Iceland – Part 2

 

Borgarnes was our home for two days as we explored the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Despite the clouds and soft rain and wind, we walked along the harbor and cliffs of Arnarstapi, a tiny hamlet nestled among
spectacular scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

Our perseverance was rewarded with a lunch of hearty meat soup and bread, freshly baked that morning. During a comfort stop at the Malariff Information Center, I wandered along a path and came upon a zip line! It was low to the ground, so we had to use those core muscles to keep our lower bodies up and off the ground. But what a fun discovery!

Just the drive along the coast of the peninsula is like watching a movie of pretty scenery – fishing villages, rocky cliffs, Arctic terns. In many places you find large fields of lava rock now covered in green moss and lichen, giving them an otherworldly cast.

 

 

 

At Kirkjufell Mountain we stood in awe of its beauty. It’s not a tall mountain, but uniquely shaped and set among coastal water, greenery, and nearby waterfalls.

 

Thus far Iceland has been a testament to sight, but our taste would be tested as we chewed the delicacy known as fermented shark. Admittedly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected, but we gratefully washed it down with Icelandic Brenniven, a drink made from potatoes and caraway and affectionately referred to as Black Death by Icelanders.

 

We departed Borgarnes and drove north, crossing over Holtavorouheidi moor, and took a short detour to Kolugljufur, home of the trolless Kola. More on trolls and fairies later. Her home is enhanced by a magnificent gorge and waterfall, but alas, she did not come out to greet us.

 

 

 

For those of us who have read the book, Burial Rites, you will understand why we were interested in the sight of the last execution in Iceland. The novel is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fredrick Suguorsson, who were beheaded for murder in 1830. The last execution in Iceland. But was Agnes really guilty? Hmmm.

View from my room on the farm

We stopped for the night at the Hofstadir Country Hotel, which is a small lodging on a farm with incredible views. Toti, the owner, is not only a great chef, but he also served as tour guide to a neighboring horse ranch where we learned about the breeding and training of the unique Icelandic horses. Toti’s in-laws own the nearby cattle ranch where we were lucky enough to meet a new born calf. While the rancher brought the calf outside her pen to meet us, her mama was not happy and bellowed and stomped until her calf was returned to her. I didn’t blame her!

Linda pouring us shots of something good!

We set off the next morning for Akureyri, Iceland’s 4th largest city. Large is a relative term here as the population of Akureyri is just over 18,000 and it boasts a police force of five, yes….five. It’s red traffic lights are heart shaped! Needless to say crime is not a big concern in Iceland. But first, along the way we stopped in Siglufjordur, a picturesque village known for its herring production. It celebrates its past and present with small museums that tell the story of fishing and folk music in the north of Iceland.

On arrival in Akureyri on a sunny day, we walked the small but beautiful botanic gardens and then headed to Happy Hour. Linda, our trip leader, arranged happy hours at every place we stayed and almost every traveler in our group participated just about every day. It was a great way for a group of strangers to get comfortable with each other, especially those of us who were solo travelers.

Also arriving that day in Akureyri was a very large cruise ship. Unfortunately, one passenger on the ship tested positive for COVID, so the ship was ordered to leave. Now that’s a bummer.

 

 

 

The Lake Myvatn area has much to appreciate, not the least of which was Freddi the Baker’s delicious rye bread, baked underground in his little section of a vast geothermal field. Freddi lifted his large metal container by rope out of the ground and handed us each a spoon. The bread had a more cake like consistency and we each scooped out a big lump of bread and an equally big dip of fresh Icelandic butter. Mmmm.

After we walked the geothermal field with its boiling mud pits and steam spouts, we visited a geothermal power plant. Geothermal energy is Iceland’s most precious resource and it provides inexpensive, reliable, and safe renewable energy. Heat and hot water are practically free in Iceland!

 

 

 

Our last stop was the incredible Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) where we walked along the river Skjálfandafljót. That evening we were hosted for dinner at the home of two different local families. It was nice to have a home cooked meal after so many hotel and restaurant meals.

 

 

 

It wouldn’t be the perfect trip to Iceland without whale watching of course. While the whales were very shy on this lovely sunny day, our captain persevered until we were finally rewarded with a few tips of the tails.

 

 

 

Once we were back in Akureyri, Linda wanted to stop and visit her friend Hreinn and invited us to join her. A handful of us accepted and we were glad we did. Hreinn has created a garden full of trees and flowers and fairy tale personalities. He uses found and collected objects and materials and builds the people and animals we have all read about in fairytales. This was an unexpected magical visit.

 

 

 

 

The next day a short flight landed us in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city in Iceland, population 123,000. Another 90,000 plus live in the surrounding area. But as capital cities go, Reykjavik is small, which makes it an easy city to navigate.

 

 

A visit to Arbaejarsafn was a step back in time with its turf houses and guides dressed in period garb.

 

 

 

Back to the present. This is, after all, travel in the time of COVID. In order to return home in two days, we would need negative COVID tests. Overseas Adventure Travel organized our testing and we went as a group and were back to the hotel in time for happy hour. We were told to expect an email with our results. As we were sipping our cocktails, phones started pinging…our results were coming in. With each negative result a cheer went up, glasses were raised, and we all gave a sigh of relief. No one tested positive!

Our parting experience was a visit to the famous blue lagoon. Its geothermally heated waters were warm and soothing. We were treated to a special facial mask…and it wasn’t the kind you loop over your ears…and a green smoothie, which we used to toast each other on our last day in the land of fire and ice.

 

 

 

A word about trolls and fairies. I doubt that the majority of Icelanders really believe in trolls and fairies. But…they are loathe to admit it because… what if the fairy overhears them! So concessions are made and plans are changed. The path of a new road is curved around a troll’s rock. I mean people circulated petitions to change the direction of the road…just in case. The parking lot of an apartment building has a giant fairy rock in it. Because…you know…just in case! Amazing! But, back to reality.

Fairy’s rock home in the parking lot!

 

At the airport we were asked to show our passports and negative COVID tests and the entire process went smoothly. Upon landing at Newark International, I went straight to the Global Entry kiosks and was through in less than 45 seconds. The regular customs lines were very long, so I was glad to have Global Entry. No one asked me for my test results.

My first international trip during the pandemic went surprisingly well. I’m glad I went. Any lover of the outdoors will find Iceland a spectacular experience.

I should add that a few days after I returned in late July, Iceland experienced an uptick in COVID cases, so masks became a requirement indoors and on public transport. For those of us who cannot imagine life without travel, it seems a small price to pay. But we must care for others at the same time and not leave our home countries unless we are fully vaccinated. Safe travels has a new meaning in this time of COVID.

