Sole Searching – A Runner’s Take On Cultural Immersion or How to Eat Dessert While on Holiday

Finish Line!

“The trouble with jogging is that the ice falls out of your glass.” ~Martin Mull

The moment I pack my suitcase for a journey, I am perfectly resigned about two things.  One – that I will not deprive myself of any gastronomic delight or opportunity to drink champagne while watching a sunset (or sunrise).  And two, possibly in response to one, I will pack my running shoes.

Beyond the obvious physical benefits, running in the morning while on holiday allows me to profoundly experience the soul of a place – through my soles, as it were.  Running through the streets before the sun has even risen is such a pure and intimate moment.  I gain more understanding of the local culture in this hour then often, in the entire journey.

But most certainly, the memorable upside of this cardio-excursion is the frequency of moments when you think to yourself, “If I hadn’t run, I wouldn’t have seen…”

…the elephant walking in the middle of a crowded boulevard in Phnom Penh on her way to her morning ablutions…

…the drag queens precipitously walking home from the all-night Mardi Gras party in Sydney, heels broken, make-up running and feather boas looking listless and slightly anemic…

…the street vendors shuffling their carts over the cobblestone streets in Florence, while the mist over the Arno gives way to streaks of salmon, pink and orange …

…the sound of the waves gently pounding the beach in Sayulita as surfers wade into the water, half-asleep yet ever-hopeful that today they will catch the perfect wave…

…the  elders, with their colorful umbrellas and spry joints practicing tai-chi in a small, peaceful park in the middle of Hong Kong.

Perhaps it’s the attainment of that elusive, thoroughly-addictive, mind-altering endorphin rush that contributes to the feeling of perfect peace that envelopes me when I run.  When on foreign soil, this experience can be transcendental, heightening my senses and connecting me to a culture in ways I never thought possible.  And on a more secular note, when I run while on holiday, I get to eat cheese.  And bread.  And dessert.

Following are 6 of my favorite routes that bring me eternal joy (and stronger legs) each and every time I have the opportunity to run them.

1. Hong Kong – Mid-levels/Victoria Peak

Lugard Road, Victoria Peak

If you’re in shape, good for you.  Run up to the top of Victoria Peak via the Old Peak Road.  Otherwise, do what I do, and take the funicular to the top.

At the top, take Lugard Road, the oh-so narrow road that circles the peak.  The homes are spectacular, nearly rivaling the panoramic view of the Harbour.  The jungle feel and dense foliage create an enchanted atmosphere in the early morning, with the fog firmly settled in.  What I didn’t expect, and I think those who haven’t been to Hong Kong wouldn’t expect as well, is that in stark contrast to the chaos that is Hong Kong, the back side of the island is dense forest as far as the eye can see.  It is this paradox – bustle and soul, that grabs you and for me, makes Hong Kong spectacular and totally unexpected.

Head back down the Old Peak Road, where you will pass some grand old Colonial homes in various states of disrepair, as if lost in time and taken over by jungle.   Head into  Soho (in this case, South of Hollywood), and stop for a coffee at any number of delightful cafes on Staunton Street. 

Tip: When running down through Mid-Levels, its a kick to get onto the escalator, which looks like a habitrail, on its morning one-way-only route down into town.

Tip #2:  DO eat at The Peak Lookout restaurant on Victoria Peak.  The ambiance is romantic – tables set outside on the deck, trees festooned with fairy lights – Sinatra playing quietly in the background.  You will seriously wonder what year it is.  And when the fog begins to creep in around 9:00 PM, it is absolute magic.


2.  Sydney

When I found myself frequently questioning the Gods as to why I had jumped ship from my normal life in L.A. and regrouped in Australia…when the fear and anxiety threatened to send me into yet another panic attack of titanic proportions, I would put on my running shoes and head to the Botanical Gardens.  If it weren’t for this spot and for Crowded House, my constant and singular musical companions, I’m not sure I would have made it.

I like to start the run  just under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Run through the Rocks towards Circular Quay.  Follow the Quay to the Opera House and then into the Botanical Gardens – follow the path to Mrs Macquarie’s chair carved into a block of stone.  This is where she used to sit, admiring the view  and waiting waiting waiting for her husband, Governor Macquarie to return from sea.  This is a very special place for me – religious, really.  Sometimes I would have to wait for people to enjoy it before I could take my turn to sit.  But I always sat, willing Elizabeth Macquarie’s spirit to protect me and guide me through a difficult time.  I have no doubt she did.

Continue back through the Botanical Gardens (stop to smell the roses!) to Macquarie street, past the Parliament House of NSW, then into Hyde Park, up Oxford Street to Centennial Park, where you could get lost for days.  Run back, or better yet, wander around Woollahra and Paddington and head to the Elephant Bar at the Royal Hotel in Five Ways and have a glass of Veuve.

Tip:   If you time it for a Saturday, you may catch the famous Paddington Market on Oxford Street.  Great art, clothes, decorative things, leather goods – I have found many unusual goodies here.

