Life Thru a Travel Prism

Terra Firma

Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island Road Trip

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Peace and quiet, serene outdoors, quaint fishing villages, and miles and miles of breathtaking coastal views on a drive that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway in California.

Cabot Trail view, Cape Breton island.

Cabot Trail view, Cape Breton island, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Cape Breton island is the size of Hawaii or Jamaica, but with only 132,000 residents. That compares to 185,000 residents on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, or 2.8 million for Jamaica. Thus: small villages and towns, mostly forested hills and empty two-lane roads, not a lot of services, and certainly not a lot of hustle and bustle anywhere. Just our kind of place.

Margaree Harbor, near Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor, near Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

We spent a week driving some 1,000 miles around Cape Breton Island (CBI henceforth) along the famed Cabot Trail, staying in different B&Bs along the way. NS route map

Check out our trip photos. Be sure to read the captions 🙂

Our goal was to explore various hikes in the vast National Park, to venture out on a whale watch in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to hop aboard a boat to spot Puffins, Eagles, sea birds galore and Grey seals off the northeast coast, and to learn more of the history of the people who settled and who today make this unique corner of Canada their home.

Fingers crossed, I had chosen the first week of July for our visit, when I hoped the weather would be warm, with little rain or wind.

White Point harbor, Cape Breton island.

White Point harbor, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor from the dunes, Cape Breton island.

Margaree Harbor from the dunes, Cape Breton island.

As it turned out, the very week we arrived the weather turned hot (80 degree days), and the seas surrounding this island were placid. The rains came the day we headed home, and stayed rainy for the next week. And- it had snowed a mere 2 weeks before we arrived. Talk about good weather mojo- we lucked out!

Neil's Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Robin, Neil’s Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Robin on the wharf, early morning, Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Our road trip around CBI allowed us to settle into an area for a couple of days at a time, and to experience the rhythm and the unique character of the villages nearby.

Robin, Yellow Cello, Baddeck, Great Breton Island.

Robin and her coffee, at a great Baddeck breakfast spot.

BnB, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Our BnB, Pictou, Nova Scotia

Near Cheticamp, Cape Breton Island, Canada.

Harbor scene, near Cheticamp, Cape Breton Island, Canada.

Our photos of the awe-inspiring sunsets, our hikes, the whale watch, the captivating Cabot Trail views out to the sea and the villages capture the low density of people, the character of the fishing villages, and the serene scenes as we drove along or stopped to enjoy vistas, an early morning harbor or a hike in the Canadian arboreal forest.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Baddeck harbor, Cape Breton island.

Our photos with captions and short video snippets are designed (and laboriously written, edited, etc by me!) to share a sense of what it’s like to travel to this area of the planet, in awesome weather. Hope you’ll take a moment to indulge, and feel free to leave comments and share.

Black Flies, Hikes and an Eye-popping Sunset

The first two nights spent on CBI, our cottage-on-the-shore HQ was in Belle Cote, one of a handful of small fishing villages dotting some 30 miles along the west coast of the island.

Belle Cote, Cape Breton island.

Belle Cote windswept coast, Cape Breton island.

Nights were quite chilly and by late morning, 80 degrees was commonplace. Being along the coast was a grace, as the chill onshore breeze helped to keep us cool in the shade and chased off the worst of the black flies. But look out on those hiking trails in the woods– we came away a few pounds lighter after the flies took off with chunks of our flesh in their jaws!

Over the next two days we explored scenic harbors from Margaree Forks to as far north as Cheticamp. I bet we drove up and down that stretch of the Cabot Highway at least 6 times, heading up to Pleasant Bay to catch a whale watch boat, stopping at little restaurants to eat or finding a co-op to buy water or snacks.

Of course our focus was hiking the various trails in the National Park on this section of the coast, the highlight of which was the sunset hike on the famous Skyline Trail.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Lynn, sunset view, Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

This hike was a three hour undertaking, but thanks to the newly-minted young ranger who led our tiny group, we popped out of the forest and along the ridge line overlooking the sea wayyy down below just in time for the start of a simply breathtaking sunset. Wow. The pictures really do the scene justice, for a change!

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Awe-inspiring sunset on the Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Good thing full dark didn’t occur until an hour or so after sunset, so we were able to hoof it back to the car well before we needed our flashlights. We were, after all, at a high latitude, in the summer, with full sunrise by 5:45am and full dark at 10pm.

Trip pix with captions

Lynn, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Lynn in the woods, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Hiking is generally a central feature to our vacations, and this was no exception. The hikes in the National Park were challenging, with amazing views out to the ocean and luckily, no run-ins with the 3,000 or more moose who are crowded into the National Park.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

Moose-proof fence, Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island National Park.

We learned that the moose love to eat fir trees, which is fine, except they favor the young, tender trees, so the high population of moose in a park sized for 500 means the moose are basically eating themselves out of house and home. Park rangers have set aside large enclosures to protect the young trees, which will be replanted after they’ve matured to help ensure moose chow over time, but apparently it’s a losing battle. So the moose are being culled. A controversial topic with the locals, unsurprisingly.

Canada Day Harness Racing

The locals trotted out the bunting and street decorations for Canada Day, and we were fortunate to stumble upon a harness racing event in the town of Inverness, just south of our digs at Belle Cote. We followed hand-made signs up a hill to the rear of the coastal village, where a regulation track spread out before us, with paddocks, barns and large viewing stands.

When we arrived, the contenders were warming up, so we settled in to watch the activities and to catch the first race.

Harness race, Inverness, Cape Breton Island.

Harness race, Inverness, Cape Breton Island.

Robin had never seen harness racing before, so this was a fun intro to the sport for her. The feeling was a bit provincial, what with the gravel parking areas, with cars (pick-ups, mostly) able to pull right up to the fence to watch the race from the comfort of their front seats. The “crowd” may have been a couple of hundred spectators at the most, but the beer was cold and the sausages freshly cooked, available along with pari-mutual betting at a few tiny windows in the cavernous concrete room beneath the stadium seats.

Check out the video snippets at the track on my YouTube channel!

Such unexpected pleasures like tripping over this harness race are what make independent travel rewarding and so much fun. I’m thankful we have been able to travel independently in many countries, and experience these kind of unplanned moments. I hope we have lots more to come!

Fleeting Finbacks

So about that whale watch out of Pleasant Bay: we left early of a morning, when the fog lay thick, chill and heavy on the little harbor. The boat plowed slowly along the coastline, the young PHD students up in the flying bridge keeping a sharp eye out for whales.

“One o’clock! One o’clock!” someone would yell, and by the time I pointed my camera, the slick black dorsal fin and a glimpse of a whale’s back would have disappeared. This happened a few times. I gave up taking pictures and enjoyed the boat ride over pellucid seas, on what turned out to be a stunning, sunny, hot morning. We all came back sunburned. Still. A lovely boat ride along the underpopulated CBI shoreline.

Pleasant Bay harbor mouth, Cape Breton island.

Pleasant Bay harbor mouth, Cape Breton island.

Along the Cabot Trail

Continuing our clockwise drive around CBI on the famed Cabot Trail, we briefly visited the tiny fishing harbor of White Point (no facilities, no restaurant, but scenic and atmospheric).

Even more picturesque scenes here.

Further along the north coast, Neil’s Harbor was definitely worth a stop, and a good lunch in the restaurant situated on a rocky promontory. The heat of midday was relieved by walking over to the sea cliffs and enjoying the cool, stiff onshore wind from that chilly Atlantic.

We spent two nights in the harbor town of Baddeck (Beh-DECK). What a pretty little town! The town wharf reminded me pleasantly of that in Marblehead, MA where I lived for awhile. So scenic, so mellow.

Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Sunset scenic, Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

Robin at the wharf, Baddeck Harbor, Cape Breton island.

The light and the sunset our arrival afternoon were simply phenomenal, and the seafood takeout at the wharf side restaurant was delish!

Puffins, Eagles and Grey Seals

A highlight of our stay in Baddeck was a tour of the Bird Islands, really interesting rocky outcrops just at the mouth of  St. Anne’s bay, in the Atlantic Ocean. We certainly saw lots of the cute Atlantic Puffins who breed here, as well as Bald Eagles, Arctic Terns, Common Loons, Common Eiders, White-winged and Surf Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers.

 

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Eagle to snatch fish.

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One of the Bird Islands.

The seas surrounding these craggy, grassy and windswept rock formations were full of Grey Seals, which added their grunts and barks to the noise of nesting birds. When the boat swung downwind of the islands, the odor was astounding.

A lobster boat briskly wound its way between us and the islands, hauling in the day’s catch. A proud lobster man held up a truly massive lobster pulled from one of the traps for us to see. Here’s a video short of a Grey Seal on a small rock and the lobster boat working.

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Lobster boat, Bird Islands, Cape Breton Island

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The Submarine rock island, Cape Breton Island

We then bid a fond farewell to Baddeck and CBI and drove back onto Nova Scotia, to Pictou, a cute little fishing village with a small but admirable museum the Ship Hector, a “… ship famous for having been part of the first significant migration of Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia in 1773.”

Lynn, Caribou Park, Pictou, Nova Scotia

Lynn and lobster picnic, Caribou Park, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Boat yard, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Boat yard, Pictou, Nova Scotia.

We discovered an expansive seaside park just a few kilometers up from Pictou, where we enjoyed fantastic sunset and a lobster picnic catered by the local grocery. Our B&B host gave us the tip to pick out our lobster, and the co-op (rather like a Kroger) cooked it.

We paired our lobster with a couple of sides, wine and (for me) a beer and wow, what an amazing evening we had! Even the black flies couldn’t dull my delight, as I shot frame after frame of yet another breathtaking Canadian summer sunset. I wondered later why my phone smelled of lobster and butter. Oops.

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Robin rests in long shadows, Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Robin, sunset, Caribou Park, just north of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

For the History Buffs

Ok so I admit to being a “student of history”, which is to say I read a helluva lot about the places we visit, and retain little, so it’s a good thing for me that the history of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton island was ever-present in our travels. Or perhaps we were tuned in, as visitors do pay attention to many things locals take for granted.

Named places, settlements, landmarks, foods etc reflected the earliest known tribal people, the Mi’kmaq and the many European colonial periods. Europeans fished out their stocks and headed to the fertile waters here as early as the 1520s. French priests showed up, soon followed a Venetian Italian explorer whose Anglised name John Cabot is ubiquitous on CBI.

In the 1600s French colonists were shoved aside briefly by the Dutch, and Scottish folk created a colony but of course they and the French were soon at odds and the fight was on. The French won, then most of the European peeps stayed quiet for awhile until the English decided to lay claim to all of Nova Scotia (hmmm, a familiar pattern here). Colonial wars, the American Revolution, the War of 1812– you’d be surprised just what roles this area of our continent had to play in what Americans think of as “American History”.

I did find the Scottish colonists story arc to be rather poignant, considering how and why so many chose to dare a dangerous ocean crossing to an unknown country, with so much to learn and create, literally from their own hands. Sorta like those survival reality shows, many of these families arrived with little more than the clothes on their back, sick from the trip, showing up in the winter, with no home, no crops, no livestock.

Highland Village Living Museum, Iona, Cape Breton island.

Robin, Highland Village Living Museum, Iona, Cape Breton island.

Thank goodness they had the folks living in small, existing settlements like Highland Living Village to lend a hand, with costumed volunteers who undoubtedly remained in character. OK just testing to see if you’re actually reading this or only looking at the pretty pictures!

To Conclude…

The light, the sunsets, the fresh air, the cooling breezes from the ocean, the scenic little villages and towns– all left an indelible impression on us. The entire trip was low-impact, few people but pleasant ones when met, and a true sense of solitude and quiet, pretty much everywhere we went. Even the towns had few people roaming about, with few cars. No planes overhead. No trains honking off in the distance. Maybe a fog horn near a harbor, and at night just crickets and, if we were near fresh water, frogs croaking. The stars  were brilliant those nights when fog didn’t creep along the coast.

Middle Head trail, Ingonish, Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Lynn and Robin hike the Middle Head trail, Ingonish, Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Yep, I’d definitely vote this as one of the nicest road trips we’ve taken, and would recommend it for anyone who values independent travel and who is willing to get off the beaten track, who enjoys the outdoors and nature, and who can take care of themselves (remember, few services, places close early, and no ATM’s.)

Pix here and check out video snippets on my YouTube Channel.

Tips:

Canadian currency is King, with few places that “do exchange”, or give you Canadian change for your US dollar. You can often find your currency exchange advantage being eaten up when your $US is spent as if it were the face value of a Canadian dollar. Yeah, go ahead and exchange as soon as you can, especially before you head to rural areas.

AirB&B was a terrific resource for us, but don’t overlook TripAdvisor, VRBO and other sources for unique yet reasonably priced places to stay. Not every place is listed with AirB&B. Remember the summer is High Season so prices will be up and places booked months in advance. Same with excursion boats– book early!

Plan to arrive at your destination and check in well before 5pm, to allow ample time to get settled, perhaps glean tips from your host around places to eat etc. Not all useful or current info is on the Internet. Interact with the locals for the real skinny on what’s what! And remember- places close EARLY, assuming you are in a town large enough to have a co-op or a store. Best to do your homework.

You will encounter road work as you drive around CBI so be prepared to stop and wait. Again, local information trumps your mapping app on this one.

Cellular service is skippy, at best, and WiFi will be hard to come by and likely not the best unless you are in Halifax or a decent sized town. Many restaurants have WiFi, or say they do, but we discovered the WiFi was often not working, “needed to be reset” or whatever. So be prepared and do NOT count on continuous access to the internet or your phone while on CBI.

Enjoy your trip!

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Serene Sedona, the Grand Canyon & the Painted Desert

Late in the Spring, we took off for a long weekend to Sedona. The airfare to Phoenix AZ was low, the rental car and a place to stay affordable, and we were ready for another fast-travel, cram all we can into a few days trip. So– off we went!

Sedona Airport Mesa Valley View

Sedona Verde valley early morning.

The vistas Out West just blow me away every time I experience them. Our last trip was four years previously, when we hiked in the Rockies around Estes Park. Robin was delighted to be visiting Sedona again, whereas this would be my first experience seeing the famous red rock for which Sedona and surrounds are so famous.

The drive from Phoenix to Sedona in our rental car took a bit over two hours. Through the trip, we gained about 3,400 feet in elevation, enjoying the changing landscapes of the desert and piney woods along the way. It certainly looked bright, hot and dry out there, which reminded us that we would be arising each day before dawn to grab a coffee and quick breakfast before getting out on whatever mountain or butte we may be hiking that day.

Sedona red rock formation

Sedona red rocks.