Skál

 

 

Iceland – My First International Travel Since the Pandemic

Honestly, Iceland had never been on my bucket list for international travel. Yes…There are the waterfalls, mountains, lagoons, and geothermal fields. But they were never enough to put Iceland on the travel map for me….until COVID. I freely admit to my travel addiction, and so after 14 months of stateside lockdown, I was desperate. Iceland opened up to vaccinated Americans this spring, and without a second thought, I booked a tour with a small travel company for June. Another plus for Iceland was their handling of the COVID situation and their high rate of vaccination (87%). So it really seemed to be the least risky international destination, and that moved it right up to the top of my travel list. And then it cancelled. Apparently not many people were as enthusiastic about international travel in May as I was and so the little tour company didn’t have enough travelers to fill the trip.

Two weeks later, however, I managed to book a 12 day trip with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), a company I have travelled with and trusted. OAT requires that all travelers, guides, drivers, hosts, and local providers be vaccinated, adding another level of safety.  I managed to score the last spot in this group of 15 intrepid travelers and I booked direct flights between Newark International and Reykjavik. So while this blog will cover the things we saw and did in Iceland, I’ll also focus on what it was like to leave the country during a time of COVID.

On July 9, I boarded an Amtrak train in Philadelphia for the one hour ride into Newark International Airport (EWR). I’ve done this many times in the past and find it very convenient, but this was my first time wearing a mask. The train was 30 minutes late, but I had plenty of extra time built into my commute, and we arrived at EWR just under 3 hours before my scheduled flight. At check-in I presented my vaccination card and passport and headed to the security line. Even without a TSA Precheck line, this process went smoothly. I had purchased a business class ticket with IcelandAir which allowed me to use the Lufthansa Lounge at the airport. Business class on IcelandAir is not fancy, and the cost reflects this. The lounge, however, was a big disappointment. Where previously there had been a bar and hot food, the lounge now served bottled water and bags of goldfish. Oh well.

My short overnight flight to Reykjavik left on time and my trip leader, Linda from OAT, was waiting for me in the arrivals hall. It was 6:15am Iceland time. By my calculations, I had been wearing my mask for just over 11 hours, removing it only while eating. I slept 2 hours while wearing it on the plane. Conclusion: wearing a mask for that length of time wasn’t terrible.
Because of the high vaccination rate in Iceland, their early handling of the pandemic, the requirement that anyone entering Iceland must be vaccinated, my 12 days in this country would be mask free, indoors and out.

Our first few days of exploration would take us along the coast and inland in the south of Iceland.

Our base hotel was in Selfoss, a small town (population 6800) near the banks of the Olfusá River. From here we traveled to Seljalandsfoss, a small but iconic waterfall. The “foss” ending on Icelandic names and words usually refers to a waterfall.

Later we drove along the Eyjafjlla Mountains to the Dyrholaey Cliffs where we spotted puffins! These unique and adorable seabirds build burrows into the cliffs and then dive for food in the ocean.

On the menu for lunch…arctic charr like I’ve never tasted before. Framurskarandi! (Outstanding!) Fishing is Iceland’s biggest industry and we would enjoy numerous and delicious meals of fish over our 12 days here.

Later we met Ingo Matthiasson, who drove us to the Myrdalsjokull glacier and Katla volcano in his super truck. But first a word about Icelandic names. Ingo’s last name is derived from his father’s given name- Matthias. Icelandic surnames are different from most other naming systems in the modern western world. Generally, a person’s last name indicates the first name of their father, or in some cases mother, followed by “-son” or “-dottir.” So John Petersson’s children might be Sam Johnsson and Linda Johnsdottir. Can you imagine what an Icelandic phone book looks like?

Ingo’s super truck is designed for traveling over ice and volcanic stone and easily fit our entire group. The Myrdalsjokull glacier has been blackened by volcanic ash from nearby volcanos, but more disturbing is it’s shrinking size. Global warming is taking its toll on Iceland despite efforts to combat it. The arched ice formation you can see in my photos was once an entire ice cave, and before that, solid ice. Climate change has caused melting to the point that by the time a friend of mine visited Iceland a month after me….the arch was gone, melted!

 

 

 

It’s a tradition to raise a toast at the glacier with a shot of Katla vodka, chilled over glacier ice…and that we did!

As we road back to Selfoss, our Trip Leader, Linda, presented us with her home baked Happy Marriage Cake! It was delicious and perfect for soaking up that vodka! You can find the recipe below.

 

 

 

 

On Day 4, we began our journey toward Borgarnes and Iceland’s Golden Circle. After breakfast, we visited a yarn studio where the artist showed us the natural way she dyes yarns and what goes into the making of the famous Icelandic sweaters. The sweaters are handmade, tagged with the knitters signature, expensive but worth every penny considering the time and quality. Next up….the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland…Gullfoss! On the day we visited there was 5000 cubic feet of water per second flowing into the crevice. The viewing area closest to the falls is uneven stone, slippery with spray from the falls, and requires some climbing. As usual, the ascent was easier than the descent!

 

 

 

Just minutes away from Gullfoss is Geysir, where, as you might guess, you can observes geysers, among other geothermal activity. While we walked the area the geyser known as Strokkur was erupting every 3-4 minutes. At both the waterfall and the geyser area, we encountered lots of tourists and locals, but not nearly the numbers normally seen during the very busy month of July in Iceland. During the 12 days we were in Iceland we experienced no big temperature swings. Most days temps were in the 50s and we had 3 or 4 days in the 60s….heat wave! While it rains frequently in Iceland, the precipitation was never enough to limit our outdoor activities.

 

 

 

 

Our afternoon was spent in Thingvellir National Park which was the location of the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. I found this so interesting….two continents that appear so far apart on a map are really not so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We ended our afternoon at Drekkingarhylur, better known as the Drowning Pool. There were 70 – 80 executions in Thingvellir National Park during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of those there are recorded 15 hangings, 30 beheadings and 18 women were drowned in the “Drowning Pool”. It is the only place of execution which is marked by a memorial plaque but there are also places at Thingvellir with self-explanatory names such as Gallows Rock (Gálgaklettur), Scaffold beach (Gálgaeyri) and Burning gap (Brennugjá). The treatment of the innocent and often abused women executed at the drowning pool is considered a stain on Icelandic history.

