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:

Wisconsin Fish Boil: Local Food with Local Flair

A local culinary tradition passed down from the Scandinavian settlers of Door County, Wisconsin, a fish boil is a concoction of history and culture on a plate. Caught by local fishermen, the Lake Michigan whitefish is cooked outside over an open fire—and half the fun is watching it happen.

Door County’s eco-friendly White Gull Inn serves a local fish boil on Fridays. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My friends and I attended the Friday- night fish boil at the White Gull Inn in the town of Fish Creek in Door County. When we arrived, the red potatoes had already been boiling for a couple of hours over the fire right outside.

Soon someone announced that it was time for the fish to go into the pot, so I bundled up and braved the cold outside to watch. (though the flames were warm, the mercury on the thermometer hovered at 11 degrees the night of my fish boil dinner.)

Tom Christianson, the Masterboiler for White Gull Inn for many years, lowered a pot filled with chunks of whole fish into the boiling, salted water. Over the 10 minutes that the fish cooks, the fish oil rises to the top of the water. That’s the Masterboiler’s cue to splash kerosene on the fire, which causes the flames to soar. (This is very dramatic on a dark, wintry night!). The super-hot flames make the pot of fish boil over so that the fish oil spills out, and the result is a less fishy taste.

Curious note: Masterboiler Tom looks like Santa wearing civvies. Could he be moonlighting in Door County? He claims to live in Green Bay, Wisconsin—but can we be sure it’s not the North Pole?

Tom Christianson throws kerosene on the fire to boil off the fish oils in the pots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Chow Time

After Tom and helpers took dinner off the fire, it was time to go through the buffet line and fill my plate with fish, red potatoes, wintry cole slaw (super fresh, with tangy onion and crunchy cabbage) and lemon. Teapots with melted butter awaited at the table.

When I sat down, I looked in wonder at my fish dinner—the perfect locavore meal. (I was also drinking an Island Wheat beer, which is light in flavor and in its environmental footprint, as it’s made from wheat grown on Door County’s Washington Island.)

The White Gull Inn staff serves the just-cooked potatoes and fish. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Then I had to come to grips with one of my childhood phobias: fish bones. Nervously I eyed my plate, but just before I panicked, a very nice woman came to our group’s table and offered to de-bone the fish! I breathed a sigh of relief as she deftly peeled out the big bones. (In truth, a few tiny ones remained, so I did have to pick my way around those—but at least I was able to enjoy the flaky, sweet meat.)

To top off the meal: gooey and sweet/tart Door County cherry pie. Mmmm…

Eco-Kudos for White Gull Inn

Though I didn’t stay there, the White Gull Inn looks to be a quaint and comfy B&B, and it’s also earned high scores from Travel Green Wisconsin. Some of its environmentally conscious measures include:

  • Serves local and organic food products
  • Use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs
  • Recycling program
  • Dining room provides water on request only

Voice your opinion: What’s been your favorite local food tradition?

Originally posted: December 2009

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer

Photo courtesy of The White Gull Inn in Door County, Wisconsin

Christmas Market Dazzles in Wiesbaden, Germany

December 2020: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many cities and towns in Germany had to cancel their annual Christmas Markets, a tradition since the 1300s. Some places are allowing markets with only a few, widely spread booths. Here’s a look back at warm memories of the Christmas Market in Wiesbaden, which was cancelled this year.

I grew up with a lot of German Christmas traditions, and for years I’ve thought going to a Christmas market in Germany, would be fun way to kick off the season. My hunch was right: Germany knows how to celebrate Christmas in an Old World way.

Wiesbaden’s Old Town Square fills with people enjoying the annual Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Wiesbaden, just a half-hour train ride from Frankfurt, hosts the lovely Sternschnuppen Market (sternschnuppe translates as “shooting star”). I was enthralled at its beauty, which combines traditional seasonal décor with contemporary lily-shaped light sculptures above the marketplace. (The lily, or fleur-de-lis, is on the town’s motif.) The whole affair—wooden huts where vendors sell foods and handcrafts—is held in the old town’s historic square, in the shadow of the church, or Marktkirche.

Tree ornaments are just some of the goods for sale at the Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At the annual market, locals and tourists alike gather to hear live music—one night I caught a quartet of alphorns (you just don’t hear that every day in the States!)—to shop, to mingle, and to toast the season with glühwein (hot, mulled wine sold in specially designed mugs that you either keep as a souvenir or return for your deposit).

Tempting Christmas cookies sold at the Sternschnuppen Market, Wiesbaden. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Christmas

I quickly discovered that German Christmas Markets and glühwein go hand in hand. When the temperatures drop, nothing warms you more than a mug of steaming red or white glühwein held between your mittens while you sip and chat with friends while admiring the Christmas lights.

And who can resist the aromas of cooking? There are plenty of traditional market foods as well, including bratwurst and other sausages of various kinds and sizes, and potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffer) served with applesauce.

The Germans are passionate about sausages. Giant grills cooked all types of bratwurst, including the long, half-meter brats (cut in half to fit them on a bun. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I tasted these yummy, crisp-fried treats with Wiesbaden’s mayor, who happened to be at the Puffer Christ’l stand at the same time as I was. Owner Christl Glöckner joined us and brought some white glühwein for us to share.

Through my handy translator and guide Yvonne Skala, of Wiesbaden Marketing, the newly elected mayor told me one of the things that makes the city’s Christmas Market so special is that the organizers select vendors who sell handmade or German-made crafts.” No “Made in China” stickers here.

Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) Sven Gerich and Christl Glöckner, owner of Puffer Christ’l potato pancake food truck, toast to the Wiesbaden Christmas Market with some glühwein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, as I browsed the huts, I found traditional ornaments, carvings, candles, nutcrackers, knitted gloves and hats, handmade lace, wooden toys, local cheeses and game, and more. For amusement, there’s a colorful, Baroque-style carousel for kids of all ages to ride.

Presiding over all the festivities is the high-spired, Marktkirche church, built in the mid-1800s.

As a special treat, Yvonne took me to the daily weekday 5:45 organ music inside this Protestant church. We sat in one of the pews and gazed at the star-painted ceilings and neo-Gothic arches while the organist pulled out all the stops on the pipe organ. Compared to the revelries outside, it’s a welcome, contemplative timeout for some reflection on the quieter side of Christmas. Visitors are welcome to stay for the following Advent church service, but we continued out into the marketplace.

Wooden incense smokers ©Laurel Kallenbach

Shelter and Relaxation

I stayed in posh digs in Wiesbaden: the Hotel Nassauer Hof, a historic hotel that has hosted the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, and Vladimir Putin. Among the hotel’s many attributes was a location just a five-minute walk from the Christmas Market.

Another plus was that the Nassauer Hof has its own thermal spring, which feeds into the hotel pool. The result is naturally warmed mineral water, slightly salty, which buoys you up. Floating in heated water was the perfect antidote to several hours at the chilly outdoor market.

Another way to warm up during the Wiesbaden winter is in the saunas, steam rooms, and mineral baths at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme. This spa is built on the ruins of the ancient Roman baths, and the current baths were built in 1913, and restored for the centenary. I’ll blog more about this later, but it’s a truly unique place to visit and “take the waters.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally posted on December 21, 2013)

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

The stage at the center of the market often has live performances, such as the four alphorn players I listened to. ©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.