A Letter of Hope to Florence

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I came with the best of intentions, the greatest of hopes for your city, with dreams of marveling at world-famous art, strolling the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, and eating my weight in gelato on my 19th birthday. I envisioned classy Italian women going about their daily business, young locals sitting along the riverside, and throngs of tourists with eyes wide open in wonder.

I wanted to love you, to bask in sunlight perched upon the Piazzale Michelangelo and stare down at all of what you had to offer. I wanted to soak it all up: every sight, every sound, every taste and smell. To feel what the breeze felt like, would it be different than other places? You were romanticized in my mind by every word I heard spoken of you, every story I had read.

But what my heart felt didn’t match up with my expectations. Don’t be put down, you were every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. Boutiques lined the street, the Ponte Vecchio lit up every evening, lighting the way and I did get gelato on my birthday (and a very lovely cake and lighter-as-a-makeshift-candle combo).

Sunshine was a far off notion as the rain beat down day and night, chilling us to the bone. I awoke with creepy crawlies on my pillow, inching towards my face, and the Duomo, one of your most beautiful cathedrals, was mostly obscured due to construction. What was supposed to be a blissful time in a blissful city was lackluster. Mark it as a spot of bad timing, the moment not being quite right — isn’t that always the way it happens?  — and a bit of traveler’s exhaustion, but our days didn’t feel as inspired as I had expected. I never wrote about you much here because I didn’t think I had many inspiring things to say and I didn’t want to discredit you.

I thought I had made up my mind about you, Florence. That you and I weren’t meant to be, that you were just one of those places that I didn’t hit it off with. But I have hope for you yet, as you creep into my thoughts every now and then. One day, when I do step foot on the pavement along the Arno, I hope that all of my notions of a romanticized Florence come rushing back. That the sun shines down and that the breeze feels differently.

Until then.

Sunday Snapshot: The Icefields Parkway, Alberta

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This photo, taken along the Icefield Parkway between the Rocky Mountain towns of Jasper and Banff, AB is just one of the jaw-dropping views along this stretch of mountain highway. Looking up to the center of the photo, you can see one of the Rocky Mountain’s glaciers that supply all the surrounding lakes and rivers with pure glacier water. You can fill up your water bottle for a taste of some of the purest water in the world.

The Things I’ve Done For Luck.

If you’ve traveled anywhere, I can guarantee you have been told that by touching something, swimming in a certain body of water, or doing some odd activity will bring you luck and good fortune. I was thinking about a few things I did on a recent trip to the Caribbean that was supposed to be healing for the body and it reminded me of all the things I have done since beginning my travels in 2010, some silly, some scary, and some just plain gross. So I thought I would compile a list of the moments that stand out for me in terms of doing something because it was considered lucky or “rejuvenating”.

The Gift of the Gab

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The land of the Irish is filled with stories based around luck and good fortune, leprechauns hiding their pots of gold and fairy rings that should you step inside the ring, you’ll be cursed by fairy protectors or transported to a land of supernatural beings or forced to dance until exhaustion and death (nice things, fairies, aren’t they?). But most importantly, and often boasted about, they believe in the gift of the gab. The ability to talk your way out of anything or being a smooth talker. For those of you interested in being blessed with such a gift, you can take a ride on up to a town called Blarney, just north of the city of Cork.

Here, you’ll find Blarney Castle and the famous Blarney Stone, or the Stone of Eloquence. Up the tower you climb until you get to a human-sized hole. It’s in this whole, a rough back bend down, that the Blarney Stone sits in the stone wall. At 90ft. above the concrete, I lay on my back and put my life in the hands of a grey-haired old man. With his hands gripping my calves, I leaned my upper body backwards and down into the hole, hanging on to the bars mounted on the stone wall. With a quick glance at the concrete below, I kissed the Blarney Stone and shot back up to safety.

