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Chile, Patagonia, South America, The W Trek, Torres del Paine, Uncategorized

Torres Del Paine, Day 5: Torres

 

The winds are vicious throughout the night Listen Here, but the rain let up at some point. It was FREEZING though, hovering somewhere around 25 degrees when we woke up. Even cocooning myself in my tent and sleeping bag, I could feel the cold seeping in through the face opening. When I did finally turn on my headlamp and look out of my sleeping bag, I saw a layer of condensation on the interior of my tent.

It’s odd because during the first couple of days, despite the beautiful views, I would look forward to resting at night, but a couple days later and I was dreading finishing for the day because I knew sleep would be fitful and I knew it would be cold. So, when 4am rolled around this morning, I was wishing for 6am to come quickly, because I knew once I got up and moving, I would get warm.

sunriseI’m awake before my alarm and check in with Simon at 6. He updates me on the weather saying there are a few clouds, but lots of stars too, and he’s sure we will have a clear day. I put my clothes in my sleeping bag for 5 minutes in an attempt to warm them up and get dressed. We make time for a quick coffee – sipping down half a sachet of café con leche each, and we set out at 7am.

The sun is just starting to creep up in the distance, and I try to shake off sleep as we begin the steady ascent from Torres campsite. I am not a strong early morning hiker, but Simon is patient and walks at my pace. But, I’m feeling frustrated at my pace and lack of energy… and soon his sunny disposition is frustrating me too – when really I am just peeved at myself.

In my mind, I feel like I am holding him up and interfering with his plans of finishing in time. I’m also still trying to figure out if I will continue to the backside of the circuit or finish today with Torres and call it a ‘W’. And I think I have come to the conclusion that it’s not that I can’t continue and complete the circuit, but I’m not sure I want to.

FullSizeRender_1The trekking is incredible – yes, it’s physically challenging, but nothing you can’t accomplish if you put your mind to it. What I am struggling with are the nighttime temperatures and discomfort. I feel like if I continue, I’m not going to enjoy it.

Simon is finding ways to encourage me to continue and then says “Maybe you’ve come here to find your spirit again.” At that point, a little piece inside of me wants to kick him down the hill.FullSizeRender_2

When I really think about the reason and the lesson for all of this, I realize that maybe this is my opportunity to learn that sometimes it’s ok to give up and not finish – something I’m not so good at. I stick things out to the bitter end, sometimes to my own detriment. Even when I called home yesterday to check in on my grandmother, when I told my mother my possible change in plans, she said, “Don’t quit. We’re not quitters.” But today, I am going to let myself quit and it is going to feel good.

After crossing a small suspension bridge, we arrived at Chileno campsite and sit down at a picnic table for a water break and a small snack. Simon asks me if I want to continue to Torres. “Por Supuesto,” I respond.

We both notice a drop in temperature and as we’re leaving the campsite, I ask a couple who are packing up how their night was. “Fine,” they respond. “We have a really good tent.” I look at Simon and say, “I must have a really shitty tent and a really shitty sleeping bag!” and I leave it at that and walk on.

look_upclimbFrom Chileno, we pick up the pace and cover the 3km up to Torres Camp pretty easily. I have shaken my sleepiness off. Now, we have just 1km left, a 250-meter climb to cover, which will take between 45 minutes to 1-hour. I put my head down and go. Often times, Simon looks so far ahead and higher than me, but moments later I am where he just was. The time passes quickly and the three iconic towers become more and more visible. Then, as we make a left turn and ascend just a little more, Torres Del Paine sits majestically in front of us, the three granite rocks towering over an aquamarine glacial lake.

towersClouds cover the top of the towers, but while Simon and I devour our sandwiches, the clouds lift and bright blue skies appear. Since we got an early start, we share this view with about ten other hikers.

I move down to the lake to take some pictures, and I realize this is what I came here to see. This is my finale. I will miss Gray Glacier, but I still have Perito Moreno and Fitzroy to look forward to. I will end my Torres hike today with this spectacular view.

Check out the video here

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Simon is determined to push on to Seron this afternoon, so we say goodbye and he begins the hike back to camp to pack up. I sit for another 30 minutes just soaking in the scenery, and as I walk away, I keep having to turn around for just one more look and one more photograph – this is just so surreal.

tower_upAt 12:30, I pull myself away and begin the descent, passing huge numbers of people who are making their way up. When I get to the campsite between Chileno and the Towers, I look up and see what look like ants marching above.

The descent seems never-ending, and I realize just how much climbing we covered this morning. At Chileno, I stop again to watch gauchos lead a group of horses across the river before continuing on.caballos

It’s 3:30 by the time I arrive at the little market outside of Torres. I treat myself to a packed of Kryzpoo (the equivalent of Pringles) and wander over to peek inside the hotel. I decide to treat myself to lunch once I get my tent and gear packed up.

When I get back to the campsite, it’s almost 4pm, and I’m surprised to see Simon’s tent still up. I wave my trekking poles in the air and he waves back. As I get closer, I ask why he’s still here. He tells me how he’s only just arrived himself because of bad knee pain. I find him some paracetamol and gift him my remaining oatmeal and chocolate supply, and he decides to head to Seron and if he’s still in pain tomorrow, he will return to Torres.

We pack up our things and say another goodbye… this time he hugs me twice and says, “one for you and one your grumpy side.” We laugh and he says, “I’m glad I got to know both.”

