Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Adventure Travel in Mexico's Copper Canyon

Just one of the fabulous views in the Copper Canyon

If the beaches of Mexico are a little too touristy for your liking, not to mention reminiscent of a bad MTV spring break special, you will want to head further north in your search for relaxation and adventure. The Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, offers endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, rafting, and more, in an area that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

The Barranca del Cobre is a series of interconnected canyons located in the state of Chihuahua, part of the Sierra Madre range. Claims in guidebooks vary from its being four to more than seven times larger than its US rival. So remote are parts of the region that the area was not properly mapped until 1986. Today, it remains blissfully serene, home to the Tarahumara, Mexico’s largest native population, who have lived here for thousands of years. Instantly recognizable by their colorful clothing and distinctive footwear, they continue to live in dwellings that are built into the sides of the canyon walls.

Tarahumara homes in the canyon walls

Your trip will undoubtedly begin in the small town of Creel, known to tourists as the gateway to the Copper Canyon region. In addition to a few small hotels and a town square that provides delightful opportunities for people watching, you will find a number of shops geared towards the adventure traveler. Here you can rent mountain bikes, buy maps, and find a guide. The cost of renting a fully equipped mountain bike for one day is about 180 pesos ($14), a small price to pay for what is considered some of the best and most challenging biking in the world. The 50 kilometer la Onza, (Copper Canyon Race) attracts hundreds of racers every July, as does the Cristo Rey race in September. 

Street in Creel

If rock climbing or rappelling are more to your liking, there are some excellent opportunities within a short drive of Creel. In fact, the Cueva de Leones offers some of the best hard climbing in the region, all within walking distance of town. But remember, a map is essential if you plan to explore the area without a guide. Trails are not signposted; they simply branch off in every direction – a spider web of pathways across thousands of square miles. To hike to the bottom and back will take several days so be sure to have sufficient food and a means of purifying water. A better option is to join one of the guided trips that are available - Amigo Trails Travel and Umarike Expeditions both have offices in Creel.

Trails vary from short and relatively easy day rides (or hikes) to extremely strenuous multi-day trips. If you choose one of the latter, whether on foot or on bike, be sure that you are fit enough to manage the changes in altitude. In addition to the risk of minor altitude sickness (the canyons range in depth from a little over 4000 feet to 6100 feet), trips to the base frequently involve tricky river crossings. The area’s remoteness means this is no time for false bravado. However, hiking is one of the best ways to experience the canyon’s magnificent vistas and to truly sense their greatness.

Whatever means you choose to make your way through the Canyon, you will be treated to a wonderful glimpse of life untouched. Home to more than 290 species of birds, it is a twitcher’s paradise. Waterfalls and incredible rock formations lay seemingly at every turn, and you will often see deer and black bears. This is one trip where you will definitely want to have your camera with you. 

Mulatto tree - one example of the fascinating flora within the canyon

The Copper Canyon is a largely unspoiled, natural wonder that offers adventure seekers a chance to enjoy the excitement and the beauty of one of North America’s lesser known treasures. From scenic vistas to rocky trails, the Copper Canyon is one trip you won’t forget.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Finding Freedom Through Travel

            Picture yourself in the following scenario…. You are in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language and you stand out visually, Japan for example. You have just moved there, not to a big city, but to a small rural area and after your first week, you bravely decide to take the train into the regional city. There is only one train line and it runs right outside your apartment so getting to the city is not a problem. You spend an afternoon wandering around, looking in the shops and taking in the sights, always aware that you, as an outsider, are being stared at. You even end up sharing your lunch with a dreadlocked homeless man in the park, finding comfort in a joint sense of non-belonging. When it is time to go home, you face a problem. There are six train platforms and the maps and directions are all in Japanese. It looks very impressive but you have no idea what any of it means, other than the fact that you can’t get home.

            What do you do?

            Of course, being an international traveling soul, you don’t panic. You pull out your phrase book, repeat the necessary words in your mind several times and then approach a little old lady, tap her on the shoulder and politely ask for directions. She turns, looks up at you, throws her arms in the air and runs away screaming. “Gaijin!” “Foreigner!”

            That was my introduction to Japan.

            My husband, who is the same height as me at 5ft 6 liked to say that in Japan he was tall. If he was tall, I was Godzilla, stomping through the mountains of a country that was far too small for me. Looking back at photographs of the local women’s group I taught, I see a row of women who barely reach my shoulders. I tower over them like a giant sumo, ready to pick them off one by one for a snack. I remember trying to buy some slippers once, only to find that delicate Japanese shoes were far too dainty for my gargantuan feet and all that would fit my size 8.5s was a pair of men’s sandals.

