Monday, May 25, 2015

ANTARCTIC CRUISE, Part 3: South Georgia to the Weddell Sea, Guest Post by Owen Floody



Antarctic Peninsula, Elephant Island (on right)
In January 2015, our friend Owen Floody went on a cruise to Antarctica, which also included stops at the Falklands and South Georgia Island.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken several trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is part 3 of a short reflection on his Antarctic trip and a few of his excellent photographs. 
The long cruise from South Georgia Island to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula was broken up by a brief stop at Wilde Point on Elephant Island (the right-hand rock formation), the sanctuary for most of the Ernest Shackleton crew during the several months that they awaited an uncertain rescue.  Thereafter, we all were geared up for our early morning approach to the Weddell Sea, at the eastern end of the Antarctic Sound.  Indeed, the light and scenery that we enjoyed on this morning were probably the best of the trip.  But our hopes to enter and experience landings or zodiac cruises in the Weddell Sea were thwarted by the heavy ice pack and seas.  Fortunately, this did not prevent us from thoroughly enjoying the wonderful procession of large icebergs that lined our route out of the Antarctic Sound and south along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Antarctic Peninsula to Deception Island and Ushuaia

Having already paid a more extensive visit to the Antarctic Peninsula under better conditions (clearer and calmer weather; also earlier in the season, with more young penguin chicks), I fear that the remainder of this trip was a little anticlimactic for me.  But how bad can life in such a magical place really be?  Even here, I enjoyed the atmospheric conditions and icebergs that we encountered on our remaining few landings and zodiac cruises.  In addition, it was here that we had our closest encounters with Humpback whales, including a pair that we managed to follow for quite a while in our zodiacs. 
Humpback whale tail
All in all, this was a good trip that presented some marvelous scenery and wildlife, but also with nearly constant reminders that the show was really being run by Mother Nature, not us, our crew or our tour operator.  I've come away from it with both an appreciation of how rough seas can be, but also of my ability to deal with all that was thrown my way.  Could a return trip to South Georgia, including yet another to Antarctica, be in my future?

Details: The ship was the m/v Plancius (capacity = 112), which is owned and operated by Oceanwide Expeditions (http://www.oceanwide-expeditions.com/).  This is a Dutch outfit with an office in Houston.  We booked our cabins directly, though it is possible to book through other travel agencies or tour operators, as is standard for such cruises.

We flew on Aerolineas Argentinas between JFK and Ushuaia, with stops of 3 (on the way down) or 1 (return) day(s) in Buenos Aires.

Monday, May 18, 2015

ANTARCTIC CRUISE, Part 2: Falklands to South Georgia, Guest Post by Owen Floody



King Penguin Colony

In January 2015, our friend Owen Floody went on a cruise to Antarctica, which also included stops at the Falklands and South Georgia Island.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken several trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is part 2 of a short reflection on his Antarctic trip and a few of his excellent photographs. 
Wandering Albatross on Nest
After devoting part of our trip's fourth day to a brief tour of Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, we plunged back into the heavy seas for the long cruise to South Georgia Island.  We arrived there midway through the seventh day and then spent nearly four days enjoying a great number and variety of activities including landings, zodiac cruises and ship cruises.  In part, this wealth of activities reflected the much better weather that marked most of our time at South Georgia.  In addition, it reflected the constant efforts of the expedition crew to compensate for time and activities previously lost to the weather.
Fur Seals: mother and pup
To a large extent, it was my desire to see South Georgia that motivated this trip and I am happy to say that South Georgia did not disappoint.  Among the things that it combines are impressive mountains and glaciers and a special place in the history of Antarctic exploration, revolving around the fact that it was at the Stromness Harbour whaling station that Ernest Shackleton and two of his crew appeared in May, 1916, after sailing a stormy 810 miles from Elephant Island and then hiking for 36 hours over glaciers and 6,000 foot mountains from the other side of South Georgia, all as just a first step in the eventual rescue of the majority of his crew, still marooned on Elephant Island.  
Macaroni penguin
As interesting as were the perspectives it provided on the histories of whaling and Antarctic exploration, it was the wildlife on South Georgia that stole the show, not just here but for the cruise as a whole.  Our initial activities, on and near Prion Island, brought us up-close-and-personal to nesting Wandering albatrosses and sometimes-belligerent mother fur seals. 

