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The real scoop on the island that is supposed to be the next Tulum, where to stay in Palermo and our recs for Bali, plus a transportive Japanese cookbook we can’t wait to try
I can’t believe we are at our 50th Bric-a-Brac, and almost at the two-year birthday for this newsletter. Thank you for being a part of our travel community, and for sharing it with your friends. We’ve been working on our next batch of Black Books—coming up we’ll be sharing Amsterdam, Egypt, Asheville, a 2023 update to our Rome Black Book, and of course, our Bric-a-Bracs. This summer we’ll return to Postcards, where we’ll share notes from our friends and contributors from wherever they are exploring, near and far. Let us know where you’re heading, where you’re needing intel on.
Most recent update (to Palermo suggestions) May 24, 2023
JUST BACK FROM…Holbox
By Brooks Reitz
I recently returned from a 4-day trip to Holbox, Mexico, where my younger brother was getting married. He and his now wife had been twice before and fell in love with the place; wanting to share it with friends and family, they organized a special weekend for 30 or so guests. It was a memorable occasion and made for a sweet visit.
I'd read about Holbox in the past—many years ago—when GQ magazine highlighted it as "the better Cancun" and Vogue called it "the new Tulum." Any time this sort of glowing, hyperbolic coverage starts to proliferate I go into skeptical mode, but I did catalog it as a potential place to explore for the future.
Getting to Holbox means a flight to Cancun (maybe my least favorite airport in the world—it's like one big Margaritaville and immigration is quite the shitshow), followed by a two-hour shuttle to a small village on the coast, and then a 20-minute ferry across the way to the island of Holbox. It isn't great for the amateur traveler, and I wouldn't recommend the journey for young kids. It was, however, great to see so many small villages on the way to the ferry, a slice of everyday Mexican life that I hadn't seen before.
Holbox itself is very interesting. There is a bit of a dichotomy, having been billed as a sort of eco-tourism destination. What exists is more of an island struggling with the influx of visitors (this place is NOT undiscovered) and trying to manage their impact. With heavy tourism comes the potential for jobs and prosperity, but also complicates things like trash, wastewater management and over-building concerns. One stroll outside of the main streets told a different story than the one being told at the beach. I got the sense that this was once a special, unique destination that is perhaps challenged under the weight of its growing popularity.
The general feeling I got on the island was more of a party vibe—think beachfront restaurants playing house music, LOTS of bars, and many young travelers in their twenties looking for a good time. It had more of a hostel/backpacker vibe overall—a place I would have loved in my younger days, but it felt a bit too much like a spring break destination. Like Panama City Beach with a lot more charm (and dirt roads).
For all these reasons, I can't say I would rush to return to Holbox, but I was so happy I did get to experience it, and there were many highlights from our 4-day visit.
We stayed at the lovely Ser Casasandra. The hotel is on the beach, up the road from the main concentration of bars and restaurants. It definitely felt like a grown-up respite compared to the energy of the more trafficked areas. The grounds were impeccable with a gorgeous pool, lots of outdoor dining options, a great beachside bar and a serene, elegant vibe. The rooms were spacious and restrained, and the owner’s personal art collection was scattered throughout the rooms and public spaces.
The staff and the food at Casasandra were top notch. The team had a warm, gracious energy during our stay, and seemed genuinely enthused to be there. We connected with several of them, as it was a small team and we saw many of the same faces each day. The food on the property was stellar. We ate ceviche verde each day (which you can read more about in my own newsletter) and drank their house cucumber drink each afternoon.
The food was so fresh and nourishing that it put both my wife and me on a wellness track for the weekend—not easy to do at a wedding. We started each day with a jog around the small island, followed by breakfast on the spacious, sand-floored patio, and then a yoga class taught at the hotel. Miraculously we left the property feeling better than we arrived. A rare feat, considering beach vacations are usually punctuated by too many margaritas, for us at least.
The hotel offered free bikes to guests, but I preferred to venture out on foot. Walking the dirt roads of Holbox is an adventure, as most folks are whizzing by on dirt bikes or golf carts. The main tourist areas can be a bit hectic, with bar after bar competing for customers with music, lots of signage and open-air service. The real highlight was exploring back streets and turning down smaller roads to catch a glimpse of the local businesses serving the residents of the island. Several fresh tortillerias were dotted throughout, as well as your typical shops like hardware stores, pharmacies and convenience stores. These kinds of places often tell the story of a place, and I love to duck my head in and have a look around.
