The Battle for Mexico’s Beaches

It hits you in the face the minute you open a door or window. A virtual presence that is so primal, your brain goes into full denial, telling you it can’t possibly be what you think it is. Perhaps that disconnect is made all the more dissonant by the fact that you are quite literally walking out the door into a verdant paradise, where as far as the eye can see everything is perfect and manicured and designed to delight the senses.

But there is one sense that is definitely not delighted….

People, let me tell you about sargassum.

Photo from the Mexicanist

Sargassum, also known as Sargasso, stinks no matter what it’s called. It’s a seaweed (or microalgae) that is choking beaches from Mexico to the Caribbean to northern Florida. Here’s what Chemical & Engineering News (not my regular literary diet, but, ok) says about it:

Sargassum wasn’t a regular sight outside its native arena in the Sargasso Sea until 2011. That year, enormous mats of the algae started brewing farther south, in the central Atlantic, eventually washing onto beaches on the eastern and southern coasts of many Caribbean islands. By 2018, the mats had grown into the largest macroalgae bloom in recorded history, an 8,850 km long mass extending from the central Atlantic and Caribbean Sea to West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico. Chunks of Sargassum, circulated by ocean currents, now regularly wash ashore in the Caribbean, where they rot on the beaches, giving off a strong, sulfurous stench.”

That is putting it mildly. We had heard slight whispers about the sargassum problem when we first started researching our last-minute, mid-summer trip to Mexico, specifically, the Secrets Maroma Beach. But we thought it was just a bunch of seaweed washing up on the pristine white beaches and making them slightly less Instagrammable. Since we planned to spend most of our time lounging on the patio of our swim-up room or under an umbrella around the thoughtfully designed pool areas, we didn’t think it would bother us too much.

(Basically, us. Photo from Secrets Maroma Beach website)

Other than an occasional morning walk, we really don’t spend that much time on the beach and we don’t pick our vacation destinations based on the quality of the beaches. But there is so much more to sargassum than aesthetics. There’s that smell.

I would almost call it unrecognizable, but that’s not true. It is instinctually recognizable. In fact, we live in the lovely suburb called Old Town, which has a river-adjacent sewer system dating back to the late 1800s. So we are very familiar with the occasional, river-flooding-induced smell of excrement around these genteel streets lined with historic, million-dollar townhomes.

But this sargassum is a whole other poop game. And it is growing, reaching approximately 20 million tons, according to one NPR report. In fact, Inside Science noted:

“This spring, the seaweed invasion was comparable to last year’s, if not worse. In May, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador instructed the country’s navy to lead the beach-cleaning effort and to prevent the sargassum from reaching the coast. In June, the situation was so bad that the southeastern state of Quintana Roo — home of the tourist destination of Cancún — declared a state of emergency.”

And just like there would seem to be a disconnect between living in one of the most expensive areas in the Greater D.C. area and smelling sewage after every heavy rainstorm, so too, was it jarringly incongruent to smell the overwhelming stench of sulfide gas at the beautiful Secrets Maroma Beach, which happens to be in Quintana Roo.

Because SMB was gorgeous. Just beautiful. Here’s a description from Trip Advisor,

“Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun is tucked away on secluded Maroma Beach, voted the World’s Best Beach by the Travel Channel four years in a row. This unlimited-luxury heaven provides opulence to the most discerning traveler with a pure white sand beach, stunning ocean views stretching as far as the eye can see, elegant suites providing 24-hour room service, daily refreshed mini-bars and several of them with swim-out access to twelve smaller pools plus a shimmering infinity pool, gourmet dining options and chic lounges.”

Photo from the Secrets Maroma Beach website

And it’s true. You look at pictures of the beach (even recent ones) and it’s all white powdered sugar magical-ness. That’s because there are dozens and dozens of workers (aka: sargaceros) busting their butts to cart away literally TONS of seaweed around the clock. Trucks full of it. But they can’t cart away that smell.

Picture from a 2015 TripAdvisor review of SMB

Not to mention the fact that while sargassum might be bad for tourism in the region, it is even worse for coral, fish and other seagrasses. It smothers and destroys virtually everything in its path. Again from Inside Science:

“Since 2015, we have lost a significant number of seagrasses and they will take many decades to recover, assuming that the sargassum is controlled. If it continues to arrive, they will not recover. As of last year, we already began to record massive wildlife mortality — we began observing dead animals along the beach. Last year, we identified dead individuals of 78 species on the beaches, especially fish, but also crustaceans, lobsters, urchins, octopuses and others. As of May of last year, corals also began to die from a disease called “white syndrome.”

The good news is that there appears to be a season for sargassum. It’s not a year-round thing. The sargassum season runs roughly from April to August. And, the government, science community and resorts from Mexico to Florida are studying the issue carefully and trying to find solutions, everything from literal barriers in the ocean to finding alternative uses for the seaweed. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something before next year’s sargassum tide comes rolling in.  

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How to Answer the Question, ‘Did You Go Anywhere This Summer’ Without Being Awkward

I’ve discovered a new, annoying habit. Actually, I’ve caught both myself and my travel-partner-for-life, XFE doing it a lot over the past few weeks.

We’ll be talking to friends or neighbors or coworkers or the pet sitter or (in my case) the eye doctor. We’ll be chatting, catching up on our lives and the latest news when the conversation will inevitably turn to this question: “So, did you guys go anywhere this summer?”

I’ve actually never read this book, so I don’t even know if this is pertinent.

And the way we hem and haw and get all awkward over our answer is just so weird. We’ll look at each other and start mumbling about, “Yeah, we took a quick, last-minute trip but it was just to Mexico. Just for a week. Just a fly-and-flop at an all-inclusive resort. Really, it was no big deal. Nothing glamorous at all. What about you?”

It turns out, we are vacation apologists.

