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Island hopping…just a skip, jump and a bathing suit
By Barbara Kingstone
MNEMBA ISLAND LODGE , ZANZIBAR
“I arrived and didn’t wear shoes for the entire week I was there. Nor much else either,” my very sophisticated, travel savvy New York friend told me shortly after his romp at Mnemba Island Lodge in Zanzibar. He also enthused about the daily delivery of a dozen freshly laundered sarongs that he wore which is so out of character for this elegant, chic Manhattan pin striper. This conjures up many memories of when I visited the island and tied my sarong under my arms for dinner or let it drop to the waist and with it wore a giddily coloured t- shirt. It was sheer heaven.
Owned by CC Africa, a very ecologically friendly South African hotel group, Mnemba Island Lodge is situated on a small island. Located in the north eastern tip of Zanzibar which, before even landing, already had me panting for the exotic Indian Ocean and breathtaking coral reefs.
I was assured that it has some of Africa’s most terrific dive sites. However, if that isn’t your thing, it is renowned as an extremely romantic destination. But being on my own, this Spice Island discovered by Arab traders in the 8th century, I found filled with other attractions like sightings of traditional dhows floating the ocean blue, soft white sandy beached, divine fresh fruits and fish that seem to fly from the sea to the frying pan. Ah, this sheer unpretentious paradise has just 10 palm- frond bandas (villas), each with en suite bathrooms, private verandas and the stuff that memories and photo ops are made of. More, I want more.
Who even knows that Corsica is part of France and not Italy? I had practiced my pregos and ciaos and few other words which would curry favour from those slick Italianoes. But oh no, Corsica is French even though the city, towns and villages have Italian sounding names like Bonifacio, Porto Vecchio, Ajaccio, Bastia, Corte and Calvi. But all is forgiven since they do boast of 1000 kilometre coastlines, and 200 beaches.
Then throughout the island with a population of just over 200,000, were kind vendors at the market who offered tastes of Corsican food. Just thinking about the typical brocciu cheese from goats and sheep whey, the wines of Patrimonia and Calvi, local Pietra beer or their fizzy Cola Pietra, the charcuterie, olive oil and the fresh as possible fish, makes me long to return to the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean and Ajaccio, the capital city where Napoleon Bonaparte was born. His house is open to the public and there’s a museum of wonderful memorabilia. Also, a native son, Francois Coty, the father of modern perfume, was a neighbour of Napoleon. Imagine giving Napoleon some Coty scent to use during an invasion lest he gets a bit sweaty and in return Coty being advised on how to market the eau de parfum with serial business maneuvers.
But French meets Italy on the roads. The kamikaze driving on the one main highway that takes you around the island from the sandy beaches to the highly fragrant Maquis bushes in the mid mountains and the sculptural very red rocks (Roches Rouges) of the higher mountains is like always being in the Indy race but never winning. However it was all worth. Sitting at a stunning outdoor café in a Riviera type town Porto Vecchio, under the large umbrellas ‘noshing’ the best salade Nicoise mad up for the road madness. The 8th century town of Bonifacio where Pilates classes came in handy for the steep but exhilarating climb overlooking the sea, is right up there as a must as is a concert of cappella singing of Polyphony, Corsican singing group. And perhaps the greatest plus is that tourism is still fairly low key and personalities like Brigette Bardot and other discreet rich and famous Europeans want to keep this island as is, even though their huge yachts are a great giveaway of a nifty island with history, food, beauty and having the better of two nations.
Smack right in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean is the 15 small Cook Islands, the best kept secret in that part of the world and “the small dot on the map where the fly made a mess”. If you ever wanted to run away, loose yourself for a short time or even forever, this would be a likely place.
It was pitch black when I arrived at the ungodly hour of 5 AM from Papeete Tahiti. Owner Betty, with flashlight in hand, showed me to my large cabin which had its very own swimming pool. Only when I awoke, was I told that being Saturday, the island closes tighter than the area’s well known black pearl producing, Pinctada Margaritifera oysters and they don’t open until Monday. My efficiency kitchen was as empty as my stomach. So Betty rushed me off to the centre of the capital, Rarotonga. Great name, sweet place. But it seemed that the entire population of 14,000 was standing to be cashed out at the friendly Foodland store.
