I may be one of few who is not overwhelmed with Costa Rica. I did not dislike the beautiful country. The beaches are grand. The people are delightful. The food is good. But, I have been to too many other places that are more “me.” I had hopes of sighting interesting critters in the jungle on “safari” treks. I spotted few.
The critters are there. I suspect too many tourists have been tromping through the jungle, following guides with telescopes, sending the animals deep into the bush in search of peace and quiet.
While husband Bob spent two weeks with his daughter Kellie who has a holiday home in Costa Rica, I toured – on my own but with pre-arranged transportation between destinations. I joined guided tours through parks and to noteworthy sights during my visit last January
The Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and where I joined my first guided hike. Groups like ours, all dutifully following a guide with a large telescope on a tripod, crowded the trails. Word spread quickly of a sighting. Instantly more guides, telescopes and tourists appeared.
Excitement was high at the sighting of a sloth hidden high in dense tree foliage. With the naked eye it was impossible to see anything but leaves. Those with gigantic zoom lenses (there were many) did manage to spot the creature. The rest of us relied on the guide’s telescope. Yet, even with high powered vision, all I could see was a tuft of fur.
This ritual was repeated time after time. The guide, with trained eyes and jungle experience, would spot a creature– various kinds of birds, lizards, sloths – camouflaged in the dense growth. Each of her followers then had a turn for a telescope view. And then, a keepsake photo with their cell phone camera which the guide placed, one by one, on the telescope.
It was steamy humid. I grew impatient and bored. I kept thinking of Africa where majestic creatures are often easy to spot. The tour ended on a beach where hundreds of monkeys frolicked. Monkeys may not be exotic, but they are fun and easy to see. I loved them.
More monkeys, iguanas, a rare lizard, all kind of birds, a deer – I saw them all on the grounds of the Posada Jungle Hotel adjacent to Manuel Antonio park where I spent four nights. This was better than a guided safari, and at my doorstep. The beach near the hotel was fabulous, for swimming and sunset viewing. I spent several evenings aiming for the perfect sunset shot while sipping a mojito.
Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is a stunning sight. I was lucky. It is often hidden in clouds, but I saw it in all its glory. There have been no regular volcano eruptions since 2010. The surrounding region is popular for hiking and all sorts of rugged,extreme adventure. I opted for gentle adventure, a hanging bridge hike and another hike near the volcano.
Hanging bridges are common in the Costa Rican jungle. I was intrigued. It is exciting, even a tinge scary, to walk high above gorges on these structures which gently sway as you cross.
After the near-the-volcano hike, we set off to the Tobacon Hot Springs, a jungle wonderland of hot springs, pools, waterfalls, streams – all a bit kitschy, but crazy fun.
Birds were the star attraction during my relaxing boat tour of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge near the Nicaraguan border. The guide entertained us with interesting facts about Costa Rica, as well as river wildlife, as we
drifted past lush rainforest and wetlands. In addition to the birds, we saw bats, a few crocodiles, a lizard… but nothing that thrilled me. I am spoiled. It’s hard to beat being up close and personal with mountain gorillas. (See previous post, “Gorillas in our Mist” Dec. 2015)
I was underwhelmed – and freezing – on the Monteverde Cloud Forest guided hike. This time it was cold and rainy. We learned a lot about various kinds of trees and vines, but – even with the telescope – spotted no exciting wildlife.
The van rides from one destination on my itinerary to the next were often long. The scenery, sometimes spectacular, and chatting with other passengers made the trips interesting. I met folks from the US, Canada, Scotland, England and Israel, including several young female backpackers en route to yoga retreats. Costa Rica is big with the yoga set. There were serious hikers and surfers. Costa Rica is also popular with surfers.
However, I did not come to Costa Rica to surf, nor to soothe my soul during a yoga retreat. Unfortunately I am too old for zip lining and canyoning. Spotting an illusive creature through a telescope did not thrill me. Granted, the beaches are super, but I do not need to travel so far for a fabulous beach
So, Costa Rica does not rank among my favorites, yet I am glad I experienced the country. And, tasted Costa Rican ceviche – a memorable culinary delight. Kellie shared her recipe. Click on photo top right.
