Two wheels, one island: A day of biking on Nantucket

Northeasterners never fight more fiercely than when they’re talking sports — except in the summertime, when they shift to arguments over which Massachusetts island is more idyllic.

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The rivalry between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — the two major islands that lie just south of Cape Cod — isn’t quite as intense as the one between, say, Yankee and Red Sox fans, but it definitely exists. You’ll often catch a resident of one island insisting the other is inferior in every way. You’ll hear annual vacationers to one island tell you they’ve never visited the other and would prefer to keep it that way. In the local newspapers, you’ll sometimes spy writers making innocent jokes at the expense of their over-island brethren.

Countless thinkpieces and quizzes exist to help people decide which island is right for them, but I wanted to decide for myself. So in the midst of a long weekend on Martha’s Vineyard with my husband, I made the slightly controversial decision to, as the locals say, “get off the rock” and spend a day on MV’s easterly neighbor. (Our Airbnb host told us we were her first guests to ever venture to Nantucket during a stay with her, and she seemed a little disturbed by our decision.)

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For all their differences, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have a major shared strength: great bike trails. Dedicated trails — that is, bike routes that are physically separated from car traffic — run up and down both islands, and because the terrain is so flat, it’s both possible and popular to travel between towns and villages by bike. Ian and I had brought our bikes along from Rhode Island and had already logged dozens of miles on Martha’s Vineyard. Now, it was time to check out Nantucket’s offerings.

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Though most of the island’s activity is concentrated in its one and only commerce center, which is simply called “Town,” I was dead set on kicking off our day here with an eight-mile ride to Siasconset. I’d been swooning over photos of the village’s signature rose trellises and classic red-and-white-striped Sankaty Head Light for years. Plus, I knew it was common to see seals bobbing in the waves on ‘Sconset’s beach, and I never pass up a potential seal sighting.

Our day began with an early breakfast on Martha’s Vineyard and an hour-long ferry ride from Oak Bluffs. There’s no denying that Nantucket makes a charming first impression from the water: Brant Point Lighthouse, wrapped in a giant American flag, protrudes from the harbor on a pristine spit of sand, and the surrounding shallows are dotted with colorful tall ships and fishing boats.

Tempting as it was, we didn’t stay in town long. After taking a few minutes to get our bearings and squeal at the adorable cobblestone streets, we began to travel away from the crowds. We stopped briefly to pick up some healthy snacks at Annye’s Whole Foods; then, we were headed due east toward ‘Sconset.

For most of the journey, our surroundings were sandy and scrubby, markedly different from the lusher and hillier terrain of Martha’s Vineyard. We let out amazed exclamations when, about halfway through the ride, we crested a gentle hill and were greeted with a sweeping view that bore a remarkable resemblance to the Serengeti. I had to remind myself that we were in New England, not Kenya, and a herd of gazelles would therefore not come bounding toward us at any minute.

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I know this photo doesn’t do it justice, but trust me — it looked otherworldly.

After a few more short miles, we journeyed from Serengeti to seaside village.

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“Village” is a generous term to bestow on ‘Sconset, which has little in the way of local businesses beyond a small grocery store, a sandwich shop and a clothing boutique. Yet on this particular day, the main intersection was jammed with cars, bikes and pedestrians milling around. It was a hot, humid day, and most of the crowds gathered under what little shade they could find, ice creams and ice waters in hand. Few of them were going where we were headed: to the sun-soaked Bluff Walk.

Once a fishing village with little more than a common well and a cluster of shingled shacks, ‘Sconset has evolved to become a community of mostly seasonal residents whose houses are considerably nicer than those fishermen’s huts of yore, though they’re still built with the same unpainted shingle siding. In July, though, that siding is slightly obscured…by mass quantities of roses.

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It seems that at some point, all the residents of ‘Sconset got together and decided to plant climbing roses everywhere. Almost every house has joined in on the fun, with many covering their shingles with giant trellises and coaxing the roses ever higher. On good years, they cover almost every surface of some houses.

One of the best ways to see ‘Sconset’s beautiful roses is by going on the Bluff Walk, a pedestrian path that begins not far from the village’s main intersection and continues north for about three quarters of a mile. The public path cuts through the ocean-view backyards of the 1 percent, which means your walk boasts not only sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean but also a peek into the lives of some of the fortunate families who summer here. The path ends near the historic Sankaty Head Light.

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Unfortunately, two things prevented us from completing the whole Bluff Walk. One was the weather — we’d already spent about an hour biking in the hot sun, and we were too drenched with sweat to want to spend even more time fully exposed to the midday rays. Another was the slightly disappointing lack of roses. I’d been told that early July was the best time to see the blooms in all their glory, but it seemed they were blooming a bit late this year, as they were far less abundant than in the pictures I had seen.

No matter: When life hands you too much sun and not enough flowers, head to the beach and cool off in the ocean! We were thrilled to find a small public path that led us from the Bluff Walk directly to the sand below.

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Though we’d had bluebird skies on the bluff not 200 feet away, an eerie fog lingered right on the water. We were grateful to be shielded from the sun and promptly set up a little picnic with our supplies from the health-food store. Swimming, though, wasn’t in the cards: On this particular day, the waves were blood-red with kelp. We were unsure whether these were harmful algal blooms, but even if they had been safe, wading through them would have been uncomfortable and kind of creepy. Luckily, we stayed entertained from the shore as an adorable seal played hide-and-seek with us.

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After lunch, it was time to ride back to Town. For some reason — maybe it was the hot weather, or maybe the soreness from yesterday’s ride was beginning to take a toll —  the journey back felt much more difficult. Each little hill felt like an insurmountable mountain, and twice I begged Ian to stop and let us take a break. I was relieved when the trail leveled off and houses began to appear again.

We parked our bikes near the center of the action and spent a couple of hours wandering lazily down the Town’s cobblestone streets. The stately 18th-century brick houses lining Main Street, which reminded me strongly of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, seemed so out of place on a sandy island. I had to laugh, too, at the high-end urban clothing we spotted in some of the shops. What sort of person, I wondered, is in need of red-carpet formalwear, a full suit or a pair of equestrian boots while on vacation in the height of summer? Clearly I am not Nantucket’s target audience in many regards. But there were some things I did love about Town, including its abundance of adorable coffee shops and the fact that it has not one but two bookstores.

Nantucket was more crowded with visitors than anywhere we’d gone on Martha’s Vineyard — perhaps because there’s just one population center here — and after a while, we craved a little peace and quiet. It was about 3 p.m., too late to visit a cafe but too early to find many open restaurants. Finally, we found or, The Whale, a brand new restaurant with an attractive, shady patio, and posted up there with a glass of wine.

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Soon, it was time to catch the ferry back to Martha’s Vineyard. After browsing around some of the less preppy shops for a bit, we took our place in the ferry line, bikes in tow.

