Montreal, Canada – July 2016

25 Jul
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Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal, Canada

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I followed along (like the long-suffering but dutiful wife that I am😉  ) for a trip to Canada whilst Geoff had work to conduct with colleagues in the Montreal office.

I generously offered to sacrifice my rapidly expanding waistline to test the various cafe and coffee shop options for Geoff’s weekend off. That’s just the kind of gal I am😉

Those who know me well are acquainted with the fact that my research is extensive and detailed when it comes to matters culinary as I do hate to consume an unworthy calorie🙂

For those of you who may follow in our footsteps for a long weekend of gluttony in Montreal… a day commenced without a visit to Olive et Gourmando for coffee and breakfast (or just an emergency apricot croissant) is a day without meaning… a day devoid of joy… and thoroughly pointless…

…and should the sugar high from breakfast begin to wane, there is no better chocolate almond croissant in the entire state of Quebec than that created by the fair hand of Monsieur Faure at his very fine Maison du Christian Faure….

The restaurants are incredible, the chefs innovative and the quality of the fresh, local ingredients superlative (at least at this time of the year!)

If it weren’t for the brutal winters and the fact that we would both weigh 400 pounds within a calendar year, we could undoubtedly live here for the croissants alone… probably residing in one of those beautiful terrace houses with the winding staircases on a peaceful tree-lined street in Plateau Mont-Royal or Mile End (or if our numbers came up we might splash out on one of the fabulous residences overlooking the Saint-Louis Square)…

… anyway… if we lived here I’m guessing that after a leisurely breakfast at a window table at O et G we would meander through the pretty flower-filled streets of Vieux Montreal, chat with the artists at Place Jacques Cartier, stop in at Crew Collective for (another) coffee in the spectacularly gorgeous re-purposed Royal Bank Tower with its chandeliers and gilded ceiling, wander down to Vieux Port and (in order to burn off a small fraction of the calories) we would probably rent pushbikes and join the throngs of tourists and locals jogging, cycling or strolling along the Saint Laurence River and the Canal de Lachine in the summer sun…after that we would pay a brief but meaningful visit to Monsieur Faure for sustenance… we would waddle through the Place d’Armes and contemplate which one of the few hundred absolutely amazing restaurants in the city we should dine at….

And if we should tire of the old city we would head out to do much the same again in Plateau Mont-Royal, Mile End or Petite Italie… only we may also throw in a side trip to Marche Jean-Talon for some local produce and take a picnic up to Parc Mont-Royal or one of the other innumerable green spaces available to the lucky residents of Montreal🙂

…which, incidentally, is exactly what we did!😉🙂

The city is also filled (so I’m told) with interesting and diverse museums. I still recall with a shudder the Insectarium which we ventured into many years ago, encouraged by friends to sample the wittchety grubs, the ant macaroons and the fried crickets. I have no idea if you can still do that all these years later but if you can I don’t think I’d join you… you’d find me waiting for you back at Monsieur Faure’s with a cup of earl grey and a chocolate almond croissant🙂

 

 

Kefalonia – July 2016

6 Jul
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Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia

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Deep mediterranean-blue skies, cypress covered hillsides, olive groves, bee hives buzzing with activity in fields of wild thyme, rocky coves with crystal clear ultramarine and turquoise waters, a gorgeous fishing village draped with bougainvillea and pink and white oleander trees radiant with bloom… a more perfect location for the wedding of one of my oldest friends, Kate and her charming new hubby Damion, than Fiskardo in Kefalonia would not have been possible to find🙂

We were here for a week getting our annual “Europe fix” and also to kill two other important birds with one stone – firstly, obviously, to attend the wedding and secondly, to have a vacation with my brother Paul and our sister-in-law Katie who we just don’t get to see often enough😦 As luck would have it though, we actually managed to kill another third unexpected bird with the same stone – one of our best friends Gary and his wife Tracey were finishing up their vacation on the island and we managed to spend our first afternoon (and their last) with them re-acquainting ourselves with the delights of grecian food as the sun glinted on the bay behind us in Agia Efimia. It was quite lovely🙂

Having lured our family to Kefalonia to join us with the offer of the second bedroom in our hillside stone cottage we were relieved to find that the local town, Fiskardo, is absolutely beautiful. Fishing boats, yachts and catamarans bob around in the harbor, the waterfront is filled with shady cafes and restaurants where we probably spent far too much time dining upon cheese (feta, saganaki, haloumi… pretty much any cheese really – baked, raw, wrapped in filo pastry, decorating the top of a greek salad, drizzled in olive oil, herbs, nuts or honey), freshly baked and herbed pitta bread dipped in tzatziki, taramasalata and hummus… and way too many meals were finished with slices of sticky, pistachio-filled, honey soaked baklava. During our lengthy over-indulgences at the table we pondered ad-nauseum how we could afford to buy a 48’ catamaran (with all necessary mod-cons) between us and spend the rest of our lives floating aimlessly in the coves and bays of the Mediterranean🙂

Whilst the cottage in the hills above Fiskardo was very pretty – with a vine-covered terrace on which we sipped our morning tea – and a sun terrace (overlooking the Ionian Sea glinting in the distance) with large comfy chairs at which many glasses of vino were sipped at the end of the day – the beds were clearly de-commissioned stock from Alcatraz and all 4 of us, although sorry to leave the island, would not be sorry to get back to a more comfortable sleeping arrangement – even if, in our case, that would be the BA business class beds on our return transatlantic flight which were far from comfortable either😉

It wasn’t all relaxation, sleepless nights on a steel gurney and over-consumption though! Katie and I (and once or twice the boys also deigned to get their feet wet) started each day with a refreshing dip in one of either of our 2 favorite beaches – Foki or Emblisi. The choice was tough – clear turquoise water with shades of ultramarine straight from my paintbox… or clear turquoise water with shades of ultramarine straight from my paintbox😉 For some reason bobbing about for 30 minutes every morning seemed justification enough to potter into town for brunch and later we would grab the map and head off onto the open road to explore the island. By that I mean we would take to the terrifying hairpin bends, sheer mountainside cliff drops (most with no protective barriers whatsoever) and narrow, winding country roads where you were more likely to have to make an emergency stop for a herd of roaming goats than for an oncoming vehicle.

