Unusual country traditions that create visual points of interest

I suspect the June 2015 news of the removal of the famous “love locks” on the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris took a lot of people by surprise. I mean, really, with an estimated total of more than 700,000 locks similar in weight to that of about 20 elephants it means a lot of lovers must have journeyed to that site to etch their names onto specially or hastily bought locks before fastening them to the bridge.

The former Lock Bridge in central Paris, France (photo courtesy of englighcntv.com)
The former Lock Bridge in central Paris, France (photo courtesy of englishcntv.com)

Who knew that such an innocuous practice, believed to have started in Rome after a 2006 Italian novel-turned-film aired would have mushroomed into such a symbolic sign of “ironclad” affection? So great was the movement, it eventually converted a regular bridge into a world-renown point of interest arguably as famous as the Seine River over which it flowed.

I found the concept fascinating. In fact, it spurred me into thinking about other unusual traditions that I’ve seen throughout my travels. At each place, I’ve always paused to wonder about the origin of these unusual practices. Two examples immediately sprung to mind:

Cayman Shoe Tree

Any visitor to Grand Cayman should drive, jog or walk to South Sound Road and witness the spectacle of the Cayman Shoe tree in person. Reportedly the brain child of an expat couple who lived and worked on the island for a few years, it began as a means of them clearing litter from some of the beaches they liked to frequent. Deciding they wanted to do something that would draw attention to the need for recycling, they collected more than 300 discarded shoes on the first night they started rounding up garbage. They then secretly nailed the flip flops and sandals onto a tree over the course of two nights. They were aiming for shock value, so they stopped what they were doing whenever any cars drove by to ensure that early discovery would not spoil their big reveal.

Cayman Shoe Tree on South Sound Road, Grand Cayman
Cayman Shoe Tree on South Sound Road, Grand Cayman

By the time they were finished hammering shoes to the tree, their unusual display was 12 feet high. Since then, people have continued to add to it. The couple have since left the island but either them or someone else was kind enough to leave a hammer and nails in a wooden box at the base for you to leave your own footprint on their initial design.

The Egg Plant in Nevis

I heard covering trees with egg shells used to be a common practice outside traditional households in Nevis but the only evidence of it I witnessed was one small plant on the grounds of a cute little eatery by the waterfront in Charlestown. Nestled among the colorful tables, chairs and foliage at the  popular breakfast and lunch spot called Café de Arts, there sits a small spikey plant covered in brown and white egg shells. The art of properly positioning them lies in the level of skill in the cracking method. You must make a small incision at the tip of the egg shell so that it can be affixed to the prickly and pointed ends of the plant. Most of the shell must remain whole in order to achieve the full peacock-like effect.

I stood there dumbfounded.  I just couldn’t outrun that eerie sense of déjà vu that came over me because I was immediately reminded of the reaction I had when I first saw the flip flop tree in Cayman. Shaking my head to clear it, again I wondered who had started this unusual trend.

Egg plant in Charlestown, Nevis
Egg plant in Charlestown, Nevis

I was with a small group on a walking tour so I couldn’t stay to dig deep into the back story. All I know is that the eggs that patrons order for breakfast are likely to end up on the plant. After I left, I called the restaurant owner to ask about the practice but she was an expat-turned-resident and told me she really didn’t know the origin of it. I’ve made it a point of duty to find out. After all, this popular food spot sits next door to an important part of history – the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton; one of the writers of the United States Constitution and the face on its 10 dollar bill. From farm to table to plant décor, it is only fitting that the history of these eggs must also be told.

Have you ever come across any unusual country traditions that have become visual points of interest? Please tell me about them.


The Coconut Body Shop; a rare shopping find

Some of my best shopping finds are uncovered in the places I least expect them to be. So imagine my delight when I stumbled across The Coconut Body Shop in Caicos Café Plaza in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. It is across the street from Ocean Club West and this little store is undeniably a special place.

The Coconut Body Shop in Turks and Caicos
The Coconut Body Shop in Turks and Caicos

Run by a tall and lanky Belgian expat named Kristof, the store sells products made from virgin coconut oil and other aloe-based skin care lines that are chemical-free. Baby safe and reef safe*, these therapeutic essential blends and hair and body oils are good for multiple skin conditions, massages, diaper rashes and more.

