If you’re like me, the LAST thing you probably want to read about at this point is anything related to COVID. And yet, we also all know that it is an unavoidable topic of conversation, whether we like it or not. Rest assured that this will ultimately be a travel blog, but I really can’t tell the tale without bringing up the pandemic.
If you’ve been following my posts you know that I moved away from San Francisco in July, and since then, I’ve visited 30 of the 50 United States, from Maine to Florida to Hawaii. I did all this traveling against the backdrop of COVID. I spent countless hours researching travel regulations that were in effect for many states, as well as the case rates for various cities and counties that I planned to visit. I tried to make informed decisions about where and where not to travel. Four months later and thankfully, still COVID-free (I have been tested 5 times now), I feel that I must be doing something right. I’ve spent many hours alone in my car, hiked in remote areas, gone swimming at nearly empty beaches, ordered take-out food or dined outside whenever possible, washed my hands faithfully and wore my mask when and where I was required to. Truthfully, I think I’ve placed myself at less risk from these activities than people I know who haven’t traveled, but continue to engage in everyday activities or have to work.
I’ve learned a lot over the last few months. COVID has become yet another topic that, like politics, cannot be freely or easily discussed with anyone for fear of starting angry and emotional arguments. I have friends and family members that run the gamut in their COVID perceptions; some people are seemingly willing to lock themselves down and avoid all normal activities and virtually all human contact for however long it takes. Others have decided that they will be as careful as they can, but are not willing to deprive themselves of being social and spending time with loved ones. Still others lie somewhere between those two extremes. I want to assure anyone reading this that I respect wherever you may be on that continuum. Only you can make decisions about what you are or aren’t willing to do. I’ve never tried to pressure anyone about getting together and have been willing to meet people’s conditions for socializing to the best of my ability. However, I’ve been criticized by some who see my travels as reckless, foolish, or selfish. My personal feeling about this nightmare is that while I am certainly nervous about contracting the virus and want to avoid it, I also feel that life is short and I’m not willing to give up the things I most enjoy or the people who mean so much to me. With my background in Social Psychology, I am also acutely aware of the detrimental effects that social isolation is having on people. The fear, the withdrawal and the depression are taking their toll, and I have not been immune to those things. So, my personal decision has been to cling to what is as normal a life as possible, to do my best to remain healthy, and not to get myself killed by maniacal drivers on Interstate 95.
Being retired and not having a permanent place to live right now has created a unique opportunity. One warm Tennessee night in August while staying at my friend Daniel’s place, he asked what my plans were for the next few weeks and months. I reflexively replied, “I guess I should go back to New England now.” Although Massachusetts has always been “home” to me and I have many loved ones there, I’d been hearing about soaring COVID rates, lockdowns and travel restrictions. The governor asked residents who saw anyone visiting from out of state to report this to the police immediately. That was not the happy homecoming I had anticipated for the last several months, and I began to drag my feet about going “home.”
Daniel’s response was almost like a gentle slap in the face to bring me to my senses. “Matt, you don’t have to do anything. Brother, you’re free. There’s nowhere you have to be, you have no responsibilities. Do what you want to do! Where do you want to go?” It almost startled me because I immediately realized that he was correct and the idea of being that totally free was both exhilarating and unnerving.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I realized I wasn’t ready to go to New England and experience the same constraints I’d dealt with in California before I left. In contrast, Tennessee and other southern states were instituting some restrictions, but in general, life was going on with an overarching sense of normality. I looked at Daniel and said, “I want to travel some more. I want to go to Florida, hang out at the beaches of the Gulf Coast, eat a lot of shrimp and just rest and relax.” And so, a few days later that’s exactly what I did.
