Biarritz: The Pearl of France’s Basque Country

There are places that are semi-legendary in your mind.  And when you visit them, they live up to that vision.  And sometimes they don’t.  Biarritz, France is not a place I knew a lot about but I did have an impression that it was for the rich and famous.  Its location, in the southwestern corner of France abutting Spain (just 22 miles from the border!) facing the Bay of Biscay, seems ideal with warmer climate and perhaps not the throngs of partying tourists that the Mediterranean coasts can attract.  It sits in the Basque region of France and is home to 20-30-odd thousand residents.

So, as we went from San Sebastian, Spain to Lourdes, France this past September, we decided to stop along the way.  It was not a long drive but we wanted an easygoing day.  As I looked at the map, I realized there were several neat towns along the coast and inland (like Bayonne).  As I talked to my Mom, she shared how she, when she was a girl, would read a novel with her best friend that took place partly in Biarritz and how they always daydreamed about Biarritz.  That settled it for me:  Biarritz would be our stop!

Our visit was short.  A walk around the shopping district after a meandering drive into town. Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

Saint-Eugenie Church

 

Biarritz’ place on the coast certainly offers beautiful vistas and spots to take in the views – or get on a boat and see the city from the water (which I wish we could have done!).Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

And then, we just picked a place on the beach (the ‘Grande Plage’ – or great beach) to have lunch -not because it had the look of a great establishment, but simply because of the view out and the fact that we would sit in open air enjoying the great weather that day.

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We ate at a cafe off to the right

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

The Grande Plage (big beach) of Biarritz

Biarritz most distinctive or massively impressive structure is the Hotel du Palais (of which, unfortunately, I took the picture split by a lighting pole…) built in the mid-1800s by the wife of Napoleon III.

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

Hotel du Palais – and the pole in the middle of the photo

So, I can’t share much about Biarritz, its history or all the ins-and-outs of what to do and see.  But, if like my Mom, you have wondered what Biarritz looks like, I hope this post checks that off your list!

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

With my beautiful mom and sister!!

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My sister!!!

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

The teenager in the Biarritz of her dreams! It was about my mom that day!!

Photos of the Week – Sights of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is such a unique city.  It is like Venice meets… meets… I am not sure what!  It is a charm typical of old cities, of cities by the water, of cities with architecture seen nowhere else, and of cities with a one-of-a-kind type of energy (and I don’t mean that in terms of the red light district!).

I first went to Amsterdam in 1999 when I had business there (most of my time in The Netherlands, though, was actually in The Hague, or Den Haag).  I had not returned to Amsterdam since then (except connecting through its wonderful airport) until earlier this year when I overnighted there on my way back home after skiing in Austria.

I took advantage of the limited time to walk out and about at night, and then do a quick morning walk before heading to the airport.  Though a short visit, it took me back to 1999 and it made me re-discover why I like the city so much.  I wish I had had time to visit the museums I have never gotten to explore (back in 1999, I wasn’t touristing – had no time for that!), and be a little more aimless in the walking around.  But, hopefully, I will have another chance!  In the meantime, here are some photos from my short visit!

 Night photos of Amsterdam

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Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Notice the not-straight door and windows on the right!

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Right outside of the train station

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Train station

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Royal Palace

Day Photos of Amsterdam

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By the train station – a bunch of bikes!

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Red doorways – cool

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ilivetotravel, photo, champagne, business class, KLM

OK, not a photo of Amsterdam but of me leaving it in style!

In-and-Out: The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO

I headed to Denver to see friends and as luck would have it, an afternoon in Estes Park was in the books for me.  I would have about 3 hours to spend in Estes Park so I checked TripAdvisor for some quick ideas on what to see while there.  I had driven through Estes Park multiple times a couple of decades ago when I spent two summers in Boulder, Colorado to get to the Rocky Mountain National Park but I had never stopped in Estes Park.  I had no memory of it.

So, The Stanley Hotel came up in the search and it offered a 1.5 hour tour.  My local friends briefly shared about the hotel so I made up my mind and bought my ticket ($23 since I was not a guest at the hotel) for the 11 AM tour.

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, facade, architecture, photo, tour, The Shining

Grand hotel indeed!

I made it with barely a second to spare before the tour began.  Scary Mary saw me walk in and asked if I was Mr. Pino.  I said yes and immediately asked her if I could run to the restroom – I could not fathom an 1.5 hours waiting to go…  (did I share too much?)  She allowed the extra minute and I was glad.

Stanley Hotel, Scary Mary, Estes Park, tour, The Shining, Stephen King, photo

Scary Mary introduces us to the tour

Scary Mary, her self-proclaimed name, was funny and quirky and made for a great tour guide mixing deep knowledge about the place with humor and the dramatic touch when it came time to talk about ghosts and other supernatural stories.

The Shining and The Stanley Hotel

The hotel is more famous not for the quaint story of its birth but because of its ties to the movie “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson.

