Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Thinking Outside The Park

Ready for a change of pace? Leave Bison Backup behind and head into town.

We headed west for the natural beauty and the spectacle that is offered by national parks in Wyoming and Montana. That beauty and spectacle, of course, do not end when you leave the parks. There is plenty to see and do before and after spending time in each park, and we tried to get a sense of the local life at every place we visited.

We began and finished our trips to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in Bozeman, Montana. Yellowstone is less than two hours south of Bozeman, and Glacier is about 5 hours north, so it was an appropriate place to fly into to launch and terminate our journey. While in Bozeman, we stayed at the Fox Hollow Bed and Breakfast which is quite near the airport and is an easy drive from the interesting parts of town. Our hosts were Mike and Nancy, and they could not have made us feel more at home. Low-key and down to earth, they were welcoming in all ways, and our stay there was just about perfect on both ends of the trip.

Red Molly
Bozeman is a charming college town with a small and diverse downtown with plenty of good choices for food and drink, as well as a superb independent bookstore, The Country Bookshelf. A favorite meal was had at Montana Ale Works, a casual and roomy place with a diverse menu and interesting local beer list.  A highlight of our time in Bozeman was a concert by Red Molly at the historic Ellen Theater. We had never heard of this talented trio who are a little bit country, and we loved their original tunes as well as their arrangements of songs by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Simon & Garfunkel. If they are in a town near you, I encourage you to seek them out!

Once in Yellowstone, we chose to leave the park one night since we wanted to see what the local folks are doing away from the “bison backup” created by wildlife and tourists. We headed to West Yellowstone, Wyoming one evening for dinner at the Bar N Ranch, about an hour’s drive from the park.  It was an amazingly terrific meal in a beautiful, large space. True to its name, it feels like a bar and a ranch, and the food and drinks were a pleasant diversion from National Park food. Of particular note were the Montana strip loin and the blueberry/raspberry crisp (with huckleberry ice cream, of course!).  We followed up dinner with a local rodeo that I will not soon forget. I had never been to a rodeo before and I suspect we were the only tourists there.  There was a caller, of course, and even a rodeo clown, and we enjoyed the playful competition among cowboys and animals in this authentic atmosphere. Our favorite part was the “Kids’ Scramble” which provided children to enter the ring with smaller cows to try their hand at what may become their future calling!  Take a look.

Heading to Glacier National Park, we stopped for lunch at Park Café in St. Mary, Montana.  You are nearly in the park once you reach this place, but don’t pass it up.  It feels like it is out of another era or, maybe, “Twin Peaks”, but the food is hearty in what is otherwise a nutritional wasteland, and you do not want to miss their pies. The variety is impressive and ours did not disappoint.  While in Glacier National Park we saw our personable waitress from the Park Café at our hotel bar and she encouraged us to return for breakfast. On our departure day, we took her good advice and had a hearty (don’t skip the pancake) meal to fill us for our long drive back to Bozeman.

As we did in Yellowstone, we left Glacier one night for dinner to check out the highly recommended Cattle Baron Supper Club in Babb, Montana.  Don’t get the wrong impression from the name.  This is not much of a “club” but a downhome steakhouse with all the trimmings.  Share a steak, though, as they are HUGE, and can certainly satisfy two people. With the steak comes a nice salad, and the best homemade bread I had on our entire trip.

The National Parks are filled with tourists of all kinds.  One cannot complain because you are that camera-wielding wildlife lover, too. It is nice, therefore, to get out of the parks and see how the regional residents spend their time. We were glad we did at every stop, though nothing can outdo the peace and quiet of a kayak on a still lake with purple mountains majesty all around you.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Rugged Splendor of Glacier National Park

Spectacular, awe-inspiring, and rustic are the predominant words that come to mind when thinking of Glacier National Park. This park is an eyeful of majestic vistas. It is large in scope, filled with sights, smells, and sounds to delight those who like to hike, fish, kayak, and canoe. Or maybe for those who just want to take in the sights from the amazing, serpentine Going To The Sun Road which, as the name implies, climbs to heights you could not imagine a car going!   

For the uninitiated, this park in the northernmost reaches of Montana and crosses into Alberta, Canada where it is renamed the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. There is an eastern side and a western side to the park, and there are a large number of lakes that show off the magnificent blue of glacial waters. Yes, the glaciers are melting, and they have become far and few between. I learned from someone with authority that they will soon disappear; the last glacier is expected to be gone by the year 2020. It is a feast for the eyes, and well worth the journey to the top of our country to take in all that the Park has to offer. 

