Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Seychelles Islands: Vacationing Inside Your Screensaver

Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Another lifetime ago, back when I worked as a graphic artist for a local newspaper, my supervisor had a screensaver depicting a beach of limpid blue water lapping against white sands perfectly framed by enormous grayish-brown boulders worn smooth from millennia of erosion. Always a sucker for the power of an intriguing image, I felt inspired to find out where it was and then how I was going to get there. The image in question is that of Anse Source D’Argent – consistently voted among the world’s best beaches, and a frequent subject of wall calendars and screensavers everywhere. As for how to actually get inside that screensaver, allow me to explain.

Located – quite literally – about a thousand miles from anywhere, the Seychelles Islands are an archipelago of some 115 islands situated in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. Madagascar would probably be considered its nearest neighbor, but that’s another story with its own screensaver. In terms of neighbors, rather than being a weird recluse in a remote Unabomber-style shack, the Seychelles are more like a secluded retreat for the well-to-do, using their remoteness as a natural barrier against the penniless masses hoping to peek over the fence.

Historically, the island nation was a haven for pirates who made their living raiding the trade routes to India and beyond. Settled by the French in the mid-1700’s, they were named after King Louis XV’s finance minister, viscount Jean Moreau de Sechelles. Had there been computer screens back then, perhaps he would have settled for a screensaver, but technology being what it was, he became the namesake for an exclusive archipelago that is now synonymous with paradise and the good life.

Despite its French beginnings, in the early 1800’s the islands fell under British control all the way up until its independence in 1976. The production of crops such as cotton and vanilla began to decline, being replaced with perhaps the fattest (both literally and figuratively) cash cow of them all – luxury tourism. Here’s where those screensavers earn their keep.

International visitors – aside from those with their own cruise ships or luxury yachts – will arrive via air on the principal island of Mahe. Home to the capital, Victoria, and a few square blocks of ‘urban’ population, the rest of the island offers glimpses of what makes the Seychelles such an amazing destination and screensaver diva: rainforest, beaches, and sunsets.

Not far outside the capital is lovely Beau Vallon – a two mile crescent of white sand beach with a great view of the ultra-exclusive Silhouette Island across the bay. Not surprisingly, water sports abound from Jet Skis to diving to Deep Sea fishing. For anyone with limited time and budget, Mahe will be a satisfying stand-in for the screensaver-worthy scenes you likely came looking for. But since you came all this way, you might as well stretch things a little bit further and see those digital fantasies with your own eyes by either a short flight or ferry ride to the other two ‘main’ islands – Praslin and La Digue.

Praslin, in my opinion is the best place to base your explorations. There’s plenty to do and see, some of the finest places to stay, and one or two locales that have made their way to computer screens the world over. Lodging here is not cheap, but if you’re going to splurge, this would be the place to do it.

 

Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles

Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles

Once again, the beach scenes of lush greenery sloping down to powdery beaches abound, particularly at Anse Lazio, a gorgeous cove tucked away in the northwest corner of the island, and a great place to observe the mind-blowing Seychelles sunsets over the open ocean. This place is no stranger to screensavers and calender shoots, so make sure it isn’t a stranger to your itinerary. Yes, it’s that good.

What makes Praslin so unique though, is actually located in the hilly center of the island – a nature preserve and World Heritage Site called Vallee de Mai. This is the only place in the world where the indigenous coco de mer plant grows in the wild. Since its unlikely you’ve seen many coco de mer fruits on a screensaver or elsewhere, the ‘male’ appendages are shaped as you would likely imagine a male appendage to be shaped, and the ‘female’ nuts are the largest nuts in the world, weighing up to 40 pounds. Besides their hefty weight and size, they are noteworthy for their shape, which strongly resembles the lower half of a woman’s torso, and was known to cause excitement among early (and presumably lonely) sailors who would chance upon them on the open seas. Anatomical similarities aside, this is a virgin rainforest of soaring trees and oversized greenery, with leaves that could double as a car cover. If you ever wanted to imagine yourself as an ant in a terrarium, this would be the place.

Accessible only a short ferry ride away is the third most-visited of the Seychelles Islands, a tiny green gem called La Digue. If Praslin could be considered laid back, then comparatively La Digue would be considered comatose. There are only a handful of vehicles allowed to operate on the island, and you’re far more likely to hire an ox-driven taxi than anything with an engine. The tradeoff is a tranquil, quiet slice of heaven, or at least it would be if it weren’t for the harmless but disturbingly large palm spiders visible every so often.

