Thursday, June 24, 2010

A 'Shining' Layover in Milan

‘Life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey.’ Encouraging words often put on cheesy but inspirational posters that illustrate a long and winding road headed for some unknown place. Now in the cosy confines of the Ramada Hotel near Malpensa Airport in Milan, I completely understand.

This isn’t a ghostly story, though reminiscent of the setting of the 1980 hit film, The Shining. It is a snowy tale of travel insight and how to make the best of a journey, as unexpected as the direction may be. Milan wasn’t our original destination. My husband and I were supposed to spend a short layover here on our way to Accra, Ghana. We’re now stuck in a small town outside Milan, snowed in and trapped, like in the film The Shining, at a hotel from which we can’t escape. It’s snowing heavily and northern Italy, including the metropolis of Milan, has been literally shut down. About twenty-eight inches of snow fell on Milan today, the most since 1985, nineteen years ago. Two of the area’s airports are closed and Malpensa Airport is operating at only 20% capacity. We arrived yesterday before the storm intensified. Our presumed one-hour long layover turned into three’s true what they say, ‘everything takes longer in Italy.’

We were bumped from our original Alitalia flight due to overbooking. Had we arrived in Milan when we were supposed to, we would have missed the ‘exceptional snow storm’ as dubbed by the Italian media. From all of my travels I’ve learned one thing that has brought me a lot of peace over the years…if there is a 50% chance something could go wrong while on the road, there is a 90% chance it will. This isn’t pessimism, just reality. Travelling is rarely on schedule and almost never what you expect.

Because Alitalia was the cause of our missed flight to Ghana they graciously take responsibility and offer to put us up in a nearby airport hotel. A tall, lanky, and very weary Alitalia agent with greasy black hair writes out a voucher that entitles us to transportation and accommodation at the Ramada Hotel. He passes us the voucher with a look of, ‘please don’t beat me’ in his eyes, as he has been dealing with irate passengers all day and is afraid of ongoing wrath. We appreciatively take the voucher and head toward the bus that will take us to the hotel.

We board the bus and wait for all the other lucky souls, at the mercy of Alitalia. The bus load of us is very fortunate. Taxis are unable to navigate the icy, snowy roads and this bus is one of the only methods of transportation out of Malpensa Airport. The drive that would normally take twenty minutes takes two hours as the bus creeps along the snow-covered road at five to ten miles per hour. It’s dark outside and the snow flurries that fall on the open road ahead, illuminated by the bus headlights, create an eerie scene. No other cars are on the road and I feel like we're alone in the world. We finally arrive at the Ramada Hotel, actually located in the small town of Ollegio and offload from the bus. After the day of travel and the two-hour drive going snail speed, we are excited to go to our room and sleep.

The Ramada Hotel in Ollegio, Italy- January 26, 2006

The bus load of Alitalia customers form a mob around the reception desk. To expedite the check-in process the staff requests that all guests leave their passports at the front desk so that the required information may be entered into the computer later without us all having to wait. Although uneasy about letting my passport out of my possession, exhaustion overrules and I anxiously leave the important document in the charge of the Ramada Reception crew.

Alitalia will be paying for the entirety of our stay including all meals, rented movies, in-room Internet service, and telephone calls…everything. Sweetens the sour deal the snow has dealt- missing part of our vacation in Ghana. We go up to our room and find very comfortable, contemporary accommodation. To me, the image of Ramada is not exactly luxurious. In fact, in the past, I’d go out of my way to avoid it. However, this hotel that caters to business travellers is clean, modern, and good quality.

We go up to our room, ironically room 237, the most haunted room in The Shining. Before bed we take a soak in the Jacuzzi tub, big enough for two, with views out onto the courtyard, covered in pillowy, white snow. The bath warms us up and relaxes our travel-weary muscles. We’re concerned that we won’t get to Ghana for at least a couple days due to the weather but feel lucky to have a very comfortable and very free place to stay while we wait out the storm. The poor saps at the airport are lying across plastic chairs made into makeshift beds, covered with jackets used as blankets, watching the flashing ‘cancelled’ signs on the arrival and departure boards as entertainment.

We awake the next morning and look out the window…still snowing. We go down to the restaurant and find set tables and a breakfast buffet lined with all kinds of delicious breakfast foods; eggs, an assortment of Italian meats and cheeses, pastries, fruit and yoghurt. We drink fresh squeezed orange juice and strong Italian cappuccinos while enjoying our breakfast.

