If I’m in the photo or the photo is really really professional, then the photography credit goes to Paul Woo.
After 7 days on the water, we settled back in readjusting our sea legs onto our first bed on land. After checking out and saying our goodbyes to our skipper-chef husband and wife team Brian and Marta, we drove an hour back to Fort-de-France.
Fun fact: our taxi driver Cedric was the exact same one who had rescued Koichi a week ago after a severely delayed flight that left Koichi with no means to call a taxi at midnight until a sympathetic local couple on the same flight assisted in finding and calling up Cedric.
Then the serendipities kept coming: just as Kimmy remembered she had left her North Face jacket back at Simon hotel where we stayed at a week prior, Paul also recalled he had accidentally left his cell phone in the taxi that Cedric’s mother was driving and thus compelling her to come back to the airport anyway. Then taking advantage of the drop-off for Paul’s phone, Kimmy and I also made a roundtrip retrieval mission for her jacket, which still somehow left us plenty of time for our afternoon 45 minute Air France flight to Guadeloupe.
Also known as “Butterfly Island” due to its geographic shape, Guadeloupe made for a quick entry with a cursory glance at our vaccine cards when we landed at 3:30pm at Pointe-à-Pitre. We then hailed a 30 euro taxi ride into the city and settled in at our charming Airbnb Appart Coeur de Rhum before exploring the town at sunset.
The town center begins at Place de la Victoire:
Mémorial ACTe, the largest memorial to enslaved people in the world is here, is located about a 10 minute walk south from the town center:
We then walked around town, the most other central spot being St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral:
Nearby enjoy the brutalist distinct architecture of Hotel De Ville:
Across the street is a fascinating art complex Awtis An Resistans.
We then tried to find whatever street looked interesting.
…before finally finishing our tour by the Spice Market.
It was here where I had a hunch to finish our week with a Lebanese dinner at Damas Gate, taking it all in and resting up after a long week on water. We even invited The Yacht Week resident DJ Alex EBS to join us for drinks, who had noticed I was wearing TYW attire at FDF airport before we flew back together to PTP. He also happens to be on our same flight out tomorrow morning to Miami!
We all just tested negative on BinaxNOW + Telehealth again so we’re heading home now. Another week of successful in the books during these crazy times.
- At time of posting in Guadeloupe, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny
After 2 days relaxing in the off-the-beaten-path island of Lampedusa, the gang took a direct evening flight out to Palermo, capital of Sicily, afterwards.
Founded by Phoenicians under the name of “Ziz” and later renamed by Greeks “Panormos”, which means “all port,” Palermo’s golden age was during Arab rule from 9th to 11th centuries AD when it became one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean and Europe.
It was referred to as the “city of delights” for its gardens, mosques and palaces.
After the Normans conquered Palermo, they destroyed most of the palaces and mosques, but replaced it with a unique architectural mix of Arabesque, Romanesque, and Byzantine influences known as the “Arab-Norman Style of Sicily.”
Modern history, however, would make Sicily infamous for cosa nostra, aka the Mafia that now predominate the popular culture consciousness whenever Sicily is referred.
Starting from the west side of Palermo, we tried to visit the unique Catacombe dei Cappuccini filled with 8000 dressed up corpses and skeletons, but it was closed at the time of posting. So we walked by the 9th century neo-classical era Norman Palace instead, where the ancient chapel Cappella Palatina is also located; you can find elaborate Byzantine mosaics and paintings inside.
While here you might as well also peek inside the red-domed medieval church San Giovanni degli Eremiti:
Then working your way beginning east towards the harbor, pass through the symbolic and landmark Porto Nuovo, built in 1570.
Weave around Teatro Marmoreo and through Villa Bonanno park
As you walk east towards the water, stop by 12th century Cattedrale di Palermo:
If you pay the 12-15 euro ticket to access the rest of the cathedral, there’s the gorgeous roof:
…and the underground tombs:
Take a detour at the open-air Market Ballaro:
Head into the winding alleyways further east to find the baroque Chiesa del Gesù, built in the 1630s:
There’s also Church of San Cataldo, built in 1154 and featuring landmark Byzantine mosiacs, including Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio which lies next door.
