Tag Archives: travel with kids

Birthplace of a Banshee


I have to admit, I got nostalgic as our crowded, sandy Jetta sped (figuratively speaking, of course) along once familiar highways.  Road signs pointing to places like Jamestown, Williamsburg.  Closer to DC, the signs read Woodbridge, Quantico, Potomac Mills.

Things kinda ground to a halt where they always have done:  Tyson’s Corner.

There, it seemed the Beltway, Washington’s legendary ring road, was being revamped.  An endless line of traffic stretched from suburban Virgina, across the Potomac, and well into Maryland.  Day-um.

I know the Beltway.  It doesn’t scare me or intimidate me but like everyone else who drives it, the damn thing frustrates me.  Clearly, nothing had changed in that regard.  What has changed since I left my hometown in 1993 is the sheer volume of traffic.

Jesusmaryandjoseph, the TRAFFIC.  First I supposed it was construction.  Then I mused that it was the downpour combined with the construction. Then, over one hour later, having not gone more than two miles, I considered the fact that there were too many cars on too little highway.  Looking around as we sat – what else could we do – I looked at the new lanes under construction and knew instantly they would not be enough.

Welcome home, Banshee.

Talking to friends during our visit, the consensus is that too many people drive in DC.  There is constant gridlock – on every freeway, parkway, avenue, and side street.  If a goose so much as poops on Connecticut Avenue within an hour of rush hour, it will cost motorists hours of delay.  They will sit and sit and fume and fume (as we did) and they will never see any evidence of a problem – just the endless glow of tail lights ahead of them.  The goose will have made it back to Canada before commuters in DC get to their homes.

‘Nuff about traffic.  Once we made it to our hotel, The Madison on 15th Avenue NW, we were almost too pooped to notice our luxe surroundings.  The Madison is a posh hotel where power brokers come to schmooze each other.  The game hasn’t changed in this town.  The outdoor cafe was full even as we dragged our road-weary selves in around 11 pm; everybody in it oozed something – money?  Power?  Importance?  We oozed burger grease and sand.

The linens on the bed were the finest we’d felt yet.  The decor was the epitome of understated elegance.  Thank you, Visa rewards points for this hotel I murmured as I passed out on at least 101 bed pillows.

The next morning I awoke to find my husband gone.  This is not at all unusual.  He likes to wake early and get a lay of the land before he herds us sleepy folk around.  I knew roughly where we were – the Washington Post Building was two doors down and the White House was right around the corner – but the husband likes to explore.  Plus, he’s well-trained to scope out the nearest Starbucks for me as I don’t go very far at all without a latte.

Sure enough, he had it all worked out by the time we got up.  The plan on this very, very hot day was to see:

  • The Smithsonian’s Natural History and Air & Space Museums
  • The White House (from the outside)
  • The Spy Museum
  • any other art gallery or museum that was free

The Smithsonian complex crams no less than ten museums within a mile and they’re all FREE.  The Potomac River along the Tidal Basin is also chock full of things to see – also free. That said, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one day – the museums are huge and crammed full of fascinating (ever-changing too) exhibits.  By the time you get to the memorials on the river, you’re at risk of falling into the water due to exhaustion.

On this day, I left the museum trekking to the family; I paid my respects to the Gems section (Hello, Hope Diamond!) and then I split.  I had a lunch date with my dearest friend from DC who is like a sister.  If I ever get famous and if she ever decides to write a book – WHEW!  I’m in trouble.  That kind of friend.

I walked up Constitution Ave to 12th St. NW and hopped on the Metro at Federal Triangle.  I scurried by the IRS Building with my head down (yeah, I owe them some money). During the short walk, I noticed how clean everything was.  DC looked like it was all spiffed up for a party.  I also noticed how lovely the buildings, the trees, and the wide streets were.  It’s a beautiful city, my city.  It’s funny how we can live in the midst of beauty (for over thirty years) and fail to see it.  Was it always this nice?

Once I figured out the Metro ticket machine (thank you little old man from the info. kiosk!), I was on my way.  On DC’s Metro system, riders pay by distance; the further you go on the line, the more it costs.  Unlike Toronto where you pay $3 whether you go one stop or 20. Fares increase during peak hours.  Based on the traffic I’d seen, it was clear more people needed to ride it.