Anthony and Celine, a couple that I met at the hostel in Puerto Natales are next to us at the campsite. They have been on a different schedule than us, but they have also just returned from Torres so we make plans to meet at the restaurant after packing up.

IMG_4862IMG_4863A few minutes later, I’m ordering a hamburger and a glass of red wine and just moments after that, the British girls, Simran and Feben, arrive and we all share the highs and lows of the trek. During this conversation, I realize just how grueling everyone thought the trek was. I realize again that I have done enough and seen what I came here to see. I couldn’t have asked for better days to see Frances Valley and Torres.

We head outside to board the bus, and I snap one more photo of Torres, still shrouded in clouds, but now pink as the sun begins to set. At Park Administration, we transfer to the main bus back to Puerto Natales, and I watch as we drive away and leave the mountains in the distance.  I wonder if I will sleep and the next thing I know, we’re pulling into the bus station in Puerto Natales.

It’s a cool and windy walk back to the hostel, and when I arrive groups of people are enjoying a carb-loaded meal before setting off the following morning to begin their own treks. The three sisters who run this hostel welcome me back and help me get my bags out of storage and up to a room, and within 30 minutes of checking in, I am in bed… a warm, dry, comfortable bed.

Beatles, England, Liverpool

Liverpool: A Day In The Life – A Beatles Tour with Stevie T of Mop Top Tours

The Fabulous Stevie T

The Fabulous Stevie T

You would think that with all my trips back to England over the years I would have ventured up to Liverpool at some point in time, but until this trip it hadn’t happened. It’s not that it’s far… Liverpool is a comfortable 3-hour train ride direct from London, but with most of my trips to England focused around visiting family and friends, the opportunity had never presented itself. Funnily enough, this time last year, I found myself planning a trip for friends who would be attending Wimbledon and The British Open and they were interested in a stopover in Liverpool.

When I began researching their trip, I realized that Liverpool, named the European Capital of Culture in 2008, had a lot more to offer than I thought. But the reason I really wanted to visit was to walk in the footsteps of the Fab Four. A generation late (I know), I grew up on the Beatles. My first concert was Paul McCartney’s show at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome as part of his New World Tour in 1993, and growing up, I had listened to my mother’s stories of her trips to Heathrow airport to send off and welcome home the band. I wanted to see where their story had begun.

I reached out to the Beatles Tours online and organized a 2-hour private tour with Stevie T of Mop Top Tours. This would include a trip to all four of the Beatles’ childhood homes and at the end of the tour, a walk down Matthew Street, or The Cavern Quarter, to see the spots where the Beatles first staked their claim to fame.

Paul McCartney's childhood home

Paul McCartney’s childhood home

Stevie picked me up at The Nadler hotel, an 1860s warehouse converted into a hotel in the city center. We set out into a cold, but fortunately bright morning. Since I was the only one on the tour, I sat up front with Stevie and got to learn a little bit about him and how he ended up founding Mop Top Tours. Originally from Blackburn, Stevie was born in 1964, just a little too late to truly experience the Beatles. His older brothers often tell him he wasn’t in the right spot in the birthing order within their family, but that didn’t stop his love for the band, and their music, developing.

As we made our way out of Liverpool city center, Stevie tells me that after sharing all his Beatles facts with family and friends, they eventually encouraged him to start sharing it with those who were really interested. Point taken… so Stevie set up Mop Top Tours. He explained to me that the 2-hour tour is a perfect opportunity to see where all the boys grew up and really learn the story of how the Beatles came together.

As he cues the first song, we turn the corner to Forthlin Road, and make our way to number 20, the house where Paul grew up. The home is now owned by the National Trust and visits inside can be arranged, but today we have just a curbside view. Stevie points out Paul’s bedroom above the front door and gives me a brief history on Paul’s childhood. I learn that when Paul’s mother died of cancer when he was 14, it was his brother, Mike, and his father, Jim, in the house. They were a musically inclined family. Mike went on to have a career in music, and Jim was a piano player. Paul was originally given a trumpet to play, but he couldn’t sing with it in his mouth, so he traded it in for a guitar.

Mendips, John Lennon's childhood home.

Mendips, John Lennon’s childhood home.

Around the corner from Paul’s house is Menlove Avenue, where we find Mendips, the childhood home of John Lennon. John actually grew up in the house with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George. Stevie recounts the time when he met Yoko Ono just outside the house. Ono purchased the home when it went up for sale in 2002 and then donated it to The National Trust. Just around the corner from Mendips is Dairy Cottage, where John lived with his mother for a little while, prior to moving into Mendips when his mother and father’s marriage ended.

Now we’re in the town of Woolton, which is perfectly picturesque. Narrow streets and rows of Georgian and Victorian homes that were mostly spared during the war, give you the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time. On Church Road is St. Peter’s Church.

The cemetery at St. Peter's

The cemetery at St. Peter’s

The importance of this church in the Beatles story is that this is where John Lennon was playing skiffle with The Quarry Men on a summer day in 1957. In the audience that day was Paul McCartney, who had been invited along by Ivan Vaughan, a mutual friend of the two. Later that night, across the road at the Parish Hall, John and Paul are introduced and Paul has a chance to play chords for The Quarrymen. It isn’t long before he is invited to join the band.

