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08/29/15 – Yuck. I hate “travel days”. I guess back in the day travel may have been fun. And road trips can certainly be fun. But flying?  Not anymore, at least in my opinion. I hate being herded like cattle and packed like sardines into a metal cylinder and treated like I’m scum because I’m not an “elite” member of some company’s loyalty program. To me, airline travel is the necessary evil to get where you are going to start the holiday. So, at 8am, our limo shows up at the house and whisks us off to the Atlanta airport. Early Saturday morning and traffic is light – we make it to the airport in record time – something like 40 minutes. And for some unknown reason, we were “pre-TSA approved” for our Delta flight to LAX. I’ve not whizzed through security like that since before 9/11. Didn’t have to remove shoes, take out liquids or anything like that. Almost made the experience pleasant, given the memories of travel experiences since that fateful historic day. But then we pack ourselves into the Delta sardine can. Hoping for the best, I had reserved seats D and F ( window and aisle), hoping against all odds that some single traveler would choose a different seat rather than the hated middle seat. I lost my gamble. And my hubby misunderstood that one of us should offer the unwanted seat-mate either the window or aisle so that we could sit next together. So, we endured the 5 hour flight not even sitting next to each other. Oh well, didn’t matter much – it was not a fun experience. But, just across the aisle, a couple had done the same thing …. and no one sat in the middle. They had the three-seat row for just the two of them. I guess others are wise to my strategy and try the same thing now. So, anyway, we get to LAX and have to claim the one piece of luggage we checked and schlep our way over to the international terminal with our two small carry-ons, our two carry-on duffle bags and the one checked suitcase. We make our way to the Air Tahiti Nui counter and check the one bag to Papeete, the international airport city for French Polynesia. Then, we have the usual pleasure of security at LAX – no “pre-TSA” approval here. It’s the “see you naked” machine, remove your shoes and get the pat-down routine this time. We get through this, re-dress and become pack-mules, trying to find a place to park for several hours until our almost midnight flight to Tahiti. We find a sorta quiet area and set up shop. Occasionally one of us will wander around, go get a drink, go to the restroom or whatever, just to stretch and pass the time doing something except play on the iPad. We did take some time and have a decent lunch at the “fine-dining” establishment in the terminal, III Forks Steakhouse. It was ok, but mostly a diversion for a while. Finally around 8pm, we find out what gate our flight will be leaving out of and move towards that. While waiting, we noticed that there was a much earlier flight to Papeete. Wish we’d known this when planning our trip, because we would have taken that flight and spent one night in Tahiti at the Intercontinental Hotel before going on to Moorea. I had no idea, and my travel agent didn’t know I would have liked that option, so it didn’t happen. Oh well no big deal. But it may have made the travel a bit easier. So, finally they start boarding the flight and we pack ourselves into even tighter spaces and prepare for the 8 1/2 hour flight.

8/30/15 – Well, the cabin of the Air Tahiti Nui plane seems like something Delta may have had 5 or 6 years ago. They’ve made the decor all tropical and play Polynesian music as we board, but (even though they proudly claim the armrests will all go completely up, not one of them does. So, even though we are the window and aisle seat (together this time, thankfully!) we can’t put the armrest between us all the way up so that we can fall asleep and drool all over each other. It was extremely difficult for me to sleep in this cramped flight. Noisy neighbors, super-cramped space, a person who immediately reclined their seat into my lap, well, you get the idea. At one time, I almost gave up.  I decided to take advantage of the one modernization, a seat-back television since I couldn’t sleep. However, flipping through the channels I find only French language movies. So much for the modernization – even on Delta, you can choose the language of your movie. I turned it back off almost immediately and try to sleep again. I eventually do get a few hours of fitful sleep, but wake around 4 or 4:30 Tahiti time. I use the toilet and shortly after that, they serve breakfast. We land at 5am. Disembarking the old-fashioned way by walking down steps and on to the Tarmac before making our way to the terminal, we are greeted by humidity, mosquitos and a very lovely three-piece ensemble of Tahitian singers with a dancer. Let the holiday begin!  Going through immigration was much speedier than I anticipated. We collect our luggage and find our travel agent. We are greeted with the most heavenly smelling leis placed around our necks!  I’m in heaven already. Day is just starting to break as we pile into a minivan that drops us off at the port of Papeete so we can take a high-speed catamaran to the island of Moorea. The driver is in a hurry and just kinda leaves us with our luggage. We really don’t know what to do, so the group of us sit there chatting a bit until a very nice woman comes to ask us if we are American, French, Italian, etc. we all respond and she addresses each couple in a language we are familiar with. She has a way of putting us at ease and says, follow me. So, obediently we all do. It’s a little sales pitch for one of the tour providers, but she isn’t pushy and helps us to understand what to do.  It’s a nice way to market your tours, I think. The gate finally opens and we make our way on to the boat. We wanted to be outside because we’d been told that we would possibly see whales (humpbacks) and dolphin. The island of Moorea is only about 10 – 12 miles away and you can see it from the port. It takes about a half an hour for the catamaran to get there. We are out on the deck, scanning for the whales and dolphins. It’s not meant to be – it starts raining pretty hard and the water gets pretty choppy – it’s hard to walk around without holding on. So, given the adverse conditions, we end up inside the enclosed area.
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The port of Papeete

 

We arrive in Moorea!   We are staying at The Sofitel Ia Orana Beach Resort. We pile into a minivan driven by one of the most cheerful men I’ve ever met. The light rain doesn’t even faze him and he keeps on smiling. We are the first stop. It’s about 8am and I know they won’t let us check in until 2pm. That’s a common complaint with all the reviews on TripAdvisor, so we weren’t surprised. The offered a complimentary continental breakfast, so we took advantage of that. We wandered around the resort just a bit, then used the changing/transit room to change into our swimsuits. We decided to spend some time at the pool while waiting for our room. We had not been there very long, when around 10:30 or so, we were told our room was ready!  We walked back to reception to get the key and they had already moved our luggage into the room (#404).
We walked in to find a chilled bottle of champagne AND a chilled bottle of white wine waiting for us!  The champagne from the hotel on the occasion of our tenth wedding anniversary and the wine from our travel agent!  What a nice treat!  And, a bit later the hotel sent more gifts … a pareo for me and a tee-shirt for Jerry. All this and a special three course meal on the evening of our choosing. We unpacked then went to the beach bar to have a little lunch. I got the national dish – poisson cru .  It was delicious – and filling!  Jerry got a wonderful seafood pasta. I think I will have to try that sometime this week.

After lunch, we checked out the ocean. It’s not quite the bath water temperature that some TripAdvisor members have claimed. It’s about like the pool – and any who know me know that I’m a weenie when it comes to getting wet in anything but hot bath or shower water. Regardless, I finally got wet and swam a bit, but had to get out before long, since I did not have on any sunscreen. We sat on our porch, stared at the water (50 shades of BLUE!), and drank the bottle of champagne. I mean, what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon?  (Among other things …).

I showered and scraped the layer off my teeth and put on a cute sundress and got ready for dinner. I finally felt human again. Spent a little time writing this blog and then we went to dinner. But first – how beautiful the view is from here!  We look directly over to the island of Tahiti and the lights of Papeete are clearly visible. It is just soooooo beautiful!  Dinner was quite the experience – it was a buffet at Pure here at the resort and we had a front row table to view the Tahitian dancers and singers. They were absolutely awesome!  I thoroughly enjoyed the overpriced buffet just to see the show!  It has to be an early night tonight because of the disrupted and non-sleep issues during the travel. So, until tomorrow…

 8/31/15 – Talk about revenge!  Montezuma’s Revenge, I’m referring to. Got me really, really bad last night. About an hour after we went to sleep I woke up in pain. Barely made it to the bathroom before barfing. Got sick all over the floor and had to clean it up. Barfed so much couldn’t even make it to the toilette – barfed all in the sink. I don’t think I’ve ever been this sick before. I thought I was going to have to get a doctor sent over. Finally calmed down enough to doze back off, but woke to a real mess at 1:30 in the morning. Had gotten sick in my sleep and didn’t realize. Started crying and got even more upset. Had to pull the sheets off the bed and try to clean them. Barfed some more. Both ends. Miserable. Had to sleep on the bare mattress.  Thought I was gonna have to cancel the 4×4 trip today with Francky Frank. Up again at 3, 4 and 5. Finally got some rest until about 6. Felt somewhat better, so decided not to eat and go on the trip anyway. So glad we did. I seem to be better now, thank goodness. Francky Frank picked us up at reception at a few minutes before 8. We hop in his truck and off we go to pick up the other three couples who were on this morning’s tour.  They were all on the same yacht, so they knew each other already. A French couple, an Italian couple and a Swiss couple. It was like having the UN in the truck. But what a tour this was. Francky Frank was everything TripAdvisor promised he would be. Funny, entertaining, passionate about his island, multi-lingual and just great at photography. Our first stop was at a local distillery where we did tastings of several different alcohols. Our favorite was the vanilla Creme. Then on to some absolutely beautiful botanical gardens with a vanilla plantation. How interesting!  I was disappointed there wasn’t fresh vanilla to purchase, but we did a tasting of several tropical jams. Delicious, but we opted not to purchase any. Did play with a beautiful little white kitten who lives there, though. After that we went up this road – but I use the word “road” loosely; it was more of a hiking trail – for an amazing view of Cook’s Bay. A little hike up the final part of the mountain, but the views are oh so worth the hike!  Just beautiful. Onward!  To a pineapple plantation, which was beautiful. Limes, coconuts (wasn’t there a song about putting the limes in the coconuts long ago?), ginger, avocados and all kinds of tropical fruits. Then up to a viewpoint where we could see both Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay, Belvedere Mountain. Just beautiful!  Then down to visit an ancient Polynesian Temple, a Mare. Loved it, and it too, was inhabited by the ever-present and ever crowing roosters that live on the island.

Tour was over and we got back to The Sofitel for lunch at the beach bar.  We shared a Croque Miseuer with frites for lunch. A little cool and windy, so we opted not to go into the water this afternoon. Just chilling before our sunset dinner reservations at Moorea Beach Cafe this evening.
Dinner was fun and delicious. The owner picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the restaurant. We started off with cocktails and a lagoon side sunset view. Just beautiful!  We were not rushed at all. We finally ordered an appetizer of shrimp ravioli. Very good, but more of a warm spring roll kind of feel to it. Delicious, though. The main course came recommended by his wife (I think) – the fresh lagoon fish. And fresh it was!  Delicate, mild and buttery soft white fish. Cooked to perfection. Later, we ordered dessert. I got the warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel ice cream and Jerry got the Cafe Gourmand, which was an espresso with small sweet pastries. Finally, after three hours(!) of sharing our dinner with a huge eel, a stingray, lots of nappa fish, a huge crab and other lagoon creatures, we were returned to the resort. A little windy and chilly, but we are relaxing on our front porch until bed.
9/1/15 – What an incredible day!  Got up and went to the buffet for breakfast. After breakfast we wandered into the Pearl Romance, the highly rated black pearl shop here at the resort. Well, of course I found pearls. A pair of blue pearl earrings that are just other worldly beautiful –  just kind of fits with the 50+ shades of blue here!  Who needs gray, right?  I also found a gorgeous drop necklace that has three beautiful pearls that blend beautifully with my earrings. I had my credit card out, ready to pay, and Jerry jumps in and buys them for me for our wedding anniversary!  What a beautiful gift!  I will always love them!
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Then at 9:45 a taxi picked us up and drove us to the Papetoai Marina. We were promptly met by our captain today and took off in his motor boat to explore the island of Moorea from the beautiful lagoon. We pretty much circumnavigated the island between the motorboat and the catamaran later in the day. But my goodness!  Everything we saw!  I really gained a better perspective of the rugged beauty of this incredible island. The mountains are lush, green and tropical. And the lagoon is a thousand shades of blue, filled to the brim with sea life and coral reefs. There are 9 passes in the lagoon, one for each of the nine rivers on Moorea. Most of the time, the lagoon is like a pool, but while we’ve been here, it has been extremely windy and kinda chilly (Maybe an Antarctic wind blowing up?  Ha!). But there were times and places where it was considerably calmer. Moorea has about a million micro climates – you can turn one bend around the island and leave driving rain and go into brilliant sunshine. The weather and wind change on a dime here. We stopped first at some beautiful coral heads to snorkel. I saw the giant clams (some with the blue fringe around the edge), tons of colorful fish, sea cucumbers, spiny sea urchins, fan coral, brain coral and lots of other corals and fish, including one stone fish, scuttling along the sandy bottom. We had a traditional Tahitian picnic on a motu (small island) where we learned about the coconuts and how important they are in the Polynesian culture. We ate fresh coconut, had fresh coconut water, learned how to husk a coconut, and just so much. I was so glad our captain and his first mate were so eager to share their culture with us.  It made the day even more meaningful. The started a smoldering fire to help ward off mosquitos. We trekked through the coconut tree forest to find coconuts and young trees in order to taste the coconut hearts. We ate off of the huge leaves found on the island a lunch of poisson cru, made with fresh tuna, coconut milk, lime, tomato, onion, cucumber and maybe grapefruit. There was some rice to have with it. After lunch we swam around a little and the hopped back in the boat to go find some stingrays and sharks. We found them – they were super friendly, waiting to get fed. Then they chummed up the reef sharks. I was less than two meters from the sharks. Pretty exciting!  We spent a good deal of time there. Once, a stingray “tasted” my rash guard shirt to make sure I wasn’t food. They were so very soft, not rubbery at all like the rays we “petted” in Grand Cayman years ago. When we finished there, we went to snorkel at a place where there were several underwater statues. These statues were thrown into the lagoon by the Christian missionaries. When they came to turn the Polynesians into Christian, they built a church on the site of the mare and tossed the “idols”. They remain there today, becoming a home to the sea creatures and corals. It was amazing. There was even one of the god sitting on his throne. It made me stop and think, though. These statues sure looked a lot like our “fictional” aliens with the super big eyes and smallish heads to body size. Quite interesting. We headed back to Cook’s Bay around 4 to finally move to the catamaran. How relaxing!  We were so pampered with cocktails and snacks. And after the first round, she made coconut milk from the fresh coconuts we had gathered earlier on the motu then served us espresso with the coconut milk!  Along with an apple cake and about five kinds of fruits – coconut, mango, pineapple, grapefruit, orange.  We sailed the other direction, almost closing the gap of our exploration from the other side in the motorboat. One thing we both noticed earlier was when the waves break just outside the reef, the crest of the wave is an iridescent aqua instead of the white color we’ve seen at every other beach we have ever been to – Florida, California, Washington, Alaska, and probably others. It is such a beautiful phenomena.  Once on the catamaran for a bit, we saw humpbacks!  The blow, the rolling swim  and the fluke splash. Twice. It was amazing. Such beautiful, intelligent creatures. We ride back watching the sunset – or at least I do. Jerry wimped out in the cold and headed to the protected area. We even had a blanket the captain had given us, so not exactly sure what the issue was. Oh well, I loved it and enjoyed seeing the stars in the southern sky once it got dark.

We took the taxi ride back to the hotel and got ready for our seven course tasting menu at K, the high-end restaurant here at the resort. This was one of the most romantic meals we had on our entire vacation in French Polynesia.  We opted for a very romantic table outside, candles everywhere and feet in the sand with a stunning view of the lights of the island of Tahiti. Truly an amazing view. The service was flawless and the food nothing short of amazing and artfully served. It was rather chilly with the crazy wind, and we ended up moving inside before the main course of the lamb chops. (Still enjoying the sand floor inside!)  We started with an amuse bouche of tuna carpaccio with fois gras, then on to the appetizers of oysters, then asparagus with serrano ham and the fish course of fresh crayfish, then the most delicious rack of lamb, and a wonderful cheese board, ending with a plate of assorted chocolate desserts.  All enjoyed with a great bottle of French red wine.  The meal was paced so that we never felt stuffed and never felt like we were waiting too long for them to bring something else out – like I said flawless service!  Two and a half hours later, we walked back to our bungalow and I think our heads hit the pillows and we were out like lights; we were both that tired after spending the day on the water.

9/2/2015 – Today was a bit more relaxed. We went to the massive buffet for breakfast. I do not understand why some of the reviewers on TripAdvisor complain about the monotony of the breakfast buffet. There is a huge assortment. There is no possible way anyone could eat everything every morning. The assortment is enough to try something new for at least two weeks.  At 9am, we walked out to the one road that circles Moorea. We were having massages directly on the beach this morning by a very highly rated massage service. He and his wife work as a team. So, we get picked up and the place he takes us is very close, on the most beautiful public beach in Moorea. There are two shelters where they quickly set up shop. Bruno is my massage therapist and his wife, Marjorie is Jerry’s therapist. Truly a wonderful massage. The music of the ocean is the music for this massage and the scent of the sea is the aromatherapy for this massage. Bruno is very talented and very thorough. I would do it again in a minute, if I were to visit Moorea again. I don’t think I have ever had a massage where every part of my body was massaged like that before (except the very private parts, of course. It was all extremely professional.).  Such a relaxing morning.
He brings us back to the resort and we decide to snorkel a bit here at the resort. It’s a bit windy but not too bad. I try my underwater camera for the first time, actually under the water. Even though it is difficult to see what you are taking a picture of because of the glare, many of the photos turned out nicely – and I even got a photo of the resident octopus!  The wind started kicking up again and I felt the current getting stronger, so I decided to swim back to shore. We were getting a bit hungry, so we got dressed and shared a pizza margherita at the beach bar for lunch. We took some time to walk the resort after lunch to see the entire place. We saw all the beach bungalows, the garden bungalows and walked to the other side to see the lagoon bungalows and the over water bungalows. It’s a pretty big place, but very picturesque.  It’s right on the lagoon and huge, lush green mountains soar up immediately behind the resort. A wonderful walk. We even stopped at Vue, the on-the-sand beach bar for a fruity cocktail during our walk. Fun times!
We hung out in the bungalow for a while, just relaxing and then decide to get showered are ready for our 7:30 dinner reservations at Pure, the main restaurant here at the resort. When we arrived, they gave us a coupon for a free “honeymoon” dinner. I guess because our travel agent sold us a honeymoon trip for our anniversary, we got a few extra perks. We decide to enjoy them all!  We got a table inside because of the wind and enjoyed a three course dinner and the Tahitian dancers nightly show, which is different every evening. We started off with a Greek salad that is very different from any Greek salad I’ve ever had – roasted eggplant wrapping other vegetables and a piece of feta cheese in the center on a bed of arugula. Tasty, though. Then our main course of rack of lamb, very similar to what we had at K last night. No complaints; it was very good. Then we shared the exact dessert we had last night. – the three chocolate desserts with the “dessert caviar”. Yummy!  We walked back to the bungalow, enjoying the beauty of the stars in the southern sky again. It just seems like there are so many more stars visible plus you can see the arm of the Milky Way so easily!  Fascinating!
9/3/15 – A leisurely morning. Even though awaken early by a phone call from the states, we took our time this morning. Went to breakfast and decided that today was the day to rent a little roadster and drive around the island. And that we did!  What fun!  Completely around, stopping occasionally to take photos. Then we doubled back to pick up my traditional tacky gift for one of my dear friends, Stephen!  Our little tradition for 15 years.  Instead of some useless knickknacks, we always bring each other the tackiest gift we can find wherever we are and bring home a good laugh!  One of my favorite things to do on a holiday!  Back to the resort for a light lunch, a drink at Vue, the beach bar and just chilling in the bungalow and porch. Very relaxing!
Dinner tonight … Started off with a huge hiccup, but ended being one of the best!  Almost 5 months ago, I had made a reservation for a “dock dinner” here at the resort. They call it an “end of pontoon” dinner. It is a table set up at the very end of the dock, very private and romantic with the sparkling lights of Tahiti twinkling in the distance. So, we arrive at our reservation time, 7pm. They seat us inside the main dining room and give us a menu for a four course dinner. We are very confused. We speak with several people and finally, Sebastian, the food and beverage manager comes over. Just a week or so ago, I noticed they started a new thing – a champagne lounge at the end of the dock. I wondered how that would work, but I just assumed they had figured something new out, so I didn’t worry. Hmmmm. Well, it seems they had our reservation, but forget to let us know it was not possible. So, they tried to make it better. It was Polynesian night, so we opted for the buffet. Sebastian himself walked us through the line, explaining everything. He sent over a bottle of local wine, which we probably would never have tried otherwise. We had close seats for a wonderful show of native dancers, singers and musicians. It ended up being just a wonderful evening. I think my husband explained it to Sebastian perfectly:  no hotel is perfect. What makes an average hotel rise to be a great hotel is the way they handle the mix-ups. The Sofitel handled this in a great manner and we left happy that evening. With great memories and a good impression of the management here. Walking back to the beautiful bungalow this evening, we kept marveling at the lights of Papeete and of the twinkling stars of the southern sky!
9/4/15 – Happy tenth wedding anniversary!  What a wonderful, happy day we had today. After our breakfast, today was just perfect for snorkeling!  Sunny, low winds, little current. I was out for a long time and got to see a ton of fish, sea cucumbers and coral. And lots and lots of the giant clams!  One even had the beautiful blue fringe!  Some were almost a half meter long or so. So much fun!
Around noon, we came in to get ready for our trip to Tiki Village and have a quick lunch of pizza from the Vue beachfront bar.  What a wonderful time at Tiki Village!  One of the people who actually live there picked us up. We got to the village and they greeted us with music and songs, along with a refreshing drink. They separated us and Jerry went off with the men to get ready and get his “tattoo”. The women took me to be prepared and purified for the ceremony in the Tahitian Temple. I was massaged with monoi oil and dressed in a white pareo. A headdress was placed on me and something that reminded me of an armor plate was put over my shoulders. Then we met at the temple where a Tahitian priest blessed our (anniversary) rings and performed the ceremony of a wedding (vow renewal). I was so happy and came close to tears a couple of times. We had a translator who explained everything he was saying to us. We were wrapped in a tafaifai and seated in the royal chair and paraded around. They uncorked a bottle of champagne for us. I heard the pop of the cork and a few seconds later, the cork hit Jerry in the side of his head. No one hurt, thank goodness, but we all had a good laugh. Our formal headdresses and chest plates were changed for flower crowns and leis. Then there was a performance of dancing, singing and music for us. There were lots of photos taken – seemed like as many as from our wedding 10 years ago, but my memory of that has faded some. Then we were brought back to the Sofitel with the promise of a great show and dinner at the Tiki Village later this evening.
Wow!  What a show!  The dinner was traditional food and ok, but the show was amazing!  You can tell these people really love what they do. Actually, it seems that every single person we have come into contact with on this island love what they do!  Waitresses sing while the are pouring coffee, pool boys dance while they get your beach towels … life is good here on Moorea. The dinner and show went on until 10:30 and we were just exhausted by the time we were delivered back to The Sofitel. Kinda just fell into bed. What a day!  Happy anniversary, my love. I hope for ten more even better than the first ten!

9/5/15  – Well, the very last morning on Moorea. What an amazing experience we got up and showered and packed. Then went for our final breakfast. I am sad to leave Moorea’s soaring, lush green peaks and crystal clear, blue lagoon. But I am excited to finally get to Bora Bora. Our Moorea Explorer transport picks us up (early, as all pick-ups have been) and we get to the airport. No security – you just check your luggage. We are lucky to be on the left side of the plane, so we got to see Bora Bora first from the window of the plane. Short flight – seemed like ten minutes, but I know it was more like 40 minutes. THE MOUNTAIN!!!!!  Mount Otemanu!!!!!  Oh. My. Gosh!  Unbelievable! It’s everything I thought it would be.

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First view of Bora Bora from the plane

We make our way to the St Regis desk and eventually to the boat that whisks us to the huge resort. It is everything the travel brochures say it is. We meet our butler, Richie. Within minutes after he takes us around the resort and we get into our room (#109), they deliver champagne and treats!  The view from our deck is something else – I just can’t believe it. I don’t want to leave the deck, so we order a sandwich to split and just sit here, staring at the mountain, drinking champagne and eating the ham and cheese sandwich with the steak frites. This must be what Diana and Charles felt like all the time. The best of the best. This truly is a once in a lifetime deal. I fully intend to enjoy every single second of our time here.

For dinner this evening we have reservations at Sushi Take here on the resort. What wonderful sushi!  We order edamame for an appetizer and then Jerry gets a sashimi platter and I get a St Regis roll. Both are delicious!  And the service is impeccable. I’ve never had a waiter rush over to take a bottle of water out of my hand before so that I didn’t have to refill my own glass.

9/6/15 – We wake up this morning to have our breakfast delivered via outrigger canoe!  While the table is being set up, we get taken for an outrigger canoe ride in the crystal blue lagoon directly towards the beautiful mountain. What fun!  We enjoy our huge breakfast with coffee, fresh pineapple juice, a huge selection of breads with jams, pastries, poisson cru and a table just full of flowers!

Once we finish with our breakfast, we head over to the spa for our couples massage. Wow … what (another) treat!  We come back to our villa and change into our swimsuits and wander over to the beach. We people-watch for a while and swim around a little. Then we move over a few feet to the main pool. Just chilling and we try the swim-up bar. I finally get my drink in the coconut!  11632384Fun! We return to the villa and try out the lagoon. Not much in the way of snorkeling here – beautiful sandy blue lagoon, though. We test out the jacuzzi and have fun in there for a while. Shortly, a staff member arrives with an anniversary cake for us!  Chocolate mousse with coconut!  Not having had lunch, we devour it. It would melt if we left it, so why not?  We spend the afternoon relaxing on the deck of the villa. Before dinner we stop in the resort shop to get Jerry a new toothbrush to replace his broken one. We also go by Reception to make sure we know where to go for our snorkeling trip in the morning. We also just happen to stop into the Robert Wan pearl shop…and…I now own a beautiful bracelet if baroque black pearls!  image
We head over to Far Niente, the Italian restaurant on the resort. Not as many good reviews on TripAdvisor, so I’m a bit hesitant. But my fears are quickly put to rest. Authentic Italian food here. Maybe the reviews aren’t so good because they don’t offer the usual American style of Italian food – lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, etc. I had homemade tagatelle pasta with truffles (yum!) and Jerry had Pasta a la Amritriana. We both really enjoyed our meals. Dessert?  Of course!  It’s holiday time!  Lemon sorbetti for me and espresso for Jerry. Absolutely delicious!

We get back to the villa and walk into the bedroom and they have made a heart of flower petals on our bed!  Sooooo romantic!  We were both very pleased and very surprised with that sweet gesture!

9/7/15 – A busy morning! French press coffee is delivered at 7am. We go to breakfast (huge buffet) and then catch the boat from Lagoon Services. This is run by a local family and they do a wonderful job. We start off by going to a spot where they chum up an incredible number of sting rays. They even have them named – Gigi, Lily and so on. They swim all around us, on us, over us, beside us – along with a few reef sharks and a lot of other fish. Jerry even got into the water with them!  We actually got to spend quite a lot of time with them. We head over to the coral gardens … Oh my gosh – I am in heaven!  He gave us each a chunk of bread to feed the fish to draw them near. Boy, that sure works!  I had so many fish around me – and a few brave ones (or really hungry ones!) came right up and took bread right out of my hand. I could feel the nibbles on my fingers!  So many fish. Just incredible. Giant clams. A HUGE Moray eel with huge teeth. I could have stayed here for hours. But, the sharks await!  We go outside the pass into very deep water. Still crystal clear, but a much deeper blue. I can still see the bottom, even though it’s probably over 100 feet deep here. And (music, please) the Sharks arrive!  Black tip reef sharks. Probably 25 or so of them. We swim among them for a long time. I also see several pike fish and lots of other fish. And one lemon shark (huge) below, near the bottom. I’m guessing it was about 20 feet long. Jerry won’t get in, which slightly disappoints me, but it’s ok. We go to the other side of the lagoon to a super shallow sand bar and just play around while he fixes us a snack or grapefruit, coconut and coconut bread. We continue our trip around the lagoon and even see one of the WW II canons. When it’s all done, we have been completely around Bora Bora in the lagoon. What a fun trip!

 

 

We come back to the villa and it starts to rain lightly. So glad it didn’t do that while we were out!  We just chill for the rest of the afternoon in our villa, watching some lame movie, simply because it was in English. Since we never had lunch, we went to dinner early. Simple this evening, at the Aptima Bar. We get cocktails and watch the sun go down then I get hazelnut crusted mahi mahi and Jerry gets a mahi mahi sandwich. Both are really good. For dessert I get the St Regis specialty and Jerry gets a homemade frozen snickers bar. Again, both are really good. We come back to the villa and just relax. It is an early morning tomorrow for our jeep trip.

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Our Overwater Villa

9/8/15 – Up a little early today – or what feels early. They bring our french-press coffee to the room at 7am. We are up and showered, ready. We have our coffee and head to the buffet for breakfast. Finish up and head to the dock for the water taxi over to the St Regis base on the main island so that Natura Discovery can pick us up for the jeep tour. It’s a Land Rover, actually, but who cares. We see some amazing sights and experience some wonderful things. We actually got to see WWII bunkers and canons that the U.S. Military left on the island.  We got to see the coconut husking, cutting and milking again. I actually got to try the grating of the pulp to make the milk!  Hard work!  Tried Nono fruit. Had grapefruit and pineapple. Got to see how they make the designs on the pareos. Purchased one from a local who makes them and got another from our tour guide, Entinne, who is a champion javelin thrower!  He made a stop to demonstrate for us and we got to try it. So much fun. But no way could I ever hit that coconut that is 7 meters up on a pole!  Saw the huge coconut crabs – held one and it was about ten pounds or maybe more. What a beautiful island!  I am so glad that we did a land tour and a water tour so that we could get a better perspective of the island, like we did on Moorea.

They dropped us off at Bloody Mary’s restaurant where we had lunch. Not very crowded. The bathrooms were a blast – a carved wooden penis in the men’s room and a waterfall sink in the women’s room. There was also this beautiful white cat laying on the counter of the gift shop that was so chilled. He didn’t even open his eyes when we were petting him. I’ve never met a cat so unafraid of strangers. We pet him for a long time after lunch while we waited for Natura Discovery to pick us up and deliver us back to the dock. Read the sign out front to see some of the famous people who have been here. Sand floor, palm tree stumps for seating.  Tremendous fun!

Got back to the resort and arranged a candlelight dinner on the beach. Had a few hours to kill, so we just hung out in the jacuzzi of our villa. They picked us up around 7:15. The table was set up on a little platform right on the sand with two tiki torches for light, along with the stars of the beautiful southern sky. It was the best possible evening of our entire trip so far for this experience. No wind and perfect temperature. There were several courses. We started off with Blue Lagoon cocktails, since we were dining on the blue lagoon of Bora Bora!  There was an amuse bouche that was wonderful. Then appetizers. Mine was crab, but I don’t remember what Jerry’s was. Then the main course, along with wine we had ordered. My main course was mahi mahi (which was wonderful) and Jerry got some kind of beef roll with foi gras in it. Then …. the wonderful dessert – the St Regis Bora Bora chocolate pearl. A dark chocolate Pearl with one half filled with chocolate mousse and the other half filled with espresso ice cream. All of this topped table side by hot chocolate sauce. I don’t think I’ve ever had a dessert so wonderful. Kudos to the St Regis chef who came up with delightful concoction!  But, that wasn’t all. After that, they brought out a tray of fruit tidbits for each of us. Too much food – I tried one of each, but that was it. A raspberry, a strawberry and a little chocolate topping on a wafer. There were two of each for each of us – but I was almost comatose with delicious food by now. We took the golf cart back to the villa and I just fell into bed. What a wonderful, fun day in Paradise!

9/9/15 – No where to go today, so a bit of a lazier day this morning. Still woke up around 6:30 or so, but was still wearing the pareo I’ve taken to sleeping in while here when they brought the coffee this morning. After taking our time, we just put on swimsuits and rash guards (top and bottom) for breakfast. Right after breakfast we snagged a couple of the bicycles they have here for the guests and rode over to the Lagoonarium. Oh my gosh!  Amazing fun!  We were there about 4 hours and I was in the water virtually the entire time. When we were done, my camera gave me the message that the “battery depleted”!  I took so many photos. The marine biologist came and did a wonderful talk about the Lagoonaruim and the fish and coral they have introduced into this wonderful place. It really is the perfect place to snorkel – no waves, little current and all kinds of fish and sea life that are not afraid of humans. There was a sea cucumber bigger than a man’s leg. There were hundreds of the giant clams in every color of the rainbow and every possible size, from a few centimeters to probably close to a meter in length. There were an amazing variety of fish, from giant Napoleon, parrot fish, grouper, moray eels, jacks, wrasse, tuna, etc, etc, etc. I was in heaven!!!!!!

We returned to the villa to just chill for the afternoon, lazing around, snoozing and taking a soak with bath salts in the humongous bathtub in the villa. I think I got a bit of sun on the backs of my legs this morning – hurting a tad now. I hope it eases up by tomorrow morning because I want to go back to their Lagoonarium. Yes, it’s that good.

Dinner last night was fun – at the Mai Kai Marina, Yacht Club and Restaurant. It’s on the mainland of Bora Bora, so we took the water taxi to the St Regis base there. Our dinner included cocktails, salad, amuse bouche, appetizer, main course and dessert. We both got MaiKai kisses which is champagne and cranberry juice. The salad was the typical raw veggies with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. The amuse bouche was a tuna carpaccio. Appetizer was pan seared tuna and main course was filet mignon, which was very good with its peppercorn sauce. Dessert?  A wonderful creme brulee.

While dining, I just hit the wall. So tired and I knew it was a long way back to the villa. Our transfer from the dock to the restaurant and back was a bit rustic – one of the open jeep vehicle trucks. At least it had a top over it, because it rained during dinner (hard) and was still spitting when we left. The weather has turned. Windy, windy, windy and rainy and cloudy. The wind makes it feel chilly. I fell asleep almost immediately when we got back to the villa. About 1:30 in the morning, we woke up to attend to nature and noticed that the electricity in most of the villa was off. The underwater light was working and the porch lights were working.  A/C was off. Went to call the front desk and the phone in the living room was out. Jerry found the one in the bedroom was working. With the wind and rain, it was all a little creepy. They sent someone over about 20 minutes after we called. Must have turned on a backup generator or something, because we heard a switch then everything was working again. Still very windy and rainy outside, but managed to go back to sleep before too long. Coffee came at 7 and we were still asleep. Power went off again about 8. I was trying to go back to sleep because I just felt like I needed more sleep. So, they came and fixed it again. I wasn’t much in the mood for breakfast, so Jerry went on his own this morning. Finally around 10 or so, they came and did a permanent fix. He said it was a short caused by all the wind and rain. We have done absolutely nothing today, except laze around. No desire to get outside with the wind and chilliness – it sounds like a N’oreaster out there!  I slept until about 10:30 and then we just sat here in front of the beautiful lagoon, doing computer stuff. A real lazy day. Been kinda nice. I think I feel a bit better this afternoon. Lots of sun and swimming yesterday. And so much rich food these last couple of weeks!

9/10/15 – Woke up to clouds and rain and wind!  My gosh, the wind!  It was so windy all day long. And that made it feel chilly. We went to breakfast on the bicycles that we snagged and then just came back to the room and chilled all day long. Too windy to go on the deck and it felt a bit too cool to swim, even though we probably could have gone to The Lagoonarium. But I think we both just wanted a lazy day. I know after all this rich food and drink, I was glad to have a day to do nothing. We didn’t even get lunch today. We have a big dinner this evening at Jean George’s Lagoon restaurant, the star of the restaurants here at the St Regis.

And what a dinner it was!  We went early for cocktails. We started off inside because it was so windy and chilly. But to catch the sunset, we moved out on the deck. Worth it!  Especially since it was our last evening on the beautiful Bora Bora. We chose the five course tasting menu with wine pairings. What fun!  There was the amuse bouche of rice cracker crusted tuna to begin with. Then the appetizer of caramelized fois gras. I know it’s very controversial, but boy!  Now I really understand why people love it so. It is amazing!  This was the first time I’d ever had it by itself and not mixed with something else. It is divine!  The fish course of black patio crusted with spices and nuts came next. Then wonderful chili mint lamb chops and then a heavenly dessert of carmelized banana with chocolate sauce. After a delicious and perfect wine pairing with all five courses and all that wonderful food, I felt nearly comatose after dinner!  We just went back to the villa and practically fell into bed.

9/11/15 – Seven am came way too early. We were awaken by room service bringing the coffee. It was still a bit cloudy when we woke up, but it did clear up shortly. The wind has finally died down. We went to our final breakfast buffet. Came back to the villa and started packing. We were surprised that they came to pick us up shortly after 11:30 – we had planned closer to noon. So, we rushed around to finish getting packed up. We checked out and went over to the spa area to just chill for a while. Around two we showered and changed and then went to the Aparima Bar for a late lunch. We decided to share the same ham sandwich we ordered from room service the day we arrived. Kind of full circle, if you will. At 5pm, they took us to the airport on the beautiful catamaran. And so the journey began. Flight to Papeete slightly delayed due to a huge rainstorm, but we got there in plenty of time. Had to wait for the duty-free office to open, then check in, then security, then wait. No A/C. I think Jerry was just about over it. We finally board and take off shortly after midnight. Miserable flight because of the cramped conditions, so I only slept about two hours. We finally landed in Los Angeles, went through customs, claimed our luggage, made our way to our domestic flight, rechecked in, rechecked our luggage. Thank goodness Delta has us “pre approved for TSA”, security is a bit better for this flight. We make our way to our gate and find a place to park and plug in. Thank goodness we have a section of three seats to ourselves on the flight to Atlanta. I immediately lay down with my head in Jerry’s lap and fall fast asleep. I got a good two or three hours of sleep, so I feel a bit better. But it will still take some time to re acclimate ourselves to the time. C’est la vie!

Allison (my daughter) meets us at the airport and a half hour later we are home and in our own bed.

What a once-in-a-lifetime trip!  It was my dream for so many years and I’m so glad we did it. In retrospect, of course I’d change a few things, but what a dream come true!

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French Polynesia Dreams – Moorea and Bora Bora

Dream trip to Moorea and Bora Bora for our tenth wedding anniversary, complete with a vow-renewal ceremony at Tiki Village on Moorea!

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Memories of Tuscany, Umbria and Alto Lazio

Golden seas of sunflowers painted across the rolling hills.  Ancient cities with tiled roofs precariously perched on the edges of cliffs.  Endless parades of silver, white and black Fiats with the occasional Citroen or Mercedes in the mix.  Yes, these are the vivid memories I will always hold for Umbria, Tuscany and Alto Lazio.  What a beautiful area of Italy!  And my first trip ever to Italy.  Instead of shuffling around Rome, Florence or Venice with hoards and hoards of tourists, I got to see the “real” Italy the first time I visited this amazing country!

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I can’t even remember why I decided that cooking classes in Italy would be fun.  I just know that I Googled it one day and up came a website for Culture Discovery Vacations.  They advertised that they did “hands-on” cooking classes – not just demonstrations where I would watch a professional chef make a difficult task look like a breeze, where later, in reality, I would never be able to replicate the recipe.  Their website was extremely specific about what type of person would or would not enjoy this kind of immersion trip.  What really intrigued me was the fact that for the week, you actually live in a flat in the ancient village, right off the central piazza.  You get to know the people of the village.  You drink cappuccino only at breakfast.  You learn to speak some Italian because the people who help with the cooking classes don’t speak much English.  You meet farmers, shopkeepers, vintners, cheese makers, and old men who spend their days sitting and talking in the piazza.  What an experience!  Real Italian life.  It just doesn’t get much better than this.

The only concern I had was – what if we got stuck in a group of people who were not fun to be around?  That concern was laid to rest almost immediately upon arrival.  We were extremely lucky and were in a group of 7 others who were absolutely great.  There was Chris and Ron, the intellectual professors from Wisconsin (who had the most wry sense of humor), the sweet and funny sisters (Maridyth and Stephanie – who would say what others were only thinking), the really fun couple from Australia (Carlo and Liz – the accountant and the artist)  and then there was David.  The one and only David, who always had a story to tell!  By the end of the trip, we knew we had made some great friends.  Enjoyed each other so much, that we were all talking about doing this trip together to Sicily next time!

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New friends in Soriano!

 

Day One

Fourth of July –  we find ourselves at the International Terminal of the Atlanta airport.  Off we fly into the vast blue sky towards Italy.  Land about nine hours later in the early morning in Rome.  We have to wait for others in our group, since it’s a shuttle ride to Alto Lazio.  We find a cafe and make ourselves comfortable with a cappuccino.  Soon Sophie, one of the people who make our week so fun arrives.  We sit and chat with her for a while as we wait for Chris and Ron to arrive.  Shortly after they arrive, we find that Maridyth and Stephanie’s flight is delayed, so they will arrive later.  Carlo and Liz arrive soon after and off we go.  (David is arriving later by train.)  Sergio, the minibus driver for the week, transports us to magical Soriano nel Cimino.  We arrive at the Piazza and we are shown to our home for the week.  Walking down the narrow cobblestone streets seems surreal – I feel like I’m living in a movie set.  And when we step into our little two bedroom flat – well, for sure, it’s the movie of my life for the next week!

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Our front door – right on the street!

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Our flat is located at the end of the street on the left.

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Stone wall in our flat, named Archetti

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Flowers they put in our flat

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Our kitchen

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Living room

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Wine they left for us

 

 

 

 

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Second bedroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We walked in to find fresh flowers, fruit, coffee-making items, biscotti and a bottle of wine left in our flat for us.  Oh, and our little flat has a name – Archetti.  We had a little time to unpack and unwind from the long flight and even though we were way too excited to nap, we did try to rest a bit, because our adventure would start right away.  Archetti is so cute – right off the road, so before you step out, you have to look both ways to make sure no little scooter or Fiat is barreling down the narrow street.  Two bedrooms and one bathroom (with the very civilized bidet in the bathroom) with the tiniest little shower – no sitting in the shower to shave your legs here!  It’s way to small for that.  The wall dividing the bedrooms from the living area was stone.  There was a balcony off the second bedroom that had the most amazing view of the Orsini Castle.

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Orsini Castle at night

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Our bedroom

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Orsini Castle in daytime

 

At 17:30 (the 24 hour clock is used in Italy) we met at the Chiosco del Tigli for gelato and to meet other members of our group that were not at the airport with us.  We also talked about everything that was going to happen that week.  After gelato, Carla, the person in charge of the cooking classes took us to several shops to purchase food for tomorrow morning’s cooking class.  Carla is wonderful.  I grew to think of her as an Italian auntie who was teaching me how to cook.  When it was time to say good-bye to her, I almost cried – something I rarely ever do.  With Carla’s help in translations, we managed to get what we needed for the class.

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Melons coming out of Jerry’s ears!

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Me with tomatoes

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Jerry picking out cherry tomatoes

After shopping and dropping off the items at Carla’s house right on the piazza, we walked to dinner at Taverna Dei Frati.  What a treat!  I thought they would never stop bringing food or wine to the table.  We were there for several hours – eating, getting to know each other, eating, talking and eating.  Oh – did I mention we ate while we were there?  There was just so much food!  Antipasti.  First course, main course, dolci (dessert) and then after dinner drinks.  Finally we managed to waddle back to Archetti and fell into bed, so tired from the travel and all the food!

 

Day Two

Breakfast consists of cappuccino and cornetto (the Italian word for a croissant) at Bar Roma, the place we would have breakfast with the locals each morning of our stay.  It is located right in the piazza of Soriano.  The first morning we are walking to Bar Roma and I said to Jerry (who was walking right beside me) that this was the place.  He didn’t hear me and kept right on walking.  One of the old men who sit there each morning looked at Jerry walk away and then up at me.  I just kind of shrugged and smiled.  He smiled back and watched Jerry walking away.  Finally Jerry realized that I wasn’t with him and he turned around to see where I was.  He saw me and came walking back.  When he got to where I was, the sweet old man said something in loud Italian (do Italians ever not talk loudly?) and laughed.  Jerry just shrugged and said “meh” right back to him.  Every morning he was there and we would always speak and wish each other Buon giorno.  I think the old man really got a kick out of that interaction.

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My first cappuccino at Bar Roma

After breakfast, when all of our travel-mates arrived, off we went to the Villa Eddarella, where the cooking classes were held.  We went by minivan, with Sergio at the wheel, since the Villa was a bit out of town, in the countryside.  Not far – only about a 10 minute drive.  The first day we would learn how to make Panzanella (an Italian bread salad), fresh pasta dough, which we would turn into spinach and ricotta ravioli, Tuscan  roasted chicken, Tuscan roasted potatoes and tiramisu.

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Mixing the panzanella

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Jerry grating cheese wearing the cheese head!

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Ready to roast the chicken and potatoes in the wood oven on the terrace

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Tuscan roasted potatoes

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Nothing better than Tuscan roasted chicken!

 

 

Villa Eddarella is beautiful.  It is a family home and, from what I understand, has been in the family that owns and runs Culture Discovery Vacations for generations.  The grounds are beautiful – flowers everywhere.  A huge vegetable garden where we would go and pull carrots, cut zucchini, pick fresh herbs, etc.  There is a huge covered terrace that houses the brick pizza oven and where the long table was located that we dined at when the weather permitted.  There is also a huge cellar where they keep wine, grappa, limoncello, brandy, cheese and other treasures.

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Flowers at the Villa

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More flowers

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Table on the terrace

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View from terrace at Villa Eddarella

And wow – the roasted Tuscan chicken and roasted Tuscan potatoes were absolutely divine!  That was the first meal I tried to re-create after we got home.  One of our staple favorite meals now!  Absolutely everyone that tries it, loves it!  The ravioli was yummy, too!  Especially the ricotta lemon with the sage butter sauce.  I’ve made that at home, too.  It was good,  But I didn’t have a pasta machine, so I rolled the dough out with a rolling pin. This made the pasta a bit thicker than ideal.  I now have an Italian Titania pasta machine and will be making the ravioli again this coming weekend with that.  And I’ve never had tiramisu that I was crazy about before, so I was skeptical about this.  Well, rest assured that I will be making this at home, too!  It was delicious!

After stuffing ourselves with that wonderful food and drinking our fill of wine, we headed out to the town of Pitigliano.  Gorgeous drive!  We visited the ancient Jewish grotto (Antico Ghetto e Sinagoga Pitigiano) .  There were old Roman aqueducts in the town that we could stand next to.  I couldn’t help but think – as I gazed at the centuries old homes perched on the cliff sides – that we build everything “to code” now and my house will probably fall apart in about 75 years.  But these homes were built before there was any “code” and still serve as homes to families, even after hundreds and hundreds of years.  Walking through the old synagogue was pretty amazing.  We saw the old kosher wine cellar, the bakery where they made the unleavened bread, the room where they washed before they worshipped and the actual site of worship.  I went up to the room where the women were allowed to worship – what a view – yet still “apart” from the men, so as not to be a distraction during services.  Quite amazing.

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Aqueduct

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Pitiglano

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After wandering around the town for a while, we all met back at the piazza at La Rocca Ristorante for a drink before heading back to Soriano for dinner later that evening.  Dinner this evening was to be at Tre Scalini in the middle of Soriano.  Again – yum!  Again – so much food!  We finally made it back to Archetti to get some sleep to be ready for another great day in Italy tomorrow!

 

Day Three

Today started with the usual breakfast of cappuccino and cornetto at Bar Roma.  It was delightful to greet and be greeted by a familiar face – the older gentleman who was always there with his sweet smile!  We all hopped into the minivan after our quick breakfast and drove to a factory that made ceramic pottery in Deruta – Ceramiche Bettini.  We started out with a demonstration by one of the skilled artists – he was amazing to watch.

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Once he made several items, he offered for the artist in our group, Liz to give it a try.  How fun to watch!  I would have tried it myself, but he snapped off the light after Liz made her little pot.  No matter, still very fun – and I got to stand inside the kiln (before it was turned on, of course!).

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Liz giving the potter’s wheel a whirl!

Before we left, we purchased several items to have shipped home.  Our box arrived two days after we got home!  How’s that for service?  My favorite thing is the olive oil bottle we got – a daily reminder of this fabulous trip!

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Olive Oil bottle we had shipped home

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Miles and miles of pots here!

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Tomatoes growing in one of their pots!

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Meyer Lemon tree growing in one of their pots!

After Deruta, we headed over to Assisi.  I was so excited to see the Basilica of St. Frances – or more properly known in Italy as Basilica di San Francesco.  St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and all four of my cats wear a St. Francis medal on their collars.  But first we stopped for lunch at Osteria deigi Orti.  Yum!  Ate on a covered patio and enjoyed the beautiful, sunny and warm weather.

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View from the street we took to get to the restaurant

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Antipasti

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the delicious lunch, we wandered to Santa Chiara – St. Clare of Assisi’s church – St. Frances’s first convert.  While standing outside of the beautiful building, this is what we saw:

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Facade of Santa Chiara

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Angel sitting outside of Santa Chiara?

We walked down the ancient, narrow cobblestone streets until we got to the Basilica di San Francesco.  There were numerous shops and restaurants along the street, so it was easy to buy a few souvenirs for those back in the states.  The basilica itself was huge and so beautiful inside.  All of the artwork, paintings  and frescos!  We walked inside the church, but of course could not take any pictures.  The Franciscan monks make sure you follow the rules inside the holy building – such as no photographs, modest dress (no shorts for men, no sleeveless shirts for women), you remain reasonably quiet, as some are praying – well, you get the idea.  Nothing crazy.  There are two levels and you have to go down a level to Saint Frances’s crypt.  It is a very peaceful, beautiful place.

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After spending a good amount of time here in Assisi, we went to Santa Maria delgi Angeli, which is not far at all from Assisi.  This basilica is unbelievable!  Inside, yes, inside the church itself is the small church that St. Francis led when he was alive.  It’s unbelievable.  All of the artwork inside this huge building is amazing – and when we were there, the monks began to chant the rosary – just beautiful!

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Facade of Santa Maria degli Angeli

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Sweet Sophie – one of the people at Culture Discovery who made our week fantastic!

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“Tasting” the prosciutto while walking by a shop near Assisi – with Chris

Tonight was a little different.  Instead of a restaurant, we went to Maria Grazia’s home for a wonderful home-cooked meal.  I mean, really, this was someone’s house!  It was so relaxing and enjoyable – and such a different experience!  Her home is in the forest just outside of Soriano.  I just can’t imagine something like this ever happening in the states – who in the world would invite 9 strangers into their home and cook a four course dinner for them?  The people of Italy are really incredible.  We finally made it back to Archetti, just in time to go to sleep ….

 

Day Four

Breakfast of cappuccino and cornetto at Bar Roma and a heartfelt buon gionro from my sweet old man!  What a happy way to start the day! This morning is a cooking class at the Villa.  Today we will learn to make a bruschetta, pappardelle from scratch with bolognese sauce, a brasato al barolo roast, sauteed zucchini and panna cotta for dolci.  Making the pappardelle (a type of pasta) is such fun.  You didn’t even need a pasta machine for this one, as the noodles are thicker.  Just rolled the pasta dough super thin and then cut it with a chef’s knife – the group had a lot of fun with this.  We got pretty silly – maybe because the wine flows freely during the cooking classes ….

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Stephanie getting a little crazy with the pappardelle

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Cutting zucchini in the Villa garden with Katia and Carlo

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Carla teaching us how to tie the brasato al Barolo

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Getting ready to make the panna cotta

 

We also were in the cellar, tasting all the varieties of grappa – the almond flavor was my favorite, but there was also strawberry, peach, and several others to try.  Jerry’s favorite was the Inferno – with hot, hot peppers.  He and Carlo kept drinking that stuff – I don’t know how they did it – once Carlo downed a shot and he was coughing like he had tuberculosis.  I asked him why he drank it and the answer was “your husband makes me!”   Uh-huh.

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Jerry with the Inferno grappa

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Carlo filling the still to make more grappa

 

Lunch was at the Villa, eating the wonderful food we’d created again.  And drinking a lot of wine again.  I’ve made the panna cotta at home for a family gathering, and all agree, it’s the best!  Another family staple now!  Later in the afternoon, we went to Viterbo, an ancient walled city and the home of the ancient Vatican.  The first place we went to in Vertibo was a church that housed the petrified remains of Santa Rosa. We walked around the beautiful church and then sat quietly for a few minutes in quiet contemplation.  As we were sitting there, the sun broke through the clouds and filtered into the church through the stained glass windows – it looked like a painting!  So beautiful and very spiritually moving. We wandered around the medieval quarter for several hours, completely enjoying ourselves. Lots of clothing and leather shopping available.   And, as happens fairly frequently in European cities, we happened upon a festival – a parade with people all dressed up in medieval outfits and several vendor areas selling items related to the festival.

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We came to the site of the original Vatican – and it was very beautiful.  It was too late to enter, but the architecture was so gorgeous.  Italy really is all about the art, the music, the food, the passion, the good life –  and the beauty.

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Ancient Vatican

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Built by the Etruscans way before the Vatican was here

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Beautiful architecture

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Even the security devices are beautiful

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Facade of a “de-sanctified” church because a murder occurred inside. We don’t really have a word for that in English, but the Italians do.

 

 

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See the carved white box mounted to the wall? It holds the remains of a woman who was killed by her suitor after she scorned him. If he couldn’t have her, he felt no one should have her.

 

 

 

Dinner that evening was pizza at a little restaurant in Viterbo.  Much lower key and much less food than previous nights – thank goodness after that huge lunch we’d prepared and eaten!  Several different kinds to try and all very good.

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The very lovely Linda – another Culture Discovery person who helped to make our trip absolutely wonderful! Posing in Viterbo on the ancient statue.

Late getting back to Archetti this evening – it was a long day.  But, as our little flat had a washing machine (no dryer), we had planned to wash a load of clothes this evening and just hang them to dry.  We pack very light because we manage with one duffle bag each as a carry on.  This particular trip we checked a suitcase that was empty, except for a roll of bubble wrap, just for bringing stuff home!  We never could get the washing machine to work – we even searched the manufacturer’s on-line directions on how to operate the machine.  We knew how to start it, but don’t think it was correctly hooked up.  We finally gave up after about an hour of trying and just sent the laundry out the next day.  When we mentioned it the next morning, we found we weren’t the only people who have stayed at Archetti and could not get it to work.  That solidifies my theory that it’s not hooked up properly.  Oh well.  Twenty euros and twenty four hours later, we had clean clothing.

 

Day Five

Today was to be a really fun day!  We drove through the Tuscan countryside and stopped at the most picturesque little cafe where we got cappuccino and just relaxed for a while.  And took loads of photos!

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Stephanie, Maridyth and Liz

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Picturesque road in Tuscany – they filmed the tour bus driving on this road in “Under the Tuscan Sun”

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My sweet Jerry in Tuscany

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Artsy photo of the golden grasses growing nearby

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Chris and Ron

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Beautiful Tuscan countryside

 

We continued our drive through the beautiful Tuscan countryside until we arrived at the St. Antimo Abbey where we got to watch the Gregorian chant done by the monks.  How beautiful!  I’ve listened to Gregorian chant on CDs before, but to actually see one performed in person was quite moving.

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St. Antimo Abbey

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Inside the Abbey

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More beautiful Tuscan countryside near the Abbey

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The Abbey, with the 200 year old olive tree in front

After hearing the monks, we drove to a small family owned winery, La Poimbala.  Here, we had lunch and tasted several of the wines they produce here.  The wines were very good and we ordered a case to be sent home – it’s a month later and we are still waiting for it to arrive – but they did warn us that it might take a month or so for it to arrive – an “Italian” month – which I’m guessing is closer to two months.  It will eventually arrive, I’m sure, but I would really like to drink a bottle of it soon!  It was very good.  There was a gorgeous black male cat here and a beautiful grey mother cat – with three cute little tabby kittens.  I had so much fun playing with the kittens.  The owner came out and said I could take one home with me if I wanted.  Can you imagine, bring the kids a kitten home as a souvenir from Italy???

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Lunch was, as expected, very, very good and very, very relaxing.  The usual four course meal – antipasti, first course, main course and the little sweet to end the meal.  And of course, wine matched to each course.  Endless wine ….

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The winery grounds were absolutely beautiful – as is all of Tuscany and central Italy.  I don’t think I would ever get tired of the views in this area of the world!

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After La Poimbaia, we went to Pienza.  Here, we were tasting all kinds of pecorino cheeses.  Who knew that there were so many ways to change the flavor of a cheese?  Some were aged in ashes, some in grasses and so many other ways.  We purchased half a wheel to bring home – it was that good.  I wish we’d bought an entire wheel, because it seems to be disappearing at an alarming rate ….

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Cheesemaker

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Several kinds of cheese to taste

 

We had a little time to walk around Pienza.  Charming and ancient city.  We walked down the Via dell’Amore and the Via della Fortuna.  This is supposed to guarantee us love and good fortune!  Pienza is a very beautiful city and lots of good views of the Tuscan countryside.

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The next stop today was another winery – Cantina dei Ricci Wine Cellar.  This was very beautiful and very, very old.  This winery was used in the filming of the second in the series of the Twilight movies – the scenes in Italy where the Volturi reside.  And the wine here is incredible – again we shipped some home and have been enjoying it immensely!  We were treated to an elegant tasting with snacks to go along with the wines, including chocolate with the vin Santo wine.

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Because I was something of a “Twilight” fan, the owner gave me a copy of the autographs of several of the stars of the movie – a cute little “extra”.  They were very, very nice.  It started raining while we were in the winery and the owner and his wife drove us back to the minivan in their own personal vehicles.  Can’t ask for much better service than that, can you?

We drove back to Soriano and tonight, one of the Culture Discovery people, Katia, who helps Carla in the kitchen, was hosting dinner for us at her grotto.  It has been in her family for years and years and her husband has worked to level the floor and add a kitchen so that they can entertain in the grotto.  In the past, family grottos were used to house the cows and pigs and other farm animals and equipment that a family living in town would have.  It was amazing and Katia had prepared a wonderful dinner for us.  Again, lots and lots of food and lots and lots of wine and lots and lots of good conversation and company!  But, boy!  What a day!  We were just worn out and were very glad that the walk back to Archetti wasn’t too long!  We fell into bed again.

 

Day Six

This morning started with my cappuccino, my cornetto and my buon giorno from the sweet old man!  I think he has started looking for us in the mornings now!  Makes me smile to remember him!  This morning we go to Civita di Bagnoregio, or The Dying City.  It is called this because it is literally crumbling away.  And it is quite the hike up to the city – but oh so worth the trek!  It is isolated, beautiful, ancient and so many cats live there!

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The Dying City

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Ancient door

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Poppies

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Ancient tiled roof

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After visiting this breathtakingly beautiful place, we traveled to a small family-run olive mill and winery.  There, they served us a delicious lunch.  (With wine pairings, of course!). We purchased olive oil to bring home.  And it’s almost gone … sigh … just can’t get stuff like this in the states.

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On the way back to Soriano, we did something I’ve dreamed of doing, ever since I thought about going to Italy – stand in the middle of a field of sunflowers!  That’s one of the reasons we scheduled our trip for July – because the sunflowers would be in full bloom during that time!  The below photos are of pure bliss ….

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We headed back to the Villa for our afternoon cooking class.  Today was super-fun.  We made limoncello!  And limoncello cream (yum!!!!).  And hazelnut biscotti (cantucci).  And gelato!  And cheese – yes, cheese!  A local shepherd, Antonio, brought his fresh sheep milk and taught us how to make pecorino and ricotta cheese.  Such fun!  He spoke hardly any English, but with his limited English and my limited Italian and lots of hand signals, we managed just fine!  After the cheese making, he made me an honorary Italian because I tried so hard with my very limited Italian!

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Rocky – a Culture Discovery person who helped to make our week wonderful – making biscotti

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Antonio showing me how to “gather” the cheese

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Antonio showing Ron and me how to press the water out of the cheese

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The cheese – ready to age for up to two years

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Jerry making ricotta cheese

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Antonio and Ron finishing up the cheese making

 

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Cheese is almost ready for aging

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Our cheeses we made today

 

Tonight, after dinner, we pushed back the chairs and then the dancing started!  Sam and Alyssa, the daughter of the owners of Culture Discovery and her boyfriend, found the music on iTunes and we started doing the Cupid Shuffle, Thriller and others.  Fun times!

 

Day Six

Today as I walked into Bar Roma to get my morning cappuccino and cornetto and I said buon giorno to my sweet old friend, it made me sad to think this was the last time I’d be able to do this.  Because tomorrow we had to leave around 6 in the morning and I knew it would be too early for him to be here.  I know I will miss this little routine – a lot!

On Fridays in Soriano, they have the Friday Market – where vendors set up and the villagers purchase everything from clothing to kitchen supplies.  A few of us went to buy a few things.  I wanted to get some of the Fennel pollen, a wonderful spice used in Tuscan cooking.  I also got a little ravioli cutter.  Finding the market was a bit of a challenge – usually it’s in the piazza, but because of a music festival, it had been moved down to the lower part of town.  After finding some construction workers who spoke a bit of English and our poor Italian, we finally found out where it was.  Down about a million stairs to the lowest part of the town.  We also found a pretty waterfall and a fountain on our way back up.  We tossed coins into the fountain, supposedly to ensure that we will be back one day!

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The sweet sisters

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The waterfall in town

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Jerry tossing his coin into the pool

This morning we headed to Orvieto, one of the biggest cities we visited during the entire week.  There is a huge Gothic cathedral here.  We took some time to go through it.  This cathedral houses a holy relic – a cloth that a priest had where the host (bread of communion) started bleeding.  The priest had begun to lose his faith and had asked God for a sign.  When the priest did communion the very next time, when he blessed the host, it began to bleed.  He had received his sign from God.  His faith was restored.  The cathedral is huge and the architecture is amazing.  The outside architecture of the church tells the stories of the Bible.  It took 300 years for this cathedral to be built.

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After we spent quite a lot of time in the cathedral, we walked through the ancient city and did some shopping.  We went into a leather shop and watched the artist make some items.  We purchased some leather items, which are absolutely gorgeous!

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We went into a few other shops to get souvenirs for family and friends at home.  Had a great time, just wandering around the old city.  Happened upon a parade!  A marching band from Canada.  We watched and listened to them for a good while.

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After enjoying what the streets of Orvieto had to offer, we had lunch at Maurisio Duomo trattoria.  Again, lots and lots of delicious food and lots and lots of wonderful wine and lots and lots of good conversation!

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After lunch, we headed back to the Villa for our final cooking class – Pizza!  This was so much fun!  The pizzas were cooked in the wood-fired outdoor oven and we made several different kinds of pizza.  Even a dessert pizza of Ricotta and Nutella!  Best pizza in the world.  I hope I can replicate these at home when I try!

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Ingredients for pizza

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My pizza dough

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Carla and Jerry disco dancing while we were making pizzas!

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Ready to go into the oven!

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Lined up for baking in the wood-fired oven!

It sprinkled a little rain this evening.  When it cleared and we were sitting outside, a gorgeous rainbow appeared!  A sign?  A sign that we will come back one day?  A sign of what fabulous memories we made this week?  What a fitting end to our wonderful week!
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After we left the Villa, we were reluctant to end our time with our new friends. So, we arranged to meet at the stage where the musicians were to have a drink and listen to the music for a while.

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Finally, we had to go back to Archetti and pack for the early morning. We bid our new friends good-bye with the promise to keep in touch.

Day Seven

So sad we have to leave today.  Our last breakfast of cappuccino and cornetto at Bar Roma.  And it’s too early for my sweet old friend – makes me sad.  I know I will miss him so much.  Crazy huh?  We take the two hour drive back to the Rome airport and board the flight home.  All too soon this fantastic week is over.  Memories made for a lifetime.

Here are a few more random photos and memories from this trip of a lifetime!

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Ginger, the pig who gets all the scraps from the Villa

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New friends – taken in the Jewish Ghetto

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A street in Soriano nel Cimino

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Jerry relaxing at Villa Eddarella

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The Last Hurrah – Sailing Trip with my Brother

Why in the world would I refer to this sailing trip with my brother as the “last hurrah”?  Well, it’s because last November I took a trip to Raleigh, North Carolina and then to the boatyard in Oriental, North Carolina to help my brother paint his beautiful wood sailing vessel so that he could try to sell it. Then I went back this May to take a trip to Cape Lookout with him.  Turns out that a few weeks after we took our several-night sailing trip to Cape Lookout, he did sell the boat, so it was to be the last time he sailed his beautiful sailboat!

I arose before the sunrise on a Thursday morning and drove to Raleigh to my brother’s home.  As soon as I got in, we decided to go ahead and drive down to the coast, where his sailboat lived so that we could get an early start the next morning for our trip to Cape Lookout!  We hopped into his huge, manly truck (he owns his own civil engineering company and needs the truck for business) and hightailed it down to Blackbeard’s Sailing Club and Marina to his boat.  On the way to New Bern, we stopped at this little hole-in-the-wall family owned seafood store and bought shrimp for dinner that evening.  We loaded up the boat with all our equipment and settled in for the evening.

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Interior of our home for the next few days.

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My bed for the next few days.

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The galley

We planned to leave at dawn, so we wanted to make it an early night.  We got unpacked and it was already time to fix dinner.  We got the water boiling for the shrimp and fixed some cajun style rice to go along with the shrimp. As the shrimp cooked, I couldn’t help but sing the Jimmy Buffet song in my head … “smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil…”  And my brother, a veteran of planning sailing trips, had brought along a huge container of the best margaritas I’d ever tasted ….

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Mmmmm … smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil!

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Dinner!

The next morning, we woke at dawn, took a last, quick shower at the clubhouse and motored out of the marina into the Neuse River.  Gorgeous weather – warm and calm – a beautiful day.  Not much wind, though, so we used the motor most of the day, aided by the sails when we could use them.  photo (32)

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The Captain, my brother, one of my heros!

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Full jib!

We sailed all day – it’s about a 12 hour trip – and got to Cape Lookout around 5 or so that evening.  Just as we were sailing into the protected area around Cape Lookout, we noticed a huge thunderstorm behind us.  It was beautiful to watch from a distance, but we hoped it wouldn’t come to us.  No luck – it started raining on us just as we were finishing anchoring and setting up for the night.  Fortunately, it was a short-lived storm and didn’t make the seas too choppy.

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Thunderstorm heading towards us!

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As soon as the storm passed, we got busy fishing for dinner!  Caught some bluefish and mackerel.  Minutes from the sea to my plate – it doesn’t get much better than that!. Had some seafood breading mix and fried them up – mmmmm.  How delicious after a long day!

The next day was filled with fun!  We took the dinghy over to an island to dig our dinner – yep – found huge beds of mussels and lots of clams!  Also got to observe some of the wild horses that roam the island – what an amazing treat!

 

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The dark-ish area in the middle of the picture are where we collected the mussels and clams. The wild horses are in the fields beyond – kind of hard to see because they were pretty far away.

After we collected our dinner for the evening, observed the beautiful horses, talked to some serious bird-watchers and swam in the ocean, we took the dinghy back to the boat.  We put the mussels and clams into a mesh bag and hung them off the boat so that they would purge the dirt out before we cooked them later that day.  A quick lunch and we decided to take the dinghy to the other side and take a look at the lighthouse and museum.

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The lighthouse of Cape Lookout

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Utility cottage at the lighthouse

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Wildflowers along a beach path

 

After we explored the lighthouse and museum, we decided to walk across the dunes to the other side of the barrier island and look for shells.  We walked all the way to the man-made jetty.  Lots of people out fishing!  The water was really nice and we spent some time just swimming and enjoying the water and sun and sand.  Such a completely relaxing day!

We finally made our way back to the dinghy and then on to the sailboat.  By now, it was time to start thinking about cooking the shellfish we’d collected earlier in the day.  We had white wine and garlic and steamed those little babies open.  Talk about fresh seafood!  I could get used to this life!

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View from the boat

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After that delicious dinner and a margarita, we decided to fish off the boat for dinner the next night.  We had the fish heads and some shrimp left from the first night to use as bait.  We dropped a line off each side of the boat.  My brother caught several small baby sharks and threw them back.  I’d been using the shrimp for bait and I caught a couple of bluefish – which would make a good dinner for the next night.  Well, my brother had a theory that where there are baby shark, there must be big shark.  So, in accordance with his theory, to catch a big fish, you use big bait.  He put one of the bluefish heads on his line – and boom!  Within minutes, he had a huge shark hooked!  It was starting to get dark, so we had to get it reeled in quickly.  He tried to tire the shark out, but it was feisty!  Finally, he decided to bring it in the boat.  I jumped up on the bench to leave room for the shark on the floor of the deck.  It took up most of the deck!  And it fought and fought and fought!  That sucker didn’t want to give it up, despite the fact that my brother had stabbed it several times with a hunting knife.  It was still moving when he started to filet the darn thing!  The deck of the boat looked like something out of a murder movie – it was completely covered in blood.  By now, it was completely dark, but we didn’t want to leave the mess to clean up in the morning, so we cleaned the boat deck by flashlight.

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Catch of the day!

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This is what the deck looked like after we finished filleting the fish … yuck!

After finishing with that …. it was time for relaxing on the deck with margaritas!  We certainly earned them that evening!  The stars are so beautiful when you get to a place that’s not filled with artificial light.  We could see so many.  During the night, there was supposed to be a big meteor shower, the Camelopardalids.  We watched for a while, but only saw a couple.  Prime viewing time was to be around 2 in the morning, so we decided that if we woke up for some reason, we’d take a look.  We did wake up – around 2:30 and I hung out of the hatch for a few minutes, but after that, sleep called more strongly than the anticipation of seeing more shooting stars – so back to bed it was.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and we had a sort of lazy morning.  We decided to motor the dinghy back over the the area where the wild horses were and just walk around and swim and look for shells.  My brother found so many beautiful shells – he’s got a really good eye for it.  Auger shells, urchin shells, sand dollars, olive shells and even the shell of a baby horseshoe crab.  Couldn’t bring that back – it was way to delicate.  The tide was going out, so it was a great time to look for shells.

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Because of the tide going out, we noticed that one sailboat was stuck in the sand – he had about 6 really big guys helping to upright his boat and pull it into deeper water.  An easier way would be for him to just wait for the tide to come back in.  He eventually got it uprighted and got to where he wanted to go.  Felt kinda sorry for the poor guy.  We left after our last adventure to collect shells and watch the wild horses.  We wanted to get back to a special cove before dark so that Monday wouldn’t be such a long day.  As we headed back, there was some kind of regatta happening and it was fun to watch all of the sailboats.

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We sailed back through New Bern.  Along the way, we were watching dolphin following the boat and just playing around.  Saw an osprey nest on top of one of the buoys.  On closer inspection, we noticed a baby osprey sitting in the nest!  How awesome is that!

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The sail back up the Neuse River was very peaceful, once we left the busy-ness of New Bern behind.  We passed a Frenchman in his huge, sea-worthy sailboat proudly displaying his French flag.  My brother expects that he had sailed across the Atlantic – the boat was that big!  He called over the radio, but since neither of us understand very much French, we couldn’t reply.  Oh well, too bad.  Could have been a new friend!

We anchored at a beautiful and peaceful cove on our final evening on his boat.  We fixed a wonderful dinner of fresh shark steaks and then went up on the deck to enjoy margaritas,  watching the dolphin and to see one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever witnessed!  We saw hundreds of dolphin, playing and then hunting all around the boat.  With the setting sun and the jumping dolphin, the water shimmered on the dolphin like iridescent sparkles!   I’ve never seen anything like it.  It happened too fast to be able to get photos of this beautiful phenomenon, but I will never forget the experience.  It’s one of those things that gets burned into your brain forever.  The sunset was absolutely spectacular.  The sky turned so many colors – it was absolutely amazing!  Apologies for the numerous sunset pictures, but it was just such an amazing spectacle!

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We left at dawn the next morning and, frankly, I was glad I was going to be able to take a shower when we got back to the marina!  There wasn’t nearly the same amount of boat traffic going back as there was going out.  We did see some other sailboats, though.  I have learned one thing – most power boat captains hold little, if any regard for sailboats.  Most of them completely ignore “no wake”  zones and when passing a sailboat, they don’t pay any attention (or care) about the huge wake they may leave that can toss a sailboat around on the water.  Too bad – being on the water is so relaxing, it should be a place where you aren’t in a hurry to get somewhere.  Ok – I’ll get off my soapbox now.  Ha!

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We finally pulled back into his slip and started to pack up our equipment.  As I was hopping off the boat on to the dock, I twisted my knee.  It hurt so badly, I could barely walk.  (This getting old stuff is for the birds!)  I figured the best thing I could do was walk it out, ever so slowly, so even though I couldn’t help a lot with the packing up, at least I could take the loads of equipment back to his truck.  Unfortunately, he got stuck with most of the nasty stuff, like cleaning out the head.  Yuck – sorry, Dave!  After we got everything packed up, we took showers (aaaaaah!) and headed back to Raleigh.  I slept with an ice pack on my knee and it helped a lot.  I didn’t have any problems driving back to Atlanta the next day.

What an amazing trip!  I will never forget the experience.  And, even though we didn’t know it at the time, it was the last time he would take his boat out for any extended amount of time.  I’d only ever taken day trips of a few hours on a sailboat (and a few lessons at Girl Scout camp when I was a kid) before this trip and knew very little about sailing.  My brother was patient enough to teach me and I even ended up doing a small amount of the sailing out on the open seas.  Such an amazing trip!  Thanks, Dave!  New life skills – SAILING!

 

 

 

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Weekend in “The Ham”

A few months ago, my sweet husband and I were discussing travel.  (No surprise there!)  Both of us have traveled extensively, both domestically and internationally.  Much of our international travel has been together.  However, most of our domestic travel has been separately.  We have made a decision, that, together, we want to visit every single state together, at least once. So, where have we already been?  Let’s see – when dating, we took our first long weekend trip together to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  And we spent a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend in Savannah, our current home state of Georgia.  We have been to the Melbourne, Florida together several times.  We have friends and family there, so we try to go at least once a year.

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View from our hotel in Melbourne, Florida

We spent one of our wedding anniversaries in Charleston, South Carolina.

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The waterfront in Charleston, South Carolina

We spent another wedding anniversary in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina

We took a cruise to Alaska a couple of years ago and spent time in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway.

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Skagway, Alaska

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Iceberg in Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska

 

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New Eddystone Rock in Misty Fjord near Ketchikan, Alaska

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Lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables at the market!

 

On that same trip, we took a few extra days in Seattle, Washington.

 

 

 

 

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So many beautiful flowers at the Fish Market!

 

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Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, just last year, we went to Las Vegas when my daughter got married.

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Taken after the wedding at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada

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View from our hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada

And for a long weekend, Alabama (being right next door and of drivable distance) seemed to call.  And I thought Birmingham might be fun.  I’d been there once on business a couple of years ago and went with a coworker who used to live there, so she had shown me some of the highlights of the city.

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Blooming Bradford Pear in downtown Birmingham

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Beautiful Bradford Pear trees blooming in downtown Birmingham, Alabama

We stayed in the funky little artsy area called Five Points in a cute little boutique hotel called Hotel Highlands.  We had a great view of the area, since we were lucky enough to have a room on the sixth floor.  We drove over on a Friday afternoon and got there around three in the afternoon.

Lady Luck was with us!  Not two doors down from our hotel was a wonderful pub called the World of Beer.  My husband loves beer, especially Belgium beer!  Me – not so much, although I do like a good hard cider occasionally.  Our first stop after checking in and unpacking was to walk down there and see what it was like.  We were early, even for a Friday and the bartender was super attentive to us.  My first drink was a hard cider on draft.  Very good.  In the meantime, Jerry was in heaven, trying samples of several different beers before settling on a pint to drink.  We sat there for a little while and people slowly started filtering in.  A woman sitting next to me had ordered something that was a beautiful shade of red – I asked her what it was.  Before she could answer, the bartender had brought a sample for me!  I tasted – it was absolutely divine!  I have discovered raspberry lambric!  After the taste, I immediately ordered a full size – and enjoyed every single drop!

 

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Raspberry Lambric! Super – Yum!

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Draft hard cider! YUM!

We had tickets to the Alabama Theater to see Ron White at 7:30 Friday evening, so an early dinner was in order.  World of Beer was two doors to the right of our hotel and MetroPrime Steakhouse was two doors to the left of our hotel.  We walked over around 5:15 – super early for us.  But there were other diners already there and since it wasn’t crowded, we had really good service.  Jerry got a steak and I got crab cakes.  The food was better than ok but not terrific.  For the price, it should have been terrific.  They are a little too impressed with themselves, in my opinion.  Especially given that there are so many other really good restaurants within walking distance.  But, it’s just one dinner and this is part of trying new places in new cities.

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Lighting of the ceiling at The Alabama Theater

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The Alabama Theater

We finished our dinner and got a cab to the theater.  (Too many beers at the World of Beer earlier!) The Alabama Theater is a beautiful, historic landmark in Birmingham!  It’s just as beautiful as The Fox Theater in Atlanta, although a bit smaller.  The lighting is magnificent and the inside of the building is just breathtakingly beautiful!  We settled in for Ron’s show.  The warm up comedian was pretty funny and got the crowd geared up for Mr. White.  Ron was raw, raunchy and mostly funny.  We thoroughly enjoyed the evening.  It was a bit of a challenge to get a taxi back to the hotel.  (Birmingham is a small-ish city.)  Finally got one and made our way back to the hotel.

Jerry wanted to end his evening with a cigar (something he does on special occasions, holidays and vacations).  So, we stood outside near the hotel while he enjoyed his smoke, just talking and enjoying the nice weather on that Friday evening.  Friday night is when Five Points hops, I’ve decided.  Lots of music, lots of people out, walking around.  While we were outside enjoying the last of the evening, something odd happened.  I was standing there and saw a guy holding a hoodie cross the street.  I moved to get out of his way, as he seemed to be heading right towards me.  But when I moved, he moved with me.  He was talking to me, but I couldn’t understand him.  Finally, I heard him to say “did you call my name?”  I said no and immediately started to walk back to the hotel entrance.  He saw Jerry and he left.  Later, I thought that he could have had a weapon under the hoodie he was holding.  We could have been mugged – on a busy street in Birmingham with lots of people nearby.  Scary.

After that, we decided to call it a night and went up to our room.  It stayed noisy a long time that night.  Lots of music and not entirely sober people in the hallways of the hotel.  Finally it quieted down and we were able to get some sleep.

The next morning we arose and got ready and went downstairs to eat in the breakfast room of the hotel.  Not a seat was to be had!  I had the thought of “no room at the inn”.  We decided to walk to the Original Pancake House right across the street – and what a great idea that was!  I had the most delicious cherry crepes I’ve ever tasted!  And the breakfast kept me going until dinner!

Once we finished breakfast, we decided to go to the Civil Rights Institute just a few miles away.  This is a great place to learn about the history of civil rights in our country.  Since much of this happened before I was born and, as a child, I lived in Canada for several years, so I was never really aware of the violent struggles that came to epitomize the civil rights movement in the American South.  Lots of details explained here – lots of displays and exhibits and even a short film to tell the history.  Very well presented and goes right on up to modern-day civil rights issues, such as bullying and gay rights.  I highly recommend a visit here if you are ever in Birmingham.

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The Civil Rights Institute

Directly across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  This church was the target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four little girls back in 1963.  It is still an active church today.  There is a basement display room that you are allowed to visit.  There isn’t much there – I learned more at the Civil Rights Institute earlier in the day, but it was still worth the visit.  There was a film being shown upstairs, but they “requested” a specific donation to go see it.  The “donation” didn’t sound like it was a donation at all, at least not the way it was presented by the attendant who was there.  We probably only spent 15 minutes here.

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Wreath at the memorial for the four girls

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Memorial to the four little girls killed in the bombing

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Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

On the other side of the street was Kelly Ingram Park, which was a sort of staging ground for many of the demonstrations in the 1960’s in Birmingham.  There is artwork to honor people killed and some artwork to represent some of the horrible things that happened there.  The park is beautiful, but it is a little creepy to walk around, knowing the terrible things that occurred here.

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Sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park

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Metal sculptures in Kelly Ingram Park

After a walk around the park, we decided to go to the Birmingham Museum of Art.  What a treat!  All kinds of art here – from paintings and sculptures to pottery and glass and furniture and photography and more.  I was very pleasantly surprised at the size and the art in here.  A Monet!  A Rodin!  An entire room dedicated to Wedgewood displays!  And much,much more!  After the intensity of the civil right stuff, this was just the right thing to lighten up the mood and made a very pleasant afternoon! We crammed a lot into Saturday morning and afternoon.

We decided to head back to the hotel and walk on down to the World of Beer again to have an afternoon drink.  Yum!  I got my lambric again!  Jerry tried a Hawaiian beer this time, I think.  But she also brought us samples of a banana-based beer.  It was different.  I might like it during a hot summer afternoon.  It was refreshing, but right now I’m on the lambric kick!

When it came time for dinner, we walked over to a wonderful little French restaurant called Chez Fonfon.  Yum!  True continental dining – we were so happy and so full when we left!

As this was our last night in Birmingham, Jerry wanted one last beer and cigar at the World of Beer.  I sat there with him – I just couldn’t hold one more bite or one more drop of liquid at this point!  But I do wonder if we could purchase a franchise of World of Beer so he could spend his retirement years running a place he loves!  Ha!

We finally called it an evening and went up to bed.  Saturday night was much quieter than Friday night was at Five Points.

We awoke to pouring rain on Sunday morning.  We decided to just have breakfast and head on home.  What a fun, fun weekend!

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The Quiet Beauty of Autumn

I love autumn!  The colors, the crunch of fallen leaves under your hiking boot, the crisp morning air, the smell of wood fires and even the gentle rain of an autumn afternoon, where you can curl up by the fireplace with a good book.  It is a time for rest and renewal and reflection and remembering.  It is a time for football and pumpkin spice latte.  It is a time for warm soup dinners with homemade bread.

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I love wandering quietly on a forest pathway, listening to the serenity.  The birds chirping, the wind rustling through the dried leaves that still cling to the trees.

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I stop to look at a beautiful red leaf that has fallen to the earth.  The thought of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” come to mind.  This leaf will end its life and reenter the life cycle by becoming food to the next tree.

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I marvel at all the colors on one single leaf.  How can an artist ever capture this?  There is no art more beautiful than nature’s palatte.

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I walk by a tree that has leaves from green and gold all the way to the deepest crimson – so dark that they appear almost black!

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A shrub that has shed most of its leaves already but beautiful bright purple berries stubbornly cling to the branches.  I hope some bird will be able to enjoy these beautiful offerings for a dinner.

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I look up and see the bright blue sky with the puffy white clouds through the gold and orange leaves.  What a gorgeous day!

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Further down the path, I spy the brightest red leaves, hidden behind another tree!  So brilliant!

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Beautiful shades of gold mixed with the green – breathtaking!

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I look up and see the shadows playing through the broad leaves on the tree.  You can see every vein in the leaf and the colors starting to emerge.  The shadows of the leaves move as the leaves play in the chilly breeze.Image

Some look at autumn as a time of death, a time of depression.  I think that it is simply nature resting for spring when all new life will burst forth again in glorious color!

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WILD AFRICA

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So how in the world did I decide upon Africa for this year’s vacation?  Well, my answer would be why not?  We have traveled a lot – Europe, the Caribbean, Canada, the United States – you name it.  But never to Africa.  And with my love of animals – again, why not?

Did some research on-line and decided that late August is a good time to go – the end of the dry season, so it is easier to see the animals and the weather is not too hot.  After a lot of research, trying to decide on Tanzania or Kenya or South Africa, I finally decided on South Africa so we could add a side trip to Cape Town into the mix.  Once I decided on South Africa, there were about a thousand more choices to look at.  First, I had to decide if it was to be Kruger or somewhere else.  I looked very closely at a small, family owned camp called Kwa Mbili.  It had tents – we could have that “Hemingway” experience!  But then, realizing that late August is the beginning of winter, I had second thoughts about freezing in the tents.  Plus, Kwa Mbili was in a malaria area and I just did not have it in me to worry about that while on a holiday.  So, more research.

I ended up deciding on Madikwe Private Game Reserve.  This is a relatively new reserve, only about 21 years old.  It used to be farmland and someone purchased about a bazillion acres and re-introduced the wildlife.  And what a success it has been!  Plus, it is sustainable.  And, unlike Kruger, they have a strict rule about only three safari vehicles at a sighting at one time – which helps to preserve that “wilderness” feeling.  So, Madikwe it would be!  And since there are several game lodges in Madikwe, how to decide on which one?  Trip Advisor was my best friend while trying to decide this.  In the end, I used the advice of Monique Vally, at Rhino Africa and decided on Madikwe Safari Lodge (a fantastic place!) and More Quarters.  Since both  are owned by the same owner, the More Brothers, we got a bit of a break on the costs of the trip.  But with the great exchange rate between the US dollar and the South African Rand when we were there, it was a great deal for us.  It was the airfare with Delta that killed me, cost-wise.  But so worth it – I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

Day One –

Wow!  We arrived in Johannesburg’s airport after about 16 hours on a Delta flight. The place smells so bad!  So exhausted, but met by a smiling and cheerful face from the Rhino Africa Company. He was so kind and talked about the city as we were driving through the evening rush hour in this city of about 9 million people. After about a 45 minute drive, we arrived at The Residence Boutique Hotel.

Oh my gosh … I’ve never before stayed at such a wonderful hotel!  We were met at the door by about 4 or 5 staff members offering a warm cloth, an evening sherry, many smiles and helpful people who brought our two duffel bags to our opulent room. It’s a bit of a maze to walk through all the twists and turns, but at every turn there was something beautiful to behold. When we walked into our private courtyard, there was a huge claw foot soaking tub (yes! outdoors!), two rain showers and a table with two chairs, along with the lush flora and greenery.

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Then we walked into our room – with several chandeliers, a decanter of sherry, mini fridge (complimentary contents), extremely comfortable king size bed with loads of fluffy pillows. There was a closet with a safe, a hair dryer, robes, slippers, a Nespresso machine, a tea kettle, a wonderful sound system that even includes two speakers in the en suite bathroom. There were apples, candies, biscotti cookies and oh so much more.

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Then I walked into the (indoor) bathroom – wow.  Another huge soaking tub, a rain shower, a toilet, a bidet and a sink. Oh, and towels the size of room carpets.

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You would think this is enough, right?  So, we washed the 20 hours of travel off our faces and hands and reappeared at the bar for a before dinner drink. Again, the service was beyond approach. I have never, ever experienced such fantastic service. A glass of wine, a few snacks of olives, chips, pretzels and nuts. But, even now, service goes beyond expectations.

As we were planning to have dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, we were brought menus to decide while we were still relaxing before the fireplace with our before dinner drinks!  We decided and let the attentive waiter know what we wanted. We continued to sit by the fire until he came to inform us that our appetizers were ready if we would like to go to the dining room. And so we did.

While sitting there another couple came into the dining room that we had met briefly while enjoying our before dinner drinks. We continued our small talk and spontaneously decided to move to a table for four to enjoy dinner together. As we were enjoying our homemade chicken pie (fabulous!) and lamb shank, we also enjoyed getting to know this Johannesburg couple who are also well-traveled and relatively close to our age.  We also tried a wonderful South African red wine, as recommended by our waiter. Finally, hardly able to hold our eyes open any longer, we bid our new friends good evening and retired to our luxurious room, but not after every single one of the staff wished us a good sleep.  Amazing attitudes and something you rarely experience while traveling.

Well, we got back to the room and realized that a turn down service had occurred during our absence. But it certainly was not your normal turn down service!  In addition to the usual turn down of the bedding and a chocolate on the pillow, there was also a long stem red rose on the pillow, the slippers placed by the bedsides for our use, a nightcap and bottle of water placed with a glass on each side of the bed for both of us.  Music playing, lights dimmed and the television tuned to the travel channel!  What a turn down service. But wait – I walked into the bathroom and an oil diffuser had been lit in there to gently scent the room. And bath salts. And two bottles of bath oil. I’m beginning to wonder if this is what heaven is like … So we finally crawl into bed and sleep wonderfully in the luxurious quiet.

Day Two –

I wake around 7 the next morning and decide to soak away the travel in the indoor soaking tub with some of the bath salts and bath oil.  Mmmmmm …. Then I dry off with one of the carpet sized towels. A quick shower and get ready for the day and pack up, as we must leave this heaven to go to the safari bush camp later this morning.  So we go to the dining room for breakfast.

Good heavens!  First they bring coffee and tea for us. Then they bring a “cold breakfast” that is enough food to feed six or more people. Cereals, fresh and dried fruits, yogurts, breads, cheeses, cold cuts, milk, two kinds of juices and more. Now, I’d be happy with that, but then they come to take the order for the “hot breakfast”!  Eggs of all kinds, breakfast meats, and more. So I order perfectly done scrambled eggs and beef sausage with wheat toast and sit there with my delicious English breakfast tea having one of the most enjoyable breakfasts I’ve ever had while traveling.

Come back to the room to pack up and they have already been in to make up the bed, change the towels and tidy up!  Goodness!  Like I said, the service here is unapproachable. I am sad to leave and I’ve been here less than 24 hours!  But today it’s on to Madikwe and more adventures!

Ok!  After the small plane ride to Madikwe – I felt like Indian Jones – (and on the way I saw a herd of elephants from the air – a real National Geographic moment!) we are finally here.

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The room (suite) is fabulous – an outdoor shower, an indoor shower, two sinks, separate toilet room, closet, living room and bedroom. Plus two decks – one with a small pool and lounge chairs and a table with chairs and the other with the outdoor shower. And when we were picked up at the airstrip by Andre, our ranger for our stay, on the way to the lodge we saw a giraffe, warthogs, impalas and elephants.

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We stood on our deck and watched elephants in our “backyard” for about an hour before departing on our first game drive. And what a drive it was!  Lots of elephants , a troop of baboon (contrary to a popular FaceBook and email item, a group of baboon is NOT a congress, but a troop.  It’s amazing how many people will argue about this, but I think the rangers know what they are talking about!), lots of  birds, a herd of zebra, a ground squirrel, a mongoose, Cape buffalo (after dark, so they were hard to see) and not one, not two, not three, but FOUR cheetahs!!!!  They were four brothers who had brought down an impala and were absolutely stuffed – their tummies were extremely bloated – and you could smell the effects of the bloating in the air!  Ha!  Can you believe it – four cheetahs!

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After the evening game drive, there was a group dinner at the Boma (outdoor common dining area with a fire pit) with the other guests at our lodge (including Andre). So many delicious dishes from the grill – I had to taste each one!  What an incredible day. It is a six o‘clock wake up call for the morning game drive, so more tomorrow!

Day Three –

What an incredible morning game drive. The serenity of the African bush in the time around dawn is indescribable!  It is the “busiest” quiet you have ever experienced!  We started off seeing a jackal, large herd of zebra. Beautiful, beautiful creatures!

Interesting fact on why the zebra look chunky – they eat grasses. Combine the cellulose and sugar that the grass breaks down to when digested with the water they drink and you get fermentation. Hence the reason for the “beer belly”!!  A little further on the road we came across a herd of giraffe. There were probably 10 or so giraffe in this group, including some youngsters.  They are so stately towering over even the trees in the bush.  They allowed us the pleasure of observing them for quite a long time. ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

(Wow!  Sitting here working on this writing on one of our decks and I just heard a very loud elephant trumpet. They must be very close by! )

Anyway, back to the game drive of this morning.  There was a real treat. We came across some very rare wild dogs. About 8 or so pups!  We sat there observing them for a while and then along came the alpha male. What excitement this caused amongst the puppies!  They greeted him with excited yips and eagerly followed him into the bush.

More giraffe and zebras followed by a fantastic sighting of the rare white rhino. There was a group of at least 3, maybe more. We had to go off path, but our wonderful ranger, Andre had no issue with this. We got very close to these elusive animals.   After a trip to a dam where we saw a herd of about 200 lion fodder – er, I mean wildebeest and a huge warthog along with some more zebra and impalas. Then we came upon a huge termite nest – well over 9 feet high. Amazing!  A drive through the plains and along the road a small herd of ellies (local term for elephants), of which one was a baby of about 9 months. It was so amazing to watch them for a good while.

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close-up of elephant eye

Back to the camp for brunch then a very welcome and relaxing shower in the unique outdoor shower. I am sitting by the private plunge pool writing this and listening to more elephants snort and trumpet. A nap calls so I will be fresh for the evening game drive. More to come!!

What an evening drive!  Just magical!  After a quick cup of tea and a couple of biscotti, off we go with Andre, also known as “Professor” among his colleagues. And for a good reason, I may add. First it was only the three of us and we went to a nearby dam where there were some wildebeest and other antelope stopping for an afternoon drink. There were also many ducks and Egyptian geese. There was a beautiful bird of prey, a Fish Eagle sitting atop a large tree in the middle of an island in the dam. It is closely related to the American bald eagle and is such a regal bird. While watching these animals, we noticed a very small mongoose digging for a meal. He just dug and dug and dug. We never determined what it was, as we had to head back to the lodge to pick up some other guests, but suspected a snake. He was so persistent that I hope he finally got his dinner!

After picking up the others, we started off seeing ellies, zebra and giraffe. No matter how many of these gentle creatures I may see, I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing them. I could watch them for hours.  We went to an area that the Springbok live in and watched them dance around the rocky ledges for a while. They are very territorial, but oh so graceful, much like the mountain goats of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

And then we saw something astounding. Two male lions (brothers) eating the giraffe they’d brought down. I was absolutely mesmerized by these two magnificent creatures. I could have stayed there for days, watching them. But, missing the sunset we watched for quite some time. This is something I will never forget.   And then … enter the jackal. I could not believe how fearless they were, trying to steal a bite of the lion kill!  There were three of them and I didn’t see them ever get more than a small bite, if even that.

We stopped for sundowners, a most civilized safari custom.  Andre stops the Land Cruiser, pulls down the grill, whips a tablecloth over it and pulls out wine, liquors, beer, snacks and more!   After it was dark, we circled back around to the lions. When driving up, I saw a sight that almost brought me to tears – one of the lions crossing the road. Just seeing his size, his majestic airs – well, I really do understand why he is The King. We parked for a while and watched them. One was asleep a few feet away and the other was resting right beside the carcass. The jackals kept trying to sneak in, but the lions knew they were there. Occasionally a snort from one of the lions would chase the jackals away for a short while. Funny thing when the lions were sleeping, I could hear them snore!  After a bit, we had to leave, I am saddened to say.

Driving through the reserve after dark is quite an experience. We saw a spotted hyena scampering through the shrubbery. We stopped to gaze in awe at the southern sky. Venus, the evening star, the Southern Cross, Hercules, Scorpio, Leo, Cancer, and a spectacular view of the arm of the Milky Way, along with a few shooting stars!  So beautiful. Driving back to the lodge, we stopped by the dam and saw a white rhino family!  A cow, a baby and a bull. Again, so incredible!  Back to the lodge for dinner and then I just about fell into bed, dog tired. Arriving to our suite, the fireplace lit, and the hot water bottles warmed the bed.   All was wonderful until the knock on the door at 5:58am for the morning game  drive. Image Image

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elephants greeting each other

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Day Four –

A quick cup of English breakfast tea and delicious rusks and off we go, under overcast skies and a chilly breeze.  We see the birds, the zebra, and the giraffe and then … once again are lucky to see the rare wild dogs!  There were probably 15 or 20 of them, and a small herd of ellies in the background.

Then, Andre tracked down a herd of about 200 Cape buffalo!  They are skittish, shy creatures and hard to get near. They knew we were there and as soon as the wind changed, they left in a hurry. But, boy, are they intimidating. It was once said that they look at you like you owe them money. Yep, that’s about right. Such a treat to see them, though!  Our first night drive, we saw them, but it was so dark and they were very hard to see. It felt more proper this time.

We headed off to find a place to stop for coffee (same story – stops the Land Cruiser, takes down the grill, whips out the tablecloth and pulls out snacks, the implements to make French press coffee and Amarula to add to your coffee!)

We then walked over to one of the huge termite hills. “Professor” Andre gave quite a good lecture on the termites and their social structure. Interestingly enough, he said if you cook them with a little garlic, they taste like peach butter, only crunchy.

We began the last part of our morning drive, looking for the rhino, since Andre had seen the bull’s tracks earlier. We saw ellies, impalas, kudus and more zebra. Then Andre slammed on the brakes and hopped down to study tracks. Leopard!  So we go on for a while down this little rarely used road. Shortly Andre sees another track and a bit further on I see another track!  We find an ellie, the kudus, impalas … but no leopard. So we start back to the lodge on a main road. All of a sudden we see a covey of Guinea fowl and two sentry guineas high up in trees. They are all in a tither.  We stop, and watch and listen. The sentries are looking one way and then another. Andre catches a quick glimpse of leopard tail!  So we wait and watch and listen more. Finally the sentry guineas quiet down. The leopard has moved on. Sadly, we leave. I do not want to get my hopes up too high because I know how difficult it is to see the elusive leopard. But I will hope…..

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We return to the lodge to our delicious brunch. While sitting at our table, we find that there is a complementary massage for each of us!  What an unexpected surprise!  We finish our brunch and the therapist follows us back to our suite. We each get a half hour back, neck and shoulder massage. What a treat!  However, no time for a nap, so I’m a bit cranky and tired for the afternoon game drive. I’m sure it will be fine once we get started, though.

Yes, it was fine, of course. We started out being literally in the middle of an elephant herd of about 20 – 30 ellies. What a feeling!  Andre told us that one young bull might actually chase us when we left, and it sure felt like it was going to happen, but it did not.

There were wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, kudu, impalas, spider nests, lots of birds, grasshopper snacks, another gorgeous sunset but it was fairly quiet. After sunset we rounded a curve in the road and there were two bull giraffes fighting for the affections of a female. We watched for a while. It was awesomely amazing!

Then we found a beautiful spotted eagle owl. He was simply beautiful!  And it had an amazing wingspan when it finally took leave.  Another really fun Boma dinner with everyone here that was super enjoyable. I just about fell into bed when we finally got back to the room!  (Where, of course, the fireplace was lit and the hot water bottles were in place, warming the delicious bed!)

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Day Five –

Another pre-dawn wake up call. This morning was different, though. We drove for about a half hour, during which we saw a brown hyena (usually solitary while the spotted hyenas are in family groups, lots of birds, and heard jackals calling good morning to each other across the plains. Great experience!

Then we parked and took about an hour and a half hike through the brush. How different this was!  First we saw a giraffe. It is crazy how different the animals react when you are on foot instead of in the Land Cruiser. He was extremely nervous and left quickly. Then a small herd of impalas, which also were very skittish because we were on foot. Then two warthogs who again made it known that they knew we were there. A bit longer and we came upon more warthogs. Finally back to the Land Cruiser for the civilized custom of coffee in the bush and the short drive back to the lodge.  Saw a herd of Springbok that were so beautiful!

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Brunch and then a long much-needed nap. Awaken by the trumpeting of ellies!  Took a shower in the outdoor shower that was simply lovely. Opened every single door (they accordion to make it completely open) in the room and you have a clear view over the plain where the ellies love to spend the afternoon. Sounds of ellies, trees being broken and all kinds of birds. Such a lovely, relaxing afternoon. Almost time for three o’clock tea and the afternoon game drive. Can’t wait!!!

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Started the afternoon drive off with giraffes – lots of giraffes!  Then ellies – lots and lots and lots of ellies!  Then zebras – lots and lots of zebras. Then impalas – lots and lots of impalas!  Then a herd of gnu.  Birds, birds, birds!  Springbok, steenbok, wild dogs, and lion!

A beautiful 8-year-old male with a black mane!  He is majestic, regal, and stately!  There needs to be a better word to describe lions!  And next to him is his younger brother and two lionesses with who they will be mating.   I could have sat and stared at them for days.  It was incredible!

Then on to the watering hole where we watched three ellies fight over the water source. They were kicking each other, pushing each other – like children fighting over a toy!  Then more ellies before a stop for sundowners and another beautiful African sunset!  It’s like Santorini – the sunsets never get old!  If I’m not mistaken, I believe André said at one point today we were in Botswana.

Driving after dark, Andre spotted a Genet cat in a tree!  It was amazing. Had a tail like a ring tail lemur. It was so well hidden in the tree, if it had not been for the distinctive tail, I never would have seen it!  But then, a bit later, in the dark, he spotted a two-inch mouse in the road!  Go figure. I don’t know how he does it.   When we got back to the lodge for dinner, we briefly dropped off stuff in our suite before returning to the main building to eat.

We walked in to candlelight. There were rose petals strewn all over the bed. The fire was burning brightly. But, the best part was walking into the bathroom to a steaming hot bath with bath salts and flower petals in the bath!  This place is wonderful!  I was a bit disappointed that the fire would be died down and the candles burned out and the water cold by the time we got back from dinner, but it was so touching that they made our last night so special. After dinner, security escorted us back to the suite, as usual. Much to my surprise, the fire had been restoked and the bath water rerun. So we were able to enjoy everything after all!  How amazing is that service?

I know there are so many pictures of the lions, but I cannot help myself.  I love the big cats!  And the little cats.  Oh, all right, I love all the cats!  I the pictures below, you will see the candles that were lit for us, along with the little chalkboard they used to write little notes to us every single day – along with doing all of our laundry every single day!

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Day Six –

The last morning……we started out seeing a brown hyena. And the jackal who had been following him, hoping for a free meal.  Ran across a cute little baby tree squirrel.

We ended up at this huge hill/rock of beautiful limestone formations. But, this was the cave the bats lived in!  Four of us went in (Andre, Steve, Alex and me) and Jerry and Betty waited outside. There was a colony of about 150,000 – 200,000 bats!  We were walking through this huge cave on the softest dirt . . . . .  I mean bat guano!  Spiders we saw, lots and lots and lots and lots of bats!  Snakes, including black mambas live in here too, but fortunately we did not run across one – I would have needed new knickers in the best case if we had seen one of those!  Outside again, we watch a Martial eagle soar above us – I stood mesmerized watching it for as long as it stayed near.  (In the pictures, the bats are the blurry spots – it was so dark and I had to use a long shutter speed, so maybe you can make them out.)

Then steenbok, ellies, impalas, kudu, giraffe, a fish eagle, more birds (a lot of ducks and geese), adolescent giraffe, a pack of the rare wild dogs, and a few more ellies.

Then, a surprise – a coffee in the bush with all three Madwike  Lodges where the staffhad prepared fresh crumpets!  They never cease to surprise me with all the extra little touches!

Back to the lodge for a final brunch. We pack and come to the main lodge for our brunch. Just sat and visited with Steve and Betty and their son Alex until Andre came rushing in to tell us that our flight time had been moved up and we had to leave very quickly. We rushed to the airstrip and it was waiting for us. He drove us directly onto the tarmac and to our waiting plane of six passengers. Again, the Indiana Jones feeling as we left this wonderful lodge and all the memories we collected in only four short days.  What a wonderful trip.

Last night Jerry and I were talking and we both agreed that if we’d gone back to Atlanta today, we would have been very, very happy. But, Cape Town awaits.

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So we make it through the confusing mess of the smelly Johannesburg airport and arrive to rain and cold here in Cape Town.   I have absolutely no desire to walk around in the rain tonight, looking for a place to eat. Instead I want to soak in the huge tub and order room service. Which is exactly what we do. Cape Town will still be here tomorrow. I am dog tired yet again. This vacation is wearing me out, but in a good sort of way. I just don’t want to feel cranky and tired, so I hope Cape Town can be a little more relaxed than Madikwe was.

Day Seven –

Slept very well in the comfortable bed, especially with the chilly weather. Glad we had the foresight to pull down the extra blanket before we retired for the night. I am happy for the custom of hot water bottles in the bed at night tonight!  I cannot figure out how the bottles stay hot all night, though. During the night I was awaken to the sounds of very heavy rain and wind. Who am I kidding – it sounded like a hurricane outside our windows!

But the morning dawned with breaks in the clouds and only occasional rain sprinkles. Hopefully it will clear up shortly so that we can enjoy Cape Town. More Quarters is very beautiful. Bare wood floors and lots of white. A clean, airy feeling.  High ceilings add to the feeling of airiness. Our suite has a living room, dining area, small equipped kitchen, bedroom with a roomy cupboard and a nice bath with a soaking tub, sink, shower and toilet. bathrobes, slippers, nice toiletries. Nice place. Views aren’t much, though, as it sits in a residential area of the city center. From the bedroom and the living room, our main views are of other people’s decks or living rooms (directly into their apartments). From the living room, you can get a glimpse of Table Mountain.   Had the usual African breakfast consisting of the cold breakfast followed by the hot breakfast.

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We took a little walk around the immediate neighborhood of More Quarters. Lots of restaurants and real estate businesses. We did find a place that we found out later is rated pretty well on Trip Advisor, Arnold’s, and we plan to try that for dinner. I felt like I was in Brussels the way the proprietors would come out and try to lure you into their restaurant. We did score a bottle of wine if we go back. When we found out it was so highly rated, that made our decision!

It was very cold and sprinkly today. At two, we took the shuttle to the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It’s a bit like Pier 39 in San Francisco, only on a much larger scale. We did souvenir shopping and got some pretty nice things.  I’m really happy with all we purchased for our family. Couldn’t buy a whole lot because we are doing this entire trip in a duffel bag and a daypack. After that we found a little pub, Ferrymans, whose sign indicated they were the original waterfront restaurant and pub. Jerry got a couple of beers, and I (boringly) got a sparkling water.  Loved the cute little sign inside for “Sailor Jerry”!   We shared a basket of calamari, shrimp, spring rolls and fries. It was some of the freshest and best (most tender) calamari I’ve ever had. Totally terrific!

After that we rode the Ferris wheel and had some fantastic views of Table Mountain, Cape Town, The Waterfront and the harbor. After that we wandered into a building where artists sell their work in individual booths. It was all nice, but we didn’t really see much that made us go “Ah!”  Until we met this artist from Zimbabwe who did relief art on natural fiber made from elephant dung.Yep – you read that correctly.   His work was so beautiful. We purchased a relief of elephants to take home and frame with our other travel art we’ve collected over the years. Then we just wandered around a bit until it was time for the shuttle to pick us up and bring us back here.

We will go to dinner a bit later. But we did find out that our trip to The Cape Of Good Hope has been arranged for tomorrow!  Excited about that, for sure!

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Dinner was quite an experience!  Went to Arnold’s and had red lentil soup that was absolutely delicious. However, I should not have ordered it. Their entrée portions are huge. And I got a sampler platter of African game meats. Ostrich, kudu, crocodile and warthog. Absolutely delicious but I could not finish it nor could I eat the fries or veggies that came with it. Plus we had a free bottle of dry red South African wine. Amazing dinner. But we weren’t done yet – we shared a chocolate and white chocolate mousse for dessert. I’m not a big white chocolate eater, but this was the most amazing mousse!  Totally fabulous. The ostrich was ok, but I didn’t care for the peppercorn sauce on it. The kudu was good with a mushroom sauce on it. The crocodile was ok with gooseberry chutney on it. Now the warthog – it was my favorite!

Just as we were finishing up, we struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to us. Visiting from the UK, he lives near Newcastle and has been here almost a fortnight on holiday. Great conversation with him, even though we never even exchanged names.   So tired again and another early morning for another adventure!! Image

Day Eight –

Again, completely exhausted and we still have to go to dinner. And it’s raining again. I do not want to walk to dinner in the rain again. But there is no other option unless we order the “room service” from the Italian place again. And since it wasn’t that good…..

Today was ok. We took the trip out to the Cape of Good Hope. It was rainy, windy, stormy and very cold. There were a lot of animals on the cape – lots of baboons, elands, birds, ostrich and others.  It was great to see it and take photos, but the weather was absolutely miserable. It cleared a bit when we got to Boulder Beach and saw all the penguins and when we had lunch at the Seaforth Seafood restaurant in Simonstown.

But everything felt rushed, rushed, rushed. Andre (at Madikwe) really spoiled us by taking all the time we needed and completely explaining every single detail and stopping for all the small stuff.  But we had to rush because about half the people on this tour were only doing a half day and we had to squeeze all the good stuff into the first half of the day.

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…in Afrikkans…

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…in English…

I could have done without the second half of the day if I’d known it would be like that. Oh well.  The afternoon was spent at Kristenbosh Gardens here in Cape Town. They were beautiful and there were some nice views.   Hopefully the weather and the tour to the wine country will be better tomorrow. ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

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And dinner was pretty miserable on top of everything else today. We were going to go to Nelson’s Eye, as recommended by the concierge here, but it was pouring a cold rain like a monsoon again.

So, we opted to walk next door to DaVincis, the Italian place. Still got soaked and frozen, as it is cold, cold, cold!  We were put at the worst possible table in the entire restaurant. Right by the front door where every time someone came in, we were hit by a blast of cold air. This is the table where people who order take out sit to wait for their pizzas. I sat there with my gloves on for the first part of the meal.  MISERABLE!

Ordered salad and pasta, along with garlic bread. The waiter brought oil and vinegar for my French salad and when I opened the vinegar to sprinkle on my salad, there was no sprinkle spout on the bottle and about a quarter cup of vinegar poured out into my salad. I was still able to eat about half of it, but geeze. Really?  The “garlic bread” was not what I was expecting at all. It was more like a garlic pizza. It was good, but again, geeze. The pasta Alfredo was delicious, but by now I was just ready to come back to the room and get warmed up.

We leave and return to the room, and turn down service did not occur tonight. No hot water bottles in the bed, no bottles of water to drink. Fitting end of the day, given the way today has gone.  It snowed on Table Mountain today.

Day Nine –

And today dawns with more rain. And it snowed yesterday in the Winelands, where we are headed today. And there was bad flooding in the Wineland area. And it is cold and windy again. I mean, who comes to Cape Town, South Africa to rain every day, snow, flooding, wind, and cold?

Well at least today we will be inside more because we will be drinking wines. So we drive to the wine lands, only about 45 minutes away. The drive is beautiful, wild calla lilies growing along the side of the road.  We come across lots of farms, with cows and sheep dotting the hillsides.

We stop at the first small winery, Aruna. It was really nice, if a bit chilly inside. The wines were delicious and several cheeses were served. I wish I’d not had such a big breakfast, as it would have been nice to taste them. As it was, I did not even try one cheese. But the tasting room was gorgeous.

Then off to a little town that was full of artists. We stopped to wander around the art shops for a bit, only the skies opened up again the entire time we were in this picturesque little town. So, mostly I just wanted to get dry and warm again.

Then off to Moreson’s winery, where we tried sparkling wines.  This was fun!  Much smaller place and very informal, but quite a nice chap pouring for us and very knowledgeable about his products. Philippe, our guide for the day had purchased a freshly made loaf (on the estate) of olive bread to have with these wines.

Then off to the university town of Stellenbosch. It is gorgeous and pretty large. We stopped to wander around through the shops and have a light lunch. Jerry and I chose a little Italian place where he ordered a sandwich and I got calamari and hot chocolate. This community is Afrikaans and most people speak it. Our waiter started out speaking it to us, but quickly changed to English when we explained we were Americans. Food was delicious – as it always is here in SA. The South Africans take their food very seriously.  Portions are huge, bugger than American portions.  It’s always served very hot and fresh.   You may wait a tiny bit longer, if they are busy, but I think that is because nothing is prepared in advance.

We started to walk around the town a little because the rain had let up a bit, but then, boom!  Down it poured again.

So we drove to another winery nearby and the afternoon was spent at a very large, very beautiful and very commercialized winery owned by the golfer, Ernie Els. (Yeah – I didn’t know who he was, either)  The wines there were not even as good as the smaller wineries, but it was very pleasant and comfortable and WARM!  We tried 8 or 10 wines or so. The flagship wine, the Bordeaux was the best.  Very nice afternoon, considering the weather.

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Bottles of bubbly!

Driving back into Cape Town, we saw a lot of the “townships” where the illegal shanty houses have been built. Interesting about those.  Wikipedia defines the South African township as – “In South Africa, the term township and location usually refers to the urban living areas that, from the late 19th century until the end of Apartheid, were reserved for non-whites. Townships were usually built on the periphery of towns and cities.”  You will see these shanties with satellite dishes for television all over the place.  People live here until they can afford to rent or buy their own place.  It’s very interesting to learn how the South Africans “classify” themselves.  You have the whites, the coloreds, – which is NOT a derogatory term here – it means people that are not black and not white, such as people of mixed race and people that may have middle eastern backgrounds, the Asians (which many call “chinese”) and the blacks.

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shantytown

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For dinner tonight we made it to Nelson’s Eye.  Great steaks – Jerry had a T-bone and it was wonderful.  However, I simply could not resist and I got the calamari one last time. Fabulous!  A bottle of wine, a garlic roll, and cherries flambé and crème brûlée to finish up our “last supper” here in Cape Town. Took a taxi back to More Quarters since it was almost eleven when we finished dinner. Practically fell into bed again. (We need a vacation from the vacation!).

Day Ten –

Slept in this morning and awoke to the sound of rain again. Sigh. It had stormed all night again.  Went down to breakfast and had just about finished when in walk Anka and Adrian, her nephew. We’d done our first safari drive with them at Madikwe before they moved to a different lodge. Small world!  We greeted each other as long-lost friends. I wonder if we will run into them again next year in Italy?  LOL!

Late check out here, so we are packing and just chilling a bit before we have to leave at 13:30.   Snow on Table Mountain again yesterday…….  Driver picked us up at 13:30 or so and off to the Cape Town airport.  Flew in to stinky Johannesburg’s airport (seriously, it smells like sewage in that place) and on to Atlanta.  One long trip.  Almost 23 hours to get home to Atlanta.

What an experience!  I absolutely love the proud, South African people.  They are so nice and friendly.  Never once did I feel unsafe.  Johannesburg gets a really bad rap with the press, but if I am ever lucky enough to visit again, I will take an extra night in Johannesburg and take a city tour during the free day to learn more about this historical city.  The people that work in the bush are passionate and amazing.  They all seem so incredibly knowledgeable about the animals and they really, really care about the animals and they care that you care about the animals.  It’s amazing.  And in Cape Town – well, it’s such a vibrant, hip city.  I would love to return during the spring or fall or even summer just to see everything again in good weather.

I would do it again tomorrow, given the chance.  South Africa is a wonderful place!

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