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First stop, Winchester, Virginia. Stepson Rob and grandsons Samuel and Lang live outside the city in a lovely country location below the ridge of Big Schloss Mountain, part of the Appalachian chain. Their house, which we had not seen, is spacious and tastefully decorated by Rob – with a few treasures from Germany donated by his father.
Rob drove us around the picturesque area with stops at the Muse Winery Swinging bridge on the Shenandoah River and a visit to the Woodstock Brew House in the town of Woodstock, Va. The artisanal beer was a treat, as was another German favorite,
sauerbraten at a German restaurant in nearby Harrisonburg
On the way home from dinner we passed a Krispy Kreme donut store. They were excited. The red light was on. ?? We learned this means donuts are coming off a conveyor belt to be doused with glaze. Purchase them fresh and warm and enjoy on the spot. “You will love these,” they insisted. The boys had more than one each… Bob and I failed to share their love of Krispy Kreme. We’ll take croissants, merci. But, good to know about that red light. And, the German dinner was wunderbar.
Bob spent several days with Rob and the boys, then flew on to Ohio for a reunion with six of his seven brothers and sisters, as well as many nieces and nephews. They had a belated b’day celebration for Bob, 80 last October. I flew west to San Diego for a reunion with some of my family.
My brrother Tom, who now lives in San Francisco, wanted a reunion in San Diego where he had worked for several years. Brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie came from Boulder. Nephew David and his mother Joan came from Kentucky. Missing was brother Dave, Joan’s husband and David’s father, who had work commitments and could not join the fun.
Tom was our guide. He made sure we visited famed Balboa Park, his beloved Coronado, downtown landmarks and more. Thanks to nephew David, who combined business with pleasure, we were chauffeured in style. His rental car was upgraded to a gleaming, cherry red Cadillac. A tight squeeze, but we all piled in for a scenic ride up the coast to La Jolla where we took lots of photos of seals.
More seal photo opps awaited on our sailboat adventure with Captain Charley in the San Diego Bay. We enjoyed superb views of the city skyline, sailed past the Naval Base, and, in addition to seals, watched dolphins training to detect mines. All beautiful, fun and relaxing, until Joan realized her Iphone was missing — not to be found on board. It obviously had disappeared overboard. Although the phone was insured, most of the photos had not been backed up. Lesson learned: back up all.
Balboa Park, San Diego’s “cultural heart” with 17 museums, gardens, the city’s famous Zoo, plus stunning Spanish-Renaissance architecture, is impressive. Tom recommended a visit to the Botanical Building with more than 2,100 permanent plants, including collections of tropical plants and orchids. Alas, it was closed for cleaning. Instead we went to the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Yoshie, who is Japanese, enlightened us on many aspects of this marvelous garden with its streams and pools where vibrantly colored Koi (Japanese carp) swim.
My favorite part of the San Diego visit was the Ocean Beach street fair. It is a regular happening, we learned, a feast for foodies with a range of international culinary treats: Mexican burritos, Chinese steamed buns, paella, lobster rolls, tangy East African specials, pizza – even crème brulee. Plus – lively music — and dancing in the street. Tom and I joined the dancers.
We ended California family fun at the beach in Coronado watching the sun set with a Margarita in hand. All agreed. We should have these reunions more often.
Scroll down for more of the family photo album.
Coming soon: Rajasthan, the best of India, and then, Costa Rica, which followed this US trip. If not a talesandtravel follower, sign up, upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared.
A new taste — trout for fish lovers. See recipe, click on photo above right,
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As a cat lover (big and small), I was hell-bent on a leopard sighting. This solitary, secretive feline had eluded us on two different safari trips in Africa. Sri Lanka had to be the place.
Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is said to be home to at least 25 of these beauties. During our February tour of the island nation, we visited that park as well as two others. Sadly, no leopard showed his spots to us. We did see elephants, rabbits, a spotted deer, one wild boar, a mongoose, turtles, lots of birds including numerous peacocks. And, a sloth bear, a rare sighting according to the guide.
