Sassalbo. Yes, the mountaintops are in the clouds.

It was always difficult to get any information out of my grandmother. For some reason she liked to keep the family history a little murky. You’d ask about her mother—what she was like, what she cooked—and get a one word answer. (Stew!)

Every now and then she’d come out with something a little better. It seems that at some point in her widowhood, Nonna received a proposal of marriage. You’d think she might have jumped on it, what with five kids to support, but she just said, “I’ve been married before.”

So given all of that, it’s no wonder I had no idea where her chunk of the family was from. Tuscany was all I knew, and it’s the largest province in Italy. Luckily, my grandmother’s sisters may have been a little more forthcoming. One of my dad’s cousins went to Sassalbo, my great-grandmother’s village, and pointed us in the right direction. It was just spectacular.

It’s easy to picture Italy as a conglomeration of all the stereotypical places and things, even though they’re so diverse. Ruins and gondolas and Renaissance cathedrals and a bunch of pictures of the Madonna. You could spend years and still only hit the highlights.

And then there’s Sassalbo, so far off the beaten track that there’s not even a real signpost.

Sassalbo is in the Lunigiana, a mountainous region in the very northern part of Tuscany, known for its castles. The entire region is almost unaffected by tourism despite its incredible beauty. When I Googled it prior to the trip the main results were about UFO sightings and trekking through the Apennines with pack mules.

And having been there, it all makes sense. It is wildly and beautifully remote, exactly the kind of place that lends itself to a shared delusion, whether of lights in the sky or the enjoyability of spending time with mules.

We drove through the rain, up and up on a windy two lane road full of switchbacks, and drove right by it into the heart of the national park of the Appennino Tosco-Emiliano. Realizing we missed it, we turned around and tried again. No luck.



We had wanted to try the Albergo Giannarelli because my great-grandmother was a Giannarelli. Unfortunately, we kept missing the turnoff and finally stopped along the main road and ate the closest thing to my grandmother’s ravioli I’ve ever had.


We were about to admit defeat and continue on to Milan when we finally found the turnoff.

The streets are too narrow for cars, so you have to park on the outskirts and walk. Everything is made of stone, and even the houses that aren’t maintained show the craftsmanship involved, as the stones continue to fit together without mortar.


We spent a lot of time walking, looking at the view of the white rocks (derivation of the name Sassalbo), and just plain snooping. We saw maybe one or two people the entire time, plus a dog. But there were a few gardens, the sound of rushing water from down in the valley, a pony cropping grass on the hillside, and everywhere the old stone houses and walls, crumbling or patched together, with ferns growing out of the mortar.



It’s easy to see why people left, and also easy to see why they would miss it forever. There is nothing there. Nothing. No way to earn a living at all. But the greys and gold of the stone walls contrasting with the vibrant greens of the plants and hills are so ridiculously, deeply, deliciously beautiful that they affected us unlike anywhere we’ve been.



Can you cheat on a region?

So it’s been years since I’ve posted. Literally. My bad.

This creates a teachable moment about the power of habit that I’ll try to keep in mind, but it also reminds me why I suddenly stopped: I cheated on the Caribbean.

Shortly after we got back from Culebra, Buck started to get a little antsy because we didn’t have any trips planned. And when I say “shortly,” I mean a week or two. So I pulled up ITA Software and started getting busy and found nothing. I mean, it was going to be $800 to go almost anywhere we hadn’t been before. Bonaire or Curacao? Ouch. Barbados? Very pricey. Cayman Brac? Truly, outlandishly expensive. Name an island and it was going to drain the coffers.

In a grumpy mood, I said “We could just go to Italy if it’s going to cost this much.” And so we did! Because I still had it in my head that this blog was about tropical beaches, I didn’t write about the process or about the trip. And then I got out of the habit.

So now I want to refocus on this and get caught up. Here’s what I’ll cover before our next trip (To Guadeloupe! It’s France, but with limpid turquoise water!):

  • Italy
  • Camping at Cape Henlopen, Delaware
  • A second trip to the BVI
  • Treasure Beach, Jamaica
  • Baja California
  • Another trip to Italy

There have been a bunch of other cool things–there are some new discount airlines, we’ve done a lot in Western Pennsylvania (and even West Virginia), yada yada.

