Skiing in Whistler… and Vancouver – February 2014

17 Feb
Blackcomb Whistler

Blackcomb Whistler

Photo’s are at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/77zhn1i67vy7ufw/E5ETaPPWsT

Another exhausting ski vacation survived all in one piece :-)  Powder, hotel fires, blue sky, rain, snow, snow and more snow….the usual ;-)

This time we tore ourselves away from Colorado and headed to Whistler, Canada – not entirely planned and not entirely enthusiastically on my part due to reports of generally grim, cloudy days skiing in the Pacific Northwest – and more specifically and disturbingly – an almost total lack of snowfall since Christmas  ;-)

As luck would have it, the weather reports suddenly changed as we were packing our bags at home in 80F and instead of expecting to spend our skiing vacation sitting in the rain in a hot tub it suddenly snowed (6 weeks later than normal) and we arrived to a winter wonderland and 14″ of fresh powder – with more to come – yippee!! :-)

Our arrival at the hotel was slightly less than auspicious, however. After 12 hours of exhausting travel from the bottom right hand corner of the US to the top left (and beyond), fatigue was beginning to take its toll by the time we checked in. Handed our keys to the apartment (which we would be sharing with old ski/travel buddies, Mike and Carmen who would be driving up from Washington to meet us) we headed down to the underground car park to unpack the car, unload the skis/board, grocery supplies for 4 people and the other 3 tons of paraphernalia required for a weeks skiing…. As I searched about the car park for an oversized luggage cart an alarm went off deep in the bowels of the car park. We studiously ignored it (due to general exhaustion and disinterest in anything other than crawling into the shower, finding somewhere for dinner and crashing for the night).

After 15 minutes or so (literally freezing to death in the car park as our gloves/hats/coats/boots etc were all safely packed in our luggage, of course) the cart was piled high and we headed (with no thoughts other than trying to defrost) towards the elevator – the alarm still ringing in our ears …. and only vaguely in our collective subconscious!

With hindsight, and in the final analysis, some incredulity on our parts (once we had warmed up sufficiently to be thinking straight) we dragged our luggage towards the elevator, got in, squeezed in our every possession and exhaustedly hit the button to ascend into the warm. En route, we both commented that it was odd that the fire alarm was still ringing – some idiot had probably burnt his toast etc etc….

As the doors opened on our floor we were greeted by a wall of thick grey, choking smoke, whereupon I may have said “Oh, sh*t ….”. We both pounced on the “close door” button, “parking lot” button and hoped that the elevator wouldn’t stop midway and we wouldn’t die choking to death before we had even had a chance to enjoy the lovely fresh Canadian powder falling all around us.

I can safely say that in all of our years of travel we have never done anything as blatantly idiotic as get into an elevator with a deafening fire alarm ringing all around us –  however freezing and exhausted we may be :-(

Still kicking ourselves and unsure what to do next (re-pack the car – another 20 minutes task at least – and hot foot it out of there – literally), or try to find out what was going on… etc etc..

Geoff decided to run round to the entrance of the hotel – knee-deep in snow by now – and ascertain whether the hotel was actually burning to the ground or not….

I stayed underground (not the best place for someone with slight claustrophobia ) with our luggage piled high still freezing and now considerably stressed out…. it being the middle of ski season in a top resort and there being a less than zero% chance that there would be any other accommodations available in town for the week :-(

Another 10 minutes of ear splitting alarm passed whilst I waited in the car park (wondering if I should have gone out into the snow too) and eventually Geoff returned huffing, puffing and covered in snow bringing stories of utter aboveground chaos. The whole hotel had been evacuated, people were standing in the snow wearing night clothes, towels (the unlucky ones had been caught out in the shower), blankets etc etc and every cop and fire fighter in town were busily investigating whilst the thick smoke continued to pour out of the windows.

It seemed the worst of it was on the 3rd and 4th floors – according to chinese whispers – bliss – our room (in a fully booked hotel) was on the 3rd floor.

Finally, abandoning our possessions we trudged out into the snow with heavy hearts, not quite sure what to do and not remotely thrilled by the thought of driving back to Vancouver at that time of night in the snow and sleet which we had just driven through to get to Whistler :-(

Absolute chaos – the staff had no idea what was going on – everyone was shuffled into the lobby of the hotel next door before hypothermia set in and/or guests started to drop dead in the road – the fire fighters and police weren’t giving out any information so we settled in for a long night listening to reports from people that nobody would be staying in the 3rd or 4th floors and that we’d all be sleeping somewhere else – just not sure where in a fully booked town…. SERIOUSLY???

Of all the weird and wonderful inconveniences and minor travel disasters we have to deal with over the years it had never entered my head that a hotel in a ski resort up to its neck in snow could POSSIBLY burn to the ground!

Taking advantage of the opportunity to re-fuel before our anticipated long drive back to Vancouver, we sat down to dinner to wait it out and see what they were going to do with hundreds of displaced people with no clothes and no possessions. It gradually dawned on us that if the hotel did actually burn to the ground and collapse into the car park it would take our skis and everything we owned with it too :-(

….. interestingly… despite the unbelievable quantity of smoke filling the plaza around us we still hadn’t seen any actual flames…

Geoff took an executive decision to try to go back into the car park, rescue the car and save what he could etc etc….. assuming the fire fighters would let him anywhere near it, of course ….brains still not functioning fully etc etc ;-)

On his way back through the snow to the back entrance of the car park he fell upon a huge pile of smoldering clothes outside the car park entrance and a group of fire fighters. It transpired that some (other!) blithering idiot had managed to set fire to a dryer full of clothing in the basement laundry (about 50 feet from where I had been patiently waiting about 3 hours earlier guarding our possessions) and the smoke had risen straight up to the 3rd and 4th floors through ventilation ducts.

Good news – the hotel wasn’t going to burn to the ground in -5F after all ;-) …..but also bad news – the room may be uninhabitable due to smoke damage …..

Still….the fire department was busily using huge industrial blowers to blow the smoke out of the building – fingers crossed …

By this stage we would have slept in the car if necessary and risked frost-bite rather than take the mountain road back to civilization.. As we were discussing options from the warmth of a bar where we had a great view of the chaos we suddenly noticed a mass exodus of bath-robed guests crossing the knee-deep snow again and back into reception…..Yippeee!! After hours of relative misery (at the end of the day we were, at least, dressed in slightly more than a bath towel and a pair of bathroom slippers ;-) ) and visions of a doomed skiing trip we were allowed to check back in to a miraculously smoke free apartment, hit the sack and pretend it had never happened :-)

The following morning we awoke to a LOT of fresh powder and, thereafter, rather boringly for the purposes of our blog, everything else was fab :-) Unexpectedly blue sky, fabulous views from Blackcomb Mountain towards Whistler (and vice versa), long (some 5 miles – yikes!!) scenic runs, great company, lots of laughs and reminiscing, good food, silly games (and the only occasion I have ever come within a gnat’s breath of winning Trivial Pursuit – albeit I cheated at every opportunity to get that close ;-) )  …and Geoff (of course!) managed to be the last person up on the chair lift for the final run of the day… and the last person down the mountain! ;-)

So … Whistler isn’t Colorado, or Utah… or Montana (our friends’ favorite) … the “powder” isn’t dry and fluffy like floating on clouds as it is in Colorado… it is slightly damp and much heavier, and accordingly, much harder to ski for old lazy people ;-)  …but it was great fun…  We are still not mad about the man-made purpose built “ski village” (preferring the real wild west towns and natural hot springs of Colorado) …. but we would go back if the opportunity arose… just fingers and toes crossed for snow and blue sky – usually (according to the locals) not a “given” – odd for what is consistently rated as the top resort in North America (uuummmmm… still not quite sure why…. but we did have a great time!) :-)

And so finally, back to Vancouver – for the second time in 6 months – and straight back to rain, freezing winds, grey sky and general gloom – just like summer in Vancouver, in fact!! We MAY have been really unlucky I guess, but I would swear that the climate in this city makes that of England look positively balmy … ;-) With little else to do on a rainy bleak afternoon we had to endure a double massage to try to straighten out our battered (and in Geoff’s case – bruised) bodies ;-)

Guatemala – December 2013

31 Dec

santiago-3

Photo’s are at:  https://www.dropbox.com/sh/44u98r0pthap1to/Nb9TfjD7n1

For anyone brave enough to make it to the end you will discover that this wasn’t one of our normal travel experiences; in fact, we came home with a lot more than we bargained for – and I don’t  just mean the usual arts and crafts for our gaggle of sibling offspring – nor food poisoning (well – not me anyway … poor Geoff ;-) ;-) !)

It’s hard not to be swept away by the charms of La Antigua Guatemala (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the original site of the capital until they discovered it was perilously located in an earthquake/volcano zone so they moved the new capital to Guatemala City ;-)  It’s safe to say we far prefer the old one and we got in and out of GC as quick as our car could take us!