The extensive product line available at The Coconut Body Shop
The extensive product line available at The Coconut Body Shop

And he makes them himself! I was so impressed, I asked him how.

Kristof said he picks the mature coconuts before they are ready to germinate (put out shoots), then he allows them to dry. The remaining water is collected and set aside before the meat is grated into shreds. The next step involves re-adding some of the water to the shredded meat and the combined mixture is placed in a cheesecloth that is then run through a manual wine press.

Mature Coconuts
Mature Coconuts

Depending on the humidity outdoors and other existing weather conditions, he allows the mixture to ferment anywhere between 24 to 48 hours before he begins his gravity-led filtration process that is repeated seven times.

I stood there slack-jawed as he patiently explained the process to me. My poor brain struggled to connect all the dots.

Small bottling and labelling work station
Small bottling and labelling work station

“Wait a minute. You told me you were an ocean transportation and shipping country manager in your former life, right?” I asked, slightly perplexed.

He smiled and nodded, indicating a modest yes.

“Okay, so please explain again how you learned to do this.” I persisted, not quite believing he had no prior experience. Because by all appearances, he had successfully managed to radically change careers in the seven years since he’d moved to the island.

“Through rigorous research and by a process of trial and error,” he good-naturedly responded.

Kristof, the store owner showing the coconut husk and the raw oil.
Kristof, the store owner

Kristof produces the raw oil every two to three weeks and combines products daily. As a result, he splits his time between production and sales. So, do not be surprised if you don’t find him at the store after one o’clock in the afternoon.

The courteous expat also told me his wife was an aesthetician and she was able to help him gauge the caliber of the final product. They got it right! I’ve been using his Cold Press Virgin Coconut Oil for Hair and Body since I returned home and it is working wonders on my skin. I also love the fact that it has no overpowering fragrance and it absorbs quickly. If you’re ever there, try it. Your pores will love you!


*Reef safe means that if you’ve used the products and go diving or snorkeling, they won’t cause bleaching of the reef as products with a chemical base would do.

December 2015 UPDATE: On a return trip to Provo in December, I found out that Kristof had to close his retail outlet but he still manufactures his product and sells it wholesale. You can visit their Facebook page to learn more: Click here.

Canvas goods infused with family traditions and values on Man-O-War Cay

What began as a small bag and purse-making operation in a modest seafarer’s home more than sixty years ago, is now ‘Albury’s Sail Shop’; a notable landmark and viable business on Man-O-War Cay. Travelers who enjoy visiting places with character or appreciate owning original products that are not mass produced need to add this shopping find to your things-to-do list, if they are ever in the Out Islands of the Bahamas.

Albury's Sail Shop, Man-O-War Cay
Albury’s Sail Shop, Man-O-War Cay

Miss Annie, the warm and affable matriarch who runs the family-owned business, has an endearing “Come Home to Mama” personality that envelopes you as soon as you enter the store. A third-generation seamstress, she invokes feelings of happy gatherings around the dinner table and triggers an unexplainable desire to run around giving random bear hugs to every third or fourth person you meet.

Miss Annie at her sewing machine
A smiling Miss Annie at her sewing machine

Albury’s Sail shop uses sturdy canvas – material that is integral to the production of boat sails – to make colorful hats, bags and other products that are one-of-a kind. The shop’s extensive line is impressive in its own right but even more so given its history. Miss Annie’s ancestors started the cottage industry by making small draw-string bags from leftover scraps of canvas.

A sampling of the various styles and patterns available at Albury's Sail Shop
A sampling of the various styles and patterns available at Albury’s Sail Shop

The best part is, the shop’s open floor plan allows you to stand inside, lean against a wall outside, or perch beneath a jalousie-style window and watch the production process unfold. I was pleasantly surprised that the items are all reasonably priced in spite of the labor-intensive process.

The machine Miss Annie uses was owned by her grandmother before her. Like a trusted horse that knows every foothold of a cliff because it has gone that way before, three antique but well-oiled and functional sewing machines lead the seamstresses through the ropes. The only difference was rather than the clicking sound generated by trotting hoofs, the room was filled with staccato bursts akin to whirring hums.

