Road Trip to Phoenix

I’m off on a month long adventure in the US and the Caribbean. This trip couldn’t have come at a better time as it started snowing in Calgary just as I was leaving. The first part of my trip was a road trip to Phoenix. I drove through some beautiful countryside and some very boring countryside. It is almost a straight shot down from Lethbridge, Alberta along the I-15 to Vegas and then head about 5 hours further Southeast along Highway 93 to Phoenix.  Once I crossed the border into the US I passed through Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and then finally entered into Arizona. If you ever do that drive, or just want to cross into Montana, I recommend timing your border crossing for early evening if you can, there was nobody there and I sailed through. Sadly going in the evening meant I missed some of the stunning Montana scenery but I did manage to see some of it in the morning.



For the first 2 days I drove through snow, rain, fog and a bit of sun once I got closer to Vegas. Fortunately the highway is pretty good and the snow didn’t accumulate. In spite of the weather I still managed to get a few nice pictures.


Salt Lake City is absolutely massive. It seemed like I drove for hours just to get through it. At least it is a large highway and when I was going through the traffic moved very well. If you ever need to drive through Salt Lake City, try and time it so you do not drive through during rush hour, it must be a nightmare!  I only caught a quick glimpse of the salt lake, surprising since it is huge, and I wasn’t quick enough to get my camera out, plus there is nowhere to stop on the 4+ lane highway.  Utah has some really beautiful spots, Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains and of course that big lake. I see why the Olympics were held here, it is lovely and the mountains are really close.



After all of that driving I figured I deserved a nice break in Vegas. I booked 2 nights at the Mirage on the strip, it has a great pool area and is fairly central. Unfortunately I hit the worst weather day, still way better than Calgary as it was a sunny 18 degrees, but not great for the pool (although I still made it for an hour or so one afternoon, couldn’t resist!). So instead I spent my time wandering along the strip and through the hotels, then played a little poker on the machines, had a pan chocolat from a bakery at the Paris, a delicious meal at the steak house in the Mirage and went to the Terry Fator show which was great.



After Vegas I drove past Lake Mead and through some lovely scenery in the desert, which was hard to see as it was getting dark but the sunset over the desert was lovely. Also stopped for a delicious In and Out burger, I wish we had them in Canada, they are so good! Overall a great road trip and glad to have officially escaped the snow and cold to sunny Phoenix which was 29 degrees today. I’m so happy to be in shorts and sandals again!!




Next stop is Orlando and Disney where I will meet up with my family, including my adorable nieces, for 9 days of being a kid again and riding every ride I can. Can’t wait!


Banff Weekend

My best friend from Toronto came to town last weekend and we headed straight to the mountains to spend a couple of nights in Banff. We had a lovely fall weekend with great weather. Banff is an easy day trip from Calgary and no matter how often I go it is still one of my favourite trips to do in Canada. It is a quintessential mountain town with amazing views from any part of the town and easy access to the Banff National Park, ski hills, hiking trails and Lake Louise.

Our first day was spent wandering the main street, having lunch at the Elk & Oarsman (great pub in Banff) and then we shopped. If you are in the market for ski equipment, hiking gear or just a warm winter jacket, Banff is a great place to find it. There are at least 10 shops with specialty outdoor equipment or clothing. Many of the other shops are other kinds of specialty shops, including the Christmas store, jewelry shops and the delicious candy, chocolate and fudge stores. The Roots store in Banff has many items unique to the Banff location, I always find better stuff here than in other Roots stores. It is also a great store for gifts or souvenirs, lots of nice Banff logoed items that are good quality.

There is so much to do in Banff. The hot springs are amazing, even though they are more like a pool now than the original Cave and Basin springs. I prefer them in the cold weather, it is great to sit outside in the hot water in a bathing suit with the snow falling.  Right beside the hot springs is the Sulphur Mountain gondola which takes people up to the summit. There is a restaurant and walkway at the top. The views from up there are amazing! It is a great place to spend some time wandering the walkway and then ending with a drink in the restaurant where there is a gorgeous view over the mountain range. The cost of the gondola is $35.95 per person and it is about an 8 minute trip each way up and down the mountain.


The Banff Springs hotel is worth a visit. It looks like a castle and is one of the Canadian Pacific hotels built along the railway. The original section of the hotel was started in 1887 and finished in 1888. If you can afford it, the hotel is a great place to stay and includes access to their own hot pools. If not, it is still worth a visit, the back patio has a beautiful view over the mountains and Bow River which can also be enjoyed from the Rundle Lounge inside the hotel where you can have a drink, dinner or high tea. The other restaurants in the hotel are also very good, especially for a nice dinner out.



Behind the Banff Springs is Bow Falls, stunning any time of year but particularly impressive in the spring as the water is high and rages over the falls. It is a popular spot for wedding photos and can be taken over by tour groups at times. It is a great stop for photos of the falls and the river with the mountains on either side.



In the winter there is of course skiing, both downhill at Norquay, Sunshine or Lake Louise, and cross country. There is also snow-shoeing around Banff and area, Lake Louise has a nice trail for both snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing. Another fun winter activity is dog-sledding, the dogs are amazing and really could anything be more of a stereotype of Canada?

On this trip we ended up on a tour of Banff and Lake Louise (we were supposed to go horseback riding but the hotel unfortunately put us on a bus tour of Banff instead, which we didn’t find out until we were on the tour! It was a bit of a shock.). I have never done a tour of the area before, since I live so close and go there regularly I never saw the need. The tour ended up being great, our guide was fantastic and I did see one place I had never been before, the hoodoos in Banff National park which are just above the Bow River.


