Indian Trail Ridge provided the first full view of the San Juan Mountains on the Colorado Trail.
Halfway up the 3,300-foot climb through the muggy forest on the north side of Hope Pass, I was panting, sweat-soaked and pining for a thirst-quencher.
At nearly 800km long, the Colorado Trail provides several opportunities to hitchhike to a fantastic IPA and a pizza. But my husband, Honeybuns (or “Clif,” to nonhikers), and I had just finished our resupply in tiny Twin Lakes and now would have to without a drink for several days.
As he and I paused to catch our breath in a high meadow at tree line before the final ascent, a strange noise behind us set my most primitive survival instincts on edge.
Mountain lion? Bear?
“Youths!” I hissed.
We had passed a score of brightly ponchoed summer campers a few miles back, and it sounded like the horde was in hot pursuit. The last thing I wanted, in my rumpled exhaustion, was to small-talk teenagers who seemed buoyant enough to float up the mountain.
Honeybuns laughed gently, further stoking my wrath, and started the final climb. As the chipper chatter came closer, a new fire was lit under me. I struggled after him, hobbling along on my trekking poles like a bandylegged goblin.
I cursed the trail. I cursed myself. But at the top, I stopped hard in my tracks.
The world bloomed before me.
Endless dark peaks jutted out of the earth, roadless and wild and spellbinding.
I reeled, trying to see everything all at once. The outcroppings of vegetation dotting the mountains. The breathtaking geometry that governed the rock, leading my eyes between sharp edges of shade and light, swooping down long hollows carved by avalanches.
I imagined the tiny pikas who would live on these mountains, the soft seashell curve of their ears. I imagined the wildflowers, plumes of Indian paintbrush, tight clusters of sky pilot, that would be born and wither and die without ever being seen by a human eye.
This was worth the climb. This was worth anything.
This was even better than beer.
Having gotten the long-distance-backpacking bug after our six-month “thruhike” (end-to-end, single-year hike) of the Appalachian Trail two years ago, Honeybuns and I were looking for a hike to tide us over until we started a Pacific Crest Trail hike the following spring.
Of the domestic mid-distance trails, the CT attracted us with its fantastic scenery and a promise of a gentle introduction to “Western backpacking.”
We had hiked more than 3,200km on the East Coast, but the relatively developed surroundings of the Appalachian Trail had provided few opportunities to feel truly remote. The Colorado Trail promised much that would be new to us – chances to summit fourteeners (mountains taller than 14,000 feet), days in the backcountry without easy escapes to civilization, and tougher planning requirements involving food and water.
Most of the thruhikers we met were experiencing their first long-distance trail. Many were teachers or students on summer break. The four-to-six-week time frame, well-maintained trail and wealth of data and guides makes the CT a great choice for those dipping their toes in.
That July evening on Hope Pass, we decided to camp midway down the descent at a dry campsite tucked onto a ledge. The altitude and the wind made for an astonishingly cold night, perhaps in the mid-40s, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the view behind just yet.
As I sat boiling sun-dried tomatoes and couscous for dinner, I kept turning my head to watch the sunlight dying on Emerald Peak. I felt like I was being watched back.
The bone-deep astonishment at the mountains did not fade, no matter how many passes we crested as the days wore on. The last moments before peering over the top of a climb – the giddy anticipation – became my favourites on the trail.
There’s a bit of an art to hiking at high elevation in Colorado. One wants to camp at a low enough elevation to be warmly ensconced below tree line, but high enough to cross the passes before midafternoon, when the daily thunderstorm rolls in like clockwork.
But for all their thunder and bombast, the mountains felt heartbreakingly fragile. Pine beetles had ravaged several segments of the trail, leaving vast swaths of dead forest. The trunks and lifeless limbs remained, lacy lichens making the trees look like gossamer-draped wraiths from a distance, up close like bones.
As we crossed Snow Mesa chewing on granola bars, ominous clouds began to coalesce behind us. We picked up the pace to no avail. In a matter of minutes, our blue-skied, desktop-wallpaper dream had vanished.
The unrelieved gray seemed boundless, unknowable. My mind became unfocused as the dark storm enclosed us in all directions. There was nothing but this storm, this flat plain, this gray, the lightning clacking like falling cleavers on a cutting board.
One safety measure in a lightning storm is to get to lower ground and assume the lightning position: sitting on your pack, feet off the ground, crouched down.
We paused to assess the situation. My poncho was plastered against my skin, as useful as a soggy leaf. My legs trembled. Hypothermia seemed even more imminent than a lightning strike. We decided to keep going and try to find a way to lower elevation.
“We should spread out!” Honeybuns shouted over the storm. He was right – hiking next to one another only increased our lightning risk. But as I watched him hurry ahead, I felt anything but relieved.
I hoarsely sang Britney Spears songs to myself as we hurried on, my voice keening feebly against the roar of rain and wind, knees shaking, hands aching with cold. “As long as you’re singing,” I told myself, “you’re not dead.”
When I ran out of Britney songs, I started on show tunes. When I ran out of show tunes, I started on hymns. When I ran out of hymns, I started back on Britney.
Finally, I watched Honeybuns disappear over the edge of the horizon as the trail finally descended. I struggled after him, awash with relief as the torrent slackened to a cold drizzle. I was frantic to get to the nearby road crossing where we could hitch to town and warm up.
But Honeybuns stopped suddenly and pointed off with one trekking pole.
Flashes of white caught my eye. A herd of dozens of female and juvenile elk were winding their way through the trees before us, moving up toward a ridge.
The trail had provided many animal encounters. I had cooed over the bell-bottomed ptarmigans and chirruped at the pikas and whistled at the marmots. But seeing this huge group of huge animals was stunning and humbling.
The elk leader struggled to find a path to the top, trying this route and that before sliding down the slippery scree. She kept looking over her shoulder at her fellow elk. I don’t know if elk are capable of embarrassment, but she did seem a bit sheepish after each failed attempt.
We stood, transfixed, rain pooling in our shoes. Finally, the leader managed to scramble up and over the ridge. The rest of the herd followed, some of the juveniles slipping before gamely plowing on.
Off to their side, the two shivering humans held no absolutely interest to the elk. They had their own dramas and concerns.
Honeybuns and I stumbled down to the road crossing soaked, exhausted and in awe.
Mornings were my favourite time of day. We rose just before dawn to a gray-and-black world, and would watch the color pour into the trees as we ate cinnamon oatmeal and took down our tarp. My favourite places to camp were among the aspen groves. In the early morning, silhouetted against the sky, the shimmering leaves looked like glitter.
