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Fir-lined trails, farmland, rivers and lakes…From Spokane to Coeur d’Alene

Fir-lined trails, farmland, rivers and lakes…From Spokane to Coeur d’Alene –the beauty of the hike

Tuesday, May 15

I was so ready to get out of town…the heat was starting to get really intense. I left home before noon and made it through to the Phoenix airport, changed planes and went on to Spokane, arriving with no blasted-out windows or oxygen masks dropping down!

At 5:30, Lee was patiently waiting in the baggage area and we were out of there in a snap. The afternoon was beautiful …we scooted home to have a drink out on the deck of her house overlooking the gorgeous firs and pines lining the gully of her back yard. After which, we had dinner, a long talk, and so to bed.

Wednesday, May 16

Lee had researched some new trails in readiness for our visit, and on Wednesday morning, we were up with the larks as it were. The weather was beautiful, and we were in the car by 9am, on the road to Kamiak Butte, where we intended to hike to the crest.

This was a challenging hike for me – not so much for Lee, as she hikes around Spokane all year long! The hike itself is purported to be 3.5 miles – 1,000+ feet.

Unfortunately, I could not for the life of me get one of my hiking poles to screw to the proper height and hold. So I left that one behind, depending on the other pole to see me through when necessary. I really prefer two poles for balance – and once upon a time in the far distant past – I didn’t even use poles!

The trail was, of course, mostly uphill although there were some flat footpaths as we wended our way round the butte. Boy, could I tell that I hadn’t hiked in 2-3 years! Not only that, I could feel myself listing to the right, with the one pole holding me up!

Initially, the trails were ferny and lichen-lined, but as we ascended, they became rocky and bouldery-y – and steep.

In the distance, we heard intermittent thunder, and a few raindrops hit our faces, but it still remained fairly light and bright, so we soldiered on. Just like in the movies, we kept thinking – where’s the top of this place! Halfway up, we stopped for “a little smack of something” to keep us going, and then it was back on the trail.

By this time, the thunder was closer, and the gentle rain from heaven was definitely splattering on the place beneath. (Well, not heavily – just splats!) But we got to the top where we’d planned to finish our picnic sandwiches and have a brief rest.

It was not to be. The sky had turned heavy, and we thought we’d better get downhill and back to the car before the rain really increased in volume.

So back on the trail – getting about 3/4 of the way down and paying attention – so we thought – to signs and arrows showing which way was what. We came to a sign which said “Private Property” and more or less, “Enter at your peril” (ha!) but we ignored the sign, as we have always intelligently done in the past.

Down and down we went until what had started as a fairly gentle trail gave way to high grasses and NO trail. We kept hoping we’d find a footpath…breadcrumbs…something…but after half an hour – during which I had to stop, take off my hiking shoes and replace with my walking shoes, which I’d brilliantly stuck in my backpack – we knew we were going the wrong way…and we were tired. Lee took the moment to have a brief rest….

Nonetheless, we turned back UP the hill, and Lee providentially noticed a trail (which we had apparently overlooked before) which proved to be “the right track.” All in all we hiked for about 5 hours – about 5 miles total. The weather by this time had given up the ghost on the sunlight and was dim and wet.

My hair looked, as it does in these instances, like a brillo pad – but luckily for me, I can erase those images from the cell phone camera. Ha!

We got in the car and drove to a small café called South Hill Bistro that was absolutely delightful…ending up in a cozy booth with an IPA beer for me and a martini, then wine, for Lee! I had fish and chips, and Lee a beef salad. All was yummy.

Then it was back home at twilight, to sit on the deck and pontificate for an hour…and then as we were both exhausted…we called it a night.

Thursday, May 17

Slept late today (well, 7:30) and woofed around reading emails and the news, while Lee ran to the grocery store for some essentials of life, including of course Guinness… The rain had started in earnest by the time we were on the road; nonetheless, we decided to go to Riverside State Park, at the Bowl and Pitcher (a starting point for the river hike).

We got there while all was still relatively dry, and then took a few minutes trying to get my “other” pole to work – which – ta da! – I finally did. Off we went through the puddles, like ducks.

The river was in spate, and very high, lots of white water – rushing beneath the bridge we crossed and giving me a moment of vertigo when I looked at it through the bridge slats.

The trail itself was fairly benign, flat and few rocks or boulders. As we walked on, it began to rain more heavily, so it was on with the raincoats, and pulling our hoods over our heads. At which point, I looked like Bilbo.

The trail began to gather more puddles…and the mosquitoes were everywhere. Eventually, two hours later, we gave up the ghost and wended our way back to the car. We did manage a few photographs, but between having problems with my new phone camera and the wet weather, we decided enough was enough!

So it was home to strip off our wet clothes, dry off, eat our picnic sandwiches in the living room, and then take a short ramble around the neighborhood, whose streets were lined with the most interesting, eclectic homes…and beautiful landscaping. And wild turkeys!

Back home, Lee went into baking mode, and made some wonderful shortbread! (Tomorrow, rhubarb crisp!)

Friday, May 18

Managed to peel myself out of bed around 7am… puttered around for a little, reading emails and checking news stories, then upstairs for breakfast and coffee… After a quick shower, I packed my backpack – Lee is always aghast at the weight of it – and by 10am, we were off to the Old Trail Road trailhead, known as Trail 25.

It was chilly and damp, having just finished raining. But the sky looked to be clearing, so off we took. The trail was a nice easy walk for the most part…wide, bordered by firs and pines, and pretty flat.

As we entered a more forest-y area, it started spitting raindrops, and the trail narrowed and began to roll up and downhill, with some rocky terrain. I was glad of my two poles!!

The trees grew closer together, some overhanging the trail. Hills covered with trees, foliage and flowers soared on one side, while the other dropped off gently to lots of scrub and foliage.

Beautiful sage-green moss grew on the boulders, but many of the flowers had already seen their springtime and were not in abundance.

We hiked for about an hour, then the mosquitoes got to be too much, so we turned to come back. The day had started off fairly cool, and now was somewhat warmer, but not by much. But it was muggy as all get out!

Nonetheless, I didn’t need a hoodie – too hot! Lee and I matched hiking strides, and we had all in all a good 2 hour hike through some very lovely countryside.

Unfortunately, Lee had forgotten her backpack with food therein! So we wended our way home, found the backpack with the sandwiches, and had a nice 30 minutes of eating and yakking it up.

Now I’m going to wash my hair, and Lee to take a nap, and then off to Doug and Andrea’s (son, daughter in law) for drinks and dinner. Lovely! (And I can’t believe it’s Friday!)

Saturday, May 19

And here comes the sun! It was a complete volte face weather-wise today – the sun came out and stayed out, and the day was absolutely beautiful…and warm.

We managed to get out of the house around 9:30 after a yummy Lee-cooked breakfast, and made our way to Coeur d’Alene, through rolling farmlands, where we were planning to hike Tubbs Hill around the Lake (really, couldn’t they come up with a more descriptive name for such a beautiful place?)

The trail, while not terrifically difficult, was nonetheless uphill and rocky…it circled Lake Coeur d’Alene, giving us misty views of far-off mountains, fir and pine forests, and beautiful blue clear water. The trail itself for the most part was paved in pine needles, so soft underfoot. My hiking boots were holding up really well…and I also had my twin poles for balance, so I was good to go. Lee kept to a single pole, and beavered up the mountain toot sweet!

The sun shone through the pines, and the scented air smelled of pine resin. Of course, halfway around the lake, we managed to get “sort of lost”…no matter which trail we took it ended in deadlock. So finally, after an hour, we turned back hence the way we came. What the hey…it was still beautiful!! Basically, we walked an hour and a half…about 3 miles all in all, over rocky boulders, fallen trees and tree roots, all the while keeping the lake in view.

We were hungry, so we made our way to the Dockside Restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, where we split a delicious roast chicken sandwich with avocado, while Lee ate healthy with soup, and I scarfed down really yummy french fries. And an iced latte. (Well, I’m on vacation, so I don’t care!)

Back in the car, after some discussion as to whether or not to hike the Mineral Ridge – somehow the fact that “ridge” was part of the name gave us pause…we ended up driving back to Spokane, and walking around downtown for an hour and a half.

Spokane is just a beautiful town….the architecture is crisp and clean, everything looks as if it’s been scrubbed once a day. We walked the Spokane River pathway … the river was in full spate, and made a terrific noise under bridges, with whitewater horses jostling and sending up white sprays of foam.

The landscape was green green green – dotted with white and purple lilacs, purple iris, white spirea, rhododendrons, and other gorgeous flowers in full blossom. The sky was very blue, the clouds very white.

Townhouses built along the river were painted sage green, blending in beautifully with the landscape, and the architecture was pristine.

The river is home to all sorts and conditions of wildlife, and halfway around the river, goslings and their mother crossed our path…or, their path. Nice to be able to live there! I loved it.

A beautiful walk. A beautiful day.

After which (6 miles altogether all day), we decided to weave our way home, have a minute’s rest, and then drive back downtown for dinner at Twigs, a charming restaurant close to the river.

We sat on the patio in the late afternoon sunshine, sipping and just kicking back…this time a little group of ducklings and their mom joined the merry throng on the patio…they pattered around, duck-nibbling this and that, and finally found their way to grass and river. Perfect!

Sunday, May 20

I left Spokane, after a perfectly splendid visit…for Houston, where the surroundings are not quite so bucolic. We took a couple of photos standing on Lee’s wonderful deck and then it was time to go…

I’ll miss being able to step outside and almost immediately be part of the green of nature… Of course, this is the joy of travel…you get to be where you want to be, while keeping in touch with friends who feel the same as you do…So here’s to another delightful trip and visit with Lee, and the pleasure of seeing and hiking yet more of the beautiful Spokane countryside!

