Thursday, October 03, 2013

No Crowds Bestows Top Award to World’s Nicest Hotel

Since when has No Crowds been dishing out travel awards? A consultant friend of mine told me to do it years ago, but I wasn’t inspired or ready. Now I am.
This readiness comes from a stay at the Hotel La Perla in Corvara, Italy this September with my mother and father, aged respectively 84 and 90.

We had gone to the Dolomites to hike.  That sentence is one of my favorite party tricks. “What, your parents are still hiking – in the mountains!?! ” Well, yes, in fact, they are - despite operations and arthritis and age-related ‘stuff’ large and small – yes, they are.

It was early last summer, when my father called to announce that a hiking trip to the Dolomites was on the cards.

“Great, Dad, who are you going with?”
“Your mother and I are going by ourselves. We thought we would go to the area where you and Alexa (my sister) like to ski. What do you think is the best hotel?”
“Well Dad, I would go to Hotel La Perla. It has an excellent reputation, a wonderful position in the village and a nice bar."
"OK, sounds good. If you like, why don’t you join us for a few days."
"I would love to."

By the time I arrived, my parents were La Perla cognoscenti. The Costa family who own and run the hotel perfectly understood the spirit of this American couple who loved being able to be there. The bartender made their favorite martinis perfectly. The food was lovely. Their Tyrolean-style room was comfortable and stylish with a great view. The hotel had found them an energetic and talented young man about the age of their grandchildren to serve as a mountain guide. Everyone from the front desk to the staff in the dining rooms valued the effort and importance of this trip to my parents. And as you can imagine, my parents loved being valued.

But it was when it was time to say goodbye to this alpine arcadia, that I realized how extraordinary La Perla is. As we emerged from the hotel for the last time, lining our way to the taxi was a guard of honor comprised of the staff and Costa family.  And then they burst into applause. Yes, you got that right, my parents were applauded out of the hotel. They were applauded for their attitude to life, for their hats (see picture above) and for all they had achieved during their stay. Once in the car, my mother turned to me and said, “I have been to most of the grand hotels in the world (if you know her, you know that statement is true). La Perla is the nicest.”

And that is why No Crowds is proud to bestow its first award to the Hotel La Perla in Corvara – the world’s nicest hotel.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Had a House in Rungsted ...

News Flash: Thomas Wolfe, Rudyard Kipling and Jane Austen make way for Karen Blixen. No Crowds has a new favorite literary destination.

We went to Copenhagen last weekend for a birthday party. On that score, I can report that anything you may have heard about dour Danes is absolute rubbish. They party hard there.

But my point is this. We were also able to sneak off for a morning and visit the Karen Blixen house and museum in nearby Rungsted,  And if you are ever in Copenhagen and you love literature, you should too.

Why? Because the house, gardens and grounds are just the way you thought they would be after reading Karen Blixen’s books, only way, way better. It’s easy to imagine Blixen, home from Africa, broke, devastated from the death of Denys Finch Hatton, riddled with mercury poisoning to treat the syphilis she got from her former husband yet determined to become the celebrated writer she in fact became. It’s easy to imagine her staring out over the sea with the soft mellow light of Scandinavia dreaming of the bright sun of the African bush. It’s all there: Africa, Denmark, an artist’s sense of order and arrangement. There are also some excellent exhibits of her life and work and paintings of people you know so well from her writing.  On the lovely Saturday morning that we were there,  we had the place almost to ourselves.

Rungsted is 25 kilometers north of Copenhagen and 10 kilometers south of Hamlet’s Elsinore. Opening hours and directions on how to get there by car or public transport can be found here.

Photo courtesy of the Karen Blixen Museum

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Look Homeward Lightning Bugs

This summer the lightning bugs returned to the farm after a long absence and we were so happy to welcome them home.  We returned too, to the summer places and attractions of our youth.

We returned to historic Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina. We haven’t been there in 20 years when we took our children. We used to go there with our grandparents. But that’s not the reason you should go. This is.

