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Hiking New Hampshire, and the beauty of the White Mountains

This was a brief few days of hiking in July…it was challenging and satisfying. Our group consisted of 8 women and two guides; some of the women had not been on a group hike before, some were looking for people to travel with, and some, like me, just wanted to hike! Our little group consisted of our guides Jan and Ruthie; Anni, Australian from Brisbane; Rebecca from Canada; Ann, Cindy (whose room I stole), Deb, Susan, Debbie and me.

Sunday

Deb drove Susan (who’d never been on a group hike) and me to the starting point, which we needed to reach by noon. We got to the White Mountains Visitor Center in Lincoln, NH off the Kancamagus Highway (try saying that very quickly) where we had a quick picnic lunch.

The Zealand Falls, Susan in background

After picking up the condo keys from Loon Reservations (love that name), we all drive to drop off various and sundry cars at the condos/lodges – then beaver on to the first hike of the trip – to Upper Greely Pond, where we experience the variability of the trail… rocky granite paths and leaf-lined walks…of the mountains.

The weather is glorious…warm, dry, cool breeze, vivid blue skies…perfect for hiking (around 3.5 miles round trip). We hiked over rocks, streams, tree roots, marshy ground – seeing all kinds of flora and fauna. The trail was beautiful: between the trees are moss-covered boulders that make me think of Wales, where I lived when I was a child (at the base of a mountain).  Ferns lined the trail, and lichen covered trees and rocks. The air smelled of pine as we climbed upward to Greely’s Pond, where Susan was the only one to take a dip in the chilly waters.

Our merry band!

Our merry band!

The sun was intense and very soporific. After Susan’s swim and various snacks all round, we hiked back down the trail…I have to say my feet were feeling it by the time we got to the car and back to the condos. The condos are set back in the woods…pretty (although they don’t match up to the lodge we stayed at in the Smokies last year.) But Jan is great…it’s super having her as our guide again. She and Ruthie prepared a wonderful meal in the condo, and after a long discussion about upcoming hikes, I was pooped – and so to bed to be ready to get on the trail by 9AM tomorrow.

Monday: Leave no footprint

On the AT

On the AT

A really long day – up at 7 – breakfast at 8 – leave at 9. We all drive to the beginning of the hike 45 minutes away – only to find we’ve left Cindy behind at the condos!! Once it’s decided that she is NOT in the bathroom, or hiking on her own, Ruthie pops back in the van to go get her, and we all commence on our hike on the Zealand Falls trail. A glorious hike through forests and past marshes, alongside the Zealand River.  We see beaver dams, waterfalls, beautiful ponds, serene woods, blue sky, fluffy white clouds…manna for the soul.

Everywhere you look...great beauty

Everywhere you look…great beauty

During this hike, we actually get onto the Appalachian Trail, and are hiking to one of the AMC huts which has an amazing view from the rocky crags surrounding the waterfall. The vistas all around us are breathtaking…so much green and blue, you want to kiss the ground for the pleasure of knowing these places still exist in the world.

The last stretch of this hike is boulders, boulders, boulders…huge and challenging. Here we take a break for lunch, scattering ourselves over the boulders and enjoying the breeze.

A trail of boulders

A trail of boulders

At this point, Cindy and Ruthie arrive…Cindy barely has time to sit down before it’s time to leave, back down from whence we came. The overall round trip hike came to about 6 miles (although going uphill, a mile seems like much more than…a mile!)

After this hike, we piled in the vans and drove to the beautiful and historic Mount Washington Lodge – historic because in 1944 it hosted 44 nations at the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference, where the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were established, with the US dollar designated the basis of international exchange.

Walking up to Mt Washington Lodge for lemonade

Walking up to Mt Washington Lodge for lemonade

This lodge is absolutely gorgeous…the hotel, the grounds and the views…perfection. We sat on the veranda or in Adirondack chairs on the lawn overlooking the mountains beyond, drank our lemonade and thought ourselves some of the luckiest people on earth.

View from back of Mt Washington Lodge

View from back of Mt Washington Lodge

Then it was back to our condos for a home-cooked dinner (barbecued pork chops, salad, chocolate)…and I had my usual one beer. Tomorrow we leave earlier than usual…and so , to bed.