After a lovely lunch, my friend and I battled midday gridlock to get to her house in a close-in suburb.  Around six pm her husband joined us for the rush-hour gridlock back to the Metro station nearest their house.  Here’s the thing about the transit system in DC: once you get to your stop, you might still have a long commute to your house (if you live in the suburbs).  Yikes.  If I ever live there again, it will be downtown.

Over dinner that night at Irish pub in the heart of the city, the family recounted their day.  The kids’ favourite place had been The Spy Museum.  It sounded awesome – very interactive.  The kids were fascinated by the prevalence of spy games during the Cold War. Offices, hotels, and restaurants were all bugged back then.  DC was on the front lines; there was a spy on every corner.

DC is the epicenter of great power.  The architecture reflects this.  As we walked by the Old Executive Office Building my husband commented, “This whole place was designed to impress.”  Absolutely.  Maybe Washington has always had to prove itself, to “dress for success”; that’s why there is so much grandiose architecture downtown. Back in the beginning, the U.S. had to fake it til it made it.  Nothing like a lot of marble and gold leaf to accomplish the effect.

So much there wasn’t time for: the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials – I know that even my somewhat jaded teens would’ve been moved and impressed.  The Capitol Building, surely one of the most wondrous sights.  Then there’s Georgetown – a perennially hip district once full of boutiques and funky shops.  A side trip to Mt. Vernon would’ve been cool too (the kids are always asking me about George Washington).

Nonetheless, Washington, birthplace of Banshee, got a huge thumbs up from everyone.  We will surely go back and see much more.  Thanks grande dame by the Potomac, hopefully we will see you again soon!  I am proud to call you home.

The traffic, though.  Get that sorted.  It reminded me a lot of Congress:  perpetual gridlock.


Hell Has an Ocean View


Family fun destination…not for us

For those who might be residents or devotees of Virginia Beach, let me apologize in advance.  I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the place, really.  Maybe I was just tired (so tired). We arrived in a driving downpour and found ourselves in a hotel right out of a low-budget horror flick.

In our defense, pictures lie.  They lie so convincingly and perversely – making innocents (us) think that all oceanfront hotel rooms must be stunningly beautiful – if only made so by the view.  I’d never spent any time in VA Beach; I’m an Outer Banks girl.

Further to our defense, we booked all the hotels using our Visa points.  Therefore, we were somewhat at the mercy of the Visa rewards program’s choices. That reminds me, I should call Visa right now and tell them, for the protection of their loyal customers, to remove that hotel from their list as a public safety service.

So.  We arrived in a downpour, exhausted by the long drive from Atlanta.  My husband came back to the car after checking us in, an odd look on his face.  “It’s old,” he said as he stood outside the car, droplets of rain dripping off the end of his nose.  “It’s definitely an older hotel.”  Maybe he meant “quaint.”  I was tired.

The mouldy hall carpet, slightly squishy underfoot should’ve been a clue.

We were tired.

The not-so-faint smell of urine in the elevator, hallway, and well – just about everywhere – should’ve told us still more.

We were SO tired.

Upon entering the dark, dank, smelly orifice that hotel management dared to call a room, I sensed what would happen next:  one or both children, tired as they were, were going to take running leaps at the beds, flopping their innocent pure (heretofore healthy) little bodies down on coverlets that had not been laundered since the early ’70’s.

Don’t just wash – scrub!


I was too late.

My son, my youngest, my baby hit the top of the covers with a loud thwump, scattering God knows what kind of airborne pestilence throughout the room.  Gagging, I headed for the bathroom.  Gagging again, I retreated and stood in the middle of the room.  Have you ever been somewhere that you didn’t want to touch anything?

Strains of bad music floated up from below our room.  Worst cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song ever.  Gazing out the cloudy glass door to the balcony, I saw my beloved Atlantic yards away.  Hell has an ocean view.  Looking down, I saw  an open air “cabana” attached to the hotel, source of the “live” music.

There must have been some kinda look on my face when I turned around.  My husband mumbled something about parking the car and fled.  Maybe he realized he’d better hide the car or I was going to make a break for it.

The song ended; unbelievably there was not only applause but rebel yells and whoops the likes of which I hadn’t heard since  attending a Civil War re-enactment as part of a school field trip in Grade 5.

Photos lie – were those swimmers inoculated?

