On a May vacation in Nicaragua, Alison Peters often visited several panaderias after dinner, sampling not one but many desserts. She spent days wearing the same bathing suit coverup. And near the town of Granada, she lingered at Masaya, snapping selfie after selfie with the active volcano.
During her two-week journey abroad, she never once had to defend her decisions or discuss her choices. Because what the solo traveller wants, the solo traveller gets.
“Travelling alone is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself,” said the Washington-area law student. “You don’t have to be rational when you’re by yourself.”
Call it the All About Me trip.
Lee Abbamonte, who has visited more than 100 countries alone, explores the ice caves beneath the surface of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica.
These days, more myselves and Is are venturing out into the world alone. According to the Visa Travel Intentions Study, which surveyed 13,603 adults in 25 countries, the number of people travelling solo doubled between 2013 and 2015. A BookYogaRetreats.com questionnaire discovered that more than half of the site’s 300 respondents will embark on a party-of-one trip this year.
To serve the mushrooming community of independent voyagers, a new app called SoloTraveller offers planning resources as well as a platform for soloists to connect and become, for a short spell, a duo or triplet.
“I consider it a rite of passage,” said Evelyn Hannon, founder of Journeywoman, an online publication for female adventurers. “Now, I am going to go out and test myself against the world.”
Travellers initially set off alone for a kaleidoscope of reasons. A friend bails, for instance, or someone is recalibrating their life after a personal tragedy. Or maybe has unusual taste in travel. “I really didn’t think anyone would be interested in doing a five-day boat trip to St. Helena,” said Gary Arndt, a travel photographer who created the Everything Everywhere blog.
Matt Kepnes had planned an Australian holiday with a friend in 2004 when his pal backed out at the last minute. Kepnes didn’t want to waste his vacation time, so he sent himself to Costa Rica. The three-week trip altered his universe.
“It opened me up to the possibilities of the world,” said the wanderer behind the Nomadic Matt blog, which he started in 2008. “I loved the fact that everything was different and unplanned. You could be the master of your own ship!”
Lee Abbamonte, who at 32 became the youngest American to visit every country in the world, couldn’t convince any of his friends to take a month off to toodle around Asia in 1999. So he activated Plan B: Go alone. Since that solo trip, he has explored nearly 320 countries, including 100 by himself.
“You can do whatever you want, see whatever you want, eat whatever you want,” Abbamonte, now 38, said. “You can do nothing or everything. I call it absolute freedom.”
For Hannon, the boot that kicked her into the wider world was the end of her 23-year marriage, when she was 42. She rang up a travel agent and requested the cheapest ticket to wherever. She paid $200 and flew to Belgium for her inaugural solo jaunt.
“I was nervous, sad and recovering from a broken marriage,” Hannon, now 77, said. “I had never been anywhere by myself, but I was determined.”
Since that metamorphic trip, the Toronto resident has visited about 70 countries on seven continents. She also created Journeywoman in 1997, to provide tips and support for her solo sisters. The modern-day Abeona – the goddess of journeys – dispenses wisdom like a vending machine. During our phone chat, she advised me on how to foil pickpockets (place several pills and a few bills in a vitamin C bottle and use the container as a covert wallet), blend in (carry a bag from a local grocery store) and fend off unwanted attention from men (mention that you are in town for a policewomen’s convention).
Evelyn Hannon, who created Journeywoman, an online resource for solo female travellers, waves goodbye to friends at the Montreal train station.
“You learn tricks in order to be able to walk around and feel comfortable,” she said.
Janice Waugh was caring for her ailing husband when she booked a restorative trip to Havana in 2006. She didn’t have the smoothest experience in the beginning: She struggled to find her hotel in Old Havana and was disappointed with the windowless guest room. The next day, she lost her way. She contacted her travel agent about relocating to a more comforting all-inclusive resort. The agent agreed, but the reservation never materialised. The unfulfilled request was an unexpected blessing.
“I learned an important lesson about solo travel,” said Waugh, who started the online resource Solo Traveller three years later. “Sit back and relax. Watch. Give yourself time to settle in and it will happen.”
Soloists are a diverse bunch, ranging widely in age, occupation, nationality and even relationship status. But they seem to posses similar personality traits. Patience is essential, as is flexibility, resourcefulness, confidence and coolheadedness. And while selfishness in a group scenario is ill-advised, self-interest is a survival tool for singlets.
“When you’re on your own, everything rests on you,” Kepnes said. “You have to get from point A to B, navigate countries, interact with locals in languages you don’t know and just survive.”
When Peters fell ill in San Juan Del Sur, she didn’t have to fake good cheer or rally for her mates. She paused her Nicaragua vacation to nurse herself back to good health. She lined her body with cool, wet towels to reduce her fever and gargled with warm salt water. She spent the day glued to the Spanish version of “Keeping up With the Kardashians.”
“I didn’t want to deal with anyone else,” she said. “I wanted to stay in the room and be sick in bed.”
On a three-week trip to South America in January, Dustin Hill hit a rock and flew over his handlebars while cycling along Death Road, a treacherous route in Bolivia. He picked himself up and dragged his badly bruised body back to La Paz, three hours away. He cared for his wounds at the hostel’s bar.
“You don’t have anyone to vent to,” said the Brooklyn resident, who carries a memento of the accident on his hip. “You need to understand yourself better, and that’s exactly what happened.”
The incident became an icebreaker, a singular event morphing into a communal share.
“It was an easy way to spark up conversation,” he said. “ ‘Look what happened to me!’ “
In the welcoming world of solo travel, any opening line will do; circumstances will often make the introduction for you. Hill befriended two Australians after spending three days in a caravan together crossing the Bolivian desert to Chile. Peters bounced around San Juan Del Sur with a New York couple she had met at an upscale hostel on Playa Maderas. Hannon dined with a young Czech girl who had provided her with directions in Prague. In Paris, she treated an American celebrating her birthday to a Woody Allen movie with English subtitles.
“Traveling solo means that you are leaving by yourself,” Hannon said, “but once you’re at your destination, you’re going to meet people along the way.”
Contrary to their name, solo travellers are typically social and outgoing creatures. One of the draws of travelling alone, they say, is to forge connections with locals and other adventurers, singular or plural.
“The biggest thing I came away with,” Hill said, “was that this was least lonely thing I have ever done.”
If everyone you know is thinking about going to Lisbon, there’s plenty of reason for that. Its meteoric rise as a culture capital is just one part of the appeal. The city is also undergoing a luxury hotel boom, and the food scene is hot, hot, hot. But all that is amplified by Lisbon’s ease of access: It’s the closest European hub for Americans and offers a worlds-away feeling for travelers coming from within the Continent as well.
Whether you’re coming for a long layover or a long weekend, here’s what to squeeze into a three-day trip.
Check into Verride Palacio de Santa Catarina, a new, 18-room hotel overlooking the Tagus River. It has an old-meets-new vibe that’s in keeping with today’ best boutique hotels: lots of marble, vaulted ceilings, and parquet floors, all piled up with geometric patterned rugs and wicker-back chairs. From there, it’s a 10-minute taxi ride west to Belem to visit the country’s most talked about new cultural destination: the Museum for Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). There, you can tour Portugal’s historic Tejo Power Station, which is part of the museum, and learn about the history of electricity-or you can check out Portuguese artist Eduardo Batarda’s latest paintings as part of his exhibition, Mistoqueros – A Selection of T-Shirt Fronts, on display until Feb. 27.
Lunch is at Espaço Espelho d’Agua, where the menu is inspired by the reach of Portugal’s historic empire; standouts include Brazilian moquecas and Japanese teriyaki sauce over vegetables. Sit in the back room, which is anchored by a colorful, wall-to-wall mural by Sol LeWitt.
Murals are a theme in downtown Lisbon. Some are made from centuries-old painted tiles called azulejos, while others are contemporary street works. Navigate the urban art scene with the help of Underdogs Gallery, a prominent artists’ collective that organises official street art tours that include some of the city’s top talents.
Book well in advance-we’re talking two months-to get into Belcanto for dinner. It’s Lisbon’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant, and superstar Portuguese chef Jose Avillez just gave it a total redo. His menu adds global touches to typical national recipes such as a modernist, compressed square of suckling meat that riffs on traditional leitao. A good alternative? Pateo, the seafood-centric dining room inside Bairro do Avillez, evokes the intimate feel of a small neighborhood plaza; it’s the perfect setting for grilled razor clams and crab-and-lobster rice.