There are a couple of reasons this might be/is the case. For one thing, we tend to take really big trips to some far flung places. Like, safaris in Africa, driving tours through Sri Lanka, living it up in luxury in the Maldives, roughing it on a dive boat in the Barrier Reef, eating tours and temple hopping through Singapore, Cambodia and Hong Kong. So any vacation that’s less than a week or is in a location that takes less than two days to get to makes us feel like we’re letting our expectant audience down.

(OK, now I just feel like I’m bragging about all the great vacations we take. Which I am, because, hi, hello, Maldives? But I don’t mean to brag. I’m really, really grateful. I pinch myself all the time. Really, I have bruises from all the pinching. I can’t believe I get to go to any of these places. So then there’s that: I feel a lot of shame that I’m so fortunate. Thus, awkward apologies.)

Tough but fair.

Plus—to further belabor the bragging theme—we actually have a big trip coming up: three weeks in New Zealand. Which we are really, really excited about and has been our primary trip-planning focus for the last few months.

Then there’s the fact that we pretty much planned to not go anywhere this summer since we knew work would be so busy and we would be spending so much money on New Zealand. In fact, just this past spring, we had turned down an offer to go on a group vacation to the very same part of Mexico that we ended up running off to for six days in July. And the group trip was actually right around the same time (literally, we were only like two days off from passing each other at the Cancun airport).

Whatever it was, we have consistently minimized our Mexican vacation, both before we went and after we got back (Heck, I only posted one photo on Instagram). And we shouldn’t minimize it.

And, the one photo I posted: grilled fish.

We shouldn’t downplay our Mexican vacation for a lot of reasons but first and foremost is because we are just so privileged. Some people spend all year saving up the time and money to go to a beautiful, all-inclusive resort in Mexico. They are genuinely excited about their vacation and they should be.

Going on vacation is (obviously) a luxury that a lot of people—people who really, really work hard and deserve a break–just don’t get. We are both so damn lucky to have the means and ability to just go on vacation whenever and wherever we want. Yes, XFE has worked very hard at both his real job and his other job – racking up and managing all those hotel points and airline miles. No doubt. But again, we’re incredibly privileged. Just for the fact that we can carve out the time and make arrangements to cover our medium-sized obligations while we’re gone.

Secondly, our trip (which, by the way, was to Secrets Maroma Beach in the Riviera Cancun) was really, really nice. The resort was an adults-only, all-inclusive with all the amenities—great service, gorgeous grounds, delicious food, impressive entertainment and a variety of activities for those who wanted to partake.

Just look at this place. Beautiful.

We booked a swim-up room and that’s pretty much where we spent most of our six days. It was definitely low-key (we didn’t go on any excursions, but there are a lot of things to see and do in that region of Mexico) which was exactly what we were looking for.

Where I spent most of my time, reading three books.

To be honest, the trip planning for New Zealand has been a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of moving parts and logistics and decisions to be made, but with Mexico, we didn’t have to make any decisions. Plus, unlike New Zealand, Mexico was a short direct flight from D.C. We left in the morning and were drinking our first pina coladas by that afternoon.

So let me shout it from the rooftops: We got to go to Mexico this summer. And it was great. I got a few mosquito bites but I didn’t get sunburned. We met tons of nice people who worked very hard to make sure we had a good time, all the time. We ate the most amazing fresh, grilled fish for lunch every day (which I shared surreptitiously with some of the very friendly stray cats you’re not supposed to feed and which the staff pretended not to notice that I was, in fact, feeding). And the pina coladas were always delicious and refreshing. Everyone should absolutely go, if they can. Even vacation apologists.

Hotel Crashing: Mara Bushtops, Kenya

When we went to Bushtops Serengeti a couple of years back, we knew that if we ever got the chance to go to Tanzania again, we’d definitely stay there again and for a much longer amount of time. And, we did. For this trip, we stayed at Bushtops Serengeti for seven nights (Oct. 31-Nov. 8), which was a lot but also, totally amazing.

Since we were in the area(ish), we decided to check another country off our list and spent four nights at Mara Bushtops in Kenya.

We went on a “Behind the Scenes,” back of camp tour at Bushtops Mara and saw this hilarious sign hanging in the staff camp area. Hilarious because guess which tent we were staying in?

Now, even though both places are owned by the same camp operators and the two countries share a border, it’s not that easy to go from Tanzania to Kenya (or vice versa). The lovely folks at Bushtops helped us organize the transfer. Here’s the abbreviated version of that adventure: We took a very short flight from the Kogatende airstrip to Tarime near the Kenya border. Then we got in a van that drove us through Isebania, a small town straddling the border, where you get out on the Tanzania side and go through customs, drive across, then get out again on the Kenya side to go through customs. Then another very short flight from Migori airstrip to Siana Springs and Bushtops.

After a slight hiccup over whether in fact we actually needed a yellow fever card coming from Tanzania or the U.S. (both are non-yellow fever country) into Kenya (short answer: you don’t. Longer answer: But the customs officials will definitely try to shake you down for a nice little “fee” if you don’t have one), we were soon ensconced in our super-deluxe and way-too-roomy-for-two people tent, the Leopard Tent at Mara Bushtops.

The walk up to the deck of the Leopard Tent. Spa is just a short walk off to the left and the dining lodge is to the right.

The Leopard Tend has a large living room separating two large bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

The living room and front entrance. To the left of the entrance is a bar area with a mini fridge and snacks.

It also has a huge wooden deck running along the back of it, with a dining table, built in sofa seating and a Jacuzzi tub.

Two master suites to choose from at the Leopard Tent.

The Leopard Tent is meant to accommodate a family, which it would do really well. As it was, we hardly ever went into the second bedroom or bathroom at all.

While we pretty much had Mara Bushtops to ourselves the first couple of days, a very large group of Chinese tourists were coming in on our last night and had rented out all of the other 11 tents (I guess there were no families to accommodate), so we were put in the Leopard Family Tent for our stay. Which was great, because the Leopard Tent is kinda off away from all the other tents (it’s located on the side of camp closest to the spa tents and is separated from the other tents by the main lodge/dining room/restaurant area – here’s a site plan if you really want to get into it). So even though the Chinese tourist group came in pretty hot and loud that last night, we hardly noticed.