“At least there’s a pool, Mom,” said my daughter.  She is one who always tries to look on the bright side – like her Dad.  We looked down at the murky, grayish-blue water in the pool.  Dark, unidentifiable things lurked in one end.  “No, I would rather have you in the ocean even though it’s a red flag day.”

We walked to the beach after my husband deemed it safe to return from the parking garage – our lucky car got to be a few blocks away from Hell.  As we walked by the open air pavilion/concert venue, we saw the band – a few grizzled old fellas hammering away on guitars with one or two equally grizzled women grinding away in front of them.

One good thing about that night:  we found a decent restaurant.  Authentic Northern Italian food in a family-owned restaurant.  I regret to inform you that I cannot recall the name of said restaurant.  I shot a few glasses of wine in quick succession.

Several times in the night,  my own miserable mewling woke me up.  Some time in the night, we acquired a new band (reggae).  I think at one point I tried to sleep sitting up so as little of my body would touch the bed as possible.

Dawn broke revealing heavy, leaden clouds.  My husband and I decided to go in search of coffee.  We stepped into the hallway.  “Is there a waterfall in the lobby?  I didn’t notice it coming in…” I began to say.  My husband pointed over my shoulder.  “Nope.  That’s the water feature, I guess.”

Rain was pouring down through the ceiling tiles into the hallway outside our room.  We were on the top floor and obviously the roof was in the same shape as the rest of the place.  Underneath our feet, the carpet squelched and belched, completely waterlogged.  My face must have said it all.  Within the hour, we had booked a room further down the coast on the Outer Banks. 

We never packed so fast; it was if we had been unexpectedly sprung from prison.  I hit the Wright Memorial Bridge from the mainland to the Outer Banks doing about 95 mph.  I lowered all the windows down – not only to smell the tangy salt air but  also in an effort to expel whatever airborne spores we still carried from Hotel Hell.  As our tires thumped over the sectioned concrete of the causeway, I could feel my mood lifting.

Every summer, around the middle of July, the wheels of our family station wagon spun over that same white concrete.  The Outer Banks – OBX – stand for summer and always will.  I hung my head out the window like a dog and inhaled the salt wind.  I was on my way home.

Writing on the Run


I sincerely hope that I never have to go on the lam because if I do, it will surely spell the end of my writing career.  I’ve only been gone two weeks and despite all good intentions, I managed to post ONE blog entry.

[Insert picture of Banshee hanging her head in shame HERE]

Perhaps it is the nature of our vacations.  Perhaps I am not organized enough.  Perhaps I am too:

  • old
  • cranky
  • tired
  • all of the above

What the hell happened?

We brought a computer – mostly for my benefit.  Hubby doesn’t need his laptop to stay connected – he can do everything on his iPhone and he was determined to check emails as little as possible.  I vaguely remember flipping open the laptop early in our stay in Atlanta and then…darkness.

In my defense, we were SO busy in Atlanta.  Tired after the long drive from Toronto (via Cincinnati), we found we had no respite from driving while in our former Southern home.  We literally spent the entire four days there behind the wheel.  With one exception, all of our friends live waaaaaaaaay outside the city.

And, if I’m honest, I partied in Atlanta.  I hadn’t seen some of these people in nearly ten years.  I woke late and went to bed later.

Burnt out, exhausted, and with a cumulative hangover, I set out for Virginia Beach thinking a few days on the shore would restore me, get me back on track.  I thought my biggest worry would be spilling sand or margarita on the laptop.  It was not to be.

The rain poured down – inside and outside our hotel.  Our feet stuck to the room carpet.  I begged the children NOT to expose any bare skin to the bed covers.  We fled the next day.  In our haste to leave, we apparently left behind the power cord for the computer.  Ooops.

Rattled, we fled to a luxurious beachside hotel in Kitty Hawk, NC.  I felt behind in my scheduled relaxation.  It was still drizzling but I was ON THE BEACH.  Determined to get as much time with my old friend, the Atlantic Ocean, I put all thoughts of blogging far from my mind.

Washington DC afforded me no extra time either – being bitchy takes time and energy.  We were all experiencing severe travel burn-out at this point.  The best thing to do was split up – I went for lunch with a dear friend and hubby went on a museum/gallery trek with the kids.  Although we had Wi-Fi in the room, our computer had no battery power left.