So .. Antigua …. Spanish colonial architecture, built in the 1500’s, raised to the ground by various exciting events –  earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions – and re-built as many times over the centuries incorporating the ruins of churches and convents on practically every street corner  rather than knocking them down and starting again.

Cobbled streets; craters in the cobbled streets (ideal for heels, especially in the dark ;-) ); busy parks filled with locals hawking their produce to tourists, people selling lottery tickets and small children polishing pedestrians shoes (not so good, but needs must); peaceful side streets; dilapidated walls (stained with centuries of painting and re-painting in ever brighter colors and tumbling bougainvillea)  hiding exotic courtyards and the haciendas of wealthy Guatemalans; indigenous arts and crafts markets spilling from the church ruins into the streets; a chaotic fruit and vegetable market; tuk-tuks dashing about the streets barely avoiding unwary pedestrians; and the gorgeously decorated chicken buses belching their choking fumes over anyone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time ;-) … all surrounded by volcanos and verdant mountains.

First class food – and even more surprisingly for me – no disgusting stomach bugs to endure for the duration of our visit – the visit to Antigua anyway – the less said about the latter part of the trip the better ;-) :-)

Efforts at communicating went remarkably well – partly because some people spoke english very well (yippee!) but mostly because the Guatemalans  in the cities speak spanish very clearly (double yippee!).  Still, most people spoke no english at all and I wouldn’t say this is an easy country to navigate through without a basic understanding of espanol – even tragic efforts like mine were a godsend at times ;-)

Talking of helpful – we weren’t able to lay hands on any Guatemalan quetzals before we left so we were planning on getting some when we arrived. To cut a long story short when we arrived at the hotel we still didn’t have a bean in local currency and the housemaid (no english) raided her own purse and those of any of her willing staff to lend us some money so we wouldn’t starve until we could get to the bank – that sort of set the scene for the kindness of the people we were to meet throughout :-) Not sure you’d get that in a Hilton back home ;-)

Luckily everyone else was unbelievably helpful too as Geoff couldn’t quite manage to navigate this small 9 square block town centre despite being in possession of a perfectly drawn and labelled map ;-)

Our first night out should have been a quick 15 minute stroll into town. Despite said map clutched in sweaty paw (for reasons still unknown and best glossed over) our stroll culminated in Geoff confidently guiding us on a dark, crater filled tour of every corner and extremity of the 9 blocks in search of our restaurant which we had paced right by at speed in the central square some 45 minutes earlier. I did cautiously squeak my suspicion that something seemed amiss (just about the point we were hurrying past it) but, as a girl, I was of course totally unqualified to comment on matters of direction ;-)

Eventually, exhausted, I stopped to ask a family group having dinner on the sidewalk – all set up with plastic tables and chairs and a portable stove. The efforts to assist us were so enthusiastic that one of the men tried to practise his english upon us which transpired to be even worse than my spanish. I was beginning to think it was just me being dim but finally even Geoff gave up, apologized and (laughably bearing in mind his linguistic skills still only extend to ordering a gin and tonic) and asked if he could give us directions in spanish instead ;-) His friends erupted in peals of laughter and we could still hear them ribbing the poor guy 4 blocks away as we criss crossed our way back to the centre ;-)

Geoff’s map reading skills didn’t improve for the remainder of the visit (even in broad daylight) so we spent 3 aimless days traversing, weaving and re-traversing which, with hindsight, was fortuitous as we would have missed a lot of the interesting street life if we had had a purpose and someone with basic map reading skills guiding us ;-)

Onwards and upwards, we left Antigua on Christmas Day and took the route across the mountains towards Lake Atitlan. The route through the hills dotted with farms, tin roofed buildings and patchwork fields was beautiful. This should not be a country plagued by poverty – the land is very fertile and agriculture (small holding and multi-national conglomerate) is obviously  a mainstay of the economy. We weren’t too thrilled with the agriculture in the central valley area – all owned by US conglomerates growing the largest vegetables we have ever seen – mutant carrots the size of small tree trunks, cauliflowers twice the size of footballs – we discovered the produce here is all grown for the US market and is so polluted with fertilizers and pesticides the locals won’t touch them with a barge pole – which says a lot for people who mainly struggle to put maize on the table never mind anything as nutritious as a vegetable. Thank god we only eat organic!

The journey wound through the mountain roads and we started to spot dozens of groups of kids from the farms and towns in the hills sitting at the side of the road waving at the traffic. They were waiting for cars and pick-up trucks to stop and hand out used clothing and second hand toys – their Christmas presents. The benefactors come from the wealthy cities – Guatemala City and Antigua – and anywhere we saw a parked car at the side of the road the kids ran from all sides, darting between the oncoming cars and swarming to get to the presents first. Kinda put the “western” world’s seasonal commercialism into perspective….

After only a 3 hour journey we finally arrived in another world entirely from Antigua - Lake Atitlan – in the Highlands of Guatemala – deep blue/green and flanked by 3 volcanoes.  We were met by a boat to take us to Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort a very peaceful, beautiful place – the rooms less than 15/20 feet from the water. We sat on the balcony looking over the water listening to the waves lapping on the dock and watching the colorful ferry boats overloaded with mayan indigenous locals, their shopping supplies and back-packers zipping about from one town to the other – all with a backdrop of the large and impressive San Pedro volcano :-) An interesting tidbit about the lake – it appears to be rapidly rising – 5 meters in 5 years and it may not have stopped yet – if you look at some of the photos – clearest perhaps in photos 214-215 Santiago-San Pedro dock – it is easy to see the devastation being quietly wreaked upon the lower lying properties …

The generally calm waters of the lake can pick up a little in the late afternoons and had a habit, in the blink of an eye, to start to resemble the Pacific with only a few gusts of wind ;-) Morning trips were glassy calm – but not so much in the afternoons ;-) One of our trips was quite enlivening – the captain squeezed in 4/5 people per bench (wide enough for 3 if you don’t mind intimate physical contact with your unknown neighbor) and filled it with luggage, shopping and village supplies and set off listing rather heavily on my side (nothing to do with my somewhat excessive chocolate consumption in Antigua for which it is famous ;-) ). We had already spotted the name of the boat – Titanic – and were regretting not having got to the dock 2 minutes earlier when a much safer and emptier looking vessel had left heading for our part of the lake ;-) Geoff particularly enjoyed the rolling swell, the heat beating down on the roof, the overcrowding and the choking fumes blowing into our faces from the 2 stroke engine as it idled in the dock. I think the heavy listing to one side also added an unexpected frisson of excitement for him too ;-)

10 days in Guatemala , I fear, has taken 10 years off our lives in inhaled boat fumes …and that doesn’t take into account the additional heady delights of the fumes from the chicken buses and the tuk-tuks!

Speaking of which, feeling brave – we decided to experience the delights of the chicken bus from the central hub for the lake (Panajachel) to Solola for the Friday market – only a 15 minute ride uphill– I suspect it should have been longer but why take those narrow, winding mountain roads uphill with care for your precious human cargo when you can tackle them in your 1960’s decommissioned US school bus and drive it like a Formula 1 driver in a Ferrari?

Needless to say, the bus was exactly as expected – crammed full of indigenous Mayan locals in full and beautiful regalia, bags of purchases spilling from their laps onto their neighbor (luckily no chickens on this particular trip); dangerously overloaded with luggage on its roof; kids and men clambering onboard at various stops and trying to hawk dodgy looking wrapped sweets for a few quetzals, melting ice-cream in cones and lottery tickets …. Never a dull moment ;-) I got extra cozy with a rather heavy but highly decorative local who decided the gringa (me!) looked comfortable enough to sit on for the duration of the ride – nothing personal I guess as he did smile very sweetly at me before he plonked himself down – bliss!

Squished, but alive, we made it to the town square which was peaceful (a bit too peaceful). It seems they had moved the market 6 blocks uphill (steep) so we invested in an exciting ride in a tuk-tuk and were deposited in the middle of chaos in the marketplace. Of all the sights we saw in Guatemala, the indigenous markets are our favorites – shops spilling onto the streets; booth vendors with proper market stalls selling fruit, veg, fish, bread etc etc; ancient ladies sitting in the streets with baskets of whatever fruit and veg they had grown in their gardens; live chickens in baskets; multicolored chicks (we weren’t too sure what had gone into producing a bright turquoise or pink chick but whatever it was it can’t have been good). For 2 vegetarians these parts of the markets are always a little disturbing but its all part of life here. We did find ourselves rooting enthusiastically for a huge rooster which had escaped from its basket and was leading its owner on a merry dance through the other stalls and pedestrians legs in a desperate bid for freedom. Sadly it was too stupid not to run away in a straight line but had obviously decided instead that shrieking, squawking and flapping wildly in ever decreasing circles would win him his freedom ;-)

The chaos, noise and frenetic business activity of the markets is quite enthralling – most of the time wherever you stand you are just right in the way of the locals – and god help anyone who gets in the way of an octogenarian with a basket of vegetables (or 5 dozen eggs in cartons) balanced precariously on her head with her eye set on the tomatoes in the next stall – you will be knocked flying without a thought.