I came away from our day on Nantucket convinced that the island stereotypes I’d heard are mostly true: Nantucket is preppy, Martha’s Vineyard is bohemian; Nantucket is more corporate, the Vineyard is more artistic. As someone who grew up near a beachfront amusement park, I’m more partial to summer destinations that provide kitsch alongside class…so I’m probably more apt to stick to Martha’s Vineyard, where old-fashioned arcades and late-night donut counters exist alongside the million-dollar mansions and fine dining. That said, I’m dreaming of returning to this beautiful island in the fall or during the holidays. Is there anything better than a brisk, misty morning stroll down a cobblestoned street, especially a street that ends with this view?

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Sun, sand and sweat: Exploring Martha’s Vineyard by bike

I thought I was so clever.

I’d devised what I thought was the perfect affordable Fourth of July weekend with my husband on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer enclave that numerous presidents and celebrities call home. I had chosen to book a modest room in an out-of-the-way area to save money on lodging. I picked activities that were mostly free or cheap — beaches, parades, coffee shop lunches, happy hours. I had planned for us to park four miles away from the ferry terminal so we didn’t have to pay an exorbitant daily parking rate. And I chose a budget-friendly method of on-island transportation: cycling on our own bikes.

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On the morning of July 4, I was in smug self-congratulation mode as we pulled into our $0 parking spot, hopped on our bikes, strapped on our backpacks and pedaled toward the Martha’s Vineyard Fast Ferry in Quonset, Rhode Island.

And then I heard a loud POP! and a slow hisssssss.

We were, I kid you not, just feet away from the Fast Ferry’s ticket office when a giant rusty nail punctured my front tire. I let out a few choice expletives as my mind immediately navigated to worst-case scenarios. Was my bike totally out of commission for the weekend? Would I have to cough up untold sums of money for a replacement rental? It was a holiday weekend — would there be any rentals left? If not, how would we get around, and would bus tickets and cab fares end up emptying our wallets? Did one stupid nail just ruin our entire trip?!

Then, Ian brought me back down to Earth. There would be numerous bike rental companies near the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal, he assured me, and they’d have no trouble patching up the tire quickly. Everything would be fine.

He was right, of course. Once we’d docked, it took us all of 30 seconds to find Anderson’s Bike Rentals, where a very nice employee replaced my tube for just $20. Less than a half hour later, we were on the road toward our Airbnb in the town of Vineyard Haven.

The temperature was high and the sun was blazing. As we biked down East Chop Drive with several pounds of belongings on our backs, we began dripping sweat. Yet there was nowhere else I’d rather be. The sweeping ocean views, charming shingled houses and nautical decor around every corner reminded me why I’d fallen in love with the Vineyard on my first visit a year earlier, when I signed up to join a yoga and photography retreat hosted by my favorite travel blogger, Alex in Wanderland. The island has a way of easing troubles, slowing time and illuminating the truly important stuff in life — for example, the sine qua non that is tracking down the cutest lighthouse and snapping a million photos.

Our Airbnb was a modest but relaxing room in Vineyard Haven, one of the island’s six towns. Vineyard Haven, the main village within the town of Tisbury, doesn’t get much ink in travel guides. That’s partly because it’s less eye-catching than the other major population centers of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and partly because it’s a semi-dry community: There are no bars here, and the restaurants require you to order food with your beer or wine. But even if you like a tipple, I think there’s a case to be made for staying in Vineyard Haven. It’s more affordable, it has some of the best restaurants on the island, it’s just a short jaunt away from the nightlife in Oak Bluffs, and it boasts an artsy, bohemian community of year-round residents.

That said, we didn’t stay long in Vineyard Haven on this particular day. Once we’d dropped off our stuff, freshened up and met our lovely host Betsy, we were on the road again.

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First, we doubled back to the bustling, colorful, delightfully kitschy town of Oak Bluffs, where we dismounted our bikes and wandered around the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. The name probably conjures images of tents and cinderblock bathrooms, but in reality, the MVCMA is a neighborhood of ridiculously Instagrammable gingerbread houses originally built in the 19th century. Once part of a summer religious colony, the houses are now privately owned — I stayed in one of them during Alex’s retreat! — and today they are unaffiliated with any organized religion. But the historic Tabernacle at the center of the neighborhood remains and still hosts regular religious services, concerts and talks throughout the summer.

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Mid-afternoon was upon us, and the temperature was approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit; needless to say, we were more than ready for a dip in the ocean. We grabbed our bikes and set off on the dedicated trail connecting Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, with plans to stop at a stretch of sand somewhere along the way.

This trail is unquestionably the flattest, shortest and most easily accessible one on Martha’s Vineyard, so we expected we’d be sharing the road with mobs of other cyclists on this holiday. To our surprise, the two-wheel traffic was pretty light, and we were flying by cars sitting in gridlock. It was just a few minutes before we found the perfect spot on Joseph Sylvia Beach.

After a heavenly hour or so in the water, where nary a shark was to be found, we were back on our bikes and headed toward Edgartown, home of the island’s annual Fourth of July parade. We were a little early for the parade, so we killed time by checking off another classic Martha’s Vineyard summer activity: a lobster roll picnic lunch at the local church. We paid $20 each for a gigantic lobster roll, a bag of chips, a bottle of water and the best people watching of my life, which for this island is a screaming deal.

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We weren’t feeling the parade vibes, so we skipped the beginning of the procession to check out the town’s elegant and remarkably uniform shingled houses and shops. My first visit to Edgartown had been in late September, well after the end of the typical island season, and most of the million-dollar waterfront mansions had stood largely empty. This time, it was different: Every house on Water Street was filled to the brim with celebrating families and decked out in patriotic streamers. Even the beach at Edgartown Harbor Light, one of my favorite lighthouses of all time, felt festive that evening.

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Still not ready for the noise and crowds of the parade, we opted instead for frozen cocktails on the patio of the Quarterdeck Restaurant. In the spirit of the Fourth, they were handing out free bottomless chips and salsa. With nearly everyone in town lining the parade route at that moment, the bar was blissfully quiet. A light ocean breeze cooled us off. My entire body relaxed. It was official: We were on island time.

After catching the tail end of the parade, we made the short bike ride over to Bad Martha Farmers Brewery and grabbed a sample flight. Just like the bike trail, Bad Martha was surprisingly quiet when I expected it to be choked with crowds. We spent a leisurely hour chatting and watching butterflies flit around the brewery garden as late afternoon gave way to dusk.

We hightailed it back to Vineyard Haven, then we grabbed our bike lights and pedaled toward West Chop in search of a good sunset overlook. The neighborhood was fairly rural and nearly pitch black; for about a mile, our bike lights illuminated a heavy concentration of mosquitoes and little else. Then we came across a country club where people milled around in pristine all-white ensembles. Though we felt out of place in our T-shirts and lycra shorts, we followed the crowd to an overlook, just in time for a breathtaking sunset. When we could stand the mosquito bites no longer, we headed back to our Airbnb and slept soundly.

