Category Archives: Sustainable Travel

The New York Times Says St. John is No. 4 on Top Places to Visit: And It’s Better At Concordia Eco-Resort



By the time The Virgin Island’s Daily News carried the front-page story from the New York Times listing Coral Bay in St. John no. 4 on its 52 places to go in 2016, we had already discovered the magic of the place. We were here to get far, far away, and very close to the sounds, smells and feel of a small Caribbean island. So we booked into a cliff-side eco-resort with screened tents, low lights, solar showers and unimpaired ocean vistas.

Getting There

After a flight from New York and a journey across 2 islands, we arrived at Concordia at dinnertime with grumbling stomachs and big appetites. Hot sun and sea breezes hit us on the deck of the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John. From Cruz Bay the open-air, Soca-blasting taxi hugged steep cliffs along the coast road—at times the wide truck body occupying both lanes of the narrow mountain switchbacks. When oIMG_4319ur rolling adventure descended back down to sea level, views of the perfect Coral Bay crescent shimmered in the sunlight. Back up the hill we continued on to the eastern reaches of the island.

After checking in at Concordia and leaving bags in our eco-tent—all the while marveling at the stunning seascapes from seemingly every point on the property—we headed straight for food.

Open Mic Night

By some cosmic good fortune it was Monday night at Cafe Concordia; open mic night—misnamed because the local musician who host the night, John “Johnny B” Bullock and Lauren Magnee, are anything but amateurs. They play here with lots of friends once a week and are so accomplished they effortlessly jam with musical guests visiting the island.


Café Concordia

We settled in at one of the high 2-tops that looked straight into the kitchen and perused menu offerings of appetizers and specialty cocktails, keeping an eye on the chef as happy hour segued into dinner against the rhythms of rock and soul. The chef’s name was Treva, and he moved in the kitchen with unruffled confidence, managing sauté pans on open flames, pulling roasted fare out of the oven, and ladling generous portions of rice from aDSC_0211 huge pot. The low sun cast long rays of light across Salt Pond Bay, through the dining room, and straight into the kitchen. Treva hit the bell for each dish in sunglasses. Without them the old-fashioned paper tickets would have been back lit and unreadable.

So good was the food and varied the offerings, I was eager to find out more about the café and the people who created this extraordinary delight in a remote corner of the Caribbean. I got a sense of it when Joe Feraco the manager, ended the evening by thanking each of the staff by name. They worked together as a team, that much was clear. And Joe was not a stand-around kind of guy; he bused tables and worked the floor every night we were there, taking a seat only after most of the guests had walked off into the star-filled night.

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia
Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Everything about this place was as surprising and extraordinary as the musicians and the food.

The Chef

When I got a few minutes to chat with Treva, he told me he was cooking for roughnecks on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico when he got a call from his friend Kim, who organizes Concordia’s daytime food and beverage. She told him Joe was looking for a new chef.

Treva’s first job in a restaurant was washing dishes. Then he moved on to waiting tables and ended up at Arnauds in NOLA setting Bananas Foster aflame. My guess is he would have stayed in the Crescent City, even with the steep competition for all positions food related, but as he said, “Katrina happened.” Migrating north like so many, he eventually ended up in the kitchen of the Chicago Marriott, where he learned from a talented team how to deliver massive amounts of specialty meals at break-neck speed. There he added sashimi to his growing culinary repertoire.

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Roxanne  dining at the Cafe Concordia
Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Rosanne dining at the Cafe Concordia


Chef Treva Porche's Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette
Chef Treva Porche’s Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Watching Treva serve up Shrimp Creole, Po’boys, red beans, rice and Andouille sausage, I wondered how such southern classics came to share the menu with Tamarind Chicken Wings, Tempura Coconut Shrimp and Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette. Treva told me he came from the deep south, a Louisiana parish called Terrebonne – he spelled it for me. Googling it I saw what he meant. It’s a little outpost sitting on the edge of the gulf coast. His time in New Orleans

Roasted Beet Salad with tomatoe, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine's local organic greens
Roasted Beet Salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine’s local organic greens

had been a later stop on his culinary journey—the tastes and smells of southern cuisine had left an early craving on his pallet.




There is much more to be said about the character and attitude of this island hideaway. And the rest of Concordia Eco-Resort is as creative, innovative and satisfying as the Café. I’ll tell you about all of it in future posts.

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is wonderful swimming!
Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is a wonderful place to swim!

Creating an Eco-lodge for Divers on Grand Cayman: Arie Barendrecht Knows How to Do It.

(author’s note: I covered Cayman for Frommer’s last year and found many wonders that didn’t fit in a guidebook! Here’s one.)