Coming in to Sedona on State Route 179, also known as Red Rock Scenic Byway, is simply staggering. It seemed that suddenly we drove around a bend in the highway and right in front of us- Poof!-  appeared a majestic wall of towering sandstone rocks, lit up by the afternoon light. We pulled into a convenient viewing area to take photos and just gawp in amazement and appreciation.

Robin Sedona rock formations

Robin ogles two of the Sedona red rock formations.

We found Sedona to be a wonderfully hospitable town to stay in and use as a home base for exploring the area. A lovely, quiet motel somewhat outside of town but near enough to grocery stores, restaurants and our favorite coffee shop served our needs just fine. We were also quite close to Airport Mesa, which we visited time and again, as it offers a terrific overlook of the Sedona Verde Valley below, especially in the mornings.

Sedona Verde Valley

Robin and Lynn with hot air balloons in background, Sedona Verde valley.

Many people come here in the evenings to view the sunset but it ain’t easy looking into the sun. It was a much nicer experience to go across and up the road just a bit to the lovely restaurant at the airport and enjoy a meal outside on the patio, overlooking the stunning rock formations on the other side of the runway. The evening light bathes the faces of these rocks, constantly shifting the colors, and offering plenty of photo ops.

Hot Air Balloons and Soldier’s Pass Hike

Our first morning we were enjoying our coffee up at the airport mesa overlook when we spotted six or more hot air balloons lifting off the desert floor in the distance way below us. Soon there were colorful dots hanging at different altitudes in the stillness of the morning. Robin embraced as many as she could between her outstretched arms.

Hot air balloons over Sedona Verde Valley.

Hot air balloons over Sedona Verde valley.

New Age people identify Sedona’s numerous rock formations as vortex sites, where the earth gives off particular energy. While I don’t recall any special sense of approaching vortices as we drove by or clambered over rocks and dusty hiking trails, I can say that the light, the thin air, and the lack of humidity did combine to leave me somewhat light-headed, especially after a few hours of hiking in the sun in the dry, super-attenuated heat of late May.

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Chimney Rock formation from Soldier’s Pass hike, off the trail view.

Soldier’s Pass hike was our favorite hike, right in Sedona. We got to the parking area before it opened but the chain was down, so we flung all caution to the wind and hit the trail before the heat of the day could squeeze every drop of liquid from our bodies.

Soldiers Pass hike Sedona.

Not our jeep! It was in the parking area at Soldiers Pass trail head, providing a handy photo prop.

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Soldiers Pass hike, Sedona AZ.

This was a serene, quiet hike, especially before the daily jeep tours start. We passed by the two natural arches and the sinkhole ominously named Devil’s Kitchen. Here’s a video snippet

While we aren’t shoppers, we did enjoy a break from the heat under the trees and along the cobblestone streets and quiet courtyards of the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. We ate a delish Mexican dinner at a restaurant in the village, then enjoyed popping into various art galleries and stores offering astounding crafts that reflect the mix of cultures populating the area over the past, what, 100 years or more? Definitely a great way to chill during the heat of the day.

Trip pics

The Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon

Driving the south rim of the Grand Canyon was next on our To Do list, so we headed north out of Sedona along scenic state road 89A, which runs through Oak Creek Canyon. This entire route is simply mobbed on a holiday weekend, we soon discovered. Still. If we ever go back, we’ll add this canyon to our itinerary, as it is a phenomenally beautiful, and I’m sure, relaxing area to visit, hike, or chill along the fast-flowing creek. Just not over a holiday period!

Our driving route- Phoenix to Sedona and beyond. Map Link 

We knew to avoid the long lines at the east entrance to the south rim of the Grand Canyon by purchasing our park entrance tickets ahead of time at the Flagstaff Visitors Center. After grabbing a bit of lunch in town, we topped off the gas tank for the next leg of our journey to Cameron Trading Post on the Navajo reservation, where we would spend the night before an early morning arrival at the Grand Canyon east entrance to the south rim.

But first, we planned an afternoon visit to the ancient pueblo ruins at Wupatki National Monument. The National Park Service description is a terrific one to quote:

Nestled between the Painted Desert and ponderosa highlands of northern Arizona, Wupatki is a landscape of legacies. Ancient pueblos dot red-rock outcroppings across miles of prairie. Where food and water seem impossible to find, people built pueblos, raised families, farmed, traded, and thrived. Today, if you linger and listen, earth and artifacts whisper their stories to us still.

Painted Desert near Wupatki pueblo ruins.

Painted Desert near Wupatki pueblo ruins.

We were mesmerized, from the moment we topped a ridge on the endless black ribbon of asphalt and viewed the magnificent vistas of the Painted Desert below us, from horizon to horizon. We were still miles from the turnoff that would take us in a giant semi-circle out to the ancient Wupatki pueblo ruins, located on a mesa way out there in the dusty haze of the afternoon.

In the parking lot, we dismounted from the air-conditioned car into a wind tunnel of hot, dry air sprinkled with grit that got into your eyes, teeth, hair, and threatened to blow your clothes right off your frame. Gripping our hats and collars tightly, as we walked up the lengthy, curving walkway that led to the little visitor center and quite suddenly the ruins greeted us.

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Wupatki pueblo ruins, between Flagstaff and Cameron, AZ.

The afternoon light was strong and bathed the rear of the ruins, casting long, deep shadows into and around what sandstone block walls remained.  I was transported, pondering the fact that the pueblo was abandoned in 1225 (do the math!). Those ruins have been there a very long, long time.

Wupatki pueblo ruins, outside Flagstaff, AZ.

Here’s a video snippet   that captures the views and essence of this place. The audio is wind and more wind. Note the circular kiva structure down that valley. There’s also a ball court, similar to those found in Mesoamerica.

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Robin windblown, Wupatki pueblo ruins.

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Wupatki pueblo ruins, an artist’s view.

We stayed at Wupatki until the placed closed, then made our way up the road to Cameron Trading Post, where we would spend the night before heading out early in the morning to get to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon south rim drive just as it opened.

Picture the largest truck stop you’ve ever visited, located out in the desert where two highways meet- one that runs north-south and another that leads to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon south rim Desert View Drive.

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Cameron Trading Post, AZ. Great place the spend the night for an early drive to the Grand Canyon south rim east entry.

How to describe this place? Acres of asphalt. Gas pumps crouching under massively high aluminum roofs. A 1950s era motel complex, complete with a circa 1911 dwelling of sandstone and wood- the embryonic stage of this sprawling, noisy, commercial center plopped down in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. But hey, we were very glad for the huge restaurant, which featured a menu of every kind of comfort food known to tourists and capable of handling at least 4 massive buses stuffed with weary tourists, and still have plenty of tables (if not staff) left over.

Images of wondrous things on sale at this place barely scratches the surface of what is the largest indoor native American -and -also -stuff -from -Taiwan- and- China place under one roof, likely anywhere in the American west.

After a long day, a heavy dinner, and a lengthy walk around thousands of displays under that one roof, we were ready for bed. We truly intended to drive out a ways into the desert to do some star gazing, but the amount of light loom this mother ship radiated likely lit up the desert for miles around. Heck, the giant billboard out by the gas pumps, alone, probably served as a backup lighthouse for some rock off of San Francisco.

We did each buy a t-shirt, each extolling the virtues of “dark sky” designated locations. The irony was not lost on us.

Irony aside, we did enjoy a quiet night’s rest, an early morning breakfast just after dawn, and headed west to drive the famous south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Grand Canyon south rim view, early of a May morning.

If you’ve been there, you’ve experienced the wonder, awe, and majesty. If you haven’t been, you gotta go. Now. Stop what you’re doing, pick a flight, rent a car, get packed and get moving. Life is short. This is one of those places on the planet that started the very concept of bucket list– or, well before that, one of the many Wonders of the World.

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Grand Canyon vista, early morning.

My puny photos do the entire thing an injustice, but I enjoy looking at them. Hope you do, too!

By the time we reached the Grand Canyon Village, it was lunch time and the crowds that holiday weekend were bursting the place at the seams. Still, we enjoyed a lovely lunch at the vintage El Tovar hotel, just above the old train station. Opened in 1905, this is a wonderful architectural example of  National Park Service Rustic  architecture. You can just picture Teddy Roosevelt himself strolling through the imposing lobby. Even if you don’t lunch here, it’s a Must See if you spend any time in the village.

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El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon Village, south rim.

After making our way back to Sedona, we spent our last sunset viewing the rock formations from a comfy table on the patio at the restaurant up on airport mesa. The next morning found us retracing our drive, back to Phoenix and onto the homeward-bound flight.

Airport Mesa sunset rock formations, Sedona

Sunset view of rocks from the airport restaurant atop Airport Mesa, Sedona.

Back at the office, it was back to the work week. But our memories of our visit to Sedona still linger, fueling our desire to get back Out West; back to the light, the dry air, the dust, the heat, and those breathtaking vistas and fields of stars that seem to go on, forever.

Trip pics


Costa Rica Road Trip

Costa Rica revealed over 10 days and 500 road miles.

Costa Rica offers unique challenges for the intrepid do-it-yourself travelers. Here, we share some challenges uncovered on this, our second Costa Rica trip, as well as a few secrets to help smooth the way.

Costa Rica route map

Our itinerary for this trip of 10 days started with our desire to get into and out of the capitol San Jose as quickly as possible. As discussed in my story of our first trip 10 Days in Costa Rica 2016 , San Jose traffic, noise, air pollution and difficulty in simply navigating the streets is as challenging as LA or Atlanta during rush hours– on steroids.

We arrived mid-day in the capitol San Jose, cleared Customs and were picked up by the folks at our chosen car rental agency. Less than an hour later we were in our rental SUV on the way out of San Jose, headed 2.5 hours north to the cloud rain forests around Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.

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View from our balcony.

We choose places to stay that are off the beaten path, and our digs at Hotel Linda Vista suited us just fine. After checking in and checking out the view from our balcony we had ample time to enjoy dinner at the restaurant as the sun set over the lake and the volcano.LakeViewLo

Check out the brief video to get a sense of the serenity of this place

All trip photos

Check the captions (click on an image, hit little i in circle at top right).

My shot of a cow, a rain forest, and a river flowing to Arenal lake at the base of the volcano is, for me, one of a kind. Where else would you capture this picturesque combination? Cow and River

Jungle Canyoneering & Rappelling

We hit the sack early because the next day was a challenging canyoneering and rappelling trek, featuring hiking along gloomy, steep and slippery jungle paths, threading our way down narrow slick rock river canyons, and rappelling down increasingly taller waterfalls.

Video snippet of Robin backward ziplining

Just getting to the trail head was an adventure, with a dusty, lurching and noisy ride up perpendicular limestone roads in bench seats attached to a large 4X4 flatbed truck with giant tires capable of tackling deeply potholed and switchback gravel trails. All in the heat and humidity of a tropical rain forest.

We expected this adventure to be the highlight of our 10 days, and we weren’t disappointed. Our photos and video snippets nicely convey the steep terrain, the long drops from the top of waterfalls down to the rain forest floor below, and the sheer exhilaration of facing one’s fear of heights or bugs or gloomy jungle environments or whatever.

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It’s a looong way to the rain forest floor below!

It’s a good idea to get Zen with your fear or the adrenaline rush which anyone will experience who doesn’t do this kind of exhausting hiking and gulp-inducing rappelling in the jungle every day. Some days are a triumph, and this day was certainly that!

Check the captions on the pics

Those first two days we explored the nearby, quaint and colorful town of La Fortuna,  spent hours walking on acres of a resort to dip in a variety of hot springs a few miles outside of La Fortuna, and joined another couple on an evening guided paddle down a jungle river, spotting for wildlife with flashlights.

The third day we planned to move east to our next destination near Chilamate, a nice half-way place to explore for a couple of days on our way to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast near the border of Panama.

Video snippet of La Fortuna

Hot springs video

More amazing hot springs photos

Rio Celeste Falls

CelesteFallsOn our way (actually, out of our way) to Chilamate, we took a side trip northwest to Rio Celeste (Blue River) to see the amazing azure blue of the falls and the river. This trip had not been on our original itinerary but discussions with locals (and hundreds of breathtaking images on the Internet) convinced us to go.

The drive to and from Tenorio Volcano National Park and the subsequent arduous hike up muddy rain forest trails to get to the falls viewing area took a half day, but was absolutely well worth the effort!

More photos of Rio Celeste falls here

Video snippet here

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A living fence in Costa Rica.

On our way to the national park, we drove past miles of pineapple plantations and many rural farms both large and small.  Leaving the park, as we made our way east toward Chilamate, we passed through miles of the unique rural settings of Alajuela Province, dotted with farms featuring live fences, many commercial pineapple fields, and the rugged, steep ravines and forested hills that characterize so much of Costa Rica’s landscape.

RoadSignsThe yellow diamond-shaped road signs certainly got our attention, as they warned us to proceed “despacio” (slowly) because, well, a wide variety of critters might be present.

The newer road signs show several silhouettes, and we seldom saw the same group of critters on a sign we had seen earlier. We certainly slowed down as we studied the ever-changing silhouettes. It’s almost as if each sign was chosen to represent the unique mix of creatures in that particular area, which idea struck me as whimsical and, surely, impractical. But hey, what does this gringa know?

Luckily, the roads were in terrific condition and the weather was perfect, which made for driving those twisting, steep roads over river gorges and through numerous villages a bit less tiring. Arenal volcano loomed on the horizon, a constant companion which we didn’t lose sight of until we got fairly close to our digs for the next two nights at Selva Verde Lodge.

Selva Verde Lodge

Here we spent two nights in the rain forest. You wouldn’t think there was a rain forest in the midst of all the traffic on the highway right in front of the reception area, but once you walk into the property a hundred feet or so, the sounds of the roadway drift away as you’re enveloped by the dripping greenery of the rain forest, the bright colors and sweet aromas of tropical plants, and the hoots of Howler monkeys.

Although this is a popular stopover for Tourismo buses and large tour groups on guided Costa Rica treks, somehow Selva Verde Lodge has managed to maintain a very organic feel, as if the place grew out of its surrounds rather than being placed there.

Actually, Selva Verde Lodge is well known as a pioneer of conservation and ecotourism. Although the property encompasses more than 400 acres of rain forest, the feel is cozy and homey, with lengthy covered walkways connecting the main reception area up by the highway with wings of guest rooms and the central pool, dining areas, two bars, a shop and a nifty covered area with displays that are part of the environmental education center supporting field courses for teachers and students.

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Selva Verde quiet cottages away from the main buildings and highway, surrounded by rain forest.

