Most people will tell you that their favorite part of Ireland was Dublin, maybe Galway, or maybe even the Ring of Kerry (my mom liked the Dingle peninsula). All are wonderful in their own right but for me, Sligo by far and away had the best blend of ‘authentic’ Ireland. The areas of Ireland that all of the tourists go have, in fairness, become that way with good reason. Some are popular with tourists because of the pubs, others for castles, or maybe even the scenery. County Sligo has all of that, but it truly lacks the large groups of tourists like many other parts of Ireland have. I have nothing against tourists and I call myself one, but when you can visit beautiful places without the crowds, it makes for a more authentic experience.
The area is known as Yeats country for the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who made the area famous with poems like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘Under Ben Bulben’. Admittedly, I am not much into poetry but rather the scenery that inspires it, and there is plenty of inspirational scenery in County Sligo.
The primary landmark around the area is the large rock formation of Benbulben. It looks similar to what a mesa looks like in the southwestern United States, only larger and greener than what you would find there. Sheep graze its flanks with their colorful markings to distinguish one owners sheep from another’s like cattle of the western United States are branded for the same reason. Below the flanks of Benbulben are Tolkien-like forests that wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire. You can hike to the summit of Ben Bulben, but instead I chose to walk in the forests at its flank. Here the land was flat and the views of the mountain were stunning.
Another popular spot is known as Knocknarea, a hill that is topped with a very large rock cairn believed to be the Irish legend Queen Maeve’s grave. I started my hike in good weather and I was able to see the views of the bays of Ballysadare and Sligo, with the Irish Sea in the distance, before the Irish weather moved in. On the way up, more sheep with their colorful markings were seen on the slopes of the hill and even up on the rock cairn at the top. When I reached the top, an Irishman asked me if I had seen any sign of the Queen, with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
A drive around the beautiful Lough Gill will give you a glimpse of what inspired Yeats to write ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The lake is lined with beautiful hardwood trees, castles, homes and parklands. The lake is large but the one hour drive around its shores is well worth it.
Sligo is also well known for its beaches with Strandhill and Streedagh being among the most scenic you’ll see anywhere. Sligo’s beaches are easily accessible and a walk in the cool sand and fresh air is a great way to take in some of the scenery.
Lastly, Sligo is both a county and a big small town that has all of the conveniences of any proper destination. There are banks, grocery stores, cafes, spas, and even a professional football (soccer) team, the Sligo Rovers. So if you’re looking to get a little off of the tourist route but still want an authentic Irish experience, then head to Yeats Country in County Sligo and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for more information about the hikes/walks in the area, Sligo Walks is an outstanding resource (https://sligowalks.ie).
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the closest national park to my home in Colorado and I consider it my base park. It takes me about an hour to get there and I’ve been there enough to know how different the seasons are in both RMNP as well as in its gateway city, Estes Park. The seasons here are wildly different – from the extreme temperature swings to the number of visitors. Here is my take on what each of the four seasons is like:
Estes Park – In the summer, Estes Park is completely overrun with tourists. Despite this, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting. The weather is nearly perfect and is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the cities below on the plains, like Denver or Boulder. If you’re really looking for a cool down, you can cool off even more if you head high up into Rocky Mountian National Park. The town itself is a typical tourist town but with a mountain/western twist. There are the obligatory t-shirt, salt water taffy, chocolate, and ice cream shops that you would see in almost any national park gateway town. What makes Estes unique is the surrounding scenery, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps, with its huge snow-capped mountains and valleys. What is lacking though, in a good way, are flashy resorts as in other Colorado mountain towns like Vail or Aspen. Here, there are mostly small motels and cabins along with the place that Stephen King made famous, the Stanley Hotel.
RMNP – The throngs of tourists are here too, unfortunately. However, all you need to do is to start a hike on almost any trail and you can lose 90% of them after only a mile or so from the trailhead. Hiking in summertime at these elevations means being prepared by starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If you don’t consider yourself a hiker, consider a drive up Trail Ridge Road, a journey which can yield a somewhat unique activity, a summertime snowball fight or building a snowman. The highest point in the pass is 12,183 feet (over two miles high) and that leaves enough snow year round for winter games, even in mid summer. The wildlife also move up to higher elevations in summertime, seeking greener pastures. Up at these higher altitudes, you might see large herds of elk and bighorn sheep in the alpine tundra, way above the height where trees grow.
Estes Park – Surprisingly, Estes park can still be quite busy during the fall. Some might think it has to do with fall colors but the area around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park really doesn’t have an abundance of aspen trees. For most people, the primary reason they come up here in the fall is to hear and see elk during the ‘rut’ which is the mating season. And why would you want to hear bugling elk during the mating season? The reason is that their mating calls sound like a sort of ancient call that can be heard from far off. It is a difficult sound to explain and do it justice, but is a truly a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience to see and hear, and something that simply must be heard in person. This is the main reason people flock to Estes Park in the fall, the elk literally bugle as they’re walking on the golf course, through parking lots right in town, as well as on the grounds of the Stanley Hotel.
RMNP – As with in Estes Park, the reason to head into the national park at this time of year is to see and hear the elk. Although being bumper to bumper with like minded people might not seem like something you want to do, you can still go into the park and hike into the woods where you might find yourself all alone on the trail in the middle of a large herd of bugling Rocky Mountain Elk. Last October, my wife and I went on a hike, away from the main areas of the park, and started to hear bugling in the distance and were soon surrounded by around 100 elk on both sides of the trail without another human anywhere near us. The park brochure cautions you against approaching wildlife, so by all means keep your distance. But if you happen upon a large herd while hiking the trails, excercise extreme caution and keep a safe distance. I usually like to have a big tree nearby just in case. The bulls are extremely aggressive during this time of year and they are big, averaging around 700 lbs, and strong enough to inflict great bodily harm if they decide you’re too close.
Estes Park – If you’re looking to experience a tourist town without the tourists, this is the time of year to come to Estes Park! You will not have to fight for a table at your favorite restaurant, there will be no bumper to bumper traffic, there’s plenty of parking, and you can have the place virtually all to yourself. Unlike other Colorado mountain towns that usually see a massive influx of people in the winter, Estes doesn’t have a ski resort (although it once did) to anchor its winter economy. Because of this, Estes sees a very dramatic drop in visitation in the winter. As an added bonus, a stay at the Stanley Hotel in winter can give just a sliver of what inspired Stephen King to write ‘The Shining’.
RMNP – The park is at its best, in terms of scenic beauty in the dead of winter. The mountains are usually covered with snow, sometimes approaching 10 feet. Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and wildlife viewing (although seeing animals inside the park during winter is less likely). Some areas, such as around Bear Lake, are still crowded but it can be much easier to find areas of the park where you’ll need your snowshoes to walk through the snow. It is simply one of the most beautiful winter scenes in all of Colorado.
Estes Park – This town still doesn’t really get going again until late spring. In most places, spring begins a steady warmup towards summertime but at this altitude and being in Colorado, Estes Park typically experiences its snowiest months of the year in the spring. Traditionally, February, March, and April are Colorado’s months for heavy snow and blizzards. Eventually however, the snows slowly give way to longer and warmer days and the area begins to thaw and creak to life.
RMNP – Spring in the park is the beginning of the big melt. The east and west sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road, but due to heavy winter snow, the road is impassable until the weather warms and crews can begin plowing the road. When the road finally opens, it becomes symbolic of winter’s deep freeze losing it’s grip on the park. The animals get to moving again and the large numbers of people begin to make their way back to the park that had been tranquil for several months.
In any season, the area is unique and beautiful. During the cold winter months, it is quiet and peaceful. In the warmer months, it is energetic and bustling but no matter what season, it is worth a visit and will not disappoint.
I have been to the Oregon Coast a few times now and I’m always drawn to Nehalem Bay State Park near Manzanita. It is just one of the places I feel that has it all and is one of only a few places in the world where I don’t get antsy to go somewhere else. I admit that I like to stay active and have a hard time relaxing, I can do both here.
The park has a large campground that has sites for tents as well as big RV’s. It is clean and well organized, without feeling cramped or over-crowded. The park is set on a narrow four mile long sand spit with the Pacific Ocean on one side and Nehalem Bay on the other. Its location gives you easy access to a beautiful stretch of sand beach on one side, with the relative calm of the bay on the other. The small town of Manzanita is just a mile or so away with a grocery store and several restaurants.
On the ocean side there is a long beautiful stretch of Pacific beach that you can have mostly to yourself, especially if you walk south along the water from the campground. Unlike Cannon Beach to the north, there are no beautiful offshore rocks to see but the upside is that it keeps the crowds away. Unfortunately, the Pacific can be heard but not quite seen from the campground, but a short walk over some sand dunes leads directly to the water. The beach is one of the cleanest anywhere that I have seen. Be sure to take a camera when you head down for a sunset, and if you’re lucky maybe you can see one as good as we did.
The bay side is a completely different vibe altogether. The water is much calmer and has many outdoor activities such as kayaking, fishing, crabbing, and boating. We were able to do three of the four and had a blast. While kayaking in the bay we found a few areas with winding, river-like passageways that are more reminiscent of the bayou (sans alligators) than coastal Oregon. There was also some of the straightforward paddling that you would normally find in a flat and calm bay like this one.
If you like crabbing but don’t have a boat, nearby is Kelly’s Brighton Marina where you can rent a boat with baited crab traps for a two hour adventure of setting traps, catching Dungeness crabs, and boating around the calm waters of the bay. We only caught one crab of legal size but it was the crabbing experience itself that made it worth it. Earlier in the day, when we went out kayaking, we met a couple from Portland who were going to try crabbing from their kayaks, something that would be extremely challenging but immensely rewarding. We caught up with them later in the day and they had caught a crab just as big as the one we had caught in two hours of crabbing with three traps and two people to haul them in with. They were very proud of their catch…and should be!
And last but not least, I love picking blackberries here, anywhere for that matter but especially here. As with most parts of the Pacific Northwest, they can be found here at Nehalem Bay State Park. Blackberries straight off the vine taste better than any store bought varieties that I have ever tasted, and that includes organic berries from places like Whole Foods. The problem with picking blackberries, (if you’ve ever picked them you know what I’m about to say) is that the plant will bite back and often draw blood. The bush has thorns that grab you and get hooked right into your skin and/or your clothes, but the taste of fresh Oregon blackberries is worth the bloodshed.
So if you are only looking to get wowed by spectacular scenery this isn’t the place, go to Cannon Beach for that. If you want to get close to nature in a relaxing setting, Nehalem Bay State Park is the place for you. It is definitely the place for me!
LThe land that was once considered one the most polluted places on earth has now been cleaned up (we hope) and is now open to limited recreation, known now as Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. And guess what? You can hike there…for free!
Admittedly, this hike does have a bit of an odd feel to it knowing that nuclear triggers were made here. However, it did not have the ‘eerie’ feel that the area around Los Alamos has (the place recognized as the birthplace of the atomic bomb) which has a strong government town atmosphere and feels as though it holds many secrets. Rocky Flats is more out in the open, kind of in your face, whereas Los Alamos is hidden behind trees and rocks. At the Flats, the Department of Energy still has a presence at the refuge monitoring the site. I noticed there are still large mountains of dirt being moved around by heavy machinery creating dust that gets carried in whatever direction the wind blows. Let’s hope that this dust is nothing more than common everyday dust.
If nothing else, the refuge provides the area with some new trails to try out and is considerably different than any other hike that you can do near Boulder. There is a reason why the area is called Rocky Flats as it is the flattest hike I have done in Colorado.
The view of the Flatirons in Boulder is very good from here but I found myself looking at them wishing I had chosen to be in the scenery instead of viewing it from a distance.
A few notes about the hike:
The park service allows hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians on its 11 miles of trails.
The path is mostly gravel and dirt suitable for mountain bikes but probably not road bikes.
The main entrance is just off of Colorado state highway 128 and has free parking for about 10-12 vehicles. There are really no services at the trailhead but there is a portable toilet. There was also no fee to enter the refuge, that I could see.
The trail is very exposed, with only a few trees, and virtually no shade.
I saw little to no wildlife during my hike, a common sparrow being the only fauna I noticed. However, I was hiking in late morning, not the best time to view animals. The park brochure mentions deer, elk, prairie dogs, coyotes, jackrabbits and porcupines as animals that you might see.
In summary, this is a place of contrasts where you have abandoned ranches next to modern wind generators, protecting wildlife in a place that once made nuclear weapons, and maybe the least important was the hike itself which was a flat prairie hike in full view of the beautiful foothills around Boulder. The hike is one that I would most likely not do again but in fairness, I haven’t seen the whole 11 miles of trails within the refuge. If you like flat, treeless hikes with great views of the mountains, this is the place for you. It just wasn’t for me.
For the record, I don’t believe in folklore legends like the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, or the Headless Horseman, but when I decided to hike a section of the Oregon Coast Trail this summer, I did not expect anything other than some sea mist and tall trees. What I actually came across that day was something that may have challenged those beliefs.
I have watched all of the same documentaries that you have about the legend of the Pacific Northwest, Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot). As a child, these documentaries terrified me and gave me no desire to ever go into the woods of Washington and Oregon. Seeing the grainy video of Bigfoot walking through a clearing in the trees was enough to give me nightmares.
The section of the Oregon Coast Trail I decided to hike (alone I might add) was in Oswald West State Park, near the town of Manzanita, about a two hour drive from Portland. I was planning an out and back and decided I would turn around when I got tired. So I did an about face and headed back towards the trailhead after two uneventful miles, due to a cold wind and tired legs. As I was descending the overgrown and narrow trail, I heard noises ahead of me that I have never heard before in the forest. Granted, I was in a different part of the country and there are always unique and unfamiliar sounds in the wilds of a different region, but what I heard was what sounded like a baseball bat striking wood, but this didn’t overly concern me. My initial reaction was that there was a black bear ahead of me turning over logs looking for food and/or crashing through the brush, but the sounds didn’t quite match what I could rationalize as being a bear. As I approached the section of the trail where the sounds were at their most intense, I stopped to see if I could see anything moving in the thick underbrush, at this point still expecting a black bear. I saw only thick green vegetation. After only a few seconds, I heard what sounded like three or four objects being dropped from the trees in different spots. This too did not make sense to me since I could imagine maybe a single pine cone falling from the trees but not three or four in rapid succession. I was very confused about what might be making these sounds. Maybe squirrels were dropping little pine cone bombs onto a bear below them to scare it off? This seemed plausible but not likely.
What happened next was one of a few times in my life that I have literally felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As I continued looking into the dense forest, an object that looked like a rock came flying out of the thicket and landed about 20 yards away from me. This had an effect on me which I have never had on a hike in my lifetime, it was such a disturbing feeling I couldn’t get to the trailhead and my car quick enough. I hauled ass out of there and made it to my car without further incident and didn’t hear or see anything else, but was still rattled by what transpired.
So what was it? Maybe it was a bear (but bears don’t throw rocks.) Squirrels can drop things on unsuspecting life on the ground below them but the object that came towards me didn’t fall from a tree. In Colorado, where I live, a mountain biker was killed last year while he biked on a trail near Colorado Springs and the person responsible has not been caught. At the time of this writing, a college student is missing on the same mountain and I hope his disappearance is not related and that he returns safely. It makes me think though that there may be someone that doesn’t want people in the area. So maybe there was someone up there who is trying to scare off hikers because they are getting too close their property, or they don’t like the hikers passing through. Maybe it was someone just having a little fun at my expense? I had just passed two hikers, the only two I saw on the entire hike.
I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the ferry in Port Angeles, Washington for the 90 minute ride through the strait of Juan de Fuca heading for Victoria, British Columbia. My wife and I were planning a day of bike riding through British Columbia’s capital city but we were going at this without much of a plan. Normally, I like to plan things to a meticulous degree but this time the plans were essentially out the door.
I had read a little bit about Victoria online and I wasn’t really sure if there was enough to do there to make a full day trip out of it. My parents had gone here before and said they wouldn’t go back and actually declined our invitation to join us. At a minimum, we thought maybe the bike ride would be nice as there seemed to be several decent bike paths throughout the city. So we decided to give it a try, booked the ferry fare, grabbed the bikes and went across the strait to see what happens.
As a starting point, Port Angles is not the most scenic way to begin the journey but it felt safe and there were lots of families around getting ready for the ferry. The trip across took about 90 minutes and wasn’t particularly interesting until the final approach to the inner harbor of Victoria. As you approach the city, there is a lot to see, all at once. There are really cool (tiny) water taxis taking people from one part of the harbor to another, seaplanes are taking off and landing in the middle of the bustling harbor center, kayaks and paddle boards are all over the place, and all of this could be seen before the ferry even docked. Reasons to be encouraged? Yes!
Once we landed, bagpipes could be heard along the waterfront while totem poles and stately buildings could be seen on all sides. Although the area was busy, it definitely had a relaxed vibe that you don’t get in some of the larger cities and I felt comfortable here straight away. After a quick stop at the Visitor Information Center to get our bearings straight, we headed across the bridge to the Galloping Goose Trail and followed it for a couple of hours before turning back to the city. The trail system here is well maintained and there were many offshoot trails that could be taken in most any direction. Tempting yes, but we only had a short stay and had the city center to explore still.
Next up for us, and it’s this way when I travel anywhere, is to sample a local brewery or two. First up and very near to the bike trail was the Canoe Brewery and Restaurant which had a great patio that overlooked the water and was a perfect spot to have a drink after being out on the trail (I had the Helles). While siting on the patio, seaplanes fly overhead, making this one of the more unique places to sit and have a beer that I’ve been to. After that was a short half mile pedal to Vancouver Island Brewing which is a little off of the main tourist route (but not by much) and was worth the extra time and effort. The brewery sits just outside of Chinatown which is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and was also worth the visit. There was a greater selection of beers here and a flight was only $5, which made trying four different styles the way to go. I recommend the Twisted Stalk Blackberry Helles but all four of the beers we tried were very good.
Short on time, we made a quick detour into Chinatown to have a look at Victoria’s Chinatown and the world famous Fan Tan Alley. I love strolling through city alleys (at least the safe ones) and this was one of the best ones I’ve seen. It was impossibly narrow and barely fit the bike down the narrow lane. Even still, biking was definitely the way to get around the city.
After Chinatown, it was back to the ferry for our late afternoon departure and we were regretting our decision to not spend more time here and we didn’t even visit the number one attraction in bike pathsVictoria, Butchart Gardens. I am not in a position to say how much time you need to explore this beautiful city but I can tell you that one afternoon was definitely not enough. At least a couple of days next time!
I sat in a helicopter with no doors, buckled tightly and quite nervous, looking at flowing and glowing lava for the first time in my life. We were still over 3,000 above the lava flows that were both beautiful and very destructive. There were fountains and rivers of molten rock making a path to ocean and taking out homes, and anything else in its path, along the way.
This would be my second time in Hawaii, with the first visit having missed the goal entirely of seeing red hot liquid magma, while the second trip took a helicopter ride on my last day to finally see it. There were many attempts prior to the helicopter ride, all ending up in failure, but failure in this case was definitely a wild ride.
Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to visit the Big Island of Hawaii. I can remember photos of exotic looking black sand beaches, tropical fish, and active volcanoes. But for me, seeing lava flowing from an active volcano was definitely the number one draw. I wanted to see lava, actual lava, spewing from the Kilauea Volcano, just like I had seen in pictures and videos. Kilauea volcano has been erupting essentially nonstop since 1983 (since I was in junior high school) and getting to see a live lava flow with your own eyes is pretty much a slam dunk, at least that’s what I thought. So with family, I was fortunate to get to visit the island of my dreams for the first time and try to check off a couple of other bucket list items while we were there.
At least there aren’t any ‘real’ hazards to worry about!
We arrived in Hawaii and made plans to see the sights, including Kilauea, which is mostly located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Inside the park, there is evidence of volcanic activity everywhere with steam rising from the ground in many places along the rim and a large amount coming out the Halemaumau Crater, the main and largest crater in the park. However, there were no rivers of lava anywhere that we could see from inside of the park so we waited until it got dark to look at the crater at night and could see the orange reflection of lava in the clouds of steam. This was still pretty cool but not the rivers and fountains of lava I dreamed about as a kid, and it certainly wasn’t seeing lava directly with my own eyes. Reflections don’t count!
We decided to come back to the park later in the trip and hike into the crater of Kilauea Iki (Little Kilauea). The hike is a four mile loop hike that starts in a rainforest at the rim of the crater, descending onto the barren crater floor. The hike starts at the Volcano House in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with a restaurant and gift shop on the rim. As you step out of the Volcano House and into the rainforest, you’ll be in perhaps the closest example of a ‘perfect’ rainforest you can imagine, almost like what you think of when you imagine what the Amazon rainforest would look like. The greens are greener, the foliage is denser, and all of this is as you descend into a volcanic crater where the terrain couldn’t be more different.
The crater floor is paved with thick black hardened lava that resembles a highway that has suffered massive earthquake trauma, minus the painted lanes and auto traffic. As you walk along the valley floor, steam shoots out of small cracks in the rocks and is a subtle reminder that you are very close to the core of an active volcano. Kilauea Iki however, is not the place for active flows, it’s just a great place to hike in a crater that once had a massive fountain of lava pouring from it way back in 1959. As an added bonus, there is an excellent lava tube, the Thurston Lava tube, just a short distance from the main trail. It’s well worth the extra half a mile or so that gets added onto the total hike and it is one of the most visited sites inside of Volcanoes National Park and all of the Big Island. This hike had evidence or lava everywhere, it just didn’t have the hot flowing kind. So we left Hawaii this time without seeing lava but otherwise the Big Island was, and is, an amazing place to spend a couple of weeks. We would return two years later to a very different volcano.
This time the volcano was going nuts. You’ve all heard how devastating the Kilauea Volcano has been from news outlets this year with so many people losing their homes to the lava flow. I have so desperately wanted to see this rare phenomenon but not in this way, while people are losing their homes. So I was conflicted but ultimately felt like I was not disrespecting anyone by simply wanting to witness it myself.
We set out from Kona one day for the long drive out to the Puna district in search of lava with hopes of seeing it in an area where homes weren’t being immediately threatened. We made our way to Pahoa where the first signs of the volcano could be seen. The first hint that anything at all was happening was the discolored smoke that was rising from the area just south of town and it was in the town where there was a command center set up for coordinating rescue efforts. This was truly the first time I felt like trying to see the lava was something more than just a cool thing to see, it was truly an active situation affecting the lives of people in a real community.
The roads leading in and out of the active lava flow area were either closed or only open to local traffic and were guarded by local police along with the Hawaii National Guard. We drove to a couple of these roads and were turned around by the blockaded intersections. I was beginning to get discouraged but found one back road on a map that looked promising and might yet yield an opportunity to see the lava flow from close up. It was a very small road that followed the shore line and it showed that it would eventually lead an area that would get us very close to the flow. As we rounded the last turn in the road before getting to this spot, there was another blockade with the National Guard controlling access to the area. This was a devastating blow to my hopes but the soldier pointed us down the highway back towards Pahoa, and according to my maps, would lead us right past the open fissures. As we drove along this road, there was a slight ridge between us and the lava flows and it was just enough to prevent a sighting. That was it! No lava for me! Only I could manage to not get to see lava when a volcano is in full eruption mode. Perhaps it was all for a reason that I didn’t get to see lava that day.
So after a lifelong desire to finally witness this incredible natural event, it was, admittedly not exactly under the circumstances I had hoped for. I feel fortunate to have seen the incredible power and beauty of Kilauea and I hope the families that have been displaced can rebuild their homes and their lives. I did achieve a bucket list goal and it was incredible. Now I have added a more specific bucket list goal: to see lava while standing on the ground, close enough to feel the heat. Maybe to a place where the flows are not threatening homes or lives? Maybe a trip to Vanuatu?
With well known destinations like the Outer Banks, the Great Smoky Moutains, and Asheville, most people don’t normally choose to visit Durham when deciding where they want to go in North Carolina. My wife and I chose Durham so we could knock something off of her bucket list: a Duke University Men’s Basketball game. We were spending three days in and around Durham with the game being the highlight of the trip. So without knowing much about the area, we set out to make a weekend of it.
Day One – The Search for the best BBQ and Beer
Quite literally, our first stop after getting our rental car was to find a great local Carolina BBQ restaurant. I’m very drawn to the small ‘mom and pop’ type of place and always check to see how it rates on popular crowd sourcing sites before committing to having a meal there. So after a little research, Backyard BBQ in Durham was the obvious choice. It’s located in a benign strip mall, but don’t let that fool you, the food is outstanding, the service is friendly (especially for first timers like us), and the prices were low (around $10 for a meal). The meal came with something I’ve never had – hush puppies, which are basically deep fried balls of cornmeal. Every culture seems to have a deep fried equivalent like sopapillas, funnel cakes, zeppolis, or beignets. All taste great but beignets from New Orleans are still probably my personal favorite.
After filling up on Southern BBQ, we headed out to see some of the small towns south of Durham (I’m not much of a city guy). So we followed a tip from from the person working the tourist desk at the Raleigh-Durham airport and headed out to Apex, Pittsboro, and Chapel Hill (I know…Chapel Hill isn’t exactly a small town and is decidedly anti-Duke). Apex is really just one block of shops on Salem Street and didn’t quite live up to the charm we expected. That being said, it was still a nice walk and it was really what we needed after eating too much for lunch so after a quick spin around the block, we decided to drive down the road to Pittsboro. Although it wasn’t significantly different than Apex, it had just a bit more charm and appeal. While there, we visited artists and craftsmen at the Joyful Jewel which is a shared space for locals to display and sell their work. While browsing we ran into a local soapmaker whose soaps looked more like art than a way to stay clean. Not far from the main shops along Hillsboro Street is the Chatham County Courthouse. It’s a beautiful building which was first constructed in 1881 and sits in the middle of a large, and busy roundabout. You can’t miss seeing it and we decided that it looked worthy of taking a closer look. As soon as we entered the building, we were immediately greeted warmly and excitedly by someone from the Chatham County Historical Society and she immediately took us on a tour of this most Southern of courthouses. She was full of great facts and stories not just about Pittsboro, but of the entire area. And those who have never been, Pittsboro also has one of the greatest ‘landmarks’ of the Southern United States, a Piggly Wiggly supermarket! Although not much more than a standard supermarket, it is a must stop just so you can take a quick selfie by the sign and say you were at a place with such a famous, funny, and interesting name. The last stop on our small town tour of day one was Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill is not a small town but it does have a great college town vibe, even for those who consider themselves Duke University basketball fans. The mission in Chapel Hill though had nothing to do with college rivalries, but instead was more of a beer quest. The place to be in Chapel Hill is Franklin Street and it is there that we found the Carolina Brewery. It had a really nice atmosphere and it was a good place to grab a beer and appetizers. Day one done!
Day Two – Duke University and the Bucket List
This day is all about Duke Basketball and the Cameron Crazies. We arrived early so we could walk the campus a bit and explore the Duke University campus, which has to be one of the most beautiful campuses in the country to stroll through. The centerpiece of the campus surely has to be the Duke Chapel, a gothic style cathedral which is stunning both inside as well as out. The campus is very walkable and we were able to get to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke plays, in just a few minutes. The “stadium” feels nothing more than a large high school gym, but it’s so much more than that. The student section is truly one of the most unique and entertaining spectacles in all of sports. The students are called Cameron Crazies and they chant, dance, cheer, jeer and just have a great time being college kids. They have a lot to cheer and be happy for, as their basketball team is perennially among the top programs in the nation. My wife has always been a Duke fan and I was a little slower to hop on the bandwagon but after seeing so many games on television with her and seeing how crazy the students were, I gradually became convinced that this was the college basketball team for me too, and I actually really don’t even consider myself a basketball fan! It was truly an incredible experience even if you just watch the students!
Day Three – Hiking and More Small Towns
My day started with a cold morning hike in Eno River State Park and some much needed exercise. Although the hike wasn’t particularly scenic or difficult it always feels great to get outside and get some fresh air and see some new terrain. After the hike, it was time to see a couple more small towns before going to the airport and heading home. Our first stop was the small town of Hillsborough and more BBQ, this time at the appropriately named Hillsborough BBQ Company. I had the brisket, which was fantastic and more hushpuppies, now that I knew what they were. After Hillborough, it was on to Saxapahaw, which has to be one of the most fun names in the world to say…Saxapahaw. Aside from saying the name of the town, we liked it for the Haw River Ballroom which used to be the dye house in the cotton mill and is now a happening concert venue.
Durham, for us, was almost exclusively a trip centered around the bucket list item of seeing a Duke Basketball game at home. The days on either side of the game were mostly spent visiting small towns and trying southern cooking. I would someday like to return during the summer to see what it’s like when the weather is warm and there are leaves on the trees. Having visited in the heart of winter, I felt like there wasn’t much to do for the active traveler. For a great place to stay, try the Arrowhead Inn Bed and Breakfast, a massive and beautifully maintained home that was once an 1800’s plantation. A large stone arrowhead sits on the corner of the property, marking the location of the old Indian Trading Path. It was in a nice quiet part of town, had great hospitality, and the food was excellent.
Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) is not the place most people think about when they think about traveling to the Caribbean, but not because it isn’t the idyllic tropical island of most people’s dreams. TCI are located just north of the island of Hispaniola and south of the Bahamas. These islands were really just only recently discovered by travelers and the infrastructure to develop tourism is just now gaining some momentum. But if you’re looking for crystal clear blue water, and by that I mean the clearest and warmest blue water around, this is the place for you!
My visit to Turks and Caicos was to the most developed island in the group, Providenciales. It is known locally as ‘Provo’ and is served by an international airport but not by cruise ships. Not having a deep water port for the ships means less people and to me, this is a very good thing. Provo has what has been voted as one of the best beaches in the world, Grace Bay Beach. The beach is largely uninterrupted for around seven miles and has hotel properties and beach villas all along its shores. I stayed on the eastern side of the island in an area called ‘Leeward’ and was happy being there due to the fact that is was away from the hotels and was much quieter than the main part of Grace Bay. Although Grace Bay is quite beautiful, to me it was a little overrated. Beautiful beaches and clear blue water can be found all over these islands and to me, these other beaches had a lot to offer, with a more natural vibe than Grace Bay. Here is a small sample of some of the other places we visited that might be a little lesser known, but were well worth exploring:
Chalk Sound National Park
If I had to pick what I thought was the most beautiful spot on Provo, I would surely pick Chalk Sound. The water here is the most outrageous turquoise blue I have ever seen anywhere in the world. There isn’t much of a proper beach, that I could find, so we rented kayaks to explore the bay. Rent them at Las Brisas Restaurant (sounds weird to rent kayaks at a restaurant but it was just fine) and paddle into the blue. It’s also a great apres kayak place to recharge.
Middle and North Caicos
Provo is a developed island with tourist infrastructure, five star dining, and decent roads. The islands of North and Middle Caicos are absolutely none of that. Tourism is virtually nonexistent, finding an actual restaurant was purely accidental (found a good one though in Mudjin Harbour), and the roads weren’t so good and poorly marked. It was awesome! Have you ever seen flamingos in their natural state? Ever been to a real live bat cave? Tropical beaches without people, any people? Take a day trip from Provo and enjoy some time away from the crowds.
Barrier Reef Snorkeling
From shore, there isn’t a tremendous amount of sea life to see, at least from what I experienced. This is why a snorkeling trip out to the barrier reef is the more desirable option. Big Blue Unlimited offers a package deal where you snorkel the reef, walk with the iguanas of Iguana Island, and visit the pristine and deserted beaches around Fort George Cay. The guides are top rate and the snorkeling was pretty good, although not as good as some other places I’ve been (like Hawaii). During the reef trip, we saw barracuda, parrotfish, and even squid. Iguana Island was worth the stop but for me the highlight was the boat ride out to Fort George Cay. Sitting on the bow of a fast moving boat over crystal clear blue water was something I could do every day of my life and never tire of it. The boat seemed to fly over the water and couldn’t have been smoother. To top it off, the boat stopped at a deserted beach where we ate fresh fruit and brownies while listening to the other guests discuss such wide ranging topics like Argentinian politics, life in the islands, and traveling to Cuba.
Find Your Own Beach
I’d say the most relaxing beach we went to happened to be right by the place we rented. We could start and end our day by walking a couple of hundred yards to the water where we’d find only two or three people on the sand or in the water. We brought my wife’s stand up paddle board down with us and just splashed around, content to be relaxing at a beach we didn’t even know the name of.
Know Before You Go
You don’t need more than maybe five or six days. Any more than that and you may run out of things to do (which may be exactly what you’re looking for).
Be ready to fork out big bucks on food if you don’t stay at an all inclusive. These islands are among the most expensive in the whole of the Caribbean.
The islands felt mostly safe. There were a couple of areas that felt a little uncomfortable at night even though nothing ever happened to us. However, in the weeks after leaving the islands, two Americans had been shot in separate robberies. In hindsight, those ‘uncomfortable’ moments now seem a little unsettling.
The tourist bureau touts the Thursday Fish Fry as the big thing to do where locals and tourists mingle together to eat, drink, shop, and listen to island music. There is really no mingling between the locals and the tourists unless you consider buying something ‘mingling’. The food was the same food you can get anywhere on the island, the music was average at best, and the atmosphere was a little bit like that of a flea market.
Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park is one of those wonderful surprises you find in life when you least expect it. My wife and I visited the park sandwiched between a trip to perhaps more recognizable destinations Glacier National Park in Montana and Banff National Park in Alberta. To get to Waterton from Glacier, you either have to hike, which isn’t practical for most people, or you have a two hour drive with a border crossing. It is considerably longer to get to Waterton from the Banff/Calgary area, about four hours from the town of Banff. So most people never make it here and that’s too bad for them but it’s great for those who are looking for a less crowded park to experience.
So aside from being less crowded, why visit this hard to reach park? For one, the small townsite of Waterton Village has a great vibe. There is really only one main street, Wind Flower Avenue, in the town and it has a handful of restaurants to support the summer ‘crowds’. It has an an ice cream shop, the Mountain Top Yogurt Shop, that served a Saskatoon Berry Pie that I had not even heard of until visiting the area. Saskatoon berries are kind of a cross between blueberries and huckleberries and are very good! The town is a little bit touristy but not over the top like shall we say…Banff. There is also a nice walking path in town that follows the lakeshore and walking it on a summer evening, which in our case was 10:30 with still plenty of light left, is a good way to walk off that Saskatoon berry pie.
One of the more popular activities to do on the lake is to take a boat ride on the M.V. International from the town of Waterton to Goat Haunt on the American side of the lake. It is a great way to relax and see the sights of the lake. You get to see the USA-Canadian border from the boat and I must admit it seemed a little weird. It was almost like what you see in a Bugs Bunny cartoon where you can see the lines of the states when they’re in a plane getting ready to parachute out. Only here, the trees are removed from what looked to me to be about 30 yards wide worth of border to make a very clear, distinctMaybe there will be a wall there someday. 😉 When you get dropped off at the Goat Haunt ranger station, you’re now in Glacier National Park and the United States of America, making it one of the most unique border crossings either country. To make it even more memorable, I got pranked by the US Border Patrol. More about that in a future story.
If you’re lucky enough during the short summer nights, you may have a chance to see the northern lights. There are several factors at play in order to see them: for one, the night must be clear or clouds, second you really need a good vantage point, and finally, there needs to be solar activity. So while at Waterton, I had two of the three with only the solar part needed. So I did what any trained woodsman would do, I used an aurora borealis app on my phone. The app predicts, with great accuracy I would later find out, the appearance of the lights in the area you’re in. Technology like this is both amazing and a little bit sad but if you’ve got it, you may as well use it. The app was predicting a very active night for the aurora so I went down to the lake and waited for a what turned out to be a couple of hours. I watched as the predicted time for the northern lights to appear and within about five minutes of when it predicted the solar storm would start, I could see a green blob moving towards me from the northeast. At first I thought it was just light pollution from Calgary, to the north, but that seemed unlikely since this blob looked like it was moving. Even still with what was obviously a green blob of aurora borealis heading my way, I still couldn’t quite believe my eyes. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. It was incredible! The color that night wasn’t as bright as you see in some of the great photos but it was still green and danced across the sky at speeds that were mind boggling.
The following day, we decided to take a lake cruise onboard the M.V. International from Waterton Village to Goat Haunt on the American side of the lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. The ride takes about 45 minutes on what has to be one of the prettiest lakes in the Rockies. The boat stops at Goat Haunt for about 1/2 hour but you can hang around longer if you like and hike if you make arrangements with the tour company, and if you have your passport ready for what might be one of the most unique border crossings anywhere. We decided to stay and hike but going through a hike-in border crossing with real gun toting agents was definitely something that I’ve never done before.
So our accommodations on this trip were exclusively in our pop up camper and we enjoyed it immensely but for one night, we treated ourselves to a stay at the Prince of Wales Hotel, an incredibly beautiful hotel with one of the most amazing views a hotel could ever have. The hotel is situated on a hill of the town and lake looking south towards the United States. As we pulled into the parking lot, my wife spotted a black bear (her first) eating Saskatoon berries in the field. It was a great way to be introduced to this fine hotel. We watched and photographed the bear for about an hour before heading inside. While inside, we heard that someone got too close to the bear and it charged him. Anyway, the hotel has a sort of Scottish hunting lodge feel to it even including the hotel staff wearing kilts. It was a unique and enjoyable place to spend our last night at what turned out to be a great Canadian National Park.
I can tell you with a straight face that we enjoyed Waterton Lakes National Park even more than we did Banff National Park, and that is saying a lot.