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Coming home to St. Thomas

My heart beat a little faster as United Flight 1519 approached the runway at the St. Thomas airport. My beautiful, beloved US Virgin Islands...what would we find there?

This was our first trip to the Caribbean since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the islands in 2017. The USVI was slammed by both of the category 5 hurricanes within a two-week span. I had mourned with the rest of the world as the pictures and stories came out-at least 5 dead in the USVI, hundreds injured, houses vaporized, twisted wreckage everywhere. Nearly every bit of vegetation was destroyed-the verdant hills changed from emerald green to mud brown overnight.

Since then I have followed the recovery of the US Virgin Islands closely, especially that of a little hotel called Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. I fell in love with Bolongo the first time we stayed there in 2013-it's a small family-owned property on its own beach, with a secluded feel, low-rise buildings and a much-loved beach bar restaurant called Iggy's. Bolongo is the kind of place people return to again and again because it feels like home.

IrMaria, as the double hurricanes are called on the islands, wiped out Iggy's and left Bolongo's beach looking like an excavation site, but didn't leave property devastated like so much of the rest of the island. Hotel staff and recovery workers were housed there for a time after the storms. I contributed to the fund that the Doumeng family, the hotel's owners, created for its displaced workers. This did not go unnoticed. When we arrived at the front desk on this visit we were hugged and thanked warmly by managing director Richard Doumeng and his wife Katerina. They welcomed us like returning family members.

Other than the loss of Iggy's, Bolongo looks very much like its old self now. Iggy's is now called Iggy's Oasis and is housed in the main building around the pool area. According to Richard, plans are coming together to reconstruct it in its original location. The palm trees and flowering plants remain. The ocean is still turquoise and aquamarine. The Painkillers and Bushwackers are still delicious and deadly.

It's been a long road back for USVI residents though, and it's not over yet. Many of the St. Thomas's large hotels are still closed. When we talked with Richard, we heard about the frustrations, setbacks, bureaucracy, and red tape that he and everyone else have had to endure to get where they are today. In addition, according to a 2019 NPR report, there has been a "floodgate" of mental health issues among the islands' residents, many of whom endured weeks without power, running water or a reliable food supply after the storms.

In addition, not everyone who moved away from the islands has come back. Richard told us that his greatest difficulty has not been luring tourists back to the hotel but in securing the staff to work in it. "A lot of people went to stay with their aunty in Baltimore or wherever, and many of them remained there," he said.

It is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Doumeng family and its existing workers that hotel guests feel little difference in a short-staffed Bolongo-the rooms and grounds are just as lovely, and when breakfast is late one morning Richard himself swoops in, pouring coffee, apologizing for the delay, and giving everyone a free meal.

The island itself does not look much different than the last time I saw it. This is mind-boggling considering what the island looked like after the devastation of the storms. There are still houses without roofs, sunken boats, and abandoned structures, but far fewer than I had anticipated.

St. Thomas is not, and never has been, a sanitized Disney paradise. It has amazing charm and beauty at nearly every turn, and it also has trash, poverty and muffler shops. It's a multi-dimensional place full of real people living real lives, not always easily. It is scrappy and a little scruffy, which is why we love it and will always come back to it.

On the last day of our vacation we went for a sail on Bolongo's beautiful catamaran Heavenly Days. The sea turtles were elusive that day, but we swam with parrotfish, blue tangs, snapper and a resident barracuda that the crew affectionately calls Barry. After snorkeling we made our way to Honeymoon Beach on nearby Water Island, where we ate lunch, swam and sunned. Motoring back in a headwind along St. Thomas' southern shore, the boat came around a rocky cliff and there was plucky little Bolongo. I couldn't help but smile when I saw it-- I knew I was home.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Tattoo you

I had first seen the men the previous day, when my husband David and I eased happily into the rooftop hot tub on our Montreal weekend adventure. I tried not to stare, but I had never seen tattoos like these before. Intricate artwork-faces, phrases, lettering-covered their arms, legs and chests, and crept up onto the sides of their heads. The level of detail was astonishing; stunning pictures blazed from nearly every inch of their skin.