Tuesday: Make sure to have super-high spf sunblock

On the Saco River

On the Saco River

Good breakfast at 7:30 and we are out the door by 8:30, on the way to the Saco River for a day of canoe-ing and kayaking.  Four canoes are booked, two kayaks. Deb and I hope to partner in one of the canoes – NOT the greatest idea in the world, as we keep driving the canoe into sandbanks. So Deb and Jan exchange places, and we’re finally on our merry way.

Just before I got overturned!

Just before I got overturned!

We paddled down the peaceful river for about an hour…all was quiet except for birdsong and the trees as the breeze rustled through.  The river is clear as a bell…the bottom lined with boulders and flat rocks…just purely beautiful. We come to a sandy shore for snacks, and for some, swimming. I’m very covered up as the sun is really intense, although not unpleasantly so…I’m slathered with 50 spf suncream, and it seems to work well. (I remember in Utah not being so smart, and as I was wearing shorts, my lower legs burned to a crisp.)

A peaceful moment on the Saco

Time to return to the canoes – Jan and I crawl in, and then, somehow, we locked our canoe with another – and the next thing, we’re both in the water…soaked. My camera was encased in a waterproof pack – the only thing not soaked through.

Onward we paddled for another hour…another break…then we arrived at the dock, at 3:15. Unloaded everything, and then we all piled on the bus, back to town, where we stopped at an ice cream shop for a cone and a rest. The ice cream was yum-o (me? I had traditional chocolate chip…) Then it was back to the condos, quick clean up, nice meal cooked by Jan and Ruthie…and so to bed. Heavy duty hike tomorrow!

Wednesday: Duct tape and poles

This was the most difficult hike of all for me. We left the condos around 9AM – usual hearty breakfast, pack our lunches…and drive an hour to the start of the Welch-Dickey hike in the Waterville Valley (Welch and Dickey are actually two mountains), where we will achieve two summits. Jan wrapped my and Ann’s toes in duct tape – worked super-well to prevent blistering or cutting. I came without poles – will never do that again on a hike of this nature!

The start of the Welch-Dickey hike

The start of the Welch-Dickey hike

The hike was uphill all the way to Welch’s peak (no little flat places to take a breather) – not high, but strenuous…with much of it “scrambling” or climbing over humongous granite boulders to the very top. Who knew I could do this!

Movin' on up

Movin’ on up

I take it easy up this trail so as not to wear myself out (recommendation from Jan – sounded good to me), but Jan and Rebecca hang in with me, which I much appreciated. At the summit, I gracefully tripped on a tree root, went down on my knees on soft trail with a splat. But nothing to really write home about (although I hate falling).

Scrambling!

Scrambling!

The trail from base to peak was a mixture, actually, beginning with fir-lined paths with a few rocks and boulders…then climbing steadily upward to the huge monoliths halfway up Welch. We took a few breaks for lunch, snacks, water and photography.

I was sweating hard by the time I reached the peak…but the views, absolutely incredible!

O happy day calloo callay she chortled in her joy

Looking down from our viewpoint atop granite, across the valleys filled with firs, maples, birches and other trees, to mountains ranged along our field of vision…and the vast sky overhead…all is so still and peaceful. Of course, if you happened to fall off the granite, it was a loooong way down. Must try not to do that!Looking across the mountains and valley

Looking across the valley to Welch Mountain from Dickey

After stopping a few minutes on Welch, we headed down and onward to Dickey’s summit, about 1800 feet, all in all.

The White Mountains

The White Mountains

Then it was back onto the trail, heading downwards…lovely, even with gigantic boulders, I loved it, partly because I enjoy hiking down which is definitely easier for me to negotiate, and it’s also very pleasant for my toes. It must have been in the mid-80s today, and the weather all week long has been so perfect, you couldn’t order anything better. In the 50s/60s at night, and high 70s/low 80s during the day…ruffly white clouds, deep blue sky…

Heading homeward

Heading homeward

Our hike round trip: around 4 miles. We made it in just about 6 hours. (As I think Bill Bryson said, and I concur: A mile in the mountains is not just a mile!)

