Category Archives: Travel

Travel: Turks and Caicos

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New England winters are very vibrant – there is always a lot going on around the Seacoast! In addition, it’s a great time to work on a project (Craig does woodworking and I do stained glass) or just cozy up under an afghan and read a good book next to the woodstove. But winter this year stretched out a little longer than usual and we desperately needed a warm-weather break. Neither of us is enamored with glitzy resorts or all-inclusive destinations. We prefer exploring the culture and cuisine of a Caribbean island that offers great beaches, good hiking and excellent snorkeling. A direct flight is nice too, but not always possible. So, we decided to explore Turks and Caicos this year, which is rumored to have the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Turks and Caicos is an archipelago of 40 low-lying coral islands in the Atlantic Ocean, a British Overseas Territory southeast of the Bahamas. The gateway island of Providenciales, known as Provo, is home to expansive Grace Bay Beach, with luxury resorts, shops and restaurants. Scuba-diving sites include a 14-mile barrier reef on Provo’s north shore and a dramatic 7,000 foot underwater wall off Grand Turk Island. The official language is English and the currency is US dollars. But Providenciales (“Provo” to the locals) was too developed for our tastes (it had a Club Med and similar resorts, high end shopping and expensive restaurants), so we headed for North Caicos – accessible by ferry and very undeveloped.

Our Airbnb host arranged a taxi to meet us at the airport and deliver us to the Caribbean Cruisin’ ferry on the eastern end of the island. She asked if we wanted to stop at a grocery store on the way, but we assured her we would do provisioning on North Caicos. The IGA on Provo is huge with a spectacular selection of food products. (Note to self: Definitely stop and shop on the way to the ferry next time.) The ferry ride gave us our first glimpse of the beaches along the shore. We’ve traveled all over the world, but I must admit, they were most definitely the best we’d ever seen. In fact, the beaches stretch from six to 14 miles along the coast of the islands and are made of soft, white sand like talcum powder that come from the eroding limestone on the islands. The water is a neon aqua and was mesmerizing! When we arrived at the ferry landing on North Caicos, our rental car was waiting (also arranged by our Airbnb host). We followed our host’s Mom to the house and were pleasantly surprised by the location (in the middle of a village named Whitby), and amenities (short walk to the beach, coffee, fruit and bagels in the fridge). The warm, salt air was a delight. We quickly changed clothes and went for a tour of the island and a search for a grocery store.

North Caicos (and the next island over, Middle Caicos) are mostly undeveloped. North Caicos only boasts a population of 1,500. A recent hurricane had frightened the hundreds of flamingoes and they relocated elsewhere in the Caribbean. The huge land crabs roamed across the unpaved roads in the evenings and many of the cement block houses were abandoned. But, we were in a perfect location – within walking distance actually to a grocery store (that got fresh produce on Mondays) and both a great, casual restaurant, the Silver Palm, and the Pelican Beach Bar that served the most amazing pina coladas!

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We stocked up on basic essentials at the grocery store and a bottle of the local Bambarra dark rum at the liquor store and headed back to the house.

Our first full day was spent on the beach, just walking and swimming, and then back to the house to read on the patio. We dined that first night at the Silver Palm Restaurant where the owner/chef Karen and her husband, Poach, spoiled us with fresh seafood (conch fritters and whole fried snapper) and information about the island. Her rum punch is legendary!

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The highlight of our vacation came on Monday with a fishing trip. We had hired a local, Captain D, to take us out for inshore fishing. Trip Advisor reviews raved about him and said that he would clean all the fish you could catch and send it back to your Airbnb rental with you. We were excited about feasting on our own fresh-caught seafood all week. We chartered him from 9-2, spent most of the time fishing and then went snorkeling off the boat (waters were a little choppy) for about an hour before returning to the launch area where he cleaned our fish for us. We caught three good-sized barracuda (the largest one was 32 pounds!) We had seen barracuda with their scary teeth while snorkeling in the past and didn’t know they were edible. Apparently, predator fish at the top of the food chain can carry dangerous toxins, but these fish didn’t pose any problems for us. Captain D told us a few ways to cook the fish, but we opted for the charcoal grill at our rental house and a little lime juice. It was delicious!