I eavesdropped on their conversation and tried to figure out who or what they were. Runners in the Montreal Marathon? Hockey players? Roadies from the previous night's Maroon 5 concert? Stay away from them, I thought. I noticed the other people in the hot tub also sneaking glances and looking away. I averted my eyes and sank lower in the bubbling water.

The following day we had a food tour at noon, so a morning session in the hot tub seemed like a good idea while my husband went for a run. And there were the tattooed men again, just two of them this time, and unlike the previous day, there was no one else in the water but them. I hesitated, hoped they didn't notice, and climbed in. I closed my eyes and wondered why I hadn't brought my phone with me.

"Hey love, how are you this morning?"

I looked up and both men were smiling brightly at me. Well, it's a fact that no girl can resist a guy who calls her 'love,' tattoos or not. And so I made the acquaintance of Mike from Toronto, who introduced himself as a tattoo artist, and Todd, the owner of the studio where he practiced his craft.

They told me they were in Montreal on a boy's weekend arranged by Mike's pregnant wife. " She wants me to have a little time with my friends before the baby comes!" Mike gushed. "Can you believe a woman like that?" He added said he and his crew were staying at this particular hotel because the owner of the Airbnb apartment his wife had booked refused to rent to them when he saw their tats.

"People judge me, because I wear what I feel on my skin. They judge me all the time, every day," Mike said, his English softly accented. "I think you were also judging me yesterday."

My face flamed. I opened and closed my mouth, and realized I couldn't deny it. "I was trying to figure you guys out," I said truthfully.

"Excuse me, madam?" A hotel staffer suddenly appeared behind us. "Your husband has had an accident. He asked me to get you."

Mike was out of the hot tub before I could even react. "I am a certified EMT, let me help you."

"No, really, that's okay, you don't need to," I stammered, but Mike literally flew down the hall as Todd and I grabbed towels and ran for the elevator.

Downstairs the reception staff ushered us to a small restroom. David's eyebrows went up when he saw my companions. His face was bleeding and scraped.

Mike took David's chin gently. "Bonjour, my name is Mike. I am a tattoo artist and an EMT. You took a fall, yes? Does your head hurt?"

It turned out that David, blinded by the sun, had caught his sneaker on some construction debris on the sidewalk. "You didn't lose consciousness? You're sure?" Mike asked. "Okay, that's all I want to know." It was a amazing moment-all of us stuffed into the tiny bathroom, the men I had been fearful of yesterday looking at my husband with care and concern.

We thanked Mike and Todd, assured them we would be okay, and went back to our room. We cut our trip short, heading back to Newburyport and skipping the food tour-no Montreal bagels for me, sadly. I haven't totally changed my mind about tattoos-I still don't want one myself, even the small one that Mike promised me if I visited his shop in Toronto. But in the future I hope that I will be a little less judgmental about people who look different, especially people who choose to wear on the outside what they feel on the inside.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News.  Stock photo.

Dispatches from Iceland, 

December 2016

I'll pass on the rotted skate: We can't say we weren't warned. When our tour driver picked us up at Keflavik airport upon our arrival in Reykjavik, Iceland, he told us we would be smelling something... unique as we walked around the city. December 23, he told us, is called Porlaksmessa, and is the day when Icelanders flock to the stores to do their last minute shopping and then gather with family and friends to intentionally consume skata, fermented skate. The dish positively reeks of ammonia, and our driver confirmed that after the traditional dish is consumed, the traditional laundering-or burning-- of the clothes begins. We certainly smelled it as we walked around the snowy streets, and I can attest that the odor will never be mistaken for that of cinnamon buns.

