The sun warming my back, the surf drawing white-edged curtains of foam over my bare feet before gently receding. Wisps of clouds in a water color blue sky. No work to do, no decisions to make, no wondering what might happen tomorrow.
If you’ve been dreaming of tropical beach walks too, we’re on the same wavelength as a lot of people. In Canada, tropical destinations top the list of vacation types people are planning when the world opens up again. And no wonder. Research says that beaches have a calming effect on our brains. After the year we’ve lived through, we could all use a little more of that.
My own beach dreams have reached back to last February when I was discovering Exuma, a sweet little necklace of Bahamian islands where you’re never more than few kilometres from the ocean.
The water surrounding Exuma is so clear and spectacularly aquamarine that astronauts have reported seeing it from space. The sand is icing sugar fine and white. Best of all, you won’t need to pick your way between coconut oil-slathered tourists lying on beach blankets. Exuma is still relatively under-explored so there’s a good chance you’ll have whatever beach you visit mostly or all to yourself.
If you visit Exuma, you’ll find your own favorite beaches. In the meantime, here are a few of mine:
1. Tropic of Cancer Beach, Little Exuma
We visited here on our island tour with Kendal “Dr. K” Nixon. As we descended the wooden stairwell, it was fun to think of standing on the latitude line whose location I recall memorizing for an elementary school geography test. A couple of people were wandering the beach, but as was common anywhere in Exuma, it was mostly deserted.
2. Stocking Island
After a 5-minute trip by water taxi from our hotel, the Augusta Bay on Great Exuma, we crossed the rise in the middle of Stocking Island to find the most stunning deserted beach. Enough said. Enjoy the video.
If you’d like to enjoy a conch salad and a little swing out over the water with your beach time, you can head over to the Chat and Chill, Stocking Island’s only restaurant, where you’ll find both:
3) A sandbar near Staniel Cay
Partway through our full day water excursion with Aquaquest Escapes, the captain let us off for a little wander on a sandbar near Staniel Cay, favorite of the yachting crowd who like to call Exuma home for at least part of the year. For half an hour, we pretended to be one of them.
4. Augusta Bay Hotel Beach
I started to think of this as my home beach, because for seven days, I opened our hotel curtains to it every morning, and fell asleep feet from it every night. I usually walked it twice a day, looking for sea shells and wondering if I should quit my job in Canada and open a business to rival the one I saw advertising on a quiet section of the beach.
Ok, ok. Exuma doesn’t have a zoo in the literal sense.
But since zoo is rooted in the Greek word for animal and, before that, a living being, the water and cays surrounding Exuma qualify as zoo-like places where you can see some pretty interesting species of both the animal and human variety.
There are lots of companies willing to take you on a tour.We signed up for a full day package with Aquaquest Escapes, the boat captained and crewed by Bahamians, all of them very safety conscious but also lots of fun. They knew the waters and cays well, and had all kinds of stories to share.
Iguana Island (aka Allan’s Cay)
Truthfully, I’m not that keen on interacting with reptiles: like Emily Dickinson said of her feelings about snakes, “Never met this fellow/ Attended or alone/Without a tighter breathing/Or zero at the bone.” Reptile eyes and claws give me the same response. So when we beached on Allan’s Cay, and a whole horde of iguanas came scuttling down to meet us in anticipation of a free breakfast, I wasn’t among the first to disembark from the boat. But since traveling is supposed to challenge your limits, I tried to conquer my discomfort, not altogether successfully. I decided to let the pros do the interaction for me, and enjoy a more distant iguana experience.
As we motored along between cays, our captain cut the engines and one of the crew dove into the shallow waters of an unofficial starfish reserve. He returned with a huge burgundy specimen. I’d never actually held a live starfish before, so feeling its prickly exterior was an interesting experience. Not to worry, animal activists – the crew returned him to his home in just a few minutes.
Sea Turtle Spontaneity
Turns out not all reptiles give me a zero at the bone response. When an energetic sea turtle suddenly flippered up next to the boat, I felt quite warm and gooshy. He stayed with us just long enough to get a snack and then disappeared again.