We stopped at the main sights in Banff (the Banff Springs, Bow Falls, lookout over the Bow River and the hoodoos) and then drove to Lake Louise. It is definitely worth the trip. No matter the time of year it is beautiful. During the winter the lake freezes and in January there is an ice carving festival. There is always a carving of a castle on the lake and you can walk through it or skate through the castle or around the lake. In the summer the water is a gorgeous turquoise colour which is caused by the sediment from the rocks being suspended in the water and the reflection from the sun thereby creating the unique colour. As the sun was about to go behind the mountains the colour was not as visible on all parts of the lake.



The tour then took the Bow Valley Parkway back to Banff. It is a beautiful drive and provides a great view of Castle Mountain. It is a wildlife corridor and therefore a good place to try and spot animals. Unfortunately we didn’t see any there this time but we did see mule deer in Banff.



Castle Mountain


View over the mountains from the rest stop near Banff on the TransCanada Highway (Highway #1).

Aside from the beautiful scenery, tourist attractions and shopping, Banff is also great for food. One of my favourites is the Grizzly House, it is a unique experience, they serve fondue with either oil fondue or hot rocks with garlic butter for the meat/seafood portions, and a really yummy cheese fondue. You can finish with a chocolate toblerone fondue with fruit and cookies. So good! For the meat fondues, they have standards like chicken and steak, or wild game such as elk, caribou and venison, or more exotic meats like snake and ostrich. It also used to be a swingers club and there are still phones on each table that actually work, you can call any other table in the restaurant, there is even a phone in the bathroom. Other good places to eat are Saltlik, the Maple Leaf Grill, the restaurants at the Banff Springs or Rimrock, plus some really good pubs like Elk & Oarsman, Bear Street Tavern and Rose & Crown.

Alberta has many other sights to see as well but any trip to Alberta, particularly Southern Alberta, would not be complete without a trip to the Rockies and Banff.

Thanksgiving Wine Touring

Last weekend I went to B.C. to the Shuswap for Thanksgiving. I love B.C. in the fall! Beautiful colours on all of the trees. Perfect place to spend Thanksgiving. It is such a gorgeous drive through the mountains with the yellow, red and orange leaves on the trees. The drive was sunny most of the way but sadly once we got to B.C. the weather turned cloudy although it stayed fairly warm and didn’t rain.


Aside from spending Thanksgiving in the beautiful surroundings in B.C., the other thing that made it perfect was that it was the Okanagan wine festival. There were events at most of the wineries in the area and around Kelowna. We stopped at three of the wineries for tastings, Mt. Boucherie, Volcanic (they have amazing ice wine) and Mission Hill. All of the wineries are picturesque, especially with the fall colours and the views over the lake, and they all had some very tasty wines. Mission Hill is one of the biggest wineries in the area, it is up on the hill and is definitely worth a visit, the setting is gorgeous, with views over the lake and vineyards, and the winery itself is reminiscent of an Italian winery.



After touring the wineries we went to the Old Vines restaurant at Quail’s Gate winery for our Thanksgiving dinner. The dinner was a special wine festival set menu dinner with wine pairings. It was delicious! Four courses, all of them very tasty.  The dessert was especially impressive, a dark chocolate disk on top of a cake then covered with a warmed fruit sauce. Delicious! The view from the restaurant is one of the best in the area, unfortunately it was not a clear day but the setting was still lovely with the trees in full fall colours.



The next day we drove out to the Adam’s River and Roderick Haig Brown provincial park to watch the salmon run. Every four years there is a surge in the number of salmon that come back to the rivers in central B.C. to spawn. This was one of those years and the Adam’s river was full of sockeye salmon. Apparently only two fish from the thousands of salmon eggs laid by one female actually make it back to the river where they were born. During the Salute to the Sockeye festival at the park, which takes place the first three weeks of October, a fee of $5 is charged to enter the park and watch the salmon. There are nice walking paths, a viewing platform and signs along the paths providing information on the salmon run.


It was actually the second Thanksgiving I spent wine touring and enjoying the lovely fall colours. The first was a couple of years ago in Ontario. I went with a friend from Calgary to spend Thanksgiving with my best friend in Ontario. We toured Toronto and Niagara to see the fall colours and also stopped by some of the wineries around the Grimsby area on our way to and from Niagara on the Lake where we stayed for a night. Similar to B.C., many of the wineries have restaurants with menus which include wine pairings and of course the wineries offer regular tastings. I have found that most of the winery restaurants are delicious (Hillebrand is one of my favourites in Niagara on the Lake, Angel’s Gate along Beamsville Bench is amazing), plus the wine pairing menu is a great way to taste different wines. There are wineries scattered from Grimsby all the way to Niagara on the Lake, ranging from boutique wineries, like Organized Crime, to the big producers like Jackson-Triggs. The wine route is well marked, although many of the boutique wineries are off the beaten track, but there are maps of the area that make it easy to find all of the wineries.


Niagara on the Lake has great shops, restaurants and is surrounded by many wineries. In the fall the Shaw Festival is still on with plays at the theatres throughout the town. After spending some time in Niagara on the Lake we drove the wine route from Niagara on the Lake to Niagara Falls.



Although I missed getting turkey dinner this year, I loved spending Thanksgiving at the wine festival. During the fall around Thanksgiving there are often wine festivals and other events making it a great time to visit the wine regions. Plus it isn’t the high season so some of the hotels will have package deals that include dinners or wine tours. I think I may need to make wine touring a Thanksgiving tradition, at least every couple years since I would hate to miss turkey every year no matter how good the wine is.IMG_2356

Ireland – There is a Reason it is Called the Emerald Isle

Ireland is one of my favourite places in the world so I decided to repost a post I made on HH World Travel, with some minor changes, which is a blog I wrote with a friend of mine. Such a beautiful country, can’t wait to go back!

