Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Trip to the Beach (Please!)

I've been inviting the Lupus Foundation to send their truck 'round pretty regularly for a few years now. They appreciate the donations, and I appreciate the lightened load. When the day comes for Rick and I to hit the road (...more than a month, less than a lifetime...), I don't want to lose a moment to packing up high heels that no longer work on my flip flop feet.

My travel books, though—those are sacrosanct. I know the time will come when Kindle replaces them as my one true love, but until then...

I ran my finger along their spines the other day, looking for one to tell you about. Married to a Bedouin? Eat, Pray, Love? So many choices, but A Trip to the Beach: Living on Island Time in the Caribbean raised the biggest ruckus. Understandable that it would demand pride of place, since it was the first travel essay Rick gave me, and the one that launched me (ergo, us) on the path to a Shore Dive Kinda Life.

A Trip to the Beach tells the story of Melinda and Robert Blanchard, an entrepreneurial couple from New England who fell in love with Anguilla. After a bunch of trips to the easygoing island, and the sale of their business in the U.S., they found themselves negotiating for the lease of a crumbling restaurant they'd thought to revive as a little burger and drinks place. But deals in paradise are hard to come by, so when the bills started adding up ( including $1800 a month for trucked-in water for the garden), the casual beach bar turned into a fine dining experience, Blanchard's Restaurant.

The project bumps along in fits and starts, including the startling $24,000 the couple spent on duty alone for bringing in their equipment from Miami. I really love the financial details in this book, so the reader can gauge whether the Blanchards' fanstasy could be theirs, too. My conclusion? Not in a million.

Of course, books set in the Caribbean always have a sinister villain waiting in the wings, and he usually blows into the story in a big way come September or so....

It's a great story, like most books in this happy little niche. I just wonder if I'll love it as much when I'm flipping its pages on a Kindle.

(The finished product.)

Photos from and

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Have Granita, Will Travel

This blog is a service to those who live to travel for (as my tagline says) more than a month but less than a lifetime. You, like me, crave sweet tree smells and salty sunshine. You want to bump over rutted roads in a rattletrap pick-up. You crave views, foreign language news, and every color blue.

But, um, you’re sitting in your living room, with no way out for the moment. Like me. Right?

So, hey! I have something for you! You may not be able to dive into shades of blue just yet, but you can whip up some blueberry granita. Rick and I just polished off the last of our own batch, but I have a dish of mango granita chilling upstairs, so we’re not sad.

Lime-mint granita started me down this path three years ago. Tomorrow I’ll whip up a granita made from plums.

All you need is a little fruit, a sprinkle of sugar, a bit of water, squeeze of lemon or lime, and a freezer. Oh, and a spoon.

It tastes like the tropics. Enjoy your getaway :-)

Blueberry granita (tried it...loved it...don’t waste calories on the crème fraiche)

Mint lime granita (tried it...loved it...really good on hot days and as an entremezzo)

Mango-lime granita (tried it...didn't love it...)

Plum granita (holy moly! This tastes like Christmas! Served it with slices of carrot bread from the farmers' market. I used vanilla extract instead of vanilla bean, and ground allspice instead of whole.)

Strawberry granita

Orange granita (If you're lazy like me and use a box grater to get the orange zest for this, your granita will end up with some terrific chewy little orange bits that taste like candy, yum!)

Nectarine granita

Peach granita

Coffee granita

Apple granita

Canteloupe granita (Hmmm. Tried it. Something not quite right...maybe canteloupe doesn't translate well into granita?)

Cherry granita

Grape granita (Perfect for leftover grapes! Tastes just like...grapes!)

Green tea and honeydew granita

Pineapple granita (Yes! Very nice! Fun to imagine the possibilities with this true-tasting granita - maybe add a bit o' rum and some coconut sprinkles?)

Kiwi granita

Cranberry granita

Pomegranate granita

Grapefruit granita

Raspberry granita

Watermelon granita (tried it on a hot 4th of July night - loved it!)

And finally, after working your way through all those, you can toast yourself with a SANGRIA GRANITA!

Granita photo courtesy of nyaa_birdies_perch's photostream at Wikimedia commons

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Theme Songs

Rick and I have been kidnapped by a theme song. This sometimes happens when a couple takes a lot of road trips in the company of an iPod. The shuffle gets into some weird groove and you find yourselves listening to a dozen consecutive Sugarland songs. Then you start with the humming, and suddenly you’ve got your heads out the window, belting "there’s gotta be something mooore!" We're even more spirited when the song’s narrative traces the path of our relationship, and since this particular tune captures our zeitgeist perfectly, when it plays, we bring it.