The main lake towns – Panajachel, Santiago, San Pedro, Santa Caterina and San Antonio (the 2 favs) are a typical Central American mixture of street chaos, half built concrete structures, tin rooves, highly colorful painted buildings, indigenous Mayans in fabulous multi-colored clothing and people selling fabric and glittery decorations which they thrust relentlessly in your face until you give up the will to live ;-) We found that they do eventually give up trying to sell you something you definitely don’t want, once they have chased you twice around the town practicing their english phrases :-) If you are stupid enough to mention the name of your other half they will pick up on it in a millisecond and then you have a traveling companion bellowing “Jen… Jen… you want this…is very good…very nice…Jen..you buy this for your friend.. or your mother….” I could have killed him (Geoff ;-) ).

The towns are highly colorful places, the native indigenous people wear amazing brightly colored, intricately patterned clothes – differing patterns and styles according to your village of origin. We learnt that there are 5 indigenous languages in the 12 hill towns around the lake – apparently incomprehensible to each other – with spanish being the second language of the villagers and the common business language. No wonder I found it harder to communicate here. Everyone was trying to speak in second languages! ;-)

A day trip to Chichicastenango (one of the most famous indigenous arts and crafts markets in the country) took us on a trip again through the mountains through more fertile farmland, tin rooved farm houses, dilapidated towns, kids playing bare-foot in the streets, farm workers bent double with huge piles of wood on their backs, beautiful rolling hills etc etc … and then a sudden descent into the most manic market we have ever seen. It is divided up into three areas: the tourist arts and craft stalls (upon reflection we were not sure where all of the other “tourists” actually were because we barely saw any and instead rather stuck out like the only couple of pale gringos in a multicolored Mayan people soup ;-) ); the flower sellers and women burning incense on the church steps as the congregation left the Sunday service (fab); and the craziest fruit and veg market in the world. Even worse than Solola market – if you are stupid enough to try to stand still even for a nanosecond, re-group or catch your breath, you will be caught up in a tide of humanity, mown to the ground and trampled ;-)

2 hours of that was quite enough for a Sunday morning so we headed off to the cemetery which I had read was very colorful (rather an understatement). Some deceased were buried under impressive concrete or brick structures newly painted and decorated with flowers and others were buried under mounds of painted, dried mud. The discrepancies of wealth or poverty. We watched grieving relatives burning offerings to the dead until it all got a bit too voyeuristic so we rushed off for lunch at the world’s worst restaurant –  at hotel Santo Tomas (don’t go there even if you are starving).

And so back to the luxury eco-lodge and on to the more unexpected aspect of our vacation. Unusually for us, we got friendly with the owners of the lodge who were a very interesting couple from NZ (Mayah) and Australia (Jeffro) and who had literally built the lodge by hand with the help of locals from the nearest town, Santa Cruz. They are also very involved in helping local indigenous people who struggle to survive with the poor living conditions and poverty which many villagers seem to endure to some extent.

Of course, Guatemela is a country of contrasts –  in parts very much a third world/developing country for most of the population – and conversely – in a much smaller part – very “first” world – judging by the number of private helicopters we saw coming and going over the haciendas in Antigua, there is quite a lot of money here too.

So… we got chatting about their local town (Santa Cruz) – which we had already been exploring the day before. It isn’t wealthy by any stretch and we had seen first hand that there is lot of poverty there – although people are living with million dollar views overlooking one of the worlds most beautiful lakes, the necessities of life are very hard to come by – food, clean water supplies, effective shelter (leaky mud huts and partial tin rooves don’t hack it in the winter) and education are all rather at a premium.

To cut a long story short (and for anyone who knows us well enough to know we prefer children spit-roasted and served with a delicious garlic mayonnaise ;-) we asked Mayah and Jeffro if there was anything we could do to help anyone in need – whatever that might be. We have been quietly contemplating over the last few years how we might get involved in providing support for either a family, or children in need somewhere in South/Central America… we seem to have a connection with this part of the world… though we can’t quite put our fingers on why… and we have really wanted to do something more personal than just giving money through a church, or a charity…

We asked Mayah and Jeffro to think about a family we might be able to help who value education and would be supportive of their child staying in school for the long term benefit of the child and the family…

…so… they took us to meet the Alvares Santos family who work very hard to make ends meet – Lucas (a bricklayer), Maria (mommy), Francisca (16), Jose (11) Graciella (8) and Lucas junior (14 months). With school registration fees and books/supplies now out of reach for Francisca’s ongoing education, they could no longer afford to send her to school although they really wanted to  …the middle 2 kiddies go to basic level but it is so bad in Guatemala that even 8 year old Graciella is illiterate :-(    We took a shine to them immediately :-)

We didn’t know what to expect when we went to visit them (and I’m fairly sure it must have been an unequally odd experience for them when the former employer turned up unannounced at their door with 2 fat brit/yanks in tow ;-) ) but the decision didn’t take us too long once Francisca told us she really wanted to continue her schooling to learn english (she already had a few words) so that she could work with the gringos (which kinda made us laugh ;-) ) in the tourist industry and help her family to improve their lives and assist with the expenses of the elderly extended family.

So – there you go – friends and family who know us well enough to know we are kitty people but definitely not kiddy people – will no doubt be somewhat surprised that we suddenly have ongoing school fees for 16 year old Francisca which we didn’t have a week ago ;-)

The family are absolutely charming and we really hope that whatever we can do to help Francisca will be money very well spent :-) We don’t know how many years commitment that is – it all depends how well she does… In the end, she is the one with the hard work ahead – quite  a lot of responsibility for a 16 year old ….  Maybe down the road we’ll have to think about what we can do for the others too… at the end of the day, we both believe that education is the only way out of poverty…

We visited the family again before we left to take the nippers some late Christmas presents and some fruit and veg for Maria because good nutrition is nearly impossible to come by here if you are on the bread line (most people just live on maize) …and Graciella ran down the hill towards us like long lost Mr and Mrs Santa … kinda cute really… ;-)

And so …another highly memorable Central American trip over …. we were barely off the runway in Guatemala City and Geoff was already whining on about when we can go back …. my first rule of travel, however is that one should never go back to the same place twice … the world is too big etc etc….. somehow I suspect I haven’t got much of say in that now – at least as far as Lake Atitlan is concerned, anyway ;-)

 

New York City, Philadelphia, Alexandria and The Hamptons – September 2013

30 Sep
Manhattan from Brooklyn

Manhattan from Brooklyn

Photo’s are at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/2ql0foaylvve9w1/aenF6gjky1

After  a quick trip to Alexandria, Virginia in glorious autumnal weather we headed off for a fleeting 12 days or so taking in the sights (in between work and art shows) in 2 of our favorite US cities – NYC and Philadelphia :-). Philly was the usual cocktail and food fest (if it weren’t so cold here AND so far from the nearest decent beach (ie. the Gulf of Florida ;-) ) we could almost live here for the restaurants alone ;-)

I spent some time wandering the streets and found myself in Chinatown and “Love Park” for the first time – the latter famous for its LOVE sculpture in the JFK Plaza – I am sure JFK would have approved of the sculpture but he might not have been so keen on the hobos living in the park along with it - or some of the more interesting transactions taking place in it ;-)

Anyway, it was fun to see some parts other than the more snooty and exclusive Rittenhouse Square area where we usually spend all of our time and where we set up shop for the art show. Having said that, the park in the centre of RS is also known affectionately as “Hobo Park” and there have been many engaging interactions with some of the local inhabitants over the years – thankfully outweighed by the number of interactions with baseball players wives, lawyers who own their own block (never mind their own buildings) and other miscellaneous wealthy glitterati. We love Philly for lots of reasons :-)

However, we love NYC even more :-) !!   Poor Geoff spent most of the trip (minus one lunch) glued to his phone and laptop whilst I enjoyed the city sights…  he did however, manage to make the most of the array of cocktail bars and restaurants in the evenings … what a surprise …  :-)

One block from Central Park is not a bad place to park oneself for a few days. Despite the horrendous heat in the bowels of the NY subway (I think it is nicely heated to a boiling 120F regardless of the season) I am now more familiar with it than the London underground – and – frankly – it is cleaner – so zipping about from one end of NY to the other is a breeze (albeit warm) :-) We did see some more unusual sights this trip – a couple of teenagers with a boom box break-dancing their way  through the carriages for tips – anyone who can maneuver about the handrails with their legs spinning in the air while they hang upside down from the ceiling AND manage not to inadvertently kick anyone in the head at the same time gets our vote :-)  On the same journey, we also shared a subway bench with the largest most disheveled man I have even seen who sat down next to us , curled up on the seat and slept in fits and starts punctuated with intervals of loud and violent mutterings to himself  with his trouser flies unzipped, his belt hanging off and liberally coated in some really nasty stains. We also got to experience NYC at its most chaotic as our trip coincided with a UN convention. As our illustrious president was, obviously, in town – almost the entire area around the Sheraton, 57th and 6th Ave… for endless numbers of blocks … was in traffic shut-down and crawling in NYC cops (probably 1000′s) and Secret Service agents – as always subtly blending into the crowds by virtue of their identical black suits, regulation ear-pieces and bulging muscles ;-)