            I soon discovered though that being an outsider, an apparently giant one at that, was actually very freeing. Living in a tiny town, people knew my every move – who came to visit, who I visited, what I bought etc. Everything I did was seen as evidence of how Westerners lived. I was asked if I owned a gun because they had seen on TV that all Americans own a gun. As a Western woman, I was considered headstrong, clearly rebelling against my parents since I had moved overseas. (Another assumption was that I would be rather promiscuous, again based on movies and American TV). A gun-toting, rebellious, harlot. In fact, I was an incredibly shy, English girl, just out of college.

            So how could it be considered freeing when my neighbors were constantly observing my every move? After a few months of living in my tiny Japanese town, I realized that no matter what I did, everyone would think it was just crazy foreign behavior. When I wore short sleeves in April (before “official” summer weather), I was a strange foreign woman. When I danced on my balcony during my first typhoon, enjoying the rain after the hot, humid summer, I was that eccentric Westerner. When we sang Christmas carols on the train on December 25th, we were crazy gaijin.

            If you are going to be considered eccentric or crazy, whatever you do, then why does it matter what you do?

            I’m not saying that I behaved irresponsibly, or broke the law, or anything like that, but I did learn to worry less about what others would think.

            Sometimes, I was pleasantly surprised by Japanese reactions to my new found freedom as well. An impromptu roadside snowball fight while traffic was backed up in a snowstorm drew cheers from other motorists and a brave few even joined in. When my boyfriend asked for a kiss and I obliged, we were suddenly interrupted by a coach load of middle-aged women who erupted into a chorus of cheers and claps. During my final year there, I traveled with my husband (boyfriend at the time) to Kyoto. After an odd New Years Eve that included a Japanese Country Western bar, and the standard trip to the temple, we came across a choir by an outdoor fountain. As midnight struck, fireworks went off and the choir sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As is typical for Westerners at New Year, my boyfriend and I hugged and kissed, only to find the crowd around us staring in amazement. I hugged one of them and wished them a Happy New Year. Suddenly, one by one, they each turned to their partners and started hugging. We spent the next half hour laughing and drinking hot rice tea with them. The evening remains one of my favorite memories. It seemed that my new freedom was perhaps giving my Japanese neighbors an opportunity to do something a little out of the ordinary too. For just a second, it allowed them to break out of society’s strictures.

At the Sapporo Snow Festival

            Ten years after leaving Japan, I wish I could say that I no longer get embarrassed by anything but that would be a lie. I am far less shy than I used to be thought and I now appreciate the value in worrying a little bit less about what others might think. Who knew feeling restricted could be so freeing?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Danville, KY - Small Town American Charm

I first heard of Danville in Japan of all places. I was dating Nic (now my husband) and he mentioned that his stepdad worked at the radio station there. Just a few months later, while perusing a book of the best 100 small towns in America, lo and behold - there was Danville again!

Summer evening in Danville

It seems we were fated.

Once I moved to the US, and eventually Kentucky, I became more familiar with the town, visiting the Pioneer Playhouse, Constitution Square, and other local landmarks. I decided the book had probably been right. Danville seemed like a very nice place.

Ten years later, and Danville has undergone quite a renaissance. It's become an even more lively town, thanks to liquor laws. Coming from Europe and a liberal, social attitude towards drinking, the concept of dry and wet counties is something of a bizarre novelty to me. It seems amusing to note which are the dry counties in Kentucky - you can always tell by the presence of a liquor store just across the neighboring county line.

When Danville voted to change its liquor laws a few years ago, I heard from relatives that this could bring a bad element into the pleasant, college town. On the contrary, it has led to the birth of a new Main Street. No longer do the doors all close at the end of the regular business day. Now, Main Street stays alive into the evening with a wonderful selection of new bars and restaurants.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to experience some of the new dining choices in Danville when the Kentucky Food Bloggers were invited to tour some of the local businesses. A huge thanks must go out to Adam and Amandalin from the Danville/Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau for being incredible guides.

Our first stop of the evening was V-the Market.

I thought that Lexington had some great outlets for buying liquor, wine, and gourmet cheeses, but this could put the best of them to shame. Mary Robin is knowledgeable about the products she has in store, and is quick to advise customers about suitable pairings. In addition to several ales, we also sampled a blue goat cheese, Lincolnshire Poacher (similar to a white Cheddar), and some prosciutto di parma that melted in my mouth. Goat cheese is something I have only recently come to appreciate, but this was delightful. I have already sent my father-in-law back to buy more of the delicious Life and Limb ale that we tasted.

