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Monthly Archives: March 2018

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”

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Oregon and Washington State -The Great Pacific Northwest

 

Great beauty - right in front of us

Great beauty – all around us

 

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

 

Hydrangeas everywhere

Hydrangeas everywhere

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

 

Friday

A trail up the mountain in Mukilteo

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

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

Saturday

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

 

A salmon run on the trail behind the house

A salmon run on the trail behind the house

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

 

All homes are landscaped with great charm

All homes are landscaped with great charm

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

 

Yes, I am a tree hugger

Yes, I am a tree hugger

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

 

On the trail through Japanese Gulch

On the trail through Japanese Gulch

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

 

The weather continued to be fabulous.

 

Mukilteo lighthouse

Mukilteo lighthouse

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

Sunday

Up early and on the road for Whidbey Island.

 

Deception Pass Bridge

Deception Pass Bridge

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

A street in Coupeville

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

 

In Deception Pass State Park - taking a photo break

In Deception Pass State Park – taking a photo break

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

 

Whidbey Island Ferry

Whidbey Island Ferry

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

Monday

On our merry way to Mount Rainier.

Glorious forests of fir everywhere

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

On the way to Mount Rainier...

On the way to Mount Rainier…

 

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

 

Another beautiful view

Another beautiful view

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

Paradise Lodge

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

Snow-packed vistas surrounding Paradise Lodge

Snow-packed vistas surrounding Paradise Lodge

 

The great natural beauty of Mount Rainier

The great natural beauty of Mount Rainier

 

Tuesday

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

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

 

The lakes are glacier-fed, and so crystal clear

The lakes are glacier-fed, and so crystal clear

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Can you believe the girth of these wonderful trees

Can you believe the girth of these wonderful trees

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

 

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

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

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

 

Windy Flats wind farm

Windy Flats wind farm

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

 

Standing in front of my room at The Dalles Inn

Standing in front of my room at The Dalles Inn

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

 

The Baldwin Saloon - wonderful

The Baldwin Saloon – wonderful

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

Wednesday

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

 

Standing on the banks of the Columbia River

Standing on the banks of the Columbia River

 

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

Packer Orchards

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

 

Lavendar Adirondack chairs at the lavendar farm

Lavendar Adirondack chairs at the lavender farm

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

 

Drowning in lavender - and liking it!

Drowning in lavender – and liking it!

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

 

Hand-feeding the alpacas - what a kick

Hand-feeding the alpacas – what a kick

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

 

Who couldn't love this adorable face

Who couldn’t love this adorable face

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

 

Views of the Columbia River

Views of the Columbia River

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

 

Glacier-blue waters

Glacier-blue waters

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

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

Thursday

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

 

Gasworks Park overlooking Elliott Bay

Gasworks Park overlooking Elliott Bay

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

Standing on the shores of Elliott Bay

Standing on the shores of Elliott Bay

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

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

 

Seattle - the view from the Space Needle

Seattle – the view from the Space Needle

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

 

The Troll Beneath the Bridge - and me!

The Troll Beneath the Bridge – and me!

 

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

 

Smelling the roses

Smelling the roses

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

 

Scotland Aye – hiking the Highlands and Islands

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

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

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

London townhouses

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

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

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

Invernesse

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

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

The River Ness in Invernesse

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

A street in Invernesse alongside the River Ness

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

Dinner – repacking – and so to bed.

Loch Broom and Ullapool

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

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

The Ceilidh Inn in Ullapool

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

Hiking around Loch Broom

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

Our first hike in Ullapool countryside

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

Afterward, Brian gives a brief talk on what to expect on our hikes, and Tom speaks of the early history of the Highlands. Bob, our third guide, has lulled himself to sleep, and is snoring gently in a corner, so we miss his part of the program.

After all this activity, I am ready for bed – but it certainly isn’t ready for me. Sleep I can not – possibly because I am cold and overtired. Naturally I drift off a short while before I am due to get up.

The Bone Caves and the Highlands

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

Our group at the Bone Caves

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

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

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

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

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

One of many streams throughout the Highlands

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

The sun comes and goes – at one point, it begins raining – I am hot – take off jacket – I am wet – put on raincoat – rain stops – I get hot – take off raincoat – rain pelts down – ram on raincoat!

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

We finally get to the van and pile in. Tom, our guide, drives us to a beautiful little ruin of a castle on the way back to Ullapool, where we disembark to take photographs.

The castle ruin – an enchanted spot

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

Rambling around this beautiful tiny castle ruin

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

Loch Torridon

Loch Torridon Country House Hotel

On the go at 9AM – another beautiful day begins as we pile into our respective vans for the hour or so trip to Loch Torridon Country House Hotel – an enchanting hunting lodge-turned-hotel. It is like something from a Sir Walter Scott novel. I instantly fall in love.

Today we have the option of a short or a long walk, and several of us opt for the long. It starts gently enough as we begin our climb over endless hills and dales – although I do manage to fall in the first major stream I come to, slipping on one of those dratted boulders!

The bothy

After a couple of hours or so, we come to a “bothy” – a small empty hut in the middle of the hills where we unload our gear and have lunch. It is charming. The sun is shining – and though it is cool, the air is as clear and fresh, and we have plenty of time for pictures.

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

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

Ha! I am the only one who “meanders” – and find myself surrounded by panoramic hills with no-one in sight and several tracks to choose from! I have a moment of extreme panic, until, finally, the top of Tom’s head emerges like the sun over the horizon, and I jog-trot to catch up.

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

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

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

Loch Torridon cattle graze in the hotel’s paddock

Outdoors is even more spectacular. Besides the sculptured grounds, all is green…green, green grass, surrounded by woods, mountains, and the silvery-gray, entrancing loch. Loch Torridon is a beautiful, enchanting place – my favorite of the trip.

Loch Torridon and a Gentle Walk

The “back yard” – Loch Torridon Hotel

Wake up, get outta bed, drag a comb across my head…zooming around as usual, in to breakfast – I love my breakfast! Mueslix, scrambled eggs and bacon – the usual stuff but tastes great and is needed for energy.

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

On our short walk

Hoisting up our backpacks, we pick up our picnic lunch, and are off. Susan and Jennifer take the long walk with Brian and Bob. The rest of us opt for the lower ground.

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

A brief break on the short walk

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

Lunch break

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

Here a cow, there a cow…

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

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

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

The Isle of Skye and the Lighthouse

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

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

Our inn on the Isle of Skye

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

Beginning our first hike on Skye

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

Hiking on the Isle of Skye

First, up a very stony and rocky trail, up and up…then down a steep, steep bank through sludge and over slippery rock, then down the hillside where we slither and slip over rocks and heather. We make our way through many streams to boulders and small cliffs down which we clamber to the waiting shore.

Swimming with the seals

It is still raining steadily, and it is cold. Nonetheless, Jennifer, Brian, Tom and Bob don bathing suits and plunge into the grey sea for a swim! Jennifer wants to “swim with the seals,” which are cavorting and diving a safe distance from these crazy people who keep trying to take their picture.

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

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

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

Are we happy yet? Yes!

