Irene Shaland’s Cuba article The Island within an Island: The Cuban Jewish Story of Survival was published on August 22nd by the Sephardi Ideas Monthly, a magazine of the American Sephardic Federation and Center for Jewish History Research of New York. On August 23rd, the essay was also published by the Mosaic, a magazine dedicated to advancing philosophical discussions related to Jewish history and Judaism. See the excerpts below:
Alex and I have traveled to nearly 70 countries. We celebrated our birthdays and anniversaries in places like a street corner café on Easter Island, tiny seafood restaurant in Cochi, Kerala, a second century BC villa –turned Renaissance palace-turned art studio in Rome; opera singers’ favorite tavern in Palermo near the famed Teatro Massimo, just to name a few. But we had the most unique experience this year on March 5th, when our new friend Steve Lane, Kangaroo Island’s Sea Dragon Lodge owner and our exceptional guide, took us to the remote Snellings Beach on the north coast. As a present on our milestone wedding anniversary, Steve invited us for a luncheon inside a… tree.
The brain-child of two extraordinary chefs Rachel Hannaford and Sasha Sachs, this pop-up restaurant is called (how else?) “The Enchanted Fig Tree” and is indeed located inside a 150-year-old fig tree on the Hannaford family’s property. Between the mighty tree roots and under its enormous canopy, there are five distinctive large spaces, called “rooms” by the owners. The lucky ones to get reservations, about 30-to- 40 people, sit in these “rooms” by elegantly set tables adorned with white table clothes and candles. Each table is placed in a nook of a sort that looks and feels like a private party room among the leaves and boughs of that tree. Thanks to our friend, on March 5th we were the ones “chosen by the tree” in a room for three people. Outside the tree, the enchanted world inside is not visible: all is covered by a great canopy. We felt we entered the Shakespearean Arden forest.
Our meal was a tasting menu based on the best of island produce. It happened to be nothing short of a marvelous symphony composed of taste sensations, textures, shapes, and colors. The appetizers – Carpaccio of local fish with homemade totopos and liver parfait with agrodolce and paper thin sourdough wafers, also homemade – were out of this world. As an entrée, understood in Australia as a first course or a starter, I chose Mexican-inspired pozole made of white chicken broth with lime, avocado, chili and corn, which was excellent. Alex had wild mushroom galette: Sasha Sachs’s secret recipe puff pastry with local mushrooms on a watercress salad with parsnip puree. It seemed to evaporate from his plate, even before I wanted to ask for a taste. Instead of the main dish, we were treated to a real banquet, a Greek themed variations of taste. Local lamb with sofrito dolma was followed by a fresh grilled local fish with marjoram and vegetables. All was accompanied by Sasha’s wonderful taramasalata and quinoa salad with Kangaroo Island’s sheep cheese, pureed with roasted fennel. The knock-out crescendo of this concerto was a divine desert: raw sugar meringue with figs from the tree inside of which we were eating!
After the meal, we met the owners, Rachel and Sasha, to express our feelings of owe and admiration. When I told them that they are amazing food artists, these talented chefs, two extraordinarily women, seemed surprised. They just do what they love to do: creating an unforgettable experience and thus enriching lives of everyone they host in their magic forest.
Since childhood, I always wanted to live among the animals of Australia – even if for a few days only. And this was how the Kangaroo Island, a small dot in the Indian Ocean, materialized first in my imagination, and then – in our itinerary for the Spring 2016 trip. Overlooked by most popular guidebooks, this third largest Australian island (after Tasmania and Melville) remains the largest secret of that country for many globe trotters. There are precious few corners left in our 21st century urbanized world where Australian animals could be observed in the wild, and Kangaroo Island is exactly that place.
Just like the island itself, its best accommodation (at least in our opinion!) is not mentioned in either the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, the very books usually consulted by travelers to Australia. This picturesque luxury establishment with its main lodge and free-standing 5-star villas faces a secluded private beach and seems as ubiquitous to the island landscape as Australian bush. Situated on a 250 acre seafront estate and surrounded by woods, the Sea Dragon Lodge constitutes a true refuge from the modern world – for people and the wild animals alike.