…and equally beautiful Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria:
Inside there’s a monastery you can stroll through for a few euros:
Then swing around Genius of Palermo Statue:
…past Fontana del Garraffo:
…past Fontana del Cavallo Marino:
…and as you approach Porta Felice, you know you’ve reached the sea:
There’s also an abandoned UNESCO World Heritage Site Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (“Admiral’s Bridge”) to the south, although there’s nothing much else to do around here:
Donna and I are taking it easy from here on out, because from here it’s a long way home. Brian knows it:
Palermo to Rome to Brussels …to Paris
The original plan was fly from Palermo to Rome to Brussels to NYC. So after Donna and I parted ways at the Palermo airport, I did just that. Once arriving into Brussels, however, it felt like …something was pulling me to Paris. I don’t know why since “I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains” …but I trust my gut.
MXMS and Carla Bruni play on and on in my head.
Passing by the very same piano that caused us to miss our flight to Lampedusa 3 days prior
While arriving into Brussels, I got on the chat with United and asked if I could change my economy Brussels to NYC flight to a free business class upgrade at no extra cost. The answer: Sure, but you’ll have to get from Brussels to Paris and take a flight from there instead. Furthermore…
- Evie also left her ONLY charger back in Palermo, and she was going to be in Paris that night.
- Gina and Priscilla decided on a whim yesterday to extend their layover in Paris an extra day.
- Priscilla had something personal of mine. And her foot, which had been injured during Yacht Week and became taken under my medical attention, appeared to need extra care.
- Gina was still probably annoyed Evie, Sabrina, Sampson, Donna and I all barged to crash in her room 5 days ago in Olbia. It was a bad goodbye; I owed her a drink.
- We would all be in Paris after a united last minute extension of all our trips. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
These were enough signs. And so I booked the next Brussels to Paris Thalys 9388 train at 9:16pm, arriving into Paris at 10:38pm where I would crash with one of them before all our morning flights back to the USA at 10am. It would be perfect.
But as we all know with travel, “perfect” may always involve a snag where the universe tests your will: Soon after booking my train ticket, I would get emails from Thalys every 15 minutes informing me of significant track delays up to 2 hours long. Every email indicated a longer and longer delay, to the point I was worried they were going to cancel the train entirely.
And yet when there’s a will there’s a way: although I had considered giving up on the idea of Paris as the logistics seemed too prohibitive, the prior Thalys 9376 train that had been due to arrive at 7:13pm in Brussels Midi Station instead pulled into the platform in front of me at 8:50pm. It was also running nearly 2 hours late, but oddly did not show up on the departure board as a possibility.
I immediately asked if I could board this one instead, but the agent at the station informed me that my ticket I had bought for the 9:16pm 9388 train would not apply and I would not be allowed onboard 9376. Once she left, I stowed away onboard the 9376 anyway, staying in between cars looking for a place to put my bags, pretending to wait for the bathroom, and hanging out at the café until the bullet train was well already in France.
Eventually my ruse would be noticed (I’m the worst spy ever), but after a discussion with the onboard police, playing stupid showing them I had already purchased a ticket but for a different train, a copy of a negative test for COVID-19 (with a BivaxNOW self-test kit which I had done with Donna the day before…thanks Donna!), that I was fully vaccinated, and a USA passport to accompany my vaccine card, they had no legitimate reason to throw me off the train when we were already 10 minutes away from Paris Gare du Nord station. Checkmate.
And to even make it more opportune, Evie’s hotel — where I could drop off my stuff — was located immediately outside the train station. Does that sound familiar to the beginning of this trip when I had arrived into Florence train station to briefly meet Patricia? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
Evie would have travel issues of her own: her flight from Valencia almost would be cancelled by a tornado there. Nevertheless it was a false alarm as she arrived, although 45 minutes late. Then from her hotel room we both set out to meet Priscilla and Gina, surprising them both (well, really just Priscilla; Gina had said she always knew I’d had it in me to make it work) that we’d make it in time right before they went to bed. And so our goodbye 5 days ago in Olbia was extended in none other than a midnight in Paris.
Having stayed up for our third sunrise, we felt the third time is always the charm.
Then at 8am Priscilla, Gina and I then coordinated a cab together back to CDG where we would be all leaving at similar times back for our onward connecting flights home. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
And of all the business class flights to be upgraded to for free, United would choose SWISS Airlines, with the exact same layover in the exact same city of Zurich . . . WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
. . . and in the exact same 7A seat I had flown to begin this trip 16 days ago. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN…
The magic of the universe has and shall continue. Whether in circles or forward, probably the next step for us would be time travel.