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

Three hours later we arrive at the van. I am completely soaked. My boots have sunk ankle deep into the mud; my backpack – and all in it, including my money and passport – ditto. My pants are hanging from my body like clown pants; my hair is in rattails. The joy of the hike!

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

Then I dry off, have dinner, and get back fairly early to bed. Really tired tonight – no problem sleeping at all.

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

The isle of Skye and the Back of Beyond

This is our last full day on the Isle of Skye. We arise as usual at 7AM, eat a good breakfast and pile in the vans for an hour’s ride to the boat we are to take to an uninhabited part of Skye.

On the road to the ferry, Isle of Skye

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

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

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

The start of the hike

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

A quick break for lunch on the final Skye hike

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

Susan points the way – unfortunately the wrong way!

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

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

Scottish Bob, one of our terrific guides

By the end of this day, we are all extremely tired. After dinner, all gather in the chintz-splashed parlor in front of a roaring fire, to listen to Annie, a local Gaelic singer. The plaintive and poignant melodies and words of the folk songs underscore the melancholy beauty of Skye.

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

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

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

Hiking the Highlands

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

Eileen Donnan

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

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

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

And then it is on to Invernesse, London and back to reality. The Highlands of Scotland –a little uncanny, magical, poignant – but not for the faint of heart.

Hiking in Norway – green mountains, silver fjords

Standing on a Bergen street

Bergen

A suggestion from Diane – a friend I met on a group hike in the Cinque Terra – that we try a group hike in Norway sounded appealing, as it is currently hot hot hot in Houston!

So…I arrived in Bergen after switching planes in Amsterdam, and took a taxi to the Hotel Neptun. The taxi driver, a surly sort, leaned from the cab to spit every few miles, which of course, placed him high on my list of attractions. Diane was waiting at the hotel with a bowl of fresh raspberries…how great it was to see her after our brief meeting at Martha’s Vineyard! After planting the luggage, we walked into town for a light supper, and caught up on the news. Then to bed to try to get some sleep, so we will be fresh for the group tomorrow.

The Fishmarket of Bergen and the Funicular

We finally got to sleep after surviving a heat wave in the hotel room, and the screeching of traffic until the wee hours outside our third story window. Even with the window open wide, it was almost unbearably hot…in the 90s, not exactly what I expected! By 3:30 we finally dropped off, and woke up about 9AM for breakfast.

Bergen’s main street

After breakfast, we rambled over to Bergen’s fishmarket…just down the road and on the edge of the fjord, where fishing boats, cruise ships and ferries all dock. The open-air market had it all, including whale steaks (black!), t-shirts, an immense variety of wonderful fresh fruit (more raspberries and cherries), postcards, sweaters, cheese…and much more.

Next on our list was a restored area of Bergen: old wooden buildings, once housing traders, now are home to shops and boutiques. A variety of beautiful things was on display: wonderful pottery, ceramics, lace, antiques… The flower gardens glowed with roses, daisies, dripped with honeysuckle, while the homes were quite austere architecturally, constructed of wooden slats, many covered with concrete and painted bright light colors. These homes, we were told, are vulnerable to fire, and Bergen has suffered through many conflagrations in its past.

View from top of funicular down to Bergen

At 2PM, we joined the rest of the merry band (three couples and our guide Beate) back at the hotel. Again we walked through the market and town, then rode the funicular to the top of the mountain. We spent a little time looking over the remarkable view, then hiked back down the mountain through lovely ferny woods and huge oak and birch trees – beautiful!

After showering and changing for dinner, we listened to a brief talk by Beate about the history of Norway, ate, and then it was back to our rooms to pack for Sunday’s hike – a 15-mile day to look forward to! And so to bed!

From Myrrdahl to Flam

Up at 6:30 as we needed to be on the road by a quarter to eight. With little time to spare, we washed our hair, packed our luggage, carried it downstairs, grabbed a bowl of cereal, then it was on through Bergen to catch the train to Myrrdahl. Arriving at the station, we took various detours through other trains, in one side and out the other, finally finding “our” train only to discover it had engine trouble. Many solemn announcements later, in three languages, the train finally got rolling.

The splashing and rushing of the waters throughout the land

We disembarked at Myrrdal two hours later for the 15-mile hike to Flam and beyond. What an incredible hike…through beautiful valleys striped with waterfalls, rivers, and silver streams which descended from mountaintops, or rushed pell-mell over boulders and rocks. The water was bell-clear; Diane has named the color Norge Blue. This is the land of 1000 waterfalls; water is everywhere, and forests of birch and pine coated the mountainsides.

On our 15 mile hike to Flam

We hiked in a slight mizzle – the sun never fully appeared, which is the Norwegian way, according to Petter, Beate’s son and our second guide.

Initially, the trail wasn’t difficult: it began as a flat, grassy track through rolling fields. Soon, however, the long grass hid stones and small boulders – and I fell three times on these very slippery rocks. It was like walking on ice up and downhill…and crossing streams is not one of my best jobs! But the treacherous undergrowth finally petered out, and we continued on grassy trails through beautiful wilderland. A goat farm, then tiny buildings appeared out of nowhere. Some buildings were smoking sheds, with roofs of long grass turves, saplings growing from them.

A “smoking shed”

Wild raspberries bordered the trail, and we ate them with relish. Divine!

Stopping several times for breaks and snacks, our final break was a “troll bowl” – a hollowed-out cave with an open top, and a large stone slab for a table. Loved it! Trolls are part of this country’s folklore – old as the mountains.

Ro with friend – troll images are everywhere!

In Bergen, many shops have carved trolls standing watch in their doorways.

The final leg of the hike was on asphalt through rolling beautiful country (a little rough on the toes.) When we finally felt as if we could walk no longer (and we’ve made very good time) we saw our hotel, which was lovely – part new, part old. From the balcony of our room, we saw goats grazing in fields bordered by wild fern-splashed country.

After a hot bath and the obligatory hair washing, we all convened in the bar for drinks. The view from the bar’s amazing floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window, was absolutely awe-inspiring: a silvery-golden fjord, stretching for miles and surrounded by mountains and lush forests of pine trees, backed by the setting sun – absolutely glorious.

Then, a light dinner. It was a challenging, tiring day and so by 10PM, we said goodnight, packed our luggage, and it was off to bed! Tomorrow should be a little easier, but soon comes the glacier hike!

From Flam to Balestrand

A late morning: we don’t need to be downstairs until 10AM. Heaven! We slept until 7:30, showered, ate breakfast, and popped the rest of our things into the luggage, which will be taken to our next stop. Pulling on our backpacks, we began the hike – up, up, up to a small settlement on the mountainside – buildings built centuries ago which are now part of a farm.

Our hike started on the other side of the mountain to the farm

The wooden buildings were tiny, almost miniature in size. All had pots of red geraniums in the windows, and the interiors were set up as museums, with old instruments, stoves, sinks, beds, all as used in days gone by. We saw how cheese used to be made – a nine-hour process. If more milk was produced than necessary for one batch, another batch had to be started immediately making an 18-hour day for some poor woman.