I do not remember how I found the Sea Dragon. Was that just surfing the internet? I believe not in coincidences but rather in that web of connections that brings people together. And before I knew it, the lodge owner Steve Lane and I were corresponding, and I felt I found an understanding friend. I am sure that this is how Steve, as a lodge owner and a guide, operates: treating all his customers with acute sensitivity to their needs and wants. But both my husband photographer Alex and I felt we were the “ones and only” dear, long-awaited friends of Steve who finally arrived to see his island.
Calling the Kangaroo Island “the only guilt-free place in Australia,” Steve introduced us to its history. The British Government commissioned Capitan Matthew Flinders to explore this part of Australia in 1800. He found no humans there but an abundance of – well – kangaroos. The Aboriginal people avoided this island because they believed that it was inhabited by evil spirits. Modern archeological evidence suggests that the Aboriginals left the island at least two thousand years prior to Capitan Flinders’s arrival. After World War I, the Australian Government offered the island’s land to returning soldiers either as a reward for their service to the Crown or to get deeply traumatized veterans out of big cities. Today, most of the island’s land is a national park or reserve established to protect its unique wildlife and sublime natural beauty. The climate there is very pleasant and mild, of a Mediterranean kind, and could as well be a setting for a Shakespearean play. So it was only natural for us to see Steve becoming our Prospero who instead of creating the Tempest for his old enemies, unveiled for new friends the magic of his island, one treasure at a time. We were treated to two full-day safaris with Steve as our driver and a naturalist guide. Our island discovery trip culminated in a night walking tour of the bush led by Steve’s friends, the Chesters, a renowned photographer and a contributor to the Royal National Geographic, and his wife, a biologist and a National Park ranger.
The island is very diverse landscape-wise and is indeed rather large. It takes almost three hours just to drive east to west, from Cape Willoughby to Flinders Chase National Park, and over an hour – north to south – from Stokes Bay to Vivone Bay. Guided by Steve, we slowly took it all: rolling hills and secluded bays of the North Coast; the rugged, almost surreal landscape of the South Coast; iconic Remarkable Rocks on the western end; the picturesque seaside village of Penneshaw on the Dudley Peninsula; and of course – the animals. The Kangaroo Island was spared by the damage done to the mainland by the species introduced by the European settlers, such as foxes or rabbits. As a result, it preserved its unique environment. Some animals either evolved into distinctly different-looking creatures like long-haired kangaroos, and some, almost extinct on the mainland, like Tammar wallabies, flourished.
We could not drag ourselves away from Steve’s “secret” place, just around the corner from his estate, where Australian sea lions and New Zealand seals sun-bathe on the shore surrounded by their babies. In the morning we were greeted by giant long-haired kangaroos and curious wallabies. Late evening we had the cutest brush-tail possum honoring us with his regular visits to our deck. One afternoon we encountered two echidnas crossing the road: each one stopped to either pose for Alex or pretending it was a stone. Koalas slept up high on eucalyptus trees, but one was considerate enough to demonstrate us her amazing front and hind paws: she stretched them one at a time in a slow tai-chi-type motion. We were among the animals of Australia, true indigenous custodians of this island.
For us, the Sea Dragon Lodge became the center of this unique world. Steve, an excellent guide, was a wonderful host as well. He presented us with a bottle of champagne on our milestone anniversary and organized a once-in-a-life-time experience to celebrate our special day: a luncheon inside an…ancient fig tree! (See my next review/blog).
A great majority of US visitors concentrate their exploration of Australia on Sydney and Melbourne, supplementing their experiences by visiting either the Ayers Rock or the Great Barrier Reef. While these iconic places are certainly the “musts,” no true understanding of this country could be complete without a trip to the Kangaroo Island. And, of course, without encountering the host-guide-friend par excellence: Steve Lane and his terrific Sea Dragon Lodge!