From Memphis I headed south through Mississippi, filling my tank for a mere $1.59 a gallon and driving the back roads. Despite the summer heat, I visited the charming town of Oxford, checked out an eerily beautiful cypress swamp, and then followed the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway south and west to the banks of the Mississippi. I stayed across the river in Vidalia, Louisiana and watched enormous barges making their way up and down the river. I had a culinary adventure back across the river in Natchez at a restaurant called Roux 61, where I sampled “shrimp and alligator cheesecake.” Not one person I’ve mentioned this to has been the least bit enticed by it, but this was one of the most unique and delicious appetizers I’ve had anywhere. It was a savory, souffle-like dish made with shrimp and alligator sausage and I’d drive the length of the 400+ mile Natchez Trace Parkway to have it again.
Next I visited the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama and was surprised to find that the shores near Gulfport and southeast of Mobile feature the same shimmering, powdery white sands found in the Florida Panhandle. I lingered awhile near the small towns of Fairhope and Foley, Alabama where I encountered some of the friendliest souls one could hope to meet. While strolling in a waterfront park and taking pictures of the Spanish moss dangling from the trees, an older gentleman sitting in a lawn chair reading a book greeted me warmly and welcomed me to his town. A couple sitting at a nearby table at the restaurant where I was having breakfast chatted with me throughout the meal and gave me their card, inviting me to come by for a cold drink at the mobile home park they manage. I felt as if I wanted to just unpack and move into this charming community. But Florida was calling.
I spent a couple of nights in Panama City Beach, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. I arrived after dark and checked into the Springhill Suites, with a room facing inland. I awoke to a rather mundane view, but when I went down to the lobby for breakfast, I gasped at the view of the white sand beach, the turquoise and cobalt sea, and the mix of puffy white and ominous black clouds floating above, constantly changing the light and shadows. I explored this coast from pristine and quiet Pensacola Beach back to Panama City, floating in the warm water, marveling at the enormous sea birds resembling baby pterodactyls soaring overhead, and enjoying a balanced diet of fresh shrimp, fried green tomatoes, and key lime pie.
I made stops in Tampa/St. Pete and Bradenton, and then visited remote Sanibel Island for a few days. I’d never been to this part of Florida, which is known as one of the best places to collect seashells in the entire world. When I reached the island and drove toward my hotel, I was amazed to see dozens and dozens of dragonflies all traveling in a line from west to east. I’ve never seen anything like it. The woman who checked me in at the West Wind Inn mentioned the parade of dragonflies too, as she’d been noticing it all day. After checking in, I walked down to the beach behind the hotel and watched as a steady stream of what looked like tiny helicopters buzzed past me, moving from west to east like a mass migration. There were hundreds of them. I never did find out what might have been behind this phenomenon, but it was delightful to watch.
Overall, while I really loved the West Wind Inn, Sanibel Island itself was perhaps my least favorite part of Florida. I found it to be too upscale and pretentious. There were only about three or four places where I could even access the beach, as so much of the island is covered by exclusive resorts or housing and the public is not allowed to visit. When I could find an open piece of coastline, the parking fees were outrageous, with minimum charges of $25 for a mere two hour stay. At least my hotel had a private beach, the shells were plentiful and I had some good food, but I will not be rushing back anytime soon.
From there I traversed the Everglades. Unfortunately, before I entered, I’d gotten my car serviced and washed. It was gleaming in the Floridian sun… until I drove it along a 25 mile long, unpaved road that erased all that the carwash had accomplished. It was an exciting drive, though. I only came across one other car the entire time. It was parked off to the side of a low causeway in an incredibly scenic grotto and two young guys were fishing. I stopped and got out to take a picture and was descended upon by dozens of ravenous mosquitoes, and as I madly tried to swat them away, one of the guys laughed and said, “I just gave up. I’m sure we’ve got malaria already!”
I asked if they had caught any fish yet, and one of them pointed to the middle of the swampy pond and said, “Well, we’re competing with him.” It took me a minute before I saw whom they were referring to: it was an 8 to 10 foot long gator almost submerged about 30 feet from the bridge we were on. However, he was rather cooperative in letting me get some good photos of him. I made another stop along a strip of beach along a rather marsh-like, swampy coast. As I walked through some trees to access the beach, the ground around me appeared to move; hundreds of strange, small crabs, pinkish-maroon in color moved away from me like a red carpet as I approached. These crabs looked like monsters from a bad Japanese sci-fi film for the 1950s, with one claw almost as big as their entire body. I later learned that they were fiddler crabs and they were very cute; I just wish they weren’t quite so shy!