Eternal Beauty

On the Isle of Skye, Scotland, there is a particular river that I’ve forgotten the name of. Flowing under a bridge, we pulled up beside it and sat around listening to a legend of the most beautiful girl in the village. Many, many years ago on her wedding day, this girl was riding her horse across the river when the horse lost her footing and down tumbled the bride-to-be, smashing her face on a rock with a pointed tip. A gruesome event, the poor girl had an eyeball hanging from its socket, her face mangled. No longer was she the most beautiful girl in the village. Determined to be married, she popped her eye back in place, though not well, and hid her face behind her veil. I Do’s were said but when the groom pulled back her veil to kiss the bride, he recoiled in disgust and, being the superficial man that he was, refused to marry her.

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Humiliated, the girl ran back to the river, where she met a leprechaun.. or perhaps a fairy. After hearing her story, the leprechaun told her that all she had to do was dip her face in that very river for no less than 7 seconds and she would be eternally beautiful. As you can imagine, we quickly lowered ourselves down and dunked our faces into the ice cold water and counted to 7.

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Clear Skin in Trinidad

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Many bodies of water around the world are said to have healing properties, rejuvenating qualities, etc. On a recent trip to Trinidad, we stopped at Pitch Lake, a “lake” filled with pitch. All of the major highways around the world use the asphalt from this lake and every time, the lake renews itself, filling again and again with asphalt. Black and smelling of tar, you can walk on the lake as the top layer is hardened, a slightly squishy surface. Certain areas of Pitch Lake are filled with small pools of water, some green in color, others black as Coca-Cola. Locals come to the pitch lake to bathe in one of these small pools as it’s said to aid in healing psoriasis and arthritis due to its medicinal properties.

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Another pool of water in the Pitch is said to be safe to drink a small bottle cap-full once a day as it’s said to keep the skin clear from acne. After playing in the water a little bit, two of us were brave enough to fill up our bottle caps and shot it back.

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The Sai Sin Bracelet

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Thailand has more symbols and amulets for luck than anywhere I’ve been. You ask any vendor on the street what the symbol on a ring, image, or other piece of jewelry means and they’ll tell you it’s for luck. You can often tell a backpacker in Southeast Asia by the collection of bracelets adorning their wrists and ankles, but there is one bracelet in particular that is said to give the wearer great luck. The Sai Sin bracelet. Up on Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I knelt before a monk and a shaman as he blessed the piece of white string before tying it to my wrist and was told that it would bring me luck in my travels, my health, and my prosperity. Whatever you do, don’t cut these bracelets off. Rather, they must break naturally from your wrist when the time is right. If you do cut it off, all the luck it was supposed to bring will be gone.

Three Wishes at the Trevi Fountain

On our very first night in Rome we found ourselves at the Trevi Fountain. There’s a number of legends about the fountain, which started many years ago. It’s said that originally, tossing in a coin or taking a drink from the fountain would ensure good health. Today, the Trevi Fountain has become a mecca for tourists from all over the world. We were told by a traveling family that you could make three wishes, on three different coins, of three different currencies. Swapping coins with one another, we each had three coins of different currencies and, with our backs to the fountain, tossed them in over our left shoulder, one at a time. Each coin had a different wish and, though I’m sure you’d like to know my wishes, they will forever be a secret.

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The Cursed Tomb of Alexander Stewart

Despite all the things I’ve done for luck, my reckless self also did something that is said to curse the individual for as long as they live. In the small Scottish town of Dunkeld sits a cathedral. Within that cathedral, is the resting place of the Earl of Buchan in 1812. After leaving his wife and six children, he was excommunicated and, as a result, he burned two towns to the ground. They say that anyone who touches his tomb will be cursed with bad luck for the rest of their lives. Whether this is true or not, perhaps the many things I have tried for good luck outweighs the curse. Either way, whenever I get a bout of unluckiness, particularly without explanation, I blame Alexander Stewart.