Elephant seals
Later landings or zodiac cruises at Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay exposed us to lovely Macaroni penguins  and the spectacle of immature (but still enormous) male elephant seals facing off on the beach.

King penguins
Still, the stars of the show unquestionably were the King penguins that we encountered at Saint Andrews Bay and Gold Harbour.  These were notable for their bright colors and impressive numbers: For example, the colony at Saint Andrews alone is reported to contain more than 300,000 pairs (see very small fraction in the photo above).  But like other penguins, I found the kings most endearing for their sometimes comical patterns of movement and their elegance, perhaps especially when interacting or preening. 

Details: The ship was the m/v Plancius (capacity = 112), which is owned and operated by Oceanwide Expeditions (http://www.oceanwide-expeditions.com/).  This is a Dutch outfit with an office in Houston.  We booked our cabins directly, though it is possible to book through other travel agencies or tour operators, as is standard for such cruises.

We flew on Aerolineas Argentinas between JFK and Ushuaia, with stops of 3 (on the way down) or 1 (return) day(s) in Buenos Aires.

King penguins
Next week, Part 3: South Georgia to the Weddell Sea.


Monday, May 11, 2015

ANTARCTIC CRUISE, Part 1: Ushuaia to the Falklands, Guest Post by Owen Floody



Beagle Channel

In January 2015, our friend Owen Floody went on a cruise to Antarctica, which also included stops at the Falklands and South Georgia Island.  Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken several trips that allow him to pursue his passion. Here is part 1 of a short reflection on his Antarctic trip and a few of his excellent photographs.
Black-browed albatross
In December of 2005 I went on an 11 day Antarctic cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, to  the Antarctic Peninsula, returning to Ushuaia by way of the South Shetland Islands.  This trip was blessed by calm seas, beautiful scenery and great wildlife, including a multitude of penguins, many with small chicks. I enjoyed this trip so much that I resolved to return to Antarctica, but this time following the longer route (approximately 18 days) that visits the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island on its way to the Antarctic Peninsula.  It is this trip that occupied me for the second half of January, 2015. 

Mixed colony of seabirds--Black-browed albatrosses and Rockhopper penguins
On any trip of this type, you ultimately are at the mercy of the weather and bad weather can affect you in a variety of ways.  First, it can slow the ship, thereby limiting the time that you can spend at some destinations.  Second, it can increase the difficulty of leaving or returning to the ship, sometimes preventing these altogether.  Together, these can limit the land-oriented activities (landings and zodiac cruises) that are the primary goals on such cruises.  Third, heavy seas and high winds can "shrink" the ship (by making the outside decks impassable) and make it more difficult to move about the parts of the ship that remain open.

Rockhopper Penguin
As you may have guessed, the conditions of my recent trip were generally bad.  This became apparent immediately, as high winds pinned our ship to its pier for 12 hours beyond the scheduled time of departure which delayed our arrival in the Falkland Islands to the extent of excluding one of the two planned wildlife-oriented landings there. 






Blue-eyed Shags
The one completed landing, on Saunders Island, was great, bringing us to a mixed colony of seabirds, most notably including Rockhopper penguins, Black-browed albatrosses and Blue-eyed shags.  Of course, we're all greedy on trips of this sort so that this success did not completely suppress thoughts of what we might have seen on the intended second such landing.

Details: The ship was the m/v Plancius (capacity = 112), which is owned and operated by Oceanwide Expeditions (http://www.oceanwide-expeditions.com/).  This is a Dutch outfit with an office in Houston.  We booked our cabins directly, though it is possible to book through other travel agencies or tour operators, as is standard for such cruises.

