Saturday, October 31, 2015

Photo of the Week

Singing our goodbyes to Nicaragua!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Matgalpa- Adventures in the Northern Highlands

Matagalpa! Matagalpa! Matagalpaaaaaa!!!! That's how easy it is to find which bus you're supposed to be on in Central America. The bus guy literally hangs out the door, holding to the side of the bus, whether its speeding along the road or not- yelling out the destination, loud and catchy. I always find myself mimicking their sing-songy ways for days: Matagalpa! Matagalpa! Matagalpaaaaaa!

Matagalpa was north, in the Nicaraguan Highlands- and that was the town's biggest draw for us. Take
us weak Canadians North! Well, it was the elevation, coffee farms, mountains and all the conveniences that come with being Nicaragua's fifth largest city, and the northern-ness. With a population of 89,100 it is a manageable size and at an elevation of 902m, we gained some elevation and lost at least 10 degrees and knocked a little but off the humidity. This was our intention, and luckily for us, the city had its perks! (haha! Perks! Coffee!)

Matagalpa is a working, living city with tourism holding only a minor roll. It is surrounded by spectacular mountains on all sides and as far as you can see. The city is slowly creeping up the mountains, urbanity mingling with nature in every direction.

We are staying at Hotel El Castillo, perched on a hill with a great view of the mountains and the cathedral, but only four blocks from the main square. It is a great location and a good price. ($22 USD per night including breakfast). The room is a little blah, but its clean and the staff are friendly (although they don't speak English).

Information is a little hard to come by in these parts and our lack of Spanish skills doesn't help the matter. As soon as you step away from the Central American Backpacker Super Highway, where, gasp, shuttles don't go- Nicaragua is a completely different experience. Getting off the superhighway is equally awesome and frustrating. Where as you rarely see another gringo, and the ones you do are less 20-something who's main travel goal is to see how many different countries that they can be drunk in, and more the intrepid, independent type. There is also very little information, of any kind. And almost none in English.

I feel like with a little tourist infrastructure, Matagalpa and its spectacular setting could make its way into many tourist's itineraries. But, as it stands now, everything that sounded super cool to do in the guidebook, was in reality- just out of reach. I'm sure on a guided tour, it would be possible but at around $35USD per person, per tour- it would add up very fast. But, even without venturing out into the enticing nature, Matagalpa has nice parks, good places to eat, yummy frozen fruit smoothies and being in the heart of coffee region, delightful cups of coffee.

One morning, in an attempt to explore the surrounding area we took a taxi out to El Castillo de Cacao. Taxi haggling in Spanish: check. Taxis here are taxis exactly like at home- with one difference- they pick up other people along the route. Share taxis! Its a little like getting a town tour- and since no one is ever in any rush to do anything it seems- this system works great and keep the price down!

No one who knows me will be surprised to learn that El Castillo de Cacao translates to The Chocolate Castle. The young woman there was very nice and explained in Spanish that they had no one on hand for an English tour. I got the impression that you could arrange a tour in English in advance, on their website, although I'm not sure if you would need a group, or if they would bring an English guide in for only two people. El Castillo de Cacao is a small chocolate factory in a tiny castle that uses cacao beans harvested locally. Made in a traditional way, with only cacao and sugar (and sometimes adding coffee beans or nuts) the chocolate tastes earthy: raw and unprocessed (and delicious of course). Where, as is usual in countries that produce cacao beans, the cacao is shipped away, processed and then returned to its home country to be consumed in a significantly lower quality than it left. El Castillo de Cacao's goal is to sell high quality chocolate that is locally produced, in the local market. We stocked up on the delightful chocolate, graciously accepted free samples and then the chocolatier let us take a quick peek into the castle for free. Usually a tour would be $6 USD but I think she felt bad because we wouldn't have understood anything that she said in Spanish. Which was absolutely true.

Our intentions of heading to the outskirts of town had been twofold. According to the guidebook,
there was also a gorgeous trail that led out into the landscape from behind the Castillo and looped back around to the road from which we could catch a bus back into town. This turned out not to be true. The chocolatier explained in hand signals and with a hand drawn map, that there was a trail maybe about a kilometer or so up the road, but there was not a single sign to indicate where said trail actually was, how long it was, or any useful information at all. Like I said, a little tourist infrastructure would go a long way. The walk along the road allowed us to see a bit more of the scenery, but, as you an imagine, walking along the twisty shoulder-less road alongside speeding trucks spewing out thick black exhaust- was not the hike I had in mind. The locals we passed were pretty entertained by the sight of a couple of gringos wandering down the side of the highway, so we'll chalk it up to a tourist-ambassador project and consider it a success.