Taking a water break at the museum and farm

After the museum and farm, we continued our hike through the woods towards the ferry. Beate calls this a “tricky” hike. The trail was extremely narrow, with a sharp drop on our left, and the mountain rising sheer to our right. Sometimes the hiking turned into rock climbing! The mist and off-and-on mizzle made the mossy rocks extremely slippery, so we had to be very careful where we put our feet. But the views of the fjord, and the beauty of the forest (that lovely green smell) through which we were hiking made it all worthwhile.

The scent of the pines, the green ferns, the moss that covers the rocks and boulders, and below us, the silver-gray fjord, like a living mirror of the sky: all was so beautiful, so pristine. Just breathing in the air purified lungs and mind. Many flowers showed tiny heads along the track: Ling, a heather-like bush with tiny, tiny purple bells; buttercups and celandines; and an occasional violet, poking its head through the grass. But the surroundings were mostly green, green, green – from the forest floor to the treetops.

It never rains in Norway – it just mizzles. The air is always moist, and mist often hangs low over the mountains. The sky was bright white, and the longer we hiked, the hotter we became.

On one of the ferries – it’s like driving a car in the States!

We emerged from the forest on the road at the ferry, which I just managed to get on by the skin of my teeth (the gangplank started to rise as I set foot upon it.) An hour’s ride through the fjord to Balestrand – and there was the beautiful gingerbread hotel on the water, surrounded by the loveliest little town: small colorful Norwegian houses, all painted in pastels and alive with flowers in gardens and pots. Red geraniums abounded, as did vivid hollyhocks, some tall as houses, and purple-black in color. Marigolds, roses, daisies – all in full, riotous bloom. Diane and I walked around the town drinking in the beauty of it all.

Our luggage was late, so we had an anxious two hours waiting for it to turn up. Finally, in it came and we were finally able to clean up for dinner. The smorgasbord offered a truly astounding buffet, with more food than an army could eat in a week. All sorts of seafood, including the whale steaks, as well as caviar, chicken, capon, turkey, a table full of cheeses, fabulous breads, a hot buffet table with roast beef, fish and veggies, a dessert bar with ten different desserts – I’ve never seen so much food!

After we ate, three of us attended a concert given by Age Kristofferson, a Carnegie Hall pianist who played eleven brief Edvard Grieg compositions. It was absolutely delightful; he told short stories to accompany each song, some of which were funny, all of which were interesting. The concert was held in a small hall within the hotel. A Japanese man recorded Kristofferson’s playing, and although asked to stop by the artist, he wouldn’t. I wanted to haul him out of the room!

Fjaerland

Fjaerland

Yes, up at 6:30 indeed! Breakfast at 7:15, then we had to finish packing and be ready to leave for the ferry by 8. An hour and a half later we reached Fjaerland. The day had become steadily mistier the further north we progressed. The mountains rose on either side of the fjord, green and majestic, covered with pine trees and wreathed in mist. Absolutely awe-inspiring and beautiful,  with silver waterfalls criss-crossing the slopes.

For the first time, the air was extremely chilly; I had to put a sweatshirt over my shirt, and top it with the rainjacket. (Note: this was the ONLY time it was chilly.)

Hotel Mundal

We disembarked from the ferry, and proceeded to haul our luggage to the Hotel Mundal – uphill! At least the hotel was not too far from the ferry! The hotel was run by Billie, an expat Englishwoman who, by marriage, had become part of the Mundal family and history <Note: Vice President Walter Mondale is connected to this family>. After dropping the luggage in the lobby, we immediately began our hike.

Fairly flat at first, the trail took us alongside a river – now rushing, now fairly quiet. No-one else was around – it was peaceful and beautiful and the overcast sky cooled the air and made for very pleasant walking. I had to divest myself of my sweatshirt, and soon after, the raincoat. Grass-green moss covered the stones and ground beneath the trees, in many places forming a broad mossy floor – very Hans Christian Anderson.

As we continued, the trail began to ascend. Soon we were climbing steadily up, over boulders and rocks and tree roots into the heart of the forest. The trail became steeper and steeper. We reached a small plateau where we dropped off our backpacks (very safely) before continuing the climb. It was tricky, the path narrowing to a wet, and in many places, rocky trail. The boulders were slick and a stone could easily turn an ankle. We stopped for a brief lunch of cheese and rolls and tomato, then on we went.

The river splashed merrily down from us, and the sky became lighter, when we finally halted at the foot of the mountain. Diane, Paul and I continued up to see the ice cave at the very top. What seemed a short jaunt at the beginning was in actuality quite a climb – and the smoothness of the grass, deceiving. Brambles, grass and briar covering stones and boulders – dangerous. Again we had to watch where we put our feet. Challenging, but worth it to get to the ice and snow, and pose atop the mountain in front of the ice cave (which was actually an ice bridge.)

In front of the ice cave

We felt as if we were on the roof of the world, with the rest of the group just pinpricks in the valley below.

After our photography session, we trotted back down the mountain like goats, joined the group and began the hike back to our hotel in Fjaerland. Not too bad going down: narrow trails, stony, mossy, and damp. The day was overcast.

And then a lovely thing happened: when we reached a leveling out of the trail, the sun broke through the clouds, the sky became a deep, clear blue, and the fields stretched before us, emerald green and literally glowing in the sunlight. And it was exactly like this the remainder of the trip. Beautiful.

The little tiny town of Fjaerland perched on the edge of the fjord and it was exquisite. A book town mirroring Hay-on-Wye in England, its tiny bookshops were everywhere, and bookcases actually lined the narrow roads. The Hotel Mundal, very old and historic, offers glorious back views onto lawns and fjord – peaceful and calming.

The view from our room at Hotel Mundal

Although our hike was only four hours, it was challenging, and we returned for a restful afternoon readying us for the hike tomorrow – 3000 feet up to the Flatbreen Glacier. Billie gave a short talk on the history of the 100-year old hotel, impressive! Much of the hotel is still the way it was “back in the old days” with marvelous old, old leather armchairs studded with nails, a fire glowing in the immense fireplace, and a great room set for dinner. So much history and tradition: it was wonderful. Tomorrow – Flatbreen!

The Flatbreen Glacier

We were up and out of Hotel Mundal by 10AM, taking a taxi to the base of the mountain where we were to climb to the Flatbreen (which means “glacier” in Norwegian…so actually appending “glacier” after Flatbreen is pretty unnecessary!)

The start of the Flatbreen glacier hike

The first 500 feet of the hike were straight up. It was very, very difficult for me: my lung capacity is not large, and I stopped every few yards, breathing deeply and drinking water. My heart was banging in my chest by the time I arrived at the top of this first stretch. Beate told me everyone has had trouble – including her! – but that from then on it would be easier – more streams and rivers to cross, more rock climbing.

Keep climbing up to Flatbreen

It was true: while just walking upwards was difficult for me, it was easier for to climb the rocks and boulders than just hike on a straightforward uphill path. As we climbed the mountain, we crossed streams over many and various bridges and boulders, the last bridge a wobbly couple of pieces of wood. Then began the major rock climb: I used all four limbs to get myself to the more traditional trail. In some instances, I was flat against the boulders while trying to get a purchase on the stone. Petter guided us across and up the more difficult parts of the track. Difficult – but incredibly exhilarating!

