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There is no other way to put it; The Hostel in The Forest was exactly that.  A hostel, smack bang in the middle of a forest.

We pulled off US 82, and onto a divided highway, turning down a tiny dirt road that led directly into the forest.  We parked the car, and followed a dirt path, which was covered in heart-shaped patterns and peace-signs made out of leaves.  It was immediately clear to me that this was the first sign of trouble.

The short trail led us to a curious compound of raised wooden buildings and tree houses and strange, straw huts.  The architecture was unlike anything I’d ever seen; it was like I’d stepped out of our Nissan Quest and directly into Where the Wild Things Are.  The Forest was a kind of thawed-out Narnia, completely isolated from the outside world and in possession of a strange kind of magic.

We walked into the central hut and checked in, greeted by staff member “Heather”.  Soft-spoken with long red hair à la Florence Welch and bare feet, Heather was the personification of a wood nymph.  We took turns signing various waivers, marvelling at the kaleidoscopic collage of Polaroid pictures that lined the hut’s interior.  The smiling faces of members past and present adorned the walls, alongside incense and feathers and rainbow-coloured woven rugs.  It was hippie paradise.

Heather gave us a quick overview of the hostel’s ground rules and general practice, and showed us around the key communal areas. We were warned of the gong that would sound thirty minutes before the communal (vegetarian) dinner, and left to explore the rest of the environmentally-friendly site.  We wandered the confines of The Forest, which at 105 acres, felt anything but confined.  “Laundry Land” and the “Tub of Tranquillity” were my personal favourite Hostelisms, but there was also a vegetable garden, a pool with a tyre swing and a huge, glass hut used exclusively for yoga practice.

I was amazed by the variety of eco-friendly measures that The Hostel had taken to ensure that The Forest remained a “clean” self-sustaining entity.  However, while I was impressed by the grandeur of the natural beauty that surrounded me, and pleased to be participating in such a green venture, I couldn’t help but feel slightly out of my element.  A city girl at heart, and more than a little obsessive-compulsive when it comes to cleanliness, the prospect of spending the night in the middle of a forest, without flushing toilets or indoor showers, did not thrill me.  Heather’s unironic words hung in the air like an unwelcome smell.

“All our showers are Sexy Showers!”

Sucking up my pride and hygiene-related scruples, I relaxed into the rest of the day, and spent the afternoon drinking herbal tea (made from bio-degradable tea-bags) and reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem while the others played card games and table-tennis.  Dusk began to fall, and we noticed that somebody had lit the campfire outside.

Driven temporarily insane by hunger (where was the gong?), the conversation turned to animals.  Seeing as we weren’t allowed to eat them (The Hostel is an organic, vegetarian affair), we pondered what it would be like to be them, and if we were animals, which species would we each be?

Our discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the food, which looked and smelled incredible.  Home-made soup, freshly baked bread and huge, colourful salads, as well as an amazing sweet potato casserole (appropriately named Bohemian Goddess Surprise) lined the family-style dining table.

Deliriously hungry, we were more than ready to eat.  Alas, The Hostel had other plans.

We were summoned outside, and asked to join the ring of people around the campfire.  A group of about fifty people were standing in a circle, joining hands.

It was time to say grace.

Every single person in the circle was expected to disclose their name, where they hailed from and what they were thankful for.  We quickly realised that this wasn’t a joke, as the people around us described what they were thankful for in painstaking detail.  What might have been a sweet exercise in gratitude was comical, full of cult-like weirdness and bizarre, deadpan, possibly drug-fuelled declarations of thanks.

“I’m from the land of lunar dust, and lost lovers’ lust.  I’m thankful for the pixies, and the fairies, and all of the other magical creatures that live in this wonderful forest.”

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

I struggled to stifle my laughter when Megan announced that she was thankful for hot showers, and aeroplanes, her straight-faced delivery making it all the more hilarious.  The Circle of Thanks was eventually completed, and we finally sat down to eat our much-anticipated vegetarian feast, a welcome change from the many burgers of the days before.

We spent the evening hanging out in one of the common areas, playing Trivial Pursuit while Ciarán strummed a broken guitar.  Mobile phones and laptop computers were banned.  We relished the enforced electrical items ban, listening, wide-eyed, as our new friends “Parish” and “Sage” told us about how they’d dropped out of school and were really “living”.  Hearing the boys talk about their experiences of lo-fi living was intriguing, alien, and straight out of the mouth of Christopher McCandless (although we all know how his life turned out).  If I wanted the road trip to feel like a film, this was surely one of the most memorable scenes.

We groped our way through the darkness, and back to our tree-house.  Megan and I winced at the mention of bugs, trying our hardest not to think about the many cockroaches crawling the forest floor.  The walls that lined our room were wire-mesh screens, protecting us from The Forest’s wildlife (including, but not limited to wild chickens).  Unfortunately, they did nothing to combat my genuine fear that Bob from Twin Peaks was lurking in the shadows somewhere nearby.

