Catching the Earth Nude in Newfoundland

Here among black spruce on the rugged western edge of Newfoundland in Gros Morne National Park, we are battling a brisk wind that has rammed itself across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Along with soaring shorebirds and spits of rain, it brings us diction.

Words like tuckamore.

Tuckamore (plural tuckamores)—noun—A spruce tree bent and entangled by winds on the coastal shores of Newfoundland.

Some Newfoundlanders I meet simply just call it tuck.

These tucks are tight as Trinity’s, not so much meaty but very, very evergreen. These tuckamores are the result of relentless calamity, of gales and spindrift, another word the wind delivers. A phenomenon that has salted the coniferous cleanliness of these hardy spruce needles.

Spindrift—noun—Sea spray, especially spray blown from waves during a gale.

These dwarfed trees crouch on the high cliffs.

They look like green clouds stretched by a high wind,  like cotton candy pulled from the paper stem, like the well-groomed but irregularly-shaped beard of an old, wizened man—like shapes I know I’ll have a hard time reimagining when I try to configure them in prose.

These trees are little heroes, I surmise. Brave little queeros.

Mascots in self-worth and survival.

They have been bruised and battered by the insults and harassment of northern Atlantic winds; tortured by snows, ice, sleet, and bone-chilling rain.

Yet still, they retain their place on the unforgiving terrain.

Their resistance is persistence.

They survive by shaping themselves, by streamlining themselves so that the wind glides over them.

They are immune to torment; made themselves invincible to wretchedness by banding together to form an impenetrable fortress.


Like the trees, I cower high above the sea for relief from the wind. My rain jacket is spruce green and I duck beside the tuckamore and I wonder how long it takes one to be bent out of shape, into invincibility.

I look out over the sea through my binoculars hoping for puffins and albatross, but I zoom in as far as I can and seek the North American mainland on the horizon.

It is too far.

I can only imagine the mainland of Canada—of maritime Québec and the mystery of Labrador to the far, far North.

I imagine all of us as little spruce trees sculpted by our own tribulations into our own individual shapes.

Gros Morne—from the French, meaning “great sombre” or “large mountain standing alone”—the namesake of the 697 mi² park’s highest peak.

We climb this peak on our second day in Newfoundland.

Its scalp is an arctic-alpine of an ‘island’ left over from earlier times where white, arctic foxes still pounce.

It takes nearly a half day but we arrive on the summit.

We see grouse bleaching their feathery coats for winter, luminescent lichen on rocks, a lone caribou, fossilized trilobites imprinted in rocks, and hawk eye views of freshwater lakes with 2,000-foot cliffs that were once fjords until the land rebounded and they were ostracized from the sea.

On our last day in the park we take a boat up one of these fjords, Western Brook Pond, where we see falls like Mare Piss and walls you’ve been tricked into thinking exist only in Norway or New Zealand.

Pond—noun—Typically, a small body of still water formed naturally or by hollowing or embanking. But here, in Newfoundland, ponds are massive lakes, which I admire. It shows the Newfoundlander’s charisma and hardiness—to make the vast and foreboding bite sized.

There are two common ways to arrive at Gros Morne.

The first is a six-hour ferry from mainland Nova Scotia to Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, followed by a three and a half hour drive.

The second is a direct flight from Toronto to Deer Lake, with an hour and a half drive to the park via the Viking Trail, highway 430.

We take a segment of the Viking Trail which eventually winds itself all the way to the northern peninsula to L’Anse aux Meadows where the only proven Viking settlement in Canada rests.

It is an overcast autumn morning and the rolling road is slick with last night’s rain.

Lining the highway are birch trees popping their bright fall reds like lovesick confetti and every so often, yellow caution signs depicting wrecked cars and giant bull moose with racks the size of bumpers.

As fellow INTO travel writer David Duran drives, I am on moose watch looking vigilantly for unexpected Alces alces.

It is estimated the park is home to the largest density of moose in the world, and our guide, Neil from Tour Gros Morne, whom we meet at the park’s visitors center, later tells us of the region’s specialty moose-burgers—and that many locals have freezers full of moose meat stored for the winter.

While some tourists come to hunt moose in the surrounding region, most come to the park for rocks.

Neil walks us through the center’s extensive geology exhibition—we take note of the peridotite—which Neil uses to explain in the park’s founding as not only a national park, but as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In layman’s terms, the park is the geological field lab equivalent of Einstein’s laboratory.

Peridotite—noun—a dense, coarse-grained ultramafic igneous rock consisting mostly of the minerals olivine and pyroxene.

It is where the theory of plate tectonics was provided by geologists Robert Stevens and Harold Williams. It is also one of the few locations in the world where a segment of the Earth’s mantle lies exposed, for all to see.

Mantle—noun—a silicate layer of rock inside a planetary body bounded below by a core and above by a crust.

As David, Neil, and I drive to the exposed mantle, a mountain called the Tablelands, I muse on other silicate rock layers in our solar system like Mars, the moons of Jupiter like Europa, Io, and Ganymede—named for Zeus’ most handsome boy.

Tablelands—noun—(as defined by Across the Blue Planet) a barren reddish brown plateau that towers seven hundred meters above the Atlantic Ocean, stands alone as an alien landscape amongst the lush and hilly forests that encompass it.

We thread a rolling pass and descend into a valley so vast the road through it gambols like a wet tar ribbon.

We spot three caribous in the valley by a creek.

We are sure they are fattening themselves for winter.

When we step out of the car onto the trailhead, the peridotite rocks carpet the ground and stack themselves up the side of the Tablelands to 2,356ft—a landscape as bare as smooth buttocks—with tufts of vegetation in the gulches.

As we begin our rainy hike onto the weathered rockscape, I am overtaken by exposure. Today, we are stepping on rocks half a billion years in the making.

We stand on a segment of the earth’s mantle, described in the visitors center poetically as the Earth’s soul, that that has chosen to expose itself unabashedly for all to see.

This is the earth undressing itself.

The earth, naked.

This is the earth leaking its own nudes every day for the past 500 million years before nudity and nude leaks were a thing.

This is earth as an exhibitionist flaunting not only its curves but its vulnerable soul.

This is the earth in centerfold.

It is also a rust rocked landscape that I imagine Martian expats might migrate to. And like Mars, it is barren. Few plants poke up from the land because the minerals of the rocks are toxic to most flora.

Except of course, for the carnivorous purple pitcher plant, which Neil points out to us on the side of the trail.  

Thin stems with downward pointing flowers erupt from jugular leaf basins filled with water and ooey-gooey-bug goop as the plant slowly digests the drowned insect soup.

This is a plant the people of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador are particularly proud of—it is not only their provincial flower, but also their mascot which decorates their license plates, road signs, ferries, and official documents.

It is their logo.

Like them, and like the tuckamores of the black spruces, the flower is another being of resilience and gorgeousness on the Newfoundland landscape the parachuter traveler sees as seeming inhospitableness.

These pitcher plants among the rocks the hue of a lion’s mane are as colorful as the laundry lines we see in communities surrounding the park.

The ones with freshly knitted wool neon socks on sale. Sold literally on the line. Or like the wonderfully polychromatic quilts the island is famous for, the ones ruffling in the sea breeze by the towns of park like Woody Point, Cowhead, and Norris Point.

Quilts, as described in the thesis of Lisa Ann Wilson as “emblematic of the ways in which individuals use creativity to help generate and affirm of both individual and shared senses of identity, meanwhile helping them (older generations) to confront the changes to the culture around them.”

Quilts so colorful and flamboyant and wonderful that it is hard to see them as anything but prideful.

We leave the bright plants to their neverending meal.

We walk through the intense rain until we come to a surging waterfall in the middle of one of the basins of the Tablelands, which, after such a deluge of rain has changed the rock’s color like a chameleon. No longer does the massive mountain emit a Martian orange—now the rocks are maroon, like the Bells in Colorado.