In addition, of course, we enjoyed the more usual NYC favorites – a boat trip, the Green Market at Union Square, the Brooklyn Bridge (not sure why, but whenever I see it I am reminded of the 80′s movie Arthur and find myself humming ” If you get caught between the moon and New York City….. ” ;-)

Also took a jaunt into Brooklyn itself which was a whole lot quieter than I had imagined – I kept thinking I was missing something but couldn’t really work it out … the views of NYC are, obviously, to die for so it is always worth the trip over the river just for those :-)

I zigzagged back through the Financial District to take a glimpse at the new Freedom Tower  …stunning … but mixed emotions as it wouldn’t have been there at all in a more peaceful world :-(    …couldn’t face the huge crowds to see the WTC Memorial and wove my way back through Chinatown – always a colorful favorite filled with unidentifiable exotic fruit and vegetables and rows of purveyors of plastic junk nobody could ever need in their lives :-)  … by which stage a brief but brutal Chinese foot massage was in order to recover from pounding the warm sidewalks for days. With barely a word of decipherable english to elicit what might be aching, my masseuse decided to go straight for the jugular and I was relieved to discover I could still walk at all once she’d finished with me – the Chinese certainly know what they are doing – no messing about with a gentle warm up ;-)

And so on to Long Island about which I knew absolutely nothing but discovered quite quickly that the southern end (Long Island City) is a lot rougher around the edges than the northern end (the exclusive Hamptons)!  Having said that the street art around “5 Pointz” in the south was almost up there with Buenos Aires (albeit on a much smaller scale) and all that The Hamptons had to offer was some of the worst (and overpriced) food we have ever eaten, some interestingly designed multi-million (who knows? – maybe billion) dollar residences along the coast, wide yellow sand beaches reminiscent of most other standard beaches in the northeast (but the latter without the $40 daily parking charge) and some very expensive and seriously pretentious clothes stores reminiscent of upmarket outlet malls – designer towns with designer shops (how many $5000 handbags does a girl need?).

Not sure quite what all the fuss about The Hamptons is – although there were some bucolic farmland/vineyard type scenes crossing the island which were attractive. Sag Harbor was pretty and more “real” than The Hamptons themselves but overall , 2 days up at the north end of Long Island with the outrageously wealthy was quite enough ;-) ….

Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Whistler – September 2013

16 Sep
Chesterman Beach

Chesterman Beach

Photo’s are at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/pjwr1tmots89srh/EzPqT-cmP0

…. and so onwards we arrived on a typical grey cloudy “summer’s” day in Vancouver. Apparently we had arrived on the only rainy day all summer – which we might have believed (with the best will in the world) if it were not for the fact that a friend who has recently moved there confirmed that it rains – a lot – and when it starts raining it never really stops. Obviously then,  this city is not a likely relocation destination for the Gardner’s ;-)

Whilst we regretted leaving the Rockies we were all (in local parlance) “stoked” to be moving on to an entirely new city-based British Columbia experience. Unfortunately, our (group) enthusiasm didn’t seem to last long which was a big surprise for me as I had been raving about Vancouver forever (well – for 24 years to be precise – as I was 23 the last time I was there!!). Clearly, something was amiss and it wasn’t just the cloud and rain …..

I route marched our team (once it had stopped drizzling) over the local walkable areas of the city – the harbor – Canada Place, Granville, Robson, Hornby and Howe trying to extol the virtues of the modern architecture, clean lines,  and “livability” of the small downtown city on the water filled with parks and surrounded by mountains. Finally, we made our way over to the famous Granville Island Market via the cute(ish) little multi-colored ferry feeling assured that we would all, at least, enjoy the fabulous  colorful farmers market and the fish and chip shack that our friend had recommended for lunch. Whilst the view from the fish shack across the harbor to the city was probably one of a glittering metropolis of luxury high rise apartments in the sun (this is not by any means a cheap city to live in) , Dave observed that it looked more “eastern block” in the rain. I vigorously defended it but to no avail – I was out entirely alone on a wobbly limb with the troops dissenting across the ranks – and even I had to admit, sadly, that if it is grey and gloomy for most of the year and (in reality) the apartments and office blocks DID take on a grey and concrete-y appearance in that dull light, then, I supposed, there was a slight essence of eastern block about it… from a distance :-(

So, thank goodness for the market – everyone loved that – it had the added benefit of being a respite from the rain – AND – perhaps most importantly in the circumstances – it provided a kaleidoscopic assortment of fabulous bakery items which kept Dave and I happy for hours and lots of fab fruit and veg displays for the more virtuous  amongst us (Geoff and Ali)  :-)

Finally, it did stop raining (again) and I rallied the troops for a quick visit to Gastown (cleverly I had booked a beautiful boutique hotel within 2 blocks of this famous tourist destination area – so it wouldn’t be far to run if the heavens really opened up) ;-)  My recollection (albeit aging and now rapidly crumbling ) of Gastown was of a larger area – it is still attractive with it’s 1850′s architecture, steam clock and lots of bars and restaurants (and shops selling “stuff” no-one really needs) – but it did seem to have shrunk somewhat. In addition, we started to notice a number of hobos and drunks careering about the pathways. Not to be deterred (as things were looking up weather wise for the early evening) we decided to head to China Town 2 blocks away.  Who couldn’t love a colorful Chinatown with all of its vibrancy and cultural diversity?? With hindsight, I almost wish we hadn’t gone. By now I was rapidly losing all credibility as proponent of the beauties of Vancouver!

Not being one to greatly exaggerate… ;-)  I have to say that our trip through and around Chinatown (and particularly along East Hastings should anyone wish to avoid it) was filled with the most soul-destroying human misery, degradation and depravation any of us have ever seen outside of a Hollywood drugs movie. We were, quite literally, tip-toeing over, through, and around hundreds (the boys estimated probably 200 by 5.30pm) drunks lying in gutters and accumulating on street corners; drug addicts – people so sickly, drawn, covered in open sores and starved looking that it was a surprise they weren’t keeling over in the streets; poor souls so high they had no idea we were even there – tip toeing to get the hell out before any of them noticed we were dripping in $1000′s of dollars of camera between us. Most of them were so far out of reality that barely even once were we given a second look. In all of the cities and weird and wonderful places in the world we have been between us none of us have ever actually seen heroin addicts shooting up in the streets or crack addicts huddled in groups smoking in broad daylight. It was the most pitiful sight of rejected humanity we have ever seen :-( Not much else to say really – slightly heartbroken and considerably baffled that this was the Vancouver I had loved for 24 years – I had to ask myself what the hell happened?

We arrived back in silence at the luxurious St Regis hotel (2/3 blocks away from abject poverty) to a smiling concierge interested to know  if we had enjoyed our day. Dave uttered that it had certainly been interesting and, when we mentioned we had taken a trip up Hastings his face fell and he muttered they didn’t usually advise their guests to go there (all of a 5 minute walk, by the way), that it was a terrible embarrassment for the city, getting worse every day and that the police and authorities simply didn’t bother to deal with the problems there. Well, I sure hope someone in power notices soon before the whole of Gastown and the rest of Chinatown are totally consumed  …. including a large number of lovely hotels .. some really excellent restaurants and Geoff’s new favorite martini bar  :-(

One final word – we were asked a number of times by complete and utter strangers – locals – (which is odd in itself) our impressions of the city – all obviously mortified by the burgeoning drugs problems. We were told 2 stories – first that the authorities had closed a mental institution and put their patients out on the streets to fend for themselves (great idea) and – secondly – that there were a lot (we certainly saw a LOT) of shelters for the homeless (not a bad thing as everyone has the right to somewhere safe to sleep) but that in addition they received a vast array of benefits which they were happily spending on crack. Whatever the reason – it’s a nightmare.