…and so we wound through the mountain roads with their spectacular backdrops of white cliffs plunging into the sea, marveling at the bright white pebble beaches far below us (the most famous being Myrtos Beach). We visited Assos – a bijou jewel in Kef’s crown and the only town other than Fiskardo to have been spared the ravages of the 1953 earthquake which all but razed the island and its old venetian architecture to the ground. In case there is any room for doubt, the views from the road winding up through the mountain pass and ultimately descending to the village of Assos are nothing short of jaw-dropping and on a tranquil day when the sea is calm, the bright white cliffs of the peninsular opposite reflect into the Ionian like a mirror image. The sea is so clear here that you can see the seabed from any vantage point way up on the pass.

We also drove south through the countryside to Agia Efimia where the best restaurant – Sea Rock-ws – and the best bakery – Strawberry – on the island can both be found. Conveniently, all roads on the island pass through Agia Efimia (at least they do when I’m map-reading🙂😉 ) so we managed to squeeze in a few repeat visits to enjoy a peaceful stroll along the marina… honest guv😉

During our week we probably drove almost every road on the island (at least every road which passed in or out of Agia Efimia😉 ). On our travels we passed through the capital Argostoli (very quickly as we struggled to find anything appealing there to actually stop for) and through both Sami and Poros (similarly, we struggled to find any highlights of note in either!) and on to the most southerly town of the island, Skala (highlight – the Sunrise Fish restaurant whose culinary fishy delights were sampled whilst watching the sun set on the sea). The village of Peratata way up on a hill above Argostoli was quaint – if for no reason other than there is a particularly good cafe called Kastro Cafe which is literally in the shadow of the Castle of St George. We stopped here for sustenance and for Katie to cuddle a cat which caused some amusement. Barely had we taken our seats in the garden with a view over the sea and mountains when Lucifer (the cafe’s ginger tomcat) leapt onto Katie’s lap (presumably with the full psychic knowledge that Katie isn’t the world’s biggest fan of our feline friends) and proceeded to roll around blissfully on her lap as if she were his long lost mother🙂

Closer to the airport is Svoronata – another very pretty old town with a fish restaurant called O-Milos on a cliff overlooking the sea which is conveniently positioned 2 minutes from the airport and has no doubt been the location of the last meal of many a glum tourist heading back to the grey skies of their various northern homelands.

Just to add a frisson of excitement to our otherwise typically lazy, typically mediterranean island vacation, Geoff thought it would be fun to ignore my suggestions (several) to fill up with gas on our long journey home from the deep south to the far north of the island. He preferred instead to keep driving – winding up and down the hills, navigating the (probably) hundreds of steep hairpin bends as we traversed the mountains late at night in a country barely renowned for its work ethic (which – just to clarify – in my mind equated to little to no chance of finding a gas station open at 10pm on a Sunday night in the middle of absolutely nowhere).

Unfortunately, once we had left the coastal town of Agia Efimia (the town through which all roads pass😉 ), with (according to the driver) 1/4 tank of gas left, the gauge suddenly plummeted to empty almost immediately we had embarked upon the steep climb north into the hillside boonies. Our map was useful enough to show the location of gas stations across the island and as designated map-reader I knew that it was going to be a very long time before we found any more gas stations – open or otherwise! I shared this factoid with anyone who would listen and sat po-faced in the rear of the car with my fingers crossed😉

Now, our sister-in-law Katie is very fit… she has swum the English Channel and is constantly humiliating the competition in national swimming races and local running competitions. At one stage, the suggestion was mooted that (once we had finally run out of gas on a blind bend in the dark somewhere) she might be able to run to the nearest town (which I don’t doubt) to find someone who could rescue the idiot tourists from the side of the mountain. Luckily, it didn’t come to that and by some minor miracle, we puffed on fumes into a bright, shiny and totally unexpected gas station (clearly newer than the edition of the map we were using!) with many glorious options of gas available and even a nice Kefalonian man to dispense it for us – about 8 miles from home🙂

And now on to the very purpose of our transatlantic voyage to Greece – the wedding of the year – Kate and Damion’s big day. Having looked forward to the day and incurred considerable expense in transporting ourselves across the Atlantic and then halfway across the Mediterranean to attend the nuptials one can only imagine my disappointment when I say that the specially acquired silver, bejeweled sandals which took me weeks to find for said big day received precisely 90 minutes of airtime before they were packed away again in tissue paper and replaced with flip-flops back at the cottage😦