Otherworldly—adjective—Of, relating to, or being part of a reality beyond the observable physical universe.

As we return to the car, I imagine a bluebird summer day on the Tablelands. I imagine the contrast of the robin-egged sky against the soft orange of the dry rocks. The little hush of the stream and the buzz of a fly on its way into the belly of a pitcher plant.

But Neil is on to other seasons, telling us stories of winter when he skins to the top of the bowl of the Tablelands and skis down in wonderful, swishy turns.

This lovely man is telling me he has skied on the mantle of our earth. He is only adding more proof to my argument that our lives are fantasy novels if we let them be.   

Preternatural—adjective—Beyond what is normal or natural.

Photos by Miles W. Griffis

Greetings from Funner, California

It’s true, there is a city located in California that is called “Funner.” It’s a new-ish city in north San Diego County that was officially renamed by the Rincon Band of Luiseno Mission Indians. Back in 2012, the now-named Harrah’s Resort Southern California (the only hotel located with Funner city limits) was looking to stand out from the more than two dozen Indian casinos in Southern California, so the Rincon Band of Luiseno Mission Indians Tribal Council Leaders embraced the idea and voted unanimously to adopt the new name of the city. An official proclamation was adopted on August 1st, 2016 and Funner, California has been explaining itself to curious minds ever since.

The Mayor of Funner

With the renaming of a city came the inauguration of a mayor, and in order to keep it quirky, Funner named Baywatch and Knight Rider star and living legend David Hasselhoff as its first mayor. It all sounds a bit surreal, but this elaborate marketing scheme has proven to be successful and Mayor Hasselhoff doesn’t take his job duties lightly.

Quick Q&A with The Mayor

What was it about Funner that made you get up in the morning and realize that the role of mayor was for you?

Funner, California and I are all about the same thing — good times and enjoying life. When I was tapped to run for mayor and share this message with guests, I was immediately interested and was lucky enough to win the vote!

Funner is legit, and you are truly the mayor. Even the US Post Office confirmed that mail could be sent to Funner, California. Can you give the Cliff’s Notes-style explanation of how that’s possible?

It’s possible because Funner, California is just that – legit and here to stay. Not even the US Post Office can argue with that! But technically, the Rincon Band of Luiseno Mission Indians legally changed the name to Funner when I was inaugurated back in May 2017. If guests ship a package to Funner, CA, it’ll come straight to Harrah’s Resort SoCal.  Plus, the city has signs throughout the area to guide visitors to the destination – you can’t miss it.”

As mayor of Funner, we can only imagine that your job comes with a lot of really fun roles. What are some of your most fun duties at mayor of Funner?

When I’m on property, I like to visit all different areas of the resort to make sure people are living their best lives at all times. I have helped implement things like hidden golden tickets to surprise guests and I helped introduce the Fun Police that give citations (that are really prizes) to guests that are spotted having a good time and so much more.

I assume the mayor of Funner’s office must be a poolside cabana or something. Where does the mayor spend most of their time while on property at the Harrah’s?

I always stay in the incredible Mayoral Suite, which was actually renamed when I took office as the first official mayor of Funner. I also love visiting The Spa at Harrah’s for my favorite oxygen facial and enjoy dining at Fiore Steakhouse.

About The Resort Itself

With over a thousand hotel rooms, including 22 Wellness Rooms and Suites, the Harrah’s Resort SoCal has space for everyone. The resort boasts eight restaurants (with upcoming announcements of new additions) including Fiore, a steak and seafood fine dining experience, and ‘Ritas Cantina which offers to-die-for margaritas and a Baja Mexico menu, three pools, eight hot tubs, 23 poolside cabanas and a 400 ft lazy river. Plus, the first tribal owned brewery is located on the property, in addition to the existing bars that include Spiked, where you can sip on craft cocktails (ask about the secret menu). Gamblers can enjoy the 1,700 slot machines and 60 gaming tables. The resort also has a massive state-of-the-art events center that hosts all kinds of events, including concerts and comedy acts. 

Is It Really Funner in Funner?

The answer is simple: yes it is. The resort itself is just a short drive north of San Diego city limits, and as long you’re there to have fun, you’re very much welcome. The pool scene and cabanas are where you will want to spend most of your time when not indulging in the many, many food outlets or bars. The rooms are fresh, modern and spacious and the spa is intoxicating. Pro-Tip: Go for a concert/event and stay the weekend.

Standing at One of the Nine Corners of the World

I first learned about Fogo Island while watching a Netflix documentary series that highlighted an incredible hotel (which I’ll get to later). I was immediately drawn to this tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland. There was something about its remoteness paired with this architectural masterpiece that just called to me. I began researching more about Fogo Island, and once I discovered that some believed it to be one of the corners of a flat earth, I knew I had to make my way there. I’m not a flat earther by any means, and later I learned that there are actually 9 corners of flat earth, rather than four, but nonetheless, the island fascinated me.

Fogo Island is part of Newfoundland, Canada and getting there isn’t particularly hard, but it does require time and patience. Once you make your way to Gander, Newfoundland, the ferry terminal is just about an hour away. The Fogo Island Community is small yet welcoming and it’s apparent they are still adjusting to the influx of new visitors they are receiving due to the Fogo Island Inn (again, I’ll get to this place later).

Hiking to One of The Corners

Once arrived, I was determined to hike to the top of Brimstone Head, believed to be one of the corners of the flat earth. The hike itself wasn’t strenuous, and mostly consisted of walking up a very long makeshift staircase. At the top, the wind was powerful and the views were breathtaking. With the community behind me, all that was visible in front of me was blue ocean, a major disappointment in my quest to see the edge of the earth. Maybe the drop point was just beyond the horizon? I wasn’t there to question anyone’s beliefs, although most of the locals I spoke to mainly laughed off the flat earth theories.

Museum of the Flat Earth

My next stop in my quest to learn more about the flat earth theory took me to the most logical place; the Museum of the Flat Earth, a museum with a mission to preserve, investigate, archive and present artifacts relating to the flat earth. Although small in size, inside it was packed full of artifacts and documents. After reading through some of the basic material and having a look around, I was more confused than ever. I wasn’t fully grasping the flat earth conspiracy so I bought a mug and ended my investigation, vowing to make peace with the fact that there were people out there who truly believed the earth was flat. It was now time to move past my initial interest in the island and go learn about what truly makes Fogo Island so special.

Time with Al

Fogo Island is made up for eleven communities, all with small populations of folks who have mostly been living there with their families for generations. I had the pleasure of spending a morning with a local named Al, a true storyteller who was born and raised on the island. His community of Tilting is a traditional fishing stage and heritage site. During the two-hour walking tour along Oliver’s Cove Trail, next to the ocean, we visited notable landmarks such as the Devil’s Rocking Chair, an ancient graveyard shrouded in mystery and rich folklore. As Al pointed out each site he told a story, sometimes of general history and other times, more personal. The tour ended in his shed, where he handed me a beer and then picked up his guitar and began singing, something he truly enjoyed doing with guests as evident by the smile on his face. It was all like a scene out of a movie, so unique and different, leaving me filled with knowledge about what life was like and how life is now living on Fogo Island.

Come From Away

Another amazing character I had the pleasure of spending time with on Fogo Island was Diane Davis. If you haven’t heard about Gander, Newfoundland, you most likely have heard of the hit Broadway musical, Come From Away, the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them. On September 11th, 2001, when all air traffic coming to and from the United States was grounded, the town of Gander ended up playing host to many, many transcontinental jumbo jets, leaving thousands of people stranded in this small town without access to their luggage. The folks of Gander opened their hearts and their homes and showed true hospitality to thousands of people from all walks of life. The musical tells the story of what happened that day and the events that followed. Diane Davis was living in Gander at the time and is a real-life character from the show, as a character was adapted from parts of her life and experience. Hearing her tell the story of that day was mentally consuming as she recalled every vivid detail of what occurred. She was truly fascinating as well as outspoken and hilarious. Now, living on Fogo Island, she’s like a mini-celebrity, willing to talk to anyone who has questions or just wants to hear her story.