Arie Barendrecht has agreed to talk to me about what it takes to run his popular dive lodge, the Cobalt Coast on Grand Cayman, as a Green Globe certified ecolodge.DSC_0873

We sit in the shady breezeway of the lodge, perched on the iron shore of West Bay as the sun glistens on the sea. The Dutch-born owner with the piercing blue eyes pats the large three-ringed binder on the table. “This is my green book,” he says. The over-stuffed binder is filled with receipts, documentation, calculations, and all his notes about what he’s done to, what we might call—go green. After all, he’s been on the cutting-edge of earth-friendly initiatives on the island for years. He started recycling, using non-disposables, cutting energy use, and saving water long before others ever uttered the words, sustainable travel.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

We just get chatting and he jumps up to bid a guest a safe trip home and help load luggage into a van. Arie’s really an old fashion hotelier who seems to have a calling for hospitality. But for years he’s also been figuring how to overcome any number of hurdles to make this place green. He’s had to become an expert in what might seem to be mundane trivia like how to combine the best non-phosphate laundry detergent with fabric softner, because he says, “You know conditioners and whiteners don’t mix.” He’s not one to give up easily. He’s found a powered detergent that seems to do the trick. Who would have guessed such little things would make a big impact.


After another break for Arie to greet new guests, he explains the complicated procedures of saving water by recycling and reusing every little drop, even drip water, and using it multiple times. He talks about changing incandescent bulbs at the inn with LEDs. This is not a cheap process; some cost as much as $13 a piece. Nor is he content to stick with the cold-feeling blue-light bulbs, now known to be missing the warm yellows of the light spectrum. The good ones are a bit more expensive, but he found them. On the bright side he says, the new bulbs last longer and he doesn’t have to walk around with the ladder as much as he used to. The light at the Cobalt Inn is warm and saturated, just like the sea and the overall feel of the place.

Changing light bulbs seems like a small step, but together, his small steps constitute a considerable lowering of energy use. Of course he is well aware that the shallow reefs of the Cayman Islands are particularly susceptible to the bleaching that comes with warmer water temperatures cause by climate change.

At times he does get discouraged about the problem of endless waste, but he usually DSC_0863finds a way to deal with it. Take for example paper recycling—there is none on the island, yet. He knows how much ink is in a phonebook and how toxic it can be, so he’s found a repurposing for old books and other paper by taking them to the local animal shelter where they are used again.

Recently the government of Grand Cayman recognized his efforts with a Governor’s Conservation Award. He and the staff of the inn sponsored an aluminum can recycling drive at the local Primary School. He describes working with the children and how motivated they get about the work. His example has inspired local gradeschoolers, as the award states, “to become lifelong stewards of the environment.”


I complain that the website doesn’t have any information about the award, and maybe it needs an update. But he’s a graceful European not given to boasting. He’s concerned with other things. Every detail of this cozy, ecoldge has been carefully planned, from the architectural design of the intimate 2-story structure with huge windows, to the imported Finish textiles that decorate the rooms.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe CertifiedAccommodations such as these with the upscale resort feel attract a wide range of clients and about a third of the guests are non-divers. As a Green Globe certified lodge, it is also a favorite of international travelers of the green persuasion.  I grill him on his many names given for the Cobalt Coast—an inn, a hotel an ecolodge, a resort, and tell him in my overconfident way, that he’s diluting his brand. I ask if he’s thought of settling on one description, but he gives me his knowing grin and shrugs. He cares little for such marketing nonsense. He knows what it takes to make it all come together in unconventional ways. After all, if he stuck to conventional ways he never would have tried, or succeeded, in passing the stringent certification standards required by Green Globe, something other have tried and failed to do. Arie wrote the book on green, or at least he put it together in a large green binder.



Listening to Humpbacks with Gotham Whale: Fall Whale Watching in New York City


Artie Raslich shooting for Gotham Whale and Maurice on the American Princess. October 18, 2014
Artie Raslich shooting for Gotham Whale and Mourrice Papi on the American Princess. October 18, 2014

“You think we’ll see some whales today? I ask. “I know we will,” says Artie. Of course I believe him. He’s charismatic enough to be written up in the New Yorker, and judging from the shots he’s getting out here, he knows a thing or two about these whales.


We are on the American Princess with a greyed-haired Captain named Tom, Artie Raslich, the official photographer from Gotham Whale, and a couple of researchers trying to record the underwater musings of humpbacks. Kristi Collom, the graduate researcher from Hunter College determined to listen in on the whales is also certain; “We saw 75 common dolphins and 3 humpbacks last week. I’m sure we’ll see some more.” Aboard are other “citizen scientists” keeping their eyes on the water, ready to witness, photograph, record and otherwise delight in the antics of marine mammals.

We boarded this Princess (the only NOAA certified boat in New York) at Riis Landing, an unassuming dock in Queens in front of Breezy Point, and shortly after noon we are heading around the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula into the open waters five or six miles off New York City’s coastline.

Kristi starts working, getting technical help from her partner Mourrice Papi, and they rig a hydrphone with a long lead cord able to descend to a depth of at least 30 feet.DSC_0125

We were taking wagers (no money involved) on the exact timing of our would-be encounter. We have a while to wait. Passing the time I ask Artie how he got his celebrated shot of the humpback he named Jerry, surprisingly framed within the outline of the Empire State Building. He was trying for a better composition, he explains, with the whale between the Empire State and the Citibank building. But Jerry breaching the water straight under the Empire State made an indelible impression that turned Gotham’s visiting marine mammals into celebrities. At one point, Artie gesticulates, “He was four feet from the boat with one big eye looking at me. I think he wanted to see who was blasting the Grateful Dead this loud out here.” Clearly Jerry was curious about a Dead Head in a 26-foot long boat. The whale was too close for Artie to get that shot; he couldn’t change lenses fast enough.

