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Latest Posts by Joan Larsen

To Big Sur With Love: The California Coastal Highway

August 20, 2013 by  

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How could any one of us resist a world that is totally breathtaking?  Just a plane’s flight away to California – not that many hours from any of our homes – lies a piece of heaven on this earth called Big Sur.  A warning though:  once seen, once under its spell, and you find you are drawn like a magnet back again and again. It is that beautiful.

Just south of the enchanting village of Carmel along Route 1, you find yourself  driving on a two lane curving coastal road that feels like a slow motion roller coaster.

Pull offs abound, usually on steep sea cliffs hanging over the Pacific, where you can sit,  searching for whales, spouting or doing antics, as they make their way north or south, depending on the season.

You’ll spot trails, usually easy walks, leading down to overlooks to the most inaccessible beaches, hidden in coves.

There is always sea life at play.  Always, lounging on their own white sand, you will see groups of seals and sometimes sea lions.  Just taking in a bit of sun.  Off shore, floating on their backs without a care in the world, are the most adorable of sea creatures – sea otters – often clutching a clam that is going to be lunch.  I think these fellows get the prize for “cute”!

You’ll pass a lonely windswept hill that looks like an island in fog, probably wondering what it could be.  DO stop if there are tours as this is the one and only 19th century lighthouse complex open to the public still.  You won’t be sorry!

Soaking in the views of the wildflower-covered cliffs and the silky sand beaches, you know this is going to be far more than a day trip.  Accommodations range from rustic cabins to tent camping in the many state parks along the road.  But ever if you are not up to 5-star resorts like Ventana or Post Ranch, visible to the ocean but beautifully hidden into the mountainside, do ask for a tour… and prepare to be blown away by their understated elegance.  Like yurts from Mongolia for a different sort of night?  Or how about stopping at the new Treebones… and blow your friends away by showing them that you have spent the night in a nest high in a tree that needs a tall ladder to get into??

At the village of Big Sur – as tiny as it gets – the road winds into a redwood forest with easy trails going to a world of incredible beauty a stone’s throw away from the ocean. Around here is the best place to see a California condor – looking like a small plane in the air.

Scenery unfolds around every corner of the road.  But my own choice for the most breathtaking stops is the most beautifully situated waterfall on the California coast.   McWay Falls drops off 80 feet in a picturesque cove opening out into the ocean.  Park along the road and follow a short trail.  Do not try to climb down to the beach as I did once.  You will die.

Then… well, you must remember Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper (if you are old enough!)  Coming up is the narrow road to Pfieffer State Beach where it was filmed.  It’s a little hike in but when you see the photo below you will know this is the most rejuvenating place to stay a while…  a long while.  Just a piece of heaven.

Every year I find myself  back again in Big Sur – like 30 years now – it is the restaurant called Nepenthe that always has been my favorite restaurant on earth.  Plan to spend hours lounging back on pillows, relaxing outside with glasses of wine and an assortment of culinary delights that are to be snacked on as the day goes by.  Once the honeymoon cottage of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, we find it just as romantic in its setting and ambience as they must have.  The uninterrupted views down the coast in ever changing light are mesmerizing. 

When the sun sets the palette changes from blue and yellow to magenta and orange, the view from this special edge of the world always revitalizes our souls, calming our spirits.  Being at one with nature is free.  But you will find you have never felt richer.

Photo credit: cheezburger.

Quest For The World’s Remote Islands: Close Calls on Sub-Antarctic Enerby

August 19, 2013 by  

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Lying between New Zealand and Antarctica, a series of rugged and remote islands sit like silent sentinels in the harshest seas on Earth, those of the Great Southern Ocean.  Centuries ago, people gave up trying to live on them, surrendering them to their animal counterparts who learned to survive on them.

Exploring these small dots on the globe had been my childhood dream.  Few humans were allowed on them, making them far more intriguing.  I wanted to be one of the first to set foot on each of them.  It took half a lifetime to find a way.

Accessible only by icebreaker or large ship from New Zealand, New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands are now governed by the Hooker’s sea lion.  On unforgettable Enderby Island, it is these weighty sea lions who determine how any human activity takes place, and not the other way around.  Weighing up to a thousand pounds, Hooker’s sea lions are capable of climbing mountains, scaling rocks and blubbering their way across very difficult terrain.

I have spent considerable time among even larger elephant seals in the polar regions, so they couldn’t be all that scary.  I was wrong.  The large males – called  beachmasters – owned the island.  Each had a harem of delectable females that they protected jealously.  The wannabe beachmasters, hanging around on the fringes of the beach, were big lads – keen to get in on the action.  While we didn’t see serious fighting, the demonstrations of strength by butting heads and opening their huge mouths to display rows of teeth, kept the wannabes out in the water.

Hooker’s are the rarest of the sea lions and I was seeing most of the world’s population right here.  On other less remote islands I have visited, animals have become scared of humans.  The opposite is true of Enderby.  The animals and birds see so few humans that they approach without hesitation.  A series of blood-curdling gargles preceded by a large bark behind me was enough to have me facing the beachmaster, with me trying to back away without running.  He may look like a blob but he could move like a champion.  And this champion was protecting his home and his harem.  I was the interloper and he wanted me gone.

In my fascination with the wild life at the Enderby beach, I had missed the group going for the round the island “hike”, quite a strenuous excursion on foot.  A guide, carrying a long stick, said he would help me catch up.

And so we climbed into a sand dune area, reminding me of the dunes of Lake Michigan in America.Well… except that in two separate deep hollows, two Hooker’s beachmasters were taking a snooze.  We had disturbed their naps and they let us know it.  For, in an instant, this huge blob of blubber rose up and moved  faster than I had ever seen a marine mammal move.  “Don’t move”, the guide said.  With that stick he hit him on the snout while telling me to walk very quickly into the forest.  He followed.

But in that flash of time as he raised his stick, I noticed that my guide had no fingers, only a thumb on each hand.  I naturally said nothing.  But if I wasn’t wary already, I was now.  The beachmasters had won more than one encounter with this man.

The world-renowned rata forest, an area of old misshapen trees, covered with mosses and lichen, woven into a Hansel-and-Gretel unreal setting, was stunning to walk through.  The rare species of  birds could be heard singing their hearts out in the trees.  Hidden in the roots and sometimes appearing were the most rare and elusive penguins in the entire world – the solitary and shy yellow-eyed penguin that we had come so far to see.

“We’re coming up to quicksand”,  my guide was quick to say as we exited the forest.   I looked ahead, seeing the cliffs of the coast ahead.  But between the forests and cliffs was an area that looked harmless (until he told of a man alone on the island long ago stepping on the quicksand and being swallowed up.  Once you step in alone, there is no way out. OMG.)

“Just step on the little hummocks of raised moss and you will get across OK”.  I was a good hiker but had never balanced on one foot on something soft, the size of a rounded saucer, before either.  The alternative – the quicksand  — somehow sounded  – well, like I could die there.  I managed to balance, leap, balance, for what seemed forever.  At the cliff edge I expected congratulations at my agility.  No.  On Enderby this is everyday life.  (Privately – and to you – I still marvel that I did it. )

Hiking along the cliffs was wonderful.  Artifacts of times past were sometimes in evidence.  Bones bleached white by the sun and covered with lichen lay scattered among the vegetation.  Memorials to lost souls who were shipwrecked on these once treacherous shores were dotted here and there.  From what we heard, the few survivors must have had very hard times, often waiting over a year for rescue.

The beaches on Enderby were as beautiful as any I had seen on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, just with a large temperature difference.  Glass-clear waters teeming with life crashed against white sandy beaches littered with water-smoothed stones.  Once we descended toward the beach, each person left with his own story of hearing a Hooker’s sea lion snorting in the rata tree section and leaping out, making a personal show of our own agility in maneuvering around  a beachmaster  – and living to tell about it — a matter of great pride.

If you think we were otherwise “roughing it”, we weren’t.  While we were hiking, a barbeque was underway at beach edge far away from the Hooker’s, and our icebreaker bartender had again erected his famous mobile bar and was dishing out his famous rum punch.  We were exhilarated that night on the beach, laughing and joking, telling our own tales, somewhat fitter from “legging it around” to escape the sea lions.  Try as they might, those animals had not dampened our enthusiasm for Enderby and – later – for the other uninhabited sub-Antarctic islands awaiting us.

To be one of a very small group who have ever placed our footprints on these tiny dots on the world globe, spending a day or more there among some of the rarest creatures on our planet in some of the world’s most majestic islands, left us all wide-eyed with wonder.

In all the travelling those on our planet seem to do, there are still places on various continents and islands that are untrodden, waiting.  I call these our “lost worlds”, the places that memories are made of.  To me, it is what “living life to the fullest” is all about.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the

things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw

off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the

tradewinds in your sails.  Explore. Dream. Discover.

-         Mark Twain

 Photo credits in order: Hereitageexpeditions. com and Unesco.org.

 

Hidden Hawaii: The Long & Winding Road to Hana

August 19, 2013 by  

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Home once again, we always will have that one last farewell toast to our latest journey with my favorite champagne. It never fails to feel like I am tasting stars. Returning once again from the island of Maui, our most lasting “forever” memories are the moments when we are heading to Hana, a bastion of unspoiled beauty, a lost horizon, a true Shangri-La, literally at the end of the road.  I cannot say enough.

Hana offers a low-key alternative to the tropical mega-resorts and the skyscrapers of Waikiki.  Did I mention that the adventure is in getting there??  The Road to Hana is a narrow, twisting, sometimes one lane road (forget about a shoulder) with an estimated 600 turns and 54 mostly one-lane bridges…  in only 52 miles!

Around every bend are sweeping ocean vistas, black sand beaches, rushing waterfalls and mile after mile of leafy, Hawaiian jungle.  The road may be narrow but there are plenty of pull-offs for hiking trails, overlooks.

This piece of Hawaii is magic… a place to be soaked up slowly as you will find it is hard to be matched for beauty and serenity.  But a word to the wise:  start out early on the road – really early – bringing along all the food and drink you want for your entire first day.  Try to be a step ahead of the day-trippers who tend to clog the road later… and remember, you can pass up places on the way to Hana, knowing that you will have another chance at them on the return trip.

Plan on staying a night or two.  It is the only way.  In late afternoon, when the day-trippers have left, a Zen-like calm comes over Hana, and it once again belongs to the 1800 residents… and the relatively few visitors who share this most magical of places.  It’s a place soaked in Hawaiian history and culture, and for the most part, I find it unaffected by the mass tourism that has transformed the rest of Maui.

There are guesthouses and B&Bs to stay at as well, but we made a wise choice in staying at the upscale new Hotel Hana-Maui, taking full advantage of the extras they provided.

Dinner was scrumptious… but the show afterwards was the most special I had seen on the islands since childhood.  Almost every night some members of the hotel staff perform in the bar or restaurant.  That night it was a group of six, all of whom work in housekeeping and catering when they are not playing the guitar and doing the hula.  Some of the women were big, really big, and the bigger they were,the more we couldn’t stop looking at them.  Their sway was – well – hypnotic…  and to me, it brought back the very old days when the dances were “real” and not a show for tourists.

We went on a guided walk, provided by the hotel, just for a few of us.  The spot was little-known, unbelievably beautiful, and we swam in a cool, freshwater pool and sat under a postcard-pretty waterfall.  Alone.  Bright pink impatiens and ferns clung to the steep rock wall beside the falls, glistening in the early morning sun.  I promise that it is the only one of those along the Road to Hana that you really need to see.

The second day – another treat.  A resident of Hana took us on a personal tour of his town – one he provides only for hotel guests.  We were introduced to the locals by name, and he showed us the secret corners of the town, from the lush gardens, to the thundering private coves, and the black-sand beaches.  We came back with private memories of  life in Hana that we have found that no one else has.

For the first time since childhood, we took an hour-long horseback ride that ventured out on a lava outcropping with the surf below.  The horses seemed to know we were middle-aged, treating us kindly in the most gentle of manners.  Again, if I can do it, you can.

I once knew novelist James Michener and have always followed his lead.  When he said that Hamoa Beach, three miles south of Hana, was the only beach in Hawaii that looked like it belonged in the South Pacific, we arranged to be taken there. He was right.  It is surrounded by palm trees and lush vegetation much like the island of Bora Bora, and we were lucky enough to be there on the day that the weekly luau that was thrown by our hotel was offered.  What can I say?  Never to be forgotten.

Though I happen to not want to miss anything, there is a sense of tranquility here  that one doesn’t find often.  In the late afternoons and early evenings, it is “our time” – a time to kick back, and watch the afternoon sun sink into the ocean as we order another mai-tai.

As we have done before and will do again, we will make the trip back down the twisting highway – back to civilization.  But we know that the road to Hana and Hana itself will be waiting to be re-discovered and treasured with all the joy that comes from finding that special place at the end of the winding road that truly feels like home.

                                          Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace.

-         Paul Theroux