Fogo Island Inn

The real reason people are flocking to Fogo Island is because of the Fogo Island Inn. Designed by Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders, the 43,000 square-foot Inn is perched on stilts and sits on the North Atlantic coastline, affording 29 suites with floor-to-ceiling views of the sea and sky. The X-shaped structure features a two-story west-to-east wing containing gathering spaces and a four-story Southwest and Northeast wing, parallel to the coast, containing all the guest suites.

One of the Inn’s most iconic spaces is the dining room, which features a dramatic vaulted ceiling that looks out over the ocean with views of the community of Barr’d Islands in the distance. Everything found inside the Inn was handcrafted or sourced locally, and the attention to detail leaves you breathless, as does the price point. That being said, the Inn is the brainchild of high-tech entrepreneur and native Newfoundlander Zita Cobb, and was conceived as a way to save one of Canada’s oldest rural cultures. With available jobs on the island basically non-existent, the island decided to build a lodge that belonged to the local people – a social business that funnels all surplus profits back into Fogo Island. The Inn has transformed the island, bringing jobs and sustainability, all while preserving the culture and encouraging locals to stay put on the island. The Inn has also already sprung new businesses on Fogo from past employees who were encouraged and helped by the Inn along the way. Bang Belly Café as well as Scoff Restaurant are two delicious businesses that initially started at the Inn.

Architectural Masterpieces

Todd Saunders, the architect responsible for the Fogo Island Inn, was also tasked with creating four incredibly unique artist studios that are part of a heavily sought after residency program. Each studio is located a short walk away from society to give the artist a remote feeling while working during their residency. Spending a day driving to and then walking to each of the studios is highly advised and very much worth it because they are just breathtaking to look at, and are beautifully photographed from every angle.

6 Last Minute Ideas for An Alternative Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, corduroy pants, and potentially contentious dinner table discussions are rounding the bend.

Maybe you can’t handle a family gathering after this divisive election cycle, maybe you’re just now realizing that your off days for Thanksgiving could be used for a little globe-trotting, or maybe you don’t care much for the actual turkey-slaughtering holiday and are hungry for a different kind of gathering. We’ve put together a list of six ideas to celebrate (or ignore) the holiday for a variety of budgets.

Book a One-of-a-Kind Cabin with Hipcamp

If you haven’t yet heard about Hipcamp, Thanksgiving is the perfect week to book your first trip. Known as the “Airbnb of camping,” Hipcamp offers thousands of unique properties and campsites around the country. Ever wanted to sleep in a bubble tent, tiny home, Airstream trailer, or treehouse like the one pictured above? Hipcamp is a great way to explore stunning privately owned lands, ranches, camps, and farms for a fraction of the Airbnb price. The site offers many retreats a short drive away from major cities as well as remote properties far away from it all. Grab your squad for a little road trip, strike up a campfire, and be thankful for a sky of stars.

Explore Eastern Europe with Contiki

No one to travel with? Group travel is a great way to get out of your comfort zone and make a handful of new friends. Contiki is the social travel expert for 18-35-year-olds and is currently offering a Berlin to Budapest adventure through Eastern Europe’s liveliest fall destinations. Starting on November 20 from the queer nightlife mecca that is Berlin, this 13-day trip winds down through the Gothic streets of Prague (with many Pilsner Urquells to be had), over to Krakow for three days of Polish immersion before finishing in the ruin bars of Budapest.

Contiki makes traveling hassle-free with a knowledgeable on-the-ground Trip Manager and perfectly strikes the balance between structured activities and personal time to experience the destinations on your own.

Queer Arts Festivals

Rather than consuming/buying over Thanksgiving and Black Friday, visit one of these international queer arts festivals and experience the joy of creation. Taking place this year over American Thanksgiving in London, U.K. from November 12-24th is the Gaywise Festival (GFEST), which presents “LGBTQI+ films, music, performances, art exhibitions, interdisciplinary art, poetry, book readings, workshops, participatory events, debates” and more.

Taking place from November 10th-25th in Adelaide, Australia is Feast Festival, a queer arts and cultural festival (and Australia’s third-largest queer event). The warm and sunny event draws a crowd of around 48,000 over the two week festival from Australia and the world over. There is endless entertainment at Feast, whether you’ve come to dance, attend queer cabaret workshops, laugh out loud at hilarious stand-up shows, visit innovative queer art exhibits, or just revel in the South Australia sun.  

Why Not Waikiki?

Still haven’t made it to Honolulu? Now’s your chance to check out Hawaii’s breathtaking capital and be one of the first to stay in the recently renovated rooms of the Queen Kapi’olani. After a 35 million dollar reimagining, the hotel now mixes the classic retro Hawaii spirit it’s been known for since the mid-60s with a breezy “modern aloha.” The state of the art hotel is only steps away from the cloud white sands of Waikiki Beach and looks gallantly at the stately Diamond Head. The best part? The 4-star property is offering rooms starting at $150 until December 20th, making it a perfect last minute trip for Thanksgiving.

Champagne at the Spa

“Follow the road of golden bubbles” this Thanksgiving holiday to the Champagne vineyards and world UNESCO World Heritage site surrounding Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa. The newly renovated resort brings the first-ever luxury wellness destination to the famous French region. You may want to relax and enjoy resplendent days of Biologique Reserche spa treatments while sipping on crisp champagne as you overlook the gorgeous rolling hills. Or, you may want to take a cruise on the Marne River, float to heavenly heights in your first hot air balloon ride, or canter through the vineyard on horseback. Quiet and nestled among the vine-striped hills in the quaint town of Epernay, the hotel’s Michelin-starred chef creates innovative gastronomy using locally derived ingredients for the best non-Thanksgiving meal you’ve ever had.

Stay Local with a Twist on Friendsgiving

Don’t have the means or desire to get away from home? No worries. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving feast, get together with your friends and do an apartment dinner party crawl. Here’s how it works: Each friend organizes or makes something. Start with cocktails at one friend’s before ride-sharing (no drinking and driving!)  to hors-d’oeuvres at the next, dinner at the third, dessert at the next, followed by nightcaps at the last (with plenty of room to alter your plan and be as creative as you wish.) Pick a theme for the event, dress up, and have fun. The idea is to keep you in motion and give everyone the opportunity to host and travel, proving you don’t have to globetrot to get around.

In Tofino, Bears and Otters

During our last roadside stop on a six-hour drive from Victoria, British Columbia to the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, my Dad and I watched a tall and lanky German tourist with a tuft of hair on his chest climb a twenty-foot rock in the hot August sun.

He stood on the edge of the smooth grey cliff, turned his back to the cold mountain water and faced the stands of giant cedars on the glacially-carved hillside. He paused, put his arms straight by his side and shouted, Eins, Zwei, Drei! before backflipping beautifully into a little cerulean pool of the Kennedy River.

He splashed and slid about playfully in the water as his friend, a much hairier and bear-ier man, recorded him on a GoPro from the side and boomed exclamations after capturing his friend’s daredevil stunt.

Welcome to Tofino, I thought.

Before my trip, I had gawked at photos of the gorgeous district of nearly 2,000 that sits on the Esowista Peninsula in the Clayoquot Sound and read about the region’s first people, the coastal Nuu-chah-nulth.

Tofino, British Columbia rests among a land of towering mountains, massive freshwater lakes, temperate coastal rainforests, seasonally snow-covered beaches, wolves, bears, sea otters, river otters, werewolves (seriously, Twilight: New Moon was filmed in the area) and epic Pacific swells that have made it an internationally known surf town. It is, in essence, a land lover’s paradise, a wildlife enthusiast’s dream, and an outdoors person’s playground, but the town welcomes all with a crafty food and arts scene.

After we got back into our car rental, we drove the remaining forty minutes on the Pacific Rim Highway that swerved us through the coastal marine layer and by wide black sand beaches freckled with white sand dollars before we arrived in town.