Rescue me (and everybody else): We took a offroad superjeep tour to the edge of Rangarpin Eyestra on our second day in Iceland and it pretty much blew us away. The sun shone for the first and only time during our trip, rising slowly and hanging low in the sky, bathing the mountains and snowy plains in pink and gold light. Our superjeep was a massive modified Nissan, with enormous tires, and our guide was Halli, the most skilled driver in Iceland. As we roared through rivers and blasted though snowbanks, Halli rescued three other drivers, pulling out a rope and hauling two Land Rovers and another superjeep out of the snow and icy water. "People always help each other out here," he told us. We learned later than official rescue could easily take a day, and spending a night in a stranded vehicle under arctic conditions is not considered an emergency. Even on the main roads, sideways vehicles were a common sight; we saw at least ten. "We always say the most dangerous animal in Iceland is a tourist behind the wheel," Halli chuckled.

Wasn't it dark? Yes. The sun rose about 11 am and set at 3:45 pm. Most of the days were cloudy, with active snow and rain, so there was a lot of grey. But the better to appreciate the bright shops and Christmas lights on Laugavegur, the beautiful main shopping street

Icelandic food, round two: We had dinner on December 23, at Perlan (the Pearl), a huge revolving domed restaurant. Skata was not on the menu, thankfully, but that didn't mean we got off lightly. I have to admit we acted like typical American tourists, giggling hysterically as we worked our way through endless fish offerings, lots of reindeer, beef tongue, deviled egg with eel and whale carpaccio (made from non-endangered Minke whales, I read later), among many other dishes. We were all more than a little queasy by the end of the meal. Was it the revolving restaurant or the reindeer?

And so this is Christmas: Feliz Navidad sung in Icelandic is confusing.

Horsing around: No visit to Iceland is complete without riding the furry little Icelandic horse, the pride of Iceland. I have ridden Icies in Vermont, and am familiar with their special smooth gait known as tolt. But riding one in Iceland, on Christmas, in the snow, over lava fields? Priceless. It was amazing to visit a place where there are horses everywhere (90,000 throughout the island, one for every three Icelanders), and riding is considered an important sport.

Happy eggs: Our hotel was incredibly charming, and breakfast was amazing. Every evening a basket of delicacies would appear in our fridge-fruit, cheeses, sliced meats, yogurt, skyr, nutella, jams, butter, and hard-boiled eggs with happy faces on them. Then in the morning a bag of fresh warm bread would arrive, hung on the door handle. The coffee was strong and delicious, and we feasted happily in our little kitchenette every morning.

Our last day in Iceland--out of the death-cab, into the maelstrom: Buffeted by fifty mph winds, our minibus rocketed through the driving rain along the slush-covered highway, passing every other vehicle in its path. I closed my eyes and thought darn, I'm going to die and my last meal was herring. Somehow, shaky but alive, we arrived at the Blue Lagoon spa, but for me worse was to come. The Blue Lagoon is the Icelandic version of Water Country, but with geothermally heated water and no slides. I'm not big on public pools at the best of times, and getting into my bathing suit with thousands of other people in a freezing cyclone didn't really work for me. However, my girls loved it, and roamed all around the grottos, even getting algae-silica facial masks. They certainly got their kroners worth; me, not so much.

Sadly, vacations end, and we bid Iceland goodbye, vowing to come back during the summer someday. And so, home to Boston, where I will never complain about short, dark winter days again. Right now the sun rises here about 7-ish and sets at 4:30 pm, and shines most days. People, that's practically tropical!

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Dispatches from Scotland, 

September 2018

Let's talk about haggis : Scotland is a world-class eating destination. There are incredible restaurants and amazing chefs at every turn, offering Scottish lamb, beef, freshly caught wild game and fish, ethnic food of every stripe, and endless vegan and vegetarian options. There is also lots and lots of haggis, which Americans tend to freak out about. But not us. We have probably eaten more haggis than any other US citizens, so we were well-prepared. Like the Scottish rain, haggis is pretty common, so you might as well learn to like it. I'm only sorry I didn't get to try the deep-fried haggis balls I saw advertised at one restaurant, and yes, I really mean that.

