Caving in Mallorca

While we were in Mallorca, we managed to source a babysitter for a day (a first taste at ‘day care’ for him and for us) so we spent the six hours wisely, as any non-work-bound parent should: we went sea caving! While you’re still getting accustomed the fact that we didn’t just go to the pub (we were impressed with ourselves too), I’ll tell you about our adventure.

There are three things Mallorca has a lot of: windmills, German tourists and caves. In fact, between the crystalline coves and beaches slathered with sun seekers, the coastline is honeycombed with breathtaking limestone and sandstone caves. There are hundreds of them on the island, in the island and under the island! The craziest cavers and divers are still discovering more of this dark and mysterious world every day. Some die for it, literally. Lucky for us, there are a few accessible natural cathedrals for the adventurous (but not so devoted) explorers too.

When I worked on a boat in Mallorca about ten years ago, I got to know my captain’s family very well and was lucky enough to see them again when we returned this time around. Over that decade, my captain’s son, Callum, had since grown from a cheeky, lanky teenage boy into a cheeky, beautiful young man and was earning a crust by taking adventure-seekers trekking, rock climbing, canyoning and caving. Not a bad way to earn a living, you have to admit. Witty and I were immediately jealous of the intrepid tales he told us ‘about work’ as we sat around his parent’s living room table one arvo, so we promised ourselves we would get it together to join him on an excursion somehow, someway!

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In the end it was Callum that made it all come together. He set us up with a babysitter who was his girlfriend’s trusted cousin and professional nanny (oh là là), sourced some caving gear and insurance through his adventure sports employer, organised the perfect weather conditions with the gods, and we were off!

On a sunny morning, we packed up a Finn bag for our day-nanny and off we went, scooting across to the east coast of the island to discover Cova Des Coloms, a cave that you can only enter from the sea.

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We had risen early and and arrived at Cala Romantica before all the other caving tour groups got there. From this gorgeous cove where we parked, we climbed up onto the escarpment and walked across the shrubby coastline for about half an hour until we reached our basecamp in Cala Falcò.

When we arrived, there was already a group of 15 other cavers getting ready for a caving tour, but as we were only three and feeling very VIP, we were able to swiftly hike to our own spot on the cliff face, rope up under Callum’s command, and rappel down into the sea before anyone else touched the water!

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It was awesome, in the true sense of the word. I was in awe of these caves. The rappelling was fun and got the heart rate up as I probably haven’t abseiled since I was 18 (like 7 years ago). But the caves took my breath away. Once we rappelled down about 30 meters and dropped into the sea (Callum shortened the rope for us so we could literally plop in from a couple of meters in the air), we paddled into the cave’s narrow mouth which huffed and puffed as the waves sucked in and out of its entrance. We could stand here on a sandy seabed, don our head torches and comfortably receive a briefing of what to expect inside.

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The water wasn’t too rough, so it was easy to duck under the surface of the sea, feel the rocky ‘roof’ with my hands above my head, and swim under the mouth of the cave, up inside the first hollow. This hollow was high, with lots of space to stand. We were led out of the water, across a large flat surface of limestone which was smooth and white, like a carpet rolled out for a grand entrance. We stepped up and over, around a cool wet wall, and into the first cathedral. Magnificent. And so it went on, more and more magnificent at every turn.

It was freezing! But we had long wetsuits and we loved every minute, every nook and cranny. We were truly so lucky to have Callum as our guide. His well executed plan to get us there early meant we experienced the silence, the haunting beauty and the magic of this place all to ourselves. While most people enjoy these caves even with 50 others in there alongside them, we got to feel a calm and spooky cool like no other. We climbed carefully, swam slowly, whispered and sang as we waded about in four magnificent, echoing cathedrals. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.  It felt like I was floating through history: the hours, years and centuries dripping from the ceilings and spiking out in proud crystal clusters above our heads. We didn’t take cameras (thanks Rock and Water Mallorca for most of these shots) and because of this, we didn’t feel that incessant need to snap away. Instead we just absorbed and were absorbed by this natural, mammoth beauty.

Sea caving. Mallorca. However, whenever, make it happen.

An island life in Mallorca

We’ve been living in Mallorca since the end of August. It’s a beautiful Balearic island in Spain where millions of tourists flock each year, seeking out incredible beaches, exploring its coves, winding through mountain towns and dining in idyllic settings.

The island is steeped in history and its people are proud of where they live. Grand old farm houses, antiquated windmills and stone walls divide farms of olive groves and provide a path on the tiny roads that run between the bigger villages and into Palma de Mallorca.

I used to live here 10 years ago, when I had a job in the yachting industry. Because I loved it so much then, we made this a more lengthy stop on our world tour so that Witty could also get to know the island, learn its culture and taste the daily delight that draws us all here from afar.

