Category Archives: Nature

ebenalp and swiss paragliding

We’ve just returned from Europe and one of the more memorable experiences was a trip to Ebenalp in the northernmost summit of the Appenzell Swiss Alps.

I suggest a gondola up the steep, rugged rocks and follow a short hiking trail  (make sure you greet others with a friendly “Grüezi!”) to reach the Aescher cliff restaurant – they say 4770 feet above sea level-  for a local meal and beer. (This recent Bon Appetit article agrees.)

Fancy paragliding? Then join the number of other paragliders dotting the mountainsides. Or rather, do as we did, and  enjoy the show of colorful sails flying through the green landscape to the rhythmic sound of distant cowbells. Heavenly.

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local potato specialty with salad at Restaurant Ascher

local potato specialty with salad at Restaurant Aescher

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Cow bells softly clink and clank.

Cow bells softly clink and clank.

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counting caribbean blues in vieques

Vieques, Puerto Rico – a small island in the northeastern Caribbean an hour by government-run ferry from the main island – is known for its pristine beaches, bioluminescent bays, and lack of commercial development. Strongly influenced by 400 years of Spanish ownership but part of the US commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it  has a colorful past with its own version of a David vs. Goliath story starring its fishermen and the US Navy that led to the Navy withdrawing from Vieques in 2003 (more on this in a following post). But for sixty years the majority of Vieques was closed off by the US Navy, and for this reason the island remained  undeveloped for tourism. The quality of its beaches and the island’s lack of development were key reasons we wanted to spend some time there.

In late January we took the ferry from the main island town of Fajardo to Vieques for a three-day stay.  We visited the pristine, deserted beaches – free of adjacent commercial development – on the Southern Caribbean side of the island, featuring turquoise blue seas and white sands surrounded by green vegetation. The beaches – once the Navy’s former land – are now part of a wildlife refuge, and many retain the names the Navy gave them. We made it to four beaches, one more beautiful than the next.

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Playa Caracas (Red Beach)

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Media Luna’s ‘bathtub’

Media Luna

surfs up at navio

surfs up at navio

Playa Navio

miles of sand

miles of white sand

Bahia de la Chiva (Blue Beach)

For me, spending time on Vieques is summarized well in a piece written by James Lasdum for Conde Nast Traveler (April 2010):

“…the days of finding myself puzzlingly incapable of organizing a visit to the old fort or whaling museum, and wanting instead to lie on those pointless stretches of sand, counting the different blues of the Caribbean… It dawned on me that travel didn’t always have to be like college; that this drifting sweetness of life being enjoyed purely for its own sake was worth any number of dusty madonnas or worm- riddled wooden saints… But for now this is all I want of culture, and all I need of enlightenment. “

el camino de santiago

Whether  for spiritual, religious, or cultural reasons, walking El Camino de Santiago is high on the wish list of many travelers, including mine. I hope to take this journey with my family when the kids are a bit older. There is something special about following a path walked by pilgrims for more than 1,000 years. Going farther back to pre-Christian times, El Camino was also the site of a popular spiritual walk that followed the stars of the milky way.

courtesy Love Mondegreens

courtesy Love Mondegreens

The Way of St. James, or El Camino de Santiago, is a pilgrimage route in Northern Spain to the  Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where tradition has it that the remains of St. James are buried. Because of this, it was one of the most important pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages. In fact, from the 9th to 16th century, up to two million people a year walked hundreds of miles  from not only Spain, but also France, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and Italy to worship at the burial site. The route continues to be popular today for modern-day pilgrims and travelers of all ages and from all over the world. According to Wikipedia, the route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe; it was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

courtesy Love Mondegreens

destination: Santiago
courtesy Love Mondegreens

There are five main Spanish pilgrimage routes with hostels and hotels offering walkers and their tired toesies a place for rest and food along the way.

Courtesy Love Mondegreens

Courtesy Love Mondegreens

There are many people who have chronicled this journey and each experience is unique.

Jack Hitt, author of “Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain“, describes the experiences and challenges of hiking El Camino with his daughters in this recent NY Times article Hiking through History with your Daughters . (like he describes, I can only imagine the moment when my kids give up and then realize there’s no going back.  ) He describes the family’s adventures and gives additional resources for believers and non-believers wishing to make the trip.

Fellow blogger, gifted travel writer and brave soul Michelle at her blog Love Mondegreens – from Southern Spain to Northern Ireland writes about walking El Camino solo last Spring, and highlights in this post the people and stories she experienced along the way with some excellent photos that offer a firsthand peek into her journey. For her, the experience of hiking it alone was liberating.

