WHERE TO STAY – Two blocks from the Botero Museum sits Hotel Casa Deco, a modern inn that stands out with its color-themed rooms, deco style, and—for lovers of live music-proximity to Casa de Citas Cafe Arte; from $101. In the middle of La Candelaria but on a quiet street you’ll find Italian-owned Abadia Colonial, cast from a traditional Colombian residence. Rooms, simply furnished in period style, look out on a courtyard. Also notable: a glass-roofed dining area. From $68. Closer to the Plaza de Bolivar you’ll come upon the luxe Hotel de la Opera, in a grand, colonial-era stone edifice with its own thermal spa; from $209. Those staying outside La Candelaria should try the homey Hotel Casona del Patio, in Chapinero, a quarter known for its bars; from $67.
WHERE TO EAT – Stylish dining and expansive views make Restaurante Casa San Isidro, on Monserrate and reachable by cable car, a fine bet for an introductory meal in Bogota; the menu, on the pricey side, runs from French classics (bouillabaisse, duck ten-ine) to Colombian favorites. The folksy, popular Casa de Citas Cafe Arte draws big weekend crowds with live music, salsa dancing, and Peruvian dishes; try the seviche with hot aji pepper sauce.
Looking for a romantic hideaway? Head to El Gato Gris, just off Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, and order empanaditas paired with absinthe, which, the menu says, will help you “see things as you wished they were.” Playful and intimate El Patio earns kudos for its candlelit ambience and Italian fare. You will taste country cooking the way it was prepared in Bolivar’s day at La Puerta Falsa, founded in 1816. If it’s full, check out two like-minded eateries nearby: the Antigua Santa Fe and La Puerta de la Tradieion, where you can sample Bogotano favorites such as ajiaco, a chicken-based stew.
WHAT TO KNOW – Temperate weather reigns in Bogota; the driest conditions occur from December into March. Many newcomers feel the effects of Bogota’s altitude (8,660 feet); common symptoms include shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, and mild dizziness. Acclimation usually occurs within a few days; limiting alcohol consumption aids the transition.
Atchafalaya to harvest “sinker” cypress, old-growth timber felled a century ago that ended up sinking while being transported through the murky water. As I tuck into our lunch of cheese and boudin, Louisiana’s trademark sausage, I catch Hall staring at the vast swamp. The rippling water reflects the dark sky. A sense of timelessness, of deep serenity is settling around us. It is at this moment that I begin to grasp what living on the Atchafalaya must feel like. The area has long been home to the Cajuns, descendants of French Canadians (Acadians) expelled from Canada by British forces in the 1750s, who made their way south to the more welcoming French territory of Louisiane. Their progeny kept the native language, and a version is spoken to this day. Once here, Cajuns thrived on the abundant wildlife, from catfish, crawfish, and alligators to otters, beavers, turkeys, and Louisiana black bears.
The houseboat, rented from Houseboat Adventures, is being nosed through the water by a tow piloted by Houseboat Adventures owner Mitch Mequet. We have hot water, a toilet, a generator, but no motor. The very best feature, to me, is the view gliding past our front porch. The landscape is both familiar and alien, Monet’s “Water Lilies” meets Jurassic Park. Fish jump and bubbles roil the floating vegetation. Herons and egrets flutter and take flight through stands of tapering cypresses rising from the mist like Javanese dancers, branches akimbo and draped with Spanish moss. “If you want,” Mequet says, “I’ll get my airboat and give y’all a tour in it. It can get way back in the cypress forests. You can consider it a little lagniappe.”
Lagniappe is the Cajun French word for a little something extra. When Mequet returns, we scramble onto the airboat, the engine roars, and soon we’re skimming the water’s surface at 25 miles an hour. We enter a murky grove carpeted with duckweed. Mequet cuts the engine. Around us, cypresses soar in air the color of pewter. “All new growth,” Hall tells us. Old-growth cypresses and tupelos were cut 80 years ago to fashion stately front doors for New Orleans and Natchez. “It’s amazing what you can find in these waters,” Hall adds that evening as we sit on our porch nursing bottles of local Abita beer. “Hundred-year-old cisterns, timber from river camps. Search the levee tops after a storm and you will spot something: Spanish doubloons, daggers, wine from Prohibition days.”
Prohibition shackled whiskey-loving New Orleans but had little real effect on those living here on the Atchafalaya; its watery reaches kept much of the world at bay, encouraging the flowering of a very local culture—and the swamp music known as zydeco, which is playing full tilt when we pull up to the Whiskey River Landing dance hall the following day. The ramshackle roadhouse perched at the edge of the basin in Henderson draws locals and visitors alike with its romping live music and crowded dance floor. Inside, loud doesn’t even begin to describe the whoops and stomps as feet puzzle through the distinctive side-stepping and twirling of zydeco dancing, which has roots in Acadian folk tradition. Boots scrape floorboards as partners pirouette to the fast-tempo beat of Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys.
Accordions, washboards, and fiddles deliver a cultural mash-up of folk, swamp, and rhythm and blues music that could happen only in this steamy Louisiana outpost. The music is joyous, transforming a gloomy day into a burst of spirited warmth. Before I know it, I am on the floor dancing with everyone else. Perhaps it’s their relative isolation that makes Atchafalayans so eager to share their world. I just know the beat is making everyone break into grins. I cast back to Chamberlain’s warning that Louisiana is endangered, being diluted by the 21st century, becoming like everywhere else. The Atchafalaya, its people, and its music are actively defying his admonition. Watching the musicians beam as they play on, I know that here on the water, Louisiana—quirky and continuously surprising—is still hitting the right notes.
