QUAINT MENDOCINO

Mendocino, a little quaint town in the foggy hills north of San Francisco is unlike any other town in California. I have visited several towns in California having lived here for over twelve years, but Mendocino was unique. The gushing water, foggy mistiness amidst the very beautiful hills, Mendocino seemed like a quaint, untarnished town away from the hustle and bustle that defines California.

We decided to visit Mendocino for a weekend. We rarely go away for the weekend, and this was perhaps the second time we drove somewhere for the weekend. On a warm August afternoon, we embarked on our 3 hr and 30 min drive to Mendocino, California. Anyone who has drove in California knows Friday traffic can be a complete nightmare. There was some traffic, but once we passed San Francisco, the traffic God’s were good to us.  We reached the windy roads to Mendocino with two lanes, one up the hill and the other downhill and we knew this journey was going to be forever. It took us over 6 hrs to reach Mendocino, and the higher we got on the hills the more beautiful the scenery got.

We reached Sea Rock Inn, a beautiful bed and breakfast overlooking the water. They have individual villas and regular hotel rooms. We had a villa waiting for us when we got there. I grew up in homes with porches back in India, and the picture of the villa online showed a porch with chairs. I was sold! It was my weekend to experience the nostalgia of my childhood again, even if it was in California and not India. The instant we got out of our car, we knew Mendocino was special. I instantly fell in love with Mendocino.

The ladies at Sea Rock were beyond hospitable. They made us comfortable, and ensured we knew the restaurants nearby for food. We were famished and really needed food after hours of driving. We went to Patterson’s Pub, a restaurant close to our hotel. We had to wait for a while before we got seated. I was famished and regular fries felt like the greatest fries ever!

Our next day began with an organic breakfast at Sea Rock Inn. We decided to sit out for breakfast with mist falling on us, and the water gushing in the background. Nature played perfect hosts as we enjoyed our breakfast in the tranquility. We decided to go to the Mendocino Botanical gardens for our first stop. The gardens were big and beautiful. There were flowers and plants everywhere. I am not a big plant person, so the gardens seemed like every other I had visited before but it is still a good place to visit.

Our next stop was the famous glass beach, before which we decided to stop for our lunch at Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg was town with numerous shops and restaurants. Glass beach had tons of sea glass created from the garbage that was dumped in the nearby coastline years ago. We saw people trying to pick glass, and in some areas there were lots of glass. We were planning to pick some as well, and bum out on the beach. We might have walked the beach too had it not started pouring. We decided to head back to our hotel for cover from the rain. On our way back, we saw the Skunk train, which was another one of the Mendocino must do’s. We were late for the Skunk train on that specific day and we were returning back the next day. So Skunk train is on my agenda for the next Mendocino weekend. We ended our night with French cuisine and it was fabulous. The escargot (snails) was amazing, and it was perfect end to a great weekend.

We were leaving the next morning. We soaked in the natural beauty around as we ate our breakfast. After checking out, we walked the downtown area where there were numerous shops. We walked around planning not to shop until we saw a chocolate shop. Mendocino went up on my favorite place list at that point. They had real Belgian chocolates, and my “no shopping” pact went out the window. I went overboard and bought lots of chocolates. They were planning to have a chocolate festival in November, and I promised to be back.

The ride up the mountains to Mendocino was tedious for someone like me who has battled motion sickness my entire life. Mendocino was everything I did not expect it to be. I thought it was going to be like the other Californian towns but was sweetly surprised. The chill air, fog, the gushing waters- Mendocino had my heart from the instant I got there. Mendocino is California’s little secret, and my favorite spot in California.

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NATURE’S ISLE- CUCHO’S DOMINICA

This morning I woke up to the rhythm of rain drops by my window. Waking up to the rain makes me nostalgic, as I fondly remember several mornings watching the rain with a hot cup of tea in India. We get over four months of rain back home, and I loved every second of it. Rain also reminds me of Dominica, a beautiful island in the Caribbeans. Having traveled to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands before, I believed I knew what to expect. But Dominica was like no other. She swept me off my feet with the warmth I was showered with, and I felt right at home.

