About Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
Latest Posts by Mariellen Ward
My seventh trip to India happened this past September. Every time I come here, I don’t know what to expect. For one thing, I’m different. It’s a different me that arrives each time. For another, India is different. India is changing, and probably faster than any society on earth. Above, staring out at the Ladakh immensity from Thiksey Monastery chortens.
When I first started travelling in India nine years ago, the Delhi airport was basically a big, old shed and women almost universally wore swathes of fabric, in the Indian style. Now the Delhi airport is new and glitzy and could be in Houston; and many young women here wear jeans and t-shirts.
In my own journey as an India traveller, I too am changing. When I first travelled in here, I was completely mesmerized by the novelty, and all the things about India that foreigners usually cite (colour, chaos, crowds, spirituality, historic sites, etc). I had a long and fruitful honeymoon stage. India was my muse, and I wrote thousands of words. But like all love affairs, it has become complicated.
On the continuum from Alice in Wonderland towards Paul Theroux, I am moving towards a much more realistic, unvarnished and sometimes grumpy view of travel in India. (Also a grumpy view of trying to make a living as a travel writer and blogger ….but that’s another story … and I will be announcing a new venture soon to hopefully make this a more prosperous career path…)
Ugrasen ki Baoli is an ancient stepwell in the heart of Delhi. Very evocative place.
The world’s most transformative travel destination
I am still besotted by what I see as the essence of the experience of travel in India — radical transformation. India will change you, if you let it. It will challenge you on just about every level and “broaden your horizons,” as my Mom used to say. It may also give you a renewed sense of faith in the universe, in the mysterious workings of the cosmos and the underlying truth that connects us all.
Sometimes, when you are completely frustrated, exhausted, disoriented and sensory-overloaded, India will surprise you with a moment. The veil draws back, a woman smiles, a man hands you a flower, the sky turns pink, incense and temple bells waft by on the breeze. Everything is okay, and it always was, and always will be.
These are the “magic moments,” and what we Indophiles live for. But they don’t come easy. On this trip, it took me quite a long time to recover from jet lag, and a much longer time to recover from culture lag. I had to re-adjust to being in India, and I was rusty. I had to re-remember so many things, from shutting my mouth tight in the shower to negotiating for autorickshaw rides.
Durga Puja in Chittarajan Park, Delhi
But more than that, I had to get in contact with the Indian version of me. I am a different person in India than I am in Canada — I have to be to live and travel here with any ease. From my perspective, the Indian worldview is much more fluid and present-centred; more relationship oriented and less achievement driven; much less controlling and and more accepting, it accords a much larger role to the presence of the unseen. “God knows best,” I have heard people in India say many, many times.
Travel highs and magic moments
My travels in India on this trip has had plenty of highs and lows, which is par for the course. But I got off to a good start. I was given a business class upgrade from Jet Airways, and a coveted single seat. This is a great configuration for the solo traveller: when you press the button to make your seat a bed, you are alone, with no one sleeping beside you. Being able to lie down and sleep really makes the very long journey from Canada (almost 24 hours door-to-door) much more bearable.
My next high happened when I arrived at the shiny new Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi. While flying, I was thinking a lot, for some reason, about my first trip to India, back in 2005, and how anxious I felt about all the unknowns facing me. I remember peering out the window into the midnight blackness and realizing I had no idea what to expect from India and from my impending six-month journey.
When I arrived in India for the first time, on December 5, 2005, an old acquaintance was waiting for me at the airport. I hadn’t seen Ajay in 13 or 14 years, could barely remember what he looked like. But there he was, and he drove me back to his family home in South Delhi, and he and his family became a very important part of that trip — and my life, from then till now.
This time, by chance, Ajay was in India ahead of me, and waiting for me as I arrived for the seventh time. When I walked out, with my luggage, and saw him standing at the exit, and smelled the sultry, acrid air of Delhi, I had a full-circle feeling. Life has seemed so chaotic and challenging in the years since I first landed in India, I didn’t expect this lovely, satisfying feeling; as if everything was unfolding perfectly, and I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It was a gift, this feeling, and it hasn’t left me. It feels like some era ended when I landed this time, on September 2, and a new era has begun.
Thikana is Delhi’s top guest house
My third high arrived shortly thereafter. One of my readers put me in touch with Atul and Sheetal of Thikana in Gulmohar Park, South Delhi and they very kindly hosted me for my first week in Delhi. Thikana is one of the leading guest houses of Delhi, a place I had long wanted to visit, and I wasn’t disappointed. Regular readers will know that I love Delhi, it’s my home-away-from home and my favourite city in India.
One of the many lovely public spaces at Thikana guest house in South Delhi.
I can now absolutely recommend Thikana to readers. It’s exquisitely decorated in high Indian style, the rooms are comfortable and modern, the location is good (closer to a metro station would make it ideal) in one the most upscale colonies of South Delhi and best of all is Sheetal and Atul, the hosts and owners. They, and their staff, go out of their way to make people feel at home and comfortable, and to answer questions and help with anything and everything, from laundry to bank machines to restaurant recommendations.
Plus, they’re fun. On my second or third night, Atul invited me to have drinks on their roof top terrace, a great place to hang out. Two other guests joined, I put my duty-free bottle of Bombay Sapphire on the table, and we enjoyed the very warm Delhi evening, under a waxing moon.
Outside Leh, surrounded by Himalayan mountains, at sunset.
The challenge of jet lag and high altitude
My first low was jet leg. I cannot exaggerate how bad the jet lag is, for me anyway, that results from travelling across half the world. I was a wreck, and I made the mistake of not giving myself enough time to recover. I ran around getting a SIM card, an Internet dongle, and running errands, and then gave a presentation at the Indian Association of Tour Operators convention only three days after landing.
My second low was the Kashmir floods. I was scheduled to fly to Kashmir on September 6, but the floods were worsening and the situation was growing dire. My own disappointment about not getting to Kashmir was dwarfed of course by the humanitarian crisis. The floods in Srinagar Valley, exactly where I had hoped to go, were the worst in 60 years.
The trip to Kashmir and Ladakh was hosted and arranged by India Tourism, so I met with them in Delhi and rearranged my itinerary. Luckily, a seat was available to fly directly to Ladakh, and away I went, to the top of the world.
Thiksey Monastery is one of the treasures of Ladakh.
On the roof of the world
If you look at a map of India, Ladakh is right at the top, the part that sticks up and is surrounded by Pakistan, China and several of the “stan” countries. Culturally and geographically, it is tied to Tibet. Like Tibet, you feel you are on the roof of the world, and about half the population are Tibetan Buddhists (most of the rest are Shia Muslims).