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Wales and England: Hiking hidden footpaths

The cliffs at Land's End

The cliffs at Land’s End

Hiking hidden footpaths in England and Wales

It’s been about 19 years since I went on my first walking tour of England and Wales…it was 1996, to be exact. The month was September, and the weather could not have been more perfect, the countryside more beautiful. If anything motivated me to begin hiking, it was this trip. Of course, not every hike is perfect…weather, nervousness about driving on the left hand side of the road (and the roundabouts!), finding a good place to stay. Nonetheless, the two weeks spent here were an eye-opener. Who knew these out of the way places existed? Some of the towns and countryside looked as if they had never moved into the 20th century…and still retained the innocence of an earlier time.  So…on to London.

London

London

London

Arriving at Gatwick I found a porter who whisked me onto the Airport Express train to Victoria Station – somehow missing the customs melee. “There’s no-one there – no problem!” (You could tell this was pre-9/11.) On the train into London, I spied a fox slinking into the underbrush, its bushy red tail waving in the breeze.

Once in London, I grabbed a taxi to the Covent Garden Hotel. I was meeting Lee here later – and the suite wasn’t going to be ready for hours – so I settled in the library sitting room to read and drink a cup of tea with real cream (three pounds!) The hotel is a former French hospital which had become a delightful four-story retreat, small and intimate, and splashed with chintz. The library offers deep sofas and chairs, The London Times and Observer, and London Vogue.

Lee arrived at 10AM, and off we went to see London. We sat atop a sightseeing bus in the open air – bloody cold! Disembarking constantly, we rambled around Sloane Square and down St. James Street, around Leicester Square and Covent Garden, where we looked for -and found – 84 Charing Cross Road and the site of that lovely old bookstore. If you haven’t read the book by Helene Hanff, do so…it is terrific (and the follow-up, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, while you’re at it.)

Back at the hotel, our suite was ready. Padded yellow rose chintz coats the windows, bed and loveseat. Beautiful more-than-full-size feather beds sit high, high up, with immense feather pillows. An equally immense bathroom holds a deep soaking tub with a separate shower.

That night, we moseyed once again around Covent Garden and Leicester Square, where the crowds were really overpowering –  there was hardly room to move. After a light dinner, it was back to the hotel to prepare to take off early in the morning.

The weather this first day has been just great – although cold, the sun is shining and the sky blue. A great omen.

Broad Chalke, Wiltshire

Chalk figures carved into Wiltshire hillsides

Chalk figures carved into Wiltshire hillsides

Surprise: we overslept! We had barely enough time for breakfast before our car was delivered. At 9:45 AM, a sharp-looking little red Rover rolled up to the front door. As designated driver, I immediately smashed the left hand rearview mirror while trying to negotiate the tiny, tiny one-way streets of London.

We managed to get out of London – but it was an absolutely wild trip, as I had never driven a “left-handed car” and kept driving into the curb. And the roundabouts! It took me days to get used to them. Finally, we got out of London, stopping in the tiny town of Weybridge for coffee and a look through a bookshop; then on to our first bed and breakfast – Stoke Farm in Broad Chalke.

The roads leading to Broad Chalke are through Wiltshire. The deeper in-country we drove, the more ye olde England it became. The deep hedgerows, the farmlands, the woods –the England of legend. The sun shone intermittently; parts of the day were overcast – but by afternoon, it was hot.

On the road to Cornwall down a country lane

On the road to Cornwall down a country lane

Keeping a very sharp eye out, we were lucky to spot a miniature sign saying “Stoke Farm” hidden in a hedge. It was 6PM, still daylight. Jan, the proprietor, was a charming woman who was so busy she hadn’t much time to do anything but show us the bedroom and bathroom, and ask us to write down our breakfast requests.

Our first view of the farmhouse looked like something from a Jane Austen novel. Converted to a bed and breakfast, it is built of old and beautiful stone, nestling in the Wiltshire countryside. It lies at the bottom of a hill (which we climb that night after dinner.) Baskets of flowers hang from every window, and the front lawn is surrounded by evergreens and flowering plants. Cows and horses lingered in the surrounding fields. Two dogs ran around the yard.

The entryway held a big Welsh dresser, with blue and white platters and china covering the shelves. The cozy dining room was papered with brown patterned wallpaper, and had a big fireplace, and an old dining table and sideboard.

The only other guests were a very attractive Belgian couple, who nodded and smiled and basically said not a word to us as they only spoke Belgian…conversation was limited to good mornings.

Our bedroom was, of course, charming – all chintz and prints – as was our bathroom across the hall. I leaned from my bedroom window to look across hills and dales and farmland, as far as the eye could see.

Just down the road is Broad Chalke itself – a few cottages, a couple of manor houses, and an old pub at the crossroads, where we had dinner. The dessert of apple pie crumble with real cream was heavenly – makes me hungry just to think about it!

We loved Stoke Farm. It was so peaceful and quiet, quiet, quiet. Walking up the low-lying hill that night, the silence was like balm to the soul. The sky was clear as a bell, and the stars, magnificent, blanketing the sky.

Wiltshire – Broad Chalke, Fovant, Stonehenge and Old Sarum

Again, we overslept: breakfast is between eight and nine, and we woke at ten to nine. Breakfast: haddock in scrambled eggs, toast and broiled tomatoes. The hot tea hit the spot. Once all that was under our belts, we planned our itinerary: to Stonehenge, and then to Old Sarum. On the way, fascinating chalk figures carved into a hill just outside the town of Fovant caught our attention. Quickly parking the car, we climbed to more closely view these figures carved by airmen in World War I.

 

From Fovant, we wended our way to Stonehenge – mysterious and fascinating. The sky was overcast, the day gray and windy- what better for Stonehenge? The monoliths are visible from a great distance, and seas of grass stretch for miles around…all is emptiness, except for a few tourists and the monolithic stones.

Stonehenge - mysterious and wonderful

Stonehenge – mysterious and wonderful

Old Sarum was our next stop, another strange and wonderful place. We climbed the hill to the castle remains, crossing a drawbridge across a great dry moat. The crumbling, immensely thick stone walls of the castle and the remains of “old” Salisbury Cathedral stood out against the greenest of green grass and fields. Wandering these ruins was a truly mystical experience.

Old Sarum

The walls of Old Sarum

On the drive back to Stoke Farm, we stopped for dinner at a quaint old inn down a twisty, winding, hilly and hidden country lane. Navigating these lanes by car, so narrow with the highest of hedgerows, was an adventure by day; a real challenge by night. The lanes turn and twist, with often only room for one (very small) car to navigate through. So far, we’ve been lucky – only one or two minor scrapes (the side of our little car looked as though it had been in the wars.)

Dinner tonight started with pate with hot toast, and finished with apple pie and cream (munching our way through England – thank goodness for all that walking.)

On the road to Lyme Regis

From the heart of England, we drove to Lyme Regis, through rolling English countryside – going like a bat out of hell. English drivers are truly another breed: if you aren’t driving quickly enough, the kinder, gentler blokes behind the wheel blink their lights, the aggressive honk madly until you move over!

We stopped for a little “smack of something” on our way down the I-30. The tea shop had great coffee. As a matter of fact, the coffee is usually excellent; of course, the tea was terrific, piping hot.

Back on the road, we pulled over halfway to Lyme Regis for a long walk down a country lane, over neon-green fields. In a sheltered corner, we stopped to eat our lunch, bought at the tea shop. In my pack is “homemade bread pudding” with raisins – half of which is eaten by Lee, who had formerly announced she does not like raisins.

Onward to Lyme Regis through the little town of Uplyme – very pretty with pastel-painted houses. Lyme Regis lies just beyond, and at first glance seemed very touristy, not at all what we had in mind. But after finding a small white hotel with two small rooms – about 20 pounds apiece – we headed  for the beach, walking through the center of town to reach the boardwalk. We clambered over concrete “sand dividers” to reach a deserted stretch of sand that was both pebbly and seaweedy and rather forbidding.

Uplyme

Uplyme

The cliffs of solid sand are high and dangerous, but climbing was forbidden because of the constant erosion. Then the beach suddenly opened up and stretched literally for miles, and the late afternoon sunlight played on the cliff face. For the first time, I felt “I’m here!” It was so beautiful and lonely and we could have walked for miles, but the tide comes in rapidly, so we had to turn back sooner than we wished.

Next on the agenda was food! We ate in the courtyard of a rather charming small hotel – fish and chips for me, fisherman’s platter for Lee, and it was quite a picture: two major fish complete with heads, tails and eyes. While we were eating, what seemed to be the largest seagull in the world perched on a ridgepole, cawing and squawking plaintively. I threw chips in the air for him – seemed to be the right thing to do, and he caught them as if he hadn’t eaten for days.

CORNWALL

Viewing St Michael's Mount

Viewing St Michael’s Mount from Marazion

 

We were in the parking lot at Lyme Regis, trying to find our way out. After several turns around the maze-like lot, we finally gave it up as a bad job, and asked the parking attendant to direct us to the gate – which happened to be straight ahead. The look on his face was indescribable.

Now we were on the road to Cornwall. Driving at 80 mph, and cars passing me by. I whizzed by a sign which says “Pork and Rice,” realizing shortly afterwards that it really says “Park and Ride” but who the heck could figure it out since we were going at the speed of light! Traffic signs were everywhere bearing such legends as “Traffic calming ahead.”

Marazion

Halfway to our destination, we pulled off the road to take a brief hike over a ferny footpath, then back in the car to head for Ednovean House, our B&B in Perranuthnoe. By the end of the day, we were extremely punchy, having driven 180 miles. But for the life of us we can’t find Perranuthnoe.

Impromptu walks through fields and woodlands is a wonderful way to see England

Impromptu walks through fields and woodlands is a wonderful way to see England

Disconcertingly, several people stared blankly at us when we ask directions, but even though some gave directions such as “you can’t miss it, only two miles down the road”, or “plenty of signs to it, dear, just keep going straight” we seemed to travel in circles. Only when we were told “turn right at Bertie Wooster’s Restaurant” did we finally reach our destination.