 

The gurgling river water, the twittering birds, the rustling tree leaves and the sparkling fireflies, waking up in Dominica for eight nights felt like paradise. There is probably no word in a dictionary to do justice to the solemn beauty of Dominica, and Roots Jungle Retreat in the middle of a jungle took me back to my childhood in India. Each day at Roots Jungle Retreat took me back to my childhood in India where mosquito nets were perfect accessories to play dark room at night, the open windows put modern air conditioners to shame, and novels transported us to places televisions never could.

We arrived in Dominica on a warm Friday afternoon and were welcomed by a dimpled Lorena, whose effervescence instantly made you feel at home. She drove us to Roots through windy Margot streets. Having battled motion sickness since forever, I tried real hard to enjoy the ride but the best of windy roads were yet to come. We turned to a street that had roots sign, and it was bumpy to say the very least. We finally parked the car after a 15-minute roller coaster road trip, and were welcomed by a tall Olaf and an eight-month bundle of energy named Cucho. Cucho took to us instantly, and was welcoming us like family who had returned home. His lovey-dovey eyes made a place in my heart instantly, and I knew at that very instant, Dominica and Roots would be more than just a vacation.

We were showed to our cabin by Olaf, and we hung out with Lorena, Olaf and Cucho in their cabin/restaurant. Instantly, we started planning our agenda for the next eight days. After spending a few hours together, we decided it was time to relax and get acquainted to our cabin. We did also plan to take a small hike around our surrounding. Little did we know the rain God’s had other plans for us; plans that included staying in our cabin for the night. We went to the restaurant for dinner and met another couple that was from Germany, and for the next few days we spent charting our agendas, and sharing experiences.

The next morning my husband and I decided we were going to rent a car. We had couple of decisions which included automatic or manual considering we would have to drive through the “roller coaster” road to Roots twice a day, a 4 wheel drive and of course pep talking ourselves into driving on the left on the road. Dominica is an island less explored, so most streets have no signs. As a co-pilot to my driver, I am the worst at directions with a GPS in tow telling us turn left. So here I was guiding us through the streets of Dominica, but we survived and barring the first day we did not get lost- thanks to Olaf’s great direction skills and in some occasions personally autographed hand drawn maps.

The first day we toured Rosseau, the capitol of Dominica to Soufriere volcano (or so we thought). We drove to Scott’s head, and since neither of us were water friendly, we looked at the beautiful Scott’s head from a distance, snorkeling in our heads. We thought we were hiking through Soufriere to the volcano but we hiked through Waitukubuli National Trail into a valley I call “crab valley”. We walked the valley through crabs walking all around us. It was eerie for a not so much of a crab lover like me. We hiked through an easy trail and reached a point where the trail seemed marked on rocks. Were we supposed to walk the rocks? Not sure but we decided not to. First day in Dominica was not so adventurous? Not really because we still had to find our way back to Roots. I was guiding my driver through Rosseau hoping to see Canesfield airport to turn into the road that would take us back home, but instead I never saw Canesfield and we were headed to Portsmouth. We stopped to ask directions and somehow got to a round four-way point and dilemma struck us again. As Robert Frost said, “which road should I take?” We did what the locals would do, picked up a firefighting hitchhiker who showed us the way to Roots. Hitchhiking firefighter- they only make them in Dominica!

I called our trip to Dominica a hike fest. I knew we were going to be hiking a lot. We started off by doing what the tourist’s did -Traffalgar Falls. Two falls called the Mama and Papa falls, one being hot water and the other being cold water. Your guess is as good as mine as to which one is which, but being a woman I am going to say Mama is the hot one. A quick hike to the falls down stairs and few rocks and we were soaking our feet in warm water from the falls. I have never seen a hot water fall before, and my feet loved it. It felt therapeutic to say the very least. We climbed rocks hoping to see where the foothills of the falls were, but since we were the water resistant couple, we decided it was not worth it. Instead, we decided to hike to Middleham falls. The guidebooks call it an intermediate hike, 4 miles that should take 4 hours. The signs at the falls were more realistic- 45 minutes to the falls it said. We started by climbing endless slippery stairs, crossed a stream of slippery rocks, used tree roots as stairs and we had not even reached the middle. We continued our hiking by climbing more big slippery rocks, all the while fighting fatigue and painful legs. What started off as sprinting became a slow walk with many rests. Finally we were at the falls, and the view made the pain worthwhile. Now, no one told us we would have to trek back the same way. We fatigued our way back, and after a day of intense hiking we were ready for Lorena and Olaf’s food.