I'm sure I'll be visiting again soon to see what cheeses are in store and to further explore their extensive wine and bourbon selections.
V-the Market has an extensive selection of craft beers and imports.
Some of the bourbons available at V-the Market
The new lounge area at V-the Market is nearing completion.

From V-the Market, we crossed the street to Mermaids. This charming restaurant may not have been open for long, but it is already making quite a splash on the Kentucky restaurant scene. Earlier this year, Mermaids won the Outstanding Dining Experience Award at the TourSEKY "Experience the Bloom" Awards.

Mermaids co-owner Kelly took the time to chat with us. Among the first to see the potential for a restaurant in Danville should the new liquor laws be passed, Kelly had his license application ready to submit as soon as the City Hall doors opened.

The menu celebrates locally grown and produced foods. We tried some local steak, shrimp in prosciutto, and Ahi tuna wrapped in greens and cucumber with a dash of wasabi. There were also drinks a-plenty - the restaurant's signature punch, sprinkled with nutmeg, and their Porch Punch - as we admired the fabulous blue-lit bar. The decor is particularly noteworthy. With ice blue and white, it would have been very easy for the resulting effect to be cold; instead, Mermaids manages to make the combo feel rather cozy. Mermaids is now on my list of romantic dinner locations, although it is equally suited to cocktails and appetizers with friends.

Bubbles the Mermaid
The next stop was where Adam reminded us of his earlier warning to pace ourselves. There was food and lots of it at 303W on Main Street. The rich wooden interior of this pool hall and bar reminded me of a 1920s
speakeasy. Whether you want to watch the football game, play pool or darts, hang out with the locals or meet friends for a beer, 303W is the perfect place. Relaxed, laid back - what more do you need from a bar?

And there's food. Good, simple bar food. Wings. Pretzel bread sticks with pimento cheese. Beer cheese. Cheese sticks. It was hard not to just eat everything here. In fact, I think we all staggered out, wondering how much more we would be able to eat. But still three more stops....

Yummy Pretzel Bread
Appetizer Selection
On to Bluegrass Pizza and Pub. Much as I like pizza, I am pretty picky about it. I don't mind if it's deep-dish, thin crust, hand tossed, etc, but I do dislike most of the chain pizza places because they are so greasy. On the few occasions when I go out for pizza, I tend to go to the smaller, privately owned places where I can enjoy good quality, handmade pizza. Bluegrass Pizza and Pub is now on that list.

Cheesy Bread

Mediterranean Pizza from Bluegrass Pizza and Pub
It is small, and therefore it gets crowded very quickly, but if you want a friendly place with beer and absolutely divine pizza, this would be my first recommendation.The pizzas are huge (and grease free). We split a Mediterranean, piled high with artichokes, olives, red onion, and chicken, and some bread sticks. There was still plenty for our hosts to take home as leftovers.

And what could be better after pizza than beer? Danville is developing a bit of a reputation as a spot for craft brewers, thanks in part to the Beer Engine. If you didn't know it was here, it would be all too easy to miss pass this bar completely. It's back off the street, in a secluded parking lot. Take a close look at the tables and you'll see why. This used to be a bowling alley (the former floorboards were used to make some pretty spiffy tables).

The owners offered us samples of several beers, some brewed on site. Although the Nut Brown was a bit strong for my beer tastes, I adored the honey ale and the Dogfish Head Peche. Everything is available on tap; no bottles here. With the variety available, you are sure to find a brew to your liking.

And finally, we all collapsed in the comfy chairs at The Hub, Danville's favorite coffeeshop. We had eaten; we had drunk; and we were merry after a jolly evening of tasty treats and fun conversation. Yet despite our full bellies, we still managed to find room for cupcakes from The Twisted Sifter.

Champagne and Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes

Then, laden with gift bags of goodies from Burke's Bakery and Karamel Kreations, I made my way home. But I can definitely say I will be back. After all, I still have a whole lot of eating to do in Danville!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Ashley-Drake Historic Inn, Franklin, IN

It goes without saying that travel doesn't have to mean weeks off work, hours at the airport, and miles of road between you and home. Sometimes, all you need is a weekend break to recharge your batteries. And if that's the case, I highly recommend hitting the road to find a taste of small town America.

Franklin, Indiana is one such town. Located between Indianapolis and Louisville, it is one of my favorite small towns in the Midwest. A few days there makes you feel as if you've stepped back to the days when everyone knew everyone else. The local movie theater, the Historic Artcraft has been restored to its former glory and features Saturday night classics, complete with popcorn and audience participation. When we attended a screening of A Christmas Story in December, my parents were delighted to win a prize for having traveled furthest to see the movie. To be fair, they had flown from England to celebrate Thanksgiving with us, but they were the only Brits in the place.

Rather than staying in Indianapolis, make Franklin your base and reserve a room at the Ashley-Drake. This gorgeous old house is just across the road from Franklin College, and is within easy walking distance of the downtown square. Owners Kim and Craig will make you feel incredibly welcome, so much so that you might be quite content to stay there all day!

The Garden Room at the Ashley-Drake

With just four rooms, you will never have that overcrowded hotel feeling. Both of my stays have been in the upstairs Garden Room with its wonderful claw-foot bathtub. Other rooms are the Depot Room, complete with all the train memorabilia any enthusiast could ask for; the Heritage Room, which if memory serves had a beautiful kimono on display; and the Liberty Room, bedecked in Stars and Stripes for a true taste of Americana. All rooms have a private bathroom and breakfast is also included in your stay.

The Depot Room at the Ashley-Drake

Breakfast deserves a mention as Kim provides a feast to make sure you won't starve. Omelets, bacon, waffles, pancakes, fresh fruit, biscuits and gravy...simply fill out the request form the night before and wake up to the most delicious smells wafting from the kitchen.

One of the fountains in the front garden of the Ashley-Drake, frozen by the November snows.

Several living rooms and a wonderful garden provide plenty of privacy and space for relaxing during your stay. I just wish I could visit the Ashley-Drake every weekend!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Stumbling on the Unexpected

Sometimes when you're traveling, the most memorable times are those when you discover something without any planning at all. Example: the Point Reyes Lighthouse on the California coastline.

During a trip to San Francisco, I remembered hiking in Marin County many years earlier. It was with that in mind, that we decided to drive north with little more than a map to guide us. As the coastline grew wilder and more desolate, the hermit in me fell in love with the area. Finally, feeling as if we should have a destination, I noticed a lighthouse on the map and suggested we make our way their. My father in law loves lighthouses, so we could take some pictures for him.

Just when it felt as if we had reached the end of the world, we came across a small parking lot. Trees had grown horizontally across the path, a testament to the strong winds that beset this part of the coast. We stopped at the small ranger station before heading down the steps to the lighthouse. It was at this point that hubby, a huge film buff, suggested that this all seemed very familiar. Could this be the lighthouse featured in one of our favorite films - John Carpenter's The Fog? Nothing in the ranger station display seemed to suggest this and surely it would be mentioned somewhere?

On we continued, down the two hundred or so steps. The wind picked up, and one could imagine the light of this tiny beacon, sending warning to those out on the rough seas. Incidentally, if you're wondering why the lighthouse was below cliff level rather than on top, it was so the light could be seen below the fog.

After spending a little time exploring and bracing ourselves for the hike back up the steps, we took a few more photos and began the drive back to San Francisco. I decided that, much as I loved the isolation, I could do without the wind. My search for the perfect hermitage continues. We did however feel most satisfied to later learn that this was indeed the site of filming for a highly recommended movie.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Winchester House

Since childhood, I have had a fascination with the paranormal and so I typically try to include a ghost walk or a visit to a purported haunted house in many of my trips. With that in mind, when I visited San Francisco a few years ago, a drive down to San Jose to visit the Winchester Mystery House was a must. The house is well-known to viewers of the Travel Channel, the History Channel, SyFy, and so on so I won't delve too deeply into its history, except to say that it was built over a period of 38 years by Sarah Winchester, widow and heir to the rifle fortune. Guided through her grief by psychics, she was convinced she must continually add to the mansion so as to appease the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. Doors lead to walls, stairs to ceilings, and there are believed to be rooms which remain unreachable. The above picture shows the Door to Nowhere, so called because it opens to...space.

The house and gardens are absolutely fascinating. Being used to massive English estates, I always find it interesting when houses such as this are literally on a main road, most of the surrounding land having been sold off over the years. Guides lead you through the house, highlighting the seance room, the many fireplaces, and features that were extremely modern at the time they were installed (including indoor plumbing, forced air, elevators). I'll be honest, as oddly misshapen as the house is, I actually thought it would be wonderful to live there.

But is it haunted?
Obviously, I can't say without a shadow of a doubt. I can only give my impressions, and those impressions are that at no time did I sense anything out of the ordinary or otherworldly. Rather, I came away suspecting it had the haunted reputation because of its unusual style and history.

Was Mrs Winchester the victim of charlatans who took advantage of her grief? Or was she really receiving messages from the spirit world? Who can say? 

All I can say is that the Winchester House is definitely worth a visit. I fell in love with the gardens, and the house is an incredible reminder of the power of grief.

Friday, June 10, 2011


We all have times when we need to get away from it all, wherever we happen to live, which is how I ended up taking the train from my home in Yamanashi, Japan down to Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula. I stayed in a small hostel, ate at little local restaurants, and spent my days wandering, observing, exploring.

Some people might shy away from eating alone, but one of my fondest memories is of wandering into a small eatery with my Jane Austen book tucked under my arm. No one else was in there, and the chef brought me a bowl of creamy risotto and a glass of wine. A little while late, he brought the bottle and another glass. We drank together and enjoyed a peaceful, relaxing evening, watching the sun go down from the diner window.

Another day, I took a boat around the coast to see the dolphins. After disembarking, I hiked to a park filled with tropical flowers of the most beautiful colors. I ate mango and papaya,so juicy it dribbled down my chin. Then I hopped on a bus, just hoping that eventually it would reach Shimoda.

Shimoda is also home to a wonderful little temple, which is an unlikely home to a sex museum. Follow the path shown above, and a little old obaa-san will point you to the museum. In one room is a collection of watercolors, illustrating the tragic story of Okichi-san, the real-life inspiration for Madame Butterfly. Driven mad by love and abandonment, she eventually drowned herself in a nearby stream. Walking along streets that have changed little in the past hundred years, I envisioned the tragic scene, framed in a carpet of sakura.

In the other room at the museum, you will find an incredible array of phalluses, from a few millimeters to six feet high. Fans of Blackadder will also be pleased to note the selection of pickled vegetables in erotic shapes.

Tragedy and wink-wink erotica. Truly Japanese.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tarahumara Girl

The sun helped to lessen the chill of the late December afternoon as we started down the rocky path from our hotel, which stood on the edge of the Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon. Turning a corner, we saw a young Tarahumara girl. She held out her hands to reveal several quartz rocks. We agreed to buy two in return for a photograph; after selecting our rocks and exchanging money, she solemnly posed for the camera.

Continuing down the trail, we were aware of her following us, no doubt heading to the row of tiny houses below. Sensing her frustration at being behind two dawdling tourists, we moved to one side so that she could pass.

As if a tiny dynamo had been triggered, she was off… hopping, skipping, racing over the uneven rocks with the agility of a mountain goat. My husband and I watched in amazement, impressed by her speed.

Suddenly, the girl stopped, now some one hundred yards or so along the trail. She turned, glanced up at us, and in a moment I will never forget, broke into an enormous grin. Laughing, she turned and continued on her journey as we ambled behind.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Open Air Rodin

San Francisco is one of my favorite US cities to visit. Although it offers a wide variety of museums to please every art palate, it is still worth taking the short drive to the Stanford University campus near Palo Alto to visit the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. Collections at the museum range from African tribal pieces to European nineteenth century paintings.
The piece de resistance of the museum is the Rodin collection. I loved studying Rodin when I was in school so this was a little bit of art heaven. Visitors can wander through the Rodin Sculpture Garden where bronze castings of his works mingle with sandstone and trees to create a stunning visual landscape, of which The Gates of Hell is the focal piece. The collection, the largest of its kind, continues inside the museum with multiple works including The Kiss, studies for his sculpture of Balzac and, of course, The Thinking Man.
The Cantor Center is open to the public from 11am to 5pm Wednesdays through Sundays (open until 8pm on Thursdays). There is no admission charge.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where It All Started

Ramsgate Harbor

If I'm going to have a blog about my travels, and some of my favorite places, it makes sense to start with where I grew up. If you look at a map of the UK and find London, then follow the coastline out to the tip of the southeastern point, you find Thanet. Once an island in its own right before the channel silted up, Thanet is still affectionately referred to by residents as Planet Thanet.

Ramsgate, my hometown, is on the south side of the isle. Above you can see the harbor, marina, and part of the old Regency period coastline. It's from this harbor that I used to gaze across the English Channel toward France, dreaming of places I would one day visit. It's from the harbor that I watched the little ships return from Dunkirk in their reenactments of the World War II evacuations. The harbor remains my favorite place to visit when I am home, but to this day I wonder if it is because of the area or because of the freedom the sea promises.