Take a day trip to the Tejo country just over an hour away from the capital. The best way to get there is with the help of a Wi-Fi equipped Mercedes and a driver from Amiroad.
At Quinta do Casal Branco, the staff can whip up an impressive seafood lunch, so you can linger over your favourite drinks.
A short distance away is Quinta da Alorna, a historic estate built in the 18th century, with a majestic fleet of Lusitano horses.
Sober up while you watch the sun set, then make it back to Lisbon in time for a late dinner at Loco, where chef Alexandre Silva creates 14 – to 18-course menus of cleverly updated Portuguese classics. The roster changes nightly, but we loved the smoked and slow-cooked salted duck breast, served with rhubarb compote and charred kale, when we last ate there.
Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon is a massive buffet with fresh sushi, cod dumplings, a live grill station, crispy samosas, and lots of local cheeses-the perfect chance to catch up on traditional delicacies you haven’t yet tried. Then it’s time for a little retail therapy. Steer clear of azulejo tiles you might find in antique shops or flea markets; they were probably pried off building facades illegally. Instead, head to the residential neighborhood of Mouraria, where family-owned Cortiço & Netos sells thousands of discontinued tiles collected by the merchants’ grandfather. A 10-minute taxi ride to Cais do Sodre will bring you to SAL, a concept store from design firm Branco Sobre Branco. It’s known for swivel armchairs upholstered in velvet and slender bronze table lamps that look more like supersized jewelry; more portable purchases include all-natural bergamot candles and handmade notebooks with beautiful local photographs.
Then it’s off to happy hour at Double9, which specialises in tea-based cocktails. You can’t go wrong with the bright crimson Clover T-Club, which blends gin, raspberries, and ginger with red-fruit tea. Follow it up with dinner at brand-new Leopold, the first restaurant in the exclusive Palacio Belmonte, with a dramatic setting at the foot of Castelo de Sao Jorge. Chef Tiago Feio obsesses on extracting the cleanest, sharpest flavours from each ingredient he uses. His plate of raw wild spinach, crunchy barley malt seeds, and sous-vide turnips is a study in minimalism and restraint, and it’s a great example of how far fine dining has come in this city.
A bronze bust of Crazy Horse, leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe, by artist Joe Beeler at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
The West’s Most Western Town” has a nice cowbell ring to it, doesn’t it? Scottsdale’s motto is fitting: Many of the buildings in the Arizona city are the colour of leather chaps and a giant cowboy sign in Old Town greets visitors with a permanent “howdy” on his lips. During my March visit, I counted several Stetsons among the baseball caps accessorising the heads of spring training fans. I even contacted the spirit myself at a Western-wear store that predates “Stagecoach” by more than a decade. (I found it lurking inside a pair of pink cowboy boots.) Of course, I can only play cowgirl for so long before my skin starts to prickle like an acupuncture session with cholla. Luckily, Scottsdale boasts a second tagline, “Most Livable City,” and I quickly felt at home among the racks of vintage clothing, veg-centric dishes and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture – real and inspired. The golf-cart taxis blasting party tunes kept me rooted in civilised Scottsdale, but whenever I heard the howling coyotes, I returned to wilder times.
•Odysea, the largest aquarium in the Southwest, provides residence to 30,000 animals. Start your visit in the bathroom, whether you need to go or not: The sinks overlook a shark tank. Guests follow the journey of a water drop, which travels through several marine environments, including rivers, shores (the habitat of African penguins and otters), oceans and reefs. The drop finally gets to sit down on a carousel ride that spins by three aqua-scapes. The finale: viewing the sharks that watched you lather up.
•Learn to hitch a horse, stare down a bison and swagger in an Old West scene at the Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, a Smithsonian affiliate that holds several exhibitions a year. The museum tells the campfire tales of the American West through paintings, sculpture, photography and such artifacts as Meriwether Lewis’s tomahawk. One of the star collections features more than 1,400 items that detail every inch of the Western lifestyle, from the head of the cowboy to the seat of the horse.
• This year, the world celebrates the 150th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Taliesin West will honour the event with $1.50 tours of his winter abode on June 8. Even on noncaking days, immerse yourself in the World According to Frank on a guided visit of his office, private residence, garden room, performance spaces and drafting studio, where he designed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. And, yes, you can sit on the furniture.
•Scottsdale’s sprawl stops at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a 30,000-acre swatch of the Sonoran Desert buttressed by mountains. Bike or hike along 182 miles of trails studded with the Mutt (saguaro) and Jeff (barrel) of cactuses. The Gateway Trail Loop, for instance, is a 4 1/2-mile route that peaks in popularity during the sun’s rise and fall. In the distance, listen for the Valley of the Sun Orchestra, a symphony of coyote howls and sirens.
•FnB co-owner Pavle Milic holds high praise for chef Charleen Badman: “She has the uncanny ability to take ugly duckling vegetables and elevate them.” Her magic green wand electrifies such dishes as hinona kabu long turnips with chimichurri and grilled spicy broccoli with tangerine aioli and pistachios. (She also prepares several meat entrees.) The restaurant has also earned accolades for its beverage programme, which includes a full page of Arizona beverages.
•It started with the chocolate-bacon caramel corn that Country Velador set out at Cowboy Ciao’s hostess station. The bags sprouted wings and flew out the door. In response to demand, the pastry chef and her husband, Sergio, took over the restaurant’s storage space and opened Super Chunk, shorthand for “a little super chunk of goodness.” The sweets shop is an imp with flavours. The Veladors add candied jalapeno and cayenne to the Cowpuncher cookie, homemade cocoa cookie crumbs and sea salt to the brownies and mesquite flour to the chocolate-chip cookies. They even update the original “super chunk” with blue cheese and mission fig.
•Fat Ox gives regional cuisine the boot, creating a menu that dances all over Italy. If you sign up for the whole trip, you will start with antipasti, end with dessert and spend the middle of the meal with formaggio e salumi, primi piatti and secondi piatti, the best course for sharing. The 28-ounce, dry-aged prime porterhouse divides nicely, but no name-calling if you only permit one spoon per affogato, described as espresso with soft-serve hazelnut gelato.
• At the Mission, you won’t get scolded for licking the wall of Himalayan salt; some patrons enjoy a pink buzz with their tequila. If you prefer to use proper utensils, dig into the Latin American dishes, such as Peruvian clam stew and chorizo porchetta. Order the guacamole and a waiter will pull up to your table with a cart laden with small bowls and a mortar. You are the maestro of the chunky dip, so omit or double up on fixings to your palate’s delight.
• Cowboy Ciao is celebrating 20 years of cooking by spotlighting some of its greatest hits: chicken-fried trout, exotic mushroom pan fry, corn-nut scallops. The menu proves that American West and Italian cuisine can ride off into the sunset together. The interior brims with whimsy: A mural depicts Italy’s outline as a cowboy boot; a sign labelled “Home on the Range” frames the kitchen window. The most coveted seat is the Stage, an elevated table that puts diners, and the food, above it all.
•At the Simple Farm, Michael and Lylah Ledner invite visitors to play with their girls, Penny, Chloe and Beatrix. The couple’s Nubian goats provide the milk for their homemade caramels, which come in such flavours as sea salt bourbon vanilla and coffee. The store, which is open during select hours on Thursdays, also sells fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in their suburban garden, as well as accoutrements (mugs, dish towels, soaps, cutting boards) that add rustic charm to any chic kitchen.
•“You feel like you are in someone’s closet,” Misty Guerriero (the someone) said of her shop (the closet). Vintage by Misty is nearly splitting at the seams with fashions from the 1960s and ’70s, plus some earlier and later eras thrown in for wedge-heeled kicks. Misty, who scours Europe and Israel for the golden threads, carries the usual high-society suspects (Gucci, Pucci, Versace, Chanel), but she also honours her Southwestern roots. Dress locally in a floral sheath from Goldwater’s, a now-defunct Arizona department store, or a Novis Denne frock with a roadrunner embroidered on the pocket.
•Chief Dodge Indian Jewellery and Fine Arts has been selling crafts from four Southwestern tribes – Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Santo Domingo – for nearly 50 years. No surprise, owner Mary Dodge has honed her eye for fakes. During a demonstration, she explains the hallmarks of authentic turquoise: weight (heavy) and temperature (cold). Also, never trust a store offering heavy discounts. The shop specialises in jewellery steeped in tradition and meaning. The dots on a Navajo bracelet represent rain, for example. If you are stumped on the significance of a circle or squiggle, Mary also acts as interpreter.