Every once in a while, I turned to look back at the spectacular valley views. Miles below us gleamed the fjord, and forests stretched as far as the eye could see across mountains and more mountains. Up, up, up and up we rose – 3000 feet to the top…approximately three miles up, given that we were winding our way around the mountain.

Suddenly, Petter stopped us and said: “Clear your mind.” He led us around a huge boulder and there was the glacier, icy blue and white, jagged and jutting to the sky in the brilliant sunshine –  immense! The Flatbreen is a “calving” glacier, because it drops chunks of ice at intervals. It was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen.

I make it to the Flatbreen – glorious glorious glorious

Sitting across from the glacier, we stopped for lunch at a small hut built of boulders and wood. The man who built this hut had made a thousand trips up and down the mountain with the needed supplies, according to Beate. It was said he climbed to the top in 40 minutes, a record to this day. We made it in about four hours.

Our happy group at the Flatbreen

After lunch, once a few hardy souls had returned from climbing the ridge on the morain, we began our hike back down the mountain. Down, down, down we clambered- often on our rear ends, as we were descending yet again over boulders similar to those on the way up (although this is a different trail.) This trail was as treacherous as the upward track, the earth so dry, it slid beneath our feet. And after a couple of hours, despite the thickness of my boot soles, my feet began to feel every stone beneath them!

A brief rest about midway down the mountain, where we sat on a grassy flat and just chatted idly for half an hour, and we were on our way. The sun was high in the sky, and the world smelled of trees.

Still on the hike upwards to the Flatbreen glacier

Down, down we climbed, through fern and birch woods, often hanging onto the trees for balance. Flowers starred the trail. The sun continued to shine, and it was a heavenly day. Our final climb over rocks and boulders in the river, led us to a final stony descent. All in all, the hike took about eight hours, and I was truly exhausted by the time I plonked myself in the taxi for the ride back to the hotel. And sweaty. And dirty. But what an adventure. All the more exhilarating because I’ll probably never be doing this climb again!

Fjaerland and the Glacier Museum

Up and out by 10AM. We were staying in Fjaerland for a few more hours, and decided to walk to the Glacier Museum, which has some interesting exhibits, including a walk-in “glacier” formed of plastic. It was very eerie to be inside and hear the water melting, the stones and ice cracking within …I had, and have, no desire to walk inside a real glacier!

The little wobbly bridge in Fjaerland

The visit to the museum was followed by a two-hour walk around the town, which included inching across a hanging – and rather wobbly – bridge, one at a time. Shera, Beate’s dog who accompanied us on this hike, was truly a picture as she crossed the bridge, legs splayed, eyes beseeching!

We returned to town, purchased lunch at a local grocery store and ate on the lawn behind our hotel, alongside the fjord. The sun was again brilliantly hot, and the sky was dotted with one or two icy white clouds. Idyllic. Diane and I sat on a bench on the lawn and read for an hour until the ferry arrived. I could stay here for the rest of the trip…

Our luggage was sitting in the hotel hall, waiting for us to drag it to the dock, which was not too far away. We caught the ferry back to the Kvikne Hotel in Balestrand. Diane and I stood on the prow, looking at some of the most glorious sights in the world…sometimes it’s almost too much, it hurts to look. Everywhere we turned, there is beauty.

The beauty of the fjords

We landed, dragged our suitcases uphill to the hotel (thank goodness for wheels), had approximately two hours to clean up, and headed down to dinner. Again, the wonderful smorgasbord had every kind of food we could wish for, but I was ready for bed. The next day, we had to be awake by 6AM, as a 12-14 hour day was ahead of us.

Vik and Finden

Up at 6AM, it was the beginning a long day. We were ready to catch the ferry for a ten-minute ride to our first hike, which started at 8. After a hearty breakfast of muesli, orange juice, and that great bread, we convened on the pier, ready to board the ferry. Ten short minutes later, we disembarked at Vik.

Vik

Our hike led us through Vik, a delightful little town on the water’s edge, full of small painted wooden houses and shops and galleries. From here, we hiked to the mountains, and a trail that is green, green, green – beautiful views on all sides of farmers’ fields, woods, ferns, and flowers -the fjord gleaming way down below. From the heights, we could see Vik as an illustration in a Grimm’s fairy tale, nestled in a valley bound by water and mountains.

One of our goals this day was to see a stave church, built with no nails but supported by tree trunks, or “staves” which are felled and left to dry and naturally resinate for eight years, and which are then used to build the church. This particular church was built in the 1100’s, and has its original staves. Special services are still held within.

Rambling all around the town (of Vik)

After a brief rest here, we rambled all over the mountain, returning down to Vik in the golden sunshine. So peaceful, it is as if all stress and responsibility fell away as we walked over the rolling countryside. All is heartbreakingly beautiful in the clear golden light.

When we reached Vik, we spent a couple of hours exploring, shopped for some supplies, and checked out the shops and the grocery store: I love foreign grocery stores and drugstores. It’s always so much fun to shop in them, checking out the different and unusual! Wandering the streets, I discovered the most delightful little group of homes, almost like dolls’ houses, painted in pale pastels and hidden from the eye behind storage buildings. The windows were lace curtained, with windowsills lined with pots of bright geraniums or daisies. The houses surrounded a small village green, the grass bright as emeralds in the sunshine. It was one of the most delightful parts of our delightful day here.

After eating our lunch at an outdoor table by the fjord, we rambled  for an hour or two, Diane buying a statuette of a “troll couple with tails.” Then we caught the ferry to Finden where walked to a goat farm for another “lunch.” We were met at the base of the mountain by the farm’s owner, who led us uphill to his historic home, built entirely of wood, and beautifully decorated. One side of the room was filled with a very long table, lit with candelabra, and lined with benches on either side, all of which he had built. The table was set with exquisite china, napkins, silverware and wine glasses. When we are seated, he brought out immense platters of grilled goat and vegetables: beans, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, and gravy.  It was a wonderful meal – and I sure wish I could’ve done justice to it.

Benches front the house, on one of which reposed two adorable tiny black kittens – the sweetest little things – but they did not like Shera, Beate’s dog, who, however, was very patient, as always, and left them well alone after an initial bout of barking.

We took many photographs, then walked back down the mountain to the ferry, which took us up the fjord to another mountain trail. Ferns and high grass and trees surrounded our narrow track – and up, up, up we climbed. Presently the trail extremely difficult. Huge moss-covered boulders, steep, steep paths, grass covered – stones lined our way, slicked with moss and dew, and tricky. We hike forever up through wild raspberry, blackberry and blueberry bushes – the berries were delicious with that wild woodsy flavor.

The trail became steeper and steeper, and eventually one by one, we turned back to the boat.

I was drenched in perspiration by the time I made it back down. What an experience; I was climbing down alone, and kept hoping I wouldn’t miss the trail. Never was I so happy to see a ferry!

And so back to Vik, where a taxi was waiting to drive us back to Balestrand. Back earlier than expected, we actually had a couple of hours to clean up for dinner. Then it was time to pack for an early launch back to Bergen on Saturday.