From there I spent a few days in Fort Lauderdale visiting an old friend, and then spent a couple of nights at New Smyrna Beach, just south of Daytona. I stayed at another Springhill Suites directly overlooking the beach, and one of my fondest memories of the trip was floating in the pool after dark on a warm summer evening. The sound of the ocean was constant, but what really transfixed me was the celestial light show I was treated to. Off to the west was a colorful sunset, but as it got darker, I realized that there was also a lightning storm flashing through the clouds. To the south, I spied a brilliantly bright Jupiter and somewhat less bright Saturn hovering over me, while to the east over the ocean, the half moon was accompanied by the orange-red glow of Mars, even more intensely bright than usual because it is closer to the Earth than it’s been in decades. Other stars soon joined the show, and the always stunning constellation Scorpio sat on the southern horizon, its great tail and stinger clearly visible. I could have happily stayed in that pool all night, but probably would have been unable to sleep with everything going on in the heavens.
Another taste of heaven came to me the following morning when I google-searched “Best donuts near me” and was directed to Donnie’s Donuts, evidently famous after being featured on the Food Network. I love donuts perhaps second only to pancakes, and these had to be some of the best I have tasted anywhere, anytime. Traditional flavors competed with specialties like Boston Cream Pie, Death by Chocolate and Strawberry Shortcake. There is another branch of Donnie’s further north in Ormand Beach, so if you are anywhere in the vicinity, they are well worth finding!
I hadn’t been to Florida in probably 20 years, and it had never been one of my favorite places, but I have to say I was very impressed with it. The beaches are endless, free and beautiful. People are very friendly, the cost of living is low, the food is delicious, and again, while there were COVID restrictions, they seemed sensible and non-intrusive, and that really appealed to me. I was sad to leave.
I stopped for a night in Savannah, Georgia and had a wonderful four course meal at Vic’s On the River. It’s located in a beautiful old building and is elegantly decorated, but servers were very friendly, and it didn’t feel pretentious at all. I dined on the best of southern cuisine: crawfish beignets, she crab soup, shrimp and grits, and a “peach trio” for dessert, featuring peach ice cream, cheesecake, and bread pudding. It could not have been better. Nearby there was a table of about eight young women in their early to mid 20s who seemed to be celebrating some special occasion. They finished before me, and as they all began to leave, one of them tentatively approached me and I saw a small slip of paper in her hand, which immediately caused me to wonder where this encounter was going. Mind you, I had not so much as exchanged a word with anyone at their table all evening, so I could not imagine why this woman would be approaching me.
“Excuse me. This is going to be kind of awkward, but…” She hesitated and blushed, and I was in disbelief that she appeared to be ready to give me, a man old enough to be her grandfather, her phone number.
“What is your romantic situation. Are you single?” I started to laugh because I could not believe this was happening to me. I said that yes, I was single and asked why she wanted to know.
“I want to give you my mother’s number and have you call her. I really think you two would hit it off.”
I almost burst out laughing, but didn’t want to embarrass the poor woman any more than she already was. Gently, I said, “Well I’m really flattered, but I’m gay.” The look on her face was one of utter letdown and exasperation, and she apologized for bothering me and almost ran out of the restaurant. On the drive back to the hotel, I could not stop chuckling, wondering how this woman’s mom would feel about her daughter giving out her number to complete strangers. And I wondered why the daughter would think we’d hit it off without having spoken to me at all; was her mother a big fan of she crab soup or the peach trio? Ah, people are indeed funny.
After stops in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, I was finally ready to take a deep breath and test the waters of New England. I got a COVID test in Albany and filled out the online travel forms that both New York and Massachusetts were requiring of incoming travelers. Negative results in hand, I headed to my hometown of New Bedford on Labor Day weekend and began staying with my lifelong friend Joanne. I was grateful for inviting me to stay with her, and her 90 year old mother Norma, my mom’s best friend was not afraid to see me in the least. Others were much more wary of my travels, and so negotiations had to be worked out with everyone regarding whether we’d see one another at all and under what circumstances that could occur.