After three and half hours most of the predictions are well out of the running, as are some seasick passengers. But 2:30 proves to be the magical moment. Artie scrambles to pick up his camera. Mourrice somehow contains his shock of dark corkscrews in a knitted cap for warmth, and the rest of us tumble out onto the deck to see two humpbacks gliding alongside the boat, about 100 yards to the south of us. They appear intermittently, their sleek dark bodies revealing distinctive spinal notches when their backs peek rhythmically on the surface. Another whale joins them, and they come considerably closer.

Photo by Guy Robinson
Photo by Guy Robinson

The whales twirl, repeatedly heaving their long white flippers out of the choppy waters. Once in the air they hold them straight up, pausing to point to Far Rockaway, clearly in view off the starboard side. As the humpbacks flirt with our 95-foot boat we wait for the next flipper to slap onto the water with a huge, loud splash. As it does a group cheer of admiration rolls off the boat and over the water. Artie clicks furiously and we rush from port to starboard following their spouts and shimmering footprints as they surface and re submerge in a synchronous duet.

Everything about the whales visiting Gotham is exciting and mysterious. Though they are thought to be solitary animals, Artie recognizes our two companions; “Those two have been hanging out together here for more than two weeks.” A decade ago only a couple of whales would be spotted, “Now we’re seeing 8, 9, 10 every year.” Captain Tom tells us. “The numbers keep going up.”

Environmental activism and regulation have reversed the long history of maritime exploitation, and the once depleted fisheries in and around New York have rebound. The biological food chain now supports a diverse ecology including marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales

DSC_0280They’ve attracted fans and watchers, and the group of citizen scientists tracking their movements and surprising behaviors calls itself Gotham Whale. Their Director of Education Merryl Kafka was on board with lots of tidbits about the extraordinary lives of whales.

University based scientists are also on the trail of Gotham’s humpbacks. Kristi is working with PhD candidate Eric Angel Ramos out of Diana Reiss‘ lab where she studies animal behavior, cognition and communication.

The unusual mixing of maritime adventure, animal encounter and marine mammal DSC_0273research is somewhat disarming when Captain Tom cuts the engine and we sit several miles off shore in 80 feet of water, rocking in the long, rolling swells finally reaching us from a southern storm. Engine sounds would overpower the ethereal, underwater utterances of the whales. After the excitement of the humpbacks, this extended quiet is eerily calm. Kristi and Mourrice plunge the hydrophone as deep as they dare beneath the water’s choppy surface. We wait and hope their ingenious rigging will let us all in on the private conversations of our curious companions.

We’re late getting back. The whales follow us for a time but as the boat heads toward shallow waters, Captain Tom instructs over the PA, “Say goodbye to the DSC_0266whales.” On cue, waving, an entire boat full of people do exactly that.

Our weekend was to be the last excursion for the season, but because the whales are still visiting you’ve got another chance to see them this season. The American Princess will go out again Saturday and Sunday, November 1st and 2nd, 2014. Be at Riis Landing to board at least ½ hour early, by 11:30, and shove off at noon.



Experiencing the Amboseli Drought of 2009



The worst travel experience I ever had should have been the adventure of a lifetime. I can still see the landscape of East Africa as we flew low over the bush in the four-seater Cessna. I can feel the sudden jolt downward as we lost altitude hitting the warmer air plunging down into the Rift Valley. We were on our way from Nairobi to Ambosli Game Park in Kenya and the DSC_0271memories are still vivid.  I had never experienced the game parks of Kenya, though I had toured six of them in Tanzania the year before. The charismatic large game of Africa and the landscapes they inhabit send me on a trip back in time, and give me a magical sense of what the early days of being human might have been like.


It was 2009, and Amboseli was experiencing the final days of a severe summer drought. We had heard it was bad before we left Nairobi. In fact the pilot of our small craft, David Western from the African Conservation Center, who had helped establish the Amboseli reserve, was on his way to see how bad things really were there, and he asked if we’d like to go along. My husband Guy could help with an inventory of the herds as a team of conservationists tried to document how many animals were at risk. I was in Nairobi to give a workshop to humanitarian aide workers on media strategies during disasters.

We were the first to arrive, and our job was reconnaissance. We needed to decide where best to place the food for the starvingDSC_0010 animals. Jonah had already arranged for bails of hay to be trucked into the park.

But when we arrived there was no need. We could see the tender shoots of green emerging from the now moist, barren ground. The swamp of Amboseli had receded to a small pool, and though a few live water buffalo and elephants waded into the water, the park was littered with dozens of carcasses of dead animals.