Next time….On a more pleasant note, will be the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

 


HAPPY MARRIAGE CAKE

Ingredients:

150g (1 3/4 cups) oatmeal – uncooked
280g (2 ¼ cups) all-purpose (plain) flour
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 tsp baking (bicarb) soda
240g (1 cup +1 tblsp)  butter or margarine, room temperature softened
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract

Filling:
Rhubarb jam

Directions:

Preheat oven to  375°F and butter a  (12″)  square pan. Blend together the oatmeal, flour, sugar, baking soda in a large bowl. Add the butter bit by bit and use your fingers to mix or kneed it into the flour until well combined.
Mix in the egg and vanilla extract. It’s easiest to just keep using your fingers.
Press 2/3 of the dough firmly into the pie dish.
Spread the jam over the dough in the pan.
Take the remaining 1/3 of the dough and crumble all over the jam.
Bake in centre of oven for about 30 – 40  minutes, until golden.

Serve on its own or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Only a Road Trip Is Possible


As I write this in late October 2020, the world has been living through the Coronavirus pandemic for over seven months. After all of these months without travel, I decided to plan a short excursion to a nearby state. It would not be the weeks long international travel I have been writing about for five years now, but it would be something…a break in the monotony of pandemic life. I narrowed potential locations to places within a 2-4 hour drive south. Given the time of year, north would be chilly for outdoor dining. My preference was someplace walkable with water…lake, river, or ocean. Annapolis, Maryland fit the bill and as luck would have it, this small city is a model for hosting tourists in a safe and friendly manner.

 

 

 

 

Normally when I write a travel blog, I focus on the culture, history, and people. Many of my blogs have been about volunteer travel to faraway places and the things I have learned from the experience. I have never written a blog about places to stay, eat, and visit. Until now. Because the circumstances are unique and Maryland is not a different culture for most of us, I want to share the practical things I found on this short pandemic getaway.

 

 

 

 

 

Where I stayed: The Flag House Inn

https://www.flaghouseinn.com/

This charming B&B is located on Randall St, across the street from the United States Naval Academy. It is a 3 minute walk to the center of the action in Annapolis….shops, restaurants, and waterfront. It is a double house (2 townhouses converted to one B&B), with five guest rooms, owned and operated by Marty and Carmel Etzel.

I stayed in the Commodore Room, the only available room when I booked it 3 days before my arrival. It was on the third floor, spacious, street facing, but very quiet. The bathroom was small, but functional. The room décor as seen on the B&B’s website looked a tad distracting, but in person was quite beautiful. The bed and linens were comfortable and the owners have placed sleep sound machines in each room. The inn has a small parking area, a plus in the tight neighborhood, and breakfast is included. The weather was nice enough that I enjoyed my breakfast on the front porch, surrounded by pumpkins and flowers. From this vantage point I admired the sharply dressed midshipmen(women) walking to and from the Naval Academy. Breakfast was fresh and delicious, and the coffee plentiful.

 

 

 

 

 

Aside from the excellent location and beauty of the physical structure, I also chose the Flag House Inn because they have instituted safety measures that reduce the chance of virus spread. Check in was conducted on the porch, with both parties masked. Hand sanitizer was available in several spots in the house. The tv and air conditioning remote controls in each room are shrink wrapped in plastic, masks are required anytime guests are in the common areas. Although I did not spend anytime in the indoor common areas. For those guests who wanted to have their breakfast inside, there were plexiglass dividers on the dining tables. Each guest was given their own tea and coffee carafes, sweeteners, and cream pitchers, eliminating the need to share. Each day at noon management performed electrostatic disinfecting, a system that envelopes every surface in a positively charged sanitizing mist. Whew! The Etzels are doing the hospitality business right!

Where I ate:

I chose the restaurants where I had lunch and dinner based on recommendations from the inn.

 

Café Normandie

https://www.cafenormandie.com/

This restaurant is located on Main Street in the center of historic Annapolis. One lane of Main Street has been blocked off for outdoor dining for numerous restaurants. There is still one way traffic on the street, which means you will experience some noise and exhaust the closer your table is to the lane for traffic. But we are living in unusual times. I had lunch here on a bright sunny Thursday afternoon, no crowds, but some traffic noise. Service was a bit slow, but the food was delicious and they even had my favorite French wheat beer available.

 

Carroll’s Creek

https://carrolscreek.com/

This restaurant was a twenty minute walk across a small bridge from Annapolis to Eastport. I made a reservation for 6:15 PM and was able to watch the sunset. I thought the food at Carroll’s Creek was good, not great. The draw here is they have lots of outdoor space with probably the best views of the marina on Spa Creek. Service was excellent. I should add that I walked back to the inn, alone, and felt very safe.

Middleton Tavern

http://www.middletontavern.com/home.html

This historic tavern, established in 1750, has hosted the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. It is a 3 minute walk from the inn, has a large outdoor dining area, and a view of the harbor. The draw here is its history and location, so I was surprised by how tasty my lunch was -soft shelled crab sandwich and fries was the special that day. It was delicious. Service was friendly and efficient.

 

Vida Taco

https://www.vidatacobar.com/location/vida-taco-bar-annapolis/

Customers go to Vida Taco bar mainly to sample their extensive tequila and margarita menu. I am not a fan of tequila, so I tried Tecate, a Mexican beer, that for this fussy beer connoisseur was a pleasant surprise. I ordered two different tacos, which were good, but did not make it onto my very short list of favorites. Like Café Normandie, Vida Taco is located on Main Street, so there was a fair amount of foot traffic, a lesser amount of automobile traffic, and limited view of the harbor. Service was very good.

Kilwins

https://www.kilwins.com/

Kilwins, purveyors of candy and ice cream, has been around since the 1940s. I stopped in on impulse and ordered their Kilwins Mud, vanilla ice cream with an explosion of chocolate chips, swirled with rich caramel.

It was wonderfully satisfying and I enjoyed it on the comfy front porch of my lodging, the Flag House Inn.

The Big Cheese

https://www.thebigcheeseannapolis.com/

This deli, also conveniently located between the Flag House Inn and the harbor, is very popular with the lunch crowd from the naval academy. Crowd being the operative term here. It is takeout only. I ordered a sandwich for pick up, but when I arrived they had made me the wrong sandwich. As I waited for them to make the correct one, the shop began to fill up with midshipmen/women. They were all masked, but my anxiety went up with their proximity in a relatively small space. All’s well that ends well. My sandwich was delicious and I did not catch the virus!

 

Things I did:

I love to walk and the cobbled streets of Annapolis with its water views, shops, historic homes and buildings, was a delight. I easily met my step goal every day. I did participate in two local tourist activities.

