Life remains pretty sweet. Not only do I have an amazing job that provides endless opportunities to grow personally and professionally, but I am also blessed with a life partner who enjoys to travel as much as me.
Last summer, we were fortunate to have two back-to-back adventures, first traveling through Croatia followed by a road trip across the United States. Between the two destinations we covered more than four thousand miles…
The journey began in Split, Croatia where we picked up a rental car at the airport and immediately got lost within the old quarters of the city. Lost may not be the most appropriate word to use, but let’s just say the city streets are NOT designed for modern cars and traffic.
We found out the hard way when we plugged the apartment’s address into the GPS, which led us down a NARROW, one-way street that virtually ended…with no room to turn around…and with cars lining both sides of the road with very little room for error. Nothing will test a relationship faster than stressful driving in another country
Alas, we came out on the other side only stronger.
We instantly fell in love with Split, the second largest city of Croatia located in the heart of Dalmatia. I was truly taken aback by its stunning beauty and rich history. The highlight was the Diocletian’s palace, which served as the focal point of the city. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built the palace at the turn of the fourth century AD in preparation for his retirement.
The ancient fortress is massive and has become the heart and soul of the old town, with numerous shops, cafes and restaurants located within the old buildings and lining the narrow streets. Darren and I spent hours exploring the old city of Split, walking up and down every alley, shopping in the ornate boutique stalls and dropping in for drinks at the small, quaint bars. We even found surprisingly delicious Mexican food in the center of town! An American and his Honduran wife opened a small eatery down one of the side alleys – it only had a few tables, five to be exact – but their dedicated following was apparent, with long lines waiting to be seated.
Split also serves as a gateway for day trips to some of the small islands. First, we opted for a half-day trip to the Blue Lagoon, which was a bit of a bust. Our boat barely worked as we painstakingly slogged our way to our final destination at a rate of one nautical mile per hour. Instead of a quick, 30-minute boat ride to the Blue Lagoon, it took us close to three hours one way!
Needless to say, our fun was in the journey as we happened to be on board with a couple on their honeymoon, Caitlyn and Rob! We chatted, drank wine, and laughed at our boat misfortune. Despite our predicament, we had a great time! In fact, we met up with this couple again when we were back in the states – but that’s another story!
We had better luck the following day when we headed across the Adriatic Sea to the gorgeous Island of Hvar, which boasts vast fields of lavender, olives and vineyards! I could have easily stayed longer on this amazing island. A short day trip didn’t do it justice!
We hiked to Hvar’s Fortica, built at the beginning of the 16th century while under Venetian rule, which sits high in the hills overlooking the city. The hike offered magnificent 360 degree views of the Palenki islands, Hvar and even the coves on the North side of the island. We also stopped at the island of Bisevo to check out the Blue Cave, caused by sunlight reflecting through the water and bouncing off the white limestone bottom, which was stunningly beautiful to say the least.
From Split we drove towards the island of Korcula and met up with one of Darren’s relatives in Orebic. What most people may not know is that my husband is originally of Croatian descent and has many extended relatives still living in the area. The first long lost cousin that we met was Andrea, who actually lives in Germany but happened to be on holiday at the same time. I absolutely ADORED her, so sweet, down to earth and incredibly helpful in terms of where to go and what to do.
In fact, we joined Andrea and her family for dinner at the best restaurant of our entire trip, at the rustic Panorama restaurant high in the hills of the Pelješac Peninsula with an amazing view of the old town of Korcula across the channel. Sadly, our visit was too brief as we had to catch the ferry to Korcula Island that same night.
Korcula remains special as this is where Darren’s family originates. As such, we made a special effort to meet with relatives. So after several days of staying within the medieval walled town of Korcula, we worked our way across the island to Smokvica, located in the center of the island and best known for its Croatian wines.
We met up with several of Darren’s relatives, Marco, Franco and Susana, who gave us a personal tour of the town and even walked us over to the house where his grand-parents and great grand-parents lived. The house has been in his family for hundreds of years…and as soon as we saw it we started to dream of ways to buy the place and renovate it to current standards. One needs to be a visionary to see its true beauty…as it’s been sitting vacant for years and needs some serious tender loving care.
We romanticized about turning this amazing home into our retirement villa. What could be so bad about living on a gorgeous island known for its olive orchards and vineyards? Oh, and did I mention that it has a view of the sea? It still remains a dream…but hopefully, we can make it a reality!