A sign showing two crossed baguettes topped by a skull welcomes me to Killer Poboys, a New Orleans hole-in-the-wall known for its renegade version of Louisiana’s state sandwich, the po’ boy. The eatery is crammed into a back room of the Erin Rose, a pub sitting just a stumble up from the 24/7 party known as Bourbon Street. Few of Bourbon’s revelers will find it; fewer still will know to squeeze past Erin Rose’s regulars to the tiny kitchen area, where crusty French loaves bulging with Gulf shrimp seasoned with coriander or sliced pork belly flavored with rum are being assembled by the New Orleans-born team of Cam Boudreaux and April Bellow. Killer Poboys could be a metaphor for Louisiana, I think as I place my order. It’s an outlier in a place that has slowly standardized itself. Its front room—the boozy, convivial Erin Rose—could be in any bar.
But behind it, like a furtive pirate’s hideout, sits a little piece of real Louisiana, homegrown, eccentric, and bursting with the flavors of the land. I’m in Killer Poboys to meet with Charles Chamberlain, a Ph.D. in American history and local History Man. Ten years a historian at the Louisiana State Museum before setting up his own company, Historia, to provide outsiders insights into the Pelican State, Chamberlain knows Louisiana. His clients have included academics, producers of the supernatural FX series American Horror Story, and, now, me. Chamberlain, I figure, is just the guy to explain why Louisiana is so different, even a little cray cray—and I don’t mean the fish.
“Louisiana couldn’t be anything but,” he declares as we share a bag of Zapps Voodoo Potato Chips, a favorite Louisiana foodstuff. By the time President Thomas Jefferson bought the land from Napoleon in that X803 geopolitical fire sale, he explains, this French colony was well populated with French and Spanish immigrants, refugees from Haiti, and Congolese slaves, all of whom had seeded the land with their cultures, foods, and traditions. “If you’re looking for different,” he tells me, laying out an itinerary, “start here in New Orleans. You can see how we turn our quirkiness into art by visiting one of the recently formed New Orleans krewes that parade at the start of Carnival’s two-week celebration. Tourists wait for Mardi Gras, which is at the end; almost no one comes for the beginning, but that’s when you see something really crazy. Then follow the French settlements up to the Cane River.
That’s where Creoles of color built their own world. On your way back to New Orleans, explore the Atchafalaya, America’s biggest swamp, by getting out on the water with the local Cajuns. You’ll be glad you did.” As we emerge from Killer Poboys, blinking, into the French Quarter’s afternoon light, Chamberlain adds, “Louisiana is another country. But you better see it soon; who knows how long it’s going to last.” The reality is that Creoles and Cajuns, cowboys and costumers, shrimpers and planters—really, all who make life and art out of this watery land—are threatened as their world is digitized, outsourced …and submerged. Lit ex-ally. Low-lying Louisiana loses a football field an hour to, among other things, rising seas.
NEW ORLEANS – LIVING ON-AND LOVING-THE OUTER EDGE
A BREEZE RATTLES THE PALM FRONDS and nags at the curlicued brackets that grace traditional Creole cottages in Bayou St. John, a New Orleans neighborhood ignored by most travelers. Little do they know that here lies a secret world inhabited by south Louisiana’s Mardi Gras krewes, the private organizations responsible for the colorful Carnival parades. Inside a house on St. Philip Street, two dining-room tables have been pushed together and piled with glue guns, glitter, and lunacy. Eight middle-aged men and women work as intently as a Guangdong factory line cutting, assembling, and pasting little things such as miniature smartphones, candy sticks, and tiny comic books (which Ziggy, a black cat, is attempting to eat). “What can I say, he likes my work,” artist Caesar Meadows, who wrote and illustrated the micro-comics, remarks.
Meadows and his wife, Jeannie Detweiler, are my hosts at this party, gathered to make the keepsakes, or “throws,” that krewes toss out along their parade routes during the pre-Lenten season. In any other city in any other state, these librarians, teachers, and bartenders would be talking property values. Here, they form the Krewe of’tit (for Petit) Rex, which distinguishes itself from New Orleans’ hallowed Krewe of Rex with the upside-down s, or schwa, to avoid confusion. Not that that would happen. Even in the demimonde of Louisiana’s Carnival, the ’tit Rex krewe is considered a little out there. Each year its members create an entire Mardi Gras parade—in miniature. Floats barely reach the length of shoe boxes; thumbnail-size throws challenge even the adroit. Maybe it’s the small scale of its work, but the ’tit Rex krewe remains largely unknown outside New Orleans.
It, along with the Star Wars-themed Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus and the bawdy Krewe du Vieux, generally parades two to three weeks ahead of Fat Tuesday, well before the world focuses in on Mardi Gras. Its route takes it through the Faubourg Marigny, a once forlorn neighborhood downriver that has blossomed recently into a Brooklyn with bougainvillea, attracting artists and the avant-garde. “Toss in the palm trees, the day drinking, the gays, the girls, and the sense of eccentricity here, and you have one of the most deliriously creative communities in the U.S.,” says Kevin Fan-ell, who, with his partner, Nick Vivion, opened Booty’s Street Food, an eatery now considered a staging ground for a new culinary sensibility in a state where gumbo still rules. I glance out the window and spot a woman in silver boots and a sparkly red tutu skittering into a second-hand store across the street. She illustrates his words perfectly.
A few weeks later, ’tit Rex’s 26 floats and three marching bands gather on oak-shaded St. Roch Avenue. The marchers sip tequila and kombucha tea as they admire their tiny assemblages. The theme this year: “Wee the People.” Each float is a witty set piece on contemporary society, from selfies to senatorial sex scandals. Meadows and Detweiler arrive together but won’t march together. “Some couples have separate bedrooms,” says Detweilei-. “We keep separate floats.” Suddenly, a “pace marshal,” in a blue sash, shouts, “Let’s roll!” One band starts in with an all-brass version of a Beastie Boys song. Haltingly, the floats’ tiny wheels begin to jounce along the pavement. The route is lined with smiles, but Chamberlain is right: The spectators are locals, not tourists. They’ve set up dioramas of their own as homages to the minuscule march. One depicts a Lilliputian Velma, Scooby, and Shaggy. “This is so AWESOME!” a boy shouts. It is.