We hiked back into town and stopped at our favourite little Batidos spot (Don Chacos) which served up tasty, frozen smoothies of every imaginable flavour- for $1. I got a pineapple coconut concoction and J stuck to the classic yet refreshing frozen lemonade. The (I'm assuming) son was super helpful and even spoke a bit of English. We probably got our most useful tourist information in all of Matagalpa from him! The only bad part was that Don Chaco's was closed the following day! Either way, it was a perfect break before we switched beverage gears for afternoon adventure- a local coffee festival!

We just happened to be in town for the Coffee Festival- what luck! The entire park was lined with stalls from local coffee growers handing out free samples! Lattes with fancy foam designs, straight up black coffee and frappes with whip cream drizzled with caramel! Oh my! We sampled coffee, learned a little about the local farms and munched on local treats. As we wandered the stalls we were followed by a chorus of "Jesus!" and "Christos!"  from fellow festival-ers. They were pointing and smiling at Jonathan. Yes. Apparently convinced that a Jesus lookalike was attending this years Coffee Festival was causing quite the stir here in Matagalpa!

Back in reality- live local music and dance ensued on the band stand. A brass band made their way around the park. Impromptu dance parties sprung up where ever the music was hopping. We sat on a bench to enjoy our lattes and a shoe shine guy tried to convince J that his running shoes needed a polish! haha. When we refused, he jumped up and starting salsa-ing to the beats (quite impressively), his 'Jesus Loves Me' t-shirt swaying around him. It was impossible not to smile. We couldn't help but be caught up in the festive atmosphere, lively music and caffeinated energy! An excellent way to spend the afternoon!

In the evening we sat on our patio and looked over the mountains. Parakeets squawked overhead and
the neighbour's car alarm was going off. In every way, nature and city were the intricate fabric of Matagalpa. When the sun fell behind the mountains a lighting storm replaced it. The sky was a constant flash of light and colour. The lightning lit up the city below it, the outlines of the buildings and cathedral popping in and out of sight. It was spectacular. We watched for a long while until Jo-Anne, a fellow Canadian living in Nicaragua, came by and asked if we wanted to go for a drink and some live music. We did. After a stop in at a delightful and popular Italian restaurant (La Vita y Bella) we found ourselves at a lively bar overlooking the square. An attractive Nicaraguan played the guitar and sang songs to us and a very appreciative audience.
Following the advice of our new friend, Jo-Anne, we ordered a half bottle of 7 year old Flor De Cana Rum to the table. Two interesting facts in that sentence. #1. Ron Flor de Cana has been produced in Nicaragua since 1890. It is THE liquor to drink in Central America and is a proud part of Nicaraguan heritage. And, as a result of the 1980s revolution, Flor de Cana has one of the largest aged rum reserves in the world! #2. We ordered a bottle of rum to our table. Everyone else was doing it. Being the high rollers that we are not, I kept thinking that there was a catch to this. Our half bottle, which I expected to arrive as literally a half of a bottle of rum, was in fact a full, sealed bottle, only half the size of a full bottle. Jo-Anne suggested we use Fresca (like limey 7-UP) as a mix. Our bottle arrived with three glasses, a bottle of Fresca and a bucket of ice. And so it was, for just over $10 the three of us enjoyed a half bottle of rum, a couple bottles of Fresca and hours of classy Nica music.

Dear Nicaraguan Highlands: I love you.

Don't miss: Eating at El Mexicano! Cheap, authentic, delicious Mexican food

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Top 5 Things to do in Granada

Granada is hot, colourful, photogenic and hot. Here's what we would say are the Top Five things to do in Granada and the surrounding area:

5. Local Crafts- Between the Masaya Market and the Pottery School just outside of Catarina, there is a lot to interest those who are interested in the artisanal side of Granada. Watching a local potter who works at a Ceramic School craft a vase from start to finish (with different pieces from different stages of the process) was fascinating. Especially because every aspect of his craft is completed in the traditional way, using traditional tools and supplies. We visited both the Masaya Market and the ceramic school as part of a tour because we were a little short on time in Granada. ($35USD pp)

4. The view from the bell tower of Iglesia de La Mercad. This is definitely worth both the $1USD
admission and talking to the cranky guy who takes your $1USD.  Every direction is spectacular. The late afternoon sun on the cathedral makes it glow, although you can't go wrong any time of day

3. Volcano Masaya- The museum is good for a stroll but the venting crater is the highlight. There are night tours where you can sometimes see the red lava, or at least the glow of it, as well as bat caves. Not as cool as the actual caves, of course, but there are also bats behind the museum. Go out to the lookout point where your museum stroll likely ended. After taking a picture there, turn around back towards the door but a little to your left. You'll see a panel missing on the bottom right corner of the wall. Stick your head in there and you can see little bats hanging!

2. Laguna de Apopyo- Its the perfect remedy to the Granada heat. We liked it there so much, in fact, that if we were to go back, we would probably base ourselves in Laguna de Apoyo instead of Granada. I guess it depends where you stand on the city vs nature scale. We almost always lean in the nature direction. We stayed at Paradiso, which was comparable, room price wise, to the hostals in Granada, but comes with the added bonus of a lake to swim in after a hot day, or during a hot day, for that matter. The only downfall is that you have very little choice in the food department. They're menu is big enough and everything that we tasted was a generous portion and delicious and but the cost definitely adds up. Gallo Pinto for breakfast was $3.50 and almost everything else was around $5-$6 with a few options on either side of that. They offered a Masaya Volcano Tour for $25 ($10 less than in Granada) and have a shuttle everyday to Granada at 10:30 am coming back to the hostal around 15:00. ($3 pp). Shuttles go from Granada in a few places, Oasis is a reliable one.

1. Wandering the streets of Granada. Every turn is a new photograph waiting to be taken. The colours, architecture, markets and people. Its all beautiful in Granada and worth the heat to take it all in, with many stops at cafes to cool down, of course!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Laguna de Apoyo - Fun in the Volcano.. umm I mean SUN!

Lagua de Apoyo is worth another post. A lake that was formed in a centuries old volcano crater, the laguna is a beautiful, relaxing spot, but also an interesting one. We heard from one local that the crater lake is so deep that no one has ever been to the bottom. Shaped like an upside down cone, the laguna maintains a mystic air to it. It is said to be 200 meters deep and 200 centuries old. According to some, there is an underground cave that links the volcano to nearby Volcano Mombacho. There is apparently a witch who lives down in the underwater grottos and protects the passageway. It is said that the bodies of people who drown in the Laguna de Apoyo are never found because the witch takes them from the bottom of the laguna and transports them to a final resting place under the volcano. Another story is that the Laguna is linked deep, deep down, to the sea and that is why the water is very slightly brackish. Whatever the truth, there is definitely a lot to ponder while floating in the laguna's emerald waters.

Laguna de Apoyo was the perfect compromise for J and I. I love swimming and he hates everything beach related: Sun, sand, salt water, swimming, fun. He hates it all. The Laguna de Apoyo is a freshwater lake with very little sand and a good amount of shade. All things that made our compromise possible. The beach is rocky and strewn with bigger volcanic rocks. Some of the volcanic rocks even float and you can come across one floating along side you while you're swimming. Others are so fragile that you can actually break the rock in half with nothing but your hands.

Paradiso, the hotel we stayed at was more like a resort than a hotel. There were kayaks, paddleboards
and inner tubes to use, along with comfy beach lounge chairs and a waterside cafe/bar. Most people visit the Laguna de Apoyo on a day trip from Granada. We intended on going for one night and ended up staying two because we liked it so much. Had we been on a longer trip, we probably would have extended our stay even more. We spent the entire three days working our way through a relaxing cycle of swimming, lounging in the shade, eating delicious meals and washing them down with cold Nica beer. We even met a few awesome new people. One of the most inspiring was Deneice, a Brit (by Nationality only) who has been on the road for twelve years! We chatted well into the night and left Laguna de Apoyo knowing that we had been very lucky to have gotten to know her better.

We dragged ourselves back to Granada the very last moment possible and only because we had plans to head north into Nicaragua's cool highlands the next day. New adventures awaited and we had no intention of missing a single one.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Volcanic Zen

I woke up sweating. Despite the fact that two fans had been whirring furiously directly on me the entire night and it was barely 7am, I was sweating.  It was definitely too hot to go back to sleep and I desperately wanted to be much cooler then I currently was.

Thankfully we had fled the oppressive Granada heat and were staying at a 'resort' on the Laguna de Apoyo where the swimming was spectacular. This the third volcano we had been to in almost as many days. Instead of being active, or blanketed in a thick forest, this inactive volcano crater was full of water. Maybe my favourite option of the three!

I slipped out of our room and headed down to the water. The air was hot and thick and sticky but I felt instantaneously happy as soon as I stepped into the lake. I walked out as far as I could touch. The crystal clear water deceptively deep.

I laid back like a starfish and let the water wrap around me like a cool silk sheet. The silence under the water is so complete, its hard not to be instantly relaxed. I looked down at my toes poking just out of the surface. I tried to memorize every detail of the scene around me to re-live one cold February afternoon. The crater rim rising up around me, lush, vibrant, tropical and impenetrable. The tendrils of mist that are clinging to the highest edges, weaving in and out of the tallest reaches of the crater. The sun slipped behind a thin cloud, bathing the entire scene in a silvery, early morning light. The laguna is a mirror. The only sounds are of exotic sounding birds calling to each other from the thick forest. Little fish are jumping a few feet from my outstretched toes. I'm not sure if they are the hunters or huntees until a much bigger fish leaps out of the water and grabs one of the little fish in its mouth. Definitely the hunted. I try to take everything in and make a video in my mind. A tall, elegant white egret lands on the raft floating out deeper. I lie still willing the tranquility to linger just a little bit longer.

But, it doesn't. Employees are arriving for the day, calling out greetings in Spanish. Other guests filter down to the lake, dogs start barking at a neighbouring property...the moment is gone. I slip back under the water and surface  feeling re-energized and lucky that I get to spend another day with the Laguna.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Classic Masaya Tour

Aka: Stand at on the Crater Rim of an Active Volcano followed by a live pottery demonstration

Ok, so there were a few more stops involved in the tour. However, standing on the edge of an active volcano, watching the smoke billow up from its burning depths- is kinda hard to compete with.

Our entrance fee to the Masaya Volcano included a pamphlet that stated that the volcano could erupt at any moment. In English and Spanish. There's always lava bubbling at the bottom, although you can't see it because of all the smoke venting out the heat at the top. No one else seemed particularly concerned with the warning, nor did I get the overwhelming sense of impending doom- so on we went, bubbling lava and all. Before getting to the actual volcano, we stopped at the little museum of the Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya. We learned many interesting, gruesome facts. For example, the people who originally lived near the volcano believed that  the volcano was actually a devil/god. To keep the god satiated, the people gave him sacrifices of women and children. It was considered an honour to be thrown into the volcano-alive- to appease the powerful volcano god. Much to my embarrassment, J sized up the volcano and noted the probably-bumpy trajectory that the human sacrifices took. To summarize his observations: they didn't do graceful swan dives right into the lava...they first free-falled before slamming into the volano's walls and brokenly tumbled into the molten lava. Why he noticed/pointed this out is beyond me. Anyway, when the Spaniards came, they erected a massive cross on the rim of the crater and named the spot the-gate to hell. Seems reasonable enough to me. Especially since in 1772 , said Volcano erupted and killed everyone in the vicinity.

But don't worry parentals, this volcano hasn't erupted violently since 2003 and it barely killed anyone that time (J: "barely" means in this case "did not"). In fact from what we hear, it was just a small case of steaming boulders being strewn 500m into the air landing willy-nilly, thankfully not on its visitors. Other countries, ones with more rules, may not allow tourists to drive to the edge of an active, unpredictable volcano for this very reason. Thankfully (fingers crossed) for us, Nicaragua is not one of these boring rule-laden countries.

A 15 minute walk uphill to the neighbouring crater offers a stark contrast. Whereas the the Santiago crater is alive and volatile, the very next crater is lush and green, coated in jungle and alive with tropical birds! Fascinating! Speaking of birds, it also turns out that the large amount of sulfuric dioxide gas that is constantly being pumped out of the active crater is of no deterrent to local green parakeets. They return every afternoon to their nests that are literally little nooks inside the crater of the active volcano! Talk about living on the edge!

Next stop on our classic tour we stopped in at the National Artisans Market in Masaya (the town). The market building is a Gothic structure, built in 1888 with turrets, towers and oversized basalt archways. The stalls were jam packed with colourful woven blankets, painted masks, knit hammocks, ceramics and soapstone sculptures. Oh, and neon t-shirts emblazoned with the local Tona Beer logo. Yup- backpackers have been here. It was a fun place to stroll and check out the quality offerings. And get a frozen lemonade.

Our driver stopped in the small town of Catarina, which is known for its garden supplies and ceramics, and sometimes the larger than life ceramics that decorate gardens. Catarina is also known for its gorgeous lookout over the Laguna de Apopyo. Yet another volcano crater in this very volcanic nation. This crater, in contrast to both the bubbling and the lush green calderas in the national park- was filled with water! Deep, clean, perfect for swimming water- but more on that later!

The final stop on our tour was at a traditional ceramic school in a small non-descript neighbourhood

that one would never find if they weren't on a tour. We were given a private and very impressive demonstration of how the pottery is made in the traditional way of the area. Clay is collected from pretty much around the corner. It is then danced on (yes, you read that right) in bare feet for 3.5 hours to soften it up. The potters wheels are powered by the potter spinning a disc with his foot while he shapes the clay on the wheel with his hands. Before our very eyes, our demonstrator masterfully sculpted a lump of clay into a beautifully shaped vase. He made it look so easy- which I know its not, because I've tried to make a pottery mug.. which unintentionally turned out to be a bowl...  The pieces are  polished by sea stone and the the pit of a local fruit. All the colours are natural pigments and the designs are hand carved. The pottery is fired in brick kiln with real fire and polished a final time. Each piece takes 16 days to complete. They are of exceptionally high quality and exquisitely detailed. If we didn't have to carry the pottery around in our backpacks for the next two months, we would have been very inclined to buy ourselves a piece of this Masaya heritage.

We aren't usually big on tours and very rarely do we take them. But in this case, having someone drive us exactly where we wanted to go, without having to fumble around the local buses, walk extra long kilometers in the heat and be able to see so many sights in a short period, taking a tour made the most sense.

We were the only ones booked for the day, so we had a private tour, arranged through Danny's Tour Agency ( associated with Hostel El Momento). Our tour guide was the lovely Elisetta and her father, Juan, was our driver. Elisetta is studying tourism in Managua and speaks English well. It cost $35 USD each.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Some things are just worth the money. For us being greeted at the airport after a long day of travel by a man with a sign that has our name on it- is one of them. And so we prearranged for it to happen. Thankfully our driver didn't mind silence because we were exhausted. He drove us the hour from the Managua Airport to the tourist town of Granada on surprisingly smooth roads, with surprisingly little traffic, minimal stray dogs and not a single honk. Not at all what I was expecting from our first hour in Central America.
Although Nicaragua is only a two hour time difference, we still found our first day to be a bit rough. The 40 degree weather was also probably a factor. And the humidity. Oh boy, is it hot here. That's a statement, not a complaint. I've had three cold showers today and foresee a fourth before getting into bed. HOT.

We started off our first morning in Granada with a huge plate of gallo pinto. Jonathan was in heaven. Rice and beans for breakfast! It was a dream come true. Rice, beans, scrambled eggs, toast and grilled tomatoes, to be specific. Delivered with a bottle of hot sauce. What's not to love about a country where hot sauce is automatically offered with the salt and pepper.

Granada has an interesting past. Its been a major trade centre since its inception, when it was built as a showcase city by the Spanish in 1524. Granada is one of the oldest cities in the new world. It's a resilient city too. Granada was sacked by pirates three times between 1665 and 1670 and burnt to the ground by Tennessee-born William Walker in the midst of a civil war in 1850. Each time, Granada was lovingly rebuilt and because of this, we get to enjoy its regal beauty and masterful architecture today.

Chock full of gallo pinto, we headed out on the town to take in the sights. We strolled through Parque Central and confirmed approximately thirty times that no, we did not want to take a romantic horse and buggy ride around town. We admired the churches, colonial streets, bright houses, and colourful window shutters. Granada is a very photogenic city. We headed down to the lake via a wide promenade lined with promisingly-refreshing-looking patios. I had intentions of renting kayaks or going out on a boat ride out on Lake Nicaragua around the nearby islands. Unfortunately J read somewhere that there were, at one point, abundant Bull
Sharks in the lake and despite them being massively overfished (like thirty years ago) to the point of almost extinction, J still refused to go anywhere near the water. (J: anyone at the top of the food chain shouldn't have too much trouble recovering population numbers) I had to kibosh the kayak AND the boat tour plans. We went to the market instead. A busy jumble of colourful stalls selling everything
from food to flashlights. We settled on icecream.

Just before sunset we headed up the bell tower in Granada's Iglesia de Mercad. The view was amazing, especially because we had the whole tower to ourselves. It was worth both the dollar (or so) entrance fee and the sketchy narrow staircase to be able to take the city in from the high vantage point.

Red Beard Fan Club Update:  Dear devoted fans, just a quick note to say that membership in this most ridiculous of clubs, J's Beard Fan Club, has now transcended nearly every continent. No culture or ocean can divide the devoted. The newest fans, joining the Tibetan monks, Canadian folk musicians and Chinese businessmen (just to name a few) are now gay Nicaraguan men that we met at a sports bar in downtown Granada. Let me paint you a picture of this fascinating situation. We were in a sports bar for dinner, because it was Sunday and everything else was closed. A Nicaraguan joint trying to be a Western bar. This is not somewhere we would usually be. Homer Simpson was painted all over the brick walls enjoying his Duff Beer. There were tvs tuned into some sporting event or another and neon beer signs hung from the ceiling and walls. Our new friends, a gay couple, were very interested in telling us their woes, dancing and constantly plunking coins into the karaoke machine to ensure that Shakira, their most favourite of all singers, continued to croon away. They loved Shakira so much that they insisted that the server turn the huge projector onto the big white wall, so that they could watch the Shakira music videos in larger than life format. They stroked J's beard and kissed their fingers in the Italian "muah" way and told J how beautiful he (and his glorious beard) were. I told them that I was going to cut it off in the night. They pleaded with me not to, and told him that if I did sneakily cut his beard, then he should cut up the dress I was wearing!! Jeez! Don't mess the the Red Beard Fan Club!

Where we stayed: Hostal El Momento. Clean, friendly, great atmosphere and food. $30 USD for a private room with a bathroom

Friday, October 16, 2015

Next Stop...

Hey Ho Friends!
Apologies that our Europe trip took so long to finish blogging about. It just so happened that once we started visiting friends in Germany, Belgium and Ireland that the time really got away from us. We spent more time just enjoying our experiences and the precious time with our friends and we didn't have a chance to write about all the fun we had. This Spring 2015 trip to Europe was definitely one of our favourite trips of all time and it had everything to do with (in order of appearance) Bozi, Martina, Gina, Lasse, Kevin, Vicky, Jill, A. Eileen, U. Trevor, Pappy, David, Holly and little Jake. We are so lucky to have you all as friends, family and always incredibly gracious hosts.

Warning: we'll be back.

That being said, we really wanted to get our blog updated since we're hitting the road again! Woohoo! 2015 is shaping up to be a fantastic travel year for J & K! We're not headed back across the pond, although that would be amazing since our good friends Kevin and Vicky are getting married in Bruges on Halloween and we're sad to miss it....

But, thanks to our Aeroplan points we scored an (almost) free flight to.... Central America...  tomorrow! Let the adventures begin!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Northern Ireland: Tea, Rain and Everything In Between

We are very lucky to have amazing family in Belfast. J, Jill and I hopped a train from Dublin and were in Belfast in a Leprechauns leap (which, in case you aren't a leprechaun expert, is super fast). We were greeted at the train station by our all time favourite host- Aunt Eileen!

We never go to Europe and not stop in Northern Ireland. Its not because we feel a nagging family responsibility - its because we genuinely love visiting Pappy, A Eileen, U Trevor, David, Holly and Jake. Of course, it doesn't hurt that A Eileen is a gourmet chef with a Red Seal in pavlova. Everything we've ever eaten in Belfast has been extra delicious. Belfast itself is a great place to have family. This visit we finally made it to the Titanic Museum, we walked along the ocean, the waterfront downtown and Jill and I went on an exhilarating shopping excursion.We were in Belfast when the Royal baby Charlotte was born and were excited to see pink balloons tied to the doors of the Belfast City Hall. It felt like we were part of history!

The drive up the Northern Coast of Ireland is all about the scenery. We rented a car at the Belfast City Airport, which turned out to be a bit of ordeal.. and about $300 more than what we had reserved it for online.. but after some huffing and puffing, and eventually finding our way out of the city, I vowed to leave my angry thoughts (and the significant amount of coin we had just dropped) in the dust and just enjoy the ride north.  Plus, I had downloaded a Game of Thrones Driving Guide that, I was convinced, would at the very least lead us to all the spectacular set locations and more than likely having me hobnobbing with Jon Snow before the day was out. Regardless of what Westeros sightings the day had in store, heading out of Belfast along the coast was a spectacular drive. So what if the weather didn't really cooperate either. As someone, somewhere said: Life is like a cup of tea- its all about how you make it. In Ireland, both rain and tea are in seemingly endless supply, so we figured why not drink it all up, however it might be served.

The Giant's Causeway (the one built by Finn McCool): Tip- It is actually free! (May 2015) It costs to park your car, so park down the street, and walk freely through the huge man-made archway and down to the mystical geometric rocks. Easy Peasy. If you want to take the bus down from the Visitor Centre to the actual Causeway- it costs money. However, for any person of average fitness- the walk is not difficult, and breath-taking to boot. The National Trust, who runs the property and the new Visitor Centre (gift shop) charges a hefty "Visitor's Experience" fee. It is very misleading as it is actually free to see the Giant's Causeway. The ticket is essentially a parking/access to the Visitor Centre fee. The National Trust manages plenty of other sights along the North Coast, so don't worry, you'll be supporting them at some point! Everything along the coast is super expensive, so if you're looking to save a few pounds (like we always are) then the Giants Causeway is a delight for both your pocketbook and your camera!

Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. It was rainy and cold (and a tad bit expensive) and thereby a lengthy debate was held to determine whether the three of us thought it a worthy excursion. We did and, even though J and I had been across the bridge before, I was definitely happy we gave it another go! Not to mention we were visiting Carrick-A-Rede at the same time as the dancers for the Take That concert that was taking place in Belfast that night. Just saying: one degree of separation between us and Gary Barlow- worth the admission price!|

From the first time I had seen Dunluce Castle looming on a cliff edge back in 2003 I was in love. It is crumbly and imposing and just standing there, abandoned and oh-so atmospheric. Now when you visit you get an audio guide free with your admission. Its uber-interesting to walk the grounds and listen to a voice gently guide your imagination through the ruins. The guide explains what all the different spaces in the castle would have been used for, how they would have been decorated and how experts think daily life would have been for the community's inhabitants. Fascinating.

Recognize this gorgeous spot? It's Ballintoy Harbour, AKA: The port of the Iron Islands!

How about this? You probably would with leaves on the trees: It is the Dark Hedges, where Arya  takes the King's Road to escape from Kings Landing all those seasons ago! Crazy cool!

Huge hugs and many many Thank Yous to our always gracious Belfast family! You spoil us, drive us around, feed us delicious food, welcome our friends into your house, let us stay in your caravan and generally make us very happy! Thank you for making us feel so at home across the Atlantic. It is always a pleasure to see you and its never often enough! We can't wait until we are able to come back to Ireland!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Dublin and the Gift of Gab

Dublin - home to U2, Guinness, Temple Bar, Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Trinity College, the Ha'Penny Bridge and about 1,273,069  Irish people. A short stop in Dublin is never a bad thing, in our opinion. Its easy to get around, pretty, and you're never far from a pint of Guinness. Plus, this time around was extra special! Our friend Jill from Ottawa was meeting us there. After tucking into some delicious Indian food we found ourselves in Temple Bar. Temple Bar, in Temple Bar, to be specific. There were approximately zero locals in Temple Bar, Temple Bar. We were under no illusion that we had stumbled upon some good local craic. But the craic is good where the craic is good, and with lively musicians, an enthusiastic crowd and free hats, we gladly joined in this particular craic and paid the astronomical beer prices. In Temple Bar that night, we only had eyes for one special Irish beer. Guinness. Oh Guinness. Guinness is not for the impatient- the whole process is long, intentional and steeped in tradition. But for a beer that can apparently actually declare itself to be healthy-perhaps it does require a bit more of a respectful pour.  The bartender pours a pint, its cloudy and
foamy- like a beer storm. According to the company it should take 119 seconds to pour a proper pint. Believe you  me- this is a long time to wait while being jostled around by fellow non-locals, at the packed bar. Everyone waiting not so patiently for their perfect pour.  I like to watch the long line of glasses on the bar top as the beery clouds tumble down the inside of the glass and settle at the bottom. The glasses sit uncomplainingly in a row while the red haired bartender busily fills multiple other pint glasses with the cloudy alcohol and forms a second row behind the first. Then each pint gets a second turn under the tap . The cloudiness disappears and you're left with a flawless black velvety stout topped with the most deliciously thick head. Ah ha! Good things do come to those who wait! Thank Goodness. I don my "free" straw hat
and head back to Jonathan and Jill, trying my best not to disturb the pint's exquisiteness. Well, only until we are ready to drink it, of course.

Other than watching the skillful bartender's perfect pour, Guinness is in another way- the bars entertainment.  Where in those who are drinking it are infinitely more entertaining. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, you learn some very important things from these very entertaining people. Like geography. The overly friendly British guy sitting beside us, was absolutely determined to explain to us, in many forms, where specifically he lived on the neighboring island. 'York' he tells us. 'Oh brilliant,' I say 'we've been there,' (I didn't actually say brilliant because people who speak North American just can't pull it off- but I really wish I could, so let's pretend together). It doesn't matter what I said anyways, because the Brit wasn't really listening. He proceeded to use things on the table, empty pint glasses, the salt, a coaster, to stake out a map of Britain for us uninformed Canadians. He helpfully arranged the coasters and condiments around the sticky table to be prominent British cities so Jill and I could see where everything was in relation to each other. It was all very informative. Because I couldn't help
myself, I asked for clarification often, and sometimes acted confused when the salt shaker suddenly morphed from Manchester to Liverpool which led our young English friend to believe that he has to start the whole explanation all over again. See, entertaining?

After our new friend was satisfied that we wholly understood the geography of England in relation to his hometown, we strolled back over the Ha'penny Bridge and back to our perfectly situated hostel. We dozed off to sleep satisfied with our time in the Irish capital and excited about our next stop- the North.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Aran Islands - Stoned in Ireland

We had wanted to get to the Aran Islands, which lie off of the west coast of Ireland, for years. Rick Steves (heart) describes them perfectly in his 2015 Guide to Ireland, "Strewn like limestone chips hammered off the jagged west coast, the three Aran Islands- Inishmore, Inishman and Inisheer- confront the wild Atlantic with stubborn grit." Stubborn, maybe, but all the more spectacular for it. Needless to say, we were super excited that we could fit them into our trip this time.

We took a shuttle / ferry combination from Galway. It was a wet, miserable Irish day and the seas were churning. For someone who is almost more comfortable in the water than
on land I was surprised how nervous I was on the crossing. The ferry felt like it was being tossed around by the violent waves like a piece of inconsequential driftwood. You couldn't see out the windows due to massive sloshes of water constantly battering the sides of the boat, and there were no windows in the front. I was very happy when the ferry landed on the pier of Inishmore. To make the arrival even more sweet- like a rainbow after a storm- there were dolphins playing just off the pier, even a baby dolphin! I was even happier when we arrived at our guesthouse, Clai Ban, and were shown to an adorable, bright room with windows looking down to the ocean. Yay!

The Aran islands are short on one thing- dirt. There is less than 6 inches of it! According to Rick, the
islanders had to make their own soil by layering seaweed, limestone sand and animal dung. This lack of soil is apparent everywhere you look. Boulders, rocks, tiny tufts of grass stretch as far as the eye can see, but very little farm land or trees. Nevertheless, small "fields" are divided by waist-height stone walls constructed without mortar. Rocks are set on top of each other and angled to allow farmers to move them if need be, and to allow the winter winds to pass through. Its fascinating what people can make work! Plus, these stone fences are super photogenic.

Most people visit Inishmore on a day trip. There are countless bikes awaiting rental within steps of getting off the boat. There are friendly locals with vans and a few horse and buggies ready and willing to take day trippers around. Everyone does the same loop, taking in the most popular sights all at the same time. This did not appeal to us. By staying over a couple nights we could be free to explore as we wished, have time to see the less popular sights, and with any luck, feel like we have the island to ourselves.

Instead of renting bikes we decided to walk the island. Why not, we had the time. Plus, walking allowed us to get off the road and see the island from its small pathways. We first set off east and came upon lots of beautiful things. The ocean on our side the whole way, we hiked up to the remains of  the old stone St. Benen's Church with spectacular views over the eastern edge of the island and ocean.  We stopped to chat to some cows along the way, but otherwise, didn't see a single soul! Then it was off to the windswept Black Fort ruins, making up our own trail over the starkly beautiful landscape and exposed rock. The Black Fort looks today like a semi-circle to stone walls, abruptly falling away at the edge of dramatic cliffs. A bit more erosion and the entire fort looks like it would tumble down the sheer rock and crash into the Atlantic. You can't help but be awed by its precarious location and the insane weather its long-ago inhabitants would have faced.  Again, not another tourist in sight. It was a bit surreal.

The next day we headed off along the centre of the island, following narrow paths made by the farmers and enclosed on both sides by stone fences. Walking along the ridge of the island we had breath-taking views the entire day. The land, boxed into endless squares by the stone fences stretched out for a couple kilometers before plunging away at the cliffs. Whenever we came up on a new stone ruin, it felt like we were discovering it for the first time. The abandoned stone forts, churches and mystery buildings looked like no one had stepped foot near them for centuries. We came upon some lonely horses, sheep and a cow or two- but never a fellow tourist. The island's major sight- and the place most tourists make a bee-line to as soon as getting on the ferry- is Dun Aenghus. Its an impressive stone fortress standing very precariously on the edge of a 200ft cliff looking directly down on the roaring Atlantic. Wow. No one knows why the fort was created, but it is thought to be from the Iron Age, more than 2000 years ago! It is built of four concentric walls of stone, 13ft thick and 10 ft tall. The fort has a huge stone slab like an altar in the middle, but otherwise little indication as to what the space was used for. Scholars think Dun Aenghus might
have been a different shape originally, maybe a D or an oval. With sections having collapsed into the sea over the last millennia, what's left is more like a semi-circle. Whatever the fort was, or why it was built, it has a spectacular view now. From an outcropping, with the fort itself as our backrest we ate our picnic. It was one of the most spectacular spots we had ever had the pleasure of picnicking. With a clear view down the coast and kilometers of uninterrupted cliffs that comprise the western edge of the entire island we contemplated life over baguettes and Irish cheese. When we were full, we walked down from the fort to the other side of the island. The road hugged a particularly clear, turquoise sea the entire walk home. Every turn was a new gorgeous panorama. A white sand beach that could have been transported straight from the Caribbean, ancient grey stone houses with overgrown vines for roofs, and livestock munching away on tufts of grass, oblivious to that fact that they have a dining room view that would be envied the world over.

Everything about Inishmore made it a perfect Irish stop for us. Waking up to mooing cows and an ocean view,  the B&B house dog named Guinness, the actual Guinness... If this is island life- sign me up.

Where we Stayed: Clai Ban B&B- clean, friendly, great breakfast, cash-only. We would stay there again
Where we Ate: Mostly from the Spar grocery store but also Ti Joe Wattys and The Bar down on the waterfront. Both great places for pub food and a pint (of Guinness).