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The next morning, we woke early to nab a seat at Vineyard Haven’s Art Cliff Diner, an island favorite. I was extremely tired and sore from the 25 not-entirely-flat miles we’d covered the day before, but pleasant thoughts of hot, strong coffee lured me onto my bike saddle and spurred me to start pedaling. We arrived just a few minutes after the cafe opened, and I was surprised to see very few people queued ahead of us. (I’m still getting used to the fact that New Englanders just don’t seem to be as gung-ho as West Coasters about early-morning breakfasts — a comparable cafe in Santa Cruz or Seattle would have been packed by 7 with a 45-minute wait list by 8, even in the dead of winter.)

An hour later, fully sated and caffeinated, we were off to a day trip on Nantucket — a post for another day! We returned at dusk and completed our tour of Martha’s Vineyard breweries with a casual dinner at Offshore Ale Co. After sunset, we dragged our sweaty, sunburned selves to Alex’s darling yellow gingerbread house to catch up over rosé. Somehow, I forgot to grab a selfie with her — but I did remember to document this unfortunate sunburn. Fail.

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The following morning, our last on the island, we both woke up with screaming muscles and foggy heads. Though we used to bike to work every day under the often-intense Colorado sun, we hadn’t spent this much time on two wheels in at least a year and a half, and I think we had both overestimated our physical limits. Though we weren’t quite ready to call it quits, we vowed to take it easier today, stopping when we needed and taking cover in the shade when possible.

This time we set our sights inland, following arterial roads and smoothly paved trails to the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. We hopped from one outdoor stand to another, sipping coffee, munching on pastries, admiring island artists’ work and sampling locally-grown food. We loved bearing witness to the commingling of people from vastly different backgrounds here: We spotted preppy young families, bearded fishermen, gray-haired couples clad in tie dye, and of course former Secretary of State John Kerry.

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After we’d tired of squealing about the John Kerry sighting (me) and sipping the Single Greatest Lemonade Of All Time (Ian), we walked our bikes down the road for a little town sightseeing. West Tisbury is much smaller and more rural than the three easternmost towns on the island, yet its three-block-long main road is still bursting with art, food and entertainment. We first stopped at the Field Gallery & Sculpture Garden, where some colorful abstract paintings caught our eye. Then we pored over endless entertaining piles of bric-a-brac at Alley’s General Store, an island mainstay for many decades.

And just like that, it was time to pack up our stuff and go home. Before catching the ferry, we dragged our heavy backpacks into Mad Martha’s for a parting scoop of ice cream, then we briefly parked ourselves on a prime dog-spotting bench at Ocean Park to reminisce on the last few days.

We agreed that we had crammed too much activity, and too much bike mileage, into each day of this mini-vacation. Summertime in New England, in all its glorious brevity, tends to bring out the over-planner in me: I spend so many consecutive months in hibernation that, once the weather warms and the region explodes with events, activities and seasonal sights, I’m eager to do and see it all, to stock up on sunny memories that will propel me through the next hibernation period. But as I reflected on the long weekend, I realized that what endured in my memory weren’t the many pre-planned activities or the bike rides. They were the slow, spontaneous moments: our quiet happy hour in Edgartown, our afternoon swimming at the beach.

Was our long weekend celebratory and scenic? Yes, definitely. Was it relaxing and rejuvenating? No, not especially! Don’t get me wrong, I love being active while on vacation — but not so active that I wind up in a 24-hour stupor afterward. If we were to do it all over again — and I hope we do! — I would advocate for a week-long trip focused mostly on beachgoing, barbecuing, evening walks and one or two excursions to other towns. After all, in beautiful, seasonal, slow-moving places like Martha’s Vineyard, where the best moments involve sand, seafood and sunsets, the magic is in the dolce far niente — the sweetness of doing nothing.

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Two years in Rhode Island

It’s not worse. It’s different.

That’s the mantra I tried to force-feed my brain in 2019, my second full year in Rhode Island.

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This time last year, as I recapped the last 12 months, I realized I had few positive things to say about my new Northeastern home. That’s not totally surprising, given the way the year began: When Ian and I moved to Rhode Island in January 2018, we were greeted by a bomb cyclone and bitter cold — not optimal conditions for moving large, heavy boxes on our own! For a few months, we bounced from one temporary housing arrangement to another as we struggled to find a year-round rental. Due to work commitments, Ian was absent for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, leaving me alone with my thoughts. And when we finally found more permanent housing, it was a basement apartment with only four north-facing windows, and its darkness plunged me even farther into a seasonal funk.

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Those first few months had me wondering why anyone would prefer to live on the East Coast rather than in the West. To me, a native Californian who’d only ever lived in the Pacific and Mountain time zones, everything out West was better — the weather, the food, the lifestyle — and everything back East was worse.

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My best memories from that first year in Rhode Island happened in the summer, when I finally thawed out enough to start exploring all that this region has to offer. All the wonderful activities and scenery I discovered made me come around to the idea that New England wasn’t worse than the West, per se — it was just different, and enjoying Northeastern life to its fullest would involve a big mental shift.

And so, by the time the 2018 holiday season came around, I decided that my New Year’s resolution would be to adopt this mantra: Different, not worse.

I’m not going to lie and say that this mantra helped me learn to love winter in 2019. But I will say that the cold months seemed slightly more bearable than the year before. I learned that the New England tradition of hunkering down inside isn’t for me; instead, my personal best remedy for the winter blues seems to be getting outside whenever it’s clear, temperature be damned. I found that even a simple short walk around the neighborhood on a sunny day helped put things in perspective.

A few fun winter outings also lifted my spirits. There was my birthday trip to Salem, where Ian and I took in the town’s dark history and enjoyed a Valentine’s Day-themed ice sculpture and chocolate festival. There was a cozy day in nearby Newport, where we browsed the oldest continuously operating library in America, had afternoon tea and toured one of the island’s famous Gilded Age mansions. And in March, there was a nerdy date night in Boston celebrating Bach’s birthday with a concert and cupcakes.

That said, regional excursions alone couldn’t cure my perpetual shivering. I also needed family and old friends. Oh, and warmth.

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I escaped to milder climes twice over the winter, and it felt good. In February, while Ian flew to a conference in Puerto Rico, I flew west to spend a low-key week with my family in Santa Cruz. It wasn’t balmy by California standards, and it rained quite a bit — yet it still felt like paradise to me. A month later, I caught up with close friends for a long weekend in Las Vegas. I’m not a gambler, but I am a sun-worshipper: I almost cried of happiness the minute I stepped outside the airport terminal and felt the warm breeze on my face.

