Travel

Winston Churchill slept here: Taking Baffin’s Trail 2 Rapids for a tropical test dive in Jamaica

  • Dec 30, 2014
  • 1,208 words
  • 5 minutes
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Lots of people collect souvenirs when they travel – and while I concede that I have a cupboard full of coffee mugs purchased at museum gift shops from London’s British Museum to central Nebraska’s Hastings Museum — I’ve always valued experiences over physical goods, and my favourite travel collection isn’t something I get to take home with me.

I collect places where Winston Churchill slept. It is, admittedly, a bizarre thing to collect. You might assume this collection of experiences is born of some abiding fascination with a man who had the guile and eloquence to rally British during the country’s darkest hour. It isn’t.

Churchill may have been crucial in stopping Hitler, but he also supported apartheid in South Africa, so his legacy leaves me a little conflicted. Lucky for me, my collection of places where Sir Winston slept isn’t borne out of respect; it isn’t really even a conscious decision.

It started about 10 years ago at the Mena House hotel in Cairo, a converted hunting palace where Egyptian ruler Ismai’l Pasha hunted antelope (and anything else he could shoot) in the late 19th Century. When you rule a country, you get your choice of its real estate, and the Mena House sits quite literally in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

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I’d just checked in, and I was exploring the hallways, as I always do in a new hotel. I peered into a door that staff had left open — accidentally, I’m pretty sure – and for the first time caught a glimpse of a Winston Churchill-worthy suite.

My eyes were wide, pupils dilating at the elegance of the Churchill-ized space. The Great Pyramid peeked through windows — perfectly framed — its silhouette reflecting off of the rich mahogany tones of the desk where the prime minister once pondered how the Allies could overcome the strategies of the legendary German tactician Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, aka The Desert Fox. The midday sun danced through the mashrabiyya shutters; light and shadows swayed rhythmically on the brass-plated, half-moon headboard. I glanced in every direction. I was all alone.

Quietly, I closed the door behind me, crept across the room, and curled up on Churchill’s bed. For 15 glorious minutes — maybe even 20 – I dozed away peacefully, with pleasant sunshine warming my face. Then the Mena House cleaning staff started screaming at me in Arabic, something about it not being my room, and my having to leave the premises immediately. But no matter, I didn’t get arrested that day.

Best. Power. Nap. Ever.

Thus began my addiction to places where Winston Churchill has slept. Usually sneaking into them yields the threat of a trespassing charge at minimum, and almost always they’re on the pricey side, but universally, they are memorable. Say what you will about his scowl or his cigars, the man had a great sense of where to sleep.

My most recent Churchillian gem of a hotel stay was as impressive for what lay just outside of its doors as it was for the four-poster and mahogany desk behind them.

When Churchill stayed at the Jamaica Inn’s White Suite a few years after the war, he was well into his seventies, and it’s hard to imagine him doing anything more active than downing some rum on the wraparound veranda or painting in the seaside garden, where an easel still stands testament to the famed statesman’s more artistic side.

I walked right past the easel, past the private pool beside it and on to the jagged promontory that juts into the Caribbean beyond. After a quick assessment of the site’s safety, I leapt headlong into the sea.

There’s a special kind of liberty to freefall, even if it’s only a few meters. It’s a release from every element of life that you can control, beyond the minor ways you can contort your own physical form in mid-air. Gravity is an all-powerful force, when you’re on the way down, and you have no choice but to go along with its whims.

So I did. Over, and over, and over again. I jumped until the sun settled into the darkness of Caribbean waves, and once the moon crested the ridge of Cockpit Country’s mountains, I jumped a few times more.

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But covered in sharp fossilized coral, the rocky point was nearly impossible to scale. I found myself swimming 25 meters back to the suite’s swimming ladder after every dive, and let’s face it, I’m no Victor Davis. A solution to all this swimming was necessary.
Digging through my backpack, I pulled out the Trail 2 Rapids shoe from the Hamilton, Ontario-based Baffin shoe company. I’d brought them for long runs on the beach, but they proved far more versatile than that. The Trail 2 Rapids let me forego all that swimming and climb directly back up the sharp cliffs. Trail 2 Rapids shoe = more cliff dives. More cliff dives = good.

Life is that simple, really.

The Trail 2 Rapids is designed to drain away water as you move from raft or kayak to land. Water drains around your foot and out through the bottom of the shoe. It isn’t exactly rocket science, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The result: water doesn’t end up sloshing around your feet, at least if you’re wearing a quick drying sock. The moment I exited the ocean, my shoes were — for all intents and purposes — dry.

The major issue with the Trail 2 Rapids revolves around socks. Wear none, and your feet will blister. Wear cotton socks, and it won’t matter how well your mesh-topped shoes drain water — your feet will still be soaking wet. To get the full effect of the Trail 2 Rapids, you’ll have to sport synthetic socks, which dry quickly and remain relatively comfortable when wet. (I suggest the No Show Ultralight by Vermont-based Darn Tough. It’s a serious mouthful of say out loud, but it’s great when wet.)
Sock issues aside, I found the shoe to be the most versatile water shoe I’ve ever worn. Most water shoes resemble a ballet slipper that fell prey to an Andy Warhol silkscreen. They aren’t something that you can wear too far from the sand, and usually I’m a touch embarrassed to don a pair even there.

Unless it’s 80’s night, your Trail 2 Rapids kicks aren’t going to get you past the velvet rope at a nightclub. The pair I tested has a bright yellow fluorescent trim around the sole that may or may not be visible from space, but they do look like actual sneakers, and I found myself forgetting I was even wearing them as I biked, hiked and snorkeled my way along Jamaica’s lush and mountainous north coast. Unless you’re planning to kick back and put your feet up on Sir Winston’s old desk — which is an absolute must if you do stay in the White Suite – you aren’t likely to even notice you’ve got a pair of Trail 2 Rapids on.

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