Now we’re back in the condos, and most of the group has gone to the Bathtub for a quick swim. Then it’s on to the Gypsy Café for our farewell dinner…the food there is fabulous!

Thursday

Peace and love...courtesy of Ringo Starr

Peace and love…courtesy of Ringo Starr

Up and out of the condos, packed and ready to go by 9. One more short hike, at the Flume Gorge, about 800 feet long from the base of Mount Liberty. The granite walls rise to 70/90 feet and are studded with ferns and tiny vines and flowers, while the water drips everywhere…we take a 2-mile walk over boardwalks and gravel. Lots of people visiting, whereas on previous trails, very few.

Cindy kissing a moose goodbye

Cindy kissing a moose goodbye

A quick lunch, and it’s time to say goodbye. After great conversations, good food and drink, the incredible beauty of the wilderness…I am ready to go home and mull over all the experiences. Back to civilization, back to real life.

Just want to add a couple of books that I highly recommend: Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” – so funny and a terrific source of information about the AT. And “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed – I loved this book about her hiking the PCT, the reasons why she did it, and what she found out about herself at the end of it all. Couldn’t put it down.

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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 Spain: Autumn in Andalusia

  

Granada

Who knew I’d get stood up in Spain? One thing to be stood up at the movies – but Spain?

I’d planned to meet a friend in Madrid, then we’d fly to Granada to meet our hiking group. There were clues that this might not come to pass – oh, for example, when she said: Now if I’m not in Madrid when you land, don’t wait for me – catch your plane to Granada. But of course, who thinks this means: Guess what, I’m not coming!

That being said, I arrived in Madrid about 9AM – no-one seemed to speak English, even a flight captain. I was at a total loss as to my connecting Iberian flight to Granada, but eventually found out they don’t announce a gate until an hour prior. Better be sure you’re within running distance.

Still no sign of Diane, so I boarded Iberian. The sun was shining brilliantly – and I arrived at the (tiny) Granada airport and stood outside waiting – waiting – waiting for a taxi. Finally! I arrived at Guadalupe Hotel in the Alhambra (which, I found out is a medina, or city, not just a palace, as I had thought…always learning). Diane never showed up. Around 5PM Granada time…after hours of calls and worry…. I decided to change my tickets home, moving them up two days so I’d arrive home early Sunday rather than late Tuesday. Incredible hassle. I spent about $200 on long distance calls to airlines and to the office…let alone the cost of re-purchasing the Iberian A/L ticket and changing Continental!

Finally late that evening I found out from Wilderness Travel: Diane was not coming! I took a sleeping tablet, and slept until noon Saturday, and awoke feeling much better!

Saturday, Sept 30

Never hear from Diane.

The view from my room at the Guadalupe Hotel

My room, (on the 3rd floor) was charming although spartan…but what views! The busloads of tourists had come and gone, and peace reigned. I decided to wash my hair and get an early night. Reminder for next trip: Be sure to check the hotel hairdryer before you plan to use it!  First try: I blew the electricity.  Then I popped the breaker, and plugged the dryer back in…electricity came on. But every time I tried to use it, it blew.  I called the concierge, who flipped  breakers high upon the wall across the room several times – same problem. “Too bad,” she said. The only thing I could do was dry one strand of hair before blowing the fuse, cross from the bathroom, climb on a chair, flip the breakers, dry another strand, and so on and so forth. Fun!

The Guadalupe Hotel at the Alhambra

Next, I tried Room Service. When I couldn’t get anyone on the line, I called the front desk. They suggested I come down to the bar, which is also the Room Service. So down I went. One lonely girl was behind the counter…only two customers. I asked her “is this Room Service?” She: “Do I LOOK like Room Service?” Hmm…inauspicious beginning. I asked if she could fix me a sandwich. She looked at me as if I were requesting a 6-course meal, but we finally had a meeting of the minds, and when I offered her a big tip, she decided she could, of course, bring the tray to my room. Yay!

Meeting the group 

I met the group and off we go to the Alhambra. The palace was beautiful with incredible lacy walls with the coats of arms etc. of bygone times. I loved the gardens…oh, they were heavenly… architecturally designed…flowers brilliant…cedars and boxwood – all wildly scented.

