Monday, June 25, 2018

DISCOVERING SANTORINI'S MAGIC, Guest Post by Catherine Mayone

The island of Santorini, Greece. Oia architecture

My niece Cathy and her husband Mike just returned from a wonderful vacation on Santorini and sent me this terrific report. 
In the lead up to my trip to the Island of Santorini, Greece, a friend of mine gave me some tips but refused to give too many details for fear of spoiling the surprises.  So I’ll try not to reveal too much and use only one adjective, “magical”, to describe the experience.  My husband and I spent six days in late May 2018 staying in two different locations and exploring the landscape, architecture, ancient ruins, quaint cliff top towns, vineyards, and just doing nothing but staring out at the azure Aegean Sea.
Sunset in Oia
Santorini, also known as Thira, was formed in the 16th century BC when a large volcanic eruption created its current landscape.   At 28 square miles, it offers the perfect size for exploring by land and sea.  We opted to rent a car for the entire period -- at 17 euros / day it was more cost effective than taxis and provided us the freedom to wander as we pleased.  We found our tiny Fiat convertible easy for navigating the small alley ways and a blast to drive, and didn’t have issues finding free parking.  In the height of the summer season I imagine driving and parking would not be as fun; the public bus system is very affordable and comfortable in coach style buses.  ATVs, scooters, or a daily car rental are also options.
View from our Oia "cave house"
We split up our stay between the towns of Oia (pronounced “eeya”) and Imerovigli.  In Oia, our twp bedroom AirBnB cave house with a sweeping patio provided a unique experience.  In Imerovigli, our stay at the Hotel Afroessa provided a spectacular view of the sunset and the friendly welcome and hospitality of a superb staff.
Hike from Oia to Fira
It was easy to spend our first few days exploring the ancient town of Oia with a hike down to the fishing port Amoudi Bay and browsing the artsy shops, the best on the island.  We also hiked the 11K trail from Oia over the ridge, with sea views in all directions, through Imerovigli, and into the capital city of Fira, which is the port of call for the cruise ships with sidewalks full of day-trippers.

On day 4, we opted for a self-guided driving tour of the Island since we had to check out of the AirBnB and into our hotel.  We quickly learned GPS systems have a hard time in Santorini as we kept trying different roads to find our hotel. Since you rarely just pull up to a hotel and drop off your bags, porters are adept at flinging multiple suitcases over their shoulders while you’re struggling to keep up as they seem to glide up and down all of the steep, no railing, natural stone stairs.
Ancient Thera
Our first driving destination was Ancient Thera, the highest point on the island, that was home to settlements from the 9th century BC until 726 AD, where you can see the expansive remains including the evidence of the Greek theater, Roman Baths, city center, and many private dwellings.  Since it was hard for us to get there, it’s amazing that populations long ago made it their home.  To access ancient Thera today, you can either hike up from Perissa, or hike or drive up the very windy, narrow road from Kamari.  Since we didn’t have a lot of time and the site closes at 3pm, we opted for the drive up, which is not for the faint-hearted!
Gaia winery in Kamari
We were ready for some nourishment and relaxation so our next stop was a vineyard.  Santorini is home to 1,100 hectares of vines and is well known for its white grape varieties Assyrtiko, Athiri, and Aidani.  Winemakers have invented an ungrafted vine growing process, which keeps the grapes growing in a circular tube and low to the ground to avoid the wind and heat exposure that has killed crops.  The GPS once again failed us so we gave up on our selected vineyard and stumbled upon another one – even better – Gaia Winery in Kamari by the sea on the shore of a black beach.  A waiter later marveled that we went there since tourists often opt for the bigger, fancier wineries like Boutari Winery, Santo Winery, and Estate Argyros.  It was easy to pass a couple of hours sipping wine, nibbling on the cheese platter, and learning about each bottle of wine which our hostess explained in detail, that feature unique flavors from the volcanic soil and salt from the sea.