We flew on Aerolineas Argentinas between JFK and Ushuaia, with stops of 3 (on the way down) or 1 (return) day(s) in Buenos Aires.

Next week, Part 2: Falklands to South Georgia

Monday, May 4, 2015

HAWAII TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN: Hilo, Hawaii

Heliconia bihai, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a treasure trove of tropical plants from around the world and a photographer’s delight, is one of our favorite places on the Big Island. We have been there three times, including on our recent trip to Hawaii two weeks ago, and each time we have had a different experience–depending on weather, time of day, and the growth and addition new plants as the garden is maintained.
View from trail of Twin Rocks in Onomea Bay 

The garden is planted along a steep, narrow valley with a walkway descending 500 feet from the top of the garden (120 feet above sea level) to the ocean below. The top portion is densely planted along a boardwalk and is the perfect place to be eye-level with some of the taller plants. As the walkway reaches the lower part of the garden various side trails lead to waterfalls, a lily pool, a bird cage, orchid garden and more. Actually, orchids have been strategically places throughout the garden and almost everywhere you look their colorful blooms pop out of the background.
Onomea Waterfall
The sheer variety of plants in the garden is overwhelming with shapes, patterns and colors more like modern art than Mother Nature.  I was reminded of the paintings of French artist Henri Rousseau (who was inspired by the plants he saw in the greenhouses of the botanical garden in Paris.) Among the goals of the garden is to collect and cultivate tropical rain forest flora of every nature and origin, with emphasis on species threatened by extinction.
Patterns of green plants
Although plants are the main emphasis of the garden, the valley is also home to a variety of wildlife. As we walked the garden paths, cardinals and other birds flew overhead, insects buzzed around the flowering trees, frogs called from inside bromeliads, and lizards scampered along the large leaves.
Heliconia along boardwalk
Tickets to enter the garden are purchased at the gift shop next to the parking area. An annex to the gift shop has interesting displays of items collected by the Lutkenhouse family (who built and founded the garden) that reveal some of the early history of the area. Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse founded the garden in 1978 and opened it to the public in 1984. It is now operated as a non-profit corporation. Admission for a day is $15 for adults, children ages 6 - 16 are $5. Children under 6 are free.
Lily Lake
Directions: The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is located on the 4-mile scenic drive off of Highway 19 (turn off just after the 7 mile marker). The scenic route goes through dense rainforest. This side of the Big Island is the rainy side, and, in fact, there was a small shower just before we arrived at the garden on our recent visit. (The gift shop provides umbrellas if needed.) But, whatever the weather or time of day, the garden is always worth a visit.

For more about Hilo and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden go to my post I wrote in April 2012 after my last visit .
Entrance to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden



Sunday, April 26, 2015

SANTA CRUZ, CA: From Redwoods to the Seashore

View from cliff walk, Wilder Ranch State Park, Santa Cruz, CA
Perched at the north end of Monterey Bay on the California coast, the town of Santa Cruz has something for everyone–a beautiful shoreline, forested hillsides with tall redwoods, great food, a University of California campus with all its accompanying activities, a lively arts and crafts scene, a boardwalk, and more. In late March, a visit to a friend in Santa Cruz provided us with the opportunity to relax and enjoy some of the area’s striking natural beauty.
Gull
A wide variety of hiking trails are available around Santa Cruz. One of our walks was at the Wilder Ranch State Park just north of town along Highway 1. The path leads from the parking area across open fields to a trail along the top of cliffs overlooking the ocean. It was a beautiful day, slightly breezy but not cold. As we walked, gulls soared overhead and a few spring wildflowers bloomed along the path.
Harbor seals
As we looked down to the water’s edge, we saw a clump of seals resting on a rock just above the waves. They too seemed to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

The next morning we took a hike among the redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Our trail took us down a steep hill lined with ferns and other plants and then followed the river that flows along the bottom of the valley and eventually into Monterey Bay.