Unfortunately, because the island is so busy each summer, we had a really hard time finding a place to live for two months. That was made doubly as difficult when in June the government cracked down on short term-rentals in Spain, throwing every airbnb host into a state of panic and making it nearly impossible to find anything for less than a 6 month lease. A young man on the beach one day was lamenting the changes, and told me he was facing a 30 000 euro fine after government officials working undercover busted him renting his Airbnb in August.

There are a lot of competing views on this issue. On one hand the short term rentals were too lucrative, and as such, pushed too many residents out of town. It’s a common issue in popular tourist cities and it makes life hard for the locals who can’t enjoy living in el centro. On the other hand, the government’s crackdown here on the short term rentals seems to have slammed business for the city as well. Shop owners and restaurants who relied on those short term visitors have seen a huge drop in business this summer. Millions of people still come, but their accommodation options are limited.

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We’re told too many hotels offer all inclusive deals so fewer people dine out on their visit. Then we heard about the cruise ships that spill into town for a coffee and a postcard, toting lunch boxes provided by the cruise. Well apparently in the eyes of the locals, the one cafe con leche doesn’t make up for the foot traffic, toilet traffic and mess left behind by fleeting day trippers. It’s an interesting conundrum, indeed.

We have heard a lot of opinions and in any case, it sounds tough on business no matter which way they go. For us in our house-hunting pickle, we were thankfully saved by some dear friends who let us house sit their homes through the peak summer period. This seriously saved us, and it was beautiful to spend time in Genova, one of Palma’s serene village suburbs that is perched on a mountain side.

We loved it there, but once we returned from our jaunt to Ireland, we finally unpacked our bags in a beautiful downtown apartment and called it home. It feels like Heaven!

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We are still living here in the old town of Mallorca. This antiquated but lively part of the city is a maze of narrow stone streets polished by foot traffic, and winds you between high stone walls that protect tiny bars, cafes, arty shops and opulent old homes with hidden gardens within.

Our pad on the 4th floor has high ceilings with exposed beams, lots of toddling space and shuttered windows that let in delightful quantities of sunlight and breeze. We are sharing a building that is centuries old. When our washing is blown off the line from up high, it ends up in our neighbour’s courtyard, who opens her front door 5 nights a week and sells wine from barrels for a few bucks a pop. The locals gather here for a tipple and a chat, and I fancy it as an essential pit stop when I take the recycling down all those stairs and up the street.

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I got a bike with a baby seat as soon as we arrived and I love it. We cruise around EVERYWHERE and Finn “sings” as we go. There is no point having a car in the old city. Unless you are a resident with some serious cashola, you can’t drive through here let alone park, but that’s what boosts the beauty of the barrio. In these long lanes, there is only room for feet, push bikes, occasionally a swarm of tourists on segways, and the horse drawn carts that pull lovers around on a romantic trot. Since I couldn’t afford a carriage… I just pop young Atlas on his mobile throne and we ride through this palatial place like the true adventurers we are.

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Old town Palma was built by the Romans, ruled by the Byzantines and then the Moors. The whole island still has a Moorish feel to it. The Arab Baths still remain down our street for tourists to visit, where the wealthy Moors used to gather for business and definitely for pleasure. It was probably a very glorious time for some, but Palma was eventually conquered by James I of Aragon in the 13th century and so the Kingdom of Mallorca was established. What did they do next? Build stuff, and lots of it. Beautiful castles, churches, and of course, the cathedral.

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This landmark of Palma is not just any cathedral. It is magnificent, it towers ostentatiously above the city and its prominence can be felt and seen from almost anywhere. In fact, I can see four of its spires from my couch right now as I look out of my window in the lounge room. When my parents visited us for Finn’s first birthday, we spent many afternoons riding bikes around it. We’d sit by the lake to watch the walls go gold with the setting sun and watch the gargoyles snarl in our imaginations as the sky darkened. We even a took wander through the cathedral’s interior one day which was (unsurprisingly) impressive.

In all the time I spent here as a ‘yachtie’ a decade ago, I never actually visited the cathedral within. I guess I was too busy walking the docks, trying to get a job, or celebrating in bars, having gotten a job. Now I’ve got the baby job, I suppose I can find time for a splash of culture here and there….

When my parents visited us in Palma for a couple of weeks, I felt the happiest I’ve felt on this whole trip. I know we’d already spent 2 months with them in the USA, but that was a crazy, whirlwind trip. Here, we had time. Finn had grown up so much since then and had new grandchild skills to show off. And importantly, for the first time since Denman Island in June, we actually had a home … so we could host!

We love the hosts we get visit, and we are sincerely grateful guests, but after 9 months having the door graciously opened for us, there is something remarkably satisfying about being able to open my door for someone else. To finally get to invite loved ones into our place, show them the streets we live in, and treat them to the lifestyle we love, that feeling has been unsurmountable.