By now, we turned the GPS off and my navigating went something like “this looks right” and “how wrong can we be since we can see the sea”.  Last stop was Megalochori for a brief walk through the ancient town, a café break, and a visit to its local bakery.

On day 5, we wanted to see the island from the water and went on an 18 person catamaran tour by Spiridakos around the southern shores of the Island.  They did an excellent job with a BBQ and Greek style sit down lunch and swim stops at the volcanic “hot springs” (warm but not hot), white beach and red beach.  The water at the beaches is crystal clear and, while brisk in shoulder season, we enjoyed a swim.  You won’t find a lot of fish for snorkeling or eating in the Aegean waters.  We were told much of the fishing industry was destroyed by the dynamite fishing technique that brought fish to the surface; the fish are only starting to re-populate.
Skaros rock in Imerovigli
We had been staring at Skaros rock from our Imerovigli hotel balcony and so it was beckoning a brief hike on day 6.  You can do it as part of your hike between Fira and Oia, but we were glad we saved it for another day so we could comfortably explore it and the chapel that sits on a perch on the back side of the rock.  There are more than 600 chapels and churches on Santorini, the products of fishermen who used to vow to build a church if they returned home safely from a long sea voyage.

Santorini has everything you could want in an Island vacation.  As gorgeous as photographs are, you must experience the sights, sounds, air, water, tastes and people yourself to reveal its surprises and magic.

We highly recommend our cave house AirBnB in Oia or Hotel Afroessa in Imerovigli.

Monday, June 18, 2018

BROOKLYN BRIDGE PARK, New York: Guest Post by Gretchen Woelfle

When my friend and fellow children's book writer Gretchen Woelfle was in New York recently, she was visiting relatives in Brooklyn and discovered the joys of Brooklyn Bridge Park, located under the bridge along the East River. Here is her report:
Bridge to Manhattan at the north end of Brooklyn Bridge Park
Take a sunny day in Brooklyn, a walk through this 85 acre park, along a 1.3 mile footpath on the East River, from the Manhattan Bridge past the Brooklyn Bridge to the end of Pier 6, and you’ll find all sorts of delights to savor. 
Playing soccer at Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge park

Jane's Carousel, built in 1922
There are playgrounds and an antique carousel for kids; lawns, gardens and terraces for picnics; cafés and ice cream shops; an educational center (with an aquarium); playing fields for all sorts of sports; and fantastic views of river traffic and the Manhattan skyline. 
Brooklyn Bridge seen from river level
The Brooklyn Bridge Conservancy presents over five hundred cultural, educational, and recreational events in the park: classes, sports clinics, foot races, music festivals, movies, kayaking, stargazing, history walks, and more.
A riverside sylvan glade
The Conservancy also coordinates environmental projects on the river, including the construction of a salt marsh and an oyster reef. Way back when, New York Harbor contained 200,000 acres of oyster reefs. Five thousand local students have taken part in the Billion Oyster Project to revive the ecosystem.
On deck of an Erie Canal barge
During my visit on a quiet Monday afternoon, I happened upon a canal barge that hails from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. It was about to begin its annual summer voyage up the Hudson and through the Erie Canal to Buffalo.
Below deck on the canal barge
Since I was the only visitor, I had the full attention of the volunteer crew for a tour of the boat and the story of its history.
River traffic and Manhattan skyline viewed from Brooklyn Bridge Park
This jewel of park, an oasis of green and blue in the big city,
is just a block away from the hipster hubbub of DUMBO on the north end, and the leafy streets of Brooklyn Heights on the south end.
For more information go to:

Monday, June 11, 2018

MOUNTAINS, GRIZZLIES AND MAGIC, the "Real Alaska" Part 2, Guest Post by Nora Gould