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As for hiking, we mostly walked along the beach although we did hike the Middle Caicos Cross Island Trail which wound along the coastline and across pitted limestone cliffs.

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We saw only one other couple on the beach the entire week we were there It was heavenly and very, very relaxing for us. We definitely plan to return some day.

 

Travel: Bahrain

I recently returned from Bahrain where I went to visit our son Eric who is stationed at the Naval Support Activity there. It was my first visit to a Middle Eastern country, and he was a great tour guide. We started by going to the Bahrain National Museum so I could learn some history about the country. I learned that Bahrain is an island country and an Arab constitutional monarchy situated in the Persian Gulf between the Qatar peninsula and the northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Originally referred to as Dimun, it is rumored to have been the site of the Garden of Eden, although it is mostly a white sand desert today sparsely spotted by date palms. The natural pearl fisheries dominated its economy and the pearls were considered the finest in the world, until Japan started cultivating pearls. Oil was discovered in 1931, production began the following year and oil remains Bahrain’s most exported product today.

 

On the second day, Eric took me to an old fort and museum. Archeological excavations revealed that the fort had existed for over 4,000 years through 6 different civilizations – the last time it was rebuilt was by the Portuguese in 1521.

One of the more fascinating compounds in the fort showed how dates were placed in troughs in a room, weighted down with boards and allowed to sit and soften until the date “honey” or liquor drained into a depression in the stone floor. The date tree trunks were used as the ceiling, covered by woven date palm fronds made into mats.

Summers are very hot there, often with a heat index of 130 degrees F, although we enjoyed moderate temperatures in the mid-80’s with a slight breeze. I found the various souqs (markets) fascinating – gold, pearl jewelry, spices, and Persian carpets abounded. Food was fantastic and I especially enjoyed the karak (spiced chai), balaleet (egg and noodle dish), shashouka (eggs and tomatoes) and the shwarma (marinated lamb or chicken wrapped in khubz or flatbread).

 

The men making the flatbread placed the rounds of dough on a cushion and slap them onto the sides of a stone oven. Another person removed them with a hook. The flatbread is served with every meal and is used to scoop up the various meats and vegetables that are served.

We also toured the circa 1800 home of the Sheikh in the old part of the city, the Royal Camel Farm where I got to feed the camels, the Grand Mosque which can accommodate 7,000 people during prayer where I had to change into an abaya and head scarf, and had a Bahrain cooking class where we made machboos, a spiced rice and chicken dish.

The Sheikh’s Palace

 

Feeing a baby camel

 

The Grand Mosque

 

Inside the Mosque

 

Learning how to make machboos

It was an amazing cultural experience. And to top it off, Eric and I raced go karts around a Grand Prix course (I came in last in the heat of 14 cars, but Eric was only a half second behind first place)

Ready to Race

AND I got to be Eric’s date to the Marine Corps Ball where we toasted his brother and our oldest son Brian, former Marine Corps Captain.

 

Marine Corps Ball 2017

 

 

 

Travel: Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast

In mid April, I traveled with my daughter, Gretchen to Castello di Spannocchia (www.spannochia.com ) – an educational center based on an organic farm in Tuscany, 1,100 acres of forests, pastures, and crops of which 900 acres are harvested for forest products; 130 acres are cultivated for grains, legumes, and animal pasture; and 15 acres are dedicated to grapes, olives, and fruit. In addition to maintaining 800 olive trees and a large vegetable garden, Spannocchia raises local heritage breeds of farm animals and produces regionally-recognized salumi (salt cured pork) products. We were there with 20 others to attend a two-week oil painting workshop led by Stan Mohler (www.stanmoeller.com), our favorite local Seacoast artist. Most of the participants stayed in the Villa, but because Gretchen’s partner Daniel and her five-year old daughter Avery were accompanying us, we opted to rent one of the rustic farmhouses on the property.