 

Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue

Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue

Most opt to get around by foot, and if you don’t mind strolling around in near 100% humidity, less than an hour’s walk will bring you to Pointe Source D’Argent and its namesake beach. Here you’ll find abundant clusters of the signature granite boulders for which the Seychelles are famous. Worn smooth by eons of erosion, they take on unique shapes in surreal formations which no doubt accounts for their prevalence in the screensaver industry. The beach is shallow and the water warm, but as far as scenery goes, I can’t think of anywhere else that can compare–both digitally and in real life.

Getting to the Seychelles is sadly just slightly less difficult than climbing into your computer screen. Air Seychelles is the national carrier, with routes predominantly from Europe and South Africa. Tickets are not cheap, and so are accommodations, which range from ‘expensive’ all the way up to ‘need-to-sell-a-kidney-on-the-black-market-just-to-tip-the-bellboy’. Again, the Seychelles have marketed themselves as an upscale retreat, catering to those who have the means along with the occasional wannabe like myself, so budget well or else it’s a long swim back to the African mainland.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what to expect on a visit to the Seychelles, it’s time to ask yourself the hard questions: Am I willing to travel such a long distance to see it? Can I afford it? Will it be worth the expense to do so? If you said yes to all three then by all means, come visit this archipelago right out of Paradise. If you said no, then that’s OK too. You can always just stare at the screensaver.

 

Have you been to the Seychelles? Tell us about it!

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If in Doubt, the Answer is Usually ‘C’

Willemstadt, Curacao

Willemstadt, Curacao

Back in high school and junior high, most exams of any import were taken on a sheet called a Scantron. This was a narrow rectangle of paper with a grid of potential answers (A, B, C, and you guessed it – D) for each question that had to be completely filled in with a Number 2 pencil. Like many of my classmates, when unsure of an answer, or running out of time, the tradition was to simply fill in ‘C’ and hope the law of averages worked out in your favor.

The Caribbean has its own form of ABC represented by the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. While each has their own charms, if pressed to make a choice, once again my recommendation would be to choose ‘C’. Let me tell you why.

Topographically, all three islands are not what most envision when they think of the Caribbean. Despite lying only a hundred miles or less off the northern coast of South America, these are dry, semi-arid islands. The upside to that is a greater chance of sunshine during your visit, and low runoff means more vibrant coral reefs for snorkelers and divers, which is a primary objective on the itinerary for many.

Whether they like it or not, nearly all visitors to Curacao will pass through the colorful capital of Willemstad – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This bustling settlement is a whirlwind of color in a pastel palette split in two by Sint Anna Bay and connected by the pontoon-style Queen Emma Bridge and the large, arching Queen Juliana Bridge set a further bit inland. While it may look like a village right out of an amusement park, the banks, shops and businesses are all real, despite their cartoonish color scheme and gilded architecture. May I point out that color – the town’s most striking attribute – also starts with ‘C’. Just saying.

The pounding surf at Shete Boka National Park, Curcacao

The pounding surf at Shete Boka National Park, Curcacao

The island has a long, narrow shape, but despite its narrowness, there’s a tangible difference between the north and south coasts. While just about every square inch of Curacao is blessed (cursed?) with a constant breeze, the north coast is the one taking the brunt of the open sea, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at Shete Boka National Park at the far northwestern tip of the island. Here there’s a steady supply of powerful waves that mercilessly crash against the craggy cliffs scoured of any vegetation by the incessant beating. A natural arch attests to the erosion process and fury of the sometimes tempermental Caribbean. In this case the correct answers for ‘C” would be ‘crashing’, ‘crushing’, ‘current’ and ‘crazy if you decided to take a dip here’.

Playa Knip, Curacao

Playa Knip, Curacao

Also on the western side of the island but on the tranquil, leeward south shore, is perhaps Curacao’s finest beach – Playa Knip, alternately called Grote Knip. Here you’ll find more greenery than cacti and the scalloped crescent of sand forms a secluded bay of the bluest water this side of Bora Bora. There isn’t much in the way of facilities, but the correct answers for ‘C’ in this idyllic context are ‘coral’, ‘carefree’, and ‘can I stay here a little longer?’.

Besides a scattering of other smaller and even more secluded beaches on the south shore – which is also the main drag for all scuba and snorkeling activity – another popular attraction is located just to the southeast of Willemstad called the Curacao Seaquarium. If you haven’t already guessed, this is in actuality an aquarium-type complex which isn’t all that impressive until you see the dolphin or sea lion show, at which point the answers for ‘C’ are ‘cute’ cuddly’ and ‘can I have one?’.

Getting around Curacao is relatively straightforward. There are some vans/buses that will get you into town from one of the many resorts in the Willemstad area for a reasonable price – taxis are comparatively expensive ($10 US for a five minute ride). My advice is to rent a car – the roads are in good shape and since this is an island, there’s a limit to how lost you can get. Most people a visitor would likely come into contact with speak English in addition to the local Papiamento language, and if not, the merits of pointing and gesturing cannot be understated.