“Most tourists don’t see the leopard,” a guide later told me. However, we did learn that the day prior to our visit to Yala and the day after, lucky tourists did spot the evasive cat. We felt cheated.
No leopard, but lots of magnificent elephants. Some 4,000 Asian elephants, an endangered species, make their home in the tiny nation. Herds of 200 or more are a common sight in August and September in Minneriya National Park. The herds we saw in that park were much smaller, 25 to 30, but fascinating. The pachyderms are obviously accustomed to tourists and come very close to the safari vehicles. Guides know many of them by name.
I was intrigued, touched, with a mini-family grouping. A crippled mother and two offspring, one four years old and the other eight years old, were alone, apart from the herd. The guide explained that the mother, about 40 years old, had been hit by a train. She was left with a bad limp, forcing her to move very slowly. She could not keep up with the herd. Her two offspring stay with her to protect her, he explained.
Elephants need about five square kilometres each to support their 200 kilograms per day appetites. Deforestation and over development in Sri Lanka have diminished their habitat. As in Africa, they encroach on farmland. As in Africa, it’s elephants vs. humans, a challenging conflict.
White birds hang around the elephants we saw. We learned that the elephants, grazing on grass, shake the stuff before eating it. Worms fall out – a tasty meal for the birds.
Sir Lanka is a paradise for birders with 400 different species, 26 of which are unique to the country. We saw many on our safaris.
On a visit to a turtle hatchery we learned about the island’s sea turtles which lay their eggs along the coast. Eggs not collected by poachers (turtle egg omelettes are popular) hatch after several weeks and hundreds of baby turtles make their perilous way to the sea. Few survive. Many are devoured by fish and birds. At turtle hatcheries, eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator. After just one day, they are released into the sea at night. Even with this method, only one in 100 survive, about the same as in nature.
The conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, but the tiny turtles are adorable. Adult turtles of varying sizes also swim in hatchery tanks. Many have been injured and would not survive in the sea.
The hatchery we visited had been started by the owner’s father in 2000. He died shortly thereafter and his sister took over. She, another sister, their children and his mother all perished in the devastating tsunami which ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004, killing roughly 40,000 of its citizens. The owner and his surviving brother refurbished and reopened the hatchery.
No doubt more popular than its animals and safari parks are Sri Lanka’s beaches. They are grand, but the mountainous interior was my favorite. We spent two nights in the hills above Ella, a picturesque area of tea plantations with splendid views, hiking trails and cooler temperatures…a paradise.
For more on Sri Lanka, see previous post: Wonders of Sri Lanka.
Nimal De Silva, (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com) chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country. He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.
More photos of Sri Lanka follow.
At last, a new recipe and just in time for those summer blackberries. Click on photo of berries, upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.
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We were locked in. No way to get out. The stubborn lock would not budge. We were on floor 4 1/2 by US standards. Jumping out of the window was out of the question. Scream for help – would anyone hear? Despite many phone calls and promises, no one came to our assistance.
One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Frustration turned to panic. During our incarceration, Bob tried numerous times to unlock the door. He was angry. I was a nervous wreck…
I had booked an Airbnb apartment in Paris for two nights between our trips to the US and China. On the Airbnb site this “lovely flat in the Marais” looked gorgeous: bright, roomy, gleaming. At 319 euro for two nights, it was more than we usually spend. But, we would be tired after the all-night flight from the US. We wanted to see more of the Marais. And, although this was a new listing with only two reviews, they were basically positive.
When Angela, our greeter, met us at the door to the building and led us up a narrow, shabby, dirty staircase, I was crestfallen. Could that beautiful apartment be in this rundown building?
There was no elevator. We were loaded down with clothing for five weeks and different climates. Bob made several trips up and down the 4 ½ flights, struggling to get the suitcases up the narrow passages while Angela struggled with the lock. Perhaps I have the wrong apartment; she lamented, and then went up and down to try other doors. No luck. She made several phone calls – I assume to an agent who managed the apartment. Owner Franck had told me he would not be in Paris when we arrived.