We prefaced our workshop by spending three days in Rome to explore Italian history, culture and cuisine. Rome was very crowded and although it was early in the season, there were a lot of tourists and groups of school children everywhere. Notable sights we saw were the Roman Forum, where Caesar and other Roman diplomats conducted business and lived, the Pantheon, actually a place of worship but also an architectural marvel with its unsupported domed ceiling, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and the Coliseum, where the gladiators fought with each other and with animals (apparently it had sawdust on the floor to absorb the blood from these battles).

When we left Rome, we rented a car and drove to Spannochia where we spent the next two weeks receiving instructions in painting techniques from Stan before spending the day outside in front of our easels attempting to capture the magic of an Italian landscape with a brush and a palette of colors. I was by far the least experienced artist there, but it was inspiring none the less. Daniel watched Avery during the day while Gretchen and I painted. They visited the donkeys, pigs, and chickens, shopped for groceries, took walks and naps. We returned to the farmhouse each day to a fabulous meal that Daniel had cooked!

At the conclusion of our workshop, Gretchen, Daniel and Avery headed to Florence and then to the Italian Rivera to explore. I flew down to Naples to meet Craig just as his flight was arriving from Boston. He had been unable to join me on the Amalfi Coast when I did my culinary arts internship in 2007. I was eager to show him the area, where I had lived and worked and to do some hiking, in particular the Sientiera degli Dei, or Path of the Gods, along the cliffs above Positano.

During our two-week stay in Positano (dubbed citta verticale because the city is virtually built on the side of a mountain) we hiked, took a cooking class and visited a buffalo farm where mozzarella is made. Bufala mozzarella is the best in the world and the buffaloes were treated like royalty! They had “showers” each morning, like the veggies in the supermarket are sprayed with water, got massages, listened to classical music, slept on rubber mats and got itchy backs scratched with large brushes like you’d see in a car wash.

Craig and I really enjoyed the cooking class, which was taught by the chefs at our hotel restaurant, Buca di Bacco (www.bucadibaco.it ). We made eggplant parmesan, gnocchi (potato dumplings) with fresh pesto, homemade tomato sauce, pizza, and an almond cake. Then we got to eat lunch and they provided wine and champagne.

One of our hikes was up hundreds of steps to the top of Positano and another was through a valley where there were remains of paper mills.

The city of Amalfi used to be world famous for its rag paper and it was the primary industry in the area. When all the paper mills closed, the area shifted to raising lemons. The Sfusato di Amalfi lemon is h-u-g-e – like a grapefruit and is more fragrant than the lemons we have in the US. Most of it is used to make a liqueur Limoncello, which is served ice cold.

The last hike that we did was 7.8 miles along the ridge of the Lattari Mountains overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The hike took us 6 hours and ended with 1700 steps down to the beach and back to our hotel.

It was an amazing trip!

Thai Cuisine

Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has not been colonized by Europeans. Thus, its cuisine is authentic and has only been slightly influenced by bordering countries or traders.

Thai cuisine is very spicy and focuses on dishes which are well balanced in four areas – sweet (usually palm sugar or coconut milk), salty (fish sauce and salt), sour (lime in several forms and tamarind) and spicy (chilies). Meals served in restaurants are accompanied by a quartet of sauces brought to the table – fish sauce, sliced chili peppers in rice vinegar, dried chili flakes, and palm sugar. Rice is served at most meals, (usually jasmine rice, but also sticky or glutinous rice) and sometimes noodles. Cucumbers are often served to cool the palate. I was told recently that additional ways to counter the spiciness is to add more rice, add sugar, or drink more beer!

Thai food was traditionally eaten by the right hand while seated on cushions on the floor, but today most Thais eat with a fork and large spoon. The fork is held in the left hand and is used to scoop or push into the spoon which is held in the right hand. Chopsticks are reserved only for noodle dishes.

The Thai pantry can be stocked from items available in the international aisle at a grocery store or a local Asian market. Lo’s Seafood in Portsmouth, NH carries Thai canned goods (coconut milk, fish sauce, tamarind paste), kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, fresh chilies (bird’s eye chilies or very tiny chilies are hotter than larger chilies), Thai basil and cilantro. Green, yellow and red curry pastes (hottest to mildest, respectively) can be made from scratch or purchased already prepared.

