31 December, 2013

Land of Lakes...

We planned to spend the night at Eau Claire WI to divide up the very long drive to Duluth MN. En route, we got lost in Green Bay when the main bridge on the I-45 was closed and our navigator wasn't very enthusiastic with an alternative route. Detour signposting got us back on track, eventually, but we had to back-track quite a way. We hadn't found much to excite us about Eau Claire in the Lonely Planet or on the internet, so, right at the key intersection in Wausau, we made a lightening decision to head to Minocqua, solely on the basis that it (a)avoided interstates and (b)seemed to traverse more scenic roads.

An informal ice skating rink in Minocqua township.

We don't know what we missed in Eau Claire, but Minocqua was a good decision. Minocqua's motto is nature's original water park and claims to be in the middle of 3000 lakes and 160 miles of groomed snow-mobile trails! We have now seen enough to accept both of these representations! All of the lakes are frozen solid, so they supplement the amenity for ski-do enthusiasts, plenty of whom were staying in our hotel in the town, and we saw them fuelling up at gas stations and zooming around over the lakes and trails.

This group of snow-mobilers were preparing to set off along Lake Minocqua.

Gassing up in town.

Like many small snowbound towns, Minocqua is very cute, but this town's unique characteristic is that its CBD is contained on what is effectively a tiny island in Lake Minocqua. One road in, another out, both across bridges. You can walk the roads of the island in about 15 minutes. We enjoyed an evening meal at Polecat and Lace, a popular family owned and friendly bar and grill. It seemed to be the best place in town.

The main street of Minocqua is lined with colourful shops and characteristic architecture.

This shop specialises in colourful letter boxes!

29 December, 2013

Opening Door County...

Our next stopping place was to be Sturgeon Bay in Door County, Wisconsin. We selected this location because the county is a peninsula poking into Lake Michigan with lots of harbours and it is obviously a popular playground during summer. We expected it to be quiet and beautiful in winter, and we were not disappointed.

We received a warm welcome at the Visitors Centre at the Illinois-Wisconsin border.

The drive from Chicago is 380km. We skillfully left Chicago by navigating up the US-41 rather than the faster I-94 to avoid paying any tolls on the Illinois Freeways, because to use just one would require us to open an account on the Illinois iPass system for $25.00, and we probably won't encounter any other tollways. Look after the pennies and maybe the dollars will look after themselves!

Rustic shed near Cana Island Lighthouse.

Out of urban areas, you realise how much snow has covered this flat, northern region of the USA. Apart from the cleared roads, several feet of snow covers everything. At the Wisconsin border, now on the I-94, we called into the Visitors Centre for R&R, and got some really useful information about our visit to Door County there. The agent there could not have been more helpful, and we took his advice to ignore the determined instructions from our Garmin Navigator and drive into Sturgeon Bay via the coast road State-42. This passed through cute towns like Manitowoc, Alaska and (nearing dusk) the wonderfully beautiful Algoma with a whole park full of illuminated Christmas trees. Dark comes early in this wintery place, about 4:45pm preceded by several hours of "getting dark", so to see town lights and Christmas decorations in this light is very pretty.

Illuminated Christmas Tree lights up the night in front of Lake Michigan at the Coast Guard station near Sturgeon Bay.

Ice bound ships in the canal splitting Door County at Sturgeon Bay.

We spent a day exploring the Door County peninsula, places like Egg Harbor and Baileys Harbor, covering maybe half before we ran out of time and light. Away from the coast, agriculture seems to be predominantly cherries and corn, but both crops are pretty dormant given that several feet of snow is covering absolutely everything. The cherry trees seem to be covered in unpicked cherries, giving them a strange reddish hue when viewed from a distance.

Close up of the dead cherries on their tree after weeks or months of freezing conditions.

Fishermen use giant augers to drill holes through the ice.

Fishermen can watch this gadget from a distance, e.g. the warmth of a car or tent, to see if a fish has been caught.

It was in Egg Harbor that we first discovered ice fishing. Men use giant augers to drill 400mm diameter holes in ice about 300mm deep. We found a friendly guy (up from Chicago) who explained to us the processes and mechanisms they use. Basically, when a fish is snagged, a flag is triggered which lets the fisherman know. The harbours themselves all have pretty modern marinas, but all boats have been removed and placed in big storage sheds. The moving winter ice would otherwise destroy them. In Baileys Harbor, we noticed that even the marina components had been removed from the water.

Frozen Clare at the frozen Baileys Harbor.

Unable to extricate the Toyota RAV4 from a snow drift near the Range Light.

We chased down several lighthouses in an attempt to photograph them. At one, the Range Light near Baileys Harbor, we got bogged in a snow drift when quickly reversing back to see the light (yes, it was Mike!). A friendly tow-truck driver eased our embarrassment for $50! It was dark by the time we got back to near Sturgeon Bay, and thus we saw three spectacular lighthouses there on the southern end of the canal in a particularly good light.

The Range Light, with it's smaller partner, enables mariners to gauge their exact bearing and distance when entering Bailey Harbor.

The Cana Island Lighthouse is approached by walking a causeway over to its island.

The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse glows a red lamp.