The Parish Hall of St. Peter's where John & Paul first met

The Parish Hall of St. Peter’s where John & Paul first met

Back to St.Peter’s briefly. At the back of the church grounds is where the summer festival was played. Now, the space is taken up by grave sites. One of those graves is that of John’s uncle, George, and just around the corner from him is the grave of Bob Paisley, the man considered to be the greatest football manager of all time.

The real Eleanor Rigby's grave

The real Eleanor Rigby’s grave

Stevie T and I begin to make our way back to the entrance to the church grounds, and as I’m snapping a picture of the tombstones that blend into the rooftops in the distance, he says to me, “I bet you can’t guess who else is buried here?” I think for a minute, and a smile creeps across my face. He leads me around an even older row of graves and points to the third row back. As I scan the stones, I see the name Eleanor Rigby.

Now, Stevie tells me there are two stories about Eleanor Rigby and he says I can choose which one I want to believe. Apparently, John and Paul spent a lot of time on the church grounds, having a sneaky smoke and drink as John couldn’t be caught doing so in a pub. Was Eleanor Rigby written after the name on the gravestone at St. Peters, after the real Eleanor Rigby? Or was she a fictitious character made up by Paul marrying the name Eleanor (from actress Eleanor Bron, of the movie Help), with Rigby’s vintners of Bristol? Paul claims to not remember, but maybe it was in his subconcious? Stevie T says, “You like the romantic version, don’t you?” I nod in agreement and we make our way up the road and around the corner to our next stop.

Strawberry Fields

Strawberry Fields

By this point in the tour, Stevie’s cueing songs between stops and we’re singing Strawberry Fields Forever as we pull over to a red gate on the left side of the road. What used to stand behind these gates was a castle-like home that functioned as an all girl’s orphanage. It’s no longer here, but it was literally in John’s back garden. Now, all we see is a replica of the gates. The original ones have been taken down and put in safe storage after many attempts by fans to steal the entire set of gates or a piece of history. After a quick photo opp, we head on to Wavertree.

Outside the childhood home of Ringo Starr

Outside the childhood home of Ringo Starr

We are on our way to George Harrison’s childhood home, and as we make our way around the roundabout at the top of Wavertree High Street, I learn how he got his in with the band. Apparently, George was a bit younger than Paul and even younger than John (about 3 years). John thought this was problematic, but Paul knew George’s musical talents and urged John to have a listen and consider him for a place in the band. John decided to give him an audition and apparently, this took place on top of a double decker bus as it made its way up the high street.

Within moments of turning off of the high street, we are at number 12 Arnold Grove, a simple home that didn’t have a functioning bathroom when George was growing up. As the youngest of four children, he was last in a tin bath and used an outhouse for a toilet. What strikes me as funny today is that there is still a milk bottle sitting on the doorstep. Not something you see in many places at all these days, but there’s a dairy around the corner. It sort of feels like stepping back in time.

Penny Lane Barber Shop

Penny Lane Barber Shop

We make our way over to Penny Lane from here, and what I thought was a road actually comprises an area, and all aspects of the song are covered. First, there’s the barbers’ shop, then we see the roundabout, and a bank still exists on one side. Paul’s church, St. Barnabas, sits on the other side of the roundabout.

The Penny Lane Community Centre

The Penny Lane Community Centre

We drive down Penny Lane and park next to Dovedale Towers, which was the former St. Barnabas Church Hall, where the Beatles once performed. Next to the pub is the Penny Lane Community Center, a place run by Julie Gornell. Julie is in, and we get the chance to visit with her a bit. She is a kindred spirit when it comes to travel, having spent some of her years living abroad in New Zealand. When she returned, she got involved with the formation of the Community Center and has been running it for 19 years.

Not just any lane

Not just any lane

We are offered a warm welcome and then make our way down the road for a quick coffee break. The crossing guard stops us and asks where I’m from, and we continue on to Rough Hand Made, for a café Americano, and a sample of the delicious cakes made here.

The set of Peaky Blinders

The set of Peaky Blinders

Next on the agenda is Ringo’s house, so we hop back in the van and in a matter of minutes we are entering the area of Toxeth. Stevie gives me a bit of information on the area. He tells me that despite its condition of dilapidation, I will find it magical. When we turn into the area, I see what he means. To the right of the main road are new, modern, occupied homes and to the left, everything is empty and condemned and has been taken over by the Council. Now, they’re unsure as to what to do with the houses, so they sit, uninhabited, these colorful row homes that were once home to the likes of Ringo Starr. One block up, a street of these homes has been painted black and used for the set of the new BBC hit, Peaky Blinders, a show about the famous post WWI gang in Birmingham.

9 Madryn Street, Ringo Starr's childhood home

9 Madryn Street, Ringo Starr’s childhood home

The row homes on Madryn Street

The row homes on Madryn Street

As I’m taking a photograph, a lady riding her bike up the street stops and says, “Peaky Blinders?” We get to chatting, and it turns out she was the Art Director on the set of the show. Originally from Seattle, she has lived in Liverpool for nine years. She has just come back from Malaysia where she’s been working on a show, and was just taking a stroll through her old haunts. Stevie looks at me and says, “See, I said I wanted you to meet a few of the locals!”

The Empress Pub in Toxeth

The Empress Pub in Toxeth

After visiting Ringo’s home, we turn the corner and head up to The Empress, considered to be Ringo’s pub. This might look familiar to some because it was actually photographed for the cover of Ringo’s first solo album, Sentimental Journey. Around the corner from the pub is Admiral Grove, which is where Ringo moved to with his mother at the age of five.

