Cruising the Galapogas Islands – Part II

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We were welcomed aboard the Eden by the other passengers who had already been cruising for several days and our ranger and guide, David. The food was excellent and our first dinner was divine. After the ‘mystery meat’ and rice we’d been served on Isabela anything might taste good, however the buffet of creamy prawns, pasta and SALAD really hit the spot. We settled into our cabin which was small but made good use of the space and with our own ensuite, felt rather luxurious!

Floreana

Floreana - Seal meets marine iguana

Floreana – Seal meets marine iguana

Overnight our captain navigated us to our next destination and we woke up to the sight of beautiful Floreana. First stop was Post Office Bay where, from 1793, British navigators placed a barrel to leave messages and mail for home-bound travelers. Now, tourists leave unstamped postcards for other tourists to pick up and hand deliver back in their country. Such a cool idea! We have one to deliver in Tasmania when we’re next there..! The snorkeling off post office bay was a bit disappointing with low visibility although we did spot some huge fish and another giant sea turtle. After a quick rinse on the boat we were back in the zodiacs for a photography tour of some nearby rocks. We enjoyed capturing shots of the baby seals playing in the water, trying to snap a penguin who would only surface for a second or two, sea turtles, iguanas and more boobies of course!

After a relaxing hour or two on the sun loungers we returned to the water to snorkel at Devil’s Crown, a sunken cinder cone which has been filled by the sea, so the water inside is shallow but steep and deep outside. We were dropped outside and swam through big shoals of fish and alongside spotted eagle rays until we were inside the Crown which was full of large corals, colourful fish and white tipped reef sharks! We also snorkeled with our first sea lion. It was amazing to see these graceful creatures swimming, twisting and turning under the water. This was definitely one of our favourite snorkel sites.

Trekking across the island

Trekking across the island

That afternoon we visited Cormorant Point (unfortunately not named after the flightless cormorant endemic to the islands but after a naval ship) where we had a great walk with our guide pointing out lots of wildlife. We were lucky to see a large flock of flamingos and a nest with their eggs in a beautiful lagoon and spent some time on a pretty beach watching the birds circling overhead, rays and sea turtles in the water.

Turtle nesting site on the beach

Turtle nesting site on the beach

Iguana tracks in the sand

Iguana tracks in the sand

Espanola

The following day we visited Espanola, one of the oldest islands in the archipelago. We spent a few hours trekking around the island where there were marine iguanas of magnificent turquoise and pink colours and a baby seal chasing them and nibbling on their tails!

Marine iguana meets galapogas pigeon

Marine iguana meets galapogas pigeon

Marine iguana

Marine iguana

We watched about 20 baby seals playing together in a sheltered bay which was just gorgeous. There were so many iguanas we had to be careful to step around them on the paths. The ‘2 metre’ distance rule from wildlife was impossible to observe. Further on we came across hundreds of Nazca boobies and their cute, fluffy white chicks. Again, I was really struck by how close you could get to the animals here, they seem to exhibit no fear of humans but the guides are very strict, and rightly so, about not touching them and trying to keep a minimum distance of 2 metres away.

Nazca Booby colony

Nazca Booby colony

Nazca booby chick Unfortunately we were too early in the season to see the famed waved Albatross which nests on Espanola. However, we did see an abandoned egg which gave us an idea of the great size of these birds.

Galapogas hawk - I think..!

Galapogas hawk – I think..!

That afternoon we had a snorkel off a little beach which we shared with a sea lion rookery. There was the skeleton of a humpback whale laid out on the sand which had apparently died just offshore a few years ago. The bones of its ribs and vertebrae were enormous.

Humpback whale skeleton

Humpback whale skeleton

That evening the four of us found a quiet spot on the top deck for a bit of stargazing as we’d learned that at the equator you can see both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere constellations. We were joined by a pair of boobies (we’re not sure of what variety) who flew alongside and circled overhead. Out in the middle of the ocean it was calm and peaceful and I had the feeling of being tiny in this grand universe. It was a special moment in our trip.

On our last day we were up for an early, pre-breakfast snorkel at sunrise. Our destination was the magnificent Kicker Rock with sheer sided cliffs and a narrow gap through the middle.

Departing Kicker Rock after our sunrise snorkel

Departing Kicker Rock after our sunrise snorkel

We snorkeled through the channel hoping (with some trepidation!) to see some of the resident hammerhead sharks. A few in our group saw one but we had to settle for seeing the Galápagos shark (also very cool), as well as numerous sea turtles and shoals of colourful fish. Mitch, Brian and Janina returned to the spot the following day for a dive and were lucky to see a couple of the freaky hammerheads as well as being engulfed by a shoal of salema fish so thick they lost sight of each other only a few metres away! The shoal was abruptly parted as a sea lion darted through, fishing for lunch.

Among the fish, scuba diving at Kicker Rock

Among the fish, scuba diving at Kicker Rock

San Cristobal

Our cruise culminated on San Cristobal with a visit to the small but interesting Interpretation Centre where we learned more about the human impact and history of the Galápagos and the ecological and conservation efforts. After the early start we had a quiet day, enjoying fresh tropical fruit juices (passion fruit was amazing) and fresh fruit ice creams (oh the mandarin..) We ended the afternoon with a lovely loop walk up Frigatebird Hill where we got great views off the coast, back to Kicker Rock and across the island.

Welcome party at San Cristobal

Welcome party at San Cristobal

On our last day, whilst the others were diving I hired a driver, Alfredo, to take me on a little tour of the island. We visited El Junco lagoon in the highlands which was pretty however I was more interested in the three wind turbines nearby. Alfredo explained that they are only really efficient in July and August. Apparently, despite the strong sun, there are no solar panels on the island yet as they are too expensive. Hopefully these advances will come soon! We also visited another giant tortoise breeding centre and a few pretty beaches. Most of all I enjoyed chatting with Alfredo. It was amazing how much we could communicate to each other given that he spoke no English and I probably only have about 30 words of Spanish!

Wind turbines, San Cristobal

Wind turbines, San Cristobal

To end our last night we enjoyed happy hour overlooking the harbour and feasted on a large seafood platter. We reflected on how privileged we were to have been able to visit these unique islands at such a young age, to view the incredible landscapes and so many species of birds and animals found only in this tiny part of the world.

Sunset over San Cristobal on our last night in the Galapogas

Sunset over San Cristobal on our last night in the Galapogas

Over the last year Mitch and I met some of the most generous, inspiring people, hiked in some of the most beautiful national parks and sampled some delicious local cuisines. I can’t imagine a better place to end our round the world adventure than in the Galápagos.

Loving life in the Galapogas

Loving life in the Galapogas

 

The Galapagos Islands – a once in a lifetime destination

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Nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, snorkelers and divers will delight in The Galápagos Islands – a dream destination for many travellers. Locates six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador and comprised of 16 islands resulting from volcanic eruptions out of the earth’s crust is the archipelago where Darwin began developing his theory of natural selection.

We had ten days to explore this unique part of the world and started our adventure in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. We haggled with a few hotels to get the best deal for our group of four, originally thinking we’d manage with a fan but quickly changing our minds in the humidity and temperatures over 30 degrees: air con was a necessity! We spent the first afternoon exploring the locality, watching blue footed boobies diving in sync, fishing in the harbour and marvelling at the seals flopped out on the pier or having a nap on the benches. After negotiating with a few travel agencies we secured a bargain for a 3 day trip to Isabella and a 3 day boat cruise to Floreana, Espanola and San Cristobal.

The Friendly Giants of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz - giant tortoise shells

Santa Cruz – giant tortoise shells

With our itinerary locked in we set out to explore the highlands of Santa Cruz. First stop was the giant tortoise reserve at El Chato. Wow, those tortoises really deserve their title as giants! The males can weigh up to 250kg and can reach 150 years old. We saw many wallowing in the water, or munching on the vegetation and even a couple mating – a rather long process involving lots of grunting!!

Mating giant tortoises

Mating giant tortoises

Getting up close to these amazing creatures

Getting up close to these amazing creatures

Next up we went underground, escaping the heat to wander through a lava tunnel. At one point we were down on hands and knees, shimmying along the ground at a very narrow section! It was amazing to see what was created from a volcanic eruption.

Exploring the lava tunnels of Santa Cruz

Exploring the lava tunnels of Santa Cruz

Exploring the lava tunnels!

Exploring the lava tunnels!

Our guide suggested we also take a look at two craters which was a nice extra before dropping us off at the beginning of the path to Tortuga Bay.

Exploring the volcanic landscape of Santa Cruz

Exploring the volcanic landscape of Santa Cruz

The sign said it was a 45 minute walk and unfortunately, it wasn’t ‘American tourist time’ and was a bit of a slog in the heat of the day. We were relieved to finally reach the beach and dip our feet in the water.

Tortuga Bay - Santa Cruz

Tortuga Bay – Santa Cruz

Walking among the cacti to Tortuga Bay

Walking among the cacti to Tortuga Bay

It was a lovely walk along to the next, more sheltered bay where we watched marine iguanas trot along the sand, or bask on the volcanic rocks where they were nicely camouflaged.

Chilling in the shade

Chilling in the shade

Camouflaged marine iguana

Camouflaged marine iguana

When we reached Tortuga Bay we splashed around in the calm waters to cool off.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

That evening we enjoyed dinner in one of the back streets filled with lots of grills, and tables and chairs taking up the whole road. A highlight was the whole fresh fish served in coconut sauce.