I’m now formally repurposing I Felt Like A Gringo to cover all travel, even if it’s just a weekend at a local lake. Because that can still be interesting and service-y if you do it right, and I’m arrogant enough to think that I do it right. So there.

More to come, and not in two years. Maybe not even two days.

Culebra Planning Update

As a travel blogger I’m a bust. The best bloggers are committed. They post all the damn time. I guess that’s just not me. And I’m not going to make any excuses about all of the other things happening in my life because I spend at least a half hour every day just wasting time.

Now, on to this post.

Villa Fulladoza was all booked so we went with Seastar at the Green Villas. I’m pretty excited about it…the owner has been friendly and helpful and knocked a night’s rent off the price, which is very satisfying to my inner frugal person.

And the more I think about Culebra the happier I am about where we’re heading. It’s the island that Puerto Ricans go to for a day or a weekend when they want to get away from it all. Try to wrap your head around that one: where do people who live in a tropical paradise go when they need a minibreak? Culebra, as it turns out. (There were also a bunch of people from Puerto Rico anchored off of Virgin Gorda when we were there.)

We’ve also finalized our transportation plans. When I booked the trip I thought we would be able to rent a Volkswagen Thing. I have wanted a Thing since before I could drive. I’m totally comfortable with driving a rickety stick-shift vehicle in mountainous terrain–after all, I spend a lot of time in Pittsburgh in an uninspected 1998 Golf–but they’ve stopped renting the Things! I guess they got to the point where they couldn’t keep them on the road. I am very disappointed that we’re six months too late. But we are renting a golf cart! I am foolishly excited about this. It’s the next best thing, really.

If you ever want to go to Culebra (or Vieques, for that matter), there are only two ways to get there unless you charter a yacht: ferry or eight-seat puddle-jumper. The ferry is the budget option: it costs less than $10 after an $80 cab ride to Fajardo. There are frequent delays and you can get bumped because it’s really there for the people who live on the islands (after all, every now and then you need to go to a real store). Even so, we would have taken the ferry because ferries are fun, but the times just weren’t working for us. The afternoon ferry was a little too early and then we would have had to have waited until 7:00 p.m. and gotten there after dark. Coming back, the only ferry that would have worked was for commuters and left at some ungodly hour like 6:00 a.m.

So we’re flying. There are three airlines serving the offshore islands, and they all fly from three separate airports (San Juan’s big airport, Isla Grande in San Juan, and Ceiba outside Fajardo). These are the three airlines, in case you ever want to go:

This was a surprisingly difficult analytical task that worked best with a spreadsheet. What combination of flight schedules, airports, and airlines would get us to and from Culebra at the best times and at a reasonable price? There were hundreds of possible combinations but we ended up buying tickets on Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande for the arrival date and Cape Air to SJU for departure.

So now we’re less than a month out and all we’ve got to do is wait. We’re passing the time by thinking about excursions (definitely want to go to Culebrita, might want to kayak to Cayo Luis Peña) and food. I am dying for pinchos and empanadas.


For the Eccentric Millionaire: Rainforest Lodge for Sale

I really, really want to go to Dominica. What a crazy island! So volcanic that it has a boiling lake (which requires a very strenuous hike, guide recommended). So volcanic that you can snorkel in the ocean over volcanic vents that make it feel like champagne. Plus there’s a cottage industry that I can really get behind: roadside rum shops that sell homemade medicinal booze infusions for almost any ailment you can name (especially sobriety).

There’s so much rainforest-y fun—soaking in natural hot springs, hiking to waterfalls, swimming through river gorges. You’d almost be selling yourself short if you had a sea view.

I highly recommend this site to research places to stay. The only thing that makes me sad is that some of the best places are closed…including this crazy place that’s for sale near the village of Wotten Waven, which is known for its natural hot springs. I can’t embed their images to show it off, but you really should click through while the listing is up. Here’s a description:

….over 17 acres of partly forested land at a cool altitude of around 1,500 feet, bordering the sparkling River Blanc.