• Don’t believe the crime scene outlines on the floor: Independent booksellers are not dead. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore is still alive after more than 25 years. About 75 per cent of its titles are mysteries and thrillers. The staff also dedicates space for signed editions, authors with upcoming readings (about 300 per year) and books published by the Poisoned Pen Press, the literary venture run by the owner’s husband. For regional reads, browse such authors as Donis Casey, Betty Webb and Jenn McKinlay, whose “Cupcake Mysteries” are set in Scottsdale.
•The Bespoke Inn feels like extended family. Kate Hennen named the three rooms after her parents and grandparents, and guests can borrow an oversize linen shirt (the tag reads “Hers” but it can be His, too) and a British Pashley city bike for tooling around town. The Signature Suite shares the second floor with an infinity lap pool that clings precariously to the edge. Below, diners chatter away at the courtyard tables of Virtu Honest Craft. In the morning, overnighters receive another familial perk: $10 brunch.
•Despite its strip-mallish environs, Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa doles out plenty of decadence in the desert. Guests stay in casita-style bungalows and don’t have to suffer the heat for a dip in one of three pools or a bite at Weft & Warp Art Bar & Kitchen. The property partnered with the nearby Cattle Track Arts Compound, and the artists’ works – a curtain of coloured felt balls, for instance – appear throughout the resort. Each week, creative types share their talents, so you can turn your home into an ersatz Andaz.
• At Hotel Valley Ho, I was half-expecting Tony Curtis, a previous guest, to appear on a chartreuse pool lounger or at the bar of Lulu’s, sipping a Smokin’ Hot Fuzz. Scottsdale’s first year-round European Plan hotel (est. 1956) oozes midcentury cool catness. The decor swizzles Palm Springs pop with Prairie-style earthiness. (The original architect, Edward L. Varney, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright.) Sign up for a 90-minute historic walking tour of the property, or soak up the past from the lap of a waterside daybed.
•“It’s been pretty dead,” Bespoke Inn’s Kate Hennen admitted of the neighbourhood south of Main Street. “But now all of these things are happening in this area.” With the exception of the inn and Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, most of the new arrivals are best enjoyed by the glass. Go on a hydration hop: Sip Coffee & Beer House, which also hosts live music; Brat Haus, which pairs Belgian fries and sausages with craft brews; LDV Winery, which pours flights of its estate wines; and Goldwater Brewing Company, which has two tap rooms, including a subterranean space in a former basement shooting range. What is SoMa’s next development? “They are putting in streetlights,” Kate said excitedly.
Two cyclists pass the Red Star Line Museum building, once the last European stop for more than 2 million immigrants heading for the New World.
It’s late, we’re hungry and Phil is leaving nothing to chance. He’s about four dishes into an order from the extensive menu at Hong Kong Palace, a Chinese restaurant on Van Wesenbekestraat in Antwerp, Belgium, when the waiter politely stops him. “Are you sure that isn’t enough, sir?” Not quite. Singapore noodles and beef with mushrooms, and two bottles of Duvel, a strong golden ale, and that, Phil decides, should do for the two of us.
You might consider a Chinese restaurant a strange place to begin a trip to Antwerp, but you’d be wrong. This is a diverse and cosmopolitan city, a port city, a city that wouldn’t exist were it not for the sluggish, slate-gray Scheldt. “All an Antwerper has to do to connect with the rest of the world is simply dip his hand into the Scheldt’s water,” former Antwerp mayor Lode Craeybeckx once said.
That’s been the case for more than 500 years. In the 16th century, Antwerp was Europe’s richest place, attracting merchants from across the continent. The English crown borrowed money here because London’s banks were too small, but it didn’t last: Antwerp fell victim to the war between the Dutch, who were fighting for their independence, and the Spanish. The latter conquered the city in 1585 and gave its Protestant inhabitants two years to leave. The final blow came when the Dutch closed the Scheldt to navigation.
Two centuries of decline followed, but Antwerp once again is one of Europe’s great trading centers, its port second only to Rotterdam in terms of size. I’m here to trace its river story, and to discover how its seagoing tradition has given it a unique and richly textured culture.
I’m going to start with a long walk. Having left my friend with a huge bag of leftover Chinese food in the excellent pub the previous evening, I wake up on Thursday morning intending to see Antwerp’s latest tribute to its seagoing culture: the Havenhuis, or Port House, designed by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect who died last year.
I should have rented a bike. As I trudge alongside the Scheldt, Antwerper after Antwerper whizzes past on sit-up-and-beg bikes. This is a city made for bikes; anything bigger has to deal with the many cobbled streets, like the trucks rolling in and out of the port, whose tires make a rippling, grumbling roar as they hit a patch of cobbles there.
I can see the Port House long before I reach it, but it’s only close up that you appreciate the scale. It’s a 1920s fire station onto which Hadid has fixed a huge, jutting, glistening glass diamond, pointing out toward the river. Beautiful? It’s certainly impressive.
This is the HQ of the Antwerp Port Authority, and I’m not clear if the public is allowed inside, but no one stops me. There’s a satellite image of the city on the floor of the atrium. The city of Antwerp is squished into the lower left-hand corner, while the port – a riot of multi-colored containers, oil holders, cranes, railway lines, warehouses and docks – spreads like spilled Skittles across the rest of the image.
The size of the port relative to the city is striking; the scale is impressive but overwhelming. I leave hoping to find something on a more human scale at my next destination, the Red Star Line Museum.
It’s housed in a handsome redbrick building down by the river, through which more than 2 million people passed in its early-20th-century heyday. Among them was Irving Berlin, then known as Israel Beilin, who left Antwerp in 1905 on his way from Belarus to immortality. Another émigré featured in the exhibits, 11-year-old Basia Cohen, sailed on the Zeeland to America in 1921 but never forgot Antwerp. “Of all the towns we visited, that was my favourite,” she said later. “It’s there that I had my first ice cream. We’d heard of it before but we’d never seen it.”
It’s a bit cold for ice cream as I step out of the museum, but I am hungry. A 15-minute meander brings me to Mercado, a food hall that opened in October. It has stalls offering a wide variety of grub, including BoxBird, which majors in wings, dim sum specialists Sum Sum and – my choice – Karnivor, where I pick up a plate of assorted charcuterie and find a place at one of the long, high, wooden tables.
I wash the charcuterie down with a glass of De Koninck beverage, the tawny brown, delicately bitter, dry local brew whose history reflects Antwerp’s own magpie tendency: Former owner Modeste Van Den Bogaert first had it brewed to resemble the beverages he had enjoyed while in exile in England during World War II.
Next, I stroll across Groenplaats to the cathedral, which was built between the 14th and 16th centuries.
It has a single 403-foot-tall spire; there were supposed to be two, but Antwerp’s wealth meant a bigger cathedral was planned and then never completed as the city lost its place as Europe’s trading capital. Inside, the highlight is Peter Paul Rubens’s triptych “The Descent From The Cross” (1612-1614). I’m particularly taken with a servant girl, a basket on her head, who glances knowingly toward the viewer from the left-hand panel. A minor detail, but beautifully done.
From the cathedral, it is a short walk to Grote Markt, the heart of golden-age Antwerp. I marvel at the muscular splendor of the 450-year-old City Hall – built in Renaissance style and soon to be renovated – and a row of gold-trimmed guildhouses. There’s the Brabo Fountain, which depicts a mythical Roman soldier (Brabo), who vanquished Druon Antigoon, a giant who guarded a bridge over the river and chopped off the hands of all who refused to pay his toll. One day, brave Brabo chopped off the giant’s hand and flung it into the river. The fountain depicts this moment of grisly triumph.
I walk toward Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS, a sturdy red sandstone-and-glass tower that records Antwerp’s place in the world, with my hands firmly in my pockets. It is a marvellous building: Inside, it’s calm and spacious, with views in every direction. I’m charmed by images of Antwerp shopkeepers on the walls around the escalators. A butcher poses with a cow’s head, tongue lolling out in front of his own; a delighted young girl, the daughter of a grocery store owner, proffers a huge bunch of mint.
It’s time for another beverage, perhaps accompanied by something to eat. I opt for the cozy, dimly lit De Pottekijker, where a bowl of rich, creamy fish stew and a glass of the classic Belgian witbier, Hoegaarden, are just what I need before I head back to my hotel.