Isabella – penguins, orcas and boobies

It was an early start the following day to make our boat to Isabela. It was a production line of tourists, grouped by coloured stickers and shuttled out on little taxi boats to slightly bigger speed boats and then zipped between the islands. On arrival, we were greeted at the docks by numerous, gorgeous, Galapogas penguins zipping through the water and seals flopped out on the back of the boats.

Welcome party at Isabella - seals and penguins

Welcome party at Isabella – seals and penguins

We had a relaxing first day with a short trip out to see the beautiful, pink flamingos basking in a lagoon, followed by a snorkel near the harbour at concha perla where the highlight was swimming alongside a marine iguana! Slightly creepy but equally amazing! Unfortunately the restaurant associated with our hotel where our meals were included wasn’t up to much which was a bit disappointing but we made up for it with enjoying cocktails at happy hour!

Flamingos getting a bit feisty!

Flamingos getting a bit feisty!

The next day we headed out for a snorkelling trip to ‘Los Tunnels’ at the other end of the island, named for the rocks below the surface which you can swim through and around, spotting sea life at every turn.The boat ride out there was a wildlife watching cruise in itself as we saw numerous birds, manta rays and astonishingly, a pod of orcas!

Orca coming to investigate our boat!

Orca coming to investigate our boat!

It was breathtaking. The whales came really close to the boat, surfaced in twos and threes and there was a fair bit of tail splashing. Our captain was very generous, allowing us to stay and watch these beautiful creatures for around half an hour, a completely unexpected highlight of our trip.

The orcas, or killer whales, putting on a display for us

The orcas, or killer whales, putting on a display for us

Before snorkelling we docked at a spot where we went for a short walk over the volcanic rocks. Our guide excitedly whispered, ‘I’ve seen a booby, I’ve seen a booby!’ Chuckling away we followed quickly after him and got within a few metres of a gorgeous blue footed booby who sat preening herself and posing for our photos, totally at ease despite our close proximity.

Beautiful Blue-Footed Booby

Beautiful Blue-Footed Booby

The snorkelling was also fantastic. The visibility was fabulous and we saw about ten giant sea turtles, a sea snake, a seahorse and lots and lots of beautifully coloured fish. I was a little intimidated by the sea turtles to begin with as they were enormous and would suddenly appear right underneath you. However they were completely docile, munching away on the algae along the sea bed, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Absolutely beautiful creatures, we felt so privileged to be able to admire them up close in their natural habitat. We saw the orcas again on our boat trip back where they put on another superb display and much to our horror, two tourists from another boat, jumped in to snorkel with them! Fortunately, the whales must have already had lunch as after circling the couple, they left them alone – some people are just crazy. Despite this, we’d had one of the best days on our trip so far and were completely blown away by the abundance and variety of wildlife we’d seen in just one day.

Later that day we visited a tortoise breeding centre where we could view the tortoises at their different stages of development. It was really interesting to learn more about these creatures and the conservation efforts to protect them. We walked back to town along a lovely boardwalk, where we spied flamingos within a few metres, herons, and marine iguanas. This was an amazing find, a sight not to be missed.

Hiking to another planet

Crater - Isabella

Crater – Isabella

On our last day we undertook a 16 km return hike up a volcano. Fortunately the elevation was fairly gradual as it was very hot but the views were worth it. The first flat topped crater was incredible and enormous at 10km in diameter. Further down hill we were able to walk across another.

Volcano hike - Isabella

Volcano hike – Isabella

Amazing volcanic landscapes - Isabella

Amazing volcanic landscapes – Isabella

 

Incredible landscape of Isabella

Incredible landscape of Isabella

It was like walking on another planet across rocks and channels of former lava flows. Although there wasn’t much wildlife on the hike we saw another side to these islands with this incredible,other worldly landscape.

There was the occasional critter!

There was the occasional critter!

Another little fella we came across on the hike

Another little fella we came across on the hike

Fortunately our hotel allowed us access to their showers to rinse off the sweat and grime before boating back to Santa Cruz in time to catch our cruise boat, The Eden, which would be our home for the next 3 days…

 

A weekend in Quito

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We’re back on the road again after resting our rucksacks in Montreal for a few months. Our first destination is Quito, the capital of Ecuador. After a long day of travel via Houston we land in Quito bang on midnight and have one of our smoothest international arrivals with minimal, fast moving queues through immigration, customs and bag collection. At arrivals there’s a lovely, little, smiling lady waiting for us and we’re whisked off to the airport hotel for some much needed sleep.

We rendezvous the next morning with Canberra friends, Janina and Brian, and after a super free brekkie we head into the city. Quito is situated up high, about 3000m above sea level which affords us breathtaking views of the city, surrounded by mountains on our drive in.Quito - hillside view We have a great Airbnb apartment with a lovely open courtyard right in the thick of the old town, a UNESCO world heritage area. After long flights the previous day and to adjust to the altitude we take it easy on our first day, exploring the streets of the old town. We find a great, little spot for a $2.50 set lunch including soup, chicken and rice and a glass of fresh melon juice! Refreshed, we take on the walk up the steep hill to El Panecillo, stopping every now and again to enjoy the views (and catch our breath!).Quito - Mitch and steps The statue at the top of Mary taming a dragon divides the city between north and south, represents good triumphing over evil and is certainly very impressive.

Mary and the dragon

Mary and the dragon

We climb up to Mary’s head to enjoy the 360 degree views and are wowed by the sheer size of Quito which stretches on for miles. 

That evening we head out to Calle La Ronda, a happening street full of restaurants, shops and vendors trying to hustle us into their establishment. We love the very friendly, jovial atmosphere and select a restaurant where we could sit out on the roof terrace and enjoy taking in the action below.

Here's to guinea pig!

Here’s to guinea pig!

Mitch and Brian wasted no time acquainting themselves with the local delicacy of wood roasted ‘cuy’ (that’s Guinea pig to you and I!) I had avoided trying this a few years earlier when visiting Peru but as it was in front of me I had to have a sample. Fortunately for the Guinea pigs of Australia, it was not my cup of tea, quite fatty and chewy. The highlight for me was the empanada del viento al queso – a huge, puffy, cheese stuffed bread, slightly sweet but very tasty. As well as trying a nice local beer we had the specialty, ‘chica’ a fermented oat drink with fruit and sweet spices. Not to any of our tastes but not as bad as it sounds either!

A good night’s sleep set us up for a big day of exploring.

Going up the teleferico

Going up the teleferico

We started out at the teleferico where we took a steep, exhilarating ride on a cable car up to 4100 metres for an astounding view of Quito and the surrounds. We hiked a short way to a small peak which left us a little breathless, definitely still adjusting to the altitude. There we enjoyed watching a teeny, tiny mouse potter around balancing only on thick stems of grass!

The tiny mouse at the top

The tiny mouse at the top

We refuelled at the mercado centrale where we joined the locals for a cheap lunch of fritado, fried pork with rice, which was rather chewy but the potatoes were crispy and delicious! Washed down with a fresh coconut juice we were ready for our next activity, a trip to the equator!

Quito - Mitch, Jen, Janina and Bri at the top of the teleferico

Quito – Mitch, Jen, Janina and Bri at the top of the teleferico

 

We visited the Intinan museum where we had an excellent tour learning about Ecuadorean history, culture and of course, the science behind the equator. Mitch got a certificate for being the only person in our group able to balance an egg on the equator line! It was a really cool place to visit.

The gang at the equator!

The gang at the equator!

 

We ended our day back at La Ronda for more empanadas con queso, beers and a tasty Ecuadorean speciality – locra patata, a potato soup with cheese and avocado. It may not sound like the  most appealing combination but it was really tasty. 

We really enjoyed our few days in Quito, the people were friendly, the food was good and it really is beautiful with pretty, different coloured houses built up into the surrounding hillsides. We were only there because it’s a gateway to the Galápagos Islands but we’re pleased we took the time to stop over for a few days. 

Jasper – a place to return to

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The Lonely Planet guide introduced us to Jasper with: ‘take Banff, half the annual visitor count, increase the total land area by 40%, and multiply the number of bears, elk, moose and caribou by three. The result: Jasper, a larger, less-trampled, more wildlife-rich version of the other Rocky Mountain parks.’ With this in mind we had booked to camp here for 4 nights over the Labour Day long weekend (which we’d been advised by posts on trip advisor would mean that everything would be booked and crowded). Fortunately we’d booked because yes, the campsite was full. But crowded? Nope. And our awesome campground, Whistlers, described by LP as a ‘not particularly private mini camping city’ we found to be excellent. We had a private spot with shady trees, friendly squirrels visiting us and best of all, hot showers!

We loved Jasper and could easily have spent a week there. I never understood families who go back to the same place on holiday every year. There are so many great places around the world to visit, magical holiday destinations, why would you waste time re-visiting the same place over and over? Well, I get it now. For me, I hope Jasper will be a place I revisit over and over. The national park is centred around a town of the same name which has a great community vibe (the bicycle race, Tour of Alberta was passing while we were there and so the locals were out and loving it), great Ranger’s information centre (gorgeous stone cottage building and really friendly, helpful staff inside), excellent eateries and a shop called Nutters!

