Room with a Jamaican View: Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Yes, this was the paradise I reveled in every time I gazed out my windows at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-friendly getaway in Jamaica.

Tucked into the forests and organic gardens above the town of Port Antonio is Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-boutique hotel that’s the epitome of Jamaica’s natural side.

Though not on the beach, the socially- and environmentally-conscious hotel overlooks the aquamarine water not far away. Though not in the mountains, you can watch the sun set behind the Blue Mountains from the hotel’s restaurant and rooftop observatory.

In short, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is connected to the land, the sea, the sky and the community in a way that few places do.

The Luxury of Nature

“What is luxury? The definition has changed. It’s not just opulence; it’s having space and quiet.” –innkeeper Shireen Aga

Hotel Mocking Bird Hill does indeed provide the most beautiful of places to relax and forget the cares of the world. Curl up on a deck chair, a pool chair or a day bed hidden in the verdant gardens for some R&R.

Indoors or out, I feel nature’s pulse from the moment I wake until I fall asleep—which is perhaps when I enjoy the earthiness the most.

After a satisfying, sustainable meal in the candlelit Mille Fleurs Restaurant (see a future post for details about the wonderful cuisine), a hush settles over the hotel and the tree frogs sing their moonlight sonata. Fireflies (bigger than any I’ve seen before!) sparkle like fairies in the forest.

Night in the tropics: always relaxing when there’s mosquito netting and a soft bed.

While getting ready for bed each night, I kept all but one light off so as not to attract insects (there are no screens in the louvered windows so that nothing mars the view or separates you from the gardens and jungle surrounding the hotel.)

Then I would climb beneath the mosquito netting, which is rarely necessary if you turn on the ceiling fan above the bed; mosquitoes avoid the breeze.

Mosquito netting is one of my personal favorite luxuries: a diaphanous tent over my bed that assures that my sleep will be undisturbed by winged insects or the geckos who hunt for them.

To me, it’s a treat to sleep in a room open to nature, and mosquito netting over a comfy bed feels like a magic castle. On my first night at Mocking Bird Hill, I awoke to fireflies in my room. One settled on the canopy above me and winked me back to sleep.

The pool is a blue lagoon during the sun-drenched hours and lantern-lit at night.

There are many other luxuries at this 10-room inn:

  • sipping a Red Stripe and jerk-spiced nuts at sundown
  • meeting charming guests from England, Germany and the United States
  • taking trips to the beach
  • excursions for a raft ride or to Reach Falls
  • strolling through the gardens and watching the humming-birds
  • lounging in the hammock in my room (and drinking in yet again that view!)
  • and last, but certainly not least, enjoying a cool dip in the chlorine-free pool.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Join me in the coming days for more blog posts about my eco-friendly explorations of Jamaica.

The colorful lobby of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is filled with tropical flowers and the sculptures of innkeeper/artist Barbara Walker.

Floating Lanterns Light Honolulu for Memorial Day

 

Floating lanterns are an Oahu tradition for celebrating Memorial Day in Hawaiian tradition. Photo courtesy Shinnyo-en Hawaii

Floating lanterns are an Oahu tradition for celebrating Memorial Day in Hawaiian tradition. Photo courtesy Shinnyo-en Hawaii

Every Memorial Day, people gather at a beach in Honolulu, Oahu, for a beautiful ceremony of floating lanterns—a serene tradition of peace and remembrance for those who have departed.

I almost never post about events I haven’t personally attended, but when I got the press release about this ceremony I made an exception.

Six thousand candlelit lanterns are set afloat from Ala Moana Beach to honor the fallen, to remember departed loved ones, and as a symbolic, collective vow to work toward a peaceful future. More than 50,000 people attend the annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony on Memorial Day, which gathers the community and visitors for a collective experience of warmth and compassion.

In harmony with Hawaiian tradition, the evening opens with the pū, oli and hula, followed by the Shinnyo Taiko and Shomyo Ensemble. Her Holiness Shinso Ito officiates, conducts a blessing, and is joined by six community leaders for the lighting of the Light of Harmony. After the lighting, the lanterns are set afloat onto the waters of Ala Moana Beach by the general public and volunteers. At the conclusion of the ceremony, all lanterns are collected from the ocean and restored for use in the upcoming years.

A participant launches a candlelit lantern inscribed with thoughts about those who have gone before us.

A participant takes a moment to reflect before launching a candlelit lantern inscribed with remembrances of a loved one. Photo courtesy Shinnyo-en Hawaii.

