On this sunny, snowy Valentine’s Day morning, I woke to a beautiful bouquet of roses from my love and we baked a chocolate heart shaped cake to enjoy for dinner. As we are still on a Covid-19 lockdown here in Ontario, it’s a quiet February 14th at home with no dinner out or movie to attend.
As I scroll through my Facebook Memories, I’m soon reminded of a Valentine’s Day that was anything but a quiet day at home. In fact, I’m not sure that any Valentine’s Day will ever top the one I had in 2008, while I was living in Kenya. A day that included singing, Valentine date requests and a slaughterhouse. Of all the travel stories I enjoy telling and re-telling, this is definitely one of my favourites!
For over a decade now, most years on January 12th, I find myself in a different country, celebrating (and sometimes stressing) about turning another year older by doing one of my favourite things: travelling.
This trend began on my 24th birthday when, much to my mother’s tearful chagrin, I boarded a plane to Kenya, which was in the midst of its post-election violence, to volunteer for several months at a school and children’s home. My 25th was much more subdued as I made my way to New York City, one of my favourite cities in the world, to spend my birthday skating at Rockefeller Center and watching Broadway shows. My 30th birthday was spent in Vegas with bright lights, penny slots and a trip to the Grand Canyon, with many other birthdays being celebrated on the beaches of Mexico, Jamaica and Bahamas.
There has been the odd year where, due to work schedules or injury, I’ve found myself in the country on January 12th. For the most part, though, those years still ended up with at least a little getaway to someplace like Blue Mountain or Windsor to check out breweries or watch Cirque du Soleil shows.
That is, until this year, when I find myself at home in the midst of another Covid-19 lockdown in Ontario.
Birthdays tend to bring out the anxiety in me. Normally not an anxious person, I often spend the time leading up to the big day wavering between being stressed by it and wanting to celebrate it for the entire month of January. I used to think I was just afraid of getting older, but have come to realize that gaining another year has never been the issue. Rather, it’s the feeling that with each year, I’m running out of time to check off all the hopes, dreams, plans and wishes I have for my life—a feeling I come by honestly, as my dad recently said he calculated that he would need to live to over 200 to finish all the projects he’s put down on his multiple “to-do” lists.
These past 10.5 months of being at home, off work and unable to travel have only added to the feeling this year. This past week, it’s been a struggle to force myself out of bed in the morning and do something with my day, as reminders pop up on my Facebook and Instagram memories of where I was heading off to celebrate my birthday in past years (with many more of those memories flooding in today).
My day didn’t start with a buffet and breakfast mimosa’s. Instead it was a slow start, with a cup of coffee with Forty Creek Nanaimo Bar cream and bacon and eggs made by my finance. Curled up on the couch reading my new Dolly Parton book, instead of taking my book to the beach. A lazy day filled with homemade lasagna made by my Mom and an ice cream cake (is it even a birthday if you don’t have one of those?? I don’t think so!)
Texts, messages and calls from friends and family and homemade cards and cupcakes delivered from some of my favourite little people (and their moms).
It was definitely a different kind of birthday for me, but still a good one filled with special little moments.
I fall victim to wanting my birthday to be extraordinary each year. A celebration of another year of great memories of travel and experiences with family and friends and the kick-start of the next year and what I’m going to be able to see, do, try and accomplish just beginning. If this past year taught me anything, it’s that the universe has a way of upending even the best laid plans. Sometimes years that were supposed to be big, important years filled with weddings and travel can end up being a year filled with gardening, crafts and baking, and that while I can’t wait to get back to celebrating my birthdays abroad…occasionally having a birthday that’s not extraordinary but merely ‘extra ordinary’ might just be okay.
Nearly a decade ago, I began collecting ornaments for my Christmas tree as I found ones I liked along my travels. It started out as a fairly sporadic collection, but over time has turned into something I seek out in every new country, adding a few new ones to hang on my tree each year.
For the first time in years, I didn’t have a new one to add to my tree, but I still got to enjoy all the memories of my past travels as I hung these beautiful ornaments on my ‘Travel Tree’.
My travels this year have looked very different—mainly just around my house. As both a travel addict and a flight attendant, being home for this long has been very strange for me, and while I’ve got lots of cleaning and reading done, one of my main outlets has been crafting.
I’ve always been a creative person, and while I usually lean towards music and drama, this year has allowed me to really spend some time exploring my visual arts side by painting, crocheting and using my Cricut on an almost daily basis. At this rate, I’m going to come out of Covid-19 with a craft emporium in my house!