To avoid too much embarrassment to the party guilty of bringing “my” wedding day to an abrupt halt I shall gloss over the worst of the gory details. Suffice it to say, we were lunching somewhere quite delightful with Paul and Katie in town at 11.30 with 3 hours to go before having to ruck up at the chapel in our finery when Geoff turned quite grey, rushed away from the table and returned 15 minutes later in a pool of sweat insisting that we pay the bill forthwith and head home with some urgency. Unfortunately, we weren’t moving with quite sufficient urgency and we were all treated to the return of his breakfast and lunch under a tree at the side of the road. Oh dear… only 2 hours to go and Geoff is curled up in bed with food poisoning (we suspect the octopus he had eaten for dinner the night before). To give him his due he donned his wedding outfit and we made our way through the impeccably manicured grounds of the Emelisse Hotel to attend the chapel service which was gorgeous and mercifully brief. My friend Kate would look radiant in a paper bag so needless to say she was no doubt the most beautiful bride of the year and hubby Damion scrubbed up quite well too🙂 Unfortunately, that’s about all we saw of the proceedings… poor grey Geoff survived the line to hug the newlyweds on the terrace overlooking Emblisi Beach and then darted off again to avail himself of the facilities… and that was pretty much it for the wedding! Another hasty rush home, a return to bed and I spent the rest of the day mopping a sweaty brow and clearing up the bathroom floor before my brother and sister-in-law returned from their afternoon out!

Aside from that excitement and a minor collision with the wall of the cottage next to ours (the less said the better perhaps😉 ) the rest of the trip passed mercifully without incident and all concerned had a thoroughly lovely grecian vacation🙂

England – June 2016

30 Jun
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Beachy Head, South Downs

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A flying trip to England en route to a wedding in Greece!

Sunshine in the southeast in Windsor, even more on the south coast in Eastbourne for the weekend and then… miraculously… sun in London too!

Apparently we caught the full  5 days of the English summer in between the rain storms🙂

In 17 years I can’t remember a more eventful arrival in the UK… the morning after the night before of the Brexit referendum when the votes had been counted and the final tally revealed that Britain would be leaving the EU on a vote of 52:48 in favour.

We sat recovering from our flights at 6.30am over breakfast in the business class lounge watching the news with our fellow travelers in an eery silence as Prime Minister Cameron resigned from his post and it became clear that the course of history, not only for the UK but also likely for the other member states of the EU, was about to take an unexpected turn.

Ignoring the political, financial and, for some fellow Brits, the emotional upheaval which is about to unfold in the coming months and years ahead it was (happily), at least for us, a thoroughly delightful and very English few days… enough to stoke the fires of home sickness as usual!😉

We started with Earl Grey tea and Victoria Sponge cake at Dorney Court Kitchen Garden Café with my parents on a sunny afternoon (several, if I’m honest!)🙂

Then on to a glorious weekend visiting our good friends Dave and Ali at their apartment in a spectacular converted monastery in Meads village – a few steps from Beachy Head, Eastbourne – cliff top walks on an (almost) mediterranean blue sky day, a picnic on the cliff trail with butterflies fluttering in the breeze around us and bees buzzing in and out of the blooms of dark blue coastal flowers; an excellent gastro pub 2 minutes stroll from their apartment; real english fish and chips🙂 ; a breezy walk along the coastal boardwalk and a potter around the famous Victorian pier (or at least what’s left of it after a devastating fire in 2014); fudge and rock shops; tea, scones, clotted cream and homemade gooseberry jam with sandwiches and (more) homemade cake in a countryside tea shop in Penshurst, Kent.

Flower-filled English country gardens, cows in fields, puffy white clouds drifting overhead, beautiful villages with cricket greens and country pubs, cottages covered in climbing roses and wisteria… sigh… oh and the first decent curry we’ve had since the last time we were back in our homeland…🙂

All good English countryside things had to come to an end, of course, and we headed into London for Geoff to work for a couple of days. But the sun continued to shine and even that excursion was almost picture perfect. There was a slight hiccup at check-in late on Sunday night when it seemed that “someone” (who will remain nameless) made a reservation at the Hilton Tower Bridge and then immediately cancelled it… umm… no amount of analyzing could explain how this had transpired but luckily we didn’t have to sleep under the railway cuttings at London Bridge station so disaster was averted😉 In full tourist mode, as Geoff headed off to the sparkly new Red Hat office at Monument and Pudding Lane, I headed off early, camera in tow and snapped all of my favorite places in the capital and more. There was an emergency stop required in the bakery section of Fortnum and Mason but I’d rather keep that quiet from his lordship bearing in mind how many tea shop visits we made over the course of our brief but blissful visit home😉🙂

And now… off for some mediterranean warmth and even more sun on the Greek island of Kefalonia in the Ionian Sea to attend the wedding of some English friends🙂

New Orleans – May 2016

25 May
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New Orleans, Louisiana

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An unexpected warm, sultry weekend in the Big Easy came courtesy of some friends of Geoff from his days way back in HP when we first moved to the US.

Clearly, Gay didn’t think I had written enough blogs for the year so far😉 , so she took pity on us, and gave us her timeshare in the French Quarter. It is fitting then, that this blog is dedicated to Gay and Pete – without whom it simply wouldn’t be🙂

Never ones to say no to a last minute (or any other type of) travel opportunity we grabbed our bags, made some emergency dinner reservations at our favorite NOLA restaurants and prepared for a weekend of gluttony deep-south style🙂

Needless to say, New Orleans, in addition to being a famed party destination (for which we are now at least 30 years too old, thank goodness😉 ), is also a foodie’s heaven. The first order of the day was to sample our way around every shape, style, variety and flavour of praline in every praline kitchen in the city (of which there are way too many) – chocolate pralines, cajun pralines, pecan pralines, soft ones, creamy ones, toffee ones and peanut butter ones etc etc (avoiding only the bacon pralines for obvious reasons) – in order to find the very best pralines to send to Gay and Pete as a thank you (it was a rotten job but somehow we pulled through🙂 )

Thereafter, we were free to remind ourselves of the other culinary delights of the city.

