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Hiking to the Boiling Lake in Dominica

Approaching the Valley of Desolation

I’d only been in Dominica for one day, but when I shared my ambitious hiking itinerary for my short stay on the island, a local woman looked me over, knit her brows, and expressed concern for me and my athletic goals.

“You’re going to the Boiling Lake? You don’t look like a tomboy. Are you sure you can do it?” she asked.

Perhaps it was my fault for discussing one of the hardest hikes on the island while standing around in my bikini. I was aware the Boiling Lake hike wouldn’t be an easy stroll, but I was determined to get there.

Many know the Caribbean island of Dominica as the “Nature Island” due to its volcanic peaks, lush rainforest, clear waterfalls, abundance of rivers, and even boiling waters. It’s not your typical Caribbean island, where hordes of visitors are content to lounge on the beach all day, interrupted only by occasional bar service. Here, hikers and divers abound, and the Boiling Lake hike is the peak adventure for many of them.

A six-hour round trip over challenging terrain, this hike in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park ranks as one of Dominica’s most demanding trails. The first hour of the trail traced through rain forest and rose gradually from 1,690 feet to 2,260 feet before it dropped toward the Trois Pitons River, called the “Breakfast River” because it’s the often the first stop for a snack. Because the sky was gray and it had already begun to rain lightly, my guide Zahir and I continued without stopping at the river.

Next, the path followed a ridge as it moved from rain forest to montane forest. At 3,160 feet was a lookout with views across the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mist was descending along the trail, so I saw only pieces of the emerald peaks, until they were shrouded in fog.

The trail then dipped down into the Valley of Desolation. Volcanic activity in Dominica has changed this once-forested area to a strange rocky landscape of gray and gold, punctuated by grasses, mosses, and lichens. Silvery streams of varying temperatures meander through the area. I took turns dipping my muddy feet into a warm stream, then a cool one. Just a few feet away, bubbling sounds suggested I could try an even hotter water source, but it wouldn’t be a smart choice.

A flooded fumarole, the Boiling Lake appeared at the end of the trail like a cauldron of bubbling gray-blue water enveloped in a veil of vapor, until a breeze came along to blow the cloud away. Groups of hikers stopped and posed for photos. Others found seats so they could enjoy lunch before heading back for three hours on the return trip. Zahir took a photo of me, volcanic clay smeared on my face, as I stood in front of the bubbling lake. I needed evidence for my concerned Dominican friend.

Great Signs of Wales

I’m always taking photos of signs on my travels, because it saves me the effort of digging for my notebook. But my favorite signs stress the funny over the informative. Here are some highlights from my recent Wales trip.

Alas, no pirates in modern Conwy

Beware zombie hunchbacks

There is no Welsh word for panini

Recent Interview and Book News

I’m just back from the U.S. Travel Association’s International Pow Wow in Los Angeles and catching up before heading off on a Wales hiking trip early next week. But before I start packing, here’s a brief list of new and notable items:

Radio

I was interviewed on KPAM (AM 860 in Portland, Oregon) about my recent St. Kitts and Puebla articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as a handful of my Sportfolio columns. The St. Kitts interview has already aired, and the rest will follow within the next few weeks.

Web

On JohnnyJet.com, my pal Johnny featured a Q&A on my travel style. It has nothing to do with what I wear, but instead focuses on my favorite destinations and travel details.

Book

Bay Area Travel Writers (BATW) has recently published its first anthology, Travel Stories From Around the Globe. Among the 23 juried stories is my article about Jimmy Carter’s visit to Guanaja. It makes a perfect gift. Why not buy one for yourself as well?

Slow Half Moon Bay

A year ago, I walked from Santa Cruz to Monterey—mostly on the beach. Walk the Bay, run by Slow Adventure founder Margaret Leonard, is a four-day, 40-mile inn-to-inn trek along the coast of Monterey Bay. I’ve visited the area more times than I can count, but until that hike, had never been alone for hours along those miles of coastline.

Highway 1 was just on the other side of the dunes, but I never heard the traffic noise. I only saw crowds at the beginning and end of the four days. It felt remote—in an area popular with tourists.

Earlier this week, I helped Margaret beta test a section of a new route, from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco. The section is one on which I’m well practiced: Half Moon Bay to Pillar Point Harbor. Of the approximate six miles, I’ve walked, run and biked five of it. The last mile runs from the main section of Half Moon Bay south to the Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Regardless of the weather, the views on the Coastal Trail along this stretch—and even all the way up to San Francisco—are breathtaking. This particular Slow Adventure will be available in 2013, once the new tunnel at Devil’s Slide is opened, so mark your calendars to try it out!