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These are just a few stories of the things I’ve done around the world in the name of luck and beauty. For more stories, you can read about swimming in Tobago’s Nylon Pool for rejuvenation, rubbed Juliet’s breast for luck in Verona, and doused myself in mud in St.Lucia for soft skin and healing properties.

Staying with a Local Host Family in St. Lucia

Traveling through the Caribbean is not cheap, especially if you’re looking for accommodation. It might be cheap by some standards, but by backpacker standards everything can be a bit pricey. There’s no $2 rooms like in Southeast Asia and virtually no hostels to be seen. We found our best bet was to look on websites like Couchsurfing.com, which we didn’t get a chance to use, and Air BnB, which we used in Tobago and St. Lucia.

Lucky for us we found an amazing host in St. Lucia, who welcomed us into her home like we were family. I had never before stayed with a local host family and wasn’t sure what to expect. My biggest fear was that it would be extremely awkward and intrusive, that we wouldn’t get along with our host, and that we would be out on the street with no place to stay. All those fears were shot down as soon as we walked through the front door to our host, Noa, in the kitchen. We were welcomed with hugs and huge smiles and we talked through the evening.

Staying with a local host was amazing and is something that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in seeing how locals live in your chosen destination. One of the main reasons we chose our host was for the great reviews left by those who had stayed with her before. Everyone had only nice words to say and her place was located in the area we were hoping for.

The house was a basic local home with all the good and bad that comes with that. In this case, it was the resident mouse and the cockroaches that thankfully kept hidden in the crack in the bathroom wall. Just extra roommates right? Noa’s home was filled with so much love and laughter that it was infectious, you could feel it in the air. There was never a dull moment with her daughter running around and their puppy to play with. We shared meals together, watched movies and sat on the porch late into the night.  Noa drove us to visit the volcano and waterfall in Soufriere, stopping at every point where we felt the need to snap a photo. She brewed us fresh herbal teas, taught us how to make cocoa tea and we kicked off one of our final nights dancing in the streets of St. Lucia’s famous Jump-Up in Gros Islet.

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As with anything, there are a few things you can do to make your stay with a local host more enjoyable. For me, the top two things you should be doing as a host are:

1. Keep the space clean and tidy. You are a guest in their home, no matter if you become friends or not. Keeping the place as clean as you left it (or cleaner!) is the nice thing to do.

2. Show your appreciation. This can be anything from cooking your host a meal, walking their dog, or even leaving them a small gift. Flowers? Maybe something from your home country?

As for everything else, follow your hosts lead. Every host will have a different personality and a different way of running their home. Some hosts may be young and loud into the night. Others may have small children that need to sleep at an early hour. Music playing in the home might be great, other might not appreciate it as much. So play it by ear and meet your host on common ground that works for you both.

Have you ever stayed with a host family? Were you the host? Share your experience in the comments below!

Gros Islet’s Famous Jump Up

A Friday night in St. Lucia is not complete without making an appearance at Gros Islet’s jump-up, the street party that has made this town famous. Once the sun sets, the town locals and all the tourists flock to the streets to celebrate another week done and another weekend beginning. Our local host, Noa, and her friend Steve had been talking about the party all week and were eager to show us a good time. Sections of town are closed off to vehicles, allowing people to eat, drink, dance and party in the streets all night long.

After stopping at the fish fry down the road for some food and Piton beer, we made our way to where the party happened, being enveloped in the loud reggae music coming from the speakers. There are a few spots on the street, each playing different versions of soca, dancehall and reggae music. Drinks in hand, we followed our ears to the sound of familiar soca beats in the center of the street and suddenly we were surrounded by more white people than I’d seen in four months.

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The street party is well-advertised to tourists. Almost everyone that we met on the beach or on the street leading up to the party was sure to mention it, getting promises from us that we would be there. So we were, and so was every other tourist in the Gros Islet area. The tourists made up the majority of the dancing until after 11pm, when tourists dwindled away and the locals moved in. After 11pm is when things get really good, with St. Lucians showing what their mamas gave them. The music got louder and the dancing never stopped, with a few talented young men busting out some choreography in the center of it all.

