RSS Feed

Tag Archives: ferry

Hiking in Norway – green mountains, silver fjords

Standing on a Bergen street

Bergen

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

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

The Fishmarket of Bergen and the Funicular

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

Bergen’s main street

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

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

View from top of funicular down to Bergen

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

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

From Myrrdahl to Flam

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

The splashing and rushing of the waters throughout the land

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

On our 15 mile hike to Flam

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

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

A “smoking shed”

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

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

Ro with friend – troll images are everywhere!

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

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

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

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

From Flam to Balestrand

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

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

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

Taking a water break at the museum and farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fjaerland

Fjaerland

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

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

Hotel Mundal

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

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

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

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

In front of the ice cave

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

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

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

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

The view from our room at Hotel Mundal

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

The Flatbreen Glacier

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

The start of the Flatbreen glacier hike

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

Keep climbing up to Flatbreen

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

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

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

I make it to the Flatbreen – glorious glorious glorious

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

Our happy group at the Flatbreen

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

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

Still on the hike upwards to the Flatbreen glacier

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

Fjaerland and the Glacier Museum

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

The little wobbly bridge in Fjaerland

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

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

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

The beauty of the fjords

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

Vik and Finden

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

Vik

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

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

Rambling all around the town (of Vik)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Bergen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone and everything is friendly in Norway

Hiking in Crete to the song of the goatbells

 

Ro on the steps in Prevali

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

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

Traveling to Chania

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

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

A street in Chania

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

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

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

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

Chania

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

An exquisite pastiche

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

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

Bougainvillea blossoms Chania

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

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

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

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

Dinner in Chania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polyrinnia Gorge and Polymeria

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

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

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

Could I be any happier?

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

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

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

Atop a boulder in Kriti’s highlands

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

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

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

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

The White Mountains Museum and The Mirovolos

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

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

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

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

Myloi Gorge, Ksiro Horio and Rethymno

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

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

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

Reconstructing an old village deep in green countryside

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

On the road to "dry town"

On the road to “Dry Town”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agia Aikaterini and Loutro

On the hike to Loutro – incredible!

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

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

Aigia Aikaterini – a beautiful small white church

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

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

Hiking through castle ruins

Hiking through castle ruins

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

Loutro – heaven on earth

Loutro – seen from the mountains above

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

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

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

Fishing boat in Loutro

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

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

A doorway in Loutro

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

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

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

This is the perfect day.

A little back alley in Loutro – quintessentially Greece to me

The Samarian Gorge

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

Early morning walk to the mountains above Loutro

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

I hear the sound of the goatbells

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

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

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

Waiting to begin our hike through the Samarian Gorge

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

The start of the walk through the Samarian Gorge

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

Hiking in the Samarian Gorge

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

The Imbros Gorge

Today we leave Loutro.

Above Loutro – a morning walk

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

Our goodbye to Loutro breakfast on the hotel’s waterfront

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

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

The entrance to Imbros Gorge

The entrance to Imbros Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preveli Monastery and the Libyan Sea

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

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

The Preveli Monastery

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

Down below, the blue of the beckoning sea

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

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

Walking down to Preveli beach on the Libyan Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heraklion and Goodbye to Crete

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

Otherwise

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

The charm of Victoria, Vancouver Island, Canada

Across the harbor, Victoria

Across the Inner Harbor, Victoria, with The Empress in the background

Amazing flowers

As the heat continues to build in Houston, it was wonderful to be able to get away to a cooler part of the U.S., specifically the Pacific Northwest, and then on to Victoria, Vancouver Island, Canada. July is always a terrific time to visit that part of the country, because you can pretty much depend on beautiful weather, warm days and nights with a chill in the air.

A walk along Puget Sound

A walk along Puget Sound

I flew into Seattle and stayed for a couple of days in the little town of Mukilteo, which is absolutely charming. The landscape is hilly, the flowers bloom recklessly, and Puget Sound is blue blue blue. On the first full day of the trip, we all drove into Seattle to experience both a foodie tour, and Seattle’s Public Market. The foodie tour, which was guided by Liz McCune of EatSeattleTours.com, was terrific. We started early, going from booths to stalls to shops, taste-testing everything from coffee to cheese, to mac and cheese, to pastries and chocolate. Yum-o!

Seattle food tasting tour

Seattle food tasting tour – the Public Market

After which we stopped for lunch! Despite having dipped tongue into so many foods, we were all still hungry, and it was terrific sitting in the pub overlooking the bay, having brunch. The weather was really beautiful…basically, you could say it was Goldilocks’ weather: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Lucky us!

Rambling round Mukilteo

Rambling round Mukilteo

IMG_0052

The rest of the day I spent rambling around Mukilteo and getting ready for the brief but exciting trip to Victoria and Vancouver Island.

Driving through potato fields on the way to the ferry

Driving through potato fields on the way to the ferry

Monday morning, we drove the two-hour stretch from Mukilteo to the ferry. I loved the entire drive – through open farm country, with potato fields covered in their purple flower,

One of the picturesque barns

One of the wonderful picturesque barns

past picturesque old barns, and through tiny towns…stopping for a bite to eat in LaConner, one of my favorite towns in this area. It really is a “tiny town” … you can walk the main street in a minute. It’s filled with small boutiques, great little restaurants, and galleries. Just fun to wander around in the sunshine (and wish you lived here.)