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Hosting my parents was like living in a love bubble. They had come for Finn’s first birthday (and for Finn himself) so it was no task at all to wax away the hours away basking in the light that he creates in our hearts. It was a precious pocket of time when all us ‘oldies’ in one room could buoyantly and wholeheartedly bubble with love for that chunky monkey. We could celebrate his growing skills in walking, talking, kissing, eating and stair climbing, and we didn’t need to change the subject for anyone! Everyone was satisfied and (I assure you) so was he!

During the love bubble, we toured the island a couple of times, visited some coastal towns and even took a boat out for a day of snorkeling (and admittedly spent most of the time trying to keep Finn from crying in protest). Apart from that, we hung out, and doing not much was the most fun. Not much was interspersed with bumming at the beach, playing in the plazas, slipping down the slides and swinging in those swings at the playground. The 10 day love bubble culminated with a grand finale 1st birthday bash, complete with blueberry pancakes and champagne for the oldies under a sunset sky by the cathedral. It was a feast for a king and we were his loyal keepers.

When Mary and Gordo said their goodbyes, I had teary eyes and a heavy heart. It wasn’t like I was never going to see them again, but the love bubble was always going to be this place and that time. He would be one. We would be young. They would be healthy and we all would be happy. It’s just a point in time, and a good one for me. Since they left, I don’t love Mallorca less, but I’ll remember that visit with a beaming heart.

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The Wittys still rock the streets in fine form. We love the pinchos and cervezas at the Santa Catalina markets on a Friday- heading there today in fact! We love watching the bubble buskers in La Rambla. We’ve even “adulted up” and made a fleeting getaway to Ibiza for a night! The Palma beach is a daily scoot down the hill on the bike where Finn woos the ladies with his flamboyant flirting and fruit feasting.

The food is amazing, the people dress elegantly and in the early evenings you can taste the culture of cool in the air. It’s easy to just pull up a chair anywhere and take in the atmosphere (or your favourite paperback).

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We love our home, and our little neighbourhood. Cisco down at the plaza is definitely going to miss us- I’m sure his day isn’t complete if Finn Atlas doesn’t come squealing across the tiles of Plaza de Santa Eualia, toddling at speed with his hands in the air, triumphantly flailing his newfound treasure: leaves from the sycamore trees above. All hail the toddler.

Irish Antics

It’s not every day that you’d leave the sun-kissed beaches of Mallorca in Spain for wet feet and what the locals call ‘desperate’ weather in Ireland. But it wasn’t just every day. It was my gorgeous friend Bex’s 40thish birthday and accompanying that actual day, was the lure of many birthday celebrations around said day, that spanned from go to whoa-ho-ho for a couple of weeks, across a swag of markets and food festivals! Of course, there was also a tempting palate of fermented grape and juniper berry flavours calling us to the farmhouse table. Well, who could resist the temptation? We booked our tickets, pulled our wooly socks from the bottom of the pack and off we flew, late-night-budget-flight to the cooler climes. Hello Dublin. Hello West Cork!

We Wittys love our reunions during this worldly wander. In fact, it’s the one thing that keeps us going. If it was all just sight seeing and nappy changes, we would be home by now. There’s only so much touristy stuff you can truly enjoy alone, and only so many museums young Atlas will toddle through without causing mass destruction. FACT. It is really the people you meet and reunite with along the way that recharges the batteries, tunes up the heart strings and boosts your enthusiasm enough to carry on to the next airport. I know we can’t see everyone along the way, but we give it a damn good crack, and for those we can see, let it be known we revel in catching up with you, shooting the breeze, clinking glasses and reflecting on how our lives have changed and grown since we last met.

I guess the fact that we already caught up with Bex, Ant and baby Delilah in Portugal last month, is a testament to their moorishness! In particular it is the chuckles that come with this friendship that we’ve been loving, and a renewed desire to spend more time together because our babies who, coincidentally, are born only a few days apart, get along so well.

Bex only left our neighbourhood in little Darwin 2 years ago for big love and a new life in rural Ireland. It was a bold decision, and evidently a great one. I got to know the family she’d made when she introduced me to Ant and baby Delilah Mae Moon in the Algarve, and I got to fall in love with them too! Still, despite great long yarns had at the beaches and in the mountains of Portugal, I knew I’d be missing the full picture of this big life change that Bex undertook, if I didn’t see life in Ireland as it is for her now. Holidays are holidays, beaches are beaches, but friends, life, and the way we live those lives, well, that is the special part.

That’s the bit where we learn a thing or two while we’re ‘on the road’. We learn not just about the history and politics listed on museum walls, but in the tales told by friends around the kitchen table. In each pocket of the globe, we are all making these little histories and living through these political sitches… all a little differently and in some way, still the same.

Anyways, before we drove down to beautiful birthday-mania in West Cork, we squeezed in a weekend window in Dublin. We ticked a couple of the tourist boxes, being that we drank Guinness in the Sky lounge of the Guinness Brewhouse, walked through the beautiful Trinity College and got lost trying to find a DART train station in the rain.