The Himalayan mountain range runs through Ladakh, and the altitude of the capital city, Leh, is 3,500 metres — going up to 4,500 metres if you cross passes outside of Leh. This means, without proper acclimatization, you can develop acute mountain sickness (altitude sickness). Some people are more sensitive to AMS than others — and I, unfortunately, am one of those very sensitive people. I was sick with AMS in Colorado and Bhutan, so I took every precaution possible for Leh. Ideally, you should move slowly up to these altitudes. The sickness usually occurs when people fly to Ladakh (like I did). Seriously, do not underestimate AMS. It kills tourists every year, usually people who land and start trekking without adjusting properly first.
Research and plan your trip to Ladakh very carefully. Altitude sickness is one danger, and another is weather. It gets very cold and very snowy in Ladakh early — sometimes in late September — and passes close, airports are shut. Tourists sometimes get trapped there for days and weeks.
On top of the world at Thiksey Monastery
Summer is the ideal time to go, of course. It’s warm — up to 30 C. — and the roads are clear. When I was there, I was based in Leh for about five days, and just made day trips into the countryside to see monasteries, chortens, palaces and the stark and beautiful landscape. Ladakh is a high altitude desert. The Himalaya mountains create a “rain shadow,” which prevents monsoon clouds from reaching Ladakh and releasing rain.
Many times in Ladakh, I felt I was in Tibet, especially of course when visiting Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. In fact, Ladakh and Tibet are very closely tied both culturally and geographically, and in former times, politically also. Though I have not been to Tibet in China, I imagine that Tibetan culture is better preserved in Ladakh.
After I returned from Ladakh, I relaxed in Delhi for a few days before heading down to Kerala for the Kerala Travel Mart and a wonderful week at Kaiya House in Varkala, Kerala. Kerala is one of my favourite states in India.
Stunning painting on the lovely roof top lounge of Kaiya House, Varkala, Kerala.
Kaiya House is one of those special places I look for in India — places that hit that sweet spot between basic and luxurious; that are run by caring owners; and that have a special ambience that inspires creativity. Kaiya House, the number 1 guest house in Varkala according to TripAdvisor, does indeed hit the spot.
The “secret sauce” at Kaiya House is the owner/ manager Debra, an energetic and detail-oriented American transplant. I have never experienced a more helpful and caring guest house owner. Debra makes sure all your needs are met and that you receive a thorough orientation.
After a week of relaxing and working in Varkala, I headed back up north to get ready for the Mirabai Expedition.
More on all these trips later, the Ladakh stories, and of course Mirabai Expedition … as soon as I stop moving.
These hotels RISE LIKE medieval castles above historic ports and bustling cities, among soaring mountains and thickly forested retreats. Fairmont Hotels are some of Canada’s oldest, most iconic and most majestic hotels. Many were built in the late 19th century, along the burgeoning railroad line, to attract wealthy tourists and entertain visiting dignitaries. Many are part of the nation’s history, woven into the Canadian tapestry as a social centrepiece. Above - The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta.
Fairmont Hotels can be compared to the Taj Group Hotels in India. The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto is Canada’s equivalent to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is equivalent to the Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur. In other words, they provide a similar level of service, a similar above-the-norm experience and occupy a similar position of social relevance within their respective communities. Read on to find out about some of the special experiences I had at Fairmont Hotels across Canada.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta
A baronial castle in The Rockies: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel rises above the evergreen forests of The Rockies like a Scottish castle. You can see it from a great distance, and it doesn’t lose its grandeur up close. Originally built in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel opened up tourism in western Canada.
I saw this hotel for the first time when I was a student, many years ago, and I went to Banff to work for the summer. I never imagined I would be coming back as a special guest.
From the moment I entered the baronial lobby, I really did feel I was in a castle. Grand staircases, suits of armour, plush furniture and family crests completed the picture. My room, modern in decor, framed a million-dollar view of The Rockies. On the first night, I sat with the lights out and watched a summer storm light up the snow-topped mountains.
The view from my room at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
The next day, I made a beeline for the hotel’s award-winning Willow Stream Spa. Banff is famous for the “Banff springs” — hot mineral water that flows down from the mountains and is piped to soaking pools. The hotel spa celebrates this ritual, with a large pavilion housing several pools and cascading waterfalls that evoke the Victorian era.
I literally could have stayed all day in the massive spa, which also includes saunas, steam rooms, resting rooms, treatments rooms and an outdoor hot water pool and terrace. However, an invitation to have high tea was beckoning and I made my way to an airy room with white-table-cloth covered tables set against large picture windows framing the same spectacular view of The Rocky Mountains I could see from my room.
There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. – Henry James
Within moments of sitting down, tea sommelier Bernice arrived with a cart of 12 teas and two champagnes to choose from. The teas ranged from green to black to herbals, and came from a range of countries of The East. I settled on the Eclipse Blend, a mix of second flush black teas from India, Sri Lanka and China.
Hight tea at the Banff Springs Castle
As I had called ahead and told them I was obliged to eat a gluten-free diet, they had prepared a variety of tasty gluten-free treats. I have had gluten-free high tea elsewhere, but none as good as at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Kudos to the Fairmont for moist and delicious ginger-molasses muffins, flourless chocolate cake, salmon, egg salad and vegetarian sandwiches on gluten-free bread and berry compote. High tea at the Banff Springs “castle” was a meal fit for a queen.
Concierge Robert Jones in baronial lobby of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
A final highlight of my stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel was a tour by long-time concierge Robert Jones. He relished telling me about the history of the hotel and pointed out many details such as the Tiffany fixtures, Mount Stephen Hall and the Spanish-inspired El Hombre Room. “People are awestruck when they come here,” he said. “You can see it in their faces.” I am sure my face, too, revealed my delight at finally experiencing the Banff Springs Castle.
Experiencing Alberta’s culture: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge has a very different look and feel from its baronial sister down the other end of the Icefields Parkway in Banff. While still elegant and luxurious, it is has a more authentic Rocky Mountain atmosphere. Instead of a castle and baronial lobby, you will find cabins and a lodge.
Arriving at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
This hotel takes advantage of its location on Lake Beauvert, and among the pristine wilderness of Jasper National Park. Recreational opportunities abound. I had checked in only moments before, and had barely even opened my suitcase, when I was on the dock and arranging for a canoe ride. I canoed around the lake, enjoying the perfect weather, fresh air and beautiful views. I felt instantly relaxed, and quickly fell into the rhythm of the Jasper Park Lodge.
Afterwards, I ate on an outdoor terrace overlooking the swimming pool, lawns and the lake, with the soaring mountains in the distance. At sunset, I joined several women originally from India, who were travelling with a large group. We sat in lawn chairs and watched the sunset, drinking wine and enjoying the company and the view.