The next day we decided to take it easy and visit Portsmouth. Portsmouth hosts the most American section of Dominica. Home to Ross Medical University, an American medical college the vibe of the city is very American. Restaurants sell expensive $25 burgers, but if you want to try local food, you could get it for less than $10. Our bodies were tired from Middleham hike, so hiking to the old Fort Shirley felt like hiking Mt Everest. We walked around Fort Shirley enjoying the view and the fort. They had some small hikes to various ruined buildings. We hiked couple of them and decided it was time for lunch. Near Ross Medical College, we ate at a restaurant that sold Creole chicken and I was in love. It was by far the best chicken I had tasted. Callibashe is a beach town in Dominica. If you love beaches, then I don’t think it gets better than this. We drove about 45 minutes from Portsmouth through trees and windy roads to get to Batibou beach. We parked the car on the street, and walked down a short trail to the beach. Pristine blue water welcomed us. This was my first experience on a beach that felt like ours. We were alone, and I recapped movies like Castaway as I walked Batibou with my Wilson. It was beautiful, calm and serene, and if I ever have to find my happy place, I will be at Batibou in spirit and mind. We went back to Portsmouth for dinner, and had the best spicy curry chicken ever. I am spice junkie, and when my palette felt the first rush of spice in almost three days, it was soup to my soul. I went back three times more for the crack curry chicken!

The next day we went to Callibashe to stroll the other beaches. We saw Londonberry beach, a black sand beach in the Pirates of the Caribbean. We drove by that beach to Callibashe. We visited Number one Beach, the site of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3. I was where Johnny Depp was- not that it really mattered. A hike down a small trail took us to Number one beach. It was beautiful, but Batibou had changed beaches for us forever. We went back to Portsmouth for the crack curry chicken, and hiked Syndicate trail. Syndicate trail promised parrots and a waterfall. There were no parrots, and the fall barely existed.

We began the next day with a visit to the Kallinga Territory. The Kallinga’s were the original inhabitants of Dominica. Olaf’s handmade map got us through the scenic less traveled route to the Territory. I was stoked to try the Cassava coconut bread from Daniel’s bakery. When we got there, the bakery was packed so we decided to return back. We went to the model village where we took an hour tour of the place, where our awesome tour guide told us about how they lived. We visited two churches, one that had roots and trees growing through it and the other church, which was a new one. We made our way to the L’ Escalier Tete Chien. While Dominica has several beautiful views, L’Escalier Tete Chien is by the far the best one. A walk to the viewpoint and you see the natural staircase from the Atlantic Ocean. It was tranquility at it’s best. We soaked  in the peaceful ambience, refreshed your soul and captured the moment in our heart for a lifetime. Our next stop was another beautiful beach called Castle Bruce and we were on our way to Roseau to buy Gatorade for our big day tomorrow.

We were finally going to hike Boiling Lake, an eight-hour hike to the second largest boiling lake in the world. This was our second to last day and we were ready to hike the indomitable Boiling Lake through the Valley of Desolation. We woke up early, ate breakfast and were on our way to Boiling Lake. As we got near Boiling Lake, it started pouring. We got to the parking lot sign and sat there in the car waiting for the rain to subside. It was 11’o’ clock, and knowing we did not have 8 hours to hike, and the rain continued to pour down, we made our way back to Roots. The rain continued through the next day until 11 am and we knew our boiling lake plans were washed away. Boiling Lake is still on my agenda, and I am going back for it.. We visited Emerald Pool, another waterfall and the Spanny waterfall in the rain. It was beautiful to say the very least, and a perfect end to a very beautiful Dominica trip.

Roots and Dominica will forever be special. Lorena and Olaf treated us like family, tending to our every need. We spent eight days with them, sharing stories, laughing and in each of those moments feeling like we were home with family. Dominica became more special because of Cucho and his lovey doveyness. As we drove away from Roots to the airport, I saw Cucho run behind our car. I wanted to pet, hold him close, but all I could do was promise to be back. I have left every place I have visited with a heavy heart, not wanting to go back to reality. But in Dominica, I left a part of my heart with Cucho and as we made our way to the airport, I felt a knot in my heart and tears in my eyes knowing I will miss Cucho and his unfiltered love. He made Dominica special, and for me it will forever be Cucho’s Dominica.