This must be it, she said at the first door she had tried, and asked Bob to try. He wiggled the key back and forth many times. He pushed and pulled, but the lock would not give. More phone calls. More tries. Forty-five minutes had gone by, and we were still standing in this dismal hallway. We were exhausted and had longed to relax, take a short nap and then a fun walk. Bob tried the uncooperative lock one more time. Success. We were in.
Angela was elated. We were not. We surveyed the surroundings. Photoshop obviously works wonders. Instead of a bright and spacious apartment, the “lovely flat” was dark, crammed, depressing. The furniture was the same as in the photos, but not much else.
Before Angela left, Bob went outside to test the door. It opened. However, we insisted that someone, preferably a locksmith, come to verify that the lock was in working order. We needed to be sure that when we went out, we could get back in and not end up stranded on that dreadful staircase. She made a call and assured us that someone would show up in 20 minutes to check the lock.
We felt it best to wait before settling in and taking that nap. “We better make sure we can get out,” Bob announced at one point. OMG! Sacre Bleu! The door would not open. We were imprisoned. This can’t be true. But, it was. (Keep reading. It gets worse before better.)
I called Airbnb. There were many options: press 1,.2, 3. I tried all, but always got a recorded message and was put on hold. The relaxing Paris afternoon we had anticipated had become a frantic nightmare.
Since I had no luck with the regular channels, I tried the English language assistance option. Someone answered: A man in Ireland. Hope at last. I told the sorry story. He said he could help and asked various questions about our reservation: address, birth dates…and then the last four digits of the credit card used to make the booking. We have several credit cards. I gave him the numbers of the cards we had with us. No match. I must have used the French card to book. I explained that we did not have that card with us. He was adamant. Without those numbers, he could do nothing for us.
I was incredulous. This was too much. No more hope. Would we ever escape? I blew up. I cried. I used nasty language. He hung up.
Now what? Call the police? The fire department? I went to the window, hoping to find a fire escape, although I doubt I would have had the skill to navigate it. Nothing there. So, back to the French Airbnb number and alas, after a wait, I reached Emeline, a real person who was sympathetic, patient, understanding. She said she would arrange for someone to help us get out, that we did not have to stay in the apartment, that she would email me listings of other Airbnb apartments that had availability, and that we would be reimbursed for the sum we had paid for the apartment, as well as the taxi fare to our new accommodation.
We were making progress. Surely someone would come to break the lock and rescue us soon. I was getting claustrophobic. I needed to escape –soon.
While I looked over the listings, Bob continued trying to open the door. He is usually very patient (not like me), but he was losing it. He was infuriated. Our nerves were frazzled. I looked around, hoping to find a bottle of something potent and alcoholic left behind by a previous guest. We needed it desperately, but not even a tea bag to be found.
It was close to 5 p.m. We had arrived at the apartment at 1:15 pm, and we were still prisoners in this “lovely flat,” still waiting for a savior to come and free us.
Bob tried the door yet again. Eureka! He had the magic touch. It moved. It opened. We were free. We fled.
I had booked an apartment in Montmarte chez Sacha and Sydney which appeared beautiful, and cost just 233 euro for two nights, 86 euro less than Franck’s place. Although we had already given Airbnb 319 euro, we had to pay for the new booking. With too much luggage, we trekked to the corner café, got a taxi and set off to the new flat which was even better than the photos: huge, light, inviting. This time I had picked a winner.
A few days later I checked our credit card details online. We had been given a refund of 3 euro. I was furious, but by this time we were in Hong Kong. I sent an email to Airbnb and learned that to obtain a refund, I needed to proceed with the resolution process and was entitled to a maximum of 275 euro, not the 319 we had paid. Why the 3 euro? A mini reward for all our suffering and a lost afternoon? That remains a mystery
First step for a refund is to fill out an on-line form stating your grievance which is sent to the owner. I did, confident that he would surely grant the refund in these circumstances. Wrong. He refused.
’You insulted me and Angela instead of letting us one hour to manage this issue with the door – which is not a big issue…. It just happened to be a bit difficult to open and needed a bit of oil, nothing I could expect and nothing to be that aggressive… People are not your servants. A host is not your slave Leah, and I will refuse any refund as you were aggressive and made a scandal when there was no real reason to act as you did. You didn’t have to cancel this booking, especially not the way you did …”
One hour? We waited three hours. One should carry a can of oil if booking an Airbnb apartment? No real reason to be upset? It’s acceptable to be locked out — and then locked in– a rental apartment? Cancel the booking? Emeline had done that for us.
I sent Airbnb a response, stating that I did not accept Frank’s decision and explained that I would follow up upon our return, asking them not to close the case.
After returning from China, I filled out yet another form requesting that Airbnb review both sides of the story and make the final decision. I kept receiving computer generated responses which indicated no one had ever read my response. I was getting more than fed up with Airbnb. Back to the phone. (I want a decent hourly wage for all the time I spent on hold listening to Airbnb background music.)
I was patient, and fortunately, eventually, I reached Ellie, an Airbnb case manager. She was understanding, sympathetic – and did not demand the last four digits of the credit card. She checked into the case. Despite my instructions to wait for my rebuttal, Airbnb had closed the case. I had to go back to square one and begin the lengthy process all over.
The entire story would not fit in the space allotted on the Airbnb online form. Ellie said to send her an email with the details and she would forward it. But, it had to go back to Franck first. Again he refused and asked me to stop harassing him. What planet was he on? Did he realize how much harassment his defective lock had caused us?
When you speak to an Airbnb rep/case manager, the person is not permitted to give his or her last name, nor a direct number to reach him/her, not even a personal email address. You have to reply to the general Airbnb email address. I did, but added: “Attention Ellie” to the subject line. My messages did reach her. She responded, but said she could offer no further help and sent our case on to someone else.
That someone was Danny in Dublin. Like Ellie and Emeline, a decent human who was understanding — and extremely apologetic. He called our tragedy an episode of “miscommunication that had gotten out of hand.” Is there such a thing as Irish understatement? Whatever, he assured me that we would get a full refund, 319 euro, plus the taxi fare. Thank you, Danny. We did.
Meanwhile I had gone back to the Airbnb site and noted that the price for “the lovely flat in the Marais” had been slashed, from about 159 euro per night to 60 euro per night. I asked Danny about this. He explained that Airbnb does not inspect properties listed and hosts can set rental prices as they desire. Why did Franck drastically drop the price? Perhaps because he was not getting bookings, he surmised. Hmm..I suspect there is more to it.
Airbnb lesson learned: Be wary of booking a new listing. Look for listings with lots of positive reviews. Just in case, take a can of oil.
This was our second Airbnb experience. Two years ago we booked an apartment in Paris’ 16th district. It was exactly as described and ideal for us. Hostess Nathalie met us, greeted us, had a welcome gift for us, and provided all sorts of helpful information on the area – shops, restaurants, public transportation.
We expected much the same with the booking in the Marais. Franck, it appears, has more than one apartment listed with Airbnb. The same with Sacha and Sydney, hosts at the second apartment whom we never met.
According to an article in The Guardian, the number of Airbnb hosts “has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%.” Investors, perhaps like Franck and Sacha and Sydney, are buying up properties to rent through Airbnb. “ With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example,” states the article.
So, don’t always expect personal contact with the owner which was originally one of the drawing cards of Airbnb.
We have not given up on Airbnb. I just booked an apartment in Ventimiglia, Italy, which has numerous glowing reviews, plus lots of kudos for the owners who are on the scene. Nonetheless, Bob insists we not forget to take a can of oil.
China followed Paris, where, sadly more misadventure awaited. Yet another crash, but far worse than the one in India I wrote about in a previous post, “Adventure — and a CRASH –in Kashmir.”
Details on China in a coming post. Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.