Relaxing on the lawn at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
The next day after breakfast, I walked to a horse ranch on the hotel property. The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge covers 700 acres, with an impressive main lodge and 56 cabins, a large spa and many other facilities. After saddling up, I went on a two-hour trail ride accompanied by highly experienced guides. We rode at a gentle pace, allowing me to take photos and enjoy the forest scenery. This is something almost anyone could enjoy — previous experience on a horse is not necessary.
By the time I left, I felt I had immersed in the unique Canadian Rocky Mountain culture, perfectly captured by the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
The horse ranch at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Canada’s most scenic lake: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
The most photographed lake in Canada has got to be Lake Louise, as seen from the The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise terrace. Much like the famous Taj Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, this vista sums up all that is romantic and beautiful about Canada. I spent an afternoon here, canoeing on the glacial lake and having lunch in the elegant restaurant that gives diners one of the most spectacular views in Canada.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise with the famous lake and the Rocky Mountains
The Castle in the City: The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver
Fairmont Hotels has three hotels in downtown Vancouver, and one near the airport, but the grandaddy is the The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. This 75-year-old hotel is known as the ‘Castle in the City’ and it is indeed a grand edifice with an elegant, recently renovated lobby, rooftop restaurant, ballrooms and more. It also has an ideal location right in the heart of downtown, beside the grand Art Gallery of Vancouver.
The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver soaring above the Art Gallery of Vancouver
Medieval charm in Old Quebec: The Fairmont Chateau Frontenac
I stayed at the 100-year-old Fairmont Chateau Frontenac when I visited Canada’s Ice Hotel last winter. It is one of the most magnificent hotels in Canada, inspired by the medieval castles and regal chateaus of Europe and ideally located on a bluff overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River and Vieux-Quebec (Old Quebec). From here, you can easily walk to many fine restaurants, bakeries and cafes offering French pastries, chic shops selling fashion and art and areas of historical interest.
Fairmont Chateau Frontenac overlooking Vieux-Quebec
The heart of Canada’s capital: The Fairmont Chateau Laurier
Last year, I travelled to Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, as part of my search for my Irish roots, and stayed at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. This is the pre-eminent hotel of Ottawa, an historic site in its own right, ideally located on a bluff overlooking the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River, and with a million-dollar view of the magnificent Parliament Buildings. I loved the elegant wood-paneled lobby, my spacious room with iconic view of Parliament Hill and Gold Room service that included a separate check-in and lounge.
The Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Canada’s capital
Bollywood in Canada: The Fairmont Royal York Hotel
In June 2011, the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards hit Toronto and the Fairmont Royal York Hotel was “ground zero.” I was an embedded blogger at Toronto’s grand old hotel during the IIFA Awards, and wrote a number of blog posts about my Bollywood in Toronto adventures. It was an exciting, thrilling time to be staying at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, as most of the stars were also staying there and I actually ran into Shahrukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Dia Mirza, Arshad Warsi, R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi and many others in the lobby.
Sonakshi Sinah at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel during IIFA Awards. Photo courtesy Andrew Adams of Katha Images.
NOTE: Thank you to Canadian Tourism Commission, Travel Alberta, Banff Lake Louise Tourism, Jasper Tourism and Fairmont Hotels for hosting my stays.
The Icefields Parkway is the legendary 232 kilometre highway that runs through both Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta Canada. This is smack in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the North American equivalent of the Himalayas. Though not as high they are nevertheless spectacularly beautiful, jagged, rocky peaks streaked with bright white snow against Canada’s big blue sky.
I drove the Icefields Parkway both directions, from where I got off the train in Jasper to Banff, and back again, over the course of five sunny, warm days in June.
Mirror reflection on the Icefields Parkway. The Rockies
During the course of my drive, I saw several golden-fleece grizzly bears nibbling grasses by the side of the road, herds of big horn sheep, a lone elk silhouetted against the dusky sky and graceful deer crossing the road like ladies of leisure. I also saw majestic mountains serenely reflected in mirror-like lakes, forests of dark evergreen trees, waving golden grasses by the roadside.
A Grizzly bear by the side of the Icefields Parkway
The entire drive is a pristine, picture-perfect postcard of scenic beauty, very carefully maintained by the national parks service. It is indeed a Canadian treasure, one of the most special and beautiful tourism experiences you can have in this vast nation.
This is more that just traveling a mountain road; it’s a journey of the self and a celebration of protected wilderness grandeur. Icefields Parkway.
There is so much to see and do along the Icefields Parkway, I could write a book — and in fact many books have been written about this region. However, in this blog post I am going to just highlight two of the amazing experiences you can have.
Walking on air on the Glacier Skywalk
Walking on air: The Glacier Skywalk
Opened on May 1, 2014, the Glacier Skywalk is a brand new way to truly appreciate the Rocky Mountains. The attraction is right on the Icefields Parkway, very easy to find, about halfway between Banff and Jasper.
Head straight for the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, where you park your car, buy tickets and take a very short bus ride to the Skywalk. Once there, a walkway with interpretive displays and an audio tour leads to a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres (918 feet) over the Sunwapta Valley.
The Glacier Skywalk was designed to blend into the environment
When I arrived at the soaring viewing platform, I stepped gingerly on the glass floor — and saw just about everyone else doing the same thing. It is eerie and disorienting at first, but when you get used to it and relax, you have all the time in the world to take in the sweeping views and feel you are almost soaring in air.
The Glacier Skywalk is an engineering marvel, and cleverly designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. It was also built offsite, to minimize the environmental impact as much as possible.
Stopping at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre is also a good idea to take a rest and have lunch. There’s a restaurant and cafe, and a large outdoor terrace ideal for a picnic. When I was there, I got really lucky! I met a group of 34 travellers from India who brought their own lunch, and invited me to join. We sat on the terrace in the sun, and ate spicy dal, rice, curd, pickle, sweets and talked about Canada and how much they loved the “natural, pure, untouched beauty,” as one young woman, Shreya, said.
NOTHING. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. No sound at all. No hum or buzz of electricity, no car engines, no bird songs or even wind. That’s the thing I was most aware of when I was up on top of a Rocky Mountain somewhere off the Icefields Parkway to try heli-yoga for the first time.