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, facade, architecture, photo, tour, The Shining

Art based on The Shining

It seems the hotel was the inspiration Stephen King needed when he stayed at The Stanley back in 1974.  The hotel was about to close for the season but King convinced the staff to let him and his wife stay overnight.  Maybe they pranked him when they placed him in the haunted room 217… (We also hear Jim Carrey should be asked about his stay in this room…)

Room 217, Estes Park, Colorado, Stanley Park, The Shining

Haunted Room 217

While the hotel was the inspiration for the movie, it was not the actual location where that movie was filmed.  Most was filmed in a studio set and exterior shots were done at a lodge near Mt. Hood.  Of lesser fame than The Shining, perhaps, is that the hotel was featured in “Dumb and Dumber” – especially a run up its main staircase by the two principal characters of the movie!

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, architecture, photo, Dumb and Dumber

The main staircase

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Cascade, staircase

Looking down the main staircase

A little of the history of the place

The tour begins with the story with how Freelan Oscar “F.O.” Stanley and his wife Flora got to settle there.  The Stanleys were an East Coast couple who had taken a trip to Colorado to help F.O. recover his health.  He was pretty much almost at the brink of death as he left Denver for a time in the mountains at Estes Park.  He made an incredible recovery and proceeded to build the hotel there as a way to have something comparable to the East coast life they were used to when they came out West, a place they had grown to love.

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Cascade, lobby, keys

Registration counter in the lobby with photos of F.O. and Flora (I presume…)

There are a few stories about supernatural events but those are best heard from Scary Mary, not me 🙂  But I will say there is a special force right smack in the middle of this staircase on the 217-side of the building…  Some kind of vortex if I understood right.

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, architecture, photo, vortex, supernatural

The vortex staircase

The Stanley Hotel today

The lobby clearly retains a feel for the past with the heavy woods and furniture arrangements.  While the setting of the hotel is spectacular, and the lobby and its spaces feel special, the main guest room floors do feel a bit drab.

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, lobby

Lobby

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7

Guest room floor

The maze in front of the hotel was an ‘add’ to the grounds after throngs of visitors kept asking about the maze that shows in The Shining.  The hotel owners, I suppose, decided to play along and installed one (in its early stages of vegetation growth at the moment…).

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, maze, architecture, photo, tour, The Shining

The maze at the front of the hotel

Back to the interior, the hotel has good touches in the decoration using vintage artifacts from an automobile to mirrors, large and small.  Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, photo, tour, mirror Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, photo, tour, lamp, light fixture Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, photo, tour, piano Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, photo, tour, automobile, vintage car

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Old fixture for fire hose

The views from the front porch – and I presume, the rooms – are pretty spectacular with the town below and the mountains beyond.  A key selling point to the hotel, I am sure!

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Rockies

Views of the Rockies from the front porch

The bar is pretty cool in its design, decor and feel.  There is an outdoor restaurant in the back.  I did not get to try neither the food nor the drinks so that may be left to a future visit!  I would love to stay there in the dead of winter sometime!

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Cascade, bar Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Cascade, bar Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Cascade, bar Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7, Cascade, bar

I leave you with some other photos of the main building and the second guest room building.Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7 Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, lodging, architecture, photo, Samsung Galaxy S7

 

 

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Happy 2016!

Just wanted to do a quick post in the last few hours of the year here to share my top Instagram pictures.  Some are very recent but it was cool to see some of the ones from earlier in the year – it seems so far away, like longer than a year.  Sometimes, that’s how things go, isn’t it?

In any case, here is my top 9 photos from 2015.  A good year in many, many ways; and a tough year in others.

May 2016 bring you many good things wherever you are!

travel, photos, Instagram, Nepal, Chile, Patagonia, Argentina, Lukla, Nepal, Ama Dublam, waterfall, Portland, Tampa, sea, sky, Fitz Roy

Argentina, Chile, Portland, Tampa, and Nepal all represented!

Can’t Beat Whale Watching in Iceland!

A trip to Iceland without whale watching would just be missing something – it would just be wrong.  Therefore, on my trip to there last summer, whale watching was part of the agenda though, initially, I was not sure it was my top priority (I was wrong!).  As we were going to spend time up north (in Akureyri), we had easy access to a larger fishing town called Husavik, purportedly, one of the best places to whale watch in Europe.

We drive over there to catch a morning boat and spent a good three hours spotting minke and humpback whales.  We did not see any blue whales.  The morning started slow as we were crossing the bay but, once we were more in open sea (still not far from land as you can see in the pictures), that’s when the show began (and don’t miss the photos of the scenery at the end!).Iceland, sea, boat, whale watching, Husavik, minke, humpback, whale,Canon EOS Rebel

It was fun to see the whales come up for air a few times and then go down for minutes before re-appearing elsewhere.  As you can imagine, there is not just one boat out there so there is a little bit of watching what the other boats are doing as the boats give chase to the whales (or, rather, where they think the whales will re-surface).  We had good luck (and/or a good crew) because we got close enough to these giants.