Rum punch is available at every corner and for those with a hungry tummy, there’s street vendors selling bbq food. If your money is burning a hole in your pocket and you like art as a souvenir, there’s quite a good guy selling handmade wood carvings and paintings just up the road. Typical me has lost his business card again but if I find the name, I’ll put it here! In the meantime, that’s him in the photo above.

If you’re looking for a unique St. Lucian experience and a great way to interact with the locals, make sure you end up at the jump-up on Friday night.

Bucket List: Volcano Mud Bath, St. Lucia

Dunking myself in warm, scratchy mud was at the top of my list when I headed to the island of St. Lucia. It might seem counterproductive to take a bath in mud, but the effects on your skin are truly amazing! Soufriere is one of the world’s only “drive-in” volcanoes, meaning exactly that. Instead of hiking up a volcano you can drive your car right up and into the volcano itself, parking the car and going by foot to get up close and personal.

The drive to Soufriere is breathtaking, with the road winding through the mountains and giving you incredible views of the Pitons. As soon as you enter the fishing town of Soufriere, you’re hit with the unmistakable scent of rotten eggs — the tell-tale sign that a sulphur spring is nearby. With our local host guiding the way, we walked up to look over the bubbling pools of volcanic mud, steam rising into the air around us.

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A few years earlier, tourists were allowed to actually walk amongst these active pools but this has been prohibited ever since an employee fell through the hollow ground, burning the majority of his body. Luckily, he survived and can now be found working in one of the many resorts on St. Lucia, safely away from hot volcanic mud.

Seeing the pools of mud bubbling up from the ground was good, but the real treat of our trip up to the volcano was obviously the mud bath. If ever there is a chance to do something weird like rubbing mud all over myself, holding boa constrictors around my neck, or taking a shot of green water from a lake full of asphalt, I’ll do it. Especially if there’s rumors of healing properties or good luck.

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So, it was off with our clothes and into the mud for us! But wait, you don’t just dive right in. First, you scoop fistfuls of mud and rub it all over your body as it seeps out between your fingers. The mud is hot to the touch but cools as you continue to a nice feeling of warmth. It’s an added natural exfoliator thanks to the bits of crushed rocks in there.

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Once you’re nice and covered, take a seat or stand and chat, laughing with strangers at how weird you look — especially those who cover their face — until the mud starts to dry on your skin and turn a lighter shade of grey. Then, despite it already being well over 30 degrees Celsius outside, you go on to lower yourself into muddy water that is about the temperature of hot tea, or around 40-45 degrees Celsius. It’s a little hot as first (as you can see by my reaction!) but you quickly get used to it.

Lounging in the water is really quite nice and super relaxing. Your muscles instantly relax and you suddenly feel a very strong urge to take a nap. As you float in the water, the mud will slowly come off your skin but you’ll want to help it out. Chances are no matter how much you scrub, you’ll discover some dried mud on yourself or caked in your hair a few hours later, even after you’ve rinsed off in the showers available.

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Once you’ve spent enough time playing in the mud, you might want to check out one of the nearby waterfalls! Who doesn’t love a good waterfall, am I right?

Tobago: The Postcard Perfect Island

I’ve got a bit of a long one for you today, so pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine, kick back and dive in.

The first thing I noticed about Tobago was the heat. The sun felt hotter and the air thicker. After the hustle and bustle of Trinidad, coming back to a small and slow-paced island was a breath of fresh air and we melted into it easily. Tobago exudes a relaxed atmosphere of island living; time moved slower, smiles were more common and everyone that passed us by were extremely friendly, always wishing us a great stay.

In true islander fashion, we spent a lot of our time baking in the sun at Pigeon Point. A $20TT admission fee, Pigeon Point is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I say this a lot, about everything. Every day is the best day ever when I’m traveling and every beach is the most beautiful beach I’ve seen, but this one truly takes the cake. Having given our fee we began the walk towards the main beach, walking through more palm trees than I have ever seen in one place.