The following recipe for Chicken Coconut Milk Soup is one which we prepared at the Thai Farm Cooking School while I was in Thailand recently.

Tom Kaa Gai (Chicken Coconut Milk Soup)

Ingredients:

½ c. water

¼ cup of peeled, thinly sliced galangal or ginger

1 stalk of lemongrass, sliced into one-inch pieces

½ cup halved grape tomatoes

½ cup sliced mushrooms

1-5 bird eye’s chili peppers

1 chicken breast, sliced thinly and cut into bite-sized pieces

1 can coconut milk

2-3 kaffir lime leaves

1 stem of cilantro, finely diced

3 sliced scallions

1 T. fish sauce or soy sauce

½ teaspoon light brown sugar

Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons of lime juice

Directions:

Combine water, galangal, lemongrass, tomatoes and mushrooms in a saucepan over medium high heat and bring to boil. Remove stems from chili peppers and crush open by banging down with your palm on the flat side of a heavy knife. Add chili peppers, coconut milk and chicken pieces to broth. Reduce heat to medium and cook until chicken is milky white all the way through. Fold kaffir lime leaves in half along spine and remove spine of each leaf to release flavor. Add to soup with cilantro, scallions, fish sauce, sugar and salt to taste. Continue to cook over medium heat for 5 more minutes to intensify flavor. Finally add lime juice (soup will be too bitter if lime juice is added too early.) Lemongrass pieces, kaffir lime leaves, chilies and  galangal or ginger root should be removed prior to serving as they are all too tough to chew. Serves 2.

 

 

 

 

 

Travel: Thailand

I recently returned from a trip to Thailand, the “Land of Smiles,” with a friend, Joyce Tucker. We spent five nights in Bangkok, a week in Chiang Mai in the mountains north of Thailand, and three days on the beach at Pattaya. It was very hot and humid this time of year, but it cooled off in the evenings and all of our hotels had swimming pools, which was nice. We had a great trip, as we each like to explore the back alleys, eat street food and browse through the local markets.

Bangkok

Bangkok is a very busy city with congested traffic – lots of motorcycles and “tuk-tuks” or three wheeled vehicles that you can hail for short trips. There are shrines everywhere to the recently deceased king who was very progressive and well loved. The temples are beautiful with intricate tiled roofs, gilded ornamentation and marble plazas.

And there are numerous street vendors – some preparing grilled meats and fish on sticks (about 30 cents each), others serving fresh mango, tiny bananas, and pineapple pieces in plastic bags, stir frying rice or offering a myriad of noodle soups. We each passed up the huge pile of wiggling bugs (bamboo worms) a vendor was getting ready to fry in a wok though.

Thailand is also famed for its massages. For the full body massages, you are completely clothed and your body is bent in numerous unusual poses and your back and legs are stepped on, but the foot massages, which usually last one hour and cost less than $5, were heavenly.

In Bangkok we toured Jim Thompson’s house to the east of the old city. Apparently he used to work for OSS (precursor to the CIA) back in the 50’s and 60’s. He planted mulberry trees, cultivated silk worms and started using Muslim workers to hand weave silk. The fine weave & gorgeous colors caught the attention of Hollywood and were used in the movie “The King and I.” After that, orders started coming in and business was a success. The six houses he disassembled and relocated to Bangkok were combined to make a memorable home and his early antiques were fascinating.

We spent one day wandering through Chatuchak Market north of the city, but saw only a tenth of the 8,000 stalls on 35 acres. What we did see included live plants (beautiful orchids), garden equipment & ceramic pots, pets (koi, dogs, cats & tropical birds like parrots), aquarium & pet supplies, clothing, fine jewelry, cosmetics, herbal medicines, furniture, beautiful leather goods, linens, china and ceramics, art work, sculpture, silk, wooden plates, trays, salad bowls, places to eat and, of course, massage parlors.