I spent the next six weeks alternating between stays with Joanne and travels to upstate New York and the northern New England states, all of which had agreements allowing free travel from one state to another. Of course Fall is my favorite time to be in New England and I took full advantage of all it has to offer. The foliage was simply magnificent this year, and I did hikes in the forest, made a few trips to the beach where it was still warm enough to swim, and got my fill of fresh apples, scallops, lobster rolls, clam chowder, cider donuts and pumpkin pancakes. I spent several days in the Albany and Saratoga Springs area visiting friends. My friend David and I had picnic lunches and played Scrabble outside on picnic tables at some of New York’s beautiful state parks and went hiking on trails lined with natural geysers. I discovered an amazing Italian restaurant called De Fazio’s in Troy that serves delicious house made pasta, perfect pizza, and a dessert called Italian Hangover Cake that features a citrus base with a little help from Grand Marnier, a liqueur called Disaranno, vodka and orange juice. Wow. Just wow.
I visited every pancake house there is in Vermont and New Hampshire, had some wonderful hikes, and spent a bit of time in Maine, though here the COVID regulations were far more strict. Lighted signs adorned the charming town of Ogunquit ordering everyone to wear masks even when outside, so I walked York Beach, grabbed a lobster roll or two and headed back to New Hampshire.
By now it was mid-October and the leaves were falling fast and furiously. It was time for yet another adventure: a trip to Maui. Long ago, in January B.C. (before COVID), I’d reserved a condo and bought a ticket for a trip to Maui in August. Because Hawaii instituted a very strict 14 day, mandatory quarantine for all visitors, I had to reschedule the trip for September, only to postpone it again when the quarantine was extended into October. After the 15th, if you could show a negative COVID test completed within 72 hours of departure, you could avoid the quarantine. I spent hours online reading all the ins and outs of Hawaii’s rules about where you had to get your test done, the timing of that in relation to your flight, etc. With due diligence, I scheduled a test through Walgreens, one of Hawaii’s “trusted partners” and got my free test done on a Friday afternoon, 65 hours before the flight to be sure I’d get the results prior to arriving in Hawaii. The results came the following day and I was negative, but then my sharp, proofreading eyes caught something. On the actual lab report that I had to show to authorities upon arrival on Maui, it stated that my test was taken on a Thursday evening, 84 hours prior to my flight! which would be unacceptable. I had no time to get a new test done, so I spent much of Saturday night e-mailing and leaving voicemails at the lab and at the Walgreens where I had the test done. I was a basket case. Finally on Sunday morning I was able to talk to a pharmacist at Walgreens who was as befuddled as me about what happened, but had me come back and she wrote a note verifying that I really was tested within 72 hours prior to departure.
On Monday I flew from Boston to Denver and then on to Maui. Of course, you must keep your mask on aboard the plane and at the airport unless eating or drinking, and this was the longest amount of time I’d ever had to wear one. It was not comfortable. When we reached Maui, an official scanned a bar code on my phone to verify that I’d completed the online travel form. I got a gold star, but several people got “pulled over” at that point as they had not done the online form. I then waited in line a short while until assigned to one of 18 tables, each manned by an official dressed in yellow lab coast. This was the final check, where I’d either get in or get turned away. As a very kind Hawaiian woman looked at my papers. I nervously explained what had transpired regarding the date of my test, and she said, “But your e-mail says you took it on Friday and so does your appointment conformation, so that’s good enough for me!” I wanted to hug her, but of course that is forbidden. She smiled and gave me a pink piece of paper that was my official ticket into Hawaii. I had to show it later at the car rental office and at the most elegant Residence Inn I have ever seen, located in Wailea, where I was spending my first night.
