Room with a Jamaican View: Hotel Mockingbird Hill

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

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

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

In short, Hotel Mockingbird 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 Mockingbird 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 my 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 a soft bed and the protection of mosquito netting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

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 Mockingbird Hill, I awoke to fireflies in my room. One settled on the canopy above me and winked me back to sleep.

The pool at Hotel Mockingbird Hill is a refreshing blue lagoon. At twilight, the staff lights the lanterns to illuminate this picturesque area. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are many other luxuries at this 10-room, eco-conscious 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 hummingbirds
  • lounging in the hammock in my room (and drinking in yet again that view!)
  •  enjoying a cool dip in the chlorine-free pool.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published on May 5, 2010

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Tramping Through the Snowy Wisconsin Woods

No winter trip to Door County, Wisconsin, is complete without snowshoeing in the woods—it’s always  invigorating to get outdoors in winter and commune with the trees. (And when the weather is cold, hand warmers and toe warmers are the ticket! When activated by oxygen, these little gems keep your digits toasty for six to eight hours.)

My friends and I went walking in a winter wonderland at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin © Laurel Kallenbach

At Peninsula State Park, my group parked, cinched up the straps on our snowshoes, and headed out on the White Cedar Nature Trail, an easy, half-mile loop.

We clomped and shuffled our way through ironwood and pine forest, following the green snowshoe markers posted on trees. The woods were hushed in the snow, disrupted only by the husky cries of crows and the snow crunching beneath our snowshoes. The ice-encased cedar fronds were lovely—quintessential Christmas foliage.

Playing in the Wisconsin snow. © Laurel Kallenbach

Afterwards, we tailgated with a few sips of Cherry Bounce, which is essentially Wisconsin moonshine made with cherries. In July, after Door County tart Montmorency cherries are picked, you pour them into a Bell jar, cover them with vodka or brandy, add a bit of sugar, and then don’t touch them until after December 1st. Over the months, the cherries infuse the alcohol, turning it bright red and cherry-flavored. At the same time, the cherries become quite soused with booze. The result is a rib-warming drink with a well-preserved cherry to bite into (watch out for the pit!).

Originally posted: December 2009

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The White Cedar Nature Center in Peninsula State Park offers a spot to warm up after snowshoeing. © Laurel Kallenbach

Galápagos Islands: Take a Sustainable Cruise

Giant land tortoises are one of the most famous residents in the Galápagos Islands. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

Snorkel with penguins, sea turtles and sharks? Check!

Laugh at baby sea lions playing in the sand just 10 feet away? You bet!

Snap pics of goliath-sized land tortoises? Absolutely!

Witness the blue-footed booby dancing for his lady? Love it!

Encounter prehistoric reptiles? Yikes! Cross the equator… four times? Wow!

There’s no place in the world more exclamation-point worthy than the Galápagos Islands. Located 600 miles west of Ecuador’s coast, these islands are populated by magnificent wildlife that has no fear of humans. My trip there was nature up close and amazing.

The stakes for conserving and protecting the Galápagos are high: a plant, bird or animal species that disappears here exits the planet forever. Major threats to these unique islands include introduction of alien species (including goats, rats, feral dogs and cats), illegal fishing and unsustainable tourism.

All the more reason I wanted to take a Galápagos journey in the most nature-respecting, ecologically-sound way: with Ecoventura, a family-owned company that’s led sustainability efforts on the islands since 2000.

Ecoventura’s eco-yachts approach Sleeping Lion Rock. Photo by Tony-Karacronyi for Ecoventura.

High Seas Adventure

I traveled on a seven-night adventure with Ecoventura several years ago—when it began carbon-offsetting its yachts, offices and operations (including business travel) through Native Energy Travel Offsets. Ecoventura is even greener now. (See below for a full list of its green initiatives.)

My husband and I were aboard The Flamingo, one of Ecoventura’s three 20-passenger motor yachts that transport small groups to the archipelago’s most spectacular islands.

This is no crowded booze cruise—although the ship’s bartender does mix up fabulous tropical cocktails. Nor is it a luxurious “Love Boat”: cabins are small, but quite comfortable. The only time we were in our cabin was when we were sleeping! Otherwise, we were outside hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, lolling in the sun or dining on fresh Ecuadoran cuisine.

Marine iguanas take a sun bath. © Laurel Kallenbach

Our fellow travelers aboard The Flamingo were outdoor adventurers who respected ocean and land—and we became fast friends.

Likewise, our knowledgeable guides, Harry and Orlando, were gems. They escorted us in small panga boats on island excursions, telling us about the diet and habits of every bird and animal — which we were able to carefully approach and stand quite close to.

Part naturalist, part cheerleader, Harry greeted us passengers over the intercom each morning by announcing, “Welcome to another day in The Paradise!”

(For more about what it’s like to visit the Galápagos, see my related post: “Close Encounters of the Galápagos Kind.”)