Everywhere you look in Tobago you see a landscape that should be on a postcard. Or a painting. The beauty of it all hardly seems real — until you’re brought back to reality when the water hits your toes. The beaches are filled with palm trees and the sand is white and so soft, perfect to settle down on with your beach towel, good company and fresh local fruits.

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Like any beach in the Caribbean, you’ll encounter the men hustling for jet ski rides, banana boats, glass bottom boat trips and excursions to buccoo reef, nylon pool and dolphin watching. If you’re interested, don’t settle for the first offer. Ask around and see where you can get the best price for your experience. When the sun became too hot to stand, we cooled off in the sea, lounging in the shallows.

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Amenities at Pigeon Point close at 5pm, but beach goers are more than welcome to stay as late as they want. If you’re a lover of sunsets be sure to stay until 6pm when the sun begins to slip behind the surface, turning the sky a brilliant shades of peach.

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If you tire of the lazy beach bum life, there are a lot of activities being offered that should definitely not be missed. My only regret is not doing more tours of different parts of the island and not having an underwater camera for this entire Caribbean trip. Rookie mistake. We opted for just one tour, of buccoo reef and the nylon pool. Aboard a glass bottom boat with a roof for sun worshiping, our guides took us out to sea to buccoo reef, an easily accessible 7 square kilometer coral reef that is bursting with color.

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On the glass bottom boat you have the option of admiring the various coral and fish from inside, peering through the glass beneath you, or you can strap on a snorkel and take the plunge — I don’t have to tell you which we chose. The only downside to this tour was that you were limited in where you can snorkel, having to stay within a certain range of the boat. As we think we’re mermaids as soon as our skin hits the water, we found our guides continuously calling us in closer when we strayed too far. Once everyone had seen their fill of the buccoo reef, we hopped aboard and continued on to the nylon pool.

In the middle of the sea is the nylon pool, an unusually shallow area made up of ground white coral where the vibrant water barely reaches past your knees. The ground coral bottom makes for an excellent natural exfoliant and rumour has it that the waters have healing and rejuvenating properties that will bless anyone who swims in it (and keep you ageless!) If you really want to test the myths of the nylon pool, be sure to kiss your loved one…beneath the water! They say that a kiss underwater in the nylon pool will guarantee a marriage that lasts forever. While I can’t guarantee either of these things publicly, go ahead and test it out for yourselves and let me know if you experience any of the magic.

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Sadly the clouds rolled in just as we were having our photo taken.

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And reappeared just before leaving to show us the true brilliance of the colors!

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On Living, Learning and Leaving

Time moves at a different pace when your senses are being stimulated by all the wonders that the world has to offer. Home feels stagnant; there is a desperation to continue living a life that is elsewhere. The mystery of the earth and all that creates it pulls me from home time and time again. This time, I was pulled when I least expected it, to a place I had never dreamed of experiencing.

Uprooting in the middle of my final year of my degree, I boarded a plane and stepped out onto a Caribbean island, determined to create a life for myself during the following four months that I would call Barbados home.

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Not two hours into my arrival and my flip flops were in hand, my feet burying themselves into the white sand only five minutes from my hall of residence. It’s true that once your soul meets the sea it can never be forgotten. It took nearly thirteen years to see the vast beauty of the ocean after having been introduced to the sea in my first year of life and I believe that all that time, it was what my soul was searching for. Ever since, I am drawn to parts of the world where the waves hit the shore.

Needless to say, having the Caribbean Sea at my doorstep made me the happiest girl in the world.

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Life on the island was a simple one with sunshine that turned my hair shades of blonde, sand that found it’s way into every crevice of my belongings, and sea water that embraced us all with open arms. With rarely a frown, the only things escaping from our lips were songs, stories, and continuous laughter that can only be expelled when you’re constantly experiencing new and wondrous moments.