And if anyone cares, when I buy a swimup bar in the Bahamas, I can’t think of a better name for it than the Starfish and Turtle.
Pig Island (aka Big Bay Cay)
One of the Exuma cays’ biggest tourist attractions involves swimming with the pigs of Pig Island. How did the pigs get there? Apparently, years ago, the residents of nearby Staniel Cay needed a spot to store their pigs, which were rapidly starting to stink up their home island. The residents went over to feed them and bring back the occasional one for a feast. Eventually, some of the pigs began to anticipate the feast (the one they were getting, not providing), and began to swim out to meet the boats. The swimming pigs didn’t become an attraction until social media and selfie sticks became part of the tourist experience.
Now, every sea tour promises the opportunity to “swim with the pigs,” one we declined because, er, the pigs were doing in the water what pigs do after you feed them. Not only that, they can get rather aggressive if you make them beg for their food so your spouse can take a picture, as one of our fellow travelers found out to his terrified surprise.
Johnny, David, Faith and Tim
If the Exumas are a favorite hangout for the four-legged and the five-armed, they’ve also attracted their fair share of the famous and fabulously wealthy two-leggeds. Johnny Depp bought Little Hall’s Pond Cay after spotting it while filming The Pirates of the Caribbean. Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill purchased and entirely outfitted an island, including having all its infrastructure built and importing palm trees from Jamaica – much to the bemusement of the locals because, well, one thing you can find in abundance on the Exumas are palm trees. The Hill-McGraw island is currently on the market for $35 million US, in case you’re looking for a vacation property. David Copperfield invested in eleven pieces of Exuma paradise – Musha Cay, the island he rents out to exclusive guests, and the ten islands surrounding it for maximum privacy. You and up to 23 of your nearest and dearest can rent Musha Cay for as little as $57K per night.
A Few After Words:
1. A group of iguanas is technically called a “mess ” and now I know why.
2. For a more detailed account of the history of Pig Island, have a look at T.R. Todd’s account here, which includes interviews with Staniel Cay residents.
3. Have a look around Musha Cay, Copperfield’s rentable island here.
4. Take a peek inside the Hill- McGraw place here.
4. Aquascape Tours also gives you the chance to swim with nurse sharks and snorkel among tropical fish in the Thunderball Grotto of James Bond movie fame.
There’s nothing like exploring a new destination with a local, especially one who takes an interest in their home’s history.
When we visited Exuma, a picturesque out island in the Bahamas, our local guide was Kendal “Dr. K” Nixon. With a voice like Morgan Freeman and a loose-jointed lope that reminded me of Barack Obama getting off Airforce 1, I liked him immediately. He was born and raised on the island and knew its every nook and cranny, taking us down dusty backroads we never would have found on our own. Not only did he know Exuma’s history, he took an active role in its caretaking, replacing toppled monument stones and checking to ensure that visitors were respecting the historic sites.
On the second morning of our Exuma stay, Dr. K picked us up at our hotel in his big air-conditioned van. We were his only customers so we got a 5-hour private tour from one end of Exuma to the other, a distance of about 60 kilometers.
Exuma’s social history began with the Lucayans, the first Indigenous people to make contact with Columbus in 1493. The Spaniards viewed the Lucayans as a source of slave labor, kidnapping and carrying them off to Spain and Spanish colonized islands. By 1520, the Lucayans had been totally eradicated by the Spaniards, leaving Exuma mostly uninhabited for more than 200 years.
The deserted island and its neighboring cays made ideal hiding spots for pirates, looking to escape capture, repair their ships, and enjoy a little rum between raids. William Kidd, the British privateer turned pirate, was known to have frequented Exuma and, rumor has it, may even have left his treasure behind there.
Exuma’s next inhabitants didn’t arrive until about 1783, American Loyalists fleeing the Revolutionary War in the U.S. Denys Rolle, a British aristocrat, brought at least 150 slaves with him to work the land he’d been given by the British government.