Most of our events were held at the hotel, but I did have the chance to have some drinks at the beachfront restaurant and bar Mandarina, which belongs to the adjacent hotel, Casa Las Tortugas. Sadly the hotel suffered a fire last year and is currently rebuilding. The bartenders at Mandarina were easily on par with the best barmen in NYC, and drinking here was a highlight of the trip. My favorite cocktail was a fresh and bright mix of tequila, falernum, lime and cucumber. An easy summer cocktail worth replicating at home. The food was all being cooked open air over a wood burning grill—fresh fish, lots of vegetables—everything looked beautiful.
We had a great dinner nearby at another open air restaurant called Luuma, just off the beach. While the food leaned a bit more composed/gastronomic (a style I don't usually favor), everything was so lovely, and again—the staff was exceptional.
Most of our days were spent between the hotel pool and the beach out front, a rare treat as we were traveling without our son. While the beachfront bar was a highlight, the beaches of Holbox themselves fall short. We had returned not long ago from a trip to Harbour Island, where the beaches are arguably among the best in the world. Holbox, unfortunately, sits in an area where it catches a huge swath of sargassum that blankets the beaches where the water meets the land. As it bakes in the sun it can throw off a lot of aroma, and areas of the water become impenetrable.
As with so many places, the photos of Holbox only tell part of the story. For any traveler who loves a challenge and a sense of discovery, I still think it holds a lot of charm. It is incredibly unique, and at times feels like stepping back into time. I think some visitors may find the payoff is not worth the effort, but if you understand where you're going and what to expect, there are many ways that Holbox can still deliver an incredible stay. I know it has many fans, and judging by the energy in the streets, its popularity shows no signs of waning.
We were excited to hear about Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s new book, Japan: The Vegetarian Cookbook (Phaidon)—a follow-up to her beloved Japan: The Cookbook, whose beautiful, bamboo-effect cover has become something of a signifier in the kitchens of the black-belt home cook. A Californian who married a Japanese farmer and has lived in the countryside of Saitama prefecture since 1988, she’s gained a devoted following for her explorations of authentic Japanese regional cuisine—a revelation, our friend Pilar says, “because our sense of Japanese food is so limited to sushi, tempura, and teppanyaki, while rustic Japanese food, which relies on hyper-local foraged ingredients, has yet to make its way to the US.”
Seasonal ingredients are everything in Japan: The Vegetarian Cookbook, which draws on the tradition of “devotional cuisine” or temple food, which is vegetarian because: Buddhism. The recipes are divided by cooking style—dressed, vinegared, deep-fried, simmered, steamed, stir-fried, grilled, pickled, and sweet—while ethereal photos of Miso-Pickled Broccoli Stems, Agedashi Tofu on Silky Enoki and Steamed Turnip Clouds stretch the imagination on what we might be capable of pulling off on a Thursday night. Being more yellow belts ourselves, we asked our friend Lucinda Scala Quinn (who oversaw Martha Stewart’s food department during our era there and now runs Mad Hungry) to demystify the Hachisu effect, now a trilogy. “Her Japanese Farmhouse Cookbook taught me rustic country cooking from her family recipes,” she wrote, “and Japan: The Cookbook tackled a huge subject with simplicity and grace. Her new book will surely start me on a new yearslong practice in the ways of Japanese vegetarian cooking. Nancy’s work is a must for cooks who desire to make real Japanese food for themselves in their own home kitchens.” We’ll sharpen our gyutos and give it a shot!
When I first received my Away carry-on, I was surprised to find a Magic Eraser tucked in one of the pockets. This unassuming little sponge has turned out to be a game-changer, helping me keep my suitcase looking polished and pristine no matter where my travels take me. It's been tossed around on planes, trains and ferries for years, and still looks good as new with the occasional buffing of scuffs and scratches. Since the Magic Eraser essentially lives in my suitcase, I’ve come to realize it’s kind of a hero product: I’ve used it to breathe new life into a pair of white sneakers, polish jewelry, and even remove smoke stains on white walls from lighting candles. And it takes up absolutely zero space. —Carly Shea, YOLO social media editor
YOU ASKED FOR IT
“Any thoughts on where to stay in Palermo?”
Our friend, the great photographer Andrea Gentl, booked a last-minute trip to Sicily, and, since I had just recently asked my friends the same question on her behalf—and their answers were in three different WhatsApp messages—I thought I’d share them here!