The next morning, I stride out with a purpose. I pass the main station, a magnificently over-the-top Belle Epoque structure that makes up in size what it lacks in discretion, and skirt the diamond district, the center of world trade in those remarkable rocks. I hurry down Lange Kievitstraat, at the heart of Antwerp’s Jewish neighbourhood, where a glimpse of what’s available in Hoffy’s Kosher Restaurant – fishballs, stuffed peppers, pastrami, innumerable other delicacies – causes me to loiter for a moment.
Next I cross Stadspark before plunging into the affluent neighbourhood just south of the city center. A group of middle-aged ladies are getting their hair done at Mijo on Sint-Jorispoort while – a little farther on – Cafe Kulminator, one of the world’s great beer bars, is temporarily shuttered while owner Dirk van Dyck recovers from an operation. (It’s now open again.)
At the river I find the art-deco entrance to the Sint-Anna tunnel. Completed in 1933, this is how pedestrians and bicycles navigate the Scheldt: out of the way of the all-important shipping. The original wooden escalators, droning and clanking, take you down to a dead-straight, 1,900-foot-long tunnel tiled in white and blue. I can hear two women talking loudly minutes before they reach me; ascending the other side, I’m impressed by a young woman who nonchalantly munches an apple while ensuring that her bike doesn’t tumble down the escalator.
There’s a great view of the city from the other side, even on a gray, overcast day, plus various bits of river-related sculpture: propellers, buoys and a wooden model of a man looking across the water.
It’s too cold to linger, though, so I stroll back toward my final destination. Antwerp may be a modern and cosmopolitan city, but anyone coming back from Belgium without chocolate is likely to get a frosty reception. One of the best chocolate shops in town is called the Chocolate Line, in Paleis Op de Meir, on the main shopping street.
Chocolates in hand, I walk around the corner to the kitchen workshop where two customers are watching a young chocolatier at work.
Nearby there’s a large chocolate frog with bulging red lips. An animal equally at home on land and sea, and made out of chocolate? If Brabo ever needs replacing, I’ve got an idea for a new Antwerp city mascot.
A view of Marazion, Cornwall, from the small island of St. Michael's Mount, the Cornish counterpart to Normandy's Mont Saint-Michel. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Nancy Nathan for The Washington Post.
Cornwall, at the stunningly beautiful southwestern tip of England, was too much for the Romans and the Saxons, who halted their invasions of Britain before they got that far, leaving rocky Cornwall to the Celtic tribes who controlled the area first inhabited in about 10,000 BC.
It’s still no picnic to get down to Cornwall, and you really need a car to explore it. My husband, Dave, and I had driven many other parts of England and Scotland, he putting up with my cathedral obsession, I supporting his golf habit, both of us appreciating the layers of history from prehistoric to Victorian in so many spots. I convinced him that before we stopped exploring the British hinterlands we should make a point of seeing out-of-the-way, largely unchanged Cornwall. We knew it would be special.
The small peninsula rewards the intrepid traveller. In long expanses, it is little changed from the Iron Age, when fields were squared off by low stone outlines, which you still can make out on green hillsides by the sea. In fact, it is only the occasional ruined tin mine that interrupts vast mosaics of heather and gorse, stretching from the coast roads to rocky cliffs.
DH Lawrence wrote an ode to Cornwall’s “high shaggy moor hills, and big sweep of lovely sea”. He lived in the tiny town of Zennor when English painters and writers were drawn by the coast’s unmatched scenery and brilliant light and established an artists’ colony at nearby St Ives 100 years ago.
Lawrence stayed at the 13th-century Tinner’s Arms, which is tucked into a hillside and where visitors still can enjoy a pint of Tinner’s Ale. A few yards from the inn is the main attraction at Zennor: a very large rough carving, made in the 15th century, of a mermaid on the end of a pew in the Church of St Senara. The legend is that she was attracted to the town by a young man’s songs. Nothing seems to symbolise Cornwall’s marriage to the sea like the lovely long-haired mermaid, comb in one hand, mirror in the other.
The Mermaid of Zennor, whose legend has inspired books and films, echoes another Cornish landmark that also is the stuff of legend: the Merry Maidens, a late Stone Age circle of 19 standing stones just a few miles away, believed to date to 2500 BC The legend says the maidens were petrified for dancing on the Sabbath. The circle is said to be the most perfect of those dotting Cornwall’s very southwestern end. There are about 150 Bronze Age (from about 2200 to 700 BC) or earlier monuments – stone circles, tombs, standing stones – in the area.
The sites are unguarded, and also largely ignored. When we were at the Merry Maidens, the only thing stirring was a hundred yards away, where a farmer was mowing around two tall standing stones known as the Pipers, which legend says played for the dancing maidens. The ancient monuments remain largely undisturbed despite the ages of English history that have passed in that small peninsula.
Crowning hillsides and standing along the coast in this same small corner of Cornwall are towering cylindrical stone stacks, remnants of deserted tin mines. They glow in the sun and are strangely romantic, although they survive the Victorian mining heyday that exacted an enormous human toll. Driving the coast road called Tinner’s Way you pass severe stone villages from which entire families trekked several miles to the mines. (Women and children sifted tin from rock above; men worked deep below.) This is “Poldark” country, where the BBC filmed the hit series about an Englishman returned from the American Revolution who revives his family’s derelict tin mine.
While we had a rental car, we found that the best way to see the Neolithic sites and the mining stacks of the Penwith peninsula is to hire one of the local expert guides for a half- or full-day group or private tour. Their fees are low, they provide wonderful commentary and they pick you up. We saw several of the most significant sites in a half-day tour. Without a guide, finding them is tricky. Many of the back roads are paved cow paths tunneling through ancient Cornish Hedges, towering rock walls containing soil and vines that can terrorise a rental-car driver.
We continued up Cornwall’s West coast, to lovely St Ives, where I declared the famous Porthminster Beach Cafe’s version of fish and chips the winner of my trip-long personal survey. A few miles farther north is tiny Port Isaac, the setting for the television series “Doc Martin,” a comedy/drama about the town’s only doctor. And no wonder that it was chosen for filming. It’s the quintessential unspoiled fishing village, with stark, white buildings against bright-green hillsides, above huge, dark-gray rocks and truly sparkling blue water.
So far, Port Isaac seems to have controlled tourism by channeling cars into lots before they reach the edge of town. While we had Penwith’s stone circles and the Mermaid of Zennor to ourselves, this was another story. We paid to join a “Doc Martin” walking tour that set off from the May Contain Nuts cafe on the path entering town. The others on our tour were true DM aficionados, interrupting the guide (a guy who was eager to tell the flock about his role as an extra) with probing questions about which house belonged to which character in the show.
As we walked back to our car, we spied in the distance and around another breathtaking cove, our next stop: Tintagel, birthplace of King Arthur and site of Camelot – if there was a King Arthur or a Camelot. An excellent exhibit at the foot of the cliffside castle ruins lays out the roots of the Arthurian legend and makes a good case that someone like Arthur lived there.
Just about everything you visit in Cornwall is tough to reach, whether because of narrow roads or remoteness. But Tintagel presents a new challenge: you walk across a wide chasm, created in the 14th century by a “landfall” that separated the castle’s cliff from the mainland. The climb is up 100 steep steps on a narrow, vertical path, with others coming down as you work your way to the top, trying not to look at the huge rocks below. The day of our visit was sunny; I cannot imagine the climb on a wet day.
Tintagel is probably one of the three best-known Cornish tourist sites. Another – the Eden Project – is 30 miles across the peninsula to its East Coast and as new as Tintagel is ancient. Two towering biodomes, comprising the largest greenhouses on Earth, were built in 2001 and conceived by a visionary named Sir Tim Smit, who was determined to demonstrate the interdependence of people and plants.
The larger biodome contains a rain forest with every sort of tree, colorful birds, small mammals, vines, waterfalls, skyways and pools. The smaller (but still enormous) dome houses a Mediterranean ecology. During the summer Eden is packed, but in September we found it easy to navigate. By its very nature, a dramatic experiment about future sustainability, Eden doesn’t offer much by way of enchantment. But a traveller might take a lesson from the British – who, judging by attendance figures, seem more focused on this stunning achievement than on Neolithic sites.
Cornwall’s third major tourist landmark is St Michael’s Mount, just past the faded town of Penzance, where the trains from London stop. The Mount is Cornwall’s iconic twin to Normandy’s Mont St. Michel. Just as with it, you can walk from the mainland at low tide on a stone causeway once used by the pilgrims. We missed low tide, so we took the small foot ferry that runs continuously. A side benefit to the ferry is that when you step out on the other side you see a bronze shoeprint marking the spot where Queen Victoria stepped in 1846 when she and Prince Albert had stopped by, unannounced.