The sun begins to set as the floats trundle along, glowing like neon signs with their LED lights. The parade ends at the side door of the Allways Lounge & Theatre, a cabaret bar serving as the site of the post-parade ball. “Welcome, y’all, to my place,” booms proprietress Zalia Beville in her best Liza Minnelli voice as footsore marchers head for drafts of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Guest marcher Curt Schulz, an Oregon schoolteacher, marvels at the gathering. “In Portland this would be sanitized and sponsored by an organic sports-drink company,” he says.
“The garbage would get picked up and the sharp edges shaved down. But here it’s all about sharp edges, and ’tit Rex—raw, sexy, colorful, on the edge of falling apart—fits in just fine.” Two days later I’m lunching with friends and describing the march through the Marigny twilight, the happy crowds, and the tiny homages lining the route. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a parade like that,” I say. “Ever.” “You missed the Chewbacchus krewe, with its twerking Princess Leias,” someone replies. “That was something else.”
CANE RIVER NATIONAL HERITAGE AREA – WHERE CREOLE CULTURE HOLDS SWAY
The river town of Natchitoches (NA-ka-tesh) dates to 1714, when French traders paddling up the Red River from the Mississippi put down roots here, making it the oldest permanent settlement in the entire 828,000-squai-e-mile Louisiana Purchase. It immediately impresses me as a downsized version of New Orleans’ Royal Street, with its filigreed iron balconies, antiques stores, and art galleries. Natchitoches even has its own mini-Mississippi River: the Cane River, a 36-mile-long band of shimmering silver water that defines the surrounding Cane River National Heritage Area. Great plantations—Magnolia, Oakland, Melrose—front either side of this twisting waterway, like base molecules attracted to a strand of antebellum DNA.
But here, a seemingly upside-down world evolved, where plantation owners had African ancestry—and owned slaves. Among them was Marie Therese Coincoin, slave and mistress of Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who would free her and their children, then deed her land. Their son Louis established Melrose, modest by plantation standards but extraordinary for the change it represented. It was another African-American woman, cook and self-taught artist Clementine Hunter, who would bring Melrose renown with folk paintings she began crafting in the 1930s, when she was in her 50s. Wandering the plantation’s grounds, with its African- and French-influenced outbuildings built by slaves, I feel dislodged from the present day.
“Natchitoches and the Cane River? We’re in a time of our own,” asserts Tom Whitehead, the area’s unofficial ambassador who, if you’re lucky like me, will ask you to his house for shrimp and grits—overseen by Clementine Hunter artworks, depicting daily plantation scenes, on his wall. “We appreciate differences.” Different this region is. Take the line of cars idling to buy frozen daiquiris at Maggio’s, a drive-through liquor store. Or the farmers in muddy boots and Wrangler jeans sipping $15 glasses of Cab at Janohn’s, a restaurant in a renovated cotton gin in nearby Boyce. The past is very present in Natchitoches. I encounter Lisa and Michael Prud’homme at Mama’s Oyster House, on Front Street, where the zydeco music is loud enough to ripple your beer. Born along the Cane, Michael Prud’homme returned home with Lisa after a big-city career. “We’ve moved around a lot, but we’re done. We’re in our ‘dying house’ now,” Prud’homme says. Our dying house.
Prud’homme’s ancestors arrived here in the 1720s. He and his siblings, heirs to Oakland, one of the major Cane plantations, sold it to the National Park Service so it could be preserved for a nation forgetful of its rural roots and ways. “To connect with that time,” Prud’homme’s sister, Kathy, tells me, “visit St. Augustine’s, a Catholic church and the center of local Creole life, in nearby Isle Brevelle. It’s having a birthday celebration for Grandpere Augustin Metoyer tonight. Go.” The fact that Grandpere Augustin—son of Marie Therese— died in 1856 isn’t affecting the party. Metoyer is revered along the Cane River as the founder of the Creole community and as the builder, with his brother Louis, of the original St. Augustine church. It burned down in the 1800s and was replaced by today’s white wooden structure.
St. Augustine’s parking lot, when I arrive at 6 p.m., is as packed as its cemetery grounds with generations of Metoyers, Balthazars, Roques. Creole identity is complex. In this part of Louisiana it describes a person descended from some mix of French and Spanish settlers, Africans, and Native Americans. Tonight, Charles Roque will play the role of gray-haired Grandpere Augustin. He’s the mirror image of the patriarch who stands tall in a portrait painted more than a century ago and hanging on one of the church walls. That’s no surprise. Roque grew up on the Cane. His wife, Betty, is a Metoyer. “Charles is an old-school river man,” Roque’s son-in-law Larry Atteridge whispers to me as I navigate the hall. “They don’t get deeper than that, and that’s a fact.” As night descends, the party gets going.
Out back, men fry the last of 49 white perch, or sacalait, fished from the Cane River that morning as they listen to the New Orleans Saints game on the radio. Inside, deviled eggs, mac ’n’ cheese, black-eyed peas, and 50 gallons of steaming gumbo are placed on the table. I’m introduced to Miss Nazy Metoyer LaCour, who baked Grandpere’s huge vanilla birthday cake, slathering it with blue icing and layering it with pineapple slices and locally grown pecans.
At a table behind the cake sit “the elders,” 12 men and women over 80 who are being honored. The bar is serving beer, shots of Old Crow, and Long Island iced teas, dispensed by a cheerful woman who warns that her generous pours will soon have me “acting single and seeing double.” When the amplified music revs up, young and old Cane River natives start a line dance. It soon strikes me that no one here wants to be anywhere else. Everyone is in this moment—a moment of its own along the Cane River. Just as Tom Whitehead had predicted.