Now that we are into December and Christmas is just around the corner, my latest craft helped me bring some travel memories and the illusion of being at the beach into my home in Canada, where outside there is now over a foot of snow.
I’ve been collecting a few shells from all the beaches I’ve been to around the world, and now have quite a large collection. I figured maybe I could use them to create some kind of beachy Christmas tree, so the Sparkling Seashell Tree was born!
Something for your tree topper. (I used a resin starfish I had ordered from Amazon)
Turquoise glitter paint
I glued the shells on starting with the larger ones and then filling in gaps with the smaller shells. I chose to use mainly white shells to cover the green floral cone and then filled in the gaps with a mix of small, colourful shells and uniquely shaped shells to give the tree some colour and make it look like ornaments. This part took far longer than I thought it would…although this could also be because I was watching Hallmark Christmas movies as I was crafting and kept getting distracted!
For years now, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing where I got each shell on the back (using the airport codes for the tiny shells), so it was fun to look at them and reminisce about my travels as I was gluing them on. I found shells from Costa Rica, Panama, various places around Mexico, Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Antigua, St. Lucia, Kenya, Portugal, Florida and more.
Once they were all attached, I painted two of my turquoise resin starfish with glitter paint, glued them together and placed them at the top of the tree. Then I finished it off by adding some turquoise glitter paint to some of the white shells spaced out around the tree to add a bit of sparkle.
And voilà! — I had a beautiful Seashell Tree to add a little warmth to this 2020 holiday season!
There’s really no better sight then a colourful sunset over a still body of water. I’m obsessed with sunsets in general, but there’s something magical about the mirror image reflected back off the water, like this one I took last week on the South Muskoka River. Magic Hour at it’s finest!
Halloween is my favourite time of year. I love the costumes, the decorations, the pumpkin carving and the Halloween parties, and I especially love travelling to check out Halloween places and events.
A couple of my favourites have been exploring Salem and learning about the witch trials (and seeing all the Hocus Pocus filming sites!) and dressing up to attend Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Disney World. But unfortunately with Covid-19 still happening, this year I won’t be checking a new item off my Halloween travel list or attending any big Halloween parties. So instead, I checked out a Halloween event much closer to home that I haven’t made it to before: Pumpkins After Dark at Country Heritage Park in Milton, ON.
This year, in order to keep everyone safe and distanced, the event was a 2.5km drive-thru experience. Along the dark, winding trail there are over 150 pumpkin sculptures made from 7000-7500 carved pumpkins all lit up.
The sculptures included superheroes, Disney characters, classic Halloween villains, a variety of animals and much more.
What an incredible sight! Although you couldn’t get too close to the pumpkins or stop at any point along the trail, the detail found in the sculptures was amazing.
I can only imagine how cool they would look up close (and how much better my photos would be if I wasn’t hanging out of a moving car window trying to take them!!).
It took about 45 minutes to drive through the park, including through a tunnel of spooky pumpkins.
With the creepy music playing and the thousands of pumpkins lighting up the dark, cloudy sky, I definitely left feeling more in the Halloween spirit!
New York City is one of my favourite places in the world and I try to visit at least once a year.
I will never forget being there on September 11, 2006. It was a grey, drizzling day out as I made my way down to where the Twin Towers had once stood.
I remember them reading out the names of all those who were lost that day and looking out at the empty space that had, until a few years earlier, been the towers at the World Trade Center—a sight I would never see in real life.
As I’ve been off from my job as a flight attendant due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve been going through the tens of thousands of slides from my Grandma’s travels and recently came across a box labelled “Cruise from NYC to Bermuda 1993.”
As I began to click through them, one of the first slides in the carousel was this…
A grainy old photo she’d taken through the window on the cruise ship of the Twin Towers, standing tall above the Hudson River.
What a sight.
I sat for a moment taking them in and thinking about their horrific end along with the lives of so many, especially those in my field of aviation. Today, I found myself going back to it and thinking about all the stories of loss and love that took place 19 years ago. Never Forget.
I’ve been wanting to explore Flowerpot Island for a few summers now and with Covid-19 continuing to impede international travel plans, this seemed like the perfect time to explore more of my own province. Flowerpot Island is one of twenty islands found in Fathom Five National Marine Park, located off the coast of Tobermory on the beautiful Bruce Peninsula in Ontario.