The zebra herd was down to less than 85 individuals and there were even fewer DSC_0055wildabeests. The herds had numbered in the hundreds at the beginning of the summer. The surviving animals were thin and weak, but at least now they were eating. So few animals remained at this point that they all had enough food from the tiny sprouts bringing new life to the dusty plains of Africa.


The herds would come back. There were enough remaining animals to replenish their numbers. The social structures of the elephants would be more damaged, and take longer to recover.


The experience of life and death of large charismatic animals was for me a lesson about survival in general terms. More specifically, what we know is that Climate Change is responsible for extreme weather, manifesting as drought in some places and increased storms and rainfall in other regions. Sadly, East Africa, home to some of the most magnificent animals left on the globe, is experiencing climate change in the form of decreased rainfall in the already arid lands, making it all the most urgent that we take action to reduce emission of green house gasses.


Taking on the Invasive Lionfish in the Waters off Grand Cayman

Photo by Elliott Jessup
Photo by Elliott Jessup


It’s not surprising to meet an unusual cast of characters at a diving lodge, especially an ecofriendly one, but as we chat that evening, occasionally looking up from computer screens, the three divers tell me they are spearing lionfish and emptying out the contents IMG_3805of their stomachs. The culling part makes sense, many divers are gleefully bringing up lionfish on the end of their spears, selling them to local restaurants, or filleting them on their own. They are beautiful but invasive fish, with no natural predators, feasting on indigenous reef fish and doing an untold amount of damage in the Caribbean. But tearing out their guts to take a look? I hadn’t heard that one before. When I ask why they tell me, “We need to know what they’re eating.” So, they’re curious about their food—and I wonder why.

Photo by Elliott Jessup

I discover that the team is from the California Academy of Sciences, and their research will reveal if the culling efforts by divers to clear the invaders from the reef is working. The team wants to know if the lions are feeding in shallow waters, or deeper down the reef walls. If the fish can easily change depth, they can avoid the culling efforts done in shallow waters. They want to know if the larger fish they see in deeper waters move up to shallow areas, or stay at lower depths and breed there.

Elliott Jessup the Diving Safety member of the team is the one who documents their IMG_3877underwater adventures, and has the wonderful title of “explorer.” His experience with deep water diving began when he trained in Egypt’s Red Sea. Now managing the highly specialized diving equipment—the closed circuit re-breathing units—he explains how they can plunge much lower than average recreational divers. They are collecting lionfish at depths ranging from 200 to 400 feet.

I ask the ichthyologist on the team Luiz Rocha, why he wants to know what the lions are eating. “We need to know the species of fish,” he tells me. The prey fish the invaders are going after will need some protection. Know what fish they are eating will also give them information about where they are feeding.

These science divers are also taking DNA samples of the fish back to the lab in California. Lionfish most likely arrived in the Caribbean after being released by private aquarium owners. DNA testing will show where the fish actually come from.

I’ve seen lionfish on the menus of Cayman’s finest eaters, and some chefs are joining in

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified
Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

the culling efforts, providing a market for what is said to be a fine light, white fish. But I’ve never tried it.

“We’re giving the fish to the lodge and they’re going to serve it tonight,” Elliott tells me. Indeed, lionfish turns out to be the catch of the day at dinner at the Cobalt Coast. I’ve never tried it before, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I order lionfish ceviche and it is spectacular; the perfect balance of texture and flavor.IMG_3866

In case you find some fresh lionfish on your travels, here is a cookbook created especially to turn lionfish into a culinary delicacy. Creating a demand for it may encourage more large-scale extraction of the fish, the strategy most likely to be effective at removing the unwelcome invader from the waters of the Caribbean. So eat up!


Turtle Whispering at the Cayman Island Turtle Farm



I didn’t know turtles could be so much fun before we visited the Cayman Island Turtle Farm. They are large, enchanting creatures that live up to 150 years and can grow up to 600 pounds. They put all that weight on with a diet of sea grasses. At the Turtle Farm they eat three times a day; they crowd together and spout water through their noses when they do.  You’re allowed to handle yearlings at the Touch Tanks. That was the real treat.


Benny, our guide, showed us how to hold a young turtle by the shell with both hands and DSC_0987rub under its neck with your fingers at the same time. My once wriggling little ball of flapping fins was transformed into a docile, contented little tyke. I felt like a turtle whisperer.


It’s also fascinating to see them in the many “ponds,” where young turtles in different stages of development hang out together.


When sighting Little Cayman and Cayman Brac in 1503, Columbus was struck by the DSC_0980abundance of green sea turtles in the surrounding waters, and so the Cayman Islands were first called Las Tortugas (The Turtles). In 2004 the green sea turtle was listed as an endangered species, and the turtle farm is a major conservation effort and the only one of its kind in the Caribbean.


We also met Sparky, the grande dame of the farm; a 65-year old female who laid 25,684 eggs during her long reproductive years, and now hangs out in a tank with the little ones in her retirement. (I wonder what she’s telling them?!)