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But most memorably, we caught up with a crazy pair of Irish larrikins who I knew 7 years ago as backpackers in Darwin. This crazy couple had rented a room in my brother’s city unit when I was also mad enough to live there. We were like squatters, on top of the world! Or at least on the 4th floor. There were many shenanigans had at that unit, as well as at the real downtown watering hall, Shenanigans. But that was back in the day. Jump forward 7 years. The sun came out (a bit), we found the bloody DART station, and we tied in with Amy and Gareth at the Dun Laoghaire markets eating Indian and sausage sandwiches on the lawns with the other sun seekers. It was a good craic catching up with them again and ceremoniously sipping down a Guinness together. These two are freshly married and more fresh and crazy then they were 7 years ago. Always good to see some smiles never change!

Now here we are in West Cork. It’s an incredible patch of Ireland on the South West Coast, known for its ‘blow in’ hippies, colourful villages and strikingly beautiful scenery with craggy mountains, green hillsides and black slate cliffs jutting into clear sea. In fact, there’s a huge variety of landscapes that we’ve seen in this lackadaisical 2 week jaunt. And every windy road brings you up over a crest and to yet another breathtaking view.

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Bex and Ant live on a hilly patch of land on the side of the mountain. The first National Park ever established in Ireland is pretty much on their back doorstep, woven between sheep farms and wind farms. When I took Finn Atlas up through the neighbour’s property to get a view from the wind farms, we passed sheep with various bright colours smeared across their backs. Turns out the shepherds paint the ramming Ram’s belly a certain colour each fortnight, so once ‘loved up’, they can determine when a sheep was mounted, and when to expect her lambs. Sheep antics, colour coded!

Ant and Bex steer clear of the sheep antics, but they do have three mouse-eating cats to contend with, two mighty horses and a shetland pony with attitude, named Dougal. Dougal kicked Witty up the arse twice promptly after we arrived. I got it on camera. Cheeky Dougal.

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Lucky for us, they don’t have cows, so we were able to move into the cow shed next to the house! To be truthful, Ant’s youngest son Ollie sweetly moved out of his cow shed for us so we could stay, and contrary to what the name suggests, this glorified ‘shed’ is brightly painted and sun spills through the sky light down into a cozy home, warmed by a wood-fire stove. Besides one fun night in swanky suites at Bantry House for Bex’s big after-hours party, this has been our home. It is where we wake up in the morning to the horses at the window, and where we take midday naps, and share reading an old paperback of ‘A Fortunate Life’ by AJ Facey.

To celebrate Bex’s birthday was very special for me and in true Bex form, she threw a ripper. At her party, I got to meet her closest friends, and see the incredible life she has made here with Ant. Bex held it in a huge old Stately Home, and despite the freeeeeakin’ cold weather, everyone dined al fresco overlooking this incredible garden and view, and we danced to the live music to warm up our bones.

My folks just so happened to be in Europe, and as such, were invited by Bex to join in the fun. Needless to say, this added even more to this momentous occasion for me, getting to see this crazy pair again and watching them love our babies together!

It’s been soooooo good to have some time to just ‘be’ with this lot and hang out as ‘Blow-ins’ to West Cork for a bit. We’ve had the time to walk up and around the block with the babies, drink cups of ginger coffee at Bex’s favourite cafe, Organico, visit castles and pubs (equally important in our history), binge on TV game shows (long live 8 out of 10 Cats does Countdown) and to eat, drink and be merry! Did I mention the backgammon and the Monopoly Deal? There’s some talent in this motley crew of us.

Bex and Ant have taken time off while we were here, and they’ve showed us, and my folks, some great spots around Kerry and West Cork. I’m not sure if the Irish are taking the mickey, but there’s a lot of towns with ‘balls’ in the name. I’ll admit that in Darwin, a road called Dick Ward Drive flows into the suburb of Fanny Bay, but here in West Cork we also drove through Ballylickey and on to the valley of Coomhola. I dunno, I just put it down to Irish antics.

The weather isn’t as desperate as we expected, and while people definitely speak another form of English and finish most sentences with ‘right so’, we feel like we could fit in here. I mean, Witty is thrilled that, after 6 weeks in Spain and Portugal, he at least understands 40% of what people are saying to him. That’s an increase of … 38%. All in all, things are sounding good. Slainte Eire!

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Vancouver experiences

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Once we left the quiet shores and relaxed lifestyle of Denman Island, our plan was to use our final month in the north country, hopping, skipping and a jumping through three of Canada’s bustling and beautiful cities. Magical Montreal was luring us to its streets during festival season, and Witty had a long overdue catch up with a great friend near Toronto, but our first stop was Vancouver. To add dangerous delight to this big city stop, Witty’s brother Dave and wife Sass had decided to fly over from Australia to meet us there for a week of celebrations in honour of Dave’s 40th birthday. Was it rockstar status? Hellzyah it was!