But enough about the weather. I realized that it wasn’t the cold alone that brought my spirits down that Rhode Island winter — it was also the struggle to find my own friends, something all adults grapple with when they move to an unfamiliar new place. That trip to Vegas, with friends around whom I felt so comfortable, motivated me to work a little harder to forge more geographically convenient friendships. I went out when I’d rather have stayed home with the cats. I invited myself to gatherings without knowing for certain that everyone wanted me there. I conjured group outings from thin air and asked people to go with me. All of this was supremely uncomfortable for this introvert…and worth it.

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With a newfound social life, my perspective on Rhode Island shifted. The people I knew turned me on to neighborhoods, bookshops and restaurants that made me realize it’s not such a bad state, I’d just been spending time in the wrong places. My blanket assumptions about cultural differences between East and West were dashed as I met ever more people who had more in common with me than not — ignoring their strange attachment to Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, of course.

Another positive shift came in September, when Ian and I moved from East Greenwich to South County. I had long wanted to call this laid-back, beachy part of the state home, but I worried the long commute would wear on me. When we started to find ourselves coming to South County nearly every weekend in the summer, we knew we had to pull the trigger. Now I know that living a 15-minute bike ride away from the beach does wonders for my mental health.

Like in 2018, this summer was one heady highlight reel of bike rides, kayak paddles, ice cream cones and afternoons playing in the waves. The extreme seasonality of Rhode Island bothered me at first, especially in less populated areas where whole villages close up between October and April. Now, I enjoy it: I’ve adopted the New England tendency to save up my energy for summer’s long days. Like the natives, I squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of every waking hour of warm sun through the end of September.

One last major perspective shift I experienced in 2019? The urge to plan big trips closer to home. I’ve only ever longed to take big, elaborate journeys through Southeast Asia, Central America and the Mediterranean. Now, a good portion of my travel bucket list doesn’t even require a time zone change: I dream of a week biking around Prince Edward Island, a kayak tour through the Everglades, a long weekend taking in the spring flower bloom in Charleston.

That’s thanks, I think, to Ian’s and my blissful few days in the tiny town of Sorrento, Maine, in August. It was here that I discovered my ideal vacation: One with no internet connection, no heat or air conditioning and very little on the agenda. Except for one fun day spent biking through Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, we had no plans for our time here. We whiled away the hours lazily canoeing from one tiny island to another, reading and collecting shells, boiling lobster, talking about music and reading up on local history. It was a reminder that, not unlike many New Englanders, I derive happiness from simple things — sun, saltwater, seafood. It was my favorite memory of the year. It was the moment I realized I might finally get this place.

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Cabanas Beach in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A relaxing weekend in the Eastern Algarve

We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to find a thick blanket of fog hanging over all of Porto. Sleepily, we went through the motions. Shower, last-minute packing, grab the free soap, scour the Airbnb for anything left behind. We donned our warmest clothes–jeans, hoodies, flannel–but still winced when we opened the door and a rush of chilly, damp air greeted us.

We sped north in the dark, barely registering the Italian pop music blaring from our cab’s speakers. The train station was sterile, cramped and barely open at this early hour. Our hopes of grabbing a hot coffee at the snack stand were immediately dashed.

But we didn’t care much. After all, we were on our way to the Algarve.

Anyone who knows a little about Portugal’s southern coastline probably hears the word “Algarve” and immediately conjures mental images of Cancún-like resorts and thumping clubs packed with European twentysomethings.

But the truth is, the Algarve contains multitudes. Sure, in the height of summer, the central region’s countless resorts and overpriced pubs fill up with holidaymakers. But travel far enough east or west and you’ll find wild landscapes, untouched beaches and blissful quiet…sometimes even in August.

Frankly, our last days in Porto had been so cold that I probably wouldn’t have cared if the beach we picked was strewn with red cups and coeds, so long as it was warm. But in retrospect, I’m glad we traveled off the beaten path in search of peace…because we found it in spades.

Cabanas Beach in the Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

We’d found Forte de São João da Barra in a hotel search many, many months before our trip, and we couldn’t let it go. The 17th-century fort’s quiet, whitewashed austerity was unique and beautiful. Its location, right along the water and wildlife of the Ria Formosa Natural Park and a two-minute boat ride away from an expansive island beach, was perfect. And the others who had visited, judging by their reviews, seemed a lot like us–people looking for a mix of culture, nature and good old-fashioned beachgoing.

Our stay at the fort was by far our biggest splurge in Portugal. In a country where $60 buys you a night at a small, stylish Airbnb in a nice neighborhood, we felt a little silly plunking down more than twice that.

Until we arrived.

Front door of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

The front door looks giant…until you realize it’s actually the tiny metal one on the bottom left.

The minute we stepped through the (comically tiny) front door and gazed out at the sun-soaked courtyard, I swear I felt my whole body relax. The whole place was still, save for some palm trees rustling in the breeze. Everything was simple and spare–an old well in the center, some fading bougainvillea creeping up the stone wall of the main house, not much else. There were no car horns or children’s voices, no music or sirens. For a moment, it was as if we were the only two people in the world.

Courtyard of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Ian Bishop

Photo by Ian Bishop

Then we met Cecilia, the hotel manager and the sassy grandmother you always wanted. We were too early for check-in, but she ushered us into a room anyway. (“Where are your bags? What, that’s it?” she said as she spied our two backpacks.) A half hour of chatting later, we were up to speed on local land disputes, in the know about the best restaurants in town and furnished with towels and umbrellas for the beach.

There were only a few hours of sunlight left, so we headed straight to the sand. In high season, the hotel ferries passengers over to the beach on its own boat. But we were there in low season, so instead we walked five minutes west to catch the town ferry, which pretty much operates on demand as long as the weather’s good and there’s no Primeira Liga football on TV. (Seriously.)

The boat ride took all of 90 seconds and docked at the barrier island’s north side. After a short walk on an elevated ramp through grassy dunes, we grabbed beers at the subdued snack shack and set up camp on a sparsely populated stretch of sand.

Elevated walkway to the beach from Cabanas town, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill KimballBoats along the elevated walkway to the beach from Cabanas town, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A couple of blissful hours later, we headed back to the fort to watch the sky darken from the old battlements, now used exclusively for lounging and pool swimming rather than for defense. I put down my book and just stared ahead, still captivated by the place’s eerie calm.

Once we’d worked up an appetite, we strolled down the town boardwalk to a no-frills seafood restaurant Cecilia had recommended. It was probably the least touristy dinner we’d experienced thus far, and for that we were grateful: We actually got to practice speaking some Portuguese!

The next morning, we found the outdoor breakfast area deserted save for one other guest. We happily sipped coffee and juice and munched on fruit, yogurt, bread, cheese and sweet treats at a table overlooking the water, laughing at the reviews that had complained the breakfast selection wasn’t adequate.

 

View from the breakfast area at Forte de Sao Joao da Barra, Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Ian Bishop

Photo by Ian Bishop

It was another warm, sunny day, so we immediately set off to the beach again. The wind was strong that day, though, so we set up towels and snacks farther inland among the sand dunes, where the gusts were nothing more than light breezes. It was the perfect setting for a lazy day of swimming, reading, napping and making shell art.