We booked a glass-bottom boat ride with Bruce Anchor to take us out to the island, 6.5km from Tobermory. Before heading to the island, we sailed into Big Tub Harbour to see two of the over twenty historic shipwrecks found in the Fathom Five National Marine Park.
Through the clear turquoise waters, we came across the Sweepstakes wreck. This schooner was built in Burlington, ON and was damaged off Cove Island before being towed to Big Tub Harbour where she sank in September, 1885. It’s amazing how much of this ship is still intact 135 years later.
The second ship found in Big Tub Harbour is the City of Grand Rapids, a passenger steamer built in 1879 in Grand Haven, Michigan. On October 29, 1907, a fire broke out aboard the Grand Rapids while docked in Little Tub Harbour. To prevent the fire from spreading, the ship was towed out of the harbour and released to burn itself out. Eventually, the charred remains sank in Big Tub Harbour near the Sweepstakes, where it can still be found just offshore.
The cold water found here has helped to preserve these wrecks, and just sailing over them, it was clear why this area has some of the best freshwater diving opportunities in Canada.
From here, we sailed past Big Tub Lighthouse, which was originally lit in 1885, over to Flowerpot Island. As we got close, you could see the ‘Flowerpot’ rock pillars sticking up from the water.
We docked at Beachy Cove and decided to do the full Loop Trail, 2.6km, including hiking the Marl Trail.
It was a beautiful day to explore the island, although we came across a few too many snakes for my liking!
By the time we made it around to the Lighthouse station, we stopped to have our picnic lunch. Here, we found out that there are also an abundance of little red squirrels just waiting for you to leave your lunch unattended! The Lighthouse museum was closed this year due to Covid-19, but you could still wander around the buildings and down to the white rocky beach.
If you trade the rocks for white sand and the trees found here for palm trees, with the beautiful turquoise waters, you can almost imagine that you are in the Caribbean instead of Canada.
Unfortunately, the caves were also closed this year, so we just got to see the outside walls. The rock formations along the trail from the Lighthouse station to the Flowerpots were really cool.
The Flowerpots were definitely the highlight though. They were the reason I wanted to come here and they didn’t disappoint, standing tall against the clear turquoise waters. Crazy to think that these have been here for hundreds of years!
I took off my shoes and stood with my feet in the glittering cold water taking it all in (and wishing it was less crowded…) Such a beautiful spot.
After taking a bunch of photos at the Big Flowerpot, we headed over to the less crowded Little Flowerpot, finding a spot to sit and relax on the rocks nearby before catching our cruise back to Tobermory.
*We spent 4 hours on the island which was the perfect amount of time to hike the trails, have a picnic lunch and spend some time at each of the flowerpots
Like so many others, my travel plans so far in 2020 haven’t exactly worked out as I had hoped. I’ve really been missing getting out and exploring, especially during this beautiful summer weather.
I may not be able to journey as far as I usually do, but for August, I promised myself I’d get out and explore local tourist spots.
So today, I went five minutes up the road to check out The Sunflower Farm, located just outside my little town of Beaverton.
This beautiful farm, with 10 acres of sunflower fields, just opened a few weeks ago and I’ve been dying to check it out. (Apparently I wasn’t the only one as the wait to get in with current Covid regulations was over an hour…. so be prepared!)
Once inside, you follow the trail past 1000s of bright yellow sunflowers. I was in heaven.
Sunflowers have always been my favourite flower so wandering along the path here, with a sea of yellow stretching on and on, was the perfect way to spend a sunny, summer afternoon!
If you had asked me growing up what my travel goals were, I would have given you a long list, which included travelling to all the continents, visiting all the countries my Grandma had travelled to and more, seeing the wonders of the world, and on and on…but climbing mountains was never something I had really thought much about. In fact, if you had asked if summiting mountains was a goal of mine, I would likely have just laughed—at least until I spent several months living in Kenya, and found myself climbing Mt. Kenya. It ended up being a tough but very cool adventure, and I thought, Well, now I can check climbing a mountain off my life list and move on!
Climbing bigger mountains definitely wasn’t in the plans until some members of the group who I had volunteered with in Kenya in 2008 started talking about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. After debating my plans to never climb another mountain, I decided it would be a great adventure and I’m never one who likes to be left behind or miss out on a great experience…even if it is a challenging one.