So now that I’ve given you all the overview you’ll need for a successful visit to Curacao, here’s your final question. If you need me to give you a hint, then maybe you should re-read this piece, because obviously you were not paying attention.

The reasons why a person would want to visit the Caribbean island of Curacao are:

a) Beer making and hula dancing lessons
b) Skiing and snowboarding
c) A colorful capital city, gorgeous beaches and great diving and snorkeling
d) All of the above

This concludes the quiz on worthwhile Caribbean islands to visit. Make sure you filled in your Scantron sheets correctly and pass them forward. If you left any blank, I trust that you now know what to do.

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The Best Part About Joining A Monastery Is The View

The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece

The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece

I’m not big on the idea of joining a monastery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about self-sacrifice, devotion and the return to a simpler lifestyle. I just have a real issue with the idea of wearing a robe all the time, and in my case, would find it physically impossible to fulfill a vow of silence of any length over two minutes. Well, maybe two and a half if I’m thinking real hard.

But if circumstances ever required that I run off to join a monastery – such as evading an angry loan shark or testifying against a mob boss – I know exactly the place where I would join: The otherworldly monasteries of the Meteora, in Thessaly, Greece.

I know. Most people conjure images of boxy whitewashed houses overlooking the sapphire blue of the Mediterranean when they think of Greece. Either that or pockmarked marble pillars such as at the Parthenon or Delphi, which serve as reminders to the faded glory of one of the world’s greatest empires that endowed us with gifts such as theater, democracy, and an alphabet that is essential to fraternities everywhere. But there is more to Greece than just the usual suspects, and the Meteora is the quintessential poster child for the ‘other’ history that played out in this ancient land.

Reachable via a three to four hour drive from Athens, the principal town for this World Heritage Site is Kalambaka, which is nestled at the base of the enormous pillars of rock that provide both the backdrop and namesake for this unique landscape. From a term meaning ‘suspended rocks’, the Meteora are towers of erosion-smoothed sandstone jutting out of the fertile plain, and are dotted with several still-active Greek Orthodox monasteries perched precariously on top of their impossibly sheer-sided pinnacles. Originally the site of a religious retreat founded by a cave-dwelling hermit in the year 985, the first of over twenty monasteries was built in 1382, though today only about six remain active.

Sure the climb's a strain, but what a view!

Sure the climb’s a strain, but what a view!

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that anyone bothered to install stairs to reach the tops. Before that your only option was a harrowing ride in a winch-drawn basket. Though I can’t even begin to fathom the kind of faith it takes to make that ride (not in God but in the power of monk-made ropes) if you think about it, it all kind of makes sense. What else could make you more aware of your own mortality and draw you closer to your Maker than a basket ride up a towering cliff side? I’m sure I’d be contemplating the meaning of life if I were in such a position where I might not have much of it left.

The Great Meteoron

The Great Meteoron

The biggest, oldest and highest monastery is the aptly named Great Meteoron, situated on a peak at 2,045 feet. The day that I saw it, the clouds above conveniently parted just enough to allow a few shafts of light to surround it like a halo. I mused that regardless of the beliefs of its occupants, the setting alone truly lent itself to a search for the divine.

What is perhaps the most photogenic of the monasteries is that of Moni Rousanou. Capping a narrow spire of rock, it is dwarfed by an even larger pillar of stone situated directly behind it, thereby providing a sense of scale that is hard to grasp elsewhere. And if you care about such things, that’s the one that always makes people say “Oooooooh” when they see it in my photo album.

Moni Rousanou

Moni Rousanou

Along the winding road are various lookout points, allowing for some tremendous views. My personal favorite was one accessible only by scaling a slightly-sloped rock face with what I felt were God-given footholds, so that even an amateur, unequipped rock climber like me could observe the awe-inspiring view of this forest of rock and the cluster of Kalambaka town far below. My friend Paul and I had made sure our wives weren’t watching when we climbed up, and as Paul – blonde-haired and dressed all in black – was splayed against the rock in an attempt to lower himself down, I just could not resist asking him if he had six fingers on his right hand. If you don’t get the reference, well . . . then maybe you belong up there with the monks.

With Paul at the divinely-positioned lookout point

With Paul at the divinely-positioned lookout point

Given its remote location and the distances (not to mention steep climbs) between monasteries, if you plan to visit the Meteora on your own, I recommend that you rent a car. However if you’ve come to cast off the shackles of modern society and renounce all worldly comforts, then skip the car and get ready for the calf workout of a lifetime. It’s just a shame that the robes won’t allow you to show them off.

