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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READ NEXT: Celebrating love in verdant Vermont

Recent work

It’s been a while — five years, to be exact — since I took time to reflect on some of my favorite recent stories. I don’t often get a chance to look back on past work. As a full-time writer at Brown University, I’m always juggling a few stories each week. Most often, I’m immersed in the story up until the moment it’s published, when I immediately release it from my thoughts and pivot to the next item on the agenda.

But there are a few stories that stick with me for a bit longer. Sometimes, the subject matter is so engrossing that I keep reading about it after the fact. Other times, I’ll hit it off with an interviewee and I’ll get inspired to dig into their past work. Still other times, I’m just plain proud of my writing, and I spend a day or two basking in the glow of a job well done.

Here are a few of the stories I’ve enjoyed sharing recently.

Creating a lifelong singer

Choral music is a longtime passion of mine — I’ve been singing in groups since I was 13 — so I was thrilled when Chorus America staff reached out two years ago and asked if I was interested in contributing to their quarterly magazine, The Voice.

I was especially thrilled to write this article on how youth chorus directors can turn their singers into lifelong choir enthusiasts. My parents practically dragged me to my first choir rehearsal kicking and screaming, but not long afterward, I became a true believer. Singing in groups has had such a positive impact on my life that these days, when I move to a new city, seeking out a choir to join is my first order of business.

This wasn’t the kind of writing I was used to. Over the years, I’ve turned out hundreds of 500- to 800-word stories that draw from a small handful of interviews and other sources. But six-page features involving a dozen interviews and hours of research? That was unfamiliar territory. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about scheduling, outlining and planning from this freelance experience — and I’ve carried those lessons with me to my new job, where I’m often engaged in big writing projects with multiple stakeholders.

A year in Rhode Island & Two years in Rhode Island

The nearly three years I lived in Colorado were probably the healthiest, most balanced and most contented years of my life so far. Perhaps that’s why the transition from the Rockies to the Ocean State has felt, well, a little rocky. Ever since Ian and I arrived in Rhode Island in the middle of the 2018 bomb cyclone, I’ve had mixed feelings about this place — its weather, its people and its traditions. How can a place be so proud of its past, yet so mired in corruption? Why are its residents so devoted to drinking iced coffee, even in the depths of winter?  I had fun thinking about the many contradictions and colorful characters of this state as I reminisced on one year of adventures. Then, a year later, I reassessed my relationship with the state and found it had grown on me.

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RaMell Ross heads to the Oscars

In 2019, four of the 10 documentary films that were nominated for Academy Awards were created by people with ties to Brown University — proof positive that this school’s reputation for welcoming and nurturing outside-the-box creative minds is well earned. The documentary filmmaker RaMell Ross, who in 2019 was a professor of the practice at Brown, had a whirlwind year following the release of his “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” I snuck in a half-hour phone call with him just as he touched down in Los Angeles for a week of talk show appearances, dinners, galas and meetings leading up to the Oscars. Given the weighty subject matter of his films, I didn’t expect to be laughing through the entire interview, but that’s exactly what happened.

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Students find contemporary connections to ancient text in ‘Antigones’ course

It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college, and I still miss the undergraduate experience every day. I was one of those students who loved learning for the sake of it. Even though I majored in journalism, I ventured far outside my course requirements for my own pleasure, dabbling in German, paleobiology, Russian literature and music history. Today, as a staff writer at Brown, I’m lucky enough to get to relive that student experience on a regular basis.

The comparative literature course “Antigones” was one of those courses I would have been dying to take as an undergrad. It involved a close study of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play, along with several contemporary adaptations ranging from graphic novels to experimental theater scripts. It culminated in a short performance of students’ own adaptations. I loved how their performances shed new light on the play’s timeless commentary on gender, social class and protest.

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

The tiles of Portugal have become Instagram darlings in the last few years. It’s easy to appreciate their beauty, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find out much about their history. I spent a few hours researching the Portuguese empire’s historical preference for tiles, which dates back to one leader’s love of Moorish design. Then, I went down a deep internet rabbit hole trying to find out more about the history behind the intricate tiled sidewalks all over Portugal and its former colonies around the world. Turns out they came into being as a result of a king’s weird obsession with white and a subsequent catastrophic earthquake. You know you want to click on that link to learn more.

