RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: August 2021

Hiking in the Great Smokies

The green is the very greenest green

The green is the very greenest green

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

Ro in front of Stairway to Heaven Lodge outside Gatlinburg

In front of Stairway to Heaven Lodge outside Gatlinburg

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

The start of our hikes in the Great Smokies

The start of our hikes in the Great Smokies

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

View from Ro's balcony at the Lodge

View from my balcony at the Lodge

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

Monday

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

Iconic bridge crossing a stream

Iconic bridge crossing a stream

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

Jan and Katie and a bite of lunch by the stream

Jan and Katie and a bite of lunch by a stream

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

Tuesday

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

The "Refrigerator" Great Smokies National Park

The “Refrigerator” Great Smokies National Park

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

Wednesday

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

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

Ro does the rapids SMILING

Ro does the rapids SMILING – look at that water!

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

The Great Smokies

The Great Smokies

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

Thursday

Getting ready for the hike

Getting ready for the hike

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

The AT sign at the start of the hike

The AT sign at the start of the hike

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

Resting atop Charlie's Bunion

Resting atop Charlie’s Bunion

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

Clingman's Dome

Clingman’s Dome

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

Laurel tree in bloom

Laurel tree in bloom

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

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

Friday

The Group

The Group

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

Autumn in New Mexico

 

Autumn in New Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all I could do to leave!

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

 

 

Island rambles on the Isle of Wight

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

Island rambles on the Isle of Wight

September 6

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

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

Hilly Ryde

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

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

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

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

September 7

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

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

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

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

September 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sea was crystal clear.

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

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

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

September 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so the end of another perfect day.

September 11

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

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

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

Vines, flowers and flowering shrubs are everywhere.

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

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

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

I guess you could say: Another perfect day.

September 12

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

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

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

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