- At time of posting in Palermo, Sicily, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Definitely didn’t look nearly like this 24 hours prior to taking this photo…
After a week rampaging throughout Sardinia’s coastline including a pitstop in Corsica — with a final night belonging in a 90s teen prom movie (I really can’t describe it in any other way … it was that … perfectly bittersweet) — we tried to take it easy the next morning with a spa day relaxing in Olbia.
Some of us having pulled a second all nighter for our final sunrise, we returned to the yachts, quickly took the trash out, made one final camp check, gave our goodbye hugs to Mihaela, Ann, and Jeanette from the marina, and walked over to the hotel Priscilla, Gina, Alex, etc. were staying in.
All I can remember it was a dreary struggle of a morning, especially after coming down from a high of the night before. Once I saw a bed, my body fell hard without even realizing until later how the marina arrivals — Sabrina, Donna, Sampson and I — were likely pissing everyone else who booked the hotel as they graciously still let us use their rooms to crash in for an hour (I’M SO SORRY).
After Priscilla, Donna, Sampson, Sabrina and I got a quick hour’s sleep in thanks to a late check out, we tried to look for a quick brunch before the next round of goodbyes with Priscilla, Gina, Sampson, and Raubern. I then felt like I was living through the entire ending scene of the movie “The Half Of It.”
I don’t know how we eventually made it so underslept but Donna, Sabrina, Evie, and I then managed to take a cab over to Jazz Hotel by the airport where we then both ran into and said goodbye to Song at the Jazz Hotel, and then had an early dinner with Daisy, Ihita and Radhika before taking advantage of the hotel sauna afterwards.
The next morning Donna, Evie, and I said our goodbyes to Sabrina after breakfast and set off on a morning flight back to Rome, where we would transfer to a quick flight to Lampedusa.
However, while walking over at the gates in Rome airport I had mistakenly assumed “Palermo” was Lampedusa (we’re actually heading to Palermo the day after) and therefore was misled to the wrong gate. And the whole time we just sat, chatted and watched Evie perform on a piano nearby without realizing we had all the time in the world to go to our actual gate.
By the time we began to board at 1:06pm, it was already too late: the agents told us we had the wrong tickets, I then realized Palermo was not Lampedusa, and that the 1:10pm Lampedusa flight had already taken off. I took a deep breath, consoled myself it was only fair after a week of successes in flying 34 people into and around Sardinia, and walked over to the last flight out to Lampedusa in another part of the airport. Then leaving my bags with Evie and Donna at our new gate with only 2 hours to spare until that backup flight would take off, I ran out of the airport with their 3 passports and vaccine cards in hand looking all over for the ticket offices.
This particular Wizz Air flight out to Lampedusa from Rome was not showing up on my searches online, and the Wizz Air website did not allow me to buy a ticket on the same day. I therefore had no other choice but wait 30 minutes physically in line, sweating out everything I had drank and ate the past week wondering what my alternatives would be if I couldn’t buy this flight. After another 20 minutes at the counter figuring it out and finally getting our new flights, I was directed back to the check-in desk (thankfully having been allowed to cut in front), where I had the awkward task of explaining to them how I wanted check in 2 passengers who were already past security at the gate itself. By the time I had returned back through security to rendezvous with Donna and Evie, they had already began to board.
Crisis barely averted.
And the whole time I could recall how this near exact scenario had played out 4 years ago when I was trying to get to Slovenia, where Rome airport was also involved and I barely made it work (Mihaela was part of that experience, and it would be the same trip where we would meet Ashley Jia, who had just joined us for Yacht Week! …you never know…).
Yet what I find even more remarkable about this particular incident afterwards, was that everyone else in our Yacht Week group were also going through missed connections of their own AT THE SAME TIME: Priscilla and Gina were also led to the wrong platform for their train from Rome to Florence, and ended up instead on a wrong train to Bologna. Ashley missed her flight home in Rome. Sabrina would find out last minute her flight out of Sardinia would be canceled and would have to spend an extra night there.
I began to wonder whether these comedies of errors was emblematic of something bigger; that no matter how frustrating or random these inconveniences would seem at the time, they serve to remind us they’re just detours — or even required pit stops — that eventually get us back onto the paths we’re supposed to be on. They seem like mistakes at the time, but they might be anything but. Either way we all felt some sense of farflung interconnected camaraderie despite being separated by hundreds of miles of land and ocean knowing we were all going through the same thing…and instead of feeling frustrated at our present predicaments, we actually got a laugh together out of them. That’s a special kind of kinship.
