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Hiking in the Great Smokies

The green is the very greenest green

The green is the very greenest green

One of my goals in hiking was to hike the Appalachian Trail – not the entire trail, but at least a portion of it, so that when I read about it, I can visualize its beauty and challenges all the better. So a couple of years ago, I joined Adventures in Good Company for a few days of hiking in one of the greenest areas in the States….

Ro in front of Stairway to Heaven Lodge outside Gatlinburg

In front of Stairway to Heaven Lodge outside Gatlinburg

I met a friend, Lee, at the Knoxville Airport on Sunday, then met up with the rest of the group to bus to our lodge, with a quick stop for lunch and a getting-to-know-you at a side-of-the-road café; we eventually dropped our bags at the Stairway to Heaven Lodge (don’t you love that name!), and began our first day’s hike.  A nice introduction to the area, and a short but sweet walk of around 3 miles up to the Little Greenbrier Community, where early settlers of the region…well…settled! The weather was just what you want it to be on a hike…not too hot, crisp breezes and surrounded by the greenest trees everywhere.

The start of our hikes in the Great Smokies

The start of our hikes in the Great Smokies

Our splendid Lodge is actually a mile or so outside of Gatlinburg (more about that in a minute). Having booked a single room, I was lucky enough to be on the second floor with a spectacular view of the mountains from my balcony outside the bedroom windows (the balcony wrapped around the entire second floor.) Downstairs, a huge common room included the kitchen, where our guides prepared breakfast each morning, and got the coffee going. Is there a better aroma anywhere than coffee brewing early in the morning, and sitting with your cuppa on the balcony when the outside scents of the day are crisp and green? (Rhetorical question, but the answer is: NO!) Here is the balcony view…

View from Ro's balcony at the Lodge

View from my balcony at the Lodge

Before we left for our hike, we were given the first commandment, which was and is: “Leave no footprint.” So no matter where you are, you do not leave the trail, and you certainly don’t leave detritus behind. The trails and surrounding mountains, woodlands and waterfalls are so pristine, you know visitors to the area take this deeply to heart.

Monday

On Monday morning, we were all up bright and early and ready to go. Porter’s Creek Trail passed through a forest wilderness of Eastern Hemlocks and Fraser magnolias, and then into hardwoods. Cultural artifacts we see include an old cabin made up of stone walls with an old cantilevered barn close by, and an old cemetery (Owenby), remnants of a simpler time when a village community lived here.

Iconic bridge crossing a stream

Iconic bridge crossing a stream

Our hike took us to Fern Branch Falls, where we have a light lunch, and then it’s back on the trail to the Lodge.  We walk in a mix of light drizzle and sunshine, and all is quiet and beautiful, or beautifully quiet… The only sound you hear are the birds calling. All in all, this takes about 6 hours, as we stop constantly to view the wildflowers and peer inside crumbling stone walls….a little over 4 miles in all.

Jan and Katie and a bite of lunch by the stream

Jan and Katie and a bite of lunch by a stream

On our way back to the Lodge, we’d stopped off at a grocery cum liquor store and picked up some wine, so dinner at the Lodge, prepared by our guides Jan and Katie, was quite a jolly occasion. After which, I could barely keep my eyes open…so to bed, and no sooner had my head hit the pillow, than I was down and out.

Tuesday

Up at 6:30 (which I consider the crack of dawn) to the aroma of the coffee brewing. Running down the stairs to pick up my cup, I plant myself on the balcony to drink in the view. It really is spectacular…the mountains are just incredible.

The "Refrigerator" Great Smokies National Park

The “Refrigerator” Great Smokies National Park

We hiked off the beaten path today, up to a natural limestone sink, called White Oak Sink. It houses various caves, rare plants and a waterfall, and is surrounded by wildflowers.  The hike has some steep ascents, but the Sink is our stopping point for a light snack and photography. Because of the on and off drizzle, all is green green green (and a wee bit slippery). We spend quite a bit of time here, just wandering around the waterfalls and crossing on the logs across the river.

Wednesday

What a day! We start with a short hike in country close to the Pigeon River.

After which, my first experience whitewater rafting. It’s incredible! And to think I almost opted out of this exhilarating adventure. We were about 6 to a raft, including the guide (to whom I was extremely grateful!) who really knew her way around whitewater. While the water was not actually death-defying, it certainly seemed to be doing its job, which was rockin’ and rollin’ to our next stopping point. I was seated to the right rear of the raft, and every time we hit a drop, I’d bounce from the seat onto the bottom of the raft, which meant that the photographs being taken usually just showed the top of my head (if that)!

Ro does the rapids SMILING

Ro does the rapids SMILING – look at that water!

Scheduled to last about 2 hours, because the river was in spate, we were through in a little over an hour – but what an hour! I loved every second of it…screams and all. It was just the best, and I’d do it again in an instant.

The Great Smokies

The Great Smokies

After that, we gathered for an al fresco lunch surrounded by fields and greenery; it doesn’t get much better than that.

Thursday

Getting ready for the hike

Getting ready for the hike

My favorite thing: finally, I get to set toe on the Appalachian Trail! This is so exciting for me, as I’ve wanted to hike on the Trail ever since I read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. This part of the Trail goes right through the Park, and was the first trail used by the public with absolutely fabulous views everywhere you turn.

The AT sign at the start of the hike

The AT sign at the start of the hike

It’s a very challenging trail, as well. Tree roots everywhere – you end up literally climbing up and down them from beginning to end. Why did I think the Trail would be less challenging? You had to keep your eyes on the “road” otherwise you can trip and smash your face into one of the huge tree roots, which I eventually did. I had a lovely dramatic fall – bashing my sunglasses into my nose, and splatting full force onto the ground. I think I was out of it for about five seconds, but no more…and there was no harm done. Not fun, however.

Resting atop Charlie's Bunion

Resting atop Charlie’s Bunion

The hike was above 5,000 feet, and we were able to see much of the flora and fauna of these higher elevations. Our aim was to reach a bundle of boulders called “Charlie’s Bunion” … we got there in the middle of the day, and clambered to the peak, looking down over glorious views of the Porters Creek Valley, as well as the main spine of the Smokies. It was just such a kick.

Clingman's Dome

Clingman’s Dome

After a much needed short break, we hiked back down and beavered on to Clingman’s Dome, which rises more than 6,500 feet above the Smokies. It’s the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, providing a 360 degree view of the mountains.  Oddly enough, getting up to Clingman’s was harder for me than the entire AT hike. At this time of the day, the climb seemed to loom straight up….Hoo baby! my legs definitely felt it, coming and going. Once you made it to the top, the view from the tower was about 22 miles, but sometimes if the air is super-clear, you can see as far as 100 miles into seven states!

Laurel tree in bloom

Laurel tree in bloom

All in all, we hiked about 10 miles this day. We started early, around 9AM, and finished after 5PM…worth every sore muscle!

Because of the length of the hike, we were all treated to dinner at a lovely little restaurant in Gatlinburg. The food was yummy – but Gatlinburg itself – well, the word “touristy” doesn’t begin to describe it. The shops covered the town with all sorts and conditions of souvenirs; Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Shop fascinated Lee no end. And the masses of people – this was an eye opener: I’d heard about Gatlinburg, but it really has to be seen to be believed. I saw it – and once was enough for me.

Friday

The Group

The Group

It’s time to say farewell to everyone, but also to squeeze in one more hike, one more picnic. This took us to Laurel Falls, through laurel trees, pine trees and oaks blowing in the gentle wind. The falls are named for the mountain laurel, the beautiful flowering tree which seems to be iconic to the Smokies. It’s tough to leave all this beauty behind, but deeply satisfying to know that places of deep, unspoiled loveliness still lie abundant in the heart of the good old U.S. of A!

Autumn in New Mexico

 

Autumn in New Mexico

New Mexico has a (possibly under-acknowledged) reputation as one of the most enchanting states in North America, and from what I’ve seen of it, it’s not only true, it’s startlingly true. The air in New Mexico is fresher and more invigorating, the views more dramatic and breathtaking than anything you see in Houston’s great hustle and bustle… (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) So on my way to visit my sis Jennifer…

Over this Thanksgiving holiday, and in a departure from the shopping/movies plan Jen and I usually adhere to, Jen suggested we spend most of our time wandering around/discovering different delightful  parts of the state…from neighborhoods exhibiting the reds and golds of Autumn, to mountain peaks and far away towns.

The day before Thanksgiving, under skies a clear, vivid blue, we walked the surrounding neighborhoods, taking in the autumn colors, and enjoying the architecture, from adobe cottages to rambling structures beautifully landscaped,

and something I really love: the different gates set in the garden walls. There’s something so sculptural and individualistic about these…

And then, dinner at our favorite: The Rojo Grille, which has beautiful views of the mountains, and is so cozy and charming…

The following day, Thanksgiving, dinner at the dimly lit, elegant Cattle Rancher’s Club was relaxed, and the food, terrific.

After which, Jen and I decided to drive up to the Sandia Peak, rolling through narrow mountain passes and alongside beautiful valleys and fir forests…

The Peak’s spectacular views, which seem to go on forever, showcased the beauty of New Mexico vividly…

Over mountains and valleys, fir-filled or treeless, the icy air spoke of the winter to come, but brought out the amazing blue of the sky,

against which branches of indigenous trees framed the majesty of the far-off mountaintops.

On the following day, after a very “green” and enjoyable lunch at what is becoming one of my favorite Albuquerque restaurants, Vinaigrette …

we decided to revisit Old Town, which we hadn’t been to for some years. From what I could tell, it hadn’t changed in the slightest. The golden adobe structure of the church was once again etched against a deep blue sky, as it has been in years past.

The shops and restaurants and B&Bs still abound… Southwest cuisine is still the fare of choice, and the Plaza on this particular day was busy, but not jam-packed, which made it easy to get around.  It’s lovely to be in such a changeless environment… the continuity of place and time is so appealing…

On Saturday, we planned to drive to Taos, where I had not been before.

It was such an adventure. I love the open road, and here it led into far blue distances…

At times we passed through small towns that spoke of cowboys and history, of long ago Southwestern spaces and lives…

And drove along the banks of the storied Rio Grande… what a kick!

Then we arrived in Taos, which was everything I had hoped it would be.

I do crave back of beyond. Well, maybe Taos no longer has that reputation, but it certainly seemed to meet the criteria! We wandered round the town square…

And ate lunch at Doc Martin’s, where the food was delicious and the atmosphere, friendly and delightful.

As we ambled down the street, taking in the mountain vistas, the small boutiques and cafes, we couldn’t believe our luck that the weather was so perfect throughout.

We decided on our way home to stop in The Black Mesa Winery for a little wine-tasting and just to stray off the beaten path. This is such a terrrific place to kick back – in the sunshine – and enjoy both the wine (great) and the feel of the great Southwest. What a perfect day!

It was all I could do to leave!

But every great trip comes to an end…there’s always that little frisson of “…if only” and I felt it quite strongly in Taos… Another magical part of the enchantment of New Mexico, and I know we’ll go back there when I visit again.

 

 

Island rambles on the Isle of Wight

A room with a view in Yelf’s hotel, 4th floor

Island rambles on the Isle of Wight

September 6

I decided to make a solo trip to England for two weeks in September 2018, and one of those weeks was spent rambling around the Isle of Wight with John and Joanna, two old friends who live there and who were terrific guides.

I had no idea how much the island had to offer, and how much fun it was going to be to stay on the fourth floor of Yelf’s Hotel, with a perfect view of the sea from my bedroom window.

Hilly Ryde

The fact that Yelf’s has no elevator in no way spoiled the fun of living for a few days in a small English hotel, complete with pub (one of my favorite things), splat in the middle of hilly Ryde.

I had spent a very satisfying week in the Cotswolds before I crossed by ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde. Catching the ferry was a hoot…it runs every 15-30 minutes or so, so you never have to wait very long. However, as they were about to close the gates preparatory to leaving, the ferrymaster saw me trotting up the boardwalk and shepherded me through the ticketing process and onboard. Talk about personal service!

I was picked up at the Ryde dock by Joanna, and deposited at Yelf’s front door. After a brief tidying up and a few minutes of pinching myself that I was actually here, I trotted off to find J&J’s condo – only a block away, but naturally getting lost in the process. After a fun dinner with a group of their friends, I wandered back to Yelf’s under a clear deep blue sky, thinking how much I love small village life.

Everything here is an easy “get to”… Ryde is on hilly terrain, and the streets are good exercise, especially if you’ve walked up and down for half an hour. I was right in the middle of the village…surrounded by shops, cafes, restaurants, book stores…the ever-present (and wonderful) Boots…and houses and condos back to back.

September 7

The next morning, after a really good sleep (missing Yelf’s breakfast in the process) I met Joanna for a quick bite, and then we, along with John, proceeded to wander all around the town.  Of course, Ryde’s right on the water, so a good amount of time was spent along the front.

Weather was chilly, but brilliantly sunny, just about perfect. Green parks and footpaths were everywhere you looked.

After rambling around Ryde, we went on to visit Seaview, which is on Ryde’s eastern end, and has great beaches and the ubiquitous parks.

You can get lost in the middle of the parks, just taking in the gorgeous greenery.

September 8

On the following day, our odyssey took us to East Cowes, Yarmouth and Lymington.

Joanna was tied up, so John and I spent the morning at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s summer “cottage.”

Situated on wide green grassy swathes with sculptured gardens, it offers marvelous walks through its grounds, including a shadowy tree tunnel to the beach below.

From papier mache ceilings to ivory miniatures, statues, gargoyles, great art and more, Osborne House is a treat.

You can just imagine the ghost of Victoria wandering the hallways, her aides scurrying at her heels.

John and I walked to the beach for lattes at the little tea shop facing the coast…clouds scudded across a blue sky, it was sunny and fresh…perfect!

Joanna joined us in Lymington, a delightful village where we stopped for a seafood meal so fresh it practically walked onto the plate, and we then wandered the streets taking in the village views.

A red Morris Minor stopped us in our tracks…very cool car!

The sunset over the sea gave us some of the loveliest images of the day. .

As a lover of the out-of-doors, the Isle of Wight fulfills my real desire for a green and pleasant land. Sun-dappled foliage, lichen-covered footpaths, overgrown steps to hidden sand or pebble beaches, neon bright flowers, crystal blue-green  seas reaching to far horizons…the whole island is a microcosm of nature’s beauty, in some cases, run wild.

Rich with history and ivy-covered and sometimes spooky hidden corners, I felt I was constantly discovering – and moving back to – England’s magical past.

September 9

On this day, John and I had Sunday lunch at the venerable Royal Esplanade Hotel, situated right on Ryde’s front. It was dim and very quiet, but it had the big plus of Harry’s Bar, which I couldn’t wait to try out that evening…such a kick.

After lunch, we drove to one of my favorite island villages: Bembridge, tiny and full of charm, like all of the best villages,

with lush greenery and neon-bright flowers, and adorable cottages looking freshly painted.

I don’t know if it was because the weather was so incredibly gorgeous, or the town so delightful, or just being there…but it was really idyllic!

Where to start. Well, the day itself was made up of blue skies, brilliant sunshine and everything looked clean and shiny. The steps down to Bembridge Beach were surrounded by lush green vegetation with trees in full foliage and a view of the ocean to die for.

A pebble beach prompted poignant and wonderful memories of seasides while I lived as a child in England.

The sea was crystal clear.

We were checking out the New Bembridge Lifeboat Station when a sudden emergency galvanized the group of lifeboat volunteers into action, getting the lifeboat out and on the ocean, headed towards who knows what catastrophe. I was just glad the day was sunny and calm for them…and thankful the situation wasn’t life threatening.

Towards the end of the day, we stopped in an old English pub – and I mean an OLD English pub, The Crab & Lobster.

The walls must have been four feet thick, history embedded in every stone…and the ambience was such, you wanted all pubs to be just like this one. We had a half pint in the half-light…I just loved it, so happy in such a perfect place.

September 10

Waking up, as usual, much too late for the hotel’s breakfast (I think I managed one during my time at Yelf’s), I wandered outside to the corner café for breakfast and just to kick back looking at the big green buses passing by, along with a motley variety of the town’s inhabitants and tourists. I had a perfectly lovely view, and drank in my latte, drinking in every minute of the morning. One note: I miss the big red buses that used to populate England from end to end. Now we only see them in London.

A while later, I met Joanna and she drove us to Shanklin, yet another small delightful village where once upon a time, her mother (and one of my oldest friends), had lived.

We stopped to take in an old church and its wychgate – a word that has always fascinated me and I finally got to see what one looked like.

The ubiquitous red post boxes dotted the area, a British icon that, thankfully, is still in use.

Flowers were blooming (freesias here, Mum’s favorite flower) and the day was windblown and blue.

After wandering here, there and everywhere, we rambled to the front, where the glorious blue seas, white clouds and green fences made a beautiful picture.

A woven lattice fence bordered one of the island’s dwellings…these are really intricate pieces of art, and so charming.  Wish I could build one back home…

And then a drive through Shanklin (see below)… a lovely English village on an island chock-full of them.

