Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Ups and Downs of LA

Griffith Park in LA. No idea who the guy is - he wandered in and posed as I took it!

I have been to LA twice in my life and it's one city that leaves me with very mixed feelings. For me, it is a stressful city to visit, and a large part of that stress is caused by the traffic. I have a rule that I do not drive in Los Angeles. Not gonna do it.
That leaves Nic to deal with those hassles while I navigate.

Our recent trip to LA had the added stress of involving family. My parents, my sister, her husband, and their kids flew to California, spent a week at Disney and Palm Springs, and then drove up to LA where we met them for the second week.

Now don't get me wrong. It was great to see them. In fact, with just 5 real days for doing stuff, it wasn't long enough. But a group of 8 people, ranging in age from 7 to 64, with vastly different likes and dislikes, not to mention two vehicles and GPS that became decidedly squiffy for the last few days... it adds up to a certain amount of stress.

Long Beach is a beautiful spot to spend a summer evening
Here I am going to share my favorite spots to spend some time in and around LA.

1. Long Beach.

Visit the Aquarium, dine, shop, and enjoy a stroll with some beautiful scenery. Gorgeous area.

2. Toi on Sunset. Great place to eat. We ate here the first time I visited LA and made sure to come back this time. Best of all, it had a great array of vegetarian options for my niece. (We were surprised what poor veggie options many restaurants had). Go for the vibe. Go for the food.


Santa Monica. When the city gets me stressed, I need to be by the sea. Santa Monica pier had plenty of attractions for the kids, the beach was clean. We came back a few days later to meet a friend at one of the nearby restaurants in the 3rd St area. I love Santa Monica.

Incidentally, we also visited Venice Beach. Interesting for people watching and the sight of my 7 year old niece busting through the bodybuilders at Muscle Beach to play on their equipment was awesome. However, my other niece felt distinctly uncomfortable and the area doesn't have anything like the family friendly feel of Santa Monica.

Santa Monica Beach
4. Carousels. Santa Monica Pier, LA Zoo, Long Beach, Ventura County Fair... I lost track of the number of carousels my niece rode on. She loved them all.

5. Yes, I mentioned the Ventura County Fair. By the end of the week, I needed out of city space so we drove up to Oxnard for the fair. Tons of fun. Plenty of fresh air. Pig racing. Deep fried Oreos. And of course a drive back to LA via the...

6. Pacific Coast Highway. Perfect for breathtaking views of the ocean.

Stop off at the Reel Inn in Malibu to soak up the atmosphere while enjoying a beer and some seafood.

7. Go whale-watching. We took a two-hour trip with LA Waterfront. While we didn't see any whales, we did find ourselves in a large pod of dolphins. Again, the 7 year old had a (pardon the pun) whale of a time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Art Viewing in Vegas

I've been meaning to put these photos up since our trip to Las Vegas last summer. Staying off-strip in the Fremont Street area allowed us to see and experience so much more than lots of people I've spoken to who spend all their time on the strip. Case in point: all of this fabulous street art. The old downtown area is chockablock with some of the most wonderful and creative murals. Take the time to go for a stroll and enjoy the free exhibits.

And finally... on that just has so much going on, I'm not sure where to begin. Rabbits, cabbages, a rifle, and a scantily clad woman around the corner to complete the scene. Whatever way you look at it, you've got to love the Vegas street art!

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Little Bit of Chocolate Heaven

So you walk around a few little side streets in Central London, and you come across a little, rather unassuming corner store. But when you step inside, you see this:

And one more thing... it's all chocolate.

Welcome to Choccywoccydoodah!

A magnificence of chocolate!
I had never heard of this place until a year or two ago when my sister ordered a birthday cake for my niece. She sent me the link to something so decadently chocolatey and elaborate, I nearly drooled over my keyboard.

It seems the business is based in Brighton, but they also have a small shop/cafe in London. I could tell you about them but honestly, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. This isn't a simple piece of molded chocolate; this is pure art.

We stopped off at the London store while we were in town to see Les Mis. And since we had an hour or two before the show, what better place for lunch. We made our way upstairs to the cafe area, fortunately beating the crowd. Within half an hour there was a line up the stairs and a rope was in place to prevent more gathering.