Of course cool town Jasper has a shop with a super cool name!

Of course cool town Jasper has a shop with a super cool name!

While the park itself has miles and miles of challenging and rewarding hiking trails begging to be explored AND we got daily glimpses of the Canadian Rockies big 5 (deer, elk, moose, wolf and bear)! It’s a special place and so ill try my best not to go too overboard in sharing some of the (many) highlights of our time in Jasper.
Hiking
Sulpher Skyline: Our first hike was the steep 8km return walk up the Sulpher Skyline. The weather forecast was poor for the day so we’d decided to just to do a short walk about an hour along the track and then turn back and spend the rest of the day watching the rain from the Miette Hotsprings. However, after getting to the halfway marker and no rain yet I couldn’t turn back with the summit apparently so close, so we ploughed on.

Beautiful colours on the Sulpher skyline

Beautiful colours on the Sulpher skyline

Poor Mitch with his injured knees had a hard time with the really steep, rocky path but wow, what a view from the top! Looking down over the Fiddler River valley, Utopia Mountain and Ashlar Ridge was quite spectacular even if the threatening clouds were gathering. It was pretty cold and windy at the peak and after watching an extremely tame chipmunk dash in and out of the rocks and across our shoes we headed back down to the warmth of the hot springs!

Rewarding views after a steep climb to the top, Sulpher skylin

Rewarding views after a steep climb to the top, Sulpher skylin

Old Fort Point Loop: this was a much easier 4km loop close to Jasper town but with great views across the valley. We enjoyed sitting on the chairs positioned at the top, having a moment to just take it all in. A great walk to get a feel for the town and surrounds.

View from the top of old fort point

View from the top of old fort point

Opal Hills Loop: noted as one of the steepest trails in Jasper, this 8km loop took us way up to the snow line where we could look down on Maligne Lake. We walked up through the trees, being mindful about bears as we were in prime bear territory and came out into the meadows where we hopped across streams and caught sight of a few deer as we ventured around the top and back into the woods. A fantastic day hike.

Getting up into the snow on the Opal Hills hike

Getting up into the snow on the Opal Hills hike

Wildlife
The most thrilling wildlife encounter came just as I wasn’t expecting it on exiting the ‘washrooms’ in the carpark before we set off on the Opal Hills Loop. I looked up to see a huge black bear crossing the empty (except for our car) park. It looked at me, I looked at him and I backed up, squealing for Mitch to hurry up as there was a BEAR, a real BEAR just 20 metres away! Alas, another car pulled in and the bear was scared off. Still, it was terribly exciting to see a bear in such close proximity, and after seeing it up close I was actually more relaxed about coming across one on the trail. I think it took away that silly fear that we get of the unknown.

Bugling elk on island in the river

Bugling elk on island in the river

We also happened to be in the park for elk rutting season. We saw a number of the huge males with their big antlers and their ladies, in fields and most spectacularly, on an island in the middle of the river. They make an incredible noise when they are bugling, it’s quite eerie, haunting and almost sounds painful. I’m not sure if it’s to warn off other males, or to attract more lady friends..
In addition we spotted caribou, mountain goats and numerous deer throughout our stay. Even the local radio stations, which we like to tune into to learn about the local community happenings, were called ‘The Bear’ and ‘Eagle FM’.
Activities
We had an action packed day where we went horse riding around Lake’s Edith and Annette with a wonderful guide who told us a lot about the area, pointed out bear scratchings on the trees and entertained us with jokes and riddles.

Tommy and Fargo getting friendly after our hack

Tommy and Fargo getting friendly after our hack

It was rather chilly so we were glad of the long wax jackets they leant us for our ride on Tommy and Fargo. Afterwards we warmed up with a coffee in front of the huge roaring fire in the lobby of the Fairmont where we also appreciated 2 hours of free wifi! As the sun came out we ventured back outdoors to pretty Pyramid Lake where we hired a canoe and went for a paddle much to the unhappiness of the teenager who was responsible for the hiring and clearly not too happy to have customers!Jasper pyramid lake We were really lucky to be in town to experience a ranger led evening out into the park at night to experience Jasper’s dark sky preserve. The evening started at 10pm in town, with our small group of about 10 people (can you believe more people didn’t take advantage of such an amazing, free event?!) looking up at the stars while in among the lights of the town. Now Jasper’s quite a small town and they are going to lengths to upgrade the street lights to ensure the light only points down and us LED technology, so we could still see quite a few stars but could still manage to count how many were out. Next, we drove in convoy back out to Pyramid Lake where we put on as many warm clothes as we had and walked out to the island where there were no lights at all and looked up. What a difference, only about 8km out of town and there was a blanket of stars, impossible to count. The ranger had decked us all out with a pair of binoculars and it was amazing how much more clearly you can see the stars with a simple pair of binoculars. He entertained us with the myths and legends behind the different constellations and although our night was cut short by increasing cloud cover it was a fantastic evening and incredibly informative. We lay on our backs, gazing up into the night sky, identifying constellations and feeling so incredibly tiny in this vast universe, what an experience!
Food
And then of course, there was the food. No blog post is complete without some mention of some tasty morsel. We sampled some local beers at the Jasper Brewing Co which were highly enjoyable. More noteworthy was the food alongside. We had an enormous portion of poutine, a Canadian speciality of chips with gravy and cheese curds. Anything with gravy gets my vote but this hearty combination was the perfect accompaniment to a few beers.
On the only rainy evening we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out and left our camp stove in the car. We stumbled across Syrahs and as their first diner’s at 6pm were given a lovely table by the window. It was quite a fancy place starting us off with a fish cervice amuse bouche, followed by freshly baked bread rolls with seasoned butter. We then shared a hearty venison stew with gnocchi and the vegetarian plate. Both simple, yet delicious, with clear attention to good seasoning. Mitch finished the evening with a sortilege – whisky and maple syrup. Excellent food, perfect service and a great atmosphere.

I don’t expect that we’ll get back to Jasper on this trip but I’m already thinking it would be a great place to experience in the different seasons. We were there late summer so that gives us spring, autumn, winter and well, probably mid summer too!

The Road Trip Begins!

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We took the Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle which we found a great way to travel at $30 each, big comfy chairs, free wifi and best of all, gorgeous views out along the Pacific coast. The service was so impressive we even arrived in Seattle 20 minutes early! This bonus time was soon outweighed by having to wait 45 minutes for our bus out to the suburbs to our Airbnb for the next two nights. We’d hoped to get Servas hosts for Seattle and Vancouver but many people were away, already hosting or it was simply an inconvenient time. One of the challenges of travelling with Servas. However we struck gold with our back up of really cheap airbnb’s in both cities. Our Seattle host, Janina, went above and beyond, cooking us breakfast, giving us lifts across the city and lending us her discount card for attractions. At $45/night perhaps we were better off not having Servas here?!

Chihuly Garden and Glass
We only had one full day in the city but it left a positive impression on us.

Space needle - imagine what people thought of it in 1962?!

Space needle – imagine what people thought of it in 1962?!

We started out early at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition in the Seattle centre (the former space for the 1962 World’s Fair) which Seattle has done a fantastic job of converting into a number of tourist attractions including Space Needle, the Experience Music Project museum, a family friendly science centre and art buffs delight – the Chihuly exhibition. The incredible display tells the story of local glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s life and shows a number of his works. They are massive pieces of blown glass, beautifully coloured and hung together to form big shapes reflecting the sea or flowers or abstract forms. Chihuly is also fascinated by glass/green houses and there is an amazing garden display outside, just below space needle which is absolutely gorgeous. It’s only a small exhibition and its not very backpacker budget friendly at $19/head but we were lucky to get some money off with Janina’s discount card! Despite the high cost I would definitely recommend a visit, something unusual and unlike any art display I’ve seen elsewhere.Seattle Mitch at Chihuly

Seattle food scene
Next up was the free walking tour where we learned about Seattle’s love for Happy Hours, the story of chief Seattle and of course, Starbucks. The tour conveniently finished at lunch time close to Pike Place market where we sampled some of the city’s best food offerings – a delicious salmon pate pastie from Piroshky Piroshky, definitely worth the wait in the short queue, and then a 4 dish sampler of different chowders from Pike Place Chowder.

Clam chowder sampler

Clam chowder sampler

Two of which were very tasty, the other two rather average so I would say not worth the much longer wait! When in Seattle we felt we had to go to Starbucks (the chain which had to close nearly all of its stores in Australia because the coffee isn’t up to Aussie standards!) and we thought we’d visited probably the highest Starbucks in the world on the 40th story of the Columbia Tower – coffee with a view and without the cost of going up Space Needle!

Enjoying an iced Starbucks coffee in its hometown

Enjoying an iced Starbucks coffee in its hometown

For an alternative view of the city we headed to Kerry Park (note, this isn’t really a park but a strip of grass) which nonetheless affords a fantastic view of the cityscape, harbour and islands. Definitely worth the climb! Getting weary we retired to REI, the outdoor shop every American had recommended for us to stock up on camping gear for the next stage of our trip (a 6 week road trip, primarily camping in National Parks making our way from west to east across the North American continent). After an hour of extensive research we were hungry again and so found a diner recommended by our tour guide. It was pretty dark and grungy but the burger was good and the Mac and cheese hearty and warming.

Seattle's grungy diner food, don't knock it til you've tried it!

Seattle’s grungy diner food, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!

The road trip begins
We left Seattle in Beatrice, an upgrade to a large Nissan Altima sedan and our stead for the next 6 weeks, as the wind and rain came in, and headed north for Vancouver. Our first stop was back at REI on the way out of the city to buy the camping gear we’d researched the day prior and then we were truly off with the Canadian Border in sight.

Crossing the border

Crossing the border

The border crossing was quick and fairly uneventful despite us carefully ensuring we had our ESTA’s, car rental agreement, dates for coming and going all sorted, the friendly immigration officer was only interested in our passports. That evening we got the Canada Line train (which by the way is an excellent form of public transport to get around) into the city to meet Gwyn, the cousin of some family friends, for dinner and to get the local’s lowdown on Vancouver. We had a lovely evening and I enjoyed sampling the strange Canadian drink of a Caesar. It’s pretty similar to a Bloody Mary except rather than tomato juice, they use clamato juice. That’s right, a mixture of tomato and clams! Sounds gross but actually there isn’t a strong fishy flavour and topped with a gherkin, it went down quite nicely. As so many people have been generous to us on our trip Gwyn was no different and as well as giving us some great local advice, treated us to dinner.

Finding family friends in Vancouver

Finding family friends in Vancouver

Chinatown
Despite the horrendous forecast for heavy rain the following day we woke up to a hint of blue sky and so headed back into the city for the free walking tour of Chinatown.

Entering Chinatown

Entering Chinatown

Unlike some of the other free walking tours we’ve done, Vancouver doesn’t run their general one everyday so we were doing a specific neighbourhood. I had no idea that Vancouver had such a high Chinese population of approximately 40%. Many of them came over in the gold rush and we heard stories of a fairly turbulent history with strict and harsh immigration policies. Chinatown itself was pretty quiet, not the bustling narrow streets you see in Sydney, perhaps because it was a Sunday? Anyhow, the deserted streets added to the sense of melancholy as we heard stories of how the Chinese were treated and we came away from the tour feeling somewhat despondent. However, worth a mention are the lovely Chinese gardens where the tour ended which are free and deserve a look if you’re in the area.

Chinese gardens

Chinese gardens

Stanley Park
Despite the grey clouds the forecast rain was still holding off so we caught a bus over to Stanley Park. The park is huge and offers plenty of recreational space with paths for walkers, cyclists, and even rollerblades around the perimeter with great views back to the city and across the harbour. There is also a wonderful display of totem poles in the middle of the park and we picked up our road trip mascot, Monty the Moose from a great little gift shop.

City view from Stanley Park

City view from Stanley Park

Totem poles, Stanley Park

Totem poles, Stanley Park

Roller blade lane! Stanley park

Roller blade lane! Stanley park

As luck would have it a friend from back in Canberra happened to be in Vancouver that night too so we arranged to meet Claire and her friend for dinner by the waterfront. Despite being far from the Berra we had a crazy Canberra moment when Claire’s friend turned out to be one of my water policy colleagues from DFAT! We enjoyed hearing tales of their 4 day kayak trip near Vancouver Island and their close up encounter with the orcas – something we’ll have to bookmark for next time!

Flexible plans and beautiful campsites
We left Vancouver early to make the most of ‘one of Canada’s most scenic road trips’ – the sea to sky way from Vancouver to Whistler. Unfortunately the bad weather had finally caught up with us and the low cloud and torrential rain prevented us from enjoying much of the scenery. We were glad to have invested in waterproof trousers and wellies which meant we still ventured out to visit BC’s third highest waterfall at Shannon Falls Provincial Park. We had planned to have our first night of camping in Whistler but after a break for coffee and salted caramel slice it was still pouring with rain at 4pm and the weather was supposedly better further east where we were headed the following day. Rather than chase the sun, we escaped the rain by pushing on and we’re so glad we did as we stumbled upon a beauty of a campsite at Marble Creek.

Mist rising off the lake, morning of our first camp

Mist rising off the lake, morning of our first camp

There were only pit toilets and picnic benches for facilities but that meant there were only about three other campers besides us and it was beautiful to camp right next to the river and lake. We went to sleep with the sound of coyotes howling and awoke to the beautiful sight of the mist rising off the lake. We were so happy we’d swapped rainy Whistler for this!
Lake Louise
By driving further on the rainy day it meant we had a shorter drive to Lake Louise the following day. Only about an hour into the scenic drive, twisting around a mountain pass, Mitch spotted a big moose ambling along in the field next to us!

Ok, so we weren't quick enough with the camera for the real deal..

Ok, so we weren’t quick enough with the camera for the real deal..

Monty wasn’t the only one in the car to get excited by our first Canadian animal sighting! We arrived late afternoon to Lake Louise campground in Banff National Park and joyed by the lack of rain we decided to stretch our legs with a walk around stunning Lake Moraine. The reflections in the turquoise waters of the surrounding mountains are just beautiful.

Lak Moraine

Lak Moraine

As we were there quite late in the day we missed most of the tourists and there were only a few other people on the trail walking their dogs. Now this is worth a mention. In both Canada and the U.S. it is allowed to bring your dogs, kept on leads, into the National parks! We love this! It would be so great if we could share the wonderful walks in Canberra’s surrounding parks with our dog, Skye. It was lovely to see people on camping holidays being able to bring their pets along the for the fun. We had a quick stop at Lake Louise which is also very pretty and looked longingly at the Fairmont Lodge right on its banks but at more than $500 a night for a room, it was back to the campsite for us backpackers!
The icefields parkway
Described by National Geographic as ‘one of the world’s most spectacular driving tours’ we were thinking that we were cursed to have bad weather for the second time in a few days for these scenic drives. However, knowing that we had a second shot at the drive on our way back from Jasper meant that we didn’t have to do everything on the first day. It turns out the wildlife don’t mind the rain and eagle-eyed Mitch was at it again, this time spotting a wolf on the road side just before it ran across a few metres ahead of us! It’s such a thrill to see wildlife in their natural setting. Moments we continued to experience over the succeeding days. Our first stop was about half way along at the Columbia Icefields where we did a loop walk up to the toe of impressive Athabasca Glacier. It started to snow a little which made it feel all the more atmospheric but the freezing temperatures meant we didn’t hang around! A bit further on we visited both the Sunwapta and Athabasca waterfalls. Both pretty and worth getting out to stretch the legs but with Niagra Falls on our itinerary we’re saving ourselves to be wowed there..
Mt Edith Cavell
Now, what is definitely worth a side trip is a drive up to Mt Edith Cavell which we were fortunate to take based on the fact that I’d seen a postcard of the view in the Icefields visitor centre, strangely it wasn’t mentioned in either our lonely planet guide or the icefields parkway leaflet. A short 1.5km return walk will take you along the ‘path of the glacier trail’ toward the great north face of Mt Edith Cavell and the most beautiful glacial lake. We arrived at the viewpoint just as a lump of ice came crashing down the mountainside into the lake. It is an absolutely beautiful spot and a must if driving the parkway.

Mt Edith Cavell, glacial lake, photo doesn't do it justice. One of the most beautiful views.

Mt Edith Cavell, glacial lake, photo doesn’t do it justice. One of the most beautiful views.

Our final destination was Whistler campsite just outside of Jasper but I’ll save Jasper for the next post. It deserves the spotlight all to itself..

San Francisco and Yosemite NP

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San Francisco – what a cool city! The home of the Giants (although much to Mitch’s disappointment the current baseball champs were playing away while we were there), the birthplace of the gay rights movement (think recent blockbuster, Milk) and best of all, a foodie’s paradise!
We were very fortunate to stay with the U.S. Servas national secretary, Mary Jane for 4 nights in her beautiful home at the top of a steep hill near the Mission District.

View from Coit's Tower of the city

View from Coit’s Tower of the city

With stunning views of the cityscape, the water and the bay bridge, breakfasts cooked for us and lunches packed each day, and motivating conversation about what our futures may hold we had another fantastic Servas experience.
After a bit of confusion with the car hire company Mary Jane (who’s 81 but looks in her mid 60s and took the crazy San Francisco traffic in her stride) picked us up and took us on a little driving tour of the UN plaza, past city hall, theatres, numerous murals painted on the sides of buildings and up to Fisherman’s Wharf where we visited the old cannery, now the Argonaut Hotel.

Exploring the awesome 'walk in' fountain at Levi Straus Plaza with our lovely host Mary Jane

Exploring the awesome ‘walk in’ fountain at Levi Straus Plaza with our lovely host Mary Jane

In San Francisco when someone takes over an old building they try to keep a sense of the history and so the hotel has beautiful wooden beams and old iron gates which were in use during its time as a cannery. There’s also a fantastic timeline exhibition just past the lobby explaining the history. Well worth a five minute look. We had a quick wander around the National Parks Info Centre next door which took you through an overview of San Francisco’s history going from a tiny 200 person village, to bustling sea port and then base for the gold miners. A great introduction to the city and all free!
We had dinner that night with some of Mary Jane’s friends and fellow Servas hosts, Marci and Susan and enjoyed some spirited conversation about American politics as we watched the Republican, or GoP (Grand old Party), presidential candidate debate. It was entertaining but also a little scary as none of them discussed any sensible, progressive policies and the likelihood is that one of these middle aged, white (all but one), conservatives will become the next president.

