The Caribbean Sea dips in and out of your view as you make your way across the island to our little spot near the beach. The sounds of the waves crash in the distance. … More
When everyone was heading down South to our little part of the world, we headed in the opposite direction. Reverse snow-birding? Why? It’s a gorgeous time of year to be in the Caribbean. There’s always something going on, and the weather’s a bit cooler so it’s easier to appreciate all the catch-ups with friends. And the festive spirit is felt as each tiny plane brings family from afar, along with goodies they’ve brought with them. So leaving felt counter-intuitive.
But, in my experience, the best way to see a place is to see it at its rawest. See it at the time of year when you’re the only tourists in town. The locals are intrigued, and will invite you into their worlds, and have the time. Also, if I’m entirely honest… the flights are cheaper in the ‘off’ season!
So, we had our tickets to the frosty bays of Canada, in December. I hadn’t been back to the East Coast in almost fifteen years! I was so excited, and hubby said that he was a big fan of snow… so the Nova Scotia Foray was afoot.
We arrived in Halifax (after a defrosting of the plane in Toronto- which did bring back latent memories) in the dark. But the Lord Nelson Hotel was lit was warm bulbs of the holiday season, and is situated right across from the Halifax Public Gardens. This was well-researched by yours truly… and a week prior I was a little miffed when one of my dearest friends commented that I wasn’t likely to see many historic flowers during the Winter season. You’d have to know her probably to pick up on the sarcasm, but it was said something like this: “Oh, yeah, it’s great that they’re keeping the Gardens open in Winter now. Fantastic. Just imagine all the sights you’ll see on the way through there. All those shrubs covered in snow.”. She’s Nova Scotian. You can see why I have an affection for the place! Tell it as it is.
Anyway, the hotel was beautiful. We booked the petite room- again budget conscious- but really we arrived late and we spent the next day out and about. That morning we had breakfast downstairs in The Arms, it was all decked out in Christmas decor and it was such a thrill having attentive wait staff and ever-flowing coffee!
We toured around Citadel Hill, Pleasant Point Park, Spring Garden Road etc. Each place felt just the right pace. Historic buildings meshed with nature and a vibrancy of young students. It was a warmish day, we were told, so perfect for wandering around. Catching up with good friends and plenty of food that we can’t find on our island made us appreciate where we were at that moment in time.
The next day it was off to Antigonish, a university town near the gateway to the Cabot Trail and Cape Breton (which we didn’t have time for…this time). A dear friend lives there, so it was worth the boomerang trek out that way. Seeing her life, and the family she’s created filled my heart. Also, the best brunch we’ve had in years was found in Antigonish… full breakfast, coffee flowing… ten bucks a piece! I almost moved there on the spot… but Wolfville was up next. And it was freezing.
Wolfville is where I went to university, so plenty of memories abounded. It’s a great village with vineyards and theatre. None of this was happening when we visited, but we did go to the Annapolis Cider Company. Now… I’ve been on the island for a few years… so I didn’t know that this was a thing… but it is! And now all I want is craft cider! Actually, any cider will do. Recently our island seems to have run dry on that front. Can you imagine, a whole country with not a drop of cider? Oh, Canada… you keep tempting me.
A quick stop in Annapolis Royal. The original birthplace of Canada. A historic town. As we parked snow began to fall. A coffee shop warmly received us. Before we knew it a lady, her husband and their friend all pulled their table closer so we could share our stories. I was happy with the coffee, and my new knitted hat that hubby had bought me, the snow falling… lighthouses…. victorian homes… new friends… I was ready to move! But it was freezing.
BUT it was on to the South Shore, on to Mahone Bay where our accommodation was booked.
We were dizzy with all the excitement, and then we made our way through the middle of Nova Scotia. And the snow came down fast. It felt like we were the only ones on the road. Each curve dangerous. The pines covered, the marshes to our sides treacherous. By the time we made it through to Mahone Bay that night the honeymoon of the North was over. We were still happy, but we were definitely feeling wiser.
Mahone Bay was all that the internet had led me to believe. Our airbnb there was splendid, and we even managed to enjoy live music at the local pub. The Tim Hortons here was filled with friendly folk, well all the Timmys spots were. But it was a ‘game changer’ when hubby discovered that he could select which timbits went into the timbit box. And we laughed when the man behind us joyfully announced, “yeah those people who left us here, don’t know how good we have it in the colonies.” Which made us all laugh. We also found ourselves in an impossibly Canadian predicament when we had a five-way stand-off of people holding doors open at the same time, insisting, ‘no, after you.’.