We looked northward with dread, I have to admit.  Another long drive with less-than-inspiring scenery (New Jersey Turnpike) and the exhausting prospect of sightseeing in Manhattan.  The good news:  we wouldn’t have to drive.  The bad news:  we were just plain pooped and tired of being cooped up together 24/7.

No power left in the computer, no energy left in me.  I got on the Staten Island ferry hoping that some fresh air (ok, I know its New York Harbour) would perk me up.  I walked to the hotel business center and sat down in front of one of the computers.

The sign read:  Insert Credit Card here.

Free Wi-Fi in the room but not there.  Fuuuhhgetaboutit.

Oh well, I’m more of a yarn spinner than a diarist.  Maybe this is the way it has to be for me.

The piles of dirty laundry in my living room are rivaling the Empire State Building in height.  As soon as we hit the house, we each fled to our separate spaces.   This morning, cup of coffee from my neighbourhood cafe by my side, the laptop was opened.  So simple.

End of the Odyssey


Brilliance of the Seas crept into Barcelona’s Harbour in the grey light of dawn; an hour later, her passengers were rather unceremoniously evicted as she was due to sail again by 4:30 the same afternoon.  Bleary eyed and barely fed, we stumbled onshore and into a waiting taxi headed back to the same hotel we’d stayed in before, the Gruphotel Gravina in the Gothic Quarter.  We were grateful to have a place to store our 500 suitcases  which were now full to bursting with new souvenirs and dirty laundry.

My husband was on a mission. A holy mission.  A devout non-church goer, I’ve never seen anyone more dedicated  to peeking inside every church and cathedral in whatever city he visits.  However, I could forgive him (almost) his zeal when it came to La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s bizarre masterpiece in Barcelona.

When Senor Gaudi died in 1926, his vision wasn’t even one-quarter complete.  Construction is on target for completion by 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death.  Too bad cathedrals take so long.  Those whose vision they represent never  live to see their dreams become reality.  Staring up at the bizarre facade, I couldn’t help but wonder what Gaudi would think.

The exterior resembles a sand castle caught in a heavy downpour; the whole facade looks as though it’s melting.  The other side of the church is completely different – almost spartan with delicate curved support columns.  Above the whole thing are intricate towers that are accessible by elevator and tight winding stairs.  In some places,  whimsical colourful carved  fruits are plopped on like cherries atop a sundae.  I think Gaudi must have been fond of rasberries…

Looking at the exterior of the church, one might suppose the interior would be as heavy and molten as the famous facade.  At the very least, one could suppose that this European cathedral might be heavy and dark, dripping in gold leaf like so many other European cathedrals.  One would be wrong on both counts.  The overall impression upon entering is that of light.  Soaring, brilliant, giddy light.  There are scores of windows, ethereal and slender – stained glass appeared sparingly.  The interior soars not only with light but with light coloured stone.  Instead of dark and serious, the whole place feels light and joyful.

I am severely allergic to audio tours (or tours of any kind) but if I were to return, I would spring for one.  I want to know more.   Alternatively, I could just lie on the floor and gaze up for hours.  Security might object but I think Gaudi would understand.

All too soon, we had to leave.  It’s a hard church to leave – every time  we headed for the door, we saw something else.  Outside the exit, thousands of carvings held our gazes until our necks hurt.  I think every Bible story was carved into the side of the church.

We took a taxi from there to Parc Guell (more Gaudi!).  High above Barcelona, the large public park contained Gaudi-esque statues, buildings, and gardens as well as a house owened by Gaudi.  It was a whimsical, fairytale place that we were almost too exhausted to appreciate; in fact, we saw only a portion of it.  Feet hurt and stomachs growled with hunger.  Gazing out across the city, my husband spied his next destination:  Montjuic.  Groans of despair ensued.

During the 15 minute taxi ride across the city, one little man fell asleep, a young girl stared stonily ahead and my husband engaged in the most bizarre tri-lingual conversation I’ve ever heard.  Some English, some Spanish, and oddly, a few words of French thrown in – that’s what my husband does – he throws in whatever language comes to mind.  Oddly, he and the taxi driver seemed to be communicating just fine.

Crowning the top of Monjuic is the Catelonian National Museum of Art, housed in a former palace  – just what tired feet and empty tummies did not want.  Fueled by KitKats and Coke, we sped through this magnificent museum in record time.  Frankly, I enjoyed the outside views more than the inside but there were a couple of interesting Picassos to show the kids.  Cascading down the hillside from the museum are gardens, fountains, and lovely treed walkways.  Montjuic is also the home of several Olympic venues from the 1992 Summer Games.