And here we are at Ednovean House – except for the fact we arrived a day early! Apparently really screwed up, having booked our room for Friday and Saturday nights; no rooms are available tonight! Once again, we’re back in the car, on the road for Marazion, a small town two miles away.

Fields surrounding Perranuthnoe

Fields surrounding Perranuthnoe

Just about to drop from exhaustion, we found a small hotel in Marazion with two single rooms. We dumped our luggage and walked downhill to a tiny, adorable restaurant for a delicious dinner of crevettes in sauce, mushrooms in garlic, and delicious chewy bread. Dessert is English sherry trifle!

Perranuthnoe, the cliff walks

The food at our hotel in Marazion was terrific. Breakfast included poached eggs on toast – the yolks bright yellow – English bacon, sausages and fried tomatoes. A note: these tomatoes are the best I’ve tasted anywhere.

After a short walk along the beach, we discovered that this is where we will walk the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount…

Back to Perranuthnoe, leaving our car in a park by the sea and immediately began a wonderful hike over the cliffs. This was the best and most fabulous walk so far, and was my favorite of the entire trip. Up, up a winding footpath through lanes lined with tiny pastel-colored houses; up, and up through farmyards and into lanes with high, high hedgerows. Over stiles, into far-ranging fields of grass and new-mown hay. Crossing fields full of cows.

The Cornish coast is heavenly

The Cornish coast is heavenly

The sea is visible at a distance, and then: bang! We’re on the cliffs of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – looking down, down – waves crashing on the rocks, the sea crystal-blue-green, like glass. We clambered over the cliffs, across rocks and boulders, finding winding footpaths down, through blackberry brambles full of ripening berries, through fern and nettle.

The wind gusted across the cliffs, the sun was brilliant, the day warm and glorious. We rested on the rocks below, taking in the fabulous beauty before returning to the cliff top – and feeling fabulously alive. This was an incredibly magnificent site…we were both in awe of the majesty of the vistas surrounding us.

At the end of the day, we finally ensconced ourselves in Ednovean House. The view from our window was amazing: across emerald green fields, you see the sea, a clear, deep blue, mirroring the sky above. Set against this glamour are the storied island and castle of St. Michael’s Mount, which floats in the bay like some fabled “casement in faery lands forlorn.” Backed by the gold of the setting sun, it could be the Isle of Avalon come to life. The air is crystal clear and the view was/is  perfection.

An early morning walk behind our B&B in Perranuthnoe

An early morning walk behind our B&B in Perranuthnoe

We had cocktails on the lawn in the late day sunshine; St. Michael’s Mount was our backdrop. A magic moment. Lee and I both lifted a glass to this wonderful memory-in-the­-making.

Val and Arthur, the proprietors, serve a yummy dinner: steak and kidney pudding with the crust made from scratch, fresh crisp green beans, carrots, and zucchini, and zesty crispy potatoes. Dessert is brandy pudding with clotted cream. Too good to pass up, but I am glad, glad, glad we are walking and hiking as much as we are!

St. Michael’s Mount, Mousehole and Land’s End

Up at 6:30AM, we returned to Marazion to begin our adventure, and fulfill one of my childhood dreams: to walk the pebble causeway to St. Michael’s Mount. Only twice a day (early morning and midnight) is the causeway accessible, the tide being at the full at all other times.

We were the only people on the causeway, except for one solitary man. The tide was out, and had left fishing boats beached in the sandy cove. Unfortunately, we were unable to actually enter the castle, as it is too early in the morning, but we were able to walk the outside grounds.

St Michael's Mount - sunset

St Michael’s Mount – a view from our B&B at sunset

Yet although this is a tiny island, small houses are built around the castle’s outer walls. All is gray stone…castle, houses, walkway, a perfect backdrop for the flowers, which are a painter’s dream of color: one wall drips with immense hydrangeas in all colors. Another wall is muralled with a history of St. Michael’s, painted in delicate detail. The morning is clear and the sky takes on the colors of the sea…it is a perfect, peaceful place.

On St. Michael's Mount

On St. Michael’s Mount

The tide turned, and the causeway was awash, so back to Ednovean House in time for breakfast…then we were off to Mousehole, a tiny fishing village that was home to my grandmother and grandfather many years past. Mousehole is built on a hill, its tiny grassy paths leading to backs of houses, and uphill to glorious views of the bay. Its tiny harbor is filled with fishing boats, and many, many people wander its winding cobbled streets.

A street in Mousehole

A street in Mousehole

The sun shone brilliantly, and the day was balmy. September is a holiday month, and with this glorious weather, every last person was out enjoying it.

After a brief halt for tea, we were again back in the car, driving up the winding lanes to the cliffs of Land’s End. At first glance, Land’s End is not appealing, as it is fronted by a huge whitewashed “castle” backed by booths, rides and whatnot. We ignored all this, and walked to the headland, covered in purple heather and yellow gorse.

The cliffs of Land's End

The cliffs of Land’s End

The view was spectacular. A narrow footpath took us to the cliff’s edge, and in some places, the drop was sheer. We walked about four miles along the cliffs, which look far, far out to sea. The sea was tipped with silver in the sunlight, and crashed in mighty waves over the rocks below. Incredibly beautiful.

Back to Perranuthnoe, for dinner at Victoria Inn in the village. Perranuthnoe is a village forgotten by time: tiny and tinier, it houses several bed and breakfasts, old stone houses covered in ivy and hung with baskets of flowers, and the church. It is banked by the sea, and absolutely massed with flowers all in bloom. The colors! The flowers! Nasturtiums, sunflowers, daisies, hydrangeas, huge pots of massed orange and red geraniums. All houses are decorated with flowers…pots and hanging baskets are everywhere we look. The hedges along the roadsides are starred with all manner of tiny wildflowers. It is a delightful spot.

Perranuthnoe

Perranuthnoe

St. Kew and Crackington Haven

Up at eight, we had breakfast of coffee, juice, muesli and tomatoes on toast with toast. Hmm! Now packing up ready to leave for Crackington Haven and Tintagel.

On the road, manicured, pristine farm country surrounds us. About ten miles from our destination, we pulled onto a tiny side lane, parked and set off in the direction of St. Kew. A green field uninhabited by cows called to us, so we picnicked in the sunshine, with sandwiches, chips, blackberries from the bush, and a half-melted Aero bar.

St Kew Inn

St Kew Inn

Afterwards, we rambled awhile in the general direction of St. Kew. It is tremendously exhilarating to just be able to walk without being bothered by people, cars or signs saying “no trespassing”. The narrow road leads through the high green hedgerows and tiny villages, past old stone houses with slate or thatched roofs which are hung with baskets filled with nasturtiums and daisies; past manor houses set back in green fields, surrounded by immense bushes of blue and multicolored hydrangeas.

We came to St. Kew, a tiny, tiny village with a wonderful old church and tiny graveyard, with gravestones so old we are unable to read them. We stop at an inn for coffee, then turn back to the car. Up the lane, we notice a manor house for sale, set back from the road with a long drive bound by rhododendrons. I pretended I lived there just for a moment…can’t imagine how magical that would be.

It was so quiet. Tiny birds were singing, but no other sound was heard. We were really in deep country; although hard to believe, it does still exist, unspoilt, fresh, and utterly satisfying. The air is clean; we’re still having beautiful weather, and the breeze was brisk and evergreen-scented.

We drove on to Crackington Haven…not far, actually. The road to Crackington Haven, which is situated high atop a hill overlooking the sea, winds up, up and up. We turned down the short grassy lane to Manor Farm, which, we were told, is listed in the Domesday Book. It is very, very old, and very, very beautiful.

The garden at Crackington Haven

The garden at our B&B in Crackington Haven

The grounds, looking as if they are clipped daily with nail scissors, were splashed hydrangea bushes at every possible turn, all blooming in glorious colors.

Walking woods on the road to Crackington Haven

Walking woods on the road to Crackington Haven

The house itself had stone flagged floors. Our bedroom had twin beds covered with rose flowered chintz covers and frilled pillowcases. The room – as are all the rooms -was whitewashed, with dark oak Tudor beams, and a very low ceiling. The bathroom also had oak beams, on which I had already knocked my head, and a step-down, which had sent Lee crashing into the tub. (Expletives here.) The room had two low, low, low diamond-paned dormer windows with inset window seats. Another smaller window faced the beds.

Muriel, the proprietor, took us through the sitting room with large windows looking onto green lawns, and on into the dining room where a highly polished table was set for six, with place cards. Uh-oh. Our trip has been very casual, as far as clothes are concerned. We have come up against it here; when we ask Muriel if we dress for dinner, she answers “Ectually….yes!” in no uncertain terms.

I had to wear what I have, the best of it being a cashmere sweater and khakis. Lee had on jeans and black socks: “Black socks make any outfit, my dear!”

We were told to be back from our walk by 5:30 to do the wash; drinks in the bar are at 6:30 sharp; dinner is at 7; and breakfast is at 8:30AM. This is about all the regimentation I can take. We’re glad that we plan to be out all day Monday, and must find our own dinner Monday night!

Hiking the cliffs at Crackington Haven

Hiking the cliffs at Crackington Haven

After an hour-long walk, we took our dirty clothes to be washed at the requested 5:30 PM. Cleaned up, we ran back downstairs for cocktails at 6:30. (Our clothes are given the once-over, then ignored.) Dinner, where we met  two young couples staying at the Manor, was turkey steaks with mustard sauce, fig pie with raspberry sauce and clotted cream, cheese and biscuits, and wine. Coffee is served afterwards in the drawing room.

We log in another five miles today!

Crackington Haven, Bude, Tintagel, and Boscastle

Out on the road for a quick walk at 7AM, we zoomed back for breakfast at 8:30 sharp. Muriel, a former schoolteacher, rings a little bell to remind us that breakfast is served.

Beginning one of our walks at Crackington Haven

Beginning one of our walks at Crackington Haven

We have a full breakfast of orange juice, sausage, bacon, eggs, fried bread, tomato, toast and coffee. And are requested not to leave anything on the plate, or not to order anything that we won’t eat. Gee, where’s the joy in that?!

