My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.
The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.
It ends April 9.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.
This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.
The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel far and wide from an early age, the only child of two deeply curious parents who took the back seat out of their car, installed my crib, and drove to Mexico from Vancouver (my birthplace) when I was a small baby.
No wonder motion feels like my natural state!
I’ve been to 38 countries and 38 states of the U.S. — so far!
Here are the five places I’ve so far found the most beautiful and why:
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand (tied with Mae Hong Son, Thailand)
In 1994, I spent 21 days in Thailand, most of it with my first husband, but a week alone. To reach Ko Phi Phi was in itself an adventure — an overnight train from Bangkok to Krabi, at the nation’s southern tip, then a two-hour boat ride in blazing sun to reach the island, shaped like two croissants back to back. Even then, it was clear that it was being over-developed, and I wondered how it would change in later years.
Mae Hong Song has been called the prettiest town in Thailand, a quick flight from Bangkok, landing in an airport across the street from a Buddhist temple, and so close to town — which circles a lake — you simply walk the distance. In the early morning, mist covers the town and, atop its highest hill, you can easily hear kids and roosters and radios, but can’t see any of it, thickly muffled. As the sun rises and heats the moisture, it evaporates and shimmies upward, revealing the town below.
Well known to Europeans, lesser known to Americans, this island off the southern coast of France is spectacularly lovely. A quick flight or longer ferry ride brings you to Bastia in the north or Ajaccio in the south. I spent a week on a mo-ped touring the north, specifically La Balagne, and went as far inland and south as Corte.
It was July and the land is covered with maquis, a thick, low scrubby brush that’s a mix of herbs — sun-warmed it smells divine, so my nostrils were full of its scent. I drove down switchback roads to find 19th century hotels at the ocean’s edge, saw the Desert des Agriates in pelting rain, (a truly eerie Martian landscape), and felt more at home in its wild beauty than almost anywhere.
I wept, bereft, when the plane headed back to Nice. I’ve not yet returned but it remains one of my most treasured memories.
From top to bottom, this is a state bursting with natural beauty, from the sinuous red rocks of Sedona to the jaw-dropping expanses of the Grand Canyon.
I still recall a field of cactus at sunset, a spectacular array of gold and purple, their curves silhouetted against the sky.
I love Flagstaff; (stay at the Monte Vista, a funky hotel built in 1926) and you’ll feel like an out-take from a Sam Spade film noir. Tucson is a welcoming small city with some great restaurants.
It’s hard to overstate how lovely this country is — albeit a brutally long flight from most of the United States (12 hours from Los Angeles.) I only saw a bit of the North Island, staying in a youth hostel in the Coromandel Peninsula, where (!) I met and was promptly adopted by four kids then half my age who whisked me off to their weekend home then to one of their parent’s houses outside Auckland where, a total stranger, I was welcomed as family.
A place where kindness and beauty abound. What’s not to love?
Salluit, Quebec (aka the Arctic)
How can fewer than 24 hours somewhere be unforgettable decades later?
You’ll never go there because it’s a town of 500 people with no tourist facilities. Or anything, officially, to see. I went, in December (!) to write a story for the Montreal Gazette, where I was then a reporter. It takes forever to get to — jet from Montreal to Kujuuaq then into a very small plane, past the tree line, to Salluit, landing on a tiny, narrow ice/snow landing strip surrounded by frigid Arctic waters.
White knuckle city!
What made my very brief stay magical? There is only one color — white.
No trees. No vegetation. No animals (that I saw.) No city lights. No air pollution or car exhaust. No billboards.
Ice, snow, water.
Every minute, as the light shifted, that white became the palest shade of blue, purple, green, gray, mutating before us. It was pristine, mesmerizing, extraordinary.
Here’s a list by travel writer Paul Marshman, which inspired mine.
I loved this, from the late British writer A.A. Gill, from The Times:
The abiding pleasure of my life so far has been the opportunity to travel. It is also the single greatest gift of my affluent generation. We got to go around the globe relatively easily, cheaply and safely. Postwar children are the best and most widely travelled generation that has yet lived. We were given the world when it was varied, various and mostly welcoming.