And just as at Mont St Michel, there’s a steep and rocky climb to a medieval Benedictine abbey with an unmatched view. But there is also a castle of the ruling St Aubyn family, featuring the grand Chevy Chase room, named for the 17th-century hunting-scene frieze around the cornice.
Our base for all of this was the well-known, charming Old Coastguard hotel in Mousehole (pronounced MOW-zell). It is the tiniest of fishing villages and better than Penzance for your side trips around the Penwith peninsula’s Neolithic and mining sites. Mousehole also is a great place to stay if you’re headed to the famous Minack, the Greek theater that clings to the rocks at Porthcurno Cove a few miles from Mousehole. Plays are performed through the season under the wide-open night sky, but visiting during the day also lets you appreciate the remarkable rock construction, looking out over the ocean.
And just beyond the Minack along the coast road is the stop every guidebook warns against. It is Land’s End, now a theme park where the British take kids on holiday. But how could we possibly not go to England’s westernmost point? Park in the big lot and just head to the rocky coast, ignoring the carnival entrance. You’re at Cornwall’s outer limits, and it is just you and the endless ocean.
Why would a young, dynamic person pack up and leave buzzing Lisbon for a life in a dilapidated stone hamlet with just 40 residents? It didn’t take long for my guide, Pedro Pedrosa, an environmentally conscious entrepreneur and avid mountain biker, to make the case. I was instantly enamoured with my accommodation, a contemporary cottage stocked with homemade cheese and fresh-baked bread, and with the hamlet’s serene picnic spot where tables were nestled in a cluster of cork trees.
When Pedrosa first stepped over the threshold of this village, Ferraria de Sao Joao, in 2005, these and many other features didn’t exist. Long neglected, as so many farming villages have become after being left by young people, it was a collection of cracked, crumbling houses overgrown with weeds and vines, and animal sheds in heaps of rubble. And lots of stone, predominantly limestone and quartzite, plus a little schist – the coarse rock, often featuring dark bands, that glints in the light and dominates much of the surrounding region.
Pedrosa saw the potential: an authentic land where the old ways lived on, where he and his family could slow down and be immersed in nature, yet not be too far from the city. “All this in a village that could be reborn from the ashes, with the help of the new Schist Village project that was starting up,” he said. So, using his own money and a government grant, he began building his house and the guest accommodations.
Ferraria de Sao Joao and 26 other rural villages built wholly or partly of schist are now part of the Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Villages), an ecotourism complex located in a mountainous region of Portugal’s interior that is geologically rich in this metamorphic rock. Sixteen years ago, a regional department of the national government, with the help of funding from the European Union, resolved to reinvigorate what were largely abandoned villages as hubs for tourism, binding them together with a grand philosophy: Embrace an intimate connection with nature and treasure the old ways while offering goods and services for the 21st century.
From the moment I heard mention of these stone communities, hidden in a rugged landscape, some clinging to vertiginous slopes, I was intrigued and knew I had to experience them. That’s when I turned to Pedrosa, the co-owner and operator of A2Z Adventures, a small company running socially responsible biking and hiking trips in Portugal, including ones in the Schist Villages. For several idyllic days, he guided me on day hikes throughout the region, sharing his love for, and commitment to preserving, this land.
After a two-hour drive from Lisbon Airport, suddenly, past clusters of tall eucalyptus trees, Pedrosa veered right at a whitewashed chapel, with asphalt giving way to cobbled limestone as we entered his home village of Ferraria de Sao Joao. The only sounds: creaking branches, whispering leaves in the wind and an elderly resident’s cane tapping on the street.
Pedrosa pointed out his home and, next door, my accommodation, the Vale do Ninho Nature Houses – three former animal sheds reinvented as chic, minimalist cottages, with blank stone facades. “The windows all face southwest,” said Pedrosa, to maximise solar exposure. After studying environmental planning in Lisbon, he became a seeker of sustainable solutions. This Schist Village is his passion. Constructed of locally sourced stone and paneled inside with sustainably gathered pine wood and cork – with solar panels covering the adjacent bicycle garage and laundry room – these edifices rose from a battered jumble of rocks.
From my sunny compact studio, I delighted in the sylvan views: groves of olive trees and, in the distance, an original forest of chestnut, oak, pine and eucalyptus. In the back yard, I alternated between relaxing on the terra cotta patio and joining other guests cooling off in the communal natural swimming pool whose waters are purified as they circulate through a nearby regeneration bio-pond Pedrosa created, lush with botanicals. Inside, the bathroom was stocked with handmade soaps using oil from local olive trees; my bedside lamp was sculpted from the wood.
Even breakfast was an eco affair: My kitchenette offered a cornucopia of locally sourced delights. I found it stocked with eggs from Pedrosa’s chickens, honey and oats from a nearby village, homemade yogurt, local jams and goat cheese provided by a resident shepherd, Fatima.
After a walk to the other end of the village, Pedrosa and I came to a tangled forest of lovely old cork trees – where Fatima herds her goats up the hillside early each morning. I spotted initials carved in many of the trunks, and Pedrosa explained that they are part of an innovative programme to raise funds to purchase picnic tables as well as to defend this protected species and the village’s cultural heritage. “The trees come in three sizes,” he said, “a different price for each; we’ll carve your initials or paint a custom symbol in the one you choose to adopt.” (The cork trees aren’t harmed; they thrive even when the bark is removed during harvesting.)
Driving to another village in the network a mere six miles away, we passed a handful of mountain bikers attracted by the network of trails in the area. In short order, we came to a dramatic setting: The Schist Village of Casal de Sao Simao stretches across a mountain ridge of rugged cliffs, framing a yawning canyon. “Only two people live here full time,” Pedrosa said as we strolled past grand stone houses showing off flower-bedecked facades and impressive timber balconies fronting the canyon.
To experience the wild landscape, Pedrosa led me on a two-hour loop down to the canyon bottom and then back up. Wandering beside threads of rushing water along an ancient irrigation canal, we spotted remnants of a bygone way of life: an abandoned mill owner’s house now draped in ivy, with massive millstones once used to grind corn and wheat. “Some of these chestnut trees are centuries old,” Pedrosa said as we navigated through the well-shaded forest. On the ascent, we encountered a scenic river where couples and families picnicked on the pebbled beach, and teens hopped from boulder to boulder, plunging into swimming holes. My only distractions from this cheerful scene were several birds of prey – eagles, black kites and kestrels – soaring above the majestic clifftops.
Though I spent my nights stargazing, the area also offers other sources of nighttime entertainment. In Penela, a town 25 minutes away, I satisfied my oenophilia by visiting D. Sesnando, a restaurant whose owner is a wine connoisseur. I lingered over a glass of the Monte da Peceguina, a dark red with floral notes, that paired well with the warm Rabacal cheese drizzled with local honey. Another night I visited nearby Espinhal, which was in the middle of a three-day arts festival. I joined what appeared to be most of the town – including the mayor and his family – in the main square to listen to the contemporary Portuguese band Pensao Flor.
If I were seeking other diversions, I could have gone to a movie house in Coimbra, where there are also places to listen to traditional Fado music. And the picturesque Schist Village of Candal, which I visited on one of my excursions, has an open-air cinema in August.
It’s either up or down stone staircases in Candal, which is completely constructed of schist and located about an hour’s drive from my lodging. Above, Restaurante Sabores da Aldeia, a shop and cafe, shows off wares from contemporary regional artisans. I couldn’t resist buying a piece of schist brightly painted with an image of a cottage, as well as a colorful felt beaded necklace. Two talasnicos, tart-like baked goods rich with chestnuts, honey and almonds, made for an energising snack before our planned one-hour trek. Our path – narrow, dotted with boulders in spots and rimmed in ferns – eventually brought us to car-free Cerdeira, the most remote of the Schist Villages. The traditional cottages – eight of which are now charming accommodations – cling to the steep verdant valley slope.
Lunching under a grapevine-draped pergola at Cafe da Videira, Pedrosa introduced me to Kerstin Thomas, a wood sculptor who moved here 28 years ago when there wasn’t even a sidewalk or electricity. As we dug into a thick slice of baked goat cheese and vegetable pie, I learned how she and 30 of her friends from Lisbon were the driving force behind repurposing this village into a vibrant art center, complete with artist residencies and a no-smoke kiln created by a master Japanese ceramist.