We returned to our neighbourhood and sought a “non-touristy” place to eat. We failed miserably and endured yet another awful meal.  The idea of tapas appealed but we never found the right place.  It was the only disappointing thing about Barcelona.

The next morning we woke, hit the local Starbucks (I know, I’m sorry but I was desperate) and headed to the airport.  Ironically, the two best meals we had in Barcelona were at a shopping centre and at the airport.  As our plane lifted off, I wept as I often do when heading back to reality.  My husband, ever-perplexed at the storm of emotions his wife can conjure, looked at me worriedly.  “What’s the matter?  The plane is not crashing…”  “I miss Europe!” I wailed as the landing gear ka-thunked into it’s bay and we turned towards home.

When we landed in Toronto, I was glad to be home but seriously, everything looked too…new.  Too…mass produced.  The roads and the cars were too big.  Later that night, I sat on my front porch with a glass of wine and tried to settle, pondering where I could take Italian lessons and how much real estate might cost in Rome…

Running With the Donkeys


Picture running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.  Masses of people voluntarily running as fast as possible, millimeters ahead of angry bulls through narrow streets.  Picture it with donkeys and people running pell-mell along a steep path with a sheer drop on one side.  Picture the panic.

Welcome to Santorini, Greece.

Santorini is a  beautiful island in the southern archipelago of other stunningly beautiful Greek islands.  Villages  sit atop cliffs overlooking the water-filled caldera of a slumbering volcano.  Buildings look as though they were sprinkled over the land by the gods, like sparkling white stones.  Although tourist destinations, getting up to these places is sometimes a challenge.

Our ship’s tender docked at a small pier where hundreds of tourists lined up for one of the three transport options to get up to the village of Thera:

  • Option 1:  cable car.  Long lines – sometimes over an hour at peak times and not for those afraid of wee contraptions hanging by a wire that go super high.
  • Option 2:  donkey.  Sure footed and strong, these beasts of burden do this for a living.
  • Option 3: feet.  Exercise is good! Burn some calories.

On the tender, I looked up at the island.  I didn’t fancy the cable car option.  I’m terrified of heights and get ornery waiting in lines.  So my daughter and I agreed on the donkey option; my husband and son opted to walk.

Skirting the huge line for the cable car, we bid the boys adieu and searched for donkeys.  The donkey line was long too and a tad chaotic.  I was cranky.  I was looking forward to a nice glass of ouzo or, at the very least, a heaping bowl of creamy Greek yoghurt drizzled with honey, sprinkled with chopped walnuts.  After 11 days of waiting in one line or another, I’d about had enough.

Telling my daughter to follow, I pushed forward.  Normally, I’m a docile sort who knows how to stand in a queue.  On this day, I got in touch with my inner bitch and pushed into every available free space as I went forward.  Rude?  Probably.  I was already having doubts about this donkey nonsense.  We could just walk.  My daughter’s an athlete and I’m in reasonably good shape – how hard could it be?

We emerged onto a courtyard of chaos: confused tourists, elderly Greek men waving their arms and yelling, and masses of donkeys.   All donkeys seemed to be relieving themselves spontaneously and turning in mindless circles.  I pulled my daughter aside a split second before a donkey backed over her (they don’t come with rear-view mirrors or sensors or those handy beeping alarms).

Terror struck.  The likelihood of me being smashed to bits on the cliff  after being flung from a donkey was probably fairly remote but still… I stood in Santorini having flashbacks to my last (nearly fatal) equestrian accident. Meanwhile my daughter pushed as hard as she could against a donkey’s ass to keep it from squashing her flat.

“Let’s walk!”

Ignoring the kind offers from the elderly Greek donkey wranglers to “take a donkey, ladies” we struck out on foot.  Barely five feet from the base of the hill, a rider lost control of her steed (can a donkey be called a steed?  My apologies to horses everywhere if they cannot).  From somewhere behind me, an elderly Greek donkey wrangler screeched as well as any banshee.  The lady’s donkey reconsidered its options and shot off like a…terrified donkey.  As he skittered over the stones, he spontaneously let loose a torrent of urine that could only be described as biblical.  As in, where was the Ark?  My daughter shot me the look that could shatter stone once more.