We weren’t too far from the Chao Phraya River and had wanted to take a boat ride so we managed to avoid the “private river tours” for 1,600 Baht and opted instead for the local ferry at 30 Baht (less than $1) for a great one hour trip. We saw a lot of strange fish around the piers that people were feeding and later learned that you can buy fish and snails at the market that you throw into the river as a symbolic gesture to rid your life of bad luck. These fish are not caught by anyone because no one else wants the bad luck!

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is framed by mountains and, although it is a city per se, it lacks the tall skyscrapers and congested traffic of Bangkok. There are remnants of a beautiful brick wall that appears to have ringed the old part of the city at one time and temples of a slightly different style. We stayed an historic Thai house in a walled compound with luscious gardens and a pool. The main house is shuttered to keep it cool. The original owner was a teak trader and the house has spectacular carved woodwork and smooth teak floors inside.

We had arrived in time for the Sunday night market, where merchandise for sale was different than in Bangkok (lots of leather goods and silver jewelry, soft Thai cotton clothing and a lot of teak carvings as well.) Did you know that Teak forests are under government supervision as they are endangered, and most teak today comes from Burma (Myanmar)? There are teak trees growing randomly throughout Chiang Mai. They have yellowish bark, large light green leaves and bunches of white flowers with a lacy appearance. Enjoyed people watching, musicians and getting in our walk in although it was in the crowded market stall-lined street instead of the countryside. We managed to get a foot massage too as there were places at the market set up to make people’s feet happy.

The next day, we hired a driver and went out into the country to the hot springs past rice paddies and open fields dotted with shacks reminiscent of the Philippines. We visited numerous silversmiths (the silver comes from Burma – often from melted down coins) and silk weavers, where we watched them spin thread from cocoons and then weave very fine cloth. We spent about an hour soaking in the hot mineral baths before returning to Chiang Mai.

While in Chiang Mai, we also took a Thai cooking class from Thai Farm Cooking School. We were picked up at our hotel in the morning and went to a large covered food market where our instructor took us around and showed us the difference between types of rice and identified various ingredients we would be cooking with (galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, hot basil, turmeric root and Thai ginseng or finger root).  Then we travelled north of Chiang Mai to an organic farm and spent the day preparing five classic Thai dishes under an open-air pavilion.

When we went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary to play with the rescued elephants, we traveled in an open pickup truck with bench seats on both sides of the truck bed. We drove up to about 4,000 feet on a series of tight hairpin turns through small hill tribe villages (where fuel, should you need it, is dispensed from metal drums and charcoal was being made in brick beehive ovens) and then turned down a deeply rutted dirt road to the camp. This was not a modern, commercialized operation. It was a truly authentic experience. The elephant jungle sanctuary rescues elephants from logging (where the ones we played with had been used), circuses, riding and performing. Here they had 32 elephants who live in groups in the jungle and who are cared for by mamuts (handlers) from local villages. They can only safely maintain control of about 7-8 at a time with lots of tourists around, and we had seven and 35 people from various countries to play with the elephants for a day (French, Brazilians, Filipinos, Brits, and an assortment of Americans). After we arrived at the end of the road, we were all handed big bunches of bananas (just cut from the trees) and had to carry them down a dirt trail to the camp over bridges made from bamboo lashed together with twine!

First we met the elephants and fed them bananas and sugar cane. (Elephants eat 300 kilos a day) You have to yell “Bon Bon!” to get the elephants to open their mouths, although most of them wanted to take the food from us with their trunks! One of our elephants was pregnant (they have a gestation period of 18-24 months), one was a male (4-years old) named Peter who was especially playful. His mom, grandmother (she was 35 and had polka dotted ears), and his aunt were all in the group.

We got to pet them too. They have wrinkled, leathery skin with coarse bristles of hair on it. Their tongues are pink, their eyes are brown and they have the longest eyelashes! After feeding them and following them through the jungle while they snacked on bamboo, we all walked down to the river so they could get some water. The mamuts gave a command & they took up water in their trunks and sprayed us all! It was very hot outside & felt really good. Then we had lunch – stir fried rice with chicken, sautéed vegetables, fried chicken wings, and wedges of watermelon. Bottles of water were available throughout the day. A short rest on the woven grass mats under the corrugated tin awning and it was time to make “medicine” balls for the elephants. They were comprised of bananas, herbs, bark from a special tree, and rice – all pounded by us with mortar and pestle and then shaped into tennis ball sized “meatballs” which we had to feed to them. and rub mud on them. We ended up wet and muddy as well, but it was a small price to pay for such a great experience.