We stayed across the road and back up in the rain forest, in a cramped but quiet and comfy cabina or cottage with an attached screened porch. A number of small cabinas were perched on a steep hillside, connected to a lengthy covered wooden walkway, and surrounded by the thick growth of the rain forest.

Because we were there during the week, we had the entire area to ourselves. Below us, our lonely SUV was parked near a pond, the centerpiece of a large clearing of the rain forest, surrounded by brightly colored tropical plants and walls of towering bamboo. This area attracted all sorts of insects and wildlife, and offered a view to the sky where we spotted Scarlet Macaws, Toucans and Scarlet-rumped caciques. The latter reminded us of large Red-winged blackbirds.

BlueJeans Frog

Strawberry Poison Dart frog, AKA bluejeans frog.

Robin spotted an aguti one evening and the next morning as it came down a forest path to forage for fruit. A beautiful and deadly Strawberry Poison Dart frog (locally called the bluejeans frog) posed for Robin’s camera early one morning.

The silences in this place were countered by a Howler monkey calling nearby every day and into the evening. At night the pattering of rain on the tin roof and the clattering of a family of (I suspect) coatimundis or South American raccoons, playing and chattering, woke me at midnight. I remember I was grinning at those little devils as I fell back asleep.

The security guard sat alone down the hill near our car under a wan security light, often perched on his motorcycle until 10 each night, peering at the lit screen on his mobile phone. Each night he locked the security gate up at the road as he left. We never had to use the key to the gate lock, as we were asleep long before his shift ended.

Check out our photos here 

Night Hike in the Rain Forest

Of the several places near Selva Verde Lodge available for a night hike, I chose Tirimbina Biological Reserve  because of its 800 acres of rain forest, 2/3 of which are set aside for conservation. Only 1/3 is used for ecotourism. This preserve also got high marks by visitors on the TripAdvisor La Fortuna forum.

Tirimbina BridgeOur night hike started with the sighting of a mother sloth and baby a mere 30 feet above our group in an almond tree as we started down the path into the preserve. The rain accompanied us as we crossed an apparently never-ending swinging bridge over the roar of the Sarapiqui river some 60 feet below.

My LED flashlight lit up the foaming rapids below, enhancing my sense of vertigo as I carefully balanced on slippery wooden boards and slid my hand along the cold, wet steel cable that served as a springy handrail. The bouncing of the bridge underfoot became magnified with the many footsteps ahead of me. I was glad to reach solid ground at the end of that passage, but as the rain forest closed in around us, I found myself focused on keeping my balance on the wet, slimy, muddy bricks that are commonly used in Costa Rica for raised footing on jungle paths. I have hiked many such trails before but in the rain and the pitch blackness of this night, I found it wise to stop before I focused my light on the surrounding trees and understory, attempting to see the eyes of a coati, anteater, kinkajou or even an aguiti peering out of the brush. But no such luck.

An hour and more later, our little group returned to the main building of the reserve, having spotted several large frogs, leafcutter ants and tree roots that glowed in the dark. Sometimes the critters just stay at home, especially when it’s raining. Still, it was nice to get out and about in the nighttime rain forest.

After two nights at Selva Verde Lodge, it was time to pack up and head some 3-4 hours east and south to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, where we would spend the next four nights near the village of Cahuita.

Soothing Suizo Loco Lodge

Even if “Suizo Loco” means “crazy Swiss” in Spanish, we found this lovely little place tucked into the rain forest within hearing of the waves on the beach suited us just right. It was simply perfect. Our private roomy cottage was situated near to the open air dining, kitchen and pool area and the imposing reception building, yet far enough away from the other cottages to afford us peace and privacy.

We had the wall of rain forest within 100 feet of us, which meant the shy agutis would come out at dawn and dusk to scavenge around the kitchen area for bits of fruit tossed out by the ladies who ran the place like clockwork. In fact the family employed by the husband and wife team who built Suizo Loco had been there for years, lovingly tending the property and caring for guests while keeping the place secure and the encroaching jungle at bay.

Brief, Zen video of Suizo Loco pool in the early morning.

Brief video-chilling on our porch during an afternoon rain.

The grounds, pool and buildings were carefully tended, and guests were catered to in an unobtrusive way. Kindness and genuine warmth were the hallmark of every communication we experienced. The food was terrific. The atmosphere was quiet, sedate and laid back. It was the sort of place where we quickly felt at home, especially after a day spent roaming beach trails, spotting for wildlife in the trees and the salt water bay beyond.

In the afternoons we would sit in comfy chairs on our little patio and enjoy the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach a half mile away, the ocean breeze keeping us cool and bringing the signature odor of verdant growth, dead vegetation, salt, and wet, loamy soil.  Each day the Howler monkeys called nearby, while tropical birds flitted and soared above giant rain forest trees, darting in and out of the canopy on their way to and from nesting or feeding.

Where the Rain Forest Meets the Coast

Our days in this idyllic area of the coast were spent exploring a national park and two reserves. Our favorite was Cahuita National Park  mere minutes away.

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Robin and guide view sloth on beach trail, Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica.

There, we hired Richard, a local guide who was born and raised by his grandfather back before the national park was created and when the entire area was undeveloped. Richard was also formally trained as a wildlife guide, and he pointed out more animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, flowers and trees than we had ever been introduced to in a single morning. It helped that the overnight rain had brought out everything from sloths and monkeys to iguanas, bats, vipers and Jesus lizards. The only other place we had experienced so much wildlife, so accessible, was when we visited the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica two years earlier.

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Short-nosed bats chill in the shade along the beach path, Cahuita National Park Costa Rica.

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White-faced Capuchin monkey foraging above the beach path, Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica.

The beaches here beckoned, so we spent the next day as typical beaching-it tourists. We arrived as the park opened, paid the minor entry fee, and walked a long way down the canopied beach trails to a deserted beach that didn’t offer riptides (red flags warn swimmers).

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Resting raccoon, Cahuita National Park Costa Rica.

A momma raccoon and baby were foraging among the sea grape trees that line the shore, (check out the quick video) and I spotted large cat tracks in sand still damp from the early morning high tide.

Our third day was spent driving farther down the coast, visiting  Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge  This is so undeveloped and off the beaten path as to be virtually invisible. Here again the rain forest abuts the coastline. A lengthy, canopied and deeply shaded trail parallels the beach, winding through the tropical vegetation. Wildlife is everywhere; on the trail, off the trail, on the beach, and in the mangrove estuaries behind the beach trail.

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Iron shore, Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.

The coast itself is almost all iron shore (sharp, ancient coral reefs), offering stunningly beautiful vistas, with crystal clear water reflecting the myriad of colors of the coral rock, algae, and plants in the shallows. There are a couple of small beaches where people swim, the most stunning by far being Punta Uva.

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Punta Uva beach, Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.

RobinPuntaUvaLoIf you ever go to this area, it’s worth it to hike down that sandy, shaded path for 3 kilometers or so from the parking area to Punta Uva beach. Bring a cooler, a book to read and let yourself be transported. If you’re there during a week day, and arrive early, you will have the place to yourself.

Check out this brief but beautiful Punta Uva video snippet

Puerto Viejo, Playa Blanca, and a Hidden Gem

After a few hours at Punta Uva, we drove back up the highway and managed to squeeze our way into the noisy, crowded, trafficky, rough-and-ready backpacker haven of Puerto Viejo De Talamanca, where we had a so-so sandwich served with blaring music at a seaside beer joint.

PvT town imageAground

There I photographed a derelict sailboat, driven onto these shallow, rocky shores years ago, serving as a reminder that nature rules. Always.

We were happy to get in and out at a nearby food store and stop for gas on our way back up the road to our quiet Suizo Loco digs. On the way we discovered a super cute and scenic little restaurant sitting right on the iron shore in the little village of Playa Negro, mere minutes from our cottage. RobinBchLunch

My photo of Robin getting ready to chow down captures the setting festooned with so many vibrant Caribbean colors.

This was another experience we encountered by taking the lesser-driven path. In this case we got off the paved highway and bumped down the rough, jarring, dusty gravel roads to and along the beach, where the incoming tide crashed on the iron shore, sending geysers high into the air as the water forced its way into “blowholes” in the ancient limestone. The trick is: I was comfy taking such rough tracks because we were in a SUV, which kept us well off the ground and readily negotiated large, rain-filled potholes.

Trip pics here– be sure to read the captions!

Jaguar Rescue Center

It’s a good thing we enjoyed the beaches when we did, because our last full day the monsoon rains came. So off we went to the Jaguar Rescue Center back down near Puerto Viejo. This place was awesome, and well worth tramping around in our rain jackets, dodging from one covered area to another, following our young PHD-in-Sloths British guide who kept us entertained and informed about the lives of the orphaned sloths, anteater, toucan, forest deer, the peccary (pig), margay (forest cat), and after awhile I lost count.

This rescue center, like hundreds all over Costa Rica, is fully funded by donations from visitors. Many visitors volunteer their time a day or a week, helping to care for the many injured and (ideally) rehabilitated wild animals that are brought to the center. You can watch the staff vets work with the injured and sick critters, and have your heart strings pulled over and over again, especially when you see all those baby sloths in their hammock, nestled among the yummy leaves they enjoy eating and being cooed at by volunteers.

Here’s a quick video of a sloth moving surprisingly quickly as it heads for its morning meal.

Children will love this place.

Our final day we bid a wistful goodbye to Daniel and his staff at Suizo Loco Lodge and headed back up the highway to the nightmare of the traffic snarl around Limon and the tortuous, seemingly never-ending drive back across the rain-lashed mountains and into San Jose. I had allowed four hours for a three hour drive and it took us six, so be warned- that’s Costa Rica!

Back in noisy, polluted, crowded San Jose we stayed near the airport, dropped off our rental SUV right next door, walked over to Denny’s for dinner, hit the hay and flew back home the next day, bringing along sweet memories of the past nine days of adventure, discovery and tranquility in the wilds of Costa Rica.

All trip pics

My YouTube channel videos covering this trip

COSTA RICA TRAVEL TIPS

Costa Rica is rather unique among Central American countries, in that a road trip is relatively easy to plan and, for accomplished navigators and competent drivers, fairly straightforward to execute. With a rental car, a GPS (Waze is popular, and very useful, throughout Costa Rica) and an up-to-date printed map, we developed our own road trip itinerary. This allowed us to experience the abundance of Costa Rica’s climate zones, which include active volcanoes, high-elevation cloud forests, lush jungle rain forests, lowland, tropical dry forests and beaches. By staying in different, off-the-beaten-path places, we were able to become steeped in the environment and experience the amazing biodiversity of each, while enjoying periods of rest in serene, natural settings.

More important, traveling independently gives us the freedom to be where the animals are, when they are. Most rain forest animals are active at dawn and dusk (and of course, many are active at night), so unless you’re up very early or out on a guided night hike, the chances of seeing animals in the wild like sloths, anteaters, monkeys, aguiti’s, coatimundis, reptiles, amphibians and an amazing variety of bird life are lessened. The reason is simple– most tour vans don’t even get started until 8am or later and by the time they arrive at the parking area of the destination (after having made a circuit of local resorts or hotels to pick up riders), the morning is well underway. The animals have moved further into the rain forest, away from the noisy vehicles and people, or else have moved off to a quiet place to rest before the evening feeding period.

Many tour package visitors are left with seeing and learning about trees, plants, insects, maybe iguanas, birds, amphibians, butterflies, beetles and the like. Which is awesome, but not the same as having all the time you want to observe a mother sloth slowly moving from one branch to another while her baby clings to her, or being captivated by the sight of a troop of coatis marching along a ridge above a raging river to their home tree, silhouetted against a blazing sunset. Or being within fifteen feet of a family of squirrel monkeys feeding just off a trail in the morning light. Or a dawn hike accompanied by a troop of howler monkeys just overhead in the trees, raising such a din that you need to shout to be heard. Or getting to know the resident agutis and their habit of raiding a nearby kitchen area for fruit every evening. Or looking for that little fruit bat that wraps itself in the same banana leaf every night to go to sleep and if you’re up early enough you can watch it wake up and get on with its day. Or keeping an eye on the resident flock of scarlet macaws as they wing their way overhead each morning, calling raucously to each other as they head out to feed for the day, and repeat the procedure, following the exact same flight path, as they return each evening.

Tip: Best Way to See Wildlife. If its wildlife in the wild that you want to encounter, we strongly advise hiring a guide. This typically is not something you need to arrange in advance, as most guides hang out at the visitor fee pay area. Many guides in Costa Rica are graduates of a naturalist guide training program, and many are also lifelong rural residents who are intimately familiar with the surrounds and the habits of wildlife in the area.

Our travels in different environments have taught us that experienced guides see everything long before you do and of course the safety they provide as they look out for vipers and other things that can blunt your enjoyment is, in a rain forest or jungle, extremely valuable. Plus, as you spend more time with guides, you may find yourself becoming adept at spotting the elusive sloth 80 feet up in that almond tree off the path, where people below are strolling completely unaware.

Being on our own schedule allowed us to get up and out before dawn, to plan for our own meals (or just grab a snack) to be able to enjoy an evening hike or a quiet paddle down a river in the rain forest, using flashlights to spot for animals as the night descended.

Our road trip itinerary also allowed us to spend one day or several in a chosen area, to familiarize ourselves with the people, the roads, and familiar places to grab a coffee, snack or to stock up on food or gas. In our travels, we have run into local events, ranging from parades and art shows to farmer’s markets or a typical Saturday night celebration in a small town square. Such happenstance often serves as a highlight of our vacation!

Tip: Local Knowledge is King. You can Google and read TripAdvisor reviews all day but you’ll simply never glean the level of useful and detailed info you can get from talking with locals, or knowledgeable frequent visitors. We chat up the locals, from the staff at our accommodations to the guy watching our parked car. This is where we glean the very best tips about where to go, the best way to get there, the best nearby whatever to visit (private sanctuary with night hike or sunset paddle or swimming beach) and critical info like how to find a local optical place to fix your only pair of prescription eyeglasses that just popped a lens (yeah that happened.) There’s not a trip we’ve ever taken that our plans haven’t been positively enhanced, and often changed, after an exchange with a friendly and helpful local.

The local network of families and friends have often brought amazing and unique experiences to us. We have had helpful people hook us up with a family member who took us canoeing down a jungle river at night using flashlights to spot for wildlife. We enjoyed a meal of freshly caught fish prepared for us in an otherwise empty restaurant that was closed for off season. More than once, on different Caribbean islands, we’ve gone out snorkeling in a boat operated by a local fisherman who took us to a quiet, lesser-known spot than frequented by the tourist boats, a spot with amazing and abundant, healthy corals and fish.

