Laid-Back Kos

 

“This is where people should go to retire”, said my significant other.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Kos, but I’ll try my best to explain what he meant.

Kos is a small island belonging to Greece in the Aegean Seam, but it doesn’t bask in the same level of notoriety that other Greek islands like Crete, Rhodes, Mykonos, and Santorini enjoy.  Geographically closer to Turkey than the Greek mainland, the climate here is pretty hot and dry, and you won’t find as many ancient ruins here compared to the more famous islands in the Aegean.  However, I don’t think that takes anything away from Kos if you’re in search of a laid-back beach holiday as opposed to an archeological hunt.

I arrived at Kos late on a Saturday night and took a bus into town.  Once it had journeyed from the airport in the center of the island to the northern coastline, I began to see dozens of tourists making their way between towns on foot in the middle the night without a care in the world. “This seems like a really safe place”, I said to my other half.

Kos, Greece

For our 5-night stay, I chose an apartment-hotel about a mile outside of Kos Town in a suburb called Lambi.  Our 75-Euro/night room was large, clean, air-conditioned, and came with a fully-stocked kitchenette. We were about a 5-minute walk from the ocean and a 15-minute walk into town, so for our first day we decided to take in the major sights of Kos Town.

Kos Castle

Kos is a very friendly island for pedestrians and cyclists, which is no doubt an adaptation made in response to the large number of Dutch tourists that come here each year.  Kos Town itself is a bit kitschy, but has a lovely port and a well preserved crusades-era castle, along with both Greek and Roman ruins.  There is also a bus from the center of town that will take you up to the Kos Asklepieion, which was where Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine) received his medical training.

As far as dining was concerned, we struggled to rack up a bill exceeding 25 Euros, even after ordering alcohol.  The affordable prices allowed us to try all the Greek staples – gyros, souvlaki, moussaka, and even Greek wine. Add to this the fact that there were plenty of duty-free shops offering everything from traditional desserts and imported beer, and I found myself shoveling food into my mouth for almost the entire duration of my holiday.

Casual seaside dining @ Angelica’s

While an argument could be made that Kos doesn’t have much going on, it’s worth noting that it’s pretty easy to get on a boat and tour other islands from Kos Town.  There are frequent ferries to Bodrum, Turkey; Rhodes, Greece; as well as several other smaller islands.  A “3-island Boat Tour” is a must for all Kos visitors,  and was at the top of my to-do list.  For 30 Euros, you can get a day’s worth of island hopping, swimming in the Aegean Sea, and lunch.  Most boats stop at Kalymnos, Pserimos, and Plati.  These are all tiny islands that rely heavily on tourism, so the locals are naturally extremely friendly and appreciative.

Kalymnos

Back on Kos, we had a few days to really enjoy the island. All the major towns here are connected by fairly reliable and extremely affordable bus routes. From Kos Town, we took the bus to the resort town of Tigaki, which is known for its shallow beach. Most of Kos’ most famous beaches are in the resort areas of Kefalos and Kardamena, both of which were on the opposite side of the island from Kos. At just 20 minutes from our hotel, Tigaki was a great compromise. Tigaki beach is extremely long and broad enough to cram in thousands of sunbathers. Luckily, there were only a few hundred people lounging about when we visited in the peak of summer. The water off the coast was clear and shallow, which is perfect for those of use who aren’t strong swimmers.

Tigaki Beach

Kos may lack the “wow factor” of its more famous island cousins, but its also more laid-back and affordable. The locals are friendly and it’s perfectly safe to walk around town in the middle of the night. The beaches are nice, and getting around the island is as easy as hopping on a bus or renting a bicycle. So while I suppose it does fit the criteria of an ideal retirement community, it’s a pretty nice place for anyone to vacation as well.

Our First UK Road Trip: Cornwall and the Eden Project

 

If there’s one thing you should know about me, is that I love myself a good road trip. There’s something about the combination of the open road and the confined space of the car that I love. Back in the day when the life partner and I lived in the US, we’d regularly pack up our designated road trip car (a tiny two-door coupe) with tasty treats, picked up our Starbucks drinks of choice and set off into the desert. After moving to England, I left my car behind and haven’t driven in nearly two years.

After some considerable planning, I booked my under-25 Hertz rental car online and was pumped to get behind the wheel of a car again. Our destination was Cornwall and the Eden Project which contains the world’s largest greenhouses. On a bright Saturday morning, we set out to Heathrow Airport – our car pick-up point. After an hour of travel and half an hour of wandering around the airport, we finally found the Hertz shuttle and proceeded to get our car. Much to my dismay, the less-than-pleasant Hertz employee was unable to give me the car I booked, which was an automatic. He offered me just one other option – a tiny manual car. Well, it turns out that as an ugly American I can’t drive a stick. My road trip dreams were instantly crushed and I was contemplating either collapsing into a mini-meltdown, or just turning around and going home.