But nights were worth remembering, too.
On one of our last nights on trail, we were camped on a high ridge with a section-hiker friend.
We were all due to recommence our lives off-trail. Honeybuns and I had jobs and friends and family and a cat waiting for us. But our month on the trail just didn’t seem like enough. Not yet.
As the setting sun shifted from electric oranges to honey pinks, we stopped doing our chores and walked out to the closest exposed switchback to watch. Honeybuns and I stood side by side, admiring the spires of the distant mountains, watching the light as it drifted and shifted and changed colour.
I wanted to build a house around myself right there. I wanted my feet to turn to roots, to hold me there forever, where every sunset would be just a little bit different.
It seemed like a decent way to spend a life.
For years, Elon Musk has been focused on building a colony on Mars. It’s why he founded SpaceX in 2002, and it’s been the driving force behind it ever since.
But during a speech in Adelaide, Australia, Friday morning, Musk said he has dramatically expanded his already-outsize ambitions. In addition to helping create a city on the Red Planet, he said the next rocket he intends to build would also be capable of helping create a base camp on the moon – and flying people across the globe.
“It’s 2017, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said during a 40-minute speech at the International Astronautical Congress. “What the hell has been going on?”
In a surprise twist, he also said the massive rocket and spaceship, which would have more pressurised passenger space than an Airbus A380 airplane, could also fly passengers anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. Traveling at a maximum speed of more than 18,000 mph, a trip from New York to Shanghai, for example, would take 39 minutes, he said. New York to London could be done in 29 minutes.
“If we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, why not go other places as well?” he said.
The speech was billed as an update to one he gave a year ago, in which he provided details for how SpaceX would make humanity a “multi-planet species.”
At the speech a year ago, Musk unveiled a behemoth of a rocket that was so ambitious and mind-bogglingly large that critics said it was detached from reality. Now, he and his team at SpaceX have done some editing, and Musk presented a revised plan early Friday to build a massive, but more reasonably sized, rocket that he calls the BFR, or Big [expletive] Rocket.
“I think we’ve figured out how to pay for it, this is very important,” he said.
The new fully reusable system includes a booster stage and a spaceship capable of carrying 100 people or so. It would be capable of flying astronauts and cargo on an array of missions, from across the globe, to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit and to the moon and Mars in deep space. It’d also be capable of launching satellites, he said, while effectively replacing all of the rockets and spacecraft SpaceX currently uses or is developing, making them redundant.
That would allow the company to put all of its resources into development of the BFR, he said.
Earlier this year, Musk announced that SpaceX would fly two private citizens in a trip around the moon by late next year. And he hinted at the moon base during a conference in July.
“If you want to get the public really fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon. That’d be pretty cool. And then going beyond there and getting people to Mars,” he said. “That’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for.”
But Friday morning he made it clear that Mars is still the ultimate goal. During his talk, a chart showed that SpaceX planned to fly two cargo missions to Mars by 2022, a very ambitious timeline.
“That’s not a typo,” he said, but allowed: “It is aspirational.”
By 2024, he said the company could fly four more ships to Mars, two with human passengers and two more cargo-only ships.
SpaceX has upended the space industry, and Musk, with his celebrity, bravado and business acumen, has reignited interest in space. The company, which has won more than $4 billion in contracts from NASA, was the first commercial venture to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station; previously it had only been done by governments. It currently flies cargo there, and is also under contract from NASA to fly astronauts there, which could happen as early as next year.
But despite all its triumphs, the company still hasn’t flown a single human to space, not even to low Earth orbit, let alone Mars, which on average is 140 million miles from Earth (though the planets come to within 35 million miles of each other every 26 months).
The travel between cities on Earth would also face substantial hurdles. In addition to the technological challenges, there would have to be regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Musk’s speech comes two days after NASA announced that it had signed an agreement with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to study exploration in the vicinity of the moon under a plan called the “Deep Space Gateway” that could, eventually, lead to a habitat near the moon. Lockheed Martin also unveiled a plan for deep space exploration Thursday, updating its “Mars Base Camp” system, a massive orbiting laboratory. Now the company says it could also build a lander capable of touching down on Mars or the moon. The company said it could launch within a decade in conjunction with NASA.
Is it like ‘Dirty Dancing’?”
That’s the question I’m inevitably asked when I tell people where I’m headed for summer vacation. Timberlock is an old-fashioned camp in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, so remote that there is no connectivity. There’s also no electricity in the 23 simple, comfortable cabins that dot the shoreline of 11-mile-long Indian Lake. That’s what attracted my family for the first time back in 2007. This year marked our ninth return.
We let our kids binge on technology on the drive, knowing they will be devoid of it for the following week. At about 15 miles out – just when we spy the familiar, painted “pig rock” – the signal drops and the anticipation rises. We all welcome the right turn onto the gravel driveway with the precipitous drop. This is home away from home for us.
Horseback riders explore the woodland trails at Timberlock, which is in the southwestern corner of the 6-million-acre Adirondack State Park.
When we pull up in front of the main lodge, we are greeted by our hosts, Bruce and Holly Catlin, a couple of friendly dogs, and staff members in green John Deere “gators.” We deposit our belongings into one and the staff totes it off to our cabin for the week. By this stage, my kids have already scattered: my 12-year-old daughter to the nearby rope swing and my 16-year-old son to the wooden dock over the lake. He’s a devoted bass fisherman, and spending a week on freshwater is pretty close to nirvana for him.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Timberlock so special to my family because the reasons are as varied as the activities at hand. For me, it’s a simple, carefree week, spent in a combination of family and solo time. We each find our niche there, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes alone, often with newfound friends.
The Catlins, who have owned the resort since 1963, see to it that families don’t have to think much beyond which watercraft they want to try on a given day. They employ two chefs, who prepare plentiful, healthy, mouthwatering meals three times a day. Young guests line up to ring the bell to signal that signals breakfast, lunch or dinner is but 15 minutes away. We gather on a dining porch with views of the lake, mixing and mingling with the guests from other cabins. Those three mealtimes are as scheduled as things get around camp, which answers that question: No, it isn’t like “Dirty Dancing.”
A fire burns in a stone fireplace in Timberlock’s library building; each cabin also has a wood-burning stove.
