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Open letter by a former seafood-hater

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the first time I had sushi I hid it in my purse when no one was looking.

Late in high school, I finally decided to give this raw cuisine a try after hearing my gaggle of best friends rave about California rolls and fresh maki. At that point, I’d never eaten sushi or shellfish of any kind. I sat in the restaurant waiting for my meal to arrive. One bite and I’d be in their sushi-loving club… or so I thought. When my fishy meal came, I could barely tolerate the sight of it. The slabs of slippery, raw salmon on my plate before made me gag. Their texture made my stomach churn. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a cultured eater at all. I didn’t even know how to use chopsticks. While there way no way I’d be feasting on this seafood dish, I was faced with an even bigger dilemma: all-you-can-eat sushi spots charge extra for that which you do not devour. So, I did something that only a picky eater could understand: I scooped up fistfuls of cold, gooey fish, stuffed them into my purse and left. I must have reeked of fish on the bus ride home.

A few years on, I was living in Toronto still successfully avoiding seafood (and especially the raw kind) when I started dating a man with a Portuguese background and an affinity for shrimp, lobster and, you guessed it, sushi. This person introduced me to the world of seafood, in gradual steps – first serving me the cooked kind. In time, I grew to love a plate of shrimp with a beer or a Friday night out eating lobster. Eventually, I tried a less offensive sushi meal and learned it wasn’t so bad at all.

Learning to love a type of food that I had previously dismissed came in handy when I traveled to new spots, like Brazil, for instance. This nation with its Portuguese roots was obsessed with all the foods which that past boyfriend of mine loved. I’ll never forget the day when, sunbathing alone by the ocean, I managed to order a small bowl of freshly-caught shrimp from a fisherman walking along the beach. My delight of being able to order this snack despite the language barrier quickly waned when I realized the shrimp came with the heads still attached. The freshly-peppered morsels caught just that day were a treat too good to pass up as I sunned myself on the beach though. So, without a second-thought, I removed the heads, doused the rest in lime and enjoyed the perfect Brazilian lunch.

Seafood and sushi are now favourite foods of mine. I’m glad I learned to become open-minded rather than dismissive of these dishes. That goes especially when travelling to places where these sorts of foods are the region’s pride and joy. I’ve found that being open to them while away from home has enriched vacation experiences. I gobbled mini octopus in Cuba on a white sandy beach with my brother. I munched on barbecued conch at a Bahamian cocktail party. I swallowed back ice-cold, butter-flavoured oysters in Boston after a long day spent reporting on the Boston Marathon. I fueled a Cape Cod relay race with a lobster roll and when I visited Nova Scotia, armed with a bib, ample napkins and tools for the occasion, I learned to crack my first lobster. More recently, in Vancouver, I sat by a sunny street and ordered a plate of sushi because you just can’t go to the west coast city without doing so. After I finished, I ordered an extra serving of two pieces of salmon sushi. My favourite.

The girl who once hid raw fish in her purse to avoid eating it has grown to be much more adventurous with fresh ocean foods. The menu items that once caused me to grimace have become a routine part of my diet – and a luxury when travelling. And so, I write this as a sort of open letter to the picky eaters out there because these are the ones I hope to convince to say yes to new flavours. Though it cost me a purse, my introduction to seafood has allowed me to better experience tastes from abroad.

Portugal travel tips: consider camping

From the stunning coastlines to the lush vineyards of the north, Portugal’s allure is one of a kind. I remember the overwhelming feeling when two of my best gal pals and I decided on this destination for a three-week trip in 2016- there was so much to see in so little time.

I wanted to visit the rolling hills of Sintra, the vibrant city of Lisbon and the cliff-lined Algarve coast, but there was plenty of natural beauty between the nation’s major hubs, and it was calling to me. An agreement was made to skip the headache of booking hostels and the group opted for a more rugged experience. Sleeping bags, cooking supplies and a three-person tent were packed  and plans were set to jump from campsite to campsite along the Alentejo Coast.

To this day,  adventures camping through Portugal are some of my fondest travel memories. Those looking for a journey on a budget, or merely for the chance to get outside and indulge in nature, consider camping along this country’s coast for the perfect cure to onset of wanderlust.

Cost

Camping is a much cheaper alternative to staying in hotels, Airbnbs and even backpacker hostels. On average, I spent about €5 ($7.75 CAD) per night, with some sites costing as little as €2 ($3.10 CAD). Sometimes, this charge was applied to each person, but more commonly, it was applied to each tent, and because the group decided to snuggle up in one, the overall accommodation costs were extremely low.

Most campsites along the Alentejo Coast are located in small towns, so food and alcohol were generally cheaper as well. I remember one night sitting around a picnic bench, listening to the ocean, and sipping on a €0.50 glass of local wine that was filled to the brim- and this was a common occurrence.

It’s worthwhile to dig through travel forums to find campsites and wild spots in an area of interest, or check out iOverlander and FurgoVW for mapped areas throughout Western Europe. In Algarve territory, be aware that wild camping is officially banned.

Environment

Coming from Canada, where there are  some of the most lush campsites in the world, setting up a tent in the often sparse landscapes of Portugal was a bit of an adjustment. But, where Portugal’s coast lacks in trees, it makes up for in ocean.

The Alentejo Coast is a string of sandy coves woven through steep and rocky ocean-side ridges. This stunning scenery is usually only a short walk from  campsites, or, if wild camping,  the ocean is right at your tent door! There’s nothing better than waking up to the soundtrack of the sea.

Some of the Alentejo Coast  is populated with oak, olive and other native plant species- Over 100 kilometres of the coast is part of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, a preserved slice of land that’s home to plenty of unique animal and plant species. Unlike Canada there are no black bears or big cats roaming around these parts. There are very few dangerous animals in Portugal, especially along the coast, which is yet another reason why camping here has such a draw.

Site Quality

Campground quality can be a hit or a miss, and the group definitely experienced some rougher plots of land. However, more often than not, all were pleasantly surprised with the location and perks that the accommodations had to offer.

Most campgrounds along the coast are equipped with amenities that are suited for a resort- clean showers, outdoor pools, laundry rooms, on-site restaurants, grocery stores, barbecue stations and even widespread WiFi access. Some of the grounds are so clean and comfortable, that it’s not uncommon for families to park their camper vans or trailers and stay for months at a time. The parks can get quite full in peak season, but luckily, our group was travelling at the end of September and missed the summer rush.

A few coastal spots  are world renowned for their waves and are popular with surf camps and retreats. The grounds stayed on in Sagres, for example, had a surf camp on site and offered lessons to interested visitors.

People

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of camping through Portugal was the many faces  that I met along the way. As most small-town campgrounds are frequented by Portuguese families, I had the opportunity to spend time with the locals and learn about their culture firsthand. Friendly residents and fellow campers brought the group to their favourite beach spots, as well as to local gatherings. They cooked the meanest salted cod (or baccalau) I’ve ever tasted in my life!

There’s something about being in the great outdoors, especially in a country as beautiful as Portugal, that sparks the most basic instinct to bask in the joy of company. The intimate, yet open spirit of camping is one that brings people closer together and it’s an experience that the hostel-jumping trend of travelling often seems to miss. So, on the next trip to Portugal, (or anywhere for that matter) plan  a different kind of adventure- one that allows travelers to see a destination in its purest state.