Here is a sequence of one of the whales:

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And another sequence with the whale blowing through the hole:

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Finally, on the sequences, one that shows how close the boats get to the whales (or, is it the whales to the boats??):

Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, minke, humpback, whale,Canon EOS Rebel Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, minke, humpback, whale,Canon EOS Rebel Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, minke, humpback, whale,Canon EOS Rebel Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, minke, humpback, whale,Canon EOS Rebel Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, minke, humpback, whale,Canon EOS Rebel

Of course, the magic is done mostly by the crew as this picture shows:

Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, ship, boat, Canon EOS Rebel

The lookouts

Not only was the whale spotting and watching great fun but the scenery was breathtaking too.Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, flag, Olympus, blue sky Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, ship, boat, Canon EOS Rebel Iceland, sea, whale watching, Husavik, ship, boat, Canon EOS Rebel

A few tips

  • It may be cold/windy so go ready.  Additionally, wearing something waterproof would be a good idea though we did not get wet.  Some boats will give you a jacket (notice the pictures with people on a given boat wearing the same color!).
  • If things go well, you will be close enough to the whales with a regular camera but a moderate zoom can be helpful.  The zoom built-in into regular cameras will do the trick.
  • Bring a snack if you think you will get hungry in the three hours.  At the end of our tour, they passed hot chocolate around which was nice.
  • Don’t stress over getting a “great” spot on the boat.  There should be plenty of good sight lines during the tour.
  • We did not experience any rough seas or anything that could really make us seasick – the waters were calm.  However, there is no telling how the seas may vary due to weather or month so check ahead and go prepared if you  tend to feel seasick.

So, pretty neat tour – I highly recommend it!!

——– More on Iceland ——–

My itinerary for my week visit to Iceland

A stroll around Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik

Þingvellir:  Where History and Nature Meet in Iceland!

The Blue Lagoon

Goðafoss:  The Waterfalls of the Gods

A Northern Town:  Akureyri

Iceland’s South Shore:  The Dyrhólaey Peninsula and Vik

Postcards from Iceland:  Dalvík

An Unexpected Climb of Blood Mountain

I enjoy hiking and love exploring new routes.  Living in Atlanta, I have access to great hiking an hour and a half away at the start of the Appalachian Mountains, host of the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) that runs from north Georgia, all the way to Maine.  There is nice hiking closer to Atlanta but for longer and more strenuous hikes (and overall better vistas), I like going up to the north Georgia mountains.  I was looking for a long hike to do on a daytrip and was seeking a loop, instead of an in-and-out hike.  A good friend who also enjoys hiking offered to come along (I don’t hike solo) and we set out to do Jarrard Gap Trail connecting it to the Slaughter Creek Trail by traversing a 1.85 mile stretch of the AT for a total hike of around 5.75 miles.

While I have hiked in interesting places (like the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and Mt. Kilimanjaro), I am not an expert hiker who knows all the tricks of the trade, who is used to half-missing signage, who is secure in his inner compass, etc.  So I rely on maps and stuff I find on the Internet to create a route.  (My friend Val in Real Life would probably laugh her rear off at my lack of innate outdoor skills!)  On this occasion, my friend and I got a little complacent thinking we had clear in our head the route we were taking.  I will first share with you the hike we DID as it was definitely diverse in terrain and views, and enjoyable, if long.  I will then tell you what we THOUGHT we were going to do that day and highlight the difference between the two.  And then, I will share some lessons I learned!

The innocent start to the hike

After driving about 1.5 hrs, we arrived at Winfield Scott Lake, a rather small lake at the start of our hike.  To get there, we passed the entrance where visitors are supposed to take an envelope and place $5 in it and drop it in a locked box.  One is supposed to tear off part of the envelope and hang it on the rear view mirror of the vehicle (the number on that stub and the envelop in the locked box would match, telling the part ranger that this car has paid).  There were no envelopes to be found so we improvised and dropped the fee with a label that indicated my license plate in case someone checked.  We doubted anyone would be checking on this Sunday but we preferred being good citizens.  I took a picture of what I dropped in in case I needed it later to fight a citation!dollars

The hiked route: from Winfield Scott Lake via Jarrard Gap to the top of Blood Mountain and back

We entered the trail and, after crossing a narrow and single-side handrail bridge, we were dumped on a paved road where we saw a house with Halloween decorations still on the mailbox (this would prove useful later!).  There was a simple sign indicating the way and we walked maybe 0.25 miles on the road until the real entrance to the real Jarrard Gap Trail.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Jarrard Gap, photos

On the Jarrard Gap Trail

The terrain was a nice upward slope but not too intense.  Nice views of the downhill on this winter day.  Once we exited this trail at the Jarrard Gap, we walked a little to the next set of signs which helped point the way in this 4-way intersection.  Except it was not all too clear as it did not have any of the names in our map.

Someone told us which way was the AT and we walked little on it until we saw the white mark that is used to mark the AT so on we went.  So we entered the AT in the direction of Blood Mountain.  There were slight (rolling, I would call them) downhills and flat bits of terrain.  We passed a camp area on the left after having taken a quick break, and soon on the right we saw the trailhead to the Freeman Trail which sort of parallels the AT (it re-meets the AT on the opposite end).  At that point, we were 2.6 miles from our beginning point and so we went off on Freeman Trail.

Freeman Trail is about 1.8 miles of very different terrain than what we had been on on the Jarrard Gap Trail and the AT.  At parts narrow, often very rocky (small and big), it was actually a fun trail to hit as long as one is not expecting a cozy walk.  We were not.  We even passed an icy spot on our way to the other end of the trail.