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Students, alumni celebrate accomplishments, anniversaries in procession

Working at the 250-year-old Brown University has introduced me to a fascinating world of quirky, venerable traditions that didn’t really exist at the University of Oregon, my alma mater. At Brown, there’s an annual holiday concert performed entirely in Latin; students and faculty alike embrace the legend of the fictional Josiah Carberry, professor of “psychoceramics”; and the logistics surrounding the century-old Commencement procession are so wonderfully complex that they need an explainer page.

The procession, in all its sceptered and top-hatted glory, is something you really have to witness to appreciate — which is why I felt daunted by the task of bringing this tradition to life in a story. I’m proud of the way I made it work by weaving together university history, inspiring student stories (including a father-daughter duo who graduated and walked in the procession together!) and fun bits of color.

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Cyrano de Bergerac is the hero we need right now

I love interviewing professional actors. I find that they’re not only incredibly honest and passionate but also incredibly articulate — which makes sense, given it’s their job! For three seasons, I managed public relations for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and I had so many compelling conversations with its actors and directors. I was particularly taken aback by the honesty and candor of Scott Coopwood, who played lead roles in “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

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Notes from 1958

I was incredibly fortunate to be working for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as it celebrated its 60th season and completed its second tour through Shakespeare’s complete canon of plays — benchmarks that few other American festivals have met. As we prepared to promote the season, I sifted through the festival history I could find — old programs, news clips and photos — and realized that many of the young actors featured in that first festival in 1958 were likely still alive today. I spent several hours tracking a handful of them down, and I’m so glad I did: They had some fascinating stories to share, and some had gone on to achieve monumental success. Over the course of the summer, I ran a short series of condensed interviews with the original cast and crew. I don’t know if they were my most widely read stories, but they sure were among the most fun to put together.

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Boatbuilding course at Brown includes equal parts discussion and construction

Here’s another course I would have been eager to take as an undergraduate — although I’m not sure my construction skills would have been up to par! In “Boatbuilding: Design, Making and Culture,” students bonded as they read up on the history of boatbuilding and skilled labor and then made an actual wooden boat that floats. I loved that this course gave engineering students an opportunity to appreciate the role cultural context plays in the building process, while it gave students in the humanities a chance to work with their hands.

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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Celebrating love in verdant Vermont

In July 2018, on the eve of our second wedding anniversary, Ian told me he was whisking me away for a weekend. The destination, he said, was a surprise.

I was thrilled — I love a well planned surprise, especially when it involves exploring beautiful New England in my favorite season with my favorite person.

(That said — have you ever tried packing for a trip to an undisclosed location? I’m here to tell you it ain’t easy.)

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When we hit the road on Friday evening, I started narrowing down possible destinations in my head. I thought we might be headed to the Berkshires, which in the summer boasts not only natural beauty but also world-class culture: think classical music at Tanglewood and contemporary art at Mass MoCA. I also considered the possibility that we were on our way to the Hudson Valley, home of magnificent wineries, charming sleepy towns and an NYC-caliber restaurant scene.

But I was most convinced we were bound for Vermont, a state we both couldn’t wait to visit. On paper, Vermont seemed like exactly our kind of place: it had crunchy hippie roots, beautiful mountain scenery, a plethora of outdoor activity possibilities, and most importantly a lot of maple syrup and cheese.

As we crossed into the southeastern corner of Vermont — suspicion confirmed! — I was excited to see if the state would measure up to my Mt. Mansfield-high expectations.

Folks, it was love at first sight — literally. Within the first half hour, we hit this magnificent viewpoint:

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All at once, I realized why winter in Rhode Island felt so lackluster and why I missed Boulder so dang much: Because Rhode Island is as flat as a pancake! This was the first time I’d seen a mountain vista in six months. It was glorious.

As dusk descended, we pulled into the adorable town of Wilmington, where we’d be based for the next two days. “Town” is perhaps a generous descriptor of pint-sized Wilmington — it’s really not much more than a half-mile stretch of highway with a handful of restaurants, shops and adventure outfitters. Yet it has everything a discerning weekender could possibly want, including great food, an impressive roster of concerts and shows, and an amazing variety of handmade gifts to take home. Most importantly, it’s got that New England je-ne-sais-quoi about it — that woodsy, cozy quaintness I wasn’t sure existed beyond the pages of Yankee Magazine.