By this stage we were pretty much ready to move on out of the city and over to the tranquility of the Pacific Islands ;-)

Still, we had another full day to experience the joys of soggy Vancouver (including the food – which was excellent!) so we headed off in the rain to famous Stanley Park (this is still lovely thank God). Dragging soggy ” team Gardner/Oatley” around the seawall (normally fabulous views of the city and Canada Place, no doubt) I pointed us in the direction of the famous totem poles. I had remembered them from my youthful visit as much larger, more numerous and distinctly more impressive. Geoff was less than thrilled (after a long and very damp walk in the torrential rain – in his leaking raincoat) that they weren’t even authentic native tribal poles but replicas made in the 1980′s!   I had forgotten that morsel of information – I wasn’t popular ;-) From bad to worse of course, we decided to call a cab from a concession next to the totem poles – 5 phone calls and 1 hour later dripping from head to foot we managed to hail a cab on its way around the park (the company we called never did turn up). By way of final nail in the weather coffin, our very chatty cabbie was rather nonplussed by the weather cheerfully informing us that it probably wouldn’t stop raining (now that it had started –  this being the end of August, of course) until next May. So back we went to the only refuge in the city we really liked – Granville Island Market for some more cake to cheer us all up ;-) !! Luckily we had arranged to meet our recently implanted friend for dinner at a reallyyyy excellent restaurant which helped a little to ease the pain of our misgivings about the city and its god awful weather ;-)

Vancouver Island couldn’t come a moment too soon!!

First stop – Victoria, the diminutive capital of British Columbia – sigh of relief – everyone loved it – sunshine – flowers everywhere – kind of kitschy English feel – colorful Chinatown – more colorful harbor – excellent fish and chip shacks at Fisherman’s Wharf – eccentric painted and decorated boat homes at the Wharf – and a classic boat show for the boys in the very picturesque inner harbor – sun glistening on the water –  brightly colored flags  fluttering in the breeze – and the famous Fairmont Empress Hotel (distinctly nicer looking than the Lake Louise version) in pride of place on the harbor side :-) So – back on target – I wasn’t fired as tour guide yet!! ;-)

And so on to Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park  on the Pacific Coast. Up and over the mountains through “small town” Vancouver Island with numerous stops – variously famous for waterfalls, giant sequioa groves and totem poles – and plenty of other towns uninhabitable by anyone requiring more than a hermit’s existence out of life ;-)

Needless to say the Pacific Coast is everything it should be – crashing waves; rainforest covered mountains, so damp the moss here was growing on moss which grew on the moss.. etc .. etc .. ;-) ; the smell of seaweed; windswept wild beaches liberally decorated with driftwood; sea-mist; rock pools filled with orange, red and green starfish; and huge rocks (re-living his youth Dave clambered over all of them like an excited 7 year old  - but then again it is that kind of place :-) ! )

In between long beach walks, absorbing the peace and quiet, and paddling in the Pacific we also managed to squeeze in a morning’s sea-kayaking in the Clayoquot Sound gliding across “fields” of giant sea kelp, exploring the tiny islands and sampling sea asparagus (probably never again ;-) ). Our final trip in the waters around the beautiful fishing town of  Tofino was, however, less than idyllic.

Never having been whale-watching before, Ali was excited to see the Pacific grey whales in their natural environment so we all tagged along for the ride. Dressed from head to foot in a bright red all in one cover-up (fit for -50 on a windy ski slope) we pottered slowly into the Sound (rapidly frying and shedding all the layers we had been encouraged to wear – before any of us actually passed out ;-) ) The guide had mentioned in his welcome introductory speech that we may have trouble finding any whales (??!) as they hadn’t seen many in the previous week and he then proceeded to dangle his fishing rod into the calm waters and  motor off slowly across the bay leaving us with a slightly sinking (as well as a very over-heated) feeling ;-) The upshot of a very expensive and subsequently very cold and wet morning was the sighting of  a slither of grey on the horizon, one whale head breaching the water at some considerable distance (how I managed to catch it on film I will never know as I certainly didn’t spot it with my naked eye ;-)…. some aimless bobbing for an hour whilst he finished fishing for his dinner, a soaking wet trip in a sudden squall to see some equally damp sea otters clinging onto giant kelp for dear life ….. another damp speedy zip into the Pacific to see a sea lion … and more otters ….. and finally a less than fascinating flit past a lighthouse …. By this stage we were all a little perplexed so Geoff shouted across to him in the howling wind that it would be nice to watch some whales on this “whale watching trip” at which stage we were returned forthwith fuming mad and soaking wet to the base. With the previous knowledge that nature is at its own whim and that refunds are never issued regardless of wildlife sightings – or not – we then spent an hour sharing our thoughts with the manager on the quality of their “whale” watching trip. By some miracle (and, we did, of course, have the benefit of being in possession of “Dave the negotiator” ) she finally caved and issued full refunds. None of us are entirely sure at what stage (or as a result of whose particular relentless argument) this sudden change of heart transpired, but it was, according to our host at the lovely B&B we were lodging at – absolutely unheard of!

And so – we left the Island with some reluctance and made our way back across the mountains to the final ferry trip of the vacation and up the Sea to Sky Highway for our final day in Whistler. Apparently North America’s top skiing resort – this town was (to us at least) a little like a Disney resort – with all the authenticity that that implies – not really the kind of old town wild west Colorado resorts we prefer – but it was worth the trip to see it (probably discount it for any skiing vacations) and for Ali and I to zipline and scream our last morning away over Fitzsimmons Creek – which was fun :-) Dave wouldn’t be persuaded to attach himself to a wire and jump off a platform over the trees … and Geoff had a cold – what a couple of girls ;-) !! ;-)

Fab holiday had by all :-)

Canadian Rockies – August 2013

28 Aug
Moraine Lake, Alberta

Moraine Lake, Alberta

Photo’s are at:  https://www.dropbox.com/sh/5r47umqujsjvtv6/UOmamjbaaD

After a brief but uneventful start in Calgary, Alberta (killing a few hours in various cool and trendy parts of the city whilst we waited for the arrival of our friend’s flight from the UK) we headed straight to Banff and woke to start our Canadian Rockies experience tour “a la Gardner” with a spectacular sunny mountain view from the Rimrock Hotel, Banff.
Banff – what a beautiful town – surrounded by mountains with an upmarket alpine ski resort feel (AND the worlds best bakery – in the considered opinion of cake connoisseurs – Dave and myself :-) ) .

Ignoring jetlag, we enthusiastically bounded out into the wilderness armed with a picnic and a can of the statutorily required bear repellent spray -  rather overpriced - unless, of course, you happen to be launched at by a grouchy grizzly ;-) . First hike of the trip – in search of wildlife at Lake Minnewanka (pronounced Mini-Wonker!), Banff National Park.

We passed, with some excitement (and an equal measure of trepidation ), ever increasing numbers of signs requiring hikers to stick like glue in tight groups of 4  due to increased bear activity in the area. It was a good job we had conveniently planned this vacation for  4 otherwise we would have been distinctly disappointed with our “wilderness experience” as almost everywhere we hiked in the Rockies the trails were only open to a group of 4 or more – that’s the kind of thing it might have been nice to know before hand !! ;-) ) .

The lake was gorgeous (one of many ever more impressive lakes we visited) … the sun glistened on the peaceful waters … kayakers glided silently in the clear turquoise bays … etc etc … After some time …. barely a chipmunk having been spotted (much less anything as exciting as a bear) …… we gave up our search of exotic mountain creatures and resigned ourselves, hot and exhausted, to a picnic overlooking the chilly rushing waters of Stewart Canyon.

Even fewer wildlife sightings the next day (were all the Canadian creatures on vacation in August – like the French??), we were, however, alternatively rewarded with views of the freezing crystal clear falls and river at Johnston Canyon. It was a long hot hike through the mountain pass to the “ink pots” – small ponds of turquoise water bubbling with mini volcanos and tidal waves of mud like mini tsunamis – mildly diverting  - but more happily,  we had also found one of the world’s most beautiful picnic spots at the banks of Johnston Creek, surrounded by mountains and puffy white clouds. Geoff was the first (and only one of us ;-)) to race enthusiastically barefoot into the river, rapidly retreating on discovery of just how cold freezing water really can be!! ;-)

The third full day into the trip and we were still, unexpectedly, wildlife free – so we followed a tip from a local and braved the swarms of mosquitoes at dusk to visit Vermillion Lakes – the alleged watering hole of countless local fauna. Clutching cameras, long lenses, tripods etc etc and hanging on to the hope of deer and moose majestically sweeping down from the mountains to the watering hole at our feet we swatted something in the region of 2000 bugs and the peace and tranquility was broken by the whining of the boys moaning that they were being eaten alive. Ali, sensibly, observed the wildlife inactivity from the safety of the car.  Unsurprisingly, neither deer nor moose were forthcoming (we should have known better than to believe a local that there was any wildlife in the Rockies at all) – but we did spot some ducks in the dim dark distance and the bonus was a spectacular sunset and the moon rising over the mountains in perfect reflection over the lakes – so it wasn’t all bad ;-)

Onwards, leaving beautiful Banff, we drove the Bow Valley Parkway to the lake of my dreams – Lake Louise – one of the few places I have always wanted to see :-) We were all also eagerly awaiting our luxurious accommodations at the 5 star Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. We arrived in time to drop Dave at the hotel in charge of the luggage and check-in (and a relaxing day in the “luxurious” spa facilities of Canada’s top hotel) whilst the rest of us 3 (braver ;-) ) intrepid whitewater rafters continued on the short journey through Yoho National Park to the river base of Wild Water Adventures :-)