We left the Alhambra and walked to charming restaurant up, up, up a narrow street. It was delightful sitting outside under a canopy eating a wonderful lunch. Weather, by the way, was hot – hot – hotter, not the usual October weather for Andalusia.

After lunch, we all piled in a van to Bubion, a tiny village atop what seemed to me an incredibly high mountain.  I turned green as round and round we went on the narrow road – each lap around the mountain more terrifying than the previous. The drop was precipitous. Thank god Didier was an excellent driver. I was so nauseated by the movement of the van, I really thought I’d lose it. Sweat broke out all over my face and neck, and I could barely climb from the van after an hour and a half drive up the mountain. (But this was the only time I experienced this.)

All the little towns have these wonderful narrow streets

Three hours later, after washing my hair again (glutton for punishment), I was able to go to dinner, always late at night. It was fabulous, but almost too much for me to finish (I valiantly manage). Spanish meals seem to be HUGE. But oh, we were relaxed, sitting outside in the courtyard looking over the mountains at the sunset, and then at a glorious full moon, having drinks, then going inside the tiny restaurant for dinner. Wine flowed, good conversation reigned. What a wonderful night!

We meet in hotel lobby at 9:30 after quick breakfast. First hike – and it was a doozy. The first couple of hours we hiked down – which was great. The trail was rocky and pebbly, so needed to watch feet. No-one else in the group likes downhill.

It is very dry here, and unseasonably hot. The ground is parched, but vistas across valleys are stunning, the mountains incredible, and you see clusters of whitewashed towns scattered at intervals across the great divides. Not a lot of water.

We are accompanied on this trip by Antonio and two mules. Bea asked me several times if I wanted to just ride one of the mules, when I thought I’d pass out from heat – but add to the weight already on the backs of the animals I would not … although they were well fed and cared for – Antonio rode one of them almost all the way back up the mountain.

Two mules for…

Now imagine, if you will, hiking in 87o F weather – with humidity – most times with no shade – sun fierce – not a cloud in the sky – followed by Antonio on a mule yakking away on his cell phone!

After about three hours, we come to our lunch spot, with a fabulous view across cliffs and valleys. In the distance, our town of Bubion, where we would begin heading after lunch. We picnic on tomatoes from Bea’s garden, homemade olive oil, two kinds of Spanish cheeses, cured ham, long loaves of crusty bread, Spanish olives…all absolutely delish (also wine, orange and peach juices).

Up again, on hike back to Bubion – this was so steep I had to keep stopping in the (very few) shady spots…the climb was intense. Bea kept me going – it was easier with the stops, but woof: talk about hard (my hardest hike…the rest got easier by the day.) Finally got to Bubion and she and I stopped in a small taverna for a drink. It was such fun to just not be “in train” and I loved Bea for doing it. She is a remarkable person – so Spanish, absolutely tiniest person I’ve every met. She used to be a dancer, until, as she says, her boobs got too big! She is funny and encouraging and has been such a friend on this hike.

On the road

A note on Granada, Bubion and Andalusia in general: I feel in many ways I have come to the back of beyond. It’s not that restaurants and inns lack amenities but the landscape does not allow for a Milan or New York frame of mind. People do things here they have done – in the same way – for hundreds of years. Bea herself lives in a tiny village up a hill from Bubion – she is restoring her house – it takes an immense amount of time – you cannot drive to her village, the roads are too narrow and inaccessible. She has to park her car elsewhere and walk uphill to her home. As she pointed out, in the winter, they may lose the electricity, but they have the fireplace, good wine and friends to sit and talk with (sounds great to me).

We meet a man on the hike who lived in a hut with dogs and a cat and probably other animals – no electricity, running water etc. – 84 years old, wizened – and happy. Time definitely stands still in Andalusia – except, except, except.

You cannot escape the cell phone. For example, Antonio, sitting astride one of his mules, climbing up the mountain, talking away a mile a minute on his cell phone to his girlfriend. Technology – even in the back of beyond.

The charm of Andalusia is everywhere

But perhaps back of beyond doesn’t really describe Andalusia – it is just timeless. Its villages are whitewashed, streets are rocky and cobbled and narrow, pots of flowers in all colors abound, dogs run free and doorways are open. All towns seem to be on mountains – all streets are steep – and life is very laid back.