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After dropping our luggage inside the adorable Airbnb, Ian and I walked “across town” (read: two blocks away) for an uncharacteristically lavish dinner at Cask & Kiln, a relatively new restaurant housed in a historic brick building that had been ravaged by river flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. This place is as much about romantic atmosphere as it is about food, all low lights and leather tufted seats and Art Deco details. I loved that everything about the restaurant, including the decor, the menu and even the outfits of the servers, managed to feel at once contemporary and nostalgic, simultaneously casual and celebratory. The least classy thing about the place? Us — we had mostly packed outdoor adventure clothes and were easily the most underdressed people there!

The next morning, I woke up early to get the lay of the land. With a cup of coffee in one hand and a blanket around my shoulders, I read up on the area’s parks, attractions and seasonal events and consulted a map of the area. Soon I was fired up for a day of scenic hiking, kayaking, farmer’s markets and covered bridge peeping (it’s a real hobby!) — and I was already plotting return trips in the fall and winter, when the area appears equally gorgeous.

We kicked off Saturday morning with a Cajun-inspired breakfast at Jezebel’s Eatery and a brief tour through some of the town shops. Sometimes I feel like the same 50 books are on display in every bookstore, so I was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic and locally-focused displays at Bartleby’s Books. I think our visit here inspired about half of my holiday gifts in 2018!

After grabbing some local honey at a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town, we pulled into Molly Stark State Park — where we were stunned to discover we were one of just a handful of visitors that morning. After consulting a ranger and a trail map, we followed signs to the Mt. Olga Fire Tower, which promised sweeping views of the Green Mountains. Promise delivered.

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One thing I love about New England is its plethora of easy and moderate hikes. Many people who live in the West, particularly those in Colorado, approach hiking with a “no pain, no gain” philosophy and believe the best views can only be found by enduring grueling climbs. This 1.7-mile jaunt proves all those hiking snobs wrong.

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After Molly Stark, we reversed course, heading west on the state’s main southern highway with no particular destination in mind. Google Maps first led us to Woodford State Park, where we found a few-mile trail circumnavigating Adams Reservoir. Some families were paddling their kayaks and canoes on the calm waters, and we dreamed of returning here in the fall to do the same.

After relaxing for a while at the reservoir’s picnic area, we continued west and grabbed lunch at a bohemian coffee shop in Bennington. Wondering where to go next, we pored over the local tourism guides for inspiration. Almost immediately, we zeroed in on Bennington College — the alma mater of several big literary names, including Donna Tartt. We’d both recently read “The Secret History,” which was based on her time there, and we were intrigued to see if the place felt as mysterious as it had been portrayed in her novel.

The campus was beautiful, austere and almost disturbingly quiet in the middle of summer. We spent a pleasant couple of hours imagining spots where Tartt’s characters might have held their bacchanal or crossed the quad for Greek lessons.

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Back in Wilmington, we hit up Red Fox Shop, a local wine, cheese and gift store, to assemble our own ploughman’s dinner. The place was so unexpectedly delightful that we stayed almost an hour chatting with the owner, browsing funky cheeses and shopping for gifts. Then, we took our finds back to the Airbnb and lounged on the riverbank until the mosquitoes chased us inside.

On Sunday morning, we weren’t quite ready to return to the real world — so we took the scenic route home. Our first stop was a charming covered bridge near Brattleboro, the first one I’d ever seen on the East Coast.

After crossing into Massachusetts, Ian suddenly remembered one of his favorite area destinations from a previous trip here. Drawing largely from memory, he navigated us to the Montague Bookmill, a former 19th-century grist mill that is now home to a sprawling complex of used books, cafes, food stalls and local artists’ pop-up shops.

We had another three hours of driving ahead of us, otherwise I might have spent the entire day here. I loved everything about this spot — the sun-soaked reading nooks, the unpretentious vibe, the vibrant art, the friendly and talkative people.

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Needless to say, this weekend confirmed my assumptions that I’d love Vermont. Despite never having visited before, the Green Mountain State felt familiar to me. Maybe it’s because Vermonters seem so much like Santa Cruzans, filled to the brim with local pride and refreshingly far removed from the career-focused hustle of the I-95 corridor. Or maybe it’s that they spend so much more of their time outside, even in the depths of winter, like in our previous home of Boulder. Whatever it was, I know one thing: I’ll be back soon.