Then we took off to explore. First on our list was Bude and a walk over the cliffs. Bude is not a pretty place. The sand on the beach was churned up in giant mud flats, and the day was overcast and dreary. We decided to move on to Tintagel. And what a disappointment it was (to me, anyway)! The town is very gimmicky and full of tourists, and the headland itself was blocked by King Arthur’s Castle Hotel, a ghastly lump of red brick with absolutely no redeeming architectural value. We were shocked, and needless to say, did not stop. In retrospect, that was a mistake, as there’s always something hidden behind the touristy buildings that makes a visit worthwhile. Nonetheless, we plowed on to Boscastle.

Views around Boscastle

Views around Boscastle

It’s not far to Boscastle, a harbor town built down the side of a mountain. Steep, steep, steep little roads led to a walled village over which the mountain cast its immense shadow. We met a bus head-on, and the roads are so narrow, our lives flashed before our eyes! The houses and buildings here are very old, with gray slate roofs, and pots of bright flowers hanging from walls and dotting the small gardens. The trees lining the road are strung with ivy; dry stone walls support the soaring mountain forest at every turn; lichen and moss cover every possible rock, crack and crevice, and a wide variety of delicate flowers poke their heads from the hedgerows.

Boscastle

Boscastle

After a fish and chip lunch, we returned to Crackington Haven, to hike over the cliffs. Our path gave us spectacular views of the great Atlantic Ocean, the waves tipped with silver and pearl. We are so high up, we feel as if we’re walking on the roof of the world. As we look back to the footpaths we’ve climbed, it’s hard to believe we actually climbed them!

Carpeted in purple heather and yellow gorse, the cliffs stretch as far as the eye could see. By this time, the sun had begun to emerge, which gives the entire day a different perspective (it is certainly cooler here than in Perranuthnoe, which, we find out, is part of what is known as the English Riviera.)

We hiked past The Strangles, that silver, wild, wind-whipped part of the ocean below. Looking for seals among the waves, we missed the return footpath across the fields. Many a cow-laden field is crossed, and we eventually find a path leading through a wooded ravine. After crossing small bridges across limpid, pebble-lined streams, we were finally back at Crackington Haven Cove at the base of the cliff, where a hot cup of tea at a small tea shop revived us. That, plus sitting in the sun, and afterward, walking across the pebbled beach to the receding tide. We heard the sound of the pebbles being sucked back into the sea…”that melancholy, long-withdrawing roar.”

The Strangles, Crackington Haven

The Strangles, Crackington Haven

The undertow was terrifically strong. Earlier, under a gray sky we had seen bathers in the water, which to our touch is icy. Yikes!

We logged in ten miles or so from our hike, and as dinner was not being served at the manor that night, decided to go out for a picnic dinner. Flinging a long scarf around my neck, dressed in khaki green jacket and boots and looking like a WWI pilot, according to Lee, we sneaked into the bar to pick up some lager. This, together with tomatoes, pasties, apples and cheese, was our dinner. We set out for a small field around the corner to eat and relax. There is something so out of time about this: sitting in an English field far, far from all we have known, in the late twilight, surrounded by deep English country…an indescribable experience, albeit somewhat damp.

INTO WALES

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

The Wye Valley, Tintern Abbey, Swansea and Mumbles

Early this morning we hiked for twenty minutes, making sure we are back in time for the breakfast bell. Two new couples joined us at the breakfast table, one from Chepstow in the Wye Valley, and one from New Jersey. Another hearty breakfast is consumed (both of us too nervous about Muriel to leave anything on our plates), and then we were out the door and off.

The couple from Chepstow spoke so glowingly of the Wye Valley, we turned onto the road to Tintern Abbey. The Abbey is a beautiful ruin, the gray stone as fragile as lace, set on a green grassy sward, at the base of a towering mountain.

A quick lunch, and we’re back on the road to Wales, and Mumbles, Swansea.

What a drive: we logged 240 miles, I wondered if we’d ever arrive. When we did, belching fumes and smoke from various pipestacks met our eyes – this is not the Swansea I remember from childhood, but I guess all things must pass.

We finally reach Mumbles, where I spent much of my childhood. It has become a tourist mecca, and is thronged with people. Every road and pathway is built up. I wondered if Thistleboone Gardens was still there….not only is it still there, it looked just the same as it did when I was a child. But… we were no longer able to walk from the Gardens over the cliffs; built over with subdivisions, the land has become too valuable to stay wild.

The Mumbles cliff walk

The Mumbles, Wales cliff walk

As we hadn’t booked into a B&B or hotel, we had a difficult time finding somewhere to stay. Finally we found a rather primitive B&B – only one toilet, and NO soap! Our proprietors, however, were delightful (and the food is good, always a plus.) We toted our luggage upstairs, then left for a walk along the front to the old pier. The castle still brooded on the hilltop. The boardwalk was filled with tiny booths and video games. The population was out in full force, as the weather was  balmy. But it is true: you can’t go home again. It was difficult to see this place of my childhood so clogged with shops, houses, cars, and people. In retrospect, I realize that perhaps I set my sights too high. The years had made a difference.

A quick dinner of fish and chips, and then back up the hill to our B&B. We are so exhausted, we crawl into our beds and are out like lights.

Langland and Bracelet Bays, The Brecon Beacons and the Great Malverns

After a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast, we packed and locked the car, then left for a couple of hours of walking across the cliffs to Langland and Bracelet Bays. What a glorious, glorious walk. The weather continued to be fabulous. The sun broke through the mist, and it was a beautiful day, and very warm.

Beginning of the Mumbles cliff walk

Beginning of the Mumbles cliff walk

Langland itself is now a retirement community. A few people from the settlement were walking on the footpath over the cliffs, taking in the clean morning air. The cliff walk was exactly as I remembered it, right up to and including the 1930’s style bathing huts lining the cliff top.

Past Langland to Bracelet, and I clambered down the cliffs to the sand – a little nervewracking, as the drop is steeper than it seemed when I began! Bracelet Bay is also exactly as I remember it when I was a child…a wide curve of smooth yellow untrammeled sand, surrounded by cliffs covered in yellow gorse and purple heather. Blackberry bushes abound, berries ripening in the sun…. The flowers were rioting color – orange nasturtiums, yellow gorse, purple heather, hot pink petunias, white daisies, orange-red geraniums, purple-white freesias, white and purple lilac, smelling like heaven. The grass was green, green, green. We passed a red currant bush full of currants, shining like jewels on the branches. Talk about yummy!

The sands at The Mumbles

The sands at The Mumbles

After a two-hour walk, onwards to Mumbles to pick up some supplies and cash checks (these were the days before ATMs – medieval times). I walked across the boardwalk to the sea, which has receded to leave fishing boats beached like whitefish across the exposed reaches of sand. Some things haven’t changed one iota.

Eventually we left Mumbles to drive through the Brecon Beacons, to Herefordshire and the Great Malverns. The route is tortuous, as we got lost trying to find our way out of Swansea, but finally, we were on the open road again.

BACK INTO ENGLAND

The Great Malverns and Herefordshire

The Brecon Beacons took us through wild, empty country showcasing secluded dales and valleys. What views! Sheep roamed freely across mountain tops and stony outcrops. Some rambled across the roads, some rested or grazed. For endless miles, the land stretched out isolated and lonely except for the sheep. It is a fascinating, desolate, eerie place, so different from all we have seen so far.

Driving on, we passed the town of Haye-on-Wye, otherwise known as “Full of Books.” We arrived at the town of Brecon, and turned toward Herefordshire, stopping for a picnic in a green field off a little stony lane. Sausage rolls, a tuna sandwich, apples, most of a black currant tart topped with whipped cream, a scone filled with clotted cream and jam, and custard pie: we now thought of this as a light lunch. We have come far since first beginning this journey…

Cowleigh Park Farm is situated in Malvern, Worcestershire (right on the Herefordshire border). We arrived in late afternoon, and were immediately impressed: what a beautiful place! An old half-timbered manor house, it was originally built in 1200 in a deer park about 100 yards away from where it presently stands. The house fell into disrepair, and in the 1600s was dismantled, and rebuilt in its new location. It is enveloped by farms, hills and orchards. Everywhere, immense clumps of fragrant lavendar meet the eye and fill the nose with fragrance.

Chris, the proprietor and owner, ran the B&B with his wife Sue. He handled all maintenance and also ran a renovation business on the side, while remaining active in the Royal Marine Reserves (he served during the Falklands War.) He is a busy, and – in his words – happy, man.

At our wonderful B&B in the Malverns

At our wonderful B&B in the Malverns

He booked us into the Red Lion pub for dinner, where we had chicken filets in lime and brandy with broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, new potatoes, and fresh rolls. Lager accompanied this repast. For dessert, we had rhubarb crumble with whipped cream and coffee. I am still trying to figure out why I didn’t end up looking like Shamu the Whale: we never seem to stop eating!

After the first night, we moved – to a room across the hall. Our new room had board and latch doors, with a bathroom containing an immense bath, deep, new and dark blue, and built very high up. When I stood up in the bath, my head almost touched the low-hung ceiling. Blue and white tiles surrounded the tub. The tiny-paned window was hung with print curtains. The sink was set into a wall-to-wall vanity, which was lined with blue and white bowls and pitchers. The room was whitewashed, with natural oak beams.

In the bedroom were wonderfully comfortable beds which faced a window opening onto the garden. The green wall-to-wall carpet, the pink-striped bedspreads and green velvet wing chair by a potted plant and huge wardrobe all made the room comfortable and inviting. A corner table housed a coffee maker and teakettle.

Our B&B in the Great Malverns

Our B&B in the Great Malverns

I loved this house…indeed it is one of the most splendid B&Bs we stayed in. We met more of the family: Sue, Chris’s wife, brown-haired, petite, pretty; and Lucky, her three-legged cat, who slept in a black puddle of fur at the top of the stairs.