So this is how, exactly ten years ago today, I found myself in Moshi, Tanzania, having an early morning cup of Kilimanjaro coffee while waiting to meet our guide and set off on our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We met our guide, Julius, who told us to call him “Whitey,” an interesting nickname for this tall, dark Tanzanian guide. We all introduced ourselves and headed over to the Ahsante Tours office to pick up any rented gear and have a briefing before setting off to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We arrived at the Machame Route Gate, at a height of 1800m, got signed in and met our assistant guide, Benedict, or “Benny.” We took a group shot to mark the start of our trek and by 10:45am, we finally started making our way up the tallest mountain in Africa.
We spent the day hiking and chatting away, something that slowly died down on subsequent days as the air got thinner and our energy levels dwindled. But for now, we were fresh and excited. The setting today felt like hiking through a jungle, with some steep muddy parts thrown in to challenge us.
In between Whitey regaling us with songs, including a soulful rendition of “Hakuna Matata” and laughing and yelling out encouragement to us as we hiked along, I had some questions for him. I wanted to know how many times he had climbed this mountain, and he told me he quit counting at 120. 120?!? For me, once proved to be a challenge. I cannot imagine trekking up and down this mountain well over 120 times. (He is still a guide today, so I can only imagine what his count is now!) He’s been working on the mountain for 7 years, beginning as a porter at 18 years old, quickly working through the ranks to assistant guide and doing all the required training to become a lead guide. He told me becoming a guide was his dream. He grew up in Moshi and spent his childhood looking out at Mt. Kilimanjaro, knowing one day he wanted to climb it. Once he did, he couldn’t wait to bring others up his beloved mountain so they could see the beauty for themselves. We were definitely in good hands with him, and his love for his job and the mountain were unmistakable. He said he feels most at home on the mountain, and when he’s gone, he can’t wait to get back.
Around 5pm, we made it out of the jungle and into that evening’s camp, already set up and waiting for us. After settling into our tents, we met in the dining tent for hot chocolate and popcorn. Then we walked up to the ranger station to check in that we made it through day one, and then Whitey led us in what became a nightly routine of singing and dancing all together with our guides and porters.
This was a team bonding time, which became a little harder each day as our energy waned. But no matter how tired we were, we always mustered a last bit of strength for this fun. A perfect way to end each day of trekking!
The food prepared for each of our meals along this journey was delicious, made even more so by how hungry we were by the end of each day and how impressive it was that they were making pumpkin soup, pasta dishes and tasty desserts on the side of a mountain!
After dinner each night, Whitey came in to brief us on what the following day would entail and ask each of us to share our high and low moment of the day—another great daily tradition of this trek. Bedtime came early each night as we were always exhausted from the day.
“Now I’m in my tent, writing about day one by the light of my headlamp on Mt. Kili, 3000m up. How cool is that? Amazing!” — Journal excerpt
Day two began at 6am with a knock on the tent. “Jambo, good morning! Tea for you!” I opened the tent to find steaming mugs of chai tea waiting, a cozy way to start the morning, still wrapped up in my sleeping bag.
Breakfast was at 7am, before starting the day’s journey at 8am. Whitey told us today would definitely be “Pole Pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. He had told us from the start this was how we would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and repeated these words often throughout the trek. Pole Pole was certainly the mantra of today as we made our way mostly uphill on a six-hour trek.
We stopped for lunch around 12pm and then made it to camp around 3pm. All day today, the scenery was beautiful. We woke up above the clouds and by lunchtime had climbed above a second layer of clouds.
In the distance, you could see the summit of Mt. Meru in Arusha peeking out from the clouds. We were now up at 3,800m. We climbed up to 3,900m and then back down a bit to sleep and let our bodies adjust to the altitude. “Climb High, Sleep Low” was another mountain mantra that helped us to safely acclimatize.
Tonight’s camp was at Shira Cave, so after settling in, Benny took us up to see the old cave.
“The sunset tonight was incredible, going down through the clouds, behind the hills, and the view of the peak was amazing. It’s so beautiful and peaceful up here. After dinner, once it was dark, the sky was lit up by 1000s of stars. Gorgeous. Tonight was one of the most beautiful sunsets and starry skies I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking!” — Journal excerpt
Once again, day three began at 6am with another steaming cup of chai tea at our tent door. A girl could get used to this kind of wake up…even if it is earlier than I would like!
Another incredible view this morning up above the clouds, with the summit stretching high above us and the sun just starting to streak through the clouds.