When I’m starving, my nose kicks in and I smelled the most delicious home cooking. It wafted from across the wide boulevard. Ah, an open market. And to my surprise I was introduced to Lorna of Yummy Cakes. This former Canadian had a group eyeing her home baked goods. But I got lucky. I bought the last few buns.
As Betty, my self proclaimed guide, showed me the back roads and the sacred grounds of the Marae, Arai-Te-Tonga, she also warned was not to be walked on.
After a swim in the buff, then a walk on the beach smartly turned out in a pareo and watching the brilliantly coloured sun set, it was early to bed. However the roosters started to crow at about 4.30Am, so up and a quick swim before heading to Church, the most important social event of the week. I walked for 15 minutes before reaching Cook Islands’ Christian Church, one of the eight religions on the island and the most popular. It was thrilling as the attendees seemed to sing spontaneously. They are tried and true church goers and know every song by heart, their voices beautiful. All the women, except moi, were wearing a ‘rito’ hat, (white, finely woven from the bleached pandanus leaves). But the most exciting part was when the minister acknowledged the few visitors and thanked us for coming. He was especially interested in the fact that I was from Canada.
These few days were a great introduction to the culture and tradition but also the friendliness of the island.
And for avid snorklers, a 40 minutes flight to beautiful Aitutaki‘s One Foot Island is decidedly the best water in the area. The weather changed and it was far too windy and overcast so we overcame our disappointment with a barbecue lunch of freshly caught fish and paw paw fruit, the islands important export. Then a walk around the sandy beach and back to Rarotonga and my sweet villa and pool.
“I come here every morning unless it rains,” said Leonard, my new chum who was concentrating on his needlepoint project in Valletta’s Upper Barracca Gardens. He didn’t seem to mind that I had interrupted his work. In fact, like most Maltese, he was keen to talk about this history filled island in the Mediterranean. Valletta, the capital city, is known as “the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. This description refers to the Knights of the Order of St. John for The Knights of Malta, noblemen from Europe’s finest families who established Malta. The scent of hibiscus and oleander permeated the air, and the gentle breeze flowed off the natural Grand Harbour.
I’m always keen to taste local specialties and not far from my hotel, (at the Meridian Phoenicia Hotel located near the Republic Gate) I queued at one of the stall selling pastizzi, a local cheese filled pastry . And what a great breakfast that was. Um, um good. The Republic Gate separates the town of Floriana and Valletta but there are so many villages and towns on the 27 km island that with a blink, you can easily miss one of them. It’s a fairly staid city, and my traveling companion was from Texas. So conjure up this imagine as she descended the staircase of the hotel. She appeared in what I could only describe as a white stitched cheer leaders really mini skirt and teeny white eyelet top worn, of course, with white cowboy boots. There was no question that she was the centre of attraction wherever we went. “Why, we all dress like this in Texas, honey,” she said when she noticed my raised eyebrows and hanging jaw.
As small as the various towns are, the driving is laughable. “We don’t drive on the left or the right but in the shade” I was told as I ducked a few fenders heading towards me…and I wasn’t wearing cowboy boots, so why me.
With literally hundreds of churches and cathedrals, a plethora of statues and squares, fishing villages, beaches and resorts, I decided to start early each morning but not before attacking the hectic but joy filled market on Merchants Street. Loud music blared from the CD players, questionable fashions hung from outdoor racks but there was a festive feeling each day.
To miss a visit to Mdina, Malta’s medieval capital is missing a town that truly looks like a model of the best middle ages stage set. Colourful flowers, cascade down wrought iron balconies which because of their shape are called ‘pregnant’. (In today’s lingo, they’d probably be called ‘bumps:!). The maze filled streets are other-worldliness and the silence made me want to scream. No wonder Mdina’s moniker is “Silent City’. No one spoke louder than a whisper even in the cafes.
Don’t miss the 20 minute ferry ride away to the second largest Maltese island, Gozo. Beaches, toney resorts, a 2,500 year old Hager Qim Temple and the 4000 year old Ggantija Temple, the oldest freestanding structure in the world which even pre dates Egypt’s Pyramids certainly worthy of a day’s trip.. Malta may be small, but everything about it is overwhelming and fun, even with its strong attachment to church and religion.