As my Dad and I settled into our little Airbnb on the waterfront, we watched bald eagles flap by as the sun set starfish pink over the Pacific. We watched seaplanes coming and going from Vancouver, struggling for liftoff from the water like flapping loons.

The following morning was overcast, with sprinkles of rain. Tofino, after all, receives about 200 days of rain and 7 days of snow a year. After grabbing coffee at Rhino, one of Tofino’s many little coffee shops, we strolled through town towards The Whale Center so we could get out on the water, take in the region by boat, and hopefully see whales. But I was especially hoping to see an entirely different sea mammal, perhaps my favorite animal, Enhydra lutris, the sea otter.

We checked in at the center for our tour before stepping into our mandatory firetruck red anti-exposure coverall flotation suits. As we waited for the other tour guests, I read about the company’s other experiences. They offered full-day tours to remote hot springs (perfect for the region’s moody, cold days) as well as “bear-watching” tours that took visitors to remote shores were black bears scavenged for food.

I’ve had the lucky opportunity of countless sightings on trails and at campsites from California to Canada with the beloved Ursus americanus, so I was happy we picked the whale tour, to see animals I rarely came across. That said, the thought of bears on the rocky shores beside the sea seemed truly exotic—I’ll have to come back, I thought.

After my Dad and I and six others boarded the small tour boat, we got a safety debriefing from our guide and captain, Howie, who told us of his love for his job. The man doesn’t take a day off during the high tourist season and also told us that he loves Tofino so much, he hasn’t left the area for over a decade. His Instagram is a love note to the region’s wildlife—he’s captured swimming wolves, breaching orcas, and rafts of otters.

Photo: Jeremy Koreski

Once on board, we threaded through the inlet slowly, curved around the peninsula, then rocketed out of the no-wake zone into the open waters of the Pacific. For a few minutes, we blasted across the sea as the boat smacked against the waves before coming to a complete stop.

Bobbing beside us was a large forest of bull kelp. It was slimy, brownish red, partially puke green, and wiggled with each oncoming wave. Also known as Nereocystis (which is Greek for mermaid’s bladder) the brown alga is an amazing specimen that dominates the waters of the Pacific Northwest. But we didn’t stop to inspect the kelp.

“Well, would you look at that!” Howie said over the boat’s intercom, “We’ve got an otter, here!”

Anchored and tied securely in the kelp was a large, mature sea otter lounging on its back.  It massaged its head with its furry little paws as if it were shampooing itself. Its face was lighter than its dark brown body and it began scratching the coarse fur on its tummy as its feet sculled about.

Its whiskers erupted from its wet nose that sniffed the smell of salt and kelp and exhaust from our boat’s motor. After another minute lounging, the otter flipped over and swam around the kelp, moving its long body like a slinky through the water in perfect grace.

My words can’t describe the wonder and I couldn’t capture the scene with my camera in the lighting, so check out these gifs of other sea otters to understand the show this otter was performing:

After years of otter obsession—sending gifs like these, postcards, and memes of the giant marine weasels playing, holding hands in large single-sex rafts, and smacking sea urchins with rocks—I finally had my first sea otter sighting and it was the most endearing wildlife sighting I’ve yet to experience.

This is otterly adorable, I thought to myself but didn’t dare say out loud.

Howie gave us some information about sea otters, as the animal continued to put on an adorable show, parading about with kittenish, buoyant, look-at-me gazes:

— Sea otters live 99.99% of their lives entirely in the water.

— They were hunted ruthlessly until 1911 during the otter pelt trade, until only 2,000 remained. The sea otter still remains threatened.

— They are one of the few mammals to use tools (stones) which they keep in a little armpit pocket for their entire life to break open sea urchins.

— Sea otters are listed as a species by Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl  (1 of over 450)  that has been observed showing homosexual/bisexual/queer behavior (OK, Howie didn’t tell us this, but, I researched it and so if you can handle it, check out this related story on Daz and Chip, two gay Asian small-clawed otters who once lived inseparably for 15 years in a zoo in Nelson, New Zealand until one died. The other died an hour later due to a heart attack).

— Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning, in layman’s terms, that the entire ecosystem relies on them.

After Howie finished his brief overview of the otter, we slowly left the sopping wet creature—which broke my dear little heart—as we pushed deeper into the heavy marine layer in search of what? Oh right, whales…

After a few minutes of silence, looking left and right at the endless greyness that engulfed us, we had our first sighting. It was a lone humpback whale that came up for a breath a hundred feet from the boat, sprouted an eight-foot-high phloosh! from its blowhole, before flapping and dunking its massive whale tail into the water.

Whale, hello there, I thought but didn’t dare say aloud.

We trailed the lone humpback, giving it plenty of space as it popped up unpredictably after two minute long dives until it eventually swindled us and disappeared into the greyness. It was a beautiful animal, it really was. I absolutely love whales and am in awe of them and will march with Greenpeace until they are safe (looking at you, Japan), so don’t get me wrong here, but the thing about whales is if they’re being shy i.e. not swimming near you or breaching, you can’t really get a good look at them from afar. So while some of our snap-happy boat mates were especially sad to lose the whale, my mind was delightfully musing on otter things.

But, no luck. I predicted we were too far out to sea for otters who tend to hug the kelpy coastline. Instead, we caught our second whale sighting of the day: a grey whale that, like the humpback, would show us its long blubbery back and whale tail before disappearing for minutes, only to pop up hundreds of meters away.

We chased the grey whale, just like we tailed the humpback until it too disappeared into the greyness. It became a tired game, this whole whale watching charade—I asked myself, why don’t we just park next to the otter and watch it all day? We could have brought beers and snacks and just spectated, cheered on the little fella as it napped and munched on sea urchins? Surely that would have been more entertaining?

I crossed my fingers and hoped for more giant sea weasels, but, the three-hour tour went on and all we came across were a duo of harbor porpoises and a colony of stellar sea lions, stinking up a rock island. I realize the fortunate tour we were given with two whale sightings, porpoises, and other aquatic mammals (and some birds! Like Marbled Murrelets and Black Oystercatchers!)…but only one otter?!

On our return back to land, I began to consider the otter, not only because I missed it, but because I admired it. In many ways, the animal is a constant reminder of the pursuit of happiness — perhaps even the furry, whiskered embodiment of it. I considered its role not only as the most adorable creature in existence but also, in the gay tribe of people.

The otter, like the bear, is hairy, though, not nearly as burly. A bear was the German tourist videoing his friend, and an otter was the cliff jumper with his tuft of hair on his chest that fell down to his treasure trail. The otter, it seems, is not a twink, but also, not yet a bear or a cub. A rugged twink? Maybe. A rugged twunk? The human otter is an in between species; the question is, is it a keystone species like the sea otter?

Perhaps, it’s just a phase, perhaps it has to do with the right amount scruff to age ratio—but no matter what, I believe the tribe to be inclusive. I believe anyone can identify as an otter regardless of their body type, if they so choose, as long as they exhibit playfulness.

Photo: John Forde

When we box ourselves into groups and subgroups in our community, are we anthropomorphizing these animals, or are we zoomorphizing ourselves? Either way, it seems we are escaping from the confines and stressors of not only heteronormative humanity but from the limiting queer mainstream image we’ve been told is handsome. We can be something besides gay, besides human, besides… tragic. We can be carefree and happy, playful and lovable.

What the sea otter and its river cousin do that has cast the species in memes, viral videos, get well cards, ornaments, and gifs is promote an ever winsome zest for life through a buoyancy that is nearly impossible to not admire. What’s more, they show us, through their cozy rafts, an act of affection and connection, which is, no matter what we’re into, what we all yearn for.

It is the same playfulness I admired in the cliff jumper, who took the opportunity of a warm day on a road trip to enjoy his surroundings, to be active, silly, puerile, and adventurous. That may be one of the qualities I find most endearing — I hope one day for a partner with the same zeal for playful escapism. To jump with, splash with, and float side by side with.