In addition, our family tent had its own fire pit, so on our last night, we avoided the newly crowded dining room and asked to have dinner in our room. And we asked for our own campfire. Which came with its own Masai warrior/fire tender. Who I don’t seem to have a photo of. Grr.

Warrior-less campfire pit at the Leopard Tent.

As with our previous experience at Bushtops Serengeti, we use the term “tent” in the loosest sense of the word at Bushtops. These were some deluxe, luxurious digs. We had a butler (Frederick at Mara, Mustafa at Serengeti) who brought us rose wine, gin and tonics and homemade potato chips. They were also our morning alarms, bringing us coffee with Amarula (sort of like African Bailey’s) and shortbread cookies every morning at 5 am before our 5:30 game drives. They also made sure our laundry was done and returned every day and just generally took care of all our needs while we were in camp (and not out on a drive).

Best samosas in all of Africa.

We seriously, seriously loved Mara Bushtops. What set this camp apart, even from our beloved Bushtops Serengeti, is a couple of things. For one thing, Mara Bushtops is located on a conservancy of 15,000 acres bordering the Masai Mara National Park. Bushtops has a multi-year leasing agreement with the Masai Mara tribe and is the only lodge within the conservancy. So, along the edges of the conservancy, you can see a few Masai communities and the cows and goats they tend. Plus, since its on a private conservancy, you can do nighttime game drives, something that’s not allowed in the National Park (or in the Serengeti National Park, for that matter).

We saw these three teeny tiny baby bat eared foxes (and their mom) during our evening game drive at Mara Bushtops.

Second, the spa. The spa was amazing, both in terms of the quality of the services provided and in terms of all the setting and treatment rooms. We just got massages (twice) but they had other cool, state of the art treatment rooms including hydratherapy and sauna. Plus the pool area with all its fountains and different pool options including the main pool, which has fiber optic “nightsky” lighting on the bottom of it, was just breathtaking. As a spa junkie, I gotta say this one was right up there with any I’ve been to.

Entrance to the spa.

The other thing that set Mara Bushtops apart is the fact that they have a salt lick a couple of hundred feet away from the main dining deck, where all the animals come throughout the day to get some nutrients. Rather than chasing animals all over the Masai Mara, you can sit at a table and watch them all come to you. It’s a destination all on its own.

Finally, I mean, have we forgotten about Harry? Because I sure haven’t. A lodge with a friendly, resident giraffe? Sign me up again and again.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops
My best bud, Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops.

Twiga Everywhere: How We Met All of the Giraffes in Kenya and Tanzania

*Twiga is Swahili for giraffe.

The lovely and long-lashed Sir Harry was not the only giraffe we saw during our 18-day trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Not by a long shot.

We saw. So. Many. Giraffes.

All the giraffes in the Mara

Usually on safari, we see a couple of giraffes a day, if we’re lucky. They’re not as ubiquitous as say, impala or even zebras. But they’re not as scarce as let’s say a rhino (seen it – white and black) or a honey badger (seen it) or a pangolin (still have not seen it, alas).

So giraffes are certainly around and since they are my favorite (after the pangolin), I’m always excited to see them, even if they aren’t particularly elusive or rare.

The grin of a girl excited to see giraffes.

But this trip? This trip we saw all the giraffes. Like, all of them. We did a roll call and I’m pretty sure we saw every last one that could be found in the Serengeti or Masai Mara. And then some more in Nairobi, just for good measure.

We saw so many giraffes we actually learned what groups of giraffes are called: a tower is a group of giraffes standing still and a journey is a group that is on the move.

This guy is neither a tower or a journey. He’s just a giraffe.

For example, we saw a journey of about 50 giraffes on our way back to Bushtops Serengeti one evening. We had just pulled around the corner and there they were, slowly walking and grazing, completely surrounding us on both sides of the road while the sun set in the distance. We sat gobsmacked and tried to count how many there were, while they just chewed and strolled.

We also saw a tower of about 30-40 giraffes on our last game drive on the private reserve surrounding Mara Bushtops.

This group was taking a breather near a watering hole, so we got to see them bending down to take a drink from the water, which, if you’ve never seen a giraffe drink water, let me tell you: it is a nerve-wracking feat of engineering by nature. Because they are so tall and their necks are so long, giraffes have to gingerly splay their legs and carefully dip their heads down to get a drink of water. But they can’t stay in this position too long because all the blood would rush away from their hearts and to their heads. It’s an extremely delicate maneuver and the whole time they look like they’re going to tip over. Or, as this Inside Science article puts it, “defying gravity.”

Luckily, they get most of their water intake from vegetation and only need to drink water every couple of days.

During this watering hole giraffe extravaganza, we also saw some behavior that we mistook for affection but turns out to be aggressive – two giraffes rubbing their necks together. This is known as “necking” and what we saw was actually a pretty mild form of it. When it escalates, necking can include the giraffes swinging their head at each others’ necks, like fists.

Then, there was the morning we rolled up on a tiny, newly born baby giraffe that was basically born minutes before we found it in a field in the Masai Mara National Park. It was all wobbly and wet and still leaning against its mom, trying to figure out the whole nursing thing.

Before our Harry experience, this was by far my favorite moment of the whole trip. It was so beautiful and moving and fraught with worry about unseen dangers and whether the baby would survive.

Good luck, little fella.

Finally, many people know about the Instagram-famous, Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. Giraffe Manor is a gorgeous old house that has been turned into a stunning hotel where guests (rooms are steep — around $620 per person per night) can feed pellets to the dozen or so resident Rothschild giraffes, right on the grounds, through open windows in the breakfast room or out on the lawn during afternoon tea (at 5 pm). Non-guests can also come (and pay) for the high tea experience (I think it’s $50-$75 per person).