Our highest point today was Lava Tower at 4560m, a very cool rock formation created by volcanic activity on the mountain years ago. The tower stands 90m tall and is a beautiful backdrop for a much-needed resting spot by this point in the trek. We went back down to 3950m to sleep.
Every time I’d ask Whitey how much farther, he’d tell me we were almost there. Finally, about nine hours later, it was true! Each day, our singing and dancing ritual got a little more challenging, but still no one could resist celebrating the end of another day of trekking and being closer to our goal of reaching the summit.
On day four, after about 20 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Barranco Wall, a challenging climb up 257m. We went Pole Pole for sure here, trying not to lose our footing. We carefully made our way up this part of the trek, our guides helping us across the tricky parts.
As we got to higher altitudes and trickier spots, we had both Whitey and Benny, plus Francis and Joaquim, two other guides in training, with us at all times to help us along and make sure everyone was still doing okay with the altitude.
Today was when things really got tough. The higher altitudes and steeper parts were challenging and we were moving at a turtle’s pace. Even if we wanted to go faster, I’m not sure many of us could have done anything other than go Pole Pole.
Camp tonight had by far the best bathrooms—still just a squat hole in the ground—but this one had a cement floor, instead of the usual wood. And even better, the contents weren’t up around the top! (Some days it’s the little things that bring you joy!) Whitey gave us a pep talk as part of the briefing tonight and we all went to bed early to prepare for the summit.
We were woken up at 11:30pm to get ready and had hot chocolate, popcorn and porridge. I was dressed in as many layers as I could manage because it was freezing in the pitch-black night this high up on the mountain. We set off just after midnight, with only the stars above and our headlamps to help guide our way. You could only see what was right in front of you, which was likely a good thing, because if I had seen how far and high I still had to go in the freezing cold, I might have crawled right back into my warm sleeping bag!
We took a break about halfway up.
“When you looked out across the darkness, you could see the red/orange line of the sun beginning to rise above the clouds and there was a tiny sliver of a crescent moon just above the cloud line. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and for a moment, I forgot about being freezing and exhausted and just stared out at the beauty, taking it all in.” — Journal excerpt
The higher we climbed, the harder it got. My muscles burned and near the top, my breathing became more laboured. We made our way through the snow and ice closer to the top, past the glaciers.
Whitey said he’d already seen a dramatic decline in the size of the glaciers in the seven years he had been climbing Kilimanjaro due to global warming. It was still an impressive sight, but I wonder what it used to look like?
We stopped for a tea break, before slowly continuing along the snowy, rocky trail to Stella Point. From there, we only had an hour left to go, but that last hour felt like we were hardly moving, everyone inhaling deeply, trying to get enough oxygen to take our next slow step.
Finally, around 8am, we rounded the last bend in the trail and made it to the summit, 5896m up. Making my way over to the flags and the sign saying, “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak,” welcoming me to the highest point in Africa, I burst into tears, exhaustion and excitement flooding over me.
Even though I wanted to quit at least 100 times today, I had made it. I could check climbing the highest mountain in Africa off my travel list!
Watching the sun rise over the rooftop of Africa is a moment I will never forget.
Those of us who made it to the summit got a group shot and quickly took our photos with the sign. Then, about 15-20 minutes later, we were on our way back down. Such a long way to go for such a short stay, but with the high altitude, we couldn’t linger.
We made it back to camp eleven hours after leaving it, toenails bleeding from the impact of heading basically straight back down, slipping and sliding through the gritty sand. After a nap and lunch, we packed up and hiked another two hours or so to that night’s camp. Today the highs were all about making it to the top and celebrating that victory!
The final morning after breakfast, we gathered for one last dance party before packing up and heading down the rest of the mountain, about a five-hour journey.
Back at the hotel that night, after having my first shower in six days (which was amazing), we met for one last dinner all together and toasted our success with cold Kilimanjaro beers.
Climbing mountains may not have started out on my life’s travel list, but the fact that I made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains one of my proudest travel experiences. Standing at the top, smiling through my tears and watching that incredible sun rising to the “Heaven of Africa,” as Whitey put it, is definitely a moment I will never forget.
I always knew I enjoyed a challenge and was not a quitter, and completing this trek cemented that for me. But now I’m seriously through climbing mountains…I think!
For some singing, dancing, hiking and commentary on this beautiful but challenging trek, check out the video below!