Alcatraz and Angel

Welcome to Alcatraz

Welcome to Alcatraz

The following day we went back in time to the 1960s with a boat trip out to infamous Alcatraz Island which kept some of America’s most notorious criminals, such as Al Capone, locked up and thwarted numerous escape attempts. If you want to visit Alcatraz in peak season be sure to book at least a month in advance, or if you miss out as we did, book the double pass to include a visit to Angel island in the afternoon.

Hearing from her inmates about life at Alcatraz

Hearing from her inmates about life at Alcatraz

The tours are very well run and include a free audioguide around the old prison with stories told by former inmates and prison officers.
Angel Island is much larger and there’s a great little guided tram ride around the island which is very informative and takes in some beautiful views back across the bay to the city. It’s a beautiful island and I’d like to go back to do some cycling or hiking around it.
As we were back in the city mid afternoon we decided to walk up to Coit’s tower which looked to be just across the road from the ferry terminal. In fact it was up several steep flights of stairs which got our hearts racing! There was a bit of queue for the lift to the top but it’s set up so you queue around the base which is painted with about five incredible murals detailing San Francisco’s past. Even if you don’t fancy heading up, Coit’s tower it’s worth a visit to look at these alone. However, I would recommend spending the few dollars to go up to the top on a clear day to take in the fantastic panoramic view of the city.

Cable cars being turned around

Cable cars being turned around

Next up we found our way to the beginning of the Powell & Mason cable car where the workers spin the cars around manually on a turntable and excited tourists queue for about an hour to ride the iconic cable car up and down San Francisco’s famous hilly roads. It’s a bit pricey at $7/person but it was fun to sit up the front, holding on to a pole while leaning out and watching the driver operate the cables.SF - Jen and cable car

San Fran for Foodie’s
The following day was set aside for all things food. We started out with the Saturday organic farmers market at the Ferry Building, great for sampling the fresh seasonal fruits, I loved the ‘plucots’, a cross between plums and apricots, although definitely not suited to a backpackers budget.

Colourful displays at the ferry building markets

Colourful displays at the ferry building markets

You’re better to head to the people’s market to stock up on seasonal fare if you’re watching your pennies! For lunch we caught the BART out to Berkley and killed some time wandering through the lovely green campus before making our way to Alice Waters restaurant, Chez Pannise. The restaurant opened in the 60s and was one of the first to embrace using local, organic ingredients. I’d read all about it in American food critic’s Ruth Reichl’s books and so was very excited to treat ourselves to lunch in the more affordable cafe upstairs. Lunch was great, everything was healthy, tasty and fresh however I think my expectations were a little high as I wasn’t totally blown away. The star dish for me was the roasted squid with mixed bean salad while Mitch enjoyed the quail.

Lunch at chez Panisse - squid? Don't mind if I do..

Lunch at chez Panisse – squid? Don’t mind if I do..

We walked off the food that afternoon around the enormous Golden Gate Park which had some lovely gardens but is also a gathering place for much of the city’s homeless which was a bit confronting. There are various galleries and museums you can visit in the park as well as doing a Segway tour but we decided to save that for next time and were content to snooze in the sunshine.

Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog

Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog

We were up early again on Sunday to hire some bikes from the ‘Basically free bike rental company.’ For $32/person day hire you get an excellent Cannondale bike (I’m thinking of upgrading when back in Aus!), lock and helmet and you can visit their sports warehouse enroute and get the value of your hire back to spend in store, hence ‘basically free.’ It’s a great deal for backpackers on a budget and the shop is huge. We ‘bought’ a little camp stove which we’ll need for later in our trip. The cycle route itself from Fisherman’s wharf, out across the bridge and around the coast to Sausilito is easy to follow with only a few hills and fantastic views throughout. It’s especially easy to follow in peak season as all of the other tourists are going the same way! We took our time and loved cycling across the long bridge, the tops of which had just emerged from the morning fog typical of the Bay. I recommend buying your ferry ticket and getting your loading token before exploring Sausalito as the queues get long in the afternoon. In fact, if I was to do it again I’d consider doing the loop in reverse as there were very few people getting off the ferry coming from San Fran with bikes as coming from Sausalito, it was pretty chaotic!
On the way back to Mary Jane’s we stopped off to sample Smitten Ice cream’s made to order organic ice cream.. I had sweetcorn and berries while Mitch enjoyed the pretzel, cookies and cream. Both were delicious and unbelievably creamy.

Yosemite
We decided to book a guided tour with Incredible Adventures rather than visiting Yosemite independently as I was put off by the advice I’d read online by having to bear proof all of your food, the cost of accommodation and our lack of camping gear.

First stop for view out across yosemite

First stop for view out across yosemite

It was a great decision as we could relax and enjoy everything the park had to offer without worrying about driving and finding our way around. We were a fairly small group of 13 from Australia, France, Japan and the Phillipines. The journey out to the park is about a 3.5 hour drive from SF which was broken up by a visit to a farmers market, a stop to swim at a gorgeous natural lake and waterfall and a short walk through a redwood forest to view some Giant Sequoia trees. The trees were beautiful and indeed, enormous, however it was a really busy touristy spot and we were a little underwhelmed compared to our visit to similarly ancient trees in Strahan, Tasmania a few years ago. The campsite was just outside the park in the valley where it was verrrry hot. It was a great spot though, just across the road from a river with a little beach which was the perfect way to cool off at the end of a day of hiking.

Loving life at yosemite

Loving life at yosemite

View of May Lake from Mount Hoffman, Yosemite

View of May Lake from Mount Hoffman, Yosemite

We did a number of wonderful hikes taking in the incredible scenery of the sheer granite rock faces, spotting chipmunks but unfortunately not sighting any bears.

Distant view of slack line from Taft Point

Distant view of slack line from Taft Point

I loved the views from Taft Point with the vertigo inducing drops from the high cliffs, left in their natural state with no railings or barriers. Some brave (read mental) slack liners had set up across a 2000 foot drop and we were lucky to be there in time to watch one guy venture across.

Slack lining at Taft Point

Slack lining at Taft Point

The whole group pitched in to cook breakfast (breakfast sandwiches – scrambled eggs and sausage in a bagel) and dinner (chicken, avocado and salsa tacos) followed by s’mores around the campfire. One of the Aussie girls in our group broke our guides group record of eating 5 s’mores in one sitting. They are incredibly sweet and she was looking a little worse for wear after number 5!
Visiting Yosemite put us way over budget however it was completely worth it. If you’re visiting San Francisco it is a must do however I would say you should allow a few days to visit. Some tours do a day trip but at such a long drive out it would be exhausting and I doubt you’d visit much beyond the valley. The high country is where the best hiking, views and cooler weather is at. It’s definitely a place I’d like to return to, perhaps at a different time of year to see the Autumn colours or in winter to see the rocks covered in snow.
I’d also like to return to San Francisco to visit the Sonoma wineries which we didn’t have time for and to visit more of the restaurants which we swapped on this visit for Mary Jane’s excellent home cooking!

Another amazing dinner with Servas host Mary Jane

Another amazing dinner with Servas host Mary Jane

Califooorniaaa

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Another city, another amazing Servas host! After a 12 hour flight with Aeroflot from Moscow (which was fine: $500 cheaper than the next competitor, below average airline food but comfortable enough with plenty of movies to choose from) and a 2 hour queue for immigration we were delighted to be picked up by our host, Dennis. To help us stay awake he took us on a little tour of the quaint Venice canals, pointed out huge murals on the sides of buildings and went for a stroll along Venice Beach. After a long flight it was great to be outdoors and breathe in the smell of the ocean and.. something else. There were waves of cannabis, legal in California for medical purposes, and from some beach front stores for $40 you can purchase a doctor’s note to buy it if you have ‘anxiety’ or ‘sleeping problems’, hence why it was so popular! We also visited Muscle beach where Arnie used to work out and enjoyed cheering on some folks who had drawn a crowd with their impressive work out on the rings. Most importantly we found an ice cream shop selling delicious butter pecan flavour.

Epic taco salad for dinner on first night in LA

Epic taco salad for dinner on first night in LA

After a quick pitt stop at Dennis’s place we headed out to join some friends of his at a Mexican restaurant down the road. We made the mistake of ordering a dish each (at $7 it hardly broke the bank) a taco salad and meat plate. I had forgotten about the gargantuan American portions and could barely eat half of the delicious salad which was served in a big crispy taco basket with a layer of black beans on the bottom, melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, salsa, sour cream.. Yum!

The following day we set out early to spend the day at Universal Studios. Dennis kindly dropped us off at the metro station and for $1.75 each we spent an hour getting across town to Universal City where we met up with an Edinburgh uni friend, Lyndsay.

Universal Studios - water world special effects

Universal Studios – water world special effects

We enjoyed the 3D simulator rides such as the Minions and the Transformers, were impressed with the effects at the Water Show World, loved the Studio Tour with the King Kong versus dinosaur 3D simulator and enjoyed a Duff beer alla The Simpsons. However we were slightly underwhelmed by the animal actors and special effects shows which talked more about what could happen rather than wowing us with demonstrations.

The Getty
The following day Dennis kindly dropped us and our bags off early at The Getty museum, an amazing art gallery displaying oil magnate, Paul Getty’s private collection which incredibly is free! The building was designed by architect Richard Meier to blend in with the surrounding mountains. The free architecture and gardens tours were excellent, the docents are extremely knowledgeable and passionate. Interestingly, the gardens were designed by a different artist and represent a living, moving sculpture.

The Getty

The Getty

They’re really beautiful and worth a visit in themselves with a tranquil stream flowing through the middle. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore all of the art work but enjoyed two temporary exhibitions, one of Greek antiquity sculptures and Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography. The latter displayed works from seven different artists who have explored alternative approaches to photography. My favourite was Matthew Brandt who took photos of three different lakes, developed them and then submerged the prints in a water sample from each of the lakes. The different minerals and chemicals from the water affected the photo so the landscape influenced the final artwork. Cool stuff!

View over the cactus garden to LA from the Getty

View over the cactus garden to LA from the Getty

Emily & Jeff’s Wedding
Lyndsay generously offered us a lift out to Thousand Oaks where we were headed for another old university friend’s wedding. Thousand Oaks is a strange town which seems to be somewhat in the middle of nowhere and feels a bit artificial. It’s also a place to have a car as pavements are somewhat sporadically placed! We were pleased to be treating ourselves to two nights at the Hyatt where most of the wedding guests were staying and loved relaxing by the hotel pool. It was a little odd that the room didn’t come with many amenities however you could order from a list of luxury items (such as a fridge!) to be delivered to your room. It was fun getting to know some of the other wedding guests at drinks the night before and great to enjoy some American tucker at the local pub – mac and cheese with chorizo topped with salt and vinegar crisps!

Iconic American school bus transports guests to the wedding!

Iconic American school bus transports guests to the wedding!

The wedding itself was beautiful, set in a stunning walnut grove and decked out with white chairs, decorations and fairy lights. The bride and groom smiled their whole way through the evening and we had a lot of fun celebrating their marriage. We loved the buffet dinner with the Yukon mashed potatoes, the best I’ve had in my life! The wine mixing ceremony led to a wonderful combination of a South African Pinotage and Californian Pinot noir. There were also a lot of fun extras including a silent disco, croquet and DIY s’mores around the campfire. S’mores are made by toasting a marshmallow over the fire until golden on the outside and gooey in the middle and then sandwiching it between two biscuits and a few squares of chocolate which are melted by the hot marshmallow. Decidedly sticky and ridiculously delicious!

Enjoy cocktails with the bride - Foodies reunited!

Enjoy cocktails with the bride – Foodies reunited!

Driving Highway 1 – Santa Barbara
We picked up our not so sexy sedan hire car in Thousand Oaks and Mitch handled driving on the right (read wrong) side of the road like a pro. We found our next Servas hosts in the pretty Spanish inspired town of Santa Barbara. Darrell and Carol have a gorgeous house set up on the hill overlooking town.

Dinner with SERVAS host Darrell, Santa Barbara

Dinner with SERVAS host Darrell, Santa Barbara

We boosted our vegetable intake with a delicious stir fry for dinner with a tasty bottle of red that Darrell had just brought back from Mexico. They were a lovely couple, really interested in us and the purpose of our trip. They also shared some of their travel experiences in Israel and Spain and gave us some great suggestions for the rest of our road trip. Carol grew up in Brooklyn and returned to her roots serving up a tasty Jewish Babka (chocolate cake/bread) for dessert.
We were up early the next day for a hike around the surrounding mountain trails with Darrell before it got too hot. There was a little sea fog so we didn’t see out as far as the Channel Islands but got great views across town and to the sea. We spent the rest of the day exploring Santa Barbara by foot.

 Santa Barbara old Mission

Santa Barbara old Mission

We started with the old Spanish Mission which is very pretty and the blooming rose garden provided the perfect spot for our picnic lunch. We continued on to Karpeles Manuscript Library and Museum which we were the only people visiting and received great explanations of some the pieces from the lady on the front desk and enjoyed looking at exhibits such as the first computer in space, old peace treaties, and the first camera. It was a really interesting and diverse collection and worth popping in for twenty minutes or so. The courthouse is a beautiful building from the inside and out. The mural on the second floor is wonderfully colourful and you get great views from the top of the tower. We didn’t spend much time at the art and craft market along the harbour front as we were getting a bit hot but liked watching the stand up paddle boarders and other water sports from the pier. There’s a great shuttle service which for 50c takes you back up the hill which we happily took advantage of. Back at Carol and Darrel’s we cooled off in their pool before heading out to a Mexican place for dinner where a highlight was the horchata, a rice milk drink which was a bit like an iced chai latte.

Driving Highway 1 – Santa Barbara to Morro Bay
Our first stop was only about 10 minutes out of town up a big winding hill to find a cave containing American Indian paintings.

Native American Chumash cave paintings

Native American Chumash cave paintings

The cave was small but it was really interesting to compare the paintings with Aboriginal paintings. It was thanks to Carol and Darrel’s local knowledge that we found this old cultural gem which was unmentioned in our guide book.
We drove on through Solvang, an old Dutch influenced town which seemed very touristy and not much else so we kept on, stopping occasionally at vista points to take in the vast mountain views.

Clam chowder at Pismo Beach

Clam chowder at Pismo Beach

We enjoyed walking along Pismo Beach and, a little windswept, found our way to Splash cafe to try their infamous clam chowder for lunch. It comes served in a large scooped out bread roll with the top alongside for dipping. It was delicious, creamy and full of plenty of clams! We were full so had to get take away cinnamon rolls from the Great West Cinnamon Bun bakery – the one topped with cream cheese icing was ‘to die for.’

Cinnamon rolls - the one with cream cheese topping was delish

Cinnamon rolls – the one with cream cheese topping was delish

We followed Darrell’s advice again and treated ourselves to a hot springs mineral spa at Avilla Beach hidden up in the trees. It was wonderfully relaxing and we had beautifully soft skin afterwards. That evening we walked along the beach at Morro bay and watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean whilst admiring the giant rock jutting out of the sea. The perfect end to day 2 on the road.

Morro Bay at sunset

Morro Bay at sunset

Driving Highway 1 – Morro Bay to Monterey
After another Mexican meal of huevos rancheros for breakfast we were set for a big day on the Big Sur. Our first stop was one of our favourites on the route, admiring the enormous elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

Due to the time of year we only saw the males as the females were out at sea apparently fishing for squid. We observed a few of the males practising some sparring techniques and heard from the ranger about their lifestyle breeding patterns. They really were incredible to watch and amazing to see such enormous creatures up close.

Elephant seals sparring

Elephant seals sparring

A little further up the road we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer State Park to find the McWay Falls where a waterfall tumbles off the cliff straight onto the beach.

Big Sur - McWay Falls

Big Sur – McWay Falls

It was really very pretty but given the long line for the car park, we think it might have been a little overhyped.. Similarly our Lonely Planet advised a stop to check out a cove about a mile’s walk down a steep path to a rocky beach. Again, very pretty but perhaps not worth the detour. Simply driving along the Big Sur (a long stretch of coastline rather than a particular place or beach) and taking in the impressive cliff tops and views out over the ocean are what makes this drive special. I couldn’t help but compare it to Australia’s Great Ocean Road which I’d driven with my Dad back in March. Both provide stunning scenery, wonderful view points, winding roads and unfortunately, lots of other tourists!

Bixby Creek Bridge - Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge – Big Sur

Things were looking up as we neared Monterey and decided to stop at Point Lobos State Park. The car parks were rather full but we secured a spot near the seal look out and sat on the rocks being greatly entertained by two gorgeous sea otters. We went for a stroll up around the look out and heard the sea lions barking at each other before we saw them. Not as up close and personal as the elephant seals we’d seen earlier in the day but on our way back a deer and fawn crossed right in front of us!
That evening we joined our next Servas hosts, Phillip and Heidi for drinks at their local with a few of their friendly colleagues. I enjoyed sampling a local Monterey white wine and then meeting the rest of the family including Ginger their wonderful Labrador-pitbull cross.
The next day we visited the Monetery Bay Aquarium, dodging the $40/person entrance fee as Heidi and Phillip were members! It was a little smaller than I expected however as a research and conservation organisation they had some excellent talks and feeding presentations.

Point Lobos state park

Point Lobos state park

We spent the afternoon back out at Point Lobos on a hike around the coastline where we saw more sea otters, birds, seals and deer. It was definitely my favourite State Park of those we visited and worth the $2 to get a map of the hiking trails.
We cooked Thai green chicken curry for the family that night followed by cranachan which all went down a treat. It was interesting to talk to Heidi and Phillip about their work and I was particularly interested in Phillip’s mediation technique – the game of 3 Rules.

Monterey was our last stop before dropping the car off in San Francisco. It was great to have a sense of independence which came with having our own car (even though it wasn’t a convertible mustang!), take in the rugged coastal beauty and see so much wildlife in their natural habitat. Highway 1 – a must do for road trippers but try and avoid going during school holidays!

A few days in Moscow

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A city of contradictions
Moscow is a city of contradictions. We arrived from St Petersburg via the fantastic high speed railway (expensive but worth it and great views across lakes and wetlands) and made our way to the metro to find our hotel. This involved going down really steep (and fast moving!) escalators but also a few stairs.

The metro stations of Moscow are beautiful. We did a self guided tour around the circle line and I was impressed that they have cleaning ladies attending to the art. Probably getting prepped for 2018..

The metro stations of Moscow are beautiful. We did a self guided tour around the circle line and I was impressed that they have cleaning ladies attending to the art. Probably getting prepped for 2018..

On two occasions, young men scooped up my bag at the bottom of the stairs and dashed up to the top with me hastily trying to keep up, unsure at first if this was theft or a kind deed. In a city where nobody smiles (this is seen as a sign of idiocy) and spoken English is a rarity, frowning, elderly women patiently helped us negotiate the metro, speaking slowly in Russian with lots of pointing. Apparently, once you scrape the surface of this huge city, the people are more friendly and seemed to appreciate our regular ‘spasiba’ (thank you) as they helped us.
The weather was another amazing contrast. One day we awoke to an intense thunder storm with crazy heavy rain. By lunchtime though the dark clouds had vanished and we were left with blue skies and sunshine. This happened on two of the three days we were there.
An expensive city
Moscow is also an expensive city. Despite the fall in the ruble, the exchange rate was not very favourable.. Fortunately, in order to obtain the complicated Russian tourist visa we’d had to organise accommodation in advance so had already paid for our lovely private hotel room at the great value and centrally located Mercure Arbat. The biggest tip off of our trip so far was on leaving Russia at Moscow airport. Unable to spot any water fountains once through security we bought a bottle of water each and Mitch had a cappuccino which cost us an extortionate $25! Mostly we ate at ‘fast food’ outlets or canteens where we paid between 500-750 rubles for a meal ($15-$20 AUD).

Enjoying lunch at Korshka Kartoshka

Enjoying lunch at Korshka Kartoshka

The food was quite satisfactory but we didn’t stumble across anything as good as we’d had in St Petersburg and we paid more. I quite liked the baked potatoes from Korshka Kartoshka which are served with the potato inside the jacket mashed up with cheese and butter and topped with a filling of your choice (feta and dill for me, chicken, ham and mushroom for Mitch). We also mistakenly sampled the national spirit, vodka, when ordering ‘honey mead’, which was extremely alcoholic but actually very tasty as vodka goes!

Icecream soviet style

Icecream soviet style

A good cheap snack to have a taste of the Soveit era is a cheap 50c ice cream from expensive department store rym gum.
A great city (but better in 3 years)
The free walking tour was excellent and our guide was fantastic. She was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and had the best sense of humour of all the Russians we’d encountered thus far. We learned that the government is already beginning to clear up the city in preparation for their controversial hosting of the 2018 football World Cup. Currently there isn’t a tourist information centre. Don’t worry, come back in 3 years and there will be. This flattened site with all the construction work? Come back in 3 years and it will be a beautiful park. Want a cheap hotdog from a street vendor? Too bad, they’ve already got rid of most of them as part of the clear up.
We also learned more about Russia’s pre Romanov history (which had been the focus in St Petersburg).

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square - beautiful design but would it save St Ivan's soul?

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square – beautiful design but would it save St Ivan’s soul?

Our guide entertained us with tales about Ivan the terrible (who was pretty terrible – he killed his own son and future tsar in one of his rages and apparently had the architects who designed and built the beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral blinded so they couldn’t recreate it elsewhere) and current events. For instance the flag was raised at the Kremlin supposedly indicating that Putin was home however we’d seen that he was in St Petersburg meeting the FIFA chief that day.. Our guide’s response: he is Putin, he is everywhere!

Lots of cool statues around the city, after missing out on seeing Lenin 'in the flesh' Mitch makes do with a statue

Lots of cool statues around the city, after missing out on seeing Lenin ‘in the flesh’ Mitch makes do with a statue

It was pretty hot at 32 degrees so we decided to have a walk around some of Moscow’s parks that afternoon to make the most of the good weather. Unfortunately we hadn’t taken into consideration that it was Sunday afternoon and many Muscovites had had the same thought so it was pretty packed! The sculpture park was excellent, amazing sculputures everywhere.

Awesome pirate ship - how come this doesn't appear on all of the postcards? So cool!

Awesome pirate ship – how come this doesn’t appear on all of the postcards? So cool!

Our favourite was a huge pirate boat with a sailor up the front. No idea who it was or what it was representing but just its sheer scale was incredible. We also enjoyed a wander around Gorky Park and a snooze in the shade.
A city of holidays
Given the forecast for rain we decided to visit the Museum for contemporary history or the Russian Revolution Museum on Monday morning. I was eager to find out more about the fall of the Romanov dynasty and about Lenin and Stalin’s rise to power. Unfortunately I’ll have to read about it myself as it turned out Monday’s are a holiday. Similarly, they give Lenin’s corpse a rest from the tourists on Monday and so Mitch was disappointed to miss the opportunity to visit the former soviet leader’s tomb.

View over Kremlin from St Ivan's Bell Tower

View over Kremlin from St Ivan’s Bell Tower

However, we were lucky to get tickets to Ivan The Great’s Bell Tower that afternoon which also gave us access to the grounds of the Kremlin. Surrounded by a 15 foot high red brick wall, the Kremlin is an imposing fortress. On a backpackers budget I think this is the best way to visit the Kremlin. It’s only 200 rubies per person and so long as you aren’t interested in visiting all of the church’s inside but happy to admire the architecture and magnificent golden onion topped domes from their exterior, tickets for the bell tower only are the way to go.. Climbing the Bell Tower gives a great birds eye view across the Kremlin complex and out across Moscow. It also gives you free access to the grounds and gardens.

Our primary purpose for visiting Moscow was to get the cheap Aeroflot flight to LA however I was surprised by how much I liked the city. It didn’t have the same atmosphere and beauty as St Petersburg, and I don’t feel the need to revisit but it’s worth a few days visit if you’ve gone to the effort of getting a Russian tourist visa!

Uncovering history, art and good food in St Petersburg

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St Petersburg, like Canberra was a planned city, the design of Peter the 1st, or the Great as he was commonly known, in the early 18th century. Peter was keen to build trade links with Europe and so he relocated the country’s capital to a former swampland and encouraged visitors to the city to bring stone with them, which was lacking in the area, for building.
We had a sketchy start to our arrival in Russia’s former capital after Air Berlin cancelled our direct flight, rerouted us through Moscow with only an hour to connect and re-check in our bags, so we missed our connection and eventually arrived at 2.35am, about 14 hours later than anticipated. Fortunately our hostel organised a taxi for us and he sped us through the empty streets whooshing through the puddles and delivered us to our door.
We stayed at Soul Kitchen Hostel which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It’s in a fantastic location in the centre of the city next to a canal and our four bed dorm had a double bed each(!) with curtains enclosing each bed for privacy and all of the extras useful for travellers. Most amusing was the toilet cubicles which had a sensor and played classical music!
History of the City
Despite our late arrival we got up in time for the free walking tour led by local lad Vlad the following morning. The tour started in the enormous Palace square with the imposing column honouring Alexander I for leading the victory over the French in 1814. At 47m it was deliberately designed to be higher than Napoleon’s column in Paris!
I was struck by the number of beautiful, imposing buildings on nearly every corner we passed on the tour. Apparently it was typical of the Baroque period to design large buildings with the purpose to impress. They certainly succeeded and the city is a visual delight.
You can’t visit the Palace Square without noticing the Hermitage which stretches along one side. It was the former winter palace of the Romanov Royal family and so alongside the opulent rooms is one of the world’s greatest art collections.

Atlas statues - original hermitage

Atlas statues – original hermitage

The original Hermitage is a smaller building next door which got its name as it was intended to be Catherine the Great’s ‘little escape’ and housed her private art collection.
Some other highlights of the tour included learning more about the history of Catherine and Peter ‘the Greats’. The Bronze Horseman Statute (so named after a Pushkin poem) was my favourite as the most impressive in the city.

Peter the Great statue

Peter the Great statue

It depicts Peter as the strong military leader atop his horse which is rearing over a serpent symbolising the crushing of Russia’s enemies. The statue was built 6 decades after Peter’s death and was commissioned by his granddaughter in law, Catherine. Catherine was a German princess who married Peter III (the Great’s grandson). He only ruled for a few months before some statesman who disliked his leadership, politics and heavy drinking backed Catherine for the throne and she overthrew him in a military coup. Peter was imprisoned and died ‘mysteriously’ a few months later while Catherine was empress for more than 3 decades. However, she wanted to be remembered as the legitimate ruler and heir of Peter the Great which is why she commissioned the statue in his honour but with an inscription to Peter and herself underneath.
We also learned about the underground metro system which goes deep under the city to navigate underneath the Neva River and some stations are up to 86m deep, involving a 7 minute journey down the escalators!
I also thought the history behind the name of the city was interesting. The original name, St Petersburg, combined Latin and German and continued until 1914. During World War One Germany and Austria were Russia’s enemies so it was decided to change the name to the more Russian sounding ‘Petrograd’. This only lasted a decade until 1924 when it was changed to Leningrad after the revolution. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that a referendum was held and it resumed its original name. I found it fascinating how the country’s wars and history determined these name changes.
Surprisingly Foodie City
We also learned about the story behind stroganoff. Count Stroganov was the head of a wealthy family and lived a long life, well into his 80s. He’d always appreciated good food but at such an age found himself missing a few teeth. He asked his chefs to create a dish that he could still enjoy and there was born stroganoff!
We had a tasty lunch of cabbage soup (much nicer than the stuff my mum ate for days as part of a diet some years ago) and some delicious Russian schnitzel pancake (I don’t know the actual name) which was like a veal schnitzel covered in egg and fried so it resembled a pancake.