WITNESS A LEGENDARY COAST – The best view of the 3,000-foot cliffs of the Napali Coast is from the water. Hop in a catamaran or a high-powered raft, and if the conditions are right, the captain may stop for snorkeling.
SEE THE VIEW, FROM THE SKY – For a bird’s-eye view that reveals why Hollywood can’t get enough of Kaua’i’s paradisiacal treasures (think Blue Hawaii, Jurassic Park, and The Descendants), take a helicopter ride over the island’s unspoiled landscapes.
TAKE A ROAD TRIP – A road trip should always be on the vacation to-do list, especially when the destination is 3,567-foot-deep Waimea Canyon. Dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this geologic wonder boasts colorful eroded cliffs in a natural palette of green, orange, red, and brown.
GOLF LIKE THE PROS – Golfers: If the names Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones, Jr., ring a bell, then you should know that both PGA legends designed signature courses right here on Kaua’i.
EXPLORE WATERWAYS – Water lovers should consider kayaking along the Wailua River, one of Hawaii’s only navigable rivers. Want more? Go for a two-mile tube ride down a rainwater irrigation ditch-which, in certain sections, is pitch-black.
TRY WAVE-RIDING – Kaua’i is blessed with epic surf spots on every shore. If you’re eager to paddle out, sign up for a lesson with a pro-and revel in your victory when you first stand up.
GO OFF-ROADING OR ZIP-LINING – Adrenaline junkies in need of a white-knuckle fix should consider zip-lining over a rain forest. If heights are an issue, go off-road exploring through lush jungles in an ATV.
ACT LIKE A PANIOLO, OR HAWAIIAN COWBOY – For a relaxing activity, explore Kaua’i’s incredible landscapes on horseback. Ride through a sugarcane field, discover a working cattle ranch, or witness a cascading waterfall.
LEARN TO HULA – At an island luau, you can try poi (pounded taro root) and a coconut pudding called haupia— both are staples of the Hawaiian diet. If you’re feeling brave, dancers can take you on stage to teach you how to hula.
IT’S THE LINE ALL ON board have been waiting to say, from the 1975 movie everyone knows: Jaws. And this ship has a special connection to Jaws. The leader of our expedition, Andrew Fox, had told us how his father, Rodney, worked as a shark adviser on the film’s second unit. Andrew himself saw his first shark at age seven. “The movie frightened a lot of people out of the water,” Fox told our group when we gathered the first night. “But it also created a large number of people who wanted to see sharks up close. They’re like the last dragons.” These dragons have captivated me since I can remember. The great white was my favorite animal when I was growing up in landlocked Minnesota. Carcharodon carcbarias, “the ragged-tooth one,” is the world’s largest predatory fish and a mystery millions of years old. At one time, great whites swam through my dreams every night.
To me, sharks are everything that is wild, untamed, and unpredictable about the world. When I was 12, my father bought me a small shark tooth sharp enough to prick a finger, and put it on a necklace. “If you wear this in the ocean,” he’d told me, “the sharks will recognize you as one of their own and won’t harm you.” Now, as I sit on the back platform of the Princess II, my legs dangling into the open hatch of the surface cage while dive master Chris Taylor helps me with my weight belt, I think about the tooth, which I’m wearing around my neck under my wet suit. I’m impatient to get in the cage, but I also feel the edginess that keeps all of us—especially the crew— ultra-alert when the sharks are around. Jumbo’s large dorsal fin slices through the water a few feet from the cage as the back of the ship heaves in the swells. “Don’t look at the cage,” Taylor advises me, tightening the belt’s straps. “Keep your eyes on the horizon; it will help you keep your balance.”
He hands me one of four regulators that connect to a central air hose, and I descend the short ladder to the bottom of the cage. My breath quickens as I feel the cold water press against my thick wet suit. I’m not a diver; it takes me a moment to acclimatize to breathing through a regulator. Pivoting in the cage seven feet underwater, I scan the blue for any flash of white, any movement, but Jumbo is gone. The only sound is my breathing. Then the back of my neck begins to prickle. I slowly turn. Jumbo’s pointed nose is six inches from my stomach, as close to the lower viewing window of the cage as she can get. I could touch her if I dared. She seems to consider squeezing her whalelike girth through the small window opening before dropping one of her fins and banking away.
I shoot backward to the center of the cage, shaking with the shock of having a 1.5-ton shark successfully sneak up on me. Jumbo doubles back and glides past the cage again, within anil’s length of that lower window. Her eye is not the dead matte black from the movies but brown, with a lively blue ring around the outside. She turns and passes me again, rolling onto her side to get a better look. I’m the only one in the cage, the sole focus of her attention. I drop to my knees, lean forward, and grip the metal bars. Our eyes meet, and I feel a thrill of awe and terror. “Sharks love sneaking up on things,” Fox tells me minutes later, as he helps me out of my wet suit. “They’re ambushers. It’s safest and most efficient for them. If they know you’ve seen them, they behave differently, becoming much more wary. What’s that around your neck?”
Fox has spotted my shark tooth. Suddenly, I feel self-conscious; wearing it in front of someone whose father was famously torn open by a great white shark seems insensitive. It took 462 stitches to put Rodney Fox back together. A shark tooth is still embedded in his right wrist. The shark bite changed the course of Rodney Fox’s life. To observe the creature that “got him,” Fox designed the world’s first shark cage so he could watch sharks in their environment in an unprovoked and, he hoped, natural state—the beginning of his evolution from shark victim to shark champion. “This tooth of yours may be good luck,” Andrew Fox says. “You got the attention of a really special shark.” “How many have you seen in one day?” I ask. “Nineteen great whites in 15 minutes. Ironically, we were testing a new shark repellent device.” Fox grins. Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions is the only outfitter in the world to offer ocean-floor cage diving, in which a shark cage is lowered to a depth of 65 feet.
