hot springs eternal

There’s something about hot springs that, for me, is really special—the literal immersion of oneself into nature. I’m not much of a swimmer and I hate being cold, but the idea of just sitting in a warm pool in a magnificent natural setting is highly appealing. In the bleak of a Michigan February, I find myself pining for these places of beauty and warmth. I’m making it a point to seek out some hot springs on my next trip down south (perhaps this one, or this one when it re-opens), and am toying with the idea of a trip to Iceland, where geothermal baths are plentiful.

September 2001, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

It’s late in the evening. We’re on our way to Niigata to visit the island of Sado-Ga-Shima, famous for its gold mines and legions of feral cats. We stop off at an onsen, or traditional Japanese hot springs bath.

As with most things in Japan, there is a cultural learning curve. Bathers enter the baths nude–a personal article of clothing such as a bathing suit would be seen as unclean; sullying the water. 44-year-old post-pregnancy me would, ironically, probably be less self-conscious than my 27-year-old self was about public nudity. But thankfully, the darkness obscures us. We sit in the open air, bathed by moonlight and warmth and heady infatuation.

***

June 2010, Buena Vista, Colorado

On a blindingly sunny Saturday, M and I hook up with our old Detroit friend K, who has offered to act as tour guide that day since our host D has to work. She drives us obligingly a couple of hours out of town to Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa, with a stop for a hike at the beautiful and scenic Roxborough State Park. Despite calling itself a “spa”, which might connote something fancy, Cottonwood is a kind of funky, unfussy place where you can rent a lodge-style room or even a campsite. It makes me happy that these kinds of places are largely accessible to the general public and haven’t been overly commodified or made exclusive. Overseas, I would expect as much, since other cultures consider it more of a “right” that everyone be able to partake of a natural attraction regardless of income. But, given our American tendency to privatize and bleed every dollar we can out of tourists, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever that’s not the case.

cottonwood

***

October 2014, Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Winding through the mountains of Sao Miguel island, my best friend A and I happen to pass a sign for Caldeira Velha, a park with hot springs, and can’t resist pulling over. We don’t have a whole lot planned for this trip, other than to see where the road takes us. We park the car in a lot off the twisting road, and walk towards the park. The red dirt path pops cheerfully against the intense, saturated greens of the forest. We reach the springs, where you can actually see the water boiling up out of the ground in spots. A small waterfall flows gently over a ruddy, moss-covered rock face and into a natural pool. We don’t have bathing suits, so we roll up our jeans and sit at the edge of a smaller pool, like a large bathtub carved into the rock, submerging as much skin as we can. There’s an autumn chill in the air, providing a welcome contrast to the deliciously warm water. We sit in silence broken by the occasional birdsong or foreign chatter, and meditate on our good fortune.

IMG_2217

A couple of days later, we are in the town of Furnas, known for its hot springs and geothermal cuisine, in which pots of beef and root vegetables are stewed low and slow in the ground. This time I am prepared, having bought a cheap swimsuit in a tourist shop the day before. There are two main baths in Furnas. One is in the Terra Nostra botanical park; a huge pool of mineral-rich water the color of milky tea. The other, which we decide to try, is the Poça da Dona Beija, a series of five pools of different temperatures set amidst lush subtropical foliage. It’s dusk when we get into the water, and a fine rain mists our faces. We make small talk with a couple of young Canadians who have overheard us speaking English and who we recognize from our flight. The iron-rich water stains our nails and skin and swimsuits. We splash around, blissed out by the cool rain, hot water and the beauty of twilight fading on the verdant gardens.

a traveling life

Back when I was in my twenties and the dollar was fairly strong against the euro, I tried to get a group of friends together to go to the south of Spain. You could rent beautiful villas in the mountains with infinity pools that overlooked the ocean, huge beautiful rustic kitchens, fireplaces, and patios with outdoor stone ovens, all for about $100 per person per week. Flights were maybe around $700, and food and wine are dirt cheap there, so the whole thing could have been under a thousand bucks. But all of my friends claimed they “couldn’t afford to” go. How was it that I, who was working in a bookstore at the time making $9 an hour, had the cash to make a trip like that but no one else did?

spain landscape A traveling life (assuming you’re not independently wealthy) obviously requires you to make certain budgetary choices. I got really tired of hearing friends say things like “Oh, you’re so lucky” in regards to my various trips. Luck had nothing to do with it- it’s just about priorities. While my peers were busy racking up credit card debt shopping for clothes or going out to eat all the time, I was shopping in thrift stores and bringing my lunch from home as often as possible, then jetting off to Japan or Italy or France or the Pacific Northwest. My friend P is even more extreme than I in his dedication to experiential pursuits. He loves to drink good wine and eat good food (I consider these to also fall under the category of experiences in that they’re transient pleasures), and to that end, he forgoes owning a car, among other things. I’m not passing judgment on anyone who makes different choices than I do, but please don’t attribute my lifestyle to luck. Incidentally, science is on our side: studies have shown that people who spend money on experiences over material possessions are generally happier.

My favorite way to travel on the cheap these days is to troll Kayak’s explore function. You just put in your departure city, and it produces a map of the world with the cheapest ticket prices that people have purchased within the last 48 hours. It’s great if you don’t necessarily have a destination in mind. Detroit doesn’t always have the most attractive international fares, so one day last July I was fooling around and thought I’d put Toronto as a departure city, just to see what came up. Lo and behold, I see this little speck in the middle of the Atlantic that says “$283”. I zoom in, and discover it’s an island chain called the Azores lighthouse on the northern coast of san miguel island, azores, portugalthat are part of Portugal. Less than 24 hours later, I had convinced my friend A to join me, and we booked tickets for a week in October. My favorite part about this story is that I took a screenshot of the ticket price and posted it to Facebook, which resulted in a chain reaction of sharing, and something like 15 people ended up going to the Azores from Detroit in October and November! I’ve also seen flights to Istanbul and Marrakesh for around $500 that I had to pass up because it was bad timing with work (those places are both on the short list though for my next big trip). But the point being, if you have a flexible schedule and are open to seeing what’s out there, you can get some great deals.My latest travel purchase was a flight to New Orleans for $70 round trip. I mean, that’s less than the price of a pair of jeans. I’ll be there in just a few weeks with my business partner, who is like-minded enough that she agreed we should consider this a “business retreat” and pay for it on the company card. (It’s still my money, but at least it’ll be a tax write-off!)

I never got to rent that villa with friends in Andalusia, but I did go there in 2012 and fell head over heels in love with the region. I’m not giving up on the villa dream! It’s certainly more expensive now, but I still think deals can be had if you share a big house with 6-8 people. Alternate locations could include a seaside house in Turkey, Morocco or the south of France. Who’s in?

P.S. As of this writing, you can still get ultracheap tickets to the Azores from Toronto on Sata Airlines. Tickets for April are even cheaper than the ones I bought!