Warm, sugared beignets with french coffee at Café du Monde (it has been 13 years since the last time I dipped my nose into an inch of dusty icing sugar – as inexplicably I managed to restrain myself the last time we visited – and it will highly likely be another 13 before I can justify the massive intake of calories again); crawfish po-boys; cajun shrimp with cornbread and remoulade; crawfish “paaaah” (pie😉 ) and fried green tomatoes… naturally!

Then there are all the celebrity chef restaurants, french restaurants, homestyle and contemporary creole restaurants, artisan coffee shops etc etc… oh and in case I forget – the new Israeli restaurant Shaya – winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2016 Best New US Restaurant of the Year. Either make a reservation a long time in advance (I spectacularly failed to obtain one)… or alternatively just stroll nonchalantly past whilst you are out and about on Magazine Street in the Garden District and nip in and beg the nice maitre’d for a couple of stools at the bar🙂

In case anyone thinks we only went for the myriad of delicious food options, we did tear ourselves away from our plates from time to time to enjoy the many aesthetic splendours of the city. The French Quarter (specifically avoiding Bourbon Street which is not only rife with the detritus of human society but also, frankly, ripe with its various bodily functions melded repulsively with wafts of stale beer – regardless of the hour of the day) is a delightful blend of Spanish, French and Creole influence architecture, giant magnolia trees, elegant flower-decked ironwork balconies, lush tranquil courtyards, voodoo paraphernalia, palm readers, jazz musicians on street corners, horse-drawn carriages, artists, color, noise and chaos.

The French Quarter is as gorgeous as ever🙂

Side-stepping the inebriated tourists staggering out of bars at 8am on a beautiful Saturday morning whilst simultaneously hopping over hobos and 20 something frat boys crouched behind trash cans relieving themselves of their liquid breakfasts (like I said, I’m glad we are far too old and boring to keep up with the seedier side of the nightlife in NOLA😉 ) we embraced the day intent on consuming as many sugary calories as possible and headed off to tackle the various sights. It didn’t take long to remind ourselves how lovely the French Quarter is away from the Riverfront tourist t-shirt stores and Bourbon Street. We criss-crossed our way through the side streets of the Vieux Carré gazing up at the  intricate lacy balconies, meandering past the artists at Jackson Square and wandering aimlessly along our absolute favorite street – Royal Street – all the way into Faubourg Marigny (one of the more colorful neighborhoods with a distinctly caribbean style) and back down Frenchmen Street – where the locals go to listen to jazz and drink beer preferring, unsurprisingly, to leave Bourbon Street to the tourists.

Catching the St Charles Avenue streetcar (the vintage electric rail), a warm breeze blowing through your hair as you trundle along perched on a mahogany seat, feels like a ride through history at the end of which, alighting at Washington Avenue, you step back to an era of great opulence and splendour. The Garden District was created after the Louisiana Purchase as a settlement for the newly arriving Americans who neither wanted to live with (nor apparently were welcomed by) the Creoles and residents of European descent who lived in the French Quarter. The newcomers made their wealth in trade and commerce – cotton, sugar, shipping etc – and consequently built fabulous mansions in a variety of styles: antebellum Greek revival, Victorian and Italianate. Enormous oak trees dripping in spanish moss grace the streets and gardens and the air is filled with the scent of purple lilac, giant magnolia blossoms and old money😉

Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District is similarly an unmissable escape from the crowds of the city – made more enchanting by its gradual decay and a liberal dusting of photogenic offerings to the deceased at various gravesides.

With Sunday lunch calling and nowhere specific to go we wandered down Magazine Street, known for its boutique shops and cafes, and eventually found ourselves outside of Shaya and as the heavens were smiling upon us we squeaked in at the bar and had one of our best meals in NOLA🙂

Replete, we whisked ourselves away from the Garden District and passed the remainder of the late afternoon in City Park at the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden which was also a positively peaceful haven with some positively excellent sculptures. We then meandered along the bayou at Bayou St John until finally collapsing back onto the street car to return for yet another gluttonous dining experience at Upperline in Uptown.

I tied up a few more photo shots that I had had in mind at the start of the week (and re-sampled the cajun pralines at Magnolia) whilst Geoff returned to loftier matters at work and we finally waddled back onto the plane making an unbreakable pact that we starve ourselves between now and July 2nd when we are expected to be svelte enough to attend the wedding of our friends in Greece… oh dear… I wish I hadn’t had that last praline …

 

 

California – May 2016

16 May
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Pacific Coast Highway, Northern California

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San Francisco and the California coast in May! Absolutely gorgeous as always🙂

The hedgerows, coastal trails and headlands are strewn with a kaleidoscopic variety of multi-colored flowers blanketing the landscape…from chest-high purple and white wallflowers, red hot pokers and arum lilies down to ankle-high red and orange indian paintbrush flowers, orange California poppies, miniature purple irises and a myriad of gorgeous, exotic-looking delicacies many of which I recognized from my childhood as gracing my mother’s stone patio pots back in England. In fact, many of the more fabulous plants and flowers tended lovingly by my mother in the garden of my childhood home grow in abundance and with wild abandon in this part of California.

Against a backdrop of a crystal clear blue sky and the sunlight glistening on the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, hiking through the flowers on the headlands has always been one of my very favorite springtime pleasures in Northern California.