Eating our way to Canada! A delicious cinnamon roll for breakfast in LaConner!

Eating our way to Canada! A delicious cinnamon roll for breakfast in LaConner!

Then on to the ferry, and my first glimpse of Canada. We didn’t wait long, and the ferry ride itself, although about another two-hour trip, was immensely comfortable, with booths set alongside the windows so you’re able to look out onto the islands and get the first glimpse of the Canadian shore. I really was excited…never having been to Canada before.

The ferry to Sidney by the Sea, Canada

The ferry to Sidney by the Sea, Canada

Coming to Canada

Coming to Canada

We arrived at Sidney by the Sea on Vancouver Island, and as we drove through, my first thought was: I’ve never seen such a spotless town. Not a scrap of paper, a tin can, or a piece of garbage was anywhere in sight. I didn’t know whether to wonder if the Stepford Wives lived here, or if everyone was extremely careful of the environment. Very impressive!

Victoria - Parliament

Victoria – Parliament

A tiny water taxi

A tiny water taxi

We arrived in Victoria towards the end of the day, and got ourselves settled in the Victoria Chateau, a sweet little hotel with a great restaurant perched atop with 360o views of the city.

After cleaning up, it was a short walk to dinner, and then we strolled around the harbor, watching a mime performing in the twilight,

A mime performs - the harbor in Victoria

A mime performs at the Inner Harbor, Victoria

and the lights coming on at the Governor’s Mansion. Magical. We took another stroll through the Empress Hotel, where we planned to have High Tea the following day.

The Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel

The Empress is the grand old lady of hotels. Overlooking Inner Harbor, and close to Government Street and the Parliament buildings, its ivy-covered brick façade is absolutely enchanting. Inside are shops and boutiques, the tea room where we’ll have High Tea at 4PM, and history out the wazoo…. After which, we turned in early to get ready for the Butchart Gardens the next day.

A view at Butchart Gardens

A view at Butchart Gardens

Up at around 7:30, I ordered Room Service breakfast, which is such a great way to start the morning (for me, anyway!). Then we were off to the Gardens, and it really was a sight to behold. The flowers were out in full force, colors blending in garden vistas as far as the eye could see. But the green was what held my attention: from the cedars and yews to the beautifully mown grass, the boxwood edgings and the fences and walls covered in ivies, it was a most impressive and glorious place.

The green is amazing!

The green is amazing!

Incredible flowers - but the hydrangeas were awesome

Incredible flowers – the hydrangeas were awesome

More views of these incredible gardens

More views of these incredible gardens

We stopped mid-tour for a drink in the tea room. As we couldn’t order just a drink, we ordered high tea (despite the fact we were having High Tea at The Empress later that day!) Tea consisted of – well, tea….as well as sandwiches, small quiches, scones and dessert. Yikes! Not to say we didn’t eat it all – we did, and it was great. (But we had to move High Tea at The Empress back an hour or two in order to feel at least some hunger pangs by the time we got there.)

A view of the tearoom

A view of the tearoom

The weather was perfect. And getting to the Gardens at an early hour was smart, because by the time noon rolled around, it was packed with tourists. By arriving early, we could take our time wandering the pathways. The most spectacular part was the quarry gardens…photographs don’t do it justice. But needless to say, you were just encompassed by the beauty.

The Quarry Gardens

The Quarry Gardens

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross....

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross….

Finally, we drove back to our hotel and after a rest and freshen up, it was on to The Empress for High Tea. People took tea in all manner of dress…certainly wasn’t important to dress up for the event. After the requisite glass of sherry, we ordered….a 3-tiered cake stand offered a wonderful variety of finger sandwiches, quiches, desserts of all types…in other words: High Tea!

High Tea at The Empress

High Tea at The Empress

After the tea, we drove around Victoria, and then Vancouver Island. The day, which had been warm, eventually cooled down into the 60s, chilly but not unduly so. We viewed the Parliament buildings across the water, chatted with some locals who lived in the area, and just wandered around looking at everything and anything…it was great.

Doing my Howard Roarke imitation

Doing my Howard Roark impression, in the cool of the evening

The final day on Vancouver Island was spent touring Craigdarroch Castle, a Victorian era Scottish baronial mansion, with amazing woodwork and stained glass.

Craigderrock Castle

Craigdarroch Castle

We walked down the road from the Castle, to the Lieutenant Governor’s Mansion and grounds, which were beautifully landscaped…hydrangeas out in full force, and magnificent. And it had a teashop – the cry goes out! Another high tea was then addressed….and it was equally delicious!

Teashop - the cry goes out!

Teashop on the Lt. Governor’s grounds – the cry goes out!

The remains of the day were spent driving around the island and visiting a used bookshop, until it was time to catch the ferry back to the U.S.

Stopping to smell the ... sweet peas

Stopping to smell the … sweet peas

Although we had no time for hiking on this trip, it was a wonderful, eventful, a magical time. Next year, Banff!!