We drove back to Yelf’s, where Joanna and I had dinner in its delightful small pub, and a good natter about “old times” (we go back years!)

And so the end of another perfect day.

September 11

One of Ryde’s most historic landmarks is the monastery Quarr Abbey and Farm, home to a small group of Benedictine monks, and a haven for wildlife and plants.

It is a walk back in time…from the ancient buildings including the Abbey itself to homes built on the property, and the working farm …all in all, a magical experience. The weather on our visit this day was slightly overcast, making the green of the countryside glow like neon against a lavendar-gray sky.

The grounds are so tranquil. We sat inside the church and meditated.

Vines, flowers and flowering shrubs are everywhere.

As we wandered through the farm, ducks and geese crossed our path. Machinery sat silently by.

We rambled through leaf-strewn paths, (one of my favorite pictures above) in the hush of the woods that cover the grounds.

Visited with a writer friend of J&J’s who lived in one of the old cottages that seemed to have evolved from the surrounding nature.

I guess you could say: Another perfect day.

September 12

And so it was time to leave. Leaving England always puts a lump in my throat.

I caught the ferry from Ryde back to the mainland, and taxied to London, where I was staying again at the Kensington Hotel (one of my favorite hotels ever).

As I gazed out of my hotel window at the rooftops of wonderful London, I wished I were Mary Poppins, floating over the chimney pots!

A lovely end to a magical trip! Thanks forever to John and Joanna. I love the continual discovery of new and delightful and exquisite areas of England….an England that never ceases to enchant me.

 

 

 

Oregon and Washington State -The Great Pacific Northwest

 

Great beauty - right in front of us

Great beauty – all around us

 

When I thought of the Pacific Northwest, I knew that the natural beauty of Washington and Oregon would blow me away, having already visited Portland, Spokane, Longview and the California coast and seen the unspoiled loveliness everywhere I turned.

 

Hydrangeas everywhere

Hydrangeas everywhere

But it wasn’t until I was actually there in Washington that I realized – yet again – that so much is beyond description, and photographs don’t do the beauty justice.  Still, I was lucky to have two friends – who live in the tiny town of Mukilteo just outside of Seattle – to put me up and take me to some incredible places. I spent a week with them, wandering and hiking around both Washington State and Oregon…and just having the best time embedded in this magnificent part of the country.

 

Friday

A trail up the mountain in Mukilteo

The air was crisp and clean and beautifully sunny (I was thrilled not to experience the seemingly ever-present Seattle drizzle) when I landed. My friends picked me up in the late afternoon, and  we had fresh salmon for dinner, as well as salmon pate for h’ors d’ouevres. Yum-o!  As we ate supper, a marvelous sunset – orange/yellow/turquoise – played out in the view from the front window overlooking Puget Sound.  Behind the house rose wooded hills, sewn with redcedar, firs, hemlocks and undergrowth, with salmon streams running through the underbrush.

From a high deck attached to the back of the house, we watched a baby eagle which had recently hatched, and every morning could view its attempts to fly the nest, and hear its rough cries as it eased its way into the air.

Saturday

We spent this morning catching up over an early lunch at a terrific waterfront restaurant called Ivar’s. It was great being with old friends, looking out over the water and talking. The food was just about perfect – the best thing being those sourdough rolls. I’d love to be able to get my hands on those rolls in Houston! And the weather continued sunny and bright.

 

A salmon run on the trail behind the house

A salmon run on the trail behind the house

After lunch, we walked the back hills of Mukilteo, up and around the house. One of the trails took us through Japanese Gulch, so-called due to the encampment of Japanese laborers who lived there until the 1930s. They cut timber for the lumber company in Mukilteo back then.

 

All homes are landscaped with great charm

All homes are landscaped with great charm

Mukilteo is a short drive from Seattle, and is full of charm and picturesque appeal. The architecture throughout is very varied, from small cottages on up to larger stately homes, with green and colorful landscapes.

 

Yes, I am a tree hugger

Yes, I am a tree hugger

The flowers are lush, dense and glorious – roses, daisies, pansies, phlox, hollyhox, snapdragons, hydrangeas…

 

On the trail through Japanese Gulch

On the trail through Japanese Gulch

Our walk encompassed a brief trek on a footpath through the woods – along the high road looking to the sea. Down the hill to Mukilteo town, we wandered around – ending up in a pub called Diamond Knot Brewhouse – for an IPA (beer) and a chat. Loved the rustic setting, the laid back appeal of it.

 

The weather continued to be fabulous.

 

Mukilteo lighthouse

Mukilteo lighthouse

Afterwards, we walked to the Mukilteo lighthouse, a small white building, full of history. We wandered around taking pictures, then home for dinner.

Sunday

Up early and on the road for Whidbey Island.

 

Deception Pass Bridge

Deception Pass Bridge

On the Whidbey Loop, we started at the top of Fidalgo Island, then crossed the Deception Pass Bridge to the 88-mile long island itself. We had lunch at Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville, and it was, of course, terrific…then meandered around the shops and galleries for an hour.

A street in Coupeville

Deception Pass State Park was another stop for a low-key hour-long hike around its lake. The trail was overhung with a wide variety of greenery, and small flowers poked stems from the undergrowth. The air smelled of green growing things and dead leaves underfoot.

 

In Deception Pass State Park - taking a photo break

In Deception Pass State Park – taking a photo break

After which we ended up in a waterfront restaurant – the waitresses seem to have been there since the beginning of time…what else but fish, chips, and an icy Guinness.  Well, okay: we did have fresh shrimp cocktails to start!

 

Whidbey Island Ferry

Whidbey Island Ferry

And then it was the drive back to the big white Whidbey Island ferry, waiting waiting for boarding….

Monday

On our merry way to Mount Rainier.

Glorious forests of fir everywhere

The drive took us through incredibly green and beautiful  forests of fir – up to Paradise Lodge. Waterfalls, lakes, mountain views – we couldn’t stop taking photographs – because everywhere you looked, it was spectacular – glamorous – astonishing; no adjective seemed to do it justice.

On the way to Mount Rainier...

On the way to Mount Rainier…

 

The lakes were an unbelievably clear and beautiful glacier blue-green – the product of melting glaciers, and so icy cold, hypothermia would set in in seconds should you be unlucky enough to fall in.

 

Another beautiful view

Another beautiful view

At Paradise Lodge, we dumped our luggage and immediately headed for the trails. Mount Rainier and the surrounding Cascades, as well as the areas around the Lodge, were covered with snow. The temperature was warm, but the snow – while melting – was packed to the ground.

Paradise Lodge

Another magical experience – hiking in the snow – in July!!  The late thaw had prevented wildflowers from blooming as profusely in the surrounding Alpine valleys.

Snow-packed vistas surrounding Paradise Lodge

Snow-packed vistas surrounding Paradise Lodge

 

The great natural beauty of Mount Rainier

The great natural beauty of Mount Rainier

 

Tuesday

Up around 8AM, and down to breakfast at 9. Another lovely day.

We left the Lodge at 9:30 to begin the drive to the Columbia River Gorge.

 

The lakes are glacier-fed, and so crystal clear

The lakes are glacier-fed, and so crystal clear

 

Passing through the spectacular forests, we came to the Grove of the Patriarchs – which housed trees of immense, almost infinite girth (redcedar) and hemlock, Douglas firs, and others. Here we stopped for a hike around the Grove’s perimeter and across a short, rather wobbly suspension bridge. The weather continued warm and sunny.

 

Wobbling on the suspension bridge on the Grove of the Patriarchs trail

Wobbling on the suspension bridge on the Grove of the Patriarchs trail

It was difficult not to take a hundred photographs of the imposing trees on this trail, giants bathed in golden light.

 

Can you believe the girth of these wonderful trees

Can you believe the girth of these wonderful trees

Getting back in the van, we drove steadily down, eventually  coming to rolling hills covered in golden grass, stretching for miles (very similar to when I entered California from the desert many years back.) We stopped for our regular Starbucks break – then another quick stop and ramble at the Maryhill Museum, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by velvety green lawns, neon-green in the middle of the desert!

 

Green green grass at the Maryhill Museum in the middle of desert

Green green grass at the Maryhill Museum in the middle of desert

We also pulled over at the Windy Flats wind farm to view the miles of windmills that ranged across the golden hills, making the landscape a dream from a sci-fi movie.

 

Windy Flats wind farm

Windy Flats wind farm

And so we came to The Dalles – which was our destination and stop for the night.

 

Standing in front of my room at The Dalles Inn

Standing in front of my room at The Dalles Inn

I called The Dalles the “back-of-beyond” – which I absolutely loved. Somewhere further from a New York or even Houston is hard to imagine. ..so you felt very relaxed and isolated – all in all, not a bad way to feel on vacation.

 

The Baldwin Saloon - wonderful

The Baldwin Saloon – wonderful

After checking into The Dalles Inn and having a bit of a tidy up, we headed for the Baldwin Saloon, an old restaurant with the aura of time-gone-by – delicious food – terrific waiters. Fabulous dinner: Halibut Parmesan, preceded by oysters on the halfshell… It was a two-beer night, so a good time was had by all!

Wednesday

Up around 7:30, and off about 9:30.

 

Standing on the banks of the Columbia River

Standing on the banks of the Columbia River

 

This part of our rambles took us to the Fruit Loop, a scenic drive looping through farm country: orchards filled with ripened apples, peaches, pears – little farm shops interspersed throughout the countryside. Our first stop was the Packer Orchards, which offered all sorts of fresh fruit from their orchards, and fresh fruit pies baked on site. The scent of the baking pies was…well, delectable, to not put too strong a word on it! And peaches right off the tree – is there a sweeter aroma?!

Packer Orchards

The next stop was the absolutely heavenly Lavendar Farm (my favorite scent) – fields of lavender, interspersed with lupins, yellow and orange poppies, brilliant white daisies, roses galore…and more.

 

Lavendar Adirondack chairs at the lavendar farm

Lavendar Adirondack chairs at the lavender farm

The hum and drone and buzz of the bees in the lavender – the warmth of the sun – and the mingled scent of lavender and roses was enough to make you think you had died and gone to heaven.

 

Drowning in lavender - and liking it!

Drowning in lavender – and liking it!

After this, we stopped at an alpaca farm –the little faces of the alpacas made you want to kiss every nose! We hand-fed them grain, and they nuzzled up to us with no fear.

 

Hand-feeding the alpacas - what a kick

Hand-feeding the alpacas – what a kick

You could put your hand in a bag of alpaca fur in the little shop on the premises…and it was like dipping your fingers into clouds.

 

Who couldn't love this adorable face

Who couldn’t love this adorable face

The next leg of the drive took us to Hood River for lunch – a really great taco salad at Betty’s Diner.

 

Views of the Columbia River

Views of the Columbia River

We left Oregon, driving along the Columbia River, stopping to watch the wind surfers glide and fly across the river’s icy blue waters. So agile and so other-worldly against the intense blue of sky and water.

 

Glacier-blue waters

Glacier-blue waters

Surrounded by the wonder of nature, you had a moment of “why anyone would want to be anywhere else?” Of course, in the depths of mid-winter, not quite so appealing! But at this time of year, it could not be more magical.

We arrived back in Mukilteo, put our feet up, ate salmon pate and enjoyed the fabulous sunset over Puget Sound (more specifically, Possession Sound). The sunsets have been exquisite –  dusky Tuscan yellows and oranges, aquamarine blue fading to deep indigo.

Thursday

Left early for brunch at Ivar’s – fish taco, which I’d never had. Yum-o! Again, Ivar’s has the absolute best sourdough rolls I’ve ever tasted. Wish I could buy them in Houston!  Then we took off for a jaunt around Seattle.

 

Gasworks Park overlooking Elliott Bay

Gasworks Park overlooking Elliott Bay

Our first stop was the Gasworks Park – an old gasworks, rusting and left in place overlooking Elliott Bay. We stopped for a photo opp, but really just to take in the view across the water.

Standing on the shores of Elliott Bay

Standing on the shores of Elliott Bay

After which, we drove through the University of Washington, then on to the Chihuley Exhibit – an incredible museum of brilliantly colored glass sculptures – neon green, red, purple, yellow – some pieces like the tentacles of some mythic sea monster, others interpretations of undersea foliage – and still others evocative of the sculptor’s mother’s garden! For me, after seeing the natural beauty of the state, glass sculptures of flowers and gardens couldn’t begin to compare. But the sculptor did produce some brilliant creations.

This was followed by the Space Needle for a 360o view of Seattle. After a rather overcast morning, the sun had broken through the clouds and cleared the mist, and all was merry and bright.

 

Seattle - the view from the Space Needle

Seattle – the view from the Space Needle

We also made a quick stop to view “The Troll Beneath the Bridge” – a wonderfully eerie sculpture – which unfortunately had been graffiti’d all over, making his expression particularly doleful.

 

The Troll Beneath the Bridge - and me!

The Troll Beneath the Bridge – and me!

 

We came back to Mukilteo through a crush of cars – no matter which way we turned, the traffic was incredibly bad. We managed to finally break through the stalemate and landed back at the Diamond Knot Brewhouse on the shores of Mukilteo.  Nothing like a laid-back pub at the end of a busy day…and a Guinness to boot!

 

Smelling the roses

Smelling the roses

Then it was time to pack for the flight home Friday, and think about everything I’d seen and experienced.  The Pacific Northwest – and all other natural beauty – should be protected like the jewels they are.  I always am so grateful for such unspoiled loveliness… and equally grateful at how good it is to be able to experience it in the here and now.

 

Hiking the Utah canyons

The hoodoos of Bryce

Sometimes it’s just great to get away to a part of the country you’ve never spent time in, yet is not so far away it takes more than two or three hours to reach. Such was the Utah trip for me, and the state is so spectacularly beautiful, it was one of my most satisfying hikes. Country Walkers offered this relatively short hike (5 days) and a friend of mine, who lives elsewhere, sent me the information. I was hooked, and hooked up. I think Utah is one of the most beautiful states in a country of so many beautiful states…there is, however, something spiritual about the landscape there. Needless to say, it was an experience I’ll never forget.

 Las Vegas

I arrive in Las Vegas after what seems an interminable flight, but is in reality only three hours. After finding Lee, we take the hotel limo to AmeriSuites. It is super-hot here, and noisy, jumping with people – mostly young people – but at least our room is quiet. Once settled in, we walk across the street to one of the many casinos, eat a late dinner in the Montero dining room, and then get some sleep. (Lee loses $1 on the slot machine.)

The next morning we take an hour’s stroll down to the Strip. The first hotel we come to is the Sahara -once inside, it is pretty unbelievable – miles of aisles, shops of all description, and gambling slots everywhere. It’s not even 8:30AM, and people are playing the slots. Not my life, but perhaps the idea of hiking in the wilds of the canyons isn’t their idea of fun either!

The Canyons of Zion

The start of a beautiful friendship

Promptly at 10AM, our group picks us up. We have a three-hour ride to Zion National Park, eat a picnic lunch and then drive to the Lodge, which is set in very beautiful parkland. Surrounded by the walls of the canyon, the Lodge sprawls across the green grass, lit to neon green by the afternoon sun.

Bonnie views the awe-inspiring scenery

We put up our bags and take the first hike of the trip: Riverside Trail, up into the canyon. The cliff walls are ever-changing colors, depending on sun or shadow. We pass cascades of water, mountain greenery, rock formations, often looking over sheer drops. We are not gone long, returning to the Lodge about 5:30, to change for supper in the main dining room.

This place is really magical. After eating a delicious meal, we walk back through the gloaming to our room…the canyon walls surround us, and in the park fronting the Lodge are about 20 mule deer, lifting their big elf-like ears as we pass by. The deer make little or no sound, except for a low “crunch” as they crop the grass.

In the shadowy twilight, the canyon walls keep in the growing darkness, and only the rustle of wind in the trees is heard. The temperature – in the 80s when we arrived – has cooled to about 55 degrees. We are sleeping with open windows tonight.

Our small group  – we split into two groups – this was mine

Our group is comprised of seventeen people, coming together from one end of the country to the other. From Williamsburg, Virginia to the California coast and in between, it’s a particularly enjoyable group. Bob and Bonnie from Williamsburg are a wonderful retired couple who enjoy travelling. Cara and Cheryl are the first women guides I’ve experienced on these hikes. They are extremely knowledgeable about the area, very pleasant, as well as caring and fully invested in the wildlife and the environment.

The peace here is unbelievable.

Refrigerator Canyon, Walter’s Wiggles and Weeping Rock

Here we are – our second day in the canyons of Zion. This is a terrifically picturesque area – the grandeur of the canyons is almost too much to take in. We join each other at 8:30 in the morning after a splendid breakfast at the Lodge, and then split into two groups of nine and eight, making it easier to hike and to take in everything without a large group slowing things up.

Cara, our guide, and me at the start of a hike in Zion

Our group begins hiking immediately (the other group is bussed to an alternate location). We begin at Scout’s Outlook, a four-mile up-canyon hike that begins with a climb to Refrigerator Canyon, always 20 degrees colder than everywhere else.

