Fun on the ferry

I’ve commuted to work all sorts of ways: trains, automobiles, trams, buses, bikes subways and on foot.  Though the bike is still the top choice for me due to its reliability, flexibility, health benefits, etc., my new favorite is riding the ferry between Oakland and San Francisco.

It’s always been my favorite part of any trip.  I’ve crossed New York Harbor to Governors Island for a concert, ferried over Baia de Todos os Santos in Salvador, Brazil, and one of my best-loved crossings, passing through the Gulf Islands on BC Ferries.

A longer commute deserves a bigger boat.

It’s not the fastest way to travel, but it’s the most civilized.  The water is calming and the scenery is stunning.  Fellow passengers feel more free to chat with each other, on the San Francisco Bay Ferry you can sip a wine on your way home at the end of the work day (too bad, Canadians), and if you’re lucky maybe there will be live music and free snacks like there was today.  That beats sitting in traffic or a smelly BART train any day.

It’s nothing new. Before all of the bridges were completed in the 20th century, hundreds of ferries day crossed the San Francisco Bay every day.  One went all the way to Sacramento, others carried trains, and even some served a sea plane service in the middle of the bay.

And I just found out there is a new ferry service set to start running from Alameda and Oakland to South San Francisco in June.  Now if we could only have more ferries between Oakland and San Francisco.

 

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É Minha Praia

Sorry for the lag in posts, but I took a couple of weeks off, so here’s a nice long post to make up for the lack of reading material.

Despite the fact that my skin is so transparent you can easily see most of my circulatory system, I love the sun.  I love warm weather.  Not surprisingly, I love Brazil. I just slather on the 99 sunblock and off I go to the pais tropical .

This last trip to Brazil marked my sixth time in the country, and my fourth time for Carnaval in Salvador, a city I adore. With this being a milestone year for me, I knew I had to go at least one more time to a party that has no equal here.

But I’m not going to write about that now.  Those of you who probably read this blog know me well enough to have heard my tales of Carnaval and Salvador (but if not, I’m happy to fill you in personally). What I am going to talk about is Praia do Forte, a small town about an hour and a half by bus from Salvador.

There’s a term in Brazil that’s the equivalent to our term “it’s not my cup of tea.”  In Brazil, it’s ” Não é a minha praia,” or translated directly, “it’s not my beach.”  Well, Praia do Forte is my beach.

This is their beach

I’d been to Praia do Forte a couple of times in the past for quick day trips, but wasn’t blown away by it. I wasn’t initially keen on going back this time because I just assumed it was too touristy to bother with. But I was traveling on my own, so I wanted to go somewhere I wouldn’t feel vulnerable (a gringa traveling alone in Brazil, especially the northeast, is still a strange sight). And my friends in Salvador had told me that it had changed a lot in the past ten years. So forgoing one of the smaller car-less islands near Salvador, I paid $7.70 R for a one-way ticket and jumped on a Linha Verde bus at the Rodovaria (bus station).

For a small town, Praia do Forte has all kinds of places to stay, from hostels to a huge eco-resort.  I wanted something comfy, but not outrageously priced, so I opted to spend my four nights in Pousada Tatuapara (tatuapara is a type of aardvark). Even though it was still high season (December-February), I was able to get a little discount.  Plus, they had awesome cafe da manha (breakfast). Sure, you can go out to eat meals, but it’s nice to have a buffet of fresh baked rolls, cakes, tropical fruit, coffee, tea, etc. ready for you every morning and be able to eat it as you look out onto the pretty courtyard.

Courtyard at Pousada Tatuapara

Everyday I hogged the same table for breakfast at Pousada Tatuapara, and this was my view (no--not the four top--I'm not that tacky).

The main attractions in Praia do Forte, besides its beaches, are Projeto Tamar (turtle project) and Instituto Baleia Jubarte (humpback whale institute). Whale watching occurs from July-October, so I was out of luck this time, but Projeto Tamar is open all year. You can learn about the project’s efforts to save turtles in Brazil, “aww” over the cute baby turtles, pet stingrays, and more.