Cucho

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Serenity a la Coit tower

I have lived in the United States for over twelve years now and in those twelve years I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area calling it home. This past thanksgiving break I decided to research on places to visit nearby. I had already seen most of the popular spots, so I decided to commit the cardinal sin most avid travelers frown upon: Be a tourist in San Francisco for a day. We decided to visit Coit Tower through the filbert stairs and then visit pier 39. If you know SF, you know pier 39 is the tourist mecca.

On a pleasant Friday afternoon we drove to San Francisco. I realized the 21st century has not made GPS much smarter than they were few years back. I typed in Filmore steps and posh said no results found. That’s right, we call our car Posh! I entered coit tower and posh spat out the directions.

If you have ever been to San Francisco, parking is an absolute nightmare. My research showed Coit tower had limited parking and it was almost impossible to find parking. We cruised our way into San Francisco and as we neared the tower entrance, the parking gods had a spot waiting for us. Black Friday is indeed the day to visit SF. The view from the parking lot was spectacular and I could not wait to get to the top of the tower.

We walked up few stairs and could see tourists lined up waiting for the elevator to the top. We bought our tickets as the ticket dude asked us where we were from. I wanted to unleash my British accent on him but decided against it.  We lined up for the elevators. On either side of the hallways were murals of California, right from the oranges to apricots. There were murals of California cows too paying tribute to the advertisement ” happy cows come from California”. Of course not all cows in California are that happy and chunky either.

Our turn arrived as we got on the old school elevator. We were dropped off a floor before the vantage point after which we climbed few steep stairs to the top. The view was spectacular. On a clear day like the one we had, we could see bay bridge against the water, the city and Alcatraz. We spent few minutes here and took the elevator back.

We had by now realized Fillmore steps don’t exist but it is actually Filbert steps. We could hear parrots squeaking and decided to check it out. The steps are steep but they have handrails for support. The steps are sandwiched on either sides of beautiful flowers and the parrots add the perfect harmony. The steps are steep but nature provides the best companion to make the trip to Coit tower.

We made our way to little Italy for all things Italian with a mix of some Chinese and Mexican. We were so hungry we decide to not follow yelp and eat at the next Italian place we could see. Our next agenda was cannolis. We visited Victoria’s pastry shop and went overboard shopping for cookies and cannoli’s. I have to admit I am not a cannoli lover.

We drove down to Pier 39, the mecca of all things touristy. We parked our car and walked the pier. The giant Christmas tree added to the holiday festivity as we walked through tons of shops selling all things San Francisco. The air smelled of fish and chips as we made our way through the Pier. I visited the Houdini store for the first time ever and absolutely loved it. They had gag gifts for everyone, and I did contemplate splurging on it. After walking through several chocolate and ice cream stores, we were ready to embark on our very long 30 min ride back home. We parked near pier 45, and we were encrusted by the Coit tower on one side and the lit bay bridge on the other side. It was serenity at its best.

San Francisco has an infectious energy about it. Irrespective of the season, the city can make you feel festive. The hustle and bustle, the spine numbing chillness and the tourists make SF one of my favorite places on earth. As much as I love being a SF resident, I enjoyed my day as a SF tourist just as much. I even got a “I love SF” stamp to add to the touristy feel.

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Mystically Morocco!

Traveling to unknown horizons fuels the nomad in me. Packing my bags, boarding a flight, sitting in cramped up spaces; every aspect of traveling is therapeutic to me. I am excited from the moment I book a flight, and as D-day approaches I am ecstatic. New places, cultures, food, food and more food- it’s like getting a VIP pass to the hottest party in town.

When we decided on Morocco, it was a financially gratifying decision. Sure, I knew where Morocco was on the map and I had visited many Moroccan restaurants to know the food was good. With no expectation beyond eating some good food, after a six-month waiting period between booking the tickets and the trip, I was on my way to Morocco.