As the posters say about the island of Cyprus,”once been, never forgotten”. And who could forget an island
Divided in two, the top half belonging to Turkey, the southern part to Greece. But to be sure, the beaches are truly sandy, the waters azure blue, quaint hills atop villages, sweeping plains, svelte Riviera styled towns, ancient cobblestone squares, a climate that boasts of over 300 days of sunshine and a history that goes back to the 11th century BC. It’s also a mecca for birders and offers a variety of sporting activities.
As I wandered through the streets of the small villages, towns and larger cities, I thought of this ancient land with its incredible history which presents itself everywhere. And the fact that its geographic location is the crossroads to three continents-Europe, Asia and Africa, makes it even more enticing. Cyprus’ proximity to the Middle East is not overlooked by most countries.
“Over there is Israel only 30 minutes by air, then over there is Lebanon, also about 30 minutes flight and there’s Syria a mere 45 minutes air flight,: Chris my guide points out.
Nicosia, the capital for 1300 years, with just fewer than 200,000 inhabitants, is where the wise traveler should start. The street scenes are so animated. While I stood near a fruit stand, thinking of where to go next, the vendor peeled a locally grown orange and insisted I try it. It was, indeed, on of the juiciest delicious oranges I’ve ever had. Maze like streets filled with outdoor cafes and loud chatter added to the ambience of the Cypriot’s love of food. Mezes, (small dishes offered over the mealtime) often add up to 17 delectable taste triumphs.
I stop for a few hours in Larnaka, a seaside, palm treed city with the great Saint Lazaros Church, a 9th century fine example of Byzantine architecture.
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, is said to have emerged from the clear blue seas at a spot known as Rock of Aphrodite. What could be a better reason than to have dozens of spas spotted throughout the country? I couldn’t resist and visited Limassol where the Meridien Hotel’s stunner “Le Spa” had the only outdoor thalassotherapy treatment in the Eastern Mediterranean. The surroundings reminded me of the archeological Roman mosaic tiled baths at Kounion. Filled with magnesium chloride, a higher density of sea salt than the Dead Sea and 35 Celsius sea water after the 10 minute allowed like the goddess herself, I emerged completely refreshed..
With Cyprus’ complex history, there are great museums, archeological sites. It’s a destination where crime is almost non existent and the lingua franca is English. Cyprus is the traveller’s well kept secret…for the time being.
On Langkawi, an island off the larger island of Penang and off the North West coast of the mainland, Malaysia, is the relatively new and simply put, splendid 91 units Four Seasons Resort and Spa.
I was blown away, not by the gentle sea breeze but the Moorish- styled architecture of each villa and the heritage and culture of this small island in the Andaman Sea.
Langkawi isn’t for the “are we there yet?” personality. The double digit hour flight from Toronto is well worth the trip. Once you arrive at this very private and sumptuous resort, any vestige of life back home is quickly erased. It’s like having a temporary lobotomy.
Although I was invited to try out several of the spa treatments, during this trip I had been pummeled and kneaded to the point where I thought my body was a bundle of dough. But I did acquiesce a bit.
Away from the huge main property are six stunning pavilions of a full service spa. Still-water reflecting pools encircle the pavilions and the calmness of the water is an indication of the entire atmosphere. Teak chaise longues outside the treatment rooms is where a few guests where lingering, many lying on the colourful oversized pillows.
My decision to have just a scalp and shoulder massage raised eyebrows of both the estheticians and my traveling companions since the spa is know for their excellent and unique treatments. But what I wanted was to see the sights and learn more about Langkawi culture.
First bit of advice in this country is to wear casual but don’t show too much skin. This is a Moslem country. But that was easy enough with crisp cotton pants and long sleeved linen shirt. Sure, it creased within minutes but was perfect for the weather and the sensitivity of the locals.
The busiest city is Kuah Town. But this major overstatement means few cars, few shops, and few pedestrians. If I wanted the hubbub of a big city I would have stayed in Kuala Lumpur.
I get off on legends and I loved the one I heard that kept tourism down for years, so superstitious are the Malaysians. Apparently, 200 years ago, a suspected adulteress, pleading her innocence, was stabbed to death for her ‘crime’. She bled white blood. And so the tale goes on that her dying curse was that for 7 generations Langkawi would suffer. Timing is everything and this poor damsel would probably have had a very good life on this island if she had just been born a few hundred years later. As a post script- tourism now is flourishing.