Over 31,000 turtle have been successfully released into the wild from here. The educational center explains the history and development of the farm’s hatchery and release programs. Another mascot is the famous Sir Thomas Turtleton, who was released (with a tracking devise) after 30 years at the farm and made it all the way down to Honduras.


Over the years this unique park has added meandering garden trails and multiple exhibits about Cayman heritage, wildlife and island ecosystems. You can swim in Breaker’s Lagoon and hide under its cascading falls; snorkel in the salt-water Boatswain’s Lagoon, which meanders though the property and contains a rich sampling of coastal sea life. Get a thrill in front of the viewing panels that reveal Predator Reef where you’ll see barracudas, tarpons, and grey sharks that glide ominously on the prowl.


DSC_0050_2In the aviary there are birds from all over the Caribbean.  The Cayman Islands’ National Bird is the Green Parrot and they like to squawk. The small busy colorful Honey Creepers might fly over your head, and the striking Scarlet Ibis; the National Bird of Trinidad certainly made its presence known.

Cayman cultural and social life is also part of this “farm.” In fact, the wooden rafters of the high ceiling in the reception building are reminiscent of the ribs of an upside-down catboat, a traditional boat used by local fisherman. Cayman Street, a street with replicas of Caymanian wooden houses, complete with the “caboose,” an outdoor kitchen.



Some people call this place a marine park, others a living museum, and still others a zoo. DSC_0054_2Caymaninas call it the Turtle Farm, and you can see why they love their turtles and are devoted to their conservation and their island ecosystem.



The Art of Recycling: Glass Blowing at Maho Bay Eco-Village, St. John, USVI

The tent village at Maho Bay is one of the best examples of green travel in the Caribbean. The wood-framed canvas tents surrounded by forest are breezy and light, and have no DSCN5478running water. Most refreshing is the lack of bottled water. We filled our big container with drinking water from a communal spigot everyday, and walked to the bathrooms and showers around the grounds. Recycling is always a problem, especially on an island and it was a relief not worry about where the constant stream of plastic water bottles (so prevalent at tourist destinations) would end up. But I hadn’t expected that glass recycling would be so much a part of what makes Maho Bay a prime example of sustainable travel. It was a main attraction most evenings, and certainly part of the entertainment.

As you know or can imagine, glass blowing is an art that requires many talents – from DSCN5378creativity to courage. Working with dangerous amounts of heat, fire and molten sand takes a certain kind of temperament. Blowing into a long metal tube at the exact moment when the glowing, undefined blob at the other end is the most pliable requires equals measures of faith and experience.  As we sat in the reflected glow of the furnace watching the glass blowers, I learned that knowing how to dance is also part of the skill set.

The movements of the three glassblowers were confined to a small radius from the stove’s door with its sporadic roar of flames when opened, to the low table holding the shaping tools across the concrete floor. DSCN5390A slight amount of wiggle room was available on either side. A sink and cooling oven formed the boundary on the back wall, and we, the spectators sat in front and watched. A molten chunk hung to the end of an impossibly long rod each time it was pulled out of the furnace. Getting it to the other side involved a choreography of stepping back, balancing and reeling around so that the chunk ended up 180 degrees from where it started. The process demanded a smooth, fluid movement, one able to convince the unformed glass to stay attached to the other end of the pole. Of course the young, agile women could not open and close the oven door, and so she must also avoid hitting her teammate, the door opener, with the dangerous, unwieldy thing. For his part, the door opener would twist slightly and step back following her lead, the long wand serving as a conductor’s baton. They waltzed around the floor that way for the better part of an evening. 

The third member of the team was actually a visiting artist sharing his expertise as a temporary Maho Bay resident. Most of the time he sat in an iron arm chair and rolled the DSCN5385pole along the arms, coaxing a design out of the chunk and instructing the young woman when to give it more air. A blowtorch also helped coax the molten sand into a desirable shape. For its part the piece of recycled art rose and fell, was fashioned and refashioned, expanded and contracted and transformed many times before it achieved its final form as a flower surrounded in its own vase. Video: Click here for a quick peek at the action.

By the way, the furnace is heated using recycled cooking oil.

Visiting the Eco-tents at Maho Bay

After hearing for so long about Maho Bay, I’m finally visiting the eco-tent camp during what seems to be its last couple of months. Opened in 1976 by Stanley Selengut, it has served since the first nails were hammered into the wooden boardwalks, tents and gathering areas, as an eco-lodge innovation that it is now a classic icon of sustainable travel. We didn’t venture far from camp our first day, instead we decided to get acquainted with the place. The northeastern storm had followed us down from New York, and Jason at activities, advised us that the swell it brought with it would affect conditions at Little Maho Bay more than Big Maho. Continue reading Visiting the Eco-tents at Maho Bay

Fighting for Wild Aruba

From the edge of the deck the sand travels away from the light in wavy peaks and shadows. Trunks of palms wrapped in spiral beads of light surround the deck. They sway and rustle in the wind. A few feet away the sand meets the darkness and radiates upward through a cloudless night sky. The leeward side of the Caribbean sea murmurs as melodies float from the bar at the other end of the deck. Large round posts support a thatched roof. They are wrapped with ties that secure decorative linen curtains. Huge garden pots sprout tropical greenery. No cell phones ring. Sounds of soft laughter on the wind are punctuated by clinking drinks returning to the glass tabletops.