Ladies sewing canvas bags in Alburys Sail Shop
Two other ladies sewing canvas bags in Alburys Sail Shop

I encourage you to stand still for a few minutes and watch the ladies work. Then I implore you to  let the gentle island breezes lift you up and transport you back to a simpler time.

Editor’s Notes:

There is no way for me to verify this but I’ve read that celebrities like Robert Redford, Perry Como, Kenny Rogers, Andy Garcia, Kenny Chesney, Derek Jeeter, Beyonce, Jay Z and Leonardo DiCaprio have all crossed Miss Annie’s threshold. You should visit with her too.

I stayed at the Abaco Beach Resort when I was in The Abacos.

Easy and effective tips for the accident-prone traveler

Girl with skinned elbow

Some people have to deal with the occasional accident while others, like me, live with the unsettling knowledge that frequent mishaps will occur. I won’t mince words here: I am a walking disaster. Full stop.

Suffering from involuntary awkwardness isn’t a good thing. This unwelcome ‘malady’ is even more bothersome when you travel because accidents take on more significance and have a greater ripple effect when you’re on unfamiliar ground. Based on some of my most noteworthy klutz-inspired experiences, I decided to share a few easy and effective tips that may help other accident-prone travelers like me.

Remain stationary when you’re in transportation that is moving

That rule applies to convertibles, buses, trains and boats. Take my word for it because I know the dangers of which I speak.

Like I shared in my blog intro, I fell headfirst down the steps of a packed double-decker bus in London and that happened because i began my descent from rhe top level while the vehicle was still moving. I’ll be honest, I made such a ruckus during my Olympic-worthy dry dive that in between righting myself and trying to figure out where I was bleeding, the shocked passengers had to yell for the erratic driver to stop. The next day, I ended up in the emergency room to have the narrow yet deep gash near my eye closed.

Stiches received after my bus free fall
Stiches received after my bus free fall

10 days later, I got the stitches removed in a private doctor’s office in Madrid, the city that I had scheduled for the next leg of my European trip.

Wear terrain-appropriate shoes and clothing

Don’t ask me how I do it but I seem to have the uncanny ability to trip anywhere – even on flat surfaces – so I’ve learnt to be purposeful about the shoes and clothes that I pack. I now travel with comfortable shoes for walking and ladies, remember the stilettos work marvelously when you’re trying to look cute but they don’t work as well when you are trying to hang on for dear life. Do you really think those heels will give you enough traction to stop quickly when you’re skidding or free falling? No, they most certainly will not.

Also try to avoid overly long dresses or pants that can inhibit your gait or stance.

Use hand-rails

This should go without saying. If you are climbing or going down steps, it’s always safer to use the hand-rails provided. Grip them hard and then grin and glide gracefully. At all times, move with that “I’ve got this” game face on!

Hand rails
Always, always, use the hand rails

Be aware of your surroundings

This bit of advice comes from my sister and she routinely drills this into my head. Admittedly, I am not guilty of walking with headphones on or of holding my head down to fiddle with a mobile phone. But my mind is constantly whirring, so sometimes I mentally check out.

Walking and texting - a big No-no. Photo courtesy of Digitaltrends.com)
Walking and texting – a big no-no. (Photo courtesy of Digitaltrends.com)

Never do that. Stay present in the moment, glance around you and always look up and look down. Take a cursory inventory of the walls, the entranceways, your pathway, passersby, traffic and any other potential obtrusion or hazards that could be detrimental to your health… and ego. Believe me, it’s not particularly empowering to gaze up at gawking and gasping onlookers from a spread-eagle position on the ground!

Walk, even if you feel to run

It’s a simple yet reasonable rule and the reality is, no matter what, you’ll get where you’re going eventually. After all is said and done, the world won’t end if you arrive a little later than planned. Just relax and breathe…you’re on VACATION.

I learnt this lesson the hard way during a 2014 trip to Tobago. In an effort to avoid getting wet from a light drizzle, I opted for what can only be attributed as light trot – not brisk walk – from poimt A to B. Bad idea! Casually dressed in palazzo pants, a loose tank top, and today’s equivalent of clogs, I was unabashedly oozing some serious elegant-resort-wear swagger.