3. Santa Monica


So many great places to run in this area.  Along the beach past the Venice Boardwalk to the Marina.  Along Ocean Avenue, with its palm trees and gorgeous ocean views.  We all have our favorite routes.  I’m partial to running along San Vicente Blvd, probably because I grew up in Brentwood, and have run this street to the beach, with its grassy median, all of my life.  Alone, with friends, with my dogs, with one of my mom’s husbands (#2) and of late, with my AIDS group in training for the Florence marathon.  An added bonus, if you take it all the way to Ocean Ave and hang a right on Adelaide, you can have the distinct yet painful pleasure (no pain no gain) of doing the famous “stairs” that descend the hill to West Channel Rd.  Your glutes will thank you.  Tip: If you take San Vicente back into town from the beach, stop at the famous red Brentwood Country Mart on the corner of 26th and San Vicente.  When you go through the doors, you’ll come into an interior patio with a wood burning fire pit that has been there as long as I have been around. (It’s old!)  They still do a mean cheeseburger and you can eat around the fire pit.  Divine!


4. St Barths

OK – THIS is a tricky one, and not for the inexperienced runner.  St Barths is Hilly with a capital H.  H-squared, really, if you count Heat.  Not to mention the fact that the roads are narrow, windy and steep – a calamitous scenario for drivers, let alone those of us trying to get some exercise while along side of them.   My cousin Doug has sussed out the best running route (bearing in mind the island is only 8 square miles).  He starts at Anse de Gran Saline and heads inland, where there is only a little grade and more importantly, a larger road with grass alongside.   This gently slopes up as you come to the fork in the road, where you veer left towards Lorient. Hit the beach in Lorient, turn around and head back to Saline, where you can have an amazing breakfast at Le Grain de Sel.  Honestly, this is about the only place I can think of, other than past Toiny along Grand Fond, that is relatively flat and where you don’t risk getting taken out by a Suzuki Jimny driven by a tourist with a death wish. 

Tip #1:  Run in the morning – it can get really baking hot otherwise.

Tip #2:  If one wanted to finish one’s run at Anse de Gran Saline and one were of the mind to take a quick swim in that glorious ocean in the buff, one could do so here.  Of course, I couldn’t comment on that.

5. Phnom Penh


The key here is to get up really early to do this run – around 5:30 AM,  so that you can end up along the river  in time to see Sambo on her way to or from her morning ablutions.  It’s quite a sight.  We stayed at the Pavilion Hotel (only place to stay – hands down), so I would start from those welcoming gates, hang a left to Street 240, make a right and head down to the river.   Definitely do a quick circle around Wat Batum where you can see the Achy Breaky Dance Group doing their best Billy Rae Cyrus routine, totally bizarre in every way.  Head north (er, west) via Sisowith Quay, past the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, past the FCC, and take a left and head back up into town.  Get back to the hotel, jump into the pool and then stake your table around the pool for what is one of the best breakfasts ever.

Tip:  While running Street 240, stop to window shop at Jasmine Boutique – you will lose your mind.  Unbelievably gorgeous silk clothes with a contemporary point of view.


6.  Firenze

Having successfully completed a marathon in this fair city, I can say without hesitation that I did not like running in this otherwise agreeable town.  Cobblestones, quite frankly, are hell on the ankles.   Still, a route along the Arno on the Lungarno Corsini from the Palazzo Corsini past the Ponte Vecchio up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, with the most amazing view of the city, is not too taxing, and completely worth the journey.  Heaven. 

Tip:  Don’t even try to run in town around the Piazza della Signoria or the Palazzo Vecchio. If the cobblestones don’t kill you, trying to weave your way through the throngs of tourist will.  Not worth it!

Happy trails!

2 comments for “Sole Searching – A Runner’s Take On Cultural Immersion or How to Eat Dessert While on Holiday

  1. January 18, 2010 at 7:35 am

    What fun to read, I feel like I have done my training for the day AND been on several wonderful trips. History on the Country Mart, it was built by the same man who had just finished our house on 411 Bristol in 1948. He was a friend of mother’s from LA high school, I am sure his name will come to me in a minute, and I used to ride my bike down there to watch it being built. As I was born in ’43 I was not very old but times were different then and I would go off on my bike everywhere at 5 and 6 years old. Sandy, who owned the bakery, had a bench made for me so that I could watch them bake the goodies thru that big window that is in the market section. Used to buy my Little Lulu comics from the little book store and your Mom would take me there for the cheese burgers when she was baby sitting me. (rather then cook) and we would either take them home or eat there by the fire. BIG part of my childhood! Fun to hear about it.

    Jules xxx

  2. Mom
    January 30, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Oh yes – the Brentwood Mart – great big and all painted red. I was there the first day it opened, sometime in ’49, I think. The ice cream cones were the BEST (and probably still are). I will have to go and check it out when I am up there again. Wonderful memories.


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