But what most people don’t know is that adjacent to Giraffe Manor is the Giraffe Center, an education and conservation site where you get to feed the exact same Rothschild giraffes for like $10 bucks. It’s open from 9 am to 5 pm and it does get pretty crowded. But the giraffes are super friendly and will do just about anything for those damn pellets, including give you a kiss.

Clearly not afraid of a little giraffe slobber.

It’s a wonderful place, even if it’s bit of a stretch to call it an education center, but the docents on the grounds handing out pellets are very nice and informative. They do, however, limit you to just a couple of handfuls of pellets, so be judicious with your pellets. I was pretty excited and gave all of mine too quickly, but one girl was nice enough to give me an extra handful as long as I promised it would be the last.

All in all, I thought we’d be there an hour, but turned out, 30 minutes was enough time to run out of pellets and get your full pet giraffe fantasies fulfilled. Plus, I had already met and hung out with Harry at Mara Bushtops and he didn’t even require any pellet payoffs. My giraffe expectations were pretty high by the time we got to the Giraffe Center.

Pack it up: Travel plans for 2019

A new year (and, let’s face it, the winter weather) always puts me in the trip planning mood. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane during these dark, cold months. Well, that plus Bravo and wine.

Via Giphy

In general, XFE and I take at least three big trips a year – one around my birthday in March, one in the summer somewhere beachy, and one around his birthday in the fall (October-November timeframe).

2018 was a bit of an outlier – we only planned one big trip last year. But it was a doozy in terms of time and money (18 days in Tanzania and Kenya). On top of that, we had some work/friends/family/obligation travel that took us to Las Vegas, New Orleans, Denver and Chicago.

It was a different type of travel year for us. And, I don’t know if it was better. On the one hand, we both enjoy having several exotic, big trips and experiences to look forward to throughout the year. But we also liked having a bit of breathing room to really appreciate that one big trip to Africa. And, workwise, it probably worked out a bit better that most of our travel was domestic since it was a very busy year for both of us, but XFE in particular.

So far, 2019 is looking a bit similar travel-wise, with work obligations cutting in a bit on our travel life. First up, a trip next week to San Francisco for a client’s conference. We’re going a couple of days early to meet up with XFE’s parents and enjoy a quick city break before the conference gets started. I’ve only been to San Francisco/wine country one other time (in May), so I have no idea what to expect weather-wise in January (I guess, rain?), but we have plans to go to the racetrack, tour Alcatraz and visit Muir Woods (Maybe. If the government shutdown doesn’t keep it closed, which is currently the case).

via Giphy

Originally, we had planned to go to Morocco for my birthday in March, but we just couldn’t make it work. I have some work deadlines that conflicted with when we could get flights using miles and it was just turning into a lot of stress. So we’ve ditched Morocco for now (it’s still high up on our travel bucket list) and we are instead going to the equally exotic Asheville, North Carolina, aka the Morocco of the mid-Atlantic.

Actually, I’ve always been obsessed with that Gilded Age palace of excess, the Biltmore, so we’re finally going and I am really excited (I love a stately home). We’re doing the whole Biltmore experience: private tour, falconry, probably some high tea, plus there’s some sort of Land Rover experience XFE has signed us up for. We’re finishing up the trip with a couple of days in a remote cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

via Giphy

In June, I’m going to Anaheim for a work trip. I’ve never been, so I’m excited to see that city during my free time and the evening events for this particular conference are insane, so I’m sure I’ll get a chance to go to some venues and attractions that I’d probably never make it to otherwise.

Our big trip this year is New Zealand for three weeks (!!) in Oct-Nov. New Zealand is another one of those destinations that we’ve been meaning to get to, especially after we went to and fell in love with Australia several years ago. Seven years later, we’re finally going and we cannot wait. We’re still in the planning stages, but this place is definitely on the short list of places we want to stay.

That’s it so far for travel 2019! But you never know what the year will bring and if a crazy, last-minute mistake fare shows up (like that time we went to Chile for Thanksgiving like a week after returning from our second trip to Africa), we have our passports ready and our packing strategy worked down to an art form.

via Giphy

Wild About Harry, Mara Bushtops’ Giraffe

I have a new boyfriend. His name is Harry and he is a giraffe.

20181111_090032

It’s ok. My current, longtime, long-suffering boyfriend, XFE knows about him. He’s even met him. And I gotta say….he seems a bit in love with Harry as well.

I realize that this is all a bit nonlinear and out of context and is in no way the proper manner to start writing about our most recent African safari. But, meeting Harry at Mara Bushtops really was the most exciting part of an overall incredible trip to Tanzania and Kenya in November and, well, I’ve been busting at the seams to talk about him. That’s how love goes, right? You just want to gush about your object of affection to everyone who will listen.

And when I say that meeting Harry the giraffe was the most exciting part of our trip to Tanzania and Kenya, let me assure you that that is no tall order (giraffe pun: INTENDED. Thank you, you’ve been a great crowd and don’t forget to tip your waitress.)

 

This trip, y’all. This trip. I’m still not fully recovered from the awesomeness of this trip. I’ll get into it a bit more in some upcoming posts, but let me assure you, there was no shortage of amazing moments.

But meeting Harry was definitely my favorite. Perhaps because it was so unexpected.

Me and Harry 2

We had just gotten back early from a morning game drive. We’d been going pretty hardcore, full on, all day safari mode for the previous 12 days, leaving at 5:30 am each day and staying out till 5:30 or 6 pm. On this particular day, we decided to come back to camp early to have a late breakfast, enjoy our room, and get massages at the spa in the afternoon. We had just gotten in our room and set our stuff down when we noticed a giant giraffe hanging out right off the porch, peering in at us.