This spa features seven stone tubs that are fed by natural, healing, hot water. Three are on the situated along the clear, clean, rushing River Blanc. There are also large reception lobby with bamboo facade, which includes a restaurant with lovely polished hardwood floors which can seat up to 30 guests, kitchen and washroom.

The property also includes three double cabins, two deluxe cabins, a massage cabana, large open pavilion for aerobics….

This community is quite unique with its geothermal qualities. This location has several natural features – bubbling mud geysers, hot springs, crystal sulphur cavern and a 100ft waterfall.

The only problem? At US$773,000 it’s hard to see how you’d ever be able break even, let alone make a profit. One of the many cool things about Dominica is that it’s hard to find accommodation over $100 a night.

But if you’re an eccentric millionaire who wants your very own bubbling mud geyser, I’ve found your place!

More on Dominica to follow…

The List

I’m turning into my Dad.

It’s been coming on for some time. I get up at the crack of dawn regardless of the day of the week. I’m fidgety and nervous if there are dishes in the sink. I make really, really good hamburgers.

But one of the most Dadlike things of all is the lists. While we were growing up he’d sit down at the table and say, “Let’s make a list.” It might have things like Buy screws – Vacuum pool – Cut grass. Or it might be something like Bait – Dog food – Practice. No occasion, large or small, went without a list.

Whether it’s nature or nurture, I do exactly the same thing. Groceries, chores, work deliverables: list, list, list. Even a really lazy weekend usually has a little list consisting of “Rock out. Have fun.” There are scraps of paper everywhere I go with my awful scrawl and things laboriously crossed out.

So you can just imagine what it’s like when we travel! Here’s my best packing list of all time:

I am nuts

This was for a really great trip: we flew to Vegas (Southwest, for the free checked bags), rented a car, stopped at Whole Foods right by the airport for food, and drove to Zion National Park for two nights of camping. We also hit Bryce Canyon, then spent two nights on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Back to a suite at Caesar’s Palace for a night, then a whole day at the outlandish pool before heading home.

Camping by plane is a little tough: even with four free checked bags you can’t really go as hog wild with the gear as you can when you’re loading up the back of the station wagon. This list was so amazingly good that I’ve kept it on the refrigerator and referred to it for every camping trip since, even the ones that are less than an hour away.

We’re not camping next week, but I’ve got a really good list anyway.


Anatomy of a Vacation Decision, Part 2

It may be a blog that I don’t publicize much except to my friends (although maybe that will change if I post more frequently) but I feel kind of bad that I haven’t been keeping it up. My excuse is that shortly after I wrote the last post I spent a day in the garden weeding then spent the evening typing and typing and typing for work and basically ruined my right hand for a month. I have carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis and an entire day of extreme overuse made it blow up to enormous size and turn red. It stayed that way for a while and I spent most of my time in splints since I can’t really take a few days off  and rest it. Then we went on vacation and then…anyway, excuses, excuses.

When I left off we had eliminated Cayman Brac, Eleuthera, Roatan and Jamaica while keeping St. John in the U.S Virgin Islands on the list. The list also included a big one that is utterly impractical for most of the year: St. Barthélemy.

Ah yes, St. Barth’s. Swimming pools, movie stars. One of the most expensive places in the world, where a hamburger and a rum punch will leave you $50 poorer. Make that 50 EUROS. But it’s ridiculously gorgeous, which is why the movie stars, record moguls, and Internet billionaires go there.


The thing is, they go there in the WINTER. From late April until August it reverts to a normal, sleepy island, albeit with world-class pastries and expensive hamburgers. (In August Europeans use some of their 1000 vacation days to visit la plage, sans exchange rate difficulties.) It also has one of the world’s most terrifying airports. We need to go just so Buck can film the landing (he’s geeky that way):

There are two hotels on St. Barth’s that provide you with an apartment or cottage, rental car included, for less than 100 euros a night in the offseason. The Auberge de la Petite Anse overhangs a little bay and is next to the trail to the most beautiful and secluded beach on the island. Not fancy, but 60 euros a night. That’s just a hair over $80, INCLUDING rental car. The Auberge de Terre Neuve is a little more money but you get a really nice freestanding cottage (and rental car) for 80 euros. We figured that we would just cook for ourselves most of the time.