To better understand what I’m after, please see the gifs below:

I was taken out of my otterly thoughts as the marine layer began to burn off and the afternoon sun began to throw itself on the water, turning what was once a grey and disorienting seascape into dark blue nirvana with a backdrop of titanic mountains and polka dot islands.

As we began to exit the open ocean for the inlet, we slowed and hugged the border of another kelp forest. I scanned as we crawled by. Everyone else on the boat, except for my father and I, had checked out. Their cameras had been stashed and they were celebrating their whale sightings no longer looking at the sea.

And so they missed, in my opinion, the best sighting of the day. To my immense enjoyment, tangled in the bull kelp were two otters. They were neatly camouflaged in the algae and held themselves together by their paws as they floated on their backs.

With their little eyes closed, the sun on their thick coats, and their bodies anchored in the kelp, they snuggled side by side, despite the ravages of the Pacific, and of life itself.

A Britney-Fueled Weekend in Austin

On a recent trip to the liberal bubble of Texas, I quickly discovered how much Austin had changed since my last trip there over five years ago. Standing in downtown, looking up and around, I didn’t recognize any of the buildings, and the streets were littered with electric scooters while the traffic seemed to never end. This wasn’t the Austin I once knew, but putting aside the congestion and new skyline, the city was still giving off that incredible energy.

Everywhere I looked, I could see “BETO for Senate” campaign posters and yard signs. The quirky street art was still there, and the iconic bars and music venues still stood proudly in their original locations. I was in town for the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 United States Grand Prix, although secretly, I was really more interested in one of the performers that would be taking the main stage on closing night, and couldn’t wait to hear those infamous words from her pre-recorded dance track: “It’s Britney, bitch.”

Fast Cars and Superstars

The racing weekend brought in thousands upon thousands of fans, all there to watch their favorite drivers and teams lap around the track. I must admit, it was really exciting to see and hear these impressive machines as they sped around each curve. Having watched Formula 1 on television before, being there in person really did bring a new level of excitement and interest. It also helped that we were watching from inside the COTA Club, an exclusive, tented VIP area where the food and drinks were flowing, which helped make the days there a bit more entertaining.

Bruno Mars provided night one of the scheduled entertainment, someone I always looked at as an incredible performer, but wasn’t really thrilled to see, mainly because I was just too excited for my childhood pop princess to take the stage. Looking back, his performance that night was pretty out of this world, and came with a pyrotechnics show that blew our minds. His dancing, his vocals, his entire show were outstanding. By the end of the night I had regretted all the negative things I had ever thought or said about him because he truly proved himself to be the mega-star that he is. The following evening, when Britney took the stage, I couldn’t have been more excited and terrified at the same time. Excited because I was finally seeing Britney Spears live and terrified because I knew that by the end of the night, all my hopes and dreams of seeing her perform would fall flat, leaving me disappointed.

This was the final performance of her Piece of Me tour, her first tour in many, many years after completing her Las Vegas residency and one day after announcing another, new Las Vegas residency at Park MGM. Her show felt as if someone had pressed play on a 60-minute-long remix of all her hits; Britney was a robot, just performing the same moves over and over again while flipping her hair between moves. She spoke to the crowd for all of 14 seconds, greeting the Austin crowd with nothing more than, “Hello Texas, thanks for being at the final performance of my tour,” said in a heavy British accent. I had forgotten that sometime between her breakdown and that night, she had picked up a British accent. The entire show was painful but somehow still exhilarating. I’m still trying to figure those feelings out, but they are real.

Electric Bikes, Street Art and Gluttonous Food Trucks

Outside of the main events for the long weekend, I also spent some time experiencing Austin and one thing I was all about was the food scene. Rocket Electrics sells, rents & repairs electric bikes, and also offers a variety of tours on the bikes. I opted for the Foodie Tour that took me around to a handful of food trucks/trailers while stopping for Instagram worthy street art shots. Two noteworthy stops along the way included Biscuits + Groovy, with a menu that consisted of all sorts of concoctions including The Gloria Gaynor that consists of the Biscuits + Groovy original recipe plus three scrambled eggs, thick sliced peppered maple bacon, jalapeños and colby jack cheese.  

The second, and my favorite stop, was at Gourdough’s, a donut lover’s heaven. Each donut is served in a small tray that is then piled high with different toppings and fillings. The Funky Monkey comes with grilled bananas, cream cheese icing with brown sugar, while the Mother Clucker is one of their savory choices that comes with a fried chicken strip and honey butter. Having the electric bikes doing most of the work for us as I cruised around Austin getting plump did help as my body seemed to be shutting down after all that food intake.

Head to Hill Country

During the visit to Austin, there was an opportunity to leave the city limits for a bit and head to the hills. Departing the bubble was a bit frightening mostly because there was a high probability of running into folks who actually support Ted Cruz, a fearful reality. Putting politics aside though, the day trip outside of Austin proved to be worth it. The late morning was spent at Garrison Brothers Distillery, home of the first and oldest legal whiskey distillery in Texas. The tours here allow visitors to learn about the bourbon making process from start to finish while also just spending time on the massive and inviting ranch. The highlight here was sitting around a wood fire in a rocking chair with a flight of their bourbons; learning about all the ways the distillery gives back to the local community and state through fundraisers and donations. I might have been drunk by the end of the experience, but everyone at the distillery was welcoming and friendly, making the trek out there totally worth it. Afterwards, I made my way (via driver) to Salt Lick BBQ, a Texas original since 1967. It would have been sacrilegious to be in Texas and not eat BBQ, and this being one of the most famous BBQ spots in the state, a visit here was immanent. The Family Style option here is an all you can eat option that includes beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw and beans. I of course went for that option, adding a side of bison ribs into the mix, which left me comatose with a case of the meat sweats.

The Live Music Capital of the World

No visit to Austin is complete without a visit to some of the iconic bars and music venues. The Continental Club, which just celebrated its 60th year, is one of the oldest continuously running clubs in all of Austin. Legends of music have and still perform there. The historical landmark has live music 7 nights a week. After a couple hours of soulful jazz and blues, it was time for a honky tonk, and if I was going to immerse myself in that type of environment, there was only one place to do it; The White Horse. This was the type of place where I was more an observer, a fly on the wall, just watching people dance and drink, while feeling 110% out of my element. It was like I was in a different world, one that I enjoyed visiting for a short moment, but one I didn’t want to spend all night in.

Where To Stay: Fairmont Austin

The long-weekend was centered on Austin’s newest and most luxurious hotel, The Fairmont Austin, which is located along the lush greenery of Palm Park and Waller Creek, with direct access to the Austin Convention Center. Opened in March of 2018, the 37-story hotel features an unprecedented 1,048 guestrooms and 60 suites, including the exclusive Fairmont Gold rooms and lounge with dramatic cityscape views. Inside the city’s most beautiful building which dominates the city’s skyline are five restaurants and bars. Garrison is a modern American grill house while Revue provides guests the opportunity to journey through four distinct culinary worlds. Fulton is their massive lobby bar that seems to be the city’s meeting place and Rules & Regs, located on the 7th floor is more the late night party atmosphere.

Beyond the incredible food & beverage, the hotel spa now ranks among the best spas in Austin. I indulged in the Texas Hill Country Awakening experience, 120 minutes of pure bliss that included a body scrub using local ingredients and a full body massage. Afterwards I lounged in the saline soaking pool and spent time inside the eucalyptus steam grotto. The Fairmont Austin worked closely with the Circuit of the Americas to provide guests with various F1 packages, which they will offer again in 2019.

The Weekender: San Francisco

During your flight into the Bay Area, the San Francisco peninsula sticks out like a thumb from the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean. It connects itself to the greater area by a cobweb of great bridges that zip cars in and out of the tightly packed streets into the state’s renowned wine country and epic stands of gigantic redwoods.

