In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
I start to feel very ill at ease when I haven’t spent time in nature and in silence there; after two tedious months of physical therapy aimed at loosening and strengthening my arthritic right knee, each session consuming two hours, I was sick to death of only relating to machines and being stuck indoors.
On our trip to Montreal we continued north to Mont Tremblant and spent two days enjoying what was left of the autumn leaf colors and stunningly warm weather.
The area is full of walking and cycling trails so we took one through the woods down to the Diable River where we sat on the rocks and listened to the rushing river. The woods were largely silent except for one nearby blue jay.
I loved the lush moss, peeling birch trees, sun-dappled leaves and ancient stones.
I loved the soothing sound of the river rushing over and around rocks.
I loved watching leaves tumble into the water, only to be swept under and away like little yellow boats.
The day before, I ventured to the edge of the hotel property and found a grove of trees whose thick, twisted, intertwined roots looked like nothing I’d ever seen before anywhere, like something out of a fairy tale.
I sat on them for a while, just being still and present, watching the sun glow lower and lower through the trees. The woods were silent — no chipmunks or squirrels rustling past, no birds squawking to one one another.
It was eerie and disorienting.
But so, so good to be out, once more in nature, as always reminded that humans are just one more species.
It seems impossible, but within a few hours’ drive of crazy, congested New York City is a ferry that crosses the South Bay and lands on a quiet, dune-speckled 32-mile spit of land called Fire Island.
Created by the National Park Service in 1966, it’s a barrier island that’s home to hundreds of privately-owned low-slung homes, nestled into thickets of gnarled, twisted lichen-covered trees and tall stands of speckled grasses.
It’s the anti-Hamptons, where A-listers and millionaires fly to their enormous mansions by helicopter; here everyone crams into the ferry, in flip-flops.
Deer casually graze everywhere, unafraid, as swallows and seagulls and mourning doves flit about.
Lots of brown bunnies and monarch butterflies.
The local lending library and post office
Friends who’ve owned a house there for more than 50 years were kind enough to lend it to us for a week of silence, sun, plane-spotting, and the gentle sound of waves lapping against a fleet of boats just off-shore.
Getting there is easy, leaving from the town of Patchogue on the south shore of Long Island, about a 20-minute ride. Day-trippers can enjoy the beach and a local bar and resturant, while residents keep enormous wooden carts there with which to transport groceries and other necessities.
There’s a restaurant near the section we were in, Davis Park, and a general store and we waited eagerly on Sunday morning for the ferry to arrive with the newspapers.
The island has no roads, so no cars, so it’s really quiet.
The only motorized noise comes from motorboats, Jet-Skis and helicopters — and the low, persistent hum of the ferry.
Typical sounds include mourning doves, the rustling of tall grass, the squeaking of a playground swing, the roar of ocean surf.
As aviation nerds, and passionate travelers, Jose and I loved watching aircraft descending in their final few minutes into JFK airport — we watched them through binoculars arriving from Lisbon, Madrid, Dubai, London, Edinburgh and the Ukraine. (If you don’t know FlightRadar24, check it out!)
I caught up on my reading: Transit by Rachel Cusk (meh); Appointment in Samarra, from 1934 by John O’Hara, (which I enjoyed), On Turpentine Lane (given to me by the publisher, a light read) and How Music Works by Talking Heads’ David Byrne — which was amazing and I only got through half of it so am ordering it in order to read the rest.
(Highlight of the week — chanting the lyrics to Psycho Killer with our French friend, 70, who’s also a huge Talking Heads fan.)
I spent my days reading, napping, taking photos, kayaking, walking the beach, chatting with my husband and, later in the week, two friends who came out to join us. And, (sigh), a bit of work as well.
It rained for two days, which we used to read, nap, play lots of gin rummy and read social media and two daily newspapers.
Some homes on the island are for sale — the least expensive one I saw offered on a public bulletin board was $475,000, and weekly rentals from $1,900 to $4,200 — one dropping to $900 a week in the fall.
We left with sand in our shoes, sunburned, well-rested — and looking forward to returning next summer.
Most people who choose to visit Croatia head to the more familiar Dalmatian coast — to Split, Dubrovnik and the islands there, like Hvar; fans of the the HBO series Game of Thrones know that Dubrovnik is the location for some essential scenes.
I decided to skip that part of the country, knowing it would be expensive and crowded, and chose Istria instead, a place I’d never heard of before.
Here’s how I found it and chose to go:
1) I consulted Relais & Chateaux , a worldwide association of small, independent luxury hotels. Once I start to think about a future trip, I look for a R & C hotel I might like to try — if I can afford it! (I did in Malta.) That led me to Istria, although the only hotel they included was more than I wanted to pay.
2) Thanks to a Twitterchat I participate it, I met a travel agent based in Zagreb who helped me plan.
Rovinj, a town of 15,000 people, is called Little Venice and feels like a smaller, less-jammed version of that much larger city. The streets are narrow, the houses painted ocher and mustard and a gorgeous deep raspberry color, and the stairs up to people’s apartments are Amsterdam-steep.
I got there by bus from Zagreb, about 4 hours’ journey, and walked to my hotel, the Angelo D’Oro, which (it had to happen!) turned out to be a lot more expensive than I had remembered when I booked it. (Like, holy shit, twice as much.)
It was worth every penny.
The hotel has only 23 rooms, and is housed in two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, and used to be the bishops’ residence. My room was on the top — fourth — floor, with a small terrace overlooking the harbor, my only companions flocks of swallows and shrieking seagulls.
Buffet breakfast was served on a shaded terrace full of oleander trees, with two small cats who came by each morning to visit.
Every morning and evening at 7:00, the bells of Santa Euphemia rang out from the church just above my windows.
The town is so small you can easily walk everywhere, although there are taxis and the hotel has a little golf cart for moving luggage.
There’s not a lot to do, but it’s a place to kick back and soak up the sun and sit in cafes and savor the views.
The beaches are rocky, (and sea shoes are essential because spiny sea urchins live in the rocks and you do not want to step on one!), and the water crystal clear and the perfect temperature.
You can sail, sea-kayak, fish, snorkel. You can buy really pretty linen shirts and dresses from Italy inexpensively and I treated myself to a pair of gold earrings.
I took a narrated bus tour one day to two hill towns, Groznjan and Oprtalj (right at the Slovenian border), which was terrific — a lovely break from 85-degree heat and a chance to see how gorgeous the hilly interior is.
Istria is small, so it’s easy to see a lot of it within a day’s drive.
Only two words of warning about Rovinj — restaurant food, generally, is of very mediocre quality and almost every restaurant has the same (!?) menu, with fried fish, spaghetti or steak, catering to a lower-income tourist, enormous families and its typical mix of British, German, Austrian and Italian tourists.
Crowds! You can escape them, but restaurants can be busy, especially the very few ones with excellent (and pricey) food.
I loved my time there and was sad to leave — taking a catamaran the 3.5 hour trip across the Adriatic to Venice, the perfect way to arrive to a maritime city.
Loved the light on the cobblestone streets
Lots of stores selling pearls — loved how stylish this one was!
I often walked barefoot — the stones are silky-smooth, and, when steep, quite slippery!
For 80 kuna — about $16 — round-trip, you can take a 20-minute ferry ride to Red Island, where this sort of beauty awaits. I had this beach all to myself all day.
Santa Euphemia church, Rovinj, Croatia
Old Town, Rovinj
The view from Groznjan, Istria
This gorgeous image sat in a niche outside my hotel room. I loved seeing it every morning.
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