Everything at Timberlock is “take it as you like.” There’s a water trampoline, as well as a wide array of kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and sailboats available with a quick staff checkout. Swimming in the cool, deep waters is a treat for pool-weary dwellers of the cities and suburbs. I make a point of swimming across the lake and back, about a 1,200-yard swim, several times each week with my husband guiding the way in a kayak. For land lovers, there are tennis courts, archery, a wood shop, and horseback riding. A horse wrangler comes around at breakfast signing guests up for rides varying from beginning ring lessons to a ride up a nearby mountain with lunch at the top. My daughter rides every day we’re in camp and knows each of the six horses by name and personality.
Situated in the southwestern corner of the 6-million-acre Adirondack State Park, Timberlock is an easy drive or walk to seemingly endless choices for hikes. My family’s tradition on Monday each year – weekly rentals run Saturday to Saturday – is to climb nearby Snowy Mountain. At 3,988 feet high, it just misses “high peak” designation; at eight miles round-trip, the hike serves as a perfect bonding time for us.
This year, the weather wasn’t our friend for a hike up Snowy – it was raining buckets – so we had to find another option. We’d visited the nearby Adirondack Museum before, so we decided instead on the nearly two-hour drive over to Lake Placid for the day. We took in the sights and returned in time for dinner.
The weather can be unpredictable in the Adirondacks, and this year, we had several nights where the temperature dipped into the upper 40s or low 50s. Each cabin at Timberlock has a wood-burning stove, and we were excited to fire ours up for the first time in a few years. The cabin beds are layered with warm blankets and with the scent of the fire, it can be tempting to sleep right through breakfast.
We made up for our lost Snowy hike the following day, with one of three choices for group treks arranged by Timberlock. This year, we joined two other families for a climb up Owl’s Head Mountain, a new option for us that offered spectacular views from the top.
Like all vacations, our week at Timberlock flew by. We all dreaded the return to the hurried world of jobs, schedules and commitments – probably more so than after any other trip because being wholly untethered from modern-day trappings brings with it a heightened state of relaxation.
Timberlock’s main lodge at dusk: The rustic, old-fashioned resort draws many of the same families year after year.
I guess if I had to pick one aspect of our time on Indian Lake that makes it most special, it is that step back in time. Life is simple at Timberlock, and that’s something my technology-dependent children appreciate, perhaps even more so than I. There is nowhere else that the would rather be and so we return, year after year.
Early Friday evening, as I walked the dirt path from our cabin to the dining porch for the week’s final dinner, I slipped into a state of melancholy. It would be a full year before my family could once again inhabit this quieter, easier world. A world where loons cry out at dawn, children gleefully dive into chilly waters and people get to know one another around an evening fire. Life’s simplest of simple pleasures.
For months leading up to my visit to Alaska’s Tikchik Narrows Lodge, I’d been fantasising about two personal angling milestones – landing a king salmon on a fly rod and catching a 24-inch rainbow trout on a mouse fly. It would take a bit of effort and more than a little luck, but if there was any place where such a fishing fantasy could come true, it’s the Bristol Bay region – a sport-fishing Mecca in a state renowned as a sport-fishing Mecca.
Bristol Bay sits in southwestern Alaska, due north of the Alaskan Peninsula and roughly 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. The descriptor is a catchall for the area containing the many watersheds draining into this easternmost section of the Bering Sea, which include the Togiak, Nushagak, Naknek and Kvichak rivers. These waters are home to the world’s largest returns of sockeye salmon, with some 41 million projected to swim toward their natal waters in 2017.
While the sockeyes sustain a major commercial fishery, they also form the foundation for the region’s tremendously diverse sport fishery. The sockeyes (joined by chum, king, silver and pink salmon) travel up rivers and lakes hundreds of miles into the interior each summer to spawn, providing angling sport along the way; more important, they provide nutrition (in the form of eggs and, later, decomposing flesh) for the river- and lake-dwelling fish that await their arrival, including rainbows, Dolly Vardens, chars, graylings, lake trout and northern pikes. The chance to encounter such a tremendous variety of fish is a big part of its appeal for fly fishers and spin anglers alike . . . that, and the fact that the numbers – many fish and few anglers – make casting a fly or spinner here more an exercise in catching than merely fishing.
For my dream Alaska adventure, I stayed at Tikchik Narrows Lodge, which rests on a peninsula that juts out into the water where the Tikchik and Nuyakuk lakes meet. Tikchik sits at the eastern end of the 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park, a roughly 30-minute floatplane ride from the fishing town of Dillingham; there are no roads in these parts. Bud Hodson, who guided and piloted planes at Tikchik Narrows in the late 1970s, acquired the lodge in 1986 and has been operating it since. The main lodge rests on a rise at the point of the peninsula and includes a dining room, bar, sitting area and deck, all overlooking the lakes and the Wood River Mountains to the west. Lodge walls are decorated with a mix of mounted fish reflecting the many species available, along with tasteful angling artwork and photos. The lodge also houses a tackle shop. (All tackle – including fishing rods, flies and lures and waders – are provided.) Guests stay in heated cabins with electricity and en-suite bathrooms with hot water showers.
Guests and guides deplane at the lodge after a day of fishing. Nearly all the rivers that lodge guests go fishing are accessed by its three de Havilland Beaver and Cessna 206 floatplanes.
Tikchik Narrows and its 36-person staff can accommodate up to 24 guests for a seven-night stay – with six days of fishing.
A lodge such as Tikchik is all about fishing diversity – not just species, but venues. “We have over 25 fishing spots where we can take guests throughout the season,” said Chip King, who has served as the lodge’s lead guide for 17 years. “We pride ourselves on being adaptive to guests’ skill levels, weather and river conditions, and to the experience visitors want to have. We have many people who arrive with limited or no fishing experience at all, but our 14 guides are great teachers. In the course of the week, they may troll for salmon, cast a spinner or fly for pike or hike into small streams for trout, Dolly Varden and grayling.” Anglers have access to nearly all of the famed rivers of the western Bristol Bay region, including the Nushagak and Togiak drainages, the Wood River and Tikchik Lake systems (which include the Agulipak and Agulowak rivers) and the Kulukak River. Where and how you fish will depend on when you visit, as conditions evolve with the arrival of new runs of salmon.
If six days of fishing is one too many, guests have the option to visit Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park & Preserve, where brown bears gather to capture returning salmon and photographers gather to capture the iconic images of said bears catching salmon.
One constant at Tikchik is flight. Nearly all of the rivers that lodge guests’ fish are accessed by its three de Havilland Beaver and Cessna 206 float planes. (Boats await to spirit anglers up and down the rivers from there.) Though the last Beaver rolled off the assembly line in 1967, these rugged and beloved workhorses remain the primary means of transportation in the Alaskan bush, allowing travelers and supplies to reach places that might otherwise be inaccessible. The current roster of Tikchik pilots sports more than 120 years of combined flying experience.