After spending several days exploring every nook and cranny on the island of Korcula, we made our way to the famed city of Dubrovnik, now renown for the set location for Game of Thrones (granted, I still haven’t seen a single episode).
We were incredibly fortunate and met up with another relative of Darren’s, Nik, who has worked at one of the most prestigious hotels, Grand Villa Argentina, for fifty years. I felt as if I was living the life of the rich and famous! We stood on the steep cliff, surrounded by ancient architectural remains , taking in the breathtaking scenery of the Adriatic. We dined at a five star restaurant while gazing at the island of Lokrum to Dubrovnik’s old harbor. Nik charmed us with his stories of Elizabeth Taylor – as he was her personal assistant throughout her numerous stays. He reminisced about the days when Hollywood movie stars roamed the streets of Dubrovnik, long before it became a sought after holiday destination.
While in Dubrovnik, we arranged for a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in many ways remains the highlight of our travels.
Stari Most (or the Old Bridge), a 16th century Ottoman bridge across the Neretva River, is the most recognizable landmark in Mostar. It stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 during the Croat-Bosniak War. Fortunately, multiple agencies pooled their resources to reconstruct the bridge in a manner that preserved its original design, using the same technology and materials. Today, it has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.
Common sightings include locals diving off the bridge into the river below. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many tourists flooding this tiny medieval city, and was thrilled to know that money was getting to this region of the country.
Culturally, Mostar’s demographics are also fascinating. Comprised of Croatians, Bosnians and Serbs, it remains one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the region, and made site seeing and perusing the artwork in the stores that much more interesting.
After our delightful stay in Dubrovnik, we worked our way to Zadar via a short trip to Trogir. Despite its tiny size, Trogir is beautifully set within medieval walls, with mazelike streets and a stunning seaside promenade lined with cafes, bars and boutique shops.
We worked our way to the west end of the city to Kamerlengo Fortress, built by Venetians in the 15th century as a naval base. The views from here overlooking the city were breathtaking.
Upon arriving in Zadar, we immediately went to the waterfront to check out the famous Sea Organ. The steps were filled with tourists from around the world, listening to the magical sounds emanating from the pipes below while admiring the stunning sunset. The movement of the sea pushes air through the thirty-five pipes that are embedded in the carved steps, creating a masterpiece of acoustics.
We used Zadar as our base as we explored Plitvice Lakes National Park. Truth be told, this was the one outing that I was looking forward to the most…as pictures that I had seen were stunningly beautiful. In fact, I didn’t care how far out of the way we needed to travel, we were going to go!
Unfortunately, our timing was the absolute worst – peak tourist season in Croatia translates to insane crowds. Despite the National Park being 295 square kilometers of forest reserves with a chain of terraced lakes joined by waterfalls, the hordes of people combined with the long queues made this my least favorite outing! I could see how this would have been amazing if it were less crowded, but I felt claustrophobic as we were herded like cattle throughout the wooden planks and walkways that wound its way throughout the lakes.
We spent our final days chilling out in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. We rented an amazing apartment in the heart of the city, where we literally woke up to the smells of fresh coffee and bread from the bakery below. I mentioned to Darren on numerous occasions that I could easily see us living there….as it offers a little of everything – culture, arts, music, architecture, fine dining and beauty.
There’s so much to see and do in Zagreb that we barely scratched the surface! We ended up hopping on a city bus tour just to get the lay of the land and a broad overview of all the highlights that the city had to offer. The Mirogoj Cemetery struck me as the most noteworthy landmark.
By and large, we loved our time in Croatia and recognize that this was the first of many trips to this remarkable country.
We literally returned to South Africa with a fourteen hour turn-around before we departed for the United States! We landed in Austin, TX during a horrendous storm (flash floods to be exact), but that was a blessing in disguise as we received a free upgrade to a 4-wheel drive Jeep for our month-long road trip across the states.
Our road trip had one sole purpose, to catch up with as many friends and family as possible! And we were definitely successful!
We only spent two days in Austin before driving to St. Louis – via Memphis, Tennessee to meet up with my old high school friend, Camille. Our GPS led us astray, so we arrived much later than we had anticipated, but I cherished our short and sweet visit. I loved that I got to see where Camille, Ramsan and Auggie live and that I was able to get a glimpse into their daily lives!