Of course, there are one or two downsides to the spring climate too – waiting with trepidation (will it? …or won’t it?) for the morning fog to clear and the occasional bone-chilling temperatures on a windy day out on the headlands😉 Still, nothing was going to ruin our “romantic” weekend in Mendocino bundled up under layers of wind-cheaters and hiking jackets. The swimsuits never made it out of the suitcase… what on earth made me pack them in the first place I cannot imagine as even with the fondest of memories I have never stuck more than a toe (very briefly) into the icy waters north of San Francisco😉

But I jump ahead… the first part of our week was spent in Oakland where Geoff was attending a conference. It had some trendy new restaurants which were surprise finds as I have never taken the remotest interest in this port city across the bay from San Francisco. And if I’m honest, the best part about Oakland for me was the 1 minute walk to the BART (rail) station from the conference hotel and the fact that 2 stops later the Transbay (underwater) Tube deposited me at the centre of my universe for 4 days – Embarcadero station and the fabulous Ferry Building. From here I could zip about the city to my heart’s content with my Clipper Card fully loaded with a weeklong Visitor Pass. Feeling lazier than normal (and having vivid memories of how steep many of the streets actually are in this city) I braved the BART, the MUNI underground system, the mind-boggling city bus system and, best of all, the historic cable cars🙂 The F Line is a heritage streetcar service using restored, retired street cars from San Francisco’s own former fleet and from around the world. I fully grasped the multi-national nature of the endeavor to keep these wonderful cars active when I clambered onto one and found myself reading seating and entry and exit instructions in italian😉 Anyway, the F Line runs from Fisherman’s Wharf along Embardero (passing the Ferry Building) all the way across the city via Market Street to Castro District – it was my lifeline to everywhere🙂 The much more famous Powell-Hyde cable car with its dramatic views across the city as it careens up and down the steepest of the city hills offering glimpses of Alcatraz, the Coit Tower, Russian Hill and San Francisco Bay is understandably on every tourist’s to-do list… the queue snaking around the street at the cable car turntable is probably not😉

Anyway, courtesy of the complex, highly efficient and comprehensive public transport system I traversed the city from the wharves to The Haight to The Castro to Chinatown to the posh Union Street shops to North Beach to Mission with no particular plan and probably highly inefficiently from a time and motion point of view. However, I managed it all without so much as breaking a bead of sweat🙂

When you have an unlimited travel pass frankly it doesn’t matter if you go round in unexpected circles, or if you miss your stop because there are no announcements and the map is bouncing around too much on your knee to read the tiny writing and tie it up with the non-existent street signs, and/or the bus drivers don’t seem to be entirely clear where they are heading themselves! ??😉 Oh well… I may not be entirely cut out for the public transport system (I would rather have had a limo driver at my disposal, of course) but I surprised myself and managed not to get too tangled up in the bus schedules and, happily, I avoided wandering into any particularly unsavory parts of the city armed only with a camera and a Clipper Card😉

So… favorite parts of the city:

  • Haight/Ashbury – slightly wacky and synonymous with the Summer of Love hippie movement of the 1960’s – for me now synonymous with the best chocolate macaroon in the world (at Flywheel Coffee Roasters)
  • The Castro – home of The Castro Theatre and symbolic of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights – and home also to a rather striking pedestrian crossing painted in the multi-colors of the rainbow flag of the LGBT movement. Whilst The Castro may well also have exemplary bakery items, I was more interested in hot-footing it through the back streets to the Mission District
  • The Mission – notable for no reason other than Clarion Alley – literally an alley with an array of highly colorful street paintings. I have no doubt the district has far more to offer but I was on a mission (so to speak) to refuel on caffeine…
  • North Beach (famous for coffee shops) and Washington Square in particular, was an interesting place to hang out and watch the world go by on a bench wedged between smooching teenagers (making me feel very, very old), elderly toothless Chinese ladies cackling raucously (making me feel correspondingly young and sprightly) and the typical collection of San Franciscan hobos and the insanely potty chatting to themselves…
  • Chinatown – probably my favorite district simply for the photo opportunities and the feeling that you have stepped into another world albeit only 2 blocks from ritzy Union Square. I wonder if there has been some movement to sanitize this area since the last time we visited – I distinctly remember having to play hopscotch over gallons of gloopy spit in the street (a la authentic China😉 ) in previous forays into the district.
  • Embarcadero and the refurbished, trendy Ferry Building filled with interesting cafes and purveyors of upmarket foodstuffs . Pier 3 is the home of my (current!) most favorite vegan raspberry cheesecake in the entire world at Plant Cafe Organic🙂. There is nothing quite like strolling the Embarcadero on a sunny afternoon watching the ferries shuttling people back and forwards across the Bay as one tries to walk off a large slice of cheesecake😉
  • Fisherman’s Wharf – not my favorite part of the city by any stretch of the imagination but an absolutely unmissable tourist stop. The shops and the restaurants are quite ghastly but you can enjoy a world famous Irish Coffee at Buena Vista bar whilst you watch the Powell/Hyde Cable Car trundle up and down Hyde Street, which is, of course, a throughly San Franciscan experience🙂 It is also the farthest point you can go west on the street car system in order to get a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge without actually having to expend the energy of the walk to its base. Logistically, this is an extremely important observation point because the last thing I wanted to do was a 7.4 mile round trip hike along the waters edge to Fort Point if the GGB were to be shrouded in thick fog. And it was… every day… all day… so every day I gave up and headed to sunnier parts of the city
  • The only time I really got into a pickle with the public transport system was when I pottered off to the Union Street shops. The Powell/Hyde cable car line crossing Union Street looked an awful lot closer to the shops than transpired to be the case. And worse – it was all downhill …which meant that on the way back it would be all uphill … a very, very, very steep hill… So I had to find a bus route to quite literally haul my ass out of the valley… which was easier said than done and required enlisting the assistance of a local to even be able to locate the heavily disguised bus stop. Still… a bus eventually arrived despite my trepidation, I lived to tell the tale and, most importantly, I treated myself to another slice of raspberry cheesecake back at Pier 3 to make up for the calories I had unnecessarily expended by hiking down 6-10 blocks at a 45 degree incline in the first place😉
  • Alamo Square and the iconic view of the “Painted Ladies” against the backdrop of downtown and the financial district
  • The final major tourist stop of the trip was to Lombard Street “the crookedest street in the world”. Ram jammed full of camera clicking Japanese tourists but a compulsory stop for all visitors and those raised in the 1970’s on a diet of The Streets of San Francisco😉