Now that we’ve seen all of the Beatles’ childhood homes, we make our way back to Liverpool city center, passing Liverpool College of Art, which John attended and The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, which was one of John’s favorite pubs.

We park up and make our way to Matthew Street and the Cavern Quarter. Now, I had done a quick walk down here last night, but I wanted Stevie’s knowledge on the area, so he takes me to one end of the street and gives me the history of all the spots, starting with The White Star. This pub was known as one of the bands watering holes before shows, and was named after the famous shipping line. Apparently, the band sat in the back room from time to time.

The White Star

The White Star

Next is The Grapes, which is where the boys were believed to go for a drink before their shows, seeing as The Cavern Club didn’t serve any booze. Again, the back room, (apparently within eyeshot of the ladies’ room) is where they sat.

The Fab 4 on Matthew Street

The Fab 4 on Matthew Street

Unfortunately, the original Cavern Club was torn down in 1973, too soon to realize what a mistake it would be. A plaque shows where the original entrance to the club stood, and just doors down are two newer spots operating as replicas of the original Cavern Club – The new Cavern Club and the Cavern Pub – both of which play live music for free on a nightly basis.

In a little shopping precinct near where the original Cavern Club was, is a statue of the band with another man, Mr. McKenzie. He was the compere at Northwich Memorial Hall, and became close to the band. In fact, he was known to treat all of the boys like they were his own sons, hence he got the name Father MacKenzie. This is who the Beatles speak of in the song Eleanor Rigby. So, don’t’ confuse it with the grave site of the lesser known Mr. McKenzie at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton.

Commemorating the Cavern Club

Commemorating the Cavern Club

Matthew Street is also home to the Wall of Fame, a wall of engraved bricks that highlight the names of all the talented musicians and bands, past and present, who have ever played at the Cavern Club, starting with the Beatles. Above the door of a Beatles memorabilia shop is what is considered to be be one of the better, but aging, statues of the Fab Four, and just next to this is the famous tribute statue, “The Four Lads Who Shook The World.” JPGR. Hopefully, you can figure out what the initials stand for!

At the end of the road is The Hard Day’s Night Hotel, one of the newer and nicest hotels in Liverpool. Rooms go for around $110 per night, which is expensive for L’pool standards, but you can at least admire the architecture and pop in for a drink and a look in the gift shop.

Me and Stevie T of Mop Top Tours

Me and Stevie T of Mop Top Tours

We have now reached the other end of Matthew Street, and my tour has come to an end. In hindsight, I’m wishing I had booked in on the all day Beatles Extravaganza Stevie T says, “This is where we conclude.” I can’t believe how quickly the time (and extra time) has gone. I’ve had so much fun just hanging out with Stevie, that I’m more sad that our time has come to an end.

The Fab 4's newest statue

The Fab 4’s newest statue

Stevie drops me at Pier Head, and we say our goodbyes and snap a picture together to remember the day. As I’m getting ready to walk over to the Mersey ferry building, Stevie points out one last thing. It’s the newest Beatles statue in Liverpool… the four boys walking towards the river Mersey. He says to me, “They’re not together now, but they will be again, one day soon.”

 

For more info on Mop Top Tours and Stevie T, visit: moptoptours.com or check out his page on Facebook: Mop Top Tours

Other useful links:

Beatles Tours (in case Stevie T is booked): www.beatles-tours.com

Penny Lane Community Centre: www.pldt.org.uk/

The Nadler Hotel: www.thenadler.com/liverpool.shtml

The Beatles Story: www.beatlesstory.com/

The White Star: www.thewhitestar.co.uk/index.htm

The Grapes: www.thegrapesliverpool.co.uk/

The Cavern Quarter: www.visitliverpool.com/shopping/cavern-quarter-p8069

The National Tust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes

Downton Abbey, England, The Cotswolds

A Day Discovering Downton (*Spoiler Alert*)

January 14th is my sister-in-law’s birthday, and as my grandmother’s 90th birthday fell just two days ago, we are all still in England for this occasion. Since she is a relatively new Downton Abbey fan, we decided to take her to see Highclere Castle and some of the surrounding English countryside today… and I am the one organizing this.

After a brief online search for Downton tours from London, I gathered that we weren’t really in the right season for this visit, and then I learned that Highclere Castle is actually closed until the Spring. No worries, I thought… we will still be able to get a good look at the place, right? Well, after a little further research last night, I learned that you can’t even see a shred of the castle, not even a peek at the parking  lot.

A little bit of panic set in, seeing as I was responsible for making this day happen and making it a good one… OK, onto plan b. What’s neat is that the reason you can’t visit, or even see Highclere Castle in the off season, is because it’s actually inhabited by its owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Seeing as they’ve been kicked out for the filming of Downton and now have become a destination for every Downton fan, I can see why they want their privacy… for some of the year at least.

So we can’t see Highclere, but I remember reading about the surrounding villages that were also used as sets during filming. Back to google. A few minutes later, I come across a website called Downton Abbey film locations  … “Locations withing the Oxfordshire Cotswolds have featured prominently in the popular TV drama Downton Abbey…” cha ching.

I make a quick call to my brother, informing him we won’t actually be able to see the castle, but that we’re going to do a little self-guided Downton Tour.