Furthermore I wondered had we picked the right gate to Lampedusa, we wouldn’t have be sitting next that piano for Evie to play on, which could have inspired a random onlooking passenger, that mom dancing with her baby behind Evie, or even our social media, to look at life in a new light as if we became part of a greater ripple effect…
…and yet these are also thoughts I consider when I pull 2 all nighters in a row. One can dare to dream.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as the southernmost island of Italy, Lampedusa is the major island of the Pelagie Islands and considered to be part of Sicily. We arrived around 2 hours later than planned at 4:30pm.
This island has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. You can tell it has Arabic influences to moment you arrive into town.
After a week in the very Wester European influenced old towns of Sardinia and Corsica, I felt immediately at home here.
With population of 5800 people, the island is 12km long and 3km wide, boasting a Middle Eastern-influenced capital “town” full of charms and vibes.
Fun fact is that we’re not really in Europe; this island geologically belongs to Africa.
For the average visitor who must go somewhere “unique” to the island, they should head straight to L’isolotto dei Conigli (the Island of the Rabbits), regarded as the “world’s best beach” on an official TripAdvisor poll.
We took the hourly 1 euro per person bus from the center of Lampedusa’s central town which gets to the beach on the west side of the island within 15 minutes.
What we did not know was that you need to make reservations ahead of time via your accommodations to visit the beach, otherwise expected to be placed on a waitlist (aka sit on an uncomfortable rock wall) where you could wait up to 2 hours to get in.
Thanks to a kind Italian nuclear engineer named Claudia (and her parents!) from Naples living in London, her watermelon themed umbrella kept us sane for our 2 hours underneath the sun.
Once our 2 hour wait was up and after the folks with reservations having been let in first, we finally got to see what the fuss was all about. I also needed to stretch my legs after that.
For sustainability purposes, they only allow a maximum of 550 people at a time on a beach, with a maximum of 2 hour shifts at a time before you’re expected to leave to make room for another group to arrive. The beach opens late morning and closes at 7:30pm.
Once you’re in you have to hike down a rock path 15-20 minutes to finally reach your destination.
And once you do, it’s baptism by paradise.
Wait this long to get in and you just want to flip your hair:
Lampedusa was also a location for many film shoots, so movies fans may also recognize some locations and film stars here. We recognized one:
After our time here was up, we headed back into town for a cab pickup at our lodgings for our onward 6:40pm DAT direct flight to Palermo.
- At time of posting in Lampedusa, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Another monsoon begins, and this time in Sardinia: the Italian island between where we were only 1 month ago among the Balearic Islands and the Italian peninsula.
I finally got to redeem all the thousands of miles I accumulated over the year of the pandemic without using any of it; I decided to give SWISS Air’s Throne Seat another go despite the mid-flight emergency I had nearly exactly 2 years prior where I asked the captain to make an emergency landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a woman in distress.
This time, there was no mid flight emergency; I even got in a solid 6 hours of sleep in before arriving in Zurich!
After 2 hours there resting up at Swiss Air’s Business Class Lounge, I headed on to Florence. They have such a tiny airport here that there wasn’t even a transit option; I summarily walked out of my gate into arrivals, which was outside and next to a 1.30 euro tram that takes you directly into Florence city center in 20 minutes.
Taking that as a sign of my next step during my 4 hour layover in Florence, I did just that.
And while on the tram not knowing what my next step would be and whether I should find left luggage at the main train station in the city or carry it around with me, I got a text from Patricia — a monsooner on our Cyprus trip 2 months ago and this upcoming trip to Sardinia — who happened to have ALSO just arrived in Florence and checked into her hotel.
When I then asked her where her hotel was, she replied that it was right next to my tram stop in the city (!),
WHAT MAGICAL SERENDIPITY AND CONVENIENCE IS GOING ON HERE.
While I only had 4 hours in Florence, it was a memorable 4 hours to spend as a layover.
This is the unbelievable Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, the third largest in the world:
From there then sauntered around in all directions aimlessly, notably walking across the medieval era Ponte Vecchio Bridge without realizing a few minutes later that it’s famous for the many shops built along it that have remained on the bridge since:
Once we reached Uffizi Museum, I dropped Patricia off so she could check out the museum …
… while I rushed back to pick up my bags from her hotel room and make it to my flight onwards to Cagliari.