 

 

 

 

Watermark Annapolis Harbor and US Naval Academy cruise

https://watermarkjourney.com/events/annapolis-harbor-usna-cruise/

All COVID-19 precautions were in place – masks required, hand sanitizers before boarding, temperatures were taken, and social distancing was easily achievable on board. Because the grounds of the Naval Academy are closed to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions, the next best way of seeing it is to cruise by. While the boat, the Harbor Queen, does not get up close and personal with the academy, it is convenient and not overly expensive. The 45 minute narrated cruise on the Severn River leaves from the city dock right across from Main Street and costs $6 for children 11 and under, $19 for everyone else. Our narrator was fun and informative. The cemetery at the academy is visible from the water and, much to my surprise, I learned that Senator John McCain is buried there.

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/United_States_Naval_Academy_Cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colonial Annapolis Walking Tour

https://watermarkjourney.com/events/colonial-annapolis-walking-tour/

This 1.5 hour walking tour is led by well-informed guides smartly dressed in colonial garb. Our guide was Squire Frederick. His knowledge of history, the historic homes, the state house, and other sights was remarkable. He stayed with a few of us answering questions long after the walk ended.

Again, all COVID-19 precautions were taken.

Did this experience scratch my travel itch? Sadly…no. But it was a little break from the sameness that is life during a pandemic, and I’m glad I went. If you do travel and you can afford it, tip a little extra. Whether it’s restaurant wait staff or tour guides, they are all struggling. I hope to be writing about Greece next Spring. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I know American ingenuity and I’m counting on science.

Ciao!

 

 

 

 

 

Pandemania

I wrote this piece in early May. Of course, it is not about travel because there is no travel. But it is about something that soothed my soul better than a foreign land,  distant mountain, or Glacier could ever do.
******************

I live alone, and I don’t want to die. I want to be with people, but I don’t want to die. Such is the dilemma of living life during a pandemic. As I write this, I have been in self isolation for 52 days. When I entered this state on March 12, 2020, I thought it would be short lived, certainly not long enough that I would need to cancel a planned trip to Greece in May. But here I sit in the warmth of an afternoon shaft of sunlight, as it pours through the window next to a tall stone fireplace in my house….alone. Though the sun is warm, it is the cold stone that matches my mood. I fall into that dreaded category of people who are most vulnerable to a deathly outcome from the virus…simply because I have lived 66 years. And for that reason, I had to remove myself from my new baby grandson. An impenetrable wall went up. Not a wall of wood or stone or wire, but one of restraint. This first baby of my son, Matthew, and his wife, Nathalie, was just over 6 months old that last time I fed him, read to him, kissed and hugged him. His father goes out into the world to work each day and, therefore, poses a risk to me. So I have been stranded on my island away from the people I love most, seeing them only in the cold glass of an electronic device. I squeal at the sight of each new accomplishment my grandson has mastered over these last 7 ½ weeks. I wonder if he recognizes the woman on the screen who seems so delighted, as I coo and call his name to hold his attention.

I am like countless other grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends and families sentenced to this isolation. My story is not unique. There are breaks in the monotony of the sequestered life – long walks in the woods, planting the vegetables and flowers that bring beauty to my landscape, a drive to the little house at the beach. I am lucky. There is the virtual gathering with members of my family, blue light enhancing our flaws, through the lifeline that is a Zoom meeting. There are the driveway visits with Matthew and his family. There are the FaceTime cocktail parties with friends. It’s not drinking alone if five of my closest friends are clinking glasses with my iphone.

Three weeks into our lockdown, I stopped watching and reading the news. Each thunderous headline or opening soundbite struck a sickening spike of fear into my heart. Within days of my personal boycott of the news world, my spirits lifted. It was the right decision.

April was unusually chilly, as if our sweet earth knew that sunshine and warmth would be more than we could resist. She knew that we might break the bonds of home and safety and jeopardize the downward curve.

As I pray to God each day for a miracle, I also acknowledge how the earth is healing. It spins off the pollution and rinses its lakes, and rivers, and oceans. It’s atmosphere and beauty can be seen in places once shrouded for a century by the smog of humanity.

My family knows to alert me when there is actual good news, the only kind my psyche is willing to process. Some of the statistics are moving in the right directions. There is a possibility of a medicine that may reduce the length of time an infected person is ill. The scientists and doctors of the world are making progress in the race for medicines and vaccines. None of this means I can be with my family. Or, does it? With this new found hope, a lot of planning and preparation, a meeting is arranged. I worry he will think me a stranger. It is May. Mother Nature has granted us a beautiful day. Outside I spread a blanket, pull on my rubber gloves, even gargle with Listerine. And then there he is! Matthew and Nathalie, while maintaining our social distance, deliver into my arms this sweet child. Cason is all smiles, dimples, soft chubby arms. Oh the nectar that is an infant’s smell. As his parents wave goodbye, I perceive no anxiety on his part. He is delighted with his surroundings….the soft green grass and fragrant lilacs. He follows the flight of a butterfly and cocks his head to the sound of a bluebird’s song.

At the end of this visit, Cason will be whisked away and I will strip my shield of clothes and gloves, gargle and scrub, and wait. We will wait two weeks to be sure our little test has not been a mistake. But till then I relive and remember as though we are in the garden. Cason gazes at me with a look that says time hasn’t passed. I know you. You are my Gramma.

 

When There is No Travel


May 11, 2020

It has now been five months since I traveled to Nepal and India and almost that long since my last blog. It is not likely that travel is in the cards for most of us in the coming months. Today I would have been exploring the Acropolis in Athens, then sailing the Greek Islands. But it is not to be. Like the rest of the world, I am isolating in my home. So what to do with a travel blog when there is no travel? I offer a poor substitute I’m afraid. I wrote the piece below as part of a writing prompt exercise, while at a writers’ yoga retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts a few years ago. So in a way there is a tenuous connection to travel. The facilitator gave us the three sentences: 1)This is what life does; 2)I don’t want to be anywhere else; 3)What matters now.

We were given 15 minutes to write as much as we could in response to those three prompts. Not a lot of time. Now, many of us have more time than we can fill. If the prompts inspire you, please write your own responses, or even stories, as your time allows….just for yourself. And if you’re feeling especially generous, please share your work in a comment.
Stay safe, be well.
*****

This is what life does….
It sends you hurtling out of your mothers womb one day and drops you into a brightly lit white room. Someone slaps your tiny wet behind, snips the cord of life, and wraps you into the arms of your mother.

This is what life does….
It makes you fall in love and breaks your heart. It places you where you need to be or where you shouldn’t be. I needed to be feeding my dying father as tremors wracked his body and he couldn’t hold a spoon to his mouth.