Locals built everything using traditional methods and materials from the area, and different artists, including Thomas, decorated each guest cottage with their works. Later, after clamoring up the schist lanes zigzagging the hamlet’s length, I visited the art gallery displaying creations by these sculptors, ceramic artists and painters. A sculpted wood chair shaped like a hoe was especially inventive and eye-opening, as was my entire journey through these revitalised stone villages, transformed from desolation and decay into an enchanting new life.
Last December, I had an urge to visit Europe – I wanted gorgeous architecture, a rich cafe culture, fabulous wine and cheese, wide avenues to stroll and narrow cobblestone streets to bike.
Instead of flying across the Atlantic though, I fly over the equator, to Buenos Aires, “the Paris of Latin America” where, it was explained to me when I was there in 2012, the residents are “Italians who think they’re French and speak Spanish.”
Yes, Buenos Aires is a longer flight from my home in Wyoming than the Paris of France, and Buenos Aires is in South America and not Europe. But, between December and April, Buenos Aires is 90 degrees and sunny; winter in Europe means rain or snow and darkness. This December was a particularly cold one for Wyoming – it is about 15 degrees below zero when I board my plane at Jackson Hole Airport – so I am willing to trade Europe for a warm, sunny European-ish city.
My travel partner is one of my best friends from high school. Our last international trip together was to the real Paris. This trip was long ago enough that I was perfectly fine sleeping on the floor of Kevin’s friends, who I had never met. For six days, I happily ate nothing but crepes filled with Nutella and bananas. Fifteenish years after our trip to Paris, Kevin and I book our tickets to the Paris of Latin America. Although Kevin is the Spanish speaker, he entrusts me, one who does not speak Spanish at all, with trip planning. Because my tastes have matured beyond Nutella crepes and friends’ floors, I start with hotel and dinner reservations.
The Alvear Palace is a graciously Old World, Belle Epoque hotel in the Recoleta neighborhood. Servers at its L’Orangerie breakfast buffet wear white gloves. Placards on each floor remind guests of the dress code: In public areas, attire should be “formal or smart casual; shorts, Bermudas, or sleeveless T-shirts are not allowed. If you jog you may leave and enter the hotel in your running apparel.” Bathrooms are marble with brass fixtures. The doormen wear tuxes and top hats. We will be European aristocracy, at least for several days. There is a personal butler.
Conveniently, one of the restaurants I want to eat at, La Bourgogne, is in Alvear Palace’s basement.
Two blocks from Alvear Palace is Palacio Duhau, designed as a family home in the early 1930s by French architect Leon Dourge in the style of the Chateau des Marais, a neoclassical palace outside of Paris.
In 2006, after extensive restoration work and the addition of a 17-story modern tower, it opened as a Park Hyatt. Sitting in front of my computer in Wyoming, scanning the hotel’s website, it doesn’t take much imagination to transport myself to its outdoor patio, which overlooks the city’s largest private garden, for afternoon tea. I also make a reservation for a cheese tasting at the hotel’s Vinoteca, where the city’s only maitre fromager works.
While Recoleta might be one of Buenos Aires’ most European-feeling neighborhoods, we do want to explore the wider city. Our first activity will be a seven-hour, guided bike tour. To immediately get us into a Euro state of mind, I insist that Kevin and I walk from Alvear Palace to Biking Buenos Aires’ storefront in the San Telmo neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest.
We’re late because I can’t stop taking pictures of the architecture. (Also because I misjudged the distance we would have to walk.) At one intersection of two cobblestone streets, buildings range from Edwardian to Brutalist, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco. Maybe planning an architecture tour is in order.
In our first hour with bike guide Pepe Rivas, we pedal down narrow, one-way stone streets and on designated bike lanes along the edges of wide, leafy avenues. We ride through Lezama Park, which, with its numerous sculptures and large esplanade, where two couples are making out, feels decidedly European. This makes sense when Rivas tells us that, at the turn of the 20th century, it was a French-Argentine landscape architect who remodeled the park’s original design. Lezama’s jacaranda and rosewood trees pull me back to South America, as does a massive monument honoring Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza, who founded Buenos Aires in 1536.
I watch groups of men pass around cups of mate, a caffeine-rich tea made from ground leaves of the yerba mate tree and designated by the Argentine Senate as the country’s “national infusion.” It is easy to recognize people drinking mate because it is always drunk out of a very specifically sized and shaped “mug” – actually a hollowed-out gourd – and through a metal straw called a bombilla.
We pedal past La Bombonera stadium, home to the Boca Juniors soccer team, whose colors are those of the Swedish flag – blue and gold. Rivas tells us what I’m sure must be a tall tale – that, over a century ago, after losing a game against a team wearing similar colors, Boca promised to adopt the colors of the flag of the next ship arriving at the nearby port. Fact-checking Rivas’s story later, I find it to be true.
In Caminito, an area of La Boca settled mainly by immigrants from Genoa in the early 1900s and today popular with tourists because of its abundance of Italian restaurants and the colorful facades of its wood houses, the air smells like southern Italy – anchovies and olive oil. Here in a small park kitty-corner from a number of women dressed in tango outfits that pose for photos and then demand several pesos, we take a break for a mate lesson. “To understand Argentina, you must understand mate,” Rivas says, and then he makes a gourd-full for us.
To Kevin and me, its taste is as bitter as Rivas’s preparation of it is precise. Rivas assures us it won’t take long for us to acquire a taste for it.
Since we do so poorly with the national infusion, Kevin and I double down on the Senatedecreed national drink: Argentine wine. We are committed even though our first opportunity to drink wine is at the Frenchiest of Buenos Aires’ French restaurants.
Before I can worry whether it’s acceptable to order non-French wine at La Bourgogne, I worry whether our clothes make the cut of the restaurant’s dress code. Male diners are supposed to wear sport coats. Not being a banker nor a diplomat, Kevin didn’t pack one. The only reason I’m appropriately dressed is because our personal butler arranged for my wrinkled clothes to be pressed. It turns out that Kevin’s button-down shirt is just fine.
Surfboards line an alley near the famous Waikiki Beach, hot spot for many a surfer. The author ended her 50-state quest in Hawaii - a fitting choice, as it was the last state admitted to the union.
My father, a travelling businessman, likes to joke that I would happily tag along with him to Ames, Iowa; Gary, Indiana, or any other American town that’s not on most tourist maps. It’s true. If you have an open mind and an adventurer’s spirit, every place has something worth your time.
Had I believed the nonsense about Nebraska being a “flyover state,” for instance, I would never have herded cattle on horseback through rolling grasslands lush with purple wildflowers and tall pines. Had I stuck close to home, I might not have tasted heavenly banana pudding in Selma, Ala., or bought stamps from the cutest darn post office you’ve ever seen, snuggled in the snow in tiny Plymouth, Vt. Rooting out such gems has been a longtime joy of mine, and around 10 years ago I realised that I had gone to 30-odd states in the process.
That’s when I started getting serious about seeing all 50.
I pinpointed my weak spots – the Great Lakes, the Dakotas, parts of the South – and planned how I’d get there. I didn’t set a particular deadline, but prioritised about two states a year.
I had a decent head start: Growing up in Maryland (and taking frequent sojourns to Walt Disney World) meant that I had been to most of the Eastern Seaboard. Two years of graduate school in Colorado allowed for easy camping or hiking adventures to Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas and Arizona. Reporting trips took me to Idaho, Rhode Island, Michigan, Alaska and Mississippi.
When I could, I tacked new states onto trips to visit friends and family. My sister-in-law in Peoria, Ill., for instance, lives a short drive from Iowa, where I hiked among the songbirds in Lake Macbride State Park.
In September 2016, I ended – you could say with a bang – in Hawaii, watching fountains of bright-orange lava spew from the Big Island’s Kilauea Iki Crater.
I felt elated, but also a bit like an oddball.
That’s because most people I know can quickly count off how many countries they have visited, but have only a vague idea when it comes to states. I wondered if there were others out there like me.
Are there ever. The All Fifty States Club, I soon discovered, has about 2,800 members who have accomplished the same feat, from all 50 states and 13 countries. Like me, many get the idea once they hit 30-or-so states and finish on either Hawaii or Alaska – the farthest, priciest, and most time-consuming trips to plan, says Alicia Rovey, who founded the club in 2006 to celebrate and encourage travellers on their journey.
The organisation, which operates on the honour system, asks that you put your foot on the ground and breathe the air of a state. (My own requirement was having a meal in a town.) Send in $13 with a membership application and you’ll get an official certificate; for more bragging rights, you can buy a T-shirt, pin or other wares on the website.