This morning, after a hearty breakfast (is there any other?) we set off for the Great Malverns. We walked to the top of the highest hill – not so very high at 1300 feet but with a fantastic all-round view. The springiness of the turf was like walking on green velvet. We looked down into the beautiful valleys surrounding us, dotted with tiny villages and isolated cottages, set in the greenest of green fields, or amid trees on gentle hilly slopes. The sun was drawing moisture up into the clouds, and the sky was silver.

The weather continued warm and clear, and the winds, fresh. Although some mornings had been overcast, we never seemed to get a single drop of rain.

The walk to the highest Malvern peak and back down again took us approximately two and a half hours. These hills were thick with flowers: yellow gorse and tall purple loosestrife, cowslips, buttercups, celandines, dandelions … Blackberries, thick on bramble bushes, were in every lane. Stinging nettles were also everywhere; Lee, thinking these were mint, rubbed some casually between her fingers, a big mistake! (Dock leaves take out the sting…)

On the Cotswolds Way

On the Cotswolds Way

Sheep ran freely over the hills. Every once in a while, one became separated from its mates, and the plaintive baaaa-ing was constant. Back in town, we strolled to the pub for lunch and ginger beer, which Lee swears tastes like mouthwash. Then a ramble around the village, which had some of the prettiest gardens ever. The most beautiful deep blue hydrangea bush hung over a garden wall. Another small garden was filled with huge yellow sunflowers. Dry stone walls everywhere. The scent of lilac was unbelievably fragrant.

We left this idyll to drive into town for some shopping and a newspaper, then back to Cowleigh Park for another long walk up the Worcestershire Way.The Worcestershire Way winds through farmlands over untamed fields high with unmown waving grass; through fields of mown hay and bright yellow rapeseed; past a small signpost with the legend “Badger’s Wood”; through a huge apple orchard, the trees bent to the ground and loaded with apples. It continued through fields filled with cows -and one black bull seemingly somewhat annoyed with our presence. As he jogs towards us, we nimbly leapt into a small fenced pen, obviously there for just this reason. Across more fields, down wooded lanes past geese and sheep, we rambled: the sun is out, and the warmth of it is full on our faces.

Walking the Worcestershire Way in the Malverns

Walking the Worcestershire Way in the Malverns

After an hour or two, we turn back to Cowleigh Park, a brief rest, then back to the Red Lion for dinner.

From Cowleigh Park Farm back to London

Time to go home (sob). After breakfast, up and away on the M-40, on the road back to London. A quick lunch at a service center halfway to London took us from the sublime to the ridiculous. We eat quickly, and are glad to be back in the car.

Back in London…

Two girls on a break in London

Two girls on a break in London

On our arrival, the nightmare of trying to find our hotel in the morass of one-way streets begins. The traffic! The noise! The crush of it all! Between the U-turns and reverses in the heavy traffic, we are ready to leave the car in the middle of the road and simply walk to Covent Garden! Finally, in desperation, I parked in a no-parking zone, and Lee walked to our hotel to fetch the concierge who drove us directly to our hotel, no worries.  I will never drive in London again!

After dropping our luggage at the hotel, we walked to Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, down Charing Cross Road, and to Fortnum & Mason.

Back in London

Back in London

Then it was back to the hotel, where I looked forward to a bath in the immense tub, surrounded by pristine white tiles, and where half a dozen thick white towels were hanging from a gleaming chrome towel warmer. Two extra-thick terry cloth robes hung behind the door. There is something to be said for a little luxury!

I must confess, I did not care for London on this particular trip. Too big, too impersonal, too busy, too many cars, too many people. It had its moments, but discovering the countryside did it for me. In the deep heart of England and Wales, I found exactly what I was looking for: unspoiled country, beautiful, and timeless. It has all been wonderful.

Now on our way to Gatwick, we passed – unbelievably – a fox slinking into the brush, rounding off a perfectly satisfying adventure into the hidden countryside of England and Wales.

 

 

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.

Diane and I in front of The Warren Hill Inn in the middle of Dartmoor

 Talland Bay – and Allhays

From Warren Hill, we drove down narrow, then narrower, then even narrower lanes with high hedgerows. Through tiny villages and hamlets we drove and through some of the loveliest countryside (Dorset) which is every bit as delightful as the Cotswolds. We drove all the way to Looe, and then found Allhays on Talland Bay.

Beautiful Allhays B&B in Talland Bay

Allhays was a very lovely B&B off the beaten path <and I am very sorry to say it has since closed>. Situated on Talland Bay, between Looe and Polperro, its cream-colored stone glowed in the late afternoon light, and its bushes were heavy with hydrangeas surrounding it. The interior living room (for guests) had two lovely cream colored, soft chenille sofas, and the whole house had the French touch, with patterned draperies, beautiful pictures, and the woodwork painted in heavy high gloss cream. The carpet was cream bordering on ecru up the stairs. Annie, (one of our hosts, and French), had placed a fresh yellow rose in our lovely bedroom on the second story. The bedroom overlooked the lawn in back which led to the view of the cliffs and then the sparkling sea.

Our bathroom was the size of a pea.

When we were ready for dinner, Diane could not find the car keys. After frantically checking the car and the trail back to our room, and looking under the bed, in her backpack and various pockets, they  turned up in her purse. And so it goes….

Onward to dinner in Polperro. Yum-o. (The loo had toilet seats of fish embedded in plastic.) Back in the car on the way back to Allhays, we missed the turn in the very dark road, drove all the way to Looe and back before we finally found Allhays. Talk about two tired girls…

A tiny Polperro lane

 Polperro – a real step back in time

We were up around 7:30 and had a traditional, and delicious, English breakfast in Allhays’ sunlit breakfast room. The room was nothing but windows which looked out onto the back “garden” and all the way over the cliffs to the sea. Incredible views. Breakfast included muesli, yoghurt, homemade bread and jams, etc. Mowgli joined us for breakfast. He wanted to join us in the bedroom last night, but as Diane said “it’s the cat or me!” I had to opt for sharing the room with her! Mowgli was a beautifully marked sealpoint Siamese, sleek as a whistle, and very loving. I didn’t want to put her out (especially as I love her name), but she seemed to settle down on the landing.

On the way to Polperro

This morning we set off on our hike to Polperro (two miles coastal). A fabulous walk – all downhill – along coastal beauty that is almost ethereal. We reached Polperro, and stocked up for lunch. Me: Cornish pasty, crusty roll (still uneaten), and a tomato.

Hiking the cliffs to Polperro

I had a banana in my backpack. Diane had grapes and a raisin scone. We wandered around Polperro, and I found the Noughts and Crosses Inn – still there after all these years! Jean and Toni (good friends of mine in Houston) honeymooned at this inn 60 years ago. We rambled around and window shopped, taking pictures of the harbor, the sun shining brightly on this attractive little fishing village.

The harbor at Polperro

Then we were off on our challenging cliff walk from Polperro, round the point, then up and over the fields. The sun was intense, and the sky was clear and deep blue, while the water seen down below was silver blue. Fairy tale.

Crumbling ruin in the middle of a field on the cliffs

We walked and walked and WALKED – mostly uphill – stairs and more stairs – up and up and UP! And then across fields, again uphill, past a deserted barn into a narrow lane, and then on the downhill road to Polperro. We had been walking since 10AM, and it was now 3 o’clock. I LOVED it.

I will never tire of hiking these marvelous cliffs

Back in Polperro, we stopped for a lemonade (why does the lemonade taste so much better here than at home?) and still had two miles left to go back to Allhays – all uphill and over the cliffs. The coast road back to Allhays is often a narrow lane banked by hedges of brambles, blackberries and ferns. All along the coast these hedges were alive with butterflies, fluttering everywhere, and the hum of the bees. We finally reached Allhays in time for a shower and then it was out to dinner. Our dinner lasted three hours – we talked non-stop. Then it was back to Allhays down the dark high hedge-lined lanes. We figure we’ve clocked in about 45-50 miles to date.

The back of Allhays seen from the breakfast nook

 Over the hills and far away: Fowey, Bodinnick, Polruan, Mevagissey

Woke up at 7:30 to another glorious day. The view from our bedroom window was stunning. Off we go after our muesli, yoghurt, granary bread (home baked), and Scotch pancakes, to drive to Fowey/Bodinnick, drop off the car and begin a hike around the coast (which is projected to take about three hours.) The cliff walk was not as challenging as yesterday’s, but it was just as beautiful, and a little cooler, although the sun continued to shine shine shine.

Fowey’s harbour

We walked narrow cliff paths rimmed with blackberry bushes, ferns and brambles; deep lanes lined high with hedgerows; past ancient churches; over fields and streams – the silver sea looked like a mirage –incredibly clear, incredibly beautiful under the sun, and stretching to the far blue horizon.

Over the hills…

We had eaten a good breakfast, and weren’t hungry, until we came back around through Polruan, where we stopped for a quick bite. It was very interesting and odd that we met yet again – for the third time – a man we had first met yesterday leaving Polperro for the long hike. We met him again on the way back to Polperro, and now again in Fowey…small world!

And far away…

Fowey (pronounced Foy) is a pretty town. Lots of people were out and about, as they were in Polperro, which is the quintessential fishermen’s village: houses hang from the cliffs, steep, steep lanes and roads everywhere, flower boxes on every possible wall, door, corner, eave, restaurant front – the ever-present sea breeze cooling us off – and the seagulls squawking. We were not supposed to feed the seagulls. They’re “dirty” and “dangerous” birds, according to one old-timer. One bird even had a “Wanted” poster – full face, left and right profile…

An incredible view of the bay

The Fowey/Polruan hike was wonderful – weather, sunshine, paths, views, length of hike and nice people everywhere. “Where are you from?” is the ubiquitous question. So many people had been to Florida or Texas. One man sitting on the bench atop the cliffwalk asked “What do the American people now think of Bush?”, and we ask about Blair (“Some question his honesty!”)