Back to Bergen

Up at 6:15, we packed, zipped down to breakfast, then rolled our suitcases downhill to the landing by 7:45, where we boarded the ferry for a four-hour trip back to Bergen. Unlike prior trips, we all stayed downstairs, many of us sleeping. The morning started off cloudy, but ended sunny and hot.

My suitcases, which seemed relatively light at the beginning of the trip, now felt as if I was carrying two-ton weights within. It must be all the sweat and dirt packed on the socks and t-shirts!

In Bergen, we said goodbye to our small group, then Diane and I rolled our suitcases to the Admiral Hotel, overlooking the fjord, dropped off our luggage and rambled round for a final farewell. I always feel sad at the end of a hike such as this. You enter into another world….then, of course, you have to come back to the real one. Hard sometimes to make the transference.

Then it was back to the Admiral Hotel and my room, overlooking the fjord. However…noisy as all get out! If it’s not a ferry or catamaran revving up for an hour or two before actually leaving port, it was the mass of people making merry at the top of their lungs – or someone on a bullhorn talking about who knows what ad infinitum – this town is unbelievably noisy, busy and social! And I couldn’t close the windows because it is TOO HOT! But I survived – it was a great, great experience and adventure (oh, and now they’re setting off guns!)

Another observation: Some hotels, such as this one, do not put out soap, but rather have it in a wall dispenser in the shower. Not so good if you are sitting in the bathtub, and the soap is three feet above your head – it made for some slippery moments!

Finally: I never saw a homeless person nor a stray animal on any streets in Norway.

I will never forget the incredible beauty of this country…so much unspoiled loveliness, you just have to be thankful you’ve seen what the natural world has to offer.

Everyone and everything is friendly in Norway

Hiking in Crete to the song of the goatbells

 

Ro on the steps in Prevali

Note: This adventure took place in May 2001 – a few months before 9/11, and many years before Greece’s financial meltdown. The times, they are a-changing.

When I was much younger, I read a series of Mary Stewart books…”Bull from the Sea”, “The King Must Die,” but the one that really fired my imagination was “My Brother Michael,” set in the 1950s. The descriptions of Greece… the sound of goatbells in the air, the whitewashed houses, blue Aegean Sea, and sunswept mountains and gorges…all made me long to travel there. The time had come. Meeting a girlfriend, I was on my way to Crete by way of Athens by way of Paris.

Traveling to Chania

We landed in Athens, and a slight Marx Bros. comedy ensued, wherein we found our seats from Athens to Chania to be arbitrarily cancelled. Lucky enough to rebook immediately, we decided we’d better confirm our flight back to Athens at the end of the trip, and were told to go to Olympic Air Sales. Unfortunately, Olympic Air Sales didn’t want to confirm our return….the man behind the desk kept telling us “too soon, too soon” before we were able to make him understand that we just wanted to ensure our names were in the computer.

With these slight problems, we thought it might be well to reconfirm our return flight to Houston. Finding the Information counter, we were told that the counter was NOT Information (despite the sign). Could anyone behind the counter help us? No…because there was no-one working there – three people to the contrary. We found another Information counter, but no Continental or Air France counters were apparently anywhere in the airport. While all the above was going on, people kept jumping in line, butting in ahead of us to the irritation of one traveller – much loud shouting ensued!

A street in Chania

Finally, Chania! At the airport, we met up with Joanne and Eileen, fellow travelers in our small band. We piled into taxis to Hotel Dorma – a charming four story hotel in downtown Chania (pronounced Hania, as if clearing one’s throat) on the coast of the Sea of Crete in the Aegean. Our room overlooked the sea, and was clean and light-filled. Two twin beds, a chair, bedside tables with lamps, and a rush-seated stool and optional similar chair. Hardwood floors. The bathroom had a shower, no bath. Note: we are the only ones with a shower curtain (not that it matters, as we soaked the room every time we turned on the shower.)

After a short rest, four of us from the group, Joanne, Eileen, Elisa and I, walked in the moonlight down a tiny, dark, deserted street to a restaurant on the beach. Passing an office on the road “below-ground”, we looked into the lighted room where two men were sitting discussing business into the wee hours. Like something from a stage setting – this golden block of light set against the darkness of the night.

Our restaurant was built on a slight promontory overlooking crystal clear water. Tables dotted about the sand. The moon was a great silver-gold globe in the sky, and boulders in the water were reflected white against the inky blue. Platters of food were carried to us from the kitchen. The moonshine was brilliant, the water lapped the rocks jutting from the bay, and then there were…the cats. Many cats. I put most of my food down for them. As we left around 11 PM, however, Eileen pointed out that the restaurant had put a bowl of fish parts and a big bowl of water down for the cats and possibly a stray dog I noticed on the way in. Relief.

While we were finishing our dinner, more and more people arrived, as 11 PM is dinnertime for most people on Crete…

Chania

Awoke around 8:30. Elisa wore a night mask – knew nothing! Once we both come to, we walked to the third floor of our hotel for breakfast – wonderful! Brown fresh crusty bread, butter and soft cheese, heavy marmalade, cornflakes and yoghurt, wonderful coffee with hot milk, and and fresh orange juice – sweeter and more taste-intensive than any other I’ve tasted. Omigosh – I’m hungry just reading this!

An exquisite pastiche

Elisa and I strolled for half an hour along Chania’s sea front. What wonderful views from the charming outdoor cafes dotting the water’s edge. You could sit and watch the sea all day and all night. The water was crystal, clear as a bell…beauty everywhere we looked.

Back to the Dorma just before noon. We met Yannis, our guide who lives on Crete (also known as Kriti to the islanders) and who was a dentist in “real life.” Off we went with Eileen, Joanne and Yannis back along the front. As we wandered all over town (never far from the water), we viewed Venetian walls and castles, an abandoned Muslim mosque now a museum, the Chania lighthouse, Turkish castles…finally stopping for lunch in a small outdoor cafe, where we ate Greek salads, and more of that wonderful brown bread. For the first time I had frappe meh gala (iced coffee fluffed with milk…manna!)

Bougainvillea blossoms Chania

After the break, we started off again – checking out old ruins, wandering down tiny alleyways filled with flowers – the bougainvillea is incredible – walls dripped with blossoms of crimson and mauve. Red and lilac geraniums, red and yellow poppies, masses of white daisies – all were out in abundance, planted in terra cotta pots, old tin cans, or just scattered in the grass or over walls.

Before we shopped, we stopped for a drink at a rooftop cafe. Along with the drinks, I ordered baklava which was wonderful – huge! We sat and talked for an hour or two – never hassled by waiters. From our vantage point on the rooftop, we looked over the waterfront to the sea -the sun was shining and it felt like very heaven. Finally, reluctantly, we flagged down our waitress (very laissez faire about getting us the check) – then walked to the shops in Old Town.

Chania’s Old Town is charming and quaint. Narrow cobbled streets were filled with tiny shops holding all sorts of wonderful pottery, jewelry and the ubiquitous postcards. I bought some marvelous Greek calendars – pictures so vivid they jumped off the page. I also bought a beautifully-shaped vase in the wonderful blue that is Greece. Elisa and Joanne bought worry beads (no need for those here).

Atter which, we wandered back along the waterfront to the hotel, arriving around 6:30. Dinner was at 8, early for Yannis, and anyone else who lives on Kriti. A more perfect day couldn’t be imagined.