Today’s pilgrims can carry a credencial or pilgrim passport and upon completion, receive a compostela , an official record of accomplishment. I’m sure it provides some satisfaction, but I imagine many who have made the hike would say it wasn’t about that.

Because it’s all about the journey, right?

Photos courtesy of Love Mondegreens

fresh air

Three countries. Three incredible hikes. When I travel locally or internationally, hiking is an important way I connect with a place. I’m drawn to the ocean and sea, so it’s by no surprise that three of my favorite hikes take place near water-  the  Zingaro Nature Reserve or Riserva naturale dello Zingaro near San Vito lo Capo, Sicily (Italy); the Costa Verde near Llanes, Spain; and Fort Cronkhite, Marin County, California, U.S.

Undiscovered? No, but these hikes and locations are less discovered. And all three offer free public access.

 Zingaro Nature Reserve (Riserva naturale dello Zingaro) San Vito lo Capo, Sicily

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Near the small, picturesque, jewel of a town, San Vito lo Capo, and its beach,   in northwestern Sicily, is the Riserva naturale dello Zingaro.

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Paths stretch along seven kilometers of unspoiled coast and bays overlooking   blue-green sparkling water.

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Along the hike, claim your rock and spend the day in and out of the clean, clear sea.

The Zingaro also features an archeological past with a pretty spectacular-to-witness Uzzo Grotto or shelter cave, one of the first prehistoric human settlements in Sicily.

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the Grotto

The Zingaro is top on my list of unforgettable experiences of beauty, hiking, sunbathing and swimming in the pristine waters of Northwestern Sicily, an area still undiscovered by many North Americans.

Costa Verde, Llanes, Spain

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Just outside the colorful, super-Spanish, full-of-fiesta town of Llanes there is a hike that feels half Northern California for its seacliff paths, and half Swiss for its nearby lush green mountains. I’ve been here twice.

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At one part of the hike, my friends and I had to make our way through ferns taller than we were.

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Llanes lies to the north of the Picos de Europa mountain range.

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And, since this is Asturias, Spain, what better place to “throw the cider”  (the bottle must be held above the head allowing for a long vertical pour) and enjoy an Asturian sidra after a long hike.

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Ft. Cronkhite, Golden Gate National Parks, Marin County, California

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I can hardly understand how I lived in San Francisco for almost 10 years and never came across the hiking paths at nearby Fort Cronkhite by Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands. Once a  WWII military post and part of the presidio, these coastal  hills offer hikers (and their dogs) miles of paths. We hiked up and around the old army gun batteries and lookout. The location is quiet and picture-perfect with unobstructed access to the water and views.  A woman (seen just barely below) found the perfect vista to pull up a beach chair and spend the afternoon in solitude.

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Have you taken a hike that is unforgettable? Where is your favorite undiscovered or less discovered location to hike?

flying south

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My mother in law, who lives in Canada, likes to describe how – like the Canada Goose –  she flies south each winter to escape the cold.  We took her lead recently and escaped the chill of Northern California to the warmer climate in the sleepy beach town of San Buenaventura, California – or rather the shortened “Ventura” – where we have friends.  (Curiously I have found that the word “Patagonia” – the outdoor clothing and gear company founded in Ventura –  and “Buenaventura” share the same number of syllables. Nonetheless, the city name got the the chop a long time ago.)

Ventura is a sleepy seaside and surf town. The area feels off the beaten track and we enjoyed exploring it.

Mission San Buenaventura, (1782), named for St. Bonaventure of Tuscany, is the ninth and last mission founded by Junipero Serra in California.

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The gardens feature flowers and plants typical of the climate in Southern California. I’ll admit this girl from the north is envious of the colorful and lush landscaping possibilities here.

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We took a whale watching tour with Island Packers out to the Channel Islands.

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We missed the annual southern migrating gray whales that day (pregnant mothers arrive in the area first, then juveniles, followed last by the males) but experienced a pod of about 75 dolphins  jumping and splashing around the boat. And this New Years Eve sunset was a special treat on our return to the harbor.

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Ventura’s city hall is beautiful. This is the view looking down from it to the shore, with the iconic palm trees lining the street.

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The flagship Patagonia store in its historic building is not to be missed for some high-end outerwear shopping.

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We welcomed 2013 tasting some of the best $1.25 carnitas tacos in nearby Carpinteria where we also discovered by chance a lovely bluffs nature reserve  and a beautiful and long sandy beach without crowds. Some of the tallest and skinniest palm trees I’ve ever seen line its small downtown and we twisted our heads back to peer up at them. The local surf shop had just the pair of Havaianas sandals I was looking for.