“The club makes it more official,” says Rovey, who lives in Nashville and hit her 50th, Oregon, in 2015. “Sometimes, you want that extra recognition that the goal is validated.”
There’s no typical 50-stater, she says – some are motivated by patriotism, meeting new people or a desire for new experiences. To her, the objective also infuses vacations with a greater sense of purpose: “You’re not just going to Hawaii to lay on the beach, you’re going to Hawaii to complete this lifelong goal of visiting all 50 states.”
Members often have their own spin on exploring the union, setting records along the way. Sweden’s Douglas Eriksson is the youngest, at 5. Some have done it twice or more, including James Marchino, with nine (yes, nine) repeat visits to all 50. Several people have sky-dived or golfed across the nation. John Fitzgerald ate a slice of pie in every state, and Boomer Mentzer drank a beer in each. (President Barack Obama – who has visited every state as president, and Al Roker, who has reported the weather in all 50, are honorary members.)
Though the few 50-staters I talked to had various missions and methods, we all had something in common: Travel has rewarded us in ways we didn’t expect.
To celebrate his 50th birthday, David Miller, of Orinda, Calif., set his sights on an epic year-long trip. He carefully mapped out a bicycling route throughout the United States – avoiding New England winters and Southern summers – with his Weimaraner, Max, from October 2011 to November 2012. Miller asked his supporters to donate to four charities in the name of his project, Bike 50 at 50.
“The very first lesson that I learned is that we so underestimate ourselves,” Miller says. “If you’re willing to take that one step forward out of your own comfort zone, you realize, ‘I can do this.’ “
Anne Corlett, a landscape artist from Saugatuck, Mich., was newly single in 2010 and “wanted a big project, the visual equivalent of the big American novel.”
Eventually, the idea came to her: paint a landscape in each state. “Travel is a powerful thing, which I didn’t even think about when I started,” says Corlett, an honorary club member.
Not only did she build up her confidence traveling solo, she challenged herself as an artist, painting environments so different that they could have been on the moon, she told me.
“I realised later I was testing my courage,” Corlett says.
Like Corlett, the more I explored the country, the more I learned to trust myself and be resourceful. When badly blistered feet forced me to backpack through the Grand Canyon in sandals, I found out I was tougher than I had thought.
Another common theme: We all experienced the kindness of strangers.
On Miller’s bicycle trips, random people on the street gave him money a few times, pushing bills into his hand even after he told them he didn’t need it. “I don’t have enough fingers and toes and arms and legs to count all the times I had extraordinary, surprising, wonderful interactions,” he says. While I was visiting Greenwich, N.J. – which threw a little-known tea party to protest the British in 1774 – Joe Felcone and Linda Hull Felcone invited me to dinner and showed me their historic home. Corbett says she was similarly “adopted” by a couple while in Mississippi.
Longtime blood donor and club member Al Whitney, of Avon Lake, Ohio, is accustomed to doing things for others. “I don’t sight-see,” says Whitney, who completed his 50 between 2007 and 2012. “My goal is to get to the blood bank.” But when he went to South Dakota in 2009, “my wife made me promise to go to Mount Rushmore,” he says. In the gift shop, a woman nearly knocked him over in a bear hug to tell him she owed her life to a blood donor. (She had noticed a Platelets Across America logo on his jacket.) “I was shocked,” he says.
If you’re thinking of joining the club, a few pieces of advice: Keep costs down by staying in state parks or short-term home rentals. Add new states to trips to see friends and family. “Be intentional,” Rovey says – plan a long trip to a particular region, say Yellowstone National Park, to visit as many states as you can in one go.
A view of Columbus at sunset from the Scioto Mile.
I have a terrible confession: I never saw Ohio’s capitol. A weekend in Columbus and not even a glimpse of the rotunda. But I have a very good excuse. I was lost in a 32-room bookstore. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was also preoccupied with selecting a writing utensil from a lifestyle store founded by a guy with a beard and an office-supply obsession. And drinking hand-poured coffee from a cafe named after a Belle and Sebastian song. And sizing up turquoise bulldog bookends from a shop in an emerging neighbourhood. And watching a diner stuff a skyscraper-tall burger into his mouth. And drinking more coffee, this time made of Fair Trade-certified beans from Guatemala. And I’m not even a coffee person; I drink tea, except when I am in Columbus.
Columbus kept me busy and surprised. Though I knew the facts – it ranks as the third-most fashion-forward city in the country and has a lower median age than the rest of the nation – I didn’t fully understand the burble of creativity and innovation till I found myself face-to-backside with a man made of oven roasting tins. Based on my experience, I expect the newest stylista accessory will soon be a Columbus pride T-shirt. I will have to make room in my drawer, moving my Austin and Nashville apparel to the side.
• Ron and Ann Pizzuti are sharers: The Pizzuti Collection, open since 2013, organizes exhibits based on the contemporary art that the Columbus couple has amassed over 40-plus years. “We like to think of the gallery as an extension of their living room,” said Mark Zuzik, its programs coordinator. The Pizzuti has a sculpture garden with permanent works, plus changing exhibits, inside the former insurance building.
• The Scioto Mile, a revitalised stretch of green-and-blue space along the river, offers a continual flow of attractions. At the Bicentennial Park, a summertime fountain sprays water 75 feet into the air. Farther south, on a reclaimed industrial site, the Audubon Center provides a bird checklist that is color-coded by season. Keep your pencil ready for such winter residents as the hooded merganser, the great horned owl and the golden eagle.
• COSI is so hands-on, you will get a shock – a buzzy lesson on electricity. The nationally acclaimed science center, which celebrates its 53rd birthday this year, encourages active learning. You can ride a unicycle on a high wire, submerge in a submarine or cheer on basketball-playing rats. You can also contribute to the body of science by participating in an Ohio State University research project on language science, the ciliary eye muscle or pharmaceuticals.
• At North Market, founded in 1876, follow the edible maze of more than two dozen vendors. Many of the purveyors tout local roots: You can taste the hometown pride at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Katzinger’s Little Deli, Hot Chicken Takeover and Destination Donuts, which often incorporates produce from the seasonal farmers market held in outdoor stalls.
Before: You had to drive 20 miles to a horse farm to sample the beers produced by Rockmill Brewery. Now: You can stay within city limits and pair any of the brewery’s 15 beers on tap with the Rockmill Tavern’s seasonal dishes, such as the deviled duck egg and the black truffle grilled cheese. The decor is haut-stable, with wood interiors constructed out of Michigan barns and tables built out of trees harvested from inside the Columbus beltway.
A quick primer on Fox in the Snow, a bakery and coffeehouse open since 2014: No WiFi, no gluten-free and no pressure to know the intricacies of the coffee industry. “Not everyone cares,” says manager Jack Morgan. But for those who do, the coffee comes from Central and South America or Africa, is roasted in Portland, Maine, and is hand-poured in plain view (the baristas can handle up to six orders at a time). In addition, the sweet and savory treats eschew a current food craze: “Everything has gluten in it,” Morgan noted.
To eat at the Thurman Cafe, a third-generation family operation in the German Village, you’ll need the wide jaw of a snake and the protein cravings of Mr. Universe. The ne plus ultra of burgers is the Thurmanator, which the restaurant created for competitive bodybuilders in the 1980s. A recent diner named Clarence Smith III admitted that the likelihood of finishing his meal was “zero,” but he plunged a fork into the teetering stack like a true warrior.
At the Top, the oldest steakhouse in Columbus (est. 1955), you won’t be judged for devouring a Flintstone-size filet or double-scooping from the sour cream bowl. Diners chew to a symphony of martini shakes and lounge tunes featuring a 90-year-old pianist, Sonia, and her sidekick, Justin, who can belt out Judy Garland without spilling his gin gimlet.
• At Robert Mason Heritage Supply, a lifestyle store that is barely a year old, pen concierge Henry Dolin approached the Pen Bar and selected a Paper Mate InkJoy for a left-handed writer. She never smudged again. Writing utensils are just one of the founder’s many favorite things. Robert Grimmett clearly hearts office supplies and vintage-inspired accessories, such as his eponymous line of canvas carriers named after family members; beard-grooming products (good for women’s tresses, too); toppers and watches; and candles that smell like a barbershop.
• During football season, the Saturday uniform in Columbus is a T-shirt from Homage, an apparel business founded by a guy who sold shirts from his parent’s basement. After 10 years, the gray top with the black “Ohio” lettering is still a classic, any day of the week.