Inside the city, a miserable socio-economic contrast is present: during just a short walk, the city’s relentless homeless crisis is unavoidable. As the public health department picks up hundreds of thousands of used needles a year, cranes assemble towering luxury condominiums. But despite the boom of the new tech presence that is quickly squeezing the city and expanding the Bay Area, San Francisco grapples with its own disparities. For despite it all, the city’s historically queer roots and activism persist, not only in unapologetic festivals like Folsom Street Fair and Up Your Alley, but in the essence of its marine layer, cemented into the hearts of the hills. No matter how many times you visit, it’s hard not to marvel at the city’s unwavering queer endurance.


6pm- The Castro

The heart of queer San Francisco beats strongest in its longstanding gayborhood, marked by a massive Pride Flag that shines and ripples in the cool northern California breeze. Start your San Francisco weekend in Harvey Milk Plaza perusing the hundreds of queer-owned businesses, bars, and restaurants. At the corner of Market and Castro Streets, revel in the history where many demonstrations, rallies, and protests took place that sparked change not only in San Francisco but across the nation.

8pm- Sichuan Spice

Not far off Harvey Milk Plaza on 18th Street is Mama Ji’s, a small Sichuan restaurant with tongue numbing spice. Most come for the Dim Sum, but end up sampling the rest of the menu, especially the Sichuan Leng Mian, the spicy cold noodle. Be sure to start with their spicy cucumber appetizer, and soothe your taste buds with their delicious wine, beer, and tea. Reservations are not accepted but service is lightning fast so guests never wait long for a table.

Late Night- Parties for Queer Women

Friday is certainly one of the best nights for queer women in the Bay Area. If you happen to be in town on the second or third Friday, be sure to venture to UHAUL SF, “San Francisco’s Party For Girls Who Love Girls!” The party has been around since 2014 and prides itself on creating a safe space for women and welcomes the “queer/trans/questioning community.” The party floats around the city in various venues so keep in touch with the latest on their Facebook page. For more events for queer women in the Bay, check out writer Brigitte Hoch’s guide for Do the Bay.



8am- Gawk at Redwoods

Hi. Good morning. You didn’t come all this way just to sleep in. Arrive early to beat the crowds (and be sure to book a parking spot) at Muir Woods National Monument, a short 30-minute drive (that will take you over the Golden Gate Bridge!) If you’ve never seen a redwood tree, this is your chance. An old-growth redwood stand (some trees are over 1,000 years old) dominate the lush rolling hills of the monument and wow visitors. Choose your own adventure with a half-hour, hour, and two-hour loop on the Main Trail or get a canopy view by hiking a more strenuous 3-mile loop. You will want your camera to remember these giant friends.

11am- Foodies and Ferries

Time to chow down. The iconic Ferry Building is advertised as “a feast for the senses.” The 1898 building re-opened after massive renovations in 2003 to become a world-class food market that is a “community gathering place for the celebration of local culture and cuisine.” Alongside a smorgasbord of merchants and restaurants, the Ferry Building hosts a farmers market three times a week, with Saturday being one of the most popular days. You won’t go hungry here—have a coffee at Peet’s or Blue Bottle, a grilled cheese at Cowgirl Sidekick, or a cupcake at Miette Patisserie.

12pm- Radical Reading

Take your coffee to go from the market and zip over to Bolerium Books in the vibrant Mission District. The radical store has been around since 1981 and features an extensive collection of books and ephemera from “labor and other social movements, including the struggles for Black and Chicano equality, the Gay liberation movement, Feminism, and Asian-American activism.” It also includes a shocking collection from the Far Right to “preserve this historical record” for better understanding of the movement. You may lose hours here in these unique, queer, and one-of-a-kind texts.

1pm- Queer Crush

While you’re in the Mission, drop by Mission Cliffs, one of San Francisco’s oldest climbing gyms. The gym is a part of the chain of Touchstone Climbing gyms across California, which feature different chapters of the queer climbing group Queer Crush. The company holds large fundraisers for local LGBTQ communities every Pride Month and offers great introductory classes for first-time climbers. The gym also hosts yoga, acroyoga, and fitness classes for those with a fear of heights.

3pm- A Cold, Naked Plunge

Marshall’s Beach, located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is a long, rugged, and secluded clothing-optional beach with a large queer presence. People come to the stunning beach to suntan, relax, take stately photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, and generally unwind from the confines of city life. Do be careful dipping in the water if you decide to cool off as it is rather chilly and rip currents are present, so it’s suggested to take a quick dunk near the shore if you must swim. Park or ride-share to the Golden Gate Overlook and hike the steep trail down the bluff to the boulder-strewn beach. Why not stay for sunset and watch the bridge glow in the last rays of the day?

7pm- Plant-Based Food

After showering the sand off from the beach, we’re headed back to the Mission for dinner to a true California staple, the original Gracias Madre. Since its critical acclaim in reimagining Mexican cuisine in an all plant-based and organic menu in 2009, the restaurant opened another location in West Hollywood in 2014. Be sure to try the Platanos con Mole Negro, the Quesadillas De Calabaza with butternut squash and pumpkin salsa, and one of their truly unique cocktails, the Rolled Fashioned, with mezcal añejo, bourbon, house sarsaparila, aromatic bitters, and since we’re in California, cannabinoids. Do make reservations.

10pm- Call Me Mother

For the best drag show, head to OASIS, a club opened in 2015 in SOMA (South of Market) by San Francisco drag legends Heklina and D’Arcy Drollinger. Mother is a weekly Saturday night event that opens at 10pm, with the show starting at 11:30pm. The event always features local SF drag queens as well as favorite Ru girls. Most recently, Valentina performed a one-woman show “The Valentina Experience,” and next month there’s a Janet Jackson Tribute, featuring A Star is Born icon Shangela.

Looking for the best after hours events? Check out Resident Advisor for a slew of dance parties, DJs, and queer events around the Bay Area. Rotating parties like A Club Called Rhonda and Desert Hearts touch down in SF from time to time.



10am- Brunch

Good morning. Drink some electrolytes, it’s all going to be okay. Head over to Kitchen Story for brunch and order the award-winning Bloody Mary (seriously this thing is decked the [email protected]#* out with garnishes). The restaurant, located in the Castro, has a nice mix of California cuisine ranging from sweet to savory. You can’t go wrong at Kitchen Story, but do show up a little early as the place pops off on Sundays.

12pm- Gay Beach

I’m sure you’ve seen photos on Instagram of Mission Dolores Parks Sunday “Gay Beach,” where the southern slopes of the lovely and recently expanded and renovated hillside park are flocked with queer people enjoying a sunny afternoon with their friends. There are shirtless broskis, chatty rosé drinkers, and hungover picnic blanket snoozers. The park has incredible views of downtown and a happy and vibrant mix of San Franciscans refusing to acknowledge the weekend’s impending end.


The Snugs

Luxury- Hotel Vitale

There’s something rather special about the 180-degree deluxe panoramic circular suites at the Hotel Vitale, a part of the queer-friendly (and queer-founded) Joie de Vivre boutique hotel group. The large floor-to-ceiling windows frame the twinkling Bay Bridge as you watch pedestrians stroll along the beautiful Embarcadero boardwalk while sailboats sweep across the bay. The lavish hotel has expectation-surpassing service, a luxurious spa, workout room, as well as a handsome floor level bar and Italian restaurant, Americano. Rooms from $299.

Just Right- Galleria Park Hotel

Steps from the Financial District and Union Square is one of the most historic hotels in SF, another Joie de Vivre property, the modern and cozy Galleria Park Hotel. The hotel’s history dates back to the 1800s as it sits on the same land as the most luxurious hotels of the time, the late Occidental Hotel and Lick House. It’s said the martini cocktail was invented on the property; over a hundred years later and after $11 million in renovations, the Galleria Park offers guests a complimentary sipping hour every day in their colorful and cozy lobby. And on top of it, the property makes efforts to combat the city’s homelessness crisis with Project Homeless Connect. Fancy a pair of SF skyline socks? Rooms from $250.