Whether we took enough goodwill with us and brought back enough insight is debatable. But today the laziest gap-year student has probably seen more and been further than Livingstone, Stanley and Richard Burton.
One of the things that surprises and dismays me is how many of my contemporaries spend their time and money on travelling to sunny beaches. All beach experiences, give or take a cocktail, are the same experience. My advice to travellers and tourists is to avoid coasts and visit people. There is not a view in the world that is as exciting as a new city.
Some of many runners-up include: The Hudson Valley (my home), Ireland, Paris, Savannah, the British Columbia coastline.
Are you — fellow Northern Hemisphere folk — feeling as cabin feverish as I am?
In mid-winter, it’s either gray or rainy or windy or bitterly cold or the streets are too icy.
Today was a blessed 57 unseasonally warm degrees and out I went to enjoy the walk along the reservoir.
One of the things I love most about living somewhere for a long time is getting to know a landscape intimately, like the face of a dear friend or the hands of your sweetie.
I’ve walked the reservoir path, a paved mile in each direction, shaded the whole way by tall trees, for the past 27 years now, in all four seasons, alone and with my husband and, a long time ago, with my lovely little terrier, Petra, who died in June 1996.
Here’s some of what I saw, heard, smelled and savored today:
The stream is starting to rush again as the snow and ice melt
Trees are showing the tiniest bit of bud
Winter-weathered leaves rustle gently in the breeze, the soft creamy beige of a very good camel hair overcoat
The white flash of a swan’s bum as it digs into the lakebed
The tang of woodsmoke from someone’s chimney
Soft emerald moss, tossed like a velvet duvet
Strengthening sun gilding the edges of the forest
Vines clinging to weathered granite
The soothing lapping sound of water on rock at the lake’s edge
There are only a few regions left in Ireland known as the Gaeltacht, where the Irish language dominates — without a bilingual map (which we have), you’re toast! Only 2.1 percent of the country’s population now speaks Irish, according to the 2006 census.
County Donegal, where we’ve rented a house for a week outside the town of Dungloe, is one of these areas.
How did we choose this most northwest, rural, tourist-free and wind-swept county for our vacation?
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the seaside town here of Rathmullan, which my father and I visited a few years ago. So we re-visited the town, which has a huge, beautiful beach on Lough Swilly, and chatted with a local woman who hopes to buy the schoolhouse and use it as a holiday home for her visiting relatives.
I found the house we’re renting, (3 bedrooms, two bathrooms, two floors, flooded with light from huge windows and multiple skylights) on Google. Fingers were crossed!
We love it. Designed by the owner’s cousin, and only seven years old, the house is lovely. Absolute silence, great views, a deep bathtub right in front of a window with fab views — and no close neighbors.
The light here so far north is also relentless — it is fully light by 4:00 am, (our bed is right below an unscreened skylight!) and the sky is not fully dark until midnight or so.
Best of all? No wifi or phone access.
That’s a vacation.
If we want (as we do, sadly) to be in touch for blogging, email and Twitter, we have to get in our rental car, (a VW Golf, diesel, which we like a lot), and drive 5 minutes into town to a pub or restaurant and order some food or a Guinness.
But what a blessing to be torn away from the seductive tyranny of the computer.
One night we settled in at The Corner Pub to hear live music, a young woman who carried her accordion in a specially-designed backpack, and Martin, who played banjo. It’s not yet tourist season, so it was just us, a couple from Switzerland and the locals — like the newly-retired schoolteacher who cheered “Goodbye tension, hello pension!” — and covered her face with embarrassment when we toasted her.
The young woman asked us where we’re from (Tarrytown, NY, a small town 25 miles north of NYC.) “Oh, it’s lovely!” she said — she knows our area well, and will be playing two local venues near us in mid-July with her band, Cherish The Ladies. Then touring all the way to Minnesota with them; she plays piano. CTL is a very big deal, a 30-year-old band I’ve heard of for years, so this unlikely meeting was huge. (Her cousin owns that pub and her parents live locally.)