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READ NEXT: Two years in Rhode Island

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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Photo by Jill Kimball

Where to eat and drink on Tulum Beach

Photo by Jill Kimball

Back in March of 2017, my husband and I spent a whole blissful week exploring and relaxing in Tulum, the Yucatán Peninsula’s most stylish and bohemian resort town. As the destination’s popularity among Americans has grown, so has the number of friends asking us for recommendations on what to do, see, eat and drink while they’re in Tulum. After drafting a couple of mile-long emails, I realized I may as well make my list of recommendations public and official here!

The thing about restaurants and bars along Tulum Beach road? They’re all beautiful. Some boast straw roofs, sandy floors and sweeping views of the impossibly turquoise waves. Others sit ceilingless in the dense, tropical jungle across the road, open to the stars and sultry air. But while almost every establishment in Tulum’s romantic, naturally aesthetically pleasing environment is Instagrammable to the max, only a few can claim both style and substance.

Before I dive in, I’d like to share a few general tips about eating and drinking along Tulum’s beach road:

  1. Always, always bring cash…in pesos. Many restaurants take debit cards, and almost all take U.S. dollars. But if you pay using either of these methods, you’ll be charged significantly more, as restaurants calculate the dollar value of their dishes using an unfavorable exchange rate. Save your hard-earned money by hitting the ATM regularly and withdrawing local currency. Note that you’ll have better luck at the ATMs in the actual town of Tulum; along the beach road, the density of foreign tourists causes machines to run out of cash and malfunction regularly. We always used the machine inside the gas station at the intersection of Avenida Coba and the Tulum-Cancun highway.
  2. Don’t wear high heels. As I explained in my last post, Tulum isn’t a dressy town. You’ll look and feel out of place if you try to go full glam. (Plus, who really wants to ruin their nicest shoes on that dusty, gravelly, pothole-ridden beach road?) Stick to flip flops, flat sandals or espadrilles.
  3. Eat early. We found that Tulum’s dining schedule is pretty much the opposite of Portugal’s. It isn’t a late-night town — probably because it’s not on the Mexican electrical grid and thus is quite dimly lit at night — so its best restaurants fill up well before dark. If top-notch food is what you seek, plan to eat dinner around 5:30 or 6 p.m., unless you’re able to make a later reservation. If you’re full of energy after your meal, fear not: There are a few places where you can grab post-dinner drinks before turning in for the night.

And now, without further ado, here are some of my Tulum favorites!

Photo by Jill Kimball
Margarita at Eufemia in Tulum, Mexico, Photo by Jill Kimball

TAQUERIA LA EUFEMIA

Situated right on the best stretch of sand in Tulum, Eufemia is the ultimate destination for those who need midday sustenance but don’t want a break from beach-bumming. The sandy hut serves up a variety of fruit juices, margaritas, brunch foods and delicious yet extremely affordable tacos. Customers who opt for meat, fish or veggie tacos can visit Eufemia’s extensive toppings bar to add fresh salsas, fruit and crema to their food. From there, they can choose to sunbathe on the beach, sit at an umbrella-shaded table or stay cool inside the hut, where the most coveted seats face the waves. Visit closer to lunchtime and you’ll practically have the place to yourself; visit around 3 p.m. and you’ll find yourself competing for space with dozens of scantily-clad, sunkissed and chic twentysomethings who have biked in from town.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Casa Jaguar

Looking for post-dinner drinks? Allow me to recommend Casa Jaguar, an open-air restaurant on the jungle side of the beach road. I can’t comment on the quality of the food here — reviews of the eats were so-so, so we skipped out — but I can say that the cocktails were creative, delicious and beautiful. The decor, all southwestern-print pillows, candles and young palm trees, wasn’t too shabby, either!