Depending on how interested you are in frescoes, icons and other Orthodox paraphernalia, the Meteora can be comfortably seen in just a day, though an overnight in Kalambaka (alternately spelled Kalampaka) will allow you to do so at leisure and with greater opportunity for some great souvlaki and baklava. And if the former doesn’t convince you of the existence of a deity, the latter certainly will.

Of course, if you really need a place to crash, you could always join one of the aforementioned monasteries. The lifestyle might be hard to swallow, the robes may be itchy, and the images rather creepy, but the view from the Meteora is just shy of heaven. And if you decide to run off there, take solace in the fact that you’re not the first to do so, and you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate life’s big questions as they’re hauling you up in the basket. Amen.

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Rhine Valley Has All You Need, Unless You Need Directions

Castles aplenty in the Rhine Valley, Germany

Let me start off by saying that I have the upmost respect for the German people. I marvel at their architecture and engineering, love their beer and pretzels, and tip my hat at the guts it takes for a grown man to wear Lederhosen. That said, I must have come across two of the most clueless citizens in that great nation during a recent stopover in Frankfurt.

With ten hours at my disposal, my destination was the nearby World Heritage Rhine Valley – by far the most famous landmark in the region. The problem was, nobody seemed to know how to get there. Without a GPS, map or internet connection, I overcame my masculine impulses and actually stopped to ask for directions. The Frau at the hotel where I stopped was very kind and told me to take the nearby highway in the direction of Wurzburg. No problem. I hopped on the 3 and was soon zooming down the Autobahn.

At about the 45 minute mark I was certain I should see some signs or familiar town names, but none were forthcoming. So at a rest stop I asked a friendly young man if I was correctly headed in the right direction. “Yes,” was his reply, and my doubts were assuaged. I drove on for another 45 minutes and made it to Wurzburg. It was at this point that I realized that I was not in the Rhine Valley. In fact, I wasn’t even in any valley. No offense to the fine people of Wurzburg, but this was not what I came to see.

Sneaking a peek at a map for sale in a gas station, I realized that I had been given bad information – to the tune of an hour and a half in the wrong direction. And not just the wrong direction. The complete opposite direction. And they say Americans are bad with their geography! It may be true, but you can ask any Long Islander which way to the Statue of Liberty and even the dumbest among us would still say west (likely with a thick accent and the question: “What’s it to you?”).

Trekking back across the Fatherland, I briefly entertained the idea of abandoning my quest; but with another five hours still at my disposal, I figured why not and raced on to the small hamlet of Bingen. Stepping out of the car to admire the panorama before me, I knew I had made the right decision.

Whatever these gentlemen were talking about, it probably wasn't the Niederwalddenkmal monunument of Germania across the river

Whatever these gentlemen were talking about, it probably wasn’t the Niederwalddenkmal monunument of Germania across the river

After parking the car along the western banks of this ancient waterway, it was a pleasant walk along a shoreline promenade lined with restaurants, shops, and a tranquil garden. Across the way was the imposing Niederwalddenkmal monument of Germania, erected to commemorate the foundation of the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War. The slopes of the gorge were a verdant patchwork of vineyards and terraced fields, with some quaint little fairy-tale villages thrown in for good measure. Clearly the people who gave me directions earlier had never been here. This is not a landscape one could easily forget.

As I moved along the banks, I was struck by the number of castles that sat perched on rocky escarpments – and on some occasions – right in the middle of the river (apparently taxing river traffic was a Medieval cash cow – sort of like the Throng’s Neck Bridge without the EZ Pass). Barges and ferries still ply these same waters, with the addition of river cruise boats whose only cargo are passengers looking for a better view of one of Central Europe’s most dramatic natural scenes.

At Rheinstein Castle, I made the trek up the zig-zag ‘driveway’ and past the portcullis only to find out that entrance was cash only. Since I didn’t have any Euros or breath left, I just admired the stunning views and let gravity assist my descent. I’d say that it was a waste of time, but my photo album would say differently.

The view from Burg Rheinstein, Germany

The view from Burg Rheinstein, Germany

I should also mention that the valley isn’t the only thing worth looking at. The towns are rich with ethnic architecture, impressive churches, and that Oktoberfest vibe the rest of the world tries to recreate. If I wasn’t driving (and about to take a ten hour flight that evening), I would have loved to party with the locals – whether they could give directions or not.

Sadly, due to my misadventure, I missed out on exploring the rest of this must-see region. Bingen is pretty much about as far as I got on my original itinerary to see it through to Koblenz. But the valley has been there long enough for me to rest assured that it isn’t going anywhere, and the next time I pass through I just might be able to see it all.

So if you’re looking for an easy day trip from Frankfurt that incorporates rich history, a wealth of castles, and truly dramatic natural scenery, Germany’s Rhine Valley has everything you need. Just be sure to bring your GPS so that you don’t have to ask for directions.

Categories: Anecdotes, Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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