I don’t usually stay in south Maui so I searched online for a good restaurant and proceeded to go to six different places; every single one was closed. Finally, by sheer lunch I spotted an open Paia Fish Market in Kihei, a small restaurant chain on the island that does simple and delicious fresh fish dinners, so that was my first taste of Maui.
The next day I drove the famous Hana Highway, 50 miles of slow, winding road through amazingly lush scenery, with views of the coast, waterfalls, and dense tropical jungle. I hadn’t made this drive in at least 10 years, as once I settle into my condo at the beach in West Maui, I never want to leave and use up a whole day coming all the way to the other side of the island. To my dismay, a couple of the banana bread stands that had been highly rated were closed, but I found a large loaf of chocolate chip banana bread at the Hana Famer’s Market just outside town and when I cracked it open later that day, I wished I’d bought two. It was fantastic!
Hana itself can barely be considered a town, and truly the old adage “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” holds true here. I was hoping to park and do the short hike to a remarkably beautiful place called Red Sands Beach, a circular pool open to the ocean on one side featuring brick colored lava outcroppings and sand. It has always been one of my favorite places to visit on the island, but when I got to the beginning of the trail a huge hand painted sign announced, “Go Home! This place is for Hana People and Fishermen only!” It was a real kick in the gut, and while I do understand such sentiments, I couldn’t help feeling very let down.
Another stop I’d hoped to make was the hike to Waimoku Falls through a stunning bamboo forest, but that is within Haleakala National Park and the parking lot and trail head were closed because of COVID. I simply continued driving, making a full loop using the dramatic south road that traverses lava fields and desert-like terrain. The road is rough and car rental companies frown on drivers taking their cars there, but I was in a jeep and the road is much straighter and less stressful to drive than the curvy Hana Highway. Finally. I reached my home for the next 10 days, Napili Bay at the island’s northwest corner.
For the first few days of my stay, there was virtually no wind at all, and Napili Bay was glass-like, not unlike being in an infinity swimming pool. That pattern finally broke, but Maui is having a very bad drought and the west side of the island is very brown and looks like California in September. Later in my stay there were some pretty impressive rainstorms and the last day I was there, Napili Bay was really choppy, to the point where I thought I was going to get seasick on my air mattress. Meanwhile, the usually bustling town of Lahaina seems more like a ghost town these days; it seemed that only one out of every ten businesses was open, and many of my favorite restaurants – Star Noodle, Leoda’s, Honu – all closed. I was able to get delicious mac nut pancakes as a take out order from 808 Grindz Cafe and they were as good as ever. I made many trips to a local fish market that sells fresh ahi tuna salad and had that with fresh papaya, chips and mac salad. The condo owner also left me some exotic dragonfruit, which I had never tasted, as well as some beautiful star fruit, and that was dessert one evening.
One day I had breakfast at the Seahouse restaurant with Lara, a former student of mine who’s been an events manager at a major hotel on Maui for 15 years. Since there are no events anymore, she has been unemployed for eight months and is trying to figure out a new career path. She kindly treated me to breakfast with a credit card issued to all residents of Hawaii to be used at restaurants to help keep those places that are still open afloat. Lara also gave me a tip about a wonderful Thai food truck in Kahana where I savored a green mango salad (the mango is sliced into spaghetti-like strands) with generous amounts of crisply fried island fish.
I discovered Maui Pie in Kihei, a pie shop with unusual selections like mango-strawberry, cherry-mango, and lilikoi (passionfruit) pie. One evening I went to dinner at Kimo’s in Lahaina, and when the bill came I realized I’d left my wallet at the condo! This was a first for me and I wanted to crawl under my table with embarrassment when I had to explain this to the manager, but he was very kind and told me to just go back home and phone in my credit card. All in all, I got my share of the island’s cuisine, I found the friendly “Aloha Spirit” to be intact, and I enjoyed the quiet and relaxation that Maui has always provided. I just hope that all of the business owners can ride out this pandemic and save their establishments over the long haul. And I hope I have many more visits in the future.