If you’re keen on America’s colonial history, love historic restorations and hate crowds, you could skip Colonial Williamsburg (very crowded) and have a super experience in New Bern. There is a new splendid History Center with interactive exhibits that could convince any recalcitrant child that museums are the coolest thing on this planet.  The Governor's Palace and surrounding gardens and historic houses kept us fascinated and entertained for hours. We had a excellent lunch on the terrace of the History Center overlooking the mighty river Neuse. Oh, and before we forget: George Washington not only slept there, he danced there too.

We also went to Asheville, North Carolina. We haven’t been there in 50 years (not kidding) and were blown away by the culture, nature and ‘joie de vivre’ on offer in this southern mountain city.

If you go, don’t miss the drum circle that takes place downtown every Friday night. Hippies, hiphop grannies, kids, dogs - you name it, they’ll beat it. And try to get in a hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park  - think the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ with Daniel Day Lewis that was filmed there. We love the story of the park’s creation. In 1926, although Congress authorized its establishment , there was no federally owned land there. Philanthropists such as John D Rockefeller, and ordinary citizens of North Carolina and Tennessee - and I love this, the travel writer Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa, - campaigned tirelessly to create what is now a 500,000 acre achingly-beautiful preserve.

Also, don’t miss a visit to the homeplace and memorial of Thomas Wolfe, giant of American literature and author of Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again. The experience is so outstanding that it makes you want to run home and read Wolfe’s very, very long books all over again.

Finally, don’t do what we did and miss the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s 250-room chateau built in 1895 that at 178,296 square feet, remains America’s largest privately owned house.  Bill Gates’s shack at 66,000 square feet pales in comparison. Alas, we didn’t have the time.

And so our summer of re-visitation came to an end. Last night as we walked up the driveway for the last time, our way was lit by a thousand little flickering lighthouses, lit by the flies we call bugs that are really beetles and I thought of Thomas Wolfe who ended one of the best passages in Look Homeward Angel with the line, “This is a moment."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

All This From Poop

William Gibbs made his dibs
 Selling the turds of foreign birds”

I just love visiting country houses in England where you can step out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh or Jane Austen and into the lives- and stuff – of others. Most houses have a great story.  Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic revival estate 8 miles from the centre of Bristol may be one of the best stories of all.

Because the spectacular house, the extensive gardens and parkland and the room after room of stuff that was owned by William Gibbs (1790-1875), the richest commoner in the country, all came from bird shit. Guano to be exact, the poop from seabirds that has been harvested from islands off the coast of Peru since the time of the Aztecs.

At Tyntesfield, I learned that guano is great stuff. It’s got lots of phosphorus and nitrogen and doesn’t stink like manure. But I also learned that guano can buy you the most amazing things from a seriously great chapel (Gibbs was very religious) to a 43 bedroom house and 2,000 acres of countryside not to mention the fabulous clutter that was so fashionable at the time: the porcelain, the books, the Moose head, a walk in safe in the kitchen for the silver, a wooden sink for the glassware. It’s extraordinary what they packed in there.

And it is extraordinary that it still exists, saved in 2002 by a massive fund raising effort that prevented the sale of the house, contents and land after the death of Lord Wraxall, a reclusive bachelor, in 2001.

So all in all, it’s a place with lots of great stories – built from the proceeds of poop and saved for all of us by a national concern for conservation and the generosity of the British people. If you are ever heading southbound on the M5 near Bristol, be sure to stop and see it.

The food in the on-site restaurant is not bad either.

For visitor information for Tynsfield, click here

Friday, March 29, 2013

Searching for John Reed on Ile de Re

When John Reed, the head of what was the world’s largest financial institution exited Wall Street in 2000, he hightailed it to an island off the coast of southwest France. Interesting, n’est pas?  I mean, John Reed could have moved anywhere in the world but this Master of the Universe chose Ile de Re. Why?

For years, I wondered about that. But I never managed to actually get to Ile de Re to find the answer - which is strange since as islands go, it is very accessible. It is connected to the mainland by a bridge and is only 15 minutes by taxi from La Rochelle airport.  But finally, my chance arrived when friends generously offered their house over the Easter school holidays. And so we went. With years of built-up expectations, would I be disappointed?