We spent much of our time hiking, specifically along or to Swiftcurrent, Josephine, and Grinnell Lakes, and to see various waterfalls which are always favorites of Clay’s.  The hike to remember was the Highline Trail which hugs a cliff side to a frightening drop on a trail that felt awfully narrow. Suffice to say it was narrow enough at points that the park has installed a cable for hikers to hold onto for security. I expected the trail to get wider and it never really did, so my adrenaline pumped for the duration. The Highline Trail is an 11 mile hike, and then you can take a park bus back to Logan Pass where you started. I was honest with myself after approximately two miles, however, realizing that these unbelievably magnificent views I was trying to enjoy were not going to get even more unbelievably magnificent, and I would be content to enjoy them in reverse direction on the way back. So turn around we did, hiking the two miles back much more confidently even though it was the very same trail I had just shuddered my way across.  

There is plenty of wildlife in Glacier National Park that you get to meet up close and personal. We encountered an adorable mountain goat on a hillside on the first half of the Highline Trail, only to meet the same mountain goat, looking more threatening and less adorable as it walked toward us on the trail as we headed back. There is barely room for a single person on this trail, let alone a person AND a mountain goat; one wrong step and either the goat or we fall off a mountainside into the abyss.  So Clay and I backed into a tiny nook on the rock side of the cliff, holding hands, and I heard Clay say “This is amazing; this is incredible” as the goat walked right past us within inches. I missed seeing this, of course, as my eyes were tightly closed but, once opened, I watched the goat continue on the trail we had just hiked and commenced breathing again. 

Can you see our friend, the billy goat?

Up Close and Personal

The payoff for these adventures was living out my occasional desire for thrill-seeking, enjoying indescribably beautiful vistas of mountains and valleys, and a sense of accomplishment that my common daily life does not frequently offer. If you are a nature lover, Glacier National Park should be in your travel plans for its fascinating and profound sights that make it worth the journey.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

How Many Parks Can You Fit Into One? Yellowstone National Park

Artists' Point

A tour of Yellowstone National Park is more like a tour of three or four parks as there are multiple climates and topographies, as well as a wide variety of wildlife, flora, and fauna to enjoy.  Picture a figure 8 and you will understand that we looked at the park from four different angles, southwest, northwest, northeast, and southeast. The majority of our time was spent in the southeast (Old Faithful area) and the northeast (Canyon and Tower areas), though we managed to do the entire helix of roads through this amazing national treasure.

When I imagined visiting the iconic Old Faithful, I expected a crowded tourist stop that would take 10 minutes of our time and that would be all there would be to see. I was entirely wrong. First, the grand geyser, itself, is more fascinating than I ever thought it would be as it shoots 4000-8000 gallons of hot water 150 feet high into the sky. It is surrounded by other geysers on the low end, backgrounded by rocky mountains on the next level, all put to light by abundant sunshine. We were fortunate to stay at Old Faithful Inn which allowed us to enjoy this great sight, morning, noon, and night, with crowds and without crowds, so much so that I was once walking away from the geyser as it was erupting (it might have been the 10th eruption for which I had been present), and people looked at me as to say "What are you doing? Don't you know what is going on behind you?" The eruptions in the quieter times of day were preferable, of course, but I also got a big charge by sharing the experience with other tourists of all ages, everyone delighted by the unexpected power that comes from the ground at expected intervals.

Grand Prismatic Spring
  Second, the area where you find Old Faithful is in one of many geyser basins, and there are more geysers than you can count in the general vicinity.  Some are just above Old Faithful, and there is a terrific and easy hike along a path of geysers to an observation point, and some are along the roads in the area. A walk around what's known as the Grand Prismatic Spring for its diverse colors was more exciting than I ever imagined. In general, I did not expect to enjoy the thermal activity so much, but one day we took a very early morning park-sponsored photo safari (which I highly recommend even if you're not a photographer). As dawn broke, we saw the park free of other tourists, the mist in the air, the steam on the geysers, and sudden eruptions as the sun rose. It was almost eerie at times, and always gorgeous. Throughout this southeastern quadrant of Yellowstone Park, we occasionally saw bison and elk on the road, and wildflowers galore. As fun as that was, nothing prepared us for the bounty of wildlife that awaited us as we headed to our second destination in the northeast part of the park.