Leaving our hire car on Vancouver Island, we hauled ass (and our lugga-lug luggage) onto the public ferry, across the bay, and plonked ourselves onto a public bus to Downtown Vancouver. It may sound toats posh, but we really hadn’t done public transport with all of our gear in hand so far. Truth be known, until now, it had always been cheaper to hire a car or get a taxi, once you counted two people’s train/bus tickets… and occasionally put on a small price on the drama of dragging pram, baby backpack, baby car capsule, baby bed and Atlas-sized baby several hundred meters through the streets! But not this time. Once crammed into a bus, we buzzed smoothly into the CBD, then hailed a taxi to take us the last leg of our day’s journey… to AirBnB home number 6427 (so it felt).

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Vavoom! Vancouver was like a wild slap on the face! It was a city of contrasts and conflicting emotions. It confronted me with its poverty, and it excited me with its inspirational people and their eclectic lifestyles. Since we’d been lackadaisically living in an island cabin in the woods, the grit and the glamour of Vancouver shook us awake.

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As we rolled through East Van to our pad, our Pakistani taxi driver told us about the homelessness in the area. He didn’t have to use many words; the picture outside the car window painted a thousand of them. It was shocking… and bitterly upsetting. Tattered lines of people of all ages and backgrounds seemed to wander like zombies up and down East Hastings street sidewalks, carrying a grimy plastic bag of belongings, or simply sitting on the curb with a crack pipe in hand. It was a bizarre contrast to the serene island life we’d left that morning, but we had been told about it too. While we kind of knew what to expect, seeing the reality of homelessness, drug addiction and poverty with such intensity literally took my breath away.

The taxi turned off the main drag, and incredibly, like the flick of a switch, the energy changed. I breathed a sigh of relief. Alongside manicured gardens, families wandered down shaded neighbourhoods with prams, young, well-dressed workers spun by on their trendy bikes toward town, and dogs happily walked their owners toward the park. It was literally only 30 meters from the main drag, but with a sharp turn to the right, it was like our taxi had passed through Narnia’s doors: a magical line between the wired world of East Hastings and the sweet streets of suburbia. This was Vancouver. Contrasts.

We spent a week in this incredible city of diversity. The gorgeous in-laws flew in, and so began the rambunctious celebrations. We maxed out each day with activities and indulgences. We rode bikes around Stanley Park with every other tourist in town, hired a speed boat and jetted across the harbour like rock stars. We hiked through stunning forests, drank cocktails at trendy bars, and unexpectedly, I caught up with some good old friends. This was lucky. Thanks to Facebook and its tricky tracking systems, I got gratefully found… and reunited with a beautiful old Darwin friend, another wonderful woman I met in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, and one of the Darwin family kidlets who just became a father to twins.

These locals showed the extended Whitrod clan a bloody great time. Thanks to them we were able to find the best microbreweries, the only ice creamery with 248 flavours to choose from, and the best markets to mooch around. We were even gifted with a car to use (thanks Katie!) and a babysitter so we could dine out ‘sans babe’ for Dave’s birthday (thanks again Kelly!)

We all felt the love for Vancouver. It was the long evenings in the park, the quirky people that frequented those spaces, and the beautiful vistas that captured our hearts. It’s the funky streets, the natural edges and the good vibes that we will always remember, but Vancouver’s East Hastings street holds its grip, and a place in the shadows of my heart.

While I felt seriously confronted by the misery that seemed to waft around me through these pockets of town, and felt guilty about my inability to change what I saw, it did make me appreciate what I have. It made me feel incredibly fortunate that I grew up with love in my life. Seeing a young man sit on the corner in such despair makes one hold their own baby boy tighter, squeeze his love in closer and try to breathe a protective goodness around him with whispers of promise. Shit like that wakes you up. It makes me determined to do right by my child, and hopefully be able to influence those who need it in some positive way too. Vancouver, is so very beautiful. But in its blunt and raw way, it made me take stock of the fortune into which we are born and raised. Thanks Vancouver. You’re a beautiful beast.

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Denman Island dreaming

In June we’d clocked almost 6 months travel, 17 flights, four thousand miles of road and over a thousand nautical miles of marine highway. Then when you add in the legwork in those transit zones with cumbersome baby gear, the travel fatigue really set in. It was time to stop.

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Lucky for us, I’d foreseen this possible scenario many moons before the trip began. Lucky for me, I had a fantastic friend living on her working farm in sweet little Denman Island, BC. And even luckier still, her sweet partner Jer had a wonderful mother who had a cabin in the woods out the back of her property… with nobody in it.

There was no real plan, but I’ve learned some people can create opportunity. Kerri works with such wizardry. Then one day, along came Goldilocks and her two bears. Like a fairy tale story, the tiny cabin in the woods ‘was just right’. From ferry to land, they stepped onto an island dream. And just like that, the Wittys became non-vagabonds for a month.