Pattaya Beach

Pattaya Beach, about 2 hours by bus south of Bangkok, reminded me of Manila more than any other place we’ve seen in Thailand – the absence of wats (temples), Buddhist monks and photos or shrines of the recently deceased president was striking.

We spent our time at the beach where a wide, brick paved walkway bordered the beach and the sand is blanketed with beach chairs and umbrellas for rent. Power boats and jet skis whizzed around and there were platforms in the water like little aircraft carriers where people who were parasailing took off and landed. There were dozens of them in the sky.

People watching was lots of fun as the town was packed with tourists from so many countries. We enjoyed the vendors who came by carrying and selling: slices of pineapple, hot ears of corn or huge prawns steaming over charcoal braziers, fried soft shelled crabs, carved wooden elephants, steamed whole fish, Selfie sticks for mobile phones, cotton print dresses, imitation crocodile handbags, cotton candy, sunglasses, foot massages, ice cream bars, temporary tattoos, mangoes, parakeets in cages (?), Rolex watches, plastic blow up beach toys, lottery tickets, potato chips with flavored like wasabi and hot Thai basil, black velvet paintings of tigers, strawberries, durian (phew!), jewelry, and hair braiding in addition to toilet paper (The majority of Thai toilets were Western-style, but did not have toilet paper.)

We had an amazing trip – food was so good, lodging and transportation inexpensive and the people were very gracious.  If you go, best time to travel is before the rainy season which starts around June.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel: The Grand Canyon

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I have just returned from a week at the Grand Canyon, where our oldest son, Brian, is working as a Law Enforcement Officer for the National Park Service. The vistas were spectacular – pastels of pink, sage green and purple with an occasional California condor gliding overhead. We hiked, biked and explored the South Rim. Unfortunately the mule ride to the base of the canyon and the river rafting trips down the Colorado River are booked months in advance, so they will each have to wait for a future visit.

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The Grand Canyon encompasses 2,000 square miles and is over a mile deep with the Colorado River running through it. It is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. The ecology of the canyon changes from north rim to south rim. From tall pines to desert cactuses, the canyon offers plants from 5 of the 7 vegetation zones in the U.S. The weather also varies greatly from the rim, where it is moderate and breezy to the base where it is much hotter (temperatures of 107oF expected today!)

Desert View Watch Tower

Desert View Watch Tower

I especially enjoyed learning about the history of the canyon and admired the architecture designed by Mary Colter to capture the essence of the southwest – a stone watchtower with the interior adorned with Native American mural and the Hopi House with its handmade Native American treasures – beautiful woven rugs of bold earth tones, turquoise and silver jewelry and splendid pottery.

Navaho Medicine Bowl

Navaho Medicine Bowl

This is a medicine bowl used for ceremonial purposes and is etched with drawings of a Yei or Navajo deity, similar to the Hope Kachinas. Navajo pottery is formed using rolled coils of clay which are then hand burnished and fired in a pit using wood and dung. The “fire clouds” or black markings that appear on the clay result from the hot coals directly touching the pots during the hand-firing process. Most pottery vessels were used in cooking. If it was used for water storage, it was covered in pine pitch to make it waterproof.

The Tusayan Museum in the park includes an 800-year old ruin of a U-shaped pueblo that contains living areas, storage spaces and a kiva, or ceremonial circle. Tree ring studies indicate that the site was occupied for about twenty years, beginning around 1185. I especially enjoyed the exhibits of Native American artifacts found in the park and the side trail which identified how the early inhabitants used the vegetation. The pinon pines, for instance, were used for firewood, their pitch was used to waterproof baskets and the pine nuts were harvested for food.

It was a great trip!