“Maybe running would be better,” I suggested.  She stalked off with me trotting behind.

The pathway was steep, paved with cobblestones; it rose in a series of hairpin turns all the way up to the village which was so far up we couldn’t see it.  On one side only a low stone wall separated us from a certain death off the cliff; on the other side, a high whitewashed wall with no doorways or crevices big enough to squeeze into offered little protection from anything.  Footing was treacherous; looking up was not an option.

Resigned to a long, hot, smelly hike, we suddenly heard bells.  Not the pleasant tolling of church bells on a beautiful sunny Greek morning but the high-pitched, tinny sound of cheap cowbells.  We stopped and looked up the path.  I heard my daughter’s scared voice.  “Mom!  Mommy?!”

Sure, stampedes happen.  But not on vacation.  Not on a sunny Greek isle.  But there we were, staring at a frenzied mass of legs, ears, and wild-eyes hurtling towards us.  There was nowhere to go.  I wondered how the headlines would read.  I didn’t have time to edit my obituary – all I could do was shove my daughter behind me and make small.

This manoeuvre was repeated countless times for approximately 1 million more steps.  I can now add “fear of Greek donkeys” to the ever-growing list of things I need therapy for.  The sound of bells now makes me jumpy.  I smacked a few donkeys.  By the time we reached the top, I was ready to smack anything or anyone that got between me and a very, very strong drink.  Oddly enough, the journey for those riding the donkeys was no picnic either; tears were shed.  Along with poop and urine, one could smell the stress.

We found the boys – unscathed – and began the shopping marathon that is Santorini.  What about that drink? I whimpered.  The shops were lovely but if we ever go back to Santorini (hello cable car!), I could skip shopping.  There are vineyards, beaches, and boat tours available but as always, we didn’t have time.  I wanted less donkeys, more time.

A delicious lunch of tiny brioche sandwiches with very tall glasses of ouzo restored me.  The creamy all-fat yoghurt was worth the hike…well, almost.  I looked out over the shimmering white terraces to the dark blue waters below – it was all impossibly beautiful.  Sitting on the breezy terrace, I let my mind wander.  I could live here, be a shop girl in Santorini.  I’d never leave my clifftop perch. I would start a rescue for over-worked donkeys.  Below us, the boat tenders lined up at the dock.  Already, it was time to go.

Another two days at sea and we’d be back in Barcelona.  The distance between me and reality was closing fast.  Sitting in the porthole again as we left Santorini,  I snapped endless pictures of the island’s cliffs, bays, and villages spread across the top of the island like royal icing gleaming against the rich blue sky.  A postcard, I thought.  Does anyone really live in a postcard?

The sun retired for the night, the cliffs darkened until they melted into the sky, lights twinkled atop them like strands of stars.  We headed for open water and Spain.

Taking a Chance in Turkey


Ephesus, Turkey:  an ancient ruined city we knew nothing about in a country we knew nothing about. We stood inside the ship looking at each other, unsure.  My husband and I were very careful not to say anything that might dissuade or alarm the children but we were stepping into the great unknown and Royal Caribbean had our passports.  Call me crazy, but I had a pretty sizeable knot in my stomach.

A month earlier we had reserved a “taxi-tour” of Ephesus with an “English-speaking guide” based solely on internet reviews and blogs.  We didn’t want to pay through the nose for the Royal Caribbean tours – we’d successfully avoided them in other ports.  My husband had made arrangements via email – they seemed legit and the price was right but…were we about to pay a very high price for being cheap?

We disembarked and walked through the port authority’s  intimidating building (complete with men wearing intimidating firearms).  Most of our fellow passengers wandered towards the usual clot of tour buses while we stood in the blinding sunshine, looking for a stranger with a placard.  Soon a very tall young man appeared.  His English was good; his manners, impeccable.  He waved us forward, away from the port building and into the chaotic streets of the port city of Kusadasi.  My brief moment of relief was…well, brief.

As we crossed a street, another man approached us.  This man, older and who did not speak any English, now gestured toward a mini-bus.   My husband and children walked forward willingly while I now entered Phase 2 of Banshee Panic Attack (includes cold sweats and panic-stricken facial expressions).