When Rolle died, his son John inherited his land and slaves, now numbering close to 400. John never left England to run the plantation, relying instead on a single overseer. When the plantation began to lose money, John Rolle attempted to “rent out” 77 of his slaves to work on nearby Cat Island. One of the slaves, known only as Pompey, led the selected 77 into the bush, where they evaded capture until they ran out of provisions. Later, 44 of them stole one of Rolle’s boats and started off towards Nassau to plead their case to the Governor. Unfortunately, they were caught as they sailed into the harbor, and were flogged for their disobedience.
When the situation came to the Governor’s attention, he was outraged, and sent Pompey and the other slaves back to Exuma. It would be eight more years before Pompey and Rolle’s other slaves would officially gain their freedom, but Pompey’s rebellion is widely believed to have sparked the end of slaves being forcibly relocated and the eventual emancipation of Bahamian slaves.
After all the land owners and overseers had abandoned the island, Rolles’ slaves assumed ownership of the very land they had been forced to work. Their own names lost when they were enslaved, they also took on Rolle as their surname. Today, there are thousands of Rolles in the Bahamas, any one of whom can rightfully claim a house lot on Exuma.
Later on our tour, we would meet one of the Rolles, a delightful woman of 80+years whom everyone called Ma. She had married and raised her own children just a few kilometers from where she had been born and grew up, a true Exuman in every respect. She now owns, operates and makes all the goodies at Ma’s Bakery, which regularly sells out of her rum cakes, coconut bread and pineapple upside down cake. We tucked away a couple of still warm loaves to enjoy back at the hotel.
For such a little place, Exuma has packed a lot of events into its history, not all of them peaceful ones. Hard to believe now as you look out over its tranquil turquoise waters and serene white sugar beaches.
You swim up to the surface of sleep, only aware at first that you’re not in your bedroom at home.
The gentle whup whup whup of a ceiling fan and a sliver of pale mango light push through the hotel balcony black out curtains. Then you remember. It’s the first morning of your tropical vacation.
Your traveling partner sleeps on. You toss back the bedsheet and peek through the curtains. Waving palm trees. White sand beach. Still blue swimming pool.
You congratulate yourself for remembering to pack the only three items of clothing you’ll need for most of the day in an external pocket of your suitcase: Swimsuit. Coverup. Flipflops.
You close the door to your room behind you as quietly as you can. Morning warmth puts its arms around you. Tropical plants line the path that leads you to a row of empty beach chairs and a little rock retaining wall between the pool deck and the beach. You sit on its rough ledge while you take your first look around.
Off to the right is the hotel’s dock and outdoor kitchen. You remember from the online info that you can catch the shuttle to a neighboring island from there, and that the hotel hosts dockside cookouts on Sundays.
To the left, the dock and outdoor kitchen of a neighboring hotel. Beyond it, a few sailboats riding at anchor. On a short land peninsula, you notice a little white delivery van pause at an electric gate before gaining entry and disappearing into a grove of trees. Who lives out there you wonder.
And then there’s the beach, accessible down a few steps from where you’re sitting. You’ll save a stroll for later in the day.
By now, the hotel breakfast room is open. You haven’t quite finished drinking in your surroundings but a cup of coffee might be nice.
Mug in hand, you settle in to one of the poolside loungers, content in the delicious realization that you’ve got six more mornings to spend exactly like this one.
When I was a kid, I used to wish I could see into the future. “I think it would be cool to know what’s going to happen before it does,” I’d say to my mom.
She would pause, weighing, I suspect, how much of her motherly experience to share. “Well, sometimes I think it’s better for us not to know, just to enjoy what we’ve got in front of us today.”
I’ve thought of her words many times over the past year. When my husband and I took off at the end of January 2020 for a Bahamian vacation, there were three COVID cases in Canada, all in Toronto. Yes, we had to switch flights there but, as far as we were concerned, the virus was never going to get any closer to our lives than that.
I never had the chance to blog about that vacation because the little island of Great Exuma experienced internet issues for the whole week we spent there. I could get connectivity if I sat right by the hotel registration desk, but who wants to do that when there’s a tropical paradise waiting to be explored?