Our friend’s house overlooks Natural Bridges State Beach. On one side is a sandy beach facing the large rocks after which the park is named. On the other side, shallow pools with a variety of sea life are exposed at low tide. Before leaving Santa Cruz we scrambled down to the tide pools to see what we could find and discovered various sea anemones, a multitude of mussels, and other ocean life.
Tidepool with sea anemones


It had been a long time since our last visit to Santa Cruz many years ago. This trip made us realize that we should visit more often!

Monday, April 20, 2015

HAVANA DAYS AND NIGHTS: Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle



Havana, Cuba. Restored Plaza Vieja with Sculpture by Roberto Fabelo
My friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle recently returned from an exciting two week cycling trip in Cuba and has graciously contributed this report. 

Our Cycleactive group’s  reward for successfully cycling eleven days over Cuba’s “undulations” (see April 13 blogpost) was five fabulous days in Havana! It’s a seductive city – with exquisitely restored streets and plazas, and just-as-interesting crumbling, un-restored side streets.

Hemingway's studio at Finca Vigia
We spent three nights at Hotel Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s home in the 1930s before he bought his finca outside the city. A rooftop restaurant and original art-deco details, including a steel cage elevator with operator, provided a charming retro atmosphere. After the group dispersed, a few of us stayed on for more.

Three in a taxi: Tres chic as gringos! (Gretchen in the middle)

Some of our adventures:
• a two-hour tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) with a marvelous Cuban guide.
Museo de Bellas Artes to see how 20th century Cuban artists merged European influences with a Cuban sensibility.
• taxi ride in a 1950s Chevy convertible to Fusterlandia – a whole neighborhood transformed by painter and mosaic artist José Rodriguez Fuster;
• classical chamber music concert in an old Spanish palacio;
• art galleries and studios of contemporary artists, including
• stunning movie posters from the 1960s-80s – both Cuban and foreign films;
Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a print-making studio filled with artists whose work is exhibited in a small gallery, and for sale at reasonable prices.
• an outdoor market surrounding the Plaza des Armas selling used books (some in English) and other collectibles
• a Hemingway odyssey to: his room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos; to Cojimar, the unchanged seaside town where he kept his fishing boat and where his corner table in a favorite restaurant is reserved for him; and the lovely Finca Vigia, his home for twenty years, with his books on the shelves, his typewriter in his studio, and the dining table set for dinner. 
• an espresso bar where customers patiently wait along the counter while el barista does it all: washes cups, lines up saucers, makes and serves coffee one cup at a time, collects your money, whips your saucer away as soon as you lift your cup, and repeats the ritual.
• walking along the Prado, a wide boulevard with a central promenade watching children play soccer; friends gather to make music and chat; artists make and sell their work; and tourists and locals soak up the scene.    
• sipping a piña colada and watching the sun set from a rooftop.
• spending the evening at an outdoor café listening to a local band with three friends, then welcoming more and more of our fellow-cyclists who wandered by and joined us.
• conversations with Cubans eager to speak English and discuss their longing for contact with the outside world, the successes and failings of la Revolutión, and their resourceful ways of getting ahead in a difficult economy.
• Nighttime walks along the Malecón (the harbor seawall,) passing local cafés, fishermen, and courting couples. 
Laying pavement. The pavement was laid by evening!
I didn’t get enough of Havana, so I’ll be returning in June for a week to wander the Havana Art Biennial – an extravaganza that fills the city with work by artists from all over the world. I’ll also repeat some of those daytime and nighttime roamings, drink more espresso, seek out more music, and take another 1950s taxi ride.

Two lovely ladies just having fun.
*****
The Other Side of Paradise by Julia Cooke, is full of stories and insights about Cuba today. You’ll learn a lot that you won’t see as a tourist.
I watched Our Man in Havana, starring Alex Guinness, based on Graham Greene’s novel, before and after I went to Cuba. I also read the novel while I was there. It takes place in 1958, just before the Revolution. Both book and film are brilliant.
Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Cuba for details on travel, the two Cuban currencies, and more.
For more info about Cuba: http://www.cuba-junky.com has tons of good information about many things Cuban.
Havana morning from my hotel room.