A woman walks off the deck and down the wooden stairs into the sand making new patterns in the expanse of creamy grains. She moves closer to the water toward a DSC_0009secluded palapa where two people sit at a table dressed in tropical décor. The white linen curtains attached to these posts are pulled across the openings, creating a romantic enclosure. The secluded fantasy presents a dreamy scene where nature and civility, paradise and hospitality meet in harmonious accommodation. Continue reading Fighting for Wild Aruba

Learning to Fly at the End of the World: Travels Down the Yucatan Peninsula


A second huge palm frond hits my left shoulder, catching a little of my face this time. It smacks the woman behind me dead on. She squeals and leans down to her daughter, placing the girl’s little hand on the offended cheek. The salsa pounds and the colored flashing lights pulsate to the beat of the blaring music. The top of the bus sways as we follow the curve on this part of the Bahia Boulevard, a beachfront drive that snakes down the peninsula for another 20 kilometers. I stick my head out over the bus’s narrow railing to check for another frond. The shallow green water of the bay spreads into the darkness on the right, mangroves and sea grapes blocking any light from the cafes and bars that might find its way to the beach. A wind gust catches another great arm waving in the center divide and the frond reaches down. I duck.

cropped-DSC_00091.jpgI am on assignment writing about the port destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula. My guides Dennerik and Harley took the night off. We’ll start again early in the morning. They want me to see the museum, the zoo, the telescope and other attractions that might draw tourists. But this ride is not on my itinerary. No cruise passengers will ever linger this far from the port this late at night. I can’t help them with the bus; tell them when it runs or how much it costs. Their ship will be guided away from the pier well before the first bus ever leaves the plaza. They’ll never be slapped by the fronds.

The bus turns and we fly slowly around the palm trees and I head back the other way. Now the restaurants are on the right and red light pours out from under El Diablito’s thatched roof promising grilled steaks and karaoke. People dash in front of the hulking vehicle on their way to the beachfront, and as the driver brakes we jerk forward.

Back at the plaza where our ride began, some of the kids are still driving their miniature SUVs over the smooth stonework — at least they are electric. The older muchachos, often with the help of a parent, fly their fantastical papalotes. The sky-born kites catch some of the light from below; their faces and shapes slide in and out of view. Green eyes peer down from a wing-shaped kite giving flight to a jaguar, the dark face surveying the plaza below. It is almost midnight and head back to my hotel room.

In the morning we’ll head straight for the Museum of Mayan Culture. I’ve seen the
DSC_0487archeological sites of Chacchoben and Kohunlich, and they are stunning in their beauty and grandeur, though they are proportioned to a human scale, so unlike Ramses I and II.  Their curved corners, passageways and windowed walls direct the light into shafts,
revealing sky in unexpected flashes. Only released from the jungle in 1999, I want to know more. I had no guide the morning I made the visit to Kohunlich. Javier, one of my companions for the first leg of the trip, had to meet other European guests arriving back at the lodge, so I’d seen it on my own. Javier whisked me into the Jeep early so we could be at the gates when they opened at 8am. An hour later, he told me, I would be picked up by 2 men driving a red Ford Fiesta with a tourism logo on the side. As we ambled toward the entrance to Kohunlich the sounds of the jungle jumped out with a roar, then another roar. Javier lowered his hand, spreading his fingers out flat, cocking his head as he’d done on our hike the day before and said, “Listen. A jaguar.” My eyes widened; we heard it again, this time followed by a series of classic puckered-mouth monkey sounds. It was a howler. We looked at each other and laughed, and I walked alone through the gate. I was the only one there.

In the excitement of seeing one structure after another, one more beautiful than the next I snapped shots furiously. Some trees still claimed the stones, growing out of stairs and DSC_0474inside walls. I tromped up steps, saw better angles, ways to frame light and compose palm trees against bright, blue skies and stone walls. Pausing on the top of one temple, the quite stoicism of the place halted me. The digital SLR moved away from my face, my knees bent, lowering me to a stone buttress. The buildings moved closer and became more silent, and the grassy areas that separated them, more lush. Color, dimension and silence now engulfed the place. I marveled and saw my lanky cousin Jay, forever joking and bending his quirky head down to reach my face, pausing before delivering a punch line. My sister’s email told me that the man who married my aunt’s daughter Donna, cousin Jay, became suddenly ill and had died unexpectedly. There would be no service in California. I left from New York on this trip only days after I opened the email, and in the rush had no time to remember Jay. I now imagined him soaring overhead, looking down with approval on the chiseled structures that endured.

Sitting in front of the visitor’s center, I saw the red Ford Fiesta swing around the parking lot kicking up dust, and stop a few feet away. I started toward them as they unpacked themselves from the little red car. Dennerik was young and serious, and Harley was Mayan with a face more cheerful than the ones carved in stone that looked just like him. We piled back into the car quickly as I waved and said gracious to the boy I had been grilling about hours of operation, the cost of the ticket and if they had a website.