I keep forgetting to mention the tapas. Every time you stop at a taverna for a drink, you are always given a grand array of sliced ham and/or cheese, maybe, but always olives and bread. And the size of the platter is dependent on the number of people.  On the climb to Bubion, we all stopped for a “clara” or “shandy” or Alhambra beer and were served the platters of the above as well as potatoes with scrambled eggs. Yum. Of course, who wants to hike after beer and potatoes!

And another thing: There is no mustard in Spain, or if there is, it must really be searched for! Jaro spent two hours looking for mustard when he went to Malaga…he wanted a ham sandwich with MUSTARD, but all they kept giving him was mayo or butter. Oh the challenges of this dreamy spot!

I am back at the inn, sitting on my little back patio underneath a chestnut tree writing in my journal. The sun is still high in the sky – but it’s cool in this shady enclosed grassy space, rimmed by scented boxwood. I am drinking an Alhambra beer and thinking: how lucky am I.

Off to wash my hair.

The incredible Ronda Gorge 

Up early this morning – suitcases must be in van by 8:45. Suck down some cereal and yoghurt and on the road again from Bubion on the way to Ronda.

Our hike is not as strenuous today – mostly down, with a few uphills just to keep us on our toes. Views are incredible, as usual. We stop for lunch at 1PM. Didier says this is the most primitive part of Andalusia, and from all points of view he is right. We are at a small taverna where the construction workers come to eat lunch – the food is delish, and there’s lots of it – egg pies, crusty bread, salad, and lemon souffle for dessert. I am gaining weight as I write this down.

Then it’s into the van for the 3.5 hour drive to Ronda. Uneventful trip – no nausea this time.

We arrive in Ronda. Our hotel is in the “parador” or palace, which fronts right onto the gorge. My room has a balcony overlooking dales and gorge and mountains. Fabulous.

In the rush to leave, I left behind my hairbrush, and my earrings. Really ticked at myself, but Didier finally finds a shop selling hairbrushes (big relief – obviously I am ecstatic over small things in life.)

Dinner in the lovely dining room. And so to bed…hiking the gorge tomorrow.

Woke up early, I thought. Next time I look it was 9:30 and that was “leave time”. O God! Never moved so damned fast in my life – surprised that Bea was not banging on the door! Glomp on sunblock, brush teeth, drag brush thru hair, clothes, boots – downstairs!

Only to find out it’s only 8:30. I must have forwarded the time when I was clicking on the alarm clock. Am now exhausted, and haven’t left the parador!

Breakfast. Then out the door to walk around the gorge and check the Roman/Moorish/Muslim baths within the battlements, circa 1250.

Then it’s across the bridge, down and through fields and around a trail for about five hours…then back up-up-up the gorge for lunch at a taverna, sitting outside overlooking the gorge, fields and faraway hills. I love it…it’s wonderful to be so far away from my “everyday” life in a completely – and I mean completely – foreign part of the world.

Incredible views. Our hotel is right on the Ronda gorge itself, and is truly magnificent. Inside are marble floors, stately columns, wonderful architecture. My room has a fantastic view over the fields below to the mountains beyond….never has the phrase “over the hills and far away” been so appropriate.

Lunch as usual was fun – but having a beer knocks me out. I’m going to sleep like a log tonight, but first we’re going to the bullring (but not to see a bullfight, which I would NOT) – then dinner at 8:30. After quick trip to a ceramic shop for a Ronda keepsake, it’s back to the parador to sleep for a couple of hours, then meet the group, after which, back again to parador and drinks with Bea, Didier and Jaro. And after a 2.5 hour-long meal, back to bed!

Ro, Didier and Bea after hiking Ronda’s beautiful plain

We’re on the way to our next hike. We pack and leave Ronda at 9:30AM…the hike is through some beautiful country, more green than before. Trails very very VERY narrow. We hiked for four hours to a quaint and lonely taverna…a converted “train barn” beside a railroad track. It is one room, very large, high ceilinged…painted terra cotta-ish within, marvelous architectural details.