Wee ones at Projeto Tamar

Stingrays are surprisingly soft to the touch.

In Praia do Forte, it’s easy to pass much of the day sunbathing, jumping in the water, or submerging yourself in one of the many natural “swimming pools” that emerge when the tide goes out. But there are also a number of tourist companies that arrange outings like horseback rides, para-sailing, fishing, etc.

I really wanted to surf, but the companies that I contacted couldn’t come through with that on short notice. Though, I did book a snorkeling and canoe trip through Portomar, a company found near the entrance to the city and conveniently next to all the ATMs.  Lucky me found myself the only adventurer on each of the tours that I took!

My guide snorkeling was Leão, and he did an excellent job finding all the hidden critters in the reef, like an octopus, a sea cucumber, and a squishy creature that releases wine colored ink when gently squeezed (I can’t remember the name!).  The next day, Robson took me on a canoe through Lagoa Timeantube, a tranquil lake that sits right outside of the main part of town. The lake has a deep black color, though its due to the vegetation, not pollution.  We made our way through the reeds and lily pads to a small island in the middle of the lake, where I learned about local vegetation, including the biribá tree. This provides the wood for the berimbau, which is used in capoeira music.

Lagoa Timeantube

The Alameda do Sol (also known as Avenida ACM) is the main drag in Praia do Forte and there are no cars on this road. You only have to watch out for the bike taxis. Though the drivers usually announce their passing with a honking noise made not by a horn, but by mouth.

The ACM is lined with restaurants and little shops, selling everything from tourist trinkets like kangas (sarongs) with the Brazil flag, to high-end shops carrying the latest beach resort wear. There are also three markets in town (two on ACM) where you can stock up on water and beer for your frigobar (small refrigerator).

Bring your VISA for shopping on Alameda do Sol

I had to eat at some point, and Praia do Forte has a lot of choices on ACM.  The prices can be a bit high, but I did have a couple of memorable meals. This included the Bahian classic of Moqueca de camarão, a stew of shrimp made with dende (palm) oil, at Made in Bahia.  I washed it down with a caipirinha, of course. Strangely, I noticed that Made in Bahia was often empty, but I really don’t understand why. Unless the rest of their food sucked, this was one of the best meals I had during my trip.

Another standard Northeastern Brazil dish is carne do sol, a salted and cured meat.  Sabor do Ogum has a flavorful steak version that comes with a side of fries and rice (be prepared for the double carb sides as standard in Brazilian restaurants–vegetables don’t usually accompany entrees). I washed it down with a cold cuba libre.

Another great meal was had at the restaurant of Sobrado da Vila, which is also a pousada. It was one of those situations where I wasn’t expecting a lot, but when I looked at the menu, I saw that they had a dish made with tamarind. Since I’m a big fan of this fruit, I ordered a steak made with a sauce of tamarind.  I was amazed when I took a bite that it tasted remarkably like sauerbraten, one of my favorite German dishes.

Moqueca de camarão at Made in Bahia. It comes served bubbling hot.

The classic caipirinha

Suffice to say, my previous opinion about Praia do Forte changed.  It’s worth more than a day trip if you can afford the time.

Last thing.  This trip was a great opportunity for me to practice my Portuguese.  Not a ton of people speak English, but its use is growing, especially with the number of European tourists in Praia do Forte (I only spotted three Americans in my four-day stay). So if the language barrier is something you worry about, don’t worry because many restaurants in Praia do Forte have English translations on the menu (though sometimes the written English is often about as good as my Portuguese), and you’ll usually find at least one person at the lodgings who speaks a little bit of English.