Fields like this are part of Cornwall’s charm

We caught the ferry back from Polruan to Fowey, and then another from Fowey to Bodinnick. Our car park was up an extremely steep road – took about half an hour to reach it. We then decided to take the ferry across to the road to Mevagissey, a supposedly beautiful Daphne Du Maurier haunt. I think she was born around there; there were certainly enough bookstores prominently displaying her books, her photographs and other memorabilia – but Mevagissey was such a letdown. It was tourism taken to the extreme, full of tacky shops and non-descript architecture, not in the least bit picturesque or attractive. And yet some literature noted it as “One of the prettiest villages in England!” Not!!

Even the architecture – houses and shops – was totally undistinguished. We walked around for half an hour, then got our car and drive back – in rush hour traffic – to the ferry, then we stopped to pick up some picnic items for dinner, and so back to our beautiful Allhays to pack.

Marazion and St. Michael’s Mount 

Up and away from Allhays by 9:30 (sob) after our usual yummy breakfast, which this time included stewed plums. The day was overcast – our first overcast day since arriving. We drove from Polperro to Penzance, another tourist mecca, down narrow high hedge-rowed lanes, trees arching overhead, ferns sprouting from the hedgerows. Once in Penzance, we found Tourist Information, and they found us a B&B overlooking Mount St. Michael. Not the best B&B, but two beds (very comfy) and a shower en-suite (important!)

The toilet in our bathroom was a cracker: you flushed, and it sounded much like a steam engine coming to boil … then it was a bang and a BANG BANG BANG CLATTER CLATTERCLATTERCLATTER!! Incredible. The noise seemed to go on for ages. And the tap over the sink also startled you out of your wits when you turned it on, causing another major BANG from the toilet.

From the sublime to the ridiculous! Actually, it was funny as hell. We couldn’t help laughing because it was so uniquely LOUD.

The ferry from Marazion to St Michael’s Mount

Anyway, we left the luggage and drove into Marazion, parked and took the ferry to St. Michael’s Mount. Filled with history, beautiful and eerie. We walked uphill to the top of the mount, and toured the castle and the grounds. The “docents” in the castle (for want of a better word) were charming and knowledgeable. One old gentleman, in talking about Lord and Lady Leven, impressed on us how delightful Lady Leven was (she had died unexpectedly at age 69). “Yes, madam always said ‘good morning’ and ‘isn’t it a lovely morning?’ when she came across us.”  In re-reading this, I think: How very Downton Abbey!

The road up to the castle

After exploring, we walked back down the (very very steep) hill to the causeway. By now, the tide was out and we were able to actually walk back to the mainland (Diane loved this! and so did I!)

The tide is out, enabling us to walk the causeway back to the mainland

Then it’s back to our odd little B&B. After some discussion, we decided to drive to Land’s End (at 5PM) for a quick 1-2 hour hike across the cliffs there.

First and last refreshment house in England - Land's End

First and last refreshment house in England – Land’s End

On reaching Land’s End, we quickly parked and walked through the tourist excrescence fronting the cliffs. There were one or two couples around, and it was very quiet and dim, heavy clouds scudding across the sky.

Dusk at Land’s End

We ambled across the slowly eroding cliffs for about 1-1/2 hours as the twilight deepened, and the wind blew, making it all very mysterious and atmospheric.

Hiking at Land’s End

We then drove back 12 miles to Marazion, leaving our car at the B&B, and walked to the King’s Arms for dinner (the dinner took 2 hours arriving!). Then back to our B&B and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, Lacock and Castle Combe!

Lacock’s main street

Lacock – at the Sign of the Angel – and Castle Combe 

We were up and out of the B&B in Marazion by 9, after a hearty breakfast (surprisingly good.) Then it was driving, driving and more driving. We drove through Glastonbury, but did not stop. This was not an attractive town! And this is twice I have visited areas fabled as the birthplace/resting place of King Arthur, and twice have been disappointed! The first was Tintagel, now it was Glastonbury…maybe it’s me. Nonetheless, we have driven through beautiful country, and we were now in Wiltshire, just coming into Lacock, around 5PM. This is where “Pride and Prejudice” was filmed (is there any other Mr. Darcy than Colin Firth? I think not.)

The Sign of the Angel in Lacock

What an exquisite little town! It’s fifteenth century, and owned by the National Trust. We were lucky enough to get two rooms in The Sign of the Angel, where we ducked down through the doors, and where the floors all sloped. The rooms were enchanting, and as no twin bedded-room was available we opted to each have our own room. Both were en-suite, with big bathtubs to wallow in, which we did! My room was painted deep pink, with burgundy carpet, white iron queen sized bed, feather pillows and bolsters, old antique furniture – and somewhere, there was a resident ghost! It said so on the little marquee in the old hallway.

The George pub and inn in Lacock

This afternoon, the sun was back out and after wandering around the town (which takes about 5 minutes), Diane and I bought English newspapers and took them to the adorable little pub, The George. The door was open wide and inside it was everything a pub should be – and more. I ordered a cuppa, and Diane an apple cider, and we sat in a corner and I read the Guardian – so very civilized and literary as we were. I loved this place.

The small restaurant at Sign of the Angel

Next was dinner. Downstairs was the Angel’s unbelievably charming dining room – the food is fabulous – salads, baked goat cheese on toasted olive bread, wonderful veggies, crusty rolls and deep yellow butter. (I have eaten far more on this trip than I would ever eat at home – I hope! But then – we are hiking. Excuses, excuses…)

After dinner, Diane and I walked down the tiny lamplit streets under a clear black velvet night sky full of stars (I am sure she wishes Robert were there instead of just me…)

Lacock’s charming houses

The windows in several houses were uncurtained and we were able to look into the glowing small yellow-lit living rooms and dining rooms of these ancient homes built in the time of Shakespeare.

Then we packed for the drive back to Gatwick tomorrow, (after we see Castle Combe) and I’m sitting up against my feather bolsters finishing my journal (more or less.) I have seen and done much – Diane has really pushed me to do more than I even conceived of– and I am so grateful. It has been really wonderful, and I’ve learned so much about England. It is good to know there are still the ancient towns, the footpaths (all 1,500 of them) and back roads, the hedgerows, stiles and kissing gates on this jolly old island.

Castle Combe

Up early to breakfast downstairs… We had porridge with brown sugar and cream! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven (there’s the sign, you see.) We were also offered fresh raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and a hot breakfast.

It was a misty morning as we left Lacock for Castle Combe. We took a wrong turn somewhere, but managed to eventually find the road, passing through towns called Tiddleywinks and Shepton Mallet, to yet another entrancing small village. We parked in the car park, and walked down a steep hill right into Jane Austen country.

An early morning walk in Castle Combe

Beautiful (for want of a better word) tiny stone and brick homes and shops framed in ivy, or flowering or berried vines. We wandered about the town in a happy daze, then began our hike through the surrounding countryside. The morning mist slowly began to burn away with the sun eventually breaking through, and the day clears as we walked in quiet woods where beech leaves dropped to the ground, sounding like the patter of tiny feet following us.

A walk around Castle Combe

Across fields and climbing over stiles and gates and crossing streams, we managed to again get lost! We finally found the main road behind a farm, and wound up at Castle Combe, where we stopped at a most adorable little pub for a quick drink. Then we rambled around a delightful tiny shop that has the most perfect things: pictures, objets, pottery, photography — all so beautiful, you wanted to buy out the shop. I didn’t (surprise!) but Diane made some inroads…

Lunch at the Castle Inn Hotel – more cheese

Then it was back to our lovely elegant pub for a quick lunch. We sat outside in the sunshine, watching as about 30 Japanese wandered into town. Moments later, about 15 bikers zoomed in and parked in the square. Even here, time doesn’t stand still….

And as it moves on,  we had to begin thinking of getting on our way. We walked back up the hill to the car park, the sun by now shining so brilliantly, it was intensely hot. And then it was on the road to our hotel at Gatwick, a quick bath and dinner, and so to bed. We had to be ready at 7AM to catch the hotel bus to the airport by 9AM. We have seen so many beautiful, traditional, wonderful sights on this trip — been transported back to a quieter, cozier and less frenetic time…

People tell me old England, the backroads and coastal towns, are disappearing or changing beyond recognition. Maybe so…but not for me. On this hike, England was everything – and more – that I hoped it would be. I love England…I always will.

Cornwall – Magical rambles on the coast – Chapter 1

Cornwall – Magical rambles on the coast – Chapter 1 of my 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.

I love England, but there is something about Cornwall that is magical to me..walking on the pebbled narrow streets of Polperro, Truro, St. Ives, Looe…the houses, some hundreds of years old, built into, or from, the bedrock of the cliffs…its 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, sometimes too high to see down to the sea below…I adore it. Loving Cornwall goes back to my mother who was born in Mousehole, as were my grandparents and their parents…it’s in my blood.

England is magic everywhere you turn, but Cornwall has its own special brand of magic: mysterious, especially under lowering gray skies, the winds from the sea, the timelessness of path, water, air and the call of the seagulls.

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.

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 onto 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. 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…we remembered “Ryan’s Daughter” some of which was filmed on these very cliffs…lovely to be here.

After that little walk, we got in the car, found something 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 fun 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, 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! Nonetheless, we beavered on…and just up ahead, saw a tiny spark in the darkness.

“Pull over” yells Diane, and we get out of the car and walk into the most Irish, and charming, of small restaurants, 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 vegetable soup, the wonderful brown soda bread, and a fabulous salad…it was incredible. Such an adventure…!! all in the middle of empty moors and hills.

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 inIreland? That was quite an adventure in itself. Anyway, Fermoyle Lodge is located in the middle of NOWHERE (as are most of our stops)…but is an extremely charming manor house surrounded by hydrangeas, rhododendrons and flowers of all kinds, and the manor itself is set in a grove of fir trees.