During the 1 hour flight I befriended a girl from LA named Ani (she remarked about my keffiyeh from Socotra!), but alas the conversation would be cut short as I said my goodbyes to her and her friends after arriving at around 8pm:
From the airport I took the Cagliari Trenitalia from the airport for 20 minutes and 1 stop to the Cagliari terminal train station.
I walked over a 3 minutes to my lodging at CRAMU B&B where Nishant was waiting for me. He was coming from the UK, where he spent 14 days in self-imposed quarantine in Greece prior to beginning his monsoon with us here. I last saw Nishant in Afghanistan of June 2019!
We then headed out for a late dinner in the town (of all the food board spreads there, we chose poorly) before turning in at 1am.
The next morning we began with a lazy breakfast at our B&B before hiking uphill 15 minutes and 26m for the Roman Amphitheatre of Cagliari:
In the area you can pass by Torre dell’Elefante and Torre di San Pancrazio: Two examples of Pisan military architecture and both give great panoramic views of the port and city. Both were closed for renovations at the time of posting.
We then arrived at Saint Remy Bastion, the symbol of Cagliari featuring a landmark limestone arch, pillars, terrace and promenade for public events.
Enjoy the views from here (or anywhere on the elevated hills of Cagliari for that matter):
Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e Santa Cecilia further north may be worth a visit as it was possibly the only open cathedral at the time of posting.
Don’t miss its spectacular crypt underneath:
We then headed back down into the main town where after a splendid vegan brunch at Gintilla, we passed by Chiesa di San Michele, a Catholic baroque church.
Just down the street is Chiesa Collegiata di Sant’Anna:
At this point we looped back to a 3 minute walk away from our B&B (and the train station), so we returned back to pick up our bags, took the train back towards to the airport, and picked up Sabrina from her arrival into CAG airport at 3:10pm.
It then took us nearly 2 hours to finally get our rental car with no thanks to the inefficiency of the offices here, and by 5pm we began our road trip up to central Sardinia.
We also made a 10 minute detour for 360 degree views from Castle of San Michele, which seems to have been converted into an art gallery. Make sure you get the right parking lot because the first attempt landed us in a defacto junkyard, the second in a parking lot that required a 15 minute walk uphill, of which said hike led us to a third parking lot that we could’ve driven to instead.
After 20 minutes here we drove another hour north to Su Nuraxi di Barumini, an archaeological site uncovering a network of circular towers that acted as early defenses and fortifications unique to Sardinia and nearly as old as the Great Pyramids of Giza.
We then drove another 45 minutes drive away to a village outside Oristano before turning in at Agriturismo Sa Pramma, one of the homestays offered in Sardinia (search under “Agriturismo”) where you can stay with a local family and have a homecooked meal.
I need to catch up on sleep. I’m feeling the jetlag now.
- At time of posting in Cagliari, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 83% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Yes I’ve been to Lisbon before! But that was back in 2011 after my first ever group monsoon and spent only 12 hours wandering. Didn’t even make it to Belem Tower then. So this is a return for a proper visit.
After our successful trip last month to Cyprus, I wanted to balance out the high with some solo travel: When I saw roundtrip flights between NYC and Portugal drop down to $340 USD all inclusive (for both flights!), I jumped right in, timing it to the reopening of the EU after the pandemic and before flight prices would rise. And what better way than with additional island hopping to Madeira and Azores via the mainland of Portugal for less than $90 USD per leg between each destination?
If there was a time to travel fully vaccinated and with a good deal, this is the time to do it.
After obtaining negative PCR tests the day before and boarding a 9pm Iberia flight from JFK to Madrid, I spent a 5 hour layover catching up on sleep at the Plaza Mayor lounge in Terminal 4 of MAD airport.
Then I boarded the 3:40pm Iberia flight onwards to Lisbon, landing at 4:05pm local time.
But before leaving, I made sure I picked up a pre-purchased 48 hour Lisbon Card for 34€ to save some money for the rest of my time here. It activates only when you first use it and is valid for a year since purchase, it’s hour to hour (so if I first used the card at 8am Monday, it would last until 8am Wednesday), and covers numerous admission fees at the top sites and most public transportation. If you missed getting a card at the airpot, you can also snag one at the Lisboa Welcome Center or Foz Palace.