Meanwhile, we were still thinking about the snorkeling. St. Barth’s seems to be okay, but maybe not as good as the Virgin Islands. So off I went to my favorite website, ITA Software, to research airfare for both places, multiple tabs open, typing furiously.

Ouch. St. Barth’s was going to be really high. Meanwhile, flights to St. Thomas were the cheapest I’ve seen, so we clicked “buy.”

I shot off an e-mail to this place and waited. And waited. And waited. While we waited, we got to talking and realized we hadn’t used our passports this year. It’s really a waste of such handsome official documents to keep them stashed in my underwear drawer. We’d been to St. Croix and were preparing for Vieques, both of which are lovely and interesting products of U.S. imperialism (more on both some other time), but the passports had been sitting sad, lonely, and unused.

A few years ago we splurged on a day trip to Virgin Gorda to climb around The Baths. What an amazing place…enormous boulders stacked up in a shallow turquoise sea. While wandering around as the boat crew dealt with customs and immigration we stopped by Bucks Market for a photo op and found a lovely elderly woman selling homemade patties out of a cooler. We bought a conch pattie to munch on while looking at sailboats in the Yacht Harbor and it was one of the best things we’ve ever had. So yeah, we had fond memories.




If St. Barth’s is one of the most expensive places in the world, Virgin Gorda isn’t far behind. Put it this way…it’s not hard to run into Richard Branson (who owns Necker Island, just a mile or two away), a Google founder, or an aging rockstar–especially if you’re on a boat at the time. But there are some inexpensive places to stay that are genuinely nice: Fischer’s Cove Beach Hotel and Bayview Vacation Apartments (who really need to get rid of that music on their website).

Normally I’d be all over a cottage directly on the beach like Fischer’s Cove, but in the height of summer even a sea breeze probably wouldn’t keep it cool enough for Buck to sleep. Meanwhile, Bayview is really more like a townhouse than an apartment–two stories, air conditioned bedrooms, upstairs and downstairs porches–and costs even less at $570 a week. The two stories thing is a really unexpected luxury. Buck can sleep in while I go downstairs at my usual ridiculously early hour to guzzle iced coffee and work. And who minds working when you’re doing it from this porch?


So Virgin Gorda it is. I’m foolishly excited about renting a Suzuki Jimny


even though the guys on Top Gear hate them because screw those guys. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wish we had here: a tiny four wheel drive vehicle for summer adventuring and winter errands, small enough to park in the city. There’s at least a possibility that we’ll get to test our competence by driving stick with right-hand drive on a mountainous island (left hand drive=no big deal, right hand drive=adventure!).

And there’s a very good possibility that we will spend my 50th birthday doing this:


It even looks like us!

I’ll just leave you with this image from the Virgin Gorda underwater webcam, with a banded coral shrimp and some Christmas Tree worms. I promise not to go two months between posts from here on out.

shrimp virgin gorda

Anatomy of a Vacation Decision

I’m turning 50 in July, and while I’m not terribly oppressed by the aging process I really don’t like to spend my birthday at home. There’s just so much awkwardness. Do we throw a party? Do we pretend it’s not happening? And why does no one seem to understand that the best birthday cake is dark chocolate with vanilla buttercream (or gobs, gobs are always good)?

We thought we weren’t going to be able to leave town for this big milestone and it was getting me down. We started planning to go somewhere great a week or two later, or maybe have some sort of extra-special trip in November to make up for it. Here were the criteria:

  1. Limpid blue water.
  2. Lots of fun, sporty things to do: snorkeling, biking, kayaking.
  3. If possible, outside the U.S. I feel like we’re wasting our passports if we don’t use them.

I started going through my huge library of bookmarked vacation properties. St. Bart’s? In the offseason it’s super cheap as long as you don’t start eating too many fancy meals, and you can go around pretending to be a movie star. A fat, 50 year old movie star. Whale sharks? But we were in Mexico just last year.

