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

A field outside Lacock

Heading for the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

A view from a bridge

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

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

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

We view the hunt 

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

 Bibury, the Swan Hotel, Burford and the Windrush 

In Bibury

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

Another Bibury view

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

Walking through fields of golden wheat

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

A swan on the Windrush

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

The Swan Hotel in Bibury

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

Stanton, Stanway, Snowshill, Buckland and Laverton

Hiking to Stanton

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

An old English church graveyard

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

Laverton

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

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

Somewhere in the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the way to Bourton-on-the-Water

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

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

Bourton-on-the-Water

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

The mists of time

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

Dartmoor and the Warren Hill Inn

A view of Dartmoor across from the Inn

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

Wild ponies on Dartmoor’s heath

The sun shone all day long.

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

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

 Talland Bay – and Allhays

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

Beautiful Allhays B&B in Talland Bay

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

Our bathroom was the size of a pea.

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

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

A tiny Polperro lane

 Polperro – a real step back in time

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

On the way to Polperro

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

Hiking the cliffs to Polperro

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

The harbor at Polperro

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

Crumbling ruin in the middle of a field on the cliffs

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

I will never tire of hiking these marvelous cliffs

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

The back of Allhays seen from the breakfast nook

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

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

Fowey’s harbour

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

Over the hills…

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

And far away…

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

An incredible view of the bay

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

Fields like this are part of Cornwall’s charm

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

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

Marazion and St. Michael’s Mount 

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

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

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

The ferry from Marazion to St Michael’s Mount

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

The road up to the castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dusk at Land’s End

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

Hiking at Land’s End

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

Lacock’s main street

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

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

The Sign of the Angel in Lacock

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

The George pub and inn in Lacock

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

The small restaurant at Sign of the Angel

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

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

Lacock’s charming houses

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

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

Castle Combe

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

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

An early morning walk in Castle Combe

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

A walk around Castle Combe

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

Lunch at the Castle Inn Hotel – more cheese

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

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

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

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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”

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 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!

Hiking the AT in Shenandoah’s National Park

Hiking on the AT

Hiking on the AT

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

So onward…up up and away!

The woods are lovely

The woods are lovely

Sunday
Arrived on time @ Dulles A/P in DC, and met those of the group not driving to the Lodge. We piled in the van and drove to Luray to the Lodge, where I reconnected with Cindy and Deb, friends from past AT hikes. We got settled, went out to eat (then back to Lodge, by which time it was around 7PM.) Altogether, there were 14 in the group, including our two guides. We sat outside our rooms in the “back 40” as it got steadily darker and colder while Jan told us all about the hike and what it entailed for two hours. It was pretty icy by the time we finished and were able to go to bed. I was so cold, I wore long johns and hiking socks for pajamas to try to warm up.

Incredibly rocky, breathtaking views

Incredibly rocky, breathtaking views

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

Getting started

Getting started

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

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

A fern forest

A fern forest

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

Cindy and Deb strolling

Cindy and Deb strolling the Trail

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

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

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

The retiring wood violet

The retiring wood violet

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

Ro atop the Scramble

Ro atop the Scramble

Then we came to the Bearfence Scramble. This was a real challenge – and oddly enough, my favorite part of the trip. The rocks and boulders led us straight up to the top of the mountain. Boulders were all sizes – many narrowly cut, so it was extremely difficult to determine a foot rest. We couldn’t use the hiking poles, just our hands and knees to pull us straight up (we jammed our poles in our backpacks.) Some boulders were a little slippery…  At one point, we were flattened against and clinging to the granite slab as we made our way across and down a narrow ledge – peering straight down into the valley many miles below. One step at a time…

Looking down into the valley from the Scramble

Looking down into the valley from the Scramble

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

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

Hiking through the green

Hiking through the green

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

Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe

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

Martha and Lo stop for lunch

Martha and Lo booked this log for lunch

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

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

Beauty is all around

Beauty is all around

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

A carpet of boulders

A carpet of boulders

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

Another incredible view

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

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

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

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

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

The wild azalea

The wild azalea

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

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

Somewhere...a rattlesnake waits

Somewhere…a rattlesnake waits

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

Lo and Ro take a breather

Ro and Lo take a breather

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

Atop Mary's Rock

Atop Mary’s Rock

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

One of my favorite views

One of my favorite views

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

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

So … dinner, and to bed.

Yes, Virginia, there really are park rangers

Yes, Virginia, there really are park rangers

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

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

The green of the Trail

The green of the Trail

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

Martha’s Vineyard – My perfect island

Martha’s Vineyard and The Charlotte Inn

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

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

In front of the Charlotte Inn

In front of the Charlotte Inn

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

The back garden of the Charlotte Inn

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

Edgartown and Chappaquiddick

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

Edgartown, a view to the water

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

Tulips in Edgartown

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

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

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

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

The Bridge

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

On Chappy

On Chappy

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

A view of the Japanese Garden on Chappaquiddick

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

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

Katama, Tisbury, and Vineyard Haven

View across the street from our room at the Charlotte Inn

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

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

Edgartown lighthouse

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

The wharf at Vineyard Haven

After the break, we took a taxi tour of the island on our way to Vineyard Haven for lunch. After comforting ourselves with cappuccinos, our first stop was Midnight Farm, Carly Simon’s shop. It was adorable…and expensive. I bought a white wooden picture frame, the book “Midnight Farm“, and some powder and lavendar spray, but the shop had some marvelous overstuffed furniture which caught my eye. Lene’s attention was caught by the pillows, so we left with bags stuffed with lots of goodies. The weekend had begun, and the town was filled with tourists. The narrow Main Street was crowded with shoppers and stalls, and these had some wonderful things.

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

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

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

Lilacs … so beautiful

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

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

The sea is such an integral part of everything, we couldn’t walk more than two minutes without standing on a waterfront or beach. It was very soothing. Our plane took off at 3PM, and soon we were back at Martha’s Vineyard’s adorable tiny airport, where we hired a taxi for a tour up-island <see “Up Island“, by Anne Rivers Siddons>. Martha’s Vineyard holds a real fascination for me: it is so full of beauty and old-world charm, like a piece of the past come to life. Today, the sky was brilliantly blue and massed with clouds, and the sea breeze was constant and crisp. Our taxi driver and former Head of Edgartown’s Town Council, Steve, took us up-island by way of Middle Road, through West Tisbury, Menemsha, Chilmark, and West Chop (I love that name) to Gay Head, now known as Aquinnah. Middle Road, as the name implies, cuts through the center of the island. It was lined with high, high hedgerows and dry stone walls, very English. Sheep grazed placidly in the green fields hemmed in by locust wood posts and cedar rails.

The Sculpture Garden on Martha's Vineyard

The Sculpture Garden on Martha’s Vineyard

We passed the Sculpture Garden, which is often mentioned when writing about Martha’s Vineyard, with abstract figures sculpted in white dotting a wide green lawn. Interesting! Always, seas, ponds and lakes abound. Over rolling countryside, Steve drove us to a beautiful bluff called Overlook Point. This looked down to a crystal clear blue lake with white-sailed boats skimming the surface. Next came Chilmark and Menemsha, two tiny fishing villages, with small gray clapboard houses. “Jaws” was filmed at Menemsha, and just across the inlet, the remains of the “Orca” could be seen on the tiny beach. From here, it was a winding road to Gay Head/Aquinnah, and the Cliffs which look out forever over a silvery-gray Atlantic. The day was still brilliantly sunny, but the wind was immensely strong, bracing and fabulous.

Ro in front of the Black Dog in Edgartown

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

Leaving Martha’s Vineyard

A view from our room at the Charlotte Inn

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