• The staff at Helen Winnemore’s continue a tradition from 1938: supporting North American artists and offering a hot beverage to visitors. Each year, the two-story gallery features about 200 artists who design clocks, jewelry, greeting cards, wooden animal puzzles, pottery, pillows, fingerless gloves, leather satchels and even the mug holding my cup of welcome coffee.
• With 32 rooms and up to a quarter-million books, be sure to grab a map of the Book Loft at the front desk. In Room No. 26, I found two mentions of the 40-year-old independent bookseller in “100 Things to Do in Columbus Before You Die.” And in Room No. 2, one of two spots for serious bargains, I discovered Jane Austen for $3.49 and Dave Eggers for $5.99.
• Le Meridien Columbus, the Joseph, the newest hotel in the Short North neighborhood, acts as a satellite gallery for the Pizzuti Collection. (Present your room key for free admission to the nearby museum; see Attractions.) After a craft cocktail at Soul, repair to your room and browse the catalogue of Ohio artists whose works appear in the guest quarters and public spaces. The “I’ll Never Leave You” screen print by David Skeen, which adorned my bathroom, costs $250 – about the same price as the nightly rate.
• At the downtown Westin Columbus, more than a century of overnight visitors have elbow-shined the marble front desk. The former Great Southern Hotel, which opened in 1897 with an adjoining opera house, has retained many of its original charms, such as the august lobby with the pink marble wainscoting. The renovated rooms, however, have been Westinized. And, yes, the beds are Heavenly.
• We are not a shopping destination but we’re becoming one,” said Katie Schultz, manager at Elm & Iron, a home furnishings store with a quirky vintage flair. Indeed, Clintonville, which borders the Ohio State University campus, is on the cusp of a moment. Many of the new arrivals – Flowers & Bread, Bareburger, Vintage Toast, Little Eater and Whit’s Frozen Custard – are sprouting up along High Street. They make nice with some of the older establishments, such as the Global Gallery Coffee Shop and Wholly Craft. The two stores have been around for at least decade, proving that Fair Trade products, local handicrafts and the DIY spirit are always au courant.
• The German Village Society explains the dramatic arc of the 233-acre German Village, a neighbourhood that was created by 19th-century immigrants, struggled with anti-German sentiment during World War I and blossomed during the preservation movement in the 1960s. To experience the booken
ds of time, wander the brick lanes lined with Italianate-style homes and businesses selling such German staples as kraut und pork and nutcrackers. The 23-acre Schiller Park, the city’s second-oldest park (dating to 1857), maintains its original purpose as a gathering place for residents and visitors.
For nearly two decades, I have eagerly collected Japanese tea and sake sets, woodblock prints and geisha figurines. They delight me with their elegant and distinct design, with depictions of intricately shaped maple trees and dazzling silk kimonos and the I-know-something-you-don’t-know gaze of the women wearing them. My collection started spontaneously with a love-at-first-sight purchase of colourful geisha bookends from the 1950s. Stamped “Made in Occupied Japan,” they were at a flea market near the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California, where many Japanese immigrants once worked in the orchards, and they led me to muse about another world and era.
Yet it was only in November that I finally made it to Japan. My tour started in Tokyo and included Kamakura, Hakone and Kyoto. Like so many visitors before me, I thought I would make Kyoto the centerpiece of my visit, but I was also keen to veer from the traditional tourist’s path and discover Japan for myself, to see if or how it reflected my deep and rather mysterious affection for the country.
As it turned out, the dozen or so ryokan, or traditional Japanese guesthouses, in Kyoto that I contacted were fully booked. Discouraged and disappointed, I eventually resigned myself to overnighting in Nara, about an hour’s train ride to the south.
I knew Nara had its own bragging rights. As Japan’s first permanent capital, it easily maintains its noble stature with eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Daibutsu – or giant Buddha – bronze statue housed in an imposing wooden temple, as well as the tame and friendly descendants of sacred deer, which are anointed as national treasures, that roam freely among the temples, pagodas and forested parks. It sounded dreamy.
Staying in Nara, too, would put me close to Ise, or so I thought. My California friend Hiroko, who is a Tokyo native, had visited the small town a year earlier, and told me of its Shinto shrines – an astonishing 125 in all, making it essentially Japan’s version of the Vatican and a principal pilgrimage destination for many Japanese people. Spread out around Ise and its outskirts, the shrine area is the same size as Paris. Knowing very little about the Shinto religion, I was curious about how so many shrines could exist in a place I hadn’t heard of until Hiroko had mentioned it, though I later learned that the 2016 G7 Summit had been held there in April.
I related this to Kayoko Kuwahara, my host at the tiny Guesthouse Sakuraya situated along a quiet residential street, as we sat sipping tea on my first evening. A fierce wind had picked up by the time my train from Kyoto had pulled in, and after a short bus ride to the suburb where Sakuraya is, I had to walk some 10 minutes in the cold to reach the guesthouse. But upon entering, I was enraptured.
After Kayoko showed me to my room – one of three she rents to guests – I took in the heavenly view from the sliding glass doors: an enclosed courtyard and dimly lit garden, a carefully shaped arching pine and a palm tree among moss-covered steppingstones. Kayoko later told me that she had bought the building in 2008 from a married couple who had operated a workshop on the grounds to produce calligraphy ink. Neither of their two daughters was inclined to carry on the family business that had existed for 130 years.
When the aging couple put the property on the market, there was intense interest in the traditional wood-and-stucco structure in this attractive district where mostly merchants had lived and worked. Kayoko felt very lucky to be the selected bidder; she had dreamed for years of opening a ryokan and saw great potential in the home. She set about clearing the enclosed garden area – “It was a jungle,” she told me – and remodeling the interior. The Sakuraya is at once modest and dignified.
From the moment I set foot inside, my perch felt privileged – so much so that when Kayoko cautioned me that reaching Ise would require a very early start and three hours of travel on four different trains, I was loathe to book an overnight’s stay closer to the shrines. I wanted to return to my oasis. Moreover, it occurred to me that in the spirit of religious pilgrimages, the long and complicated journey to Ise and back would be fitting, if not adventurous. Part of the trip, Kayoko told me, would be through picturesque canyons and pretty countryside.
Before the long journey, however, I took a day to explore Nara, first indulging in some shopping along the open-air Higashimuki Shopping Mall and practically squealing with delight at the fine ceramics, brightly colored kimonos and fans on display. From there, walking eastward, I was gradually greeted by some of Nara’s ubiquitous and cordial deer, making it clear I’d reached Nara Park and was near i-ji temple.
I had seen photos of the temple and what’s known as the cosmic Buddha housed inside it, but these don’t prepare the visitor for the awesome, towering bronze sculpture, flanked on each side by the golden Kokuzo Bosatsu – or bodhisattva of memory and wisdom – and Tamonten – called the lord who hears all. Completed in A.D. 798 and arguably one of Japan’s most striking sights, the three towering figures held my attention. I took my time walking the perimeter, considering meanwhile what I’d read earlier, that the construction of these mighty sculptures had employed, legend has it, some 2 million laborers and had nearly bankrupted the country, in part because the statues were covered in gold leaf.
But more impressive to me was the 8th-century Kasuga Taisha Shrine, tucked deeper in Nara Park and painted a jolting red. Entering the complex, I was immediately riveted by a long passage filled with hundreds of golden and bronze lanterns, all of which surprised me, because from what I’d read of Shinto shrines, they are mostly austere edifices, void of color and decor.
After that, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Ise. The next morning, soon after departing eastward from Nara, the train passed through a long and misty corridor of bamboo stalks and then hugged the edge of a plunging forested ravine covered in radiant fall foliage. Part of the journey wound through farmland punctuated by snug villages with black-tiled roofs, small groves of crimson-coloured Japanese maple trees, well-tended family gardens and solemn pagodas and temples atop grassy hills, some with simple cemeteries encircling them. In this remote corner of Japan, on this clunking rural train, I saw no tourists and few residents.
But once I reached Ise and found my way to Geku, or the Outer Shrine, I was surrounded by other pilgrims. I was among them as we crossed the wide bridge leading to the shrine area, washed my hands alongside them at long stone vessels with wooden ladles and followed them under soaring torii, or gates, marking the sacred entry.
Following a map here and later at the Neku, or Inner Shrine, some 20 minutes away by bus, I came upon shrine after shrine, quickly seeing that visitors could only get so close to the forbidding and venerated wooden structures dating to the 3rd century, all unadorned, fenced in and removed from the pathways bordered by impenetrable Japanese cedars.
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