Walter’s Wiggles

Next come the “switchbacks”, so-called because the trail zips back and forth constantly, ending with “Walter’s Wiggles” – an even more extreme switchback. Atop the thousand-foot high Scout’s Outlook, we hang over the edge looking straight down into beautiful green valleys and canyon walls. The views are astounding. Then we turn and hike back down…

The grandeur and majesty of the canyon are impossible to describe – the walls are so sheer, so solid, so many different colors, and so immense we are surrounded and encompassed by these wonderful cliffs.

The beauty of the landscape is timeless

After Scout’s Landing, we hike the Riversidewalk, ending by paddling our tootsies in a river whose name I don’t recall. Cold, by God!

Bonnie, Cara and I then hike uphill to Weeping Rock, an overhang in the canyon wall. Standing beneath it, we look out at spectacular views through a curtain of water – the fall is neither heavy, nor does it obscure the view – like clear beads on many threads -crystal raindrops falling endlessly, lit by the sun. It’s a very spiritual experience, being in these canyons.

After which, we return to the Lodge, clean up, and wend our way to the IMAX Theater, where we see the history of the canyons – breathtaking – and then on to dinner – and to bed.

The Virgin River and Dual Arches Alcove

After a hearty breakfast, we jump in the van: Bonnie, Bob, the six California girls, Cara, our guide, and me. A 45-minute drive takes us to the Virgin River, where we begin a five-mile round trip hike. It is safe to say that was the longest five-mile hike I have taken!

We start on a sandy trail through pine and oak woods, alongside the Virgin River bed. We actually walk the riverbed most of the way, as it has dried up in the summer heat – it’s basically a very thin stream at this point. Cara’s quick to point out that care should be taken nonetheless, as the weather can change in an instant, and gullywashers can sluice through the canyons and riverbeds, with an outcome I don’t like to dwell on…but good to know! Surrounding us are spectacular views of canyon walls in their living colors of red streaked with black, white and grey where water has scored the cliffs.

Standing inside the deep pink Dual Arches – incredible!

At first the sand is golden. But as we near Dual Arches Alcove, it turns the most glorious shade of pink – absolutely unbelievable. Stones in the sand which are a vivid turquoise blue turn grey when picked up – a trick of the sun and the sand. The weather which had begun cool, turns very hot halfway to Dual Arches, but when the canyon walls narrow and we come to the great Dual Arches Alcove, it becomes almost chilly.

Dual Arches Alcove – spectacular and awe-inspiring – reaches to the sky in two great arches. The lower one will one day begin to disintegrate and then fall; its hold is precarious on the rock face. The arches are all colors – exquisitely beautiful. We eat our lunch in their shadow, drinking gallons of water to ward off dehydration. Then we hike for approximately half an hour over deep pink rocks and boulders to a waterfall in the cliff face. The canyons narrow our path til we can squeeze no further. The rocks and boulders – making for a tricky hike – are a bright reddish pink – all fallen from the canyon walls and swept into a rocky riverbed by gullywashers.

Ro and Bonnie – ahead of the pack!

Bob, Bonnie and I are a little ahead of the pack on our way back. We mostly stay with the riverbed, which meanders this way and that. In full sun, it is hot, hot, hot. In the shade, the scent is intensely green. Our entire hike takes six hours with a brief time out for lunch.

Then it’s back into the van, and a drive into town for an iced cappuccino – absolutely the best tasting thing in the world! Then back to the Lodge for dinner. When we leave the restaurant, twilight has fallen on the canyon walls which surround us on all sides. Again, the deer wander onto the Lodge’s grassy front lawn, showing no fear as we pass them by, shadows in the enchanted Zion twilight.

Observation Point, Panguitch, Bryce Canyon and The Hoodoos

Up at 6:30 to eat breakfast and get in the van by 8AM. We ride to Observation Point, a 45-minute drive, in the Zion National Park, then hike up some of the most spectacular trails, which drop into nothingness on one side, cliff wall on the other.

Lonely trees dot the landscape

The scenery is spectacular wherever we look. And the trail varies from flat rock to narrow ledges to a bridge over nothing! Finally, we arrive at Observation Point. It seems to hover at the very tip of the canyons, and the view is incredible – it looks out over canyons and gorges in all directions. I climb to the very highest point, a drop-off into thin air, for a quick photo op. Then back down the trail to the van. Another brief ride, and then hike to see pictographs carved long ago on the canyon walls by the Anasazi Indians. I love Utah!

I felt as if I were in a movie

Back in the van for a 90-minute ride to the little town of Panguitch (meaning “water” – with population 2000) and Bob’s Cowboy Diner, where we are serenaded through lunch by two cowboys singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Call the Wind Mariah,” “Cool Water,” and “Ghostriders in the Sky.” Fantastic! I feel as if I’ve wandered way back in time into the Old West – and I don’t want to return to the present…

But our next destination is Bryce Canyon National Park, and on arrival, we immediately begin our hike. I can’t begin to describe this place. It is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.

From the canyon rim to the canyon floor, we hike downwards through the trail called Wall Street through walls of blood red sandstone, ever and ever down. Our trail takes us over the canyon floor, then curls around back to the top. The number of people on the trail is overwhelming at times, especially on Wall Street  – large groups of people from Japan and Germany seem to be the most ubiquitous.

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon

We are all in awe of these terra-cotta colored hoodoos of Bryce which stretch for miles and miles and miles. Absolutely unbelievably wonderful.Cara is our guide throughout it all. A terrific guide, unbelievably talented, she and her husband are mountain and cliff-climbers, rapelling the canyon walls in Zion and in Yosemite in their spare time. On their honeymoon, they spent three days and nights on the canyon wall in Yosemite National Park, sleeping in hammocks on the cliff face. They are also in the process of building a home made from bales of hay, reinforced with rebar and steel, and covered in stucco. And they are building it with their own two hands. Remarkable people.

Beautiful Bryce

After our hike, Lee and I have dinner with Bonnie and Bob – I am so full of food, I can hardly stand it. And very tired. To sleep!

Bryce Canyon Redux

We are off at 8:30AM to hike down the canyon in the opposite direction to our hike of yesterday. Slight contretemps at the vans: usually when a group splits in two, the guides switch sides halfway through the trip. But all our group want to stay with Cara! So we do.

Reaching for the stars

We begin the hike immediately – the other group is bussed to the opposite side of the canyon. The hike is long and glorious – about seven or so hours altogether. Bonnie, Bob and I reach the top of the canyon, then take off for an additional three-mile hike – woof! All uphill! By the time we make it back to the bus stop, we are really physically exhausted, but exhilarated at the same time.

A perfectly happy human being

Today I forgot my sunscreen – my legs and arms are tiger-striped, and when my legs finally stop stinging, they go sort of Kentucky Fried crispy. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. Who cares! This wonderful trip is worth it!

Bryce Canyon Lodge and Dixie National Park

Up before dawn to walk and hike around the canyon rim watching the sun come up…another awe-inspiring experience.

Then back for breakfast, packing and so back to the real world. We drive through Dixie National Park, endless mountains and forests of breathtaking beauty – stretches of quaking aspens in full golden splendor, mountains stained with the color of the sun, stretches of pines and firs. I had no idea Utah was such a beautiful – and green – state – why did I always think of it as desert? I was very wrong.

We stop in Cedar City for lunch at Betty’s Restaurant – a small butter yellow house, filled with pictures and flowers – for an elegant little lunch, where we celebrate Roni’s birthday (one of the California Six), and have a teary-eyed farewell.

This incredibly satisfying trip solidifies my desire to experience more and more of the western states. Utah is an enchanting experience … full of mystery and freedom and awe-inspiring beauty.

Utah – awe inspiring, mystical, magic

Thoughts on the small villages and countryside of the Cotswolds

The Swan, Bibury

A short n’ sweet post, as this day was part of a 2-week sojourn in England, noted elsewhere! I spent a day in the Cotswolds, rambling around the small villages that I love, and wished never to leave…

Loving Bibury

Steve picked me up in Chipping Campden early on Wednesday morning, and we began our perfect day of exploration, from Minster Lovell to Stanton and Bibury, to Fillkins and Stanway, to Burford and points in between. Each village had something special to offer, and if you’re looking for the backroads of England, in countryside that doesn’t seem to have changed in more than 100 years, these villages are for you.

Iconic telephone booth and post box

Minster Lovell, to which I was introduced in 2017, continues to be an enchanting small town of crumbling ruins, delightful pathways, the old churchyard,

Crumbling church ruin, Minster Lovell

leafy lanes and chickens in the front gardens.

Minster Lovell chickens

Stanton is one of those villages I would willingly embed myself in – from the moment I discovered it a few years ago, I have loved it.

Drystone wall, Stanton

Deep bowered lanes overhung with heavy, leaf-strewn branches,

the footpaths carpeted with red and rust lichen, houses built up the gently rising hillside, their walls glowing golden in the late afternoon sunshine,

and the flowers that inhabit the gardens and scatter their scented breath over the air.

Everywhere I go, the greenness of England is always present…what would England be without it? I love the hedgerows,

the fields stretching out to low-lying hills…

white sheep dotting the landscapes in the fields…

then there are the drystone walls,

the iconic red of pillar boxes, old telephone booths now converted to defribrillators,

the old churchyards with headstones leaning towards the ground

gray old Norman churches against a pale blue-white sky…

Beautiful, beautiful England…loving it always…

Cornwall – Magical rambles on the coast – Chapter 1

Cornwall – Magical rambles on the coast – Chapter 1 of our English holiday

Thursday August 18….these are fraught days, trying to pull everything together for our 2+ week sabbatical in England (Cornwall and the Cotswolds). I have never been so tired getting ready for a trip! Just the technology alone is enough to make you shudder. New tablet, new keyboard, pass codes, TravelPass, WiFi apps and passwords, converters…may the stress all fade away the moment I board that plane!

Monday August 21…on way to airport at 11…I am SO ready. Our flight on British Airways is smooth and uneventful (no sleep though).

Tuesday August 22…I glided through Customs, and picked up my luggage, waiting a short time for David to make it through. It all took a little longer than we’d thought. We missed our first train at Paddington for Looe, so decided breakfast was a good idea (it was a full English breakfast, and it was goo-ood!) Then onward to catch 12 o’clock. On the train, we had a high adrenalin surge when a man boarded and began to rant at the top of his lungs, I forget about what. A passenger finally calmed him down. David and I both went into “blank stare” mode, as did the rest of the passengers. Nothing further happened, and the man disembarked at the next stop. Whooo!

On the train from Paddington to Looe, we also experienced – quite by accident – our first “quiet car”. It was MARVELOUS. Very few people were in this car, but once we were seated, an older woman embarked, looking for her reserved seat and carrying on a conversation with herself– quite loudly.  Once she found her seat, she proceeded to take out her cell phone and start another conversation at the top of her lungs. At which point, the conductor came down the aisle and quietly (!) asked her to move to another car if she wished to use her cell, as this one was a QUIET car.  Which she did.  As she moved away, we could still hear her voice drifting back through the corridor… It was all very low key and courteous. I do love quiet cars!!

The ensuing silence, the sound of the wheels on the rail, and the foggy day lulled me into a short nap.

But I woke up as the sun burned the fog away as the day wore on – beautiful views of the sea on one side, and green fields and trees on the other. We kept telling one another not to forget to ask the conductor to drop us off at Sandplace (part of the Looe Valley Line).

How to start a fairytale?

Take a tiny train to a charmingly small station (Sandplace) the size of a postage stamp, where you have to ask the conductor to stop the train and let you disembark!

Gill, who with Martin, owns Polraen Country House, was waiting for us beyond the gate, and drove us the tenth of a mile home! Since it was a beautiful day, we had tea in the garden, and I took a deep breath. Here we are…finally, in Cornwall.

After a quick wash up, Gill drove us into Looe for dinner – to a charming restaurant called The Old Sail Loft. I opted for fish and chips – and when the order came, the fish, which was haddock and wonderful, was as big as the side of a barn – it looked like the sail on a boat. If only I could’ve finished it! It was light and crisp and totally delish – as were the chips, all soused with vinegar. This came with mushy peas with mint, a dish I have recreated since returning home…still yummy!

Wednesday, August 23 …I awoke around 9:30 (after 35+ hours no sleep), and went: OMG breakfast is over by 10…so I dragged on some clothes and whooshed downstairs by ten to 10. David and I both ordered the full English breakfast, prepared by Martin – scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, toast and butter, hot fresh coffee, strawberries… was that ever good! (Many good memories are food-related!)

We then walked around Polraen’s garden, so intensely green it almost glowed…the day was overcast, cool and fresh with a few spits of rain, certainly not enough to prohibit our day in Polperro. I cleaned myself up, we called a taxi and we were off. Crystal Cars took us halfway down the hill into the village, and let us out close to a small stall selling whelks, cockles, prawns, and other seafood…we promised ourselves to come back for the cockles, but we never found the stall again!

We wandered around all the narrow winding streets, taking in the tiny houses interspersed with shops, restaurants, pubs and galleries.

Everywhere you looked was a picture. Houses were built into or hacked out of bedrock, stacked up on the cliffsides, looking out over steel gray seas – or the resultant mud/sand flats should the sea have receded.

As the day wore on, the cloud cover burned away, the sun came out, and everything was bathed in the soft golden sunlight.

We found the entrance to the cliff walk to Talland Bay, and I was off, leaving David peacefully ensconced on a bench looking over low hedges of flowers to the sea and headland.

It was a wonderful walk…through high hedgerows, green and vivid or else splashed with flowers from freesia to foxglove and others I don’t have a clue about.

Gardens were hidden behind rock walls or old wooden gates covered in ivy and ferns, often with winding steps up to houses glimpsed between the trunks of trees.

I was so happy. A gentle breeze ruffled the greenery, and it was about 70 degrees.

I finally had to turn around as it was getting late, met David and we wandered into the Noughts and Crosses pub for a half pint of the local Dartmoor IPA – perfect.

And so home to Polraen Country House, where Martin made us crab and salmon sandwiches, which we ate out on the terrace in the cool air of the evening. A perfect day, in every way.

Thursday August 24…We decided to take the train to Truro and St Ives. The weather this day was absolutely beautiful from the get-go– sunny, warm with breezes. We flagged down the Sandplace train (one of my favorite things to do), and embarked for Liskeard, where we disembarked for the train to Truro via St Erth.

Only to find, after disembarking, we had about 20 minutes before we had to catch the train to St Erth, so had a coffee and then galloped uphill back to the station…

Poor David’s ankles were giving him some grief, but we made the train, changed at St Erth and got to St Ives around 4:15, only to find out we had to take the last train back at 5:30!!

Somewhere in all this, we met a genuine eccentric named Susan who, I thought, was homeless. It turned out she was married, and “lived on the line,” by which she meant she rode the trains every day, all day long. Well known to all who lived around Looe, she was a fixture in the station and I was glad to have met her.

We managed to get to St. Ives without further incident.

The sea and sky were crystal clear, the shore just beautiful, the weather incredible.

Lots of people were holidaying…the car park by the station was packed.

But time was running by us, and after a quick coffee, we were back on the train, and got to Sandplace at 8:40… then we had dinner at The Plough. Lovely…but I was almost too tired to eat!

Friday August 25… We awoke to a cool cool morning…so fresh and clean, sunny and bright, but what a wrench to leave!!

I had my usual satisfying Polraen English breakfast…scrambled eggs, English bacon, grilled tomatoes, toast…yum-o! We’d packed the night before, but when it came time to leave, it was so hard to say goodbye to Gill and Martin and Cornwall.

England is magic everywhere you turn, but Cornwall has its own special brand of timeless magic. The pebbled narrow streets of Polperro, Truro, St. Ives, Looe, Land’s End…the ancient  houses, built into, or from, the bedrock of the cliffs, flowers cascading from old stone walls. Cornwall’s history, of pirates and smugglers, Cornish pasties,  hidden caves, the sea constantly slashing the rocks at the cliffs’ base, the narrow footpaths framed with hedgerows as old as England with steps leading to some mysterious dwelling, or down to the silver seas below.

Mysterious and enchanting, under lowering gray skies and the timelessness of path, water, air and the call of the seagulls…this is magical Cornwall.

Martin drove us to Sandplace Station,

and then we changed at Liskeard (but didn’t see Susan) for a three hour ride to Reading, changed again for final trek to Moreton-in-Marsh, where Steve our taxi driver picked us up.

And then on to Broadway…and a gentler, more pastoral sort of magic.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, NC – To Hike or Not to Hike

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

I was really looking forward to hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains – and also whitewater rafting, zip lining (a first) and a bit of rapelling. I arrived in Asheville the evening before joining the group, got a good night’s sleep at the hotel, and met Deb, one of my hiking friends, the next day for lunch. Then we were on our merry way to the William Black Lodge at Montreat, North Carolina.

Immediately on arrival, we booted up and made our way up the Lookout Trail and Mountain, which was a lot more challenging than originally thought…As the rest of the group galloped ahead, I made it slowly to the top without any seeming problem.