Yet another man hopped out of the mini-bus, hand extended.  “Hello, good morning to you all!  I am Fahti, your guide for the day.”  He motioned us into the mini-bus.  A total stranger in a strange land motions innocent North American family of four into a mini-bus (it had curtains – was that bad?).  The door slid shut and the mini-bus pulled away from the curb.  I tried not to think of all the ways this could go horribly wrong.

I noticed Fahti wore a badge around his neck.  It had his picture on it and said, “Tour Guide.”  I relaxed…a bit.  Once Fahti started explaining how the day would work, I relaxed a bit more.  He asked us if we had water.  “Good, good.  It is very hot in the ruins. It will be around 40 degrees celsius today.”  My daughter gave me a look that would shatter stone.

As we left Kusadasi on a newly paved highway, Fahti launched into the history of Ephesus.  I relaxed in the knowledge that we were not being driven to our doom.  I began to listen.

About Ephesus:   It was once an important port.  As Fahti said this, I looked around – we drove through dry, sparse hills littered with huge boulders.  In the distance stood more hills with a distinctly Northern California look to them, a soft golden colour.  Not a drop of water in sight – not a creek, a brook, or even a pond.  Fahti explained, “Ephesus was a port back in Ancient times, and a very important port but there was a massive earthquake which changed everything – the large deep harbour receded all the way back to where you see the water today – and this was the ruin of Ephesus.  It declined, over years, in importance.”  Ephesus now lies 5 km inland, dry as a bone.

Drier, actually.  The first thing we noticed when we got there was the scorching dry heat.  As we exited the mini-bus, I felt every drop of moisture being sucked from my body.  Fahti promptly opened up an umbrella for himself.  Smart guy.  He purchased our tour tickets and off we went.  There are no trees in Ephesus.  There is a lot of glaring white marble .  And cats.  Loads and loads of eerie, orange-eyed cats.  Bring gallons of water, big hats or parasols, sunscreen, sunglasses and maybe some cat food if you go.

Soon, the enormity of what we were seeing became apparent. At one point, Ephesus was a city of over 200,000 inhabitants and second only to Rome in size (and importance, according to our guide).  Looking around, it was evident the people who lived here were sophisticated, well educated, and well heeled.  Ephesus had one of the most sophisticated aqueduct systems in the ancient world, a large theatre (capacity: 44,000), a large library, a hospital, and several baths.  The streets were literally paved with marble.  Terrace houses had central heating and running water.  Ephesus was something of a tourist attraction even then because just a short distance away stood The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  “We will take you there!” Fahti assured us.

Funny Ephesus anecdote:  The impressive Library of Celsus was right across the street from the brothel.  Some enterprising soul connected the two via an underground tunnel.  Equally enterprising husbands would leave their wives of an evening saying something like, “Off to the Library, honey!  Don’t wait up!”  I tend to think it was an angry wife who destroyed the library out of spite as opposed to marauding hordes.

The Temple of Artemis was a disappointing sight after the spectacular ruins of Ephesus proper (there is only one column standing).  We were harrassed by gypsies for the first time.  I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t Fahti’s in-laws.  As part of our “package” we were also driven to a carpet-making “exhibit” which was just an attempt to sell handmade Turkish carpets (which were stunning and stunningly expensive).  I don’t like being corralled or pressured but we were in the land of the hard sell.  However, the kids enjoyed seeing how silk is harvested from silkworms.  Note about Ephesus & kids:  unless they’re really into ancient Roman history, Ephesus will bore them.  The cats saved the day as did the guy selling slushies at the end of the ruins.

Back in Kusadasi, parched and sunburned we asked Fahti for a restaurant recommendation.  He gladly complied and led us to a taverna in the marketplace (the owner rewarded Fahti with a pat on the back and some money slipped into his pocket).  The food was delicious as was the ice cold beer.  With full tummies, we wandered.  I quickly grew tired of the strong-arm tactics of the shop owners.  Every trick in the book and a few too many lewd glances at my daughter put me on the verge of creating an international incident.  My husband wanted to see the mosque and do more exploring.  Later – much later – he confessed to me that he was offered “Turkish Delight” several times (I’m not talking about the sweets).  Thankfully, Turkish prison is not on his bucket list and he declined.