Now let's make one thing clear, when I say lunch. This place is a mecca of chocolate. Do not, as one unsuspecting gent did, make the mistake of asking if there are salads or sandwiches served. Are they made of chocolate? Of course not.

The menu consists of various types of hot chocolate, all made with pure creamy ... you guessed it. There are also shakes, sundaes, dipping pots, and cake. Make no mistake - we were there for the cake!

Each of us enjoyed a mug of chocolatey goodness, piled high with cream and marshmallows. But then we had to choose our cake. So many triple-layered choices all laid out on the table. I went for an amaretto sponge with praline truffle filling; my sister chose the lemon champagne; my niece the triple chocolate, and my mum... by this point I was in a sweet-induced coma of happiness and so I don't remember what she ordered. Rum and raisin! She had rum and raisin chocolate cake!

All I can say is: the cake was beyond delicious. And it was a good thing we had a bit of a walk to the theatre, to burn off a few of those calories and to make sure we didn't fall into a delicious doze. I will say nothing more but leave you with pictures.

Just a few of the choices - can I have one of everything?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Reculver and Wantsum

Reculver against a winter sky

If you happen to find yourself visiting Kent and driving down the Thanet Way, you may find yourself glancing across to the sea and wondering about that old tower you see. The one that looks like the remains of something once much larger.

What you are seeing is the Reculver Towers, and they have been part of the Kent landscape since Roman times. Now maintained by English Heritage, Reculver Towers have a long history, dating back to the days when the Isle of Thanet was indeed an island.

Centuries ago, the land that is now occupied by Ramsgate, Margate, and Broadstairs, was separated from the English mainland by the Wantsum Channel.

The Romans built two forts to guard against Saxon raids: one at Reculver and one at the other end of the seaway in Richborough. Many years later, in the 7th century, the site became a monastery, part of St. Augustine's mission to bring Christianity to the British Isles.

The land seen here to the right beyond the ruins was once an ancient seaway.
Map showing the old Wantsum Channel

By the 12th century, the Wantsum Channel was starting to silt. Boat traffic lessened because of the difficulty in navigating what was becoming marshland. Also at this time, the towers were repurposed again, becoming a church for the people of Reculver.

Fast forward another 400 years, and what was left of the Wantsum was drained and turned into farmland. Ramsgate and Margate were now part of the mainland. All that remains of the waterway now is a narrow river. But the towers at Reculver still stand tall on the landscape, accompanied by headstones and graves from the 1700s, when it was still a parish church.

Reculver is open to visitors free of charge and is a popular Sunday afternoon walk destination.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ramsgate: Above and Below

One of my favourite sights - Ramsgate Harbour.
Yes, this was taken in December!

I have recently returned from a five-and-a-half week trip to Ramsgate, in the South-East of England, to spend Christmas with my family.

Returning home is always an odd thing after so many years living elsewhere. On the one hand, it is and will always be home and I feel comfortable as soon as I am there. On the other hand, it has undergone changes during my absence and so a part of me feels like an outsider.

Ramsgate Beach, the morning of New Year's Eve.
One of my favourite things about being back is the ability to walk... somewhere... anywhere! Living in Lexington, opportunities for walking are limited unless you first drive somewhere with a walking trail. I can walk in my small subdivision and then no further because there are no pavements to link us to the next subdivision, and so on.

But in Ramsgate, every morning I could go on a long walk through old neighborhoods, ending up at either the East Cliff or the West Cliff, then winding my way down to the harbour and back up through the town. A three or four mile walk with a dose of refreshing sea air. Walking is just easier and more pleasant there.

One of the windier days on the cliffs.
This time back in Ramsgate, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of the old archway spaces alongside the harbour have been renovated and reopened into coffee shops, bars, and art galleries. In the summer, I expect it's a beautiful spot to sit and watch the boats come and go.

The Phoenix Queen - an artist's houseboat that resides in
Ramsgate Harbour

This was also my first time home since the opening of the wartime tunnels and so, a few days after our arrival, Nic and I made our way along there before they closed for the Christmas season.

The entrance to the Ramsgate Tunnels

Growing up in Ramsgate, I always knew about the labyrinth of tunnels that wound their way under the town and through the surrounding cliffs. Some - used by smugglers centuries ago -connected caves at Pegwell to long-forgotten outlets in Manston. Others were more recent - former railway tunnels, and those used as shelters during World War II. With entrances scattered around town, some intrepid explorers made their way down from time to time to see what remained.

The entrance shown in the photo was originally part of a railway tunnel, built in 1863 for the railway line that served to bring daytrippers down to the Ramsgate sands, dropping them off just feet from the beach. The railway line is now long gone, the main station having relocated to more than a mile away.

A replica of a typical family's living quarters in the tunnels.
In the late 1930s, as it became clearer that Hitler's advances in Europe would lead to war, the town's mayor put in a request to the British government that a series of shelters and tunnels be built beneath the town. Ramsgate's position on the coast made it a clear target. Despite several refusals, the go-ahead was eventually given and construction began. Although originally intended to provide short-term shelter, the tunnels would end up becoming home for many families, displaced by repeated air raids or the bombing of their homes.

For the last few decades, a group of dedicated locals have tried to get support for reopening parts of the tunnels as a museum. Finally, in 2014, the Ramsgate Tunnels opened. At present, a little over a mile of tunnels are open. It is hoped that more might eventually be cleared and made safe for visitors. Sadly, despite the opening of the wartime military HQ under Dover Castle, the secret wartime Navy base under Ramsgate (HMS Fervent) is expected to remain off limits for the foreseeable future.

The original signage for the tunnel railway.

The tunnels hold particular interest to me, not just because of their location in my hometown but also because of their connections with my dad's family. The museum features photos of his dad, who served in North Africa, and of other ancestors who were instrumental in the town's early lifeboat rescue service. Other family members operate the tea room, while another served as our tour guide.

After watching a short video, we donned our hard hats to walk the tunnels, viewing some of the entrances, reading the graffiti left by past generations, and hearing stories of life underground during the war.

Arklow Square Entrance

The tunnel beneath Victoria Road
After our tour, we walked home, taking the same route above ground that we had previously been taking below. Even if you're not local to Ramsgate, I'd have to recommend a trip to the Ramsgate Tunnels. The tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and it really is a fascinating look back in the country's wartime history.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rediscovering Dover

View across Dover from Dover Castle
Continuing my series on overlooked places in East Kent, today I'm turning my attention to Dover.

Hold on a minute. We all know Dover, right? White cliffs. Ferries to and from France.

But when you were taking one of those ferries, did you ever stop and look around the town itself?

If you look closely, you can see the French coastline.
Have you visited Dover Castle? Even if you have, visit again. Because it seems that every time I go, I discover something different that leaves me wondering if it was always there, or if it's part of a new exhibit.

We visited Dover Castle on a rather windy January 2. Luckily, we arrived late morning, still in time to go to the top of the keep. Warning signs were posted that it would be closed if there were high winds, and it did indeed close shortly after we came back down.

We were able to get the requisite
wind-blown hair shot.

Always a popular attraction, Dover Castle gained new attention when they opened the secret wartime tunnels to the public. Dug into the famous white cliffs is a complex labyrinth of offices, a military control center, hospital, and so on, all of which played a key part in keeping Britain safe during World War II. We didn't go into the tunnels on our recent trip due to lengthy waiting times outside in freezing rain, but I do recommend them.

Even if you skip those tunnels, there are others to explore. Another series of tunnels, built during a siege in the 13th century, were later used as an underground barracks during the Napoleonic wars. Cannons still guard the defenses, although now all you see outside are rare-breed sheep.

The Medieval Tunnels

Tunnels aside, let's start at the main keep of the castle. After climbing to the top for some windswept views across Dover and the English Channel, work your way back down through the exhibits in the Great Tower. It was built by Henry II, husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine, father of Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John. He is perhaps best known in Kent though as the man whose alleged complaint: "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" led to the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

Craftsmen have carefully recreated the kitchens, dining rooms, and royal bedchambers, and visitors who envision castles as cold, dull places to live will no doubt be surprised by the rich tapestries and bright colors.