For the last 2 days Harley’s been driving and Dennerik’s been sitting in the middle of the back seat, leaning forward pointing things out and taking breaks to text updates of our progress to the jefe – the big boss in the office. From Dennerik’s description I think of the jefe as a dark brooding force, forever worried if they’re showing me the perfect places and the most alluring attractions that will make this remote place irresistible to tourists. When we pulled into this little city on the bay I was deposited at the Holiday Inn, the nicest accommodation they assured me. Dennerik apologetically reminded me not to be late for my scheduled dinner with the tourism official.

At dinner that night with my amiable host, I first saw the bus they call el carro. Chatting with the head of tourism for the state about all the things to see and do in Quintana Roo, our conversation halted every twenty minutes as the bus tumbled past the outdoor patio, lighting up the street in a musical explosion and peals of laughter. I paused to stare at the sight of this fun box on wheels as it made its way up the boulevard. Following its progress up the road, I noticed a park on the north side of the street where children were skating up and down the sidewalk under the lamplight. They made a circle around a large statue of a mother and child. “What does the monument commemorate,” I asked.  “Victims of a terrible hurricane of 1935. This is why there are still no residential houses along the beach. So many were killed, they rebuilt back, away from the shore,” he waved into the darkness.

Up the road beyond the statue and another open plaza, a large box store loomed. I wanted to ask my host why a Wal-Mart would appear on beach-front property, but I didn’t want to spoil the conversation or a journey that was beginning to seem very far away from the cement of life as we know it.

Dennerik and Harley are early as promised and we pile into the Fiesta taking are usual seats and head off for the Museum. Strolling around the interior spaces of the museum grounds, they are still apologizing. When we arrived the exhibit of the Maya was DSC_0775surprisingly closed. But there are other things to see. Papier mâché sculptures, the work of local grade schoolers, populate the walkways of the interior courtyard of the museum. The fanciful creatures sit atop clean white columns, making their bright colors more dramatic by contrast. Dennerik reads aloud from a card under a stocky green turtle sprouting big blue wings. “I hope I can fly,” he translates from Spanish. I ponder a minute and ask, “Could it be, ‘I wish I could fly?” “Yes,” he says, “that’s it.” Harley comes out of an open doorway wearing a bemused face saying excitedly, “You have to see this.” We pass through the door and see a room filled with Barbie Dolls.

The dolls stand still and silent under their protective Plexiglas cases. All kinds of Barbies clustered inside, Barbie straddling a Pink horse, balancing forward, face eager; ballerina DSC_0784Barbie, already on tip toes in a pink tutu; Barbie holding a tennis racket aloft, one foot lifted in frozen expectation. Barbie and Ken on the beach wearing sunglasses and bathing suits, surrounded by supine mermaid Barbies, unable to stand on their pink, purple and turquoise tails.

In another case astronaut Barbie waves out of her space helmet, and senorita Barbie wears a pink faux sombrero with a ruffled pastel skirt. Horses in western saddles, their impossibly thick, braided manes reached to Barbie’s feet. They are tied with pink bows.

In a momentary reverie, I imagine a “travel” Barbie and snicker at the thought of her standing next to a steamer trunk adorned with Victorian stickers, in a safari outfit. But, I wonder, could Barbie ever escape her sealed geography, her own world where the rules of pink capture and restructure everything in its gaze? I look at the next case and see Barbie as a rock band, several of her assembled in front of panels that form a stage painted with reflective shinning stars that headline Rocker’s. Lead-singer Barbie holds a DSC_0798microphone; another Barbie tries to hold a pink guitar but her tight plastic arms are incapable of clutching the instrument. Barbie band could play on a cruise ship I muse, imagining a big titanic-like replica with the Rocker’s on deck entertaining the dining passengers.

Then there are Barbies never removed from their collector’s boxes. In the James Bond series, Barbie is wearing a tight gold and red gown as one knee juts out from under the front slit in her skirt. She stands forever still next to 007 Ken.

The children’s mythical creatures welcome us back as we step out into the sunlight and DSC_0777open spaces of the courtyard. Under the kinetic skins of these denizens of imagination the bright blue, red, purple, yellow and orange bodies seem to squirm playfully in the hot air.


“We’ve got to get you down to the port at Mahahual,” Dennerik says early the next morning. “Cesar will meet us at noon. He will have the port manager there, and some other personnel you can talk to. We’ll have to leave right after the zoo.”  The zoo is nicely designed. We follow winding paths through tropical foliage and find brightly colored, tropical birds in the aviary. We linger sadly as the zoo-keeper tells us that the petite toucan DSC_0705he is offering fruit is already virtually extinct, with less than 2000 birds left in the wild. I’m surprised to know that the zoo partners with international conservation programs and is affiliated with the older, better-known Belize Zoo. Wobbling across a rope bridge, a child’s attraction, I almost fall into the water. Harley gasps. We head south.