In case you want to retrace my steps…

Getting there: Linha Verde buses run about every half hour on the hour (with some variation). It can be picked up in a few different spots around Salvador, including the airport. You can catch one back to Salvador, too–it will cost roughly R$ 6 (there’s a $R 1 surcharge when you buy a ticket in the bus station).  Beware of the other bus companies that pass through Praia do Forte–the hawkers will say they cost less and are faster, but in fact they aren’t.  These buses stop everywhere on the route and you will be packed in like a sardine. No fun.  http://onibusbrasil.com/empresas/3255/Expresso+Linha+Verde/

Sleeping: There are cheaper pousadas, but Tatuapara has about everything you need. It’s steps away from the main drag and the beach, but far enough to keep things pretty quiet.  The pousada has double, triple and quadruple size rooms with mezzanines. Rates range from approximately R$ 190-320 March-November and R$ 280-$390 December-February. Price of lodging includes breakfast. http://www.tatuapara.com.br/

Eating: Sobrado da Vila, Made in Bahia and Sabor do Ogum are all found on the north side of the Alameda do Sol, with Sabor do Ogum the closest to the water, and Sobrado da Vila being the closest to the bus stop.

Adventures: Portomar offers scuba, whale watching, snorkeling, canoe and buggy trips, para-sailing, fishing and more. Best to contact them ahead of time for reservations, though I was able to make an appointment only one day in advance during the high season. http://www.portomar.com.br/

Magnificent Mendocino

If there’s one pattern you might notice emerging in my posts is that I like my dog, wine, and the ocean. It’s even better when I can combine all three (no, not the dog drinking wine by the ocean, but I wouldn’t put it past her).

Sunset from the room at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek

So Mendocino County has become a regular destination for my birthdays in the past few years as it offers not only the trifecta above, but also peace and solitude–something sorely lacking in the bustling Bay Area. And there are a number of fido-friendly hotels, wineries, and restaurants–meaning no guilt for leaving the mutt at home, nor a need to budget in the cost for dog boarding.

One of the many gorgeous views seen from the two mile path that circles the town of Mendocino.

If you’ve been, you know how gorgeous it is, but if you’ve never been, I highly recommended it.  Just a few hours from San Francisco by car, it’s a great place for wine tasting, especially in the Anderson Valley (think Sonoma without the crowds and tasting fees), hiking and camping in parks like Van Damme State Park (no, not named after “The Muscles from Brussels”, but instead the son of Belgian settlers who came to the area in the 1800s), kayaking or paddle-boarding on the Big River or whale-watching from MacKerricher State Park. Also, it doesn’t really matter what time of year you visit–if the weather is bad, you can always snuggle inside by a cozy fire.

Lastly, I want to call out the brand new Wild Fish restaurant in Little River.  This place is but a week old and the menu short, but choices like duck, sole and gumbo should please most. In addition, the Albion River Inn offers free happy hour appetizers along with the purchase of one of their wine and well drink specials. It’s a great place to nosh and watch the sunset before dinner. Otherwise, the old fashioned beach picnic is always a good option.

Penderific

I like island vacations in all forms, from Manhattan, to tropical Boipeba in Brazil.  But one of my favorite islands is Pender, part of the Gulf Islands of Canada.

Located between Vancouver Island and Vancouver, Pender is one of the most populated islands in the Strait of Georgia, but the term “populated” is relative.  Sometimes you’ll see more deer than people as you drive around the island.


Accessible by ferry from Vancouver Island (Swartz Bay) or the city of Vancouver (Tswwassen), Pender is a great weekend getaway if you’re already visiting British Columbia.  Biking, hiking, kayaking, scuba diving, and more are all possible here. Though, it’s pretty easy to just sit on a deck sipping wine and watching the ferries come in like I did. Sometimes you might spot pods of whales or eagles. And on clear days, you may see the Cascades to the east, and the Olympic Peninsula to the west from high points on the island like Mt. Norman.

Another fun island activity is disc golf–basically golf played with frisbee-like discs instead of balls and a pole for a target rather than a hole.  This version is a lot more laid back than the serious style played in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This form of disc golf involves sipping a beer or two while you play a round. Some people even “wear” the beer in a holster around their waists. The best part is that the empties are recycled, and that recycling money goes back into the upkeep of the disc golf grounds.

I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of great friends who have hosted me a few times here, but there are a few hotels, B&Bs, and camp sites if you make the trip.  It’s possible even to just do a day trip, but it’s worth the overnight stay, if not just for the peace and quiet, then the hundreds of stars you’ll see when you scan the sky at night.