Hardly. This island is as good as its reputation. Elegant but relaxed, popular but unspoiled, charming but not pretentious. Granted we were there off-season. That has many benefits and a few drawbacks. It was way too cold to go in the water but it didn’t stop the die-hard surfers who were having a great time. Many restaurants, shops and activities were not yet open. On the other hand, the restaurants that were open were thrilled to see us. Our seafood lunch at L’Ecailler in La Flotte was particularly memorable. We could ride bikes along 60 miles of deserted bike paths, down empty streets and across lonely marshes filled with wildlife. We walked for hours on the beach without seeing a single soul. We drank the local wine and were the only folks buying oysters at the morning market in La Porte so we received a breakfast of free samples and an amazing lesson in how to open them. It’s so much easier than you think.

Here’s what we didn’t find – crass commercialism, tear-downs, McMansions and all the other nightmares so often seen when too much money is chasing too little real estate. Chapeau to you residents of Ile de Re. You’ve kept the commercial and bad architecture beasts at bay and the island is all the better for it. Long may it last.

Anyway, I am sure the atmosphere of this very special place changes dramatically when its population (20,000 in winter and 220,000 in summer according to Wikipedia) increases  10 fold but basically, I’m not worried. It’s like this. I now understand why John Reed likes to walk the beaches and mess around

in boats and ride bikes and play tennis here. This is a lovely, interesting island Believe the hype – it’s wonderful and by all means, go.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Skiing the Dolomites - From New York to Chicago on a Single Ticket

Every year since 2006, we have sung the praises of skiing in the Dolomites.

  • One ski pass gives you access to 1,200 kilometers of trails, 510 lifts across 12 valleys encompassing three regions of Italy with infinite options for skiers of all abilities 
  • Spectacular alpine scenery and charming villages that offer the best of Austria and Italian tradition and culture (designated a UNESCO natural world heritage site in 2009)
  • An almost infinite number of mountain restaurants with exceptionally good food and drink at attractive prices (including Michelin-starred British chef Hywel Jones contributing to the 2013 ‘Taste of Skiing’ promotion at the Piz Arlara hut)

All those elements were present this year and we found a neat, new three-star, ski-in, ski-out hotel – the Hotel Arlara in Corvara - that was better and less expensive than where we have stayed in the past. It is steps from the Arlara chair lift, serves good food, has some nice amenities like a large pool and a sauna. The staff are young, good natured and helpful. Now if they only get their Wi-Fi working properly (it’s terrible and they admit it), freshen up some of the decor in the rooms and make the dinnertime a little bit more flexible, it would be just about perfect. In any event, it represents excellent value.

The bottom line on the Dolomites, and I say this as a die-hard fan of Austria, is that it does many things better than the big boys in France, Switzerland and Austria. It’s bigger in terms of skiable terrain but more intimate in feeling. It has no crowds, no lines, exceptional mountain dining and it is generally less expensive. OK, it’s not as high as some other resorts, not big on nightlife and not easy to get to. Still, if you would like to ski the equivalent distance of New York to Chicago on one lift ticket, be dazzled by some of the loveliest mountain scenery in the world and eat the best food ever, No Crowds advice holds firm; head to the Dolomites.

 Photo Credit: Patrick Beal - the view from his room at the Hotel Arlara

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mondrian Meets Paul Smith in the UAE

Gary and Lorraine head back to Zighy Bay in the UAE and make a surprising discovery.

This is our second visit to Zighy Bay, that very exclusive resort on the Indian Ocean.  Zighy Bay is a mountain-enclosed beach so nearly inaccessible by land that it's actually easier to hang glide than drive into it (and that is an option). 

So imagine our surprise on our second visit to find something even more unexpected - a budding - and undiscovered - artist.

Enjoying the laid-back zeitgeist at Zighy, we wandered into the resort gift shop one lazy afternoon (as you do), expecting the usual collection of kitsch and caftans. Instead, some of the most innovative and creative designs I have ever seen done in glass were on display in a quiet corner amongst the monogrammed beach towels. Haley Haddow, the artist responsible for these pieces, has done things you wouldn't believe possible with color, texture, and bold design.