It’s a glorious place.
The fish is delicious. The coffee (for my Canadian taste of course) was perfect. The people were beyond friendly. But it is freezing.
I think what I loved most about Canada, was that for the first time in a long time… I wasn’t ‘different’. I was a Canadian. And the thing about Canada is that the people we met, the Canadians, come from far and wide. The Dutch man on the bridge from Halifax who was kind enough to change our USD for CDN currency. The Scandinavian lady with the b&b, the Japanese woman at the brewery… all the people we met with different accents or things that displayed they had heritage from another country- and yet they were Canadian. That’s Canada.
In New Zealand, the country I always felt would be and was home… I wasn’t a kiwi. I never would be. And that’s okay, I guess. I was welcomed, but I was a guest. A well-treated one, don’t get me wrong. And here, in this beautiful island it’s the same. And I’m so grateful that I’m here and I love it. And I don’t want to leave any time soon… it’s freezing out there!
So, even if you don’t physically live somewhere… it’s nice to know where you ‘belong’. That gives you the confidence to go and explore and enjoy and share all that you have. And each country is a meeting of all these individual people and all their experiences. Traveling is a way of feeling these things.
Just remember that it might be tempting- but it’s freezing!
So, let me start by writing that when we found the house of our dreams… it wasn’t quite the house of our dreams. The structure was good. There were a few termites to contend with, which required a trough of poison to be set around the house. The pipes were fine… but had been compressed under the floor over the years so that there was no guarantee of sufficient water flow. The windows probably would have been okay… but with the increasing chance of hurricanes in the Caribbean it just seemed prudent to get rid of the tinted glass and opt for louvered metal.
Visually the place was beige. But when you entered the property and the sea was right there… everything was forgotten.
But where to start with the renovation? Surely, it wouldn’t take much. We just wanted to replace the floor tile, paint the ceiling, and the walls, new bathrooms, new kitchen… and then those built-in closets have to go… which means… a new wall for a walk-in-closet?
And so it began. My hubby and I onboard a ship would gleefully open an email to see what progress had been made over a few months. I never imagined I could be so happy about tile arriving, and then the correct grout arriving, and the tiler being available…. and thinset? What? We needed thinset? It’s not on island? What the h*ll is thinset?! You get the idea.
But because it took so long, each piece felt like a victory. I was so used to wanting something, earning the money, then getting that thing. Done. And on to the next ‘thing’. But here, on the island, each detail is treasured. I look at a pendant light and I know where it was ordered and how long it took to arrive and go through customs and import taxes… only to be broken… and to have to go through the whole process again. But it’s taught me patience, and it’s definitely made me appreciate our home that we’ve created.
It’s also a process that makes you a part of something bigger than yourself. We were able to take the time to watch the local craftsmen and women at work. They became just as involved in the project as we did at some points. Their interest in the outcome was inspiring. From tilers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and masons to seamstresses and of course our amazing property manager. It took a community to raise our house into a home.
There are many tales of woe… a shower pipe that leaked three times into the mason’s work causing endless grief etc…. but all’s well that end’s well. A house is a living breathing thing when it becomes a home.
When we left our ‘place’ in New Zealand, a spot that we really had turned into exactly what we wanted, the local real estate agent said something to me that I’ll never forget, “When the ‘things’ are gone, it’s just a shell”. And she was so right. The day I left, it was empty. Nothing but a structure again.
And now, here we are, we’ve breathed life into our new shell. Much like the hermit crabs that scramble atop the rocks of the beach, I have no doubt that in time we’ll see another shell that looks a little more to our liking. But for now, this one’s just right. And it doesn’t matter about the material things… it’s all about the love you fill it with… but don’t you just love those cushions!?
When we say we live in Montserrat, we encounter a variety of responses. The most common of these is confusion. Even the most worldly traveler can easily miss our little piece of paradise here. Some people say, ‘It’s French isn’t it?’, or ‘Isn’t that near Barcelona?’, or ‘Oh, yes… it’s Irish? The local people there have red hair don’t they?’. And all of these suppositions, are kinda sorta right. But even if I were to say, ‘Yes, at one point the island was owned briefly by the French but it’s British… and it was named Montserrat by Colombus because it means ‘serrated mountain’ in Spanish which is the same as the monastery near Barcelona, and Irish were left on the island… but no one I’ve met who’s from Montserrat looks Irish in the least.’ All of this still doesn’t answer the question of ‘Where the h*ll is Montserrat?’.