Tikchik anglers learn what fishing fates await them after dinner, when lead guide King announces assignments. On my second night, I was excited to learn that the next day I’d be flying to the Kulukak, a short river that dumps into the Pacific Ocean, to cast for king (or Chinook) salmon. Kings are the largest Pacific salmon species to return to the region and are Alaska’s state fish, equally prized for their flavor and fighting power; they can weigh 60 pounds and more, though specimens in the range of 15-to-25 pounds are more common. The intimate Kulukak is narrow and shallow, providing the ideal environment for targeting kings with a fly. En route to the coast, we flew just below the clouds, past rugged, mist-shrouded mountains and intermittent stands of spruce, Seuss-like in their thin, narrow stature. The abundance of water below us was staggering – long, narrow glacial lakes, bogs, small ponds, rivulets and rivers. My fellow passengers – Loren Dake and his adult sons, Trevor and Spencer – and I strained our eyes to spot a moose or brown bear below, but none were to be found.
After lead pilot Steve Larsen set the Beaver down gently on the Kulukak, our guides Adam Franceschini and Cameron Nizdil fired up the engines for two jet boats that were moored on the river, and we headed upstream. (Tikchik has semi-exclusive access to the Kulukak; we didn’t see another human until Larsen picked us up.) At the first pool, the guides set up the Dakes with spinning rods and roe sacks for bait while I started casting my fly, a large, pink creation called the Dolly Llama. The Dakes cast upstream and let their baits drift down, ready to set the hook should the bobber dip below the surface. I cast my fly toward the far bank, letting it swing across the river on the current. Within 10 minutes, both Spencer and Loren had hooked up and were fighting bright, silvery salmon approaching 25 pounds to the bank. Then my rod violently jolted, and I was fast to 20 pounds of king salmon somersaulting downstream. As I battled my fish toward Nizdil’s waiting net, Trevor hooked up and was soon racing below me to bring his fish to hand. Within short order, we each had our first king salmon; each was released to help maintain the river’s limited runs. (Many others were landed.) To celebrate our success, the guides prepared a shore lunch of fresh salmon. The sand near our table was decorated with the footprints of bears, wolves and moose. Though Alaska’s iconic mammals are not often encountered, one senses that they are never far away.
To finish off a nearly perfect fishing day, we were treated to several brown bear sightings on the flight home, including a sow with three cubs.
We were not the only anglers who’d found success with the kings that day. Gary Dunn, a first-time Alaska angler in his early 70s, had landed several salmon in the 40-pound class on the Togiak. “I’d seen the lodge on the Travel Channel, and thought that I’d like to visit before I got much older,” he shared. “I used to fish on charter boats off Long Island, but it was with heavy equipment. I’d always wondered what it would be like to catch a big fish in a river on light tackle. My wife convinced me to go, but couldn’t accompany me. I called my son Brian, and he was game.”
“When he caught his biggest salmon of the day, he was almost in tears,” Brian Dunn added. “He said, ‘I caught Walter!’ “ recalling the fictional trout from “On Golden Pond.” Relating this story, Brian was almost in tears as well.
The most memorable fishing lodges blend goodwill and good fishing to achieve an atmosphere of easygoing bonhomie. Such camaraderie was certainly evident at Tikchik Narrows as longtime guests – including many father-and-son parties – mingled with newbies and guides near the bar to swap fishing tales and share tips for the river they just returned from. Most nights, guests swapped tables to get better acquainted and enjoy creations from chef Thomas Lubinski – braised lamb shank, roast beef tenderloin and, of course, Alaskan king crab. After dinner, most would linger to observe the ever-growing schools of sockeyes circling below the deck or play cards. One evening, a mother bear and two cubs slowly picked their way along the shore across the narrows. Close by, but not too close.
On my second to last night, I flew to Tikchik’s satellite location, Sunset Camp, which can accommodate four anglers. It’s a camp in name only; guests enjoy private wall tents with en-suite bathrooms and running water, comfortable beds and nearly exclusive access to the prized Upper Nushagak.
The next morning, guide John Smolko captained our jet boat upstream, weaving through verdant forests and around snags and gravel bars. Whenever he spotted a group of spawning chum salmon, we’d stop; I’d cast an egg fly above the salmon, letting it drift through and below, in hopes that rainbows, Dolly Vardens and graylings were waiting below. More often than not, they were. After at least a dozen fish, I mentioned my mouse-fly fantasy. (The anticipation and thrill of a surface take has captured my imagination after too many YouTube videos.) “You won’t catch as many,” Smolko cautioned, “but it might work.” Rodents are not an integral part of the rainbow trout diet, but the feeding season is short in Alaska, and such a bundle of protein is too much for opportunistic trout to turn down.
Smolko moved the boat to the middle of the river and I began making long casts downstream toward the bank, letting the deer-hair fly swing on the current. Most presentations were ignored, but occasionally there would be a splash as a curious rainbow tried to grab the mouse. A few fine examples – 17 or 18 inches – held on. Trophies, perhaps, in the Lower 48. But hardly river monsters in Alaska.
With 10 minutes to go before we had to meet our plane, I made another cast to the left bank. As the fly gurgled across the river erupted but the fish – a big one – missed the fly. It came to the mouse again and I set the hook too soon, pulling the fly away. I wanted to cry.
“Give it back to him,” Smolko said, and I cast to the same spot. The waters parted and I was fast to the fish I’d been dreaming of. After a long fight, Smolko netted it – resplendent with a faint magenta stripe and the fine spots that have earned Alaska rainbows their “leopard trout” sobriquet.
“It’ll go two feet,” Smolko said as we snapped pictures and returned to the trout to the Nushagak. My trip was complete.
A road winds through Zhagana, a village clinging to the mountainside in Amdo. The stunning valley has only recently become known among tourists, and guesthouses are popping up. MUST CREDIT: Photo by William Ford for The Washington Post.
For as far as the eye could see, thousands of white tents the size of Winnebagos covered a grassland valley, surrounding a tent as large as a football field. Inside, monks had been chanting along with the lectures of high Tibetan lamas for hours. Outside, some 300,000 Tibetan pilgrims – many of them nomads – followed the prayers via stadium-size jumbotrons broadcasting the action inside.
On my first afternoon in the valley, just outside Labrang Monastery, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, I wandered through the sea of tents for an hour or so before pitching my own, which was designed for backpacking. My neighbors laughed at its size, then at me and invited me to dinner.