I flew back to Boston on Halloween and didn’t have to get tested or quarantined because Hawaii is considered a much lower risk state than Massachusetts. It didn’t matter so much anyway, because the following day I left and started driving back to Tennessee to vote in the election, as new residents must vote in person the first time. While I was there, I spent another very pleasant few days with Daniel and his family, and then experienced a sense of déjà vu as I headed back to Florida.
I’ve decided that until life gets back to some semblance of normality, Florida seems like a good place to ride things out. I plan to move there for six months or so and see whether it’s a place I’d want to live permanently. I’m still trying to decide where I’d want to be so I did some comparing of various areas. I like Pensacola a lot, though the area suffered damage to bridges and roads from Hurricane Sally, making it challenging and time consuming to get from the city out to the beautiful beaches. I also like the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area, but had quite an adventure driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge as a tropical storm came ashore just as I was arriving. Gusts of wind pushed my car around like a toy, wind-whipped rain blew horizontally, making visibility difficult in the dark of the night, and as I learned later when I reached my hotel and watched the local news, waves were actually breaking over the south side of the bridge as I was driving across it. I’m thankful that due to the conditions on the bridge as I crossed, I didn’t see that! My third choice is Fort Lauderdale, which despite being a lot more crowded and urban than I would like, has much to offer including the fact that two friends of mine live there already. As I headed north again, I could also see myself in places like Daytona or Jacksonville Beach. Decisions, decisions.
I was sad to leave Florida as I headed back up the east coast, as the further north I went, the more intense the COVID restrictions got. I had a great take out meal from Acme Seafood near Charleston, South Carolina and then spent two days checking out the Myrtle Beach area, another place I’ve considered living. Little did I know, one of Myrtle Beach’s claims to fame is the incredible number of pancake houses that have sprung up there; one source I consulted said there are at least 70! I concluded that I could not live here; I’d gain another 100 pounds within a year. I sampled excellent blueberry pancakes at Blueberry’s Grill, but even better was the blueberry waffle I scored at Johnny D’s Waffle House. I will be have to return on my way back down to Florida! I also had a brisk swim at the beach late one afternoon when the water temperature was 66 degrees and the air temperature only 62 degrees. As I played in the waves, I could not see a single person in the water for as far as the eye could see, though people walking their dogs and wearing parkas and knitted caps definitely gave me a second look, shaking their heads in disbelief.
I spent a couple of days in Virginia Beach overlooking the famous boardwalk which is all decked out with Christmas decorations. I had lunch with my cousin Marsha and my friend Gail, and then headed up the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware. I had a wonderful breakfast at a place called Egg in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, but unfortunately it was Day 1 of new state COVID protocols requiring a restaurant diner to keep his or her mask on throughout the meal, only lowering it to take a bite of food. The governor of California had suggested this a few weeks prior, and I thought it sounded absurd, but now Delaware and other northeastern states like Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have adopted this policy. I counted: I touched my mask 27 times in a half an hour, which flies in the face of other recommendations that we should refrain from touching our masks as much as possible. It is this sort of thing that will send me back to Florida after the holidays.
I celebrated Thanksgiving – which was also my birthday this year – with friends and managed to save room for both turkey dinner and birthday cake. After nearly getting scammed out of hundreds of dollars by responding to multiple craigslist ads for apartments in Providence – beware using this site for apartment hunting – I ultimately rented a beautiful space through AirBnB in the idyllic village of Little Compton, Rhode Island. I plan to spend the holidays here with friends and family, and then to become a “snowbird,” heading south in January.
This was a long post, so thanks to all of you who stuck with me till the end! (Is anyone still out there?) I sincerely hope that you and your loved ones are all staying safe and well, and that you will do whatever you can to make the holidays special. As I said at the beginning, I’m not trying to push any of my opinions or ideas on anyone; we all have to make our own choices. But I hope that perhaps in some way, the experiences I’ve shared can inspire some hope that maybe we don’t have to sacrifice the beautiful aspects of life to remain safe. Take care, everyone, and if any of you have had some travel experiences in these trying times, please share them in the comments section!