Cape May

A blank sun
pressing its palm to my
forehead, I am wrapped
in a red scarf that’s seen
foreign winters and snowfalls
in my city — now the glare is
too hot for April
and the spuming water
too cold.

The beach is part desert,
sand thick and dry
dropping like fistfuls
of bird seeds, to bury
chipped shells the size
of thumbnails.
Grain-sized pebbles, the ones
you slip into the camera pocket
to remember that you were
in fact not elsewhere.

At the lighthouse the fear
of falling kept us from
looking down entirely.
Did we see the beach?
The battlement? A sunken
S.S. Atlantus reared up like
a pensive creature. The same wind
from so many towers we had climbed
blew then on this coast.

Now the gulls circle
and find no one but couples
fishing and the rest
of our mom-and-pop store
popcorn from our slow walks
through the square, past the
mansions that were really waiting,
with hushed parlors,
for tourists to loom over.

I try to picture this place
in winter, during a sleet storm,
the houses dreaming of
inland cities and the ponds
in the mini-golf park frozen dry —
a beach town like a shipwreck
in its wrong season,
beneath a changed sky and
so far from the sun,
it hardly exists.

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Mallorca: Playtime in the Mediterranean

Allison came to visit!

I promised I’d take her to a Spanish island, so we decided on Mallorca, Menorca’s bigger sister out in the Mediterranean.

Fine white sand beaches and clear turquoise waters: paradisiacal cliches but truly marvelous when they are right in front of you, complete with the caw of seagulls and murmur of water sliding in and out almost imperceptably — not like the crashing, salty rush that Canary beaches experience, but rather a more tranquil pool-like body of water.  We were brave and managed to dip more than just our feet into the water, still almost ice-cold from the winter months. The weather, however, was fortunately just perfect.

Home of Rafa Nadal and a hot destination for German biker tourists (there were definitely more of those that we saw than normal locals around), Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic islands. It’s also home to some magnificent caves that are part of the island history. We managed to visit one of them, the Cave of Artá.

Its imposing entrance akin to la boca del lobo, the mouth of the wolf, the cave is accessed by a narrow, dank passageway until it suddenly opens up into a vast, dark, and elaborate interior, formed by the passing of millenia. Artificial lights illuminate the cave so that visitors can get a glimpse of the giant stalagtites and stalagmites that jut out from the floor and ceiling, and which create a sense of awe and eerieness.

I tried to imagine the natives thousands of years ago fumbling around in this cave, in the dark with only their torch lights, warily anticipating any creature, human or devil, that could be lurking around the next jagged formation. After entering the “gateway to hell,” we were even given a small light show at the cave’s deepest part, complete with the haunting choir music from Mozart’s Requiem, I think it was.

There was even an upside-down sheep. See it?

I felt like a vampire surfacing from the dark cold of the cave into the glaring, scorching sunlight of day as we finished our tour.

The first two nights, we stayed in a small town called Alcudia, up on the northeastern side of the island. A typical tiny Spanish town, it has a square, churches, castle walls, and interesting shops. We explored it one calm evening as the sun was setting and as the winds picked up their usual night-time chill.

Having a rental car on an island makes beach-hopping a must. We were able to visit three different beaches in the same day, at different ends of the island, traversing from the north all the way to the south. From tiny coves where hardly any tourists ventured, to long, sprawling beaches, the water is always a crystalline turquoise, so still and shallow that you can see small fish darting about your feet.

The “miradores”, or viewpoints, offer incredible panoramic views of the island.

A vacation is never complete without some beer-guzzling while watching a Real Madrid game. Without beer, in particular.

On our last day, we visited Palma, the main city in Mallorca. The city is tranquil and filled with old colonial-style houses enclosing lovely courtyards and orange trees. The people are unhurried, tourists sip on coffee outdoors, locals have their beers and tapas during lunch hour. Mallorca has a beautiful maritime walkway as well as one of the most gorgeous Gothic cathedrals in Europe, built on a pre-existing Arab mosque.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1229 but was only finished in 1601, and in 1901, Gaudi took over its restoration until he abandoned the project in 1914. Its interior is even more impressive than its exterior, its soaring naves boasting a style which makes it much more dynamic than most Gothic cathedrals. It’s not as austere or rigid-looking; the textures, the abundance of light and, above all, the candelabra lamp designed by Gaudi hanging ornately above the altar space add to its singularity. The stained glass windows are also heavenly.