We understood we would exit Freeman Trail and take the AT in the direction back towards the entrance to Freeman Trail.  But, before setting on the AT, we stopped to eat our lunch at this popular intersection.  At this intersection, besides the AT and the Freeman Trail, there is a trail that leads to a parking lot 0.7 miles away.  That parking becomes probably the point with the shortest route up to Blood Mountain.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, Samsung Galaxy, photos, climb

At the spot where Freeman Trail hit the AT

By taking the AT in the direction of the entrance we took into the Freeman Trail, we were proceeding to ascend Blood Mountain which, at near 4,400 ft, is the fourth tallest mountain in the state of Georgia and one of the most popular mountaintops in the state with breathtaking views all the way to North Carolina and Tennessee.

The climb to the summit was hard.  Rocky and steep with many switchbacks, with vegetation everywhere.  It definitely worked out my gluteus maximus and my hamstrings!  I had the same trouble I had had on Day 4 on Kilimanjaro after passing the Barranco Wall segment of that hike.  I carried a 16-lb backpack as part of my training but ended up emptying my extra bottle of water (one that I carry precisely as a way to drop backpack weight should I feel like I need to; it is not the water I expect to consumer during the hike). It indeed was a challenge – an unexpected one – but I am glad I did it as it was good training for my upcoming hike and a great workout.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos, climb

On the way to the summit!

At some point, we reached a clearing with large smooth rocks replacing the ground, like how Stone Mountain is when you are climbing it.  We stopped briefly and chatted with some folks who had gone up ahead of us; they had not heard of Slaughter Creek (which was a little unnerving but they had come from the “nearby” parking lot so they were likely not expecting to hit the creek on the other side of the mountain).  From this clearing, one could see Stone Mountain and Atlanta in the distance.  That was very impressive given how far north we were.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos, climb

The view from the clearing

The AT is well-marked with rectangular white boxes painted on trees and rocks so no issues knowing where we were so we continued on it as we knew the AT would connect to the Slaughter Creek Trail.  Not long afterwards, we reached the summit which has a neat rock outcropping from which to soak the entire view.  It is located right next to a nice shelter structure for those who stay overnight (further down, there is a “privy” or basic toilet facility).  After checking the view and confirming which of the two possible ways was the way down (other than the one we came up from), we began our descent which I welcomed as going up had been hard.  I read later that the side we went up was harder but I am glad we did it that way because going down that way would have killed my knees with all the rocks…

The descent was uneventful.  We passed a campsite area on the left and it was a little mis-leading as the white box marking the trail made us think we had to detour at the campsite because the other part of the trail did not have the white rectangular boxes.  But the crude wooden map on the campsite and a brief exploration of the other trail (where we saw a sign that said “Water” and pointed down that path) led us to determine that the unmarked way was the way to go.  Confidently we moved forward and downward and soon we ran into a trio that confirmed for us that was the way down indeed.  So it was nice to have that validation.  They told us that we would make a left at the steps at the bottom that were still iced over.   The descent was not too rocky at all so that made it better for our knees.

We reached the iced-over steps and felt really good that we were on the final stretch.  We walked maybe 0.4 miles before we hit the entrance that we had taken to enter the Freeman Trail and then returned to repeat backwards the way in – a final 2.6 miles to get to our parking lot.  Along the way, we had forgotten about the road we had been dumped into before hitting the real Jarrard Gap Trail.  Thankfully, the house that still had Halloween decorations on the mailbox saved the day as we remembered having passed it.

The intended route:  from Winfield Scott Lake to Jarrard Gap to Slaughter Creek

So after having read what we did.  Here is what we had intended to do…

We were supposed to get on Jarrard Gap Trail (check) and hike it until it ended at the Jarrard Gap (check) and then connect with the AT (check) and walk towards Freeman Trail (check) but continue 0.4 miles past the entrance to Freeman Trail without taking Freeman Trail (NOT CHECKED!).  After the 0.4 mile stretch, we would encounter the trailhead to Slaughter Creek Trail which would have taken us back to the road near Winfield Scott Lake.  End of a moderate day hike.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we were supposed to do.  5.75 miles that could have taken us 2.5-3 hrs, perhaps.

What went wrong on this north Georgia mountain hike?  No, no banjos or bears

The map from the website where I got the route instructions did not label the trails the proposed route would take us on.  Thank goodness there was a clear map at the parking lot by the lake that had trails with names on them.  We could not quite reconcile this map to the one in our printout so we took a photo of the map so we could have handy along the way (boy, was that a good idea!).

map, Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos,Jarrard Gap

The parking lot map

However, the map sort of helped get us confused – we saw that there was clearly a way from Freeman Trail on to Slaughter Creek Trail (via the AT) so we thought we were good.  But, what we failed to grasp was the increased distance such a route meant:  instead of our intended 5.75 mile plan, we ended up doing about 10.5 miles (per our reconstruction of the facts once back in the comfort of our respective homes).  This is how…

Remember when I said earlier that we encountered the start of the Freeman Trail so off we went on it?  Well, as you read on the “intended route” bit above, we were not supposed to take Freeman Trail.  The route instructions we had printed were just highlighting that at mile 2.6 we would encounter the trailhead for Freeman Trail. The explanation of the route was peppered with beautiful photos that certainly kept us from focusing on reading the text carefully as, upon careful reading later, we realized it never indicated that we needed to get on the Freeman Trail!

