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Four top treats from my 2011 travels



Since I've been a travel writer for three decades, people often ask me if I don't get tired of all the traveling and writing. After all, when you do anything for 30 years, it must get boring, right?

Wrong! I guess that's one of the gifts of this line of work. Every trip, every place, offers something new, even if I've been there a dozen times before. This year I took four big trips -- to British Columbia, London, France, and Oahu -- and each one reaffirmed this truth with multiple unexpected treasures. Here are the top treats from each.

1) OAHU: MA'O Organic Farms

My wife and I didn't know what to expect as we drove on a sunswept October morning to this outpost on the little-visited Leeward Coast of Oahu. When we turned off the Farrington Highway at the Wai'anae exit as instructed, we found ourselves in a nondescript residential area of one-story stucco homes. We wound though the streets deeper and deeper into the interior until we reached the end of the road – and found the smiling face of Kamuela Enos, the Education Resource Specialist at this singular place.

MA'O's mission, Enos told us, is social entrepreneurship through farming, cultivating organic food and young leaders for a sustainable Hawaii. MA'O stands for mala 'ai 'opio, which translates as "the youth food garden." Basically, MA'O takes youngsters from the Wai'anae community – a traditionally neglected settlement of mostly native Hawaiians, beset by severe social, economic and nutritional challenges – and puts them to work on the 16-acre farm, where they learn all the aspects of running a farm, from working the fields to managing the distribution of the produce to maintaining smooth relationships with clients and consumers. MA'O also runs a variety of in-school programs at the Wai'anae intermediate school and high school and at nearby Leeward Community College.
I could write paragraphs describing all the great things they do and grow here, but you can get a wealth of information about the marvels of MA'O from their excellent website. What you can't get from the website, and what I want to tell you about here, is the brightness that shone in the eyes of the young staffers we spoke with, the electric optimism that radiated from them. A number of the staffers we spoke with told us their lives had been turned around completely – "transformed," "saved" -- by MA'O. One had been living in a car with his mom; another had been thrown out of school multiple times. At MA'O seeds of hope had been planted, and tender shoots of promise and self-worth were sprouting; they were cultivating the sense that with energy and work and determination, they could shape their own future. In a tangible sense, they were nurturing – planting, watering, weeding -- their own lives. The vegetables we tasted at MA'O were wonderfully flavorful – but the hope we felt sprouting all around us was the most delicious crop of all. Our visit to MA'O pounds still in our hearts and minds; it's an extraordinarily moving and inspiring place, and we felt blessed to experience its grace.

If you want to visit, MA'O welcomes visitors through its G.I.V.E. (Get Involved, Volunteer Environmentally) Days program on the last Saturday of each month. If you would like to attend a G.I.V.E. Day, call the office at 808-696-5569 or email info@maoorganicfarms.org; include in the text of your email your complete contact information and the number of people you will be bringing. In addition, you should fill out the Education Resource Request Form and mail it to WCRC, PO Box 441, Wai'anae, HI 96792, email it to info@maoorganicfarms.org, or fax it to 808-696-5569.

2) FRANCE: Troyes

I love France. I studied French literature (and art and history) in college, lived in Paris the summer after my junior year and again the summer after graduation, had the epiphany that changed my life there and have been back half a dozen times since. And I've been editing travel stories about France for three decades. So how is it that I had never even heard of Troyes until I visited this enchanting town 90 miles southeast of Paris this September?

This is still a mystery – though another long-time Francophile on my trip said the same thing – but the important point is that I unlocked the treasures of Troyes on this journey to the heart of Champagne. What was so terrific about Troyes? Where to begin? The heel-clicking cobblestoned alleyways and half-timbered, Gothic-gabled homes and shops. The flower-festooned squares and the Renaissance mansions with their chessboard brick-and-white-chalk facades. The extraordinary museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, with works by Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Rouault, Degas and dozens more – in all more than 2000 works from 1850-1950. The soul-soaring churches, among them the grandly Gothic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the church of Saint-Martin-ès-Vignes, with its stunning 17th-century stained-glass windows.

