….when you want to get to it.
When I was much younger, say in my teens, I can remember describing myself as a city person. That I would get nervous in places outside of a million metro population. Part of this was a direct result of trips out to a town called Apple Valley, where my grandparents lived. Their house, a small one-bedroom, was situated on five acres quite literally in the middle of nowhere. A green lawn was carefully cultivated by my grandfather, with a grove of trees surrounding the lawn and providing for ample shade even in the middle of the desert’s very hot summers. As any kid would, I was easily bored being away from friends, with extremely limited television reception (before cable) and with nothing to do all day. Of course today I might describe that as paradise, and that is what brings me to this week’s topic.
Despite my youthful reservations, I am increasingly becoming interested in places where I can go, stop and simply relax. I still love the city, and New York qualifies as one of my all-around favorite destinations, but when I look back on some of my fondest memories (as relates to travel, that is) I am surprised to discover that many of them stem from when we were “away from it all” and able to slow down to a dull roar.
It came as a naturally extension of sitting down to contemplate our planned vacations for 2012 -- and begin a major project in the guise of a complete portfolio reorganization, a massive undertaking which will involve 10,000 plus photographs and roughly ten categories (with subcategories) – that I take the time to assemble what I consider to be my five favorite “relaxation” destinations in the part of the world we’ve managed to see.
For personal reasons I’ve limited the criteria to omit family events simply because those would dominate and aren’t really the sort of thing that would do anyone outside the family much good (not like you guys could drop in on my parents and take a few days off, right?). This list are those places we’ve gone, and those things we’ve done, which hopefully conveys possible itineraries or plans of places people can go and get away from the world.
My top five “Best Places to Stop for a Moment” – which may change by later this afternoon, let alone over the months and years – and in no particular order:
St Jean Beach, St Barthelemy - Okay, yes, both a cliche and a bit pretentious. Not the island, but the inclusion of it on this list. If you're not familiar with the Caribbean island of St Barth's, it can be a highly overpriced and celeb-obsessed community. Not unlike LA in many ways. But digging deeper is an amazing culture and serenity you can't find in a lot of other places. It was on St Barth that my wife and I discovered that we really could "stop", completely, and watch the world go by. Typically when we travel it's one experience after another. We have to get everything in. I refer to it as the "counting coup" method of vacationing. And usually it does us right. When you're in places for a limited amount of time, or when you've got a ton of things to do -- places like New York, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, etc -- you want to make sure you get full bang for your buck. But in the case of St Barth you have to understand that Island Time applies. So it should have been no surprise when we got back to our hotel -- the wonderfully unglitzy Emeraud Plage in St Jean -- to discover the stop button on our lives. By that I mean that we got back to the hotel after some trip to see something (Saline Beach, I believe) and realized we had several hours to kill before dinner reservations. My wife announced she was going to set a lounge chair up on our patio. Faced with not much else to do I decided to join her. We grabbed a couple glasses of tea and pulled the chairs over to where we could look out on the central area between the hotel's bungalows. The breeze coming up off the bay was cool and refreshing, and strong enough to keep the mosquitos away. I grabbed a book and we sat out, facing the beach just fifty feet or so away, and prepared to "kill time". Four hours later, having read almost none of my novel, I realized I had been doing nothing but watch the world go by. Neither of us slept. Neither of us did much more than lean back and enjoy the serenity. In all of my life, if asked for my own example of a completely relaxing and wonderful time, this four hour spread of time is it. Cliche or no, St Barth really is something special.
On deck aboard the MSY Wind Surf - I've written extensively about our experience aboard the Surf last summer. Neither my wife nor I could be considered "cruisers" -- the type of vacationers who enjoy cruise ships and daytrips -- but the Surf may have changed our minds. The ship is much smaller than most of the ships that ply the tourist oceans of the world, and it was of some concern to me that our itinerary included a day at sea. Surely we would be bored, I thought. What I had not considered is the other side of that same coin is "relaxed". After a week of intense land-bound activities, this day of rest came as a complete and utter relief. My wife found her way to the spa, while I grabbed a ,vie from the ship's library and settled into my cabin for a quiet afternoon. Afterward I found my way above deck, grabbed one of the plentiful chairs and read for a while as the sea passed by. It was, for only the second time in memory, a moment in which I truly "stopped". That evening, again unrusged and at ease, we met Ray and Vicky, our traveling companions, for dinner at the ship's Compass Rose restaurant for a three hour sunset dinner, enjoying the conversation, company and fine food as the sun sank slowly into the sea. An astoundingly unfilled and yet fully fulfilling day.
Hanalei Bay, Hawaii - There are few places in this world I love more than Hanalei Bay. The small town, sitting along the southeastern edge of the bay, remains largely untouched by the outside world. No large hotels (though the St Regis sits on a promontory overlooking the bay, it is actually part of Princeville, and is reached by a road well before you get to Hanalei), no large tour busses. The scenic backdrop of the tropical mountains behind the town, with the bay at its foot makes for a true vision of heaven. A trip around the town just after sunrise reveals a place still largely at peace with itself, without the rush or fanfare of the rest of the world.
Sunrise over the Grand Canyon - It takes a bit of effort to get up before the sun rises when you're on vacation. There are plenty of good reasons to do so, but when the alarm rings and you're in vacation mode there's an overwhelming urge to gently toss the clock out the door into the hallway and go back to bed. Fortunately my sense of adventure usually wins out against my sense of exhaustion. And it's those times you see things that will stay with you for a lifetime. In this case I arose, carefully avoiding waking my wife, who does love sleeping in when we're on a trip, showered and drove from our little lodge to the rim of the Grand Canyon. By the time I got there the parking lot already had several cars parked -- I was not the only one with this idea. I hiked down towards the rim discovering a small gathering of perhaps eight people spread out at various places, keeping enough distance to respect the experience for everyone. Several photographers had already set their cameras on tripod, ready for the spectacle. The weather cooperated and the sky was completely clear and working its way from a deep Navy to more of an electric blue towards the horizon. The large gaping darkness below us just beginning to fill with light. As the sun rose, there was a respectful silence, broken only by the periodic whispering of a young boy to his father -- shades of my own visit with my Dad some forty years beforehand -- but being careful not to disturb the serenity.
Korcula, Croatia – The old town section of Korcula is a magical, almost fairytale place. Rising like a small self-contained island in the middle of the Adriatic Sea – it’s actually a peninsula jutting out from the far larger island which is home to more modern town that hugs the shoreline at the base of the peninsula – the walls of the city seal you in and hold you comfortably out of sight of the rest of the world. On the easternmost side of the peninsula, situated along the “Setaliste Petra Kanavelica”, the wide walkway that runs along the town’s shoreline, are a group of wonderful little cafes with tables that look out over the spectacular and serene channel that runs between Korcula and the mainland. It's a quiet part of town, with few people venturing to this side of the peninsula, at least during the day. A pleasant breeze was blowing, the sun was just past noontime, and several boats sailed lazily by in the channel. Kicking ourselves for having gotten lunch at a much busier (and more touristy) cafe over in the modern part of the city, we sat for drinks, talking and watching the world go by.