0.4 miles after passing the Freeman Trail, we were supposed to find the start of Slaughter Creek Trail at which point we would be returning along the same-named creek.  After a while on Freeman Trail we wondered if we had missed a turn 0.4 miles after we had started on it to find Slaughter Creek Trail (the connection to that trail was not evident in the map from the parking lot).

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Freeman Trail, Olympus, photos

Along the Freeman Trail

We should have turned around…  However, the map we had taken a picture of did show that we would hit the AT again and would swing back to hit Slaughter Creek Trail at some point (which we didn’t realize was much later than expected…).

And so we kept going on the rougher trail that is Freeman Trail.  Partly perhaps because we were distracted by our conversation and maybe partly because the trail was unusual (narrow, rocky, with more interesting vegetation that leafed-out winter trees).  Maybe it was just such a nice day for a hike so why rush it?  Eventually,we ran into a man and his dog and we asked him how far to hit the AT and he told us “one mile or so.”  We were taken aback but pressed on as we knew this way we would get to where we wanted to go.  We finally hit the AT and decided it was time to sit down and eat our lunch.  We had worked hard and had, at least, the same effort to go still to finish!

As we continued the hike by getting back on the AT, I still didn’t realize we were headed all the way to the top.  I thought this trail would swing on the south side of the mountain and some other trail would take hikers all the way to the top since I didn’t think the AT would run through mountaintops.  But we agreed we didn’t want to backtrack across the Freeman Trail so we went forth.  I think this was a good decision as, at least, we experienced reaching the top of Blood Mountain.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain, photos, climb

Yours truly on the climb to the summit – note the white mark towards the bottom

The descent from Blood Mountain was uneventful except that we totally missed the entrance to the Slaughter Creek Trail!  When we reached the spot where we were supposed to turn off, we ran into a group of folks and we briefly chatted as we passed each other (after having seen a sign indicating the trail was coming up) and seemed to have missed the trailhead.  We had seen a little of the creek but missed the fact that we lost it at some point.  Or we assumed that for part of the trail, it would not be right by us. I am not really sure.  Anyway, we realized something was amiss when… we encountered the sign that marked the entrance to Freeman Trail that we had seen a few hours before!

At this point, I don’t think we were in the mood to backtrack and find Slaughter Creek Trail.  We understood we had missed the entrance and, given how much we had done already, we decided to back out the way we had come in via the Jarrard Gap.

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Jarrard Gap, Olympus, photos, climb

Back in the familiar territory of the Jarrard Gap

So, there you have it.  A series of mis-steps that, while annoying, did give us what looking back was a challenging and rewarding day of hiking.  However, there are lessons to be learned and that is also a good by-product of this experience!

Appalachian Trail, north Georgia mountains, hiking, trail, Blood Mountain,  photos, climb

Nice views on this hike – worth the effort

Key lessons learned for future hikes

  • Read the route carefully and if it does not explicitly say to take a trail, do not; do not be distracted by pretty pictures!
  • Corroborate the route on another website if possible.
  • Use a clear map that labels all the trails and shows a scale so you can properly estimate things.
  • Take a photo of whatever map you find once you arrive on-site and compare to your map to be sure you are clear.
  • Signage will not always be clear so the points above are important.
  • Cell service, though not always available, can be at some clearings.
  • Be prepared with enough food and water (we were, mercifully).
  • Bring a headlamp even if you think you are hiking in the daytime (had the hike been even longer than we thought, it would have started getting darker).
  • Always hike with someone.  Certainly, solitude can be an aim of hiking for some – but not for me!  If something goes wrong, I want another head thinking about things along with me!
  • Never stop hiking because you had one hike were you were not “with it.”  That is how one learns and it can still be very rewarding and worthwhile – plus it gives you a good story to laugh at and not take yourself too seriously!  And one does learn.

Regardless of all this, if was great to be able to do such a long hike to help my training for Patagonia and to prove to us that we were fit enough for such a hike combining length and climbing.

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Read about other hikes in Georgia:

Sope Creek

Sweetwater Creek

Island Ford

Tallulah Gorge

Panther Creek

20 Photographers-in-Action Shots

Like most travelers, I enjoy taking pictures of the places I see.  It used to be to show family and friends but eventually developed into more of giving myself a challenge of not only capturing images for my memories, but also seeing if I could capture anything unique or interesting as I explore the world via travels.  However, I am hardly unique in all this as this photo essay will show.  Among the interesting images that catch my attention is watching others photograph people or their setting.  So in what I hope will not be the only post of its kinds, here are “photographers in action.”

Let me know which is your favorite picture!