Photo by Jill Kimball

Casa Banana

We may never have visited this Argentinian restaurant had it not been so conveniently located right across the road from our hotel, Nueva Vida de Ramiro. Argentinian food, after all, tends to be beef-forward…and I’m, well, not. Lucky for me, red meat isn’t all they do well here. I ordered a whole roasted fish and was delighted with it: the buttery flesh melted in my mouth, and the skin was perfectly crispy. Like many other excellent destinations in Tulum, the cocktail list was adventurous and aesthetically pleasing; my mezcal drink came with a sparkler that doubled as a stir stick when the flame died down.
Photo by Jill Kimball

I Scream Bar

Walk by this funky, casual place after dark and you’ll hear locals and tourists luring you in with chants of “I Scream Bar! I Scream Bar!” Answer the call and you won’t be disappointed. This wonderfully unpretentious shack sells bottled beer for $2 and offers a variety of ceviches and tacos. But the real star of the show is its vegan ice cream, which is served in creatively upcycled beer bottles and comes in both traditional and wacky flavors, from cacao to coconut to mango ginger. Pay a little extra and the bartenders will mix in some mezcal or tequila.
Photo by Jill Kimball Photo by Jill Kimball Photo by Jill Kimball

Hartwood

Tulum’s most popular and buzzed-about dinner spot absolutely lives up to the hype. The menu changes daily, but you can always count on fresh seafood, unexpected herbs, homemade juices and cocktail mixes, and impeccable flavor.  Our ceviche, octopus and local fish dishes were scrumptious, and our cocktails were lovely and refreshing. Hartwood opens daily at 5:30 and doesn’t take reservations, and you’ll see a queue start to form quite early. To guarantee a table for two, show up 20-30 minutes before opening; if your party is larger, try to get in line by 5.
Photo by Jill Kimball

RESTAURARE

As a lifelong vetegarian-recently-turned-pescatarian, I’ve always loved seeking out great meatless restaurants. Restaurare, an entirely vegan establishment, was one of the best I’ve visited — and not just because it was drop-dead gorgeous. The coconut ceviche and mole-inspired curry were to die for, and the restaurant’s own all-natural, homemade bug spray at every table was such a nice touch! Sadly, I just learned that Restaurare closed last year after its landlord hiked up the rent. This happens to far too many vegan and vegetarian restaurants in hip, desirable places, and I find it heartbreaking. If you’d like to give vegan food a try, I encourage you to patronize places like Raw Love and Charly’s Vegan Tacos while you’re in Tulum. Let’s work together to keep these healthy, inclusive and yummy restaurants in business!

Drinking a coco frio on Tulum Beach, Photo by Ian Bishop
So there you have it — my top eating and drinking picks for Tulum Beach! What’s at the top of your list? And if you’ve visited Tulum before, what were some of your favorites?

READ NEXT: What to pack for a week in Tulum

Chasing classical music history in Paris

In Paris, art is everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say every block inside the city limits boasts a little bit of eye candy — whether it’s a world-class museum, a row of elegant Haussmann-designed apartments, a sweet arbor covered in pink roses or just an attractive café.

With all this visual stimulation, visitors to the City of Light may momentarily forget the other four senses. (Okay, the other three: In this town, you won’t soon forget taste!) But doing so altogether would be a mistake, because this magical place is as sonically pleasing as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, it’s been home to some of the greatest composers who ever lived.

Though Paris’ reputation for world-class art is due in large part to Debussy, Rossini and other famous music masters who resided there, few tourists will learn much about their legacy. That’s because sites dedicated to the city’s musical history have to compete with world-class art museums, shopping and restaurants. And not even the biggest classical fan wants to spend a day stalking Satie if it means missing the Mona Lisa or Moulin Rouge.

Luckily, as my most recent trip to Paris proves, it’s easy to make time for the classical alongside the classics. If you’re a music lover, you can have your macaron and eat it too. Here’s how to walk in the footsteps of Debussy, Chopin and other classical greats while still staying on the tourist trail.

Artwork at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MUSÉE D’ORSAY

A trip to the Musee D’Orsay, where some of the world’s most famous Impressionist paintings are housed, is a must on any trip to Paris. Luckily, the museum houses a few delightful classical-themed gems for those who are as excited about Liszt as they are about water lilies. Here you’ll find portraits of Erik Satie and Hector Berlioz, Degas’ rendering of a night at the Paris Opera, and Franz von Stück’s arresting Beethoven mask, which I’ve hoped to see in person since childhood. Even when the D’Orsay isn’t paying outright tribute to the most famous Parisian composers, it still feels as if you’re floating through the visual equivalent of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” — especially on the museum’s famous fifth floor, which is all dreamy water lilies, soft lines and pastel landscapes.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MONTMARTRE

If you’re a first-time visitor to Paris, you’ll probably end up in Montmartre at some point during your trip. Home to heavyweights such as the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur and the Moulin Rouge, this hilly neighborhood was once the international capital of bohemianism and creativity. Among its famous residents were the painters Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Naturally, writers and musicians flocked here, too, holing up in cabarets by night and philosophizing over coffee and cigarettes by day. More than a century later, it’s still easy to see why Montmartre’s romantic, winding lanes and colorful storefronts attracted artists of all kinds.