Speaking of Scottish rain...: Of course, the hardest rain we encountered fell during our day-long bike trip around Edinburgh. It rained intermittently throughout our trip (with occasional gorgeous peeks of sun), but the really serious stuff was reserved for when we were exposed to the elements and less than halfway through our ride. Perhaps the haggis gave us strength, but we just pulled up our hoods and followed our tour guide Ricardo (who was Italian, go figure) for miles as we wended our way around an incredible network of bike lanes, trails and city streets. Humble brag here-we made it up and around the gorgeous Arthur's Seat, the extinct volcano that looms over Edinburgh, without stopping. Ricardo was impressed.

The big reveal: Our trip was actually planned around an event related to Outlander, the epic television series based on the bestselling books by Diana Gabaldon. We were attending the Highlander Fling, created and organized by Scottish actor Scott Kyle. Scott plays Ross, a blacksmith and one of the loyal followers of Jamie Fraser (portrayed by Sam Heughan, the show's lead actor and global heartthrob). We're fans of the show and I follow Scott on Twitter.

(Me, checking my Twitter feed last winter) "Hey, do you want to go to an awesome party in Scotland on September 15?"

David: "Cool."

Getting there=half the fun: We did go to some trouble to get there and crossing the Atlantic was only half of it. The Fling was held in a little town called Glenrothes, Fife, about 30 miles from Edinburgh, a trip that involved a train, a confusing bus, and finally a cab ride. We had no idea where we were going, but thanks to ScotRail, Google Maps and dumb luck, we made it.

Our first ceilidh: The Fling took the form of a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional event featuring a bagpipe and drum band, step dancers, and couples dancing in lines and rings. The dancing was interspersed with poetry, singing, and set-pieces. In addition to Scott, a number of the actors from Outlander were there, including Jay Graham, (an unnamed Highlander who plays one of Jamie's men), Romann Berrux (young "Fergus"), and Stephen Walters ("Angus"), among many others.

Attendees came from all over the world, although American women were heavily represented. Obviously many of the men wore beautiful kilts, but just as striking were the women wearing incredible handmade "Outlander" style dresses. There was haggis, naturally. Scott and all of the cast and crew couldn't have been more welcoming and it was great to learn about the various charities that the Fling events help to support.

Try not to burn down the hotel: The next morning, sleepy from too much ceilidh, I didn't read the large sign at the buffet that said NO CROISSANTS in the conveyer belt toaster. The flames were impressive, much like those that burned down Jamie Fraser's print shop in season three of Outlander. I was mortified and thought I would be replacing an expensive Scottish toaster, but all was well once things cooled down.

The adventure continued: The bus trip to some of the Outlander filming locations was billed as the Hangover Tour, but we had been quite abstemious the night before, so no headache for us. Scott Kyle and Jay Graham came along, as well as tour guide Catriona and Scott's mom Joyce. We visited the little town of Falkland, which stands in for Inverness, and castles Doune, Blackness and Midhope, which all have starring roles in the show. The scenery was spectacular, but more memorable than anything else was the warmth, humor and camaraderie of our Scottish hosts. They were utterly down to earth, and made everyone on the bus feel like a friend. Plus, seeing Jay, a bearded mountain of a man in full kilted regalia, putting his giant sword in the bus's overhead compartment, was itself worth the price of the tour.

A word about Scottish desserts: People in the UK understand the importance of dessert. Why can't America have slices of coffee walnut layer cake and caramel shortbread available on every corner like the Scots do? I'm not even going to tell you how many sticky toffee puddings I had because I'm bad at math and can't count that high.

New friends, an amazing ceilidh, long chats in pubs, ancient grey stone and brilliant green fields, a little haggis and a lot of sticky toffee pudding-that was my Scotland. And it's the one place in the world that no one asks you how to spell Archibald.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News. Photo credit-unknown