Once we met the son of a Caribbean island scion who had some down time between SCUBA charters and took us out on his brand new dive boat for an amazing morning of private snorkeling. Later we visited him in his ancestral home dating from the 18th century. You simply won’t have opportunities like those if you’re on a tourist bus and a tight timetable, with 8-20 of your newest friends.

For interacting with and learning about wildlife and the local scene, for being steeped in local environs and for the flexibility to experience serendipity, you can’t beat the freedom of your own itinerary and transportation.

PS: It helps that we plan our trips usually during shoulder season, when fewer visitors are about. In the case of tropical environments, we typically opt for the dry season, when the bugs are reduced and the roads are not muddy bogs. A little bit of research is all it takes to understand the best month, and even the best weeks to visit your chosen bit of the planet.

Tip: Front-End Load Your Itinerary. This is particularly true in tropical environments, where the heat and humidity can sap your energy very quickly. We’ve learned to plan for the more physically demanding driving and activities of our trip early on in the itinerary. This leaves us some well-earned down time to chill out and reflect on our adventures, typically the last day or two before we fly back home.

This approach is particularly applicable to Costa Rica, which beckons with all manner of outdoor adventures and excitement, from hiking and paddling to zip-lining and rappelling in the rain forest. (see my previous Costa Rica post https://lynnsmithdestinations.com/2016/03/27/costa-rica-2016-10-amazing-days/ There are animal rescue centers to explore, cocoa and coffee plantations that beckon, horseback riding or white water rafting, butterfly gardens and jungle trails galore. Chances are very good that every day you’ll be on your feet, walking, and a lot of it over hilly, rugged terrain. Even a day or two spent on a beach can be taxing, what with all the walking in that soft sand or hauling your beach goodies on and off the beach, or just the effort to get up and head for a nearby bar.

Most people don’t “train up” for a vacation, they get ready to wind down. If experiencing the outdoor activities and the unique environments of Costa Rica are why you came, consider front-end loading your vacation with the more physically demanding experiences, preferably with a somewhat “down” day or at least an afternoon in between each to allow time to recharge. Those “down” times can be spent with relaxing activities like visiting hot springs or waking early to take a quiet morning wildlife walk around your accommodations, perhaps coupled with an evening wildlife guided walk. A “down” day can also be considered one of the days you spend driving to your next destination, with stops along the way at places of interest or to food shop, eat at a local restaurant, or stroll around a village square.

Tip: Driving in Costa Rica. Honestly, this one is covered a lot, if you Google the search string. I would say read as much as you want: certainly the warnings about aggressive drivers, lanes that disappear without warning, who has right of way at single-lane bridges, slow-moving truck traffic in rural and city environs, lack of signage throughout the country and even “up to date” printed maps and Google maps that simply don’t reflect the reality on the ground- we found much of what we read to be true. But that’s no reason to despair; just be prepared.

We strongly recommend you rent an SUV to get you off the gravel and potholed roads which you most certainly will encounter, and to get you through wet-foot crossings, which you agree to avoid in your rental contract but, as we discovered, that is simply not possible in some situations.  A 4X4 isn’t really necessary (although it was handy for us because of course I book us into off-beat places like Hotel Linda Vista some miles back into the rain forest on a very rough gravel road and situated way up a steep, switch-backed and partially paved road on the side of a volcano. But, that’s me.)

As mentioned earlier, do get and use Waze. More and more rental cars in San Jose come with a Waze phone. True, it’s one more thing to deal with, and they tend to use Andriod vs iOS so forget your Apple power plug- you have to use theirs and it’s strictly a car charger.

When in the mountains or around a volcano, remember that cellular service (and satellite reception) will be sketch at times, so make sure you know where you are headed and how to get there before you trundle off. It’s best to make arrangements or confirmation calls when you have good service.

We found that generally Waze was more accurate than Google maps, but we used both and even the most recent “Toucan” map of Costa Rica (Google it and buy it ahead of time.) Don’t forget your sense of direction, a working compass and common sense, as you will often need to suss your way around. To me, that’s part of the adventure of getting out of your comfort zone when traveling, but it can be stressful. So do avoid planning for tight timelines– leave yourself PLENTY of time between destinations and especially that last leg as you head for the city and/or the airport to go home.

Bridges can be out. You may run low on gas which can be tricky if you’re driving in the country. You may find a brand new 4 -lane highway that doesn’t show on anything but seems to go where you want, like we did. We took it and were so glad we did! Sometime you hafta trust to the driving gods.

Don’t drive at night unless it’s a short hop, on a stretch of road you know very well, no rain, no fog (which can be present around any volcano- they have a perpetual cloud overhead that stretches for miles and rain can pop up at any time at elevations, which is pretty much true anywhere.)

There are drivers who frequent the TripAdvisor Costa Rica forum who drive the typical tourist routes to and from San Jose and La Fortuna, Limon, and the popular west coast destinations. Learn who they are. Ping them via TripAdvisor before you go to get latest road conditions and tips on gas stations and places to eat along the way where you plan to drive.

As you enter towns or villages, it can be difficult to know where to go when you are faced with several roads at an intersection. Watch the traffic flow and observe the condition of the pavement- those alone can tip you off to which road is the more traveled, which is likely the very highway you want.

Look out for the port of Limon and highway 32, which crosses the mountains and is a major artery into and out of San Jose. It rains up in those mountains, hard. The roads are narrow, twisting, foggy and drivers cut you off even as you get stuck behind many trucks in a row. Be patient. We saw a rental SUV halfway off the mountain and were lucky to get past just before the road was closed- for hours (it made the nightly news in San Jose.)

The traffic in Limon will likely be awful- we got stuck in a 2-hour snarl (on hwy 32) and did not move at the port of Limon- on a Sunday! (There simply is no alternative route, as you can see on a map.)

For all the logical reasons, if you plan a driving vacation, we suggest strongly you don’t plan it around holidays. That includes the week leading up to a holiday and the week afterward.

Tip: Go for the Offbeat.

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has received sporadic reviews in various articles in the past 4 or 5 years, from Travel & Leisure to Lonely Planet and the New York Times. This area of the country doesn’t support high-end (or even mid-end) resorts, and it doesn’t see near the amount of tourist traffic that the Pacific side sees, so it hasn’t quite caught the eye of the general tourist trade.

Because the areas around Cahuita and Punta Negro still retain a quirky, laid-back Caribbean village atmosphere, I chose to make this area our place to relax, enjoy the sea, and see a lot of wildlife. Also, lodging and activities here are a lot less expensive than in the more heavily trampled areas, which fits with our travel style.

This area is truly a gem- a combination of the tropical Caribbean island life and funky seaside villages carved from the rain forest, all overlaid with the Tico laid-back and friendly attitude you find throughout the country. Sure, there’s the backpacker scene in Puerto Viejo De Talmanca, which isn’t our thing. And we’ve read of the drug trafficking and petty crime that can occur, but of course we take sensible precautions.

This is a good place to inject that it is always a good idea to pick up some useful phrases in the local language when you travel. The further you get from the big cities, the fewer folks you’ll run into who are fluent in English. Let’s face it, we’re all shy in an unfamiliar tongue, so do come prepared. There are all manner of apps out there, Google Translate is one, where you don’t need an internet connection to communicate with someone. Having a few simple phrases on hand will help you as you shop in local food markets, purchase gas, buy tickets to a private reserve, make arrangements over the phone, or just communicate your genuine appreciation of your hosts’ hospitality.

 


Costa Rica- 10 Amazing Days

With its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, Costa Rica has since the mid-1990s been considered the poster child of eco-tourism. However, signs of the burgeoning growth of tourism abound. Manuel Antonio, the most popular national park in the country, has suffered from environmental decay and loss of habitat from too many visitors, raw sewerage being dumped into the Pacific, etc. We heard from every guide we encountered that this former crown jewel of the Costa Rica Pacific coast has turned into an island amidst uncontrolled and extensive growth. Species of monkeys and other animals that can’t merely fly away are further endangered as the gene pool continues to shrink. The guides consider a stint at Manuel Antonio a requirement to be endured, as they aspire to be employed in the misty Monteverde Cloud Rain Forest Preserve in the north, or the new jewel of the untouched primary rain forest, the Osa Peninsula.

Robin walks beach, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica

Robin walks beach, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

I’ve experienced this dynamic of Discovery, Build-out, Exploitation and Decay in my home state of Florida for decades. My travels since the late 1970s have truly shown me how as few as three years can make the difference between experiencing a place, environments, people and cultures Before and After the airports or cruise ship terminals are built, the hoteliers take over the prime environments, and the rough-and-ready tracks are replaced by pavement and insidious development. Thus, in planning for our trip, I had determined to avoid the overly-trammeled tourist paths.

CR routeMy travel mantra remains to experience the wild places before the rest of humanity and the inevitable hyper-growth catches up to these areas. So, my plans for our Costa Rica vacation had us driving from the airport in San Jose up to the cloud rain forests in the mountains near Monteverde, spending three days exploring the area, maybe glimpsing Arenal volcano from a distance, then driving back to San Jose to catch a short flight down to the off-the-grid Osa Peninsula, best described as a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches, and backwater settlements.

Monteverde Cloud Forest trail, Costa Rica

Early morning, Monteverde Cloud Forest trail, Costa Rica.

We knew that this itinerary would entail a lot of hiking along steep rain forest trails, as compared to leisurely snorkeling or driving around tropical islands taking in fauna, flora, history and various cultures. And we weren’t disappointed!  I had planned for guided night walks, zip lining and rappelling down waterfalls, so this trip would be less relaxation and more work-out but hey, you can always hang around and relax at home, right? Besides, the main goal was to spot a lot of wildlife and to be thoroughly steeped (once again) in a tropical rain forest– a favorite environment.

Our collection of photos with captions and the numerous videos we shot really capture many of our amazing moments, so you should check those out!

ROAD TRIP!

The driving out of and back into San Jose was as challenging as LA, Atlanta, Miami or Boston. There was the poor air quality, many, many trucks, lanes that came and went unexpectedly, a decided lack of road signage anywhere, noise, and really crazy drivers on motorbikes and in a variety of sh!tbox vehicles.

While I played road warrior, Robin gamely “navigated”, combing through printed Google maps at various scales, a country driving map provided by the rental car folks with indecipherable scribbles illustrating a short cut to the toll road out of the city, and Trip Advisor forum tips ranging from “Don’t even try this trip if you have less than 4 hrs to make it before dark!” (I made it in 2.5) to “Forget the rental, take the bus or hire a driver.

We actually enjoyed the trip once the traffic was behind us. We left the Pacific coast and started up the blindingly dusty gravel roads into the scenery of small farms, ranches and towns tucked into the steep mountain terrain.

Costa Rica rural mountain farms

Costa Rica rural mountain farms.

The SUV kept us high enough to clear most of the boulders strewn across the twisting, steep and straight-drop-to-nowhere track as we crossed extremely gusty passes that rocked our boat and whipped up large dust-devils that obscured the view. Thank goodness for a new vehicle with working AC, but no recirculation option meant we ate dust the whole way into Santa Elena. To add to the excitement, the loose footing meant we slid out on almost every hairpin and we seldom got above 25 mph. Not to mention the bone-jarring potholes and the sun glaring off the dusty windshield and the grimy inside of the windows. Challenging? Tiring? You bet.

IN SANTA ELENA

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Santa Elena street scene

I was ready for a cold anything when we arrived at our little motel-like digs, tucked down yet another dusty, potholed “street” in a sketch part of a sketch town, above the dusty little backpacker berg of Santa Elena. But the tiki bar in the tiny eating area was closed (at 6pm??), so we got a nice hot cup of coffee, which failed to refresh. Still. We were here, so off to town we drove, looking for a spot of chow.

We ended up eating at a diner-like affair on the main drag, which was paved with bricks that slumped into large potholes. The place offered “tipical” fare, which is typically rather dull.

Robin learned that night that “beef” in this part of the country at least, was lacking in flavor and chewability. I figured the chicken is always a smart choice, when traveling to Central America destinations, and was rewarded with a meal I could tolerate, but barely. Subsequent tacos where the backpackers hung out was the smartest move, and the location for the coldest beer too, ha.

We spent the next two days and one night hike exploring the cloud rain forest of the Monteverde national preserve and a nearby private property with extensive trails and wildlife viewing. See our photos for a genuine sense of this portion of the trip!

Robin, hanging bridge, Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve, Costa Rica

Robin, hanging bridge, Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve, Costa Rica.

The cool, windy, misty and mysterious cloud forest was hauntingly beautiful, and because we arrived early in the morning, we were treated to a rare sighting of a mated pair of Resplendent Quetzals. We paused for quite some time to watch the male busily digging out a nesting hole in a dead tree. The best shot I could get was the male’s resplendent tail feathers poking out of the hole and jiggling with the vigor of his efforts.

Resplendent Quetzal busy digging nest

Resplendent Quetzal busy digging nest in his tree, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

quetzal

The next night we were delighted with all the critters we saw during a two hour guided night hike through rain forest trails.We spotted coatimundis, an aguti, an anteater sleeping in the fork of a tree, armadillos, several sleeping birds, frogs and snakes, and beautiful beetles that glowed like fireflies but were 20x the size and would vibrate if you squeezed gently.

The rain forest at night is simply crawling with wildlife and a fascinating place. I don’t find it eerie at all but some people on that hike were pretty nervous and yammered away, breaking the spell of the night sounds.

OFF THE GRID

A special, serendipitous experience  began with our decision to go down a track way off the grid (seriously, even Google maps is clueless), past a  “Closed- turn back” sign which we ignored “Hey this road looks traveled– uh, mostly”. That track was hands-down the most challenging, painful and exhausting driving at 15mph I have ever done but the scenery was spectacular and the payoff at the end of this hour jaunt was this magical old homestead-cum-hostel carved out of the rain forest on top of a steep ridge with a spectacular view of Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.

View of Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

View of Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

We were met by two playful kittens as we painfully hauled ourselves out of the dust-covered SUV. The panorama view pulled us to the edge of the grassy parking area and a steep drop off. The rain forest rolled away toward the massive volcano, pitching down sheer ravines and covering the steep series of ridges. Waterfalls cut through the wall of green in the distance, glinting in the afternoon light. The wind at this elevation (likely 6,000 ft) was cool and steady, with gusts enough to blow my ball cap away.

The only sounds were the wind, rain forest birds, and the swishing of the landscaped greenery around the property.

Lynn and kittens overlooking Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

Lynn and kittens overlooking Arenal volcano and lake, Costa Rica.