Lunch was incredible – and huge! We start as usual with olives, then crusty bread and a salad…then we have soup…then grilled seabreem. Each of us has an entire fish, head, tails and all – we debone it at table, and squeeze lime on its white interior – it is delicious. We each have different desserts. I have chocolate mousse cake…talk about decadent. Wine is always served, but I decided to just wait until dinner, otherwise I’d be under the table.

A little rest after a fabulous meal

After this gorgeous lunch – we all have an hour to siesta or read. As I sit on the patio looking at mountains in the distance, the sky is completely clear and deeply blue, the sun is warm on my face. As I sit with my feet up on a couple of chairs. I think again: “how lucky am I?”

Then the blissful moment is over. It’s back in the van – driving through the incredible mountain scenery to climb and clamber up and over rocks and boulders to a huge and deep cave filled with stalagmites, stalagtites, paleolithic paintings, and “lakes”. We enter about 500 KMs into the cave…which is – they say – about 20,000 years old. (Have panic attack here, but it passes. Bea holds my hand through the whole thing, and I hope I didn’t break her fingers!)

Then back in van, driving through horse country…lovely rolling hills and fields – cork trees abound here, throughout our trip, we’ve seen chestnuts (with the nuts falling from the tree), almond trees, olives, oak, aspen – chestnut trees are used in much of the new construction. Not many flowers.

We left Bubion (we found out) just before a mini-hurricane struck, causing much destruction in that area (so far we’ve had nothing the most gorgeous weather…)

Grazemala – my favorite small town

About 6:30 we come to Grazemala, the town where we’ll spend the night. Of all the tiny charming towns, it is absolutely the most charming: hilly cobbled streets, a tiny town square overlooked by the Catholic Church, many small boutique shops with high end goods, (which are extremely reasonable and beautiful). I love it, and wish I could have stayed longer than two nights. Oh, and gorgeous bougainvillea.

Beautiful magical Grazemala

We dine at 9 (I can’t get used to all this food – and eating so late  – I must have gained a ton – but oddly enough, LOST inches, as I found when I returned home.) We have: wine, salad, crusty bread (a given), a huge bowl of gazpacho, fabulous paella (which the maitre’d brings out on a huge pan – it looks like a flower, all gorgeous rice and seafood and veggies), and then flan. Yum-o!!!

Up at 8AM and out the door of this delightful hotel by 9:30, in hiking boots, ready for another “harder” hike. This one lasts about 6-1/2 hours. The trail at first is fairly placid, earthen and downhill (my kind of trail). Then we come to the boulders. The trail becomes rocky here, and the climb is up – up – boulders all shapes and sizes cover the mountain. It is so important to watch where you put your feet. This area is extremely dry, and the sun is fierce, with very little shade.

We are in the open for much of the hike. Then we come to a grassy area atop a mountain after about three hours, and stop beneath a shady oak (the only one) and Bea lays out a wonderful picnic lunch: the usual crusty bread, tomatoes in olive oil with olives, peppers in olive oil, incredible thinly sliced ham, and goat cheese and cheddar (the cheddar is the best I’ve ever had, and there have been some marvelous cheeses on this trip.) Dessert (if you wanted it) was orange-chocolate cookies. No wine this time, only peach juice. Delish!

Ann on the trail

After wrapping up my blisters (yet again) it was back on the (ever-rockier) trail. We had seen wild ponies and mountain goats. Now we come to a fenced area (huge) which encloses massive wild black pigs – the noise they made would have wakened the dead – there were about 100 of them, and I’m glad they stayed on their side of the fence. Bea told us that during an earlier hike she’d been on, they were loose – and they completely obliterated the food brought for a picnic.

The rocky plain

We continue clambering down over boulders and the rocky trail and finally at about 3:30 came to our little taverna, where we sat in the shade drinking cokes and yakking up a storm. Back in the van for a drive back to our hotel through incredible mountain scenery.

As I sit here writing this, the church bell is tolling the hour, and it is incredibly quiet afterwards. Siesta until 5PM.

Back to the hike for a moment: at one point, Bea and I were hiking alone and we stopped to look at the beautiful valley spread before us. The silence was intense – we were literally in the middle of nowhere, and not a sound to be heard – not a bird, not a stream, no wild animals, no wind. Magic…I believe, despite Diane’s not showing up, that this is one of the loveliest trips I’ve ever made.