Fireweed in bloom on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

My friend Nora and her husband Frank went on a memorable trip to Alaska in August, 1996. Nora recalled the trip in a recent essay she wrote for Kendalights, a literary magazine published by the retirement community where she lives in Lyme, New Hampshire. She has graciously given me permission to reprint it for readers of The Intrepid Tourist. Nora and Frank's trip brought back memories of a similar trip to Alaska that Art and I took in 2002. Unfortunately, the photos of Nora's trip were lost when her computer crashed. I have used our photos as a substitute to illustrate her report.
Last week was Part 1. Here is part 2:
The next morning Frank rents a car and assures me that the trip will only get better.
“A lot better if it is to compete with North Face Lodge,” I say.
We drive to Seward. (The town is named for Secretary of State William H. Seward. At the time of Alaska’s purchase from the Russians in 1867, it was called “Seward’s Folly.” It cost 7.2 million dollars.) Seward is only slightly bigger than Lyme, New Hampshire. Seward is a gray town, and it appears that every other commercial building houses an Evangelical church. It is on the Kenai Peninsula on the Gulf of Alaska. We are there because Frank has never met a fjord he didn’t like. Early the next morning we board a small ship to take us to see the fjords. The ship has barely left port before we are seriously rocking and rolling. Within an hour Frank and I are the only people on the ship who are not sick. The captain announces that we are in 12-foot seas and are heading back to Seward. On our return, we see a cruise ship anchored in the harbor towering over the town. We leave Seward for Homer that afternoon.
Homer harbor
Homer is another seaport town but a little livelier than Seward. On arrival we are guided to an incoming boat. Michael McBride, owner of Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, has come personally to take us to his lodge. During the 30-minute trip Michael says, “There are twelve guests and ten naturalists at the lodge. We can arrange just about anything that you want to see or do.”
Bird Island on way to Kachemak Bay
Mike and Frank compare their experiences in the Service. Mike was a career Air Force officer. He retired and opened the lodge. Once again, we are fed a wonderful meal upon arrival, then shown to our cabin located above China Poot Bay and looking down on amazing scenery. Soon we are sleeping soundly.
Halibut Cove in Kachemak Bay
It is hard to describe the pure magic of Kachemak. The tidal pools, the hikes, the sea otters, the bird islands, and the friendly, knowledgeable staff all combine to make this experience unique. Each day we choose an activity and have one-on-one service.
Sea Otter
I spend a morning on a motorboat looking for and finding sea otters. Another day we fish for salmon. We are not alone—the bears, eagles, young eaglets, and flies are feeding on dying salmon.
Bald Eagles are common in Alaska
The richness of nature at Kachemak and the way the McBrides are preserving the wilderness is inspiring.
Before we leave, Frank decides that he would like Mike to fly him up to the lake owned by the lodge. He and Mike will camp out and then fish the lake in the morning. I curl up with an enjoyable book after going to the tidal pool to photograph starfish the size of dinner plates.
View of Kachemak Bay
The next day we fly home filled with memories of Alaska. Whether it is the “real Alaska” is open to question. However, what we experienced was a wonderful portion of it.

Monday, June 4, 2018

MOUNTAINS, GRIZZLIES AND MAGIC, the "Real Alaska" Part 1, Guest Post by Nora Gould