Cut to this morning. Directions to and from each little village are printed and our two-car convoy heads out on the M-40 to our first stop… The little village of Bampton. (Fortunately, one car has a sat nav,  or gps, because at one point the directions read, “Enter roundabout and take THE exit,” Which exit???)

Bampton

But we make it to Bampton will relatively no hiccups, and park at the end of the main road. We walk to the center of town and while everyone uses the public bathroom, I make my way across the road to a bakery to ask for directions. A lovely Turkish man, who has been living here for 27 years says, “Let me guess, Downton Abbey?” He points us in the direction of the church.

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St. Mary’s Church, Bampton

Now, Bampton is probably the most important location we will see today, and therefore the most recognizable. The town is actually used as the fictional village of Yorkshire on Downton Abbey.

Inside St. Mary’s Church, Bampton

Our first stop is Bampton’s St. Mary’s Church. Renamed as St. Michael and All Angels in Downton Abbey, this is the church where all weddings, christenings and funerals take place. It’s also the spot where Lady Edith was jilted at the altar. Next to the church grounds is Church View, which is turned into a hospital on the show.

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Scenes from series 6

We walk through the church gate and up a paved path to the heavy, oak doors. After a nudge, we realize the church is open, and we pop in for a peek. At the back of the church is a small table, with some photographs from filming, as well as some memorabilia (photographs, mugs, postcards), and on a table by the entryway is some history on the church. I am baffled to learn that some parts of the church’s foundation date back to the Norman Conquest, 1066.

We exit the church grounds at the rear and walk by Churchgate House, which is Isobel Crawley’s Downton home. Then, we walk back through the little village of Bampton, passing some of the pubs and post offices that were also used on set. Now it’s time to move on to our second stop of the day, Swinbrook.

The Cotswold’s countryside

Swinbrook is idyllic. It’s one of those places where once you arrive, you don’t want to leave. It is quintessential English countryside. Rolling green fields dotted with hay bales, the odd cottage, picket fences and meandering streams.

Swinbrook’s Swan Inn

We park up at The Swan Inn, a pub that played an important role in  series two of Downton, as it’s where Lady Sybil and Branson stayed while planning their elopement.

We’ve made it just in time for lunch and take a table in the back room. Along with seeing some more of Downton history, we’re also treated to a delicious lunch. To call The Swan Inn a pub, is a bit of a stretch. We order homemade soups, fish and chips, a fish pie, cheese plates and quinoa cakes, all topped off with a local Cotswold Ale.

Birthday lunch at The Swan Inn

Birthday lunch at The Swan Inn

After lunch, we walk along the side of the pub and realize that it’s actually an old mill. Water rushes underneath one part of the pub, under a bridge and into a river on the other side of the road.

Back in the car, we make our way to Cogges. It’s bitterly cold by this point in time, so we make this our last stop. Cogges is where Downton’s Yew Tree Farm is located, so it has played an important role in many of the series, but most importantly, it’s where Lady Edith’s illegitimate daughter, Marigold, is raised by the farmer, Mr. Drew.

We walk past the gated farm and over to St. Mary’s, an old parish church that also dates back to the 11th Century. We tour the grounds and then make our way back to the entrance. What’s lovely about Cogges is that it’s strictly pedestrian. Despite the day drawing to an end and the temperatures plummeting, families are out walking and riding their bikes to and from the main road.

Downton's Yew Tree Farm, Cogges

Downton’s Yew Tree Farm, Cogges

We end our self guided tour here, skipping Shilton, and missing The Red Lion public house, which is where Mr. Bates went to work in series two. I imagine there will be an opportunity to see Shilton on a return trip to this area at some point in the future… the return trip that will include the actual visit to Highclere. But for having to resort to plan b, the day turned out to be a good dose of both Downton and the idyllic English countryside.

 

 

Here are some useful links to help you plan your own “Downton Day:”

A brief guide to Downton Abbey filming locations: www.oxfordshirecotswolds.org/plan-your-visit/towns-and-villages/downton-abbey-film-locations

Highclere Castle: http://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/

The Swan Inn: http://www.theswanswinbrook.co.uk/

Belize, Caye Caulker, Central America, Go Slow, island life

Top 10 Reasons why YOU Should Go to Caye Caulker NOW

Caye Caulker offers sun, scuba, sailing and seafood, so if the winter blues are bringing you down, you can stretch your budget on this little Belizean island. The best time to travel here is now until mid-April. Here are a few suggestions on what to do, should you even feel like getting out of your hammock…
1. You can master the art of gracefully getting into and out of a hammock.
2. You can spend your whole day watching Pelicans dive bomb for fish. (Trust me, it doesn’t get old).
3. You will become an expert on the weather, learning how long you have before an impending shower, where to take cover and how long said shower will last.
4. These afternoon showers are the perfect excuse for a nap.
5. You can eat lobster, fresh grilled fish and ceviche EVERY night for under $25.
6. You will learn to walk down the streets, avoiding potholes, puddles, bikes and golf carts, and not minding the spray of sand and gravel that dries on the back of your legs.
7. You can snorkel and dive iconic places like the Blue Hole, or just jump off your pier.
8. You can scout out the best spots for sunset and watch for the green flash on a nightly basis.
9. You can befriend the lovely locals who offer to carry you over puddles, warn you when showers are coming and stop you on the street just to say hi.
10. You can island hop your heart out, stopping at idyllic spots like Half Moon Caye.