This is what life does….
It brings you summer days when teenage girls ride in cars with boys, roll down all the windows and sing Beach Boys songs, off key and loud. It brings you snowy winter days when you trudge up the steepest hill in town, dragging your chipped and dented sled behind. You wonder if the screaming seconds long ride down the hill is worth the tortuous 15 minute climb up. But you do it again and again.

This is what life does….
It teaches you that you really never use algebra ever again in real life. It teaches you that history is actually important, not the dates and names and memorization, but the lessons for humanity.

This is what life does….
It gives you trials and tragedies, love and loss, joy and adventure. Some of these last seconds and others a lifetime. But you do it again and again because this is what life does.

I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I always want to be in the place where I happen to be. It is the place that changes, not my desire to be there.

I am sitting in an open vehicle as it speeds through the African bush. The only light is from the jeep’s powerful headlights and the shimmering stars above. I am wrapped in warm clothes, huddled under a blanket, losing hope that the lion will show himself tonight. Suddenly the beam catches a golden mound of fur. And there they are…not just the king of the jungle, but the queen and three little princes. They look up sleepily at us, these nocturnal intruders.

I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I am sitting in the first pew of a tiny cathedral. My son is standing tall, his arms outstretched, holding the quivering hands of the woman with whom he’ll share the future. He has come so far, and Nathalie has enriched his soul. I will stay behind.

I don’t want to be anywhere else…..
I’m sitting in a café along Rue de Marques. Tiny blossoms from a line of cherry trees flitter across the table top. Chic Parisians stroll past in their smartly tied scarves, scurry down into the bowels of the Metro. I snap open my computer and begin to write. Ernest Hemingway once said that when he was writing in Paris he always stopped for the day at a point where he knew he would start the next day. I am no Hemingway and I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

What matters now…..
Is that this work, these hours spent with writers, the silence, the movement and meditation, the walks in nature take me another inch closer to the goal, or send me sideways to another place, wherever that is.

What matters now…..
Is that there is always progress, healing, insight, and paths to peace. Standing still is only to listen to the voice within, but movement is what keeps me alive. Even a fish will drown if it is still for too long.

What matters now…..
Is being my best self. Helping without judgement or pity. Sending my own inner judge to hell and thanking God for his love and care regardless of how flawed I am.

What matters now…..
Is the child I have and one I have lost. I live my life to make each proud, one in heaven and one on earth.

Volunteering in Nepal

Nepal! Land of Buddha’s birth and home to the mighty Mt Everest. It is a small rectangle of a country along India’s northeast border. It is also a place of tragedy and upheaval. Events like: the massacre of the royal family in 2001; the Maoist Revolution that lasted from 1996-2006; the devastating 8.0 earthquake in 2015 followed by hundreds of aftershocks…and this is just in the last 23 years. These and many other things have combined to keep Nepal a third world country.

 

 

 

My love of travel, combined with volunteering, has led me to new and interesting places on several continents, in vastly different countries. The experience of being embedded in a community, rather than being a tourist (although I love being a tourist too!) adds richness and understanding to the experience. Nepal has a long road to economic and physical recovery, but it is the most vulnerable of its population who can benefit from even the most minor hand up. Global Volunteers is working to be that small helping hand in Kathmandu.

Nepal will mark the first time I am not traveling alone to volunteer. My friend of 58 years, Mary Healy, is joining me and this will be her first volunteer experience in a foreign country.

Nepal has a population of approximately 29 million. Kathmandu is the nation’s capital and largest city and will be our home base. The overall literacy rate in Nepal was 65.9% in 2011. More than half of primary students do not enter secondary schools, and only one-half of those who attend complete secondary schooling. In addition, fewer girls than boys join secondary schools.

 

 

 

Our host in Nepal has invited Global Volunteers to help teach conversational English and business management, repair living and learning spaces, and provide support and training to marginalized women. Our host believes that education is the key to a better life for both adults and children.

Thanks to a generous baggage allowance, Mary and I were able to check not just our personal luggage, but two suitcases with over 60 pounds each of donated school supplies. There are too many generous individuals to name, but the donations ranged from children’s books, science toys, flash cards, maps, anatomy charts, to soccer balls and cash used to buy notebooks, writing utensils, and so much more. Our hosts were stunned at the bounty and the children were wide eyed and brimming with smiles.

Welcome to Kathmandu! This city of over a million people is crazy chaos, wrapped in dust, surrounded by glorious mountains, and dotted with beautiful temples. We immediately realized that it’s best not watch the traffic when being driven anywhere in Kathmandu. We gasped frequently on our ride from the airport, where we did not encounter a single traffic light, but swerved a dozen times to avoid near misses with oncoming rickshaws, motorcycles, and trucks, darting pedestrians, and a sleeping cow.

Earthquake damaged buildings are supported by wooden poles

Our first day as pedestrians left us wondering if we would survive the weekend, let alone the next two weeks. With no traffic lights or stop signs and no good way of safely crossing a street, daily life became an adventure in vehicle and people dodging. As strangers in a strange land, we seemed more visible to drivers and we hoped that would be our salvation. And the dangers don’t just lie in crossing a street. Where sidewalks exist, they are often cracked, and the occasional gaping hole is not unheard of. Some of this condition can be chalked up to earthquake damage and the rest to a lack of resources for maintaining infrastructure. So don’t go gazing at your unique surroundings while walking. Stand still to do your gawking and picture taking!

On our third day in Kathmandu, we started our volunteer assignments. Mary would spend the next two weeks working with Nepali women who were denied an education in their youth, filling in for me at the business college during an illness, and finally, working with a rambunctious class of 5 year olds. Given this is her first travel volunteering experience, she adapted to each situation like a pro.

My assignment was to present a two week workshop of my own creation to students at Shivapuri Business College. Based on email conversations with the Global Volunteers Coordinator in Nepal, I prepared lesson plans that would enable the students to understand western business models, create a small business plan of their own, and enhance their critical thinking and presentation skills.

On our first day there were two classes of about 15 students each. Jeanette, my co-teacher and a PhD from Arizona, and I began by introducing ourselves and our backgrounds and asked the students to do the same. We also asked them to tell us what they hoped to do after graduation. Before I retired I had spent over 25 years as a commercial banker, so I was delighted to hear that several of the female students hoped to work for a bank. Two of them had already done internships with banks in Kathmandu. To my dismay, however, over the next two days our class sizes would shrink.

Almost all of the girls stopped coming over the next two days, along with several of the boys. It is not clear what their reasons were, but Jeanette and I surmised the following:

Speaking in class (even at the college level) is not common. Learning in Nepal is largely accomplished by listening to lectures, followed by reading and memorization, then testing.