1-blue-ridge-mountains-003-jpg-cropped

It was on the way down that I really got into trouble. My new boots, despite the use of well padded hiking socks and liners, suddenly became way too big as with every step down, my feet began slipping, banging against the toe of the boots.  By the time I was halfway down the mountain, I could barely walk…the pain was intense. I managed to make it to the van, and have never been so glad to get hiking boots – normally the most comfortable of shoes – off my feet!! Tender is not the word…I spent the rest of the evening barefoot, hoping this was simply a bruise that would wear off.

The next day I spent at the lodge, resting up – while my hiking sisters took the next great hike.

blue-ridge-on-cell-036

Then it was time for the big adventure. The following morning, I was able to put on my tennies, and hobble to the van, where we drove to our meeting point for whitewater rafting. What a joy! Having done this once before, I was looking forward to the challenge. We read all the documents on the pros and cons of the rafting; elected to sign off despite the dangers of death or worse; and then clustered around the rafts as our guides told us what to expect.

2

The day was absolutely beautiful – as was the weather on the entire trip, despite the onslaught of Hurricane Matthew along the coast. We separated into two rafts, and our guide explained that because the water was low, we’d probably be bouncing off more boulders than usual, as well as negotiating pathways through them. All of which was true.The river was placid when we embarked, and our guides shouted orders as we moved out into midstream. What a rush when we encountered our first whitewater, zipping easily around boulders embedded in the sandy floor.

2a

At one point, where the river was a little rougher than usual, we bounced off a boulder – and Deb bounced right out of the raft! Having been indoctrinated as to what to expect should that happen, after the first shock, she floated easily on her back until Ruthven grabbed her by both straps and hauled her back into the boat. Scary – but definitely something to write home about!

2b

Halfway through our little odyssey, we pulled our rafts onto the riverbank and stopped for lunch – which consisted of some of the best burgers known to man…yum-o! Then it was back into the rafts, and another hour of pure bliss down the stream….about a couple of hours all told. Such a rush!!

2c

Our next foray (the same day) was zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We were vanned to our starting point, went through the usual machinations of the danger, the signing and so forth. Then we wriggled into our safety harnesses, helmets and gloves, as well as donning the leather glove used to slow the flight down should our stop arrive too quickly….

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

And there we were, high on a three-sided platform above the forest, the fourth side open for the zip line. One by one, we were hooked to the cable, sat back and swung out onto the line – the highest rate of speed between platforms was about 30mph. The leather glove worked beautifully, slowing us as we reached the next stop. Half the time we didn’t quite make it to the platform. I usually ended up with a foot or two between me and the platform; at which point, you swivel around on the line and basically crawl backwards, hand over hand, to the waiting guide who pulls you to safety.7

We ran ten of these zip lines.  We traversed a very wobbly suspension bridge to one of our platforms…that was more nerve-wracking than the zip lining!

At two stops, after first being hooked to the cable…we planted our feet on either side of the platform, and swung into the void, then rapelled our way down ropes hand over fist,…another first, another rush! Loved every minute!!

Both the whitewater rafting and the zip lining were courtesy of the French Broad Rafting & Zip Lining company – http://www.frenchbroadrafting.com/ – absolutely terrific in every way.

Then it was off to dinner, and a celebratory drink to finish off the day’s adventure.

Our next foray, the following day, was a visit to the Biltmore Estate, 8,000 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds and over 178,000 square feet of floor space in the mansion. Amazing!

blue-ridge-on-cell-059

We took a guided tour of the house, had a picnic in the picnic area, and then stopped inside the wine room for a pleasant hour of wine tasting.

The Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Estate

Then Karen (one of the trip participants and a lovely person) and I wandered the grounds, where the flowers, shrubs, trees and pathways were a delight.

10

Unfortunately by this time, my toes were beginning to make themselves known, as the drubbing they’d received on the first day’s hike had not gone quietly away and I could see I was going to have a problem.

blue-ridge-on-cell-046

By the time we made it back to the lodge, it was obvious I could not continue to hike, so I cut my visit short, left for Asheville early the following morning, and so made it back home before my feet fell off. Just kidding!! But it certainly makes me realize the importance of ensuring a well-fitting hiking boot before embarking on challenging trails.

That being said – I wouldn’t have missed the whitewater rafting, rapelling and zip lining for anything. I thought I’d be extremely afraid, looking down down down and knowing I’d be out there, swinging my way across and through the trees like Tarzan. I thought I’d be frozen with fear…but I never felt fear for one moment. That was the greatest thing this trip gave me…who knew!

 

Scotland Aye – hiking the Highlands and Islands

I arrived at Gatwick, and remembering my earlier vow to never drive in London again, caught a taxi to The Green Park Hotel in Mayfair, arriving about 7:30 AM. No room was available, so my taxi driver took me on a quick tour of London. We drove ’round St. John’s Wood (disappointing), Notting Hill (adorable), Buckingham Palace, Regent’s Park (glorious), Hyde Park, and various other points of interest…many of which I have seen before, but loved seeing again.

I dressed in woolly tights and sweater, with a cashmere pullover tied around my waist…and I was melting. It was 80 degrees outside – soon to become even warmer! (Why didn’t I check the weather here before I left!) Everyone was in shorts and sleeveless dresses – except for me. No matter: the sun shone -it was glorious weather! London was in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave.

Around 10AM, it’s back to the appealing small hotel located on Half Moon Street (love that name) in Mayfair. The room was still not ready. I entered their (again charming) sitting room and read and waited, read and waited til I thought my eyes would fall out – or in. Finally, I staggered to the front desk. “Is there a room – any room – available YET?!” A card key is handed over: “Room 224.” (A note on card keys: why do I have so much trouble with these things? And what is wrong with a key?! But I’ve gotten over that!)

London townhouses

Calling Judy to let her know I’d finally arrived, I crashed for five-six hours – the minute my head hit the pillow, I was out like the proverbial light, waking up only when I heard the door opening and her “my god…she’s still asleep!”

Out for a quick walk around the little streets, so evocative of London. One small street dead-ended into a couple of pubs or restaurants, and everywhere crowds of young professionals were drinking and enjoying the night air. This heat wave is unprecedented.

Returning to the hotel, we ate dinner, talked a mile a minute, then fell asleep. Initially out like a light again, I woke in the wee hours to the sound of trucks – large and small – zooming down the lane ALL NIGHT- and the crash and tinkle of breaking glass as the recyclers picked up the recycle bins (reminded me of New York). Not a peaceful night.

Invernesse

Up at 9AM, Judy and I called Room Service, ate a quick breakfast and took a cab to her son’s townhouse – four stories of delightful house in a mews around the corner from Buckingham Palace. It was light and airy (the townhouse, not Buckingham Palace) and from the top floor could be seen endless views of the chimney pots of London. The kitchen/dining room looked out onto a small walled ivy-covered terrace, and from there across the road to the park – I believe we landed in a chapter of Mary Poppins!

Everyone was delightful and delighted to see us – but we only had time to stay a brief while, pick up a couple of things at the shops, then take a taxi to Gatwick airport -at a cost of one hundred pounds, no kidding! So far, I have spent 200 pounds of the 500 I brought and 160 pounds of it have been taxi fares!

The River Ness in Invernesse

Onward to Invernesse. From brilliant sunshine and weather so balmy we might well be in the Bahamas – to Invernesse: cold, drizzling and misty – very Scottish indeed. We walked along the River Ness (not too far away from the Loch – which, when we asked – yet another – taxi driver if anyone still sees the Loch Ness Monster, he replied: ‘I don’t think it’s a monster, but I think there’s SOMETHING there.’ Eerie!)

A street in Invernesse alongside the River Ness

Finally, slightly chilled and pretty damp, we ended up in our hotel’s pub, quaffing ale and Scotch, and having a nice chat with a couple at the bar who happen to be from Pennsylvania, are photographers, and had just spent two weeks on a very wet and windy Isle of Skye!

Dinner – repacking – and so to bed.

Loch Broom and Ullapool

No sleep, as usual, but I’m sure it’s all related to stress and jet lag. Breakfast of muesli and coffee, and packing in time to meet our group at 10AM. Outside – it was glorious weather! Verrry nice, after the drizzle and drear of Saturday afternoon and night. White clouds scudded across a blue, blue sky.

We met Tom, Bob, Jennifer, Kent and Gail, Roger, Lew and Susan here, and we all climbed into the van and drove through beautiful countryside – up hilly, twisted roads – making me a trifle seasick! Bob – one of our guides – pulled over to the side of the road at a “wishing well” where all sorts of pieces of filthy and ragged cloth were tied to trees and stumps. It is traditional to tie or drop a personal item here (I offered a mint) and make a wish. I wished for continuing great weather!

The Ceilidh Inn in Ullapool

We arrived at the Ceilidh Inn in Ullapool, dropped off our luggage, and hiked to Loch Broom, entrancing and smelling heavenly. Our hike took us down to a pebbled rock beach across gorse and heather, through tussocky boggy grass, and finally to the top of a small tor overlooking the loch.

Hiking around Loch Broom

The sun was shining and all was merry and bright. On returning, Roger and I promptly went for a walk up a meandering footpath bordered by blackberry bushes (unripe), fern, celandines, daisies and other small shrubs of varying descriptions…very English (although I wouldn’t say this to a Scot.)

Our first hike in Ullapool countryside

After this short excursion, we wandered back to the hotel, in time to prepare for cocktails, and then dinner. Dinner was: cauliflower soup, lentils with mushrooms, and fruit salad – so healthy!

Afterward, Brian gave a brief talk on what to expect on our hikes, and Tom spoke of the early history of the Highlands. Bob, our third guide, had lulled himself to sleep, and was snoring gently in a corner, so we missed his part of the program.

After all this activity, I was so ready for bed – but it certainly wasn’t ready for me. What on earth was wrong!? Sleep I could not – possibly because I am cold and overtired. Naturally I drifted off a short while before I was due to get up.

The Bone Caves and the Highlands

By 7:30 AM, we had breakfast, and were off to the Museum to view a brief film on Scotland. Then it was on to the hike. The day was not quite as crystal clear – rain was forecast -but the sun was shining so we didn’t worry about it. We picked up our picnic sandwiches at the front desk, and were now ready for a full day out in the Highlands of Scotland…

Our group at the Bone Caves

The first stretch took us up a steep and winding hill to the Bone Caves, where we sheltered from the wind and had some refreshment (water). We were told that the oldest inhabitants of Scotland come from here, (at least, their bones were found here.) I think we were in an area called Inchnadampf. After this, most of the group opted to ramble back down the hill at this point, and eat lunch on their way back to the van.

Some of the best, freshest and chilliest water in the world

Five of us – all women – chose the “long walk,” challenging and quite grueling. We began by hiking up an 1100 foot hill – not too high, but since there was no trail, we climbed over rabbit holes, heather, tussocky bundles of grass and boggy ground – straight up – all designed to turn our ankles at the drop of a stick. (This is where really good hiking boots, covering the ankle, are a must, she said knowingly.) We were all breathing quite heavily by the time we reached the top – but more to come!

The top of this mountain led to yet another mountain, and up and up we went. Finally, atop a crest surrounded by the spectacular views of mountains and gorges – we sat for lunch.

We were hot to begin with, but the wind was blowing and the sun began sailing in and out of clouds; and pretty soon it was really cold. Quickly finishing our lunch and taking a private moment, we were soon back on our merry way over the mountains.

One of many streams throughout the Highlands

The trail-less ground became more and more treacherous – as well as boggier and boggier. Streams crossed our path, across which we leapt from stone to stone, or boulder to boulder, or we inched across tiny wooden bridges – all slippery and wobbly. All in all, challenging! (Note here: there are no trees in the Highlands…at least, not anywhere we were….but lots of ferns and scrub.) By the time we found the downward trail, we had been hiking for about 6-1/2 hours – approximately 10 miles.

The sun comes and goes – at one point, it begins raining – hot – took off jacket – wet – put on raincoat – rain stopped – hot – took off raincoat – rain pelted down – rammed on raincoat!

An enchanting castle ruin at the end of the day’s hike

We reached the van and piled in. Tom, our guide, drove us to a beautiful little ruin of a castle on the way back to Ullapool, where we disembarked to take photographs.

The castle ruin – an enchanted spot

Susan, Jennifer, Tom and I rambled over to the castle -again, hopscotching across two streams to get to the island on which it sat. The grass surrounding it had been cropped over time by sheep, and wass like green velvet – the sky began clearing to a deep cerulean blue, and all was quiet and peaceful. Beautiful. One of many perfect moments.

Rambling around this beautiful tiny castle ruin

Then back in the van, and back to the Inn – dinner- hot water bottle – and bed!

Loch Torridon

Loch Torridon Country House Hotel

On the go at 9AM – another beautiful day began as we piled into our respective vans for the hour or so trip to Loch Torridon Country House Hotel – an enchanting hunting lodge-turned-hotel. It was like something from a Sir Walter Scott novel. I instantly fell in love (that happens a lot!).

Today we had the option of a short or a long walk, so several of us opted for the long. It started gently enough as we began our climb over endless hills and dales – although I did manage to fall in the first major stream I came to, slipping on one of those dratted boulders!

The bothy

After a couple of hours or so, we arrived at a “bothy” – a small empty hut in the middle of the hills where we unloaded our gear and had lunch. It was charming. The sun was shining – and though it was cool, the air was so clear and fresh, and we had plenty of time for pictures.

Rosemary, Judy, Gail and Kent in front of the bothy

After the “bothy,” we must decide whether to continue or turn back. Several of us decided to continue. What a hike: we seem to be taking part in a marathon! After hiking miles across mountains, we circled back. Here Tom said: The track from here is straightforward, so meander all you want…

Ha! I was the only one who “meandered” – and found myself suddenly surrounded by panoramic hills with no-one in sight and several tracks to choose from! I had a moment of extreme panic, until, finally, the top of Tom’s head emerges like the sun over the horizon, and I jog-trotted thankfully towards him to catch up.

From here it was downhill. We hit the trail, which was totally rocky and stony – galloping at a pace that seemed destined to turn one’s ankle – were we trying to catch a train?! No time for scenic views – all we could do is watch our feet. I was exhausted when we rolled in around 5 o’clock.

A shower, a moment’s rest, and then we were in to dinner.

This is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful hotel! I shared a room with Judy, and it was large and well-appointed, comfortable and elegant. The bathroom was huge and we could look from its windows out onto immaculate green lawns edged with colorful flowers, on into the paddock where the cows were grazing.

Loch Torridon cattle graze in the hotel’s paddock

Outdoors was even more spectacular. Besides the sculptured grounds, all was green…green, green grass, surrounded by woods, mountains, and the silvery-gray, entrancing loch. Loch Torridon was – and no doubt still is – a beautiful, enchanting place – my favorite of the trip.

Loch Torridon and a Gentle Walk

The “back yard” – Loch Torridon Hotel

Wake up, got outta bed, dragged a comb across my head…zooming around as usual, in to breakfast – I loved my breakfast! Mueslix, scrambled eggs and bacon – the usual stuff but tasted great and needed for energy.

Again, we had the option: long or short walk. This time, I opted for the short. What the heck…do I think I’m Tenzing Norgay here?

On our short walk

Hoisting up our backpacks, we picked up our picnic lunch, and were off. Susan and Jennifer took the long walk with Brian and Bob. The rest of us went for the lower ground.

The sky was blue, the air was crisp. Our walk began up a winding footpath through glorious woods, to open stretches of boggy fields in which sheep and cows grazed or placidly slept. Pheasants ran through the underbrush – it was absolutely idyllic, one of our most beautiful and peaceful days.

A brief break on the short walk

After stopping for a drink and snack, several of us walked on for a mile or so, coming to an old stone bridge crossing a gurgling stream, where we ate our picnic lunch in the shade of the willow trees (and it was really nice to see trees). The sky was the bluest it had been since arriving in Scotland. Not a sound broke the stillness, except for the song of the brook. Heaven.

Lunch break

This was one of the amazing things in this land: The absolute silence of the Highlands, but for the water. It’s completely satisfying. No birds sang – there seemed to be few or no birds (they must be somewhere around!). But the sound of rushing water was everywhere… wherever you turned were waterfalls, lochs and streams or seas – gushing, gurgling, roaring, rushing, babbling or splashing – a country seemingly circumscribed by water.

Here a cow, there a cow…

We walked back over gently rolling paths, through green woods scented with pine to our hotel (approximately seven miles round trip.)

The grounds of Loch Torridon Hotel – I never wanted to leave

Susan, Jennifer, Brian and Bob, who’d taken the optional heavy duty hike, finally made it back around six that evening. Their walk sounded intense – 15 miles up and around a mountain, often plunging into boggy swamp to their knees, descending down sheer granite on the other side, according to Susan. The winds were so tempestuous, they needed to grip the cliff face to avoid being blown off the ledge. Part of the trip down was spent on all fours! They found it all exhilarating! I would’ve liked to say I did it, but I didn’t – and the “short walk” was so lovely, I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

The Isle of Skye and the Lighthouse

We are up and packed by 9AM, had a quick breakfast and were into the van heading for the storied Isle of Skye. The drive was so quiet and peaceful… gloriously beautiful … I love the Highlands.

