Photo of the Week: Breakfast in Jamaica

On a Jamaica visit, I spent a week at a yoga and creative writing retreat at Bromley, a historic estate perched high in the hills in the St. Ann area. Every morning a platter of fresh tropical fruit appeared on the table. On this day, we dove into grapefruit, watermelon and star apple fruit—along with Jamaican coffee, of course. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Christmas Past and Present in a Medieval German Town

Esslingen's Old Town Hall presides over the Medieval Christmas Fair. ©Esslinger Stadtmarketing & Tourismus GmbH

In an old-town square in Esslingen, Germany, a jester on stilts roams the cobblestones, stopping to juggle and pose for photos with wide-eyed children. Musicians on a stage play ancient, nasally instruments and sing bawdy songs. (Although I don’t speak German, naughty humor seems to be universal.) A woman in a long skirt and laced-up bodice carries a basket of elegant, hand-dipped candles for sale.

Colorful scenes like these unfold before me as I eat homemade suppe und brot—soup and bread—served in handmade crockery bowls in the medieval part of the Esslingen Christmas and Medieval Market.

Medieval drummers and musicians entertain in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Held annually from late November until December 21st, the Medieval Christmas Fair (Mittelaltermärkt) and traditional Christmas Market have lured me to historic Esslingen am Neckar, a 1,200-year-old town near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Just a 2.5-hour train ride from modern Frankfurt, old-town Esslingen feels centuries away, with its medieval churches and colorfully painted, half-timbered houses with crisscrossed beams.

Esslingen has hosted a Christmas fair since the Middle Ages. Called Weihnachtsmärkte and Christkindlmärkte in German, Christmas markets originated as town fairs as long as a millennia ago so that villagers could stock up on supplies for the oncoming winter.

The medieval streets of Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Esslingen is the ideal location for this annual celebration, and I’m among hundreds of delighted visitors exploring the exotic booths and huts in the costumed medieval portion of the market—while also appreciating the Christmasy atmosphere in the “contemporary” part of the market, which itself is actually quite Old World and old-fashioned.

Going Medieval

The Medieval Market—a cross between a Renaissance festival and Christmas fair—has the appeal of craftspeople dressed in period costumes demonstrating revived old art forms and trades. During my two days in Esslingen, I watch calligraphers, candle makers, blacksmiths, knife grinders, soap makers, bakers, tanners, brush- and basket-makers, and mead brewers plying their trades as they might have 700 years ago.

I linger at a number of tents and rustic huts and buy gifts: herb-scented soaps, a fudge-like Afghani sweet called shirpera flavored with cardamom, rosewater, and pistachio. (Such Middle Eastern treats came to medieval Europe via the Silk Road.)

A baker checks on fresh bread baked in a wood-fired oven. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In a special kids’ courtyard, children play Old World games such as hatchet-throwing, egg-breaking, and archery, and they ride a wooden Ferris wheel.

Give Me That Old-Time Christmas

In the traditional part of Esslingen’s Weihnachtsmärkt, rows of wooden huts (called stuben) are so thickly decorated with evergreen and pinecones I think of fairytales—the ones where the forest magically engulfs the kingdom, which sleeps for centuries. If that’s what happened in Esslingen, the town joyfully awakened to celebrate Christmas.

A fir-covered "stube" selling candy in the Christmas Market in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

From the elaborately embellished huts, local vendors sell chocolates, pretzels, stollen, wood and glass ornaments, jewelry, and regional specialties such as handcrafted schnapps, honey, jam, and wild boar meat.

Browsing through Esslingen’s traditional Christmas market, I pause to watch as an old man in a Bavarian hat carves a bird. With fine-edged knives spread on his worktable, Helmut Höschle removes bits of wood from the feathers with a surgeon’s skill. His handiwork is quintessential Old World carving, much like the Nativity set my parents have at home—a gift from relatives who brought home figures of shepherds and the three kings decades ago from their travels in West Germany.

Gluhwein mug, Esslingen ©Laurel Kallenbach

Walking through a Christmas Market is a sensory carnival, with elaborate decorations to gaze at, special holiday foods to sample, gifts to shop for, and all manner of music and entertainment.

When you get a bit overwhelmed, it’s time for a mug of glühwein—hot, spiced wine (pronounced “gloo-vine”), which is surprisingly sweet with hints of cinnamon and citrus. It can pack a punch, too, depending how long it’s been since you ate a bratwurst or currywurst.