Monticchiello: Charm in the Middle of Tuscany

A few years ago, in one of my trips to Italy, we spent a few days in Tuscany.   We opted to rent apartments in a small mountaintop town called Monticchiello, a charming place, sandwiched between Pienza and Montepulciano (lucky folks!!!).  Montecchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, food, pasta, truffles, Palm Sunday, photos, travel, exploring

We truly lucked out:  the town was quaint, quite small, and its location was central and offering greats views. The place we stayed at was an awesome building a few hundreds of years old (but, the landlady mis-led us in terms of it sleeping all of us – I ended on a cot by the dining room).

apartment, Tuscany, La Toscana, Monticchiello, Italy, Italia, travel, lodging, accommodation, photo, old, stone

What a real person’s room looked like in that apartment!

A meal to remember

One of its gems was the only restaurant up there, aptly named Osteria La Porta (the gate).  There was a wait so we went to stand outside.  Not a few minutes later, the owner came out with a bottle of wine and five glasses for us to entertain ourselves with, courtesy of the house.  Yea, like THAT would happen in the U.S.!  We immediately knew we were at the right place.

La Porta, foodie, food, restaurant, Monticchiello, delicious, pasta with truffle, Italy, Italia

THE right place!

And we were not disappointed.  We made it inside and began studying the menu.  However, the waiter advised us that the pasta with truffle was very special.  That was a plate with no meat of any sort.  Just fresh pasta, fresh truffles, and a trickle of plain butter sauce.  I decided that if it was being recommended, I ought to try despite its lack of meat or any veggies I normally like (mushrooms do not fall under that category).  It was simply a superb dish.  I can safely say top 5 ever eaten by me without any fear of exaggeration.

La Porta, foodie, food, restaurant, Monticchiello, delicious, pasta with truffle, Italy, Italia

5 very happy campers

A special coincidence

We traveled to Italy during Holy Week which led to a few opportunities for good timing to happen.  Such was that Sunday at Monticchielo:  we were there on Palm Sunday.  We went to church that Sunday and it was neat to hear Mass in Italian.  But  bigger surprise awaited us:  the procession around town.  All 40  or 50 of us followed the priest around this neat little town.  I normally don’t spend enough time researching places to find out if there are local events that could be of interest – I just explore once I get somewhere.  Maybe I have missed some things with this approach but, I have to say, it makes running into these local situations so much more fun.

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

The faithful getting their palms before the procession

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

The priest leading the procession

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

Walking down the narrow streets of Monticchiello

Monticchiello, Tuscany, La Toscana, Italy, Italia, Palm Sunday, Church, Catholic

Headed back in to the church at the end of the procession

What experiences have you had were you as pleasantly surprised while traveling?  (Except the part about me in a cot next to a kitchen!)

The “First Cousins” Capitals: Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm

It has been an interesting exercise to try to think of the Scandinavian countries and come up with a good and succinct outline of what makes them different from each other without requiring a degree in history, architecture, and other similar fields.  So I decided to not be that ambitious and limit this to taking a look at the Scandinavian “first cousins” capitals – Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen – and see what I came up with…

All of these first cousins felt very manageable for a first time visitor.  There was nothing daunting or complex about getting around which made it easy for me to walk aimlessly to see what I would discover.  Everyone spoke English which certainly facilitated the visit though I am OK attempting to communicate in any number of languages I can dabble in.   I visited them all more or less around May or June making my comparison even in terms of weather.  Clearly the time of the year I visited made them all come across as “alive” since everyone by then had finished thawing off from their winter “slump”.  Everyone was out and about enjoying the weather – and their cities.

Oslo

In Norway, they were actually having a warm spell in early May (I carried a coat through Europe because I was supposed to need it when I got to Norway; it was hotter than anywhere in Europe at the time!).  Everyone was out at the parks and streets just hanging out.  The outdoor cafes were all packed, everyone enjoying a beer or four.  I partook even if I was a little horrified at the cost of everything.

Akershus, Oslo, Norway, fortress, church, sunset, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Looking towards Akershus Fortress at sunset

My favorite meal was a bucketful of fresh shrimp and beer sitting at a water-side restaurant (maybe by the Herbern marina) right around Aker Brygge, a modern shopping, entertainment, and office district near the Nobel Peace Center.  Of course, my favorite activity overall was taking a brief boat ride down Oslofjord but that is a different story!

It was neat to walk right by boats selling their catch to local restaurant buyers right across from City Hall.

Olso, Norway, fisherman, boat

Buying seafood right from the boat!

Oslo probably felt the smaller of the three cousins (I actually have not looked up population statistics) and the more relaxed, perhaps because of its size, perhaps because people just wanted to enjoy the newly found warmth by chilling (!) outdoors.  I loved scenes like the Akershus Fortress and the massive ski jump off in the distance!

Stockholm

As a capital city, Stockholm didn’t have a presence that screamed “big city”.  And I liked that.  It sits comfortably by the water built on and surrounded by islands.  It is quite easy to move about even if unfamiliar with it – its vast waterfront makes it hard to get lost.  I have previously written about this city by the water so I will not elaborate here.

We headed first to the area where the Royal Palace sits, “Stadsholm”, an island itself.  This is all part of old town or Gamla Stan.  Gamla Stan is full of charming architecture and beautiful streets.  From there, one can easily cross to a small island where Parliament sits (Riksdag) and exit it on the other side to enter the pedestrian shopping street (Drottninggatan) and move on to parks and other areas of town.  Almost across the water from the Royal Palace, of course, on another island, one finds the Vasa Museum (a must-see in Stockholm).