The kittens cavorted while we took photos. Only after taking in the sights did we turn our attention to the lodge-like structure behind us. Heavily constructed of massive logs, the place stretched out across the cleared hilltop, offering plate glass windows to the view before us.

I smelled wood smoke as we entered the arched, high-ceiling entryway, went down a short flight of stone steps, and walked the length of the cavernous dining area. A couple was seated at one of the tables, enjoying the incredible view.

I approached a solid wooden counter at the end of the room and saw a huge fireplace behind the counter and a stack of large logs that looked like a wood pile for some serious stoves. And sure enough, I could see into the industrial-sized food prep area to my left and there were two men, chopping away on greens and veggies on long metal trestle tables. Behind them open wood burning ovens were glowing away, coughing clouds of smoke back down the chimney and into the area with each gust of wind outside.

The atmosphere was so, well, atmospheric! The prevailing quiet, interrupted by the chopping and the sounds of gusting winds buffeting the building– the smoke, the rasp of a heavy wooden chair across the stone floor as Robin sat down at a table behind me— it was all so weirdly transporting. I felt like time hit Pause for five seconds. What a tranquil, timeless kind of place.

The spell of course was broken as our host ambled out and asked in Spanish if we’d like to eat. A brief confab ensued, with Robin leading the way in her capable Spanish to the conclusion that there was little on offer and we’d be taking pot luck. Or, as our host described it, a “tipical” meal, which we were grateful for, having eaten little that morning besides a scrambled egg and squashed protein bars retrieved from our backpacks.

Lynn with her rainforest feline friend, Costa Rica.

Lynn with her rainforest feline friend, Costa Rica.

While we waited for lunch to be served, I repaired to a couch nearby, joined by the kittens, who wore themselves out playing, then settled down in my lap for a snooze. The quiet descended again, and the smoky stillness of the airless room started to lull me to sleep until I got up to open a couple of windows high above the plate glass expanse to let in some of that invigorating mountain air.

Meal with a view to Arenal volcano and lake

Meal with a view to Arenal volcano and lake

Following our meal, we buckled in and buckled down for the return trip to Santa Elena, back up and down that killer, twisting, slippery, rutted track. The forest soon engulfed us but was broken here and there by open vistas of incredibly steep pastures dotted with trees and tangled underbrush. Not a cow or horse, donkey or mountain goat in sight. I couldn’t imagine spending a day on a small horse, struggling up and down those pitches chasing up cattle. What a hardscrabble life the rural farmers and ranchers must lead!

Rural rolling rainforest hills, Costa Rica.

Rural rolling rainforest hills, Costa Rica.

Back to our little, high-ceiling room at the Monteverde Mountain Lodge, with its lovely, dusty landscaped garden area, the noise of construction from a third floor addition, the incessant racket of muffler-less motorcycles at all hours, the barking dogs throughout the night, and the sound of the wind slamming against the building. We slept with windows closed,  earplugs in and a small fan blowing the dust around the room and into our sinuses, eyes, ears, luggage and any drink left uncapped.

TO THE OSA

We were glad to take our leave after  three days in Santa Elena and head back to noisome San Jose, getting lost and tangled in city traffic, making our way back to the rental car place, and catching a small but beautifully appointed plane, us the only passengers, down to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula.

osa bound

Our private jet to the Osa!

Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica street scene.

At the tiny airstrip next to the graveyard in the noisy, crowded, dusty town, we were met by our driver, who carefully placed our bags in the bed of the pickup and covered them with a tarp as a nominal dust cover. Now we faced what we well knew to be an hour-long, truly bone-jarring ride down yet another dusty, god-awful road through ranching and teak wood-growing country.

potholed roads cr

Thank goodness it wasn’t rainy season for our visit!

The scenery was pleasantly distracting, with the Golfo Dulce to our left framed by high mountains, and the flat farming terrain to our right, bordered by towering rain forest hills folding back to the western horizon. Even so, it was difficult to see a lot through the blur of the jouncing and thumping, and taking photos was completely out of the question. We just endured and tried to chat up our driver, who was shy due to his lack of English. Robin was in the back seat gritting her teeth to protect her tongue and my Spanish is beyond desultory, so it was a non-chatty drive.

The fun part was the road-guard Capuchin monkey, whose image resolved out of the dust as we approached a section of canopy road. It sat facing us, and as the truck slowly approached, it hiked itself up on all fours and bared its teeth– a clear warning to stop. We laughed and, suspecting it was holding traffic for its family to cross, we looked up into the trees overhead and sure enough, five more monkeys were making their way down a tree. The road-guard glanced at them, then glared at us, teeth bared, then glanced at them again. I half expected it to motion “hurry up there!” to the troop, who eventually crossed quickly right behind the guard.

With one last glare and teeth-baring, the road-guard jumped across the road, following the troop, and we resumed our trek, amused and thankful for the short break from our rough ride.

IN THE RAIN FOREST

el Remanso was our home-away for the next five days and boy, it was worth every strained muscle in our backs and necks to experience this paradisiacal unspoiled, wild place.

Dining area, el Remanso lodge, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica

Rain forest dining area, el Remanso lodge, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

Some folks choose their vacation spots for the food, or to be pampered, or just to relax. We tend towards the “active” vacation experience. I’m deeply grateful that Robin is more adventure-minded, gathering experiences vs, say, souvenirs. As hard as she works, she deserves some pampering or just hanging out by a pool but she’s game for hiking her butt off, sweating buckets, eating unknown and perhaps not-great food at unpredictable times, sleeping on mattresses that are more park bench than not, or being awakened at the barest crack of dawn by the startling, abrupt and incredibly loud Howler monkey calls right outside the cabin.

Our cabina, el Remanso, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica

Our cabina, el Remanso, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

Things like the probability of running into the fer-de-lance, the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, or falling off a steep trail or a zip line or on rappel may give her pause but she is a brave and tenacious fellow traveler! Of course before we went I didn’t tell her that the reason the fer-de-lance has such a fearsome reputation is that many people are bitten because of its association with human habitation and that many bites actually occur indoors. Kinda like I didn’t tell her a lot about Australia’s enormous variety of toxic and venomous creatures before we slept in the open (no screens, no doors) in the rain forest of Tropical North Queensland.

All this to say that I respect and admire Robin’s willingness to undertake these journeys rather than insisting on a vacation of pampering or even just relaxing. We have done some pretty adventurous stuff and I guess our activities this trip certainly added to the list. Plus, Robin delighted and surprised me with her willingness to undertake rappelling down waterfalls in the rain forest, no less.  I am very proud of Robin’s stamina, strength of character, determination, and the extreme focus she brings when it’s Game On and time to learn how to do something on the fly, depending on your sense of balance, timing, and paying close attention to things like thorny plants, army ant columns, snakes, scorpions, spiders and slippery and dangerous footing.

LynnRappel giphy

I could wax on about the el Remanso property, the awesome staff, the incredible logistics challenges they face daily to just keep the place running way out there on the tip of the Osa, way far from any hospital or store or easy access to even get in and out of that area. It’s most definitely for the fit, outdoors wildlife peeps, the adventurous, the hearty and hale.

Our cabin, el Remanso, Costa Rica

Our cabin, el Remanso, Costa Rica.

If it’s dawn yoga or a spa treatment you seek, this ain’t it. But they do have a fantastic yoga platform just off one of the many winding gravel paths that snake throughout the property, as well as a lovely massage area quite secluded but where one has a stunning view of the ocean way down there through a gap in the forest canopy. But we saw nobody using those services.

What we did see, and hear, and experience on many levels was the never-ending parade of wild animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds galore.

iguana

Iguana feeds

toucan pants

Toucan calls

capuchin

Capuchin monkey troop

spider female

Female Spider Monkey feeds

We could hear them moving in the forest canopy, shuffling or darting along the forest floor– even whipping past (a bat just missed hitting me in the ear one dusk- I actually felt the wind from its wings.) We observed critters sleeping, hunting, mating, nesting, rooting and just going about their business. We could smell the musk and piss from the monkey troops overhead and just upwind. We spotted deer and peccary tracks at the edges of creeks, and coati and ground-dwelling bird tracks in the moist beach sand.

Beach lagoon scene, Osa peninsula,, Costa Rica

Beach lagoon scene, Osa peninsula, Costa Rica.

We felt the salt air from the ocean shore and the mists rising from rushing waterfalls, and the cold water flowing over our feet as we carefully stayed to the center of the river’s flow to avoid snakes on either bank. Sweat poured down our arms and dripped off our fingertips in the 100% humidity hovering over the riverbed during one night walk, way deep in a ravine, cut off from any breezes.

And yes a fer-de-lance made an appearance, darting under our night river walk guide’s boot. Rinaldo the guide didn’t spot it but I happened to be watching for snakes in the circle of my flashlight and warned Rinaldo to stop. Later we got an eye level close-up view of a non-venomous green snake stretched out on the limb of a small tree, bent on getting to the two small birds eggs in a nest mere inches away.

What I didn’t miss were man-made sounds. The rain forest was all-encompassing, all-present, and spending an entire afternoon walking trails quietly or sitting on the deck and just listening and watching, was all the conversation anyone needed.

Alpha male Spider Monkey

Alpha male Spider Monkey next to the dining area.

The new moon hadn’t made its appearance so the nights were draped in absolutely black night skies, the stars bright as diamonds on display, the planets shimmering and the satellites barely moving, if at all. We’d turn off all lights in our cabina and in minutes the show was on. Some nights I hated to go to bed but the daily dawn chorus and an at-first-light hike with guides were typically waiting, and we needed our rest to get through the heat, humidity, and just plain day-long workout hikes.

Our videos of this special slice of Costa Rica are transporting, and there are many more awe-inspiring photos, so be sure to visit our links!

We visited in-between seasons, so what few guests we saw (maybe 10 toward the end of the week- the place accommodates 31) were other couples, some younger than us, some older. Several were semi-pro bird watchers, there was one pro photographer hired by the management to gather shots for marketing. There were no children in tow.

As the owner and his wife explained, most visitors are there for the outdoor activities, the wildlife, and being in the rain forest.  Many learn of this magical place by word of mouth. Still, el Remanso has earned the Trip Advisor 2016 Choice Award, consistently gets 5 star reviews, and people like Bear Grylls and other TV animal kingdom and critter show producers discovered this place some years ago. It won’t be long before Travel & Leisure does a piece that brings this area to the attention of a lot more travelers, but for now the sheer pain of getting there keeps the hoards at bay.

I hope they never pave that hellish road leading in or that’s the beginning of the end.

Again I point to our photos with captions and the videos on my YouTube channel Costa Rica playlist as well worth the time, if you want to experience these places vicariously. I’ve worked hours to edit shots and videos and welcome the opportunity to share with friends and family. Please feel free to comment on photos or videos too!

CODA

Costa Rica is definitely a place to visit time and again. We have quite a few friends who have a long history visiting and some who are planning to retire there–that’s a whole different topic. But as such magical places become easier to access and the tourist numbers keep growing exponentially, there will be changes, and in my experience few of them are good.

If you do your homework on Costa Rica, you’ll discover why this tiny country may have a real shot at avoiding the worst of the negative effects of a shrinking globe, population pressures and attendant problems, greedy developers, corrupt officials, infrastructure collapse, pollution and the whole ball of wax. Sure they have challenges, such as the Taiwanese mafia holed up in Puntarenas and manning fleets of illegal shark finning boats, poachers trawling the national marine parks, turtle egg poachers, wildlife poachers, etc. But I prefer to look at the potential of the majority of ticos and maybe even some of the ex-pats to continue to lead the way, raise voices, and raise hell to protect the future of this achingly beautiful slice of Central America. Pura Vida!


Awesome Queensland Australia

Lynn Koala

Australia. Down Under. Oz. Simply an amazing, spell-binding place to vacation!Australia mapWe arrived to a Tropical North Queensland late summer, having left a southern Appalachian late spring. There was little difference between the two climates, even though our destination was the tropics of the Coral Sea, 16 degrees below the equator.

The real contrasts were the trees (various figs, paperbark trees, and over 700 varieties of eucalyptus), the Aussie accents and learning new expressions for familiar objects and activities. Examples include “brekkie” for breakfast, “tomato sauce” for ketchup, “serviette” for napkin (“nappie”, goes on a baby’s behind), “troppo” for tropic, “esky” for cooler (we deciphered this in a welcome note from the owner of our digs), “servo” for gas station (look for the signs!), and “ta” for thank you. The checkout lady at the grocery store confused us for a second when she referred to the “chook” we bought (chicken.)

And the ubiquitous “No worries–Cheers!” from simply everyone, including the staff working security screening at the airports. What a breezy culture.

Oz road signs

A selection of Australian road signs.

We were amused and often baffled by the road signs, the town names, and the Aussie money! Large, thin, colorful bills much like Caribbean dollars started at $5, and the weight and bulk of the many coins we ended up toting was, well, weighty. Coins ranged from .20 to .50, $1, $2. If you search Google Images you can fill in the blanks.

TRIP PIX HERE

Lynn’s YouTube Australia Playlist

But of course it was the unique wildlife of this oldest of the ancient landmasses on the planet that held us in thrall– or rattled our cage, as in the case of our nightly nemesis the Orange-Footed Scrub Fowl, a chicken-sized Megapode (BigFoot for Latin lovers) sounding very much like a screaming child, a crowing rooster or clucking hen, and a drunk gargling a full bottle of Listerine. Loud. At night. Mostly.

Actually we became fond of these birds as they scratched around under trees in parks, throughout neighborhoods, parking areas in the rain forest, pullouts along the coast, and almost anywhere you’d expect a scrub fowl to be scrubbing around.

Scrub Fowl Australia

Orange-Footed Scrub Fowl.

Artists Treehouse Robin

Robin, our digs, Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia.

Our lovely digs in Port Douglas were situated a couple blocks off the beach and each dawn the scrub fowl vocals were augmented by all manner of tropical birdsong, and punctuated by frequent fly-overs of flocks of cockatoos, lorikeets and many of the more than 630 species of birds reportedly making Tropical Northern Queensland their home. I managed to record a minute or so of the morning chorus, which you can view and listen to on my YouTube channel 

Critters and Hazards

Kangaroo chat

Lynn with Grey Kangaroo, Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat, QLD, Australia.

Enthusiastic tourists, we welcomed the chance to check the boxes on our most desired critter encounters. Hug a Koala- check. Pat a ‘roo and feed a Wallaby– check. Walk with an emu– check. Photograph a platypus and a cassowary in the wild – check. Snorkel amazingly brilliant and healthy Great Barrier Reef areas and spot A) huge Maori Wrasse, B) Giant Humphead Parrot Fish, C) Reef Shark. And a special treat: get photographed diving just above a venerable, large Green Turtle as it rested on the top of the reef– big fat check mark!