If, like me, you're something of a food historian, you'll be fascinated by the kitchens, complete with all the tools of the era. Whether you're grinding grain or butchering a hog for a royal feast, everything you need is here!

What a feast I could make in these!

After browsing the tower, a snack or lunch is in order. The NAAFI Restaurant was once used by the military folks stationed here and photos from WWII adorn the walls.

Another stop while you're on the grounds should be Saint Mary in Castro Church. The small church actually predates Dover Castle, and still contains some Roman-era tilework. But if you're wondering why it looks a little more modern, it was largely rebuilt in the 1860s. Services are still held here.

And next door to the church is a Roman lighthouse from the first century. Some parts of it were rebuilt in the 1400s but it remains an impressive sight, particularly when you imagine it lighting the way across the Channel for Roman ships nearly 2000 years ago.
St Mary in Castro Church and the Roman Lighthouse
You can easily spend an entire day at Dover Castle (especially when the weather is a little more welcoming than it was the day we went).

Friday, January 22, 2016

Favouring Faversham

It seems to me that when it comes to visitors, much of East Kent is overshadowed by Canterbury. Not that there is anything wrong with Canterbury; it is a beautiful little city and, when I'm home, I enjoy making day trips there to browse the shops and soak up some history.

But East Kent has so much more to offer.

Faversham, for example.

Boats moored along Front Brent's Creek

Within the past few weeks, I have made two trips to Faversham, a medieval market town situated some ten miles from Canterbury. The town has pre-Roman roots as an ancient sea port, and was once home to Faversham Abbey. It was later an important center for both brewing and the explosives industry. The Chart Mills are one of the country's only fully restored gunpowder mills, and they are open to visitors.

A Shepherd Neame welcome
One of my favorite places to visit when I'm in Faversham is the Shepherd Neame brewery. Shepherd Neame, Britain's oldest commercial brewery, has been operating in one form or another in Faversham since 1698, although there is evidence that the brewing of ale was probably taking place on the site before then. It remained in the Shepherd family for generations. In 1864, Percy Neame joined as a partner, and in 1875, after the death of Henry Shepherd Jr., he became the company's sole proprietor. Since then, the company has remained in the hands of the Neame family.

Shepherd Neame produces a wide range of beers, and also is the UK distributor for such overseas brands as Asahi and Sam Adams.

I did the Shepherd Neame brewery tour a few years ago, and knew that I would have to do it again with my husband. Luckily, my parents bought us a tour as a Christmas present and so immediately after Christmas, we went in search of beer.

One of two stained glass windows showing the history
of Shepherd Neame.
Our guide was a lovely woman named Helen. After showing us a short video about the history of brewing in the town, she led us through the various aspects of the brewing process. We tasted some of the hops and barley used, and learned about the stages involved in producing top-quality beer.

Of particular note are two beautiful stained glass windows, which show different parts of Shepherd Neame's history. In the window shown here, you can see the spitfire plane and a bishop's finger road sign (both have given their names to ales). You can also see boats on the creek, other buildings around Faversham, and depictions of the brewing itself.

But of course, when you tour a brewery, you all want to reach the end. That's where the beer is. The tour finished in the brewery's pub (open only to tour members). Here we embarked upon a tutored tasting of six Shepherd Neame products. We learned about the aroma, color, and clarity of the beers, and the taste. Each guest received six sizeable samples. Among our day's samples were Whitstable Bay Blonde, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Christmas Ale, Double Stout and (if memory serves) Rudolph's Reward and Late Red. The tour takes about 2 hours and reservations are recommended.

The tours frequently run on a Sunday, and so afterwards, I recommend strolling just up the street to The Bear Inn, a Shepherd Neame pub, for a roast dinner and another pint or two. If you are feeling "ale-d out", there are a couple of very nice tearooms opposite the brewery where you can recover with a pot of Earl Grey and a slice of bread pudding.

Faversham also has some wonderful walks along the creeks that surround the town. Although it was a bit too muddy to enjoy some of the trails on the January afternoon that we set out, we were still able to enjoy strolls past moorings, country pubs, and the old priory.

So next time you happen to be in Kent, don't just stick to a day in Canterbury. Head to some of the surrounding towns and discover more of Kent's rich history.