Wide-leg palazzo pants.
Outfits similar to the one I was wearing. (Photo courtesy of Chichilove.com)

But all that Caribbean chic mojo quickly evaporated into the moist night air after I bid good-bye to my friends. The combination of a slick surface, my hurried movement and billowing trousers resulted in an ungainly fall I never saw coming. One minute I was upright and in the next, I was not. You should have seen how speedily the pavement came to greet me! I’m guessing it was less than five seconds flat; way faster than the time it would take Usain Bolt to burn up a 100 meter track.

With arms flailing and my purse tethering dangerously close to clobbering my head, I threw my hand out to break my fall and said a reticent hello to the hard surface with my right elbow. Please note, this surefire act of gracefulness was witnessed by the friends who had dropped me off AND by my out-of-body and mortified ‘this really could not be happening to me’ self. Somewhere in the midst of this unfortunate melee, I heard the distant call of one of them asking if I was okay.

Evidence of my limited range of movement in my right arm, almost 265 days after my accident
Evidence of my limited range of movement almost 365 days after my accident. To the back, that is as far as I can move my right arm.

I shouted a shame-faced yes, scampered up quickly, and rushed to my room. The next morning I woke up in disbelief as I had to deal with inflammation and pain that lasted quite a while. A series of first-aid treatments and medical tests followed. Months later, I discovered my prolonged discomfort was caused by a minor tear and a spur in my shoulder tendon. While  writing this (July 2015), my range of movement in the front is far better than it was a year ago but it still is not back to normal in all respects.

Pack a basic klutz kit

When you are a walking poster child for accidents, it’s always a good idea to have basic first-aid treatment handy. I suggest packing bandages, cotton, gauze, antiseptic cream and anti-bacterial wipes at the very minimum.

Get travel insurance

By travel insurance I don’t mean plans that simply cover things like lost luggage or flight cancellations. Calamity Janes and Joes, we need to have insurance coverage for medical emergencies as well. Check your private- or employer-based plan to see if you are free to seek medical treatment while overseas and if so, ask up to what value. If travel is not covered, purchase a short-term policy from one of the multiple travel insurers that are online.. Be thorough in your research and choose wisely!

Editors Notes:

My calamities make for good stories and I chuckle at them frequently but from a more serious perspective, being clumsy can have long-term effects and it can be costly. So, I caution you to be careful.

Due to my shoulder injury, the costs incurred added up. After paying out-of-pocket for the x-rays; muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory tablets; MRI exam: doctor and specialist viaits: cortisone shot; and out-patient facility therapy sessions, my trip to Tobago ended up being far more than what I spent on airfare, accommodation and spending money combined. It also left the door open to some inconveniences. For example, even now, I can’t zip up a dress and I am unable to work out like I used to. I don’t regret going on the trip though because I was able to see college buddies I hadn’t connected with in years.

I’ve shared all this in the hope that someone will learn from my experiences and consider using some or all of these tips on his or her next trip.

Showering outdoors on vacation; have you or would you?

There’s just something really hot about taking a shower al aire libre. For some, the main appeal lies in the thrill of possible discovery, while for others it is in the ability to toss inhibitions aside as easily as they remove their clothes. True confession? I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be ‘at one with nature’ and revel in the light embrace of cool air as it gently caressed my soapy skin.

Outdoor shower at Paradise Beach Nevis
Outdoor shower at Paradise Beach Nevis

Whatever their reason, guests staying at the Paradise Beach Nevis, a new 5-star boutique villa resort in one of the most unspoiled islands in the Caribbean, can luxuriate – day or night – in this decadent pleasure. Spacious outdoor marble showers that are tucked away behind privacy walls adjoin each master suite. And these open-air liquid immersions make a shower more than just a shower; they transform an otherwise routine activity into a cathartic embracing of ‘the good life’.

What’s more, set amidst a backdrop of brilliant blue skies, fragrant and colorful tropical foliage, it’s just darn sexy!

The view and Foliage at Paradise Beach Nevis
The view and foliage at Paradise Beach Nevis

When I visited, I had the option to wash away any residual shyness with products from Hermes’ classic Eau d’Orange Verte unisex line. Created by perfumer Francoise Caron and built around a mossy woods base, the products have a burst of citrus with hints of lemon, mint, mandarin, bergamot, jasmine and cedar.