On my final Geoff-free day I caught a ferry to beautiful sunny Sausalito across the Bay passing Alcatraz, yachts zipping across the waters and I had my first (albeit long distance) view of the Golden Gate Bridge of the trip. Typical!😉 Having been to Sausalito several times in the past I was less interested in meandering through the shops and neighborhoods and more interested in finding a way out to the houseboats at the extremity of town. Eventually my path crossed with a bus going in the right direction so I leapt on for the ride and headed out of town. The houseboats were quite lovely and typically quirky, some with spectacularly elaborate pot plant gardens. It was an hour or so very well spent and all was perfect with the world until I wandered back to the main road to find a bus back to the ferry terminal to catch my ferry to San Francisco. From a distance I could see a bus at the bus stop but I would have had to sprint faster than Flo-Jo to have caught it so I let it go expecting another one shortly (after all I had never waited more than 10 minutes for any form of transport in San Francisco). So I waited and waited and panicked and waited and eventually an hour later with 12 minutes to spare to catch my ferry a bus arrived to take me 10 minutes into town… and this was my final lesson in why I am really so much more suited to a private chauffeur😉

The weekend had finally arrived! Geoff was let out of school🙂 We picked up the rental car and spent most of the weekend stoned – courtesy of the previous renter who had clearly smoked a lot of marijuana and had tried to cover it up with an air freshener😉 It didn’t work😉 So, with windows fully wound down (lest we were stopped by the cops for speeding or any other minor misdemeanor) and with a brisk breeze blowing the cobwebs out of our ears we crossed inland to the Sonoma Valley to meander through the vineyards and then took the road northwest heading out to Bodega Bay, famous for its fish and chips. They were awful. Very possibly the worst fish and chips we have ever eaten. We’ll leave it to a great British chippy to cook them for us in future😉

Onwards and upwards on the utterly spectacular Pacific Coast Highway… stopping to stretch our legs at countless beautiful headlands and to skip through the wildflowers before we finally arrived at Mendocino. Fans of Murder She Wrote will know that Jessica’s home in fictional Cabot Cove, Maine was here at Blair House🙂 Geoff was distinctly non-plussed with my piece of Hollywood trivia… well… I was excited to see it again anyway!😉😉

And so, I return to the beginning of the blog. Wild flowers; coastal trails; hiking through Russian Gulch State Park on the Fern Canyon Trail to the waterfalls; a desperately cute town on the wonderful Mendocino Headlands; a charming bed and breakfast; delicious local wine and excellent restaurants. What more could you want from a weekend on the California coast?🙂

Oh yes… there was one more thing we wanted… to see the Golden Gate Bridge again… and there it was in all of it’s sun-drenched sunset glory as we headed back on 101 past Sausalito towards the city! The perfect end to a lovely weekend🙂

 

 

Argentina and Chile – April 2016

26 Apr
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Santiago, Chile – Barrio Bellavista

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Next time we head to the southern hemisphere where the world is upside down and spring becomes autumn overnight we’ll remember to pack hats, scarves and gloves instead of 3 pairs of shorts each and a collection of summery tops😉

To be fair, something cold and wintery blew in unexpectedly (courtesy of El Nino) so it wasn’t entirely my fault that we were inappropriately attired for the more “autumnal” days.

In any event, the sunny days were spectacular and the colder days gave me the opportunity to explore the coffee shops checking out the provenance of the beans and the finer points of the roasting process so that Geoff could be successfully maneuvered around the charming neighborhoods of both Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile on his weekend days off. Anyone who knows him well will be acquainted with his exceedingly high demands when it comes to coffee worthy of his refined palate. It can make or break a day of aimless city weekend wandering if a single bean has been burnt in the production of his macchiato or cappuccino. For me, so long as my decaf soy latte comes with a side of cheesecake I am far less pernickety😉

For reference… anyone heading to Buenos Aires need look no further than Full City Coffee House in Palermo (the coolest, hippest, trendiest, and coincidentally, our favorite part of town). And when in Santiago don’t waste your precious latte savoring time anywhere other than Original Green Roasters in Providencia. Thoughtfully, I’ve saved you all the unnecessary calories acquired in finding the perfect New York cheesecake… it’s there too… how fortunate!!!😉🙂

…and to make it a thoroughly perfect day you can then skip across Parque Bustamante on a caffeine and sugar induced high and head down into Barrio Italia… my favorite part of Santiago🙂

In case anyone thinks all I did was sample my way from one coffee shop to the next in these 2 wonderful cities, I did manage to squeeze in the usual criss-crossing through neighborhoods and parks.