Palazzo Planeta, Palazzo Natoli, Quintocanto, Bastione Spasimo, Palazzo Arone, Palazzo Sovrana, (via Alessandro Grassi), Butera 28, Palazzo Valentino, BB22, Villa Igiea (via Maria Shollenbarger), Grand Hotel et des Palmes (new) and Villa Tasca (via Emily Fitzroy), Villa Masetta via Pretty Hotels, La Bella Palermo via In Hand
“I’m trying to find some recommendations for Bali. Thank you!”
I’m not a total authority on this, but I have opinions—and a few recommendations. I visited a couple of years before the pandemic to report a story during a very crowded August (Aussies’ winter break!). The traffic on this island is real. Like, more than an hour to drive a couple of miles real—the roads are single or double lane (many lined by very old stone houses and temples that can’t and shouldn’t be moved) and are unable accommodate the large tour buses and vans that have been clogging this very special Indonesian island in a post-Eat Pray Love world. (The only reasonable way to get around is by motorbike, and you can rent them cheaply all over.) Then during the year-plus-long travel standstill (longer for Asian travelers, who make up a good percentage of visitors), I watched as a few Instagrammers still on the island showed it appearing to re-emerge as the lush, spiritually charged playground of the gods that it was always reputed to be. I gather that the crowds are not wholly back yet, but probably close, so this may be your time to go.
And yet…the second thing I always say to people about Bali after “Do you really want to fly halfway around the world to sit in a traffic jam?” is, “Are you looking for the beach of your dreams? Because that is probably not Bali.” For the most part, the beaches in the accessible areas are small and the water strong (great for surfing), the sand is dark, and many of the beaches in the south are strewn with garbage, or at least used to be (the island finally banned single-use plastic a couple of years ago). That said, I didn’t go very far into the much more pristine north of the island, which, due to its remoteness and inaccessibility, has managed to remain that lush, wild, waterfall-filled, empty-beach-cove paradise you’ve been picturing. (More on the north in a minute.) And yet with all those caveats, I did still find Bali to be an incredibly unique place, particularly for some innovative expat creatives and its thriving, well-preserved traditional culture (who practice a unique mix of Hinduism and Buddhism—colorful ceremonies spill out into the street all over), whose kindness and customs make Bali one of the most soulful and benevolent places I’ve ever experienced. But holy hell, the traffic!
The majority of tourism in Bali is in the bottom third (the island is shaped kind of like a broccoli floret, so picture the stalk), which is where Denpasar airport is. After a long flight, I’d recommend staying a day or so in Seminyak to get your bearings, rather than hopping back in a car for a couple of hours. This was reputedly a fun hippie town until it became freighted with big hotels and schlocky shops, but there are a couple of cool places worth stopping at. The Potato Head Family, a group of eco-minded, innovation-focused hotels owned by Ron Akili, has carved out a kind of creative village with beach clubs, shops, restaurants and boutique hotels that have merged into Desa Potato Head. I stayed in the Katamama rooms, a tropical brutalist building made out of bricks hand-packed in a local mountain village and filled with mid century-modern furniture and tons of original artwork. Everything in it is made on-island, down to the handmade staff uniforms resembling traditional fishermens’ outfits that I loved so much, I bought one.
From Seminyak, you could go down to Uluwatu at the island’s southern tip for some of the best surfing beaches (there’s a Six Senses here with unbelievable cliff-overhanging views of the ocean and just a few minutes from the photogenic but touristy Uluwatu temple), but it’s such a pain to get down here (traffic!) that I’d honestly recommend you start heading north.
About 30 (or 60) minutes up the coast is Canggu, a beach town in the rice paddies, which a few years ago became a low-key bohemian enclave, the Venice Beach of Bali, with all-day coffee and juice shops, upscale boutiques, co-working spaces, restaurants and yoga shalas (until it, too, became a bit overrun; it was well on its way pre-pandemic). There’s a cute little design hotel called The Slow—think concrete floors, Nakashima tables—each of 4 suites with a tiny pool. There’s also a COMO here with a beach club and a good surf school (very well placed, but bland rooms). Personally, I loved the 25-year-old Hotel Tugu Bali, whose Indonesian owner has filled it with his personal collection of antiques, art and family heirlooms, including a two-story wooden temple roof in the lobby. (There’s a lovely pool and lawn that used to be beachfront until another beach club went up in front of it.) There are so many food options, but make sure you get to Crate Café for brunch for put-an-egg-on-it style health bowls piled with the freshest vegetables. And I took a good yoga class at The Practice. For a bit less of a scene than Canggu, I’d recommend looking up the coast a little farther to the quieter beachside, rice-paddy-surrounded area of Tabanan, which is what Canggu was a decade ago. The Ulaman eco-resort looks pretty nice.