In the Caribbean, what more could you ask for? The best answer is nothing. If you ever go, I dare you to try it.

Bench with Towels and Hermes line of products
Bench with towels and Hermes line of products

Have you ever used – or thought about using – an outdoor shower? Let me know how it felt.

A few London attractions that I think are worth the hype

At some point in our travels we all have fallen prey to a tourist trap or two. You know, those popular attractions that are mentioned in every destination guide and where crowds and long queues to enter are common. If the experience is worth it, I don’t mind the hassle but if I walk away underwhelmed, I mind it – a lot.

With that in mind, I put together a short list for those of you headed to London. Be warned: All the attractions listed will be swarming with tourists but I think they live up to the hype.

Changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace

According to the Washington Post there are 26 monarchies in the world forming “a fascinating network of kings, queens, sultans, emperors and emirs who rule or reign over 43 countries in all”. However, none is as prominent as Britain’s Royal Family so no trip to London is complete without a visit to see Buckingham Palace.

Changing of The Guards
Changing of The Guards

If you are in London, schedule your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guards ceremony. Between May and July, it takes place at 11:30 a.m. daily and happens every other day for the rest of the year, weather permitting. It’s a dignified exhibition of British pomp and pageantry while guards exchange duty posts.

And, it is free to watch.

Tower of London

The Tower of London, also known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, was built by William the Conqueror after his invasion of England in 1066 and over the years was used as a zoo, an armoury, and a place of torture and death. Today, it showcases much of London’s history.

Historical re-enactment on lawn
Historical re-enactment on lawn

Ceremonial guardians of the Tower, who are called Beefeaters, take you on guided walking tours where they regale you with bloody tales as you traverse the torture rooms and see horrifying tools used on former prisoners. The graffiti they left behind on the walls tells its own story. Additionally, there is a room that houses the impressive yet ostentatious Crown Jewels and there are displays from the Royal Armouries’ collection in the White Tower. Please note, the dramatic re-enactments of bravery and tragedy by actors in period costumes are not to be missed. They are colorful and animated spectacles.

Admission starts at £22.00 | US$35.per ticket.

The London Eye

If you appreciate stunning views and are not afraid of heights, add the London Eye to your list of must-dos. This attraction is the city’s 135 meter-high equivalent to a giant ferris wheel (the Brits call it an observation wheel) that gives 360-degree views of many iconic landmarks.

One bubble of The London Eye
One bubble (capsule) of The London Eye

You sit or stand in one of its 32 high-tech glass capsules as they rotate slowly above the Thames River. The ride lasts for 30 minutes and during that time you see gradually changing vistas of London. Within each capsule, you can listen to interactive guides in several languages.

Admission is £20.70 | US$ 33 per ticket. Children aged four and under are free.

Madame Tussauds

While Madame Tussauds wax museums are not unique to London (there are 19 branches worldwide) I think the one in London is worth visiting because it was the city where the concept started. As their website says, it is the ‘ultimate celebrity day out’ and it provides the perfect selfie stick photo op next to the wax version of the famous person you always hoped to meet.

Bob Marley
Bob Marley

There are more than 300 life-sized replicas of many of the world’s favorite actors, sports icons, television personalities, politicians and musicians. Kids will go ‘bananas’ over the Marvel Superheros section and die-hard fans of Star Wars will go ‘bonkers’ over the newly added franchise characters. I hung out with Tyra Banks, Will Smith, President Barak Obama, Brad Pitt and more. In addition to numerous ‘celebrity sightings’, you also can opt for a look behind-the-scenes to see how the sculptors create their works of art.

Admission starts at £31.00 | US$48 per ticket.

Editor’s Notes:

In my opinion, one attraction that definitely did not live up to the hype when I visited a few years ago was the London Dungeon. The marketing material made promises of ‘a thrill-filled journey through London’s murky past’ where ‘you get 90 minutes of laughs, scares, theatre, shocks, rides, special effects, characters, jokes, mazes and storytelling’. Delicately put, that is complete hogwash. Unless things have radically changed and you have kids under ten who are terrified of their own shadow, I say skip it and use your money for something else that offers more value.