Then catching an Uber at arrivals, we finally reached our lodgings at Porta do Mar in central Lisbon, a few paces away from Praca do Comércio:
And not even within an hour of landing in Lisbon, we ran into friends back home: Jinny and her friend Maggie, both of whom who had actually cancelled their trip to Portugal a few days ago, only to rebook it the next day on a whim and find us here. It was meant to be. We reunited with dinner at da Prato 52:
After a spirited conversation and 2 hours there, we headed up to the photogenic 19th century Santa Justa Elevador…
… making it up the stairs and just in time for drinks at Topo Chiado before their 11pm curfew:
I struggled with not being able to sleep for more than 4 hours my first night before heading out again to meet with Jinny and Maggie for brunch. Thankfully I didn’t have to walk very far as I recuperated from jetlag:
After bidding them farewell as they headed off for Porto, we began our day at the Lisboa Story Center, located in Praca do Comércio. The admission fee is included in the card and expect to spend at least 45 minutes here learning about Lisbon’s history. It can be a decent a family-friendly (or cheesy, depending on the perspective) primer before you explore the rest of the city.
From here, I made a 4 minute walk uphill to the 18th century Saint Anthony’s Church (believed to be the birthplace of Saint Anthony):
…and across from the church stands the 12th century Lisbon Cathedral, which has been rebuilt numerous times in different styles due to earthquakes. The admission fee is not included in the Lisboa Card.
Another 10 minute walk up to the very top led me back to the 11th century Moorish built Castelo de Sao Jorge. Its admission fee is also not included on the card.
Then I headed back down to sea level by Praca do Comércio and took Bus 728 for a 25 minute ride to Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon:
With the admission fee included in the Lisboa Card, it took about half an hour to explore the monastery in its entirety:
Next to the monastery is its accompanying church, which you can visit free of charge:
Across from the monastery at the Tagus riverfront, start your boardwalk at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument, built to celebrate the Portuguese “Age of Discovery/Exploration” in the 15th to 16th centuries:
From there walk along the river past the unexpectedly diminutive Belem Lighthouse:
…and you’ll eventually reach the landmark medieval defensive tower and de facto symbol of Lisbon, Belém Tower:
If you’re looking for a cafe in the area, look no further than the original Pasteis de Belem:
If you ask me though, its mortal enemy and competitor Manteigaria has a better crust experience at the expense of the creaminess of the custard you’d get with Pasteis’:
And in the spirit of gastronomy, later that evening we snagged reservations at José Avillez’s Belcanto, with 2 Michelin stars and ranked the 42nd best restaurant in the world:
I went all out for its Evolution Tasting Menu, beginning with Elderini with lemon foam and zest, and paprika salt, Brioche with cod liver and trout roe:
Oyster and tuna belly tartare with borage
Golden sphere with foie gras and Port, Minced squid with roasted chicken skin, egg yolk purée and huacatay, Marinated and brasied sardine, bell pepper and eggplant (bottom 3):
Carrot and olive in different textures with pine nut milk and lupin bean “caviar” (bottom plate):
European lobster “Casear salad” with avocado, tomato water and, yuzu and truffle emulsion:
Springtime scarlet shrimp with shrimp head curry, green apple, green asparagus and coriander:
Creamy egg yolk with spring flavors and, chicken and mint consommé:
Hake in fig leaf with its ‘tongues’, Barbela wheat crunch toast with fig leaves, dried fig butter and cured ham:
Crispy suckling pig ‘sandwich’ with sarapatel paté, peppercorn sauce, orange purée, watercress emulsion and puffed potatoes:
“Bacon-from-heaven” and earth:
Strawberry-tomato textures (yes with real tomato!):
The Vegetarian version of the Belcanto Tasting Menu
Explosive Olive, Brioche bun filled with eggplant caviar:
Golden sphere with hummus, Jerusalem artichoke with avocado and corn, Charcoal toast with eggplant, and bell pepper (top 3):
Carrot in different textures with cashew milk, olive and tangerine bonbons (top plate):
White asparagus with avocado, tomato water, yuzu and truffle emulsion:
Artichoke with spring flavors and mushrooms consommé (top plate):
Vegetable curry, green apple, peas and coriander (top plate):
Sweet egg cream and lemon:
The next morning to save us time, we arranged a bag pickup by Luggit from our lodgings; this way we could sleep in and leave later for Sintra, spend more time there (instead of returning to Lisbon for our bags), and then head directly to the airport afterwards where our bags would be waiting for us.