As we sailed away from Kusadasi that evening, I felt sad for Ephesus – another great city left in ruins by nature and economics.  I felt sad for the strange orange-eyed cats we saw although Fahti assured me tour guides feed them.   I worried that Fahti was gonna catch it from his mother-in-law for not pressuring us to buy her trinkets.  However, I’m glad we braved it – I learned about a whole new world up in those sparse, dry hills.

Note:  Ephesus, aside from its excellent Roman ruins, also has an interesting connection to early Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus lived there as did the apostle John.   Mary, mother of Jesus is believed to have lived there at the end of her life (in what is known as The Virgin Mary’s House – a short distance from the ruins of Ephesus).  

At Sea


Sea Days: the days the World’s Smallest Captain puts the pedal down and ploughs through the Mediterranean in order to make the next port of call (in this case, Turkey) on time.  For cruise ship passengers, sea days are relaxation days.  And, relax they did.  All 2,100 plus of them, usually on the same sundeck, packed like so many oily sardines in rows of deck loungers.

Although my husband was up at sunrise each of the two mornings at sea, his banshee and children barely managed to haul themselves out of bed before noon.  When I awoke, I lay in bed listening to the hypnotic sound of the waves rushing under the ship and reveled in the fact that I didn’t have to have breakfast at the crack of dawn with total strangers.  Relaxation, indeed!

What I quickly realized about any day at sea was that all of the total strangers were now wandering the decks, standing in line at the cafe, and rushing for deck chairs in the sun.  By the end of the first day at sea, I was at sea myself, ready to strangle nearly everyone on board (especially the lounge singer who couldn’t carry a tune but persisted stubbornly, in vain.  Could someone please tell her?)

Day two at sea, I found a cozy deck chair on the fifth starboard  deck, close to the waves, the breeze and far from the really bad ’80’s music on the pool deck.  The kids raced each other to the arcade and the restaurant with the make-your-own pizza and the soft ice cream machines.  A good book in hand, all was well at last.  This was how a vacation should be:  sleep, eat, sleep, read, repeat until the day is done.  I stared down into the rushing waves a lot too, mesmerized by the colours and frankly curious about the emptiness of the sea around us.  No shipping, boating, or any other kind of traffic.  I tried not to worry about Libyan pirates…

Our sea days were “formal” dining nights so by late afternoon, we were rousing ourselves from our respective stupors and getting ready to put on our finest.  The “dressing for dinner” ritual has become a rarity .  Maybe in the very highest echelons of the very highest society (and perhaps in a certain palace in London), folks might still dress for dinner but my blood isn’t that blue.  To be honest, it’s all I can do to get my children to use napkins and utensils.

Oddly enough, my little urchins were very excited to get dressed up for dinner.  My eleven year old was anxious to wear his new suit (no, I’m not kidding).  My daughter was gorgeous in her first LBD and towering high heels.  It was my sincere hope that neither of them decided to fling dinner rolls around the Minstrel Dining Room, possibly injuring the World’s Smallest Captain.  I had nothing to worry about as my children exhibited manners I didn’t know they had.  I silently vowed to institute a “dress for dinner” policy at home in Toronto.  Ok, never mind.  Maybe once in awhile…

A word about dining on Brilliance of the Seas:  it was unfailingly yummy.   The meats were always cooked to perfection which is a miracle considering the sheer amount of meat cooked every night.  The vegetables, perhaps more of a miracle, were always tender-crisp and fresh tasting.  Desserts were more of a gamble but by and large we were never disappointed with anything except the fact that our clothing didn’t fit us by the end of dinner.  Our waiters were extraordinary; always friendly, always ready for a bit of a chat with the kids about their day’s activities.  The kids were especially impressed that our waiters memorized their drink preferences.

The casual cafe dining wasn’t bad either although I’d read that (especially on sea days), tables could be hard to find at peak hours.  We never had to wait for food or tables.  Even the hugely popular outdoor deck – right over the stern of the ship – usually had a table or two vacant, even at lunchtime.  The kids adored the make your own pizza place – they could go anytime, order anything, away from my disapproving gaze.  What the hell, we were on vacation – what’s wrong with ice cream for lunch?

Nonetheless,  I was ready for our sea days to end although I did enjoy sleeping in.  Soon we would be in Turkey – a country I knew next to nothing about.  Before leaving home we had reserved a taxi tour (going on an internet review alone) in Kusadasi that would take us through the ruins of Ephesus with an English guide.  We hoped.

Have I told you I don’t “wing it” well?  Stay tuned…