This time, however, I was kicking leaves in Buenos Aires as they swirled around me rather than skipping through a carpet of purple jacaranda blossom as per our visit in spring (November) a few years ago. Buenos Aires is still fabulous in fall on a sunny day but it is far more fabulous in spring🙂

For those interested in seeing the city at its most glorious here is the link to Buenos Aires in spring🙂

I didn’t have time to revisit the famous cemetery or La Boca during this trip but photos of these other unmissable areas are in the above link.

The slightly more “autumnal” days brought to mind very (very) distant memories of  grey, miserable wintery weather in London… in fact, the very days from which we enthusiastically escaped nearly 20 years ago when we emigrated to the US😉

Travel has taught us many things about the world and, in our case, sometimes reminds us of the reasons we aren’t terribly well suited to the rigors of 4 seasons. Despite my occasional protestations and declarations that I want to return to Europe, with hindsight, I think we’ll probably stick to the year round sun in our retirements after all😉

On matters other than weather in Buenos Aires… watching life go by in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace Casa Rosada (where Eva Peron used to address her beloved nation) was as lively as ever. You can never go far without tripping over a protest or uprising of one nature or another in South or Central America. This visit the banks were closed and there were various murmurings of discontent across the city which culminated in tens of thousands of white flyers finding their way unceremoniously floating down to litter the parks and streets. They certainly don’t conduct a tidy protest in this part of the world😉

It was a delight to revisit the decaying beauty of the historic neighborhood of San Telmo, where you can see couples dancing tango in the park and its famous Sunday antiques and craft market fills the streets with the bizarre and the creative. San Telmo remains our second favorite part of Buenos Aires. The Centro area around Plaza de Mayo is bustling with government and office buildings, shops, shoe shiners, well-heeled (and polished) businessmen, newspaper stands, lottery ticket hawkers and the usual slightly chaotic street life of South America. As usual, we loved it all🙂 The protesters demanding the return of the Falkland Island (las Malvinas) from the UK are still there in their park encampments surrounded by billboards covered in old newspaper cuttings of various events of the conflict. Fortunately, it seems from casual conversation, that the majority of the population realize that the ongoing prodding at the Falklands issue is a diversionary tactic by the government. Recoleta is the poshest part of the city with its Parisian style balconied properties. The street art in Palermo was just as spectacular as ever decorating the trendiest part of the city. And Puerto Madero is the newest part of the city with it’s ever-increasing numbers of ultra modern high rise offices and apartment blocks running along the banks of the optimistically named Rio de la Plata (Silver River😉 ).

Geoff’s work successfully completed, we hopped on a spectacular 2 hour flight and headed north over the Andes to Santiago, Chile for the first time. Just as we stepped out from the airport we realized that we might need to consider investing in a scarf each. We headed straight to lunch hoping to find somewhere memorable in the historic centre. As it turns out it was quite memorable. By taking a wrong turn towards the Palacio de la Moneda, rather than find somewhere delectable for lunch, we were unexpectedly swept up in a fever of mass mourning for ex-president Patricio Aylwin.

Having inadvertently gate-crashed the state funeral of a clearly beloved leader we had absolutely no choice but to be dragged along in a mass of humanity, cameras, the state police, reporters and another political rally. A friend of mine from Chile once told me never to go to South or Central America in an election year… or whenever there are mass protests… she might also have mentioned not to wander blithely into a presidential state funeral. In a log jam of writhing humans all pushing in different directions there doesn’t appear to be any psychological or physical breaking point at which one group of Chileans will concede defeat and let the oncoming swarm of people pass. For a few minutes as more and more people tried to squish into a smaller and smaller gap between walls, barricades, lines of police and cameras I felt sure that I was having the air sucked out of me and that if Geoff (to whom I was glued) had tripped or fallen I would surely have been trampled underfoot. There was no unpleasantness or aggression, everyone was quite demure befitting the solemnity of the occasion, it’s just that Chileans don’t seem to understand that if you keep pushing and squeezing more people into a tiny gap rather than let someone pass and escape from the mass that someone in the middle of the scrum might actually die😉

Just an observation…

Still… it was excellent practice for coping with the subway with which I became very well acquainted for the rest of the week whilst Geoff was working in his glamorous, glittering skyscraper in the Las Condes part of the city. Some of the most interesting sculptures are in the upmarket El Golf and Las Condes sections of the city where we were based. From every glass tower in this area you would have a view of the Andes – not a bad start to the day watching the sun rise on the Andes over your cornflakes🙂

Santiago is a highly walkable city. Most of the historical neighborhoods of interest are close to each other, the Plaza de Armas, the Palacio de la Moneda, Barrio Italia (my favorite) with its boutique shops, courtyard cafes and antique furniture stores where you can watch the craftsmen at work on the sidewalk, Barrio Bellavista (the slightly grungy university area with street art almost to rival Palermo, Buenos Aires), Barrio Paris-Londres (2 cross streets with architecture reminiscent of Europe), Cerro Santa Lucia with Neptune’s fountain, Cerro San Cristobal with views over the city and the Andes and finally, Barrio Lastarria with its pretty street cafes, coffee shops and craft market. Strolling these areas (and testing out the various purveyors of cheesecake) kept me quite busy until the weekend when I took Geoff on the usual breakneck paced guided tour.