So, in the spirit of the Chinese poet Li Po, who said writing poetry is like being alive twice, I’m going to experience that trip again by blogging about it over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join me. Maybe my words and photos will help you to recall a tropical vacation of your own. If so, I hope you’ll share your memories and photos in the comment section. If only in our dreams right now, we all need to be whisked away to an elusive beach, the sun warming our faces, an icy rum punch near at hand.
A couple of weeks ago, the news broke in Alberta that nine members of our provincial government contravened the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” advice they’d been giving us for months, and jetted off for Christmas beach vacations with their families. Our Premier, who initially declined to discipline them, only brought in sanctions against them when the public outcry got so loud, so angry, and so politically united that he had no other choice.
That same week, the news footage from Washington burst onto our screens. An embittered man-child President, pumping his black leather- gloved fist in the air, urging his supporters to march on the Capitol to force an overturn of the election results. An unmasked mob wearing racist T-shirts and waving Confederate flags swarming into the Capitol Building, posing for grinning selfies as they sat in the chairs of elected officials and put their feet up on their desks.
At week’s end, I turned away from every news source, turned on a jazz music radio program, and sought refuge in the photographs and memories of my visit a little over a year ago to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
On an already-warm October morning, I played hookey from the educational conference I was attending and caught the Atlanta Street Car a couple of blocks away from my downtown hotel. It dropped me off in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, known in the 1920s for its robust collection of Black-owned businesses, churches, schools and homes, and now as the community where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, grew up, and began his career as a preacher and civil rights activist.
On the advice of my guide book, I made a beeline for the visitor information centre as soon as I arrived, because I wanted to ensure a place for myself on one of the ranger-led tours of King’s family home. Only 15 people were allowed on each tour, and the free tickets disappeared quickly. Because of my solo visitor status, I was able to scoop up a single ticket for a tour an hour later, so I had just enough time to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church while I waited.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Dr. King began to preach at the church in 1960. There were very few people around the morning I visited, so I stood in the cool, dimly lit sanctuary, imagining King sitting at in one of the stately wooden chairs at the front, the white-robed choir behind him, then rising to deliver the sermon. I didn’t have to imagine his voice: a recording had captured its distinctive baritone cadence, as inspiring as when I first heard it as an adolescent.
I emerged from the church, squinting in the bright heat of late morning, and walked down the street to the house where King was born in 1929 and lived until he was 12. The park ranger guided us from room to room, telling stories of King’s growing up years (the Parks Service now offers virtual tours of the house, if you’re interested).
King lived a happy, busy, middle class life with his parents, two siblings and grandparents, taking piano lessons, reading, playing games, and listening to the radio. He also had plenty of opportunities to interact with visiting students, religious personnel, and community members as they rehearsed hymns and discussed issues of concern such as pay equity and voter registration. Every night at dinner, each of the King children was expected to recite a Bible verse, and to relate and offer opinions about a current affairs item. It wasn’t hard to see how young Martin was influenced in his eventual choice of careers and nudged towards his calling as a civil rights leader.
My next stop was Freedom Hall, where memorabilia from King’s life and the civil rights movement is displayed. In an intermingling of light and dark, I walked past King’s Nobel Peace Prize and artifacts from the day of his funeral, sobering reminders of the high price that civil rights leadership can demand.
Outside of Freedom Hall, I lingered on a bench under a shade grove that surrounded the final resting place of Martin and Coretta King. They are memorialized by an inscribed granite stone and an eternal flame, surrounded by cascading reflecting pools. I sat for a long time, absorbed in the peacefulness of the steadily burning flame, and the splash of water flowing from one pool to the next.
My final stop on the grounds reminded me that although the Kings are gone, their work continues. The Martin Luther King International World Peace Rose Garden is one of five such gardens world-wide dedicated to helping youth appreciate the value of peace. An important part of this initiative is an annual poetry contest in which students from around the world submit pieces about what peace means to them.