Or you can do absolutely nothing at all! Just remember whatever you do… Go Slow!

Alaska, American Bald Eagle Foundation, brown bears, Chilkat, Chilkoot, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Haines, Haines Brewery, harbor seals, Heather Lende, Holland America, Merlin, salmon spawning, totems

Day 7: On Land in Haines

The little bit of prep and research I did for this trip left me excited about Haines. While most cruise ships dock in neighboring Skagway, just a 45-minute ferry ride away, I felt fortunate to be docking in the so say less-touristy town of Haines.

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The welcome sign on Haines’ pier.

We dock around 9:30, but by the time we’ve had breakfast, got ourselves together and bundled up in our rain gear, it’s close to 11:30 before we leave the boat. The weather is still gloomy and gray, and we’re told if we want to stand out as tourists, carry an umbrella, so we opt for rain jackets and hats. Fortunately, while it looks like it’s raining, it’s really only a light mist that seems to hang in the air instead of soaking us.

With no scheduled tours, we’re on our own agenda today, and we stop at a little information booth at the end of the pier. A lovely big teddy bear of a man from Molokai, Hawaii is working the booth and tells us a little bit about what to see and do in Haines. Within minutes, we’ve planned the afternoon.

First on the agenda is to take the town shuttle around its loop. This won’t even take 15 minutes – so we’re told not to blink. We wait a few minutes for the shuttle, which is an old, painted school bus, and Tara picks us up and welcomes us in her bright, bubbly way. She tells us a little about Haines – a town that relies on tourism in the summer and commercial fishing in the winter. The population is 2,500 in the summertime, but drops to 2,000 in the winter. She says only those worth their weight in gold are allowed to stay. You get the sense that because of its size, Haines is a tight knit community.

Tara isn’t your typical bus driver. She’s probably in her late 30s, and besides from driving the shuttle, she escorts ambassadors and other political figures visiting Haines, chaperones the local soccer team on their away games (think Ketchikan and other far-flung Alaskan cities) and also heads up the Animal Rescue Center. She points out the things to see – the American Bald Eagle Foundation, The Hammer Museum, the brewery, the best place for fish and chips and the one grocery store in town.

Fifteen minutes later, we’re back at the info booth, and we have five minutes left before Viva of Anytime Taxi & Tours picks us up for our 2-hour tour to Chilkoot River. Bear and moose sightings are possible, and after Viva loads the eight of us in to the minivan taxi, she tells us we’re headed straight to the river to see Speedy, a brown bear, and her two cubs who were feeding there earlier in the morning.  I’d be lying if I said I wanted to see any more of Haines. What I’m dying to see is a brown bear, up close and in its own environment. We drive for about 30 minutes out of town, and all I can think is how there’s a pretty foul stench in the van. Maybe someone isn’t feeling well, but when Viva stops and opens the sliding door to let us all out, I realize the smell is on the outside.

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Speedy and one of her cubs at the Chilkoot River.

Viva explains that it’s the end of spawning season for the pink, or ‘humpy,’ salmon and the riverbeds are covered with dead fish. The next to spawn are silver, or coho, salmon, and near the riverbank, you can see schools of these salmon swimming upstream.

Not too far off in the distance are Speedy and her two cubs, working their way up the riverbank. Speedy is in the river most of the time catching fish for her two cubs that stay nearby. Viva explains how particular Speedy is, pointing out how she picks up a couple of fish with her paws and pads at them making sure the fish is not too mushy. If it is, Speedy might eat the eggs or the head and toss the body back, looking for a firmer fish body for her cubs. They work their way upriver, away from the bridge we’re standing on. Downriver are five or six harbor seals who are also making their way upstream.

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Chilkat Lake.

We jump back in the van and head further away from Haines to Chilkat Lake. Again, we see ripples as salmon enter the lake from the river and propel themselves out of the water. A couple of fisherman cast out into the lake, and a thick fog hangs in the air.

We stay for a few minutes to take in the view. Behind us is a campground and a couple of people are taking kayaks out of the lake and calling it a day due to the weather.

Viva takes us back down towards Haines, stopping to show us an eagle’s nest and a totem pole carved by a local artisan. She also points out the remnants of a landslide in the distance. This natural disaster occurred in 1902 and levled the old village. It was then moved to present-day Haines.

Viva makes one more stop on the way back into town to show us the view of Haines from across the harbor. Up above, a bald eagle circles, which she explains is good luck.

Back in town, Viva drops us near the ATM so we can pay her for the tour and points out the fish & chip shop across the road. We head there for lunch and split one portion of halibut fish and chips, complete with smiley face french fries. The food fills us and warms us and we set out to see a few of the attractions in the town.

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We walk to the American Bald Eagle Foundation which functions as a museum and a live raptor center, so not only are we able to see two captive bald eagles, a merlin (falcon) and a Eurasian eagle owl, we’re also able to see a collection of indigenous animals that have been preserved and put on display within the museum- bears, moose, elk, owls, and falcons to name a few. We learn that the foundation functions as a preserve for bald eagles, and it’s appropriate that they are situated here – after all, Haines has the largest concentration of wild bald eagles in the world.

From the museum, we’re a bit limited on time, so we opt for a trip to the local brewery instead of the hammer museum. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I do like a brewery and find it’s a place where you can often catch locals hanging out and mingling.