Two hours later, we piled out of the vans in Kyle of Lockalsh for our only real shopping opportunity, which was great fun…then we drove over the bridge to Skye, paying an enormous toll to do so. I asked about but could not get “speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing…”

Our inn on the Isle of Skye

Our small, charming Inn on Skye was delightful (what else is new?!) Our tiny room had Laura Ashley pink and green chintz hangings, and a big burl wardrobe held our clothes. All the tea things were here.

Beginning our first hike on Skye

Dropping off our luggage, we were driven to the base of the cliff to begin our hike. The weather had changed drastically – it was grey and raining steadily. Raingear was hurriedly pulled from backpacks, and we hiked through the driving rain to the sea. Here’s how it went.

Hiking on the Isle of Skye

First, up a very stony and rocky trail, up and up…then down a steep, steep bank through bogs and over slippery lichened rock, then down the hillside where we slithered and slipped over rocks and heather. We made our way through many streams to boulders and small cliffs down which we clambered to the waiting shore.

Swimming with the seals

It was still raining steadily, and it was cold. Nonetheless, Jennifer, Brian, Tom and Bob donned bathing suits and plunged into the grey sea for a swim! Jennifer wanted to “swim with the seals,” which were cavorting and diving a safe distance from these crazy people who kept trying to take their picture.

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

Then again comes the option: Continue to the lighthouse or turn back. The sane amongst us chose to turn back. I was one of the few who opted to go on! By this time, I – and everyone else – was soaked to the skin. We clambered over some of the most treacherous countryside imaginable – down slippery rain-soaked rocks, slimy with lichen – plunging into boggy grass – going down, ever down – and finally coming to a green grassy sward and promontory – at the end of which was – the lighthouse! Hello, Virginia Woolfe! What an adventure. Challenging, but exhilarating at the same time!

The lighthouse overlooked a grey and stormy sea … we were at the end of the world. The sky was grey, the grass green, the lighthouse, white. The seagulls (finally, birds!) were an eerie note, rimming the lighthouse and the rocks below and cawing non-stop. Photographs were taken through soft  mist.

Are we happy yet? Yes!

After which, it started raining steadily and strongly. We took a different route back to the van, scrambling up through rocky watercourses, again plunging into mud and mire, slipping down and up rain-slick rocks and boulders…unbelievable.

Three hours later we arrived at the van. I was completely drenched. My boots had sunk ankle deep into the mud; my backpack – and all in it, including my money and passport – ditto. My pants were hanging from my body like clown pants; my hair was in rattails. The joy of the hike!

Back at the hotel, Judy corroborated this statement, also mentioning a drowned rat. She made me a cup of hot tea, and drew a hot bath – bliss!!

Then I dried off, had dinner, and got back fairly early to bed. Really tired tonight – no problem sleeping at all.

One tiny little glitch in this lovely place: hot water was NOT in abundance. Apparently, in getting a deep, hot bath, and washing my hair…I used up almost all the hot water on our side of the Inn! Bad girl!! I never told anyone, but one of the other hikers mentioned having to bathe in icy water…couldn’t understand why there was no hot! I kept mum on the subject.

The isle of Skye and the Back of Beyond

This was our last full day on the Isle of Skye. We arose as usual at 7AM, ate a good breakfast and piled in the vans for an hour’s ride to the boat we were to take to an uninhabited part of Skye.

On the road to the ferry, Isle of Skye

Susan, Linda, Jennifer and I shared the van with Brian and Tom – lots of room, and it was nice to be able to stretch out. About halfway to the boat – down narrow roads and high lanes banded by greenery starred with flowers – we were halted by a road paving crew blocking the path (a not infrequent occurrence). We took the opportunity to get out and hike to the boat, about half an hour’s walk. The weather by this time had turned crisp and sunny again, and the walk and the views were wonderful.

A windy, blustery day, as we walk to the ferry

Eventually our guides were able to drive the vans through the roadblock and catch up with us. We all piled onto the ferry, where we immediately donned our raingear as it had become chilly and damp over the grey, icy water. The ferry was large and carried a full load of people; it tool quite a while to reach the other side as we were taken to look at the seals resting on the rocky outcrops in the water. It is fascinating to see them – they respond with what seems to be equal fascination (although I doubt that).

The start of the hike

On arrival, we hiked up the mountainside. The weather had grown even chillier and more overcast – and the wind was whistling and howling around our ears. We ended up on a flat granite rock atop a hillside -our hoods up, raingear tied up to the chin. Here we picnicked, on what felt like the edge of the world. Although cold, misty, windy and wild – you can’t help but be exhilarated…

A quick break for lunch on the final Skye hike

Everyone was taking photographs, but despite the back-of-beyond feeling, we did not linger long. Another long or short walk was offered on the way back to the ferry. A couple of us actually thought it over, but in the end, common sense prevailed and we all opted to return to the boat, in the hopes of maybe getting in a little shopping – sounding more appealing by the minute!

Susan points the way – unfortunately the wrong way!

The ferry docked about 3:30PM, but again we are stymied by the same road-paving-crew when we attempted to drive back. After a 45 minute wait, during which we tried to complete a crossword in a Scottish newspaper (we were unable to understand a single clue – the puzzle was totally cryptic) we were finally on the move.

By the time we got to the first tiny town with a few shops, it was closing time. However, Susan managed to purchase a handknit sweater which is so thick, it could stand alone. It was very pleasant to ramble around for a bit, just looking and shopping and taking in the sights and talking to people who lived and worked here.

Scottish Bob, one of our terrific guides

By the end of this day, we were all pretty worn out. After dinner, all gathered in the chintz-splashed parlor in front of a roaring fire, to listen to Annie, a local Gaelic singer. The plaintive and poignant melodies and words of the folk songs underscored the melancholy beauty of  the place.

The romantic, legendary Isle of Skye had always been a dream journey. Bonnie Prince Charlie, sailing over the sea to Skye, is an old folk song that was sung by my mother when I was very young. I’ve never forgotten it.

Skye fulfilled all expectations. It was so very, very green and unspoiled, and relatively uninhabited. Tiny white houses dotted the landscape. Sheep were everywhere, rambling across hills and roads, unfenced and free. Our small inn was right on the water, and was so charming, with vines and roses clambering across walls and doors. We were surrounded by the loch on one side, mountains and hills and quiet land on other sides. It was isolated and remote – and mystical.

The Highlands were the same. They were green (or black, depending on which mountains you’re looking at), desolate, forbidding, ancient and timeless. No-one seems to live in the Highlands. The only sound you heard is that of water – waterfalls, streams, rills and lochs are everywhere – the rush and gurgle and song of water never stops. And all that you saw were the endless peaks and valleys with hardly a tree in sight. In the Highlands on a beautiful day, you were totally at one with nature; it was a spiritual experience to be alone here.

Hiking the Highlands

If the weather turned bad, however, the desolation and isolation become omnipresent. It often seemed you were either born in the Highlands and they were in your blood; or you cannot live there for long and survive. And if you’re of the city, then eventually the silence and isolation can become overwhelming. Those were my thoughts, anyway!

Eileen Donnan

Susan and I had planned the night before to get up at the crack of dawn and go for an hour’s walk before we are due to leave Skye. At 6:30 AM I crawled out of bed (well, okay, that’s the crack of dawn to me!), got dressed and met her outside my cottage. It was a lovely morning – hard to believe, as the worst gale to hit Scotland in 30 years was forecast! We walked down the quiet country lanes, enjoying the peace and circling the Inn- an altogether enjoyable ramble, getting back in time for a quick breakfast and then it was into the vans.

A short detour to a castle ruin high on a hill, and we were scrambling over tussocky grass and pebbly streams and up a short rise to a very, very narrow ledge – where we each clung to the stones and edged slowly across – or fell to boulders below! Once atop this hill, Brian read us some tales of Scotland, and had us act them out. For some reason, we also lined up in a row, each of us sitting on the knees of the person behind us, pretending to be rowing a Viking ship – don’t ask me why!

Then we inched back across the ledge – and drove to the most famous castle in Scotland for a brief tour – the Eileen Donnan. Its walls are 14 feet thick, and it was first built in the twelfth or thirteenth century, but burned in the 1700s. It was fully restored between 1912­-1932. It is history.

And then it was on to Invernesse, then London and back to reality. The Highlands of Scotland –a little uncanny, magical, poignant – but not for the faint of heart. But oh, what a wonderful hike!

In the magical Blue Ridge Mountains above Blowing Rock, North Carolina

Yonahlossee Overlook, driving up Grandfather Mountain

“Sometimes very strange things happen in the mountains…nothing above but sky…and God.” The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham

This is a beautiful quote from Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge… and there’s especially something about being deep in the mountains in springtime –the hush of the forests blanketing the slopes, the myriad shades of rustling green, the birds singing so happily now that winter is over, and the air chilly and sweet.

Lesley and friend deep in the mountains

A short trip to reconnect with Lesley, a friend I’d known since I was a child – whom I hadn’t seen for over 50 years – was four days of being embedded in the great beauty of  the great and glorious Blue Ridge Mountains.

 

Wednesday

Lesley lives atop one of the mountains – in a home with 360 degree views that take in the surrounding ridges and deep, pine-strewn valleys.

It is so quiet, all you hear are the music of the birds and the wind soughing through the trees. Charlie, Lesley’s cat asleep below, agrees!

At the base of a twisty, gravelly trail is the small (three blocks) mountain town of Blowing Rock,

I love this Harley Davidson sign in the magical little town of Blowing Rock!

where we went for dinner at the Storie Street Grille that first night … a small, delightful restaurant (aren’t they all?) at which we had – a first for me – fried asparagus. Yum-o! Followed by a perfectly prepared filet with polenta that was absolutely delicious.

After dinner, we ambled around the town, looking at the small shops and cobblestone paths, churches, vine covered houses, restaurants and pubs in the still sunlight deep in the mountains. Just crazy about small towns!

Thursday

I woke up around 10AM after a great night’s sleep, which I’d needed after a busy work week back home.

The weather continued glorious – 70 degrees. Sitting on the deck in the mornings, inhaling the view with my coffee, starts the day off perfectly.

We drove to Boone for breakfast at a farm-to-table restaurant, where we sat on the café’s deck and kicked back. Allie, Lesley’s beautiful Golden Doodle, joined us, good as – well – gold.

Boone, named for Daniel Boone, is a college town, home to Appalachian State University, and the main street was awash with students everywhere. The old stonework, for me, is especially appealing, and a part of so many houses and buildings here…

It was time for some much-needed walking on the trails so we wended our way to Cone Memorial Park, a Blue Ridge National Heritage area that is truly exquisite and beautifully maintained. Lots of trails. Canadian geese on the lakes.

Our hike took us around Trout Lake

Trout Lake

and up through woods into the mountains, passing an old apple barn (above) and a sign by the side of the road that said “Due to past pesticide use in apple orchards, some soils on the Cone Estate will contain high levels of arsenic and or lead. Do not dig or allow children to dig in soils…” Really brings you up short with an appalling reminder of the harm done in the past to these wonderful orchards.

Beautiful dry stone walls…always a favorite…

The trails were dotted with dry stone walls and old buildings, and everything was green green green. There are about 25 miles of trails – we rambled along five of them…

Friday

Sunrise high in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Woke around 9 in the morning…I’d actually waked at sunrise, which was so beautiful from the bedroom window, I had to jump from the bed to take a photograph. Morning has indeed broken…

Our first stop of the day was an English café called Eat Crow – we had English pasties, and I bought a bumbleberry pie for that night’s dessert. I had never tasted one before. It was delish!! From there, we took a circuitous route up Grandfather Mountain, stopping at various outlooks on the way to the summit. Glorious!!!

Driving to the summit of Grandfather Mountain

Once we summited and parked, the next big challenge was opening the car door! The wind factor was “only” 18 mph” but it felt like 100… Lesley had to hang onto the door handle while I exited.

Woof! Some wind!

Allie held me down so I didn’t blow away…isn’t she gorgeous?!

But the views! Unbelievable, and so elemental….I just loved it…I think it was my favorite adventure around the Blue Ridge Mountains – but it is hard to choose.

Once we got back home, we drove into Blowing Rock for a concert at the Inn at Ragged Gardens (don’t you love the names)…which Les attended,

and I, needing a bit of a rest, found the SixPence Pub where I had a quiet corner to put my feet up and drink my Boddington’s. Loved it! Wrote my journal and just enjoyed the surroundings.

Saturday

As we drove down and up the mountain from the house to various ports of call, I’m noticing the houses, barns and farms that hang precariously from the mountainside or plunge into the valley. Here is one beautiful image.

A home with a view

On this day, we drove back to the Cone Memorial Park, and wandered around Mildred the Bear’s Environmental Habitat, found secret side paths and dry stone walls, and stopped at overlooks to take in more unparalleled views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Secret pathways…

Blowing Rock was just two miles away, so we ambled in that direction and ate lunch at the tiny Blowing Rock Grilled Cheese Café.

We both had the French Grille. It encompassed Brie and Gruyere cheeses with pear and fig dressing on a grilled sourdough pannini! Heaven on a plate!

The town was awash with flowers…which always makes me happy!

Buttercups!

This was my last day, the end of a very special trip: reconnecting with my long-time family friend in the beauty of the mountains…many thanks to Lesley for a splendid respite. Doesn’t seem to get any better than this…the timeless peace, clean fresh air, mountain magic. Time just seems to go so quickly when you are visiting these wonderful places… All my visits to the mountains – the Smokies, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Shenandoah – are a marvelous build up to the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is just something about the Blue Ridge…but then, I seem to say that about them all!

Martha’s Vineyard – My perfect island

Martha’s Vineyard and The Charlotte Inn

I’ve always wanted to travel to Martha’s Vineyard. To date, I’ve been there twice in my life, and both times were each wonderful. But the first time – as is so often the case – was the best, having the advantage of the new and fresh…it lived up to every expectation and more. This is a journal of of my first trip, with photographs from both.

Arriving in Boston after an easy flight from Houston, I met Lene, and together we boarded the tiny Cape Air plane for Martha’s Vineyard, the start of a long-awaited little adventure.

In front of the Charlotte Inn

In front of the Charlotte Inn

We arrived quite rapidly at the island’s tiny airport. The weather at Martha’s Vineyard was glorious: blue skies, brisk breeze, and a slight chill in the air. The taxi took us to the Charlotte Inn, everything it’s been cracked up to be and more (and one of my favorite places to stay in the entire world). Waterford crystal decanters filled with Bristol Cream Sherry are in every room, so we toasted to the next three days. The tiny hall downstairs led to a tiny front desk; the Inn was full of fresh flowers – in our room, which we reached up a winding staircase; in the tiny hallway upstairs and down; in each sitting room. Our room was delightful, papered in dark red stripes with a tiny green pattern. Two twin beds with big thick mattresses, clothed in white covers and duvets. Dark green and mulberry striped draperies hemmed at the ceiling with padded pelmets. Two deep green club chairs in the corners. Two latticed windows opened onto a little side street, the third onto a grass lawn, flowers and fountain. The bathroom was huge, and snowy white. The Inn is surrounded by black iron railings or white picket fences. It was absolutely enchanting.

The back garden of the Charlotte Inn

We dropped our suitcases then walked around the town and down the road to The Square Rigger, a tiny restaurant splot in the middle of the road fork. Menu: broiled lobster and salad and a (small) piece of pecan pie. After dinner, it was back to the Charlotte Inn under a clear dark sky dotted with stars, in the very fresh air, with a brisk breeze following our footsteps. Lene and I talked non-stop, until we both passed out from exhaustion!

Edgartown and Chappaquiddick

A good night’s sleep, and we’re up. Breakfast in L’etoile, the inn’s beautiful little restaurant; the menu: spinach, feta and tomato omelet, fresh orange juice and coffee. I like remembering what I eat on trips, obviously!

Edgartown, a view to the water

After breakfast, we rambled down to Edgartown. How beautiful – and how clean – it all was, like something from a wonderful picture book. The houses were pristine, painted white-white or Nantucket gray, and flowers bloomed everywhere we turned. The biggest rhododendrons in scarlets, pinks and white. Lilies of the valley, hedging a white picket fence. Hawthorn, lilacs and wisteria blooming madly. Gigantic tulips, daisies, buttercups and forsythia everywhere, with geraniums splashing in pinks and vibrant reds.

Tulips in Edgartown

When we’d drunk our fill of the beauty, we wandered down to the beach along the deserted sand, until the sea surrounded us. Then it was back to town to check out the ferry for Chappaquiddick, and lunch! The balcony of The Sand Bar overlooked the main street. The menu: clam chowder, fresh shrimp, bloody marys. The air was bell-clear, and the sky a brilliant blue, with a fresh breeze blowing through the town.

After this slightly decadent lunch, we rented bikes at an adorable little bike shop. We were told to lock our bikes to the railing and drop the key in the mailbox slot on our return (I’d like to try this in Houston.) We were given a map of Chappaquiddick with “The Bridge” circled, where it was and how to get to it. Not a word was spoken of Teddy Kennedy or Mary Jo Kopeckne.

