I went to Gatlinburg to spend a week with family touring the area. By far, it is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) that has been my favorite part of the trip. The towns around here are geared to tourists, which makes sense, but they seem to cater more to the tourist shoppers or folks attracted to wax museums, believe it or not museums, etc. Not necessarily bad things but, having seen some of those in the past, that is no longer what I seek to experience when seeing a new area. I could come to this part simply to enjoy nature and skip the towns happily.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park – Human Stories
The GSMNP, however, is exactly what I seek to experience. As in my trip to Tasmania, discovering “new” types of nature is something I enjoy, even if on this trip I am not able to go on longer hikes than 30 minutes would fit. As my parents are with us, they can only do fairly flat hikes and nothing that takes more than 45 mins round trip (or so). Fortunately, the GSMNP can be enjoyed by everyone as there are many types of stops, short hikes, scenery along the road, and even great history.
As a lover of history, getting exposed to that along with great scenery is a fantastic combination and use of my time (if I focus on efficiency for a sec!). The Cades Cove area and the Roaring Forks area show great examples (real, not built for the purpose) of how people lived 80-150 yrs ago in this wilderness.
The Bales farm, the John Oliver cabin, the Cable Mill, the various churches in Cades Cove, etc. are all great examples of the type of life that took place here in times long gone. Life here was hard though one can over-romanticize it in these times of concrete cities, 100mph lifestyles, etc. Everything seems very peaceful – yet these folks had to work day and night to survive. I especially enjoyed looking at how the structures were constructed following methods no longer in use, even in wooden frame houses. These structures still stand today as witnesses to a not-too-distant past that seems ages ago…
Cades Cove – The Carter Shields Cabin
Detail of the construction
Cades Cove – Missionary Baptist Church
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Nature
Besides seeing these testaments to a life long gone by, the area is loaded with trails, picnic areas, streams, and places in nature to explore. A good map from the National Park staff will do you a lot of good, trust me!
Woods around Ogle farm
Yes, we even saw a bear along our route in the park!
Trail in the Ogle farm
From the house we rented on a mountaintop overlooking Gatlinburg, we can see the GSMNP and it is amazing how at every time of the day, we get a different view as the sun moves across the sky and hits the mountains at different angles. It is simply breathtaking.
Morning view from our cabin
Afternoon view from our cabin
And if you look carefully around the deck of the house, you may even get to see a rabbit… or a black bear.
I am fortunate to have visited Cairo two times: once in 1998 and then in 2007. The first with friends and the second for work. However, while we hit some of the key places to see in Cairo in the first trip, one grave mistake was not to explore Old Cairo…
A First-Timer in Cairo in 1998
Let me take a step back and tell you about the first visit to Cairo. For that trip, I joined 4 friends about 2 weeks before they were to depart due to an opening in my work schedule in between projects. There were no pre-defined itinerary or arrangements except the plane ticket and the hotel for the first night in Cairo as we were landing at night. I didn’t fly with them as I was using miles to get there so I flew from Atlanta via Newark, Paris, and Istanbul to get to Cairo (I was going to visit Istanbul after Egypt). The first thing that struck me as I got off the airplane and walked the steps was the smell of burning wood, followed quickly by the sense of being in a dry place!
My friends and I were supposed to meet at the airport (I was arriving after they did) but, when I got there, my friends were nowhere to be found. Eventually, I was taken by a customs (or was it immigration?) official eager to take me to his cousin’s taxi business (funny how that works…). I got his “cousin” to let me use his phone to ring our hotel in Cairo – my friends were already there! What happened? The airport had 2 different terminals and we had landed on opposite ones so they ended up going to the hotel. I ended up riding with the customs official’s cousin who, try as he did, could not hit a pedestrian…
I will admit that I was uncharacteristically anxious being there my first time. It was the year after the massacre of tourists at Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Luxor where many were gunned down execution style. It took the first full day of being in the city to get past this initial anxiety. People’s friendliness made me feel welcome and comfortable and pretty soon I was back to normal mode: ready to explore!
We decided to not spend too much time in Cairo but did want to see the essentials. As happens to most tourists, we were offered a camel ride to see the Pyramids “from behind” by first being taken to someone’s store or house (hard to tell the difference) where we were swayed to hire them with tea and plenty of smiles and friendliness. Riding the camels was a fun ride but they ride differently than horses… However, we did not see the Pyramids up close so we were left still wanting to do that. We tried again the next day to get close to the Pyramids by hiring horses to get us there. I emphasized to our guide that if I didn’t touch the Pyramids, I would not pay – I really wanted to make sure we didn’t get cheated again from seeing them up close. So he made my horse gallop super fast either to pay me back for being demanding or to make sure he could get us further than he had planned in the time he had!
Yet ANOTHER picture of the Pyramids!
Next on the list: The Mohammed Ali Mosque in The Citadel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo_Citadel) which was spectacular (as was the Citadel itself). For sure, one of the best places to see!