“Sharks are more alert up top in case something’s up,” Fox explains. “On the bottom, they’re more relaxed and curious.” As one of two non-dive-certified passengers on the expedition, I won’t get to try the ocean-floor cage, but I don’t miss a chance to be at ship’s edge when the cage is raised, seawater hissing out of the gaps in the bars. Invariably, the divers spit out their regulators as soon as the cage breaks the surface, talking over one another in their excitement. “Did you see that male shark just circling and circling?” Oliver Thomson, a passenger from Sydney, exclaims. “Two giant squid could have been mating behind me and I wouldn’t have noticed—or cared.”
EVERY ONE OF US on the boat feels a need to talk about sharks, to put this experience into words. Evenings, when we gather after the diving is done, become my favorite time on the ship. I move Fox’s camera gear off one of the benches that line the lounge to sit next to him and Ardi Tandiono, a return passenger and Singapore local. They’re examining the day’s photographs. “Do you know this shark?” Tandiono asks Fox. “It’s Maulder,” Fox answers. “I haven’t spotted him in a few years. I thought he may have got himself on the wrong side of the tuna industry, so I’m really happy to see him. Look,” he says, turning the laptop screen toward me. “See Maulder’s flattened dorsal fin and the hump behind? Each shark has its own markings and character. Spend enough time around them, and sharks are as easy to recognize as old friends.” Shark research is a critical part of these multiday dive trips to the Neptune Islands. The Rodney Fox Shark team has identified and documented more than 600 great whites in the area over the past 14 years.
Most expedition passengers contribute to the work, photographing sharks and gathering information during their dives. The research isn’t without controversy. In order to draw the sharks close to the ship for tagging and identification, bait and berley (ground-up fish) are used. The berley attracts the sharks in the immediate vicinity to the boat, while the bait keeps them around the cage. Globally, some critics say that berleying accustoms sharks to boats, teasing the sharks with bait too close to the cage and putting them at risk of damaging themselves so tourists can get those iconic wide-jawed photographs. Scientific research on this issue has been inconclusive. In Australia, shark cage diving is highly regulated: Only two operators (including Fox) are allowed to berley, and only in specific offshore areas.
NOT EVERYONE SHARES Fox’s affection for sharks, and many of us nurture an innate dread, carved into our DNA, of being defenseless in the ocean, vulnerable to these unseen predators. Few of us grasp sharks’ critically important role as apex predators in the marine environment. The truth is, sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them. We don’t know how many swim the oceans, but scientists are sure that even a slight shift in that delicate ecosystem will have calamitous results for marine life and the industries dependent on it. Sharks remain a particularly touchy subject in Port Lincoln, the departure point for Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions. Port Lincoln has more millionaires per capita than any other Australian city, largely due to the $290 million that the southern bluefin tuna industry brings in annually. Many residents here know at least one person who has been killed by a shark. “Don’t get in the cage, girl” warned the cab driver who picked me up at the airport, a rough-hewn man with matted blond hair and a Bloody Mary in a coffee cup.
“Great whites are pure evil. If they’re coming for you, there’s nothing you can do about it.” “We get a lot of shark tales here,” says Tony Ford, the head chef at Boston Bay winery, just north of Port Lincoln. He is pouring me a Sauvignon Blanc (cheekily named “Great White”) as a David Bowie song plays in the background. “People come in from the cages absolutely buzzing.” The winery, which was established by Ford’s parents, is a place of light, with a glassed-in tasting room that overlooks rows of grape trellises marching down a hill almost to sea’s edge. It provides a stark contrast to the old pubs in town, with their darkened interiors and absence of sea views. “Years ago we had some of the wildest bars in Australia and some of the fittest people in the world drinking in them. The men went out to sea for days, weeks.
They worked hard, came home, and played even harder,” says John Plevin, a volunteer who is guiding me through the rabbit warren of rooms at the Axel Stenross Maritime Museum. Artifacts and photographs from the windjammer days of a hundred years ago fill the exhibit on my left. Plevin knows every vessel’s history—how it sailed, its catch quota, the men that worked it. “A lot of fishermen came here. I arrived when I was 17; I’m 79 now, so I’m almost a local.” He smiles, then turns serious. “Some fishermen made good, and some went broke. But you want to know about the sharks.” He points to a room down the stairs, past a Brobdingnagian anchor that seems to prop up the walls. “We do have a bit of a sharky history here. That’s the room you want.”
I turn the comer into a narrow space crowded with dented cages and wallpapered with newspaper clippings of attacks (including Rodney’s) and prize catches. I stand there for a long time. What I see—black-and-white photographs of great whites strung up by their tails on the docks—offers sobering evidence of our mutual fragility. The dead sharks look rubberized, fake, their power drained. My own fragility is on my mind during an afternoon cruise in the tender boat, along the shore of South Neptune Island. A low hill of rock and scrub, the island offers the only protection from the ten-foot swells of open ocean. The Neptunes are home to one of Australia’s largest populations of New Zealand fur seals—a favored food of great whites. So it’s no surprise that a rotating population of sharks resides in these waters.
Our task this afternoon is to check on the population of sea lions and seals: On every trip Fox likes to estimate numbers and evaluate the general well-being of the colony. “A healthy seal population means a healthy shark population,” he says. Thirty minutes earlier I was in the water in the surface cage, with Maulder circling me aggressively. Rather than feeling drawn to this shark, I instinctively pulled away from it. Above me, Fox was lowering the tender boat into the ocean for our visit to the seal colony. Suddenly, Maulder disappeared, his perfectly adapted coloring allowing him to vanish in eight feet of clear water.