Alas, there was much more to see. At the majestic, grand Al Hana Mosque which opened in 1959, it was prayer time so I wasn’t allowed in but the exterior is a wonderful example of opulence of many mosques in Malaysia. Next stop was the crocodile farm where, I was told, 3000 crocs are looked after. This was followed by the snake farm. I’m not a devotee of the previous two mentioned, but adore movies. Pantaikok is where the set still remains of the Summer Palace from the film, Anna and The King, the Hong Kong version.
Then there was Mutiara Burau Bay Equestrian Centre with a stable of former race horses and ponies to rent for riding. And although many craft villages are hooky, Kompleks Budaya Kraf, with offering of silver, wooden figures and batik, was not.
I returned to the hotel for a late lunch – a buffet of offerings from the sea.
As I thought about my next activity, suddenly I felt weary. My feet ached. Unabashed, I headed to the spa to try to redeem my loss of face at their generosity earlier in the day. I was able to get an appointment with Crystal who immersed my digits and whatever remained of my feet into a copper basin. She then added ground mud. Sitting on a small, wood deck outside the treatment room, suddenly I felt I was in a sink-hole for revenge as the jelly like substance thickened. After 10 minutes of soaking and not being able to wiggle my toes, Crystal then added a special salt which instantly dissolved the mixture. Reflecting on my nightly excursion to the excruciating but efficacious foot reflexology sessions in China, I knew what to expect. After the tug of war with my arches and toes and a few involuntary shouts of ‘ouch’, I felt rejuvenated and stress-free, ready to write postcards to friends knowing very well, that these would provoke shouts of envy from the recipients. I heard about those photo missives for months long after my return.
The very first time I visited Bora Bora ( a lagoon enclosed by a coral reef), the most famous island in the group of the Society Islands in the South Pacific, I came away saying I had come from Boring Boring. But that was over 20 years ago. Fast forward and suddenly I was looking down from the plane at the island’s trademark, Mount Otemanu, which looks like a pregnant woman and many white sandy beaches.
A few years ago, there was a mushrooming of hotels and I decided to stay at the then newest Sofitel Coralia Moti. This private gem-like motu (islet) with a complex of 30 thatched woven pandanus leaf roofs, peue-lined fares (bungalows). Twenty were built stilts over the azure and coral flled water. It was breathtaking.
From the balcony of my bungalow I could step right into the water and from the bedroom, I could see marine life through the glass topped tables. These tops were removable therefore I could force feed all the fish below. Ah, it brings back such great memories of this magical island.
One day, I took the water ferry across to the mainland, just five minutes away where “le truck” was waiting to take me to the Povai dock near the famous (or is that infamous?) Bloody Mary’s where I would meet Captain Richard. Obviously, it was far too early to contemplate imbibing but this is the meeting place for the locales and visiting tourists and stars. Captain Richard had a 50 foot catamaran, Tara Vana. The day was perfect, and soon the sails were fluttering in the gentle but effective gust. This day trip was so impressive that stars like Charlie Sheen, Pearce Brosnan, Ringo Starr, and Kurt Russell to name a few, had this experience.
An hour later Captain Richard in the middle of no where, the shore out of sight, put down the anchor and with his urging, I descended the ladder into the warmest turquoise water. It was clear. Countless colourful marine species swam casually around me. After doing my Esther Williams session for about 30 minutes, lunch was ready. The table in the galley had been set out with plates of seafood, turkey, chicken and many salads. About 4 PM we docked and naturally headed for Bloody Mary’s where everyone starts off with the world famous drink. I discovered that the managing partner was born in Montreal and “wouldn’t and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else other than this South Sea paradise”. Pas mal, I said to myself. The sandy floor of the restaurant had created a new notion. Shoes were checked. Nobody wears footwear here. A lot better than snow shoes and boots I thought.
The evenings were extremely casual and each night I donned one of my newly purchased floral pareos. Along with new friends, I watched the sunset of brilliant orange and red. For the first time since the hotel had opened, the hotel staff had prepared something special and unique at the top of the mountain of the motu, up and behind the hotel. It could only be described as a well designed movie set. Under a white tent, the poles covered with palm leaves, were two groaning buffet tables elaborately decorated with local flowers and fruits. Over at the other side, the chef was busily grilling beef and fish. The twenty guests were speechless as a breeze made the evening cooler and the native dancers’ performance made even shyest onlooker want to get up and shake those hips. I could only say that the reality was better than any promotional pamphlets.
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