Then of course there’s Ubud, Bali’s spiritual heart, set in the forest an hour northeast of Canggu. In this area there are a few good places to stay. The Bill Bensley–designed Capella Ubud is a kind of theatrical rendition of a 19th-century explorer’s camp with safari-style tent rooms surrounded by forest. And while I normally don’t recommend Four Seasons because they so often feel like cookie-cutter luxury, this one, FS Sayan, is genuinely special, both for its architecture (a huge round raised terrace overlooking the jungle and river and hidden villas with lily-covered ponds on the roof) and its wellness program (be sure to take a “sacred nap” if you can!). There’s also a kind of stunning and much-photographed Hoshinoya up here. But my absolute favorite is Bambu Indah, John and Cynthia Hardy’s ecological wonderland by the river, with its antique Javanese wooden houses and soaring bamboo buildings (by John’s daughter Elora Hardy), plus a meditation pod that swings out over the river by pulley. While you’re in Ubud, try to arrange a tour of The Green School, also created by the Hardys (John is the founder of the eponymous jewelry brand, still made in Bali), an incredible, forward-thinking institution where kids study recycling and regenerative farming and many of the buildings are also massive sustainable bamboo structures by Elora Hardy. Also worth booking ahead: a meal at Locavore for a flight of small hyperlocal, ingredient-driven dishes (the site says it is reopening in a new incarnation this summer); their sister restaurant, Nusantara, is also excellent and more casual (you may not even need a rez) with a similar focus on local ingredients and reviving regional recipes. They also have a very fun bar, Night Rooster. I also liked Hujan Locale for modern Indonesian, and definitely ask around for the authentic and hard-to-find Nasi Ayam Betutu Pak Sanur, a four-table traditional nasi campur shop (Bali’s signature dish), with an incredible “chicken cooked five ways.”
If you want a wellness immersion, there are lots of inexpensive wellness boutique hotels around here that you can easily Google. But if you’re splurging on a program, COMO Shambhala Estate is in a beautiful old moss-covered stone estate by the river with super private rooms, excellent spa-type food and a rigorous Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine regimen. For day-dabblers, there are several local healers that people talk about—“the woman who spits into your eyes” or “the palm reader with the long fingernails.” I had an incredible energy session with a healer named Djik Dewa—I can’t find his WhatsApp anymore, but if he’s still around, someone at your hotel will probably know where to track him down, along with other great word-of-mouth referrals. Our social media manager Carly stayed at the COMO Uma Ubud which she says is a great midrange option if you want to dabble in wellness but can’t swing the Shambhala. “Their simpler rooms (sans private koi pond) start around $200/night, though they do have villas with infinity pools looking out to the jungle if you’re looking to spend a bit more. I loved the guided morning walks through rice paddies and yoga classes in their open air pavilion which are challenging but approachable whether you’re an experienced yogi or have no idea what an ujjayi breath is (I didn’t)!” Also try a Balinese water healing ritual, or melukat, at Tirta Empul Temple in Gianyar, where you stand prayerfully in front of several waterspouts that channel water from the surrounding mountains.
These volcanic mountains and waterfalls hidden within them are Bali’s natural treasures, and, yes, worth flying halfway around the world for. Sadly, I didn’t have time to make it up here outside of a day trip to some temples. But our contributor Nanda Haensel wrote about northern Bali for Yolo’s recent wellness issue (“The Cure”) and shared these recs:
“A little north of Ubud, Stone House is a superb B&B ensconced in greenery that brilliantly evokes the mood of village life between paddy and jungle. In Munduk Mountain Valley, there’s Sanak Retreat, a group of small family-run wooden bungalows surrounded by rice fields, tropical foliage and mountain peaks. It feels like an older Indonesia, Bali from an earlier time, before the surfers and spiritual pilgrims discovered it. Beyond it, there’s Vila Manuk. You get here via small roads that run through traditional villages of stone compounds. This upland region of Buleleng Regency harbors some of the most magnificent waterfalls on the island, known for their mystical healing powers, including Sekumpul Falls, which thunders down from a height of 275 feet, alongside six or seven narrow cascades within a lush bamboo-forested valley.”
So maybe I will try to get back there again someday, now that I know what to avoid.
—Alex Postman, YOLO deputy editor