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Haines Brewery.

The brewery opened in 1999, but they have just opened the new location, and they’re literally still moving in and decorating when we arrive. We have time to sample a few of the local brews. Our favorites: Eldred Rock Red, Lookout Stout and Spruce Tip Ale.

From here, we head back to the boat on foot, making a quick pit stop in the bookshop, Babbling Book, to pick up local Haines author Heather Lende’s latest book, Find The Good. Lende has published two other novels, but this book is a collection of the life lessons she learned while working as the obituary writer in Haines. We pick up a signed copy and make our way back to the Zaandam.

We walk with the water on our left and spot a Bald Eagle perched on a pier post. Twenty minutes later when we arrive at the pier to board the cruise ship, he’s still sitting there, perched and observing. IMG_2001

Haines has been our first stop since boarding the boat two days ago. It’s been nice to be on land, to explore and to see so much of what makes up Alaska, all rolled into such a small town, with little more than 2,000 people. We’ve seen here what many people spend weeks in Alaska seeking to see, and we’ve only spent six hours. It seems like life is simple here… alright, the winters might be long and brutal, but it seems like the people of Haines have figured something out… they have the ability to find the good.

Useful Links:

Anytime Taxi & Tours with Viva & David Landry: anytimetaxi247@gmail.com

American Bald Eagle Foundation:  http://baldeagles.org/home

Haines Brewery: http://www.hainesbrewing.com/

Babbling Book Bookshop: http://www.haines.ak.us/node/210

Heather Lende: http://www.heatherlende.com/find-good

The Bamboo Room: http://www.bamboopioneer.net/

 

 

 

 

Aialik Glacier, Alaska, Anchorage, bald eagle, glacial calving, Holland America, humpback whales, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kenai Fjords Tours, orcas, puffins, Seward, Seward Highway, steller sea lions, US National Parks, Zaandam

Day 4: Anchorage –> Seward: Touring Kenai Fjords National Park

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Scenes from the drive along Seward Highway.

We’re picked up early from the Anchorage Westmark to transfer to Seward. We don’t need to be on the boat until 8pm so with the extra time in Seward, we’ve booked an excursion with Kenai Fjords Tours. The tour is sold as a glacial tour, but they’ve raised my hopes with talk of whale sightings too.

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Seward Highway Rest Area Views.

It’s a brisk 34 degrees at 7:30, but the forecast is promising sunshine for most of the day and highs in the mid-50s. With coffee in hand, we leave Anchorage by way of Seward Highway. Our driver, Carl, explains that the 125-mile journey that covers Seward Highway is considered one of the prettiest drives in the US. It’s actually only second to the East Coast’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Soon we’re traveling south, parallel to Turnagain Arm, named for the number of times the initial pioneers who discovered this area had to turn around (or that was one of Carl’s many jokes?) Carl tells us to keep an eye out for Beluga whales, and I immediately make a bee-line for a seat on the right side of the bus to be next to the water. The sun is slow to rise and a low hanging cloud sits just above the lake surface, hiding our view of the glacier in the distance. The water is as still as a pond, and I want to stop the bus, jump off and spend the morning in a kayak, watching this environment wake up.

I’m asking myself how this is the second prettiest North American drive, Shouldn’t it be the first? I’ve never been so awed by mother nature in so many ways. I keep uttering the word, “Stunning!” And in my head I’m thinking, “This is the place I will come back to.” As we round a bend with mountains on our left, Turnagain is now behind us and we enter Dead Forest, a place where now, only a few trees exist. After the 9.2 earthquake in 1964, a tsunami destroyed the land, causing it to take on the consistency of a milkshake. Buildings and homes collapsed and now, only a few trees stand.

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Dead Forest.

We pass through the Chulgach Forest with places you stretch to call a town, like Portage and Moose Pass, where fishing lodges, rental cabins, and RV lots dot the road. Luckily our driver needs a restroom break, so he pulls over and gives us a 10 minute photo opp near a valley- I’m thankful to get a still shot.

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A sea otter having lunch in Seward Harbor.

Not too much longer and we can see Seward harbor, the sailboats, fishing vessels, catamarans and the Zandaam cruise ship, which we will be boarding later. We step off the bus and onto a boat where we will spend the next five hours exploring the Kenai Fjords National Preserve. From the boat, a sea otter is floating on its back, gnawing on the remains of a fish carcass.

We head out to sea with Captain Tim and his crew. To the left are the Kenai Mountains, the tops dotted with glaciers that slope down the sides. We cruise for about 20 minutes and turn a corner to see a long glacier sitting off to the right. Immediately, the temperature drops after being exposed to the glacial wind. Off in the distance, Alaskans are playing on jet skis and kayaks. Even a few surfers are out, milking the last of the mild temperatures before winter.

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Kenai Fjords glaciers.

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Kenai Fjords glaciers.

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A Bald Eagle watches as our boat cruises by.

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A Steller Sea Lion about to go for a swim.

Captain Tim points out a black bear on the beach, but as soon as we’ve seen it, he hightails it to the forest behind the beach. Off to our right are Tufted Puffins amongst a flock of seagulls. We cruise further, keeping our eyes peeled for whales tails, as we make our way to the glaciers.

At our next turn, we’re afforded views of steller sea lions, perched high above the sea water on craggy rocks, bathing themselves in the sun. Directly across from the sea lions, a bald eagle sits, almost as if watching the world go by.