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Soaking in the Southern California sun we came down for, we watched the surfers to the beat of the crashing waves.

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i dolomiti

The Dolomites, or i Dolomiti in Italian, the breathtaking mountain range in the Trentino – Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy, is  one of my favorite places to visit. While not what most North Americans expect in Italy, this region feels most certainly its geographic position on the crossroads of Italy and Austria. When we lived nearby at Lago di Garda, we took day trips to Trento or weekends up to Bolzano. We hiked near Canazei and took in the panorama of the alps at the Sass Pordoi.

I have sentimental reasons for loving this place too. My favorite wine of the Dolomites is maker Mezzacorona .  I like their white wines, particularly their Pinot Grigio which I can find in my local market in Northern California. If you are in the area, take their informative – and fun – wine tour where you can learn about winemaking in the region, and have the opportunity to taste a wide range of their quality wines. The facility is modern and artistic.

In fact, it was this entertaining  wine tasting experience at Mezzacorona followed by a carpaccio dinner in the nearby city of Trento, that has become a memorable family story. (I found out the next day I was four weeks pregnant with our daughter. I can assure you that sparkling wine and raw meat didn’t harm her!).

Trento is never far from my heart and mind. My wedding band is from Trento’s historic city center by a  jeweler founded in 1872, Gioielleria D. Cortelletti.

Trento

During the winter Trento has some of the best known and beloved Christmas street markets. We especially loved to visit during this time. There we found a wide variety of sausages (like what you’d typically find in Germany or Austria) and delicious soup mixes for sale.

Bolzano farther north, was well worth the extra time in the car to visit. Its mediaeval city center, churches and castles – and mix of Italian and Austrian influence -give the city a unique flavor.

Bolzano

One of our all-time favorite trips was staying at an inn at Cortina d’Ampezzo near Canazei – long known as a winter sports center – in the northern region of Alto-Adige and hiking the upper part of Val di Fassa.

Cortina d’Ampezzo

We visited off season and hiked in unbelievably remote and beautiful parts. We rested our feet at an outdoor cafe clinging to the edge of a mountain. We took the funivia (cable car) to the unforgettable Sass Pordoi, called the terrazza or terrace of the Dolomites , at 2,950 meters. (We purchased jackets from a wise man selling them before our ascent.) It has one of the most spectacular panoramas of the alps!

At almost 3,000 meters at sass pordoi overlooking the alps.

The Trentino – Alto Adige region of Italy – its people, food and culture – may not remind you of the Italy you are accustomed to visiting or hearing about – but it is well worth adding to your itinerary. In fact, it couldn’t be more what Italy truly is, a mix of diverse cultures and history.

home garden inspiration at the french laundry

A wrong turn in search for an outdoor spot to eat our picnic yesterday dropped us into the outdoor kitchen garden of  3-star Michelin,  award-winning restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, Napa Valley.

My husband is a home gardening enthusiast – and I, a garden-eating enthusiast – so we were thrilled at our luck at this chance encounter to experience world-class methods and perhaps take a few tips home. With a mix of garden envy and awe, we wandered through the carefully laid out plots in between grass pathways. They are producing unbelievably beautiful vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs.

I’ve read that in addition to being a professional test garden, the garden supplies around 30 percent of the The French Laundry’s produce. The restaurant is housed in a beautiful historic building that was once – you guessed it – a french steam laundry.

 

The restaurant’s organic garden grows many different kinds of vegetables and fruit and also tests unique plants. I walked past artichokes, lettuce, corn, eggplant,  three different kinds of basil and other herbs new to me, a variety of peppers and white strawberries. There were chickens and a bee house.

And then there were the tomatoes. We needed to find out what was in this soil to produce those tomatoes. The staff we talked to said they utilize crop rotation and organic compost – with chicken manure. There are perfectly placed drip tubes and tapes.

Enter the greenhouse where tomato vines are giant and tomatoes works of art.

The vines show off their supersized health.

The method of planting close together and meticulously stringing the vines up from top (see white string above)  are ideas we will take home.

The ice lettuce with hints of purple is beautiful covering.

The vegetables make room for flowers – many edible and used in the menu.

Freshly picked heirloom tomatoes, presumably for customers that night.

 

 Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry has earned its title as one of the  world’s best restaurants. The gardens, without doubt, are world class. Visiting them,  you will return home with fresh inspiration for your own garden.

Do you have a favorite public garden?