Dressed in wetsuits, fleeces, neoprene gloves, boots, etc etc – mandatory protection bearing in mind Geoff was still recovering from frostbite after dipping his big toe in Johnston Creek a day or so earlier we were hurled unceremoniously into the churning icy waters of the Kicking Horse River. Yippeeee!! This was Ali’s first rafting trip (I suspect not the last!) and we were very impressed with her sportsmanship as it can be rather energetic paddling like crazy then hurling yourself into the centre of the raft in a large flailing pile of arms, legs and paddles whilst the guide screams to hang on for dear life and we plunge backwards over a class 4+ rapid. We were very relieved to see Ali (not only still inside the raft – as we had promised Dave we wouldn’t kill her ;-) ) emerging from some quite interesting rapids with peals of laughter and a giant grin  :-)

Whilst we were, however, having the time of our lives on the roaring river we were entirely ignorant of the fact that, Dave was enjoying a rather prolonged argument with the management of the “Chateau” Fairmont Lake Louise. It transpired that the “Fairmont” rooms we had booked for 3 nights with a mountain view (the lake view rooms being out of reach to anyone without a recent lottery winning ;-) ) had last been remodeled circa 1979, were furnished with all the attractiveness of a spartan office, had a bathroom so small you could barely stand in it and turn around without knocking yourself out …and the piece de resistance ….. far from a mountain view – a view of the car park and the (very close) wall of another wing of the hotel.

Luckily, Dave is a consummate negotiator and managed to convince the management (I have no idea how), that due to his enormous disappointment with the general battered state of the hotel and the appalling rooms that they should upgrade us for free to the new(er) wing of the hotel into a luxury room (with lake view!!) running somewhere in the region of $1000 per night. Not bad for an afternoon’s work, it has to be said, although I suspect Dave may have enjoyed his 5 star afternoon Fairmont experience relaxing in the grounds overlooking the glittering milky turquoise lake, the mountains and the Lefroy Glacier rather more ;-)

On that note, should anyone ever be considering a staggeringly overpriced stay at the “Chateau” (more akin to an Embassy Suites on initial sight) they may want to readjust their expectations. For sure, the rooms running $750-1000+ per night are lovely but the rest are awful and in desperate need of gutting – clearly they are there for the overnighters from Japan who arrive mid afternoon in endless droves by tour bus and are simply not going to moan about the general state of the hotel or the appalling rooms because they aren’t really going to spend any time in it. We were there, however, for 3 nights and cared very much – especially as it was the singularly most expensive hotel we had booked for the entire 3 week trip! Not to drone on about the “Chateau” (clearly the owners have never seen a real chateau much less stayed in one) but the food was bland, overpriced and touristy and, to add insult to injury, the “spa pool and jacuzzi” reminded me of the god awful place we used to get dragged to at school for swimming lessons in Slough when I was 10 years old – images of verrucas and floating plasters somewhat destroying the ambiance.

The only thing the Fairmont has on its side (aside from nice $1000 per night rooms) and, to be fair, thoroughly spectacular sunrise views over the glacier if you are lucky enough to get a lake view room, is, obviously, it’s spectacular location and it’s beautiful flower filled gardens running right down onto the shores of my dream lake :-) To be fair any grotty old establishment is going to be a thriving business when it is parked on top of one of the most scenic lakes in the world. The lake didn’t disappoint – albeit it does seem much smaller in reality than it does in the photos – turquoise milk in color and dotted with peacefully gliding red kayaks (the clever bit of complementary contrast of colors for added “wow” wasn’t lost on us ;-) ).

The lake is drop dead gorgeous – especially if you can catch it at a moment when 20 tour buses haven’t all simultaneously exploded in the car park disgorging hundreds of noisy gaggling foreigners (we didn’t count obviously ;-) ;-) !! )  into what is, after all, quite a small area.

It is not as gorgeous, however, as the lake next door – Moraine Lake which will probably go down for all four of us as THE quintessential and most fabulous sight of the entire Rockies vacation (see pic at the top of the blog!). Clambering up the Rockpile to the viewpoint over the lake, I was at least, a little prepared for the sight which lay ahead (that is the upside AND the downside of being the vacation planner – you do know what is coming –  the rest of the crew being totally oblivious as to anything I had planned for us to see for the whole 3 weeks ;-)!!. And I have to say even I was speechless. It is hard not to wax lyrical about the Rockies on a warm sunny blue sky day – but you really do gaze on with some reverence of how utterly beautiful the natural world can be – I think we all fell a little bit in love with Moraine Lake …  Geoff was thoroughly spellbound…. It really is “Wow” on steroids :-)

Finally tearing ourselves away from the view (and the passengers of a newly arrived Brewster’s tour bus) we headed around the lake for a rather more uphill hike than anticipated and again into bear territory :-). Barely, 10 yards into the hike we were met by a National Park Ranger who was stationed on the trail to check numbers of no less than 4 were hiking together and that we were armed with pepper spray and knew how to use it ;-) How exciting!!  As she was busily counting that we were, in fact, a group of 4, 2 diminutive aging Taiwanese hikers popped up out of nowhere, overheard the conservation and, obviously realizing that their hike was doomed from the start, they enthusiastically informed Mrs. Park Ranger that they were hiking with us for the day ;-) !! We weren’t quite sure what to make of that idea – fearing they may hold us back etc etc ….. which was a joke …. they were actually far faster and fitter than any of us (not being patrons of the world’s best cake shop in Banff, I suspect)  and actually spent the day darting backwards and forwards between us and various other groups of hikers (we saw them again at numerous points uphill and on various trails over the hours having barely broken a sweat) ;-).

The hike was absolutely beautiful (did I mention how beautiful it was??) – leaving glimpses of the bright turquoise lake behind us we wound up and through the forest – the smell of warm pine filling the air, skipping around fresh bear scat – STILL not a bear in sight – butterflies flitting between the alpine flowers and the glittering brilliant white glaciers all around us. Luckily, the journey itself we had chosen to take (to Eiffel Lake) was far better than the destination which would otherwise have been a massive disappointment – a tiny muddy grey looking glacial run-off surrounded by mountain scree with all the appeal of a quarry pit – Moraine Lake it certainly wasn’t !!

To avoid the misery of the “Chateau” food – we had, with a little local reconnaissance and some earlier extensive Gardner internet research, located an odd little cabin restaurant in the woods, Baker Creek Bistro, which served far superior food in a setting far more in keeping with the locale than the “Chateau Embassy Suites”. So enthusiastic were we at finding this little gem that we decided to head back  for breakfast the following day (as we couldn’t face the 1 hour wait in the Chateau’s restaurant on-site (no reservations allowed) or the inedible grey prison gruel (allegedly oatmeal) served by the “Chateau Deli” again.

Whilst this was actually a little out of our way (and in the wrong direction as we were actually leaving and heading north to Jasper National Park via an all day drive on the famous Icefields Parkway) we decided it was still worth the detour. To cut a very long and complicated story short we ended up marooned in the bistro car park halfway along the Bow River Parkway trapped in the middle of a 4 hour cycle race which had closed off the road outside of the cafe and everything around for a good 20 miles. Oh dear! Our early attempts to convince the organizers to let us drive out very slowwwwwwlllyyyy behind the cyclists were unsuccessful  (unsurprisingly) and rather fraught. The cyclists were in full swing and clogging up both sides of the road by the time we had consumed our eggs benedict in blissful ignorance and had wandered back out to the car. It seemed we were doomed to spend the morning in a car park in misery. However, the organizers hadn’t reckoned on the fact that we were armed with “Dave the supreme negotiator” and (to my eternal mystification) they were somehow convinced to lend us their motorcycle back-up safety officer crew who would lead us in convoy between the groups of cyclists. I suspect the cyclists themselves were equally mystified as to what a scruffy dusty Avis rental SUV crammed with luggage and 4 even scruffier tourists was doing in the middle of their (probably well publicized and locally famous) bicycle race ;-) It had its hairy moments as we weaved (at some unexpected speed) between overtaking cyclists and oncoming cyclists – our motorcycle convoy were obviously enjoying the unexpected diversion of escorting the stupid tourists off the parkway  ;-)

Finally, we left the lovely sunny Lake Louise area and we were heading northwards on our way up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, slightly exhausted even before we had started, and straight into the rain ;-) Barely bothering to stop in the grey and damp and crossing all limbs that the drive back south again in 4 days time would be sunnier (this being one of the top scenic drives in the world and one most definitely to be seen in the sun) we eventually arrived in Jasper.