We were successful in avoiding the Most-Deadly-On-The-Planet things that Could-Kill-You-Swiftly or make you very “crook” (sick.) No spiders or snakes bit. No Box Jellies (“stingers”) stung, no salt water crocs attacked, no sharks circled our snorkel spots, no venomous octopus or cone shell lurked with deadly intent, and we didn’t trod on a toad, a scorpion fish, a bull ant or a giant centipede. Heck I had to look up half of these to even know what the dangers could be!

However I’m sure we did court mishap, whether we were hiking down trails in the rain forest, slipping along sandy paths to a deserted beach, or stumbling over razor-sharp volcanic rock approaches to out-of-the-way waterfalls.

Likely the most hazard-prone activity we undertook was driving the Great Dividing Range of coastal mountains via steep, winding switchbacks through the rain forest at night, and flying down endless straightaways through the savannas and grasslands where signs warned “Unfenced road-beware of stock and wildlife”, complete with cow and kangaroo silhouettes violently meeting the front of cars. Then add getting through numerous traffic circles (“roundabouts”) in the city of Cairns, especially when driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car (“Drive Left- Look Right!”)

TRIP PHOTOS

I did have to dodge a big ‘roo road kill on the way back from the Atherton Tablelands, threading the little rental car between a massive stiff hind leg sticking out into my path, a chunk of unspeakable on my right, and a huge transport rig bearing down in the oncoming lane. Other than that, the roads everywhere we went (and we went a lot of places) were refreshingly devoid of road kill, which we attributed to so little traffic in an area of Queensland that is mostly national parklands (rain forest) and only lightly settled.

In The Bush

Once out of the city of Cairns (“Cahns”, as in beer, pop. approx. 500k), mid-day traffic began to wane and roadside businesses dwindled to nothing. We drove north along the coastal Captain Cook Highway, which climbed up and over numerous steep mountain pitches and wound along under a lovely tropical treed canopy. Any place out of the cities and in the country is apparently “the bush”, so we happily tooled along, however jet-lagged from days of travel and a 15 hour-ahead-of-our-bodies time change.

Rex Lookout

Rex Lookout, along the Cook Highway, QLD, Australia.

On our way from Cairns to Port Douglas, our HQ for our 11 night Oz Getaway, the view from Rex Lookout was stunning, and the Coral Sea bathing lovely beaches and crashing against rocks helped keep us alert.

Along the coast, “the bush” is basically rain forest, and during the week, the further north we drove on various adventures, the fewer settlements we encountered. Just a few miles north of bucolic Port Douglas (pop. 3,200), if you get off the Cook Highway and onto the only other “road” noted on most maps, (forget GPS and mobile service, you are in the bush!), you actually run out of road. The pavement dribbles away to rough “track” that wanders off to the northwest, following the wild, beautiful and croc-infested Daintree River.

Mossman Gorge

Lynn, Mossman Gorge, QLD, Australia.

Staying on the Cook Highway was wise, and led us just 15 miles north of Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge, a stunning natural beauty in the World Heritage listed Daintree National Park, set within a steep-sided valley on the Mossman River. Along the way, we passed through a coastal plain featuring rampantly healthy sugar cane fields viewed against majestic, jagged mountains heavily green with rain forest cover.

CaneField Mossman

Sugar cane fields, near Daintree River, QLD, Australia.

Even though we had a couple of days of windy and rainy conditions, the low clouds and thick mists crowning the tops of the highest peaks made for spectacular scenes, some of which I managed to capture in-camera. Be sure to visit my photos link for pix, and Lynn’s YouTube Channel – Oz for brief videos!

Rainforest Flowering trees

Robin with rain forest tree blooms.

Adventures in the Rain Forest

We spent more time in the rain forest than on the beach or in PD, or even snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). This was intentional. I chose PD as our base because it was wonderfully convenient to the Daintree National Park and the nearby Atherton Tablelands, all of which were readily reached by the Cook Highway.

Coastal rainforest QLD

Rainforest meets the ocean, Daintree National Park, QLD, Australia.

If you Google “Daintree National Park” or even “tropical northern Queensland” and check out Google Maps, you’ll see how the Cook Highway describes a large oval from Cairns up to Mossman and then west and south, in the rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range, to the amazing beauty and stunning vistas of the Atherton Tablelands. This area of I-dunno-how-many-square-miles embraces beaches, rugged and undeveloped coastal areas, ancient rain forest and dry grasslands and savannas, each environment home to unique and strangely unfamiliar fauna and flora.

We learned that these rain forests are among the oldest on the planet, which makes sense if you study your geography, plate tectonics, and history– or watch a lot of nature or travel programming!

Daintree ferry

Daintree River Ferry, Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

Bush Trek to Cooktown

Toward the end our stay, we were off to drive north along the Cook Highway, across the Daintree River via car ferry, and onto the now narrow two-lane, twisty and switch-backed Cape Tribulation Road. Through the wilds of the coastal rain forest to points further on, we drove for over an hour until we ran out of pavement in a tiny beach side village tucked into the rain forest.

rainforest hideaway

Our jungle hut, Rainforest Hideaway, Cape Tribulation, Australia.

Here, in Cape Tribulation, we arrived in the late afternoon under threatening skies at the Rainforest Hideaway, an aptly-named BnB. With only 4 small structures, this place was just the ticket to spend an off-the-grid night in the rain forest. Limited electricity provided by a generator, composting toilets, and a micro-cabin awaited us, as did the experience of taking an outdoor shower in the rain forest. No photo of the facilities here, you’ll have to hit Our Oz photos link for that one!

We’d both developed a Nasty Head Cold our 3rd day in PD, so here we were a week later, coughing and blowing our noses most of the night. The sounds of heavy rain soaking the surrounding greenery did little to soothe, as I found myself struggling to avoid getting tangled up in the mosquito netting while fishing around in the dark for that dang Kleenex box.

cassowary

Young Cassowary, near Cape Tribulation, QLD, Australia.

After a rough night, we were up at the crack of dim rain forest light, to a visit by a Cassowary! One of several that make this corner of the rain forest home, this 2-year old male was enjoying a breakfast of fruit just off the raised deck of the open-sided reception area. What a treat, to watch this ancient and other-worldly appearing bird as it slouched along in its unique and somewhat sinister way with its head nodding with every step, and its back parallel to the ground. (Robin stands next to a huge adult replica in the photos collection.)

My attempts to get a decent photo of this guy in such dim light failed miserably and too, I was wary of holding the camera within reach of a bird with a reputation of being aggressive and nasty-tempered.

I’m simply fascinated with this strange life-form and was delighted to see one so close up! We’d spotted one the afternoon before, when we first arrived at Cape Trib and strolled through a park-like area on our way to a beach path. But here we were near enough to touch this large, curious bird, whose head bobbed up over the edge of the platform from various places as he walked around the veranda, peeking inside to see if more fruit was in the offing!

If you’re as fascinated as I am, and enjoy National Geographic stories and photos, check out this link for a brief tale of Cassowaries and their homeland, the wet tropics of Northern Queensland. Cassowary NatGeo

Robin, Cooktown

Robin gazes at the Endeavor River, Cooktown, Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Big Bird, as our guide Mike D’Arcy arrived to escort us on his 11-hour guided 4X4 tour of the rain forest, unspoiled coastal beaches, a small Aborigine village, and eventually Cooktown.

The Cooktown Wiki entry describes this scenic little town as “… at the mouth of the Endeavour River, on Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland where James Cook beached his ship, the Endeavour, for repairs in 1770.”

Cooktown was lovely, offering a quiet town, a tasty repast of fish n’ chips (fries to us), and lovely scenes of the river debouching into the Coral Sea from atop Grassy Hill.

Cooktown QLD

Grassy Hill scene, Cooktown, Queensland, Australia.

After visiting the amazing James Cook Museum, located in a stately 19th century former Catholic convent school, we retraced our steps along the dusty, potholed, rough Bloomfield Track, stopping to spot waterfowl at a lovely estuary setting where I found the paperbark trees a photo op.

Paperbark trees

Paperbark trees, near Cooktown, QLD, Australia.

We passed back by the trail leading off to Bloomfield Falls, where that morning we’d rested after a bit of a trek to try spotting the resident croc that lurked in the inviting creek below the falls. But, no croc sighting, so we pressed on, the 4X4 splashing gamely once again through the wet-foot crossing and arriving at the beach at Cape Tribulation.

Bloomfield falls

Bloomfield Falls, along the Cooktown track, Queensland, Australia.

We’d visited here early in the morning (seemed simply HOURS ago!) when the tide was in. Now, at low tide, the sea was practically at the horizon and the expanse of exposed beach seemed to go on forever.

The light at early dusk was simply magic: shades of mauve, cyan and a powdery purple played on the undersides of rain clouds on the southeastern horizon. I was drawn to a few stray red mangrove trees whose exposed roots tantalized my photographer-brain, and suddenly the entire scene was bathed in an ethereal silver light.

Some distance down the beach, Mike and the four gals were exclaiming over crabs in the sand but I was transfixed, as I splashed through large puddles left by the receding tide and found the shot I knew was waiting for me– I just had to capture it before that light slipped away!

mangrove cape tribulation beach

Red Mangrove in silver light, Cape Tribulation, QLD, Australia.

That shot alone was worth the aching back, the red cold-sore nose, a full bladder and a dozen other annoyances of a day spent banging about in a cramped 4X4. I was ready for a beer, dinner and bed! But first– a little two-hour drive back down the coastal road in the pitch dark, through the rain forest, over switchbacks, to the Daintree Ferry– and home in Port Douglas.

Great Barrier Reef snorkel

Robin, Lynn snorkel Great Barrier Reef.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

This was truly the genesis of our trip. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef had been a dream of mine since I first experienced the underwater realm as a SCUBA diver way back in the early 1970s. It took awhile, but 40-odd years later, there I was, Robin beside me, finning over this vibrant, fishy, brilliantly colored reef system. I truly had more than salt water in my eyes as I blinked behind my mask at the breathtaking scenes that presented themselves, no matter which way I turned my head.

Our third day in PD had us boarding the vessel Wavelength for the run out to the GBR off Port Douglas. Here the reef system came close to the coast– not as close as further north perhaps, but close enough to get there after a 90-minute run in a 60-foot, twin-diesel, monohull craft.

I’d chosen Wavelength Marine Charters because, unlike the other charters in the area which carried 90 to 200 people aboard (egads!), Wavelength offered small group, low-impact reef experiences, and “… employs qualified marine biologists as crew in order to offer a high level of interpretation of the Great Barrier Reef.” True enough, and the first mooring ball we tied up to in the lee of Opal Reef brought us face to face with a large Green Turtle as it rested quietly on the top of the reef some 30 feet below.

Lynn and large turtle, Great Barrier Reef

Lynn snorkels near large turtle, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Luckily one of the marine biologists had her camera, and captured a shot as I dived down to get a better look at this gorgeous and serene turtle, which was about the size of a dining-room table. The water clarity here wasn’t as clear as subsequent stops, where we saw all manner of Coral Sea life, including giant clams, clownfish snuggling down in massive and colorful anemones, and more staggeringly healthy and massive hard and soft corals than I have ever seen on any Caribbean reef.

Great Barrier Reef colorful corals

Great Barrier Reef, amazing variety of colorful corals and fishes, prior to the big bleach of 2016.

Many species of fish here are quite differently colored than in the Caribbean, and indeed uncounted species are simply not found in the Caribbean. I found my internal database somewhat lacking when it came to accurate fish-identification, but frankly the selection was simply overwhelming. Triggerfish, parrotfish, butterfly fish, sea basses, various cods, wrasses, the odd-looking unicorn fish, and the beautifully-striped and red-lipped Sweetlips flipped, darted, hovered and cruised until I felt I was swimming through a kaleidoscope of fishes. And I guess I was.

I desperately wanted to spot a specimen of the famed Maori (AKA “Humphead”) Wrasse, and at our second dive spot, two cruised by about 25 feet of depth, just inside the visibility veil. Wow, those fish were BIG and impressive, as the pic illustrates!

Maori wrasse

Maori Wrasse, Great Barrier Reef.

Giant clam

Giant clam, Great Barrier Reef.

And speaking of huge, the giant clams we swam over on various dives on the two different days we went out with Wavelength, were, well– giant! The non-aggressive (joke) mollusks we saw sported psychedelically-patterned mantles in colors ranging from electric green and disco purple, to intensely orange, flaming pink, and so forth. But the amazing thing, aside from their sheer SIZE, was the plethora of neon-colored dots (eyes?) throughout the mantle. Looking at photos is one thing, but floating just a couple of feet above one of these massive mollusks and viewing the details of its shape and coloration in clear water with the sun providing a handy spot-light– well, that was sheer magic.

Our second trip out to the GBR on Wavelength was truly special. When we arrived at the first dive location, one of the crew waved us to the stern of the boat and, pointing at the inflatable dingy floating beside the swim platform, asked with a grin if we wanted to be dropped off up current of the anchored boat to enjoy a private drift dive back down to the boat. Of course we said Yes!

Turns out we had apparently impressed the crew during our previous trip aboard, with our years of snorkeling experience, our calm demeanor in the water, packing all our own gear, and tipping the crew after that first, amazing excursion. So, while the newbie tourist snorkelers splashed and squealed around the reef near the boat, we got a scenic, serene drift dive along the gently curving reef structure, moving at our own pace and observing the critters going about their business, oblivious to our quiet hovering above.

That was truly a treat, and we expressed our appreciation with another generous tip to the thoughtful professionals of Wavelength Charters. And a smashing review on their web site, Facebook page and on TripAdvisor, too.

Savannas and the Tablelands

termite mound QLD

Lynn with termite mound, grasslands near Atherton Tablelands, QLD, Australia.

Our photos really tell the story of the two trips we took to the Atherton Tablelands. Highlights include driving through the misty mountains and crossing the Great Dividing Range to the dry savannas beyond, where the roos and other indigenous critters live on the grasslands that are dotted with thousands of termite mounds of all size and coloration.

Lake Eacham, Atherton Tablelands, QLD, Australia

Lake Eacham, a crater lake in the jungle, Atherton Tablelands, QLD, Australia.

Visiting the region of deep, crystal-clear crater lakes surrounded by nothing but rain forest was a series of eye-opening surprises, as were the many waterfalls, the little towns looking all the world like movie lots of hundred-year old Australian bergs (another joke but a truism I guess.).

The giant “curtain fig tree” was simply breathtaking, you really should view the brief video snippet I caught of this 600 year-old behemoth.