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Instant friends were made and together we explored the island from sunrise to sunset, never a space in between. We climbed through caves to hidden pools that looked out over the sea, we hiked through the countryside, we took our best shot at learning to whine with friends who called the Caribbean home, we mastered the bus system and we sat in circles around beach bonfires, singing songs and sharing coconuts.

I had the opportunity to spend my days working with some of the poorest people on the island with risky lifestyles. Despite going in there with the intention of creating positive change and increasing their chances for opportunity, I came out having been taught more than I ever could have imagined. I entered their community as a stranger but was quickly dubbed one of their own, a humbling feeling that I will forever be grateful for.

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Barbados began as a comparison to travel I had done in the past but I quickly realized that studying abroad could never be compared to that type of travel. I wasn’t a backpacker flitting through. I became a student and a resident and, in doing so, I was awarded all that Barbados had to offer — the good and the ugly. It wasn’t sugar coated by being hidden in the confines of a resort or a day off the cruise ship. I witnessed rugged, untouched beauty of the island, witnessed raw suffering from those who felt comfortable to share their stories, and the non-discriminatory kindness of the people.

Time moves at a different pace. Two weeks can feel like months and yet months in Barbados flew by like days.

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This has been a lesson in how I want to live my life, which direction I want to take. I lived with my entire being, every inch of my heart and soul has been put into these last five months and I have reaped the rewards. I have created a lifetime of lasting memories, conquered fears, and created friendships with people all around the world. It’s made me realize that I am at the perfect moment of my life, no longer a student and not yet tied into a career, to shape my future in any way I dream of. While it’s bittersweet to say goodbye, it has renewed my curiosity and drive to adventure, to experience the world in many ways from many places.

Pirate’s Bay, Tobago

We spent two days road-tripping around the island, getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road and slowly getting comfortable with the narrow and winding roads. From the south of the island we followed the road along the east coast with the Atlantic as our view. After stopping at Argyle Falls we headed on to Charlotteville, with a few more picture stops along the way.

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Charlotteville is a small fishing village on the north coast of the island. Colorful homes perch upon the lush mountains that surround it and groups of locals lime over Carib near the beach. A charming village with friendly people, our main reason for stopping by was to make our way to Pirate’s Bay.

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Be warned, do not try to drive there! It is much easier (and safer!) to park the car at the sign and make the walk down the narrow road. The road begins just fine but quickly transforms into a nightmare of an extremely narrow dirt road with rocks jutting out, barely enough room for once car and a terrifying drop off the cliff to the sea below.

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We realized this too late and were left with no choice but to continue on until we found a bigger spot to turn around. After safely making our way off the road (minus the scratches to the car that happened from getting too close to the rock face), we headed back the way we came on foot. At the end of the narrow road and down about 155 steps lined with palm trees, you will come out to a secluded and beautiful bay.

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Pirate’s Bay is a secluded beach nestled in the hills. While there is a rustic washroom available, there is little else in the way of amenities, so be sure to bring some water and snacks if you plan to spend the day. Because it can be difficult to reach (about 15-20 minutes walk from Charlotteville — there’s a great ice cream shop just before the road leading to the bay.. try the peanut!), we had the bay almost entirely to ourselves, with no more than a small handful of people.

If you like to snorkel there is some good underwater activity happening at the rocky area on the left hand side of the beach with lots of fishies to be seen. If you’re looking for some beach fun, there’s a tire swing hanging from a tree that we couldn’t resist! A beautiful bay with soft sand, calm water and a great landscape, it also makes for a great sunset spot.

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Sunday Snapshot: Barbados Sunset

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This photo was taken on one of my first nights on exchange, sitting on Paradise Beach with a group of new friends from around the world, excited about our new beginning on the island. Sitting on this beach watching the sunset with those friends is one of my most cherished memories from my time in Barbados. Plus, we were awarded with sunsets that look more like paintings.