It is important here to note that fused glass (essentially melting different types of glass together in a kiln), does not lend itself to the crisp geometrics that Haley has created.  Indeed, it is often the province of blobs and inchoate washes of color, since the melting behaviors of the various glasses are so hard to predict.  Haley has imposed a combination of discipline and freedom on the medium that enables her to create bold, colorful geometries that defy the term we would otherwise be tempted to apply to her pieces - pottery.  This is un-pottery.  This is Mondrian meets Paul Smith on a sushi plate.  Given her location in Fujeirah, facing the Indian Ocean and the east coast of the African continent, it's not surprising that you can also find Arab and African shapes and colors scattered across each of her one of a kind pieces.

We have not met Haley, but through the course of a few emails, we have learned that she is in the process of moving herself and her studio back to London, where she is originally from.  Her work deserves the larger audience she will find there, and we wish her the best.  Meanwhile, take a tour through her website and you'll see what I mean.

Photo Credit: Haley Haddow's Anatomy of Africa from 

Friday, February 15, 2013

We'll Always Have Paris

I may flirt with St Petersburg or cast a wayward eye at Belize but I always go back to Paris.

Yes, Paris has seen better days. The mood is decidedly down and the only obviously growing business is begging. The streets are filled with striking [fill in the blank] and anyone with money is moving out. But today is St Valentines Day and I am here with my husband - in the city of light and l'amour - and as cities go, it is still a wonder.
First, there's the Look - Every time we arrive - conveniently by Eurostar or less conveniently by car, in rain or sun or snow - the elegance and sheer beauty of the place makes us feel glad to be alive. Yes, every time. How many cities can you say that about?

Food and Dining - We may complain that our old haunts aren't as good as they were or as we remember. We may talk endlessly about how restaurants are cutting corners and standards are falling and then we pop in to an old favourite like Aux Charpentiers (10, rue Mabillon Tel:01 43 26 30 05) near St Sulpice, a place that my mother-in-law frequented with relish 50 years ago and we still had a great lunch of stuff that sounds revolting and tastes divine. Tongue, calves feet and blood sausages and we are reminded that every French person considers every meal important and we sigh with envy.

Shopping - I learned something new this trip. If you get caught in a demonstration, go shopping. I got caught on the wrong side of Boulevard St Germain during the teacher's strike and came home with the most fabulous set of sheets from Oliver Desforges that I had been eyeing for over a year. And here was my story: "I wouldn't have bought them but I was worried about the crowd getting out-of-control so I just ducked into a shop to be safe. You do want me to be safe, right?" And that was, dear Reader, the easiest justification for buying something I wanted but didn't need I have ever come up with. So if you are in Paris and the streets are full of demonstrators, you know what to do.

Back to the future for culture - If you think you have done all the museums in Paris, my advice is start all over again. After 20 years of visiting, we' ve kind of achieved that status so this time we went back to the museums we last visited in 2005. We spent a blissful day at Jacquemart Andre and Nissim de Camando which were as fine as we remembered and even managed to visit a new one, the Musee Cernuschi, the City of Paris's Museum of Asian Art.

Eternal and invincible - The photo above is a picture of my husband standing in front of the building on Place St Sulpice where he lived as a little boy. The ground floor may now be an Yves St Laurent boutique but the view of the Place is essentially the same.  Children still play by the fountain and run up the hill to the Luxembourg. No matter what happens in the short term, we'll always have Paris.

Monday, February 11, 2013

No Crowds in Russia

Comrades, you will not find crowds in St Petersburg in February 

Prices at good hotels are low(er). Top restaurants have too many tables. There’s no wait at the Hermitage or the Russian Museum although you must fight off hoards of school children. There’s no wait at the Church of the Spilled Blood and no spilled blood either. You can kiss the icon of Our Lady of Kazan without a queue. All great reasons to pitch-up in winter, but here’s the best reason of all. The Russia of our imagination, the Russia of  Dr Zhivago and Anna Karinina and War and Peace, of tsars, of revolutions and of sieges, is always set in the depth of winter. So if you are looking for the Russia of your imagination, go in winter when it is never crowded.

Where to Stay?

For our short stay, we chose the Hotel Astoria on St Isaac’s Square as much for its history as its reputation for luxury and service. This is the hotel chosen by Hitler to celebrate the fall of Leningrad (the invitations were printed without a date) and where the American journalist John Reed stayed with Louise Bryant while writing “10 Days that Shook the World” about the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a Rocco Forte property now and while not much of the original décor or atmosphere remains, it is a stylish, very comfortable hotel in a fantastic location. The staff went out of their way to accommodate us even if we did not always communicate perfectly with the concierges (there were many) who seemed young for the job and sometimes a bit out of their depth.