After breakfast we walk through the lobby and find hordes of angry people hounding the receptionists and concierge. People are yelling in different languages, huffing and puffing their way into a tizzy. It’s an international gathering of complainers; Italians are loud and use their hands to gesture their frustration with the snow storm, a group of pushy Americans bump their way to the head of the angry mass to acquire information on the airport reopening, Stoic Russians give the hotel staff and other guests dirty looks, a group of French people complain about the hotel food, and a stressed-out Maltese family scream at one another with no restraint. No taxis or public transports are in service at this time and people are literally stuck at the hotel with no chance of getting to their various destinations. I guess it was a one-way ticket on the bus that brought us here. The concierge notifies us that it wont be returning. The only way to get back to Malpensa Airport at this point is to walk the eleven miles in the frigid cold in waist high snow thank you!

'Exceptional Snow Storm' Shut Northern Italy Down For Three Days

Why these people are trying to get back to the airport is beyond me. Malpensa airport is working at only 20% capacity and in my mind the options are to either wait the storm out here in the comfy hotel we've appropriately nicknamed 'The Shining', which happens to be free-of-charge for all of us, or wait at the airport alongside infuriated crazies who would kill to be in our position right now. REDRUM comes to mind…cue chilling horror film music now.

We resolve to enjoy our time and look around the property, now covered in snow. We take photos, throw snowballs and make snow angels along with a family and their little boy. Other hotel guests look at us like we’re crazy. Maybe we are, we’re actually enjoying our time, albeit being trapped here. Perhaps we’ve been afflicted with some rare form of contented cabin fever? Our actions aren’t set to bone-chilling soundtracks, we’re not seeing ghosts, and we don’t feel like axing anybody as Jack Nicholson did in The Shining so we concur that we’re all right.

A Few Guests Building a Snowman...ours was bigger!

We're getting hungry so we go down to the restaurant for lunch. We are seated and automatically given a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white wine, and two menus. We share a lovely Risotto Milanese, saffron-flavored rice covered with osso buco, a kind of stew made from veal shanks braised in white wine, herbs and gremolata (a mixture of garlic, lemon peel and parsley.) We drink our bottle of white wine, talking and laughing; taking our sweet time…because we’ve definitely got the time. We then sip our red wine and finish the bottle after our near four-hour long lunch. We meander our way back up to the room and have a much-needed nap. This eating, drinking, and waiting around thing is really exhausting.

After our long nap we venture down to hotel lobby to discover an increasingly mutinous mob at the reception desk. Everyone is taking their frustration out on the hotel staff, which is clearly not to blame. Guests are angry and simply want to get to the airport and try to get a flight…to just about anywhere. However, like in The Shining, we are confined to the premises, snowed in, and stuck here. We continue to make the best of it. Our daily lives are so busy and hectic, working all hours with little time to just relax. ‘All work and no play makes Beth a dull girl.’ ‘All work and no play makes Beth a dull girl.’ ‘All work and no play makes Beth a dull girl.’

We head back to the restaurant and indulge in some more northern Italian cuisine…surprisingly tasty, especially for being at the Ramada… not at all known for haute cuisine of any kind. For dinner we have cassoeula, a dish made from stewed chunks of pork supplemented with sausage, Savoy cabbage, tomato sauce, celery and other vegetables. The cassoeula is served alongside a portion of steaming hot, buttery polenta. Again, we are given a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white wine, standard procedure here. Though a bit indulgent, we drink the wine and decide, ‘hey, we’re on vacation and what else is there to do?’

The next two days go a lot like the first with the exception of our numerous calls to Alitalia customer service, trying to get a flight out of Milan so that we may finally reach our planned destination of Accra, Ghana. We wait on hold for hours with Zero 7’s song, ‘Destiny’ playing as hold music, looping over and over again. As we memorize the words to the song, we finally manage to get a flight booked to Rome where we will connect to Accra, Ghana.

Now that we have a flight booked, that is scheduled to take off; we must find a way to leave ‘The Shining’. We must recover our passports, which the staff refuses to give us until checkout and transportation have been arranged, which literally traps us here. With the adrenaline of a final scene in a horror film we case the hotel reception desk for a few minutes. When the receptionist walks away, we slyly grab our passports from the stack and I nonchalantly put them in my purse, in a way that no one will notice.

The few taxi companies that are now operating in the area are overbooked and are not accepting new fares. We sure could use a Snowcat right about now! We overhear an American sports team who has arranged a private shuttle from Milan to take them to the airport. With a good amount of schmoozing they allow us to ride with them back to Malpensa. Thanks boys!