My eyes strained to find his form in the blue. Then, abruptly, I spotted him—rising at a steep angle directly under the tender boat. He bit at the propeller, bumping the vessel’s underside. Now I’m out of the surface cage and in the boat, cruising an area littered with shipwrecks, fully aware of what swims beneath. Rather than looking for seals, I’m scanning the water for triangular dorsal fins. It is the only time during the expedition that I feel nervous.
ON OUR LAST EVENING, I join others for a round of Shark Dice, a baffling game with rules we passengers suspect the crew make up as they go. I can see the ship’s stern, illuminated by a halo of floodlights, and, beyond, the tarnished silver of the evening sea. Sharks are out there. Does our carousing draw them closer? Life would be pale indeed without our dragons. Rodney Fox understands this better than anyone. “I owe everything to the shark that bit me,” he’d said when we met in Adelaide, where he lives. “Sharks are our monsters—ours to protect and ours to love.”
That night I dream of a shark, a lone shape, suspended in the blue, swimming away from me. I wake feeling bereft, knowing the next day will be my last among the powerful creatures. Then something Rodney said returns to me. “The mornings and nights out here, you realize you’re alone in a wilderness, on the edge of a huge ocean, and you’ve been allowed a glimpse of something otherworldly.” I’ve had that glimpse, and will always carry it with me. My hand strays to the talisman tooth hanging around my neck and, within minutes, a peaceful sleep overtakes me.
From the lookout atop 10,341-foot-high Monserrate this summer evening, Bogota resembles a glittering crazy quilt tessellated with flickering lights and obsidian shadows. The vista, magnificent in scale, awes. My eye searches for the Botero Museum, somewhere directly below, in the Candelaria quarter, the city’s colonial heart. Only 15 years ago Bogota was being convulsed by a decades-long civil war. Left-wing guerrillas, many from Colombia’s working class, were gunning down officials and seizing government buildings; right-wing paramilitaries were killing leftists. And, of course, revenues from narcotics enriched a few beyond all imagination; think Pablo Escobar, the now deceased chief of the Medellin cartel, with his Learjet, submarines, and zoo. “Things are different now, very different,” says my Bogota friend Carla Baquero, a 33-year-old graphic artist, as we walk along the lookout’s steep path to the cable car for the ten-minute descent to the city.
The car sways to life, and we slide almost vertically toward the darkest part of the otherwise bright cityscape: La Candelaria. The quarter, she tells me as she brushes aside a stray black curl, “is where Colombian poets have always lived and where you still feel the Bogota of Simon Bolivar,” the heroized 19th-century liberator of Colombia. The larger-than-life art of Fernando Botero couldn’t find a more appropriate home. Baquero and I reach the entrance to the Museo Botero, which occupies a colonial residence on Calle 11. I’m intent on seeing a Botero painting that has long intrigued me: “Pareja Bailando” (“Couple Dancing”). It depicts a duo mid-step, she with horselike haunches and a mane of reddish hair, he paleskinned and rotund.
We find the artwork in a room devoted to Botero (the museum also shows works by other modern artists, including Pablo Picasso and Robert Motherwell). Like most Botero subjects, the two appear obese. However, the artist wouldn’t term them so: For him, they’re possessed of a volumen hinting at a surfeit of sensuality, a Colombian trait. All appears normal in the scene. Then I notice that neither figure is reflected in the mirror behind them—a vampiric portent of perdition? — and that the man is unshaven, suggesting this may be a brothel. Things are only superficially as they should be, intimating layers invisible to a casual observer.
“In his work,” Baquero says, “Botero hints at the problems in our history, the corruption, the falsity in our private lives, the violence beneath the surface.” We stop at “Una Familia,” a portrait of what appears to be a normal family, though the wife, husband, and two children look humorously corpulent. (They can’t be obese, Baquero notes; no folds crease their body fat, confirmation, perhaps, of Botero’s explanation of “volume.”) Then Baquero points to telling details. “The man has two wedding rings, which suggests he may be cheating. The woman seems to have a wandering eye, which for some Colombians means she can’t be trusted, so she too may be cheating.
And look at how ugly the family dog is; we think a dog’s character reflects that of its master.” I notice a scarlet snake in a tree behind them, poised to bite the woman. “That’s Catholic iconography,” Baquero observes, another implication that the two are sinners. Bogota, Botero gives us to think, is, like the rest of Colombia, Catholic yet sensuous. Much is concealed for religious propriety’s sake. Yet gazing at his lighthearted “Man on Horseback” (the man looks as heavy as the horse), I sense a playfulness, a Colombian passion for outsize moments and distrust of seriousness. Botero paints so deftly, even daftly, that his oeuvre, like Bogota, occupies a middle area between beaux arts and pop art, or, in culinary terms, between an elegant tarte tatin and Pop-Tarts.
I HAVE ALWAYS FELT BOGOTA was in my blood. Maybe it’s ascribable to a familial tie to the city: My mother spent a few years here as a teenager, in a grand casa senorial somewhere on a mist-mantled mountainside above town, where, she told me wistfully, she was never happier. In 2009, I began visiting Colombia to research a book about Bolivar, the flamboyant liberator of five countries from Spanish rule. With “El Libertador” I felt a visceral bond: His life was as peripatetic as my own, his wanderlust as insatiable, his sense of history as tragic. I fell in love with Bogota, set dramatically beneath the steep-sloped Andes, its climate often forlornly cool and rainy, its people, emerging from decades of terror, eager to learn about the world and have others learn about them.
Most of all, I fell in love with the colorfully painted Candelaria neighborhood, cradle of Colombia’s most recent renaissance, where poncho-clad campesinos share sidewalks with stylishly dressed (and newly relaxed) elites, and horse-drawn carts rattle alongside sports cars. By immersing myself in its life on this visit and meeting Candelarianos who are helping revive their city, I am hoping I will find my own place in this proud Latin culture—and derive inspiration for another book, which would come from deeper within me. I’m hoping, in other words, that maybe some of Colombia’s rebirth will rub off on me—and that I will make the city my own.