It’s in the Caribbean. It’s small (10 miles by 7 miles… and half of that is in the exclusion zone- I’ll get to that later). It’s part of the West Indies… the Lesser Antilles… Leeward islands and is a British Overseas Territory. You need to go through the island of Antigua to get to Montserrat… either via ferry or eight-seater plane. There are no traffic lights, no chain stores or chain restaurants, no large hotels. People wave at you as you drive along. The grocery store gets its vegetables in on a Wednesday… if the container gets in… this is entirely weather dependent. There are five thousand people… give or take.
Although we moved here (hubby, dogs and cat) only a few years ago, I’ve known the island for much longer. I first came here as a child in the 80s and even went to school here. So Montserrat is part of my story. A vibrant, lively place. I remember it before. Here, on Montserrat, there’s a before and after.
In 1995 the Soufriere Volcano became active. Some people lost their lives, and half of the island was slowly covered in ash… including the historical town of Plymouth. For the next ten years it felt as though Montserrat may be lost forever. I was here, but only as a visitor for a few months at a time. The hearts of Montserratians are strong and proud, and even though they may have been forced from their homes and blanketed with grey ash… they persevered. Some people refused to leave. Some had to. Some have returned.
During the volcanic activity, I was on the edge of it only. And even that was enough… enough to feel the frustration. When the ash fell, the world turned dark. The Caribbean air still hot, the powdery substance crept through any opening to make all surfaces dusty… it cloyed at each breath.
In 2016 I came back here. Each day, each week, month, year that the volcano is quiet… we are all grateful. And we feel so blessed to be a part of this community. This little island that refused to give up. Each person a survivor.
And now the possibilities seem endless. The island, always a wonderfully welcoming place, is entirely its own. A step back in time. Eco-tourism is slowly happening. The reef here is unique as a result of the volcano, so too the trails, and day trips into the ‘buried city’. But the thing that really sets Montserrat apart from the rest of the Caribbean is the people who reside here. The people here have the time.
Getting to and from the island can feel a bit daring. Bad weather can set a flight back hours or days. Due to the nature of working on a ship, my hubby and I often travel quite frequently, so the trip to Montserrat is not always easy. I was idly complaining about this one day to a local man. His response was perfect, “It’s not easy to get to heaven… but when you make it… why leave!”.
That’s Montserrat. Come and stay, we have the time.
I have worked on various cruise ships over the past fifteen years, and I’ve also had the opportunity to be a guest onboard. I have seen some companies drift away from the ‘old-fashioned’ idea of cruising, with mixed results. In our world, there’s obviously something for everyone, and I completely understand that some people don’t want to get all dolled up to be able to enjoy their steak tartar BUT, I am not one of those people. (Just for the record I haven’t actually eaten beef in about twenty years… I probably should have said caviar?).
Here’s what I LOVE about cruising. I’m all about the pampering, even if I don’t want it. After all, where else… other than a cruise… would you be offered a cool towel to soothe your brow? This alone makes me want to cruise. And this can happen any time… maybe while lounging by the pool on some ships, or particularly when returning from a potentially harrowing inclusive tour of some exotic location…. where the temperature in the leafy jungle didn’t quite match your expectations. A moist towel, will solve this pronto.
My next point, can be done in combination with the above… champagne! Oh, how I love it! And on the ship (those luxury liners do it best, as it’s included all the time), it’s not just reserved for a special evening occasion or a speech (although these happen all the time too!), it’s a mimosa in the morning, some bubbly in the afternoon, pre-dinner drink, after dinner tipple! It is always flowing. And even if you don’t like the taste of champagne, it’s the sound of the popping cork that excites you, the effervescence that tickles your tongue, the flute it rests in… oh what a glorious thing onboard. But I will stop… because I think I’m sounding like a drinker, and I’m honestly not. I just think the ceremony of it, is a wonderful thing.
Canapes. Food in general is why a lot of people cruise. I like the Old School idea, that you nibble on something while continuing conversation. Fantastic. Wouldn’t it be great if this happened everywhere? Not just onboard? You could be waiting for your kids to finish sports, and a waiter would pop up with crudites? Or your school meeting ran late, and a tray of puff-pastried delicacies arrives? On a ship, this is what it’s like. The moment you think of food, it’s there. And if you don’t like it… no worries. Other options will shortly follow, and they won’t involve a trip to the Four Square (this is a NZ supermarket chain… I can’t think of one that would be universal? But you get the idea I hope).