Writing my post on the Inca Trail and thinking back on all that rain made me think of other rainy vacations I’ve had.  I’m generally a fair weather traveller, I try and go places when the weather is likely to be decent, although the weather doesn’t always cooperate of course. There are some exceptions, I’ve been to England for New Years a couple of times, Iceland in April, the Faroe Islands in early June, the Inca Trail in Peru in January, and of course out to the mountains in the winter as they are beautiful any time of year. I knew for each of those trips that it was unlikely to be warm and sunny. Generally for me too much rain has the potential to ruin a holiday, but in Ireland somehow it didn’t matter. Of the 14 days of the trip I only had one day when it didn’t rain. Yet it is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and I would go back to Ireland in a heartbeat. Rain suits Ireland, gloomy clouds swirling around castles, black clouds on the horizon while the wind whips your hair as you stand on the cliffs, fog covering the gap of Dunloe and then lifting as you turn a corner in your horse pulled cart. There is just something about it. And after all, there is a reason the place is so green.


Bad weather is practically a source of pride, it is expected. You can always tell the tourists, we’re the ones with the umbrellas pulled out with the first few drops of rain while the Irish people barely notice. Its one of those places you can grab a car and drive, which does help keep you get out of the rain, of course only until you turn the next corner and have to jump out to see a gorgeous view of the sea or countryside, wander a small town or explore castle ruins.


I flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland and rented a car.  I started out of Belfast and drove the loop North along the coast past the Giant’s Causeway to Derry/Londonderry, then South into the Republic of Ireland through Galway to Kerry to stay in Killarney, East along the South coast to Kinsale and Cobh and then North through Kilkenny to Dublin.  I hit the main tourist spots along the way, such as the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, cliffs of Moher, Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle and the sights of Dublin.


The rain didn’t stop me even though it rained every day except one. Only one place was it a real detriment, I could not see a thing at the cliffs of Moher.



Luckily there was a visitors centre where there were some nice pictures so I knew what I had missed. Its a good excuse to go back.

In spite of the weather it is one of my favourite trips. Every part of the country is beautiful, there is so much to do and see and the people are truly amazing. Everywhere you go the people are friendly and helpful. My best tip for Ireland is talk to people because, aside from the lovely accent, some of my best tips on what to see around Ireland came from chatting with locals. One of the easiest places to meet locals rather than tourists is in the pub. There are few things to do in the evening which are more fabulous than sitting in a pub in Ireland, drinking Guinness, and listening to a band while chatting with the people around you. One of my favourite stops was based on a tip from a local in Killarney who said we had to stop in Cobh (which I had never heard of). Cobh was the last stop of the Titanic before it set sail. It is a beautiful town on the coast, with a gorgeous cathedral, quaint main street along the water and a fantastic museum about the Titanic and Irish history, particularly the mass Irish emigration around the world.


Plus I stayed in two castles, hard to beat! A true princess fantasy come to life, one an 18th century style, very elegant, and the other 15th century style, it was even heated by a roaring fire, felt like I was in Henry VIII’s era.


Ireland is full of fantastic things to see. Its tough to choose favourites, but if I had to choose my top highlights, in no particular order, are:

  1. Gourmet dinners in Kinsale in County Cork. It is known as the gourmet capital of Ireland and has some great restaurants in a beautiful town which was an old fishing port.
  2. The horse-drawn cart ride through the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry.  The horse’s name was Jovi, he had a partner named Bon who wasn’t working that day (the driver was a fan).
  3. Staying in as many castles and manor houses as I could afford. They are gorgeous, charming and usually have a delicious restaurant.  I found amazing deals in September and only had to book about a day in advance.
  4. Wandering Kilkenny castle and after that a night at the pub listening to an Irish band playing traditional Irish songs, with a few modern ones thrown in.
  5. The Northern Coastal highway where there are awe-inspiring sights every kilometre including the surreal Giant’s Causeway.
  6. Wandering the streets of towns like Cobh and Killarney. I didn’t spend enough time in either place, especially the Cobh museum, and cannot wait to go back.

P1100687Giant’s Causeway – Northern Ireland



And remember to stop and have a Guinness. Somehow it just tastes that much better in Ireland when sitting in an Irish pub listening to live Irish music. Or at the Guinness factory in Dublin, you can even pour your own pint.


I recommend Ireland as an amazing destination, even though you should expect it to rain some, if not all, of the time. A raincoat and an umbrella are a must. But, as everyone in Ireland told me to remember, you don’t come to Ireland for the weather.


Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Pictures

As  I was writing my post on Machu Picchu a few days ago I of course looked through all of my pictures from that trip. There were so many shots I loved but I couldn’t post them all so I decided to do a second post of a picture tour of my travels from Cusco along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu using some of the pictures I wasn’t able to fit into the first post.  So here they are.

First stop on my G Adventures tour was the Incan capital city of Cusco.


Cusco Cathedral in Plaza de Armas




View over Cusco from Qorikancha.

After touring the city we went out to some of the Incan sights around Cusco. The sights we saw were Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo and Tambomachay.




Alpacas at Saqsaywaman.



Next we were off to hike the Inca Trail. By far the most difficult part of the journey and if you read my previous post you already know we were plagued by rain and sadly were not able to really see and appreciate some of the sights along the trail. I still managed to get some great pictures though, as you can see below, and I think some of them are even improved by the clouds and mist as the trail and ruins acquired a mystical, even surreal quality.


Before reaching the trail we stopped at a small town (sadly its name escapes me) along the way to grab supplies and have a quick coffee before starting our hike. As you can see it was a beautiful spot with the mountains in the background and the clouds sitting quite low.

Next stop was the trail itself. After acquiring all of our gear we had our passes stamped, crossed the bridge and we were on the trail.


It did start out sunny, if only it had lasted! And look how nice and flat the trail is here, that didn’t last either.


Here are the first ruins we came to on the trail. It was quite a large site with an even larger site visible down the hill.



Hiking up up up in the pouring rain.

We encountered ruins periodically along the trail, most in great shape. Everything was also very green, as it should be with all that rain. The mountains were gorgeous with waterfalls either beside the trail or off in the distance.





View of the final ruins we saw on the trail from the other side of the river just after we left the Inca Trail. We then walked a couple of hours along the train tracks into Aguas Calientes. We were so excited to be on the final leg and heading for a hotel where we would finally be dry.


Final walk into Aguas Calientes.

And now Machu Picchu. After 3 days of hiking in the pouring rain we finally made it.





It was an amazing trip full of highs and lows and lots and lots of rain. We started in the sun and thankfully the sun shone down on our last day too when we were in Machu Picchu making it the perfect end to the trip.

Hike to Machu Picchu – From Cusco Along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, An Incan Tour

A friend of mine recently went on a trip to Manchu Picchu and it made me nostalgic about my own trip there in January 2011. I went to Peru for 2 weeks as part of a 2 month trip to South America to escape the horrible winter in Calgary. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity to hike the Inca trail, also known as the Camino Inca, in the Andes mountains to Manchu Picchu as there were still tickets for the trail available even though I booked my tour on a Thursday and flew to Lima the next Monday, which was surprising as only 500 permits are allowed per day and this limit includes both hikers and the porters. I found out that tickets were available because it was the rainy season and therefore not the most popular time to hike the trail, a reason that became very clear to me by day 2 on the trail. As you need a guide and advanced booking to do the Inca trail and I was booking last minute, I decided to join a tour with Gap Adventures (now G Adventures) for the Peru portion of my trip. This way Gap organized my trail tickets and all of the gear I would need to hike the trail as well as my transportation from place to place in Peru. Since I was traveling for 2 months the last thing I wanted to do was have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, hiking poles etc. for the rest of my trip.

The group flew into Cusco, the old capital of the Incan empire, which is a required stop before hiking the Inca trail to allow everyone to acclimatize to the altitude as the trail itself can be as high as 13,828 feet (4215 metres) at Warmiwañusqa (“dead woman”) pass and the elevation in Cusco is 11,200 feet (3400 metres). We spent 2 days there, touring and relaxing, to try and avoid any altitude sickness on the trail. According to the guides, the best way to acclimatize is to move slowly at first, drink lots of water and eat light. Some also say that drinking coca tea or chewing on the coca leaves helps, and whether it helps or not the tea is tasty.  Cusco is a wonderful city, especially if you are interested in Peruvian history. There are many sights to see both in town and around the area, mostly Incan buildings, some in use and other are ruins, but also Churches, such as the Cathedral in Plaza de Armas (the main square), and other buildings from the Spanish era.


Although prior to the discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 Cusco was relegated to a less important role in Peru than it enjoyed during the Incan empire, with the thousands of tourists heading to Machu Picchu the city has taken on a new significance. On our first day we toured the Incan sights of Cusco. We went through the Qorikancha, an Incan sight at the base of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. During Incan times it was covered in gold, but now all that is left are the Incan walls and the distinctive Incan doorways and windows which are not rectangular but instead narrow in at the top.


Next we went to Saqsaywaman (also referred to as “Sexy Woman”), an Incan archeological complex in north Cusco. The massive boulders that were used to build the zigzagging walls were put together without mortar and have stood for hundreds of years. Saqsaywaman is a three tiered complex over 3000 meters in area, although today visitors only see a fraction of what was once there as many of the stones were taken away by the Spaniards to build homes. One of the bloodiest battles between the Incans and the Spaniards was fought here, where thousands of dead were scattered around and the Incans defeated. From the top there are great views over the city. We then drove on to Tambomachay, a ceremonial bath which still has springs of water coming from the rocks. The final sight we stopped at was Q’enqo, a sacred area used for ritual sacrifices and other ceremonies.





Aside from the tourist sights, Cusco has many shops, many geared towards supplying hikers but there is also a market with traditional items such as sweaters, gloves and scarves made from alpaca wool. We also had some great meals out in Cusco, particularly at Fallen Angel, a restaurant and guest house with some of the most interesting room designs I’ve ever seen.


From Cusco we took a bus to the start of the trail. Don’t we look happy? Ready for anything? It was sunny and beautiful. The start of the trail is a nice flat path with only a gentle incline. How quickly both those things changed!



Once we crossed the bridge we were officially on the trail. The weather started out lovely but as the day wore on it started to cloud over and eventually rained. The Inca trail includes 3 days of hiking for 43 km over 3 high mountain passes (plus other small ones), which is hard enough without the added delight of rain. And there was lots of rain, almost constant rain. Unfortunately for us that meant the clouds covered some of the best sights on the trail. We still saw some amazing ruins, such as Llactapata, Sayaqmarka, the Inca tunnel and Phuyupatamarka, along with many other smaller or more distant ruins, but views like that of the mountain Nevado Veronica were almost completely covered by clouds.




The trail is well-preserved and mainly covered with stones, although the stones are a bit slippery with the rain (I took a lovely tumble going down the stairs, cracking my elbow on the rocks and giving myself some huge bruises along my right leg and arm, I was not loving the trail at that moment), and much of it is made up of stairs up and down the mountains. With all those stairs make sure you bring hiking poles, they are invaluable for when you are going down, and also nice to have when going up. The guide ensured there were regular rest breaks, either at ruins or in sight of some amazing views (some of which we saw, others were covered in clouds), where he provided information on the trail, the Incan lifestyle or the ruins encountered along the way. Even with the rain the cloud forest, ruins (made all the more eerie by the mist and clouds) and mountains provided a stunning backdrop to a difficult and exhausting hike. It is a tough hike, even without the rain it would have been a tough hike, and the lack of oxygen at that altitude makes it even tougher whether or not you are in good shape before starting the hike.  Of course if it wasn’t tough it wouldn’t be such an accomplishment to finish it. Since I booked so last minute I did nothing to prepare for the hike and my legs burned most of the way. I recommend bringing icy/hot or some other muscle pain cream to use each night, I’m not sure if I could have walked after the second day without it.



It is hard to tell since the rain was pouring down, but we are all very happy and feeling we accomplished something great when we reached the Warmiwañusqa pass, the highest peak to climb on the trail and obviously the most grueling with the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of steps up to the top.


On my tour, the porters were amazing, they would run ahead of us in flip flops carrying all of our gear (making me feel even more pathetic as I huffed and puffed my way up the trail using my walking poles), and had each meal prepared in advance of our arrival and the tents set up for us at the end of the day. The food was surprisingly good, almost gourmet, and there were snacks provided in the morning to have on the trail and each evening when we arrived at the campsite (my favourite being the hot popcorn). Each morning the porters provided warm water to wash our faces and hot tea before we had to head to the breakfast tent. On the trail you wake up early (before sunrise) and go to bed early. After 10 hours of hiking, an early bedtime is welcome. The only downside is the bathrooms, often a hole in the ground, or one night a tent that a single person can barely fit into, they are all unpleasant until you reach the trekkers lodge which is a mild improvement.



Unfortunately all of that rain had another consequence as well, the campground at the sun gate was washed out and we couldn’t stay there. Instead we had to hike an extra few hours on day three along a different path and then follow the train tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes. Many people would be very disappointed about this, and while I felt a small twinge of sadness over missing the sun gate, my overwhelming feelings were of jubilation at the thought of being warm, staying in a bed in a hotel, and having a hot shower. Most of our group felt the same and when asked if we would be ok with that option it was a quick “yes, yes yes!!” shouted in answer. So after we finished our cake (yes, they baked us a cake out on the trail in honour of our last big day of hiking) we headed out for our final hike into town. At that moment, despite the extra hours of hiking, I stopped feeling the pain in my legs, forgot the bruises and the general unhappiness of being completely soaked by rain and practically skipped the last few hours. It was a pretty walk and once we reached the train tracks it was also nice and flat, a welcome change from all those stairs.


Because we couldn’t camp our last night, we had to head to Machu Picchu by bus the next morning. Since we had early access we left while it was still dark to board the busses. When we first arrived at Machu Picchu it was still covered in mist, which I actually loved as this gave it an even more mysterious quality. Our guide provided us with a tour to start our visit and the mist stayed, although it rose a little every so often. However, once we finished our tour the sun started to burn off the mist and the views were incredible.  Visiting Machu Picchu is worth the trip to Peru, it has become a major tourist destination for a reason. There are lots of tourists there but you can still find a less crowded corner to soak it all in, taking in the history and the mystical feel of the place. We had hot sun and clear skies for most of our visit and we spent our free time up on the higher tiers looking out over the mountains and ruins. An amazing end to an arduous, challenging and overall exhausting trek through the Andes.




The Inca trail is a grueling, often frustrating, in my case constantly wet, and draining hike. While I’m glad I did the trek as it was always something I wanted to do and, in retrospect, it was an amazing experience, unless you really feel the great need to make the hike (or are an experienced hiker) I would recommend taking the train to Machu Picchu. It is worth seeing and you get to enjoy it without all that hiking.  Still, hiking the trail is an accomplishment, something rare, and an experience you can always look back on with pride. So, if you do decide you want to hike the trail all I can say is don’t do it in the rainy season and make sure you have some really good hiking poles.

Spain Extravaganza – Last Stop, Sitges

I am sadly back at home in cold and snowy Calgary. That is right, you read correctly, it is September 9th and already there is snow and lots of it. How I wish I was still in Spain! Looking through my pictures is a mixture of happy and sad, happy I was there and warm, sad I am no longer there and instead stuck in a snowy cold mess. So now I am going to spend a few moments reliving our last stop, Sitges. It is about 30 minutes South of Barcelona along the coast. To get to Sitges from Barcelona, take the R2 train from Passeig de Gracia. We found out that it was a bit trickier from Valencia. If you go on the RENFE (Spanish train) website it will not give you a route from Valencia to Sitges. To get there you must go to Vilanova i la Geltru and then purchase a separate ticket to transfer to the R2 towards Barcelona, it is then only one stop to Sitges. The route between Valencia and Barcelona can be busy so book early if you can. Once in Sitges it is easy and cheap to get to Barcelona and there is even a direct bus to the airport which we used at the end of the trip.

Sitges is known for a few things, one is its gorgeous setting and beautiful beaches. Sitges is also known for is its nightlife (especially the clubs and bars along the so-called “street of sin”) and as a popular gay resort area. The town is right on the sea and is a great mix of old Spain and resort heaven. There are historic sights to see, such as the cathedral Esglesia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla and the gothic residence Cau Ferrat, there is a wonderful walk along the Passeig Maritim which goes from the old town of Sitges to the port along the water and of course there are the beaches. It is a compact area and walkable to most sights and many of the beaches. The town itself is fun to wander as there are many shops and interesting historic sights scattered throughout the town. The main streets through town are lined with restaurants, cafes, shops of all kinds (tourist and non-tourist), fresh fruit and vegetable stores and gelato places. There are as many gelato shops in Sitges as there are in most Italian towns. Most nights we ate along the lovely promenade where you can hear the waves and people watch from the patios set up outside each restaurant and then sometimes head into the main part of Sitges to enjoy the nightlife.


Aside from the main beach in Sitges beside the seaside promenade, there are actually 17 beaches, all with soft golden sand. The water is warm and you can walk out quite a long ways before it gets deep. Here the waves are much higher than the other places we went in Spain, the beach near our hotel even had surf lessons, although the waves are still very manageable and easy to swim in.  Most have chairs and umbrellas to rent or you can just stretch out in the sand. One word of warning, some of these beaches are nudist beaches. There are still people in swimsuits on the nudist beaches but there are also a lot of naked people. If you aren’t comfortable with that then make sure to check at the hotel to find out which beaches aren’t nudist so you don’t get an unexpected surprise. Another warning for those that don’t know, regardless of what beach you go on, all beaches in Spain have women going topless, not something you see very often in North America but quite common in Europe in general.

We stayed at the Melia Sitges in the port area. The hotel was big and very nice, large comfortable rooms, many with balconies. It was nice and quiet for sleeping or relaxing as the port area is away from the busy central area of Sitges yet is only a short 15 minute walk along Passeig Maritim (which is well lit at night) to get to all of the action. The port area has restaurants and shops too and was just 5 minutes from the hotel. We had a beautiful view of the port from our large balcony. The pool area in the hotel was great, lots of chairs on a big space on the lawn and a large pool plus it was right beside the restaurant and bar. The beach closest to our hotel was smaller and in a lovely cove lined on one side by green hills. It had lots of chairs to rent and a snack place for drinks and food.


From Sitges we did a day trip to Vilanova I La Geltru and Tarragona. Vilanova is another town along the coast about 10 minutes on the R2 train South of Sitges and therefore has gorgeous beaches as well. We only had about 2 hours there before our train to Tarragona so we wandered the town instead of going to the beach. La Rambla is lined with trees and older buildings, it is a great place to stop for a coffee and watch the world go by. From the train the visitor information centre is a long walk away, it is along the waterfront just past the end of La Rambla, but it is worth the walk.  They have a good map plus a great free pamphlet with 4 walking tours of Vilanova to do on your own. Each one is unique, one for the maritime area, one for La Rambla, one for Geltru (which was formerly a separate town) and one wandering through the rest of the historical area of Vilanova, and they can all be done in sequence or separately depending on your interest. We went all the way along the La Rambla walk and then into Geltru to see Castell de la Geltru.



We then continued on the train to Tarragona, a UNESCO world heritage site. Definitely worth the trip. It is known for its Roman ruins and of course more beautiful beaches. The Roman Amphitheatre built in the 2nd century A.D. can be seen from almost anywhere along the coast. Walking from the train station you walk uphill on the road and as the road turns the corner you have an amazing view of the amphitheatre and the sea.  It is 3 euros to go into the amphitheatre and you can sit in the seats and walk onto the main arena floor. As you walk through the centre of the city there are ruins all over the place. We also walked over to the old fortress which can be seen further along the coast from the amphitheatre on the other side of the beach on the cliff. To walk to the fort from the amphitheatre is about a 20-25 minute walk. La Rambla leads from a viewpoint on top of the hill on the other side of the amphitheatre (closer to the train station) to a large fountain near more ruins, it is about a 15 minute walk from one end to the other. There is also a long seaside promenade which goes from the beach below the fort back past the amphitheatre and to the other side of the train station.



We spent the rest of our time enjoying Sitges, wandering through the town, lounging on the beach, walking the seaside promenade and drinking wine on our balcony. It was a nice relaxing end to the trip.



Unfortunately it had to end eventually. I’m normally one of those people who never want to come home, I would love to travel forever. After watching the snow for the past 2 days I wish more than usual that I hadn’t come home and that I was still in hot, sunny, gorgeous Spain. How I miss it!


Spain Extravaganza – On To Valencia and Area

As sad as it was to leave Majorca, at least it isn’t time to go home yet. Our next stop was Valencia, a gorgeous Spanish city on the East coast approximately three and a half hours South of Barcelona. Big wide boulevards, a well maintained old town with an 18th century Spanish feel and many sights in close proximity to each other make it the perfect city to tour on foot. Definitely a different feel than the other Spanish cities I have been to, it reminds me a lot of the larger South American cities which have a similar architecture and layout. When wandering the old town you continually come upon large plazas, such as the Plaza de la Virgen which borders the Valencia Cathedral pictured below, and these plazas usually contain the important buildings of Valencia. Staying anywhere in the old town provides easy access to restaurants, the train station and the main sights, plus the buses to the beaches. We stayed at the Vincci Lys close to the arena and train station Valencia Nord. The hotel was central and great value for the price. We even had a small wrought iron balcony to stand outside and enjoy the sun and watch activity on the street below.  The main street running through the old town connects the Cathedral to the bull fighting arena (pictured below) which still has bull fights to this day. All along the streets of the old town are cafés and restaurants with outdoor patios on the street great for people watching. If you eat outside on the patio there is often a surcharge, but it is worth it as you get to enjoy the warm weather and people watch.



Valencia also has amazing beaches. We went to playa del Cabanyal and playa de la Malvarrosa where the boardwalk goes on for ages and the sand is soft and golden. Multiple buses go to the beaches from the old town throughout the day so they are easy to access. We rented chairs and umbrellas, there were many available along the length of the beach, but if it is ever full just wait until siesta time (starting around 2:00-2:30) and the beach clears out. One minute all I could see was people sunbathing, swimming or playing on the beach, the next time I looked up almost everyone was gone. The sand is nice and soft so it is a good (and free) option too.



As I have been to Valencia before (back in July 2007) we decided to take day trips to nearby towns to explore new areas. Our first trip was to Denia, about an hour and 45 minutes by bus from Valencia. The town was much bigger than I thought it was. We arrived about 10am and most things were still closed. We managed to find a cafe on the main street running the length of the old town for a coffee and a tostada and tomatoes and then we walked up to the castle area. It is only 2 euros to enter the castle which is worth it. There is a tourist train that will take you up or you can walk. We walked and became sweaty messes as it was over 30 degrees. Great views of the town and harbour was our reward making the long hot walk worth it in the end. Too cool off we headed for the beach and spent the rest of the day on lounge chairs at yet another beautiful Spanish beach with soft golden sand and warm aquamarine Mediterranean water.



Next was Xativa which I did on my own. It is approximately a 45 minute train ride from Valencia Nord station. Compared to the other towns it is set up very well for tourists. Not that it is necessary to cater to tourists, there is something to be said for a more authentic experience in a non-touristy town, but Xativa is able to maintain its authentic feel while still being tourist friendly. There are signs to the tourist office as soon as you leave the train station, unobtrusive, well-placed signs throughout the old town telling visitors about the historical sights, going from sign to sign is a walking tour as most signs point to the next sight to see, and all historical buildings are well marked. The town is most famous as the birthplace of Pope Alexander VI, one of the Borgia popes (his birthplace is the house pictured below). Another of the Borgia popes also lived there and there is information about both of them in Spanish at the museum inside the cathedral (the museum costs 1 euro). The castle area is best reached by the tourist train (which you can catch near the tourist office and tickets are purchased on the train) or car as it is up a steep hill. From the castle there are spectacular views of Xativa and the surrounding countryside plus the castle itself is in good shape. It is large so if you want to spend time there do not take the tourist train back as it only gives you an hour at the castle, which I found a bit rushed but not terrible. One option is to take the train up and walk down, as the train only costs 4 euros it’s not too expensive for only a one way trip.



Our final day trip was to Sagunto (the train station is Sagunt), about a 25 minute train ride from Valencia Nord, where everything is free. Well, not food and drink of course, but all of the tourist attractions and we didn’t even get charged for the beach chairs. It also has the most helpful tourist office we encountered, we received more information on more sights than we could possibly have seen in our one day there. One warning though, there are not many restaurants so either bring a picnic, eat in or near the main square where there are a couple of cafés, or ask at the tourist office where to go and what times they are open. Sagunto is known for its Roman ruins and huge castle. The Roman amphitheatre has been renovated and is still used for concerts, as can be seen below. We passed the amphitheatre and old Jewish area on our walk up to the castle. The castle can be seen from most areas of the old town. You will be asked to get a ticket but it is free. It is a massive complex, just when you think you’ve reached the end there is still more to see. Bring good walking shoes and plan to spend some time up there. It is a true ruin for the most part so be careful where you step. We spent a couple hours walking around. The castle area contains the old Roman forum and stores plus newer sections added over the years. There is one small museum of Roman gravestones but otherwise everything is outside, we just walked through the castle ruins into many hidden corners and along the walls on the Roman side. We then took the bus to the beach which of course had more soft sand and refreshing blue water.



On our final night we went to a Flamenco show. It was a bit outside downtown, we purchased tickets at the Valencia tourist office, and it included dinner (we chose the paella option) and the show. The dancers were amazing and the food decent for the price (32 euros which included a three course meal, sangria and the show). A lovely end to a great stay in Valencia. Time to leave again but at least there is one leg left. On to Sitges for some relaxing time in the sun.


Spain Extravaganza – Next Stop, Majorca

Finally made it to the Balearic Islands in Spain. We landed at the Majorca (also spelt Mallorca) airport and took the bus in to Palma de Mallorca. Our hotel, the TRYP Bellver, was in the port area. The port area is a long strip of hotels, restaurants, cafés and clubs along the marina with the big yachts, which is a 20 minute walk to the old town (at least it is from our hotel, depends where you are on the strip) and a 10 minute bus ride to the beach. Majorca is beautiful! The blue waters of the Mediterranean, green vineyards and mountains make it a gorgeous place plus the clear blue skies and 30 degree temperature certainly helps.


First day was a beach day at Playa Major. It is a 10 minute bus ride from the port. The beach is in an inlet surrounded by cliffs and hotels. There are many chairs available to rent with umbrellas or you can choose to lay in the sand. We chose beach chairs, it was 12 euros for 2 chairs and an umbrella for the day. The water is amazing, clear, calm and warm. Not the best place if you want to surf or boogie board, but a perfect place for a relaxing day at the beach.



The next day we took the hop on/hop off tourist bus around Palma. Sadly the earphones with the commentary only worked about 30% of the time but the tour itself was good. We only got off at 2 stops, the old town and Bellver Castle. The old town starts at the palace and cathedral which look over the port and continues for many blocks From miles away you can see the cathedral as it is raised up on a hill. There is a walk along the wall near the cathedral by the maritime park that can be accessed by going up to the cathedral or from a few of the streets through the old town or maritime park. The cathedral itself is impressive with some interesting statues, carvings and of course religious artwork. Wandering through the winding streets of the old town can feel like a maze but is a great way to spend a few hours or for an evening out. Plus there are many cafés or ice cream/gelato shops to stop at for a drink or snack along the way where you can people watch and relax. A wide boulevard parallels the old town and is a nice walk, again with shops, cafés and restaurants plus fountains and trees. The area is beautiful with all of the old Spanish architecture.