While all of the students spoke some level of English, their comfort level for speaking in front of their classmates and two native English speakers was diminished. Lastly, the girls anxiety seemed to be heightened by the fact that they would also be speaking in front of the boys.

Our workshop was scheduled after the students’ regular class day. College classes run from 6:00 am to 10:00 am. Our classes ran from 10:00 to Noon and 1:00 to 3:00, and were voluntary, so there was no real barrier to the students just giving up. Jeanette and I are working with Global Volunteers and the college administrators on a plan to solve these issues for future workshops. For now, I’ll share our experience with the brave students who went the distance.

 

 

 

The work I designed for this class would require the students to think independently and critically, which would push them out of their comfort zones. I brought Business Planning material from home, along with sample business plans. Despite their enrollment in a business college, none of the students had ever seen a business plan, so our first day was spent reviewing the material. In order to have them practice their English and public speaking, each student read aloud a portion of the material, after which we discussed what it meant and how it fit into the business planning process. We discussed in class each student’s thoughts about what kind of business they would like to promote in their business plan. The point was not to come up with a business that would be wildly successful, but to understand the thought process that goes into launching a business. Many of the students in our classes would not likely be starting a business, but this work would prepare them for future job interviews. Understanding how businesses plan, and improving their presentation and English skills, would all add value for them as future employees or entrepreneurs.

Over succeeding days, each student wrote and presented a section of their individual business plans. This in turn sparked discussion about the pros and cons of the student’s plan. Often, one student came up with suggestions for a tweak to another student’s plan.

In week two, once all of the students had completed their business plans, they presented them in front of the class, using a white board, speaking in English, and taking questions from other students. To see the improvement in their presentation skills was by itself worth the trip across the world to work with them.

During the remainder of that second week, we worked on two additional projects. First, we provided information to help them create a polished CV (resume) for their future job searches. We talked about how researching a company’s business plan, financial statements, and leadership experience would help them stand out during interviews. For the second project, We presented them with a list of well know, successful companies that were started by the founders in their parents’ basements or garages, or in their college dorm rooms – companies like Mattel, Apple, Google, that had very modest beginnings. Each student selected a company, researched it, and during the last two days of the workshops, they each presented a synopsis of how the company started and the steps the founders took to grow and succeed. The increase in their levels of confidence, demeanor, and critical thinking skills, over just a two week period astonished us and spoke to their intelligence and determination.

One of the college administrators sat in on a class one day when the students were doing presentations. She was thrilled at seeing them in the front of the class room, speaking with confidence in English, and clearly knowledgeable of their material. She explained that this would be unusual in Nepali class rooms where the standard is teachers giving lectures, students listening in their seats. This was all the reward I would ever need for this work I love so much.

On our last day, some of the students posed with us for the requisite selfies, wished us safe travels, thanked us. But all I wanted to do was stay….stay so I could see them reach for the stars, start their careers, be happy and successful. But I will need to do that from afar, from my own happy life at home, or wherever I am in the world.

Namaste 🙏🏻

“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I still have to go, the more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough; to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

– Anthony Bourdain

Volunteer Goals
Saying farewell to our local partners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia and New Zealand


In the final days of a journey, whether it has been travel volunteering, a road trip in a foreign land, or just getting in touch with nature in a national park, I usually know what I will write about. Australia and New Zealand have been different. When I landed home at the end of April there was no big story calling to me, demanding that I write it. And why not? Australia and her neighbor to the east, New Zealand, are the seventh of the world’s continents I have visited. I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, helicoptered over glaciers in New Zealand, climbed the Sidney Harbor Bridge! Isn’t that a story I should want to write? Hmmm.

I’m not a poet. I don’t really like most poetry. I don’t know what that says about me. When trying to understand a particular poem, I have thought to myself….why doesn’t the poet just tell me what he/she is thinking, rather than making me guess? So I default to memoir, history, fiction….you know, material that doesn’t frustrate me. But, while I was in New Zealand, someone asked the members of our little troop of travelers to write a poem to memorialize some aspect of our adventure. Groan. Luckily, the assignment was to write a haiku. Yes, three short lines. Even I could do that! And then something sparked and one haiku became five haikus. So in lieu of my regular travel blog, here is my first and only effort at poetry. The good news is….each haiku is accompanied by photos, so you won’t have to guess what in the world I am talking about.

 

 

 

 

Towering red rock
Sunrise sunset shadows glow
Wakeful spirits sigh

 

 

 

 

 

White coral mystique
This underwater reef world
Breathe, swim, deep blue sea

 

 

 

Glacier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cool blue icy peaks
Soaring over cotton clouds
A million years old

 

 

Hokitika gorge

Place of gold seekers
Turquoise waters lap the sand
They whisper my name

 

 

 

 

New Zealand

 

 

 

 

 

The land so beloved
Born of quakes and shifting plates
Lush green, down under

 

If my haikus have perplexed, annoyed, or even pleased you, feel free to post a comment. And I’ll sign off with some random photos from Australia and New Zealand. G’day mates.

Earthquake damaged cathedral in Christchurch
The men needed to frolic for some reason

 

 

Argentina and Chile – Dos Hermosos Paises

Our stepping off point for Antarctica was Argentina, a lovely place to visit on its own….and so I did. Unfortunately, technical issues have delayed my ability to create this blog, so I will need to be brief, since departure for my next destination is just around the corner.  While this blog lacks the usual longer narrative, I hope I make up for it in photos.

I landed in Buenos Aires on a sunny Wednesday in late January and met my fellow travelers that evening. While in Buenos Aires, we walked the city, ate too many empanadas, and visited several iconic locations.

First up….Recoleta Cemetery in Bueno Aires. I know…it’s a cemetery. But you have to admit….it’s kind of cool. That is Eva Peron’s mausoleum I am standing next to. Most of the famous of Argentina are entombed in Recoleta. And it was a beautiful day for a walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plaza de Mayo is known for so many events in the history of Argentina – freedom from Spain, speeches by both Juan and Eva Peron among others, protests, coups, killings, celebrations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boca – colorful, lively, historic, friendly….I wish we could have spent more than an afternoon in this cool neighborhood!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We said goodbye to Buenos Aires and flew to Ushuaia, our launching point for Antarctica. But for a day and a half we strolled the streets of this city at the southern tip of South America, and hiked the Tierra del Fuego.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Antarctica in the rear view mirror, we took a quick  jaunt north to Iguazu, a town situated at the meeting point of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. But the reason you come here is, of course,  the Falls, the widest in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Iguazu I said goodbye to my fellow travelers and boarded the short flight to Santiago, Chile. If I ever decide to become a snowbird, Santiago will be my winter (their summer) home! The sun shone every day, temps hovered in the low 80s, no humidity! Add in the affordability and friendly people, and you have a winning combination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I rarely bother to take pictures of the hotels where I stay, but LeReve in Santiago is so charming I couldn’t resist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A daytrip to Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso is a great way to spend some time walking, eating, or fishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite excursion in Chile by far was to Cajon Del Maipo, a stunning reservoir tucked into a gorge in the Andes Mountains. Our guides served a picnic lunch with wine from a nearby vineyard, horses sauntered by, and the changing colors of the water left us in awe. My last perfect day in Chile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antarctica – the Bottom of the World