In the morning, Clare collected blueberries from a wild patch, and made blueberry pancakes for breakfast.  Sunshine, pancakes and the best coffee outside of New York; breakfast in The Forest was nothing short of perfect.  After clearing up, we walked down to The Forest’s resident lake.  I sat on a wooden swing and looked out at the untouched expanse of water, soaking up the gorgeous natural scenery.

Weird and wonderful in every way, The Hostel in The Forest was one of my favourite East Coast pit-stops.  But, of course, most of the best things in life have an expiry date, and so we jumped in the car and hit the road once again, turning our back on the David Lynch-esque cult that sooner or later, would surely have tried to steal our souls.

*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

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Universal Studios is where our adventure begins.

To prove it, please see the above photo of my delightfully deadpan Aussie bestie, Megan, standing beneath Orlando’s fervent proclamation that Universal’s Islands of Adventure® Theme Park is in fact, where *the* adventure begins.

The Islands of Adventure side of the park is home to a vast expanse of famous rides like The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (love Universal’s unabashed use of superlatives in the names of their rides) and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, but let’s be real, I was there for one reason and one reason only.   Yep, you guessed it.

THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER.

Those who know me are well aware of my mild-to-moderate love for the franchise.  And by mild-to-moderate love, I mean burning, passionate, undying obsession.

As we stepped into fake Hogsmeade, we were transported, quite literally into an incredibly realistic and detailed reconstruction of J.K. Rowling’s fictional town.  Never mind the fake snow, incongruous with the twenty-eight degree Florida weather, WE WERE IN HOGSMEADE.  Naturally, this reduced my mental age to that of a seven year-old, and I ran around squealing, fawning over the chocolate frogs in Honeydukes, clapping animatedly at the puking pastilles in Zonko’s Joke Shop, overawed by the huge barrels labelled Butterbeer that lined the streets.

“YOU GUYS, THIS IS LITERALLY THE BEST THING EVER!”

I shouted, unable to contain my excitement.  After five minutes of me running around like a headless chicken, my friends and I headed to Hogwarts, to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  My roommate had visited the park over Spring Break, and assured me that my mind was going to be blown.

We stowed our bags and joined the short queue, wide-eyed as we made our way through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, the Astronomy tower, Dumbledore’s office and a room in the castle’s ‘dungeons’, which I recognized as a perfect reconstruction of the notorious Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom.  We wandered the moving portrait-covered walls and stood in awe as hologram-versions of Harry, Ron and Hermione chatted to us.  These holograms were not unlike the TuPac hologram at Coachella.  And would you believe it, this was all before the ride had even started!

I don’t want to spoil the fun of the ride itself, as it was the surprise element that made it, for lack of a better word, truly magical.  What I will tell you is that the moving cart coupled with 3D simulation and incredible set-pieces worked together to create the best ride I’ve ever been.  Even Harry Potter naysayers like Megan and Ciarán were awed by the experience, and desperate to do it all again!

While I would normally abhor the pervasive consumerism that American institutions such as Universal inflicts upon its visiting public, I couldn’t help but love the plethora of Harry Potter-related rubbish.  We were all sucked in by the sheer novelty of it all; I ended up buying a Marauder’s Map mug (which sadly, didn’t make it all the way to San Francisco and back in one piece), Clare a Deathly Hallows keychain and Megan Dumbledore’s hat (albeit for a friend).  Satisfied with our purchases, we made our way around the rest of the park, riding literally every ride on offer, and stopping frequently to reapply sunscreen and refill our water bottles like the responsible adults that we were.

It being early May, we were able to enjoy the glorious Florida heat without any of the peak-season queues.  We rode rides like the Dragon Challenge, The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man multiple times, drank frozen Butterbeer in The Hog’s Head and giggled as 23 year-old Swedish friend Carl visited an arcade for the first time in his life.

The girls maintain to this day that the only ride that disappointed was Poseidon’s Fury, “a spectacular, special effects-laden interactive show that makes excellent use of water projection screens, fire pyrotechnics and water effects”.  As it turns out, Poseidon’s Fury was a crowded walking tour of a fake temple, with some really terrible acting.  I didn’t think it was that bad.  It was fun!

In fact, the only real low point in the day was being subjected to forty minutes of the most irritating music in the universe as we queued for Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls; in short, it was magical.

However, the magic seemed to end where the park did; the moment we stepped beyond the bounds of the Universal lot, we found ourselves caught in a typical, tropical Floridian rainstorm.

I didn’t mind.

Tiny brown lizards whizzed across the shiny, rain-soaked pavements, before the rain eventually cleared to make way for a balmy summer’s evening.  We sat in our hotel room, cross-legged and slightly damp, drinking red wine out of polystyrene cups and eating take-out from a nearby Thai restaurant (the first of many Yelp finds!).

Surrounded by five of my best friends, I couldn’t help but already feel oddly wistful.  I was nostalgic for something that hadn’t ended yet, for something that had barely even begun.

*Photographs by Clare Anderson.