Fermoyle Lodge lost in the heart of Ireland

It’s enormously welcoming…beautiful stuffed furniture and antiques…big log fire 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 there. 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!

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 and all. Nicola and Jean-Pierre were NOT amused, as they spent all morning trying to dry it out.

The next morning (Monday) we actually found a hike we could walk. We drove to the start of it, about two hours from Fermoyle Lodge. Then we walked through green, dense woods, over streams, to a wonderful 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 our hike 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 not long enough, we both enjoyed it immensely. We spent that night at Fermoyle Lodge, and dined that evening at the Lodge. Jean-Pierre is a French chef, and was a little disappointed when Diane just wanted a salad… 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. A step back in time. 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. 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).

That night we ate in the village of Cong: Again, fish & chips…absolutely yummy!

Wednesday we spent all day hiking round 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 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 “GalwayBay.” I’d had a glass of sherry, so I didn’t mind at all…it was fun!

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 toWestport 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 food. 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.  I was out of eyeliner, so stopped at Bobbie Brown counter to buy same: ended up with 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 be calling you.

Italy: Hiking the molto bellisima Cinque Terra

Our happy hiking group on the hotel patio in Santa Margherita

On Our Way to Italy
After much frantic packing the night before, I am on my merry way to the airport at 8:30 in the morning to begin my first-ever trip to Italy. Although it is drizzling rain and I am tired and cranky, I mellow out on the plane, meet Lene in Newark, and it is onward to Italy, a land which has always entranced me!

Genoa Nervi
We arrive at the Milano airport, where we clean up and hairspray, hairspray, hairspray! (Unfortunately, Lene leaves hers in the bathroom…much discussion of this throughout the trip.) We drive into Milan with a silver-tongued taxi driver who wants fifty dollars American and almost runs out of gas on the outskirts of town. Much commotion! Once in the train station, it is disconcerting to find that no-one speaks English! We finally find our train and settle for the ride, by which time we are exhausted.

Off the train at Genoa, on the train to Nervi
Here we are in Nervi…a beautiful town. We taxi to the Hotel Pagoda, an elegant and charming villa awash in hot-pink bougainvillea, unpack and are out again for a 2-1/2 hour walk around the village.

A panoramic view at the start of the Cinque Terra

We reach the sea front from an increasingly winding tree-lined path which rambles through a wrought-iron gateway into a small tunnel out onto the front. Such glorious views – sea, cliffs and coastline are magnificent, spectacular. We continue back through the rose garden and park, and so back to the hotel. As we look from the window of our room, the hills strewn with colorful villas look like a Renaissance painting. Soon it’s dinner: scampi tempura, sea breen and pasta. Yum! Again…no-one speaks English…trying to make ourselves understood with the tiny bit of Italian learned prior to the trip is not easy! 

A beautiful doorway leading to the magical coast

Walk Up the Coast in Genoa Nervi
We wake at 1:15 PM! Our group meets at 2!! Pulling ourselves together, we gallop down to the bar where we meet Mario (gorgeous) and Diane, Jean and Jann. Immediate rapport.Then Barb arrives, and we take off for a walk up the coast and all around the town. Once back at the Villa Pagoda, we meet the rest of our small group in the garden for drinks and hors d’ouvres. Mario gives us a brief talk about the hikes to come…we’re surrounded by roses, awash in scent, and the weather is heavenly.

First champagne, then dinner: everyone seems to be in our age group. The table is beautifully set, very elegant, with lots of Italian food and wine. Then at 10PM, it’s upstairs to pack for the move to Riomaggiore the next morning.

Riomaggiore and Manarola
The sun is intense, and the weather is perfect. The bus takes us to Riomaggiore, the first town of the Cinque Terra.

Although we forget a bag, and have to turn back, the driver narrowly missing the back of a row of parked cars, we are soon on our way over the Ligurian Mountains.
We drive through many tunnels, over bridges…ears popping. Vineyards cover the hills, and clumps of red poppies are everywhere. The gray-green of the olive trees underscores the brilliant colors of the flowers.

We come to La Spezia, the second largest port in Italy, which houses the Naval Academy. La Spezia’s main street is lined with orange trees absolutely drenched with fruit. Here we stop for a quick coffee break.

One hour later, somewhat frazzled, we roll into Riomaggiore. We ramble through the town stopping for lunch at an outdoor cafe. Stray cats meow around our table (I find this upsetting, but I am the only one). Lunch is tomato and mozzarella cheese, and a delicious crusty bread. Our real hike then begins, across the cliffs to Manarola. The views are so spectacular, it’s hard to know where to look and what is the most beautiful.

Immediate impressions: villas on hillsides, all colors – pink, mauve, yellow, green, painted trompe l’oile. The flowers are in bloom everywhere – on ledges, stone walls, in window boxes, on bridges, and trees. Immense vivid hydrangeas, bright red and yellow poppies, hollyhocks, pots of margarita daisies, bougainvillea – a deep deep purple. Our hike is challenging: about four hours on trails often as narrow as a footprint, and very very steep. We must be climbing “thousands of stairs” up and down the hillsides. The weather is amazing. Apparently pouring rain until the day we arrived, today the sun is streaming down and it’s hot hot. Wonderful!

From our view on the hillside, we look down to the sea – azure and glorious. The sea, the sun, the flowers, the jungle growth of the greenery, and the olive groves and vineyards -all combine to create a fantasy view. It is a movie setting…incredible in every way.

A sanctuary is situated on the high ground of every village. From the sanctuary above Riomaggiore can be seen the “panorama of the islands of Elba, Corsica, Palmaria and Tine as well as the entire coast from the Cinque Terre to Punta Mesco.”

Look at that beautiful backdrop…sheer heaven (really!)

Although it is Monday, many people are hiking the trails – Americans, French, German, all sorts of nationalities. Overheard on one of the steeper and rockier slopes, an English woman remarks to her companions “I’m just looking for a little flat place.” The Cinque Terra is very beautiful, but physical ability is pretty much mandated to hike these challenging, narrow trails.

We reach Manarola, and Mario pulls us into a tiny villa where an old Italian woman is making homemade wine. She pours out a glassful, and we pass it around, each taking a sip. Mario buys a bottle to take with us on a picnic. Walking on to Corniglia, we have a delicious lunch, then it’s back to the hotel for a rest.

Vernazza
Up at the crack of dawn…and out on the trail by 9AM. A healthy breakfast of muesli is satisfying, but the coffee is, to put it as nicely as possible, strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth! I must be ordering the wrong kind… but, no, this IS Italian coffee!

We walk for three and a half hours, climbing ever higher and higher. Thousands (possibly millions!) of steps up, thousands down. Ledges two inches wide; green prolific vegetation all around. We walk past olive groves, vineyards, vegetable gardens growing on the terraced hillsides, stone tanks providing water. Hills are covered with vines growing wild. Narrow, narrow paths, so slight, you can tumble down the mountain in a New York minute. The hike is challenging and invigorating, and clears the mind of all niggling worries.

We come to Vernazza, and stop to eat lunch at the Blue Marlin. The bruschetta – toasted bread with tomatoes and anchovies, lightly drizzled with olive oil – is absolutely yummy. I can’t believe how much I enjoy the anchovies here…delish. The joy of the day is embodied in an impromptu waltz around the cafe by Jean and Tad, to much laughter and singing.

We leave the Blue Marlin and walk around the town. Turning from the path, I see a small piazza almost deserted in a sunny street. As I sit there alone, face turned toward the sun, a woman on a terrace waters her plants, while another hangs clothes on the ever-present clothesline. Flowers, flowers everywhere. The biggest geraniums, hydrangeas of all colors, nasturtiums bright orange, big white daisies in pots, yellow gorse, wild cyclamen, bougainvillea, vetch! In the town square, we hear church bells chiming from a beautiful green and white marble Catholic church with a rose circular window.

We hike back to the hotel, clean up, pack for the next morning’s move, and leave for dinner at an outdoor café. The tables are set out in the street, dinner is eaten under the silver Italian moon. First is antipasto: broiled octopus, squid, shrimp, tiny little clams, anchovies and swordfish. The entree includes prawns & shrimp, broiled. When they are set on the table, they are as big as lobsters, and taste great. And we finish with wine and cappuccino.

Vittorio’s Villa
Up at 7AM for breakfast, and ready to walk at nine. This is to be our longest hike, and it will be difficult.

We walk up – up – up – climbing up stairs and steps and over boulders, about 9000 feet according to Mario, to a ruined monastery sitting on top of the mountain. Lorenzo, Mario’s son who has acccompanied us so far, is gathering cherries for us from the wild cherry trees. The view from here is – well, I can’t keep from using the word “spectacular’. Below is the misty deep blue sea, and the mountainside is covered in flowers.

From here, we hike to an isolated primitive villa belonging to Vittorio, a friend of Mario’s. An old man who lives alone (except for weekly visits from his wife), he is an artist whose canvas is his marvelous garden. Mario met him on one of his previous hikes, and Vittorio offered him homemade cheese and wine, salami, beans, and cherries for his picnics. It’s magical. We sit outdoors at two trestle tables.

Mario slices the tomatoes and bread he has brought, arranging them on platters with fresh basil from the garden; nasturtiums decorate our plates. Vittorio brings out salami and his wonderful homemade cheese. We sit in the sun and drink wine at his villa on the side of a mountain in the Cinque Terra. All tastes are intensified. The foccaccio bread tastes like no other bread, whether filled with either olives or onion, or plain. The tomatoes embody the flavor of Italy.

Behind the villa are the cherry orchard, and a field of yellow daisies which seems to go on forever. Vittorio allows us to fill our caps with cherries from the orchard; they are only the best cherries I’ve ever eaten. It is an incredible moment.

The field of daisies behind the cherry orchard

Then we say goodbye to Vittorio and his two black cats and one black dog, and walk down the other side of the mountain through forests of trees and ferns, wild sweet peas, mayflower bushes brimming with sweet-smelling white blossoms, daisies, dandelions everywhere.