Mohamad Ali Mosque
We visited the Egyptian Museum which, as you can imagine, have some neat things to show from pharaonic times for those who enjoy the topic. We also hired a car to drive us to Saqqara, a step pyramid south of the city. The site was worth the trip but the drive to it also allowed us to see life outside of the city (e.g., bread being made on a wood burning “stove” by the side of the road).
The end of our stay in Cairo came quickly and we took the overnight train which would take us to the southern city of Aswan. So ended my first visit to Cairo back in 1998…
Cairo Re-Visited Almost 10 Years Later
I returned to Cairo on business to attend a conference with colleagues from around the world. Having gone once and checked out the main sights, it was actually very nice to return and not feel the pressure of visiting a must-see list of places. Instead, we discovered hole-in-the-wall places to eat at, hired a boat for a group of us to cruise up and down the Nile at night, visited Khan el-Khalili (the bazaar or souk), etc. It was a very nice way to enjoy Cairo and just be. In fact, we return to el-Khalili another day not only to shop but, again, to sit and watch life go by – so enjoyable!
Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili
Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt
I did add to my list of visited sites the Old City which I missed the first time there. What a tremendous miss on a visit to Egypt! The Old City is a phenomenal corner of the large metropolis and full of neat architecture and history… I am glad I got to “re-do” Cairo so I could correct my rookie mistake from 1998!
We first visited the Amr Mosque (Mosque of Amr ibn al-As), first mosque built in Egypt (and Africa) initially built in the 7th century but built-on and expanded over the centuries.
Mosque in Old City Cairo
…then the Church of St. George (originally built in the 10th century but completely re-built in 1904)…
Church of St. George
Light in the dome of the Church of St. George
Detail at the entrance to St. George Church: St. George on his Arabian horse slaying the dragon
… thenthe Hanging Church (St. Virgin Mary’s Church, largely rebuilt in the 10th century but originally built on the 7th; the main nave is built over a passageway, hence the name “hanging”)…
Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church
First entrance to the Hanging Church
Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church, a narrow entrance in a crowded part of town!
Doorway in the Hanging Church
Interior of the Hanging Church
and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. However, this was not a matter of just visiting important sites as I had always been curious about Coptic Egypt. I really liked the Old City as it was loaded with history and meaning: just about anywhere you look, there is an interesting site or alley!
Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church
Cairo – Always Something New to Experience
My second trip differed significantly from the first in many ways. However, Cairo offered me great experiences both times. The city itself awes you (or intimidates you!) as it teems with so many people, so many cars, and so many sounds (and do watch out for those cars!). Some of my favorite images are those of the people I interacted with or saw in their day-to-day life.
The world’s most dedicated and daring tea server: crossing the crazy streets of Cairo with a tray-full of tea!
Taking a load of fresh bread from a bakery around the suk in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili
Sipping tea while watching others play a game in Khan el-Khalili
It can be initially daunting but then, if you let yourself wander a little and soak life in, say, at a local tea shop, you can begin to see beyond the main things that draw us to go there in the first place – really get a feel for the tempo of and life in this ancient and fascinating city.
Well, by southern I mean “geographically”. It was the southernmost city I visited in New Zealand and I was expecting it to be frigid but, mercifully, it was not. In fact, we had some really beautiful days though one morning we had minor rain.
Dunedin with about 130,000 inhabitants is quite a pleasant town to explore. It has Scottish roots but, never having been to Scotland, they were not as easy for me to identify. However, I enjoyed the town as it was quite walkable – except for the steep hills! Dunedin sits by the water but it is surrounded by hills. The city’s area includes the slopes of these hills where many neighborhoods are located. It is a nice drive to go up to higher ground and see the old houses as the road curves along, while looking down on the city. But having walked a few of these streets, I can certify they are steep! In fact, Dunedin does lay claim to the steepest street in the world and I am not surprised.
Not the steepest street I saw
The world’s steepest street
During my visit, I explored the Otago Museum right by the university. It is a very nice museum (and free to boot!). It is an excellent place to take the kids. http://www.otagomuseum.govt.nz/
I also took tours of the Cadbury factory (also good for the kids) where they kept giving us different chocolate bars along the way (not all were to my liking as they were mainly milk chocolate based and I am a dark chocolate fan) as they showed us how chocolate is made (very interesting) and of the Speight’s brewery (where, of course, we sampled their beer – very nice! sure, why not, also good for the kids! lol ).
Dunedin’s railway station is a piece of art onto itself, both the exterior and the interior, and a must-see if you visit.
Finally, the main street itself has a good number of places to eat as well as places to shop so walking it up and down a couple of time is certainly worth it.
I found Dunedin to be quite charming and the people friendly. I am not sure how cold it gets in the winter being so far south but I counted my blessings of not finding out in person!
As I used to do when my writing was in email form to friends and family, I am going to share some of the random things I observed that caught my attention in my trip to Australia and New Zealand. These are not earth-shattering observations or anything that is better or worse in the places I visited than what I am used to, just things that caught my eye. I always find it interesting to hear what others find curious so I will share what I found curious… Hope no one takes offense!