We’ve spent our time here making day trips. We went across the county to Rathmullan and enoyed a warm, sunny day.
We drove south to Slieve League, the highest cliffs in Europe — and watched a huge cloud coming towards us across the sea. Suddenly we were enveloped by mist, and everything disappeared. So mysterious! Only after we were settled in with a cup of tea and a scone, in a shop at the bottom of the cliffs, did the sun come out. We’d already done a vigorous 1.8 mile round-trip hike to the top of the cliffs (not the absolute top.) We were sweaty and pooped!
The cliffs were astounding, covered with sheep of all ages and sizes, so accustomed to tourists we got close enough to take lots of photos and listen to them grazing.
We went out another day by ferry, (15 minutes, 45 euros for 2 people and car), to Arranmore, a nearby island. There are 600 people living there and many well-kept houses. But we spent five hours there driving the few narrow roads, and discovered a totally different character to every side and angle around every curve of the road. Some hills were barren moonscapes with piles of cut peat drying in the sunshine. Some were lushly green, dotted with sheep. Some were granite-studded. I lay down in the sunshine on one with thick, spongy vegetation — a perfect natural mattress! — and napped.
Sunburned in Ireland? It’s possible.
Today, as I write this from Doherty’s, a Dungloe restaurant, it’s cool and rainy. A rest day. It’s tempting to rush out every day and see moremoremoremoremore. But we’re a little overwhelmed by the beauty we see here and want time to just rest, read and savor it before our final week back in Dublin.
I’ve lived — which stuns me — for 25 years on the same street, a steeply hilly winding road that has raccoons, deer, coyotes, raspberry bushes and still has a clear view, however unlikely, of the gleaming towers of Manhattan 25 miles due south.
When I moved here, the corporate headquarters for Hitachi on our street, a vast expanse of orchards and green lawns, was ringed by split-rail wooden fences. Those fences are gone now and I miss their rural charm.
Across the street from Hitachi, all this time, has been a thick, impenetrable woods, deep, dark, leafy and green, a lush and powerful natural sight and sound barrier dividing our quiet street from a busy four-lane highway running east-west a block away across our suburban county.
I’ve always marveled at how rustic and quiet it’s kept our street — it has never felt suburban to me because of this — and been grateful for that.
Here are some images of the sudden changes that began this month. Changes that have now forever altered the bucolic character of our street. Now, in an unwelcome change, we can see not only the office buildings on the north side of that road, but clear through to the south side.
The world is intruding.
It’s inevitable. Undeveloped land often holds potential commercial value. Land offers developers profit and the town added tax revenues.
But landscapes unaltered retain their own beauty, silence, natural life and history.
I often wonder what our suburban New York landscape was like before the Europeans arrived — as it is, we still have New York State’s second-oldest church a mere 10 minutes north of our home.
Who remembers what lay there before?
And there I was recently, in a shiny, new-ish TD Bank in Elmsford, NY, one of the least lovely towns in Westchester, NY, a sadly industrial mish-mash of office complexes, car washes, big box grocery stores. You wouldn’t think, seeing it today, there would have been much very attractive to miss.
And there was a photo mural — here’s a poster they’ve printed and keep in a stack for us to take — of what was there before.
I found this deeply moving and so unusual. A multinational bank caring about what its local customers might have remembered of that landscape, of their town’s history?
I’m at an age now where too many places I’ve known and loved are gone for good.
In Manhattan, the extraordinary profits to be made in real estate have closed many well-loved spots. One of the most recent was a pharmacy, Avignone, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Bleecker, which was one of the city’s oldest.
The lovely Cafe Angelique, barely a decade old at the corner of Grove and Bleecker, closed this year when the landlord suddenly demanded a monthly rent of $45,000. You just can’t sell that much coffee or that many cupcakes.