Curtain Fig Tree, Atherton Tablelands, QLD, Australia

Lynn with the Curtain Fig Tree, Atherton Tablelands, QLD, Australia.

Checking out the funny and unexpected signs on roadways, buildings, businesses and in public toilets, seeing a platypus swim 30 feet away — these were moments I’m very glad to have caught on video and in-camera, as I walked around in a head-cold induced fog, trying my best to fully LIVE every moment, in-between bouts of coughing and drowning in sinus gunk.

Full Circle

Homeward bound, we awoke one morning in Honolulu knowing we needed to get to the Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center to see what we could before our flight from Honolulu to Atlanta took off that afternoon.

Lynn on deck of USS Missouri

Lynn on deck of USS Missouri.

By now we were virtual zombies, quite numb from dealing with the time difference between Brisbane and Hawaii, the addled confusion of crossing the International Date Line, and dealing with the dregs of a severe head-cold. But hey, we were STILL on vacation, so we two middle-aged gals dragged our jet-lagged and horribly sleep-deprived-after-23 hours-of non-stop-travel selves out into the rental car and next thing you know (or as best I can recall), we were on the deck of the USS Missouri, standing just about where the table was placed for the signing of the document that officially ended WWII.

This was a real treat for this history buff, and even as foggy as my brain was, I still felt an intense mix of emotions for what happened– the conflict, the loss of millions of lives, the horrors. I won’t wax lengthy on this one but suffice it to say, I was moved. I’ve spent a lifetime studying history, and my particular interest in WWII really came home to me in many moments I was fortunate to experience here.

Wavelength Boat gals

Lynn, Robin aboard Wavelength dive boat, on our way to snorkel the GBR.

So, what’s my personal Big Takeaway from this trip? Beyond the amazement that we could even GO, the keen appreciation for the fact that we could weather it (you gotta be tough to travel these days) even sick as dogs for most of it; the gratitude for being blessed with the ability to marshal our financial and planning resources to make something as complex as this come together and, not least, the support of family and friends who provided the peace of mind knowing our home and critters were cared-for in our absence: my takeaway is this…

… Don’t Go on such a lengthy trip and spend ONLY 12 nights total in-country! Spend more time so you can truly breathe it, embrace it, and LIVE every moment as if it is your last.

—————————-
CODA

This trip challenged me in many ways; the planning alone turned out to be extraordinarily detailed even for OCD me. The budgeting, saving and tracking of spending was a chore but very smart and necessary. Communicating with people hours and days removed, even via relatively “easy” internet comms was often difficult and frustrating. Figuring out travel timetables, airline schedules and plane seats, accommodations in several cities, towns, and on different continents proved daunting. Taking advantage of currency exchange rates, finding ways to reduce the costs of foreign transaction fees and international mobile phone coverage, uncovering “cheap” sources of transfer to and from en-route hotels, sifting through the best and inexpensive places to stay, to eat or buy food en-route definitely paid off in spades. And, covering our butts in the event of major issues was time-consuming and necessary, but proved gratifying and added room for flexibility and serendipity to embrace experiences I never could have anticipated.

It does pay to study your geography! Through the months of studying maps, Google Earth, Trip Advisor, and a host of websites patiently bookmarked and frequently revisited, I learned much about the areas where I wanted to go, stay, visit, drive to, fly to and so forth.

Long before catching our initial taxi ride to the MARTA station in Atlanta to head to the airport, I had been mapping, estimating drive times and conditions, studying ocean tides and winds, boat schedules, train timetables, and weather forecasts. By the time we hit the ground in Honolulu, Brisbane, Cairns, and our pied a terre in Port Douglas, the places we were to visit and the routes we would take to get there were as familiar to me as they could be from such a distance.

Challenges

A brutal head-cold took hold of us almost as soon as we boarded the Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Brisbane. “Aloha” and “mahalo” were the watchwords, but the soothing, mellow Hawaiian tunes piped through the ‘plane were drowned out by the unrelenting sneezing and coughing of Aussies. I donned my hoodie, plugged in ear plugs, strapped on my silk eye mask and surgical face mask and, like Robin across the aisle, huddled in my “extra comfort” seat, doing my best to prepare for 9 hours or so of flight forward in time. Or– was that backwards?

That flight made the previous 8 hour leg from Atlanta to Honolulu seem a lark, in spite of the fact that I had given up my “extra comfort” seat on that flight due to a simply huge man sitting next to me who basically laid ON me. The flight attendants were vastly sympathetic, and moved me to a wonderful emergency row seat with extra, extra legroom right next to the amidships galley. A note from the attendant helped me get a full refund for the extra seat purchase and went a long way toward dealing with my Mad over being literally squeezed out of my seat.

Big Man Abroad

This fat guy squeezed me out of my seat.

By the time we landed in Brisbane we were too addled by the time shift to do much more than clear customs and catch a quick shuttle to our nearby no-frills hotel, where we grabbed a bite to eat, slept a few hours and hustled back to the airport to catch the 2 hour flight up the coast to Cairns.

Mid-day in Cairns found us in our rental car, with me coping with sitting on the “wrong side” of the car and driving through city traffic on the “wrong” side of the road.

Right away we were met with a series of fast-moving traffic circles (“roundabouts”), which will test the mettle of the most sanguine traveler who is extremely jet-lagged. Once again, I found myself switching on wipers instead of signaling a turn (“Oops, you’d think I would remember that!”) However, the car was low-mileage, very fuel-efficient (at $5/gal for gas equivalent, that was critical!) and by the time I was met with hairy, winding, steep, twisting mountain roads a week later I was down-shifting the automatic gearshift left-handed and steering one-handed with aplomb. Thank goodness we humans are as adaptable as we are!

Drunks and Cultural Differences

Our digs in PD were awesome–except for the neighbors who partied until after 2am–loudly. Then there were the drunks from the nearby pub that closed at 1am, walking up and down the street outside screaming, hollering, and kicking over garbage bins- nightly.

Set those disturbances aside and Port Douglas was simply a wonderful little place to call “home”, especially as it was so laid-back, friendly, and convenient to all the places we wanted to visit.

Cultural Differences: I noticed that most men speak in a higher tonal range than men in the U.S. I can’t account for it.

Everybody went about with head-covers on- the ozone layer is thin over much of Australia and residents and visitors alike are very careful to cover up from the sun. I saw very few exposed bodies out on the beach, for instance– most people wore long-sleeves of lightweight material.

Aussies deserve their reputation for being very friendly and approachable, if not garrulous. Drunks aside.

Aussies love their beer. They love their ‘roos and koalas and cassowaries and the GBR and the other things that attract tourists. I think they even love tourists, although we took a LOT of ribbing for being “yanks”.

The medical system is awesome, based on my experience with a physician in PD, who told me I was going to survive my cold and then went on to disclaim (not too heavily) about the mess the U.S. healthcare system is in. Interesting chat.

The road signs are amusing and often confusing– approach a roundabout and try to figure out any sign describing the traffic pattern, while driving at 45 MPH or so. Not.

The stars are right overhead, brilliant, fascinating. Every night, anywhere in tropical north Queensland. What magic there is in the clear night skies. I am saddened that in our suburban existence on the east coast of the U.S.,we have that experience pretty much removed from our daily experience.

I love Oz. I wanna go back.

ALL trip photos HERE – be sure to read the captions! And short video snippets and panoramas are posted to Lynn’s YouTube Channel – Oz


Breathtaking Colorado Rockies Hiking

Lynn at 11k feet, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Lynn at 11k feet, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

“Atlanta to Denver on a cheap direct-flight ticket….hmmmm”, I mused. That was in May, after we’d returned from a week’s vacation in the Turks and Caicos. Well, I couldn’t help but LOOK at that “airfare deals” alert I found in my email IN box. I mean after all, we work hard for the 2 weeks or so of vacation time per year that we take (when I’m working, that is) and it was time to start planning a late summer break for some hiking.

I felt like Goldilocks as I clicked away… “This fare’s TOO HIGH. This flight has TOO MANY LAYOVERS. This flight is priced JUST RIGHT and it’s direct!”

Hiking in the Colorado Rockies has appealed for many years but for various reasons, we just hadn’t been able to pull it off. I took this low fare offer as a sign from the hiking gods which, combined with a great deal I found on VRBO.com on a 1930’s era tiny cabin near a river in the town of Estes Park, pulled us inexorably out west, for a week of late summer stomping at high elevations.

Robin, Emerald Lake hike, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Robin, Emerald Lake hike, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

By the time late August arrived, we were totally ready for much-needed relaxation and time away from work. Estes Park, about 1.5 hrs drive northwest of Denver, is a popular summer resort and the location of the headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park. Situated some 7,500 feet up and lying along the Big Thompson River, the town is picturesque from almost any angle. It also is the home of the turn-of-the-2oth-Century Stanley Hotel, which inspired Steven King to set the locale for his novel The Shining.

It’s also the home of large SUVs, every truck known to humankind, funky little restaurants and shops and elk, bighorn sheep and other park dwellers that prefer the relative ease of finding foodstuffs around a human population of less than 6,000 permanent residents. Which we figured out after spending two days driving back and forth across the (awesome, breathtaking-views-laden) Trail Ridge Road, sometimes at elevations above 12,000 feet, looking for critters like marmots, pikas and the herds of elk that live in this wilderness.

Lynn eyes Elk herd, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Lynn eyes Elk herd, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

The herds of elk weren’t hard to find—we quickly learned to look for the crush of cars, vans, campers and tourists spilling over the vertiginous roadsides. “Look, out there in that wind-swept vastness—two elk!” Quick, take a picture that, when viewed, will reveal a breathtaking shot of a massive grass-covered mountainside surrounded by towering snow capped mountain ranges— and two tiny brown dots with antlers sticking up somewhere between us and those mountains in the distance…

OK so we really did spot (and photograph) elk herds and even a moose at lower elevations. I managed to spend 20 minutes sneaking up on a marmot to take its picture, no mean feat when the largest thing to hide behind are basketball-sized rocks strewn on yet another of those awesome, windswept (and cold!) hillsides. I did enjoy the challenge of the stalk.  MORE PIX HERE

Marmot, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Marmot poses, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

So our funny story of the trip is that after all that driving and people-car-crush activity up in the park, we returned to the relatively cosmopolitan Estes Park only to discover a small herd of elk quietly ruminating under the trees next to a golf course, right in front of a restaurant where we ate elk one night (not the elk we’d seen, of course—we ate Denver elk, we were assured.)

Bull Elk in Estes Park

Bull Elk calmly grazes by the road in town, Estes Park.

And later we came across a 13-point buck browsing next to the shopping center beside the busy town main drag. He was a show-stopper, and we managed to get a quick photo of this magnificent, healthy bull before the car-crush developed.

Lynn on the Ute Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Lynn on the Ute Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Robin at Glacier Gorge,Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Robin at Glacier Gorge,Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Robin, ice field, Glacier Gorge,Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Robin, ice field, Glacier Gorge,Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Lynn hikes the tundra at 10k feet, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Lynn hikes the tundra at 10k feet, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Stunning valley view, Lynn hikes the tundra at 10k feet, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Stunning valley view from Visitor’s Center, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

Our photos really tell the story, which for us was actually about very intense hiking over the course of the week. Our knees and feet were pretty bruised from the work to get up some of those trails, but the payoff for every hike was awesome and more-awesome scenery. It didn’t take long for the wonder and the majesty of the mountains to remind us of how very small we truly are in such landscapes, and how being in them simply makes one’s world-weary concerns lift away.

Photos Here

Brief video clip of windy gorge on hike: http://youtu.be/vRPCSek6aKs

Brief video clip panorama tundra at 14,000 feet: http://youtu.be/4FZcJ3c76ZY


Stockholm- Midsummer’s Nights

 

Stockholm view from one of many bridges

Stockholm city view from one of many bridges.

Unexpectedly, I was called to a business meeting at my employer’s HQ in Stockholm. I called Robin and left a message along the lines of “Wanna go with me to Stockholm next week?” Her reply, received in minutes, was “Is that a trick question?”

We were in a tizzy for the next 8 days, she arranging her client schedules, me wrapping up critical tasks at work and to prepare for what I anticipated would be at least one 16+ hour day of meetings in this beautiful, 700 year old European city spread across 14 islands, facing proudly out to the Baltic Sea.

With cat sitter in place, airline tickets and hotel arrangements secured and our carry-on bags packed, we headed out on our 6 day adventure. I was traveling at company expense, and to save $ had to capture a Saturday. Which was fine, because due to a national Swedish holiday the following Monday, we would end up having 4 full days on the ground before we returned to the states. Our last full day was my meeting, while Robin would be on her own to explore city delights.

We arrived at Arlanda airport, Stockholm on Saturday at 8:30am local time, after having left Atlanta at 3:00pm on Friday afternoon– flying 10+ hrs across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, where an hour “layover” between flights turned into a frantic race the entire length of the airport to get to the gate in time for our connecting flight to Stockholm–oh yeah and passing through Immigration Control and another security scan at the gate. It was all a blur. It didn’t help that I had taken a sleep aid on the plane and was groggy, but who needs presence of mind while running down concourses? The trick was to just keep my feet under me and try not to trip when stepping onto the moving sidewalks, which in any case weren’t moving.

Of course we took a couple of wrong turns at the Amsterdam airport, got confused with signage and ran into a really tricky (read: weirdly unfamiliar) Immigration Control process, but we did manage to get seats on the plane and soon settled into our 2-hour ride to Stockholm.

Stockholm- East City and Old Town (Gamla Stan)

Having landed successfully at Arlanda airport, we fueled up with a latte and caught a taxi for the 45 minute ride to our hotel in the heart of Östermalm (“East City”), the more upscale area of Stockholm, a city of over 800,000 souls.

DSC00363

Östermalm, Stockholm.

Stockholm House of Nobility

Robin views Stockholm House of Nobility, with impressive neighbors.

Hotel check-in completed, we quickly unpacked in our cramped, hot, virtually airless room (with AC- sorta) and proceeded to the cafe downstairs, where it was beer time for Lynn (they were kind enough to open the bar at 10am, accustomed as they are to jet-lagged international guests). Then– off to Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Gamla Stan, Stockholm street scene

Gamla Stan, Stockholm street scene.

Trip photos here.

Our 25 minute stroll led us past a lovely park, peopled by humans and dogs enjoying the bright sunlight and an unusually hot (80+ degrees) and humid day. The city teemed around us, busses and cars zipping by on the streets and pedestrians crowding the sidewalks and street crossings. We grabbed a couple of bottled waters at the nearby 7-Eleven ($4 each- a taste of the sticker shock we would encounter throughout our visit) and passed through a large pedestrian outdoor mall featuring high-end stores.