After getting our bags quickly picked up by Luggit without any drama (other than I slept through my alarm and made my keeper wait 20 minutes outside…sorry!), we took the hourly Linha de Sintra railway west from Rossio to Sintra, a 40 minute train ride away and also included in your Lisbon Card perks:
If you had to choose one castle out of the countless ones to explore in Sintra, choose the National Palace of Pena:
As my friend Sharon remarked, it’s “Disney World without Mickey Mouse.”
Each castle can either take an hour to explore (reading every exhibit and taking a ton of photos), or as little as 15 minutes if you’re not a big museum person. After enough spelunking they might start to blend in together, so unless you’re an expert in this field of Portuguese history and since most come to Sintra on a day trip, pick one or two at most to fully take in instead of trying to knock them all down in one day.
In the area I also recommend taking bus 403 (or an Uber) for a 40 minute drive away to the viewpoint and lighthouse at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost part of the main European landmass:
Afterwards given the convenient luggage service of Luggit that couriered our bags from our lodgings to the airport this morning before we left for Sintra, we saved ourselves a trip back to Lisbon and instead headed from Sintra directly to the airport. This trip took an hour from Sintra by means of public transportation, all of which included in the Lisboa Card.
After nearly 3 days in Lisbon, we are now about to board the evening 7:05pm Azores Airlines flight to Ponta Delgada in Azores.
- At time of posting in Lisbon, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny
Once in a while, I’m blessed to write up and release a blogpost that will stand the test of time in my memories.
This is one of those posts.
The irony of today rests in the fact that after a decade visiting 180 countries and territories, that it would take me returning to my first ever country — country #1: EGYPT — to finally write these words on my blog: “I have never seen anything or been anywhere like this before.”
This is the White Desert, a moonscape formed by centuries of erosion and sandstorms and a last minute yet unanimously decided excursion for our last hurrah of the trip. And I don’t know we can place such a perfect dot to an exclamation point of a trip ever ever again. And yet, we may be confusing the actual reason for that very thought, to be the people that came with me.
But before we get there, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour — first it is not easy to get to the White Desert, and our story today won’t work as well without some bitter to begin with.
Going back a day, I found that this trip obviously has been going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.
I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.
Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.
1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.
Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket office outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm
After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.
The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.
So we crossed over to Platform #6 where Chyne, who already suffered a laceration 3 days prior and a fall from his horse 2 days before that, stumbled over his bag right on the platform (he’s fine and just suffered a superficial abrasion on his hand). Big yikes!
We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.
Peak monsooning the way I missed it.
And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.
Faith in humanity restored! And just to be complete, our final and later group from Alexandria arrived without a hitch a few hours later.
The next morning we woke up at 7am and headed out down the street towards Talaat Harb Square, where our driver Ahmed was waiting for us with a 14 passenger coaster.
And promptly at 7:30am we set off for the 5 hour drive into the the Farafra depression and desert of Western Egypt for Bahariya: We didn’t last very long.
We reached a lonely but romantic rest stop about halfway into our 5 hour drive.
Don’t drop the toilet paper!
And then finally, about 2 hours later we reached the lush green oasis of Bahariya, where human settlements there date back to ancient Egypt and Roman times.
There we were greeted by the legendary Badry at his home where he served us al dente pasta and vegetables for lunch.
After lunch we switched vehicles to three 4×4 jeeps and set out for the White Desert at around 2pm, located approximately midway between Dakhla and Bahariya oases. About about 30 minutes into the drive, we first drove through the Black Desert. Also known as Sahra al-Suda, here we saw dozens of sand dunes lay covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.
Then after about another half an hour of driving, we reached the edges of the White Desert. You’ll know it when you see it:
After taking a few photos and running up and down sand dunes, we then drove about 20 minutes dune bashing and off-roading, cuing classic Indiana Jones music in the background.
By 4pm we finished up just in time for sunset,
The White Desert continues to remain as one of Egypt’s best secrets. The scenery here is unlike anywhere else in the world — once submerged by the sea, it now exists as an isolated and gorgeous moonscape with chalk white pillars coming out of the sand, formed after millions of years of sandstorms that eroded calcium rock into these natural sculptures that look like mushrooms or ice cream scoops, or for others, abstract man-made statues you’d find in a modern art museum.