What the heck is heli-yoga, you might ask? A helicopter whisks you, a yoga teacher and another student or two up to the top of a remote, untouched mountain and leaves you there. You watch as the helicopter flies away, and while the realization dawns that you are (almost) completely alone in nature. There’s no quick way to get back to civilization, no roads, no stores, no toilets, no telephones …
You are essentially alone with yourself and in connection with the divine forces of nature and the universe, beautifully visibly manifest in the spectacle of the jagged mountains lined up against the big clear-blue Canadian sky. In fact, though it took a marvel of modern technology to get us up here, the heli-yoga experience does in fact capture the essence of yoga — the pristine and undistracted oneness of connection.
We rolled out our yoga mats one fine June day on the scrubby mountain-top grass and took in the grand vista of the unending mountains as we settled into our practice. The uncanny silence made it easy for me to reach a deep meditative state, and before any time at all seemed to pass, yoga was over. It was time for lunch, a hike in the mountains and before we were ready to leave this silent sanctuary, we could hear the sounds of an approaching helicopter.
The Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Vancouver Canada is a stunning city, set between the mountains and the sea. Wrapping around Burrard Inlet, and bounded by the Georgia Strait and the Coast Mountains, Vancouver offers sky watchers many spectacular views and vistas. Red streaked sunsets from English Bay beaches, a panorama of skyline and coastline from Grouse Mountain and the thrilling sight of seaplanes taking off and landing in Coal Harbour.
Below the harbour at Ganges, Salt Spring Island
On my first trip to Vancouver, many years ago, my hotel room faced Coal Harbour, which is an inner harbour surrounded on all sides by the urban sprawl of Vancouver. Watching the slender sail boats, whale-like cruise ships and agile seaplanes on the inner harbour delighted me. They spoke of the exotic allure of an ocean seaport and the history of rugged Canadian exploration. When I was in Vancouver this summer, I was thrilled to get a chance to take a flight from Harbour Air Seaplane’s Coal Harbour terminal to Salt Spring Island in the Gulf Islands and back, after a few lazy days on the laid-back island.
Harbour Air Seaplane’s Coal Harbour terminal.
Flying into Ganges, Salt Spring Island
From the moment you arrive at the Harbour Air Seaplane terminal in Coal Harbour, in downtown Vancouver, the adventure begins. Check in at the glass-enclosed terminal building and enjoy free coffee and healthy snacks in the comfortable lounge with stunning harbour views. When it’s time to board, you simply walk out onto the dock and hand your luggage to the attendant, who puts it into a very small cargo hold.
On my flight out, I was one of about seven passengers aboard a DeHavilland Canada DHC-3 Single Turbine Otter. The small plane can hold about 10-14 passengers. It’s a different experience than flying on your average commercial flight. For one thing, you can’t bring any luggage in the cabin. There’s no food or drinks served. And the safety demonstration was a video shown on a tablet computer. Here’s A passengers guide to seaplanes.
View of Vancouver and Coal Harbour from the air.
Once strapped in, we jet-skied across the inner harbour and gently ascended, banking sharply, to fly over the Lion’s Gate Bridge and out towards the open waters of the Georgia Strait towards the Gulf Islands. Views of the city skyline filled the windows on the left and the Coast Mountains filled those on the right. Ahead, the undulating curves of the islands rose out of the shining sea. Flying at speed of about 110-130 miles per hour, and at a low altitude (under 3,000 metres), it takes about 20 minutes to get to Salt Spring Island and the views are non-stop gorgeous.
Gulf Islands from the air.
I was lucky, I flew in both directions on sunny, clear days. But if the weather’s really bad, we would have been grounded. From the Harbour Air Seaplane site: “…our seaplane pilots fly by Visual Flight Rules (VFR), which mean that they have to be able to see where they’re going to fly safely. Unlike larger commercial land-based aircraft, these amazing pilots can’t use complex electronic instruments to see in the dark, the fog, or the clouds, in part because they have to land the aircraft on the water. For this reason, our pilots and ground operations teams have a constant eye on the sky. If the weather conditions are not optimal, it may cause us to cancel or re-route our flights for safety reasons.”
Dolphin shaped island
Arriving by seaplane in Ganges’ picturesque harbour on a sunny Saturday morning in June, just in time for the famous artisan’s and farmer’s market, was the highlight of the trip. Ganges is a village, and the centre of Salt Spring Island. You may be interested to know that Ganges was named after the British naval ship HMS Ganges. The HMS Ganges that visited Salt Spring Island was built in in Bombay, India. Construction was of Malabar teak and she was launched on November 10, 1821.
Arriving in Ganges, Salt Spring Island, BC
A word about the Beaver
On my flight back from Salt Spring Island, I was lucky to fly aboard a DHC-2 Beaver — and in the co-pilot seat. This small-but-mighty bush plane, which only seats 5-6 passengers, is legendary in Canada. Several years ago when I was in Sault Ste. Marie to discover Algoma, Group of Seven territory, I stopped into the Bush Plane Heritage Centre for a tour and learned about the history and significance of the Beaver, which was in production from 1947-1965.
Pilot, Beaver aircraft and Ganges Harbour, Salt Spring Island
From the Bush Plane Heritage Centre site: “A true jack-of-all-trades the Beaver flew with floats, wheels or skis. Amongst its many uses were forest patrol, waterbombing, parachute drops, aerial photography, aerial fish stocking, transportation and cargo delivery. The name Beaver was consistent with de Havilland’s practice of giving their Canadian designs animal names, and like its animal namesake, the Beaver was a hard bush worker.
The success of the design is well illustrated by the fact that before production ended in 1967, 1,631 standard Beavers had been produced and delivered to 62 countries around the world. In 1978 the Canadian Engineering Centennial Board selected the Beaver as one of Canada’s most outstanding engineering achievements.“
Here’s a fascinating history of bush planes on the CBC site, which says: “The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver is considered by aviation historians to be the classic Canadian bush plane, a single-engine, short takeoff and landing utility transport aircraft.”
To see the Beaver taking off and landing in Vancouver harbour, check out this video that shows various operators flying, including Harbour Air Seaplanes.
A Canadian Signature Experience
The Harbour Air flight from Vancouver to Salt Spring Island is the company’s Canadian Signature Experience. You can stay for a few days on the island, as I did; or simply go for a tour, there and back. Harbour Air lists their routes and schedules here and some of the tours they offer here. I would say a seaplane tour is a MUST-DO activity when in Vancouver.
I fell in love with India, its culture and the people, and wrote from my heart. I never attempted to be objective, but to be honest about what I felt and saw, within the bounds of a respectful attitude. Over the years, as I’ve travelled more, honed my skills and brought more conscious thought to my work, I’ve come to realize that travel writing is a tricky business.
I’ve grappled with how to write respectfully, express my truth, tell a good story and stay true to my values — without offending locals. What I’ve learned is that it takes conscious effort and technical know-how to write effective travelogues. In this post, I asked some of the pros to share their tips and their wisdom for avoiding the cringe-worthy cliches and stereotypes that often subconsciously invade travel writing.