Note: Prices quoted are as at June 2015 and are subject to change.

Four ways to save money on vacation

If you’re like me and think of REAL vacations as jetting off to places far from home, it’s easy to rack up expenses to get to exotic new locations. After the big ticket items like airfare, accommodations and tours are taken care of, you have to think about money for meals, ground transportation and incidentals.

Stretching your dollars and cents
Dollar notes and cents from Argentina, China and Jamaica

To avoid shattering my budget, I am always on the lookout for ways to stretch my dollars and cents. Below, I’ve shared four easy ways that have helped me to save money on previous trips.

Stay local

I think the best way to experience a destination is to forego booking a traditional hotel so you can stay in a local home or bed and breakfast. Naturally, having friends or family who live in the places you plan to visit is always convenient and that should be your number one option. But if you’re not that lucky, you can get a close enough experience renting homes and apartments from locals. There are several websites that offer this service at a greatly reduced price.

Patio of our rented farmhouse in Italy
Patio of our rented farmhouse in Italy

I can’t speak for them all but I’ll tell you this: I booked a farmhouse stay through Holidaylettings.co.uk for one trip to Italy and my friends and I had a marvelous time. Think panoramic views from atop a hill in Tuscany, vine-ripened grapes ready for picking in surrounding vineyards, home-made ricotta cheese from the landlord, fresh herbs in the garden and bedrooms decorated with simple flair and style.

Vie of the gorgeous Tuscany countryside from out patio
View of the gorgeous Tuscany countryside from our patio

Buy and eat local

Local eats are such a huge part of a vacation! By ‘local’ I mean food truck fare or Mom and Pop delights, not the fine-dining versions served in more established restaurants. There is just something extra special about ordering from a chalkboard menu and savoring meals street side or chowing down on local favorites while you are comfortably seated on a rustic stool in a shack on a beach.

Da Conch Shack (Turks and Caicos)
Da Conch Shack, Turks and Caicos

I am convinced the lack of fancy lighting, elaborate décor and sometimes stuffy setting leaves the staff with more time to pour extra love and effort into preparing and serving my meal.

If you are staying in a place with kitchen facilities and want to save money by cooking, it’s also a good idea to buy your fruit and vegetables at a farmer’s market instead of in a grocery store. The produce will be cheaper and fresher.

Vendor showing off his giant pumpkin at the local market in Charelestown, Nevis.
Vendor showing off his giant pumpkin at the local market in Charelestown, Nevis.

I also suggest scouting out the meal options in the deli section of nearby supermarkets if you don’t have access to a kitchen. There are some that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner at very reasonable rates.

Hot food bar in Kirk supermarket , Grand Cayman
Hot food bar in Kirk supermarket , Grand Cayman

Ride local

Renting a car on vacation can be quite costly because it’s not just the daily rate that must be considered; you have to factor in petrol, insurance and daily surcharges too. On top of that, it may be a bit challenging to navigate strange roads, understand foreign traffic laws and read signs that are not in your native language. I have done the latter and believe me, it was not easy. So never rule out public transportation. Depending on where you are, do your research on the best way to get around a city or town. Be it bus, boat, a friend’s car, Uber diver or train – your pocket will thank you.

The Tri-rail in South Florida runs between West Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.

Talk local

To avoid ridiculously expensive roaming charges, I always put my phone in airplane mode before my flight takes off and I don’t remove that setting until I’m back home and taxiing down the runway. I usually get by on WhatsApp and Skype via free Wi-Fi. Of course, there is FaceTime and tons of other options available too.

But in the frustrating instances when Wi-fi isn’t available and you need to talk, not text, to someone; what can you do? I suggest buying a cheap travel phone and getting a local SIM card at your destination so you can use pre-paid cards or phone credit top-ups for calls during your trip. For example, in the Caribbean, two of the biggest telecommunications providers in the region are Digicel and LIME so their phones are usable in multiple locations.  I bought a Digicel SIM card on my most recent trip to Cayman and paid only CI$10 for it. That’s equivalent to approximately US$12.

Phone and local SIM Card
Phone and local Digicel SIM Card

Pre-paid top-ups are available from five dollars upwards, in increments of five.  The beauty of this method is you pay as you go.