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We feel so lucky to have had a home on this island. Locals often stop to chat and ask if we visiting or living. I’ve told them we’re ‘dream living’ for the month. It’s thanks to brilliant people like Jer, Ker and Jennifer, that planets seem to align and the universe seems to provide. In fact, there’s a mystical little universe story inside this one too.

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You see, Kerri and I met about 9 years ago. In fact, I met her in the most unlikely spot you’d imagine. In Bolivia, in a tiny mountain town, at the tail end of a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. Vipassana itself doesn’t lend itself to meeting folk. It’s a course where you don’t look at anyone in the eye for 10 days, and you sure don’t get to talk to anyone! Yes…for 10 days.

Fortunately, at the end of the course they give you one day to start communicating again so you don’t get swept out the door of zen, step into the big wild world and come crashing down in a post naval-gazing heap. It was then, on the 11th day of this challenging experience, that I got to look around the group. I noticed a few other non-Bolivians in the course. That in itself seemed unlikely, as we were really off the beaten track. However, there were about 8 of us extranjeros in a sea of Bolivianos. One alabaster contender was a wild looking red-head with green eyes and a bright smile. I thought I’d better talk to her.

We got to chatting and it didn’t take long for me to learn Kerri was Canadian.
“Oh I used to live in Canada once,” I chimed in. “My mum did a teacher exchange in ’88 and we lived in Calgary for a year.”
Kerri looked impressed. “No way! I’m from Calgary. Do you remember where you lived?” she asked.
“No idea,” I  replied. “But I did go to a school with ‘King’ in it.. either Kingston primary or…”
“Kingsland??!” she interjected excitedly.
“Ah yes! That was it”!

Turns out Kerri and I were in the same grade, at the same school in 1988. Two six year old sprouts running around in the same playground. While she was in the French immersion class, I was in the English one! We might have met each other during a game of Red Rover but we will never know for sure. Still, with a meditated mind ripe and open, we were definitely tuning into the ‘planetary alignmentness’ of this moment! Pachamama. Universe. Talk to me baby! Astonished at the very least by this ‘coincidence’, we both agreed this was probably a good reason to stay in touch. So we did.

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Many years later (after some wild family parties circa Calgary Stampede 2009 and many emails, postcards and Skype calls later), I learned I was pregnant. Knowing I’d always wanted to travel with my baby, I wrote to Kerri and told her we were finally hatching plans to come to Canada in some way, shape or form. I’d always wanted to live in Canada as a young adult. Now with a year’s maternity leave up my sleeve, surely we could find some time! Of course (thanks Universe) Kerri was pregnant too! Could you imagine our luck. Two gals with a year’s maternity leave, loose on Denman Island. Look out baby world!

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Of course, it’s not that crazy. But this story, and this experience has some wild type of wonderful in it. I love the synergy of our situations in life. That I could come to visit my friend during this global adventure, and that we would both be new, nursing mothers. That we’d both have time work on her farm with Jer, or just play with the babies under the hazelnut trees. That we could plan it to happen in summer, when the island is bursting into bloom and the sun is calling us out to the beaches and lakes.

That it could happen in the middle of our trip when we’d most needed time to catch our breath and just ‘be’. You see, Denman Island has a lot to offer for a young family like ours. The great part is, it’s kind of a secret. People know about Vancouver Island. And Canadians sure know about Hornby, which goes from 500 people to 5000 strong in the summer.

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But in between those two? On the ‘speedbump’? Well, you don’t know what’s there until you take some time to just be in it. That’s when the magic soaks in. I get a lump in my throat as I think about it, for we are literally packing our bags in between the moments I get to type today. We leave tomorrow, and how I’ll miss all this colour!

Thank you Denman Island, for your summer love! We’ve made beautiful friends on this island. Witty and all of his gang down at the Bistro, where he set up his office most days of the month. Impromptu sundowners with laid back locals down at the beach and hanging out with fun young families by the lake, eating hummus and nattering endlessly about our bouncing babies (because we all had one so we were free to binge on baby talk without driving anyone crazy).

We’ve loved our visits to the other islands too, but Denman captured our hearts and our tummies. Collecting oysters off the rocks for afternoon treats! Meeting Jimmy the Vietnamese clam purveyor on low tide. Scoring a bag of clams to steam up and chow down with a sip of summer buzz.

Even the cooler days on Denman were made toasty with a pot belly stove and a pot belly baby to cuddle. I had time to do things I never would have dreamed of doing on this trip. Making sauerkraut. Quilting. Who knew! I know we didn’t see the bitter truth of winter, but windswept walks along the coast were no worries when you could sport a new wind jacket, picked up at the Denman Island ‘free store’.

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Market day on Saturdays were a delightful way to catch up with the people you’d met throughout the week. Taking in our goods to the pro-active recycling centre got me high on community spirit. Seeing Jer and Ker’s efforts come to fruition, from farm to market table, was a real and delicious delight. The Rhubarb Ranch is a young but fertile farm, sure to bear many bouquets and feed the friendly faces of Denmanites for years to come.