Once my skin was good and crispy (whoops), we crossed the water back into town to secure a dinner reservation at Noelia & Jeronimo’s, the best restaurant in town and quite possibly the entire region. If you visit Cabanas without eating here, you’re doing life wrong. We had squid-topped risotto and seared tuna on mango rice, respectively, and it was pure heaven. We both agreed it was the best dinner we had in Portugal.

Our third day at the fort was cool and cloudy. We skipped the beach–the ferry probably wasn’t running anyway–in favor of a day trip to nearby Tavira. This charming cobblestoned town is effectively the capital of the Eastern Algarve, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in the small maze of streets here.

Street in the town of Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A light rain started to fall as we left the train station, so we killed some time by ducking into some cute gift shops on Rua Liberdade. After the rain passed, we explored the attractive main square, Praça da República. The cobbled amphitheater and stately stone bridge matched the steely sky, and the pool-like fountain seemed piercingly blue in such gloomy light.

Fountain at Praca da Liberdade in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball
Ponte Romana in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

As we wandered through a nice public garden, sun-induced sleepiness from the day before began to take hold. We were determined to see more, though, and after a quick espresso, we set our sights on the highest point in town.

Stairs to the castle in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball.

Tavira’s castle dates back to the 1200s, but it’s not much more than a few ruined walls these days, thanks to the 1755 earthquake that also wiped out Lisbon. There’s not much of the castle itself to see, but the view from the top can’t be beat, and the gardens inside are lovely.

As we wound our way back down through the town’s quaint tangle of lanes, we grew even more tired and resolved to leave soon. But there was one more thing I had to see before we went, and it was a bit off the beaten path.

Biblioteca Municipal dos Campos Alvaros in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

Tavira’s Biblioteca Municipal Álvaro de Campos isn’t your average public library…because it used to be the town prison. About a decade ago, the long-neglected building’s cell walls were knocked down to make room for a large, light-filled book gallery. Its stern front facade still stands and today serves as a noise-blocking cafe courtyard. The new entrance’s corten steel and glass design works so well with the original facade–both are minimal and angular, unobtrusive yet statement-making. The architect apparently wanted his remodel to be like a book itself: attractive enough on the cover to draw inital attention, but enigmatic enough to pull the reader in long-term.

Tavira's public library used to be the town jail. Photo by Jill Kimball

By now, we admitted to ourselves that it was time for a nap. We headed back to the fort for a few hours of much-needed rest–including, for me, a relaxing bath.

That third night in town was eerily quiet, even by Cabanas standards: Bad weather really does seem to shut the whole place down. We passed absolutely no one on the way to dinner, so it was surprising to find our restaurant of choice, Cecilia’s third and final recommendation, not only open but also buzzing with business. We were thrilled we finally had an opportunity to order the seafood cataplana, an Algarve specialty. The giant stew, which typically contains three or four types of whatever seafood is freshest that day and some hearty vegetables, arrived at our table piping hot and still in its round copper pot, as is tradition. We ate happily until we couldn’t move.

Cataplana at a restaurant in Cabanas, Algarve, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

And just like that, our time in the Eastern Algarve was at an end. In retrospect, I could have spent a week here, rain or shine; there are so many charming towns, beautiful beaches and natural wonders to explore. I hope we’re back someday.

Photo by Ian Bishop

READ NEXT: Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Photo by Jill Kimball

What to pack for a week in Tulum

Photo by Jill Kimball

Stunning turquoise waves. Mayan ruins and cenotes. Artsy, delicious cocktails. There’s no place quite like Tulum, Mexico.

Earlier this year, my husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan Peninsula’s capital of beachy, laid-back cool, and we had the most amazing time. Even though it’s just 90 minutes south of Cancún’s giant family resorts and sleek nightclubs, Tulum’s a world apart. It’s the kind of place where you’ll find more sunset yoga classes than bars open late; where vegan meals have never tasted so delicious; and where outdoor adventurers are just as welcome as lazy beach bums.

Ready to pack your bags? Read on to find out what to bring for a week in Tulum!

General Guidelines

Pack for humidity. Even in dry season, and even right by the beach, Tulum gets very humid… so you’ll want to pack lots of light, breathable clothes. Cotton’s absorbency makes it the ultimate humidity fighter. Linen and rayon clothes, though often more expensive than cotton, are also ideal. Leave your silk, polyester and wool pieces at home; those fabrics tend to trap heat and make you miserable.

Hang loose. You know what else traps heat? Tight-fitting clothes of any fabric. For maximum comfort, stick to loose, flowy outfits. Think maxi skirts, button-up shirts, drawstring shorts, stretchy-waist paints and trapeze dresses. Rock any of these looks and you’ll fit right in with the bohemian-chic locals.

Leave the high heels at home. Thinking about getting all dressed up for dinner? Think again. If you dress to the nines in Tulum, even in the evening, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll probably be uncomfortable, too: The main beach road is sandy and uneven, which is a nightmare to navigate wearing anything but flat sandals or sneakers. Plus, almost every restaurant here is open-air, lending it an exceptionally casual vibe. If you’d still like to dress up a little to mark the occasion, I recommend a pair of cute sandals and a patterned maxi dress.

Rethink your toiletries. Unlike overdeveloped Cancún, Tulum beach isn’t connected to the power grid. That means that instead of electricity, the town runs on solar and wind power, and it gets potable water from large trucks that drive through town every day. In all but the top-of-the-line luxury places, you can expect to find few lights on after sunset, no pools and brackish (part freshwater, part saltwater) showers. Your hotel is doing its part to keep Tulum clean, quiet and beautiful, and so should you! Before you leave, get in the eco-friendly spirit by seeking out all-natural shower and beauty products. Chemical sunscreen, i.e. most of the stuff you’ll find at the drugstore, is banned in the Yucatan’s crystal-clear cenotes, so make sure to stock up on mineral sunscreen. It can be found at Pharmaca stores, health-food stores or in the kids’ aisle at regular chain stores.

What I Packed

(Disclaimer: The photos you’re about to see are in no way professional or, well, good quality. Some of them are also presented slightly out of order with the text. Apologies; I’m a noob.)


Tops: For casual purposes, I brought two versatile black shelf-bra tank tops, one loose patterned crop tank top and one pajama tank top. I also packed one plain, loose green T-shirt, one patterned crop T and one very loose gray T. For dressier options, I brought a beautiful embroidered crop top and a striped, roll-sleeve button-up. Due to the terrible sunburn I got my very first day there, I ended up wearing that button-up nonstop to cover as much of my skin as possible; in retrospect, I’d have brought more light cover-up options like that. I also brought a patterned green oversize cardigan (not yet pictured), but I should have either nixed that or brought more clothing that matched it.