We drove to St. Louis where we could spend time with family! Patty and Aunt Jody were the ultimate hosts and took us to the St. Louis Arch. Going up in those pod-like capsules is pretty amazing…and we even went to the famous St. Louis Zoo.
I loved seeing all my cousins, although it just makes me realize how much I miss everyone….and just how far away I live now.
From St. Louis, we made the long haul to Washington DC, although we literally stayed in Baltimore with my other cousin, Marcy! Again, I loved spending quality time with Marcy and her family…we explored downtown Baltimore, cooked dinner at the house, and just chilled while we got caught up on each other’s lives.
I arranged a happy hour in DC and was humbled by its amazing turnout. So many friends from my days in Jamaica, Malawi, Vietnam, South Africa and Atlanta (grad school) have settled down in the nation’s capital and made an effort to see us during our brief stay.
I was not only elated to reconnect with so many close friends, but also excited to introduce so many amazing people to one another! And it made me realize that I could easily move back to the DC area. It doesn’t matter where you live as long as you have a strong network of support! Meanwhile, we optimized our time in DC and spent endless hours exploring icons of the nation’s capital, including the National Mall, Memorial Parks, Smithsonian Museums, the White House and walking the grounds of the capitol.
As we gazed at the Washington Monument majestically rising towards the sky, surrounded by the US Capitol at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other, it was hard not to think of America’s history.
We drove from DC to New York, where my Aunt Robie hooked us up with a sweet four-bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan! Her friends were out of town, and they trustingly gave us the keys…so incredibly nice!!!
We spent five days walking the streets of Manhattan! We took long strolls through Central Park, navigated the web of subway stations, and absorbed the sights and sounds of the city!
We must’ve hit every highlight of New York. We took the ferry to Liberty Island to see the Statue of Liberty, explored the Empire State Building, spent hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art admiring the exhibitions, dined in Little Italy, and saw three Broadway shows, including Cirque du Soleil, The Color Purple (which was my favorite), and An Act of God starring Sean Hayes.
But the highlight was meeting up with our dear friend, Ben, who was a first responder during 9/11 at ground zero helping with the recovery and clean up. He purchased tickets to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which was so beautifully done. Ben, who has been engaged in humanitarian relief his entire life, remains an inspiration. I’m truly grateful for our friendship, and I continue to look up to him as a role model.
Darren and I actually stumbled upon the Memorial the day prior after returning from the Statue of Liberty. When I saw my friend Berry Berenson’s name engraved in the memorial, I was overcome with emotion and grief and literally collapsed, sobbing uncontrollably!
In some ways, this cathartic experience allowed me to bring some closure to Berry’s death…I found comfort in putting my hands on her name and saying my good-byes. I assume this is how people feel when visiting loved ones in a cemetery…
I’m grateful that we met up with Ben the following day. I was able to view the memorial without breaking down in tears (at least, not uncontrollable sobs). The memorial and its exhibitions were so well done. So many lives lost. So many lives altered. Personally, my life’s trajectory changed significantly after 9/11…I often wonder where we would all be had this horrendous act never happened…
Going back to our time with Ben, we spent a lovely day together….after the 9/11 Memorial, we went to the One World Observatory. We looked towards the horizon and felt the city’s spirit! The views were unparalleled….
We admired the Brooklyn Bridge off in the distance, and then decided to walk down there for ourselves. Darren had always wanted to walk across. I never realized just how touristy that was until we got up close and personal with the crowds. But so glad we went…
Robie and Fred had us over to their gorgeous apartment in the Upper East side where we celebrated Hannah’s birthday! Once again, I feel so blessed to have such a close, loving family…
We stopped in Portland, CT to meet up with dear friends, Steph and Elle, prior to driving to Portland, ME to meet up with Uncle Steve and Arlene.
Our last week in Maine was all about unwinding, eating lobster and other delightful seafood, relaxing at Uncle Steve and Arlene’s gorgeous house, and catching up with family. We did day trips to Popham Beach, to Portland Head Light, and Old Orchard Beach.
We had brunch at Mameve and Howard’s beach house where we also got to see Daniel, Sharissa and their two girls. And we ended up going on an enormous shopping spree at L.L. Bean.
Our last stop was Boston, where we stayed with Mameve and Howard, caught up with our honeymooner friends from Croatia, cruised around Harvard’s campus, and met up with another cousin, Howard Present. Needless to say, we packed in a lot of friends, family and sight-seeing throughout our 4200 miles from Texas to Maine.
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy 2017….
And sending much love,