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The fluke of a Pacific Humpback.

We are approaching the first tidewater glacier of the tour, Holgate, when Captain Tim catches sight of a whale in a cove nearby. We trail this whale for a while, watching the flume as she comes up to breathe a couple of times. She shows her tail a few times, and we head on to the next glacier.

 

We pull up quite close to the the Aialik glacier, and Captain Tim explains that this is one of the largest tidewater glaciers, measuring one mile wide. He continues on about how changes in the oxygen levels affect the color of the glacier – the more compacted the snow is, the bluer the glacier is, due to changes in the oxygen molecules. As Tim talks, we begin to hear sounds resembling claps of thunder, as the glacier begins to calve, or break away. At times, we catch splashes as chunks of the glacier fall into the water. Tim wants to stay put as he has a hunch we are going to catch some good glacial calving, and moments later, he is proved right, as we watch for more than a minute as massive chunks of the glacier calve and crash into the water, causing waves to ripple towards our boat. We leave before the waters get rough, in awe of what we’ve just witnessed.

We follow a couple more humpbacks, but they’re elusive and we only catch a glimpse of a tail here or there in the distance. Tim has other things he wants to show us, so we’re not overly persistent in our pursuit. We begin our journey back to the inlet where the sea lions were resting earlier in the afternoon, and Tim comes on the loudspeaker again to let us know that it’s our lucky day because up ahead are a couple of pods of Orcas cruising through the inlet. Up ahead, I catch a glimpse of two to three Orca fins, and then off to the right are about three different pods, each made up of about three whales. They are just cruising by with no interest in us or what we’re doing there. It is beautiful to watch these animals in their own environment, and I manage to count 13 fins cruising away from us into the inlet.

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A Pacific Humpback splashes on its side.

The trip has been epic, and Tim says it’s time to head back so that those of us who need to make trains and boats can do so, but even with limited time, we make two additional stops on the way back- one to catch the sea lions that are still lounging high on the same rocky outcrop, and two, to follow one last humpback that playfully waves at us and splashes on its side, showing its white pectoral fin.

The crew hands out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and we make our way back to the harbor. I’m in awe of all we have seen on this ‘glacier tour,’ where we were expecting glaciers and hoping for a whale sighting. We’ve been afforded with so much more.

Captain Tim docks the boat back in Seward Harbor and stands above deck to bid us farewell as we disembark the Coastal Explorer.  A few hundred meters up ahead, Holland America’s cruise ship, the Zaandam, sits docked, dwarfing the surrounding boats.

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Boarding the Zaandam in Seward.

As we make our way to the cruise ship shuttle, a fisherman with a long, scraggly beard bikes by us. Over his shoulder is his fishing gear, and hanging from his bike handlebars is a freshly caught salmon. I think to myself, this must be the Alaskan equivalent of ‘picking up dinner.’

I could easily spend a few more days in Seward, exploring the surrounding villages and soaking in mother natures beautiful vistas, but we’ve concluded the land portion of our ten day Land & Sea Tour, and it’s time to board the Zaandam and cruise South.

Alaska, Fairbanks

Day 1: Atlanta –> Dallas –> Seattle –>Fairbanks

Travel from Atlanta to Fairbanks

Travel from Atlanta to Fairbanks.

I know, I know, you’re tired just reading the title. Today was a really long day of travel, comprised of multiple flights, layovers and transfers… 15 hours and 5,000 miles to be exact.

We started the day in Atlanta around 4am, with a 4:30 transfer from the airport Westin to North Terminal, where we got checked in for our Southwest flights. I had been up 24 hours prior to check in online for a good place in the boarding line, which was sort of unnecessary seeing as the first flight was half empty.

On the second flight from Dallas to Seattle was a lovely old lady who had never flown. She wore a tee shirt that said, ‘No prayer is too small.’ The brave old gal took a window seat and three-quarters of the way through the flight looked at me and said, ‘There’s really nothing to it.’ We were taken great care of by our Southwest crew and upon descending in Seattle, were afforded views of The Cascades, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount Washington. In previous trips to Washington and Portland, I’d yet to see any of these mountains, so that was a real treat and we haven’t even arrived anywhere yet.

Aerial views en route to Alaska.

Aerial views en route to Alaska.

Mt. Rainier from Alaskan Airlines flight.

Mt. Rainier from our Alaskan Airlines flight.

In Seattle, we transferred to Alaskan Airlines. Finally it was sinking in that I’m going to Alaska, but we still had almost a three hour flight ahead of us. We took off, with stellar views of Mount Rainier behind us, and quickly passed over Vancouver Island. Now the landscape began to drastically change, and we were flying over mountains, glaciers, inlets and lakes of various shades of blue. We were meant to land in Fairbanks to wet conditions but the sun held on for us, and by the time we were descending, Fairbanks was illuminated in end of day light. It was literally glowing

An aerial view of Fairbanks

An aerial view of Fairbanks

gold, as all the birch trees have turned bright yellow here already.

We transferred from the small Fairbanks airport to the Westmark Hotel and were in our room by dinnertime. This left little time for exploring the city unfortunately. We were pretty exhausted from the long day of travel and opted for a bite and a beer at the hotel. On draft, two great beers from Alaskan Brewing Company – Amber Ale and Alaskan White. Come to find out the brewery is located in Juneau, where we’ll be stopping in a few days’ time.