Gamla Stan, old town, Stockholm. Sweden. architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Charming architecture in Gamla Stan

Riksdag, Parliament, Stockholm. Sweden. architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Riksdag (Parliament)

Stockholm, and the people, there felt very relaxed, none more so than the students celebrating being done with school atop a party bus, one of the city scenes I shared in another post.  I could see myself lounging a few days, weeks, or more in this capital.  Of course, likely not during winter.

Copenhagen

During my visit to Copenhagen (three days), we toured around all the main areas of town you are always told to see and visit.  These included palaces, museums, the maverick community of Freetown Christiania, and other key sights.  As with many cities, my favorite part of Copenhagen was exploring the smaller side streets and finding that little jewel of a restaurant (as happened to us, with Restaurant and Café Nytorv which sits at about 150 years old).

We also happened upon the Copehagen Carnival (in June!) which made the main pedestrian street, Strøget, a lively corridor.  It may have lacked the wildness of Rio’s Carnival or Nawlins’ Mardi Gras but I certainly give it an “A” for enthusiasm and effort!Carnival, Copenhagen, Denmark, parade, colorful, fun, Canon EOS Rebel

The Danish capital definitely felt the more developed of the “first cousin capitals”, the more urbanized, the more identifiable as a capital.  While it sits on the water’s edge like the other two, it lacked the splendid fjords of Oslo or the charm of the many islands in and around Stockholm.  Granted it may have more diversity of older and modern architecture than but it often was not impressive.  For example, the buildings composing the royal palace/residence at Amalienborg were not imposing, nor terribly interesting from the outside, nor graced with gardens or green spaces (Rosenborg Castle fares much better.)

Amalienborg Palace, Copenhagen, Denmark, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, royalty, architecture

Amalienborg Palace

While it was interesting to visit Copenhagen and walk its old streets, I hate to say, it did not wow me.  I didn’t feel an urge, say, to live there for 6 months, nor linger longer (though that may be precisely what I should do to “get” Copenhagen?).

Have you visited these first cousins?  Which one did you like best/least?  What influences your answer?

Petra, Jordan: History on the Rocks

I first went to Petra, Jordan back in 1998 on a day trip from Sharm-el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.  If you know the lay of the land, that may sound impossible.  Well, not if you take a flight from Sharm-el-Sheikh to Aqaba, Jordan and then hop on a bus.  That’s exactly what I did.  I did not have the luxury of time so it was an either do it on a day trip or not do it.  Since I could not predict the future, I had to go for it to be sure I got to see Petra in case I didn’t get to come back.

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel

Headed to Petra

Petra, Jordan, roads, travel

Great vistas along the way

Return to Petra

Fast forward 15 years and I return to this necropolis-turned-town-turned-movie-setting-turned-massive-tourist-site.  I was thrilled at the opportunity to return and explore it on more depth.  You see, in my first visit, I decided to walk my way in which is great in many ways but it eats away precious time for someone on a day trip there from Sharm-el-Sheikh.  The second time, while I did walk in, I walked faster knowing time was precious and I rented a donkey to take me up to save time.  That was a great idea except that the donkey preferred the edge of the path on the way up rather than risk hitting itself against the rocks at the other side of the path, making this rider a little bit worried about the way down!

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel, donkey

Donkey in the shade – smart!

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel

Giddy up!

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel

Look Ma, no hands!

Thanks, Nabateans

Petra is amazing due to how it has evolved over time but it was the Nabateans who deserve the credit (after God, of course) for this place.  Certainly, the landscape and topography are thanks to the Maker but what happened after that really starts with the Nabateans who carved a necropolis out of these beautiful rocks.  Others, like the Romans, continued to develop the site to what we know now.

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel, canyon, stone

Some of the tombs around Petra that later peoples used for other purposes – like commerce

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel, Roman amphitheater

The Romans put Petra to good use

More than the Treasury

You can see evidence of amazing early engineering when you see the channels that were carved into the rock to capture the rare rainfall that rolled down canyon walls and take it into a natural “holding tank.”

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel

Channel that collected rainwater from the canyon walls and directed to a well

Also impressive are the facades of the tombs built into the rocks such as the Royal Tombs and other areas like the Monastery and the very famous Treasury, which many think to be what the Indiana Jones movie showed.  In reality the Treasury is more of a facade.  Be sure to get a guide who explains to you what you are looking at as the Treasury, for example, shows evidence of how it was carved out of the stone.  And be sure to go all over!

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, donkey, ilivetotravel, Royal Tombs

The Royal Tombs from a distance

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, Royal Tombs

Some of the Royal Tombs

My advice if you are visiting Petra and don’t have but a day or two is to use a donkey for some of the climbs (unless you want or need the exercise) and then walk and explore – this way, you will maximize what you will see from this one-of-a-kind place and there is PLENTY to see and admire about this unique site.

Petra, Jordan, Nabatean, archeology, ruins, history, necropolis, ancient site, exploring, Middle East, travel, photos, Canon EOS Rebel, Treasury, ilivetotravel

My family “came along” with me to Petra!