The mountainside is covered with fragrant yellow gorse. Soon, red brick walls begin to appear, covered – dripping – with flowers of all kinds, again bougainvillea, geraniums in colors I haven’t seen back home, a wall choked with orange nasturtiums, terra cotta pots of white daisies, roses everywhere, hedges of fragrant white jasmine, hollyhocks.

We begin to sing on the trail, yodelling “The Happy Wanderer” at the top of our lungs. Mario then sings every Italian song he can think of; he is so delightful. Lene and I drift along to the top of a hill and are suddenly showered with a handful of yellow gorse blooms which Mario has thrown over our heads. We all share a big kiss on the cheek.

Reaching town, we stop for a quick gelato, then catch a train and are soon back at our hotel. Molto bene! Lene and I have a balconied room on the third floor overlooking the Meditteranean. The shuttered doors are open wide as I’m writing this at 10PM at night, and I hear the plash of the waves against the sand, and see glimmers of white boats anchored in the bay. Just outside our window, to break the mood, we also hear an Italian woman next door yelling into the phone at her mother for some time!

Our room is nice, lacking only in towels. A knock on the door is the maid, who (naturally) speaks no English. “We need more towels,” I try to tell her, picking up something I think is a towel and saying”vorrei dua.” Responding in Italian, we are both nodding and shaking our heads like yoyos. Then off she goes, and I leave the door open on the off chance she’ll be back. Meanwhile, I disappear into the bedroom.

The maid returns and knocks at the door. Lene answers. The maid offers her three bath rugs and more voluble Italian. Now we have four bath rugs and one towel.

Sestri Levanti, the Bay of Silence and the Bay of Fables
Up and out at 9AM feeling fresh as a daisy, albeit slightly damp. We have another challenging hike today, 6,000 feet – up, and up again, steps and more steps. According to Mario, “This is an easy walk!” We hike for three hours – through deep green ferny woods forever climbing the mountain -the path initially difficult as it is studded with boulders, but soon, less so. Pine needles carpet the trail. The air is evergreen-scented, clean and fresh. We take many photographs at every possible stopping point: overlooking the ocean, in the ferns, against brick and stone wails, going up, going down. The sun is shining, the birds singing madly, the only sound, as this is a quiet walk – no other people are on the trail, whereas before, we’ve had lots of company.

The beautiful bay

We reach Sestri Levanti around noon and reconvene at the Hotel Miramare. Lene and I have a great room – small and comfortable – with a balcony overlooking the sea. We converge for lunch out on the terrace, where the tables are laid with deep salmon-colored tablecloths. The terrace overlooks the Meditteranean; small white boats are floating on the Bay of Silence. Across from us lies the Bay of Fables {entrancing names!)

After lunch, some of us ramble up to see an eleventh century church and an old villa that’s been converted to a hotel – very, very beautiful. The hotel is a little eerie – no one is here, and it is quiet as a tomb. We walk up more and more steps, finally entering the grounds through an archway into a silent, tranquil avenue. Lined with stone walls starred with daisies, and immense terra cotta pots overflowing with geraniums, the avenue takes us into another world. So peaceful, so quiet.

The pathway to an absolutely exquisite hotel

We wander around, looking for and finding the old stone monastery, and after a brief respite, return to our hotel. Sitting on the balcony of our room, I sip a ginger ale while Lene washes her hair. Afterwards, we sit outside in the sun, then somehow discover that the balcony doors are “locked” (don’t know why, don’t know how.) We peer over the rail, no-one. Bang on the wall, no-one. Finally, somehow and after much hoo-ha, we manage to get back into our room, and quickly shower so that we can go shopping… I buy a pristine white sweater and Lene buys two.

We return to the hotel in time for a drink on the terrace with Diane and Barb – then into dinner and to bed. What a day…what a splendid, splendid day.

Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino
From Sestri Levanti, we drive to Santa Margherita Ligure. According to our guide book, this is “a temple of the sun where the sea, sky and pastel colored houses are so intensely luminous as to instill optimism and joy of life in its inhabitants …a mythological place where eternally young beings conduct a happy existence in adoration of Beauty. Of Roman origin, it was conquered by the Fieschi, then Genoa, and suffered many raids by Saracen pirates…” I can’t add to that….

Hiking down into Portofino

At the Colonial Hotel in Santa Margherita, we drop our luggage and immediately begin one of our loveliest hikes, to Portofino.

The hike from Santa Margherita is through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Endless sloping fields of fern stretch to meet woods of chestnut, pine, and wild cherry trees, and all sorts of flowers perfume the air and line our trail – this is our pathway. !t is totally enchanting. General impressions are of blazing color: bright yellow gorse everywhere and villas dotting the terraced hillsides in all the warm beautiful tints of Italy. We have a slight shock when I inadvertently step on the tail end of a snake – screams reverberate.

We come to Portofino, lit by the gold of the Italian sunlight.

Lene on the road to Portofino

I love Portofino. Our first view, from high atop a hill: narrow walled paths, starred with daisies. A painted ship floats below upon a painted ocean. The Hotel Splendido – all shining white -clings to the side of the hill fronting a fairy tale bay of the bluest of blue water. We are back in the movie! The tiny town of Portofino floats within this panorama, the bay dotted with white boats and yachts. We eat grilled shrimp outside in one of the myriad cafes dotting the square. The colors! The flowers! The people!

Like a small blue sapphire within an emerald green cup, Portofino is the quintessential cosmopolitan seaside Italian Riviera town. Lene and I shop and walk and shop and walk and look up at the sun and are happy…and why not? We are in one of the most beautiful villages in the world, in glorious weather, among friends and feeling great! We end our day with a drink in the square, and catch the 5 o’clock ferry back to Santa Margherita and the Colonial Hotel.

A quick shower before supper – not the best supper, but who cares at this point. Afterwards, several of us cross the grassy stretch behind the hotel in the silvery moonlight. The night sky is navy blue velvet hung with a silver moon and twinkling stars, which are reflected in the swimming pool carved from lava rock. Across the bay, the lights of some other tiny town twinkle in the hills. We stroll through streets rife with atmosphere and mystery to wander around downtown.

San Fruttuoso and Comiglio
On our walk by 9AM. This is to be the most challenging of all our hikes, and one of the most spectacularly beautiful. Only three of us choose to go on this hike with Mario (ah, Mario!): Diane, Lene and I.

Mario points the way

We cross log bridges into a primeval forest, the trees resting at 90 degree angles beside the trail. Paths are as wide as a footfall. Ivy covers the chestnuts, pines, and oaks. We edge across narrow edges. Lichen and moss cover boulders blocking our paths – boulders big as cliffs, small daisies sprouting from their crannies. At this point, we’ve come approximately five miles (all up) from Santa Margherita.

The trails are strewn with pine needles in some places, rocky and rough in others. Our destination is San Fruttuoso, the tiniest port on the edge of the world. It’s located in a tiny cove, once frequented by pirates and bandits, and houses a single small hotel, two villas and a monastery. It perches on the edge of the sea like a miniature jewel. It is completely enclosed by mountains and sea; we can only reach it by hiking or by boat.

What a climb: two hours up, over massive boulders blocking our trail, up steps cut into the mountain, up vine-trailed pathways, over rock and stones, ever up to the top of the world! Barely pausing for a sip of water, up, straight up we hike. We are breathing air scented with pine and flowers, crystal clear and intensely fresh. Pines, oaks and chestnuts surround us.

Then down, ever down – down – to San Fruttuoso, where the tiny cove now welcomes tourists in place of pirates. (Which are worse?) The water is bluer than blue, deeper than emerald, azure as sapphires – clear as the sound of a bell. The little hotel where we have lunch is a marvelous picture. We eat on a covered terrace overlooking the bathers below on the small beach. A variety of seafood, olives, bread, and prosciutto e melone is served – every wonderful taste intensified by atmosphere, water and scent. We are high, high up overlooking the Meditteranean; small white boats float on the waves below.

After this splendid lunch, we catch the ferry back to Comiglio, where we are surrounded by a splendid view of the mountains. We walk through town to the train station and in three minutes, are back in Santa Margherita. Lene and I change clothes, find the bar, order vodka tonics, and sit on the hotel’s veranda, pretending we are rich, worldly jet setters. We have a most glorious view: from the veranda of the hotel, we look onto a landscaped lawn and garden, leading to a natural pool and rocky terrace.

The crystal emerald clear water- the immense terra cotta pots of red geraniums – the white sailboats floating on the Meditteranean – the jewel-green mountains surrounding us – the manicured gardens….words fail to describe it all.  We walk down to the natural pool formed by lava rocks and sit dipping our toes into the Meditteranean Sea. All around us are suntanned gods and goddesses – as well as a few not so goddess-like! This has been another really perfect day. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world!

Then up to change for dinner and out to Nostromo’s, a tiny Italian trattoria Mario has found off the beaten path. Here, I buy a delightful painting from an itinerant artist who is showing his wares in the small restaurant. The painting is very simple, very Italian: a bicycle leaning against the wall of a villa. Lene buys a view of Portofino seen through a side street. After we eat, we walk back to our hotel, but not before standing on a street corner overlooking the sea and singing “Blue Moon” to the stars and sky at the top of our lungs.

Cinque Terre is so incredibly rich in beauty and history, no wonder it was beloved by painters and poets, writers and philosophers, actors and composers: Nietsche, Guy de Maupassant, Keats, Shelley, Byron (who drowned off the Ligurian coast), Wagner, D’Annunzio, Laurence Olivier, Nicola Abbagnano, sculptor Maragliano, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Dante and Petrarca … all have lived, loved and been happy here.
“…/ saw the vessels glide
Over the ocean bright and wide…
And the wind that winged their flight
From the land came fresh and light,
And the scent of winged flowers,
And the coolness of the hours
Of dew, and sweet warmth left by day
Were scattered o’er the twinkling bay.” Shelley…”Lines written in the bay of Lerici”

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!