If you ever find yourself here, please take a moment to give yourself at least 30 seconds to take in all the silence of this place. It was so quiet we could hear the ringing of our own inner frequency.
As Diana writes: “There are no pyramids here, so we made our own.”
But even when pyramids fall, we’re still standing.
As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we set up camp with the bedouins led by Badry.
As the stars began to reveal themselves in the silence and with no WiFi to save us, we lost ourselves in stories and the lentil soup, rice, veggies, and barbecued chicken over an open fire,
Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but we collectively dare to reckon this could be the best meal of the trip.
After dinner, we then broke out Badry’s hookah around our campfire and shared more stories of travel, love, and romance under the stars.
In the meantime, others set out to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram:
Since many of us wanted to wake up at around 4am to catch the twilight at its darkest with its stars, most of us then headed to bed at around 10:30pm.
And then, imagine you wake up to THIS:
Dancing away a story called life and on a spaceship called Earth, we fulfilled our one rotation around the sun as it rose once more for us gloriously at 6:30am:
Some were too cold and had to enjoy it from their rug cavern:
Where is Ji Won in this photo?
Others braved the chill:
The silence here at sunrise was deafening.
How’s your Thursday morning been?
After taking it in and freshening up in pure blissful nature, we began our breakfast and morning tea together at around 7am.
During this time, Diana and our very new inductee into the social media team — Raubern — were kind enough to surprise me with a makeshift outdoor interview booth against an epic backdrop, as we all began to realize that we wanted to hold on to our appreciation of this place as long as possible.
After lingering here for another hour, we slowly hiked 10 minutes towards the famous “chicken and mushroom” formation.
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
It has been called anything from “mushroom and chicken”, “chicken and tree”, or “chicken and atomic bomb.” At least everyone agrees on chicken.
The mushroom and chicken just got served.
And not just by me:
Cue the M.I.A. music:
“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”
After about 20 minutes here taking our photos, we set out in our 4X4s for other formations, such as the turtle:
This one is supposed to be an elephant? Because I don’t quite see it.
And this one I just had for lunch today:
At this point it was time to turn our 4X4s back home, with a quick stop at Crystal Mountain and locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz: a ridge dotted with quartz, barite or calcite crystals created by a unique geological phenomenon.
We then took a proper photo stop at the Black Desert, painted dark by ancient volcanic ash:
By noon we returned Badry’s camp back at Bahariya where we enjoyed our last official lunch together on the trip:
Don’t forget to bring some dates on your way back.
And after another 5 hour drive back to Cairo, the group freshened up back where it all started at Tahrir Square Hostel from day 1.
Given that my trips usually end in a completely far off destination than where it begins, to end a trip back where we starts should have some weird serendipitous meaning, a meaning that hopefully may reveal itself to us one day.
But we’re not finished! The group needs one final dinner together, and so we took the recommendation of many of our local Egyptian friends (even our cab drivers agreed that we were going somewhere special) by dining at the famous Sobhy Kaber, known for its lamb chops and other meat dishes.
But overwhelmed by the chaos of the place, the group wanted to end such a trip somewhere on a quieter, more humble note.
So we promptly and efficiently returned after dinner back to Tahrir Square Hostel where we kicked back one final time together as a group over local $1 USD hookah watching the world go by at Tahrir Square.
It’s time to say goodbye, for real.
But it’s never a “goodbye” with us, right? We shall mark tonight desperately clinging onto the infinite possibility of “see you later.”
“See you later.”
— AN ENCORE —
The next day, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain. Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we returned for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise.
The story that started it all.
And if at first you don’t succeed with the weather, try try again — the haze from our first go last week had now finally disappeared into this:
This view never gets old.
So how much have I changed the past 10 years?
Afterwards we sent off Grace and Kasie to view the pyramids up close . . .
. . . while Diana, Melissa and I retired to the bougie breakfast buffet spread nearby at the hallowed former palace (and current Marriott property) Mena House with the pyramids in full display.
After Grace and Kasie finished at the pyramids, we then took our van out to show them the Cave Church at the top of Manshiyat Nasir (aka “Garbage City”).
There we rendezvous’ed with Priyanka, a girl we had met in our van on the way to Abu Simbel one week ago!
From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . .
. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.
We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.
If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .
. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .
. . . Maybe I won’t end this post formally, just as a symbolic gesture as this being one of the rare moments how I never would want such a trip to end. . . .
- At time of posting in Désert blanc, Egypt, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear