Tag Archives: nature

Hood Canal—The Greatest Show On Earth.

Hood Canal, WA, photo credit Claudia SantinoPicking my way along a beachhead of oysters, the water beckoned. You can’t walk this Washington beach at Hood Canal barefoot unless you want your feet cut to ribbons. Water shoes were my salvation. It was 86 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, and with barely a breeze the air felt like a furnace, and I was pretty crispy. Just as I was about to step in a shiny head popped up out of the water.

Eyes like a lab and a whiskered snout kept a sharp eye on me. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I waved, whistled and called to it, only to hear my sister say, “It’s not a dog.” It’s not every day I get to swim that close to a seal and as they say, you can take the girl out of Brooklyn but…

Visiting family can be a wild experience—the best of the best or the worst of the worst. When it’s good, it’s golden and if you’re blessed to have siblings who live in interesting places, spending time with them is a double incentive. I’d be in Bellevue with my sister and her husband. It’s the suburb Microsoft calls home and a stone’s throw, or two, from Seattle depending on traffic.

Seattle is the big draw for many travelers who visit Washington, and rightly so, but I was here on a backyard vacation. I appreciate the delights of the Emerald City but visiting family doesn’t always give you access to your own personal itinerary and that’s okay by me. With the lack of humidity in the summer, there is no finer place to be in this rainy part of the state when the sun takes its hat off. Our ultimate destination was Hood Canal, a hamlet in Union, Washington.

A pretty blue palate seen aboard the Washington State Ferries.  (Photo:  Claudia Santino)

A pretty blue palate seen aboard the Washington State Ferries. (Photo: Claudia Santino)

Located two hours west of Seattle, Hood Canal is one of the state’s jewels and a retreat into one of nature’s most pristine shorelines. It’s a natural saltwater fjord that splits the Kitsap and Olympic peninsula and where locals go to chill out and wish they didn’t have to make the trip back to the daily grind. You can easily drive to this stretch of paradise but parking your wheels on one of the Washington State Ferries is a nicer way to break up the trip, decompressing you into vacation mode a lot faster.

On a clear day, one of the biggest treats is feasting your eyes on the soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone perfection of Mount Rainier.

When you can see it, Mount Rainier is a perfect site to behold. (Photo: C. Santino)

When you can see it, Mount Rainier is a perfect site to behold. (Photo: C. Santino)

“Relax, you’re at the cabin” reads the welcome mat and I do, immediately melting into Hood Canal’s south side. East and west ends of this shoreline are chock-a-block with an architectural assortment of seaside residences. Some breathtaking, some kitschy, some over the top, but all lucky because of the knock-your-socks-off view of the majestic Olympic Mountains. Behind these homes, it’s pretty much all forest.

Hood Canal is a quiet haven and for old-timers and newcomers that is one of its draws. It’s a simple times kind of place to sit and behold nature day or night. Sure, you’ll hear a speedboat or the peal of laughter from a water-skier ring across the water but for the most part it’s the silence and serenity that becomes its most obvious gift.

Spring, summer, fall or winter, if you appreciate the great outdoors and are looking to disconnect, it’s a pearl of a place.

Douglas fir, cedar and redwood trees loom high above this little cabin like sentinel giants. The cool air they provide carries their woodsy perfume and the canopy of these shady guards seems to double as a concert hall for all manner of birds. In the twilight a large, winged, dark shadow passed above my head like a death starship. It was kind of eerie but then wings pulled in and long graceful legs descended to alight on a nearby dock. It was a great blue heron, coming in for last call on sunset happy hour.  A moment later its partner stationed itself on an adjacent dock.

A great blue heron settles into a Hood Canal happy hour.  (Photo: Claudia Santino)

A great blue heron settles into a Hood Canal happy hour. (Photo: Claudia Santino)

Seeing them again the following evening as they made their way towards their nest was another sight to behold as these large seabirds folded themselves towards branches, navigating them like tightrope walkers.  Sibling kingfishers dove out of a tall maple tree, skimming the canal for a fresh evening meal and providing additional entertainment.

Speaking of food, locals are used to fishing it right out of Hood Canal or off its beach. Crabbing, clamming, trout, salmon—it’s all there. And then there are Hood Canal oysters. These sweet bivalves have made their way from this once sleepy hamlet all the way to New York City menus.

No matter the season, the local town of Belfair has pretty much anything you need to get your provisions, hunker down, and escape mankind. Our car was locked and loaded with food from home. More importantly, we’d bought lots of peaches for pie. Silence may be golden but it doesn’t get much better than sitting on a deck in summer enjoying homemade peach pie.

With its small town vibe, nearby Shelton seems like the town that time forgot. Located southwest of Hood Canal, it’s a lazy pace place but with a downtown area that has lots of cool and quirky shops, bars and restaurants. Vintage stores and second-hand shops draw locals and tourists and a good starting place for anyone who likes this kind of treasure hunting is Garage Sale Maniacs. It’s the kind of place that has something for everyone, with its top quality furniture and furnishings, books, jewelry, vintage photos, as well as all the bric-a-brac that goes with a second-hand shop.

If you’re not into buying someone else’s stuff, contemporary design and home furnishing shops are happy to take your disposable income and you’ll be lucky if you can get out of Lynch Creek Florist without busting your wallet open because they don’t just do flowers.

Let’s put it this way—if I owned a cabin on Hood Canal, this home decor and gift shop on W. Railroad Avenue would be my go to and I’d be in big trouble.

Just a few steps away, Nita’s Coffee Shop, in business since 1962, drew me like steel to a magnet. Spotting an authentic diner is like recognizing a first crush. It’s a good way to meet the locals and any place that has homemade pie on the menu gets a star in my book. Spending the day in Shelton is a perfect way to extend your feel of the area and revisit the type of town that is disappearing in this country.

A local hangout in Shelton, WA. (Photo: Claudia Santino)

A local hangout in Shelton, WA. (Photo: Claudia Santino)

At one time Hood Canal was a best-kept secret but no more. Over the years it’s welcomed a new demographic of visitors. In 2004 the redesigned Alderbrook Resort & Spa had the light shining brighter on this neck of the Great Northwest.

Since then, the hotel has been racking up awards for its accommodations and four-star spa.

In business since 1913, Alderbrook has served as a getaway for vacationing Washington families. It changed hands over the decades and the major facelift it got in 2001 dovetails with Hood Canal’s natural environment. Today’s design is simple and welcoming with a 30-foot stone and wood fireplace as the lobby’s centerpiece. Huge windows look out on the canal and the resort’s garden. With a mix of hotel rooms and cottages, Alderbrook’s friendly room rates are one of its most welcoming features and the 18-hole PGA golf course is a draw for locals and visitors.

Alderbrook Resort & Spa provides a nice welcome for visitors and locals.

Alderbrook Resort & Spa provides a nice welcome for visitors and locals.

Destination weddings are popular at Alderbrook but the vibe is so local that other guests don’t seem to mind the ceremony as they slurp down local shellfish and sip a chilly glass of Pinot Gris from the state’s Columbia Valley or a Spice of Life Bloody Mary served with a signature crab claw. Kayakers glide by and a red-sailed boat moves towards a sunset sail. It’s local meets luxury and it’s all very chill. The hotel’s location in Union is prime for hiking, fishing, or boating but I was happy to just enjoy the scenery.

It was only three miles west from where I was holed up but the view from Alderbrook took on an entirely different color. Situated on a wider point of the canal, my eyes absorbed more and the mountain range was cast in a watercolor palette of pale to indigo blue. A bald eagle in flight only enhanced the picture, as if someone said: “Cue the bird.” I couldn’t get enough of this wild stuff. Sunsets seem to go on forever here and as a crescent moon rose, the sky and water was cast in an amethyst hue that set the Olympic Mountains aglow. No acid required.

Mornings are an entirely different experience and it’s not unusual to wake to cloud cover. This summer has been golden for the Great Northwest and the sunrise lit up the Olympic Mountain range, Hood Canal’s west side view, clear as glass. Its spiny ridge is set in profile of a sleeping George Washington. A faint, wispy trail of snow formed the lining of his breast pocket. Playful swallows dipped and darted, skimming the water at a frenetic pace. Focusing solely on them I could almost feel their aerodynamic power.

Bumblebees get busy on deck flowers of hot pink-fringed gladioli, ballerina pink Japanese anemone, and orange flame crocosmia, disappearing into petals like women into a fitting room. They finally reappear, their theft of pollen hidden wherever bees stash that precious gold.

Going for the gold. (Photo: Claudia Santino)

Going for the gold. (Photo: Claudia Santino)

Bobbing in the water, I watched the seal watching me. I figured by now this was flirtation so “it” became “he.” I don’t get this at Coney Island and I was as transfixed by his otherness as he seemed to be by mine. But my perfect moment was shattered when a barking Jack Russell came charging down to the water raising hell.

In a flash, my Romeo slipped into the sea and his little torpedo body vanished.

That night as twilight set, the water was cast in ripples of indigo blue. I asked my brother-in-law if he ever saw seals at this time of the evening. Not really, he said. A moment later we heard a splash and out popped Romeo. He’d go under in a big dip, smack his tail against the water sending up a plume of water that echoed across the canal.

His splashing went on for hours and I was content to contemplate this creature, staying on that deck squinting for him as the light faded, listening to his act until the inkiness of the water blended with the rest of nature.

The darkness came and then the stillness. I couldn’t see anything anymore but it was still the greatest show on earth.

This article originally appeared in Communities Digital News.

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Cherry Blossoms, It’s Poppin’ Time.

US-FEATURE-CHERRY BLOSSOMSIt’s April and that means it must be cherry blossom season. Nothing says spring like these glorious trees and even though there’s still a chill in the air, I’m going to trust Mother Nature to make one of her finest appearances when she’s ready. After the drudgery and darkness of what seemed like the longest winter in ages, when these buds burst in shades from the softest white to the deepest pink and reach full blossom, the world just looks a whole lot brighter. Few things are more delightful than lying under a cherry blossom tree, its pinky petals swirling a magical snowstorm around you.

I’m crazy for cherry blossoms and crazier for them because of the travel they inspire. If you’re looking for a good reason to get away, I’m giving you one. Washington, D.C. may showcase the grand dame of cherry blossom, or sakura, festivals in the U.S., and a trip to the nation’s capital never disappoints, but there are plenty of other places around the country to be in their good company. So if you’re looking for a day trip, weekend getaway, or something a bit longer, figure one of these destinations into your plans and don’t forget the camera.

Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival
Branch Brook Park, NJ

April 5-13, 2014
Cherry blossoms are the crowning glory of this town and Essex County takes great pride in these trees.  Locals and visitors pack this park to take part in a 10K run through the cherry tree groves, bike race in the Cherry Blossom Challenge, or enjoy a number of other events. Vaux and Olmsted, who designed NYC’s Central Park, conceived the design for this park so visitors are in for a treat.

Essex County Branch Brook Park, NJ April 5-13, 2014

The pride and joy of New Jersey’s Essex County.

Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival
Vancouver, British  Columbia
April 3-28, 2014

Vancouver came late to the cherry blossom garden party but after their first festival in 2006, the city’s been attracting visitors to this extravaganza ever since. The festival’s organizers believe so strongly in the power of the beauty of these blossoms to unite people, that their purpose behind this annual event is simple—to embrace citizens of all ages.  Yet another great reason to visit Canada.

Vancouver's very cherry trees.  (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

Vancouver’s very cherry trees. (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon, GA
March-April

Cherry blossom season peaks early in Georgia, with these natural debutantes making their entrance in March. No worries, festivities run through April and because this town is the cherry blossom capital of the world, visitors can reap the benefits long after the crowds have gone.

Southern bells.

Southern bells.

Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival
April 2-13, 2014

Philadelphia, PA
The City of Brotherly Love, karaoke, and cherry blossoms—it doesn’t get much better than that!  A project of the Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival is an engaging cultural celebration with events like Dine Out Japan, musical and dance performances, sushi making classes, martial arts and loads more.

Philly's festivities await you.

Philly’s festivities await you.

Sakura Matsuri,Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
April 26-28, 2014

Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s CherryWatch Blossom Status Map predicts the first tree to bloom next week and Brooklynites can’t wait.  Held the last weekend of April, the Sakura Matsuri is an entertaining celebration of Japanese culture, including a traditional kimono fashion show.  The garden will be buzzing that weekend, so if you’d like to avoid the crowds and have the view all to yourself, plan an off visit during the week.  No matter when you go, make a day of it by visiting the Brooklyn Museum, located next door.

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

You don’t need to visit a festival to enjoy these blossoming beauties.  They’re easily found along esplanades, in most parks, and sprinkled throughout neighborhoods that have cherry blossom friendly climates.  All that’s required on your part is to gaze up and enjoy their pink but fleeting loveliness.

 

Howl or Stare, It’s The Time of the Season.

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Full tilt at the Full Moon party in Koh Phangan.

Full tilt at the Full Moon party in Koh Phangan.

I am not the same having seen the moon shine on another part of the world.
–Mary Ann Radmacher Hershey

Sunrise. Sunset. These two daily occurrences loom large for travelers no matter their budget. Wherever you may go, these natural—and free—gifts often feature in photos as the main event or as a backdrop to our travel experiences. Depending on the destination, travelers often set their day by that bright and brilliant starburst but there’s another player with a different kind of pull. The moon.

Some travelers plan their trips around this great big ball in the sky. You know who you are. It might seem nutty but knowing when the moon is full is a major bonus to your journey. While some folks might not be able to alter their travel plans based on the lunar calendar, travel advisors who keep this little gem in mind might just add a unique experience to a customer’s trip. Knowing this bit of info may earn you a bit of star status in their book.

Cruising by the light of the moon.  (Photo credit: Carnival Sunshine.)

Cruising by the light of the moon. (Photo credit: Carnival Sunshine.)

A full moon is beguiling, romantic, and hypnotic. Whether you’re on a beach or on the deck of a cruise ship, it lights up the ocean like a Hollywood movie set. Lakeside or hillside, a full moon is a major gift when you’re camping. Road trippers take advantage of the added value of its silvery light, and surfers love it. A full moon safari walk is magical. Yosemite under its light is otherworldly. Moonlight kayak tours are peaceful and meditative. And while I’ve never been, I hear the infamous Full Moon Party at Koh Phangan in Thailand is off the planetary chart. I’m sure there’s a lot more than howling going on there.

An Arizona Harvest Moon.

An Arizona Harvest Moon.

Where are you or your customers this week? There’s a lot happening in the heavens right now. Especially if you’re outside the scope of city lights. Wherever you are, look up.

Talk about celestial seasonings, Venus and Saturn joined forces on Monday and will stick around for the week. They ride low after sunset but anyone with access to a telescope, whether you’re on a ship or in your backyard, will be able to glimpse Saturn’s rings. The star attraction, the full Harvest Moon peaks tonight. I stopped and stared at its near perfect formation last night on my way home, while the sun set behind me. Uranus will cozy up with the moon on Thursday, September 19. Otherwise known as the “green giant,” it’ll come so close that their combined wattage will equal 8 full moons side by side. Get out those binoculars, shoot for the moon and you’ll easily pick out that planet.  I’ve got no  idea what Pisces has to do with this picture but something’s fishy.

It'll be a starry, starry night this week.  (Image credit: Starry Night Software/ A.Fazekas.)

It’ll be a starry, starry night this week. (Image credit: Starry Night Software/ A.Fazekas.)

Lastly, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, I guess it’s time to say goodbye to the summer as autumn enters center stage on Sunday. Bittersweet, yet, but thankfully fall graces us with foliage rich with jewel tones and with more reasons to travel.

If you can work in the full moon on October 18… all the better.

Friday Night Lights.

Ride it if you dare! (Photo by author.)

Ride it if you dare! (Photo by author.)

As summer winds down, New York City still has some good—and free—stuff left in its back pocket for visitors and locals. If you’re in any of the boroughs this week, you might want to make your way to Coney Island. This historic salty dog defender of American popular culture hosts one of my favorite summer treats every Friday night.

Sadly, tomorrow is the last one of the season but the forecast calls for a sunny day, which will make for a lingering sunset and a clear night. For anyone who wants to dig in and enjoy a full day of sun and sea, then suit up, pack a beach bag with a sweatshirt (you’ll need it later) reading materials, toys, whatever floats your boat, and take the D, F, N or Q Subway train to the West 8th Street-NY Aquarium or the Stillwell Avenue stations in Coney Island. Once you’re on the beach, set up camp close to the shoreline and suck it all in.

An on old merman on the boardwalk with his poodle and his parrot.  (Photo by author.)

An on old merman on the boardwalk with his poodle and his parrot. (Photo by author.)

Coney Island is one of the craziest places on the planet. It’s New Orleans meets Nice, but with lots of wackiness thrown in. It’s where old European women still rock bikinis in their 60’s, 70, 80s, and…seriously. Where Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Mexicans peddle homemade empanadas, tacos, and pastilles, and home boys weave around blankets like roving bartenders hawking Nutcrackers, a cocktail created in Harlem. Where you can swim until your heart’s content and not have to sit in traffic to get home because the subway system makes it so easy.

Old timers tango under a gazebo. (Photo by author.)

Old timers tango under a gazebo. (Photo by author.)

The culture of Coney is a sideshow unto itself. New Yorkers who hang at this beach and boardwalk on a regular basis are salt of the earth people. Some have come since they were kids, others since they came to this country. There’s something about Coney that puts a tattoo on your heart. Like your first love, it’ll never go away.

But let’s get back to Friday. Whether you get to enjoy a full day, arrive for a sunset swim, or hit the beach at twilight—it’s time to get comfy. Relax on your blanket, or walk the boardwalk, and enjoy the night sky as the sun fades out around the Parachute Jump, Deno’s Wonder Wheel, The Cyclone Roller Coaster and the rest of the rides in Luna Park. Then wait for the show to begin somewhere around 9:45pm, although they don’t stand on ceremony at Coney.

Greatest show on earth.  (Photo credit:  Steven Kelly.)

Greatest show on earth. (Photo credit: Steven Kelly.)

At this point, lots of sailboats have come in and bob close to shore. A dull shot followed by a long whistle will ring through the air, and at the same time you’ll feel a BOOM under your blanket as the first rocket sails into the night. From there lay back and enjoy one of the most incredible firework displays. The closer you get, the better.

Coney's smokin' on Friday summer nights.  (Photo credit:  Reid Dodson.)

Coney’s smokin’ on Friday summer nights. (Photo credit: Reid Dodson.)

The grand finale sends it all up in a blaze of glory. The breeze carries the smoky residue from all that dynamite, like a hundred octopus tentacles creeping slowly across the beach as it hangs it in the air. In unison the boats blow their horns, start their engines, and toot back out to sea.

Summer’s almost gone. Coney Island’s a playground for the world, go there and have a blast.

Gimme Shelter.

Shelter Island jewels. (Photo by author)

Shelter Island jewels. (Photo by author)

Anyone who’s visited the beaches of Long Island knows how lovely they are. Over the years I’ve clocked time in the gorgeous towns of East and South Hampton, the hamlet of Amagansett, and one of my favorite places in the world, Montauk, affectionately known as The End. But in all that time, I’d never been to Shelter Island. Always passed on the way out to the eastern end of Long Island, I’d look at the ferry sign and think that one day I’d visit. Anyone I know who’s been always spoke of how gorgeous it is. This past weekend I got to see its beauty.

I’m leaving on a…quick ferry ride. (Photo credit: Tim Kelly)

Nestled between the North and South Forks of Long Island, the island really is sheltered. I was heading there for a wedding, and took the first morning train on the Long Island Railroad out to Greenport. The three-hour journey is the first step in getting that “away” feeling and gives you time to read, nap, or catch up on whatever needs catching up. By the time the train arrives, decompression is nicely underway. A few steps later you’re at the ferry, excited with the anticipation of being so close to your destination. It’s a quick seven-minute zip across Shelter Island Sound but enough time to make me feel like I was a million miles from New York City.
Visiting Shelter Island is like being in a time capsule. With its lack of noise and overall hustle and bustle, white picket fences, gabled homes, wrap around porches, rolling hills, boats bobbing in the harbor, and lush land, it feels like Mayberry RFD. Its natural beauty is startling. Just to give you an idea, The Nature Conservancy owns one-third of the island. This keeps it real and keeps it wild. No one was walking around with head’s down staring at their cell phone; in fact I didn’t see one person on their phone the entire time I was there.

Dering Harbor.

Dering Harbor.

There’s no such thing as perfect but to this visitor the pristine beauty of Shelter Island was almost overwhelming. To boot, the weather was bright sunshine, no humidity and clear skies. From the moment I checked into the Chequit Inn, the wedding couple spoiled me (and all their other guests) rotten with goodies and meals. Sure, I was there to celebrate their union but being there gave me—and the rest of the crowd—an opportunity for a little vacation. A mode that everyone seemed to take to immediately.

The added bonus was reuniting with friends who don’t live in the US anymore, and making new ones. A gang of us rented bikes and spent Saturday exploring. It’s probably the best way to see Shelter Island, you can stop and start back up when you like. We rolled through the roads of Dering Harbor and gaped at the off the hook homes that look like something out of The Great Gatsby. We made a pit stop on a wide-arced, sandy white beach, empty except for a sole person in a deck chair reading; a turquoise umbrella sheltered her. Aside from the gentle lapping of water on the shoreline, all was quiet. She had the world at her feet and heaven around her.

A sweet ride.

A sweet ride.

We swam in Coecles Harbor, near the Ram’s Head Inn, where I found my new favorite sport—paddle boarding. We could have lolled seaside all day but we had to head back to our hotel to get spiffed up for the night’s festivities. Cycling home along the shoreline the breeze carried the sweet smell of grass and clover mixed with salty air, creating the sort of moment that only summer can bring. The sort of feeling you had as kid, when you didn’t have a care in the world. When a minute seemed like an hour, and before sound became noise. The feeling that you didn’t want the day to end, wishing you could capture it forever. Magic.

Sunset ceremony sky over Coecles Harbor.  (Photo credit:  Lawrence J. Winston)

Sunset ceremony sky over Coecles Harbor. (Photo credit: Lawrence J. Winston)

We returned to the Ram’s Head for the outdoor wedding ceremony during that golden hour where the sun blazed over the rolling lawn that overlooks the harbor. As it set, it cast a lingering gift of neon orange glow over the dinner party. Then this brilliant fireball slowly dipped into the sea. Delicious food, good times, no one wanted the glamorous night to end but we eventually had to call it quits.

Show me to my table.  (Photo credit:  D. Powell)

Show me to my table. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

The following day the celebration continued with lunch on a secluded private beach. More food, more drink, more laughs, more swimming. We combed for seashells and found a treasure of mermaid’s toenails, scallop, spindle and snail shells. My sun hat became a bucket for my bounty. So many shells, so much sunshine, so much summer.

Someone asked me what time I was leaving, I said never.

Field Trip.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.
But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Milky Way over Evans

Milky Way over Evans (Photo credit: casey mac)

Stars.  What is it about looking up into an ink black night studded with stars that makes you feel at one with the universe?  Living in New York City doesn’t give us too much opportunity to really see stars.  They’re too dimmed by the massive amount of light set to a permanent on position.  But now I was in Colorado, my aunt had died, and I was on a back porch in a small town just outside of Denver, gazing up at the heavens and the wonder of it all.  In the distance, a coyote yipped.

It’s a funny thing to travel to a place and have no agenda.  No travel agenda, that is.  There’d be no activities, no wandering.  I was there to be with my cousins, to celebrate their mother’s life. On the porch the next morning, I wanted to jump into the wide expanse of big blue sky, not a cloud in it.  Birdsong rang through the air, settled around us and came in spells from the reserve the house borders.  This breadth of land is a plain field of tall, pale grass but there’s nothing plain about it.  To the west, the Rocky Mountains were as majestic as ever.  Their snow-capped peaks shone bright in the sunlight, like massive Hershey Kisses in their foil.   This mountain range humbled me.  I’m not the first person to feel their awe.  Nature does this to us in thousands of ways, large and small.  It was going to be a heavy trip for sure, but there was something about the sweet scent of grass, and the bigness of it all that I disappeared into. The doing of…nothing, the just being, the simplicity of it all put life and death into perspective.  Made it easy to give comfort.  These mountains have been here long before us and will be here long after the last of my family has turned to dust.

Snow-Capped Colorado Rocky Mountains

Snow-Capped Colorado Rocky Mountains (Photo credit: Rockin Robin)

My aunt was born a Kansas girl but eventually set her roots and boots in Colorado.  This side of my family, and the rest of my cousins and older siblings who came to pay their respects, hail from Topeka, the Land of Oz, and when we gather it’s like a trip back in time.  We don’t see each other often but when we do there seems to come alive some semblance of a childhood preserved by the memories we share of that place and the grandparents we lost long ago.   My brood of cousins, and siblings, has the greater history of the Midwest.  They are the Kansas of my childhood visits.  They are the brilliant fields of sunflowers and tall stalks of sweet corn, and the clink-clank of the Santa Fe Railroad that chugged and whistled behind my grandparents’ faded out white house.  They are the scent of the penny candy shop that no longer exists, a barefoot walk on a hot summer’s day to the Dairy Queen, drive-in movies, and lakeside camping.   They are mid-Western mannered, speak in “yes sirs and no ma’am’s,” and have a gentility those of us who grew up on the East Coast lack.   “It smells like Topeka in here,”   I said when I entered my cousin’s Mel’s home.   “I couldn’t ask for a better compliment,” she said.  In some ways, I guess I made two trips.

Sunflowers at Sunset

Sunflowers at Sunset (Photo credit: Stuck in Customs)

Flying back, the plane had a fiery sunset on its tail all the way home and I gazed out the window until I could no longer see the fields and the Rockies.   The rest of my cousins were also flying or driving back to their homes.  We all had living to get back to but I hoped my aunt was somewhere in the springtime of her youth, running wild through a field of sunflowers.

Island Hopping.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.  (Photo credit:  Brendan Vacations)

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. (Photo credit: Brendan Vacations)

One of the gifts of working in travel is the wide network of colleagues you meet along the way.  Across air, car, cruise, destinations, hotels, travel advisors, tour companies, and event specialists—we’ve cumulatively traveled the globe!  So it’s always a treat when you run into each other because chances are someone will have just returned from a trip.  One of the features of Ports Are Calling will be a Q&A with industry insiders—or people who have a thing for travel—to spread the word, share a moment or shine a light on a particular destination or travel experience.   I recently caught up with Catherine Reilly, Managing Director, Brendan Vacations, Ireland.  When she’s not crisscrossing her motherland, Miss Reilly can often be found hiking near Lake Como or exploring a new destination experience.  Because she’s blessed to travel so much, she considers herself a “privileged delinquent” and it was good to learn about her recent visit to Easter Island.

Rapa Nui view from the top.  (Photo credit:  Explora lodge, Rapa Nui)

Rapa Nui view from the top. (Photo credit: Explora lodge, Rapa Nui)

Q:   What inspired you to travel to Easter Island?
A:   I’ve visited South America several times, places like Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Galapagos  Islands, the Amazon Rain Forrest, Iguassu Falls, and the wonderful cities of Santiago, Quito, Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Lima and more. I love this continent and this time a visit to Easter Island fitted nicely into my travel plans.

Q:  So you obviously have a thing for South America.  What is it about that continent that attracts you?
A:  Reading about South America as a child I think I was first attracted by the wonderful place names, Paraguay, Uruguay, Patagonia, and Lake Titicaca.  Now as a traveler I am inspired by its ancient civilization and culture, that’s what draws me back again and again. 

Q:  Do you think that might have something to do with the ancient history that’s in your bones as an Irish woman?
A:  In Ireland all around us we witness our ancient civilization.  At Newgrange for example we have a structure built thousands of years ago that remains today. At Machu Picchu the ancient civilization of the Incas is powerfully presented to us and through the statues on Easter Island we learn about the ancient Polynesians.  The debate continues as to whether these structures, temples, monuments were built to venerate their dead or worship their Gods, or were there other reasons? That said, the fascination is with the people who built these amazing places and things with such engineering skills, knowledge of geometry, astronomy, and respect for their environment. Today we visit, stand in awe and remind ourselves they didn’t have metal yet!

Unfinished Moai.  (Photo credit:  C. Reilly)

Unfinished Moai. (Photo credit: C. Reilly)

Q:  What about Easter Island surprised or fascinated you?
A:  The locals refer to their island as Rapa Nui and you visit to see the Moai (not statues). Interestingly, ‘Rapa Nui’ is the name of the country and the local language and ‘Rapanui’ refers to the people.  The island is so small, about 26 miles long. The biggest attraction is, of course, the Moai, there are so many of them and they are all over this little island and they’re so big.  They’re not protected in any way, so the island relies on the visitor to treat these treasures with respect. What’s fascinating is not just the monumental stonework and the amount of effort it took to build the Moai, there is also the mystery of why the islanders toppled them all over.

The Moai.  (Photo credit:  C. Reilly)

The Moai. (Photo credit: C. Reilly)

Q:  They’re statues but the Moai sound like more of a presence?
A:  Oh, absolutely, yes, the energy on the island is amazing.  It’s like when I walk around some places in Ireland, I feel like I’m walking in the footsteps of my ancestors.  There is a presence on Easter Island and when you visit Rano Raraku, the quarry where there’s something like 400 of these statues still there in various stages of carving, some are half-finished and some are just heads, it’s like one day, the people making them just all up and left.

Easter Island.  (Photo credit:  Brendan Vacations)

Easter Island. (Photo credit: Brendan Vacations)

Q:  Aside from the Moai, were you drawn to any particular part of the island?
A:  My favorite place on the island was the Rano Kau, a crater shaped like an amphitheater. When I arrived at the crater it was clear just how remote it all is, truly wonderful, you’re just surrounded by the big, blue ocean.  The island is Ireland green, and the ocean around it is all different kinds of blue and turquoise, and every time you look at it you can see a different color.

Catherine at Rano Kau on Easter Island.  (Photo credit:  A. Reilly)

Catherine at Rano Kau on Easter Island. (Photo credit: A. Reilly)

Q:  How’s the island hospitality?
A:  It’s fantastic, super friendly.  The population on Easter Island is approximately 5,500.  It’s governed by Chili and 60% of the islanders are Rapanui, and the rest are from the mainland. Most of our guides were Rapanui and they were all very proud to share their stories.  The islanders are extremely welcoming. The post office will even stamp your passport with a Rapa Nui stamp!

Q:  Where did you stay?
A:  I stayed at the Explora lodge, which is five miles from Hanga Roa, where 95% of the population lives and the only place on the island with electricity and running water. There are hotels, restaurants, mini markets and the usual souvenir shops. The local currency is the Chilean peso but you can easily use US dollars. 

Q:  How’s the local cuisine?
A: The food was excellent, great variety, with lots of fresh fish and vegetables. It was all very tasty and healthy. 

Q:  Any interesting experiences?
A:  One of the traditions on the Island is a triathlon with the difference being that it takes place during the Tapati festival in February. It’s only open to Rapanui men, and one of our guides participates each year so it was interesting to hear about it from his perspective. It’s a race that requires extreme stamina. The contestants paddle across the lake 650m in canoes made out of reeds. They then pick up enormous heads of bananas and run one and a half times the circumference of the lake. They then swim and surf across the lake atop a reed surfboard. The men are very scantily clad for this competition.

Q:  How many days do you recommend to visit and what time of the year is the best to go?
A:  I travelled there with LAN, a South American Airline from Santiago.  The flight was just under six hours and there’s daily service. I travelled in the off-season in April, there was some rain but I was able to see the Moai practically alone. It’s quite remote, the island is situated in the Pacific Ocean, half way from the coast of Chile and Tahiti, three full days are a must. The Tapati Festival happens in February and that’s peak time to visit.

Q:  Most people over pack for trips, what do you recommend for an Easter Island visit?
A:  You’re visiting a special place that so few others have ever set foot, so bring an open mind.  After that, all you need is casual clothes and comfortable walking shoes—something closed toe is good, not flip-flops or sandals. High season is January through March but the weather is fairly good for the remainder of the year, so I’d recommend sunscreen and a hat.  Pack a light rain jacket for an off-season trip.  It’s an island so there are beaches where you can swim, and for divers there are caves to explore.  Make sure you have plenty of memory card space and batteries for your camera.

Q:  Why should people visit Easter Island?
A:  Because it’s one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world with a unique history and archaeological wealth greatly disproportionate to its size. A visit to the island will unlock some of the mysteries associated with Rapa Nui, sort out the facts and fiction.  

Q:  Do you recommend hooking a visit to Easter Island onto any other destinations?
A:  For sure—Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil.  Chile and Easter Island for example.  Chile is home to some of the most beautiful and exotic scenery in the world, from the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, to the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in the Extreme South, not far from Antarctica, to the beautiful city of Santiago and the nearby vineyards—the itinerary choices we can design here are as diverse as they are endless.  Brendan’s team, Boutique Journeys, creates amazing South American itineraries and extensions to Easter Island.

Empire of the Incas, Peru.  (Photo credit:  Brendan Vacations)

Empire of the Incas, Peru. (Photo credit: Brendan Vacations)

Q:  Easter Island is considered something of a “bucket list” destination.  How popular is it for Brendan customers?
A:  It used to be difficult to get there but flights have increased and it’s becoming more popular for us each year. When you consider that only a total 4,000 travelers visited the island in 1989 from all over the world and in 2012 that number increased to 85,000.  That’s still a small number in global tourism terms, but when you think of the size of the island and the number of inhabitants a different picture emerges.  If tourism continues to grow, they’re going to have to protect the island in some way because it’s a heritage site. They will probably have to restrict visits, like they do on the Galapagos and on the Inca trail. It’s not a place that you can get to easily so the folks who book with us tend to have a traveler, not a tourist, mindset. They’re not looking for the creature comforts—they’re looking for an experience.  The Brendan team does an excellent job in managing expectations and matching the needs of the customer with the experience

Q:  So it sounds like the ideal thing would be to figure which South American country you’d like to explore and build Easter Island into the itinerary.  If anyone is interested in booking a trip with Brendan to discover Easter Island, what should they do?
A:  That’s easy, they just talk to their travel agent!