The city originated here, either at the stately Plaza de Bolivar— where Colombia’s capitol and supreme court preside—or by the quaint Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, with its marijuana-scented alleys and folksy raconteurs. Today mostly a picturesque warren of cobbled streets and low, gable-roofed homes and businesses, La Candelaria long suffered infamy as a dilapidated, dangerous no-go zone sheltering El Cartucho, one of Bogota’s biggest drug markets (now a public park). The area’s renaissance as a hub of cultural life, at once laid-back and sophisticated, blends the Old World and the 21st century. This is what Bolivar, who envisioned Bogota as a world-class capital, would have wanted. Born in Caracas, capital of present-day Venezuela, and a European-educated scion of its upper crust—he was an unabashed Europhile—Bolivar made a gallant insurgent.
His cherished refuge, shared with Manuela Saenz, a comrade-in-arms and his mistress, was the Quinta de Bolivar, his estate in La Candelaria’s upper reaches, today a museum dedicated to the Liberator. Wander the low-slung manor house, stocked with antique chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors, or the neoclassical gardens abounding with such regional botanical curiosities as Andean blueberries, and you may understand Carla Baquero’s feelings about the place. “I’m always overwhelmed by the Quinta,” she tells me. “I think of Bolivar and his Manuelita, and how happy they were here. But it didn’t last.” Bolivar would depart for self-imposed exile, and Manuelita eventually was exiled by the new government.
BOLIVAR WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE much of the city he helped put on the map. The ride in from the airport had whipped me down an expressway toward Bogota’s phalanx of skyscrapers, their windows aflame with the midday sun, set against the green mass of Monserrate. As we shot beneath bridges streaked with graffiti, I felt short of breath from the 8,66o-foot altitude. But the clarity of the light washing over the scene, enriching all the colors, infused me with optimism. One morning I have a meeting with a young man who, from what I’ve read, is doing all that he can to change Bogota for the better. On my way to our appointment I manage to get lost in La Candelaria’s tapestry of streets, and soon am hurrying down sidewalks, sidestepping manholes, dodging roaring buses. Miguel Uribe greets me in the courtyard cafe of the peach-colored Hotel de la Opera, a throwback to colonial times.
At 28, Uribe is the second youngest deputy on Bogota’s City Council. He also happens to be a grandson of former Colombian president Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala. Uribe knows more than most about Colombia’s grievous past. In 1990, drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered the kidnapping of his mother, television journalist Diana Turbay. Five months in captivity ended with a botched police rescue attempt and, in 1991, her death during a firelight. (Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez immortalized the tragedy in his nonfiction masterpiece, News of a Kidnapping.) Uribe, who was four at the time, professes no bitterness; he prefers to focus on the encouraging changes he’s seen recently. “In the 1990s, we were prisoners of narco traffickers and guerrilla groups in our own city. Now, it’s no more dangerous here than in other urban areas.” He sips a soda before adding, “Bogota has been modernizing, but La Candelaria has kept its identity, with its houses restored, security improved, excellent bars and restaurants opening, and lots of good new hotels.”
He’s light about hotels. I’m staying at the Abadia Colonial, a sleepy inn fashioned out of a colonial home, with an Italian restaurant in the courtyard. The Italian owner, Paolo Rocchi, proudly describes to me La Candelaria’s burgeoning artistic community and the French and Italians who are moving here to enjoy it. “It is like living in the center of San Francisco—the San Francisco of South America.” La Candelaria’s revival has incorporated touches of the cosmopolitan, which are welcome in a Colombia that has only recently ended its relative political isolation. “A night out in Bogota was once about arepas [flatbreads] and rum,” says Yolima Herrera, one of two Bogotanas who join me for dinner at the neighborhood restaurant El Patio. “Today, people also can order wine, goimnet cheeses, and hams.” We toast the evening with a South American Cabernet Sauvignon as good as any from France and pore over a menu of Europe-inspired dishes. “Tourism has been vital to our revival,” adds my other dinner companion, Angela Garzon, who works in city government. “We were on the blacklist of nations.”
HOWEVER MUCH LA CANDELARIA is changing, reminders of Colombia’s turbulent past remain. As light floods down from a sun burning brighter here in the tropics than anything I’m used to, I walk, still a bit short of breath from the altitude, across Plaza de Bolivar. On this spot in 1817, Spaniards put to death Policarpa Salavarrieta, a seamstress who spied for the movement for independence from Spain. Now honored by a plaque, she is her country’s revolutionary heroine; at her execution, she refused orders to kneel and turn away. Instead, she defiantly stood and faced the riflemen as they fired.
Just steps away, on pedestrian-only Carrera 7, I find an example of Bogota’s more ludie spirit. A man is playing, simultaneously, a drum on his back, a flute attached to his chin, and a guitar hanging from his neck. He manages, with contortions, to produce a salsa tune that couples dance to, skirting concrete flower planters painted with wry sayings such as “Si eressabio, rte— If you’re wise, laugh” and “Los feos tenemos mas estilo—We ugly folks have moi-e style.” Just south of the square, at the artisanal market Pasaje Rivas, vendors greet passersby with figurines of the Virgin Mary—and the Simpsons.
Then there is Bogota’s resurgent, and spirited, cafe life. I’m immediately drawn to Mitho Cafe, a wood-paneled space warmed by a freestanding fireplace, which I nestle next to one drizzly afternoon with a crema de whiskey and a crusty picada of chorizo sausage and baby potatoes. Another afternoon I experiment with absinthe at El Gato Gris, which dubs itself “Bohemia in Bogota.” El Gato’s menu of cocktails features, appropriately, a sketch of surrealist Spanish artist Salvador Dali with his signature pencil mustache. Sitting at a small table under a wrought iron chandelier, watching a failing sun gild rococo church belfries, I sip from my chalice of absinthe, which has been sweetened with chocolate and a stick of cinnamon. My favorite drink, however, will turn out to be a Colombian standard: a shot of aguardiente (“fiery water”) preceded by a quick chomp on a slice of lime. My final night in Bogota, I return to a nocturnal haunt in La Candelaria I’ve come to love above all.