Mara Busthops giraffe Harry through our Leopard tent doorway

Turns out, his name is Harry and he’s pretty well known. Harry is a super chill, super friendly giraffe who likes to hang out at Mara Bushtops. He seems to really enjoy watching us humans. It’s like a safari in reverse: we came to see him, and he comes to see us. Except, instead of having sundowners and samosas like we did, he chews leaves. Acacia, I think.

Needless to say, I totally geeked out when I saw him. I know I sound pretty cool and calm in the video but I was squealing inside like a little kid. He must have hung out just watching us watching him for like 10 minutes. We started to get a bit antsy about getting to breakfast, but we didn’t want to disturb him by tromping off our porch and onto the path that connected our tent to the main hall/kitchen. So we went back out the front of our tent and around the other side to backtrack over to the trail. He still stood there, just watching us stand in awe on the trail for a while longer before he finally grew bored and walked away.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops, Kenya
Bye, Harry

Then, a couple of hours later, we headed over to the Amani Spa for some wonderful massages (Best Spa in Africa according to the World Luxury Spa Awards for three years running and I wholeheartedly agree), and on the walk over to the spa, who do we see on the side of the road but our good old friend Harry! And, of course, neither of us had a phone or camera on them. But we were able to get really, really close and just marvel at his size. He was so, so big. And not at all bothered by us walking by and gushing.

Then I had what has to have been the world’s most exciting and not-at-all-relaxing massage (not because of the massage technicians, who were wonderful, especially Caroline).

You see, the massage room at Mara Bushtops is a tent, similar to the rooms, so it’s open sided. It’s really nice. You can hear the spa pool’s fountain gurgling, see animals at the salt lick off in the distance, and you get a nice cross breeze.

Amani Spa at Mara Bushtops
Photo from Mara Bushtops website. 

I had just settled in for 90-minute Afrique Gold massage when I heard a weird noise, sort of a snapping, tugging, chewing type of noise. The sound of leaves being ripped off a tree and ground into a pulp. I snuck a peek and there he was, on my side of the tent to my left, near the entrance to the massage tent….HARRY!! He came to watch us get massages!

Did-You-say-Massage

I tried to relax but every time the chewing would stop, I would lift my head and open my eyes to see if he was still there. He must have been there for like, 20-30 minutes, just eating and watching us. I could not believe it. We had gotten a massage with a giraffe. Bushtops Camps motto is “Wild Luxury” and this experience really was the epitome of that. It’s something I’ll never forget. Oh, and the massage was excellent, as well.

"It was the most relaxing massage I've ever had."

 

Poe’s Packing Panic: Safari Edition

We leave in a few days for Africa. So, you know what that means.

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Packing panic. It’s a thing. And for me, it’s a repeat thing.

It’s not like this is my first African safari. Or even my second. No, this is the third time we are going on safari. You could say, we really, really, really like it.

I should know the drill by now.

Even still, in the last few months, I’ve vacillated between, “Nope, I have gobs of clothes, I don’t need to buy a single thing for this trip,” to “Oh my damn, I have nothing appropriate to take on safari, I better buy a whole new wardrobe.”

I have a few excuses. First of all, it’s a really long trip. We are going back to Serengeti Bushtops in Tanzania for eight days and Mara Bushtops in Kenya for five days (plus a couple of days in Zanzibar and one day in Nairobi on our way home, and a whole lot of time on very long flights). All told, I have to pack for 18 days, which is a LOT of days.

A-lot-o-luggage

(Oh, and I have actually packed for an 18 day trip before).

Secondly, I’ve lost a little weight since our last trip two years ago. Not a lot but enough to go down a size or two.

Third, I’ve purged my closet several times since our last trip and got rid of things I thought I’d probably never wear again, ie: clothes bought specifically for a safari. (Except my safari jacket. I wear that thing all the time).

sheryll_warthog
Warthog approved: My safari jacket in use in an actual safari in 2016.

And fourth, I also tend to buy really cheap items to take on safari (t-shirts from H&M or Old Navy, linen or cargo pants from Gap Factory or Kohl’s), and well, those don’t generally hold up that well. Which is fine, but obviously necessitated some shopping.

In case anyone is wondering, the reason I buy cheap, fast fashion stuff for safari (besides the cost, obviously) is that these clothes are going to take a bit of a beating. It’s not that safari is extremely physical (it’s not like your climbing a mountain or something) but you are getting in and out of a very tall Land Rover multiple times a day and walking through some dusty brush, primarily, at least in my case, to squat and pee.

You also really only need a couple of outfits since they do daily laundry at the safari camps we stay at. So the cost per wear is actually pretty high. Plus, if anything does happen to my safari clothes during the trip, say a laundry mishap or a tear from getting in and out of the truck, I won’t be bent out of shape about it.

I actually learned this lesson the hard way on our first safari to South Africa, where I bought these really nice $100 hiking pants from Athleta. I was so excited about these pants, I can’t even tell you. I ordered them online and put them right into my suitcase, still encased in plastic and everything. When I went to put them on our first morning in Sabi Sands, I saw (or felt, actually) that there was a big tear in the fabric, right across the right butt cheek. I was crushed. I used my little in-room sewing kit and stitched them right up but they were ruined, in my book. Lesson learned: no expensive, fancy safari clothes.

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These were my fancy pants on safari in South Africa in 2014. 

A few other considerations:

Colors: White and light colors are a bad idea since they show dirt so easily. And dark colors like black and navy attract mosquitoes and even tsetse flies, which hurt like hell.

As for agitating the animals with bright colors? Animals are mostly color blind, so the sight of bright colors doesn’t send them into a tizzy at all. Plus, you’re in a truck most of the time, so they just see you as part of a large, dark mass, and most likely think we’re all just another large animal. But, having said that, I tend to stick with neutral colors like gray, tan, olive. Especially if you go on a walking safari, when you definitely need to blend into the surroundings a bit.

