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Naked sex resort? No thanks

I’m definitely one lucky woman. I have traveled to a few continents over the years and my adventures are always memorable for one reason or another, but nothing will ever compare to the twilight-zone of an experience I had when I spent 4 days in Jamaica this past January.

I was sent on assignment, intending to learn about a new culture, enjoy some sun and sand, and perhaps gain a window into the world of nudists and swingers, at a well-known clothing optional resort in Negril.

I walked into Hedonism II wanting to love the experience and feeling that I would be somewhat sheltered from the exhibitionist lifestyle this destination was known for. Little did I know that I was in the world of the swinger and I, as a media member, was the outsider.  The resort made this clear by setting rules including the one that said I, as a “prude” staying on the Prude side, could not venture to the Naked side of the resort unless I disrobed.

I was completely fine with staying put. What was left out of the description to me from the beginning was that the same rule was not in place for the Naked side guests. They were given free reign of the entire resort and were welcome to carry on as they pleased on every square acre of the land. Oh! Did they ever.

During those 4 days, I saw things I cannot erase from my mind. Despite trying, images of all-aged naked men advancing towards fully-clothed me, attempting to ignite some “connection,” could not be unseen and the attempts kept on over the entire stay- lucky me.

To each their own, but  I spent my days at the resort flanking myself with the more youthful media members, who were also feeling like bait in a tank of hungry sharks.

We managed to enjoy spa treatments that were heavenly and this was actually the only time I disrobed. Our group also had a fantastic time on the party catamaran and amazing nights at the various themed parties. Luaus on the beach, leather and lace soirees as well as toga shindigs made us feel like we were a little more included, because at these events the majority of attendees were actually somewhat clothed.

Eventually the shock of all aged naked people wore off, but the sheer discomfort instilled with the advances, propositions and exhibitionist acts all around us did not. Couples would subtly leave their hotel room doors open and carry on having sex so anyone walking by could see. We all became used to being asked to join in.  “No thanks! I’m good!” I tried not to look in these doors, but it was always like road kill . I couldn’t avoid looking.

It was as if no rules applied on this plot of land. People were having sex anywhere they pleased, except at the buffet because that was unsanitary, but it was apparently sanitary for couples and strangers to get their rocks off in a pool I wished I could have gone swimming in. I didn’t even dare to dip in my big toe.

I guess I am a bit of a prude, and have no problem admitting that. I’m certainly not sitting in judgement over those guests who admitted to me they return to Hedo II again and again because of the freedom they feel to be themselves there. Clearly this resort is meant for a specific type of person:  exhibitionists, swingers and nudists. Everyone who fell under these categories, that I spoke to, raved about their experience at Hedonism II. I have complete respect for those who enjoy that lifestyle. It’s just not for me. I guess I’ll stick to the family-friendly resorts. They are more my speed.

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.

Traveling to Egypt? What to know

This past month, my husband and I went to Egypt for a quick getaway. It was a beautiful experience. The desert sand between my toes, the beaming sun on my face after a long, treacherous Canadian winter, and the beautiful landmarks visible from almost anywhere on the streets are just a few of the things that have me yearning to go back. In the middle of the trip were a few other moments I wish we were prepared for. Its not easy to anticipate everything in a foreign country but hopefully this post can help  others when planning.

Expect to tip

Unfortunately, political turmoil and a national revolution has a way of taking a toll on a country’s tourism industry. Despite everyone’s concern, it is safe! But locals have become increasingly more aggressive towards foreigners. They will open a door for you and ask for a tip in return. It’s important to be extra wary of locals when visiting popular tourist destinations such as the Pyramids of Giza. Whether it’s camel owners looking for riders or tour guides waiting in front of the gates for solo travelers– everyone is unfortunately out to get what’s in your wallet.  

Everything is dirt cheap

Otherwise, don’t worry about running out of money while in Egypt. Food, souvenirs, and even tourist destinations such as the entrance into the Pyramids of Giza, are low in expense- the cost of visiting Egypt is significantly cheaper than anywhere else in the world. My husband and I very comfortably feasted for less than $10, sometimes eating falafels for a mere 25 cents!

Be careful though. Its easy to lose track of  money when casually throwing Egyptian pounds at everyone and everything. Little things like water bottles, a key chain here, a perfume there can leave travelers without notes in a blink of an eye. Exchange more money than needed, because ATM fees are expensive, and currency exchanges  can be rather shady. If you find yourself with money left at the end of your trip – donate it! It is not difficult to find someone who is in need of money in a developing country.

Value for money 

Just because things are cheap, doesn’t mean paying full price. I love the smell of essence and using oil -based perfumes so when I walked into the ‘Perfume Palace’, I knew I was about to do some damage to my bank account. Unfortunately, locals see foreigners as an opportunity to make significant profit. They will ask double the price for something shoppers are interested in buying. So even if it sounds ridiculous, if an item is 100 EGP, start bargaining at 50 EGP. Be firm – even if  it’s not half the price,  a discount will be given.

Make time for an authentic experience

One thing my husband and I strive for during vacations is authenticity. The last thing I want to do in a country like Egypt is go to an Italian restaurant. It just doesn’t make sense.  Each day try to do something unconventional and out of the norm from the average tourist. Although it is daunting to venture out independently in a foreign country, it is important to do so in order to get the full experience.  

Be wary of culture

Egypt is an Arab country with a Muslim majority population. Do some research before a trip! It is easy to stand out if wearing anything revealing. Although headscarves and long skirts are not mandatory like they are in other Arab countries, do try to cover shoulders and avoid wearing anything too short. Planning is also difficult. Egyptians go with the flow and maintaining a schedule is not part of their norm. This may also be due to the fact that traffic makes it almost impossible to get somewhere on time. Expect a 10 minute taxi ride to take up to half an hour. The roads are all one way but patience is key when in Egypt – speed limits and traffic lights do not exist here!  

Befriend an Egyptian

Feeling overwhelmed? Make a friend! Having someone during your outings who knows the language and culture can be a lot more comforting than venturing out alone. My husband and I were happy to meet a tour guide who ended up showing us around Cairo for two days and quickly became a friend. . Whether it was blasting Arabic music during the car ride, or stopping for sugar cane juice on the way to the museum, Halla was an amazing part of a great trip.

Research and be safe, but happy Egyptian travels! It’s a remarkable country.

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.