Being the low season, Astoria had a ‘3 nights for the price of 2’ offer that included a terrific breakfast that made this 5-star property just within our budget. Beware, however, wifi is not included and it is expensive. We do recommend the hotel’s car service to and from the airport. For the price of a black cab from Heathrow to central London, we were picked up in a lovely car by a charming driver who told us fascinating stories en route that we considered a real enhancement of our visit.

Where to Eat

Since we ate enormous breakfasts, we skipped lunch saving our stomachs and pocket books for dinner. The reputation of St Petersburg restaurants catering to tourist is not great but we found some places that we liked a lot and by drinking vodka instead of wine we found the prices OK too. Our favorites were:

Restoran ( 2 Tamozhenny per. Tel 812 327-8979)
Gently modern in both décor and cuisine, we had a very nice dinner for about $60 a head. Jeff enjoyed the elk medallions and we drank lots of excellent vodka.

The Russian Vodka Room ( 4 Konnogvardeysky Bulvar Tel 812 5706420)
We loved this place and not just because of the astonishing variety of vodka served. In addition to the restaurant, there is a wonderful small Vodka museum. Service was good as was the food. Frequented by tourist and locals alike.

Sadko (2 Ulitsa Glinki, 812 920-8228)
A few steps away from the famous Mariinsky theatre, this is a great pre or post dinner option. Serving all the traditional Russian menu items in an attractive setting with good service.

Café in the Singer Building
Great for tea in the afternoon with a superb view over the Kazan Cathedral. Expensive but worth it and the Singer Building is amazing. All I could think was “All this just for sewing machines.” In the old days they had girls actually sewing on machines in the large picture windows.

What to Do

It’s a museum. It’s a marathon. It’s a palace. It’s crazy! Someone once said that if you looked at every single object in the collection, it would take you 7 years to tour the place. I believe it. My suggestion is to buy the 2 day ticket online to avoid waiting in line and spend most of the first day trying to get to grips with the place using the 2nd day as a kind of mopping up operation after you have gone back to you hotel and digested what you managed to see and what you missed. The only disappointment for us was the fact that the rooms containing the 19th and 20th century French paintings including Monet, van Gogh and Cezanne that were ‘liberated’ by the Red Army from German collections were closed but there were tons of works by these artists and more on the third floor.

Also a palace, I really loved this museum. The scale is more human than the Hermitage and what is on offer is a terrific survey of Russian art and culture laid out chronologically. There’s a nice gift shop too.

This is such a exquisite theatre that you don’t really need to see a performance of anything to be blissfully happy. We saw Swan Lake that delighted me no end. The problem with the Mariinsky that it is full of tourists who aren’t necessarily fans of the art they are watching or hearing but never mind, it is a very special place and an evening I’ll never forget. Be sure to order tickets on-line before you go and be sure the performance is set in the old theatre not the new concert hall.

The Churches

Start with the Church of the Spilled Blood. 24 years to build and 27 years to restore, it’s iconic so go see it. For the wow factor, go see St Isaacs that was converted after the Revolution to a Museum of anti-Religion and is now a museum of itself. For a glimpse of that old time religion, head for the Kazan Cathedral and watch folks lining up to kiss icons.

And just walk around, through the parks, along the rivers and canals, over the bridges and down the Nevsky Prospekt. Like Paris, St Petersburg is a feast for the eyes and just about anything in the historic heart is easy to reach by foot. Just make sure you have warm and sturdy boots with excellent traction.

And so the next time you watch Nicholas and Alexandra, or Dr Zhivago or my favorite, Reds, and you regret having missed such a remarkable and fascinating, albeit difficult period in Russia’s history, you can still travel back in time and catch a glimpse by visiting St Petersburg in winter. And in case you were wondering, the contemporary city is pretty wonderful too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


In this post, No Crowds reporter Penny asks if a person can change in just one day and describes how one Belizean family delivers a lesson in facing change with grace.