Weather: It’s going to be pretty warm while we are on safari, highs mostly in the mid to upper 80s, lows in the upper 50s, low 60s. Still, I wear long pants and bring long sleeve shirts to help avoid bug bites. And a hat for sun protection. But not a pith helmet, or any other colonialist gear that smacks of racism and oppression.

Melania Saul Loeb-AFP-Getty Images.jpg
Nope. Just. Nope. 

And even though it’s the short rain season in the Masai Mara and Serengeti while we are there, we don’t need to bring waterproof gear. They usually have rain ponchos in the trucks (along with binoculars, which is why we don’t bring our own).

Dinners & downtime: This one is tricky and all over the map. Each camp has its own vibe and the dinner attire varies. Sometimes people wear the same clothes they wear on the game drives, which is fine. At Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands, people (including the staff) got a bit dressed up for dinner (sundresses or linen pants and camisole tops for the women, pants and button up shirts for the men).

I try to just go with a happy medium and bring something nice, then wear it over and over and over again.

Here’s my safari packing list

Clothing

  • 3-4 t-shirts
  • 2 long sleeve shirts (I’m taking two lightweight button downs to wear over t-shirts in the morning)
  • 1 sweatshirt/fleece (I’m taking my olive cargo jacket)
  • 2 pairs of cotton trousers/pants – a pair and a spare while the other is being washed.
  • 2 light dresses/2 dressy tops/1 pair of jeans – for dinners while on safari and time in Zanzibar & Nairobi.
  • A scarf – good for blocking dust or sun or bundling up on a chilly morning.
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 6 pairs of underwear (I also bring a net lingerie bag for our socks and underwear to keep them together and it just to make it a bit less embarrassing.)
  • 3 bras (including one sports bra – VERY bumpy roads. I wash this by hand before dinner and let dry overnight.)
  • Sunglasses (for the dust as well as bright sun)
  • Pajamas/linen pants for hanging out in our tent.
  • Hat
  • Swimsuit
  • Lightweight, durable, waterproof shoes (I’m taking this tennis/hiking shoe hybrid pair I already have. Not terribly lightweight, but durable.)
  • Sandals for around camp/wedges for dinner & city

Toiletries/First Aid

  • Anti-malarial medicine
  • Sunscreen
  • Antihistamine (for bug bites/stings and allergic reactions)
  • Aspirin for pain/headaches
  • Mosquito repellant (I especially like the wipes or toilette versions)
  • A couple of large Ziploc bags (to keep things like your camera dry or free of dust)
  • Pepto Bismal plus something stronger (we travel with Cipro after the Great Peruvian Giardia Adventure of 2013)
  • Band aids/antibiotic ointment for blisters, cuts, scrapes
  • Personal toiletries in small travel sizes, including hair and skincare products, or formulas that aren’t liquid, ie: powder or stick sunscreen, solid shampoo/conditioner)
  • Minimal makeup – really, just the basics: tinted bb cream, mascara, tinted lip balm.
  • Prescription medications/spare glasses and contacts, in my case.
  • Tissues — (I found having little packs of these in the pockets of my jacket VERY useful when “checking the tires” — ie: peeing – during those 6-hour game drives.
  • Antiseptic gel or wipes (handy for washing your hands when there’s no water around)

Gadgets and Gizmos

  • Converter plug to fit local sockets (if needed. We did not need one on our last trip to Bushtop. All the plugs were universal.)
  • Camera (with zoom lenses/tripod/whatever. I just use a Canon point-and-shoot)
  • Extra memory card for your camera
  • Binoculars (Again, we found we didn’t really need them and our safari trucks had them)
  • Spare batteries and/or battery charger for electronics (Bushtop’s safari trucks even had USB ports to help keep batteries charged)
  • I-Pad or Kindle for all your entertainment needs
  • Cell phone. I don’t take my computer but I will take my cell phone. But, while the camps do have wifi, but it’s always a bit iffy. I try to just unplug and be in the moment, which is what safari (and any vacation, really) should be all about.

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Hotel Crashing: The Underwater Room, Manta Resort, Pemba Island

There is a place where you can belt out The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” without a lick of irony, a smidgen of skill, or any regard for your neighbors’ eardrums.

A place where you can “sleep with the fishes.” Where you literally sleep with fishes darting all around you. Except, if you’re like me, you won’t be “sleeping with fishes” at all because the whole experience of watching fish swim around your room all night while lying in bed makes sleep completely impossible.

Underwater room at Manta Resort, Pemba

I’m talking about the underwater room on Pemba Island, one of the islands that make up Zanzibar right off the coast of Tanzania.

Let me start by telling you a bit about Pemba Island. It is lush and green. It is surrounded by impossibly clear aqua waters, teaming with coral and fish. Pemba is also the leading producer of cloves, according to Brittanica.com.

Pemba is very, very off-the-beaten path. According to one tourism source, Pemba’s sister island, Zanzibar has 150 hotels. Pemba has just seven (including a couple that may be more B&B style lodging)

It is very remote – you can take a small plane from Dar Salaam on the mainland to tiny Karume airport in Pemba’s main town of Chake-Chake. Then you’ll need a driver to take you on the hour-and-a-half drive through Ngezi Forest Reserve and up to the Manta Resort on the far northern part of the island.

Pemba transportation options
A Pemba “bus”

Along the way, you’ll pass by thatched huts, the only other traffic on the road is the insistent mosquito-like drone of a scooter or two.

Pemba auto shop
Pemba auto shop

Manta Resort is pretty remote. You won’t be venturing out to any neighboring villages to grab a drink or dine in an area restaurant. There aren’t any. Nor are there any TVs, telephones, gym. Wi-fi is only really available at the lobby/reception area and it is spotty at best. I pretty much gave up on checking email or Instagram after the first afternoon.

The accommodations are spartan – small, private stucco villas with open bathrooms and no air conditioning but stunning ocean views. It’s an all-inclusive setup and there is no menu. You’re server (or “fundi”) gives you two options at each meal and you pick one. But it’s all very fresh and healthy, and there’s almost always a fish option.

