. Then I looked into the telescope and almost jumped. On the other end of the lens was Saturn, with perfectly clear edges and a ring. I didn’t expect to see the ring. The image looked like a kid’s sticker or a classroom science project of a planet dangling from a string. It was almost cartoonish, not at all like the large, looming images of Saturn I always saw at planetariums and museums.

Then I approached the second telescope, the one directed at the moon, and looked through. This reminded me of that evening in Los Angeles at Griffith Park. Like that night, the moon wasn’t being coy, everything was being bared—proudly. It made me think of how we wear our age, or maybe should wear our age. The moon is 4.5 billion years old. It’s easy to think of the moon as timeless, but it isn’t. It has a creation story, and for generations watched Earth’s continents drift and rethink their borders, watched empires rise and fall, watched wars and reunions, watched flags fly, watched men visit its surface and plant flags of their own, watched us watch it, watched me look up, think about how I never thought I would have traveled to Australia, how on my daughter’s desktop globe, Australia looked so far away. Yet, there I was in central Australia, in the middle of the desert, far from anything familiar, admiring the moon, anchored by its light, this beacon that’s been with me my entire life. Yes, we, especially I, need the sun, but where would we be without moonlight? Yes, the moon’s gravitational force is critical to earth’s well-being and to controlling the tides, but without moonlight, I’m guessing we’d lose about half of the world’s love songs—maybe about a third of all lovestruck poems.

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I was looking at the moon when my ride back to the hotel arrived; we had a 4:30 a.m. departure for a sunrise camel ride, but I wanted to stay with the moon. That’s the problem with itineraries—they don’t take into account the moments when you want to linger.

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During my press trip to Australia, we sat quietly waiting for the sun rise over Uluru. Seeing the light change at 5:30 in the morning was indeed beautiful (that’s not my usual hour for that first cup of coffee), but I kept my eyes on the moon, which didn’t budge. The light I couldn’t keep up with; I’d glance down into my coffee cup for a second, take a sip, look up, and the whole desert suddenly looked different whereas the moon held firm. The sky softened from purple to pink to a misty blue, and the moon was still there—the sun directly across from it—as if to say “This is my hour, too.” I didn’t sense competition, just an understanding that in the morning, the moon doesn’t quickly exit stage right for the day, even if you’re caffeinating up and need to be somewhere in a hurry. It’s not like that. After 14 years of living in the New York City area, I appreciated the lack of rushing. And now I look for the moon wherever I go. It fascinates me that wherever I stand, desert or beach, from a hotel balcony or my own backyard, the moon is steady, with a rhythm that I can rely on and a change in contour and colors that sometimes surprise. Clouds covered tonight’s supermoon, but I’ll be waiting for the next one.