Why would this woman, from cold and snowy Pennsylvania, want to go to Antarctica….in February? I confess that more than one friend asked “why?” when told of my plans. During previous winters, I have purposely chosen warm escapes  – Morocco, Thailand, Egypt. But Antarctica kept whispering in its cold, adventurous, pristine way….”come, you need to step foot on the icy continent at the bottom of the world.” As for the timing? Well, access to Antarctica is strictly managed by the Antarctic Treaty which limits the number of people who can step foot on it, where they can land, and when. Our winter is Antarctica’s summer and really the only safe time of year to visit.  

 

 

 

 

Our voyage to Antarctica would be launched from Argentina, but I will talk about this wonderful country next week. For now, it is all about ice and snow, penguins and whales, glaciers and icebergs.


 

 

 

 

 

 

We stand on shore as our expedition ship, the Ocean Diamond, glides into the harbor in Ushuaia, Argentina. This small ship can accommodate 200 passengers (small by cruise ship standards, but average for an expedition ship). Our tour company has limited its use to 150 passengers in order to comply with treaty requirements. The ship is similar to a cruise ship in some respects – there are nicely appointed individual staterooms, lots of great food, excellent service. You won’t see professional entertainment on an expedition ship. Some of the crew (engineers, waiters, housekeepers, managers) did, however, put on a hilarious talent show one night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On other evenings there was a dance party, an ice breaker gift exchange, and movies. During the day, when we weren’t out on the zodiac boats or on deck, there were lecture and learning opportunities.
The Ocean Diamond expedition team was incredibly knowledgeable. These 14 men and women have degrees in marine biology, environmental science, geology, avian and mammal studies, and more. They also have years of experience leading expeditions, and clearly love Antarctica and its wildlife. We were lucky to have such a resource with us.

 

 

 

 

In order to get to Antarctica from Argentina, you must cross the legendary Drake Passage. Depending on the conditions, it has been referred to as the Drake Shake, or the Drake Lake. We had the shake on our way south, although it wasn’t terrible in my opinion. Yes, you had to hold onto something in order to remain upright when walking, items would roll off tables and bureaus, and cabinet doors would swing open and slam shut. The wait staff in the dining room could often be seen holding passengers upright as they navigated to their tables. And I might add, it takes two days to get through the Drake Passage. But the swaying and rocking became routine to me after the first ½ day, and I actually found it rocked me to sleep at night.

The rarely seen giant terrycloth penguin!


I did get sick with an upper respiratory infection on the second day, but the ship’s doctor was helpful and attentive. Elianna, the housekeeper, and my fellow group members checked on me during the day, the kitchen staff delivered meals, and the next day I was recovered enough to go on deck for our first sighting of Antarctica! We were very lucky during the four days we were there. The weather and ocean conditions cooperated so well that we were able to take the zodiacs and make eight landings on different parts of the continent and islands. This is not always the case. For example, the travelers on an expedition the week after us encountered such terrible conditions that they only managed one landing. The expedition companies make this possibility abundantly clear before you book, so I prepared myself for the worst, and was ecstatic at the actual outcome our group experienced.

 

 

 


Lots of preparations go into your first excursion. The crew inspected all of our gear – coats, ski pants, gloves, for foreign matter. A seed or blade of grass in a cuff or band of Velcro has the potential to introduce a non native species onto the continent. Before we boarded the zodiacs, we stepped our boots into a basin of disinfectant, and then we were off! Our first landings at Cuverville Island and Neko Harbor meant our first walk with penguins! The Gentoo Penguin rookery on the island is home to 4800 breeding pairs of these waddling birds. What is it about penguins that makes you smile so much at the sight of them? The Gentoos are a bit noisy. They make a loud throaty sort of yodel when they are calling to their mates and friends. And as penguins tend to do, when one starts yodeling, hundreds of others follow suit! Quite the concert!
Healthy adult penguins have no predators to fear on land. They lead a relatively carefree life in the snow. Their eggs and chicks, however, are in danger from Skuas, a gull like bird. For this reason, you will usually see the chicks tucked in close to one of their parents, shielded from the hovering skuas. In the water, where penguins go to feed and collect krill and small fish to feed their young, they are in danger from leopard seals and killer whales.
Speaking of whales, we saw many around our ship, mostly humpbacks. We observed seals of many types on the continent, but they could also be seen snoozing on a nearby iceberg.

 

 

 

From the ship and on land, we watched albatrosses soar across the sky, then dive to the ocean’s surface to pick up a snack. I realize not everyone is similarly enamored of wildlife , so as not to bore you with commentary on every type of bird and mammal we observed, I have attached a list of all of our sightings below. Please feel free to comment with any questions.
As exciting as it was to see the wildlife, it was equally so to lay eyes upon the icebergs, glaciers, and snow covered mountains….just breathtaking. Snow and ice, ten stories tall, tinted here and there in shades of baby blue and pink, are just something you must see to appreciate. As we motored back to our ship on a zodiac one afternoon, we heard the loud telltale crack of a calving glacier and watched as a huge slice of ice slid with an enormous splash into the water.
As for humans, we encountered a few. As the picture demonstrates, Antarctica is larger in area than the United States and yet it would be rare for more than 4000 people to be staying on the continent at any given time. None are permanent residents, but rather temporary researchers, scientists, and support staff. Where are they and why? There are numerous stations on the continent, mostly in coastal areas, some active and some abandoned. A British station that we visited during a landing at Port Lockroy includes a tiny museum of sorts. It is more a tourist attraction than a working research station now. Here they have maintained an assortment of rooms, furniture, fixtures, and artifacts from the actual 1950s working station. They even accept postcards for mailing. As I dropped my card in the mailbox, a clerk told me they expect their next pick up in a month or so. From Antarctica, the mail goes to England, then on to the addressees. Maybe it will make it to Pennsylvania on a warm Spring day and remind me of this icy adventure.
At this time of year, the sun sets after 9:30, and what a spectacular sight it is. I think this must be where the expression “fire and ice” originated. And the show is not just where the sun meets the horizon. The red/gold light shimmers softly onto adjacent snow peaks. Passengers often stood mesmerized on the bow of the ship, our faces illuuminated by the reflection.