Bellver Castle is on the edge of town up a hill. There are great views over Palma and the surrounding countryside from up on the ramparts. The castle was used by the Majorcan royalty until the late 1300s when they lost independence. The palace then became a jail off and on over the years before becoming a tourist attraction. Inside the castle there is an exhibition of the famous political prisoners held in the castle when it was used as a jail. The views are the best reason to stop at the castle, you can see for miles in every direction showing the various landscapes in the Palma area.



The next two days we did tours of the island. On the first day trip we went to Formentor, Alcudia and Pollenca. In the old town of Alcudia near the old wall there is a huge market selling everything from leather goods to souvenirs to food. It surrounds the town and continues down the Main Street. The town itself is a medieval Spanish town but it is hard to really explore much as the market seems to take over every area making it very crowded. Definitely go down some smaller side streets to escape the crowds and see more of the town. Formentor is a beach area with a narrow stretch of beach along a clear stretch of sea. The water felt lovely after the hot crowds of Alcudia. We spent the afternoon eating the lunch we bought at the market and enjoying the sun and sea. Next was a boat trip to Pollenca, which is a popular place for British tourists, and then back on the bus to head back to Palma for another evening on a patio with tapas and sangria.



Our next day trip was an island tour to Calobra and Soller.  First stop was at a leather factory near Inca which had nice shoes and bags but was just a tourist shopping stop. Next we went to Santuari de Lluc, a religious pilgrim area with a beautiful church and grounds plus sectioned off rooms for pilgrims and travellers to stay in. The black Madonna statue was said to be found in the area and is now a relic in the church, people line up to see it and pray. We then took a winding narrow road through the Tramuntana mountains toward Calobra cove where we stopped for lunch and a swim in the cove at the mouth of Torrented de Parells. As Majorca does not have rivers, a torrent is where all of the rain water collects and then rushes down to the sea. The area is lovely with a few restaurants and two coves to swim in, one in the port, the other at the mouth of the torrent which is a 10 minute walk from the port along the sea and through two caves. One warning, there are no facilities at the cove by the torrent so change or use bathrooms in the port before heading over. We ended up changing on the beach behind towels, very awkward! Also, the beach is rocky so bring swim shoes if you can, something I sadly forgot and my feet paid the price. We then took a nice boat ride, about 45 minutes, to the port of Soller, along the cliffs, where we took an old tram to Soller to catch the old wooden electrical train back to Palma through the Tramuntana mountain range. The train was built in the early 20th century. It is a lovely trip with beautiful scenery, plus taking the old train is a great experience in itself.




Sad to leave this beautiful place but it is one I hope to make it back to. Still so much to see, and I definitely could use some more beach and sea time!


Spain Extravaganza – First Stop, Barcelona

Another Europe trip this year, very exciting! Back to the Mediterranean again but in the Western Mediterranean this time to the East coast of Spain. I met up with a friend in Toronto and we flew to Barcelona, our first stop. I was here once before in November 2007, it is such a beautiful city I was happy to return. Although it was nice when I came in November, I love the hot weather so I like the temperature in August much better, even if it has been a bit cloudy.


Gaudi’s house in Park Guell.

We decided to stay at a hotel near La Sagrada Familia beside Hospital de la Sta. Creu i Sant Pau, an old hospital that looks more like a moorish palace than a hospital with its domes and mosaics. The area is convenient to get anywhere in the city as there are multiple metro and bus stops nearby. We walked to La Sagrada Familia which is the basilica designed by Gaudi that has been under construction for over 100 years and is still not finished. I recently read an article stating it would finally be completed in about 12 years. It is an awesome structure with soaring towers and a unique design. Everywhere you look there is another interesting, and often unexpected, aspect to the exterior, including bunches of grapes at the top of one of the spires created using a mosaic design or the tree which appears to be a Christmas tree over the main entrance. To see all of the intricacies of the design it would take a lot more than just one visit.


Sadly the tickets were sold out for the day so we only saw the outside. We decided to head for the old centre and walked toward the Arc de Triomf. It is a beautiful walk from La Sagrada Familia along a wide boulevard with shops and cafés. We walked under the Arc and strolled along a wide path lined with trees between two green spaces. There were street performers and locals wandering around or sitting on the grass.


We continued on towards the sea and walked along the water to La Rambla. We spent the rest of the day and evening wandering around La Rambla and Barri Gotic. There were street vendors and performers, shops, restaurants and cafés. It was a long walk from our hotel so we decided to stop for a sangria and watch the world go by.


At the end of La Rambla we stopped for tapas, one of my favourite things to eat in Spain. I love picking a bunch of small dishes to try and it is a great way to sample the cuisine. We’re moved on to another tapas place back down La Rambla before heading back to the hotel on the metro. It was amazing how busy the area was even though it was a weekday.


The next day we went to Park Guell which is a huge park with great views of the city and where you can escape the busy streets and relax. It was designed by Gaudi. The park is free except for Gaudi’s house (5 euros)  and the architectural area (8 euros) which contains the most famous and colourful of Gaudi’s designs in the park.


View of Park Guell architecture area and Gaudi’s house.


Spiral columns along a path in the architectural area.

We spent so much time in the park that all we had time for was lunch at a restaurant near La Sagrada Familia before heading to the airport. Next stop Majorca!