Postscript: As the U.S. heads into another week of potentially unsettling events, I’m taking some comfort in the words of Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first black senator-elect and coincidentally, the current senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Since the coronavirus locked down many aspects of life as we used to know it, especially the ability to travel, I’ve noticed that the media has frequently tapped travel guru Rick Steves on the shoulder for a few words of hope about when we might get off the ground again.
In early August, The Atlantic published “I’m traveling even though I’m stuck at home,” an interview in which Steves talks about exploring his home state of Washington with the wonder and curiosity of a first time visitor. In late October, travelpulse.com shared Steves’ remarks to the virtual audience of The Travel and Adventure Show Series. As the pandemic grinds on and the virus wears down everyone but itself, Steves reassured the audience that “we are going to be able to travel in the future, but we just have to be a little patient right now, and a little community-minded,” working together and building bridges to make the world a better place.
Steves’ August to October progression from travelling wide-eyed in his own state, to considering how to transfer his travel motivation to his own community resonated strongly with me. Back in July, I started a series of blog posts on my tiny treks and travels around my own city and province. At first, it was fun, but, to be frank, I ran out of gas with writing about these local sojourns. Like Steves, when I travel, it’s the connections I make with others that I love, marveling at our similarities and appreciating our differences. I try to transfer a little of what I’ve learned into who I am and how I behave when I return home. And these tiny treks and travels just weren’t bringing me enough of those deeply satisfying people connections .
So what to do? How to be patient until I can travel again? How to build connections and be community-minded while I’m waiting for the wider world to reopen?
The answer? Start new conversations. Build virtual bridges. Begin a new website.
As I looked at how I’ve traveled while I’ve been stuck at home for the last eight months, it’s been through interior journeys – taking courses, reading, writing, learning new skills – and reaching out to others. I want to do more of that and I want you to come along with me as I launch my new website pamelayoung.ca.
The website is part online CV (my job got caught in the crossfire between COVID closures and brutal provincial government funding cuts to Alberta postsecondary institutions) and part blog, where I’ll write about some of my other passions besides travel – education, literacy, writing, and the arts. If you share my interest in any of those topics, I’ll look forward to seeing you over there.
I’m not planning to abandon Wise Woman Travel. I just needed to spread my wings a bit while we’re mostly still grounded.
A couple of weeks ago, after a U.S. steel plant across the river shut down, Windsor, Ontario residents finally got rid of the mysterious “hum” that had plagued the city for more than 10 years. According to the lead researcher into the hum’s source, the plant’s blast furnaces had been running at higher than normal capacity, causing its foundation to reverberate intensely. Residents reported the hum wasn’t a sound, exactly, but a feeling— “a general sense of uneasiness and reverberation through one’s body.”
It’s easy to relate to that feeling of uneasiness this year, as news sources run at higher than normal capacity in their attempts to keep us informed of the current state of the COVID pandemic. While I don’t agree with people disregarding safety measures in their pursuit of “normal” summer activities, I get why they want to silence the constant COVID hum. Our foundations have been reverberating for five months, and there’s no end in sight.
But, if you’re looking for a temporary respite, you might be able to find it in a getaway to a local campsite.
In Alberta, even before the pandemic, the spontaneous Thursday decision to pack up your camping gear and head out of town the next night for a weekend away from town is a relic. And this year, the campsites are busier than they’ve ever been. When we hopped onto the Alberta Parks reservation site a few weeks ago, every site we looked at on every weekend was covered in a red X. But we discovered a Wednesday/Thursday night combo at Marten River campground in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, three hours north of Edmonton. Done.
With the honey scent of clover wafting through the open truck windows, and the sun at our backs, highway 44 took us past chartreuse carpets of canola, bearded barley fields, and cattle standing in shaded windbreaks, flicking their tails in each other’s faces. Halfway up the highway, the field and pastures gave way to dense forests. Logging trucks passed us going south, trailing spruce cologne. We stopped for a tailgate picnic in the parking lot of the roadside Flatbush Recreational Center. A Lesser Slave River utility truck was parked outside the arena, but we never saw its owners. We ate our ham and cheese sandwiches in the quiet heat, the dragonflies hovering and darting after insects like tiny divebombing biplanes.