Attendees may receive a lantern to personally float, or they can write their remembrances on special forms that will be placed on collective remembrance lanterns to be floated by volunteers. There is no charge for a lantern; all donations received at the beach will be gifted to the City & County of Honolulu for the upkeep and beautification of Ala Moana Beach Park.

Some day I hope to take part in this beautiful ceremony and watch my own lantern mingle with the tiny lights of thousands of others as they bob in the bay.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

 

Sunset over Old San Juan

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico ©Laurel Kallenbach

This view of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is iconic. (An old edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook has this photo on its cover.) The desk attendant at my hotel shared a scenic tip: Walk to the 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro fortress in late afternoon to watch the sunset. I took his advice and was not disappointed!

I wandered along the old streets on the cliff above the ocean for a while. Nice to be out of the traffic. Just as I reached the old fortress walls, the sun was at its most golden. Looking east over the walls, I could see this chapel and historic cemetery bathed in the warm light, with the Atlantic sparkling and blue. Breathtaking!

Supposedly, the Spanish colonists built the cemetery in the mid-1800s overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to cross over to the afterlife. I can’t imagine a better place to spend eternity!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Antiquities Under Attack: After the Tunis Museum Shooting

When I heard about the March 18, 2015, terror attacks on tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, I was saddened and horrified that people died while appreciating the history and magnificent art of the ancient world. Then it sank in: I visited that museum on my first-ever trip abroad.

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.    Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

Back in my teens, my high school Spanish club journeyed to Spain and Italy—with a stop in Tunisia to tour the ancient ruins of Carthage and wander through Tunis’ vibrant and colorful Arab souk (market), which made quite an impression. However, the highlight of my first foray into North Africa was a visit to the Bardo Museum where the mosaics and statues from the ancient world were protected and displayed.

At 16, I’d never seen ancient art in anything but a book; in person, it was dazzling. I could hardly believe I was seeing the genius of talented artists thousands of years before. In fact, the Roman-era mosaics and sculptures I gazed at—and that survived the shootings—are among the best-preserved works of their kind in the world.

Thirty years ago, the Bardo Museum was not as sleek and sophisticated as it looked in the post-shooting photos. Indeed, the museum was remodeled and redesigned in 2012 to be the cornerstone of Tunisian heritage that would help attract millions of tourists. Although damage to the artwork was minimal, the loss of human life was tragic. And the aftershocks of the attacks will be felt for years.

Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy; on a recent NPR report I heard that people in the streets begged international journalists to tell people to please come visit their country. Even though the Bardo Museum has reopened—and presumably has heavy security—attendance is sure to suffer for several years.

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

Annihilation of Cultural Treasures

In the past 15 years, wars and terrorism have taken an appalling toll on ancient art in the Middle East, including the region often called the “cradle of civilization.” in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sixth-century figures carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was shelled and plundered, resulting in many antiquities destroyed or stolen. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State terrorists have been bulldozing and sledgehammering works of art across Iraq, annihilating the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

The loss of human life in terrorist attacks is horrible. And, for me, a museum lover and Egyptology fanatic, the loss of antiquities is inconsolable. Watching videos of thousands-year-old Assyrian statues being toppled off pedestals and broken is as heart-breaking to me as seeing footage of a person being killed. During WWII, the Monuments Men, a special unit of art experts from the Allied Forces, risked their lives to rescue looted artwork of Europe from the Nazis. I’m hoping UNESCO, which has spoken out against the destruction of antiquities in the Islamic world,  can create some kind of similar unit or special forces to help protect ancient treasures against future attacks. Their decimation is rightfully being called “war crimes” and “cultural cleansing.”

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists.

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was attacked in March of 2015  by Islamic State terrorists. Photo courtesy UNESCO.

What can we do? After the September 11 attacks on New York and the Boston Marathon bombing, these cities asked visitors to return—to show solidarity and support through tourism. New Yorkers and Bostonians exhibited great pride and resilience in the wake of those disasters. I hope, too, that the people of Tunisia, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Afghanistan feel great pride in their cultural heritage.

All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt to see the antiquities I’ve adored since I was a kid—but honestly, concerns about political upheaval in the country have prevented me from going. Yet, I believe that when travel lovers experience the wonders of the world—past and present—they reinforce the pride of the descendants of those cultures.

Yes, travel is an act of bravery; it’s also an act of peace and solidarity with the world. It’s time for me to be brave and start planning a trip to Egypt—and back to Tunis. There are treasures there I want to see and welcoming people I want to meet.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Would you consider traveling in north Africa or the Middle East? Why or why not?

For information on traveling in Tunis, visit Come to Tunisia.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.