We arrive at a very hectic Malpensa Airport and stand in a three-hour long check-in line. We are issued our boarding passes to Rome and make our way to the departure gate. The other passengers, decked out in glamorous Italian fashion- Prada, Versace, Dolce & Gabanna, push and shove to board the airplane that will take us to Rome. Gotta love the duty free shops! Only Italians could look so fabulous after spending multiple nights in the airport…it must be in their genes.

We look out the cabin window onto the snow-covered runways, humming the Alitalia hold song. In hindsight, we had so much fun at ‘The Shining’ I don’t know what the hurry was to leave. The Ramada wasn’t at all sinister…it was a much-needed, forced reprieve from our busy lives and a great prelude to our African vacation. In a Boeing 747, flying above the others stuck at ‘The Shining’ near Milan, I finally discover the meaning of those cheesy motivational posters, life and vacation for that matter is not about the destination. It’s about the journey, literally, and the things you learn about yourself in the process.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Time as a Gaucho

Clop, clop, clop…the hooves of Cervantes, the gentle and magnificent Criollo horse, loudly prance along the dirt road as he carries me through the quiet Uruguayan countryside. Cervantes is calm, almost lazy as he leisurely stops every few minutes to nibble the lush grasses along the country road. The sun is low in the sky now, as dusk approaches. Roberto, the casero (ranch hand), turns around and signals that it’s time to go back to the ranch. We begin our return and Cervantes breaks into a gallop. Roberto chuckles and says in broken English that I’m ready for the Kentucky Derby. Cervantes continues his speedy return as I’m told it’s his dinnertime. Delicious food is consistently served at the Estancia and like Cervantes, I can’t wait to get back for the evening meal.

Me and Cervantes

The fare at Estancia Tierra Santa, near Carmelo, Uruguay, is creative, well-thought out, and memorable. The proprietor, Karen Vandergrift, a talented chef, makes all of the meals herself and takes real pride in what graces her tables. Tonight, dinner is served on our private terrace, just outside our room which overlooks fields of wheat and alfalfa, fruit orchards, and pastures of wildflowers. The table is a quaint, old sewing machine desk that has been covered in colourful mosaics and is just big enough for two. The stars are out and shine more brightly than I’ve seen in a long time. Karen and her housekeeper, Ester, have lighted candles to add to the ambiance of our romantic meal.

Our Private Terrace

My husband and I are drinking Pinot Noir from the Irurtia winery, the second largest vineyard in Uruguay and a neighbour to the Estancia. The wine is like liquid silk; soft, velvety, complex and with an intense ripe-grape aroma. The first course, a fresh and crisp salad, is served and eaten along with fresh, home-baked bread. The main course is served, the pièce de résistance, a fennel crusted filet or lomo as they call it in Uruguay. The beef is tender, flavourful, and melts in my mouth with the faint anise taste of fennel seeds. Dessert, a luscious, homemade chocolate cake is served next as we continue drinking our wine, laughing and enjoying our time together outside under the stars or al aire libre, in open air.

Karen stops by to visit with us after the dessert course has been cleared by Ester. We give her our compliments and request the recipes for the meal which she gladly shares. She also shares some homemade lemongrass verbena soap that she’s made during her downtime. The soap, made with the herbs from her garden, smells fresh and citrusy. She gives us several bars, individually wrapped in paper and tied with ribbon, to bring home with us. Her hospitality makes us feel at ease and at home.

Karen says goodnight and leaves us with another bottle of Irurtia Pinot Noir. My husband and I sit on our terrace, amidst glowing fireflies, and reflect on this perfect day beginning with our trip to the Four Seasons Resort in Carmelo for a trip to the spa and lunch by their pool, our visit to the nearby water hole in the afternoon and our horseback ride at dusk. It was a laid-back day in a laid-back town.

Our day started when we awoke to the peaceful sounds of chirping birds. Even the birds sound content here. More than fifty species of birds have been counted on the ranch, making it a perfect bird watching destination. We made our way to the kitchen where Karen and Ester were preparing breakfast. Homemade muesli, home-baked scones, artisanal honey, buttered toast, fresh fruit, and organic farm-fresh eggs graced the beautifully and casually set breakfast table. We ate our breakfast with the other guests, a Brazilian couple and their two daughters, in Karen’s gorgeous, intricately tiled and spacious country kitchen.