Morning Mist & Geyser Steam

After three days at Old Faithful Inn, we moved to Lake Yellowstone Hotel which is situated in a much quieter and more peaceful area. It felt like paradise when we arrived to a more spacious hotel, fewer and smaller crowds, and the magnificent and large blue lakeview from our room. Initially we thought we would never leave the hotel given the idyllic surroundings, but this new ecosystem of verdant meadows, vast valleys, and towering mountains awaited. Our three hikes in this area included Shoshone Lake, Artists' Point to Point Sublime, and the south rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon.  Each hike was exceptional for different reasons and I would not have missed any one of them, but Artists' Point brought me to tears for its overwhelming majesty and beauty. We were there for awhile, watching the Lower Falls of the canyon awaiting a promised rainbow refracting the sunlight at approximately 9:55 a.m. and our promise was fulfilled. You may be aware of a painting done here in the 1800's by Thomas Moran that now hangs in the Smithsonian, and as the legend says, it was this painting that convinced Congress to pass a bill creating Yellowstone as the country's first national park.

Another highlight at the center of this eastern section is Hayden Valley.  By the time we left, we had driven through the valley enough times to be less than patient with the vast number of bison all over the valley and crowding the roads, causing "bison backup." I regained my patience each time, however, when I remembered that many in each traffic jam were seeing this amazing sight for the first or second time so it never ceased to amaze me.  'Herds of bison are in every direction, with some coming right up to your car. We saw a group of elk, and some saw the occasional bear in the distance. It was the close-up view that was the most fun as animals surrounded us, grunting and ignoring us all the way. I learned a lot about bison, and I alternated between preferring the sight of a solitary bull (they are HUGE) and the sight of innumerable animals grazing in a valley, taking their day in stride.

We also took a park-sponsored tour of the Lamar Valley, famed as the "Serengeti of Yellowstone" for its vast number and variety of wildlife. Our trip there was somewhat disappointing so we were ultimately more impressed by the Hayden Valley, which is more accessible to other parts of the park and, at least while we were there, had more animals.

Pronghorn Antelope in Lamar Valley

The top of the northeastern section of the park (Tower and Roosevelt areas) was, for me, the most impressive to drive through. Various pressures from above (past glaciers) and below (the thermal hot spot), which push Yellowstone to an altitude over 7000 feet, are most obvious as you drive the Dunraven Pass and cross the Continental Divide. This is where you see the highest mountains, and the road curves through these passes providing views that took my breath away. We had driven this area when we first arrived at Yellowstone so my first impressions were dramatic.  We drove it again toward Mammoth Springs on our way out of the park and I was no less impressed. This area brings to mind the original meaning of the word "awesome" and I will never forget its supreme beauty.

Whatever your expectations are upon visiting Yellowstone for the first time, I believe they will be changed once you have gone. There is such variety, something for everyone's taste in nature, and if one area is less interesting to you, you will drive twenty miles and find your kind of park. I went as someone who thought "You see one geyser, you've seen them all." No longer my feeling at all, but once ready to leave the geyser area surrounding Old Faithful, I saw the wildlife and the mountains and valleys that I once thought were my kind of park. Simply put -- supremely beautiful.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Paradise Found

We removed our shoes to get that first feel of the sand beneath our toes.  Cool below, yet warmed by the sun, soft yet grainy, the senses offered that Proustian moment of remembering every other time we have walked on a beach.  And the best part – we virtually did not put our shoes back on for a week while we immersed ourselves in sun, sea, and sand.

This took place after a long-ago jump off a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands to swim to the shore with only a few dollars tucked in my swimsuit.  Where would that wet cash be used?  I spent them at the only place they belonged: The Soggy Dollar Bar in Jost Van Dyke, B.V.I.  After my second Painkiller (the signature drink of this establishment), I asked the couple to my left if they were staying at the small hotel affiliated with the bar, called Sandcastle.  They were, and with a place so remote and unspoiled, I wondered what their visit was like.  What they described matched my dreams of the perfect vacation.

I have always longed for a trip where there were literally no decisions to be made.  With the company of very few others in the interest of maximum peace and quiet, I imagined I would find such a place my heart’s delight, allowing me the greatest possibility for serenity and deep thought.  I found that at
Sandcastle Hotel on Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands.  It’s a hotel, for sure, in that there were rooms (only 6) and meals to be had (with 12 others at most), but more important, it provides a haven of island life at its slowest and most beautiful.  The senses are stimulated in all ways: vistas for the eyes, lapping waves for the ears, and the scent of the ocean only interrupted by the scent of warm coffee each morning on our private beach.  As for decisions, we occasionally had to choose between hammock and lounge chair, and our meal choices were few but tempting and took only a moment’s thought. So I found the place that could make my vacation dreams of utter tranquility come true.

Jost Van Dyke is a small island in the chain of British Virgin Islands, a chain better known for Tortola and Virgin Gorda.  People come from all around the world, more by boat than by air, though there is an airport in Roadtown, Tortola.  We flew to St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.  You then take a taxi to a dock with a choice of getting on either a local ferry to Tortola and then another to Jost Van Dyke, or the simpler option, which is to take a private water taxi from St. Thomas to Jost.  That’s a pricy option, for sure, but a time saver that allowed us to be in New York City at 6 a.m. and on the beach at Sandcastle by 1:30 p.m.!  We are happy with the service at Dolphin Taxi, should you choose to indulge that option, and I recommend it.

Our days started with Clay swimming in the quiet White Bay followed by a little stand-up paddle boarding, while I sipped coffee and watched from the shore.  This is my very favorite time of day at White Bay, before the day-trippers arrive and we have the beach quite literally all to ourselves.  A chance to check in with civilization briefly is offered by wi-fi near the bar, but I was just as happy to turn off for the better part of each day.  A tasty breakfast is served by the friendly folks at Sandcastle, and then we parked ourselves under a palm tree with our various books, podcasts, Kindles, and a bottle of cold water from the refrigerator in our room. 

Around 11 a.m. the tourists begin to arrive, either off of a small cruise ship and delivered by dinghy, or on smaller private sailboats and yachts.  It is great people-watching from approximately 11 a.m.-4 p.m., especially knowing that we have the beach all to ourselves again for the late afternoon cocktail hour and sunset.  Since most of the day-trippers come for that famous Soggy Dollar Bar, we sit a ways down the beach in front of our little cottage and only occasionally feel imposed upon by the revelry. I can hardly deny them their fun when this is precisely how I found this paradise in the first place. If it gets too busy on the beach, we simply go back to the area marked “Sandcastle Hotel: For Guests Only” and we get a portion of the beach all to ourselves!

The hotel has 4 octagonal cottages with ceiling fans, each with an outdoor shower leading to a private bathroom, and there are 2 air-conditioned, more traditional hotel rooms.  We prefer the former since they are closer to the beach and provide the atmosphere that is part of the reason we come, but the hotel rooms are quite nice.  Outside of our beachside cottage are a hammock, lounge chairs, and Adirondack chairs on a small deck. The rooms are not fancy but they are sufficient to the task. We have met friendly people each time we are there, and with only 6 accommodations, that’s easy to do. As we have now arrived three times at the same time of year , we have begun to know the same folks traveling down annually, and the very friendly staff considers us “regulars.” 

We had dinner most nights at Sandcastle, but there are options down the beach or in town.  You don’t come to Jost Van Dyke for the food, but we had a few memorable meals.  After dinner, there is amazing stargazing, then our quiet nights were spent in our cottage watching movies we downloaded before leaving home.  There is virtually no nightlife in Jost, though a favored bar called Foxy’s offers live music on some nights.  Our big jaunt for the week was a taxi ride to the other side of the island to Abe’s where we were only one of two couples enjoying the fresh lobster and generous platter of barbecue ribs.

This is a trip to think small. You only need a couple of bathing suits, shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops.  Any thoughts of even one nice outfit are unnecessary – leave it home. Plenty of sunscreen and some mosquito repellent (okay, nothing’s perfect!), shampoo, and your toothbrush are all you need.  There is a gift shop at Soggy Dollar if you forget anything, but by week’s end you will realize how little of life’s usual trappings you really need to enjoy yourself.

Upon departing there was a big decision to be made.  I was out of practice, having been blissfully pronouncement-free for an entire week, so this was not easy: if you don’t book your next visit to Sandcastle while you’re there, and they only allow you to do that upon departing, you’ll lose your room for same time next year.  Decisions, decisions – will it be a week’s stay again next year or longer?

White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, throughout the day