Sometimes you have to challenge your beliefs to get beyond the stereotypes
In Travel is an experience in perception, I tried to grasp this idea that we see the world through our own window, our own set of assumptions, ideas about reality, biases, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this — it’s just about recognizing that your truth is YOUR truth and may not be THE truth.
My photography teacher Tony Makepeace, who regularly visits Nepal and takes portraits of the people he meets there, said, “It’s worthwhile to think about your intentions, reflect on your role as an outsider, and recognize the difference in privilege and empowerment between you and your subjects.”
These first five tips are about how to dig in while travelling and challenge yourself while writing.
Tip 1. Blend in.
“Merge with the place,” Anuradha Goyal recommends. “It helps on two levels. One, with regards to safety and security issues, it helps protect you as you do not stand out. Two, it helps local people feel comfortable with you, and they open up more easily when they see you are making an effort to be one with them.” Anuradha Goyal is a travel blogger & writer, the author of The Mouse Charmers – Digital Pioneers of India (published by Random House) and a voracious reader. She writes a series of Travel Stories on her blog that she says, “would not have happened if I had not connected well by not standing out.”
I completely agree with Anuradha on this one. From my first days in India, I tried my best to adopt the dress and the social etiquette of the culture. When in Rajasthan, do as the Rajasthanis do, was my motto. I found it helped win me respect and trust, and opened up the culture to me.
Tip 2. Talk to locals.
Dan Noll and Audrey Scott of Uncornered Market have been travelling the world for many years, and sharing their stories and photos on their blog. They are driven by a desire “to humanize the places we visit, drawing our readers in through photographs and stories, so they connect with people and places they might otherwise never hear about or actively disregard.” Dan and Audrey’s work exemplifies a respectful attitude, and they have inspired me more than any other travel bloggers.
I asked Audrey to share advice and tips. “I think the main way to write without offending the locals is to expose yourself to a diversity of experiences and people so that you can get a better understanding of a place and breakdown the assumptions that you may make from first impressions.” She offers these writing tips:
- Talk to several people about a topic (or about the culture/history/politics of that country) so that you get different perspectives from a variety of people (e.g., different backgrounds, ages, genders). This allows you to understand better the diversity of opinions (if there is one) and prevents you from taking one person’s viewpoint and making it sound like it is representing the whole country. Use accurate quotes and avoid generalizations.
- Imagine that your best friend was of that culture. What would he or she think — were you being fair (note: not always pollyanna positive) and that you were respectful in your writing.
You know you are on the right track when you get comments like this one, in response to Bangladesh: Frequently Asked Questions: “I’m a Canadian-American Bengali currently visiting Bangladesh and the way you handled these questions with class really made me happy. It brought a tear to my eye to see how open and nonjudgmental you guys were to the average Bengali. Many people see Bangladesh as a dirty, poor, corrupt, chaotic, dysfunctional mess of a country, fellow Bengalis included.” And here are three more articles from Uncornered Market that reveal their unique, refreshing and respectful approach:
- First impressions of Ethiopia
- The forgotten women of the Dead Sea
- Immigration stories from Central America
Tip 3. Avoid cultural imperialism.
In my opinion, the western mainstream media is almost universally based on the underlying notion that western ideals, standards and ethics are de facto superior. Because I often travel in India — a country in the late stages of a post-colonial hangover — I try very hard to avoid this practise, which I call “cultural imperialism.”
It’s one thing to think, as I do, that, overall, women have more freedom and opportunity in Canada than they do in India, but it’s another to unconsciously believe that everything about the west is “right” and other countries are “wrong.”
It’s also worthwhile to challenge media stereotypes, and not digest them whole. Case in point: India has had a bad rap in the media because of some high-profile rape cases, but in the same period that two foreign female tourists were raped in India, many more were raped in Mexico, Greece, Spain, Turkey and elsewhere. “The number of Britons sexually attacked or raped abroad rose to 10% last year from 310 to 281 cases in 2011. Greece Spain and Turkey had the worst records,” from an article in The Mirror.
Tip 4. Write from your own experience.
While the mainstream media struggles to present objectivity and balance in journalism, as a personal narrative (or creative non-fiction) travel writer, you are under no such restrictions. Your experience is your truth and it cannot be argued. If you travelled on an overnight train and saw cockroaches on the wall just inches from your face and you couldn’t sleep; or if a child dressed in rags and selling flowers in the market smiled at you and you melted — these are your experiences. You needn’t make sweeping, judgmental statements about what your experiences mean or draw from them conclusions about the culture. You can simply describe them.
As a matter of fact, I don’t actually believe in objectivity. Everything is subjective, everyone has an agenda. I don’t think objectivity is a worthy goal, either. I think the de-humanizing tendency of the media is part of the problem, and that personal voice and personal experience is much more powerful, real and true. As travel writers, we give people a window through which to see the world, and it is our window, with all of our ideas, biases, experiences, hopes and dreams woven in. It’s okay to have biases and opinions, as long as you are aware of them and honest / transparent about presenting them.
Tip 5. Show interest, respect and humility.
We all walk around with a set of assumptions about the world and an idea of what we think reality is. Travel gives us the opportunity to examine them, and gain a much broader sense of perspective.
Don George is a well-known travel writer, the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing and a travel writing instructor. Here’s his approach: “Being humble, curious, and respectful of local cultures and peoples — trying to understand and evoke them on their level — is a cornerstone of how I travel and how I write about travel. As a guest in someone else’s house — that is, country and culture — I always try to be mindful of how little I know and what a great opportunity I have to learn!” In these pieces, Don shows how you can write descriptively about engaging with the local culture without making any assumptions or generalizations. These are all good examples of story-telling in travel writing, too.
- Road lessons around the bend in Bali
- Making roof tiles in Peru
- Building bridges in Mostar
Photographer Jim Kane wrote about taking culturally sensitive photos on Transitions Abroad: “…responsible photography is very much like responsible travel. With a thorough knowledge of the place you’re visiting, a genuine interest in sharing and not just taking, an alert intuition, an open mind, enough time, and a little luck, photography abroad—just like travel itself—can be a vehicle to build bridges. Ultimately, photography is ideally a form of exchange.” Read his eight guidelines here.
Sympathetic interpretation seldom evolves from a predatory attitude. The common term, ‘taking a picture,’ is more than just an idiom; it is a symbol of exploitation. ‘Making a picture’ implies a creative resonance, which is essential to profound expression. – Ansel Adams
And sometimes, it’s just a matter of artist technique to transcend the cliches
The following three tips are about how to use writing techniques to support respectful travel writing.