1. The best place to stay and discover the island: Sea Dragon Lodge: http://www.seadragonlodge.com.au/
2. To get to the island, fly to Adelaide and then take either Regional Express Air: http://www.rex.com.au/ or
Going to Iceland on vacation or business? Take a look at this Insight Guides Iceland. This book is a great trip companion. Invaluable for trip planning and once you arrived, for exploring. Lots of historical and current information and photos. Articles are well written and maps are some of the best.
Includes chapters on Iceland history, features, Insights, photo features, places, travel tips, transportation , accommodations, and activities.
All visitors to Iceland fall into two distinctive categories: those who saw the northern lights and those who did not. When Irene set her trip target on Iceland, she was determined to place herself, our daughter, and I squarely in the first category. The problem was that unlike the predictable crowds at JFK on the way to Iceland, the famous northern lights of Iceland are highly unpredictable. However, the best time to see them is from November through December. So mid-November looked pretty good. Oh, and it also happens to be one of the coldest months of the year.
In addition to the time of the year, there are several other components essential for seeing the northern lights. First, the surroundings have to be as dark as possible, meaning you have to be far away from Reykjavik, or other areas where humans light the skies with their electric bulbs. Next, the weather has to be just right: clear skies and a cold night are the best combination. Your viewing location is also important: on the same night, one lucky group of tourists might be rewarded for freezing in the open for hours with a fantastic light show, but another unlucky bunch just a two-hour drive away will be turning into icicles for nothing.
Speaking of luck, it increases substantially if you stay in Iceland for at least a week and have all or most nights available to chase the northern lights. As it happens, northern lights have a nasty habit of showing up for a day or two and taking a few days off to rest. The good news is that once you book a Northern Lights excursion through one of the bus companies, they will keep taking you on the northern lights chase until you see the lights, or decide to quit and go home. But even then, the tickets are good for two years – come back to Iceland and hop on board to continue your quest.
This generosity of the Gray Line Iceland tour company turned out to be our lucky number. After driving from one observation point to another for hours, we returned to our Hotel Borg after 2 AM with only three nighttime photos in my camera: the moon, a boat, and a lighthouse. However, after we boarded the Gray Line Iceland tour bus the following night, Nature reworded our persistence with one of the most spectacular phenomena.
Yeah, yeah, we all saw those highly Photoshopped multi-colored northern light images. What we saw however, were mostly whitish patterns that appeared, disappeared, and morphed into new shapes on the background of the black sky. Digital camera sensors painted those fantastic patterns green. Out of the three necessary night photography components (a good tripod, a remote shutter release, and knowing what you are doing), I possessed only the first one – the tripod. The shutter release cable I bought a couple of days before the trip did not fit my camera, even though it was “designed” for my model by those creative engineers. My non-existent night photography skills acquired on the brightly lit squares of European capitals at night were as useless as the cable that I tried to exchange the night before the trip. Another factor that did not help was our location: we observed the northern lights over the ocean, and the water vapors made the air less clear. So when you look at the photos, just keep in mind that the northern lights are indeed spectacular!
This recemmended book includes chapters on Iceland history, features, Insights, photo features, places, travel tips, transportation , accommodations, and activities.
November 5th – December 1st 2015 Cuyahoga County Public Library Orange Branch, 31975 Chagrin Boulevard Pepper Pike, Ohio 44124 Phone: 216-831-4282
Internationally-published artist photographer Alex Shaland has a life-long passion for travel. Together with his wife, travel writer Irene Shaland, they have explored close to 70 countries. His photographs have appeared in more than twenty magazines published in the USA, Canada, UK, France, Kenya, and South Korea. Through his photographs, Alex shares his excitement and love for our beautiful world.
MEET-THE-ARTIST Open House: November 8th 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM Refreshments will be served
In one of our earlier blog posts, we recommended a few credit cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees when you use the card outside of the US. If you travel abroad and don’t have one of those credit cards, your “conventional” credit card might be charging in the area of 2% for foreign transaction fees every time you swipe your Visa or MasterCard at a restaurant, hotel, or car rental office.
Capital One, Chase, Barclay, and other banks offer credit cards with no foreign transaction fees- you just need to ask and apply for one. However, this is not the end of the story. You have to be aware of the convenience service that will be offered once you swipe the card. Here is how I finally figured this out.