I am on the mend, but slightly handicapped (broken collar bone). No new recipes until I can get back in the kitchen and cook with two hands —soon I hope.
Once upon a time, high in the Italian hills overlooking azure Mediterranean waters, a local gardener decided he would like to become a prince. But, he needed a kingdom – or at least a patch of land to rule. No problem. He did some research and figured a small portion of this mini paradise did not legally belong to Italy. (That is all a bit complicated.) He convinced the local population of his claim and managed to have them vote to give him the title of Prince. That was in 1963, and Giorgio Carbone, His Supreme Highness, ruled the micro nation Seborga until his death in 2009, when Prince Marcello I assumed the throne.
So, all 2,000 citizens of the fairytale-like kingdom have been living happily ever after? More or less, but with some political intrigue to muddy the waters from time to time.
I had never heard of Seborga. When the American Club of the Riviera sponsored an event in the principality, a gala dinner following festivities for the national holiday, the feast of Saint Bernard, I signed up. And, did some Seborga research.
Perhaps I exaggerated the part about Giorgio wanting to become prince. Who knows? For details on Seborga history, see Wikipedia. In brief, from the 10th century, monks ruled the principality. They sold it to the King of Sardinia in 1729, a sale Giorgio and his followers claim was invalid. Italy, they maintained, annexed Seborga “illegitimately and unilaterally.”
The Principality of Seborga (14 square kilometers) calls itself a separate state within Italy’s borders, similar to Vatican City and San Marino.
Italy ignores these claims and has jurisdiction over the territory. . Nonetheless Seborga has its own army, flag, royal family and currency. The latter, as well as passport stamps, are popular with tourists.
Prince Marcello, a 38-year-old former professional speedboat racer, is protected by his eight-member, blue-bereted Corpo della Guardia who were on duty for the national day festivities. To the delight of spectators, the Prince and Princess made a ceremonial entrance to the town in a horse-drawn carriage following a parade of costumed locals and guards.
Marcello’s German born wife, Nina, serves as foreign minister of Seborga. The couple were formally received by Queen Elizabeth in 2011. On the world stage, Burkina Faso recognized Seborga as an independent state in 1998. According to one source, some 20 other nations also recognize the tiny nation’s independence. The U.S. has an ambassador to Seborga who attended the national festivities.
That is not enough, says Nicolas Mutte, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a shadowy, possibly French figure whose occupation is unknown.” He posted an online video this spring proclaiming himself “His Serene Highness Nicolas I,” Seborga’s new ruler. Mutte, who says he is a descendent of Napoleon, seeks a split from Italy and accuses Marcello of only promoting tourism and folklore.
Although the Prince, a local real-estate entrepreneur, was elected on promises to fight for independence, secession has taken a back seat as Seborga and its traditions have become a tourist magnet. Marcello does not seem threatened by Mutte. “Seborga is a free and sovereign principality that has elected me as its prince,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Mutte has no rights over Seborga.”
Even Giorgio had to fend off pretenders to his throne. In 2006, a woman calling herself “Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet” stated that she was the rightful heir to the Seborga throne. Giorgio dismissed her claims, calling her the “internet princess.”
All of this intrigue adds to the fascination of this secluded fairytale sovereignty snuggled aside a long and twisty road above the coastal city of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. Throngs of visitors conquered the challenging journey to attend the August festivities. Flags, hundreds of the principality’s blue and white banners, set the scene for a parade, music, flag throwing demonstrations, costumes, dancing – and the dinner. ( I only hope Seborgans have better food than the definitely-not-delicious offerings we were served at this repast. At least there was no shortage of wine.)
Seborga, the eponymous capital city of the principality with a mere 337 inhabitants, is one of those ancient hilltop villages of skinny, cobbled streets that climb and descend, past old stone dwellings decorated with flower boxes. Views of the Med and distant peaks from the town terraces are splendid. A visit to its privately owned gramophone museum is mind boggling.
So, too, is the Seborga story. Could I overthrow Nina and become Princess Leah (think Star Wars ) ?
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