The entire vibe at Manta Resort is unpretentious, laid back and friendly. It’s clear that the resort is community-focused and gives back in many ways – jobs, schooling, fishing and coral conservation. Their foundation, the Kwwanini Foundation, has several initiatives aimed at sustainable economic development with an eye towards preserving what makes the island unique.

But what really makes Manta Resort unique and is, quite honestly, the main draw is its’ underwater room.

Photo via Manta Resort
Photo via Manta Resort

Continue reading Hotel Crashing: The Underwater Room, Manta Resort, Pemba Island

5 Facts About the Maldives (or, Why Can’t I Just Relax and Enjoy Nice Things?)

Oh, hello there. I realize I left you all on a bit of a cliffhanger. Not about the Mad Pooper. I mean, we’re all waiting for bated breath on that one, but alas, I’m not sure we’ll ever really find out who she is or why she does what she did. And the Colorado police want us all to just flush it and forget it.

No, I left you hanging over our visit to the St. Regis Maldives. Which, honestly, is not a bad place to just hang. And, because really, that’s kind of all there is to do there is…..hang.

Let me tell you a little something about the Maldives, which is sometimes pronounced “Maldiiives” with a long “i” (if you are American) and sometimes pronounced “Maldeeeves” with a long and pronounced “e” (if you are British). Somehow along the way, XFE and I had taken to pronouncing it the British way. That’s fine, too. Nobody at the very fine and expensive St. Regis Maldeeeeves ever corrected us while they were taking our credit card information. No harm. No foul. Or “foal,” however you want to pronounce it.

St. Regis Maldives welcome note for Ms Peo
Perhaps this little mispronunciation of my last name is why they didn’t correct our mispronunciation of Maldives.

Anyway, about the Maldives.

Here are 5 things to know about the Maldives.

They are incredibly remote. – The Maldives – all 1,000 coral islands that make up the tiny 26 ring-shaped atolls of this adorable little tropical paradise – are just floating along in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far, far from just about anywhere. This island nation is just under 9,000 miles (or 19 hours by plane) from our home base of Washington, D.C.

Sri Lanka is probably the closest gateway country to the Maldives at just 642 miles away (it’s a one-and-a-half hour flight from Colombo to the Maldives largest city, Male).

So it’s got that whole Robinson-family-shipwrecked-far-from-civilization vibe to it, which, I’ve got to say, freaked me out a tiny bit.

Atolls in the Maldives
Future St. Regis atolls beginning to take shape.

They are unbelievably beautiful. — Lonely Planet calls it “nature’s sunken garden” and XFE commented that being there was “like living above an aquarium.” The water is an impossible clear, light aqua blue that literally makes your eyes hurt and the sand on the beaches was so soft and white it reminded us of the sand you find in those fancy stamped ashtrays in Las Vegas.

The reefs we explored – both around the St. Regis property itself and during a day of exploring other reefs by private boat – were exceptional. Crystal clear waters teaming with all kinds of sea life and underwater cliffs covered in coral that just went on forever. The reefs were so exceptional, in fact, that we didn’t even go scuba diving. We felt we could see everything we wanted to see just snorkeling, including sharks, octopus, rays, turtles, and all the colorful small fish you can possible imagine.

They are amazingly expensive. – I already spoke a little bit about the room prices at the St. Regis, which we were lucky enough to not have to pay. But those multiple dollar signs pop up in all the other stuff, too.

Hey, you know what grows in coral? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The lack of arable land makes agriculture a no-go, which is why just about every food item (besides fish, and in particular, tuna) has to be brought in. And it’s also why everything in the Maldives (at least in my resort-laden experience) was incredibly expensive (think: $45 burgers, $36 margherita pizza).

Menu at the St. Regis Maldives' Cargo restaurant
Please note the $23 falafel starter. There was also a $45 kebab.

 

(Disclaimer: Apparently, there are a few things that can be grown in the Maldives – hello, coconuts — but even this website notes it’s mostly grown in homestead gardens, not enough to consider marketable. And if these Maldives farmers did sell them, I’m sure they’d be really, really expensive.)

They seriously rely on tourism. — The overall population of all 26 atolls is just over 425,000 and pretty much everybody is involved in the tourism industry. More than 1.2 million tourists visited the Maldives in in 2016, shacking up in one of the 126 resorts located on the atolls. Local laws require a certain percentage of the staff to be Maldives citizens (I think it was something like 51%) so it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Maldivians are somehow involved in travel and tourism.

our St. Regis Maldives Butler
Our amazing St. Regis Maldives butler who put up with us for days on end.

So these guys are total pros—very service oriented, always smiling, very professional. The staff at the St. Regis was top notch all the way. Even when there were glitches (and yes, there were a couple), they bent over backwards to fix things, no questions asked. In fact, if anything, managers and servers wanted to dwell on those glitches: we were asked about and apologized to for service snafus by multiple people throughout the staff multiple times, which sometimes bordered on uncomfortable.

They are all about relaxation. – I don’t want to say there’s nothing to do in the Maldives, because there probably are lots of things to do, if you are not a pasty-delicate-white flower who burns when she even sees a picture of a sun.

And certainly the St. Regis had all kinds of different buildings with a ton of different activities (a gorgeous round library stocked with books, magazines and even Kindles for guest use, another building fully stocked with games—everything from video game areas to ping-pong and foosball tables, a yoga studio with those hanging ribbons ala Pink, a cooking kitchen designed for kids, a ridiculously cool, futuristic-looking spa). They have a movie night on the beach (I think it was on Thursdays) and a very cool DJ spinning at the Whale Bar every night.

Gravity free yoga at St. Regis Maldives

But most of the times we went in those buildings, they were entirely empty. We strolled by the movie night and it was playing to empty bean bags. When we went to the Whale Bar for after dinner drinks, it was usually just us, the staff and the very cool DJ.