Backpacker- Hostel International San Francisco Downtown

Located in the heart of it all, this award-winning (two years running) hostel is the perfect low-budget place to call home during your visit to San Francisco. The hostel features free wi-fi, breakfast, and a long list of incredible tours. Dorm beds from $40.

Wrestling With Mass Tourism in Phang Nga Bay

Earlier this month, Maya Bay, one of southern Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, closed indefinitely to allow coral reefs and ecosystems surrounding Ko Phi Phi Le island a chance to recover.

The stunning area was once the location for the 2000 film, The Beach, which featured a svelte, post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio in a paradise-gone-awry thriller. While the movie didn’t steal many hearts (it received a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes), its setting did. Alongside the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, also shot in the region, the film put the limestone karst islands and their gold sand beaches on the map as one of the hottest spots in southeast Asia.

The island of Phuket, beyond its natural beauty, is also known notoriously as a party paradise where backpackers come from far and wide to let loose in the monthly Full Moon parties. While these parties draw a more heteronormative crowd (though they can at times and in certain pockets be quite queer-friendly), the island also hosts some of the best queer nightlife in Thailand outside of Bangkok.

It is in fact the only province to organize a Pride festival, a large colorful (and wild) week that takes place every April. Aside from the festival, the island hosts incredible drag cabaret shows in a collection of gay establishments that make the region incredibly popular for queer tourists.

Because of the many attractive factors drawing tourists to the Phuket region, many of the beaches and bays surrounding Phuket and Phi Phi now consequently bear an overabundance of activity. To say it kindly—they are being loved to death. In Maya Bay’s case, sometimes as many as 5,000 people a day are crammed onto the thin beach while 200 boats bob side by side in the warm, polluted (yet beautifully green) waters where nearly 80% of coral reefs have diminished.

When I visited Phuket over the summer, I was aware of Maya’s closure (the bay was originally temporarily closed for a few months over the summer before being closed indefinitely this fall) as well as the national park, Ao Phang Nga National Park, being placed on Fodor’s “no” list for 2018 to give the area a chance to recover. I felt guilty about visiting, concerned about my place as a tourist, another invasive number in the region’s mass of tourists, contributing pollution simply by my presence.

As a backpacker and hiker, I’ve always valued leave-no-trace principles— leaving places the same (or better) than I’ve found them. But as a travel writer, I wanted to see firsthand what drew so many tourists to the region. I wanted to witness the spectacle of mass tourism and decide if the must-do boat trip was even worth recommending if it rightfully deserved its place on the “no” list.

I decided to join despite my initial reservations, comforted that I would be seeing the region with John Gray’s Sea Canoes, a thirty-six-year-old company that has won recognitions like the Skal Ecotourism award and has been praised for its commitment to hiring only local guides.

I was also partially persuaded after reading about the owner, John “Caveman” Gray, a wild, crunchy man who often cleaning up the sea by kayak. In one photo, he paddles an entire shattered plastic chair on the stern and a heavy bag of plastics on the bow.

At the end of Gray’s mission statement on his website, he says, “Never Give Up! Mother Nature cannot afford to lose the Battle for Planet Earth!”

Gray’s hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, and ocean-saving online presence gave me an assurance of the company’s commitment to the region, as well as the well being of the world at large, and so, I stepped onto the boat more open to the experience, something I wouldn’t normally partake in because of its large group numbers.

After embarking on a massive two-story boat from Phuket filled with inflatable kayaks, a handful of local guides, chefs, and around 30 guests tackled the day forging across the stunning Andaman Sea that was further dramatized by sheets of rain that the limestone karst formations loomed behind like bashful titans, until a mid-afternoon sun burnt off the rain and the day became perfectly blue.

Our first stop after crossing leagues of open water was to take a look at the famous James Bond Beach. Our guide talked over the microphone about why the company doesn’t stop at the beach or at Phi Phi Islands where many tour boats allow their guests to feed the local, wild monkeys on Monkey Beach.

“We at John Gray Sea Canoe want to take you to places a little more remote,” he told us, “And we don’t want to overwhelm the environment or feed the beautiful animals.”

In front of us at the beautiful James Bond Beach, there must have been around 60 boats and perhaps several hundred tourists squished on the narrow little beach. There were stands set up on the beach selling coconuts and trinkets and drinks. Here, paradise was lost, and it was quite sad to see. There were so many people on the beach, they were almost only able to walk in a line as if they were in a crowded night club, or waiting in line to get into Coachella—going against the tide of bodies would prove difficult.

We forged on, making our way to places “a little more remote.” We came to a set of islands within the national park that surprisingly didn’t have any other boats—except for three other John Gray Sea Canoe tours each carrying the same amount of tourists and guides as our boat. The company certainly knew the islands and caves to explore where basic level tour operators didn’t trek, but by putting four boats in a location at the same time, the tour never seemed remote or particularly wild—but maybe that wasn’t the point.

We were soon assigned our kayak guides, hopped onto the inflatable boats, and were paddled beside the remarkable limestone formations where vines and trees full of tropical birds and buzzing insects screeched and sang.

Gradually, we approached a small opening in the formation, a “sea cave” that was only possible to squeeze below in low tide. My guide paddled us to where the cave ceiling was so low that he had to guide our boat with his hands, pushing slowly against the walls as I laid on my back—the limestone only an inch from my nose—until we entered a beautiful circular inlet of mangroves. It was like being in the middle of a miniature jungle, though, in the middle of the sea. The walls towered hundreds of feet above us as plant life clung on dearly to their sides.

This environment was, to say the least—sensational. The experience was a truly unique adventure made accessible to anyone. A place that typically required caving skills, kayaking skills, a decent level of fitness, a high sense of adventure, as well as complex ocean navigation skills to reach was made accessible to nearly all by John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Over fifty kayaks at a time were paddled around the secluded sinkholes, making the remarkable experience no less stunning, but much busier, constantly reminding me of my presence as a tourist.

I’ve lived a lucky life of exploring beautiful landscapes, but seeing these karst formations with their unexpected sea caves was one of the most exotic and unforgettable experiences I’ve had—it was here in the ease of accessibility to adventure and exploration, coupled with a warm, tropical climate that I realized an obsession for the region. One did not have to be a a hardy outdoorsy person to enjoy the day. It was the perfect blend of excitement, scenery, and relaxation.

For the rest of the afternoon, we explored two other islands, had drinks on the boat, and got the chance to explore one karst formation without our guides, paddling around the warm waters in the late afternoon sun—my favorite part of the day—before eating a delicious Pad Thai dinner on our boat.

We ended the trip just after sunset, pushing floating lanterns (which we collected after use) of leaves, wood, and flowers that we made and lit with candles in the deepest, darkest and most crowded cave of the day as bioluminescent plankton were activated like fireflies with our every paddle stroke. Finally, we hopped on our main boat, before transferring to a speedboat and chugging back to the island of Phuket.

I commend the Thai government and parks service for closing Maya Bay indefinitely to give it a chance to recover, much like I commend the American Bureau of Land Management (in this instance) for managing truly delicate public lands, like Arizona’s Wave, with permits that only allow 20 visitors a day.

The challenge, I believe, in showcasing the world’s most incredible landscapes will always be one of great balance. Our national parks, all over the world, make stunning places accessible to nearly anyone, paving roads to quiet summits, wide trails through rough landscapes, and boat tours to beautiful bays.

Their very designation as a national park—synonymous in my opinion with “spectacular place with millions of visitors”— can ruin the very place we are attempting to protect, whether it be from traffic jammed roads in Yosemite Valley, packed beaches in Thailand,  eyesore developments over the Grand Canyon, or worse of all, by human waste.

I wrestle with this question daily as a travel writer—how do we get everyone to experience these incredible lands so they can begin to care about nature, climate change, and our world’s public lands, without overexposing the landscapes and consequently loving them to death?