After strolling through its winding streets and ducking into an old 4-story English bookshop, we sit down for a lazy lunch in a high-ceilinged bar right next to the large open windows. Beef ratatouille with potatoes and a slight afternoon breeze drifting in make for a perfect slow afternoon. We end our trip shopping for Majorica pearls, which are unique to the island.


Menorca: A Snorkeler’s Paradise

1. Dirt trails shaded by pine trees which form part of the ancient “Cami de Cavalls,” or “Road of Horses,” slope gently uphill, downhill, leading to Menorca’s southern coves. The Cala Pregonda, like almost all of the island’s coves, rivals an aquarium. Through its shallow turquoise waters one can see perfectly the silver fish darting about, and sometimes the small purple jellyfish that float to the surface. It’s hard to believe that in a place as inspiring as this, there is almost no one, just a handful of beach-goers. All the other tourists have flocked to the more well-known, easier-to-access beaches.

2. There is something about horses that I’ve always loved. Maybe it’s those movies in which Mongolian horsemen gallop wildly through the desert in a war of passion, robbing the ivory combs and hearts of young women in caravans. They are majestic, powerful animals, especially the Menorcan breeds. Black, elegant, and calm, these horses are show-cased during celebrations and trained to rear up on their hind legs in a fierce dance,  inches from spectators. We went horse-back riding on less elegant, yet no less worthier, creatures on a two-hour tour through dirt tracks, past beaches, all the way to Cala Pregonda. The steady plodding of their hooves, though not the lightning gallop of the Mongols, evoke the tranquility of these landscapes.

3. The Mediterranean is for snorkeling. There is nothing like submerging the body underneath its docile waters and hearing just your slow breathing, perhaps the tick tick of hundreds of fish nibbling off the rocks. This world has nothing to do with the one above, with its dark hiding places, its slow, dreamlike movements, the buoying, lulling currents, its trove of finned creatures. I am afloat and breathing, I believe momentarily that I’m a fish, that I belong underwater. And all those dreams of water from childhood seem to return in a strange rush, as if this isn’t quite reality. I roam the great rocks, I poke my head into crevasses. When the corals end suddenly and the ocean floor plummets into a murky abyss, I feel a slight pang of fear, of wonder. I swim off the edge daringly and pause, trying to make out any creatures that may surface from the depths. Stillness. I swim back towards shore.

4. Sleep is deep after a day on the beach. It allows for dreams that are clearer, that are sometimes difficult to discern from real life in their vivid moments. One morning I dream about my house. In the kitchen there is a large fish with black stripes moving through the air as if it were swimming, its tail flipping back and forth. I am bewildered. I reach out a hand to try to touch it. It scurries away, slipping into the basement. I ask my mother how a fish can swim like that out of water, and she says, “Fish have evolved from the creatures they used to be; it’s amazing what a species can adapt to.” I open the basement door hesitantly, and behind it an entire school of fish of different sizes and colors float in the air, ready to flit into the kitchen. With alarm adding to my confusion, I quickly close the door.

5. When it rains on a beach holiday, what do you do? Veto your partner’s serious suggestion of waiting out the rain in a dank beach cave. Eat a huge, tasty Menorcan-style lunch (their stuffed eggplants and cheese are delicious), then go to the arcades and start a tournament: basketball, hockey shots, foozball, billiards. Win twice at billiards 😀 . Wander the town looking for souvenirs, then head towards the beach with an oversized towel to take in its lonely, drizzly state.

6. Menorca’s regulations, which conserve the natural state of its beaches and forests and prohibit the construction of houses or hotels near its shores, make its experience much more authentic and less touristy than its neighboring islands. The raw beauty of its isolated beaches rival even those of Formentera. Having a whole cove to yourself to snorkel is a treat.

7. It’s hard to get beached-out here, even after visiting almost 10 different coves in 6 days. They are all spectacular, and the best ones make you work to get there by trekking, sometimes through hilly desert-like areas, sometimes through refreshing pine forest. The pace of life here is extremely relaxed, especially at the tail end of the tourist season, late September. Bowling alleys and bars remain empty, and as the sun slowly dips in late afternoon, our lengthening shadows are among the only few briefly inhabiting the fine sand of the cove.