Church of our Saviours Blood

Church of our Saviours Blood

After lunch we visited Our Saviours Church of Spilled Blood, a stunning Russian Orthodox Church with colourful facades and chimneys. It is named because it lies where Alexander II was assassinated by early Marxist radicals.
Making the most of the rare sunshine we continued exploring the city by foot for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed a stroll through numerous gardens, the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress and alongside the river. Feasting on the Russian cuisine

For dinner we ventured to the recommended Soviet Cafe to sample some more local cuisine in a restaurant decorated and furnished in 1970s soviet style. Of course we had to try borscht (beetroot soup) which was lovely and quite different from how I’ve had it before. Not a thick purée but a meat stock, packed with vegetables but still retaining the purple colour. It was complimented nicely by a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. Mitch washed this down with a glass of Kvas, a mildly sweet drink which is essentially a non alcoholic beer made from fermented rye bread. It is the old proletariat drink that the farmers and workers used to drink instead of water. I opted for birch juice, which was lightly flavoured and slightly sweet. This was followed by two Russian dishes whose names I have forgotten – a sizzling plate of roast potatoes, pork, onion and tomato, and crispy ham and mushroom pancakes with sour cream which were somewhat lacking in flavour and a bit greasy. We were tempted to carry on and find out what ‘drunken checkers: horseradish vs cranberry’ involved but after our late night opted to keep that a mystery.
Getting Arty
We visited the Hermitage the following afternoon with a tour guide organised through the same free walking tour company. Our guide, Tania, was fantastic. We were able to skip the long queues and actually find some of the more interesting pieces on display.

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage - a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great'so lover's

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage – a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great’so lover’s

The Hermitage is an enormous labyrinth and although we’re on a budget it was a great decision to go with a guide. She was also full of lots of anecdotes about the artists and the paintings and some of the myths and legends behind them. I was hesitant about visiting the Hermitage as I’m not a big art buff and was concerned we’d get lost in amongst the huge collection. Having been I can’t believe I considered skipping it. The palace rooms at the beginning are incredible. Many are lavishly decorated with gold and marble (interestingly they mixed the marble so as to create a warmer affect given the chilly Russian climate) and must be seen to be believed.
We had a short break after 3 hours with Tania and then visited the General Staff building across the square which houses a fantastic collection of the 20th century masters – Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Van Gough, Picasso..
We were tired and hungry after our arty afternoon but we joined the hordes of shoppers on the main avenue Nevsky Prospect and battled our way through until we found Pelmenya, a restaurant recommended for delicious dumplings not only Russian but with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian varieties.

Dumplings!

Dumplings!

We enjoyed sampling most of these and particularly liked the varenky, both sweet (cherry and sour cream) and savoury (filled with melted cheese served with a yogurt, garlic and dill sauce). The Russian variety – pelmeni, were ok but were filled with an unidentifiable minced meat (perhaps chicken) and not as tasty as the varenky or pumpkin and carrot manti. We also had a side of three varieties of sauerkraut: traditional, Georgian and Korean – all delicious! My only regret invisiting this restaurant was that we weren’t with a larger group to try more!
We had some time to kill before the infamous White Nights opening of the draw bridges which commences at 1.25am throughout summer so found ourselves a craft beer bar and sampled some of the local brew. They had some tasty pale ales but Mitch unwisely choose a cherry stout which was a little hard going! The draw bridge opening was as anticlimactic as expected and although it draws a large crowd both on land and from tourist boats I’d only recommend it if you happened to still be up and close to the river at that time.
On our last morning we loaded up with some snacks for the high speed train to Moscow. Highly recommended are the deeply filled pies from chain baker, Stolle (we had one mushroom and one green onion, really tasty and filling) and the traditional pyshka, Russian donuts.

I loved St Petersburg. Admittedly we were very lucky with the weather but I felt like the city had a really positive atmosphere, I was wowed by the architecture and surprised by how tasty the food was. After our flight hassles we only had two full days but I would highly recommend at least a long weekend in St Petersburg.

22-25 July 2015

This Is Saxony!

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Workaway
Unfortunately our plans to cycle for a week alongside the River Maine visiting wineries fell through and so we found a workaway host that was en route to spend some time with instead. Workaway is similar to wwoofing in that you stay with a host, work 5 days a week, 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It differs in that the work doesn’t have to involve organic farming. It can be anything that will be useful to the host (this is advertised on their online profile so you have some idea in advance) including gardening, cleaning, babysitting, teaching English, renovations etc.

An army of dogs
Our interest was peaked in our first host as it was described as a perfect stay for animal lovers, living in an old semi-converted mill helping to look after the 6 dogs and a few Icelandic ponies. One of the dogs had just had puppies so the work would also involve playing with them. This hardly sounded like work and we were soon booked in for 8 days in Saxony, near the border with Thuringen.

Our host picked us up from the train station and was lovely and chatty despite having slightly sketchy English. On arrival at the tiny village of langenleuba – oberhain (a small bakery and a hairdresser were the only services) we were greeted by an army of dogs. It turns out there were 8 adult dogs (two of them only a year old) and 6 puppies! Our host had been at work all day so they were super excited to see her.

In amongst the dog army

In amongst the dog army

Now, I would describe myself as an animal lover, and a definite dog person but when you’ve got 4 Scottish setters, 2 Great Danes and 6 puppies jumping up and barking all around you and you’re trying to get into the courtyard and not let them out, while carrying your luggage, even I was a little overwhelmed!

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army - Cora and Ido

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army – Cora and Ido

I thought we would never learn all of the dogs names but we came to love Schmoozy, Ido, Leisel, Mina, Ricky, Dicky, Fronnie and especially little Cora – the chiwawa which made me change my mind about handbag dogs!
We were pleased to have a room with a little living room off it at the top of the mill which was a dog free zone and a nice haven for some quiet at the end of the day.

Sunset view from our bedroom window

Sunset view from our bedroom window

We also got lovely sunsets across the fields from up there.

The work
The mill and outbuildings were huge and only a few of the rooms had been renovated to living standards. We spent a day clearing out the loft area above the horses stables which was full of old boxes, tools, horse harnesses, milk pails, junk and stuff that looked like it been there since the 18th century. Everything was really dusty, there were cobwebs everywhere and I was charged by a few spiders released from under boxes. It was not a fun job and I’m not sure our ‘beats being at work’ slogan applied on that day!

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Mostly though our work involved grooming the horses, mucking out their field and stable, fixing fences, building up new electric fences, moving hay and trying to help clear out some courtyards. We also helped a local farmer one day to shovel and move 8 tonnes of horse manure. Our host was lovely and clearly genuinely loved all of her animals but as a single person with a demanding full time job we felt like she’d possibly taken on too much with the property and continual acquirement of animals.

Job done - 8 tonnes of manure moved

Job done – 8 tonnes of manure moved

We helped her get by but we were mostly doing daily chores and so we were left feeling unsatisfied and somewhat melancholy about how unsustainable the arrangement was. She had no time to walk the dogs so they were always hyper and when we ventured out with them (only five, not the whole lot) I nearly got my arm ripped off as they tore through the gate, so excited to be out and then they constantly pulled on the lead. I think in this situation, love for the animals was not enough, our host needed more time for them. She also didn’t have much time for us, not that we minded too much, but we mostly organised our own meals and rarely ate together as she was home from work quite late. We did cook for them once (with the minimal ingredients we could find!) which consisted of kartoffel puffe (potato cakes) and home made apple sauce.

An outing
There were some highlights from our trip there though. We had a sunny Sunday afternoon off and our host offered to take us with her neighbour to a beer Keller in the next town.

At the beer kellar

At the beer kellar

We jumped at the chance as in Bamburg our servas hosts had explained that kellars didn’t really exist anymore and when we saw signs for them it generally meant a beer garden. After a hot morning of physical work mucking out the inquisitive Shetland ponies a few beers in the sun sounded perfect. Little did we know how random our outing was to be.. Our first clue was being advised to bring a jumper as the kellar may be cold. Hmm, strange given that it was 30 degrees outside. We arrived at a lovely looking pub in Penig and were given hard hats and taken down, down, down underground to a genuine beer cellar, used in the 15th century for storage! It was about 9 degrees down there so pretty chilly and the whole experience was quite bizarre given that after establishing that we only spoke English, the guide proceeded to give the whole tour in German with no translation from our hosts! We understood bits and pieces, it was interesting but really, quite strange.
Saxony - Amerika train stationThe theme continued with our next stop – Amerika! The hamlet seemed to consist of a disused train station and an American flag and a pub. We only stayed about five minutes because there really wasn’t much there.

We also had fun being in the Saxon countryside where the dialect was really strong. Mitch’s German is basic but usually he can gleam an understanding of what people were saying whereas in Saxony, it really was another language.

So it really wasn’t all bad, in fact, mostly we had a good time, it just wasn’t what we had expected from workaway. Having just spent 10 days at our second workaway we can definitely say that each experience is very different as we had a fantastic time there. More about that soon.