Tip 6. Tell a story.
And speaking of stories, don’t forget to tell one. I wrote about this after attending a workshop given by Spud Hilton and Stephanie Yoder at TBEX Colorado. In my post, Top 10 Travel Writing Tips, here’s point #1:
Have a point. Without a point (or premise) you are re-hashing your diary. You need to make a bigger point than simply you were there. Spud Hilton gave the example of traveling in wine country and then writing a piece about what ELSE you can do there, aside from wine related activities.
Travel writer and “story consultant” Mike Sowden on his site Fevered Mutterings has lots of resources for travel writers, including a course in story telling for bloggers, a page of story telling resources and an insightful post that explains Why 99% of bloggers give up from which I grabbed this inspiring quote: “As Andrew Evans explains so succinctly in this video, when you’re doing your best to convey what you really see, without the benefit of 20/20-hindsight, and if you do so with a very clear idea about what you want to be writing, unedited reality can be as compelling as a well-crafted story. In fact, it can be a good story. That’s the essence of quality non-fiction.”
Tip 7. Use the tools of fiction writing.
Paul Theroux is one of the great writers of travel literature. Talking about his unique style, he once explained that he wanted to inject dialogue and discomfort into travel writing as he felt these were largely missing. He has a point. Travel writers often skip writing about characters and conversations. Yet this technique, and others from the fiction writers tool kit, can give you a sense of the people, the place and what happened in a very direct and powerful way.
It is worth reading fiction or even taking some courses to learn about character, dialogue, description, plot development, narrative, and other techniques. These will not only add voice and colour to your writing, they will help give you the discipline to stick to the story, and keep you from wandering into the lazy habits that lead to cliched writing.
This piece about Varanasi from David Farley in Afar Magazine includes some of the characters he met in the ancient city.
Tip 8. Throw out your first idea and your second idea when you write; wait for the third idea.
This is a piece of writing advice I heard once, and can’t remember where. Everyone will have thought of the first one, it won’t be original, and it will originate in the “cliche” layer of our engagement with life. The second idea will also be something others may have thought of. But your third idea is likely to be more interesting, unique, fresh and thoughtful.
What do you think? Do you care about avoiding cliches and stereotypes? How do you achieve fair and accurate travel writing?
Cow in India – Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick .
Roughly an hour outside of Jasper, as I was settling into my private cabin on the train, a moose appeared outside my window, as if stationed there on purpose by the Via Rail company.
There he stood in all his lumpy majesty alone, a dark figure silhouetted against a golden field. In the distance, the tips of the Rocky Mountains were lit up by the last rays of the sun. It was the most Canadian of moments and I froze in a kind of northern induced rapture. A second or two later and we had moved on, inexorably pushing forward across the Canadian landscape.
The Canadian is so iconic that it’s pictured on the back of the Canadian $10 bill.
The Canadian has been serving up moments like these since April 25, 1955, when the Canadian Pacific railway inaugurated its new stainless steel, scenic-domed transcontinental passenger trains to traverse the 4,446 kilometres between Vancouver and Toronto.
Best train in Canada
An American train aficionado I met on The Canadian, Tom from New Jersey, told me it’s his favourite train in Canada, and one of the two best in North America in terms of food, amenities and the epic-ness of the journey. Tom was travelling aboard The Canadian for the third time this year. He has forgotten how many times he’s taken it in total, but he remembers the first time: 1957.
I could well understand Tom’s enthusiasm. I boarded The Canadian in Vancouver for the first time, to begin the four-day journey to Toronto, at the end of June — a wonderful time to see the country at the height of summer’s early fecundity. I was filled with anticipation, imagining myself relaxing alone in my private room, with Canada’s rugged natural beauty speeding by, rousing myself only when the porter chimed, “Second seating is now being served in the dining car, second seating!”
And yes, this did happen several times over the course of four days on the train. And yes, it was wonderful.
The last two cars on The Canadian, at sunset.
The Canadian crosses time and space
I felt I was not only transported across the breadth of Canada, but also back in time, to a more relaxed pace of life.
If the train survives the 20th century, it will own the 21st.
The Canadian starts from Vancouver two or three times per week, depending on the season, at about dinner time. We pulled out as the sun was just beginning to start a long descent over the big Canadian sky. There was a sense of palpable excitement among the passengers. For many, including myself, this journey was a dream trip, a trip-of-a-lifetime.
The dining car on The Canadian.
Via Rail, the company that’s been running The Canadian since the 1970s, is well aware that this is a big trip, across a big country. They support the excitement and anticipation in so many ways, from announcements about passing landmarks through on-board activities and superb menu options.
We ate our first meal in the dining car that evening as we left Vancouver. I had halibut, cooked to order without breading, vegetables, salad, a gluten-free chocolate mousse dessert and peppermint tea. I was seated with jovial Emma from Britain, a lawyer turned exuberant tourist. We talked for a long time, over several cups of tea, about many things, some surprisingly candid. Travel talk is like that, it throws strangers together for brief intimate moments.
In the meantime, the attendant had lowered the bed in my room, tucking away the chairs underneath, and leaving me a shower kit with soap and towels and a single chocolate on the turned-down bed. I retired to my private room, nothing else to do but crawl into bed and read, everything I needed within arm’s length distance. I slept very soundly in a surprisingly comfortable bed, rocked to sleep by the motion of the train.
I expected the diverse scenery we passed to be a highlight of the journey. But what I didn’t expect is that the culture inside the train is even more absorbing than the passing scenery.
View from the train in British Columbia.
Train travel is civilized. It allows travellers to eat and talk together. There is time for a drink before dinner. Time to read a newspaper. And, most of all, time to get to know the other passengers and crew.
I got to know several other single passengers on the train, like Tom, the 74-year-old train nerd, who taught us to talk like tough guys from New Jersey. And Emma from Britain, seeing Canada for the first time, and entertaining us with wildly diverse talents like palmistry and African-folk singing. Steve, a music-loving engineer from Edmonton, was our ring leader, who led Emma in a demonstration of the Bee Dance when we stepped down for a few minutes at one of the station stops.
At meals, we singles all started arranging to sit together, sometimes thwarting the mysterious algorithm the dining staff used to seat people. The food on The Canadian is better than you will find on most trains because it is cooked fresh, to order, in a compact but efficient kitchen.
Breakfast on The Canadian is made to order.
I talked to chef Binoy, originally from Kerala, India who told me that as well as offering the set menu items like fish, pasta and eggs, they can cook specialty meals to order, if given enough time and a large party. “We can make dosa, dal and rice, and other Indian and Asian foods,” he said. “But in any case, there are always vegetarian options on the menu.”