In Esslingen, there are several glühwein vendors. My favorite is the giant Glühwein Pyramid: an outdoor tavern topped by a giant multi-tiered “carousel” with carved motifs such as angels, snowmen, toy soldiers, or manger scenes and a propeller on top.

Closeup of the Pyramid atop the gluhwein bar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bar also serves beer, alcohol-free drinks, and Kinderpunsch (berry juice for kids). At German Christmas markets, you pay a deposit for the commemorative mug. I keep mine as a souvenir, but you can return the mug in exchange for your deposit.

Time Out from the Market

Thoroughly chilled and footsore from hours of exploring the old town and the markets, I take respite at a 150-year-old Schwaben restaurant (the region where Esslingen is located) called Der Palmscher Bau. 

Located in an 18th-century building, its comfort-food recipes, served in rustic-tavern ambiance, are a hit with me. The hot, creamy forest-mushroom soup thaws me out, and I love the Schwabian rostbraten (roast beef) with grilled onions and a dark sauce served with noodles and sauerkraut. (A dry Esslingen Riesling accompanies my dinner, naturally.) For dessert, I choose apple küchle, a roll-up with thin layers of dough and subtly spiced apples. Every sweet morsel gets forked into my grateful mouth.

Even a market as dramatic as Esslingen’s requires a few timeouts from the revelry. My choice: soak in the natural thermal waters at Merkel’sches Baths and Pool, about 10 minutes away from the Old Town center. The saunas, steam rooms, mineral baths, and massages are divine. (Most Germans don’t wear bathing suits except in the large sports pool. Check the schedule for women-only hours if you’re the modest type.)

Another diversion: a tour through the Kessler wine cellars to see how the oldest sparkling wine in Germany is fermented. A guide takes me down into the 13th-century vaults where bottles of the wine ferment. From the damp ceilings, cellar mold hangs like Spanish moss; it’s not cleaned away, the guide explains, because the growth absorbs stagnant air and releases oxygen, which freshens the air. After the tour, the tasting room is a revelation. I sip the 2009 Pinot Blanc, which tastes of apples and herbs in the midst of December.

The chestnut seller peels off the outer husk of the winter treat before roasting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Grand Finale

After sunset, I pull my wool cap farther down around my ears. The smell of roasting chestnuts lures me. A man calls out to the crowd: “Heisse Marroni! Hot chestnuts!” He removes the lid off the three-foot-diameter pan and stirs the browned chestnuts, their skins popping open. I buy a paper cone of the hot nuts and gingerly peel one. My fingers blacken from handling the charred skins, but they’re warm. I pop the smoky, starchy chestnut meat into my mouth. It’s bland and dry, but everywhere people are gobbling them, so I figure it’s an acquired taste.

After dark, the Christmas Markets blazes with colored lights. In the pulse-quickening medieval streets, however, only a few are electric; the rest are flaming torches and braziers, which lend an ancient mystery and romance to the place. Musicians pound on drums while a fire-dancer snapped sparks into the air with a bullwhip.

The astronomical clock on the front of Esslingen's Old Town Hall marks the hour with the animated flapping of the eagle's wings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Then the church bells peal to announce 5:00 Mass. A crowd forms around the Old Town Hall with its wedding-cake curlicues on the façade and its astronomical clock (built in 1589), which still keeps exact time and displays positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

What everyone cranes to see is the mechanical Imperial Eagle above the clock as he flaps his wings. Even though today’s crowd wears Gore-Tex parkas and snaps pictures on cell phones, we’re collectively enthralled by the magic of an antique clock. It just goes to show that Christmas beauty and merriment have lasted for centuries … and will continue on, I hope.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Esslingen Medieval and Christmas Markets: Nov. 25–Dec. 21, 2014. 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. Search for information on all of Germany’s picturesque Christmas markets, visit Germany: The Travel Destination.

Read about other Christmas Markets:

Christmas Market Dazzles in Wiesbaden, Germany 

Helmut Höschle, a local woodcarver, works on his beautiful figures in his cheery Christmas hut. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Wild Dolphins Ahoy in California’s Channel Islands!

(Originally posted: November 2, 2010)

I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.

These are spotted dolphins, not the same type as the common dolphins I saw. Photo: Oceanic Society

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for them, reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—and hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, Calif.

You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the waters of British Columbia to Belize; from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean; from Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore.” But when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent.

For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and cliff overlook, to no avail. (The lyrics are from the Jevetta Steele song in the movie, Bagdad Café.)

Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail to see their silvery backs streak through the water and watch them leap out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat, zipping beside, in front of and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!

I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.

The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello to me, and inviting me to play.

A Gift for the Dolphins

You can "adopt" Sunflower for a $40 donation to the Oceanic Society.

In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer such a program. For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve adopted—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals.

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I feel like fiction and life have come full-circle.

Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher

What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.

For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”

Sea Kayaking in California’s Enchanting Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point, Anacapa Photo: Channel Islands Nat'l Park

The Channel Islands captured my imagination when I read Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Award-winning book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Chumash girl who lived there alone after her tribe was forcibly relocated to the mainland in the mid-1800s.

Now for the first time, I’ve gotten to visit one of the Channel Islands, celebrating its 34th anniversary as a National Park this year.

Island Packers' boats take visitors to the Channel Islands Photo: Blue Sky Kayak Tours

The Channel Islands can be reached from the marina at Ventura (or from the city of Oxnard) by boarding an Island Packers catamaran.

I went to the island of Santa Cruz, which was a 9:00 to 5:00 day trip that runs year-round. (I was there in mid-October.) It takes an hour to reach the two landings: Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor (you can depart at either).

Things to Do on Santa Cruz

  • Hiking: There are 16 hikes of varying lengths and difficulty on the 24-mile long island (partly owned by the Nature Conservancy)
  • Swimming: Beach access is at Scorpion Anchorage, Smuggler’s Cove, Prisoners Harbor
  • Snorkeling and diving
  • Sea kayaking: You must bring your own kayak, rent one, or go with an outfitter
  • Camping: There’s a campground near Scorpion Anchorage)
  • Birdwatching: The endemic Island Scrub Jay lives nowhere else on the planet

Kayaking Around the Shores of Santa Cruz Island

Blue Sky Kayak tour guides show you how to paddle in the Channel Islands. Photo: Blue Skies

I chose to spend the day at Santa Cruz on the water by taking a guided sea kayak excursion with Channel Islands Outfitters. They provided individual top-seater kayaks, a wetsuit (sleeveless for ease of paddling), life vest, dry bags for clothes, and experienced guides who spend a lot of time in the park.

(The National Park Service does not allow any tour operators to serve food, so you have to bring along your own food and water. There are drinks and snacks available for you to purchase on the Island Packers boat.)

My group’s guides, Clay and Matt, asked the boat to drop us off at a lovely area a little west of Prisoners Harbor off Nature Conservancy land. They instructed us on safety, gave us paddling tips, and helped us suit up. Then off we went, paddling among the jagged shoreline and kelp forests around Santa Cruz.

Sea urchins and starfish Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The ocean was calm, and it wasn’t hard to approach the rock cliffs for up-close views of rocks crusted with starfish, barnacles, and limpets. Cliff pointed out the bright-orange garibaldi, California’s state fish. I never got a close look, but its color shone brilliantly from the water.

In some places, the kelp forests were so thick that I felt like I was paddling through sand. My paddle blades kept getting caught in the wavy strands of brown kelp or tangled amid the kelp’s air bladders. When that happened, we were told to slide the paddle gently upwards rather than trying to rip it away from the sea plants.

Adventures with Sea Lions

Shy harbor seals poked their heads above water to check out our kayak group, but if we got very close or make direct eye contact, they slid their round heads beneath the surface and disappeared in an instant.

Harbor seals Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The curious California sea lions were more bold. At one point when I was paddling a short distance from the others, I heard a sea lion blowing air as it surfaced right behind me. I was a little scared, but it didn’t come too close—and then it dove. A moment later, I heard the sea lion blow again, this time on the opposite side of my kayak. I said “hello there!” before it dove again. Our little game of tag when on for a few minutes, then the sea lion moved on to more interesting things—such as catching delicious fish!

Our group stopped at a rocky beach for lunch. It was a cloudy day with several rain showers while we were paddling, so when we got on land I was pretty chilly. (And a little seasick from paddling through some choppier waves. Who knew?) Fortunately, on land Clay and Matt unpacked our dry clothes, so our picnic was fairly comfortable and enjoyable.

On the beach at Santa Cruz island Photo: Blue Sky Kayak Tours

Far too soon, it was time to leave this quiet adventure of paddling placidly amid the ocean wilds. It felt great to be propelling myself through the water, smelling the salt air, and watching the waves and the sky and the pelicans.

As someone who lives in a land-locked state, I just never tire of the miracle of the sea.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What are the best kayaking spots you’ve visited? Leave a comment below.