Here in the 18th arrondissement, fitting in a taste of the belle époque musician’s life between visits to major tourist sights is easy. Just blocks away from Sacre-Coeur is Rue Cortot, where Erik Satie — he of the dreamy “Gymnopédie” piano pieces — once lived. And right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge sits Le Carmen, an elegant nightclub that was once the home of Georges Bizet. The grand foyer opens up to a massive bar area, which offers opera-themed cocktails (spicy “Habanera,” anyone?) and countless flavors of infused gin.

Chandeliers at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

VERSAILLES

A day trip to this over-the-top palace, built just outside Paris by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, is popular for a reason: Its interiors are jaw-droppingly opulent, and its acres of manicured grounds provide hours of free entertainment. For more than a century, Versailles residents’ fashion sense and food tastes set international trends, some of which persist to this day (macarons, anyone?).

So, too, did Louis XIV’s tastes in music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer of the lively, balletic operas “Armide” and “Phaeton,”  was the Sun King’s composer-in-residence for decades, filling the palace with incomparable music on a regular basis. Versailles quickly became a must-visit destination for the biggest names in the biz, including Mozart and Charpentier.

Today, there are several ways to soak up Versailles’ classical history. If you’re already planning to tour the palace, simply grab a free audio guide on your way in and you’ll be treated to clips of the same music Marie Antoinette once heard, along with a few facts about the concerts that took place in the palace’s heyday, from sacred music in private chapel ceremonies to big parlor concerts. But the best way to connect with this estate’s classical history by far is to attend a live concert on the grounds. Held in the evenings after the crowds are gone, these concerts include music from the 17th century and today and often feature big-name soloists. In the warmer months, the palace sometimes moves the festivities outside, pairing the sweet sounds with a lighted fountain show.

Rossini's grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY

Most tourists visit this beautiful park to pay their respects to rock star Jim Morrison, probably the most famous figure buried here. That’s good news for classical fans, who might be more interested in the cemetery’s other rock stars. Chopin, Rossini, Cherubini and Poulenc are among the composers who rest here — and their intricate, hand-carved mausoleums don’t disappoint. Once you’ve gawked to your heart’s content, walk to Belleville or Le Banane for a bite — these neighborhoods are home to some of the city’s hippest bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

Arc de Triomphe in the evening, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

EVERYWHERE ELSE

While you’re touring around Paris, keep an eye out for other tiny hints of the city’s rich classical history. While walking between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, I spotted a street sign dedicated to Léo Delibes, whose lush Flower Duet has found its way into countless commercials and films. And as we strolled near the Moulin Rouge, we turned a corner and came eye to eye with a large sculpture of Hector Berlioz. And Chopin is everywhere in this city, from monuments in the Luxembourg Gardens and Parc Monceau to an entire small museum within the Polish Library.

Of course, the best place to see classical history come alive in Paris is at the Opéra National. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend myself…but it’s at the top of my list for next time!

Have you been to Paris? What was your favorite experience? Sound off in the comments!

Read next: Five cities that surprised me

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

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Boasting a wealth of cultural sights, a world-class wine region and some of the most remarkable beaches on the planet, Portugal deserves to be at the top of just about everyone’s travel bucket list. Yet compared to some of its European neighbors, it still flies under the radar. This is great news for trailblazers but somewhat frustrating for overplanners like me, because it means there’s criminally little information out there about all of Portugal’s cultural quirks–you know, all those little things you wish someone had told you before you made an utter fool of yourself by counting with your thumb or wandering into a church with a miniskirt on.

(For example, why didn’t any of the guide books mention that the center of Porto is so crowded that you’re basically SOL if you don’t have a Saturday night dinner reservation? That would have been great to know.)

So here I am, filling the void. Without further ado, here are all the things I wish I’d known before landing in Lisbon.