We stopped at a large intersection, attracted by the sound of an approaching parade and, sure enough, here came the palace guard on horseback, right down the middle of the four-lane.

Palace Guard on parade, Stockholm

Palace Guard on parade, Stockholm.

A band blared music and everyone stood and watched as the cavalcade rounded the corner and headed down the avenue toward the royal palace, which we could just see down by the water. Grinning, we followed the parade, careful to avoid stepping in the evidence of the passing steeds.

Once at the water’s edge, we were met by a busy, colorful panoramic vista of the city. High-rise hotels, old and modern government buildings were festooned with flags and banners. The wide boulevards were packed with traffic, while pedestrians and people on bicycles flowed around us as we stood in welcome shade, enjoying the cool breeze off the water and gawking at the spectacle.

The day seemed to radiate light and energy, with the groups of people relaxing in the park or sitting in outdoor cafes contrasting with the hurly-burly of the traffic and mobs of people crossing several bridges we could see leading to different islands before us. We chose the bridge in front of us, which we knew would take us past the huge edifice of the royal palace, and directly into Gamla Stan–which is where we spent most of our time while in Stockholm.

St. George slays the dragon, Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

St. George slays the dragon, Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

Portions of Gamla Stan date back to the 13th century, and the architecture, the narrow, cobbled streets lined with funky shops and cafes, the street musicians, mobs of tourists, the sights, sounds and smells galore, was truly a wonderful introduction to a European city that wasn’t bombed in WWII.

During our days on the ground, we managed to squeeze in a couple of museums, ride the public tram and subway and even visit the Bohemian Södermalm, with a population of 99,685, one of the most densely populated districts of Scandinavia. A few years after our tip, this area was to be made more famous as the home of the fictional heroine Lisabeth Sander, the protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Trilogy, which the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movie made famous.

Robin visits our fav coffee shop- again and again.

Robin visits our fav coffee shop- again and again. Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

Many things amused and confounded us, not the least the adventure of visiting a local pharmacy (green cross, not red) to get something to treat my poor swollen, red and yukky legs for the poison ivy that I had tangled with just before leaving on this little European adventure. Approaching a woman in the store wearing a white lab coat, I asked if they had anything for poison ivy. My request was first met with a blank stare (“I don’t think she speaks English”, Robin whispered.) I pulled up a leg of my jeans, pointed to the damage unveiled, and the woman blinked and said “On-ne-MAL?”

“I think she just asked if you were attacked by an animal,” Robin choked out behind a snicker. I wiggled my fingers (why? No idea) and said “No. Plant. Plant!” The woman motioned another lab-coated lady to come over. I pointed to my leg. The lady smiled and said “Cur-te-ZAL?” Ah-ha! Cortisol! Yes! And yes, the stuff did work—after 4 days of applying it constantly.

Note to self: next time traveling anywhere, pack an English-to-local-language medical dictionary.

By our third day on the ground, it was time for me to participate in an all-day meeting at my employer’s HQ . Robin took the morning to affect our transfer from the fairly comfortable, if tiny, room at the Scandic Park hotel to our truly miniscule closet at the “crap hotel” down the street from HQ. Turns out we couldn’t stay just one more night at the Scandic Park due to a big football (futbol) event that had hotel rooms in the city booked solid.

My day concluded with a walk in the rain with my hosts to a nearby restaurant. Afterward, I made my way back to our cramped, airless, non-AC room in an ancient hotel undergoing much-needed updating. After getting stuck in a truly medieval elevator, I found our room, where fans perched on window sills struggled valiantly to move the still air. The windows were thrown fully open, the curtains pulled back as far as they could to allow the hot air and the city sounds to drift in.

The curtains remained open all “night”, which at this time of year lasted approximately 3 hours, between midnight and 3am. Oh well, no sleep for our last night to help us prepare for the 18 hour travel day that awaited us, as we caught the taxi to the Stockholm airport and retraced our steps, including the mad dash down the entire length of the Amsterdam airport to catch our connecting flight across the Big Pond—only to arrive in Atlanta late at night and drive our way slowly home through a torrential downpour packing hail. But hey, we had a great time, as the photos (with helpful captions) will attest!

Pix Here

Quick video of great street musicians in Gamla Stan (“Old Town”) http://youtu.be/rKDBUz-koTs


Hiking Vermont and New Hampshire

ProfileLake

Franconia Notch, NH

Hiker Madness! In our haste to take advantage of the 5 or so days of perfect weather forecasted for our 6-day vacation, our first day’s hike turned out to be a pretty hefty one (as in straight UP) hike just a few miles from Smitty’s family cabin, at Groton State Park, near Peacham, VT. Views were great but ouch, my heart-rate was sky-high more than once, as we trudged on a seemingly endless, giant Stairmaster up, up, up a mountainside in the northern section of Groton. robinhikeview-groton

Our butts were draggin’ seriously when we got back to the cabin after a 4-hour excursion. I was hungry enuf to eat a bear, but instead put the teriyaki-marinated chicken tenders on the grill, sat down on the cabin porch, and enjoyed the narrow view carved through the towering trees of Harvey Lake, seen from atop the steep hill where the cabin is perched. Knees, calves and quads objected strenuously when I tried to lever myself up from my perch to turn the chicken. I didn’t sit down again until I was sure I wasn’t gonna hafta move for awhile. Talk about stiff and sore!

grill               ctriverscenic

Our arrival day was hot, humid and hazy as we drove the 3.5 hrs up to the cabin from Logan airport in Boston. A gentle cold front came through, with little rain, and for days afterward we enjoyed temps in the low 50s at night, awoke to 55 degree mornings and by 10am we were hiking in shorts and sleeveless Cool Max shirts. Crisp, cool, fresh air- what an amazing (and welcome) respite from the unrelenting heat wave in the south, now well into its 4th month with no end in sight!

Nights and days the Loon pair hooted and cried their mournful cries out on the lake. I thought it an unusually quiet summer, with less traffic on the lake than I’ve seen in the past, to which Smitty and her sis Cynthia agreed. They should know, they’re both in their 80s and have spent summers here throughout their lives.  cabinpm

Staying in this simple frame (non-winterized) cabin is, to me, a pleasure. I like the turn-of-the-20th-century ambiance and how very, very little the entire region has changed (relatively) since the early European settlement period, circa late 1700s!  Check out the pix here!

However. Simplicity and ruggedness only go so far when 4 women share one very recalcitrant toilet! This turned into a real, er, “issue” for the first 3 days of our visit. We managed to make do by visiting Smitty’s cousin’s nearby cabin for relief stops, but that place had its own problems- no water pressure! Eventually the old toilet and tank were replaced by a 21st century low-flush fixture that worked (thankfully) like a charm.

Meanwhile, back at the hiking, after fortifying ourselves with a hearty breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor, and enjoying the magnificent views of the Franconia area of the White Mountains, NH from Polly’s parking area, we headed on into the notch.

pollyview2

That old familiar, slight queasy feeling of being squeezed between towering peaks struck me again as we drove within this section. I believe this is one of the most beautiful, awesome and breathtaking 10 vehicular miles or so of mountain scenery to be had this side of the Rockies. At the northern end, one is bracketed by majestic massifs with near-vertical faces on one side and a huge rock slide down almost the entire side of a towering mountain on the other side. I’ve been up and down this section of highway year after year, in rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog and hot, hazy sunshine and it never fails to move me. Many times the ceiling has been a mere 100 or so feet above our vehicle, and driving through the lowered ceiling at such times compounds the squeeze effect, yet somehow makes me feel cozy, so closely hemmed in and bound to a given geographic spot.

But I wax goofy. The whole effect simply can’t be captured in still pix or video, or apparently, in words.

lakefog2

The hikes, however, continued to tax our physical reserves. Although we try to “tune up” for hikes in the north Georgia mountains near our home, hiking at these elevations, in this steep terrain, remains difficult and demanding. But, we push ourselves and, time and again, are rewarded by incredible experiences and breathtaking views or waterfalls or both. And, to me, the final payoff is sitting in the car after the hike, sweaty, breathless, thirsty and often ravenously hungry, just knowing that we are young enough, fit enough and (likely) stubborn enough to make it, often well within the “average” estimated round-trip timetable for a given hike. OK so we aren’t 20-somethings running up and down mountain trails like goats, and the stiff and sore joints and flare-ups of old injuries remind us there’s a price to pay for our basically sedentary lives. But it’s a price we’re happy to pay, for as long as we can.

View pix of this trip Here. More detail about Harvey Lake, Smitty’s family cabin, and previous hiking in the area, along with photos, can be found in an earlier post entitled “New England Drenched Summer”.


Hiking Vermont and New Hampshire 2008

Franconia Notch reflections

Franconia Notch reflections, White Mountains, New Hampshire.

What a way to start a vacation. I came down with a nasty chest-then-head cold 2 days before we left so I was a mess. Robin caught the thing the 2nd nite we were there. It rained for 5 days, hard, night and day in VT and NH. Creeks and rivers flooded. We did manage to squeeze in a coupla short hikes in-between showers and managed to get thoroughly soaked on another hike later in the week. Mostly we hung out at my surrogate mother’s family cabin on a mountain, overlooking a lake in a lovely corner of what’s known as The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We spent a lot of time coughing and blowing our noses and going thru 5 boxes of Kleenex (!) Smitty didn’t catch our cold, thank goodness– she had one 2 weeks earlier and I think she was immune. Good thing, because at 79 years young, she didn’t need to catch a cold.

The Boulders cabin, Harvey Lake, VT

The Boulders cabin, Harvey Lake, VT.

It was great to be back in Vermont, out in the rural sticks, surrounded by verdant green hills, pastures and mountains, and re-visiting the rustic cabin that Smitty’s great-grandfather built when he settled the area. The mountain and lake are named after him, and many family members are interred at the amazingly scenic hillside cemetery in the tiny, incredibly picturesque nearby village of Peacham.

One always eats well, considering there are fresh veggies from local farms available every day, and fresh berries ripening all over, in every ditch, beside every road, and along every hiking trail. I grilled on the hibachi every nite, we had chicken and locally-grown steaks. We did a good job catering to Smitty, cooking and buying groceries and washing and putting up dishes. She really enjoyed our company and being treated with the respect she seldom gets from her kids. Also, since she had surgery on her knee last summer she’s pretty limited in her mobility so we took care of stuff that needed to be taken care of in the cabin, which is 100 years old this year!

Lynn lights fire in cabin fireplace

Lynn lights fire in cabin fireplace, The Boulders, Harvey Lake, VT.

We all read books and I kept the fireplace going on the cool nites until bedtime (9pm latest). It was soooo quiet, the only sounds at night were the rain drumming on the roof and the Loons calling out on the lake, which was a real treat to hear again. Two nites it rained so hard they didn’t call at all.

Cabin interior, The Boulders, VT

Cabin interior, The Boulders, Harvey Lake, VT. Note items from early 20th century life.

Cabin view to Harvey Lake, The Boulders

Cabin bedroom view to Harvey Lake, The Boulders, VT.

We spent time up in the town of St. Johnsbury VT, about a 30 min trip up the Interstate, and the nearest town of any size. We found a cute bookstore/coffee house where we hung out, drinking lattes and reading books. I spent more $ on novels than anything else (besides gas) the entire trip. I did hafta buy a foul weather jacket (bright yellow) from the Army store cuz I discovered my light windbreaker was just that, hardly rain-proof. Of course I had to discover it in the middle of a hike when it started to pour. It was raining harder under my jacket than outside. Sheesh.

Groton State Park hiking view.

The Owl hike view, Groton State Park, Green Mountains, VT.

Muddy bear track on hike

Muddy bear track on hike in Groton State Park, Green Mountains, VT.

I think it was Tuesday when we went to Groton State park near Smitty’s cabin- it’s in the Green mountains of VT and has some good hikes. We started out around a lake but suspected it would be really wet and muddy. Well, not only was the trail a muddy morass, we soon ran into a mess of bear tracks going and coming on that trail, which was full of ripe blueberry bushes on both sides of the track. I took some pix of the tracks next to my boot then it started to rain harder so we headed back to the car, but not before I signed in “Bear” a mere 5 mins behind our outbound time in the official trail sign-up notebook. If anyone bothered to read the thing they might get a chuckle.

Falling Waters Trail, Franconia Notch are, White Mountains, NH.

Falling Waters Trail, Franconia Notch area, White Mountains, NH.

The weather did break by Friday so we got a short hike in that morning at a place in the incredible Franconia Notch area of the Presidential range of the White mountains in NH, which is about an hour’s drive from Smitty’s cabin. I’ve been on this Falling Waters trail lotsa times. But not after a week of hard rains. It was so wet I slipped and fell on my right hip and got a huge strawberry on my upper leg, ouch. After that I was kinda shaky on my feet, didn’t trust my boots any more (I need to replace them- worn soles). The wet-foot river crossing I recalled had turned into a raging torrent, no surprise.

Harvey Lake, White Mountains, VT.

Lonesome Lake hike view, White Mountains, VT.

We didn’t dare try to cross on the soaked and slippery tree logs that were rocking in the blasting water and foam so we went back and off on a different hike nearby to Lonesome Lake, gaining over 1,000 ft in elevation across 1.2 miles of terrain. It nearly killed us but we made it up and over that mountain in 1:30, only 15 mins behind the average time, so I was proud we could do that, considering we were both still coughing and hacking and blowing noses. Beautiful place and photos made it worth the climb up and all the clambering back down the slippery trail.

Lynn tackles large rock while hiking

Lynn tackles large rock while hiking near Franconia, White Mountains, NH.

Sat. morning we said our goodbyes to Smitty very early and were on another trail by 8:30am, up another mountain. This trail was fairly dry and, while steep, not like the one up to Lonesome Lake had been the day before. Nice views of the surrounding White mountains rewarded us after climbing up a long crack on a mountain bald. Then we headed on back to Boston, which was about 2.5 hrs drive. We ate at the famous Clam Box in Ipswitch, Robin’s newest favorite New England restaurant. (I had lived in Ipswitch for a couple of years). Then we hung out in Newburyport, just up the road from Ipswitch, down at the river, watching boats and walked around an art show, then headed to the airport to turn in the car and wait a few hours for our delayed flight to take us back to Atlanta.

All in all it was good we had the forced relaxation to recover from our colds. Plus we spent more time hanging with Smitty, which was nice. We never got to swim in the lake, even tho I got into it in my underwear to save a piece of Smitty’s cousin Lorna’s dock when it tried to float away in the flooded lake. I gained a few points for that effort, even if the photo of me in my underwear makes me look ridiculous.

Photos Here