Monday, hard to wake up
Fill my coffee cup, I'm out the door
Yeah, the freeway's
standing still today
It's gonna make me late, and that's for sure
I'm running out of gas and out of time
Never gonna make it there by nine

Rick always hits replay at least once, and I love that sappy part of him. He was a country music objector when we met, but now he’s as sappy as I am. Next month, we’ll have been together ten years, and one of his favorite things to say to me is that forever won’t be long enough. I agree; I only wish I’d met him younger.

So as I headed out for my sister’s river house last Friday, I cued up Sugarland.

There's gotta be something more
Gotta be more than this
I need a little less hard time
I need a little more bliss
I'm gonna take my chances
Taking a chance I might
Find what I'm looking for
There's gotta be something more

Our own something more will start when our investment property in Rehoboth finally sells—or the lottery hits—and we strike out for beaches unknown.Ultimately what we’re after is pretty simple, and there’s so much of it here at the river. A little boat. A red and yellow hammock. Spot and croaker caught by our friend and cooked on the grill. And at night, Rick sets his tripod out on the pier, hoping for a replay of the lightning storms that cracked across the sky when we stayed last year. No matter where we end up, he and I, I can’t imagine needing anything more than this.

Five years and there's no doubt
That I'm burnt out, I've had enough
So now boss man, here's my two weeks
I'll make it short and sweet, so listen up
I could work my life away, but why?
I got things to do before I die

Eating pancakes on the screened porch this Sunday morning, I look over my shoulder at the tall trees lining the shore, throwing soft shadows against the grass, and point it out. “That’s my favorite view – this time of the morning the light is so perfect, and everything looks so green and fresh.” Rick looks distracted, doesn’t seem to notice. Then a couple of houses down, a little boy in a big life vest and water shoes runs out toward those tall trees, yelling “I’m coming, Daddy!” Rick smiles and says “There’s that kid again. He’s really cute. Looks like it's just him and his dad this weekend, down here by themselves.”

Dad sends the boy back to the house for something, and the kid takes off like kids do, flat-out running, arms flapping. Rick watches longer than I do and laughs, says “So he runs back to the house, gets distracted by some bug or something, stomps on it a few times, then keeps on running.” He shakes his head and grins like that’s the funniest thing he’s seen in ages.

And wham. Out of nowhere, I'm plunged into a sadness so deep it's as if I’m made of tears. I turn my head so Rick won’t notice, while I try to sort it out. It drags me down and I struggle, afraid to feel it; where’s the bottom? My throat closes up and I will myself to relax, like you’d do if you were drowning, arms flailing in deep water. And I realize it’s about that kid. And about us, and the hard choices you make when you start running out of time. And that sometimes, you just have to trust you’re choosing right.

Some believe in destiny, and some believe in fate
I believe that happiness is something we create
You best believe that I'm not gonna wait
'Cause there's gotta be something more

And then Rick stands up and grabs his camera. He points behind me and says “Is that the view you like so much?” and sets out to capture it for me. As I watch him stalk the dangerous linden trees along the riverbank for just the right angle, the sadness starts to seep away, and I notice Rick’s t-shirt, from a trip we took last year: a couple of turtles sitting at a bar, with the caption

Best Buddies

And we are, indeed. Kinda sappy, huh?

Morning at the River

Monday, August 10, 2009

VRBO: An Expat Entry Strategy

For those of us who like a little nibble before we commit to an expensive entrée, think of VRBO as a big ol´ tapas bar. The ungainly acronym stands for Vacation Rentals by Owner, a website that serves up more than 120,000 properties. Mostly it lists short-term vacation rentals, but there are also some great condos, chalets, and cottages for a month or longer—so you can taste-test calamari all over the world before settling in with your favorite.

Why does VRBO excite me? Well first, because that tapas analogy has got me thinking about happy hour, but also because generates enough rental income to pay the mortgage on my and Rick’s investment property in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Unlike a lot of travel-related websites that seem about as substantial as a sliver of carpaccio, this one has been around for more than 10 years and has lots of depth. The rental agency we use in Rehoboth takes 15% off the top to “market” and manage the property, but it’s VRBO that brings in 90% of the rentals.

Another reason you want to check out is because it’s like the menu at a TGI Fridays. Photos! Detailed descriptions! Prices! Everything you need to feed the wanderlust. Here’s a little taste...the value-conscious-but-adorable oceanfront cottages Rick and I will soon be renting in Bonaire (for just a week, sadly). How cute are they??

For longer-term assignations, how about a $700/month 2 bedroom 2 bath in the beach town of Manta, Ecuador? Or, for loftier tastes, maybe a penthouse in Rome for the paltry sum of $8,500/month.

History hound? Then consider this sharp one bedroom in Buenos Aires overlooking the famous La Recoleta cemetery, eternal home of Eva Peron. A little steep at $2200 a month, but when you consider what you pay now on a mortgage, utilities, maintenance, mulch; well, Evita’s neighborhood starts to sound a little less pie-in-the-sky.

Oh, and here’s something else: it’s not too far from a tapas place called Museo del Jamon. That’s “Museum of Ham” to you and me.