 

 

 

 

There is so much more to the story of Antarctica, but I’m writing a blog post, not a book. So I will end with a word of advice. Should you venture to this pristine land of ice, water, and wild creatures, take some time to just be. Put the camera down, stand alone, absorb the beauty. The bottom of the world is like nothing else on earth.


Cemetery




Palm Springs and the Desert

Those of you who follow this blog because I write about traveling to faraway places to volunteer or study, well….you may find this blog a bit of a snooze. Many of you may have visited Palm Springs, California. And maybe even hiked the deserts and mountains nearby. If that’s the case then…. nothing new here. My purpose in writing this blog is to document for myself a place and experience that I found somewhat spiritual, beautiful in places, and physically exhausting (on purpose). But if you are continuing to read, I hope you find something that sparks your interest.

Why Palm Springs and desert hiking? I love hiking, mid-century modern architecture, and places that are warm in winter. Because December is a busy holiday month, any getaway would have to be short. Short to me means staying in the good old USA. So a simple google of warm hiking destinations, revealed several stateside locations, but it was Palm Springs that spoke to me. BackRoads, an active travel company, had been recommended to me for its attention to detail and quality guides, so I signed on with them for their five day hiking trip.

I arrived in Palm Springs a few days early in order to visit with a friend from high school and see some of the city. Parts of Palm Springs are manicured to someone’s idea of perfection, which can make it feel less authentic. Still, many examples of classic mid-century modern architecture exist, and I was hard pressed to find a corner of the city that didn’t have a stunning view of the mountains. Then there are the palm trees and Bougainville, which to this east coaster, are a sight to behold.

On a beautiful Sunday morning, I met our guides and my fellow hikers in the lobby of the Rancho Mirage Ritz Carlton. There was something incongruous about this group of 14 (eleven hikers, 3 guides) in our rugged hiking garb, gathered in the shiny marble lobby of this fancy hotel. After introductions and a briefing, we shuttled to Joshua Tree National Park for our first hike. The sun is strong and bright against azure blue skies, but the temperatures are cool in the morning, rising to a comfortable 70 degrees in the afternoon. Joshua Tree National Park is, of course, named for the Joshua Trees that dot its vast landscape. It covers over 1200 square miles and encompasses both the Mojave and the lower Colorado deserts. One of the first things I notice is the silence. There are tiny animals among the rocks and plants, but they creep and slither quietly. The desert seems to swallow even the sound of the flapping wings of birds. The landscape can seem otherworldly. Our eight mile hike, with a break for lunch along the trail, is a workout for the first day. Joshua Tree is not just flat dessert. There are hills of huge boulders and rock that geologists estimate were formed over millions of years. As we begin our last mile, a haze surrounds the sun and the desert takes on an eerie light. Are the spirits telling us it is time to leave so they can rest from their vigil? Probably not, but a chill has flickered up my spine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner at the steakhouse in the Ritz Carlton is included and we probably eat more than we should. I won’t go into the details, but if you ever have the opportunity to indulge in a Japanese Wagyu A5 steak….mortgage the house, sell your jewelry, whatever it takes….savor this piece of beef heaven.

After breakfast on day 3, we board the van and drive to Indian Canyons, land of the Agua Caliente (part of the Cahuilla Indians). Here we hike through a lush desert palm oasis in the sacred foothills of the San Jacinto mountains. Legends say that a Cahuilla elder named Maul knew his life was ending and, with a desire to help his people, he called on the spirits for their help. Suddenly bark began to form around his legs and palm fronds sprang from his hair. He transformed into the first palm tree and they quickly spread throughout his homeland. This desert fan palm has provided food, shelter, baskets, tools, and shade for the Cahuilla people ever since.
However these palms came to be, we are awed by their size and unique style. As we hike the Murray Canyon and Coffman trails through Indian Canyon land, we are rewarded with green and fertile landscapes, waterfalls, and stream crossings. I pride myself on my rock-hopping stream-crossing skills. I’ve deftly navigated some treacherous water crossings on previous hiking trips. But my cockiness got the best of me in Indian Canyon. One slip of the foot and I was sitting in the creek. Luckily, we were near the end of the day’s hiking and other than a wet sock and shoe, I was none the worse for wear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our afternoon was spent on a walking architecture tour of the old Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs. As I’ve mentioned, I am a fan of mid century modern architecture. Although I’m not sure I could live in it (it can feel somewhat stark), I enjoy seeing it. The clean lines, openness, and sleek exteriors appeal to me, especially when combined with desert landscaping. We venture further to the homes once occupied by the old Hollywood elite – Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Liberace, and the new stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Stefani, Brad Pitt. Palm Springs has its own walk of fame, but the names are not always recognizable. Our dinner tonight is at Workshop Kitchen + Bar in the heart of Palm Springs, where we enjoy a family style tasting menu.

Our hike on day 4 through Mission Creek is not the most picturesque, but it does remind you of the landscapes featured in your favorite cowboy movies. The trek to the Red Dome was flat and easy, if a bit uninspiring. At noon, we perched on our seats of random flat rocks, by the dry creek bed, munching on lunch and admiring the mountains in the far distance.

 

 

 

 

 

Tonight, we dine at Copley’s on Palm Canyon Drive. The property was once Cary Grant’s guest house and it is easy to picture it as it was in the 1940s. Three sets of french doors open from the house onto the garden, where we lounge around a fire pit sipping cocktails. We also dined outdoors under a white canopy, lit by candles and warmed by glowing heaters. I recommend Copley’s for the ambiance and Cary Grant connection, but the food exceeded expectations too.

 

 

 

 

Our last day of hiking starts in the valley where it is sunny and 73 degrees. Our little group boards the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for an eleven minute ride up San Jacinto mountain. We disembark and walk out to the Long Valley Deck where we are greeted by a snow covered forest….a winter wonderland in the middle of the desert is our hike for today. Amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our farewell lunch is at the Juniper Table, an outdoor café in downtown Palm Springs. It is an average lunch, but our guides surprise us with a special drink….fig smoothies from a nearby shop! Fresh figs are everywhere here in the Coachella valley. The smoothie was delicious and was a happy ending to our hiking days. I say goodbye to a smart and friendly  group of hikers and guides. I spent another day exploring on my own in this bright, sunny, jewel in the desert. Visions of Indians, spirits, Joshua Trees and palms, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe prance through my head as I nurse a cold beer outside a café on Palm Canyon Drive. It is December. It is warm.