I asked Joe Martinez, poet, rancher and ecohotelier, how he felt about the dam.  The lake in which we were now floating, had been a Macal tributary rated whitewater grade 6 only a few years ago.  He had grown up here, listening to the rush of water over rock at night, fishing on its banks as a kid.  Now the reservoir was a still blue plate separating forested limestone canyons…different.  

“Everything changes,” he observed, a bit wistfully, but resolute. 

I guess there would be many ways to think about change here.  We had scrambled down to the pontoon boat over a crumbling incline on which the terraces of the Maya were still visible.  Mounds dot the property: they think some were shrines; some were remnants of a village.  So, yes, everything changes and sometimes perhaps changing to a purpose is better than cleaving to old patterns and letting one’s home slowly change itself and collapse. Read all about it in Jared Diamond’s book of that name. 

Our guide Lazaro, Joe’s brother, had also seen recent change.  His dreadlocks, now braided together into a meter or so of detached bushy hair, had been cut a few weeks before so that “people would take him more seriously in the business”.  That is, in the Central American offices to which he journeys to sort his clients’ paperwork before taking them deep into the jungles of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua– birdwatching, rafting, hiking, riding, discovering.

We were spending the day with Lazaro,  Joe, three young blue heeler mixes that looked remarkably like the wild dogs of Africa and an indeterminate Lab mix, waterfall hopping from a pontoon boat where the Upper and West Macal spread into what is now called Vaca Lake.  Lazaro’s nephew (another Joseph) had promised a serene day seeing, hearing, and being in the water and this is what we got.      And lest you wonder whether our tour fit the no-crowds theme, we saw only five other human beings while we were there: Uncle Joe, in his 80s, ensconced on his porch; poet Joe’s wife Miriam; their daughter (and later their son), and a Swiss guest, a “professional birdwatcher,” who accompanied us down the trail to the water, but left with her binoculars as we set off.  I hope she didn’t get lost – there wasn’t going to be anyone around to ask for directions. 

Waterfall number one pooled at the bottom --  good place to wash your hair in the downpour – but it was a little cold.  Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, but unwilling to follow Lazaro in, we satisfied ourselves with a climb up the slope of the fall and looked about us.  The sap of this tree, he tells us, can be used as glue.    Tea made with the leaves of another is good for stomach upset.  Use the bark of another for dye. The seeds of that plant are good for anemics.   And there are thousands of trees, bushes, vines…he seems to know the names of them all, and each has a use. 

As we float downstream, he points out a pair of white eagles on tree limbs across the water, the kingfisher on a passing branch, the vultures circling one of the canyon ridges, the nose of a small crocodile which had made its way down the river as it had become more serene in its harness.   When we cut the motor, there is no sound at all.  No traffic noise or passing planes; no human voices, nor are there the sounds of any of their surrogates – radios,  machines.  Joe shares some of his poetry, including the one about a foreign flower that won him his German wife.  It is a good place for poetry, although somehow most human effort seems a bit beside the point in the face of the vast green, the hidden lives among the hundreds of trees – palms, mahogany, poisonwood, acacia, Caribbean pine.

The swimming hole sits atop waterfall number two. One would have to be careful not to relax too much and find oneself going over the 10 metre drop to the bottom.  This is where we eat lunch and listen to birdcalls and the soothing constant splash of water.

At waterfall number three, you can watch a leaf fossilise before your eyes.  Organic compounds from the jungle vegetation dissolve the limestone at the top, and as the water brings it down, it crystallises again over fallen leaves, turning them to sandstone.    The overhangs build up, and the course of the falls changes over time.  When Joe and Lazaro were children, the falls were over there – a meter or so to the south.  We pile in, but we are not, quite, still enough to turn to stone ourselves. 

Back at Martz Farm, there are tree-house rooms built of wood up over a jungle creek and a lodge with more accessible bathrooms and plenty of room for communal admiration of the scenery below.   As we say our goodbyes, a hen heads for the hutch with her brood.   Joe lopes away to bring in the mules he breeds from a mare he drove to Wisconsin to buy.  His young son sits comfortably on the saddle before him.  The wood stove is stoked for dinner.