What more enticement could anyone need?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Will Blog for Points!

I’m at Starbucks eating a Greek Yogurt & Honey Parfait, which has me thinking of Greece, of course. One more “must” for the ever-growing life list, which also includes scarfing steaks in Argentina, rijsttafel in Indonesia, and olive oil in Italy.

Happily, my husband, Rick, and I have finally queued up Italy for a visit next fall. Unhappily, our Italy-loving friends Jim and Jackie will likely not be joining us, despite our plying them with cheap vino and fresh mozzarella/tomato canapés last night; the economy continues to stink and Jim’s in real estate development. Or not, mostly.

And now it seems my sister Karin and her husband Ted are unlikely to dive alongside us in Bonaire over New Year’s. Ted’s masterful at finding and managing building contracts, but nobody’s doing any building these days. And McDiver and Gigi? Our steadfast dive partners for the last few years? Also a “probably not” for Bonaire; McDiver is busy setting up as an independent consultant, thanks to downsizing that squeezed him out of his 10-year job a few months ago.

So why aren’t Rick and I hunkered down, too? Why do we suddenly have three trips on the planner in the next twelve months, when we’d resisted temptation all year? I’m not sure. It could be the flirty piles of Sport Diver and Outdoor Photographer striking provocative poses all over the house, or my Pavlovian response to Rick’s jubilant “What’s the drink of the night?!” shout when he comes home from work on summertime Fridays. (Drink...! Fun...! LET’S GO DIVING!)

We always fall off the budget wagon eventually. Here’s how I justify it:

Reason number one: Points programs are my passion. The more the merrier. I am particularly fond of the United and American credit card incentives; American recently awarded me 25,000 miles for taking their Mastercard (and charging $750 in the first three months – piece of cake). With a Caribbean flight going for 35,000 miles, that reward is a big help. And just linking my Safeway purchases to United’s Mileage Plus program adds a couple hundred points a month to my stash. It takes a little time to keep track of everything, and of course the credit card offers require some fine-print scrutiny. I just keep everything together in a Notes file in my Microsoft Outlook and update it during a slow tv night. (Oddly, I love doing it.)

This year we fly free to Barbados, Florida, and Bonaire (via Curacao), saving close to $3,500. When you can cut out airfare costs, an awful lot becomes possible.

On our Florida road trip in June, we stayed for free in Aiken, S.C. (Fairfield Inn; Marriott Rewards), St. Augustine, FL (Hampton Inn; Hilton HHonors), Savannah, GA (Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa – Starwood Preferred Guest), and Wilmington, NC (Holiday Inn -Priority Club). I accumulated a lot of those points over years of business trips, waiting for the day we could put together a wandering itinerary dictated by free hotel nights.

When I came up short for a couple of those hotel stays, I just transferred some points from my American Express Membership Rewards program. No fee, no fuss, no muss. You can also use Amex points for stuff, like flat screen tvs and golf clubs and bikes, but why would you, when you can use them to buy a bed for a night?

And if you haven’t checked out yet, don’t wait. You get points just for using their website to make restaurant reservations (instead of making a phone call!), then use the points to get free meals!

So, points programs. Yes, please.

Reason number two: We are cockeyed optimists about money showing up when you need it (though it’s taken years to pound that optimism into Rick, I admit, and he still backslides occasionally with a mystified “and how are we supposed to pay for that??”). I’m not advocating this as a strategy for everyone, believe you me. Most of the "free money" I’ve picked up over the years had some sort of price tag attached – like the crushed fender I lived with in exchange for the $1,000 insurance settlement that took me to London way back when. But if you’ve got Hermes in your corner, go for it. Who knows? Maybe it’s the cosmos, or maybe it’s a willingness to make concessions in your life you didn’t know were possible until you stepped onto foreign shores. Either way, you win, right?

And number three: I buy our sheets at Wal-Mart. Our living room walls have probably not been painted since the house was born nearly 30 years ago. And we use the same comforter that belonged to Rick and his ex-wife. We don’t exactly live in a hovel, but I have noticed that while some folks spend their money switching out their dish sets every so often, or mulching twice a year, or wallpapering a bathroom, we let the house fall a little deeper into disrepair and instead leave town. With frequency and gusto. Last year I was out of town nearly 35 weekends, and Rick almost as many.

So in this fragile economy, should we be more restrained? Rick’s got a solid govvie job and a guaranteed retirement income, but I’m a consultant whose earnings could be reduced to $0 with the flick of some CFO’s pencil. Sitting here with this $3.45 Greek yogurt when there’s 69 cent Yoplait just across the parking lot is probably tempting the gods-of-responsible-living to come smack me around a bit. But then again, I did just find a $10 bill on the ground last week, so if you think about it, we’re actually ahead.

Bonaire, here we come!

What have we here?