The Open Road

Luckily, in a stroke of both luck and genius, my over-25 life partner remembered that he had taped his driver’s license to his passport (weird, I know) and was able to save the day by taking over my booking. The only problem was, he had never driven on the left-hand side of the road. So after a few perilous laps around the Hertz parking lot, we tentatively set out onto the British motorway.

The life partner and I work like a team when it comes to road trips. In an odd twist on gender roles, I’m typically the hot-shot driver, and he’s my pit crew, keeping an eye on the competition whilst I hug the corners of the road in a crappy compact. This time however, the roles were reversed. I was the wingman handling the navigation and in-car entertainment. And since we were now “on the wrong side of the road”, I took on a newly created role of proximity alarm. Every once in a while we’d veer left, dangerously close to a shoulder or retaining wall upon which I would announce “LEFT, you’re too LEFT!” while simultaneously knocking on my passenger-side window.

The first 30 minutes were tense, but we eventually got the hang of it. The weather was less-than-ideal and we hit waves of showers en route to our final destination, the Carlyon Bay Hotel in St. Austell, Cornwall. Along the way we passed the gently-sloped hills of the English countryside, dotted with roadside pubs, farm villages and sheep. We also cut through Bristol and Plymouth, adding to our limited exposure of larger cities outside of London.

Carlyon Bay Hotel

View from the hotel room

After almost 6 hours of driving (there was a Burger King pit stop in the middle), we reached our destination at the end of a tiny country road which led out to the sea. The Carlyon Bay Hotel is a well-known 4* resort that attracts a lot of weekenders. It sits prominently atop a cliff overlooking its namesake Carlyon Bay. To my surprise, we ended up with a sea view room which also overlooked part of the golf course.

Weary from our travels, we chose to indulge in a little room service which featured a lot of local dishes and ingredients. I went for a salmon sandwich with chocolate cake and devonshire clotted cream. The life partner chose a BLT and a local cheese platter.  The salmon was as good as I could hope and the chocolate cake was mind-blowingly delicious, especially when paired with the clotted cream.

The cheese platter, however, was another story.  Without being too critical, I think cheese is better left to the French and Italians.

Trying out the Local Eats

After fueling up on local foods, we set out to explore the bay and surrounding beach area.  The hotel had a footpath through its property towards Carlyon Bay.  We followed the path down to the shore and explored the beach.  The weather wasn’t ideal, but the scenery was still marvelous.  England’s countryside is gorgeous and in Cornwall, its little grassy fields and tree-lined property borders run right up to the sea.

The views were lovely, as were the locals walking their dogs along the beach.  I wanted to stay longer but with the tide and clouds coming in, we ventured back through the footpath towards the hotel to prepare for the next day’s travels.

Checking out Carlyon Bay

Carlyon Bay

The next morning the weather was much better. The sun was shining and there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

Eden Project Biomes

Inside the Eden Project

Inside the Eden Project

After checking out of our hotel, we programmed the sat nav to take us to the Eden Project, which is perhaps the best garden attraction in the whole of the UK. The project consists of a series of biomes, each mimicking a different ecosystem. It boasts the largest captive rainforest in the world, as well as a large Mediterranean biome, gardens, cafe, educational facilities, and a whole lot more. Even if plants and gardening aren’t your thing, it’s a pretty amazing place to visit.

We easily spent around 4-hours at the Eden Project before heading back on the long journey home. Despite not starting out on the right foot, we ended our road trip with our rental car intact and our heads full of memories.

Learning to Swim in the Andaman Sea

 

We all have our shortcomings. Some of us can’t dance. Other can’t drive a stick or ice skate. For me, it’s always been swimming (in addition to whistling and snapping . . . I just cannot get those two down!). You see, at the impressionable age of four I found myself happily drifting along in a community pool, comforted by the buoyancy of my kiddie inner tube. What should have been a magical summer childhood memory quickly turned to terror as my scrawny four-year-old self suddenly slipped through the safety of my inflatable tube straight down into the deep end of the pool.

In lieu of any sort of human instinct to flail and preserve my own life, I was motionless and remember watching bubbles rise to the surface as I headed in the opposite direction. It was right then and there, just four years into the campaign known as life, that I resigned and thought to myself, “I am going to die now”. Moments later I was rescued from being added to the pool drowning statistics for that year by my mother.