It is too easy as a writer to recommend other places near Phang Nga Bay in Thailand that are stunning and lesser visited, but wouldn’t that just help bring more boats and tours their way? What happens when the lesser visited becomes just as popular—will we one day have nothing less?

In the instance of Phang Nga Bay, I do recommend seeing it perhaps in an even more in depth way if you’re looking to avoid crowds, whether it be a multi-day tour with John Gray or other “eco-friendly” companies like Paddle Asia. But even though these trips will offer more solitude, they still expose the hard-to-get places to more humans, but at least in smaller, private groups and with higher leave-no-trace principles there is true respect for ecosystems.

As I would never say “don’t immerse yourself in the granite-walled vistas of the Yosemite Valley” or “don’t walk the rim of Bryce Canyon,” I could never tell someone to avoid the karst landscape of Phang Nga Bay. It is one of the places in the world that makes you feel deeply and wonderfully for our earth. It is the type of place that reinvigorates your own zest for life. The question is: how can we the people protect the earth from humanity so we never forget it, and for that matter, ourselves?

Don’t Be Afraid of Solo Travel

I received a frantic text from my sister recently. She had just departed for a two week cruise in Asia and was meeting two of our cousins at the starting point of the trip. She was texting to let me know that her travel buddies had royally screwed up and didn’t receive the appropriate visas and that she was going to be stuck on this epic cruise itinerary alone for the first week. While sending the obligatory ‘that sucks’ response, I thought to myself: “She’s so lucky.”

When I first started my wild back-to-back travels for work, I typically always preferred to travel with someone else — usually another travel writer. And don’t get me wrong, I still love to do that every now and again. But what I learned from the first few solo trips I did was that solo travel is seriously good for you, like all around good for your mind, spirit and soul. It can also force you to have some seriously deep internal conversations with yourself.

What I most feared about traveling alone was what people around me were thinking, as if anyone really cared, but I couldn’t control the insanities that my wandering mind would come up with. Eating alone, exploring a city alone and just not relying on someone to help me make those never ending decisions that come along with traveling was something I had to overcome. Once I did, my travel experiences changed drastically. Now I make sure to not only plan amazing trips with my friends and colleagues, but to also plan some equally great trips for myself. Although they could be great shared with someone else, I can make them great just going alone.

David Duran

Solo Group Travel

An easy way to dive into traveling alone is to travel with a group of strangers. Some might even argue that this is harder than being alone ,because of the social anxieties some of us face when forced to interact with people we’ve never met. Particularly as a queer person, taking a trip where you’ll literally be stuck with strangers that could potentially make you feel uncomfortable is yet another layer of concern.

We’re all unique, but when meeting strangers, I don’t tend to immediately discuss my personal life and prefer to casually let my sexuality come out through natural conversation.  On my recent first-ever group trip, it was a week before I realized one of the other travelers in our group was also a queer man. He, like me, was not keen on disclosing his sexuality unless the right moment had presented itself. That had taken both of us more than a week, and still might not have happened had our group not merged with new people. One of them, a very confident gay man, walked up to us individually and asked about our sexual orientation.

Once the ice was finally broken and I knew I could be more comfortable being myself, my trip completely changed for the better. That said, even if things didn’t occur the way they did for me, the trip would have been a success. I was forced to interact and socialize with people from all different walks of life, even those I normally wouldn’t spend time with. That’s a win for me.

David Duran

What I realized about traveling alone is that you are left alone with your thoughts, which can be scary because let’s face it, the shit that runs through our minds at times is the reason why we typically avoid our thoughts. With all the alone time, you are forced to actually listen to your inner ramblings and make sense of them. But after the initial shock of having all that time to yourself where you are forced to make decisions wears off, you’ll surely come to realize how great it is to not rely on anyone but yourself.

Doing what you want, eating when and what you want or even just blowing off an entire day to just end a lazy day with an evening stroll around a new city can be exhilarating…once you’ve realized how great the freedom of being alone can be. Fair warning to yourself though, solo travel can be addicting and can lead to full on recluse status, so enjoy your time alone but invite a friend on a trip every now and then.

Ecuadorian Endorphin Rush

Growing up, my Bolivian father’s best friend was from Ecuador, and they would always talk about the similarities between the two countries. I was fortunate at a young age to visit Bolivia several times and by my 10th plus trip, I began exploring all the other countries in South America. But I always discounted Ecuador, mainly because of those overheard conversations between my dad and his closest friend. I didn’t really have anything against Ecuador, but it was just at the bottom of my priority list, so when I got the opportunity to travel there recently, I was more than ready to put aside my preconceived notions about the country and head there with an open mind. For this trip, I was traveling with Contiki, on a group tour (The Lava Line) with a bunch of strangers, something that was still relatively new to me. But I was looking forward to not having to plan much.


The moment I landed in Quito and smelled some of the local food in the airport, I knew I was in for a good trip, even if all I was going to be doing was eating like a local. The high altitude of Quito means that the staple diet is starch and meat based, leaving veggies out of the equation. My time in Quito was short, as it was mostly a starting point, a place to meet the other travelers and to prepare for the week ahead. Contiki is geared towards a younger demographic (ages 18-35), so I was surrounded by lots of young people, all looking to make the most of their time on their trips. As a result, night 1 of our trip included an exploration of some of the local breweries…and later bars. Once the flaming shots were imbibed, the night was pretty much vaporized from my memory, making the bus ride the next day a bit more challenging. I was thankful for having packed ear plugs and an eye mask so I could sit on the bus and avoid reality for a few hours while my body slept off the mixture of liquids it had endured just hours before.

ME to WE

This particular Contiki trip was different from the rest because they had partnered with ME to WE, an innovative social enterprise that empowers people to change the world with their everyday consumer choices. Contiki guests had the opportunity to divert from the original itinerary for two days to instead experience a ME to WE project in a nearby area. For our particular experience, ME to WE sent us to the depths of the Amazon rainforest to their exclusive lodge where we spent two nights learning about the local communities. We met with a local healer who performed a cleansing ceremony on those who wanted one, learned how to make chocolate, and even perfected our spear and blow dart training. But the highlight of this entire add-on was the opportunity to go and work on a project that ME to WE was involved with. For us, that meant traveling to a small community to visit a school that was in the process of being completed. We were there to work, and that day it was all about mixing cement by hand for a portion of a sidewalk next to the soon to be new community dining room which was located next to the classrooms. It was sweltering hot and the work was demanding but being able to see the sidewalk afterwards was beyond rewarding. The short time we spent there actually made an impact, and that was all that mattered. ME to WE does so much beyond this small partnership with Contiki, but I was grateful for the experience as I was able to learn more about the organization (and you should click the link above to learn more too).


Thrill seekers need to look no further than the small town of Baños. After the amazing time in the Amazon, it was time to celebrate our accomplishments and experiences with some high-adrenaline adventures. Our first stop included walking nearly behind a massive waterfall, something so simple yet incredible. The next couple of days here had me doing all sorts of things that I never knew I wanted to do, like rappelling down waterfalls, zip lining across canyons, bridge walking, and scariest of all, making our way up the side of a canyon wall, hooking and unhooking our safety line with each step along the way. And just when I thought all the thrills had come and gone, we made our way to a swing at the “edge of the world” that overlooked an active volcano, because apparently our heart rates hadn’t been put through enough during the last couple of days in Baños. Everything we did was optional, but never wanting to feel left out, I reluctantly did everything.


As our trip came to an end, our last stop was the largest and most populous city in Ecuador, Guayaquil. To be honest, it was a great way to end the trip because the options in the city were limited to a couple experiences, with the best one involving walking up a massive staircase that was lined with bars and pubs. The best way to endure this experience was to hike to the top and slowly make your way down, stopping at different watering holes along the way. The week had been filled with non-stop adventure that came in different forms. From eating carb-heavy foods to mixing cement to overcoming fears while climbing for my life on the side of a cliff, everything we did had my heart working overtime, all leaving me wanting more.