I’d just finished my first year teaching Chinese history in Beijing, at an exchange programme for American high school students, and I was happy to be on my own for the summer. A decade earlier, in 2006, I’d been a student at the very same programme, and we’d visited the area in the last weeks of school. At the time, I remembered the Tibetan plateau feeling different from the eastern cities of China, and not just because the air was cleaner. After living in Beijing for nine months, I couldn’t believe how much open space there was, and how slow the pace felt. During the trip, I’d also run across a backpacker traveling alone, who I envisioned wandering enchanted Buddhist grasslands without a care in the world. For a 17-year-old, it was hard to imagine more freedom.
Ten years later, my reasons for visiting had changed somewhat. In the years I’d been away, ethnic riots had broken out in Lhasa in 2008, and a wave of self-immolations had begun in protest of Chinese rule. The Chinese government had responded by pouring money into the region in an attempt to buy back Tibetan loyalty, and the plateau was changing fast. But that also meant the area was becoming more accessible, and more tourists were visiting beyond intrepid backpackers. Over the past three years, I’ve returned multiple times to track the changes, but I never stop taking in the scenery.
One of the best places to do that for first-time visitors to Tibetan areas is in Amdo, one of Tibet’s three main kingdoms. Today, Amdo includes parts of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and slivers of Sichuan, similar to the way New England comprises a region of six states in America. The Chinese government doesn’t regulate travel in the Amdo regions of Tibet as tightly as it does Tibet proper, and foreign travellers need not arrange travel permits to visit the region. Its rolling grasslands and hidden mountain ranges, however, are as breathtaking as any on the Tibetan Plateau, and its culture is as deeply entrenched. Amdo has produced a nearly endless number of influential Tibetan leaders, among them the current Dalai Lama, whose native prairies in Qinghai offer some of the most dramatic landscapes on the plateau.
At elevations above 10,000 feet, Amdo’s winds and piercing sky can feel far removed from the smog of major Chinese cities, but its eastern edge lies only a few hours by plane from Beijing. To get there, most visitors fly into Lanzhou, the sprawling capital of Gansu Province, and then arrange a car or take a bus to Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe County, about three hours from the capital. Over the span of a 4,000-foot elevation gain from Lanzhou, the highway to Labrang provides a slide show of rapid cultural transition: urban sprawl gives way to the spires of Hui Muslim mosques in Linxia, and then, as the dry, cracked soil of the Loess plateau transforms into a canvas of open grassland, Buddhist monasteries begin to emerge, marking the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
The plateau offers two main activities for travellers: exploring the many monasteries scattered over the plains and trekking. Xiahe, Langmusi and Zhagana – a small city, a town, and mountain village respectively, all within a few hours’ drive of one another – offer both in spades to first-timers, though at different scales. Labrang Monastery, in Xiahe, remains one of the largest Buddhist institutions on the Plateau, with some 4,000 monks. Langmusi, a high-elevation town that splits the Gansu and Sichuan border, draws smaller crowds of backpackers in the summer for grassland treks and glimpses of its two smaller monasteries. And only a two-hour drive from Langmusi lies Zhagana, a narrow valley of dramatic mountain villages ideal for high-alpine hiking.
In the summers, I usually make my way between the towns by bus, and occasionally hitchhike, but travelers who don’t speak Chinese or Tibetan can find transportation just as easily with the guidance of a wide range of tourist agencies and guesthouses that cater to foreigners. Asking whether the operation is Chinese-run or Tibetan-run is often a good idea; the region has had a troubled history with the Chinese government since Mao Zedong adopted of the language of Marxist liberation in the 1950s to justify the Chinese army’s occupation of Tibet. The Tibetan historical narrative, to put it mildly, is more frank.
Labrang Monastery, which was rebuilt after most of it was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, marks the first logical stop from Lanzhou, and most of it can be seen in a day. In the morning, it’s worth waking up early to walk around the monastery with the pilgrims, some of whom travel great distances to Labrang while others stop there as part of their commute, prostrating themselves in a circumambulation of the complex. The beginning of late-morning prayers, marked by Tibetan horns and streams of monks hurrying to the central prayer hall, are sometimes open to the public. Afterward, a stroll down the town’s main street offers a view of long sets of souvenir shops, especially those that sell Tibetan textiles, as well as the sprawl of the city.
Amdo’s commercialization on the walk is tangible as well, offering a reminder of how fast things are now changing. When I visit, I sometimes stay with a former farmer who, after opening his guesthouse a few years ago, now earns more than 1 million renminbi – about $145,000 – during the tourist season in the summer.
The next stop, to Langmusi, is further removed from such aggressive commercialization, though the town is expanding as well. From Labrang, the drive takes about four-to-five hours, but the grassland scenery is spectacular, and there’s an opportunity to break up the drive by stopping in Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. There, a nine-story temple – a rarity in Tibetan architecture – called Milarepa Lhakhang offers a great view. A climb up to the top through creaky floors passes through rooms filled with Tanka paintings of Buddhas and Arhats. The smell of yak-butter offerings near the shrines previews the many monasteries to come. The view from the top floor frames a typical expanse in modern Tibetan cities: an old monastery complex, then Chinese apartment sprawl and finally grasslands in the distance that extend into oblivion.
Another two hours of driving and you’ll arrive in Langmusi, a small town representative of many in Amdo – construction of a new commercial strip, financed by the Chinese government, has recently doubled its length, which is only about a half-mile long. The town’s appeal lies in the two monasteries and the surrounding mountains, which make the place an offbeat haven for backpackers. Occasionally, a nomad will even shepherd herds through the middle of town. Dramatic cliffs rise up above one side of town into a cluster of jagged rock, and hillsides of fir trees tuck themselves into the gorges.
Langmusi’s older monastery, Kirti, sits just below these mountains at the mouth of a gorge. About 300 feet up the ravine, groundwater trickles out of a rock bed and into a stream powering Tibetan prayer mills. A short hike above the gorge leads to tangle of prayer flags and a good spot to watch upland buzzards circling on thermals, searching for rodents. From the peak, Langmusi’s other monastery, Sertri, is easily visible, perched atop a hill on the other side of town, its golden roofs shimmering in the sunlight. Local divides in politics are visible as well; over the past few decades, Sertri, whose temples are in better shape, has done more business with the Chinese government, while more conservative Kirti has largely maintained its distance.