For me, the pleasures of Troyes were embodied in a short walk in the old quarter, among the 16th-century half-timbered buildings that were constructed after a devastating fire in 1524. The pace of the town was relaxed, the citizenry smiling as they walked, the children licking ice creams as their mothers licked the shop windows (leche-vitrine, as the French say, so much more Gallically sensual than "window-shopping"). Seduced by a Renoir, I stepped into a closet-sized art gallery. The wildly white-haired and tweed-coated owner, who looked a bit like a professorial puppet, seized upon me and delivered a very learned 15-minute lecture that somehow interwove the aesthetics of Renoir, the history of Troyes and the best place to find andouillette sausage, a local specialty.

The day we had to leave, I awakened to 21st-century birds trilling in the 12th-century courtyard of the charming Maison de Rhodes (a gloriously restored former residence that once belonged to the Knights Templar), wandered into the town square and discovered a merveuilleux merry-go-round plunk in the middle, and just beyond that a quintessential sidewalk café. There and then, my heart was won; I didn't want to leave and can't wait to go back.

3) LONDON: Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields

On an August trip to London I previewed the 2012 Summer Olympic Games preparations and the transformation of the city's once beleaguered East End, made a pilgrimage to bedazzling Buckingham Palace and explored the leafy literary lanes around the storied Langham Hotel. Wandering at will one late afternoon in the West End, I chanced upon the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. I'd never seen the church before, but as a long-time listener to classical music radio stations, the name resonated like that of an old friend; for years and years I'd been enthralled by recordings of Sir Neville Marriner leading the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra.

Impulsively I stopped to see if there was by any chance a concert that night. There was! A 7:30 candlelight concert featuring works by Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi. The performance was thrillingly familiar and yet not. The trappings and rituals – the searching for a seat among expectant concert-goers, the hush of the crowd as the conductor raises his baton – were familiar, and yet I was in London, in a setting I'd only stumbled on a few hours before. The whim and wonder of it were magic, as were the notes filling the stony, candlelit chamber. When the orchestra launched into "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," a familiar frisson swept up my spine all the way to the top of the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

The magic continued that evening with a delicious roast chicken dinner at a serendipitously stumbled-upon bistro called Cote, and then a long and languorous moonlit walk past convivial crowds of theater-goers and bar belles and beaux spilling into the streets, past the historic mews and views of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury where I'd wandered the day before, past the BBC bar I'd tumbled into on my first jet-lagged night, until I reached the lamplit Langham. I felt enwrapped – enraptured -- by London that night.

4) BRITISH COLUMBIA: Sea Cider

I thought I knew cider. I'd grown up drinking it every fall in Connecticut, stopping at country stands to buy the murky elixir that smelled of apples and crisp afternoon slanting sunlight and falling leaves. I thought I knew cider – so when Victoria resident Cathy Ray offered to take me to a farm and ciderhouse in nearby Saanichton for a tasting, I thought I knew what to expect.

As with the best travel experiences, I was in for a big surprise. Well, many surprises. In contrast to those Connecticut roadside stands, Sea Cider looked like a winery: a gracious two-story house fronted by an expansive green orchard with long rows of widely spaced, low trees and beyond them the sparkling waters of the Haro Strait. The second surprise was that Sea Cider had fully eight different varieties of cider to choose from. When I couldn't decide which one to taste, owner Kristen Jordan offered a flight with small sips of all eight. This brought the next surprise: Each cider was gloriously, goldenly clear – not the brownish muck I'd known as cider. And then I took a sip and discovered the best surprise of all: These were fermented!

From that moment on, the afternoon swirled and soared in a giddy ballet of sunlight, bracing fresh air, Canadian camaraderie and glorious cider. I tasted all eight, of course, and like wine, each one had its own distinct bouquet, feel and taste. What a revelation!

You can read about Sea Cider's different ciders here. And if you live in one of these lucky places, you can buy your own Sea Cider elixir and savor it in the comfort of your home. But to tell you the truth, I suspect it tastes even better if you're laughing and learning in the Victoria sun, looking onto shining Haro Strait. If you go to Sea Cider, say hi to Kristen for me and be sure to taste the Kings & Spies – just as I am even as I write these words, savoring one last delicious treat from my travels in 2011.

[flickr image via jasmic]

Filed under: Europe, North America, France, Canada, United States

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