During our recent trip to Switzerland, I noticed that every restaurant and hotel asked if I wanted to settle my bill in Swiss Franks or US dollars. They all had portable credit card machines that asked to choose US dollars or Swiss Franks before completing the transaction. The first time I had to choose the currency, we just finished dinner at a nice restaurant in Geneva, and I asked the waiter who spoke decent English what he would recommend. His reply was that it did not really matter, but perhaps paying in US dollars would be more convenient. Being an adventurer, or maybe having one too many beers, I chose US dollars. When the card reader printed my receipt, I was informed in rather small print that the local bank that offered this convenient currency conversion also charged me 3% of the entire bill. The transaction was final and could not be reversed. From this point on, I asked for “Swiss Franks only, please!”
So, your best choice would be to use a no-foreign transaction fee credit card and choose local currency when paying the bill.
Going on an African safari by yourself or in a small group is not advisable. Suppose, you are standing in front of a lion or a rhinoceros and trying to calculate your chances of getting out of this situation in one piece and hopefully not perforated in too many places. You are staring at the whatever it is that is going to do a very bad thing to you and all that is going through your mind is “o sh….t”. But look at the situation from the lion’s point of view. It has to charge you, yes you. Who else is there to eat? You are the protein!
However, you chances of not becoming the next lion’s meal improve drastically if you are in a large group of preferably slow moving Eco tourists. Simple math tells you that one out of, for example ten, is a much smaller chance of the bad thing happening to you than one out of one. As a bonus, there is actually a better chance of scaring some predators away if you are in a bigger and very loud group, typically American. Though, I will tell you that the French are probably even better at scaring wildlife away with their loud and incomprehensible speech. I still don’t understand how they missed the opportunity to become part of Great Britain during the 100 years war. Can you imagine how much easier the life of an average French man, woman and child would be if they spoke English that everybody understands, instead of French that nobody does? Well, but enough of that.
The good news is loud noise might work with a lion. The bad news is, it won’t with a rhinoceros or a buffalo. So, always go with a group of friends. Remember, strength is in the numbers!
The third largest city of Sicily, a UNESCO-listed Catania lies in close proximity to the majestic mountain Etna. The city was always subject to the brooding moods of that volcano. In the late 1600s, Mt. Etna struck twice: first drowning Catania and over 12,000 of its inhabitants in boiling lava, and then, in less than 25 years, leveling the city again by a murderous earthquake. Only 2,000 people survived. However, like phoenix out of ashes, Catania, rebuilt by architects from Rome, was reborn as one of the greatest baroque cities of the Mediterranean.
Today, many visitors skip Catania for the sake of Taormina or Siracusa and this is a sad mistake. The city radiates a strange romantic beauty with its broad boulevards and spacious squares, grandiose palazzos, and great cathedrals, still striking in their black and white colors, lava and limestone, crumbling plaster, and cracked marble columns.
Renowned composer Vincenzo Bellini, born and bred in Catania, is buried in the city’s main cathedral, the Duomo. His presence is felt everywhere: monuments, a house-museum, and even in a beloved Sicilian dish-Pasta dela Norma is named after Bellini’s world-famous opera.
Founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, Catania became the most prosperous Sicilian city during the Roman age, and still boasts not one but two Roman amphitheaters: the smaller one, near Piazza St. Francesco d’Assisi, was built, as Romans often did, on top of a Greek theater, but the larger one, the largest in Sicily, was a Roman original, and could accommodate 16,000 spectators. Now we can admire parts of that great structure near Piazza Stesicoro.
The majestic 13th-century Ursino Castello, built on the orders of Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, is the only city structure not destroyed by Etna. The castle was designed to be the city’s guardian, situated on the top of a seafront cliff, but the volcano changed the landscape and the Castello is now landlocked. Inside the Castello is the city museum, Museo Civico, but the most interesting feature of the castle is outside: near the front gates, its massive wall displays a menorah laid out in small black lava stones like a mosaic. Perhaps the Jews working on the construction wanted to write their own page in the city’s history.