Despite desperate attempts on the part of my parents to get me back in the pool so I could properly learn how to swim and prevent the traumatic event from occurring again, I steadfastly refused to do anything beyond wading waist deep in calm water for over 5 years. At 10, peer pressure from summer pool parties had me clinging desperately to the sides of swimming pools as I watched my friends splash carelessly in the deep end. By my teens I had managed to work my way up to a sad sort of doggy paddle, which involved me waving my limbs about until I could achieve about the speed of a snail; and by my early 20s I managed to learn how to tread water for a few minutes.

Satun, Thailand

Taking this story into the present day, I was very generously gifted a 3-day trip to Satun, Thailand recently, which included a full multi-island tour complete with swimming, beach and snorkeling excursions. Not wanting to miss out on exploring a new part of Thailand, I accepted the offering with a bit of trepidation.

Satun is located on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia and includes dozens of postcard perfect islands strewn across the Andaman Sea. With most foreign tourists heading to nearby Phuket or Krabi (they have better transport links), Satun is left with a handful of Thai tourists and countless white sand beaches with crystal clear, calm waters.

Following a flight into Hat Yai, a shuttle ride, and a speed boat adventure; I arrived on the beautiful island of Koh Lipe. My vacation package included a 2-night stay at a resort located right on Pattaya Beach (not to be confused with Pattaya city). Immediately upon checking in, I dumped my gear in my room and struck out for a spirited round of hardcore wading.

Koh Lipe

As I made my way past several rows of sunbeds and a sprinkling of French tourists, I entered the water timidly. Parts of Pattaya Beach are extremely shallow and during low tide it’s possible to wander over 100 ft from shore before the ground drops offs. The first thing that struck me as I took my first steps into the water was how warm it was. Looking down, I also noticed that the crystal clear waters below me were barely moving. Indeed, Pattaya Beach is so calm that you might mistake it for the most beautiful swimming pool in the world.

Clear waters in Satun, Thailand

Encouraged by the gentle waters, I headed out farther and farther from the shore until my feet began to tiptoe over the sand. This would normally be the point where I would turn around and head for more solid ground, but for some reason I didn’t. Perhaps it was the water’s tender embrace or the buoyancy provided by the sea. Whatever the reason was, I decided to go for it. With one mighty bound I splashed my way around a sloppy freestyle stroke until the sand beneath me turned to into a series hard coral reefs, and I found myself in the company of tropical fish.

Fish in shallow water

I had realized as quickly as I made the decision to swim out beyond my comfort zone that I had finally shed my inherent fear of water. Acting as if a giant weight had been taken off my shoulders, I swam furiously for the next several hours in jubilant triumph.

With my fears conquered, I was looking forward to the following day. The itinerary was packed with island-hopping and snorkeling, and I wasn’t going to miss out on any of it. After a dismal “American-style” breakfast at the hotel, I slathered myself in sunscreen and stepped onto an awaiting speedboat.

Tarutao Island

The next 10 hours flew by in a blur of underwater adventures. Our boat toured Tarutao National Park, which is comprised of 51 pristine islands scattered across the calm azure waters of the Andaman Sea. Stopping first at Tarutao Island for lunch, I was greeted by feral cats and pigs. Hiking through the island’s shaded interior, Tarutao lays claim to a magnificent golden sand beach. Almost completely deserted, I had this shallow warm water paradise. Koh Kai (Egg Island) was the next port of call and is best known for its natural rocky archway. Before visitors began frequenting this isolated destination it was also a haven for nesting sea turtles, which is why the locals named it Egg Island.

Koh Kai (Egg Island)

View from the boat

Each year, thousands of tourists flock to the Andaman Sea for its excellent diving and snorkeling spots. In the spring and summer, the water is calm enough to snorkel in the open sea. There are several known spots for less experienced swimmers and snorkelers known to all the boat drivers in the area. Most are marked by a line of buoys and all boats offer life jackets for both adults and children. After strapping on my gear, I lept into the sea and enthusiastically dunked my head under the waterline to reveal a thriving, colorful ecosystem comprised of hard corals, sea anemones and tropical fish.

Feral island kitten

The water was dense with clown fish, parrot fish and angelfish. Gazing down to the sea floor over 30 feet beneath me were clustered of hard coral and seaweed. The entire experience was a remarkable one and I could only imagine that it would be comparable to swimming in an enormous aquarium. Heated by the tropical sun, the salty water felt as warm as a bathtub and each spot the boat lead us too was filled with more and more sea life.

After a full day of exploring the Andaman I found myself practically cured of my irrational fear of water. Now that I am finally free of this burden, I am re-evaluating my travel bucket list to incorporate a whole new set of amazing island destinations.