In town – a bustling street of souvenir shops, guesthouses, and restaurants – both monasteries allow tourists to walk their grounds with an entrance ticket, and, for lunch, you can sample a yak burger at Leisha’s Restaurant. Walk up and down the main street and you’ll also see many advertisements for trekking – by foot or on horseback – across the grasslands surrounding Langmusi, often with the option to stay the night with nomads.
The treks are well worth the time, especially ones that visit nearby Gahai Lake, a high grassland lake surrounded by distant mountains and home to many highland bird species. I first visited the lake after meeting, in a noodle joint, a few monks from Sertri who invited me to picnic by the lake. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever had with lunch and also a reminder that, in small towns like Langmusi, it’s never a bad idea to strike up a conversation.
But by far the greatest base for trekking in Gannan is the tiny mountain village of Zhagana, two hours’ drive from Langmusi across a winding valley. Cliffs, high peaks, streams, fir trees and terraced fields dominate the landscape – bringing to mind a kind of Tibetan Rivendell. In the 1930s, Mao’s Red Army used the landscape as cover, rampaging through the village on the Long March while fleeing Chang Kai-shek’s nationalists. A number of local guesthouses run treks up over high mountain passes and into grasslands hidden behind Zhagana’s imposing peaks, at over 12,000 feet, and some hikers trek up the very ravine Mao’s army descended during the Long March. The first time I visited, I arrived hoping to hike to nomad camps, but the weather took a turn for the worse. Still, my days in the mountain village were well spent: As I waited for the weather to turn, I read on a guesthouse porch, overlooking the rows of houses that clung to the mountainside, and hiked to the monastery in the afternoons. Then I went back to the porch and read some more, gazing over the mountains and sipping yak-butter tea. At times, construction rang out over the valley, reminding me of how fast Amdo was changing. But the view, at least, wasn’t going away anytime soon.
When my husband, Tom, asked me what I wanted for Christmas last year, I was only half joking when I said offhandedly, “Just whisk me away somewhere.” For years, I’ve asked my family not for stuff for Christmas or birthday presents but for “gifts of time.” When the kids were little, there were sweet promises to play Barbies, go for bike rides or sing songs together. As teens, they either ignore the request with an eye roll or scribble a vague promise of lunch, and rarely seem to follow through.
I’d been just as guilty. I promised to take Tom for a weekend of biking in Virginia wine country one year for Christmas, but we could never seem to find the time.
So when I opened my gift from Tom and found a kitchen whisk with a note on red felt with the promise of whisking me away for a weekend, I smiled resignedly and thought, well, I really did need a new kitchen whisk.
A few months later, I was paying bills and angrily noticed payment for two American Airlines tickets. I was about to report a fraudulent credit card charge when Tom told me to put down the phone. He was, indeed, going to whisk me away for the weekend.
My first thoughts were a jumbled panic: We don’t have the time. There’s too much going on at work. I haven’t folded the laundry in weeks. Are you nuts, we have a kid going off to college and can’t afford anything but grilled cheese sandwiches and tuition for the rest of our lives.
But almost as quickly, I was overcome with another thought: Tom and I hadn’t been alone together in what felt like eons. We were the kind of parents who worked hard, but always loved spending time with our kids and threw ourselves wholeheartedly into family life. We always planned our evenings, weekends, vacations and trips with them in mind, and around their interests. We insisted on what had become forced family dinners and forced family-fun outings. Our social life revolved around getting together with other families and their kids. Tom and I rarely had date nights. And often our communication – after a summary “How was your day?” – consisted of logistics planning, carpool handoffs and homework check-ins.
The thought of being alone together felt worrisome, strangely awkward and thrillingly novel.
We had seen friends and neighbours, who had likewise devoted all their free time to their children, lose hold of each other and split up after their kids left home. And we outwardly laughed, but inwardly winced, when friends said they’d taken a trip to Amsterdam without kids just to see if they still liked each other.
And so it was that one Friday morning in late August 2016 – the laundry still unfolded, the work, as always, still unfinished although I’d stayed up until the wee hours and the kids, again with the eyerolling, assuring us they’d be fine – we boarded the American Airlines flight from DC to Providence, Rhode Island, rented a car and headed toward Cape Cod.
We’d arrived early, so our first stop was in Woods Hole, for breakfast and big mugs of steaming coffee at Pie in the Sky Bakery and Cafe. We sat outside on the front patio eating egg sandwiches, freshly baked scones and blueberry muffins under the big, green umbrellas and watched the world go by.
We changed into our swimsuits and made our way to Nobska Beach, a beautiful crescent-shaped strip of rock and white sand under the iconic Nobska Lighthouse just outside of town. We took a quick dip, laughing and playing in the waves, just as we had when we came to the Cape long before having kids. And we fell into an easy rhythm that would carry us through the weekend of talking, reading, dozing and, this morning, gazing in awed silence across the waves of Vineyard Sound.
In the afternoon, we made our way north to Wellfleet, a small, quaint fishing village known for oyster beds on the bayside of the Cape, and wound our way along back roads to the secluded Oyster Cove Bed & Breakfast. Tom had reserved the second-floor Captain’s Studio. We dropped our bags and sat out on the private deck in the late afternoon sun with views in all directions of Oyster Cove, the salt marshes and Wellfleet Harbor.
That evening, we stopped in at the Beachcomber, a converted 1897 lifesaving station, and sat at the bustling, rustic outdoor bar that looks out over the cliffs to Cahoon Hollow Beach. By the time we were lazily wandering around Wellfleet Center awhile later, poking our heads into stores such as the Sickday surf shop and asking about paddleboard rentals while waiting to have dinner at the Wicked Oyster, my trepidation about spending time alone together again seemed altogether silly. I could begin to see the longer arc of my own life, and our shared life, and however wonderful, exhausting and intense, just how brief this episode of raising children would be.
The rest of the weekend, we went on long runs on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a blessedly flat former rail line that winds through kettle ponds, cranberry bogs and forests, read the paper and drank endless mugs of locally roasted Beanstock coffee at the Flying Fish for breakfast, swam on bayside beaches such as Corn Hill in Truro and Marconi on Wellfleet’s oceanside, where Tom communed with a great gaggle of seals that were frolicking just beyond the waves. We explored nearby places such as Indian Neck Beach and the walking trails of Great Island. For a belated anniversary, we finally treated ourselves to dinner at PB Boulangerie Bistro, a cozy French spot just across US Route 6 that we’d seen on family trips for years, but had never once thought of going. I had the raw oysters. Immediately, I understood why Wellfleet oysters, grown in the clean, cold, salty estuaries nearby with fast-moving tides, are so renowned for their balance of what connoisseurs describe as creamy sweetness and brine.