The On Time ferry to Chappaquiddick was $3 (round trip) and took all of two seconds to get there. On arrival, we set off down a paved road, and then the island quickly became wild and lonely. It took us about an hour to get to The Bridge. Along the way, we passed small woods with two-story clapboard houses, grey-cedar shingled, dotted here and there.

On Chappy

So here we were at The Bridge. As I was leaning the bike against the heavy, heavy wood railings and saying (sotto voce) to the wind: “I can’t see how the car went through these things,” a man bicycling by said, as he sailed past: “They weren’t there then.” Eerie.

The Bridge

The water on either side of The Bridge was very shallow: you could see the stones glimmering below. The only spot deep enough to drown in is where the car went down.

On Chappy

On Chappy

Few people were on the island today. We bicycled over two or three roads leading to more sandy roads, which in turn led to sea or woods. Once in a while, we passed a house. I liked this island! It was so quiet, all we heard was wind over water.

A view of the Japanese Garden on Chappaquiddick

On our way back to the ferry, we bicycled past a Japanese garden, about three acres deep. It was the most colorful thing on the island, filled with an immense variety of flowering trees and shrubs: blue, white and pink hydrangeas, rhododendrons, tulips, daffodils, spirea, and so many flowers I don’t know the names of. Small streams crossed the paths, tiny bridges forded the streams, statues dotted the landscape, and all was quiet and peaceful. Just enchanting. We rode our bikes all over Chappaquiddick. After about three hours, we were very glad to see the ferry! As Lene noted, “It was uphill on the way in, why isn’t it downhill on the way back?!”

Once again on Martha’s Vineyard, we dropped off our bicycles and keys, and stopped for beer and nachos at a little restaurant hovering over the water. The sky was dark, and it began to rain. We ambled back to the Inn, looking forward to bubblebaths and rest. Fires burned in the fireplaces in the inn’s sitting rooms, which were filled with flowers and beautiful artwork. I heard the church clock down the road chiming the hour; the church bells chimed in unison. A magical world.

Katama, Tisbury, and Vineyard Haven

View across the street from our room at the Charlotte Inn

Up around 9AM, we breakfasted downstairs in the little restaurant, with Lenox china and Waterford glasses beautifully displayed on the white linen tablecloths. Our menu: fresh orange juice, hot coffee, bagels and spinach, feta and tomato omelets. A long stemmed fresh red rose was on every table.

After we eat, we discussed going to Nantucket with the lady at the front desk. As the ferry was not available until June, we were put on standby with the airlines for a Saturday jaunt.
Edgartown lighthouse

Edgartown lighthouse

On a beautifully clear day, time for (we think) a fairly brisk walk before taking a taxi to Vineyard Haven. We set off at a fairly rapid trot up flower-straddled lanes to the main road of Katama. Very soon, we were out of Edgartown, walking and talking on an empty road leading up-island. The beautiful homes we saw were soon further and further apart. Runners and bicyclists became fewer and fewer. After a couple of hours, we wondered where the heck we were! But we kept on because our thinking was: sooner or later we’ll come to a town, and then we can take a taxi back to the inn. Wrong! We were heading for who knows where, even after a couple of people tried to give us directions – I mean, this is a small island!! Where is everyone?? Anyway, we decided to turn back to Edgartown – not soon enough for an iced cappuccino and a banana, blueberry, strawberry and raspberry smoothie! Our short brisk trot up Katama turned out to be on eight mile trek. I, of course, could get lost in a parking lot (as I have).

The wharf at Vineyard Haven

After the break, we took a taxi tour of the island on our way to Vineyard Haven for lunch. After comforting ourselves with cappuccinos, our first stop was Midnight Farm, Carly Simon’s shop.

It was adorable…and expensive. I bought a white wooden picture frame, the book “Midnight Farm“, and some powder and lavendar spray, but the shop had some marvelous overstuffed furniture which caught my eye. Lene’s attention was caught by the pillows, so we left with bags stuffed with lots of goodies. The weekend had begun, and the town was filled with tourists. The narrow Main Street was crowded with shoppers and stalls, and these had some wonderful things.

Discovering the ability to request shipping, I immediately sent a package of orange, banana and rum cakes, baked in glass jars, to my mother and aunt, and a little carved mirror to myself! Shipping is a wonderful invention. Completely forgetting about Nantucket, our return to the Inn is punctuated by a note pinned to our door which reminded us that we have round trip tickets for Saturday. On this high note, we changed clothes and checked on dinner ideas with the front desk. Before we blink an eye, Paula calls Cresca’s on South Water Street to reserve a table. Cresca’s menu has many delightful entrees, and we ended up with feta cheese salads, shrimp and crabcakes. Then came dessert. The piece de resistance was a sampler with a little of everything from the dessert menu. We ordered it, and it was delicious: tiramisu, English custard with fresh raspberries, ginger pound cake, brownie fudge with whipped cream, fresh strawberries and blueberries, and a vanilla ice cream “snowball” – all in miniature. We ate every bite, after which, we waddled home, checking out the shops on the way. Some yo-yos in a window caught our eye, and we bought one…trying it out once we got back to our room. Although it was almost midnight, the streets were still alive with people. The air was chilly, clear and beautiful, and the sound of laughter floated over the water…

Nantucket and Up-Island
Today was our jaunt to Nantucket! It was another glorious day outside: the sunshine was brilliant. The church clock chimed the hour of nine. Outside our bedroom window, the scene below reflected maids in black and white carrying armloads of white towels as they scurried over the brick walks from building to building. John was cleaning the black iron railings. The air was incredibly fresh, and the green seemed more intense as time went by. The fragrance of freshly mown grass filled the air.

Edgartown is one of the prettiest towns I have ever seen; it is so pristine, it looks as if it were painted white every day. Many of the houses were white clapboard with black shutters. We heard the lawnmowers and hedge clippers, and smelled cut grass and lilac everywhere. It was all so beautifully landscaped, edged and manicured, and the flowers are blooming madly. I think I am in love with Martha’s Vineyard. No, I know it.

Lilacs … so beautiful

U.S. Air dropped us off in Nantucket. We picked quite a time to come here: it was Memorial Day Weekend, and also the weekend of the Figawi Regatta – the place was jammed with wall-to-wall college kids, all tanned, slender and having a raucous time. Nantucket’s cobbled and brick-laid streets and gray clapboard houses were impeccable and delightful.

In Nantucket

A whaling town, one of the island’s must-see sights is the Whaling Museum. It houses multitudes of artifacts and information about Nantucket’s whaling history, from the first African-American whaler, to punishments for mutiny (pretty grim.) One room held the full skeleton of a small, 43-foot whale. The museum was dim, fascinating, and not a little uncanny. The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering Nantucket’s streets and shops, which have beautiful and expensive things to sell, all very enticing.

The sea is such an integral part of everything, we couldn’t walk more than two minutes without standing on a waterfront or beach. It was very soothing. Our plane took off at 3PM, and soon we were back at Martha’s Vineyard’s adorable tiny airport, where we hired a taxi for a tour up-island <see “Up Island“, by Anne Rivers Siddons>. Martha’s Vineyard holds a real fascination for me: it is so full of beauty and old-world charm, like a piece of the past come to life. Today, the sky was brilliantly blue and massed with clouds, and the sea breeze was constant and crisp.

Our taxi driver and former Head of Edgartown’s Town Council, Steve, took us up-island by way of Middle Road, through West Tisbury, Menemsha, Chilmark, and West Chop (I love that name) to Gay Head, now known as Aquinnah. Middle Road, as the name implies, cuts through the center of the island. It was lined with high, high hedgerows and dry stone walls, very English. Sheep grazed placidly in the green fields hemmed in by locust wood posts and cedar rails.

The Sculpture Garden on Martha's Vineyard

The Sculpture Garden on Martha’s Vineyard

We passed the Sculpture Garden, which is often mentioned when writing about Martha’s Vineyard, with abstract figures sculpted in white dotting a wide green lawn. Interesting! Always, seas, ponds and lakes abound. Over rolling countryside, Steve drove us to a beautiful bluff called Overlook Point. This looked down to a crystal clear blue lake with white-sailed boats skimming the surface.

Next came Chilmark and Menemsha, two tiny fishing villages, with small gray clapboard houses. “Jaws” was filmed at Menemsha, and just across the inlet, the remains of the “Orca” could be seen on the tiny beach. From here, it was a winding road to Gay Head/Aquinnah, and the Cliffs which look out forever over a silvery-gray Atlantic. The day was still brilliantly sunny, but the wind was immensely strong, bracing and fabulous.

The South Road led us back to Edgartown.

We arrived at our beautiful little Charlotte Inn, walked to The Black Dog to buy t-shirts, then back to the inn to drink Bristol Cream sherry and plan for our last dinner at L’etoile. Our dinner menu: duck fois gras, lobster etouvee, rack of lamb and fresh berries. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Leaving Martha’s Vineyard

A view from our room at the Charlotte Inn

We woke to another Chelsea morning: brilliant sunshine, clean, clear skies and a slight breeze. Poking my head from the window, I saw the maid scurrying along the brick pathway with an armload of fresh white towels. If we’d ordered the weather, we wouldn’t have made a single change. Martha’s Vineyard is everything we thought it would be – a little white-painted jewel set amongst many-colored flowers and underscored by the music of the sea. And the flowers! White spirea, double headed orange poppies, daisies, tulips, daffodils, narcissus, peonies, wisteria, roses, and everywhere…the lilac trees! The scent of lilac is in the wind. Everywhere we looked were green, green lawns, white houses trimmed with black shutters, all backed by vivid blue skies.

Leaving beautiful Martha’s Vineyard

This is one of my favorite places on the face of the earth…I love it. Goodbye, dear Martha’s Vineyard!

Hiking the Spectacular Spokane Countryside

Palouse Falls

Palouse Falls

 

June afforded a nice break in the year for a short visit to a long-time good friend, Lee. Our plan was to hike as much as possible in the beautiful country surrounding Spokane, and it was a joy from beginning to end.

Dishman Hills

Dishman Hills

As usual, the weather was perfect: lows in the 50s at night, and the high 70s during the day. Upon arriving, and after we had a quick nosh at the house, Lee and I took off for a short hour’s walk in the Dishman Hills, a green and scented trail that cleared the mind and really got us prepped for some a little more challenging as the week progressed. Between the fresh air and good conversation, it was a nice way to begin our journeyings.

Bead Lake - so beautiful

Bead Lake – so beautiful

Wednesday morning, up with the larks (are there larks in Washington?) we had a quick breakfast, checked what was happening with the Brexit vote, then got in the car headed to Bead Lake, about a 60-minute drive all told. The weather was perfect. Once we arrived, we ran into a slight problem: We couldn’t find the trail marker to start our hike. Our map stated “Forest Road” but we drove and drove, and no Forest Road appeared anywhere.

Lee on the trail

Lee on the trail

We decided to drive up an unmarked trail uphill which, as it went on and on, became narrower and narrower and higher and higher, with a particularly steep drop on the passenger side of the car – my side! And still we couldn’t find a trail marker, and had to turn around – no easy feat, considering the width of the trail by that time was about an inch (just kidding, but it was narrow.)

Bead Lake

Bead Lake

So our next stop was at the boat launch…where we met a delightful 77-year old man (he gave us his age) and his dog, Gordo. Don’t ask me why I didn’t ask his name…but anyway, he and his dog lived in a caravan at the lake’s edge, and apparently he walked three different trails every day. Was he ever in good shape – as was Gordo!

Boat launch - Bead lake

Boat launch – Bead Lake

So we finally found the beginning of the lake trail, and had a great hike for approximately three hours. It couldn’t have been more picturesque…the trees, flowers and the brilliant green-blue of the glacier-like water…it was like a painting, and the air was so crystal clear, inhaling was just a pleasure. We could not have had a better time…

Glacier-blue-green waters

Glacier-blue-green waters

After this, we came home hungry, and drove downtown to a terrific African-themed restaurant, the Safari Room in the Davenport Tower. The grilled salmon was delish, and the Ginger Dragon – a potent drink composed of vodka, ginger liqueur and some other liquids – was fabulous. And so to bed!

Palouse Falls

Palouse Falls

Thursday was a completely different experience – Palouse Falls, a throwback to the Ice Age, whose spectacular terrain had been repeatedly scored and eroded by floods thousands of years ago. The crevices, canyons, waterfalls and rocky outcrops and trails were a fascinating sight…standing atop the cliffs, you could see for miles around you.

Palouse Falls

Palouse Falls

 

This was our most challenging hike, for more reasons than terrain.

Palouse Falls

Palouse Falls

An hour into the hike, I heard a “flap, flap” as I walked and thinking it was something stuck to the sole of my boot, paid no attention at first.

My hiking boots halfway through Palouse Falls' hike

My hiking boots halfway through Palouse Falls’ hike

As it turned out, something was stuck to the sole – a fragment of the boot! And a little later, there went the other sole – so I sat down a la Cheryl Strayed, and peeled off both soles. Luckily, there was still a liner in each boot, so I was able to continue to hike with no real problem.

The trail down to the bottom of the cliffs

Rocky roads: the trail down to the bottom of the cliffs

Halfway around the trail, after this little contretemps, we came upon a rattlesnake…rattling away, enjoying a little sun in the middle of the road. Coming to a screeching halt, we waited extremely quietly; eventually the rattler slithered off into a crack in the rocks.

IMG_0307

Our next challenge was getting down from the cliffs to the ground below…the trail was covered in scree and rocks – one slip and you could easily turn an ankle. Thank god Lee provided me with two hiking poles, which were an immense help in navigating some of the more difficult areas. We got to a flat boulder bed by the river, and sat for lunch.

Lunch time

Lunch time

It was at this point I discovered that my cell phone – thoughtfully stowed in the pocket of my jacket – had smashed against one of the boulders. Thankfully, it had a protective cover, so although it looked bad – actually it looked like a splash of guano – it still worked, and the camera wasn’t damaged. Ergo…it continued to take great photographs.

IMG_0301

All around us were spectacular waterfalls, boulders and cliffs…it was here we lunched, with a weather eye out for snakes, and then got on with our hike. Spectacular is the only word for it.

IMG_0294.jpg PALOUSE WATERFALL CROPPED VERTICAL

 

And then it was on our way back to the house – a drive of about two hours through farmland full of beautiful green fields, yellow wheat fields, rapeseed and countryside. What a great day!

Green, green fields on the way back to Spokane from Palouse Falls

Green, green fields on the way back to Spokane from Palouse Falls

We ended it by stopping to pick up a marvelous crispy crust Meditteranean pizza filled with spinach, chicken, cheese and garlic sauce –why does food taste so much better on trips?

In Couer d'Alene, Idaho

In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Our next little adventure, on Friday, was into Idaho – Coeur d’Alene – which has always sort of fascinated me (the name)….the only day it rained. Since it rained and kept on raining – in Houston, you’d barely call it rain, but it did pretty much soak the area – we didn’t have a chance to hike. So we stopped in at a beautiful hotel, the Dockside Resort,  and had a yummy lunch: salmon, Golden Four-Cheese Dip, and quesadillas! Guess you could say eating and hiking our way through this trip – totally worth it! The restaurant overlooked the water and one of the world’s largest floating boardwalks. A lovely afternoon was had by all!

The water treatment plant walk

At the Cheney Water Treatment Center

Two short hikes and a quick walk through one of Spokane’s beautiful parks was on the agenda for Saturday. The Cheney Water Treatment Center may not sound like much of a walk, but we were surrounded by such beauty…ponds and small lakes, reeds, trees, flowering plants and wildlife aplenty.

WATER TREATMENT 2

After an hour wandering around the center, we drove to Hog Lake – not a particularly appealing name, but actually a very pleasant walk on trails through leafy green country.

Start of Hog Lake hike

Start of Hog Lake hike

On the way back to the house, we noticed a small grass-green park that looked as if it had a lot of promise. Fronted by a wide grassy stretch of lawn, the trails led through tree-shaded paths, up inclines bordered by huge boulders, and through flower-filled glades. Just beautiful…a fitting end to the day. After which, we drove to a small neighborhood restaurant for dinner, and an early night back home.

 

Fronting the park

Fronting the park

Saturday in the Park with Ro and Lee

Saturday in the Park with Ro and Lee

 

Sunday it was back to reality…an early plane ride, and a full day’s travel through Chicago until my toes touched the Houston earth. From the cool green of Spokane to the heat of Houston’s summer. Thank god for air conditioning!!

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Hiking the AT in Shenandoah’s National Park

Hiking on the AT

Hiking on the AT

After returning from our long-awaited hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the Shenandoah National Park, I picked up “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, for another viewpoint on hiking the AT. It was pretty wonderful to come across sections in the book that I too had hiked, and with a viewpoint amazingly similar to Bryson’s. There were times on this hike when I did wonder about the appeal of leaning forward and putting one foot in front of another while staring at the ground to be sure you didn’t trip – for miles. And often sitting down for a break felt incredibly good….until you got back up to start all over again. However, that being said, it was really a kick to know you’d hiked sections of the Trail in Tennessee (Smokies), New Hampshire (all that granite!), and Virginia….around 100 miles total. No big deal, but I like it! (Can I now be called a Section Hiker?)