Meal times are the main events around which the daily routine seems to revolve. Each day, passengers are given the choice of first or second (or sometimes third) seating. But there are other diverting activities arranged, usually taking place in one of the activity cars. These cars are outfitted with tables and they offer games and videos for kids and things like wine and beer tastings for adults. The cars are manned by personable activity coordinators who are there to keep passengers entertained and briefed on all aspects of the train, the itinerary and the passing landmarks.
The Canadian also hosts a kind of Visiting Artist program. A train model builder from New Brunswick, Dave Gunn, set up in the activity car to demonstrate his techniques and show photos of the 40-foot-square “layout” he’s built in his home. Dave’s layout, designed to look like a small town in 1950s Canada, is the most ambitious train set I’ve ever seen. Not only does Dave, a retired engineer, make all the buildings, he even builds some of the locomotives, too.
4,466 kilometres to catch your breath: In the space of four days, you’ll get to see the lush boreal forest, the lakes in Northern Ontario, the western Prairies, and the magnificent Rocky Mountains. On board The Canadian, you’ll discover the beauty of Canada’s landscape and cities at a pace that allows you to be in-tune with the nature around you.
Even with so much to do on the train, there were times when the beauty of the landscape sent me running up to the Panorama car to take photos. This was especially true about halfway through the first day when the train started to wend its way through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The outside scenery shifted to became the focus of attention.
Jagged mountains, dark green forests and the chance to see wildlife — bear, elk, moose and deer — captured the attention of most of the passengers.
Pyramid Falls was a highlight, and the train both announced their appearance and slowed down to let us take them in. As we approached Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies , we were told by the activity coordinator that the summit rarely appears; it is usually hidden by mist and clouds. Our anticipation was high and we were thrilled by the rare sight of the handsome peak.
The staggering line of Rocky Mountains, the flat wheat fields of Saskatchewan, the forest-hemmed lakes of Ontario — so much of Canada’s natural beauty paraded past us as we relaxed on the train.
By the time we arrived in my home town, and caught sight of the CN Tower, Toronto’s punctuation mark, I felt I had lived an epic journey. We drank ice wine in the Park Car to celebrate as we watched the last of the 4,466 kilometres of track unroll behind us. We all knew we had been through something special together.
It seems to me that train travel itself is the journey, that the appeal of an epic journey is to live life fully while moving. After four days on The Canadian, you become part of the cycle of the train and the unfolding landscape. Time is marked by the change from mountains to plains to lakes, by the daily routine of meal sittings and bed turn-downs, and by the sense of movement. On The Canadian, passengers and crew move in a syncopated rhythm across the vast Canadian landscape as they have done for almost 60 years
The Canadian offers passengers several classes of service, from economy seating to cabins with private toilets. Check the Via Rail website for more information.
All Sleeper Plus Class passengers are entitled to use of the activity cars, panorama cars, Park cars and the dining car. Three meals per day in the dining car is included in the fare. Snacks, tea and coffee are available all day in the activity cars and park cars, at no charge. Alcoholic beverages are extra. Showers are available, but not private.
Be prepared to spend most of the journey, which is almost four days, aboard the train. There are only a few stops where you can get off the train, and most of these are just for a few minutes. If the train is running on time, you can get off for an hour or more at Jasper and in Winnipeg. However, the train is often delayed, sometimes by several hours, because it has to stop regularly and let freight trains pass. WiFi is only available at station stops, so bring a book or two!
Here’s a list of things that I found handy to have on the train:
- light-weight, slip-on shoes like these by Skechers
- shower shoes and a shower cap
- personal thermos and water bottle
- a shawl or light traveling blanket
- travel clock
- stretchy clothes, like sweat pants
There are two scenes in the Satyajit Ray film The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959) that sent me into the bathroom crying at the end of the film. One has to do with the birth of Apu’s son, and the other, the last scene of the movie, when they reconcile. More than that I don’t want to tell you if you haven’t scene this classic of world cinema. When I came out of the stall, tears still wetting my face, I struck up a conversation with a white-haired woman who had a kind and gentle face. I knew immediately she was someone I could cry in front of, and indeed she understood, she had just seen the same film.
Not to have seen the films of Ray would mean existing in a world without the sun or the moon. – Akira Kurosawa
Carol and I were to see each other several times more as we were both attending the same film series at Toronto International Film Festival headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Sun and The Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray is a massive retrospective, “one of the most important and influential bodies of work in international cinema … includes a raft of restorations and rarities,” according to the press release.
The boy Apu in Pather Panchali This series is special in so many ways. It’s special because the films themselves are so good, and so illustrative of a style of humanism in filmmaking that is long out of fashion. The first time I saw Pather Panchali (1955) — the first film Ray made, and the first of his films that I saw — my jaw was on the floor. I had never seen anything so lifelike and natural on the screen before. It’s a stunning achievement and to me possibly the best film ever made. It’s also the first in the Apu Trilogy of films (The World of Apu is the last). It’s special because of the community it is creating among film-goers. Carol told me she was in India in 1969 to visit her husband and traveled alone while he was working.
She re-enacted an incident where a street beggar grabbed onto her leg as she tried to walk away, laughing at the darkly comic memory. I also met a man who travelled widely in South India in the 70s collecting art and artifacts, which he has since donated to the Royal Ontario Museum. Director Satyajit Ray And it’s special because the works of this giant of cinema were almost lost to the world due to film deterioration. I was lucky to be at several screenings with special guests who spoke before the film began. Prior to the screening of Charulata, University of Toronto Lecturer Kathleen O’Connell examined Ray’s status within both Indian and world cinema, and the profound influence Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had on Ray.
It was interesting to find out that Ray was an illustrator who worked in advertising, and that he exerted a great deal of control over all his films, from designing costumes and sets to editing and and illustrating the posters (as well as directing of course). Michael Pogorzelski, who is with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film Archive, spoke at the start of Three Daughters (Teen Kanya, 1961) about the lengthy and painstaking process of restoring the entire Ray oeuvre. It was a monumental task.
“In 1992, the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles heroically embarked upon the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project, a comprehensive program to restore all of the director’s work. Collaborating closely with the Satyajit Ray Society, a group of Ray’s former producers, the National Archives of India, the Merchant and Ivory Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Academy restorations of Ray’s essential films (complemented by restorations from the RDB Corporation of Calcutta) ensure a sublime experience during this rare retrospective.” From the TIFF website. Michael Pogorzelski showed us photos of what the films looked like before restoration. The hot, humid climate in India was literally eating the films. They were either disintegrating or covered in mould.