When it was time to head back to the airport, after showering at Marconi Beach and picking up box lunches of ham and turkey sandwiches on crusty French bread from PB Boulangerie Bistro’s bakery, I was eager to return to our children and the life we’d built together, and so grateful for the time to remember why we’d wanted to build one together in the first place. I turned to Tom, grabbed his hand and whispered, “Thank you for my whisk.”
The overwater bungalow – that iconic symbol of the ultimate tropical vacation, standing in clear blue water on stilt legs – turns the big five-oh this year. The thatched huts, often outfitted with such luxury amenities as plunge pools and glass floors to better see the fish below, are a staple on the bucket lists and Pinterest boards of aspirational travellers the world over. Yet their origin lies in a surprisingly prosaic exercise in problem-solving.
Back in the ’60s, three tanned, party-hearty California kids – Hugh Kelley, Don ‘Muk’ McCallum and Jay Carlisle – left their 9-to-5s in pursuit of their tropical dreams in French Polynesia. Opening hotels on Moorea and Raiatea, the trio was dubbed the Bali Hai Boys, after the mystical island in James Michener’s novel ‘South Pacific’.
Carlisle, now in his 70s, reminisces about those days:
“Our Hotel Bali Hai on Moorea thrived with its beachfront property, but Hotel Bora Bora on Raiatea struggled,” he says. “It didn’t have any beaches.” A serious problem, indeed. “Inspired by the vernacular thatched-roof fishing huts,” he goes on, “Kelley derived the idea of building bungalows on concrete stilts out on the bay, providing direct access to the lagoon. We drilled down by hand; there were no electric drills or anything. We did all of the work.” That was in 1967.
The trio assured the government that the stilted bungalows wouldn’t damage the environment. “We built small docks that extended out into a flat place in the lagoon and attached them to pylons, “ Carlisle said, “The coral grows around the pylons and attracts the fish.”
They built three bungalows “with Plexiglas on the living room floor so you could see the reef below.” That feature soon became known as “Tahitian TV,” a must-have in any overwater bungalow.
People liked the bungalows, so the Bali Hai Boys built six more. And then another three. Then other hotels in the region started copying them. Even though the originals were never luxe, they ignited a revolution in posh hotel architecture, and French Polynesia became synonymous with tropical glamour.
The original overwater bungalows, built in 1967, were inspired by the vernacular thatched-roof fishing huts.
Today, with the other men’s children, Carlisle oversees the Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel, the smallest and last of their properties. (McCallum now lives on the US mainland, and Kelley died in 1998.) The hotel remains quite rustic, and Carlisle insists that he has no plans to change that. The other original resorts are long gone, but in their place is a global industry of overwater bungalows.
“By my last count, there were 165 total resorts in the world with close to 9,000 overwater bungalows,” says Roger Wade, who runs OverwaterBungalows.net.
The true overwater bungalow tends to have one thing: turquoise, swimming-pool-esque waters. They can’t be exposed to waves and tides. At the Four Seasons Bora Bora, the South Pacific boasts what is consistently rated as the world’s best.
“We’ve taken the overwater bungalow philosophy introduced by the Bali Hai Boys and have introduced the next level of design, comfort and luxury,” says hotel spokesman Brad Packer. Each bungalow provides two outdoor living areas, one for sunning and one for dining, soaking tubs built for two, and glorious views of Mount Otemanu at every turn.
(From left) Hugh Kelley, Jay Carlisle and Don ‘Muk’ McCallum at the Hotel Bali Hai Moorea in the 1960s.
That said, you’ll find the preponderance of overwater bungalows – two-thirds – in the Maldives. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia have them as well.
Resorts closer to the United States have been feverishly developing overwater bungalows over the past few years, with Jamaica, St. Lucia, Belize and Mexico all offering the overwater experience. And some, according to Wade, are on par with those in the South Pacific, including Jamaica’s new Sandals Royal Caribbean and the El Dorado Maroma in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Both are luxurious, offering infinity pools, outdoor showers, two-person Jacuzzis and, of course, the glass-floored living room to view the tropical fish. The main difference, Wade is quick to add, is that while these new Caribbean bungalows are set in very clear bays, their waters don’t compare with the crystalline lagoons of the South Pacific or the Maldives.
Other destinations have what Wade describes as “eco-resorts” that take the overwater concept to rivers and lakes. You’ll find them in Guatemala, Panama, even Honduras. “They’re not quite the same,” Wade says. Meaning, they don’t have the beautiful, clear waters that make the South Pacific bungalows so alluring. Nevertheless, they offer the sublimity of being suspended overwater.
According to Wade, the demand for overwater bungalows shows no signs of diminishing. “Resorts have popped up in Qatar,” he says, “even Africa has a couple, in Kenya and Mozambique.”
There aren’t any in the United States – yet. In the meantime, with the 50th anniversary in full swing, including special anniversary packages being offered by hotels around the world, Carlisle admits that the Club Bali Hai Moorea Hotel is not noting the occasion.
“I didn’t even know about the anniversary,” he says. “I guess we’re not doing anything special.”
No need. They did that 50 years ago.
The main structure of Byodo-in - Ho’o-do, or ‘Phoenix Hall’ - was originally built in 1053.
Japan doesn’t do daylight saving time, so it was already dark when I left northern Kyoto’s Ichijoji Station at dinnertime one September. The area’s 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites were closed for the night, but Ichijoji is one of the many Kyoto neighbourhoods without any especially celebrated temples, shrines or gardens. The area is not even on many tourist maps, at least not English-language ones. But a certain kind of cultural connoisseur regularly finds the place, summoned by the two-dozen ramen shops along a few blocks of a street named Higashi Oji Dori.
I discovered Kyoto’s uptown ramen district as part of finding my way around Japan’s most historic large city. There it was on a map provided by a bike-rental shop, just a short walk from the Eizan line, one of the city’s charmingly retro – yet impeccably functional – commuter railways. Over three decades, I’ve made three visits to the Golden Pavilion, generally considered Kyoto’s top tourist attraction. That’s more than enough. But the Eizan, Keifuku and Keihan lines? I’d happily ride them every day for the rest of my life.
Many foreign visitors never find these everyday marvels. That’s probably because they see getting around Kyoto as a problem rather than an opportunity. Instead of walking, biking and riding Kyoto’s working museum of train lines, they turn to taxis (expensive and slow) and buses (extensive but even slower).