Denali National Park, Alaska
My friend Nora and her husband Frank went on a memorable trip to Alaska in August, 1996. Nora recalled the trip in a recent essay she wrote for Kendalights, a literary magazine published by the retirement community where she lives in New Hampshire. She has graciously given me permission to reprint it for readers of The Intrepid Tourist. Nora and Frank's trip brought back memories of a similar trip to Alaska that Art and I took in 2002. Unfortunately, the photos of Nora's trip were lost when her computer crashed. I have used a few of our photos as a substitute to illustrate her report.
My husband Frank loves to travel and spends a lot of time designing the perfect trips for us. In 1996 both of us were still working, Frank as an orthodontist, I as a school principal. We had arranged for a two-week vacation as Frank planned our trip to Alaska.
On August 1st, Frank suggested that I pack warm clothes and hiking boots. “Won’t I need a few dresses for dinner on the boat?” I asked. “No, no boat. I’ve designed a different trip. We’re going to see the real Alaska,” he said.
I always thought the perfect vacation involved sand and warm weather. Ideally, the sand would be on the coast of New Jersey, and there would be excellent restaurants within walking distance of our shore-front house. Not this time.
Denali. Susan Butcher was the first musher to summit Denali (Mount McKinley) with her dogsled.
We fly to Fairbanks. It feels like a frontier town, a working guys’ town. We spend the night in a modest motel. The next morning Frank leads me to the Chena River where we board a paddle steamer. There are lots of tourists on board. We paddle and steam along the river noting the dense woods on either side. Suddenly eight dogs emerge from the woods, pulling a sled. A young woman is driving. Her name is Susan Butcher. She tells us that she has raced with her dog team in the 1,150-mile Iditarod and won four times. Susan talks about her training methods with her dogs, which are year-long. Susan and her husband train dogs at their kennel, Trail Breakers, near Fairbanks. She is gracious and answers all the questions asked by the passengers. A few years after this, I read her obituary in the New York Times. She had died of leukemia at age 51 after a heroic battle.
Entrance to Denali National Park. Private cars are not allowed inside the park. The only way to see the park is on an organized bus tour.
The paddle boat cruises back to Fairbanks. We board a train the following morning. Frank recommends that I wear my hiking boots for the two-hour ride on the Alaska Railroad. We arrive at a small station and find buses waiting for us. Frank points me and my suitcase to the bus that says North Face Lodge. As we board, the driver says, “We’ll be traveling 98 miles into the park to the lodge. That is farther than any of the other buses go.
On the bus to North Face Lodge
North Face Lodge is very old and has the only sleeping accommodations in the park. It has 15 rooms and no plan to expand. [Note: Since 1996 North Face Lodge has expanded to a second site but it is still small.] The lodge is full. There are four industrialist and their wives from Milan, Italy. There are serious photographers and other couples who like adventure.
Blueberries and small plants are typical of the tundra
After lunch we break up into groups for hiking. Frank opts for a long, challenging hike. I choose the least strenuous over the tundra. It is springy underfoot because it rests on permafrost. The vegetation is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses, lichens and rare trees. You never go out without a guide. There are 350 grizzly bears in the park. The wolf population is smaller, only 100. Earlier, from the bus window, we saw a bear crossing the road. On my leisurely walk we see only a badger. His size surprises me—he’s bigger than I expected.

Hiking in Denali
The next day we choose to stay together on a five-mile hike through the park with a guide. About twelve people are in our group. The Italian wives all have very chic hiking outfits. My outfit might be described as utilitarian. Our hike takes us to the Nenana River. It has creamy-colored water because its source is the Nenana Glacier. We take off our boots and socks and run across this frigid river. As we are hiking down toward the lodge, Frank and the guide spot a large, male grizzly heading in our direction.
Grizzly bear
The guide says, “Okay now, I want you all to stand as close together as you can. We need to look formidable to the grizzly.” We follow his directions immediately. The large, brown grizzly is known to the guide. He is about 100 yards from us, running fast, as though on a mission. He has no interest in us.
The lodge, the people, and the guided hikes are so interesting that we choose to stay a few more nights. One thing we have not seen, due to fog and mist, is Denali, at 20,310 feet, the highest mountain in North America. The next day I hear excited voices outside. “Guarda! Guarda! C’e la montagna!”
Denali viewed from Mirror Lake
I go out in the courtyard to see what is happening. The Italians point toward the mountain. The fog has lifted, and we now see the majestic mountain. It is so near to us that it takes my breath away. We are all laughing and congratulating one another.
A flight around Denali
That evening Frank takes a flight in a small plane around the top of the mountain. I choose not to fly. My brother, who is a Navy pilot, has warned me off small planes and high mountains.
Early in the morning of the fifth day we leave North Face Lodge. The bus has not gone far before we stop—the road is blocked by a mama grizzly and her two cubs. She stands on her hind legs and watches the bus and us. She must be eight feet tall. After a few minutes she signals to the cubs, and they go off into a nearby field where we see caribou grazing.
 This is what Frank meant by the “real Alaska” I think to myself.

Look for the second half of Nora's report next week.