Bottoms: I kept it very simple in the bottoms department, with two pairs of shorts for day–one shorter and tighter; one looser and schlubbier–and two pairs of shorts for lounge, sleep and exercise–one pair of yoga shorts, which I did indeed wear to yoga, and one pair of dolphin shorts, which I used mostly for hanging out on the porch in the morning. I also brought my trusty Target maxi skirt, pictured below–along with that green sweater I never used.


Dresses/Onesies: I wear dresses like crazy, so I admit I went a little overboard here. As a Certified Tall Person, I save money by adopting the belief that beach cover-ups are just dresses you’ve shrunk in the wash and can no longer wear in everyday life. Thus is the case for the two dresses in the top picture, which hit the tops of my thighs. They worked great for beach days, because they’re easy to slip on and off, they’re loose and light, and they’re still decent enough to wear to a daytime beach bar without feeling self-conscious.

For non-beach daytime and evening wear, I brought my stretchy Prana dress, which I wore on a hike around the Muyil ruins; a red kaftan I bought at World Market (yep, you read that right), which I wore endlessly for dinners and happy hours; and a pink striped maxi dress, which was the perfect blend of casual and dressy for nighttime. I also brought a short black dress from Brandy Melville, which saw little wear, and the blush maxi dress I almost considered wearing at my wedding. In retrospect, I’d have left those last two at home; one’s too clingy to be comfortable in the sticky jungle, and the other has a silk-like underlayer that felt gross on my skin in that humidity.

You’ll have to scroll back up to see the patterned romper I brought and wore repeatedly. Again, the loose factor proved key–I would never bring a structured romper on a trip like this.


Swim: As girly-girls like me are wont to do on beach trips, I way overpacked in this category–but I don’t regret it. I had already owned the three bathing suit tops and the one brightly-patterned bottom before this trip, so I rounded out my collection with two basic, cheap bottoms (one of which proved too big, so I only wore it once) and a cute black one-piece. I also brought the small sarong I got 15 years ago in Kauai. I never once used it as an actual sarong, but my husband and I used it repeatedly to cover our heads while walking on the beach (scalp burn is real)  and our laps while reading (thigh burn too).


Shoes: I brought just three pairs of shoes on this trip, and all three proved perfect. The first pair, which I also wore on the plane, were Chacos. The cushioning and traction was great for hikes around ruins, excursions to cenotes and bike riding. Then there were my Sanuk Yoga Mat flip flops, which are perfect for getting to the beach and taking short walks on the beach road in the afternoon. The third pair was a slightly dressier option for dinner and drinks, and I did indeed wear them out at restaurants every night. If you’re a minimalist like me, I promise this is all you’ll need–but if you have a little more room in your suitcase, it wouldn’t hurt to pack your Chacos/Tevas and instead wear sneakers on the plane, especially if you live somewhere cold.

Underthings: I kept it really comfortable by packing mostly bralettes and just one wired bra–a strapless one, for versatility. I always pack way more underwear than I think I’ll use, especially in sweaty weather like this. Underwear take up next to no room in a suitcase, so there’s no harm–but if you’re really strapped for space, you can just use your toiletries to wash dirty underwear; keep reading to find out more.


Plane outfit: These were by far the warmest clothes I brought with me. While it felt silly to arrive in Tulum wearing full-length leggings, I sure was glad to have them on when we returned to windy, chilly Denver. I opted for comfort over style with a sports bra, a loose gray T-shirt, a basic hooded sweatshirt and Zella leggings.


Miscellaneous: In the days following my terrible sunburn, I was glad to have brought my wide-brimmed hat with me–although I wish it had been straw instead of felt! The only purse I brought with me was this small, plain one, although I would have regretted not packing a tote bag for the beach had our hotel not given us one…or three. I brought two pairs of sunglasses for variety and in case one broke or got lost. For entertainment, I brought a journal (used regularly), two books (same) and a pack of playing cards (never used; the beach was too windy). Things that seemed practical in concept but not in execution: a bike light (unless you’re visually impaired, there’s still plenty of light at night to get around) and a collapsible water bottle (much to my chagrin, our hotel didn’t provide a water station, and neither did any local businesses).

Toiletries: As indicated above, I tried hard to bring as many natural toiletries with me as possible. I opted for LUSH solid shampoo and tooth powder, Nourish Organic face wash, paraben-free and scent-free body wash (which can double as gentle laundry detergent for undergarments!), L’Occitane sulfate-free conditioner, and natural moisturizer with sunscreen in it. I stocked up on mineral and non-mineral sunscreen before the trip, because I heard it was marked up big time in Tulum–and it is. I wish I’d brought some aloe with me, because I needed it badly and it too was expensive in town. One thing I wish I hadn’t brought? Makeup. I didn’t want to use it at all.

Gear: Like any 21st-century citizen, I brought along my iPhone and charger for pictures. Wifi was fairly hopeless, especially on the beach, so don’t expect strong internet while you’re here. I brought a drybag for storing electronics during aquatic adventures, but in the end I left my phone back at the hotel during said adventures because I was too scared it’d be lost, stolen or destroyed. I also brought along my own snorkel, fins and mask, since cenotes and snorkel shops will charge you a small fee every time you rent these–but if you don’t foresee a lot of snorkeling in your post-Tulum future, I don’t think this purchase is worth it.

…So there you have it: everything I packed for a week in Tulum! I hope this was helpful for anyone who’s headed there this year. If you’ve been before, what do you recommend taking and leaving behind?

READ NEXT: KAYAKING IN LAGOS, PORTUGAL

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Sure, the water isn’t as clear and warm as it is in the Maldives. True, the sand isn’t as white and powdery as it is in the Caribbean. But you’d be hard pressed to find a sight more magnificent than the beaches of Lagos.

While planning our honeymoon, my husband and I struggled to figure out which Algarve destination was right for us. We’d read that major destinations such as Lagos and Albufeira attracted loud, hard-partying spring-breaker types and were built up so densely with resorts that they’d lost a lot of their charm. By contrast, the eastern coast was still relatively quiet, attracting mostly families and older couples in search of lazy beach days and bird-watching.

Given that this was the one and only relaxing leg of our trip, finding the perfect quiet beach was our number one priority. If I’m being honest, avoiding drunken college kids was priority number two. I knew in my gut that the towns east of Faro would be best, but my heart ached at the thought of missing the western Algarve’s stunning sandstone cliffs.

Sandstone cliffs of Lagos, Portugal

So we came up with a compromise. Instead of traveling to just one place for five days, we split up our coastal time into three parts: three days of beach-bumming in sleepy Cabanas, one day kayaking in scenic Lagos, and one day sightseeing in Faro, where we’d catch a direct train to Lisbon the next morning.

Let me tell you something you’ve probably already figured out: One day in Lagos is not enough! I mean, how was I supposed to tear my eyes away from this view after less than 24 hours?