I prefer to take my cue from the route visitors are prompted to follow through a Japanese temple garden – the kaiyu, or circuit. Most temple buildings are open to the public only on special occasions, if at all. What’s visible is the way the structures are placed in the landscape, and the garden that surrounds them. Its prescribed path is the only available road to enlightenment.
The most rewarding way to see Kyoto and environs is to make the whole enterprise a series of kaiyu, even if that requires a bit more spontaneity than simply checking off a list of top sites. Escaping the taxi or tour bus also offers lessons in a way of seeing that might be called distinctively Japanese, although perhaps also a little bit French.
Paris-bred writer Louis Aragon, one of surrealism’s leading voices, extolled the impulse “to willfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify expression.” That nicely captures the Japanese flair for framing an exquisite view. But it might also describe the experience of gazing out the window of a local train as it slinks through ordinary Kyoto neighbourhoods, passing so close to small shops and tile-roofed houses that they appear within reach.
On paper, Kyoto (“capital city”) looks simpler than Tokyo (“eastern capital”). It’s much smaller, although not compact; in area, Kyoto is almost five times the size of Washington, DC. The central city’s streets are arranged in a grid, punctuated by numbered avenues that run east-west. Even the Kamo (“duck”) river, which separates downtown from tourist-beckoning Higashiyama (“eastern hills”), follows a straight north-south course through much of the city.
Ginkaku-ji, also called the Silver Pavilion, is in northern Kyoto.
The wide, regular boulevards draw lots of traffic, which is why buses and taxis travel in slow motion. And the best-known Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are not in the center, but nestled in the hills that enclose Kyoto’s central basin. That’s partly because most temples – and their meddling monks – were banned from what was Japan’s capital during the Heian period (794-1185). Also, many Buddhist sanctuaries began as aristocrats’ country estates, built in scenic and cooler locations in the heights and only later converted to religious uses.
Visitors who arrive from Tokyo, which boasts 13 subway lines, are often surprised that Kyoto has just two. While useful, these directly serve only small areas of the city. But there are several other local lines that serve the area; three of them also connect to nearby Osaka. Running east-west and north-south, respectively, the underground Hankyu and Keihan lines supplement (and connect to) the subway in central Kyoto. More scenic journeys are available via the funkier operations, which operate mostly on the surface.
The most charming train line in Kyoto – and possibly Japan – operates from a terminal on the west side of downtown. The Keifuku main line goes to Arashiyama, a relatively rustic precinct of temples, gardens and other attractions near Kyoto’s western edge. (Its bamboo forest offers one of the city’s most celebrated strolls.) The line’s northern spur serves Ryoanji, the temple with Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden, and the spur’s terminus is the closest train station to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion).
The Keifuku isn’t the only Kyoto railway that links several notable sites. There are lesser-known but equally interesting spots along the tracks that run in a different direction, toward Nara. That rail trip offers as many pleasures as two other kaiyu I’ve undertaken: by foot along the Higashiyama hills and by bicycle along the Kamo River.
The area just south of Kyoto Station doesn’t look promising. This was once the site of Rashomon, the southern gate to the city, immortalised by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film. But the gate was demolished in the 15th century, and today the area’s principal historic landmark is Toji, the temple that boasts Japan’s highest pagoda.
Further to the south, however, are several impressive, out-of-the-way attractions. These are strung along the two train routes to Nara, which preceded Kyoto as the national capital. The JR and Kintetsu lines both stop near the Fushimi Inari Taisha, whose red-orange torii (gates) were used as a location in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a movie rather less acclaimed than “Rashomon.” There are about 10,000 torii, often so close together that the experience of walking through them resembles passing through a tunnel.
The Keifuku line is part of a working train museum of sorts in Kyoto.
Inari is the fox kami (god or spirit), one of Japanese folklore’s many shape-shifters. More important, at least in economic terms, Inari is the god of rice and business. That explains why there are some 30,000 Inari shrines across the country. Kyoto’s is the principal one, and the grounds constitute another kaiyu. Meandering paths lead from the entrance up the side of Inari Mountain, passing hundreds of tiny shrines and fox statues. A ramble to the top and back can take several hours.
Less strenuous but nearly as interesting are the streets around the shrine entrance, with their shops and restaurants. This neighborhood is known for fortune cookies – a Japanese invention that became misidentified with China in the United States – and inari-zushi, allegedly the favorite food of the fox god. It’s rice wrapped in a bite-sized packet of tofu skin, which I find disagreeably sweet. I remember more fondly the bowl of soba noodle soup I had near the Kintetsu station, whose platform features silhouettes of foxes.
The next notable stop is Uji, whose principal kaiyu is a walk along a river that has UNESCO World Heritage sites on both sides. This city is known to the Japanese for the quality of its green tea and for its connection to “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century novel that’s partly set there. Uji seems to draw few Western visitors, even though it’s just 17 minutes by express train from Kyoto Station and contains the region’s (and perhaps the country’s) most beautiful temple, Byodo-in. Its main structure, originally built in 1053, is known as Ho’o-do (“Phoenix Hall”).
Visitors to Japan who pay attention to money are sure to see a rendering of the graceful building: It’s on the 10-yen coin. Although positioned next to a pond that once saved it from fire, Phoenix Hall is not one of those temples that’s less striking than the landscape around it. The red, Chinese-style building is airy and birdlike, with two symmetrical wings that flank the central hall, connected by open passageways. The hall was originally built to protect against an expected dark age, so it’s always an appropriate pilgrimage.
The end of the line, Nara, is a frequent one-day excursion for Kyoto visitors. The city is known for its central park populated by tame (but ravenous) deer and surrounded by museums and historic structures. The most famous is Todai-ji (“eastern great temple”), reportedly the world’s largest wooden building, and the home of Japan’s second largest metal Buddha. There are dozens of other attractions, some of them in the wooded hills around the central green.
My favorite Nara destination is secluded yet central. Isui-en (“water-reliant garden”) sits next to Todai-ji, but is overlooked because its entrance is on a side street. This smallish refuge, the most beguiling of the dozens of gardens I’ve visited in Japan, is actually two that have been combined, linked by a central pond in the shape of the Chinese character for “water.” One segment is more open and obviously groomed, the other more enclosed and naturalistic.
Although Isui-en is compact, it incorporates its surroundings through the technique of shakkei (“borrowed scenery”). To anyone gazing outward to the northeast, Todai-ji’s massive gate and the three mountains beyond it appear integral to the garden. As so often is the case in Japan, the correct frame produces the ideal picture.
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.
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