Favorite Things About St. Kitts

While I’ve been to only a handful of Caribbean islands, St. Kitts has been one of my favorites, and here’s why:

Monkeys. On St. Kitts, it’s said that monkeys outnumber the human residents nearly two to one. The vervet monkeys are not native to St. Kitts, but were brought by French settlers and left there when the British took over the island. Whether they’re trying to steal your drink while you’re lounging on the beach, or hanging out in the trees during one of your island excursions—they make things more fun and unpredictable.

Liming on the Strip. Lined up along the Frigate Bay beach, the strip of small, outdoor restaurants and bars lures locals from around the island to “lime” (chill out) and dance barefoot in the sand. Find your favorite: Rainbow Bar, Monkey Bar, Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack, Ziggy’s Bar, Inon’s Bar and more. All are ready to serve you a potent drink and show you a good time.

The music. The mix of soca, zouk, calypso and reggae had my constantly asking a friend which band was playing on the car stereo. At the end of my trip, she gave me two CDs full of music. I don’t care if you think you can’t dance. It’s impossible to keep from moving with all the great music on St. Kitts.

Ting with a sting. No drink for lightweights, the sweet combination of local grapefruit soda and a “sting” of CSR (a local rum), is refreshing in hot weather—but too many can ruin your evening, and perhaps the next day as well. After two, I had to opt for Carib beer for the rest of the evening. I have a healthy respect for that beverage.

Lack of crowds. My visit didn’t coincide during a festival week, but I expected at least to run into the occasional cruise ship day-trippers. The entire time I was there, I kept wondering where all the people were.

For more about St. Kitts, read my article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Travel section.

Bouncing Back

Shredding Ajax, or Ajax shredding me

I learned to snowboard something close to 14 years ago. It was one of those sports I learned fairly quickly, and the excitement that came along with it kept me going back to play again and again. I didn’t dedicate enough time to get to more than perhaps an advanced beginner status, but I got to the point where I could do what I wanted and didn’t fall often.

But then other things took more priority during the winter. Time passed, and before I knew it, it had been 10 years since I’d touched a snowboard. What I kept in my mind was the level of boarder I’d been way back when. So when I got the chance recently to refresh my shredding skills in Aspen, I expected to jump right in where I left off.

I knew that there would be a fair amount of character-building moments—where I’d have trouble with something that I thought I mastered before. The entire time, I said to my friends and instructors that even if I made the smallest amount of progress each day, I’d be happy. Internally, that was a hard goal to maintain. I wanted to be awesome and I wanted them to see. Of course it was unrealistic. Even silly. But that’s what I craved.

The first day at Snowmass was smooth sailing. Even though I had to re-learn things I thought I already knew, it felt fairly easy. So when it came time on the second day to pick a goal, I decided I needed to skip from green runs to blue, so I could meet my super-skilled skier friends at the pop-up Veuve Clicquot bar on Aspen Mountain near the end of the day. My progress was far from smooth. I fell what seemed like a million times. My friends always seemed to show up for encouragement right after I’d taken a particularly rough spill, or when I was sitting on the snow—which made me feel like a huge dork. But I also made a little bit of progress and got to the champagne bar.

When the third day of my boarding refresher weekend came, any amount of progress vanished. I let all the spills from the day before erase my confidence. I couldn’t remember simple things because I was afraid to fall. I wanted to quit. In the afternoon, I couldn’t imagine telling my friends about what a hard time I’d had without tears stinging my eyes.

It took more than a few moments, but I eventually remembered how long it took me to master other sports and activities. I let the bad experience motivate me to get out to Buttermilk on the fourth day and commit to the goal I had in the beginning: Even the smallest amount of progress is a win.

A couple of weeks later, I still have some bruises from my weekend, but no longer a bruised ego. I’m OK with being a beginner snowboarder again, and I can’t wait to get back out there.

Surf Camp Report

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve returned from my surf camp in Mexico. Since then, I’ve been eyeing surfboards nearly everywhere I go, looking for the one that will allow me more practice time at my local surf break.

The water’s a little colder here than in the Riviera Nayarit, but there’s so such thing as too cold—just inappropriately dressed. More neoprene solves the problem until I can get to warmer water again.

The Las Olas surf safari experience spoiled me. With an easy schedule every day involving only meals, yoga and surfing, it allowed me ample time to not only focus on my water skills, but also get to know my fellow classmates and why each chose a surf camp vacation. It was clear early on that we all enjoyed good food—as we sampled the restaurants to find the best fish tacos, Mexican hot chocolate and other local favorites.