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Because our time here was limited, we thought we’d make the most of the town’s best feature–those gorgeous cliffs–by getting out on the open water. And what better way to do so than on a kayak?

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

A three-hour kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures Lagos was pretty much the only activity we booked in advance of our trip. Typically, we like to play things by ear, sketching out a tentative itinerary and adjusting according to the weather, our mood and other factors. But we West Coast natives were desperate for some paddling action, and we knew these tours booked up weeks in advance, even in shoulder season–so we took the leap.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

After a windswept walk from the Lagos train station to our simple Airbnb rental, we headed down to the small but hopping Praia Batata (literally “potato beach” in English), where Kayak Adventures gave us some preliminary instructions and two kayak paddles. We stuffed everything we had in the shared drybag they provided, keeping only the adorable waterproof disposable camera we’d received as a wedding gift. (Yep, that’s why most of these pictures look oddly vintagey.)

Once our group of about a dozen had all arrived, our British guide greeted us with a few funny icebreakers and gave a short lesson on paddling for the newbies. Even though I’d kayaked before, I was grateful for the refresher; My only paddling experience was in a one-person, sit-inside kayak on a relatively calm lake, and this was going to be my first time negotiating the open ocean on an open-faced, two-person kayak.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

It was slow going for about five minutes after our guide pushed us off the beach as the two of us tried to get our bearings and get our paddling in sync. But the guide seemed unconcerned, and once I saw that most of the other couples with us lagged behind and tried in vain to face the right direction, I felt much better about my own struggles.

Things went smoother once we had all left the beach and reached the seawall, at the end of which was perched a stately red lighthouse. Around the corner, we glimpsed the cliffs I’d only seen in pictures thus far, and my heart skipped a beat.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

The next hour and a half flew by. As our guide described the geological phenomenon that eroded the sandstone cliffside into the shapes of natural bridges and narrow columns and explained the way the tide etched ribbons of red and orange across the face of the cliffs, we glided slack-jawed through archways, caves and grottoes.

We traveled all the way to Ponte da Piedade, where the cliffs turn from red to white, before turning around. When it was time for a snack break, our guide led us to the impossibly beautiful Camilo Beach–so named, she told us, for a camel-shaped rock formation in the cliffside. Once the two of us had had a bite to eat, we grabbed the masks and snorkels on offer and swam out from the beach. Unfortunately, the water was pretty cloudy and colder than we’d expected, so our quest didn’t last long…but the ocean made a great backdrop for a photoshoot with the last few frames our camera had left!

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

…aaaand that’s when the film ran out.

We spent the last few minutes of our break exploring nearby caves and ducking through archways that led to adjoining beaches. Then, we hauled our damp selves back into the kayaks and onto the water for another half hour of ocean paddling and basking in the warm Algarve sun.

Three hours later, saltwater-soaked and happy, we arrived back on Batata Beach, thanked the guide and turned in our paddles. The sun had begun to set, and it was time for a well-earned beer back at our apartment and a sunset walk to the cliff’s edge.

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

For anyone who’d like to follow in our footsteps, I highly recommend booking the kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures. As you’ll see when you arrive at Batata Beach, Kayak Adventures has a lot of competitors–but it’s one of the longest-standing and highest-rated companies out there, so you really can’t go wrong with them.

If you go on a sunny day, make sure to bring tons of water and sunscreen. If you’re especially sensitive to sun, wear a hat and UV-protective clothing over your swimsuit. No matter the weather, I recommend you bring as little as possible with you to the beach; take some snacks, some money and your keys, and leave phones and non-waterproof electronics at the hotel.

READ NEXT: TIPS ON TRAVELING TO PORTUGAL

Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

Here in the U.S., our cities have transportation departments, building commissioners and art endowments–three separate but equally important entities. But in beautiful Portugal, things work a little differently…because the roads and buildings are art.

Photo by Ian Bishop

I’d read extensively about the azulejos we’d see in Portugal, but I thought I’d only see tile work on a few major churches and monuments. I also thought, as the “azul” in azulejo seemed to indicate, that they’d all be blue and white. Instead, what I found was a multicolored visual feast around every corner, whether I looked down at my feet or three stories above me.

Tiles decorating the facade of Pena Palace in Sintra

Tile decorations and mosaic designs are simply inescapable in Portugal–and thank goodness for that, because there’s no more satisfying diversion from a long day of walking than stopping to inspect a breathtaking mural on the side of a confeitaria or looking down at your feet to discover an intricate flower pattern on the sidewalk. It’s clear that the country’s handiwork with ceramic tiles, basalt and limestone is what really separates it visually from the rest of Western Europe.

From the moment we arrived in Lisbon, we saw tiles everywhere. They fit together in elaborate, hand-painted murals narrating Lisbon’s maritime history in the city’s metro stations. They adorned the face of seemingly every building from the northern wine country all the way down to the sun-drenched, beachy Algarve. Tiny black and white stones fit together to form the whole country’s sidewalks. They were by turns weather-worn, ornate, beautiful, ugly, geometric, slippery and three-dimensional. Portugal didn’t seem to discriminate. Rather, it seemed to say, “If it’s covered in tiles, any tiles, it’s Portuguese.”

After a while, I wondered why tile art was so pervasive in Portugal but nowhere else in Europe…so I did some research. It turns out the Portuguese term for tiles, azulejos, has nothing to do with azul, the word for blue, like I thought. Instead, it’s actually derived from the Arabic word al-zulayj, which means “polished stone.” Whoever named them must have been paying respect to Egypt, the birthplace of tiles. But despite Portugal’s deep connection with Northern Africa–Moors controlled the Iberian peninsula for 700 years until Catholic conquerors wrested the land away in 1492–the tiles we see today were mostly inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. Legend has it that the king, Dom Manuel I, saw those wondrous Moorish tiles In Granada and used them as inspiration when designing his palace in Évora. All his tiles were imported from Seville and featured nothing more than abstract geometric patterns, in keeping with an Islamic law that condemns idolatry.

Dom Manuel I made tiny Portugal a conqueror of far-flung lands and a major global power, and for that he was revered. The clergy and the nobility hastened to follow his artistic example. In an architectural style they dubbed Manueline, they built churches, government seats and private estates with nods to his influence–intricate designs carved out of limestone, maritime symbols…and, of course, tiles. It wasn’t long until tile fever took over.

Tiles in Lisbon

Photos by Ian Bishop

The history of Portugal’s calçadas, or tiled sidewalks, is less documented–perhaps because, unlike azulejos, there isn’t an entire museum devoted to them! We know the first intricate mosaics in Portugal were designed by the Romans 2,000 years ago–in fact, you can still ooh and aah at them today at an archaeological site just outside Coimbra. But they never would have returned were it not for Dom Joao II, who in 1498 issued a decree that Portugal’s dirt roads were to be paved with limestone. (It’s said that he did this not for the good of the people but so that he could march in a dirt-free street parade in his honor…alongside a white rhino. You can’t make this stuff up!)