Dinner in Chania

Downstairs in the sitting room are two more of our hiking group, Gina and Theresa. Together in the gathering dusk, we walk the mile and a half along the coast – the sky turns a particularly vivid and inky shade of blue; stars are reflected in the Sea of Crete. Back through Old Town, past the Venetian and Byzantine ruins – we walk to one of the most original and beautiful restaurants I’ve ever seen in my life.

Up stone steps, through a Venetian archway, to a table under a wide canopy of vivid deep pink bougainvillea.

The restaurant’s walls are stone, its ceiling – sky and flowers. The walls end in jagged ruin, and vines twine over them. Through the canopy of bougainvillea, in the deep inky blue of the sky, a brilliant full moon is shining – it looks like hammered silver. We are early; very few people are here. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxed. Greek music plays in the background. Yannis is joined by two of his friends, and we spend a little time getting to know one another.

The chef greets us at table, and Yannis orders our meal: dolmades, tzatziki, cheese pies, grilled mushrooms, baked potato with soft cheese – these are just a few of the hors d’ouvres. Everyone drinks wine, except for me – I order Mythos, the Greek beer.

Then comes the main course – a special dish the chef had copied from an old Minoan recipe seen in a museum: pork loin flavored with spices and herbs baked for eight hours in a clay dish molded to the pork. The clay is broken to serve the meat, and it tastes like heaven on a plate.

After dinner, we are brought raki {not only an after dinner drink, but also apparently a chest rub), and two plates of fruits such as sliced bananas, figs and strawberries, with grated nuts atop and drizzled with honey mixed with yoghurt. Unbelievable!

As we sit eating our dessert and drinking raki, a wind from the sea begins to blow: as it strengthens, it loosens bougainvillea petals from the vines, scattering them across the floor and tablecloths. Through it all, we eat, drink and talk, until Joanne reminds us we have breakfast at 7:30AM! That brings us to our feet, although Yannis and his two friends remain at the table; the night has only just begun for them.

This is one of the most memorable and magical meals I have ever eaten in my life – I have a hard time believing how incredible this all is! The night air, the color of the sky, the waterfront, the brilliant moon and stars, the scent of flowers – and the wonderful food and company…sensory overload!

As we walk back, Crete embraces you: the seemingly endless waterfront is filled with wall-to-wall outdoor cafes – peopled with young and old, drinking, eating, laughing – full-blooded life! What a night!

Polyrinnia Gorge and Polymeria

This is our first “real” hike day. After another splendid breakfast of brown bread, plum and marmalade jams, hot milky coffee, fresh orange juice and that marvelous yoghurt, we board the bus, (including Yannis’s two friends), to make the hour’s ride to the top of Polyrinnia Gorge.

We drive through achingly beautiful country – mountainous, deserted, and windy. Some hillsides are terraced, olive trees are everywhere.

We reach the top of the gorge – the plan being to hike down and through it. As we stride along, we gaze through mountain passes, and ramble by bright yellow bushes of gorse, banks of daisies – what seem like fields of daisies! – red poppies, heads bending in the wind, yellow celandine, purple thistle, orange trees with fruit ripening on their branches, plane trees, and of course, the olive, often in flower.

Could I be any happier?

At first we stop often as Yannis explains some herb or plant, such as the yellow sage and poison onion.

Then the rhythm of the hike takes hold. Vangelis and I disappear ahead for a while; it is wonderful to hike swiftly over these trails, rocky in some parts, grassy or sandy in others. It is, however, a little disconcerting when Vangelis sends up a few yodels to the vultures flying high above – when I ask him if there is a meaning to this call, he replies basically he is just telling them “we’re not dead yet!”

At the hike’s end, we pile into a green flatbed truck and truck to the base of the “Acropolis”, a small mountain we hike in half an hour. The mountain is covered with wildflowers, and the mountain trail is bordered by showers of small, golden but many-branched blossoms. When we reach the peak, in what we would call “gale-type” winds in Houston, with the sun intermittently shining, we can see 360° around the isle of Crete. Seas, mountains, valleys and the rich colors of the flowers and trees are everywhere we look – very, very beautiful.

Atop a boulder in Kriti’s highlands

We pass a small Greek Orthodox church placed at seeming random on the side of the mountain – snowy white without, immaculately clean within. Standing inside, the spirituality of Crete takes you out of yourself and to another plane.Then it’s back out into sunshine and down to the little taverna where we eat another wonderful meal: rice in butter, grilled chicken, Greek fried potatoes, Greek salad – and soft cheese pies soaked in honey. Yikes! And then of course, the raki! (Darned good thing we’re hiking!)

After lunch, we head to the tiny town of Polymeria, with its whitewashed houses banded with blue shutters and doors, stair-stepping down the hillside. Literally covered with double-headed geraniums, one small house is a color-soaked painting against the Greek blue sky. An unbelievable adventure.

Then, back to the bus and back to Chania to get – hopefully – a hot shower. This morning’s shower was pretty chilly- Elisa almost shrieked when she turned it on! A note about these showers: all are hand-held, and it’s an adventure in itself to:

  • Turn on the shower,
  • Hold the handle between your knees,
  • Soap up,
  • And soak the bathroom floor and walls as you try to get a grip with soapy hands to rinse yourself off!

The White Mountains Museum and The Mirovolos

While we are all tired from the fresh air and hike, around 8 o’clock we return to the waterfront in the dusk to walk to the White Mountains Museum with its display of Greek artifacts and photographs and icons of events and happenings in World War II and other times.

After which, we walk further still until – off a side street we come to a Greek taverna, The Mirovolos, in Old Town. Music spills into the night air, two men play guitar and bouzouki, singing romantic Greek songs. Yannis sings along. The high point occurs when a young girl joins the two performers. She has the most wonderful voice – evocative and poignant – the atmosphere becomes drenched in deep beautiful folk music. Her voice is magic.

Another table full of wonderful food, which I think now I could go on eating forever (as long as I hike 20 miles a day.) Tzatziki, Greek salad, some wonderful crispy vegetable chips deep fried in olive oil, the fabulous crusty Greek bread, and so forth…finished off with (as usual) raki.

We all walk our usual brisk walk back to the hotel. Now it is 1 AM, and we arise at 7. And so to bed.

Myloi Gorge, Ksiro Horio and Rethymno

Although the vote is tied this morning as to where and how long we shall hike, Yannis breaks the tie and opts for a shorter ramble through the Myloi Gorge to a tiny town called Ksiro Horio (Dry Town) and then to Rethymno for lunch.

Before leaving Chania, we stop at the Covered Market to look around. Elisa, Joanne and I need the bathroom, as usual. Pointed by Yannis to what we think is the WC, we all barrel down a flight of stairs directly into the wide open spaces of the men’s room – with a row of urinals and one lonely man unzipping! Our turn in unison is worthy of Esther Williams and her water ballet choreography.

We drive on to the gorge, arriving around 10, and hike until 2PM. The gorge is beautiful: perhaps one of the greenest parts of Crete. Down a trail sometimes banded with ivy, we hike over rocks and pebbles, crossing many crystal clear streams in the heart of the gorge. Mid-hike, we come to an abandoned village, houses with walls two feet thick, crumbling and vine-covered…a leap back into the past, although we note some reconstruction work going on.