I’ll miss getting around on Jer’s bike. Kerri and I attached a baby trailer to it. I even took it on the ferry over to Hornby Island for the day to see our longtime family friends, Karl and Chri. I’ll miss feeling like an island neighbour to that gorgeous lot, and those beautiful beaches that, yes, I swam in!

I’ll miss a lot of things. The lifestyle, the people, Kerri and Jer’s families. But I’ll stop listing there as I can’t start all this longing too soon! This morning the Wittys took a walk on the beach. We agreed that we’d both love another month… maybe another one after that. But we have a plan and off we shall trot. On the world reconnaissance mission, we have found a beautiful secret here. It’s in the friendships. And it’s in the air. It’s Denman Island Dreaming.

The Alaska Marine Highway

I love that there is an official highway in North America with no tar, no traffic, and no roadkill. North from Bellingham in Washington state, you can cruise up to the USA’s most northern state, but not in a car.  Passing through crystal clear Canadian waters, between tiny islands and all the way to Unalaska in the far western reaches of um… Alaska, you can take a ride. It’s called the Alaska Marine Highway.

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It’s wild, beautiful and importantly, it’s accessible to people like us. You see, it’s not all cruise ships, charter boats and seafood trawlers in this pristine part of the world. There’s also this ferry system run by the government, for the people. It’s a bloody good ride, and I got in on it. I think you should too so here’s the low down.

My Uncle Rick and Aunt Karen used to live in Alaska back in the day, so they know a thing or two. Spending time with them in their home in Colorado gave us a chance to look ahead at our undecided path, and man, am I glad they set us up with this bright idea. Take an affordable trip to Alaska, see the sights from the water, and then soak up the vibes from on top of the world.

It seemed to me that this longstanding ferry system was almost unheard of by most Americans. Lovingly known as the poor man’s cruise ship, the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system offers folk like you and me a chance to cruise, in relative style, alongside the whales through a coastal paradise.

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Witty, young Atlas and I boarded the MV Kennicott in Bellingham on a crisp, sunny day. For a few hundred bucks, we had purchased our passage through to Alaska’s state capital, Juneau, and with that, we included a “roomette” for us to tuck Finn away in for sleeps while we meandered up the marine highway for three days. A lot of people don’t get roomettes, or cabins of any kind. On the Alaska Marine Highway ferries, there are designated areas where you can sleep in reclining chairs or lay out your sleeping bag, binoculars and toothbrush. Other vagabonds we met had possied themselves in some pretty sweet spots around the boat. From their makeshift beds they had great views, ample privacy and bathrooms all to themselves!

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Incredibly, you’re even welcome to set up your tent on the sun deck or in the solarium if it takes your fancy! We didn’t see anyone do this on our trip though, which might have been because the weather was so bizarrely warm. You would have roasted, sleeping up there!

As we heaved our way onto the ferry with all of our gear that day, a decky by the name of Craig gave us a hand with our bags. Craig was a wise guy from New York. I give him this description as I want you to imagine it said with his thick New Yorker accent. And we later found out he was a fantastic smart arse. So it fits. We made mates with the wise guy that day, and the rough sweetheart took us under his wing. Throughout the boat trip we caught up for a yarn regularly, got the low down on where we were headed and what to look out for. We were even plied with pizzas from the crew’s mess. This newfound friendship later led to a few (or many) drinking jaunts when we finally arrived his home base, Juneau… but I digress. More on those shenanigans another time.

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Craig helped lug our gear via the Purser’s office who took one look at us, our cumbersome bags, and our charming, smile-baby. Melting under the grin of Finn, she said, “Hm, you booked the roomette, hey? I think you’ll need more than a broom closet with that lot.” Within moments, Purser Debby had upgraded us to the disabled suite, complete with sink, porthole (so maybe we really had booked a broom closet!), ample space to lay out a makeshift baby bed, and free linen! Score!! Suffice to say, Debby got a lot of chocolate dropped at the Purser’s office that day. And we basked in the joy of an upgrade! Thanks Finn!

For those considering taking the ferry, I recommend the cabins. Mostly because we are ridiculously messy and we try to hide that from the world (except when I put it online). I peeked my head into quite a few cabins, and while I never saw the broom closet ‘roomette’, all the others looked good. You can go super lush if you are cabining up, and get your own bathroom. Nonetheless, we used the shared bathrooms and quite honestly, I never came across one person sharing them! The water was hot and the pressure was great. Everything was squeaky clean and worked perfectly. Of course, you can get by without the room at all and sleep safely in the boat’s common areas, but if you can afford the extra cash (or have a kid), it’s a comfy choice.

There were other great features on the ferry too. Besides sun decks and spacious lounge areas with huge windows to the great outdoors, there were games rooms for kids, play mats and toys for toddlebods, and a cinema room that played a swag of PG movies and a few interesting documentaries about Alaska and the towns along the marine highway route.