The town itself has a far more “lived in” feel than rather more exclusive Banff – more grungy hiker than wealthy skier – and I had, somewhat nervously, booked us a cabin for the 4 of us to share out of town on Patricia Lake. As we weaved up the country road following the map to the cabin we heard a scream from the back seat (finally !!! Ali had spotted a black bear in the undergrowth !!!!!! ). So they hadn’t all gone on vacation after all  :-) We watched it feasting on berries and wandering about in search of even more juicy berries no more than 20 feet away – completely disinterested in our presence – it was fabulous :-) This very same short section of road turned out to be the only place we saw a stag too – wandering about in the marsh and at the roadside causing traffic chaos – cars screaming to a halt and abandoned in the middle of the road for all the other fellow wildlife watchers  to photograph (who had probably barely seen a single creature larger than a chipmunk all vacation either) ;-)

Surprisingly, Patricia Lake turned out to be a highlight – the cabin was more a modern cottage in the woods – and the lake itself was emerald green, surrounded by mountains  and absolute peace and quiet – it was bliss :-)

Maligne Lake, in Jasper NP, (another one of my dream lakes!) turned out to be slightly less than perfect for my fellow travelers – nobody fancied the 2 hour wait for the tiny little enclosed boat to take us and the hordes out to Spirit Island –  bobbing across the choppy waters for an hour and a half for a 5 minute view of the island ;-) So, we decided to walk around the lake instead, which was lovely, until a million tiny gnats decided to start feasting upon the delicate British flesh of Dave and Ali (they obviously didn’t like the taste of our more southern thin Floridian blood) – after a while the slapping of bugs on flesh ringing in the air had become too much for any of us to bear so we beat a hasty retreat back to the Cabin and spent the afternoon drifting about aimlessly on a kayak on picture-perfect Patricia Lake with no company other than the dragonflies buzzing around us :-) Our final hike at Maligne Canyon was better received than the Maligne Lake, by group consensus. Very rain-foresty … more freezing rushing waters …. deep emerald and bright lime greens everywhere .. so damp that the moss was actually growing on moss ;-)  We almost expected a family of hobbits to scuttle out from the undergrowth in front of us ;-)

And so, the Rockies nearly over … we made our way back down the Icefields Parkway – via the Columbia Glacier, the Saskatchewan River, endless other blue and turquoise lakes, the Athabasca Falls and the Sunwapta Falls – to an unexpected picnic lunch stop with the last of our mountain creature encounters – mommy and baby moose grazing at the waters edge of Waterfowl Lake. Yippeeee :-) To get a closer look we stumbled about in the marsh, scampering and tripping over almost impassable undergrowth (4 sets of soggy hiking boots as a momento) but it was worth every soggy sock! :-)

I think we were all a little subdued at leaving the Rockies (difficult to imagine it would be possible to beat those lakes anywhere else in the world)  :-(  but it was great to be back in civilization in Calgary for no other reason than the food!!  Jasper – to be fair most of the Rockies – is definitely a little stuck in the 1970′s from a culinary perspective  ;-)  Luckily we love salmon – and they do have lots of it  - which is a good thing if you don’t eat meat – otherwise you might just starve to death – but you could still die of boredom ;-) ;-)

So … onwards and upwards to the next stage of the Canadian Experience – Vancouver and Vancouver Island … blog and photo’s to follow….. :-)

Croatia – May 2013

29 May

Dubrovnik

Photo’s are at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/vcv6yr78rwguvwb/p8SJNYdTVV

So, following on from the excitement of Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, we landed in Zagreb, Croatia with 20 minutes at our disposal to catch the connecting flight to Dubrovnik (excellent – 5 minutes had been gained by the pilot putting his foot down) … We disembarked at the worlds smallest capital city international airport – barged through immigration control knocking flying anyone who was slow, stupid or frail enough to get in our way ;-) We could still see the Dubrovnik flight sitting on the runway  … One strip search at security and a panic emptying and re-packing of our hand luggage later, hope was still high. Puffing, sweating and still re-dressing, we handed over our boarding passes to the airline gate staff – not 10 feet from the open doors of the bus waiting to carry us across the runway to our plane – yippee! This would be the tightest connection we had ever made … We already had visions of sipping cocktails on the balcony of our lovely hotel overlooking the Adriatic by 4pm – all would be right with the world after all :-)

The charming lady at the gate scanned our tickets, frowned slightly and then informed us in a very exotic accent that “unfortunately” there was a problem – our seats (together with those of the other 20 people from the doomed Paris flight – all huffing, puffing, swearing and gesticulating in a variety of colorful languages behind us) had been given to 20 other, infinitely more lucky and less sweaty, people but that they would try “desperately hard” to get us on the next possible flight 9 hours later (if they didn’t cancel it). Oh joy – again!!

20 minutes of histrionics later (which obviously couldn’t get us anywhere unless we were happy to be strapped to a wing) we waved off our plane and looked forward to the next 9 hours spent in a slightly nicer airport than CDG but with even worse food – if that were possible.

Not to make a drama out of a crisis (and, to be fair, with absolutely zero knowledge of Croatia’s capital, and even less interest in it) we hopped on a bus (free tickets from Croatia “Never travel this airline if you want to get where you hope to go” Airlines ) and found ourselves in Zagreb – a cross between an eastern block ghetto and a rather austere Germanic looking city. Lots of 1980’s music blaring in the old town city square and strange fashions – no doubt they thought the same about us ;-)

Despite the fact we exchanged the infinitely more attractive, “glittering adriatric cocktail-sipping experience with 5 star dining option”, for a warm beer and a plate of something unidentifiable (it may have been pasta with tinned vegetables) in Zagreb, it wasn’t altogether disastrous. Zagreb does have some lovely buildings, albeit that I did have to keep shaking images of the Stasi from my mind at the sight of some of the more chilling and bleak looking ones; a couple of attractive pedestrianized restaurant/bar filled streets; and, at any moment, a clapped-out 1960’s Mercedes might turn a corner and head towards you like something in an old movie.

Overall, I am almost positive that it was a whole lot more entertaining exploring the old city than sitting in the airport for the entire day …

Dubrovnik was unsurprisingly beautiful – a 14th C (then later 16th C rebuild – they had an inconvenient earthquake which flattened most of it) cream limestone fortification city criss-crossed with small winding alleyways, staircases and traversed by the famous Stradun (worn shiny by 100’s of years of pedestrians). It has been on my bucket list since I was too young to know what a bucket list was ;-)

And then they had a war  :-(  And since then, it seems, the Croatians have spent 20 years putting the city back together again. On a first glance you would have no idea that anything grim had ever happened in the old city but then you start to notice ancient walls spattered with bullet holes and lumps of buildings missing from shrapnel damage.

On the upside, in addition to the physical beauty of the town, it’s wall-top walk and harbor, it has a remarkably Italian feel to it – but with no American tourists!!! For once we were pretty much on our own ;-) which amazed us as there wasn’t a native Croatian soul in the city or its environs who didn’t speak English (including the ancient toothless crone we stopped to “ask” the way to the post office by waving a handful of postcards in her face and smiling hopefully) …this, of course, makes it by far the easiest country in Europe to visit for those who prefer not to make a passing stab at anyone else’s language but instead choose to shout loudly in English at all foreigners in the hope they will understand ;-) ;-) Good job really as I had NO intention of “brushing up” on my Croatian language skills for 6 days of holiday ;-)

Although we loved the old walled city there was a strange incongruence between it and the streets even a few blocks back where it began to feel a wee bit more eastern block again – it kept reminding Geoff of East Berlin which he had visited (possibly not officially in his military days! ;-) ) years back before the wall came down. Lots of unattractive 1950 and 1960’s housing blocks and slightly depressing shopping centers – reminiscent of 1970’s Russian shops with nothing on display that anyone would want to actually buy.

The coast is very pretty (just not quite Italian coast dramatically beautiful) with lots of wooded islands and we spent a relaxing day cruising the Elafiti Islands on the ferry watching the villagers supplies being delivered and gazing at the crystal clear seas (about 20F too cold for us to dip a toe into but probably perfect for anyone living in freezing ol’ blighty ;-) ). We passed up the opportunity to rent a speed boat for the day to explore the islands offered at our hotel (by a completely straight faced concierge, I might add) at anything from $750 for 3 hours to…. well …. $ many thousands ! We resisted and hopped on the public ferry for about $20 for the day, saw 3 islands and spent the rest of the $750 “daily allowance” on lunch in the world’s most expensive restaurant ;-) The fact that there was no written menu and the still twitching platter of fish on offer (only moments before dragged flapping for their lives from the sparkling Adriatic) was priced by weight at anything from 250 Euros upwards per kilo should have given us a clue as to the forthcoming bill ;-) Still, it was all veryyyy fresh and very organic and the veggies/salad were actually hand-picked from the garden immediately an order was placed – so I shouldn’t complain ;-) !!