Karen's Kitchen, Estancia Tierra Santa


After breakfast we set out by car to the Four Seasons Resort in Carmelo, a short drive away. Nestled among pine and eucalyptus trees along the Rio de la Plata, the property lived up to Four Seasons’ standard of excellence. I took a natural European facial at the spa and revelled in each of the seventy-five minutes. Soft, soothing melodic soundscapes in a cool, dark room relaxed me as I received my facial atop a French terry cloth covered massage table. It was heavenly. After my treatment I met my husband by the pool where we ate lunch. We shared Choripán Casero, a sandwich of homemade Chorizo Sausage, Baguette and Chimichurri sauce (a traditional sauce made from bell pepper, parsley, garlic, oil, vinegar, and red pepper flakes). We also shared a trio of empanadas – beef, calabresa and mozzarella, and onion. The food was good but it didn’t compare in quality or taste to the cuisine served back at the Estancia Tierra Santa.

The Four Seasons, Carmelo

After our luxurious morning at the Four Seasons we visited a local water hole near the estancia. The water hole was an old quarry that over time has filled with rain water. It is frequented only by locals and we were able to get a feel for life and the spirit of the Uruguayan people. People of all ages swam in the water hole that afternoon, laughing, singing, swimming and floating in the cool clear waters, a reprieve from the days hot summer sun. Between cannon balls and calls to one another in incomprehensible Spanish, we received many friendly, welcoming smiles and waves from the locals.

Water Hole Near the Estancia

After our trip to the water hole we returned to the estancia for a refreshing glass of Medio y Medio, a drink of half white wine and half sparkling wine, very popular in Uruguay. We sipped our wine on the patio outside our room. The estancia itself is beautiful and an interesting backdrop to a relaxing afternoon drink. Once a part of one of the oldest estancia’s in the state of Colonia, Tierra Santa has been declared a sight of historic interest by the Uruguayan government. It was first used as an estancia in the seventeenth century by Jesuit missionaries. Later it was used as a grain mill, remnants of which can still be seen along the banks of the stream. The original building has been renovated and restored by Karen and her husband. Karen’s refined taste, sophistication, and vision has produced something truly brilliant here. The character of the original casa remains but has been elevated into an elegant yet comfortable alternative to the average overcrowded, uninspiring holiday accommodation.

Front Courtyard at the Estancia

Parilla Grill from the Original Casa

We took our Medio y Medio and strolled around the property, followed by Bronte and Phoebe, curious and energetic Black Labrador ranch dogs. We started out past the organic garden, full of salad greens, herbs, tomatoes, squash, and beans. We walked past the chicken coops filled with hens that lay eggs daily. We then met Claudette and Baubette, the hogs who were as tall as my waist. They were big, dirty, and as cute as could be. Karen gave us crackers to feed them and the two big girls enthusiastically munched the treats. Once the crackers were finished we walked away. Claudette and Baubette followed for a few minutes, snorting in exertion, until they realized our pockets were empty and turned around to lay in the shade of the trees. Next we met the sociable goats and then the sheep, which were frankly quite sheepish. We continued our stroll around the property and passed the estancia cows and horses that happily grazed the day away.

Estancia Friends

We returned to our room and passed Karen outside on the patio. She noticed that I had been burned by the sun and kindly offered me rosewater to sooth my sore skin. I sprayed the fragrant water and filled the air with the smell of roses. We took a nap on our comfy bed in our first-class room and rested up for our horseback ride at dusk.

Vacation is all about napping. When in real life do you have the opportunity to take a siesta? We awoke refreshed and set out to the courtyard where the saddled horses Fausto and Cervantes were waiting for us. All of the animals at Estancia Tierra Santa have literary names, another insight into Karen’s sophistication.

Though Tierra Santa is sophisticated, it is also casual and comfortable. After visiting the Four Seasons I don’t know why anyone would fork out the cash just for the pretention of staying there. The accommodation we received at Tierra Santa far surpasses the Four Seasons and any other resort I’ve visited. That’s because Tierra Santa isn’t actually a resort, it’s a historic estancia, a working ranch, where the owner and staff take pride in their country and in their hospitality.

Estancia Tierra Santa is a place where rosewater is the scent of friendliness, where shared recipes are the taste of fine cuisine, where chirping birds and running streams are the sound of relaxation. Tierra Santa is a place where you can siesta every day, where you can stay up late into the night drinking local wine under the stars, listening to the lulling buzz of the bugs in the darkness. It’s a place where a slower pace of life is treasured, a place where you can just…breathe.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sea Turtle Superhighway

The sand glows an iridescent blue-green color as I walk along the tide line and ignite the dinoflagellates, tiny organisms that emit a neon-like radiance under the darkening sky. The moon is full and reflects off the misty, salty air that conceals the beach ahead. Besides the sound of the crashing waves, it is silent and tranquil. Just when we think we are the alone on the twenty mile stretch of beach, a giant Loggerhead sea turtle emerges from the Atlantic Ocean.