Here’s Neil’s, on the same corner of Lexington and 70th for 50 years.
If you, like me, are a fan of the TV show Project Runway, you might mourn the loss of this midtown New York City Building.
From The New York Times:
It is only 53 years old, but the cornerstone of a doomed building in Manhattan’s garment district reads like an impossibly hopeful sentiment from a distant time, from a world that can never be recovered.
“Dedicated to the ideal that, through better human relations, understanding and good will among peoples, the supreme dignity and indissoluble brotherhood of man can be achieved.”
This was once Brotherhood House.
At the end, the six-story building at 560 Seventh Avenue, at 40th Street, was barely remembered by that name, or as a crucible of social advocacy in the 1960s.
Now, it is vacant. The departure of the last tenant, the Garment Center Synagogue, has allowed asbestos abatement to begin. Demolition is to start this year, followed by the construction of a 29-story, 238-room Dream Hotel, opening in 2018.
In my hometown of Toronto, a beloved landmark, The Coffee Mill, closed this year after a 50-year run. I will miss their goulash and strudel, their cappuccino — and the memory of my childhood visits there when they first opened.
It’s one thing to mourn a lost restaurant or shop.
It’s another entirely when our natural landscape, as it is every day anyway, is forever changed — and possibly destroyed.
On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.
Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems…
Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.
The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.
Maybe it’s the result of having spent my childhood summers at camp, canoeing through landscapes unchanged for centuries, possibly millennia — granite outcroppings, wind-whipped pines, dark, deep, cold lakes.
I am most moved, sometimes to tears, by places of timeless natural beauty: Corsica, Thailand, the Arizona and New Mexico desert, northern Ontario.
We’ll soon be renting a seaside cottage in one of the most rural parts of one of the most rural countries, Co. Donegal in Ireland. Can’t wait!
I love the paintings by The Group of Seven, Canada’s equivalent of the Impressionists, whose images of our land, from the Arctic to the crimson trees of autumn, always make me homesick.
Do you have a landscape you’re deeply attached to?
I assume many of you have already seen this amazing video of a seal climbing onto a surfboard in England?
If not, spare 2:04 minutes of your life for a lovely, charming reminder of something we often forget — we’re just another species.
I’m writing this on our top-floor balcony, listening to the wind in the trees and the buzzing of passing bumblebees. Birds twitter. One recent evening, at 2:40 a.m. we bolted awake to the howling of a pack of coyotes.
But we live 25 miles north of New York City, able to see the city’s skyscrapers from our street, not some Montana ranch!
Our planters are bursting with flowers and our woods are filled with deer, raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks.
I fear for our planet when so many children and teens are suffering from nature deficit disorder, because you can’t fight for legislation and other protective behaviors if “nature” remains something you’ve only seen or heard mediated through a glass screen.
You have to feel it, taste it, touch it, know it. We all need intimate, consistent, ongoing connections to the natural world, not just simulacra or a packaged bit of it in plastic at the grocery store.
I’m grateful for having spent my childhood and teen summers in the wild of northern Ontario at summer camp and on multi-day canoe trips. I love a loon call, the peel of a birch tree, the striations of granite.
We are still, as homo sapiens, only one of millions of other species in our world, some furry, some feathered, some scaled, some noisy and some mostly (to our ears anyway) silent.
A few years ago, a red-tailed hawk landed on our 6th floor balcony railing, which is only 12 feet wide. He stared at me silently, and I felt like prey. Having written about raptors, I know they can see for many miles. I wondered what he saw when he gazed into my eyes.
We don’t have any pets, so any encounter with a (non-threatening!) animal or bird is a real joy for me — especially horses and dogs; I’m the person who always stops to say hello and pat other people’s dogs (with permission.)
My young friend Molly recently fell off an elephant into the Mekong River.
I don’t envy the fall, or her ruined camera and lens, but elephants are my favorite animals of all. I rode on one myself in Thailand, sitting on his neck, and dreamed of a second career as a mahout.