So onward…up up and away!

The woods are lovely

The woods are lovely

Sunday
Arrived on time @ Dulles A/P in DC, and met those of the group not driving to the Lodge. We piled in the van and drove to Luray to the Lodge, where I reconnected with Cindy and Deb, friends from past AT hikes. We got settled, went out to eat (then back to Lodge, by which time it was around 7PM.)

Altogether, there were 14 in the group, including our two guides. We sat outside our rooms in the “back 40” as it got steadily darker and colder while Jan told us all about the hike and what it entailed for two hours. It was pretty icy by the time we finished and were able to go to bed. I was so cold, I wore long johns and hiking socks for pajamas to try to warm up.

Incredibly rocky, breathtaking views

Incredibly rocky, breathtaking views

Monday
Up at 6AM – picked up lunch items from our guides Jan and Kim’s room/packed the luggage and ourselves into the van, after which we drove to Walmart for wine and Gatorade!

Getting started

Getting started

Onward to the start of our Appalachian Trail hike, at the South River Falls Picnic area. All told, we hiked for a total of about five hours – all was extremely green, and extremely damp. Houston has nothing on this humidity/mugginess. It makes the foliage go neon bright.

At first, the trees were seen through a gentle white mist, until after noon, when the sun came out, helping dry out the air a bit. Flowers were blooming like crazy – pink and white trilliums, yellow mustard flower, the lovely little wood violets starring the grasses and undergrowth everywhere, pale pink wild azaleas. Logs and boulders scattered everywhere were covered with that particularly appealing velvet-like moss.

A fern forest

A fern forest

We hiked for a couple of hours and then ate our lunch, then another three hours of hiking, and then we piled back into the van and so on to the next Lodge. (About 5.5 miles)

Cindy and Deb strolling

Cindy and Deb strolling the Trail

No air conditioning in any of the Lodges, but it was so cold at night, we didn’t need it. Shared my room with a number of flying insects – a few of which I managed to capture and evict, but I finally gave up on the rest. I figured they were there first anyway.

The day and evening were hot hot hot, but after twilight set in – it became really cold again. We ate a pizza supper outside around the fire pit, and I finalized the evening by washing my hair and clambering into bed where I was out like a light.

Tuesday
Up at 6AM – ready to leave at 7. Having eaten breakfast, and made lunch, we began the trek directly from the Lodge, leaving the luggage behind in the vans.

The retiring wood violet

The retiring wood violet

After an hour’s hike, up up and up again, through greenery, flowering trees such as the service berry (what a name – it should be called White Lace, the trees were so beautifully bridally white), flowering apple and what looked like miniature wisteria. Flowers such as jack in the pulpit, wood violets, all color trilliums, phlox, geranium…nature is so bountiful, I’m sometimes overcome by the fact that these woods, these mountains and trails are still here, and relatively undisturbed by civilization.

Ro atop the Scramble

Ro atop the Scramble

Then we came to the Bearfence Scramble. This was a real challenge – and oddly enough, my favorite part of the trip. The rocks and boulders led us straight up to the top of the mountain. Boulders were all sizes – many narrowly cut, so it was extremely difficult to determine a foot rest.

We couldn’t use the hiking poles, just our hands and knees to pull us straight up (we jammed our poles in our backpacks.) Some boulders were a little slippery…  At one point, we were flattened against and clinging to the granite slab as we made our way across and down a narrow ledge – peering straight down into the valley many miles below. One step at a time…

Looking down into the valley from the Scramble

Looking down into the valley from the Scramble

Once we reached the top of the Scramble, the views down into the valley were incredible. Anyone who has seen and loved the movie “Last of the Mohicans” will relate to the awe-inspiring grandeur of these views. The trees were spread across the Blue Ridge Mountains, clouds leaving dark green shadows across the lighter green of the firs lit by the sun…

And by 11AM, the sun was out full force – talk about hot. Sun block’s a necessity (always).

Hiking through the green

Hiking through the green

We stayed atop the Scramble for half an hour, then clambered back down to the Appalachian Trail where we were once again able to use our poles. After another’s hour’s hike (up) we stopped for lunch. Through hikers (hiking the entire Trail) and day hikers passed us by, all friendly, all smelly!

Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe

After lunch, we hiked to our van; some went another three miles, some decided to quit at this point (me included). Afterwards, we vanned back to our previous Lodge to pick up our luggage, then drove to Big Meadows Lodge, where we had the next night’s lodging. Rooms were very nice, and a lovely veranda too – just about perfect.

Martha and Lo stop for lunch

Martha and Lo booked this log for lunch

Cindy, Deb and I were able to have a really nice little hour’s respite together and a beer before dinner at the Lodge’s restaurant. The views here are glorious, they really are. This was my favorite day. But after dinner, too tired to do anything further, we all walked back to our cabins, where we packed again for leaving early the next day. And so to bed. (Weather was gorgeous all day long – but damp! My god, my hair has NEVER looked so bad. Rode hard and put up wet, is the kindest way to say it….and I have never been so stiff, although that wore off. Managed to get huge blister on big toe, and little toe hurt like the dickens.)

Wednesday
Up at 6 as usual – pick up lunch at 7, breakfast at 8 – off to Visitors’ Center where I bought a sweatshirt, as I stupidly did not pack my down jacket and the nights were really frigid.

Beauty is all around

Beauty is all around

This morning was warm but comfy under the canopy of trees; we walked to the trail directly across the road in front of the Lodge. Today, the hike was over 6 miles, up ever up up up – hot by the afternoon, but cooling when we experienced brief drizzles.

A carpet of boulders

A carpet of boulders

We crossed boulders and rocks in huge rocky carpets…just when you thought that stretch was done, lo and behold, just round the bend, another carpet! We made it to the van around 3PM, and waited for the rest of the group who’d gone over the mountain on a different hike. Jolly good for them!

Another incredible view

Where’s Daniel Day-Lewis when you need him?

After a good day’s hike, we made it back to Skyland Lodge by 4PM, where Cindy, Deb, Lo and I convened in the bar for drinks and a good talk. I learned here about Blue Moon beer from Cindy – loved that orange under-taste, and the slice of orange that comes with the beer.

Then back to rooms, (which kept getting better and better) and each of which had a gorgeous balcony overlooking the valley below. I cannot go on enough about these spectacular views. Cleaned up and convened at the dining room at 7PM, and waited – waited – waited to be able to get a table, by which time I was practically under it.

A dramatically intense thunderstorm blew through about this time. The restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling picture windows magnified and movie-ized the lightning and rain as it passed over the valley. The crack of the thunder, the orange of the sun breaking through a black cloud, and the lightning storm were definitely like something from movie FX. Glorious to watch, glad you were inside!

Then a cold front blew in – and it was freezing. We waited for the rain to stop, then tracked back to our cabins about half a mile down a very steep tarmacked slope, no lights except tiny key lights to light our way…. Never so glad I had both my sweatshirt on, and was able to get back to my room in one piece!

The wild azalea

The wild azalea

NOTE: Everyone agreed how great to get away from cell phones, computers et al – but they were either on their cells or trying to get reception everywhere – all the time – breakfast, lunch, dinner, on the trail – just unbelievable, but that’s our world today. (I, however, am a Luddite and I admit it freely!)

Thursday
The final “hike day” was a long day – getting up around 6AM for breakfast, packing the lunch and luggage, etc. (somehow even though this was the long day, the other days seemed equally long!) We hiked to Stony Man Mountain with beautiful views along the way (surprise!), and then to the Pinnacles Picnic area for lunch. We hiked over 10 miles and it was hard – beautiful, but tough.

Somewhere...a rattlesnake waits

Somewhere…a rattlesnake waits

Mid-hike, we were informed by a through-hiker that a rattlesnake had been spotted in the grass beside the trail ahead. After determining that it was just off the trail, and we had the werewithal to go up the bank and around the snake, we each tiptoed by in various states of nerves. No-one made a sound, no one took a photograph. The snake made enough noise for a hive of bees…the buzzing of its tail was definitely disconcerting, and angry to boot.

Lo and Ro take a breather

Ro and Lo take a breather

After this short adventure, we had the option of two different hikes, each to end at Mary’s Rock. Four of us as well as Jan, our guide, opted for the more difficult uphill hike, which was shorter by a mile. Everyone else hiked around the mountain which was about three miles in length. I was either so used to the uphill treks by now that it didn’t bother me much, or it wasn’t that difficult. We made it to Mary’s Rock, and waited for the rest of the gang to turn up – which after an hour, seemed to be a long shot. So, picking up Lo on the way, we hiked on back down the trail to the van and waited for the rest of the group to show.

Atop Mary's Rock

Atop Mary’s Rock

Being on the tired side, Lo and I started complaining about our feet, among other things… So we thought we might develop a website, SmallandPetty.com/and I don’t care…and complain to our hearts’ content!

One of my favorite views

One of my favorite views

By this time it was after 7PM, and we were whupped…we had come full circle back to Luray, so a quick stop at the Lodge, and then we went on to dinner, where we all came up with our trail names. Suffice it to say, some were great, mine, not so great. I’ll have to give it another think. It was another night of rain…we were very blessed to have dry days for hiking, with the heavens waiting to open up once we were safely indoors.

On the trail we’d met two great kids, whose trail names were Cisco and Bozie – they were about 19 or 20, young men going to college in Utah…whether it was because they were so young, or because they actually were – they seemed very sweet and innocent, hiking the trail with nothing but a couple of tree branches and holey boots. They had the room next to mine, and came out just as I was walking to the door…both apparently having the time of their lives.

So … dinner, and to bed.

Yes, Virginia, there really are park rangers

Yes, Virginia, there really are park rangers

Friday
Managed to yank myself out of bed by 6:30 the next morning, ran to pick up some yogurt in Jan’s room, washed hair, and then we all piled in vans and cars and drove to the Luray Caves, a fascinating underground maze of stalagmites and stalagtites, which could almost have been the Dwarves’ Caves in Lord of the Rings. Just an amazing place. No pictures – but here’s a link:
http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=Luray+Caverns&qpvt=Luray+Caverns&FORM=IGRE

Then Jan drove us to the airport, and I sat and read for four hours waiting for the plane back to Houston. The guy at airport security asked me where I’d been, and for the life of me, I couldn’t think! Brain dead!

The green of the Trail

The green of the Trail

Stiff joints, blistered toes, fuzzy hair and all – challenging, intense, dangerous and beautiful…. it was definitely an AT hike to remember!

Hiking in Ireland: From the dear old Temple Bar to the Cliffs of Moher

Glendalough

Hiking in Glendalough

On this particular hike, I didn’t join a hiking group…Diane and I had decided to work out this hike ourselves, and it really did turn out incredibly well. We saw areas of Ireland I doubt we’d have experienced with a group (not that I don’t love travelling with groups – they really are a great option when you don’t speak the language!)

We flew into Dublin on Tuesday and stayed overnight in a charming Georgian boutique hotel called No. 31. Breakfast at No. 31 was delicious and extensive…almost anything you wanted to eat, we could have…and we almost did!

A street in Dublin

A street in Dublin

After a few hours catch-up snooze, we wandered across St. Stephen’s Green and down Grafton Street, tried to get into Trinity to see the Book of Kells, but it was closed. We stopped for a late lunch/dinner at a restaurant called the Elephant and Castle…again, the food was delicious! Fabulous bruschetta…both Diane and I devoured it. And the weather was splendid…brilliant sunshine. I also had a Guinness in the Temple Bar…what a treat! You feel as if you might come across Edna O’Brien or James Joyce somewhere around a corner…

The dear old Temple Bar, Dublin

COUNTY WICKLOW, GLENDALOUGH, EAST COAST

The next morning, in bright sunlight, we picked up our rent car and drove to County Wicklow. We stayed in a B&B called Barraderry House, which was built in the 1700s. Beautiful stone, set in a gorgeous garden, and way off the beaten path. We ate dinner that night in a delightful dark, beam-hung pub, and had an hour’s conversation with a quintessential Irishman named John, who told us he’d given up “the drink” 20 years ago at the behest of his children. We heard his life story, and told him some of ours…a thoroughly enjoyable chat with someone who looked exactly like Michilin in “The Quiet Man!”

The road to Glendalough

By the way, no smoking is allowed in Irish pubs any more…not that I care, but there was something about those smoky old pubs…

Olive and John were our hosts here at Barraderry…they were just delightful, and John was another epitome of a little Irishman…charming as all get out; we talked for about 20 minutes about Ireland, politics and the like, and then he gave me and Diane a great big kiss on our cheeks.

The next day (Thursday), we packed our bags, and then took off for a four hour hike around Glendalough…two lakes, surrounded by mountains…wild, isolated and incredibly beautiful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A lake in Glendalough

I was a little tired by the time we were through…lots of climbing! But really a good hike. That night we had dinner at a quiet restaurant, and afterwards, climbed into our little beds ready for sleep.

Hiking in Glendalough

THE WEST COAST

DOOLIN

Friday morning, we took off across Ireland for the West Coast, and a little town called Doolin. On the way we had a flat tire. It was hilarious although worrying as Diane ran down the road trying to find someone – anyone – who could help us. We were in the middle of nowhere, and nothing was in sight for miles…we were definitely beginning to wonder if an unplanned hike was in the offing. Then, in the distance…finally! a car with two couples stopped to help us…wonderful people, two of whom were visiting from the Netherlands. The two men fixed the tire, and after a proliferation of thanks, we were on our way again in 20 minutes, breathing a sigh of relief.

We got into the very tiny town of Doolin…rain pouring down by this time. Bought a new tire, and then parked our bags at St. Catherine’s Farmhouse just outside Doolin. That night we ate at an enchanting new restaurant, and had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was cod, but done so delicately with such a great glaze, it could have floated right off the plate…and potatoes to die for…fabulous Irish brown bread. Yum!!

Our host at St. Catherine’s Farmhouse, Maria, was very very special. She gave us big hugs, and wanted to know what our plans were …helpful, and kind, in every way. Just a dear, wonderful woman.

The Cliffs of Moher

The next morning (Saturday) was sunny, so we drove 10 minutes to the Cliffs of Moher. We hiked along these fabled cliffs for five miles, by which time the fog rolled in. The cliffs are beautiful, but erosion makes walking the path along the edge very dicey in places. I stumbled by mistake off the path onto a downward trail – yikes! Managed to stop myself before more than two steps were taken…but it is so easy to do! While walking, we remembered “Ryan’s Daughter” some of which was filmed on these very cliffs…lovely to be here.

After that little trek, we arrived back at our car, found somewhere to eat, and then drove into the Burren…which is a wild and lonely place. It meanders on for miles and miles…green marshes and mountains with huge boulders all over. I liked it! Our goal was the Burren Perfumery which is in the middle of nowhere; it wasn’t exactly what we thought it would be – no miles of flower and herb gardens, just a tiny shop and tearoom, but charming nonetheless. We bought some pretty soap at the shop, and had scones in the tea room. Diane had a scone, and I had a scone with clotted cream and jam!

The Burren

The Burren

It was raining by this time, so we needed to get back on the road!

That evening, we decided to go back to our enchanting restaurant from the night before, but unfortunately, it was completely booked. We tried four more restaurants – all booked…it seemed no restaurant (in such a small town!) had a table. In desperation, we got in the car and drove out of town onto the darkest, loneliest of roads on the way to Lisdoonvarna (aren’t the names of Irish towns poetic?) – by this time, the rain was pouring down, you couldn’t see a star and it was completely EMPTY of habitation! Miles of low-lying brush and one lonely road. Nonetheless, we beavered on…and just up ahead, saw a tiny spark in the darkness.

“Pull over” cried Diane, and we got out of the car and walked into the most Irish, and charming, of small taverns, in the middle of blackness, in the middle of nowhere. A tiny dim oak-beamed bar with about four tables, a huge fireplace all alight, and the friendliest waitress…who happened to be from Boston and had moved here 20 years ago. No-one else but us. By this time we were starving … we dined on a marvelous puree of thick vegetable soup, the wonderful Irish brown soda bread, and a fabulous salad…the taste – incredible. Such an adventure…!! all in the middle of empty moors and hills, in the night’s darkness.

GALWAY, FERMOYLE LODGE

Sunday morning we took off for Galway County and Fermoyle Lodge. This was a long, long drive. Remember we drive on the left hand side over in Ireland? That was quite an adventure in itself. Anyway, Fermoyle Lodge was located in the middle of NOWHERE (as are most of our stops)…but was an extremely charming manor house surrounded by hydrangeas, rhododendrons and flowers of all kinds, and the manor itself was set in a grove of trees.