Sunset, Just Before the Turtles Emerge

We watch the turtle quietly as she begins the long and arduous journey up the beach to the sandy dunes, well above the high tide line. She drags herself using her flippers, creating tractor-like tracks in the sand. The turtle reaches her preferred nesting sight and begins to dig a large hole, using her rear flippers. After resting briefly, she fills the hole with approximately 100 ping-pong sized eggs. She then covers the hole and makes her way back to the sea never to see her eggs or hatchlings again.

After we witness the incredible nesting process we continue on our moonlit turtle walk and spot seven more female turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs. Besides the long stretches of beautiful, quiet, undisturbed sandy beaches with little or no artificial light, sea turtles make Melbourne Beach very special and very unique.

Located on Florida’s central Atlantic coast, Melbourne Beach is the most significant sea turtle nesting ground in the western hemisphere. Part of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a 20.5 mile stretch of coast devoted to sea turtle preservation, Melbourne Beach is where 90% of Loggerhead turtles nest in the U.S. In fact, more Loggerhead turtles nest here than anywhere else on Earth. Between the months of May and October this stretch of coast is literally a sea turtle superhighway.

Melbourne Beach, Florida

Though they seem plentiful on our turtle walk, in just the past 100 years six of the seven existing species have become federally listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Among the largest living reptiles (up to 7 feet in length and weighing up to 1,300 pounds), sea turtles are long-lived but very fragile and susceptible to extinction. Without stating the obvious Gulf oil spill, sea turtles are diminishing largely because of black-market trade of turtle eggs and meat, becoming bycatch due to net fishing at sea, and beach development.

The lack of development on Melbourne Beach and along the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is a major key in sea turtle survival and preservation. Adult female sea turtles will not nest if disturbed once they come ashore. About 45% of the time a female turtle will return to the sea without laying her eggs, largely due to human interruption. Furthermore, beach development hinders the survival of turtle hatchlings that make their way to the sea by the light of the moon. Many times on developed beaches, the hatchlings mistake the lights of cafés, bars, hotels, and houses to be the right direction to the sea. They become disoriented and perish in the coming day’s heat of the sun. In fact, only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings survive to maturity, making sea turtles even more precious and vulnerable.

Barrier Island Sactuary- a sea turtle information center on Melbourne Beach

By visiting Melbourne Beach you can observe the age-old nesting practice of these magnificent and prehistoric creatures. Be sure to be very quiet, respectful, and never approach a sea turtle that is making her way to a nesting sight- she will return to the sea without laying her eggs. Observe from a distance and feel the significance of what you are witnessing. Feel a strong connection to the universe as the moon pulls the tide; turtles emerge from the water to reproduce as they have for eons, hear the waves and feel the balmy breeze that has been the backdrop to this process for nearly as long as the Earth has turned.

We finish our turtle expedition and return to the lovely beach villa where we are staying. I rinse the salty sand off of my feet and climb into bed. My head hits the pillow and I fall asleep to thoughts of gracefully swimming turtles that come from all corners of the world to visit Melbourne Beach. In folklore, turtles are sage, all-knowing creatures and our mutual choice to visit Melbourne Beach makes me feel like I've followed their good advice.

We awake to the early morning sun shining through the window. We grab our coffee and beach bag and venture back out to the quiet and unoccupied beach for some watersports. We don’t expect to see any turtles of course because they only emerge from the water to nest at night when it is dark and quiet. Nevertheless, we see a tiny turtle hatchling, above the tide line, stuck on its back, struggling to flip over. We watch the baby turtle for a moment and discover he has no hope of flipping on his own as the heat of the sun weakens him. We pick him up and place him into the sea. The tiny hatchling swims away, onward to his life journey that may last over one hundred years.

A Little Loggerhead Turtle Hatchling That We Saved

I often think of that little turtle and where he may be in the world. Gracefully swimming, migrating across oceans every year. Sea turtles are travellers, wise and worldly with the capacity to traverse the globe. Perhaps this is my fascination with them. These ancient beings have existed for millions of years and with help of efforts like the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, hopefully they’ll be around for millions more.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle- photo from:

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