For each film, a separate journey was required, to find the best print available as in some cases, the original negative was lost. Teen Kanya film poster As well as the Apu Trilogy of course, I particularly loved Teen Kanya, an anthology of three short films commissioned for the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary. Each of the films is based on a Tagore story, and each centres around a woman or girl. The Postmaster, Monihara and Samapti were all good, but I loved Samapti, which features actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who I thought was astoundingly natural and moving in this film and The World of Apu (he plays the grown up Apu).
Monihara is a ghost story, and the film was almost lost, until the Satyajit Ray Preservation Project rescued it. The series is running all summer long, and includes 34 films in total. It is accompanied by another series, about how foreigners see India. Passages to India: India seen by Outsiders, includes a couple of my favourite films: The River and Black Narcissus. Watching films about India and by Indians is a good way to begin to get to know this spectacularly colourful and complex culture. I also recommend reading books, too, and I have several resources on Breathedreamgo to get you started.
Would you love to see crocodiles up close, in the wild? Or go horseback riding to hidden waterfalls at the base of a volcano? Or sink into a natural hot spring, covered in mineral-rich, warm clay? These are just some of the special moments I had in Costa Rica, where I experienced the best of both worlds: the comfort of a luxury, guided tour and the excitement of authentic, cultural and wilderness adventures.
1. A boat ride into the wild
After driving for an hour down remote dirt roads, we arrived at the Rio Tempisque in Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica. My guide, Jose, unloaded a cooler, binoculars and a few other supplies from the SUV and we walked the few steps to a small dock, where a boat was waiting for us. Though the boat held about a dozen seats, we had it to ourselves — Jose, the captain and I. I was immediately struck by how unspoiled the park was, truly a pristine wilderness reserve, with no sign of human habitation.
We pushed off and spent a couple of hours slowly cruising the river, spotting umpteen lazy crocodiles, several godzilla-like iguanas and countless glorious tropical birds such as egrets, storks, kingfishers and herons. I quickly learned why Rio Tempisque has earned the reputation for being one of the best wildlife and bird watching spots in Costa Rica. Everywhere I looked I saw National Geographic worthy scenes of wildlife in action, crocodiles basking on sand banks, birds with massive wing spans swooping across the water. I wore out my trigger finger snapping the best photos of birds and animals I have ever taken. It was the closest I have ever come to feeling like a professional wildlife photographer — a dream realized.
2. Discovering the women’s corner of the forest
We could see the mountain emerging from the plains from a far distance. This was before I knew it was a volcano. And before I knew the story of the volcano, Rincon de la Vieja, which means “woman’s corner of the forest.”
As we got closer, my guide, Jose, told me the myth: Once upon a time, the daughter of a chief fell in love with a man deemed inappropriate by her family. The couple ran away to the forest, but they were chased and found, and the man was killed. The chief’s daughter lived the rest of her life in a remote corner of the forest and became a renowned natural healer. Tribal people would go to her for healing, saying, “We are going to the corner of the old lady.”
At the base of the volcano, we rode horses into the lush, tranquil “women’s corner of the forest.” Our guide led us along a narrow path to a waterfall deep in the think forest. The canopy of trees blocked out the light, and the sound of the water filled the air. Water pooled in a dark circle at the base, where I stood in quiet meditation, breathing the fecund, moist air. With my imagination sparked and my senses alive, I felt the life of the forest and experienced one of those transcendent moments that usually only happen in places of natural beauty.
3. Immersion into the good earth
We rode our horses back to the Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa stables, from where we picked them up, and headed for the spa. The Borinquen Spa is built on a natural hot spring that erupts here thanks to the geothermal activity of the nearby volcano. Literally piping hot mineral-rich water gushes from the ground and fills the air with mist. A natural sauna is built above one such pool, the hot steam hissing up through the wooden floor boards, and a building housing the massage rooms sits above a warm water stream.
After a pore-opening steam in the very hot sauna, I slathered myself with rich, warm clay, scooped from the sides of the stream. Then, I chose the hottest of three man-made pools, each holding a different temperature of water from the hot springs. I sank into the pool to enjoy the heat, the sun, the natural environment and the peace. Before showering off the mud, my guide Jose helped me take some fun photos of my “Swamp Thing” look to post online. It was a fun moment, and relaxing too. And my skin glowed for days.
4. Stopping to smell the coffee
Up we drove, through wildly winding streets, until we reached the elaborate wrought-iron gate of Finca Rosa Blanca, a boutique hotel and organic coffee plantation. I felt immediately that I was entering a different world. The mountain top setting, artfully designed gate and lush greenery, set off with huge tropical flowers, created a unique, whimsical ambience from the first moment.
But then I saw the hotel. Imagine Gaudi designed a hotel in The Shire and Georgia O’Keefe painted it. Bold amorphous white shapes covered in murals of flowers bursting with colour. Each room completely unique, like characters in a play, and featuring all sorts of charming amenities. My room had a massive blue-tiled tub with a sky light above it, a mural behind the bed of sun-drenched fields, and a small balcony overlooking an entire valley and mountain range.
Sitting room at the Finca Rosa Blanca
Dotted throughout the property: a salt water pool with overflowing waterfall; an outdoor restaurant with the same magnificent view; a gourmet dining room ranged around a children’s book fireplace; a hot tub secluded in the jungle; and a walking trail through the coffee plantation. Delights around every turn of the meandering pathways, no straight lines here at all.
I soaked up as much atmosphere as I could in the short time I was there, feeling the creativity, the life-giving force of the organic garden and the care owners Teri and Glenn Jampol put into Finca Rosa Blanca. I felt I had found somewhere sacred and magical and I imbibed it fully, until it was time to leave. A wonderful last stop on my Costa Rica adventure.
Cala Luna Hotel yoga platform
5. Taking a deep breath with yoga in Costa Rica
While staying in a spacious villa at the lovely Cala Luna Hotel in Tamarindo, I joined the morning yoga class, among the foliage. Under a simple awning and surrounded by luscious, tropical gardens, it was easy to breathe deeply and enjoy the tranquil setting. Distracted only by bird songs and the sight of butterflies lighting on bright flowers, I found myself feeling very peaceful and at one with the natural environment. The delightful experience continued with a healthy breakfast by the glistening turquoise pool afterwards, and then a long walk on the rugged nearby beach. It was the perfect way to start a perfect day in paradise.
Breathing deeply, and with consciousness, is an essential element of yoga and it really helps when the air you breathe is pure and richly oxygenated. This is no doubt one of the reasons there are many yoga classes and retreats all across Costa Rica. The Cala Luna lists their upcoming yoga retreats here, and you can contact Kensington Tours to find out about private guided yoga experiences in Costa Rica and around the world.