Entertainment is a part of the daily schedule! I know!? This is an actual fact. In your every day life, how often is something other than tv or some internet thingy planned for? An actual social entertainment event. Cruise Directors plan and plot to make the cruise a memorable experience. But it’s not just the entertainment department, the WHOLE ship works together to bring it alive. And that’s just the thing, you feel alive onboard. Even if you’re not dancing, you hear the music and you tap those toes (whether you like it or not).
Plush, padded, curved in all the right places… I’m not talking about bras… I’m talking about seating! There are nice places to sit everywhere. The moment you feel a little wobbly on those stilettos? Fret not, a space for your caboose will be close-by. And these seats, are grouped and clustered. So, no matter where you sit… there will be space to meet new friends. Which leads me to my next point…
People. Onboard there are some special types of people that is most certain. You will be guaranteed to meet someone with whom you meet minds. And the art of conversation is prospering on ships! Each guest walks up the gangway, with their own excitement for what will come next. Filled with their own story. The crew, as well, share in this. Some of us have never been to the ports and places we will go. And each cruise (no matter how repetitive the itinerary) is new for all of us. NEVER again will this mix of people be in the exact time and space in this way. And we, we cruisers know this, and enjoy every second. Nowhere else can you have this feeling of being a part of some great adventure like this, rough seas or calm.
As Social Hostess, I learned a little saying that I would use to ‘cheers’ everyone during dinners. It goes like this: ‘There are big ships, and there are small ships, but there’s nothing better than friendships. Here’s to friendships!’.
Ship people, WE make friends for life.
When my hubby and I can’t work together it’s tricky. Right now he’s sailing around Asia for another month without me, and all I can do is think about when we visited some of the same ports together. Although he’s far away, we are so lucky that we can message one another and email. The company he works for provides free wifi for the crew! Major bonus! The other day the ship was cruising through Ha Long Bay, which I haven’t visited yet. And more than anything I wish I was there, but I must keep busy, and there’s a lot to do. What do I do when I’m not working… It got me thinking… what do you do when your husband’s in Asia?
Top Ten things to do when your husband’s in Asia (or anywhere that’s millions of miles away):
- Write a blog– this is invariably time consuming, and makes it appear that I’m busy… which I am, because I’m writing a blog.
- Clean– I wish this was further down on the list. And in reality it might be. But for the sake of my husband who might read this while working his *** off … Cleaning is on my list 😉
- Plan a trip– What better way to start counting down the days, than to plan a trip of my own. Well, a trip with my wage-earning husband. A trip that will blow his socks off! A trip that will place us in the same time zone together at the very least. Perfect.
- Write a novel– During the last seven months, I’ve written two novels… no, you can’t find them any where… but that won’t put me off writing another. After all, have I told any one lately that I have an agent! (still so excited I can’t type fast enough to convey it!)!
- Do Social Media!– I have been told by my agent- the amazing Ann Leslie Tuttle at Dystel Goderich & Bourret- that I need to step up my social media presence. So now I’m tweeting, and gramming, and blogging and facebooking my little heart out. (I do get severely side-tracked with this one- much like the Pixar dog in the movie ‘Up’- “squirrel!”.)
- Make things pretty– I can buy a lot of scatter pillows/cushions and then I can move those cushions. (Don’t ask how many times… )
- Job hunt– Maybe not ‘hunting’, I’m more of a ‘job watcher’? Like a bird-watcher. I admire the ideas of different jobs, and try to think about what I could do if I lived somewhere else or committed myself to even MORE schooling. I have been an actress, a waitress, a kennel-worker, an early-childhood teacher, a drama teacher, a small business owner, a primary school teacher, a social hostess, and assistant cruise director, and entertainment staff member, a shop assistant, an events manager, a receptionist, and a box-office staff…. to name a few…. but clearly I’m still looking?
- House hunt– Along the lines of the above ‘hunting’. I like finding houses and researching them, deciding they’re a great buy… and then waiting until someone else buys them. Then I say to myself ‘I told you so, that was a great buy’. It’s a bit of an obsession to hit the same agencies day after day. One day I dream of going to these places that I’ve researched, so if you see a blonde with a notebook peering around your road… it could be me.
- Research– This is ‘real’ research for the books that I’m writing, but I do get easily side-tracked and end up thinking about my character’s house and occupation much more than probably necessary due to points 7 & 8.
- Pine– I mainly miss my husband very much. And when my day isn’t full, I think a lot about his return and what he’s doing far far away from me.
- Clean– (I added this again, because my husband reads this blog… and it needs reiterating.).