Reconstructing an old village deep in green countryside

It is so very green here, with splashes of ochre red at intervals on the face of the gorge. Flowers sprout from rocks; birds are singing. The sun is shining, filtering green light through the vines. Plane trees, olive, cedar, fir and oak trees are everywhere, as are the trailing vines. We are in a lost kingdom of some leafy green people. Flowers star the pathways, as we go down, and down, and down.

On the road to "dry town"

On the road to “Dry Town”

After rambling for about three or so hours, we come to the tiny village known as “Dry Town.” The village is very lovely: whitewashed walls and red tile roofs glow in the sunlight. Bright pink and red bougainvillea drips from every overhang; patios are covered with grapevine, and the orange blossoms of the flowering pomegranate blaze. Other flowers we see: wild pink oleander, white daisies galore, orange nasturtiums, blue speedwell, blue cornflowers, white roses, and wildflowers whose names no-one knows. Magic kingdom!

We leave this small enchanted town, and drive to Rethymno. As we approach the coast, the beach, seen from the distance, is all yellow sand, and the sky a brilliant blue. Sunbathers dot the sand. The air is balmy – and the sea! Deep, deep blue creaming with little whitecaps, a movie set couldn’t be more perfect. The beach, sea and sky are absolutely soaked with color- yellow, blue and white, colors of Greece, colors of Crete.

We reach Rethymno and visit the Museum Shop, where I buy a beautiful little bust of Aphrodite, and Eileen buys the fresco she has been looking for. And so to lunch…

We are all seated at a corner table in the shade. Taking what I think is a brief break in the bathroom, when I come out: no-one is to be seen! I mean no-one and nothing – not even a plate! I must look completely dumbfounded and dopey until shouts from Yannis make me realize the entire table has moved to the opposite side into the sun.

After lunch, we wander at will around town, Iooking at everything and nothing. Then on to dinner, which is held tonight at the Hotel Dorma…it is heaven to look from the third floor window of the hotel’s restaurant, across the road to the “wine-dark” sea of Crete. How I love it here.

A slight problem has arisen: we are to walk the Samarian Gorge on Tuesday, but high winds and a stationary ferry make it seem that we will have to hike to Loutro, with nothing but our backpacks…waiting for calmer seas to bring us the rest of our luggage. I look forward to this with great expectations.

Agia Aikaterini and Loutro

On the hike to Loutro – incredible!

As Yannis had thought, no ferry to Loutro today, so the plan is to hike over the mountains to Loutro, (which can only be accessed by hiking or by ferry.)

The hike is exhilarating: over increasingly higher mountains up to a tiny whitewashed chapel, Agia Aikaterini, which rests atop the highest hillside. The church blazes white against the blue blue sky. Flowers are everywhere – unusual ones such as the dragon flower (which eats insects its purple throat), and the wild mountain thyme, which drenches you with scent from its sun-soaked blossoms. The sun shines, the air is clear, and the wind, fresh.

Aigia Aikaterini – a beautiful small white church

The trails are steep, but the view is worth it: the overlying colors are vivid greens and blues. Everywhere is the mountain thyme – tiny purple flowers covering low-lying prickly bushes. I pick some leaves and run them over my hands. The scent is so strong, at times it comes over the air in waves. Whenever I smell this in the future, I shall always think of Crete.

We walk the last remaining mile to the ruins of an old Turkish castle, which for some unknown reason, has a few primitive weights inside its (roofless) walls.

Hiking through castle ruins

Hiking through castle ruins

The sun is brilliant, the grass green and sweet and all is quiet, except for the distant far away plink of the goat bells. We leave this gentle haven to walk into Loutro.

Loutro – heaven on earth

Loutro – seen from the mountains above

Our first glimpse of Loutro is of a heavenly small port on the Libyan sea coast, its buildings whitewashed and edged with the vivid blue shutters of Greece – all facing the water. Our hotel, the Sitis, is at the far edge of the tiny waterfront.

It is hard to describe my feelings on first seeing Loutro: it is all I had hoped Greece and Crete would be.

Flowers climb the walls, in colors so brilliant your heart aches with the desire to paint them. The warmth of the sun brings the scents to you vividly. Against all the blue and white of the houses and small hotels are splashed brilliant red geraniums, bright blue convulvus, pots of white and yellow daisies, bougainvillea and oleander in purple-pink, dripping flowers into the sun. Here is a never-land. You understand now why no-one wants to leave once they arrive. All this glamor is set against the crystal blue of the Libyan Sea. Two small white boats float on the waters off the small pebble beach.

Fishing boat in Loutro

We are led to our rooms up an outside stair into marble-floored halls. I walk out onto our whitewashed balcony, looking over the hotel’s tiny outdoor café on the waterfront, to the sea and the mountains beyond. Below in the courtyard of the hotel, spits are turning, roasting chicken and a kebab of pork and vegetables.

Another world, timeless, far from all we have ever known or seen before.

A doorway in Loutro

Luckily, too, there is hot water! After washing up, I take a brief journey up the road behind the hotels, up through a whitewashed narrow path lined with houses, hotels and small markets. Fascinating!

Dinner is served in the outdoor cafe, close to the water’s edge. We drink Greek wine and Mythos beer, and watch the sky turn inky blue as a full moon rises over the white unresisting ferry.

Yannis, our guide, is delightful: good to talk to, attractive, very sweet – somewhat chauvinistic and very Greek. Great smile. Good sense of humor.

This is the perfect day.

A little back alley in Loutro – quintessentially Greece to me

The Samarian Gorge

We are to walk the Samarian Gorge today – the lazy hike, says Yannis (I wonder what he thinks is a tough hike.)

Early morning walk to the mountains above Loutro

Before we leave for Samaria, Eileen, Joanne and I take an early walk past the ferry and up the coast to castle ruins on a small hill. An idyllic spot, with the blue, blue Libyan Sea down below. Wild thyme covers the ground … the scent lingers in the air. The sun is shining brilliantly, even though it is fairly early – and it is warm, which intensifies the scent of the thyme. I am surrounded by the drone and the hum and the buzz of the bees in the thyme.

I hear the sound of the goatbells

Goats run across rocky outcrops, their goatbells tinkling as they crop the grass. This is the song of Crete…and the wild mountain thyme is its scent.

Dotting the landscape are the remains of Turkish and Venetian castles, and a small whitewashed chapel. The vivid green of the grass is starred with small white daisies, and even smaller “yellow flowers,” as Yannis calls them. The spirit of this enchanted spot will live in my heart forever.

The ferry takes us across to Samaria, where we begin our hike into the longest gorge in Europe. It’s tough. But the sun shines all day – not a cloud in the sky. We tramp over rocky paths that slide beneath our feet – over sand – across funny little wooden bridges -across rocks fording the stream/river bed – through wonderful green areas where trees reach up the canyon walls- past boulders piled almost building-high.