After a long flight from San Francisco to New York and New York to Casablanca, we were in Morocco. From the moment I landed in Morocco, I was enthralled by Morocco. We were welcomed by Ibrahim our tour guide and twelve other people who were to be our family for the next fourteen days. We had people from all walks of life, who were so well traveled that I felt a novice. I had never been in the company of people who were so passionate about traveling like these twelve people. In those fourteen wonderful days, we spent every second of our waking minute together. The interesting stories during breakfasts, lunch and dinner, the funny chatter during our long bus rides, the endless laughter: each moment made this journey all the more special. For fourteen days, we were a family- we had each other’s back through sickness and smiles.

We began our road trip across the streets of Morocco from the airport in Casablanca to Rabat. Rabat, the capital of Morocco was like any other big city. Tall buildings, well laid out streets, and coffee shops at every corner, this place was filled with history among jeans clad youngsters ‘hanging out’ at 8pm. Rabat was a mosaic of old meets new and a perfect start for tourists like me.

After a day in Rabat, we made our way to the old Imperial city of Fez. Fez, with her many palaces and museums that stood true to her name- an Imperial city in Morocco. The air smelled of spices, artisans adored the streets with their hand made pottery, crafts and carpets. Fez, the home of the artisans had something for the shopaholic in you. We spent a day visiting pottery makers, shopping for carpets and spices which could solve your every problem including snoring. For the art lover in me, Fez was music to the soul.

On our journey to Ourazazate, we stopped at Morocco’s own Grand Canyon. Tranquil and serene, standing at the foot of nature in all her grandeur was rejuvenating to the soul. They called her little in comparison to the original Grand Canyon, but there was nothing little about it. Rock climbers, tourists and locals enjoying a stream of water in the middle of nowhere, Morocco’s own little Grand Canyon played perfect host.

Ourazazate, a desert city at the gates of Sahara was our next stop in our road trip. My first trip to a desert and I was overwhelmed to say the very least. We were going to stay at Ourazazate for a night, and the next morning at 5am we were going on a desert hike to see the sun rise on the sand dunes. Being an avid hiker, I figured it would be easy. Little did I know Mother Nature was right there to tame the cockiness in me! It was the hardest hike of my life. Fatigued beyond words, I felt I scaled Mount Everest as my Moroccan prince escorted me up the highest dune. Tranquility set in as we rested up the sand dune waiting for the sunrise. The horizon was painted in hues of orange and red against the brown expanse of desert, and it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. The serenity of the moment as the world was being painted by the sun- a picture perfect moment captured in the canvas of memory forever. Ourazazate, you will forever be my first desert love!

 

We bid adieu to Ourazazate and made our way to the magnificent Marrakesh. Marrakesh reeled me in with her magnificence, grandeur and simplicity and instantly evoked nostalgia in me. Suddenly this trip was no longer a vacation, it felt like homecoming as Marrakesh reminded me of home-India. We spent every evening at Jaama El Fna Square enjoying the snake charmer, belly dancers, monkeys doing tricks: the hustle and bustle of the atmosphere was contagious. They had coffee shops on high buildings where you could relax and enjoy the evening. While tourists marveled at the tricks, I relived my childhood in India where a simple event like this at a square was an event. Marrakesh had beautiful architecture, palaces and gardens besides the square. At Marrakesh, we tried tangier, which is a local dish to Marrakesh and absolute must have.

Essaouira, our next destination for a day was a beautiful pristine beach town in Morocco and the argan capital of the world. Serene and blue, it felt like the sky washed down on earth in the form of Essaouira. Argan oil, the magical concoction that can make your hair beautiful and silky was available in abundance in Essaouira. We went to an argan shop owned and operated by women to see how the concoction was made, and went overboard shopping all things argan.

Our final destination in our fourteen-day whirlwind road trip was the charming Casablanca. Casablanca is the economic capital of Morocco. Modern architecture adorned the streets of Casablanca. The magnificent Hassan II Mosque rested in the lap of Casablanca was an epitome of the grandeur and elegance of Morocco. Our last night at Casablanca, we had a farewell dinner where we got together as a group to make a few more memories together before we bid adieu.

Morocco, a magically beautiful place that made me hers from the moment I set foot on her soil. The people welcomed me because I was from the land of Shahrukh Khan, an Indian actor. Morocco loves their Shahrukh Khan, and having grown up on his movies and being an ardent fan I was beyond proud. I could never thank Morocco enough for the nostalgic feelings she evoked in me. Thank you for the memories, hospitality and showing me how simple moments in life are the most treasured ones.

Conquering the world one word at a time!

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