I saved testing out the fish market at Mercado Central until the weekend (mainly because it didn’t involve cake😉 ) and I didn’t want to visit alone the Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos with its chilling story of the Pinochet coup and subsequent dictatorial regime. To put the gate-crashed state funeral into the context of the national psyche, ex-president Patricio Aylwin was a democratic politician at the centre of the movement to defeat Pinochet and the first elected president after the demise of the Pinochet regime. His election marked the Chilean transition to democracy in 1990 and he was a staunch supporter of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposing the horrors of the previous regime.

On a lighter note, I also saved the trip to Pueblito Los Dominicos until the weekend because I was planning a big spending spree at the arts and crafts market and I needed someone to carry the shopping bags😉😉

Final stop before leaving another trip to fabulous South America behind us – the funicular ride to the top of Cerro San Cristobal to see the city with its backdrop of the Andes. In the time it took us to ride up the funicular the cloud had descended and the Andes had all but disappeared… oh well… maybe next time!🙂

Skiing in Breckenridge – February 2016

14 Feb
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Dog-sledding in Breckenridge, Colorado

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Dog-sledding, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and other such wintery frolics🙂

Breckenridge, Colorado re-visited … it was great to be back!

We decided to acclimatize to the lofty (9600 feet at town level) altitude more sedately than usual with a morning of (ultimately not so sedate) dog-sledding in the White River National Forest. We were off like greased lightning as the Siberian huskies, tongues lolling from their mouths and grinning from ear to ear, chased off after the guide on his snowmobile. Hurtling around bends, scraping through narrow tree-lined trails and bouncing along snowy tracks, we criss-crossed the forest and open plains as the dogs surged ahead at full pelt.

The excited hounds refused to stop even to carry out their morning ablutions… my impressive attempt to keep them under control whilst Geoff video’d his ride from the sled at my feet was interrupted only by the sudden splatter of freshly excreted dog poo bouncing at speed towards him at ground level😉

Disaster averted after an unscheduled stop and all went smoothly again until one of the more wayward distracted creatures at the back of the pack found something irresistible to sniff at in the trees. He came to a grinding halt and wrapped himself and his neighbor around a tree trunk. Luckily I had already mastered the art of emergency braking before we joined them in a pile under the pines🙂

All far too active for those who live and breathe at sea level, we repaired for the afternoon to the comfort of our somewhat luxurious abode to cuddle up by the log fire in an effort to warm back up to a more acceptable temperature  and discussed just how cold 19F can actually feel when you are used to a distinctly more clement 85F !

And so on to the purpose of our wintery vacation … we headed enthusiastically on to the slopes clutching Geoff’s trusted and now well battle-worn snowboard and my posh shiny new carving skis for a week of high altitude (12,998 feet), high velocity fun and exhaustion!

The quality of the powdery, fluffy white stuff and the skiing were superlative as always in sunny Colorado🙂

I spent most of my time trying to remember how to ski whilst simultaneously getting to grips with my new skis,  concentrating on not knotting my legs together and avoiding breaking my neck. Geoff, conversely, spent his time weaving in and out of the trees spectacularly failing to avoid tree limbs and ultimately passing significant amounts of time digging himself out of snow drifts … nothing new there😉

So, all was perfect…aside from the lift pass prices which seem to have doubled since we were last in town…presumably we were helping to finance yet another recently opened Superchair and the newly created Peak 6 all week. Clearly, there just weren’t enough peaks in this town already with Peaks 7, 8, 9 and 10! Breckenridge now has 187 trails which I suspect even an avid local skier would struggle to cover in a day.

After a couple of days of skiing and snowboarding, and in an attempt to give our weary limbs (and Geoff’s bruises) a mini-break, we headed off into the hills for a hike on the Sallie Barber trail in the White River National Forest. We were finally entirely alone in the wilderness with only the sound of our feet trudging through the crisp snow, a weasel rooting about in the undergrowth and the occasional squirrel scurrying up a tree to break the silence.

The very same White River National Forest was, however, far from peaceful and tranquil on the next fun-packed day of activity – snowmobiling. The silence was most definitely broken by the deafening racket from the 2-stroke engines and the usually pristine mountain air was far from pure but it was excellent fun as usual🙂

Three hours of high speed battering, tearing around bends, ducking branches and clinging on for dear life coupled with my responsibility as official photographer of action shots (whilst not bouncing off the back into a rocky outcrop) eventually took its toll but as recompense I was finally allowed to try out the renowned Crepes a la Cart back in town for lunch🙂 A giant chocolate, peanut butter and banana crepe was fair reward for the probably permanent damage to my lower coccyx …I think…😉

More skiing and snowboarding followed (unsurprisingly) during which time I almost mastered my new skis, Geoff almost mastered his GoPro video camera and most impressively he finally worked out how to board in the glades without either sinking slowly into knee deep powder or impaling himself on sharp pointy parts of pine trees.

He was a very happy boy!🙂

….and, ultimately, I was a very happy girl as we managed to squeeze in a final hike along Baker’s Tank Trail on Boreas Pass which was absolutely spectacular and … almost as good… I loosened another notch on my belt and managed to squeeze in another chocolate crepe before waving goodbye to the Rockies😉

We headed back for a flying visit to Denver where Geoff caught up with an old school friend from England whom he hasn’t seen in 36 years… they lost touch when they were young teenagers, as was the way of the world of our youth before mobile phones, email and Facebook… but they finally reconnected in Colorado of all places!🙂

As usual, a brilliant week on the slopes and another skiing and snowboarding vacation survived without sustaining serious injury🙂