- I arrive in Sydney, my first main stop in the trip. After surviving the strict customs and health things they do at the airport, I leave the secured zone and what is the first thing I see? Krispy Kreme. Don’t get me wrong: nothing wrong at ALL with a KK doughnut. And Aussies sure have a right to enjoy them like I do. But it’s funny that I travel halfway around the world and the first thing I see is an outlet of a doughnut chain founded in the southeastern U.S. where I live!
- Alright, I get past KK (without stopping), handle a few things (ATM, buying SIM card, etc.) and eventually get to my friends’ place (a train and a metro ride away – plus a short hike). I shower, unpack somethings, and venture out to combat jet lag. But first, let me load up on caffeine! I look around and there are coffee shops EVERYWHERE! I did not know Aussies were so into coffee. Not that it should surprise me, coffee is good but there were coffee shops not just in every corner but in between corners and multiple ones at almost every corner. Wow. That’s a serious devotion of coffee.
- So I pick one coffee shop – a hard thing to do with so many around. I ask for a coffee. I get a blank stare. I repeat myself. The young woman has an accent (eastern European, perhaps) so I assume my own accented English is too new to her ears. I repeat my request “a coffee, please”. She asks if cappuccino, latte, or flat white. I didn’t want either of the first two and the third option sounded like a cup of milk – just white, flat white, only milk. I say no I just want coffee. It occurs to me that perhaps I needed to explain that I meant coffee with nothing else. I get a blank stare. Eventually, the other clerk joins us and I repeat the last statement. I succeed in getting black coffee. I wasn’t sure what the deal was but, heck, I got my black coffee. Only to discover it was horrible. And then it dawns on me: perhaps black coffee here is not as good as say, PR, France, Italy, hence they must always add some amount of milk and/or foam. Got it. But I still didn’t know how I should have asked for black coffee… Nor did I get what a flat white was… (until later and then I loved them).
- It is not “how are you doing?” but “how are you going?”. At first, I wanted to say by bus or by train until I caught on.
- There are these “stores” called TAB in Australia. I wasn’t quite sure what they were and my friends explained they are sports betting places. Mind you, not glitzy or big like casinos (they have those too) but like small stores. And they can be quite a common sight in Sydney and Melbourne – one every couple of blocks? (an exaggeration on my part but it felt like that!)
- Air travel is a breeze here. Not sure if that is good or bad but for domestic flights, just show up 30 minutes beforehand. Security doesn’t even require shoes off. My belt and shoes set off most US airports’ machines. Not here. Nada.
- Driving: in some places, it felt like these were the best drivers in the world and, in others, pretty bad. No locations shall be named…
- The times I ordered salads, not once did I see regular plain lettuce. I love these countries!
- More than a couple of times, I think I was fed some mis-information by eager-to-share-knowledge guides. Like Lake Taupo being the largest lake in the southern hemisphere. It IS the largest freshwater lake in Oceania (616 km2) but that is a far cry from Lake Victoria (69,485 km2)… Another was the “world’s longest bridge” somewhere between Dunedin and Christchurch… I didn’t buy either of these claims but I wonder how many I “bought”! Now, I am sure Dunedin DOES have the world’s steepest street (it is so according to the Guinness Book of Records, I checked).
Dunedin’s most famous street
- Constant references to something being the x-most in the southern hemisphere. It felt like everything wanted to claim something. Best example: the Christchurch airport signs telling the travelers that the company that runs the airport was the 1st airport company in the southern hemisphere to become carbon neutral.
- Rainfall in the north island of NZ is measured in inches but in the west part of the south island, it is measured in meters! (I am raising this not because they used different measurement systems when giving me these data points but because it points to the significant difference in rainfall amount.)
- Train restrooms were clean (as opposed to those in many other countries I have been to; ahem, Europe…).
- Power outlets have a small switch immediately next to them to turn them on. If you don’t realize this, that electric razor you are trying to charge up won’t be doing anything the next morning!
- Upon arriving at a motel or B&B in NZ, the person at reception ALWAYS offered me milk. It took me a while to develop a solid theory on why (outside of “they just love drinking milk here perhaps”): since it was winter and the rooms had electric kettles, maybe it was in case I wanted tea/milk or coffee/milk?
- Many places had windows with 2 positions for closing the window. One was to entirely shut it but the other was to leave a slight crack open yet have the window locked. It was hard to see that the windows were slightly ajar. At first, I wondered why motel rooms had a draft… I figured it out on my own, thank you very much.
- Every motel or B&B I stayed at had towel warmers. I loved that since it was very cold.
- Airlines had a bit of an obsession that the safety card in the seatback pocket must always be the FIRST thing in the pocket. Before landing, flight attendants requested this and/or would fix it for you if they noticed the items in the pocket were not in the right order…
- Public restrooms in every town’s central area! And easy to find!
Do you share any of these random observations? Any others from your travels down under??