I’m looking forward to seeing Cesar again. He had driven me down the peninsula when I got back to the mainland from Cozumel. Waiting for me outside the extravagant eco-resort on the Riviera Maya, I saw his rigid stance close to the SUV when I came out, “You don’t look happy,” I observed. He lifted the dark glasses and his green eyes flashed, “Let’s get out of here,” he said opening the door. “I told them, and you told them I was coming, and they still did not tell the guard to let me in. I don’t know who these people are, but there not from this state.”

“It’s a Spanish construction firm using Canadian money,” I tell him. “They blasted a canal in the limestone so they could take guests on a boat ride around the perimeter. They call it a bird habitat.”

DSC_0225Cesar is assembled with bits of humanity from around the globe. Born in the Yucatan, his blood mixes Basque, Italian, Arab, and more, into an intensity that could barely be contained in the truck’s cab. As the tires whined, Cesar’s energy shot through the interior and bugs piled up on the windshield outside. The ride down the peninsula was a short course on the complicated lives of cruise ships. He was an excellent teacher detailing the port masters, the investors and insurance companies, and of course the cruise lines and passengers themselves. He explained the complications of moving that many people on and off a large boat with international restrictions. “How do you find the cruise passengers,” I asked him. “Are they nice?” I marveled at how trivial that sounded. “Sure, most of them are just trying to have a good time. They mostly get upset when there are kids. The Disney ships can be tough. If the children aren’t happy, nobody’s happy.” His cell-phone interrupted our conversation and he carefully, with exaggerated, slow enunciation, spells out to the listener, “No I did not threaten to sue them. I simply gave them a bill for the cost of the damage done when their ship hit the pier.” Laying the phone down on the seat he told me, “The pilot of a U.S. research vessel banged into my pier in two places, but nobody wants to pay for the damages.”

Cesar is the first one we see as we pull into Mahahual. This port on the Costa Maya is a festive new facility, shimmering multi-colors in the Yucatan sunlight at the end of the Peninsula. With no ships or passengers this morning it resembles an empty movie set of a mythical Mexican village. I chat briefly with a manager, snap some shots, ask a cab driver for his prices, and quickly exhaust my need for further information. Sadly, Dennerik and Harley must head back and we promise to meet again sometime. Cesar has some business to do, and I am pleased when he introduces me to Tony and says, “Why don’t you just go where you want and look around the area.” Tony and I head straight down the road chopped out of the jungle toward Belize, and arrive at Xacalak for a late lunch. The DSC_0896descendants of the Maya and a host of marginal internationalists populate this tiny coastal village. We cruise along the hard-sand shoreline route, stopping to ask several times if anyone has a boat to take us out. Tony makes the arrangements with a group of guys sitting in the shade in language far too fast and abbreviated for my ears. “They need to go pick up some gas and will meet us back at this spot in an hour,” he explains.  We find one café open, and the accommodating middle-aged woman follows us from her chair in the sun into the cool, little restaurant with formica tables. “I’ll have the local fish,” I say, and Tony says, “We both will.” After bringing us our drinks, she goes into the kitchen to cook.

Beds of seaweed crowd lazily up onto the sand, and extend back, well into the shallow bay waters. Looking out over the ample half-circle, I see the tiny thin thread of white in the distance where the swells meet the coral reef. I changed into a bathing suit after lunch in the restaurant, and I now pull my second leg over the edge and into the boat with a predictable thud. Our captain wraps the waterproof paper bracelets around our wrists that certify our visit to a protected reef. He gives the outboard some gas, stands up and we head for the reef. Tony tells me his mom still lives in LA, but he got deported after getting in trouble a few years ago with his teenage friends. “I’m happy to live here and have a good job,” he says, “and today is a very good day.” I agree as the water zips by. We take a rest from shouting over the motor to watch the changing coastline and the reef moving closer. The boat slows and we search for a place to anchor. The white water topping the swells hitting the reef frames our location on the glassy surface of the shallow water. Tony DSC_0866searches through his bag and finds no trunks. We each position our masks and fall backwards into the water, Tony in his underwear.  A few strokes away from the boat the underwater scene comes to life as shafts of light reaching to the sandy floor dance in a cadence to the movement of the water above. Rock-like coral formations covered in texture, shapes, and purple ferns dot the smooth white bottom, each surrounded by a stunning variety of tropical fish. They dart and sparkle in the moving light of the sun, one after the next, each outcropping inviting more fish with different colors, each claiming my attention and I fly over the quiet underwater landscape and away from the boat and its motor.

Epilogue: Did I forget to tell you? You can board the musical bus that travels the Bahia Boulevard in the town of Chetumal, the capital city of the state of Quintana Roo along the Caribbean coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. If you’ve made it this far this late, your ship has already left the port. But don’t worry; it’s very safe. Nobody locks their car doors along the Bahia drive and the locals are very friendly. There is one bay- front hotel across from the Sam’s Club, with outdoor dining. From there you can go further down the coast to Belize. And by the way, I have it from a reliable source that the Maya did not predict the end of the world. The end of the calendar only gave flight to a new beginning.