What made it a successful surf trip for me was the focused attention from our talented instructors. They spent hours in the water with us, and celebrated each success—even if it was as simple as riding a wave just a little longer than the last time. At best, we had a 1:1 instructor to student ratio. When we were all in the water, it was more like 1:2.

A little more than halfway through the week, we took a field trip to Punta de Mita to surf a longer wave and go whale watching. It was a lucky day. We spent time hanging out alongside a mother and her calf, as the calf continuously breached—giving us a huge show. Later, I got the best and longest ride of my week. A little time at the end to lunch on fresh shrimp ceviche and lounge in the sun was all I needed to call that my favorite day.

What’s next? I’m headed to the Santa Ynez Valley for some hiking, horseback riding and Santa Maria-style barbecue. Then, I’m off to Aspen, to see if I can remember how to ski. Later in March, I’ll be in Kauai for Hawaiian culture, outdoor adventure and perhaps a little ukulele shopping. In between, it’s all about the writing, kayaking, hiking—and maybe a little surfing, if I can find the right board.

For more on my Las Olas trip, take a look at my articles in the Athleta Chi blog and my Sportfolio column.

Surf Safari

Years ago, when I ran across the promotional materials for Las Olas, a surf safari for women on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the power of one sentence not only grabbed me, but knocked me over the head and nearly dragged me to Mexico.

“We make girls out of women.”

I often joke with close friends that inside, I am 5 years old. But as with many people, that wide-eyed wonder at the world gets clouded when at home and facing daily realities like work deadlines and paying bills. Scheduling a week to play is a dream, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve done it.

Now, I’m finally going. I’m on assignment, so there’s work involved—however this trip, I’m allowing myself more time off to enjoy. The timing couldn’t be better.

Stay tuned for more posts on my Las Olas experience, but likely after I return. More frequent, timely updates will be via Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Surf’s up!

Athleta Sponsored Athlete

When I was a kid, two things were high on my list, aside from my family: books and the outdoors. You can see where my love for books got me.

It was pretty quick to figure out that my preference for the outdoors was more about nature and discovery than being part of a team. Once I joined a summer soccer league, I had fun for a little while, but the best part about it was pushing my limits and being outside. The team? They were nice, but it just wasn’t my bag.

When I look at the sports (or outdoor activities) that I prefer—those that push me to get out of the door—it’s all about me vs. me. Competition with other people doesn’t get me as motivated as merely going out to see what I can do on that particular day.

That’s one of the reasons I’m happy to announce that I’m one of 20 Athleta sponsored athletes for 2012. I’ve loved the clothing for a while. I also love that when I walk into an Athleta store, I see women of all ages and sizes and athletic persuasions. Not one type. Not one competitive mind.

I’m looking forward to this year with Athleta, and discovering everyone’s motivation to get out and go for it. Want to be part of it? Keep reading here and the Athleta Chi blog, where I’ll be posting on occasion. Just as important, my sister sponsored athletes will post as well, to provide a chorus of inspirational voices.

Backstage at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The world-acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium has been perched at the edge of Cannery Row since it opened in October, 1984, but each visit seems like a new one. More than 35,000 creatures representing 550 species fill the aquarium’s 34 major galleries. With nearly 200 exhibits, the aquarium is a showcase for the habitats and sea life of one of the world’s richest marine regions.

For me, any visit to the aquarium includes some quality time with the bat rays. You can usually find me among a bunch of kids, leaning over the bay ray petting pool to touch the smooth underwater flyers. It never matters how much my sleeves are rolled up—my clothes always get wet.

The Aquarium Adventures programs include an opportunity to get behind the scenes and see food preparation for aquarium residents, view some of the huge tanks from above and get a chance to feed exhibit animals. Offered for ages 8 and up, the two-hour Feeding Frenzy tour takes place before the Monterey Bay Aquarium opens on most Thursdays and Sundays. Prices are $65 per person (not including aquarium admission), or $45 for aquarium members.


My favorite part of the tour? Feeding the bat rays. With pieces of squid and shrimp between our fingers, we were instructed to hold our hands flat, like feeding a horse. That way, we’d avoid the rays’ flat teeth. Then, stretching our arms into the pool, we waited for the bat rays to come to breakfast. One at a time, rays hovered above my hand, sucking the treats into their mouths. If the food hadn’t run out, I would have stayed there for hours.

Just me, the kids and the bat rays, as usual.