In many ways, camping is a near-perfect activity in this strangest of all summers. You can experience other people’s energy while staying safely in your own accommodation. You’ve got your own food. You don’t have to wear a mask because you’re outdoors all day. High touch surfaces are limited to water taps, garbage bins and toilet areas so as long as you practice effective hand hygiene, you’re okay on that account. If, like us, your household income is less than it was when COVID hit, camping’s a cheap escape, at $29 a night. And best of all, you’ve escaped your house, which I’m betting has devolved from the cozy sanctuary it was last March.
Our two day vacay was filled with a lot of nothing much. Poplar and pine towered over our campsite, sheltering us from the midday heat. We ate and read and walked and napped, backdropped by the same soundscape we recalled from our childhood camping days: The ring of ax head on metal tent pegs. Chicka dee dee dees. Little kids racing past on bikes and scooters. Couple banter as he backs the trailer into the narrow space between pine trees and she directs him. Delighted shrieks still echoing from the playground until twilight. At night, silence.
Over the last four months, I’ve spent a lot of time walking. I’ve always been a fan of getting places on foot and since the world changed, it’s one of the few activities that allows relatively safe social contact, gives me some physical activity, and provides a change of scene and mental outlook.
Edmonton has a great system of river valley parks, which form the largest urban green space in Canada. It includes walking trails that wind through 22 ravines. Even though I’ve lived in Edmonton virtually all my life, I’ve only thoroughly explored one of those, the Mill Creek Ravine, because it’s the closest to where I live. It’s gorgeous, but as the months have worn on, I’ve felt the need to push my ravine boundaries. So when my friend Marilyn suggested we visit Kinnaird Ravine, close to her place in central Edmonton, I was happy to go exploring with her.
One of the coolest features of this ravine is a collection of more than 60 murals, painted by youth from the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood in inner city Edmonton. Sheets of plywood were delivered to some of the agencies that engage youth in art and community projects: the only direction they received was “Paint something.”
I’ve always loved displays of public art. They’re characterized by two of the features that, for me, should underlie all artistic expression – autonomy and accessibility. Marilyn and I found both in the KinnArt collection, which decorates a retaining wall that slopes gently downhill near 82 Street and 111 Avenue (for those of you who might like to take a wander down there sometime.)
We were amused, uplifted, and touched by the artistic stories of the outdoor gallery. Here are some of my favorites.
(Look below to see what’s happening between the carrots….)
Morning, J. I just looked at Environment Canada hourly forecast. Chance of showers is “medium” (whatever that means!) during the time we’ll be at the Gardens. What do you think?
Tix are nonrefundable, right?
I’d still go. I have an umbrella.
Me too. If I have to stay in the house one more day, I’ll scream!
So, meet in the parking lot at 11 am withrubber boots, and rain jackets and bellies.
Er…brollies. Stupid autocorrect.
When my friend Judy and I arrived at the Devonian Botanic Gardens, a University of Alberta-owned site about 15 minutes southwest of Edmonton, we knew we were in for a COVID-altered experience. Like so many other tourist attractions, the Gardens had many new protocols in place. Entry by timed reservation only. All food kiosks closed. Picnics prohibited. Benches roped off with yellow tape. Signs telling us to social distance from other patrons.
This last reminder wasn’t really a concern the day we were there, because the gardeners easily outnumbered the visitors. It also gave us the grounds almost to ourselves.
A quiet wander in a natural setting might be one of the most peaceful things we can do for ourselves in this summer of uncertainty. Flowers keep blooming, birds sit on nests, creeks flow, oblivious to the virus which has changed almost every part of our existence. Somehow, there’s a hopefulness in seeing this continuity in nature, a sense that one day, we’ll get that flow back in our own lives.
And so as the clouds leaked intermittently onto our umbrellas, we ambled, pouring our tears in each other’s ears, speculating what the world holds next for us, trying to make sense of the losses we’re experiencing. The backdrop of flower drifts, Japanese water features, and Canada geese herding their little ones along an almost deserted path replenished me, and offered reassurance that other, less challenging summers are still to come.