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Of course, it’s not a complete tip-off without a review of the gastronomical entertainment. And let’s face it, food is high on the entertainment barometer for us Wittys. There was a diner offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus vino and cerveza for the over 21ers. The food was bain-marie style and sometimes the pasta was a bit gluggy after sitting too long, but the fish was fresh, the salads were crisp and my favourite was simply a bowl of chilli con carne with a few croutons and cheese. Deliciously warming after a cool walk around the deck in the evening breeze.

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You can also BYO your food, which we did using an eski (cooler box) that my cousin Sean donated. There’s a microwave, a supply of condiments, hot water for drinks, and an ice machine to fill up your eski. It is only a quarter for a bucket of ice, but if you hold the ice button down you can fill up 4 buckets and pass them off as treats to the next people in line: a great way to make friends for a quarter of a quarter, I reckon.

If you don’t like the beer or wine selection, you can BYO your own booze but you have to promise to drink it in the privacy of your own cabin, or subtly carry around thermoses of tea with chunks of ice tinkering cheekily in them. Ahem.

Remember, it’s NOT a cruise ship so don’t get all hoity toity on the crew. I read a lot of online reviews before buying these tickets and I was surprised at how many people ignorantly whined about the lack of cruise-shippy-ness. Get a grip! Expect a ferry, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the quality. Clean white linen, tidy cabins and very friendly crew. And then there’s the views. Unparalleled beauty, whales slapping their tails on glassy seas, late-night vibrant sunsets and bald eagles soaring overhead, waiting to see if you might drop your baby.

Our MV Kennicott took a breathtaking route through the inland passage. While many of the vessels running on the Alaska Marine Highway stop often, ours only pulled in at Ketchikan. It was brief, but fun. We chewed through an oversized 3-egg breakfast, wandered with the cruise ship tourists through the infamous Creek Street, and found time to embarrass our son by purchasing a Davy Crockett hat. Then, we were back on board, and onward to our final destination. We thoroughly enjoyed the journey and would recommend it in a heart beat. On on, Alaska!

An Olympic wild life

“If you come and hang out with me, I will probably take a lot of pictures of you that you will enjoy for the rest of your life.” – Sean Dustman, Oak Harbor, Washington, USA.

The man stands by his word. In June 2017, we bunkered down with our Dustman cousin clan on Whidbey Island, a pineland paradise in North-West corner of mainland USA. Sean is an amazing photographer, and he is snapping away in a photographer’s wonderland. It is a living, breathing garden of Eden.

Their home is in the quiet little seaside town of Oak Harbor. This hub was just a short ferry ride across a bay with dancing dolphins and orca, and through a windy road of rich, old growth forest, to the mammoth, mossy Olympic National Park. As far as parks go, this one’s definitely up there in the mystical category. This is where rivers run at their clearest, air dives into your lungs at its freshest, trees grow on trees at their greenest, and if fairies live anywhere, this is definitely where they live at their happiest.

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Everyone should visit Olympic National Park. Everyone. It was made a national monument in 1909, but still suffered many years while battles went on between the Forest (logging) Service and Park Service. When President Franklin Roosevelt visited in 1938 and witnessed the activities of the Forest Service, he was appalled. Soon, the area was re-designated as a national park. In this bold action, the President saved two of the most threatened valleys by stripping an additional 187,000 acres away from the Forest Service. Thank goodness for that guy. Now it survives for all of us: we can see, touch, listen, feel and smell this sweet sanctuary. It winds from snowy peaks, down rivers, through forests and all the way to the sea.

Our crew hiked through the Hoh Rainforest. We crouched at the banks of the Hoh River and splashed the water on our faces, icy cold as the snow from which it had melted. We visited the beaches. These were incredible shorelines with smooth stones to clamber over and fallen pine trees, washed up on the shore as big as beached whales.

It came as a surprise to me, that while ‘getting at one with nature’ I’d also brush so close to teen pop stardom. In recent years, this eerily beautiful countryside was the setting for the blockbuster series, Twighlight. Where we stayed in the town of Forks, every shopfront sold a vampire shirt or a warewolf hoodie. Twighlight tour buses putted down the street. People working in the diners even admitted to moving here just because they loved the series so much. Hence, I must record that there was a short time in my life where I momentarily regretted not having endured one of the movies or the books. The feeling passed.

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We loved our visit in this tiny corner of the country. The islands are patchworked with beautiful state parks everywhere and people take pride in their wild, unruly forests, their clean beaches, their sweet lakes and rivers. Patches of torn-down forest are, thankfully, an exception to the rule. And luckily, we came at the end of a long winter. We brought with us a nasty flu, and while we unfashionably shared it with our loving hosts, they took it in their stride! The sun came out, white skin was bared and reflected in the back yard, barbeques were abundant and we basked in the glory of being still for a while. It truly was a welcomed break from the road. Thanks for the photos, Sean. Thanks for the memories. We will miss your colourful crew.