Catania’s main square with the Duomo in its center is a World Heritage site, and is dazzling in its majestically theatrical beauty. Here is Catania at its best, showcasing its black lava-while limestone baroque grandeur. In front of the Duomo, is Fontana dell’Elephante, a funny black lava elephant that smiles at us while carrying a huge Egyptian obelisk on its back.
If you are willing, Catania, this special city, will unveil its treasures for you.
Two Roman pillars mark the entrance to the remains of Anfiteatro Romano, the largest in Sicily
I came across the name “Casa Cuseni” while reading about Tennessee Williams and his beloved partner, painter/poet Henry Faulkner, spending many happy months in Taormina while staying in Casa Cuseni. I knew then, without a doubt, that when we are in Sicily, we will follow the steps of Tennessee!
We and our four friends arrived at Casa Cuseni on a beautiful late September afternoon. We were met by the B&B’s smiling owner, an MD and art lover, Francesco Spadaro, and we followed him up the stairs through a terraced garden. At that time of the day, Taormina is lit by magical shades of golden-bluish light coming from above and below, the sky and the sea, and indeed seems to become “la bella Trinacria,” Dante’s name for Sicily. The most beautiful city of Sicily, Taormina, was called by Goethe “a little patch of paradise.”
Many visitors today, though spell-bounded by Taormina’s almost supernatural beauty, find it hard to believe the great German poet: the city is literally occupied by crowds of tourists; its cathedrals and palaces are taken over by unending weddings. For us, though, it was Casa Cuseni which embodied the best that “paradise” of Taormina has to offer. Just like Taormina is not your typical Sicilian town, Casa Cuseni is not the B&B one may expect, but a destination by itself, a living museum of arts and letters, “a place where Art has found its Home,” as Francesco Spadaro calls it.
The villa called Casa Cuseni was designed and built by the leading member of the British Royal Academy of Arts, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson, in 1905. For Kitson, Casa Cuseni became a refuge, a home away from the world of Victorian morals and his Yorkshire family with their judgmental attitudes toward his life style. Since Kinston was an Art Nouveau or rather Arts & Crafts artist in love with Italy and Sicily, the house and gardens he designed present a harmonious mixture of art nouveau, and Liberty and Sicilian styles. Robert Kitson’s teacher and friend, Frank Brangwyn, designed the paneling and furniture and created a mural in the dining room. This beautiful, elegant, and refined mural invokes a poignant feeling of being singled-out and ostracized. Brangwyn figures symbolize homosexual love, threatened and persecuted by society.
Just like gay-friendly Taormina became a refuge for those artists, who like Oscar Wilde were exiled from their home-countries, Casa Cuseni turned into an intellectual oasis for artists whose views or life-styles were not considered moral or conventional: D.H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Henry Faulkner, Truman Capote, they all met over drinks on the rooftop of the house overlooking the town and the volcano Etna in the background.
When Robert Kitson died in 1948, his niece, Daphne Phelps, came all the way from Great Britain to Sicily to sell the house. But she fell in love with the place, the country, and the people and decided to stay on and have paying guests. She went on to write A House in Sicily, one of the best books about this island.
This house, as shown by the wonderful manager Salvatore, has become alive for us and turned into one of the main characters of Sicily. In addition to the beautiful furnishings and a mural, the house’s treasures are displayed everywhere: you live in a living and breathing museum surrounded by Picasso, Faulkner, Kinston, plus the countless treasures of Kinston’s personal connections such as Sumerian, Greek, early medieval, and Renaissance priceless pieces.
I was particularly impressed and deeply touched by Salvatore spending an hour of his time to share with us the house’s collection of Tennessee Williams’ writings and private letters.
Though inseparable from Taormina, Casa Cuseni is a world treasure, a must destination for any art and literature lover.
Our heartfelt gratitude goes to the owner Francesco Spadaro and manager Salvatore who make every guest feel at home.
The soul of Casa Cuseni: the dining room furniture and evocative Art Nouveau paneling designed by Frank Brangwyn, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily