Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sailing the BVIs

First Mate, Sailor, and Dinghy Captain of the fine ship Pelican Pat
The cool thing about a sailing vacation is that your hotel doubles as your entertainment, your view changes everyday, and instead of splashing water on your face to wake up, you dive into the warm, blue Caribbean (or whatever sea you happen to be plying). However, there are some drawbacks to this sort of trip: cramped quarters, nautical heads, seasickness ... landlubber concerns, trivial really. So it was with some trepidation back in January that I booked eight nights aboard a Sunsail sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. No captain, no cook, just the four of us and the sea. "It's for your 50th," said Ava, "let's go! I'll figure out something for the seasickness." What a trooper. I only hoped that the ultimate solution for the seasickness that has plagued her since birthing our children wasn't spending her nights ashore. "Have a nice night on board that stuffy, bobbing, vomit pit," I imagined her saying as we left her on the steps of some 5 star resort. "Don't come back too early - I have an early massage booked. Too bad the scopolamine didn't work!"

I needn't have worried. The scopolamine worked, the crew put up with occasional mishaps, the winds were fair and the water warm. The BVIs delivered a perfect vacation.

We started a week ago Friday with a red-eye SFO to MIA. Here's a counter-intuitive fact: it takes longer to get to Tortola from San Francisco than it does to get to most any major city in Europe. Three flights will do that to you. But when you step off of a plane and down the steps to an island tarmac, the tropical breeze can't help but invigorate you. We found the Sunsail marina and swam the afternoon away at the pool while waiting for our boat, which you don't take possession of until 6pm. Since the required chart briefing is the following morning, this means the first night must be taken in the marina, where the winds are still and the boat can't swing around to catch them. In other words, it's beastly hot aboard. Isn't this fun, kids? It's like swimming while you sleep! In sweat ...

[Note to future self: some cruising yachts are air conditioned. Get one of those.]

Heart shaped rocks of the Caribbean
Rapidly acclimating (and losing precious fluids), we gratefully sailed out of the Roadtown harbor and settled into a broad reach, bound for a perfect bay called The Bight, on Norman Island. We picked up a mooring effortlessly and dove into the water. (The perfect mooring grab was not always going to be the case. Sometimes those things wrap around a keel, and sometimes when they disappear under the boat you should cut the engine or at least go to neutral right away lest they wrap themselves around the prop. Then the skipper has to get wet. Not that those things happened to us. That's just what we heard.) The kids and I took the dinghy over to some caves across the bay and snorkeled around, while Ava picked up heart-shaped rocks and pieces of coral on the little beach just off our bow. We had dinner on board, but the night was still young. The Willie T beckoned.
Sarongs are cool

Rumors of this floating restaurant and bar had reached even the pastoral land of Palo Alto. "Take the kids there," our friends Pam and Dennis had told us. "No one at the Willie T will care that they're under age." Well that sounded like a great idea! Traveling is all about adventure and new experiences. What better place to experience your very first bar than the Virgin Islands? Our dinghy captain (Will) brought the boat around and we set off to scar our children.

A souvenir and so much more
And scar them we did. The Willie T bar has a TV screen behind it, like many bars, but instead of showing whatever sports event happens to be going on it runs a slide show of photos taken by patrons. This must be where the Girls Gone Wild guy got his start, because many of the pictures featured topless women. Don't look kids, don't ... oh never mind. Let the damage begin. At least it was a Sunday night -- one of the old salts at the bar told us that the night before had been really wild. I got a painkiller and tried to ignore the look of horror and fascination on Will's face.  Then the bartender offered Ava a decal as a souvenir.  His first placement suggestion would have landed her in the highlight reel, so she demurred and suggested her shoulder instead.  He licked her and slapped on the decal.

"When exactly did your life descend into despair, William?"

"It was that night at the Willie T, Doctor.  When the bartender licked my Mom's shoulder."

Our night of revelry was effectively done, so we boarded our fair dinghy and navigated through the swaying galaxy of anchor lights back to our floating home.  

I'm ladder surfing!
The next morning we waited out a lively squall in the Bight, headed out to the Indians for some snorkeling, then sailed up the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Manchioneel Bay on the northwest shore of Cooper Island.  Along the way Will got bored and invented a new sport: ladder surfing.  This delayed our arrival, 6 foot tall 13 years olds being such a drag, but we still arrived in time for "the best happy hour on the island", which also happened to be the only happy hour on the island.
Dinner in paradise

One of the advantages of sailing around the BVIs in the off-season is that it's easy to pick up a mooring, but on that particular day we were lucky enough to get the very last one.  Very lucky, because the Cooper Island Beach Club turned out to be our favorite spot in the BVIs, the quintessential beach club, with great drinks, fantastic food, a gorgeous beach, and a fabulous view.  Paradise.  We moored off of Cooper for two nights and enjoyed every minute.  I dived the wreck of the Rhone (thanks to some heroic efforts by Dad, who went and got my dilapidated dive card and then spent a few hours on the phone with NAUI so that we could prove to the dive guys that I was in fact certified) while Ava and the kids read books and swam.
Early Wednesday morning we dropped off our anchor and motored to the Baths.
Dinghy captain lets little sister drive
I think the North Sound is this way, Skipper.
Not such a bitter end.
That was perhaps our finest day.  We were the first boat to arrive at the most popular spot in the BVIs, so for a while we practically had the place to ourselves.  The path between the two beaches was not yet filled with tourists, and the Devil's Bay beach was just perfect.  We played in the sand, followed a stingray, and snorkeled a lot .  Then we dropped our mooring as the place filled up and had a beautiful sail (18 - 20 knots, light chop, close hauled but not uncomfortable) to Virgin Gorda's North Sound. We expertly maneuvered our way into the Sound ("Dad, do you see that red buoy on the right?  Red right returning!!  Do you see it?"  "Yes, Will, I see it.") and pulled up to a mooring at the Bitter End resort.  As the sun set, we watched a kitesurfer dart among the boats as the kids tossed a coconut back and forth in our newest game, Wandiecocoball.  You won't be seeing it in the Olympics.

S is for SCUBA
Many of the great things in life start with an S: skiing, sailing, scuba diving, and on Thursday it was time to initiate the kids in the latter.  We zipped across the sound to the Leverick Bay resort, tanked up on fuel and water, then headed into the dive shop.  Minutes later the kids were in the pool, sucking their first underwater breaths.  They both did great, but Andie kept standing up so that she could get that last little bit of water out of her mask.  This makes sense, right?  If you can't quite clear your mask, and you're in the shallow end, you just stand up and eliminate those last few pesky drops.  But the instructor didn't quite see it that way.  When you're diving, he said, you can't just stand up like that.  Well duh, Andie's eyeroll said, but she was quite happy to not have to go on the afternoon dive.  Will, on the other hand,
I'll show them fancy!!
took to it naturally, so after lunch the kids got on a dive boat and left -- they left! -- for four hours.  They dove and snorkeled the Dog Islands, and Ava and I spent four hours just the two of us. Gosh, we sure missed those kids!  ;)   They returned triumphant, Will giddy over his first dive (sharks!  a queen angel fish!), Andie happy to have bobbed on the surface and practice clearing her snorkel.

Meat on the rail
The next morning we sailed over to Great Dog Island and proceeded to wrap the mooring around the keel.  Your skipper handled this, and all the subsequent swimming around, gasping for breath, wrestling ropes, and head bumping on the hull, with nothing but quiet dignity.  Or maybe that was  frustrated thrashing.  It didn't help when the wind and surge conspired to swing us stern-first toward the adjoining boat, whose skipper was not entirely pleased to see us.   We fired up the engine to get us away from our neighbor, which had the positive effect of pulling the mooring off of the keel.  Yay.  And wrapped it around the prop.  Hey, that's a problem I know how to solve!  

Now we call her "9 toe"

With the drama done, we enjoyed some fine snorkeling and sailed away to Marina Cay.  This is where we made our only itinerary mistake.  Marina Cay was nice, but we should have taken the longer sail to Jost Van Dyke instead.   Oh well.  We enjoyed a quiet afternoon watching squalls and swimming, and had a fun dinner where I entertained all with my dancing on the beach.  The next morning the rain pounded down on us, and when it finally stopped we zipped in the dinghy over to the new resort on Scrub Island, that caters primarily to big yachts.  Will was concerned that it was too
Happy hour
fancy for us, and sure enough as we pulled our dinghy up to the dock a representative came out to tell us that the service entrance was around the back.  Not really, but we got the picture and soon left.  Who needs those big stinkpots anyway.  We raised our canvas and high-tailed it back across the strait to

Not bad for 50
Cooper Island for an afternoon snorkeling, feeding a giant barracuda, and enjoying the best happy hour on the island.  

Then I turned 50, and the world didn't end.  In fact the morning dawned sunny but quickly turned interesting, as we sat in the cockpit and watched the cloudbursts race over the hill and across Manchioneel Bay and our boat. We enjoyed the show for a while and then, when it looked like it was clearing, dropped the mooring and raised the sails for a nice final sail back to Road Town.

Honey, I think there's a squall a brewin' out yonder.
Soon the squalls were back, and it turns out that the winds out on the strait are a little stronger than in the lee of Cooper.  They knocked our boat completely flat, sent the crew flying through the cabin (thank God they went below deck to get out of the rain), and, when the port rail finally came up for air, rounded us completely up.  Oops.  Let's crank the motor, go back to the bay, and start over.  Sails lowered and sufficiently humbled by the elements, we motored across the channel and delivered our trusty boat back to Sunsail.
In the moment

So when we go again: remember the iPod charger, try to get better provisioning, air conditioned boat, practice mooring, salt water shampoo, bring kayak life jackets like we did this time, man sarong, great wine store right outside the marina, Jost van Dyke, skip Marina Cay, iPlay for the iPod, respect squalls, remember dive card (and book dives ahead of time).  And, as always, live so completely in the moment that it lasts and lasts.

BVI album

Monday, July 26, 2010


Vacations are either about doing or seeing. On seeing vacations, you see things -- museums, famous sites, family. There are variations to this rule, of course. Foodies go on vacations to eat, wine tasters to taste, music lovers to listen. Or so I hear.

I like doing vacations. Go somewhere cool and do cool things. There may be seeing involved (mountain peaks, white beaches, rushing rivers) but the seeing (and eating, tasting, and listening) is in service to the doing. To quote Yoda: "Do or do not. There is no try." I bet he's a cool guy to vacation with, easily the best of the Jedi.

Today we are wrapping up 10 days of a doing vacation in the great Northwest. I think, in fact, in a career of doing vacations this may just be my masterpiece. Our down moments have been few and far between, and we will return to California tired and relaxed. The best vacations, you go home (and even to work) to rest.

It started a week ago Friday, when we flew to Seattle and made our way to Markay and Bob's home ("this is their house?" Andie said as we pulled up the driveway. "It's so big!") Bob had an excellent red wine ready to go, which we savored on their terrace looking at their perfect lawn and hot tub. They are preparing to sell the house so boxes were strewn around, and Bob (a definitive doer) got up early Saturday morning to finish painting the front railing. The rest of us slept in.

Then it was off to Anacortes, with a stop at Snowgoose Produce to get the best ice cream – you know it's vacation when we're getting double scoops at 10am. The fog lifted on time, and after a brief stop at the Neumanns' Anacortes home we boarded Ruach, a beatiful 35 foot Erikson, and sailed out, bound for Orcas Island.

The winds were steady, the sun bright, the sandwiches good, the beer cold, the crew swarthy. (When you're on a doing vacation, it's always a good sign when your travel log sounds like a Jimmy Buffett song.) Bob dropped a crab pot in a cove and then Will, Andie and me at the Rosario Resort dock. This was done with a sense of urgency, as the dock was clearly marked as being reserved for sea planes, and one was approaching. Doing vacations are always improved by near collisions with oceangoing aircraft.

Dinner at Rosarios was excellent, enhanced by ice cold martinis. Then we sadly waved goodbye to our cousins, as they sailed back to their hidden cove and sunken crab pot.

The Ruach sails out of Rosario, its crew sated with martinis and anticipating a full crab pot

Orcas Island is a remarkably well-preserved place. Markay filled us with tales of childhood summers there, and it wasn't hard to transport ourselves back to that time as we traveled the island for a couple of days. The hike to the top of Mt. Constitution, the run around Mountain Lake, the eagles swooping over a Rosario swimming pool full of kids and parents, all timeless.

On the other hand, back then there was no sign for Gaggs road (marking the entrance to Markay's grandparent's home just outside of Deer Harbor), and the cappuccinos at the Outlook Inn have likely improved considerably (but not the cocktails -- Ava tended bar there for a couple of summers in the 80s, and I'm sure her drinks beat anything they can come up with now.) We collected driftwood, sat in the wheelhouse of our whale watching voyage, and rang the bells of East Sound. On Tuesday we caught the early morning ferry and headed north to Vancouver.

When the weather is great, as it was this week, Vancouver may just be the finest city in the world. Go on, dip your feet in (relatively) warm water, saunter the beautiful beaches, run the waterfront trails, and view the snow-peaked mountains that line the northern horizon. Walk from your hotel on Granville Island (which isn't really an island, but that's OK since it's on False Creek, which isn't really a creek) to the public market, where buckets of berries (and tons of other great food) await you. We dropped our stuff at the hotel, changed into shorts and flip-flops, and walked to the Bard on the Beach theater in hopes of scoring Shakespeare tickets. Alas, the show was sold out, but the eagles perched on the big tree (mom, dad, baby) made the trip worth it. We spent the afternoon walking along English Bay toward Stanley Park, watching the water and the people. There were so many of them -- isn't this Tuesday? Doesn't anyone around here work?

The next day we poked around the island and let the kids run free, and were delighted to find them an hour later sitting on the deck of Bridges with their aunt and uncle. This wasn't a big surprise, since we knew Shirley and Dan were on their way, but it was still pretty cool. The day was hot enough that after lunch we accompanied Andie and Will to the water park, which they quickly rejected. Too many little kids, they said, and nothing tells you that your kids are no longer little than them walking away from a water park on a hot day because they're too big for it. Oh well. There were hours to fill and things to do. Will and I circumnavigated False Creek in a kayak, dodging yachts and water taxis, hugged the coast of English Bay, and returned home. That'll show him to forego the water park! Because this was the perfect vacation, the city of Vancouver put on a fireworks show for us, so we closed the day in style.

On Thursday we visited Ava's family in Chilliwack. Irma was quite delighted to have five of her six kids with her (and two of a zillion grandkids) and she beamed throughout lunch. As usual, the first thing she asked me was how my parents were, and the last thing she told me was to say hello to them. As usual, I told her I would take care of her daughter.

So I did. I got her out of there and on to Whistler.

For doing vacations, it's hard to beat ski resorts in the summer. We've vacationed at several of them, but when it comes to stuff to do Whistler may just be the best. The tourist map would bring a lesser doer to his knees. Zip lines? Check. Mountaintop hikes? Check. ATV tours? Check. Rafting? Luge run? Playgrounds and climbing sized Olympic Rings? No problem. World-class mountain bike park, full of guys (and girls) flinging themselves down crazy steep hills. Yep. I needed help, so on Friday morning we walked into an "activities center" in the village, but as soon as the woman working there realized we were not at all interested in buying a time share she became not at all interested in us. I was on my own.

OK, OK, I can do this. I am not overwhelmed by the choices, I'm not. When in doubt, I thought, get on a ski lift. So we did, grabbing the gondola and the peak chair to the very top of Whistler. The map said there was a long hike up there along the ridge, and since hiking is the very essence of doing I knew we'd be OK. But ... oh no! Snow covered the trail! There was no hiking to be had. "Are you OK, Dad?" Will wondered.

Fortunately, I was saved by the peak 2 peak gondola connecting Whistler to Blackcomb. Normally I wouldn't consider riding a lift "doing", but this thing is just spectacular. And since Ava has a bit of a fear of heights, riding in a metal box suspended by a thin cable across a chasm very much counts as doing. Acrophobia be damned!!

As I noted earlier, though, the thing that summertime Whistler is best known for is its mountain biking. Therefore, we mountain bike. Never mind that Andie has never done it before, or never shifted gears or used hand brakes. Never mind that when I told the guys at bike central that she was nine years old that they said she may be too young. "She bikes all the time" I said with confidence, not mentioning that the flat roads of Palo Alto are a bit tamer than the twisting trails of Whistler. "She can do it." And so I was right.

Will, of course, is a demon on a bike, and he quickly got bored following Andie and our guide Emily down the hill. "C'mon, Dad!" he said, and we took off. Three turns later I heard a crash and an "oh nooooo!!!!" and I rounded the bend to see Will sitting on his bike in a small ravine. "I took that one a little too tight," he smiled. You gotta love that.

We run Lost Lake, take yoga classes on the plaza in front of Lulu's, eat lunch at Earls, and return to Lost Lake for afternoon swimming and reading. I can't wait to get home. It's time to rest.

It's not you, my blog, it's me

Hello, blog. Yes, I know, I haven't written in a long time. I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me. I could make up some excuse about only writing about travels that involve airplanes, but you'd see that for what it is: a shallow cover-up of my generally lazy tendencies. No, there's no one else. Really, check my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Even Buzz. They are equally bereft of my quality sardonic wit.

Since we're being all honest with each other, I have a few things to tell you. This may be hard for you to hear, but here goes. We have done many interesting things since you and I last got together, and several of them even involved travel. In other words, they belonged in a blog called Eagletravels. Are you OK? Should I go on? There was Pinecrest over Labor Day weekend, our 20th anniversary trip to Debbie's house. The fall was full of football games (Stanford and flag) and birthday parties and the holidays a whirlwind of parties and fun. But none of those involved travel, so, strictly speaking, you weren't left out. Does that make you feel any better?

Winter, on the other hand, involved many trips to the mountain house and lots of good skiing. And in the Spring and early Summer … Headwaters, Point Reyes, and a great Shasta climb. All without you.

So again, I'm sorry. I'll try to do better. No, not try, do. I will do better, I promise. Like really soon now I'm going to tell you all about our trip to the Northwest. See? Things are improving already.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This England

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle

The parks. The beautiful trees, the sound they make in the wind and when it rains, the shade they provide.

The farmers' market across the street every Sunday.

Meat pies.

This Earth of majesty, this seat of Mars

English ice cream: Scoop. The Cow and Bean.

The British Museum. Very big, didn't see everything in six visits, the Greek and Egyptian relics.

The Tower. Nothing to fear, just a man in a mask with an axe.

La Fromagerie: our shop of sacred cheese.

This other Eden, demi-paradise

Walking to work through our neighborhood, across Oxford Street, down the finest shopping sreet, through a park and past a palace.

Books, Will on #19, Andie on #9. Our local library, big with great books and nice librarians who asked us questions about the books, which kept us from spending too much money at ...

Daunt Books.

This fortress built by Nature for herself, against infection and the hand of war


The many and varied birds of St. James Park.

Paddington Gardens, right out the door with our wonderful playground. The kids playing there for hours.

This happy breed of men, this little world

Morning runs through Regents Park. Topping Primrose Hill to watch the sun coming up over the city.

The Importance of Being Earnest in Regents Park, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, A Midsummer Night's Dream in Keswick.

The Princess Diana playground, especially the pirate ship.

Double decker buses, of course.

This precious stone set in the silver sea

A pint of Guiness, the Gunmaker Pub, Man U vs. Arsenal.

Waitrose, Pret a Manger, Shoon.

Harry Potter.

BBC Radio 2.

Steel drum bands in Hyde Park.

Which serves it in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house


The International Herald Tribune.

Sunny, with clouds and rain. 72 degrees.

Howard House. Whistling from the street.

Against the envy of less happier lands

Going home.

This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm,
this England.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Too Much Gear

Wear sunscreen, my children

As you leave the M6 and start to make your way into the Lake District, on narrow roads through rolling hills dotted with sheep and criss-crossed by meandering stone fences, you pass through charming villages with one thing in common: they have lots of gear shops. I notice these things because I love gear shops, and in the Lake District they are all over the place. Windemere, Ambleside, Grasmere, Keswick - four villages no more than about 20 miles apart, each charming and touristy in a Carmel sort of way - each featuring about a dozen (more in Keswick) cool gear shops. The place is awash in fleece, gore-tex, and hiking and climbing shoes. There are enough tents and sleeping bags to outfit the entire English nation. The walking sticks, placed end to end, would probably reach the moon. Or at least the top of Everest.

We wonder, how can all these places survive? When some adventurous businessman walked into Keswick and saw a dozen gear stores, why did he say to himself "this place needs another gear shop, and I'm just the guy to open it?"

Tuesday was sunny and warm with a hint of high clouds. Here's how sunny it was: we bought sunscreen. When we left our hotel in the morning it was still cloudy, but by the time we drove to Keswick, navigated the pay and display parking lot, found the tourist center, and figured out which hike to take and how to get there, the clouds were virtually gone and the sun was quite surprised to find that it had the sky virtually to itself. The gear shops were all open but those racks and racks of gore-texy jackets looked kind of silly. We caught the launch around Derwent Water (which is a lake without the "lake") and spent the day hiking up the Cat Bells. Ava and Will bailed out for various medical reasons (so they said; grabbing a nap in the soft grass and sunshine may have been the real motivation) leaving Andie and I to scale the summit on our own. Half Dome it wasn't, but there was enough challenging scrambling involved to make us feel triumphant when we reached the top.

This is me hiking farther than you, Daddy.

We clambered down the other side following a sheep path and meandered back to town. We drove back to the hotel, cleaned up, and walked into Grasmere, where we had dinner at an excellent little bistro. Over our meal Andie laid claim to have walked the furthest of anyone. How can that be, I wanted to know. You and I hiked the same amount. Yes, she answered, but she walked to the edge to pose for the photo. You cannot argue with an 8 year old's logic, particularly my 8 year old's.

We go to sleep under a starry, starry night, wondering at the folly of gear shop owners and weathermen, the latter for their obviously wrong prediction of rain all day the next day. After all, the night was as clear as could be!

Until it started pouring. And pouring. One of the things we miss at home is a truly rainy day. We have rainy nights, where it pours all night, and rainy days, where we have showers, but rare is the day where it simply rains all day. Wednesday was one of those days in the Lake District, and we loved it.

Rainy days + email never get me down

We spent the morning in the living room lounge of the hotel, catching up on email and reading. We had a quick lunch in Grasmere and then headed back to Keswick, where Andie and I got the last two tickets for the matinee performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Theater by the Lake. It was wonderful. Indoor entertainment seemed like a good plan, so we met Will and Ava by the movie theater and the three of them went inside to see the latest Harry Potter movie. We saw it a month ago in London, and Will has been pining for a return engagement ever since. I decided to skip the movie and brave the dregs of the storm for a hike around the lake.

The fine path is likely mobbed on most days, but in the grey drizzle few people were out. I stomped through some puddles and around others, watching the changing light upon the lake. Three of the happiest dogs in the world played on its edge, bouncing and splashing like crazy until their master held up a stick, whereupon they froze in place, not moving except for their tongues. I smiled at the thought of what Kiana would do if she were here, charging those three dogs like a bowling ball intent on picking up a 3 pin spare. Stick? What stick?

I hiked on, getting slowly drenched, until after about a mile the path became completely flooded and I turned around. A jogger sprinted by me, shouted a cheery "need your flippers, mate!" and bounded into the puddle. That's when I started to notice it. Everyone I passed was fully tricked out from head to toe. The waterproof, lightweight boots, the rain pants, the robust parkas (matching, on most couples). And the thought hit me, as hot and suffocating as a non-breathable, water permeable jacket: I didn't have the right gear. My shoes were Salomon trail runners, so they were OK. My jacket was an REI rain shell - a bit flimsy, wouldn't hold up in a real storm, but passable. But my pants were - I hesitate even now to say - jeans. This simply won't do. I heard the call of better gear, and I responded.

The skies are clearing but it will rain again soon - go buy some gear

I rushed back to town, but it was too late. All the cool gear stores were closed. My sodden jeans pulled me down with the weight of disappointment. I missed my chance. I mocked the gear stores, but they ended up mocking me. Life's too short for bad gear, they said. Sale! they added.

We returned to London today, but before leaving the Lake District we stopped in Ambleside for some provisions for the road. As we pulled into the conveniently empty parking spot I noticed the store in front of which we parked. A gear store. All sorts of marvelous shoes and boots line the display window. Ava and I were drawn in. There, in front, they sat. A pair of boots the likes of which I haven't seen, serious rain boots. That's right: bogtrotters. The name said it all. These are the last rain boots you will ever need. With these, you don't just slog through bogs, you trot through them.

Ava wants a pair. She needs a pair.

Heck, we live in California, I say, we don't need those. What Californian needs boots called bogtrotters? We don't have any bogs! And if we did, we wouldn't trot in them! I triumphed, we didn't buy the boots (mainly because she saw some in Covent Garden that she thinks are cooler, but let me have my little victories when I get them). And the day will come, when the rains hit California and turn our trails to bogs, when I will rue that decision, remember the gear shops of the Lake District, and remind myself once again of that ancient adage: there's no such thing as too much gear.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Castles are just really cool

When kings go on building binges, it can be tough on the masses. More taxes, backbreaking labor. But those of us in later generations certainly benefit. Because castles are really cool.

Caernarfon, built in the 13th century by Edward I (and never completed due to financial reasons, and, we suspect, problems with the contractor) is spacious and empty if you get there shortly after opening. Last night was violently stormy outside and equally restless inside our little room, with its charmingly uncomfortable beds and zippy trains passing right outside the window, which made it easy to get up and out early in the morning and be among the first to enter the big castle. See, there are benefits to bad hotels!

We may be short, but we're a lot taller than you.

We explored its towers and tunnels for an hour and marveled at the 3-way arrow slits (so three archers can lay down a path of death at once). I'm not sure what it is, but it is just really cool to clamber around an ancient castle. We climbed several towers (including the ever game Ava, who doesn't care for tight space or heights but will tolerate both if her children ask her and there is cappuccino somewhere on the horizon) and looked over the marina and out to the ocean. The morning was sunny and still, the dragon flags of Wales hung limp but for the occasional breeze, and the grandeur of this magnificent castle was still waking up from the stormy night. Later, the crowds would come. Until then, the quiet morning was simply awesome.

Our next stop, Conwy, was not so abandoned, but still a lot of fun. The kids were given a detective game and spent the next hour racing around the castle looking for clues. You know it's a good game when "stabbed" is one of the clues. It was all about some rebels who took over the castle, one of the best-defended in the land, when a single spy, a carpenter, killed three guards with a dagger one Sunday morning, called all his buddies, and closed the gates behind them. Apparently that was as far as they had planned. They could get into the castle and take it over, but hadn't figured out how to get back out. A couple of weeks later, they negotiated a deal whereby the king released some prisoners and let the rebels walk away, except for the nine of them who were given over to the king to be executed. "Gosh guys, great siege, we'll really have to do it again some time. Well, time to go home. Oh, except for you Jones. The king wants to see you. You really should have given me that extra sip from your flagon when I asked."

We leave Conwy and Wales, head north past those towns we've always heard of but never seen - Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool - following signs that say things like "THE NORTH" and "The Lakes". One of them peels us off to the west, where soon enough the sheep are climbing steep hills, penned in by ancient stone walls, looking out over vistas of lakes and sailboats. Our hotel in the village of Grasmere is beautiful, and the kids immediately sprint across the lawn with the resident dog. He likes to fetch, and we are instantly at home.

Commute to dinner

There is no restaurant at the hotel, but they tell us about a place called the Jumble Room in town, only about a ten minute walk across the field and down the street. It is completely delightful, and we sing and dance our way home under skies with clouds still illuminated by the last vestiges of daylight and stars making their first appearance. Andie and I sing King Tut, and if that seems inappropriate, well Excuuuuse Meeee!

In Wales, the joys of a 2 star hotel

"Daddy, what's a condom?" "I don't know, Andie, it must be Welsh."

No need for a wake-up call. The 5:10am commuter train passing right outside your window does the trick just fine!

My new mantra: 3 stars or above!