Can a person change in just one day?  Maybe not.  But a memory can change the way you look at other days.  And this last day was a perfect one that I return to remotely, just before sleep (or more recently and less romantically  in a queue at the Post Office), to assure myself again that somewhere things are just that perfect, at least for one day. 

Our visit also furnished a lesson in change with grace.  The world is going to come to the Martinez’corner of Belize no matter what.  But they would like to choose how it comes, and to treat those who come as guests. Quite deliberately they play the role of hosts and custodians.  I think they are hoping that although we may bring some welcome changes, we’ll be willing to enter their world as it is, and not change it too much.  I share that hope. 

End note:  We were staying at Chaa Creek Lodge, which Kate has described here in her 2010/2011 postings.  Also a magical place: comfortable, welcoming and tasteful.

If  you would like to stay at Martz Farm, go to, subject of much paise on TripAdvisor. 

Lazaro’s bespoke adventure tours can be reached through and they are also on Facebook. 

There can be some delay in response because the farm is remote and they do not have internet access there.  They do check in St Ignacio at least every other day though. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What about the waste?

A No Crowds traveller discovered lots of trash washing up on the beautiful beaches of Belize and wanted to know how it got there. In this post, Penny outlines the problem of cruise ship waste and proposes measures each of us can take to solve it. Please share this post with any one who loves to travel and cares about the environment. Thanks.

That’s a melodious blackbird, tuneful behind me in the mango tree.  I leave my front door and squeak down the sand to the waterline.  On the horizon, waves break on the barrier reef.  The frigates are circling a palapas on the dock, and will be disappointed that the disembarking entourage is composed of scuba enthusiasts rather than fishermen. Closer, a blue heron nudges the minnows in the sea grass.

This is paradise.  It’s an island where (if you do not want to travel by water, and depending on how fast you can ride a bike) your fastest mode of transportation is likely to be a golf cart, bobbing along the sandy single lane in back of the houses that line the shore.

Dislodged sea grass comes in every morning.  And bottle caps, pieces of plastic forks, carefully cut portions of opaque milk bottles, shreds of cellophane, a lonely ravaged flip flop.   The seagrass will melt back into the Caribbean, or it can be raked and spread on fields.  But what to do with the other items, the bottlecaps and brittle food containers?    They say it will take somewhere between 450 and 600 years for them to dissolve, though dissolve they shall, changing the chemical composition of the seas.

And to here, to paradise, the items find their way,  refuse from those floating first world metropolises, the cruise ships.

The UN and others have tried to stop the dumping.  There is a Marine Pollution protocol in place, the so-called “MARPOL”, under which the Caribbean in deemed a “Special Area” because of its fragile reefs and enclosed nature.  However, enforcement of MARPOL is through the countries under which the liner is flagged, and the flag countries tend to be far away and disinterested in enforcing UN protocols. Even flag states that sign the protocol do not have to sign up to all if its annexes, such as Annex V, the one that forbids discharge of plastics.

Efforts by poor Caribbean states force cruise lines to internalise the cost of their waste production have not met with success.  A single ship will arrive with more trash than the people of a developing country could afford to generate in months.  But when Grenada suggested a US$1.50 a head tax to defray the cost of waste disposal, Carnival Cruise Line simply stopped going there, depriving it of tourist and trinket revenue altogether.

As we get older, many of us may decide that if we want to see more of the world, it will have to be from the hassle-free deck of a cruise ship.  No packing and carting of luggage.  You know where your next meal will come from (although perhaps not where it goes).  We’re maybe not as interested in local nightlife as we once were.  Could happen – they say people don’t believe how much they will change in a decade ahead, even when they know how much they changed in the decade behind.

But if any of us no-crowdsers decide to take to the seas in this way, let’s ask what is happening to those orange juice bottles, that cellophane, the six pack ring tops, the brittle see-through food trays, not to mention all of our organic “products”.  I think it’s time that the patrons of the cruise ships insist that they are people who pick up after themselves.  That they will not toss their trash overboard where it chafes the coral and ends in the stomachs of sea turtles.  Time for those who pay that piper to start calling the tune.

If ever you book a cruise, if you have friends who travel this way, let’s all start asking, “What about the waste?  What are you doing with our trash?”  And let’s make sure we get honest answers.

Photo: Ambergris Caye, Belize
December 2112