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What makes a place romantic for you? I suppose the first thing you need is another person. But in my case I was alone. Yep. I’ve stayed in some of the most romantic spots in the world… all by myself. What’s up with that?
It was opportunity squandered, that’s what it was. Sort of like being an anorexic at Thanksgiving. Or a teetotaler at Oktoberfest. Or perhaps a nudist at a Men’s Warehouse ‘buy one get one free’ sale. Any number of analogies could speak to the enormity of the lost romantic potential at these magical hideaways where I found myself… and only myself, again and again.
Why was I alone? Simple answer – work. I was always on a job – we were a small, nimble video crew, constantly on the move. Plus, the client wouldn’t pay for non-crew. Plus, I had no idea I’d be landing in such cunning little love nests.
I’d arrive at a place and they’d offer, “Hey, why don’t you stay over there in bungalow 3 in the forest, or the cottage perched over the sea or that thatched banda on the beach.” I’d tramp over to said cottage, throw down my bags, look around and cry because I couldn’t share this little gem. We humans like to share.
So what made these particular spaces so romantic? What was so special about them that I still remember their smell, their colors and the dreamscape through their windows? Well… I suppose the idea of ‘romantic’ is different for everyone. For some swingers, nothing says amour like the high roller suite in Vegas or for others, a hipster hotel in Soho. Those are someone’s ideas of heaven. Just not mine.
Prior to my travels, I actually had no idea what made a place romantic. I’ve stayed in dozens, maybe hundreds of lodgings by myself. So what was it about certain places that made me acutely aware that I was alone? And didn’t want to be.
No Phone, No Pool, No Pets
As I said, I was just here to do a job – wherever ‘here’ was. I would be mindlessly unpacking my toiletries when the sheer charm of the canopy bed, a vase of flowers or some doily on a painted bureau would overwhelm me. And make me as wistful as a 15-year-old girl.
These places were always quaint little jewel boxes, nestled in the forest or snuggled up to the sea. They were quiet with no temptation to get noisy – no TV, Wi-Fi…nothing to entertain me. They were small – just enough room for a person or hopefully two.
But they were also a little unsettling – this coziness could feel like a weight. Big rooms are all about showing themselves off. ‘Look at me, look how deluxe I am.’ But tidy, charming spaces are an unexpected three-way… so to speak. They beckon, inviting the two of you to crawl in and spend the night. However in my case I always crawled in alone.
Ok, enough with the whining. Here’s a quick Valentine’s rundown of my greatest romantic hits… I mean misses.
If you ever find yourself in Jamaica, at Treasure Beach, well… you’ve probably already found yourself at Jake’s. And good for you. This little slice of delight will swallow you whole with its hypnotic hip funkiness.
Picture yourselves slipping through a Moroccan archway into a bungalow named Octopussy or Sweet Lip. It’s Marrakesh meets James Bond on da half shell.
The whole groovy compound was created by the outstanding Henzell family. Sally is the matriarch, designer and guiding force here. Her husband Perry was the guiding force, writer and director of the epochal Jamaican film, “The Harder They Come”.
This is where artisanal vagabonds go on vacation.
It was already evening when the crew and I arrived at Jake's. We walked the bluff overlooking a lit sunset sea, past pink and aqua cottages named Cockles and Mussels.
They brought me to a tiny structure off by itself on the edge of the property. I didn't even catch its name. Squeezing inside, I flopped onto the canopied bed, which took up most of the room. In front of me, the double doors were wide-open, revealing most of the world and possibly heaven's gates.
Here's what took my breath away: looking out past my feet, I saw a small deck and beyond that a jetty below pummeled by the sea. Now... without moving my head or even my eyes I viewed the darkening sky and its stars. Brilliant white stars lighting up the exploding waves below - all framed by the canopy bed. Can you see it – stars above, pounding waves below – all in one gulp.
It was the most magnificent painting on black velvet you could imagine… and it worked. I turned to share the view but there was no one else. So I took a picture but it came out black. I have no proof of my moment in paradise. You’ll just have to trust me.
South Africa. KwaZulu-Natal Province. Phinda Forest Lodge.
Imagine you’ve settled into a beautiful glass box in the African forest. Dainty dwarf antelope dance just feet away, observed through the glass walls of your sleek habitat. Lounging in bed, you’re surrounded by lush forest on all sides. You are completely visible and yet completely private, shielded by this forest. They call it Zulu Zen.
It’s just you and that special someone. In my case, it was just me and that dwarf antelope. Also, I remember there were monkeys… But no internet. So there was no way to share any of this.
Plus, there was a tiny element of hazard to this place, making it that much more cozy and fun. This enchanted forest could be dangerous at night. Like a children’s fairy tale. I was instructed to call for an escort if I wanted to go to dinner… lest I become someone else’s dinner.
A lady I had spoken to at the Lodge told me she ignored this advice. She went out one night alone, headed for the main building. And damn if she didn’t come face to face with a leopard! The good news was the leopard saw her and screamed. And she screamed back. Then the two of them ran off into the night… in opposite directions.
I thought about that story as I reclined, gazing at the dimming light upon the thick green forest. It was the magic hour. Perhaps a time for romance. For someone else. So I got real and called the guide to take me to dinner. I would eat a big meal instead.
On the Kenyan coast, not all that far from the Somali border, are a group of islands overlooking the Indian Ocean. One island, Lamu, hosts a tiny seaside village called Kipungani. The villagers in this coastal hamlet are sweet, friendly and great builders.
I know all this because just down the coast, they helped build a rustic but beautiful resort called Kipungani Explorer, named after their village. We were in Kenya doing some work and were lucky enough to stay at Kipungani for a few days. We recorded life on Lamu Island, ate on the beach and rode the waves in an open boat called a dhow.
We also monitored our batteries very carefully as the resort only provided electricity a few hours a day. You want romance? Try living by torchlight.
So here’s the third and final romantic scene: Each of the crew was given their own thatched banda. A banda is a hut made of natural materials. The thatched roof and walls were courtesy of our neighbors from the village up the coast.
Kipungani is considered a luxury resort but interestingly there was no hot water. The ‘cold’ water was so mild it was as if one temperature fit all needs. I quickly got used to it.
At night it was candles or torches, luke-warm water and a canopied bed with a view of the moon over the Indian Ocean. It was perfect. Well, almost. But here I could actually improve upon it.
Just outside my banda, on the deck was a hanging bed. Not a hammock but an actual bed suspended by rope with netting around it. Big pillows filled out the frame and it swayed gently. It was there I moved my party of one for the night, settling in with some wine and the light ocean air.
I gazed below to the sandy slopes at the water’s edge. Villagers appeared, leading their camels along the wet sand. We waved, sharing this beautiful instant of twilight and this place, where in all likelihood time did begin.
I settled in to the rhythms of this moment – the waves, the first stars… and the camels. I felt happy and privileged just to be here. There would be other bandas, bungalows and cottages. There would be other times to share. This I knew, as a warm breeze from the ocean rocked me to sleep, to dream romantic dreams.
Happy Valentine's day!
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