Maybe it was the time of year. Who knows? We’d been to resorts on an island before, but this was entirely different. This was an island resort – not a resort on an island. It often felt (other than at breakfast time) that we were the only people in the entire place, which again, made me a wee bit angsty.

St. Regis Maldives beach
Where is everybody?

The one thing that felt slightly odd to me is that every day felt identical. They were all beautiful picture-perfect days. The sun was always shining, the sky was always blue, it was always warm and humid — there seemed no variation to the days at all. I think that could make someone go crazy. You don’t even have the weather to talk about!

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about the St. Regis specifically and our overwater bungalow.

That Time We Got Booted From Bali and Ended Up in the Maldives

 

St. Regis Maldives

As mentioned previously, my main man for life, XFE and I went to Sri Lanka for my birthday trip earlier this year, which was culturally enriching yet also challenging (for all the reasons I’ve gone over in previous posts). Which, since this wasn’t exactly our first Southeast Asian rodeo, we kind of figured it might be. And even though we had set aside a few days for some beach time in Sri Lanka, we knew we might want to go seriously luxe out somewhere else.

Plus, when Marriott merged with Starwood, we suddenly realized that our future loyalty perks such as free resort nights and suite upgrades might be in jeopardy, so we best use ‘em or risk losing them.

So, we put our little heads together and thought: “What was the most luxurious, most customer-centric island-retreat-type Starwood property we’ve ever stayed at?” It was actually a no-brainer – The St. Regis Bali. Not only were they very generous with the suite upgrade (an amazing little house with private pool) but the staff were just phenomenal. We could not have been treated better. We booked our room for a weeklong stay, fully confident that we’d have a similar experience again and went on planning the rest of our trip.

Fire dancers
St. Regis Bali fire dancers.

About a month before our trip, we got an email from the St. Regis Bali. XFE opened it, thinking that maybe it was the concierge wanting to see if we needed anything special or (even better) informing us of a suite upgrade. But no. The hotel was informing us that the Government of Bali had rented the whole place out so we could not stay there (nor could anybody else), but the St. Regis would be happy to put us up at any other hotel in Bali (including the W in Seminyak, which we’ve stayed at and really enjoyed).

I gotta admit: My spoilt butt was a little bit crushed. Sure, I liked Bali and maybe would even want to return there at some point in the future because, heck, it’s Bali! But the main reason we were going at this particular time was for that amazing St. Regis experience. I wasn’t even thinking about how we were going to Bali again….I was thinking about how we were going to the St. Regis Bali again.

St. Regis Bali bedroom
I can almost smell the frangipani.

Plus, how rude! Do they not remember that we stayed at the St. Regis back in 2014, literally a month after a very high-profile murder had been committed there? But did we cancel our reservation or bail? No. No we did not. We just looked around for clues and made sure all the heavy vases and fruit bowls were gathered up and stored in the butler’s pantry.

Time out room for rowdy girlfriends.
Butler’s room in our villa at the St. Regis Bali. Good place to hide potential murder weapons.

(Side note: My favorite headline for a TripAdvisor review ever “Everything is perfect, until the murder happened.”)

But then I realized just how awful it must be for the hotel to have to move and re-accommodate all those people, including wedding parties and people on their honeymoon. All because the late-to-the-party Balinese government couldn’t book a conference in advance.

While I shrugged and tried let go of my dreams of kite-flying on the beach, champagne sabering and releasing baby sea turtles back into the sea, XFE got creative and offered up an alternative suggestion that neither one of us thought the fine people at Starwood/the St. Regis would EVER take us up on.

Room 805 at the St. Regis Bali
Room 805, our little piece of Balinese paradise.

That trip-planning-genius-of-a-man kindly suggested to the fine people at the St. Regis that they book us a room using our Starwood loyalty points (ie: with us only paying taxes, basically) at the newly-opened, super luxurious St. Regis in the Maldives. Oh, and he wanted an overwater, sunset bungalow, pleaseandthankyou.

ST-REGIS-MALDIVES-VILLAS Points Guy.png
NOT my photo. The Points Guy gets the credit on this one.

Now, just for comparison, rooms at the St. Regis Bali (looking at March dates, since that was the time of year we were looking at) run about $469 to $2,092 per night – definitely a chunk of change and nothing to sneeze at. The lagoon villa (with private pool) we stayed in in 2014 currently retails for around $1,200 a night.

Meanwhile, rooms at the St. Regis Maldives in March START at $2,580 and go up to $4,500 for a family villa. The sunset water villa (with private pool) that we ended up slumming it in for the week retails for $3,500 a night.

swinging
At that price, I think you get to keep the slippers.

We thought they would laugh in his face. We thought they’d say, “Ummmm, yeah, nice try. Now, may I direct your attention back to the list of luxury Balinese properties we’ve offered up to you, including a Bulgari and a Four Seasons? Surely one of those would do, no?”

But no. The exceptionally fine people at the St. Regis Bali just said, “Sure. We can make that happen. We’ll talk to the property and make sure they can accommodate your request.” And then THEY DID. Which is just another reason to add to the list of why the St. Regis Bali is amazing and wonderful and all of the great things. All of them.

St. Regis Welcome.JPG
Popping bottles, St. Regis Maldives style.

We had to change our flights from Sri Lanka, obviously. And book and pay for the prop plane to take us to from the Velana International Airport in Maldives to Vommuli, which was $645 roundtrip per person for a 45-minute flight to and from the resort, and yikes, that’s a lot of money but still.

prop plane.jpg
You don’t even get snacks on this expensive flight.

And that’s how we accidentally, unintentionally, and maybe undeservedly got to go to Maldives. THE MALDIVES. Without even planning to. All because of those conference-planning slackers, aka the Government of Bali.

self portrait
Me in the Maldives, where I do not at all belong. Literally, everybody there was rich. Like, really REALLY rich. It was crazy.