The quest for mustard – and a newspaper

Halfway through this trip, Jaro decides to go alone to Malaga on the coast, instead of hiking Ronda. He gets on a bus that should’ve gotten him there in an hour, but which took almost three. Then he spent hours looking for an English-language newspaper – had lunch, during which he looked unsuccessfully for mustard – took a walk around town – then caught the bus back to Ronda. He says that bus ride was a real trip – all women except him, all chattering wildly back and forth. The only words he got were “Mi madre!” and the girl pronouncing them did not say them in a happy tone of voice. But the bus ride was wonderful – so full of life. Jaro is really a fascinating individual – a real gentleman, great conversationalist. So now, I go to wash my hair and tidy up (I’m going to have to rethink this hairwashing business). Tomorrow we leave for Sevilla at 8:30AM, I’m cleaning out my suitcase for the trip home…

The ubiquitous cell phone

Bea and I went for a quick drink after a trip to the ATM (there’s that technology again) – then we all met for drinks in the hotel lobby – then walked the cobbled streets of Grazemala for a last meal together. It was one of those lovely evenings where everything went well: conversation, food, laughter. A really magical night. We walked back to the hotel under a clear midnight blue sky and the moon was full, a silver orb in that incredible sky.

Must get up at 7AM. And so to bed.

As scheduled, we leave the Hotel de la Villa at 8:30, and are on the 2-1/2 hour drive to Sevilla – first part through very mountainous and beautiful terrain, to a flatter but still rolling landscape into town. (Note: we have come to Sevilla from our highest elevation – 4500 feet.)

We find our hotel: Didier takes off to try to find a parking place for the van – 2-1/2 hours later, still no sign of Didier! Luckily, the luggage was dropped at the hotel.

Sevilla

The group takes off with Angela, guide to Santa Maria Cathedral (3rd largest in Europe) and the Royal Palace. Cathedral is astonishing – the nave is 500 km and completely gold leafed over cedar carvings of the birth of Christ up to his crucifixion. The inlays, the statuary, paintings, frescoes – gorgeous. Christopher Columbus’ bones are buried here – interred in coffin supported by four  magnificent carved figures, twice life size – incredible.

The gardens of the royal residence

The Royal Residence is beautiful: layers upon layers of Moorish/Christian architecture – inlays, everything restored or as it used to be. The rooms are far richer than the Alhambra – and the gardens are Persian/French/Italian/English – gorgeous trees and plants – all scented – just beautiful.

The palace, Seville

And then back to the hotel – quick goodbyes – went to my room for wash and a sandwich – get suitcase zipped – taxi due shortly to take me to airport, and then to Madrid where I’ll spend the night. And so I bid Andalusia, Bea and all farewell – the culmination of another little dream of travel.

Note to self: NEVER fly through Madrid if you can help it – airport is a nightmare – lines so long, it’s a wonder you don’t miss the flight (not that it seemed to matter on this trip), and once you get past customs into the waiting area – you cannot get out to find the bathroom, unless you want to go back through the humongous custom lines again!)

Further notes: I have to say a couple – or more – words about this hotel I’m at, in Madrid – it is gorgeous! Decor is a kind of Zen/Japanese/modern – gray grasscloth walls, black leather chair and tuffet, shoji screened closets, big square bed – white linens, tons of white pillows, hardwood floors, high-tech phones – and the bathroom! Fabulous molded-glass sink, frosted glass doors and shower and bath, gray tiles…it’s really really elegant. So comfy and so calming after the stress of the plane (little do I know about stress until I try to get home on Continental, but I won’t go into that here) and then trying to get a taxi to the hotel in Madrid. The first taxi driver threw me out of the cab because he didn’t have a clue where the hotel was (even with the address), he didn’t speak any English, and we were both yelling. I thought I’d be stuck on that curb for life!

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

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

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

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

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

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

blue-ridge-on-cell-036

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

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

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

2b

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

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

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Zip lining in the Blue Ridge Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

blue-ridge-on-cell-059

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

The Biltmore Estate

The Biltmore Estate

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

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

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

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