The hotel was drop dead gorgeous – The Bellevue – and as it said on the packet – it was a beautiful view … We invested a mortgage payment in exchange for a veryyyy nice suite (Dubrovnik is not the cheapest european destination in the world ;-) ) which had a balcony looking straight down over the beach (beaches are rubbish in Croatia if you live in Florida – or anywhere else warm with sand!) and the glittering/sparkling/blue waters of the Adriatic (I did like the sea, it has to be said!). It was a pity we were downwind of a French couple who spent a considerable amount of time arguing loudly and enjoying their disgusting Gauloises on their own balcony next door sending us coughing and spluttering back into our room in fear of permanent lung damage. Croatia suffers from the same social blight as France and Switzerland for a couple of rabid non-smokers, which is a pity …

All in all, we had a fabulous time and really loved Dubrovnik… if we ever think of heading back, we’ll probably charter a yacht and cruise around the Croatian islands… which is what it is most famous for, of course :-)

France and England – May 2013

28 May

Paris

Photo’s are at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/sl193bl9ch1pow4/oOFe47CQYv

The European work and travel adventure started encouragingly well (aside from the sleepless transatlantic flight) with beautiful blue sky (the first day of the year we were reliably informed ;-) !!) It started with a visit to London (Geoff – work) and then being driven around the sunny Kent countryside by a very kind friend whose tour largely comprised of kicking us out of the car at various destinations, prodding us in the direction of a country pub for food and dragging us , non compos mentis, on a brisk walk in bluebell filled woods – all in an attempt to keep us awake and avoid the slippery slope of jet lag ;-)

Whilst I then headed briefly to Windsor to visit my parents (the usual lovely day visiting Windsor and the River Thames with mum – on the second sunny day of the year ;-) ) and later dragging my octogenarian father on a hike through Windsor Great Park which involved tottering slowly from one conveniently placed log to the next (as the Queen obviously can’t quite find the funds in her pension to invest in a few park benches in her back yard for her aging subjects!). Poor Geoff missed all that excitement and flew out to Stuttgart for a day of meetings.

And then northwards to sunny, rainy, freezing, and finally, warm, Cheshire (that pretty much covers any 5 minute period of time in the deep dark north of England in summer ;-) ) for a weekend of celebration with Gary and Tracey who had just got engaged … It flew by in a whirl of gastro pubs, curries and farm shops with homemade fudge (yummmyyyy). The highlight for Geoff being a gastro pub  which has 150 different gins behind the bar :-)  I think between Gary and Geoff they probably tried them all!!! ;-)    We found time in between eating (we do miss English food from time to time ;-) ) to stroll along the canal entertained by the weekend barge drivers incompetently bouncing their way from one bank to the next (our own theoretical abilities to control a barge on the water being superlative, of course ;-). We also finally got to meet Gary’s oldest friend, Rob, over a curry (could it have been any other way?) which was a hoot – and discovered his wife, Rainzley, has unparalleled talents in the baking department – no-one has ever specially baked and hand-delivered me my very own victoria sandwich and my very own ginger cake (good and bad news – obviously!) and the memory still brings a nostalgic tear to my eye ;-)  I did share them … sort of ….maybe a little … honestly ….;-)

The weekend continued with a very English day in the fabulous old city of Chester – we always forget just how beautiful it is in those elusive moments of sun. A vague attempt to walk the walls and stretch our legs was followed by beer and lunch at a gastro pub patio in the sun …

Finally, I did some much anticipated bonding with our new furry “nephew” Ollie (if we hadn’t been continuing en route around Europe he would have been catnapped upon departure from Cheshire and hidden in my hand luggage).

The weekend did end with a terrifying request from the newly engaged couple to me to be wedding planner for the forthcoming event … at. some destination to be decided …( basically anywhere so long as it isn’t blighty!) Obviously I am honored and I will proceed courageously with the enormity of the task I have been given …

And then off to Harrogate to visit my best friend Caroline and her family in Harrogate for the week – fab as ever – chaotically busy as usual – poor Geoff (again!) got to work for the week whilst Caroline and I enthusiastically tackled the tea shops of Yorkshire…to be fair we were probably burning off 1 or 2 calories a day running up and down the hills of the Yorkshire Dales and the coastal paths of Yorkshire’s Robin Hood’s Bay … at the time it seemed to be all up and not much down to me but it could have been that the 5 whole cakes I’d consumed by that stage pretty much single-handedly were beginning to take their toll ;-)  Frequently lost (we are girls after all – with no sense of direction other than the ability to sniff out the next tea shop – and, of course, we had left the map in the car) ;-) – it did allow us the opportunity to engage with some of the more colorful locals. I was relieved that Caroline was fully in tune with the guttural intricacies of the rural Yorkshire accent otherwise I’d still be wandering lost in a daze now ;-) I’ll admit that I wasn’t fully concentrating when we cross-examined one particular middle aged farmer in welly boots and up to his neck in mud (somewhat stereotypically accompanied by his pet whippet). He could have been speaking BBC English for all I would have noticed, so mesmerized was I with his interesting hair arrangement – it may have been a combination of a knitted (perhaps crocheted??) comb-over and a whole can of hairspray – who knows – it still haunts me now ;-)

The week ended as it began – with an introduction for Geoff to “the girls” tea shop and pub lunch life. I don’t think he had fully appreciated , up until then, the vigor and enthusiasm with which we hunt down Yorkshire’s finest tea shops in search of coffee and homemade cake. I fear it may have been a baptism of fire for the poor soul – by the time it had reached 11am and no cake had been successfully located – 2 manic cake-driven women in an enclosed vehicle without a coffee break can suddenly get quite hormonal ;-) ;-)

So ….. eventually … out of the rain and cloud of the northern British Isles and on to the rain and cloud of Gaie Pariiiiiis!!

That aside, it was pleasant to stroll the streets, absorb more chocolat croissant calories and pass the hours in a caffeine induced high.

Whilst I spent my second evening alone in the safety and relative luxury of a very nice hotel near Place de la Concorde avoiding the drizzle, Geoff was busily sweating over a hot overhead projector presenting to the French team at work.

Seems I missed all the excitement for once – when he finally made it back to the hotel at midnight he brought with him tales of riots; football hooligans clambering over the Arc de Triomphe; drunk drivers speeding round it in circles (in their 2CV’s ;-) ) at 70mph whilst hanging onto the roofs of their cars and simultaneously waving the Paris Saint Germain football team flag; scaling the Eiffel Tower (!!) (you have to admire their sense of adventure) and general debauchery and misbehavior along the otherwise peaceful and upmarket streets of the Champs Elysees …… all observed at a safe distance by about 3000 armed police ;-)

It seems the Parisian team had won their first major football tournament in 19 years, and, of course, it’s always nice to celebrate these things with some senseless hooliganism ;-)

Keen to leave not so Gay Pariiieee for the sun of Dubrovnik, Croatia, we dashed to the airport to discover that Croatia Airlines thought it would be a great day to strike – joy!  Charles de Gaulle airport is not the best place to while away the hours. A rather depressing cross between an underground metro station (with miles of strange moving tunnels) and a bus station in a “republique de banane” ;-) Time for a remodel I think.

Geoff particularly enjoyed queuing with all of the other displaced Croatia bound travellers for a stale and almost priceless tuna roll ….. followed later by killing some more time standing in line for a bottle of water …… interestingly, he discovered that you CAN buy a stale tuna roll without a boarding pass upon your person but you absolutely CANNOT buy a bottle of water without one – just something to bear in mind in case you ever plan to experience the delights of C de G airport and don’t have hours to spare standing about in line as we did ;-)

As the hours passed, the misery increased and our hope for making the connecting flight from Zagreb to Dubrovnik slowly dwindled – until – suddenly there WAS a plane after all to whisk us away from the misery of CDG’s Terminal 1 bus shelter. Yippee – hope soared – it would be tight but we could make it with 15 minutes to spare if Zagreb International airport was veryyyyyy small and we ran very fast. Motivation was high for the sweaty cross terminal sprint as the next flight to Dubrovnik (maybe…if they didn’t cancel it completely…no guarantees, of course..) wasn’t for another 9 hours …

… see separate blog for Croatia at http://geoffandjennistravels.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/croatia-may-2013/ ‎

…and after Croatia… it was onwards, upwards and westwards once more – back to blighty (still raining, sunny, cold, warm – and this time adding hail to the list – not bad for the end of May). Time for a quick family reunion for Geoff to celebrate Auntie Val’s birthday and his dad’s forthcoming 70th…which was fab … and to re-bond with our young niece and nephew and to meet niece number 2 (all 3, very cute but still an excellent contraceptive ;-) ) We are waaaay too old for all those sleepless nights and repulsive diapers ;-) ) Give me a kitty litter tray and the odd furball expelled at 4am under the bed and I am a very patient and tolerant parent ;-)

Very exhausted we headed to our final destination – London – work meetings for Geoff – sight-seeing for me in a London I barely recognize now – dinner with friends – more bluebell-filled woodland walks in Chislehurst (the poshest suburb I’ll ever be invited to ;-) ) – and finally we collapsed on the plane (after nearly 4 weeks of travel and 7 flights) to sleep …

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