 

During my second visit to Petra, I was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board.  That notwithstanding, the stories I share were my real experiences and nothing else.  As they always are!

Piedmont Park: An Oasis in the Middle of Atlanta

Atlanta is a city of greenery and a lot of that comes from its many parks.  Many neighborhoods have a park and some, like mine, more than one.  The parks are mostly local to each area though open to anyone as they tend to be city property.  They range from just a wild natural area, to green open spaces, to those with playground sets for the kids.  What is good about Atlanta is that the local neighborhoods step in to help keep these parks clean and alive.

Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Midtown, outdoors, oasis, photo

Piedmont Park forms the eastern boundary of the Midtown skyline

However, Atlanta’s centerpiece in the park category is Piedmont Park, located in the middle of Midtown, easily accessible from every cardinal point.  The park’s history is longer than Atlanta’s own. A land lottery in 1821 distributed the land just ceded by the native Creek Nation of Indians.  Early pioneers acquired a forest that would later become Piedmont Park to build their farm (the Walker family) before Atlanta itself was established!  It is interesting to note that the original cabin was built on what is now called “Active Oval” where an oval track’s center fields host any number of sports activities.  Another cabin was built a couple of decades after the first one in the area where the Driving Club sits now.

The Active Oval today looking south towards downtown

The Active Oval today looking south towards downtown

The area became the location of many expos in the late 1800s and that’s how the park as we know it began to take shape.  The Piedmont Exposition of 1887 and the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 are the most important ones, with the latter being a World Expo to promote the southern states internationally and it ran for about 100 days and attracted 800,000 visitors, way before highways and planes facilitated bringing visitors to Atlanta.  Pretty impressive.

Statue, Gate City, Atlanta, Piedmont Park, southern history, travel, photo

One of the many historical “markers”, this one to the Gate City (as Atlanta was referred to in those days) Guard

The park was finally bought by the City of Atlanta in 1904 after hesitating many times because it was “so far” from the city (at that time, of course, Atlanta was just what we know as downtown).  A lake, steps, tennis courts, and other landscape changes (including carving out what is now the Active Oval to give it its current topography) were implemented in those years.  The Atlanta Botanical Gardens were established along the northwestern edge of the park (worth a visit any time of the year but especially for the winter night lights!).

Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Midtown, photo, lake

Man-made lake installed decades ago

But this park never ceases to be improved.  In the last decade, the park underwent major “renovations” with paths being installed and a dog park being established.  Sadly, the old railroad line that used to run along its eastern edge has disappeared (at least part of it) — Atlanta may be one of very few places were destroying history is celebrated as “progress” (to be in the company of Beijing in this category is not a compliment, folks…).  I enjoyed climbing an old train there once in the younger days.  But all in the name of progress and of creating a better park space in the midst of the hustle-and-bustle that we call Atlanta.

Piedmont Park, train, railroad line, garden, Atlanta, Midtown, photo

Where the train use to run, at least the land has been put to good use (a garden)

The park sometimes hosts events like festivals, and is a great place for a walk, a run, a swim, or a picnic.  Back in my college days, a hot balloon race used to take off from the southeastern fields and it was quite the sight.  The movie in the green event allowed folks to come and watch a movie on a summer evening while bringing food and beverages to enjoy.

Piedmont Park, Atlanta, Midtown, photo, walking, jogging

Great place to walk, run and be with friends

The park has evolved over the decades and is under good stewardship of the city and a conservancy group which will help ensure the park continues to be an oasis in Atlanta for current and future generations to enjoy.Atlanta, spring, flowers, Piedmont Park, photo

What parks exist in your town that serve as great outdoor gathering places?

Roadside Treats on the Way to Maracas Bay, Trinidad

I think I must be hungry because chadon beni has been on my mind today…  It is making me remember my trip to to Maracas Bay in Trinidad.  On the way there, we made a stop for “Trini-Treats”, a roadside kiosk with a neat array of munchies, some familiar to me having grown up in another Caribbean island, but most quite unique to Trinidad & Tobago and, therefore, new to me.  At first, I was not sure these treats were for me.  Definitely not anything with coconut; coconut is just not for me.  Mango slices immersed in some pickled liquid, Patsy’s channa, and other stuff I did not recognize made me wonder if anything here would be for me.

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

My host and I beginning to explore all the offerings – a little overwhelming at first

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

The young writer seriously concentrating on the options at hand

Thankfully, our local host ignored our initial hesitation and got some samples of the different items.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  My favorite was the pears immersed in chow which is some sort of pickled liquid infused with chadon beni (culantro in other parts of the Caribbean, a strong flavored herb; with some garlic and black pepper, depends on the particular jar) – a great flavor combination!

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pineapple slices

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pears

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Mango slices

After that, we decided to get a few more of these delicious treats before continuing to Maracas Bay where bake ‘n shark awaited…  Famous “Richard’s” was closed for renovations so we just headed next door.  I loved the self-serve on the toppings and had a most delicious lunch.

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

This “beach” food sampler is just one example of many of the great food to be experienced in the lovely islands of Trinidad & Tobago.  Can’t wait to return!

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