Fermoyle Lodge lost in the heart of Ireland

The Lodge is enormously welcoming…beautiful stuffed furniture and antiques…big log fires in the fireplaces…wonderful hosts (Nicola and Jean-Pierre)…oh what a fabulous place. The house is stone, two story, and very old. Our room overlooked the lake. We met two delightful couples. Marsha and Jerry were from North Carolina in the U.S.and Gabrielle and Alex from England and Scotland, respectively. I fell in love with Alex, and will always remember him. He was gorgeous, quiet spoken, intelligent, well-traveled … and extremely good looking! Lucky Gabrielle!

The wild countryside outside Fermoyle Lodge

We went for a quick walk up a mountain with Marsha and Jerry, and then once again, had to drive an hour and a half to find an inn for our supper. We also stopped into a tiny grocery store again for supplies…I love those little grocery shops, small and intimate…and I love the Irish newspapers! So much fun to read that side of the world’s take on things back home in the good old U.S.

Back we walked to beautiful Fermoyle. Now, the only thing about Fermoyle is the water: PEAT BROWN…our baths looked like flat brown beer, and when I added shampoo to see if that would help, it just looked like FOAMY brown beer!

Also the shower: to say it had a life of its own is a misnomer. The first time I used the handheld grip, it took off and SOAKED the entire bathroom …carpet, antiques, towels, everything. Nicola and Jean-Pierre were NOT amused, as they spent all morning trying to dry it out.

The following day (Monday) we actually found a hike that went on for some miles. We drove to the start of it, about two hours from Fermoyle Lodge. Then we walked through green, dense woods, over streams, to an enchanting castle which had been turned into a hotel; we had lunch in its pub. So special and lovely.

A small island on a river in Ireland

Unfortunately, the rest of the trail was “spiked”, as loggers had felled many trees, and blocked the trail. We turned back the way we came, and found our car…this hike took about four hours all told. Although still not long enough, we both enjoyed it immensely. We spent that night at Fermoyle Lodge, and also dined there that evening. Jean-Pierre is a French chef, and was a little disappointed when Diane just wanted a salad (with very special directions on how to make it)… I had a salad too, but gave in and had dessert as well. Another yummy meal…talk about eating one’s way through Ireland!

CONG, “THE QUIET MAN”, AND ASHFORD CASTLE

Ashford Castle

Tuesday, we again set off: this time to a tiny historic town called Cong in (I think) County Mayo. The film “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Sullivan was filmed here…and every pub and restaurant and hotel is named after one of the characters in the movie, and every window is filled with photographs from the movie. Just outside the town is Ashford Castle, where we stayed for two nights…what an experience. The castle is a huge “pile” …our room was beautiful (albeit warm) and just down the hall from the boutique. One corner of the floor is given over to photographs of “important folk” who have stayed there…Brad Pitt, President Reagan, Keanu Reeves, Barbra Streisand…and the list goes on and on.

We got to Ashford Castle, found our room, put down our bags, then booked two hours of falconry.

At the Falconry at Ashford Castle with Oliver Owl

To have those beautiful hawks perch on your wrist…fly away and back…take food from your fist…glide through the trees…magical and storybook. Absolutely nothing like it. To actually interact with a wild thing, have it trust you so completely it eats from your fist, looks into your eyes…incredible (of course, they may have been thinking – oooh, delicious eyes – but I prefer to think otherwise). We also got to hold Oliver Owl, the castle’s mascot, on our wrists…a beautiful bird, magnificently feathered.

That night we ate in the village of Cong: Again, fish & chips…Nothing like ’em (good, I mean!)

Wednesday we spent all day wandering around the castle grounds…. Lakes, woods, the Guinness Tower lost in the middle of the woods (which we climbed to the top…circular stone staircase, so narrow you almost had to pry yourself up) and on the top…just trees as far as the eye could see. We had lunch at the tiny golf club in the middle of the grounds…then walked some more.

On the way to our room, we met a painter (whose first name is Rick, but I forget his last). His paintings lined the walls of the castle’s hallway. We had a lengthy chat with him, and apparently he is very well known. Queen Elizabeth has 8 of his paintings and sculptures, as do celebrities from all over. Very interesting to talk with him.

That night we ate at the Castle…all dressed up (as much as we could from what we’d ‘brung’). Then we went down to the Dungeon Bar, where a singer sang old Irish songs. I was called to the stage to sing “Galway Bay.” I’d had a glass of sherry, but even so I could hardly sing above a whisper…I had terrible stage fright!

COUNTY MAYO,WESTPORT

Thursday morning, back in the car. Did I mention all week long the weather had been FABULOUS. Around 75 degrees, sunny and NOT A CLOUD IN THE SKY!

We drove up to Westport in County Mayo, and tried to find lodging. NOTHING to be found. Finally, we took a twin bedroom at a tiny B&B with a bathroom the size of a pea. We walked around Westport, shopped a bit, had dinner at a lovely restaurant, and so to bed.

Far from the madding crowd

The next morning – dank and drear – we suited up to climb Croagh Patrick. This is a 4200′ elevation mountain which pilgrims – even today – climb barefoot. We were told NOT to climb it if the weather was bad. Since it wasn’t raining, we thought…we’ll give it a shot.

We got to the foot of the mountain, got our rain jackets and hoods on just in case, buckled up our backpacks, took about 100 steps…and it started to rain. Two fellows just then came down from the mountain. “Are you girls going up,” they asked. We told them we thought probably not, since the sign said: DO NOT CLIMB MOUNTAIN IN RAIN OR MIST. And we thought, well, maybe it had a point!

“Yeah,” said one of the men (both of whom were actually from Seattle). “The wind gusts at the top of the ridge are around 50 mph, and it’s starting to pour down. You’d be wise not to attempt it.”

ON THE ROAD AGAIN, BACK EAST TO DUBLIN

That put the crimp in the climb. So back into the car. We decided at that point, it was back to Dublin for us. We booked in at Number 31 a day early, I drove back cross country to Dublin, we got lost in Dublin itself, but finally found Hertz, turned in our rent car, and took a taxi to Number 31.

Number 31

Then (again) it was out to find food…we ate once more at the Elephant and Castle. Wonderful! After which we took a little walk along the Liffey..

The next morning we decided to heck with it, we were just going to shop. So shop we did…I do love to shop, and we dined at lunch at a beautiful in-store restaurant which had scrumptious salads…yummy, delish.  After which, stopped at the Bobbie Brown counter to buy eyeliner, blush and lipstick to the tune of 70 euros. And I don’t like the eyeliner! (but I love the rest!)

After a day of shopping, I finally bought my tweed jacket. I love it (but when I tried it on back home, I realized I’d lost weight and it is rather big. Must find a tailor!) Anyway, we made it back to Number 31, I packed my bags for the next morning, and we crashed.

Up at 6AM, got dressed, hugged Diane goodbye, got in the taxi, and then it was back to Houston. What a long flight that seemed to be. I was never so glad to see Houston’s flat terra firma – but only because I’m not crazy about long plane flights.

But Ireland…if you are looking for mystical magic on a hike…Ireland will suit in every way. Mysterious and brooding, green and beautiful…a land never to be forgotten.

Hiking in England: From the deep country to St. Michael’s Mount and The Sign of the Angel

A field outside Lacock

Heading for the Cotswolds

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” 

I’ve wanted to hike over England’s cliffs and fields for years – full days of hiking (but ending up in a bed with a bathroom – no camping for me!) in some of the most beautiful countryside on the face of the earth. I was lucky to find a friend who also wanted to spend time hiking the back roads and cliffs of Cornwall (which I had visited before) as well as revisit the Cotswolds. I had never been to the Cotswolds and Diane knew it well. So off we set….

I arrived at Gatwick right on time, and Diane waved madly across the baggage. Our first stop was the Cotswolds. We picked up the rental car, and we were on our merry way to Broadway, a beautiful small town full of atmosphere and charm. On the other side of Broadway in Wilversey, we found Lowerfield Farm, surrounded by quiet fields and country roads. It was a pretty, yellow-painted, two story stone farmhouse, with an appealing landscaped garden. Diane and I were so tired and cold when we arrived, we asked our hostess if we could get some heat turned on – but we forgot we were in England….she looked rather taken aback, saying “We don’t turn on the heat until late September!”

The bathroom had a marvelous deep tub – great for warming up. After a good soak, I climbed into bed and fell fast asleep. At 4PM, awake and ready to eat, we drove into Broadway. The overcast skies had cleared, and the sun appeared. We rambled down the street, peering into every shop window – all of which could have been lifted en toto from Dickens – all the golden Cotswolds stone – all hung with ivy and other vines, and surrounded by blooming flowers, from lavendar to double headed pink and purple petunias to bright red geraniums. Broadway is a charming town, full of atmosphere. The people are delightful- and it was not busy (at that time of year, anyway.)

A view from a bridge

A tiny pub and restaurant called The Horse & Hounds looked inviting, and a young Polish waiter with a long brown ponytail waited on us; he was very sweet. Diane and I shared a bruschetta dish (yummy), then it was on to pasta primavera, finishing off with strawberries and cream (me) and strawberries and custard (Diane)- absolutely wonderfully delicious. Unfortunately, we forgot to tip our delightful waiter…

Back at Lowerfield Farm, we found our hosts had turned on the central heat – just for us (primarily me, being a cold-blooded type). Diane planned out our Cotswold Walks – and we were once again in our beds, all warm and cosy for the night with the green fields of the Cotswolds and a profound country silence surrounding us. Note: We had an explosive toilet….

Lowerfield Farm, a view from the window the morning of the hunt

We view the hunt 

Up at 7:30, we prepared for breakfast at 8:30: Muesli, cream, coffee, pears from the garden, yoghurt and hot chocolate! Thank the lord we were hiking! As we were in the middle of breakfast, a hunt came through: we saw the masters of the hunt in their brilliant red coats, and the rest dressed in hunting green, with about 20 hounds sprawling across the front lawn. The horses were beautiful! Our next-table neighbors were three delightful ladies, who bussed in from another Cotswolds town for a few days’ vacation. They told us they spent the night baking in their rooms – someone had turned on the heat! We kept silent.

 Bibury, the Swan Hotel, Burford and the Windrush 

In Bibury

After breakfast we drove to Bibury to begin our first hike – Bibury is a beautiful little Cotswolds village with a river running through it. I was so nervous about driving on the left hand side, not to mention fielding the roundabouts. But we made it to the parking lot, and began our 6 mile walk through completely entrancing countryside – small woods, rolling hills, tiny streams. The weather was  incredible: blue skies, sunshine, warm – we started off in jackets, ended up in t-shirts. This walk took about 2-l/2 hours.

Another Bibury view

It took us back into Bibury by a different footpath, where we had lunch at The Swan Hotel, an historic old ivy-covered hotel overlooking the river. Diane had carrot soup, I had chicken tikka and chips! After this repaste, we drove to Burford to begin our second hike, which took about three hours. All told, we hiked about twelve miles today – nice!

Walking through fields of golden wheat

This particular hike was through fields of wheat cut for the winter – the imagery was gorgeous…then it’s back roads, and copses, til we reached a narrow river called the Windrush, where we saw enchanting white swans.

A swan on the Windrush

We walked through companies of cows, sheaves of sheep, and pheasants galore! Then it’s on to Stowe-on-the Wolde, where we had a light dinner (salads with feta cheese and lots of ciabatta bread…)

The Swan Hotel in Bibury

It was dark by this time, so back to Lowerfield Farm. The Cotswolds are beautiful, beautiful. I love Broadway and Bibury – small and lovely iconic English villages. But I felt really tired  — stress and jet lag catching up with me!

Stanton, Stanway, Snowshill, Buckland and Laverton

Hiking to Stanton

We were up at 7:30 as usual, and had a big breakfast: Muesli, egg and bacon, coffee. Then it’s on the road for a short drive to Stanton, which is (yet another) charming little village. First a word about the weather: it continued to astonish us how incredibly gorgeous it was. The skies had drifts of a few white clouds but the sun was shining madly, and it was 80 degrees. Everyone we met was delighted with the continuous sunshine. It was so refreshing; keeping it “hikeable” was a lovely crisp breeze. At night, the sky was clear as a bell, and the moon a harvest moon, immense and golden in the black Cotswolds sky.

An old English church graveyard

Anyway: we drove to Stanton and parked the car, preparatory for our hike from Stanton to Stanway, Snowshill, Buckland, inadvertently through Laverton and then back to Stanton. I thought Broadway delightful, but for me, these towns are the real thing! What a lovely, lovely hike. We started before 10AM, and finished around 4PM.

Laverton

Stanton is a completely charming town, and Laverton is absolutely gorgeous: Cotswolds cottages built of the sunny Cotswold stone, beautiful gardens, surrounded by the rolling hills and farmlands of the country.

On the first leg of our hike, we met a group of about twenty men and women, approximately our ages, led by a local guide. She said the men loved to talk to us “young sprigs” and we appreciated the sentiment! This is the leg of the hike that led up the steepest hill for about 30 minutes, and left me breathing hard (it wasn’t that high – I’m such a wuss). When we arrived at the top, the whole of the Cotswolds lay before us. Pictures I have seen cannot begin to describe the beauty.

Somewhere in the Cotswolds

We then hiked along a part of the Cotswolds Way, through fields, woods, over many stiles and through many gates. We walked through the enchanting village of Snowshill (in which I will actually stay a few years later) -a Cotswolds gem of a village, tiny and seemingly untouched by tourism: lovely architecture, picturesque homes dripping with flowers and beautifully and personally landscaped. Our companions left us in Snowshill, where they stopped to picnic in the old church graveyard, while Diane and I had a pub lunch – ploughman’s (cheese, bread, pickles). The sun continued to shine as we continued over hill and dale.

On a downward trek, we met a delightful woman named Maury who was in training for a hike for a cancer group, along the Great Wall of China. We had a fun conversation for half an hour, then she wound her way to somewhere else, and we continued through the fields to Stanton. We hoped. We weren’t sure where we were parked, so we walked the town and finally asked a friendly old man sitting on a bench beneath a tree: “Where are we?”

It turns out we were actually in Laverton — NOT Stanton — and were given straightforward directions to a stile around a corner down a street, then turning back into the fields at a tree. Hmm. (Laverton is another village that is a step back in time —  totally free of tourists — except us — no crowds, etc.)

We came to Stanton’s church spire, wound back through a farm, and found our car parked at the Cricket Club, where a match was taking place. Fun to watch, incomprehensible to figure out! But so nice to see those cricket whites once again.

From the top of the Broadway Folly you can get 360 degree view of the Cotswolds

Back in the car, Diane drove to the Broadway Folly, situated atop a hill, from which we got an astounding view 360 degrees of the Cotswolds. Fabulous!

Then it was back to our B&B, where we freshened up and drove to Chipping Camden for dinner and a quick walk down the main street. Great conversation at dinner, despite the fact that Diane is a Republican and I a Democrat! Then it was back to Lowerfield Farm, and so to bed. We were definitely hoping for more of this supremely gorgeous weather tomorrow, as this would be our longest hike.

Lower Slaughter, Naunton, Bourton-on-the-Water

7:30 and we’re down to breakfast (the usual fabulous feast) and by 9-ish, we were on the road for Bourton-on-the-Water, where we began our hike (about ten miles round trip, longer with side trips). We hiked through prosperous-looking farms, over farmland, through woods, besides rivers and streams – through Lower Slaughter.

On the way to Bourton-on-the-Water

A picnic lunch of crusty rolls, cheese and tomatoes in a field far from anywhere was a nice break. Then it was on to Upper Slaughter where we stopped in a pub for a drink – fabulous, incredible 80 degree weather.

Sky clear as glass. Then on to Naunton, across grassy ridges, through more woods and fields and eventually back to Bourton-on-the-Water.

Bourton-on-the-Water

The day was supremely beautiful. Why I even bothered carrying a rain jacket in my backpack I don’t know. I was actually tanning! My arms were brown as a berry. Not that many people are out and about, surprisingly. We saw a few – a very few – on the trail, and they were all very pleasant.

The mists of time

Back at Lowerfield Farm. Richard, our host, was a delightful man. We only saw him in an apron serving us breakfast, but he was invariably chipper and friendly. His wife, Jane, on the other hand, was  very distant. Richard was all jolly hockey sticks, cheery and pip-pip. I liked that. What a really lovely four days. Beautiful weather, fascinating hikes where we saw the “real” Cotswolds – real back-in-time tiny hamlets that are truly “old England.”

Dartmoor and the Warren Hill Inn

A view of Dartmoor across from the Inn

We left Lowerfield Farm (sob) and drove to the M-5, all the way to Liskeard (I was driving.) We stopped off in Chudleigh for lunch, where Diane took over. From there, it was on to Dartmoor National Park. I loved it!! So wild and desolate and full of sheep and wild ponies. Beautiful. You could imagine Heathcliff and Cathy running across the heather.

Wild ponies on Dartmoor’s heath

The sun shone all day long.

At the top of the world in the middle of nowhere on a road through Dartmoor stands the Warren Hill Inn. Here we stopped for a drink. It was a little cool out on the moors, so a wood fire was burning in the fireplace, and it was a true old-timey pub atmosphere, deep and dark. We chatted for a while with a man from Bath (incredibly crusty accent) who was looking at properties to buy for leasing to visitors. He was extremely friendly – took our pictures without a murmur.