Ready to do something completely different this vacation? Ready to go off the beaten tourist path with a team of seasoned explorers and adventurers? For a quarter century Zegrahm Expeditions has been turning routine tourists into bucket-list travelers. Zegrahm’s founders, field directors, and program managers annually scout the earth to craft a unique roster of expeditions far from the well-trodden tourist routes. Using their own expertise and feedback from the traveler community, Zegrahm presents unusual opportunities for inquisitive guests to immerse themselves in the culture and natural history of a destination.
Far and Wide – You’ve done the standard itineraries. Now it’s time to think about going deep into Namibia or Botswana for an up close look at big wildlife; roaming through the hinterlands of Siberia and its remote Kamchatka Peninsula; circumnavigating the Black Sea; meandering among medieval villages along the Dalmatian coast; trekking up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. With veteran explorers as your guides, you’ll soon feel like an expert on fascinating places nobody at home has ever heard about. Be the first of your friends to blog from the biosphere reserves and World Heritage sites of Cuba, to photograph out-of-the-way reaches of a Borneo rain forest, to snowmobile in Iceland, to bring back tales of snow monkeys in Hokkaido. Amazing places and experiences are waiting for you.
Don’t Sweat the Details – Overland trips take 12 to 24 adventure seekers on in-depth journeys, and small-ship expeditions carry from 28 to 100 passengers interested in comprehensive coverage of an entire region. In either case, guests can expect to see and learn about some of the world’s lesser known treasures With all costs covered—accommodations, cultural tours, Zodiac cruises, snorkeling, meals, gratuities, you name it —you can forget about the hassles of trip planning and concentrate on just being there.
Here’s a tropical paradise that’s about more than just lying out in the sun—one that invigorates, takes the breath away, and invites adventure. Halfway along the arc of The Florida Keys, Islamorada and its six-island community beckon adventurers of every stripe. Grab hold and don’t let go.
Fins – Sportfishing is big here, whether you’re into catch-and-release or bringing your prize in to a local restaurant and giving the cook your order. Go for bonefish, permit, and tarpon in the shallows; yellowtail snapper and kingfish on the reefs; sailfish and mahi mahi deeper. Strap on a pair of fins yourself and dive on the Eagle, a freighter scuttled in 105 feet of water and now a lively reef. Or, be a hero for a day: Join a restoration crew and help clean a coral nursery.
Get Vertical – What else? —just about anything marine you’ve ever dreamed of doing. Kiteboard the wind and waves; kayak a shimmering world of sea grass beds and tidal flats; paddleboard a watery backcountry; ecotour offshore marine life and see tropical fish, dolphins, and manatees. Venture out to Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, a hammock forest atop the remains of an ancient coral reef, and admire the gumbo-limbo, strangler fig, and other exotic flora. Or visit Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park to behold a reef without getting wet.
I was working on an animated film in Los Angeles in 1982 when I was ordered back to Prague by the communist Czech government. I wanted to finish my film and was tired of the government telling me what to do, so I decided not to return even though I knew this meant I might not see my family again. Then, in 1989, I became a U.S. citizen, and a few months later the Berlin Wall fell. I could once again go home. Whenever I visit, I try to swim against time, not to recall the oppressive fortress that used to be Prague but to reconnect with the favorite places of my childhood.
Our family home is located on the main route through historic Prague, on Nerudova Street in the Hradcany Castle District. It had been the gatehouse for the Prague Castle and goes back to the 14th century. My first walk in Prague is usually up the street to the castle—the seat of kings, emperors, dictators, and presidents. I like to go there in the evening. A quiet alley behind the castle, Nov5? Svet, is where the Danish Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe lived. He came to Prague as a guest of Emperor Rudolf II, a patron of the arts and sciences.
Brahe was just one of the many astronomers, mystics, and alchemists that the emperor invited to his Prague court. Across from Brahe’s house, a discreet entrance leads to the lush charms of Deer Moat, a park with meadows, benches, winding paths, and the remains of the emperor’s greenhouse, called Fig House. You can almost see the shadows of the deer, bears, even lions that Emperor Rudolf II kept here. He was told that when his favorite lion died he would too, and that’s what happened. Prague Castle looms above Deer Moat, and I enter it through the East Gate. With the crowds gone, I feel like a time traveler walking along the Golden Lane— a street of colorful small houses.
In October the literary world celebrates the tooth birthday of the late Dylan Thomas. Few places meant more to the Welsh poet than Swansea, on Wales’s southwest coast. “This sea-town was my world,” he wrote of the “ugly lovely” place where he grew up and wrote the majority of his life’s work.
Dylan Mania – October 24-26, catch local singers/songwriters performing at the Do Not Go Gentle festival—a contemporary take on Thomas’s lifestyle here as part of the arty Kardomah Gang-followed by the 36-hour “Dylathon” reading October 26-27 at the Swansea Grand Theatre. Plus, peruse handwritten manuscripts at the Dylan Thomas Centre.
Where to stay – Overnight at Thomas’s birthplace, the restored Edwardian house at Number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. A gramophone, scrunched balls of paper, and half-smoked Woodbines set the scene, as does the window vantage of ships that appear, as Thomas wrote, to “sail across rooftops.”
Poetic license – Drive west from Swansea to the sandy surf spots and rocky coves of the Gower Peninsula, one of Britain’s most scenic coastlines.
Contrary to myth, Bob Dylan did not give himself the Welsh poet’s name, but actor Pierce Brosnan did christen his son Dylan Thomas.