Narrowing it down based on snorkeling, I started looking at the Caymans, Roatan, Eleuthera, and St. John. Then I threw Jamaica in just for the hell of it because we stayed on the Negril cliffs for a long weekend a couple of years ago, absolutely loved the people and food, and are itching to go back.

Grand Cayman? Holy crap is it expensive, and beaches lined with high rises don’t really appeal. But Cayman Brac looks like our kind of place. It has great snorkeling, most places provide free bicycles and/or kayaks, and there are really cool caves and a parrot sanctuary. I could break my lodging for $100 or less per night rule to stay at Winta Cottage. It’s a house on stilts!


But they serve sea turtle on Grand Cayman (farmed, but still) and even the cheapest island is still a little pricey. Maybe spring break sometime?

And then Roatan. We’ve been thinking of going for years. It’s supposed to be one of the top two places for snorkeling in the Caribbean, right up there with Bonaire (which we’ve also been thinking of for years). There are plenty of reasonably priced places to stay, but it has a reputation as one of the buggiest places around. Google “roatan sand fleas” at your own peril. We’d still like to go, but not in the rainy season. No way.

Eleuthera…well, it’s just the prettiest word. And they know a thing or two about conch in the Bahamas. I’ve had my eye on a little complex of cottages in Gregory Town, five minutes walk from the Friday night fish fry, for years. But then I found Take Ya Time cottage.


A golf cart and two kayaks, that view, and $110 a night? I would love to barrel around the Bahamas in a golf cart. Unfortunately Rainbow Bay seems to be the equivalent of a newly built subdivision in the U.S.

So, Jamaica? My original idea was to fly into Kingston, rent a car, drive to the Great Huts and spend a few days, then gradually work our way back along the north coast and fly home from Montego Bay. But I’ll admit it: I’m afraid to drive in Jamaica. Those people are nuts.

So if we stayed in one place, Treasure Beach seemed like a good option and in the low season we could even afford to stay at Jake’s. The only problem is that I really don’t like to spend an entire week eating out for every meal, and we’d end up spending quite a bit on excursions and such: looking at crocodiles in the Great Morass, trying to make it to Little Ochie’s to eat in a boat on the beach, drinking at the Pelican Bar. I mean, look at the Pelican Bar. Just look at it.


I’d want to be there every day. But maybe Treasure Beach would be a better group vacation? Jamaica is a place I want to share.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Buck will be able to take my birthday week!

To be continued…

Why the name?

Every time we go somewhere we do something that’s maybe a little…gauche. Gringo-ish.

The first time we realized it was in Tulum. Buck was going around saying grazie instead of gracias (and no, he doesn’t speak Italian). Then we couldn’t unlock our Fiat Panda because we were trying to open it with the remote for our own car, which was sitting in the airport parking lot thousands of miles away.

After spending most of a day wondering how we were ever going to drive anywhere it dawned on me and I held up both remotes and said “I feel like such a gringo.”

We have used the line at least once during every trip since. Thanks, Minutemen!


The beach is a vacation. Everything else is just travel.

It’s my manifesto.

Not that there’s anything wrong with travel. I love to travel. But for someone who has a tendency to think three steps ahead at all times there’s no substitute for sitting on a beach. Things that I don’t do on the beach:

  1. Make to-do lists.
  2. Cross items off of to-do lists.
  3. Care about how I look.
  4. Have imaginary conversations in which I tell people what I really think.

Things that I do on the beach:

  1. Look at the water.
  2. Roll over.
  3. Read trashy fiction.
  4. Eat a sandwich.
  5. Have a drink.
  6. Go for a swim.

And repeat. is mostly going to talk about going to the beach. Amazing beaches, with white sand and turquoise water and gently swaying palm trees. Because that’s what I like, and all of my best to-do lists are about how to do it on a budget that’s realistic for people who aren’t rich.

Some other stuff is going to creep in every now and then, of course–I have many expensive, time-consuming hobbies. I read books, grow flowers and vegetables, live with the world’s cutest dog, and paint pictures.  I make cocktails and dance around the kitchen. But many people do those things, and not many people find cool houses on tropical islands for less than $100 a night.

The plan is to post links to cheap, cool places to stay and share pictures and stories of amazing vacations, but plans change. No matter what, thanks for reading.