Waiting to begin our hike through the Samarian Gorge

Many, many people are hiking today…making the trail more treacherous and challenging than it might have otherwise been. But it is a very challenging hike to me because of the rocks and boulders, (round trip 10 miles) and I finally trip and fall to my knees. Very attractive! And my feet definitely feel the last mile.

The start of the walk through the Samarian Gorge

Once we pass the various hikers and ramblers, silence descends … uncannily quiet, other than the sound of the occasional bird, and trickle of water drifting over stones and rocks. We pause somewhere in the heart of the gorge to rest a moment, each finding his or her own special spot to absorb the magic of this place. We then turn slowly back to the ferry, early enough so we can sit on the waterfront at a small café. Another beautiful day.

Hiking in the Samarian Gorge

I must admit that I am very tired tonight. Our luggage has now arrived, so we are able to “clean up good” for a fabulous meal of grilled swordfish and what must be the best fried potatoes in the world in the hotel’s edgewater café. In the dusk, the sky is inky blue, the sea is deep and inviting, and the moon is a hanging silver ball. But try as I might, I can hardly keep my eyes open, so goodnight, and to bed!

The Imbros Gorge

Today we leave Loutro.

Above Loutro – a morning walk

Again, I take a short walk to the castle ruins on the hill before returning for breakfast on the waterfront. We have fresh orange juice – an unbelievable tang – toasted thick Greek bread, feta cheese, fried eggs, yoghurt with honey, olives, and the wonderful coffee. Pack up and onto the ferry, on our way to our next hike and our next town.

Our goodbye to Loutro breakfast on the hotel’s waterfront

I feel emotionally drained as the ferry pulls away from Loutro. Seeing it recede across the bay brings tears to my eyes…I don’t know if I’ve ever been so drawn to a place before. It is very odd and strange.

We are to hike today in the Imbros Gorge, approximately three and a half hours, as it is one of the shorter gorges. The trail through the gorge is stony, rocky, pebbly, bouldery -­beautiful. Endless cliffs to the sky. At one point, wild goats can be seen cropping greenery atop a canyon ledge; you wonder idly how they got there.

The entrance to Imbros Gorge

The entrance to Imbros Gorge

Halfway through the hike, we stop at a small clearing and sit talking to…well, frankly, I don’t know who! Here we eat sweet sesame bread and soft white cheese. Various strangers come and go. Two dogs lie in the sunshine. We are stamped on the arm by our “host.” Then Joanne and I attempt to find the WC behind the hut.

What an experience: balancing in the little cubicle over the ceramic “hole in the ground” in a hut about the size of a breadbin (with a pail of water to rinse off)…well, words fail me! However, Joanne is now hot to write a book on “WCs I have known,” possibly rating them 1-5 on the toilet-paper rating scale. Or she might do a PBS tv show, “WC of the Week!” Loads of opportunities for varying entrepreneurships seem to be available on this subject, and I must say on this trip we have seen a wide variety! (I prefer a bush.)

You can’t meander on this type of hike – you must move rapidly, partly because the stones beneath your feet are apt to turn if you linger…it’s easy to lose your balance on the rocks if you move more slowly. I like hopping from stone to stone as quickly as possible!

The sun streams down in golden sheets, and the floor of the gorge is covered with pebbles and rocks of all sizes and shapes. Birds, flowers, plants, lichen, plane trees …these are everywhere, as is the red poppy- another symbol of Crete and Greece – so fragile, so beautiful. As the trail ends, we see nasturtiums dripping down the walls and glowing orange, as well as blue convulvus and a gorgeous anenome-like flower in vivid magenta with petals of neon-green.

Yannis and I are the first to arrive at the end of the trail. I force him to listen to my rendition of “I love to go a-wandering…” otherwise known as “Valderi, valdera” –  Dear Yannis: very patient!

Once we’re all together, we walk up a hill to a restaurant situated high above the sea, where we eat grilled goat, Greek sausages, Greek salad, Greek fried potatoes – and I have what is now my favorite beer, Mythos, and then frappe meh gala (it’s embarrassing to even write this down.)

We pile onto the bus: next destination, Plakia. When we arrive, I beg off dinner, for a night alone to write and to sleep. A wonderful day…but then, just another day in paradise.

Preveli Monastery and the Libyan Sea

I’m already homesick for Crete, and I haven’t left yet.

Around 9AM, we pile onto the bus on the road to the Preveli Monastery of St. John the Theologian. Up – up – up we ride – seemingly up to the end of the world. On arriving at the monastery, the sun breaks through overhanging clouds and it is brilliant for the remains of the day.

The Preveli Monastery

The monastery is very beautiful: exquisitely clean, austere, spiritually comforting. Colors fill the eye. Creamy walls. Flowers in all their glory – magnificent red geraniums, huge clumps of white lilies. The monks in black from head to toe stand out in high relief. Down below, the crystal blue of the beckoning sea.

Down below, the blue of the beckoning sea

The church has wonderfully ornate silver, gold and brass chandeliers, and its cross has a long and intricate history. People are praying within the chapel, and the hush —peaceful, calm – underscores the appeal of the spiritual life.

We leave the monastery for another brief ride (George, our driver, is adorable!) to the top of  “Lake Palm Tree” where we will walk down steps carved in rock to a freshwater river and lagoon, and then to the Libyan Sea below. From this great height, far away islands in the sea appear, cloaked in a lingering mist.

Walking down to Preveli beach on the Libyan Sea

However, at the clifftop, the sun is out in full force, as we go down – down – down. It is beautiful here. The sea is that Greek blue that must be the most vivid and vital in the world. Set against it is a small yellow sand beach with thatched umbrellas dotting the shore. From above, we see a grove of palms, deep green, which grew when pirates dropped the pits of dates into the sand. Around this oasis, all is green – brilliantly green. Through the wealth of jungle we walk, taking off our boots and replacing them with water shoes to help us over the rocks in the river. The water is cold.

Once we reach “dry land” boots are again in place, and we hike over rocks and massive boulders alongside the river. Higher and higher we climb, until we reach our destination on a rocky outcrop; we can go no further. Here we rest, snack and talk. This is a particularly enchanting place, windy and wild, and the sun is on our faces. No sounds but the lonely birds, and the gurgle and rush of the river passing by.

After an hour’s sojourn, back we amble to the seashore.

It is warm, sunny and so soporific. Eileen and Joanne go for a quick swim in the Meditteranean, but the water is too chilly to dawdle.

Yannis, Theresa, Elisa and I sit beneath the thatched overhang and sip frappe meh galas and desultorily talk…while Joanne and Eileen perch on a rock a short distance away. It is a special moment, one of many, in time here….I am happy and sad at once. I feel emotionally touched by Crete, and feel constantly on the verge of tears. Why?

We leave our little oasis and climb two million stairs to the top of the cliff, where the faithful (and handsome) George is waiting patiently to drive us back to Plakia.

Heraklion and Goodbye to Crete

This morning we take brief trip through the Museum in Heraklion … then a tour of the Minoan Palace of Knossos…a wonderful way to end this adventure of all adventures.

Otherwise

I’m writing down a few Greek words and phrases, as I don’t want to forget: Kalimera -good morning; Kalispera – good evening. Adio – goodbye. Sagapo – I love you. Agape mou – my love.