That takes us to 1755, the year of the earthquake that so devastated Lisbon that almost no building in the city survived. In a hasty attempt to rebuild, road workers gathered together the shards of limestone and basalt that once graced Lisbon’s roads and formed its handsome buildings and turned them into mosaic sidewalks, taking inspiration from their Roman ancestors.

The signature star-shaped tiles in Sintra, Portugal

The technique, once a necessity, transformed into an art and spread all over the country in the mid-19th century. Even Portugal’s former colonies boast artistic calçadas, from delicate geometric patterns in Maputo, Mozambique, to a giant wave-patterned esplanade at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

If you travel all over Portugal, pay close attention to the sidewalks and sides of buildings: They’ll often tell you a lot about the local heritage. Travel to Pinhão, a town sitting on the banks of the Douro River, and you’ll see its history of grape-growing and wine-making told in tile murals at the train station. Look down while you’re walking around Lagos and you’ll see mosaics in the shape of crabs, fish and octopuses, a testament to the Algarve region’s strong fishing industry and close connection to the ocean. In Sintra the sidewalk mosaics are star-shaped, a nod to the fact that the town name means “bright star” in a now-defunct Indo-European language.

The University of Coimbra’s seal…in tiles

If you visit Portugal, don’t forget to pad your itinerary with lots of “Wait, I need another look at this amazing tile/mosaic!” time. With all the steep hills you’ll be climbing, you’ll need a break anyway.

READ NEXT: SEVEN NON-TOURISTY THINGS TO DO IN LISBON

Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

lakeunion

No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.

Spring seduction

For the last five years, I haven’t been so pleased with the magazines, catalogs, radio commercials and billboards I start to see this time of year.

I feel like I’m suddenly inundated with images of sun and fun come March. In the local alt-weekly newspaper, a search for weekend activities turns up advertisements for boating festivals and oceanside cabin rentals. Every March issue of every women’s magazine urges readers to start getting fit for bikini season, to pull out the tanning lotion and to run, not walk, to the nearest Old Navy and buy the entire spring collection.

When I lived in a beach town whose four seasons are spring, slightly-colder spring, summer and spring, I didn’t mind so much. But I live in the Northwest now, and I’d rather not be reminded that though it is past March 21 and thus technically springtime, real warm weather likely won’t be upon us for months to come.

Over the weekend and earlier this week, skies in Seattle were almost suspiciously perfect. Not a cloud hovered over Seattle Saturday, and Sunday morning and afternoon were decently clear before the rain moved in.  On Wednesday, the high temperature surpassed 60.  It was the kind of weather one might see in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the middle of spring.

But now, I feel as if I dreamed the whole thing. This morning I woke up to the same gray skies and lazy rain I saw last Friday, and the sun only peeked through for a couple of hours before it disappeared again. Now, the forecast calls for the same old dreary clouds and rain.

This kind of meteorological bait-and-switch is one of the few reasons I don’t like living in the Northwest. Friends and family who still live in California often ask me, “Don’t you get sick of the rain?” I don’t, as long as it’s moderate and fairly constant. The only time rain bothers me is when it abruptly halts a multi-day run of beautiful spring weather–especially come May or June, when we expect beautiful weather after so many months of rainfall but keep getting inundated with storms.

I have countless stories of wacky spring weather in the Northwest, and I’ve only lived in the Northwest for five years.

In May 2008, a chilly rainstorm in Eugene, Ore. yielded to a weekend of suffocatingly hot weather. On Saturday, as my still-damp umbrella hung on a coat rack, I tried to walk to the corner market and nearly fainted in the heat. My roommates and I tried to sleep on the lawn in front of our house because the night air was slightly cooler than the temperatures in our stuffy bedrooms. On Monday, we walked to class amid a downpour, clad in rainboots and coats.

It rained every day for weeks leading up to my graduation ceremonies last June, forcing families and graduates to consider wearing plastic ponchos at my department’s outdoor commencement. The clouds parted for two full days of 80-degree sunny weather, and suddenly wide-brimmed hats were more appropriate. The very minute all our parents waved goodbye and drove off, the rain returned.

I grew up with such consistent temperatures and conditions that I groaned inwardly every time an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked me to report on the weather during my internship there. (How many ways can I say “morning fog and afternoon sun; highs in the mid-60s,” I wondered?) Spring in Seattle is a completely different experience. In fact, the season between March and June shouldn’t be called “spring” in the Northwest; in these months, there are only short flirtations with sun sandwiched in between long spells of clouds and rain. A Northwest spring is simply a three-month tug-of-war between winter and summer.

It might sound hellish, but here’s the good news: summer eventually wins.

The Seattle summer

A view of Puget Sound, and the globe-topped offices of the recently-folded Seattle Post-Intelligencer, from my rooftop.

According to locals, summer in Seattle doesn’t start until July 5. Everyone sits shivering on their apartment rooftops or in folding chairs at Gas Works Park on the night of Independence Day, hoping and praying the next two months won’t be as horrible as June was–and the next day, magically, the sun comes out, as if all that collective wishing willed it to do so.

So, locals–where’s the sun? I didn’t feel much in the way of warmth today, nor did I see much sunlight. Sure, I should be used to seeing gray skies–I’ve lived in Oregon for the past four years–but before now, I always escaped the clouds come June and flew south to Santa Cruz, where perfect, breezy, 75-degree sunny weather was invariably always waiting for me.

I can’t really complain about the weather, though; even on its mundane days, this city is far more exciting than Santa Cruz has ever been. It offers more nightlife, more local color (and that’s saying a lot, because Santa Cruz, like Berkeley, is known for such a thing), more job opportunities, even–dare I say it–more stunning vistas! But wouldn’t everything be all the more exciting with sun? I think so.

Despite the rainy daytime and the chilly evening, my Fourth of July couldn’t have been better. After weeks of waiting, I finally moved into my apartment. My roomie and I celebrated at Seattle International Beer Festival, which was not only tasty but also educational. By sampling beer from all over the world, I learned all about different countries’ unique brewing styles. When my fellow Times interns and I learned that anything with a beer label bearing the words “stout” or “imperial” was guaranteed to taste great and have a higher-than-average alcohol content, we raced for the booths displaying either word–we wanted to get our money’s worth!

After the festival, we raced to my apartment building and cooked up some pasta and macaroni and cheese. Later, several other friends filtered in; by the time we formed a line out the door to head up to the roof for the fireworks, there were close to 20 people there. (And they probably felt pretty unwelcome, as all we had in the way of seating was a sofa bed and a couple of bar stools!) The fireworks, both above Lake Union and across the sound at Bainbridge Island, were pretty elaborate. I hope I can stay here long enough to see them next year sans obstructive cloud.

Tomorrow will be the start of my third week at the Times. Oh how time flies…when you can’t see the sun.