Port glasses at Sandeman in Porto's Ribeira district

Slow it down

If you’re looking for fast-paced food service, you’ve come to the wrong country. Like others in Southern Europe, the Portuguese believe going out to eat isn’t as much about the food as it is about connecting with one another and taking some time to unwind. (They also seem to believe it’s rude to drop off the bill before you’ve asked for it, so don’t expect it to magically appear once the plates are cleared like it does in the U.S.) During our two weeks in Portugal, we often spent one and a half or two hours enjoying lunches and dinners, and we really didn’t mind the languid pace: We used that time to bask in the sun, admire a wonderful view, talk about life or plan out the rest of our day.

Cypress tree at Lisbon's Jardim do Principe Real in the Bairro Alto

Take a hike

If you’re headed to Portugal for a city break, be prepared for hills…LOTS of hills. With many of its popular sights and neighborhoods situated hundreds of feet above the sea-level city center, Lisbon gives San Francisco a run for its money…and Porto isn’t exactly flat, either. Just like in SF, many tourists get around by riding the cities’ adorable historic trolleys, but unless you’re visiting in the dead of winter, those get so crowded that I recommend skipping them altogether and hoofing it if you can. The view’s better anyway–what’s a trip to Lisbon without a glimpse at its many historic staircases and romantic, narrow alleys? Just make sure to wear comfortable, cushioned shoes and be careful on rainy days…those tiled sidewalks can be mighty slippery!

Giant meringues in a pasteleria in Coimbra, Portugal

 

Break out the Lactaid

If you, like us, elect to stay in apartments instead of hotels while you’re in Portugal, you’ll probably end up hitting a pasteleria or two for breakfast. Whether it’s the famous Pastéis de Belém or a nondescript shop around the corner from your temporary home, here’s what you can expect to find: eggs, cream, sugar, eggs…and more eggs. I knew Portugal’s most famous dessert was the pastel de nata–a tiny, delicious and delicate custard tart–but I had no idea its signature pastry was just the beginning of this country’s sugar-and-egg obsession. Almost every takeaway breakfast item you’ll find involves sugar and eggs, whether it’s in the form of a sponge cake, a custard or a giant meringue. Portugal sure has a sweet tooth–but if you don’t, I recommend finding a grocery store when you arrive and stocking up on crusty bread and deli meats, fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.

Sunset on the boardwalk in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal

Dine in the dark

Just like their neighbors in Spain, the Portuguese wouldn’t dream of sitting down to dinner before sunset. Even though restaurants in the major tourist centers open for dinner at 7 p.m., you might prefer to embrace the local late-night ways and shoot for a dinnertime of about 9:30. Those who eat later and venture farther from the city center will get a better glimpse of real Portuguese life…and probably better food, too.

Crowds in a well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Prepare for crowds

I have no idea why, but Americans almost never visit Portugal. When I asked my Facebook friends for advice on where to go, only a tiny handful had information to share. I reasoned that since so few Americans would be there and we were traveling in the off season, we’d see practically no tourists. Um…I would like to take this moment to admonish Past Me for making such America-centic assumptions.

While the Algarve was blessedly quiet and there were more black-caped students than white-sneakered foreigners in Coimbra, both Lisbon and Porto were packed TO THE GILLS with travelers, especially groups from the UK, Germany and France. We were so surprised and overwhelmed by the crowds that we found ourselves skipping out on a handful of major sights just to avoid the constant close proximity with other people. I later found out that the number of annual visitors to Portugal has actually eclipsed the country’s population of 10 million, and it’s only getting worse. Had we known this ahead of time, we might have planned ahead a bit more with dinner reservations and earlier mornings.

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Layer up

I’m from Northern California, where the surfing is great…as long as your wetsuit is thick and you’ve got the neoprene boots to match. So I was thrilled to find out the sea temperature in the Algarve would be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit in October. Room-temperature water is basically like bath water, right? Wrong! While Portugal is known all over Europe as a beachy resort destination–and make no mistake, summers get extremely hot there–you won’t find the sort of tantalizingly warm water that Ibiza or Sicily boasts. While it’s just as far south as its Mediterranean neighbors, the southern coast of Portugal actually lies along the wild, untamed Atlantic Sea, where waves are a lot chillier than in the Med. If you’re sensitive to cold water, consider bringing a rashguard to keep warm, or try kayaking instead of swimming.

What do you wish you’d known before traveling to Portugal? Or, if you’re Portuguese, what do you wish tourists knew before traveling to your home? Share in the comments!

READ NEXT: Seven non-touristy things to do in Lisbon