Ecoventura’s A+ Eco-Report

  • Runs a carbon neutral operation.
  • Is certified by SmartVoyager and complies with The Rainforest Alliance environmental regulations.
  • The Eric yacht is equipped with 40 solar panels and two wind generators.
  • Partners with the World Wildlife Fund to create the Galápagos Marine Biodiversity Fund, which supports marine conservation.
  • Practices Leave No Trace guidelines. Teaches visitors never to feed, touch or harass wildlife.
  • Manages water and solid waste responsibly.
  • Reduces fuel consumption with high-performance oil filters.
  • Hires local naturalist guides and ship’s crew, engaging them with careers in sustainable tourism.
  • Supports locally managed conservation projects.
  • Provides scholarships to local children to study conservation education.
  • Connects clients with local conservation projects and the Galápagos Conservancy.

    A visitor photographs a Nazca booby in the Galápagos Islands. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published November 2012.

The Vibrant Women of Guatemala

I visited Guatemala in 2008 for a writing and yoga retreat, held at a yoga center on stunningly gorgeous Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by volcanoes. A Nahuatl word, Atitlán means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors,” and the Maya believe Lago de Atitlán is the umbilicus of the Universe—the birthplace of the soul.

I soon discovered that the soul of Guatemala lies in the strength and creativity of the women whom I met and photographed.

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

Years after taking these photos, I’m still awestruck by the colorful clothing and warm, wise faces of these women, many of whom speak the traditional Tz’utujil language.

Many of the women I met live in Santiago Atitlán, a thriving town that’s accessible by water taxi from other parts of the lake. The majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans. In pre-Columbian times, this was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, a Mayan sub-culture.

Our group visited the parish church in Santiago ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Our group visited the Church of Santiago Apostol, a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlán, where these three girls giggled at meeting us American women. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While visiting, I got a chance to meet and photograph a few of Guatemala’s indigenous women artists who make the most amazing textiles on the planet. Most of them support their families by creating beautiful weavings in the ancient Maya tradition.

It’s courteous to pay a small amount of money to photograph a women wearing an ornately embroidered huipil blouse. And I loved taking a picture of women whose handiwork I bought. Doing so helps me remember each individual face that goes along with the scarves, tablecloths, and purses I purchased. That year for Christmas, many friends and family members got a beautiful, handmade souvenir from my trip to Guatemala—along with the accompanying snapshot of its respective creator.

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a "huipil" embroidered with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a traditional head-covering and “huipil” embroidered by her mother with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Handcrafting textiles isn’t the only way indigenous Guatemalan women support themselves and their families. On our trip to visit Santiago Atitlán, our group hired tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo, who speaks Spanish, Tz’utujil, and English.

Dolores lived for several years in America after she and her then-husband, shaman Martín Prechtel, fled the pueblo during the violent Guatemalan civil war to live in the United States. Dolores shared her insights into the culture of Santiago Atitlán, including the unique fusion of Catholicism and ancient Maya religion. She took us to the Church of Santiago Apostol, the shrine of the Mayan “trickster” deity, Maximón (who drinks liquor and smokes cigars), and to the  workshop of her mother (pictured below), who creates fantastic works of textile art.

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. © Laurel Kallenbach

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. She had her own humble shop in Santiago Atitlán where she displayed all her textile art and demonstrated the backstrap loom. © Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the women in Santiago Atitlán were affected by brutal, government-backed violence during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960–1996. Indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala were especially at risk. In 1981, Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother (from the United States), was assassinated by right-wing death squads. In 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians.

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

Though many women sell their textiles at the town mercado (market), some take their work to places where tourists come. The women above got permission to bring some of their best work to Villa Sumaya, a retreat and wellness center located in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I have one of their brilliant-blue woven cloths on my dining-room table.

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

After leaving Lake Atitlán, I spent a couple of days in the colonial town of Antigua, where visitors can find bright, indigenous clothing, popular over centuries, alongside fancy modern hotels. As you can see from the picture above, some spots in the old Spanish part of town still have cobblestone roads. Boutiques often sell traditional Maya handicrafts, but there are also textile cooperatives where women can display their art in a large space.

Weaver woman in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Woman weaving on a traditional Guatemalan backstop loom in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Trama Textiles Cooperative in Antigua, I watched this woman weaving on a traditional  backstrap loom (see above). The loom is light and portable so that she can work in a tiny, single-room house. The loom, often made with sticks and rope, is easy rolled up when not in use.

Trama Textiles Co-op consists of about 400 women, forming 17 groups of weavers from five different regions in the western part of the Guatemalan highlands. It’s an association of women that promotes artisan development in backstrap loom weaving as a way of providing women with a livelihood in a country with a high rate of crime and violence against women and children.

These women are carrying a float during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

These women are bearing a religious float of Mary, Queen of Heaven, during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I happened to be in Antigua for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in 2008, so I got to see the grand procession in the streets of this Spanish-colonial town (founded in 1542), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Though men are typically float-bearers, the floats of female saints and the Virgin Mary are the domain of the women. What strength and faith!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my journeys in Guatemala:

Market beneath the ruins of El Carmen Church in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

This open-air market in Antigua is at the feet of the ruins of El Carmen Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was built and destroyed by earthquakes several times over the centuries. ©Laurel Kallenbach