The beautiful and unusual contruction of the North Pierhead Lightouse.

26 December, 2013

Chicago - cold and Christmassy

From the warm comfort of Santa Monica, watching the extreme storms in the midwest on the Weather Channel made us quite nervous about the flight to Chicago. But it seemed that the bad weather had moved further east by the time we were due to fly, and the American Airlines flight was more or less on time. However, we had forgotten how awful the check-in process at LAX is, and with Christmas on the way, and huge crowds travelling, this turned out to be the worst part of the day's journey. First world problem, huh!

The iconic Wrigley Building towers over the steel bridge of Michigan Ave and the Chicago River.

Chicago is known as the windy city, but for now it is the freezing conditions which best characterise it. Even the locals were complaining about how cold it is. At one sunset, the temperature was -14C, and with the wind chill factor, the TV News announced that it felt like -23C. Walking up the Magnificant Mile of Michigan Ave and the other interesting streets of this bustling city is excruciatingly painful when the wind is up, but delightfully brisk when it is still. Everyone is completely rugged up, some so that only their eyes were showing. Our good clothing kept us pretty warm, but we both suffered in the face and hands. Clare lashed out and bought a knee length coat from Macy's. Not surprisingly, it was the only one in the store not on special!

Seasonal decorations adorn Macy's in State Street.

It's really tough in this weather, but we gather that the present cold snap is exceptional. The road salting trucks are being kept busy, but while it's very cold, there hasn't been much actual precipitation. Some snow fell on Christmas Eve, maybe 20mm, and so we had a white Christmas. But it warmed up to a mere -1C on Christmas Day which seemed to cheer up the locals, but to us, it just turned the sidewalks slushy and slippery.

Freezing in front of illuminated Christmas Tree near River Esplanade.

The most distressing thing about this downtown area of Chicago is the homeless and beggers. There are several on every block and at every corner. Each carries a handwritten sign telling some sad story or another. There's old and young, male and female, some particularly pitiful becuse their children are with them. They are unfailing polite in their requests, even when rejected, and tend to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. It must be horrendous for them to sit or stand on the pavement in this bitterly cold city. We saw some young people giving old clothes to these poor souls.

In the 3pm near dark, a Loop Train rumbles over Wabash St just south of the river.

Again, Bob put us into a hotel (Conrad, on N Rush St) which was spectacularly well located, right in the middle of shops and restaurants, and backing onto Michigan Avenue. From here, we could walk everywhere, including to our Christmas Lunch at the Drake Hotel. We discovered some great eating places within 100m of the hotel. We had a good Asian meal at P.J. Changs. Another was Seasons 52, specialising in healthy (but delicious) food with courses all less than a specific calorie level. The friendly waitress there, Tina, gave us some good tips which we followed up. We had one breakfast at the very popular Eggsperience, their specialty being self-evident. And she also told us about the brand new Eataly, apparently an import from New York, which is a huge barn of coordinated deli, eating, coffee and wine experiences - similar to the Fratelli Fresh concept, but much more complex and 10 times as big. Great Lavazza coffee and fresh croissants were had from there!

Lavazza Espresso appeals to the locals at Eataly.

Navy Pier marks the easterly extreme of Chicago as it reaches into Lake Michigan

Navy Pier is a now restored Navy facility complete with restaurants, convention facilities, a big ferris wheel and an Imax theatre. It's nice and warm inside, which is one reason we visited! There is a very interesting Stained Glass Museum inside, but the major interest for us is outside. The harbour around the pier suddenly froze up in the cold snap, and we were lucky enough to see an ice-breaker charging through the fresh ice to break it up and create some navigational paths.

Some contemporary examples from the Museaum of Stained Glass on Navy Pier.
The frozen edge of Lake Michigan just off Navy Pier.
Ice breaker attacking the freshly frozen surface of Chicago Harbour after a sudden cold snap.

Millenium Park is the publicly accessible focal point of a large urban renewal project just south of the Chicago River. This is a beautiful and modern open space, and would be very crowded in warmer weather. When we visited, the free ice-skating rink was quite busy (we refrained from giving it a go) and many people were taking selfies of their distorted reflections in the highly polished and geometrically intriguing Cloud Gate statue.

Disorted reflections of the city in the Cloud Gate in Millenium Park.

We had Christmas Dinner at the Drake Hotel, a special splurge we had planned and booked some weeks ago. The hotel and the dining room were nice olde world, the carollers were very good and a lot of fun, but, frankly, it was not worth the premium paid. The food was delicious and well presented, but the menu was limited and was certainly nothing special befitting the occasion. The items available would have been on their everyday menu. The decadent dessert buffet was quite disappointing. We think Americans enjoy their gastronomic celebration at Thanksgiving, and Christmas lunch is just another meal to them. Other patrons were quite delighted, and maybe we Aussies are just too spoiled and fussy? Maybe we were just missing our regular Christmas Dinner with all the special trimmings which were missing in this meal. The hotel public areas were beautifully decorated. Another large restaurant at the Drake was packed with well dressed people taking high tea. Again, we think this is a daily affair at the Drake.

The carollers at the Drake Hotel didn't know any Australian Christmas Carols, but sang "Rocking' Around the Christmas Tree" at our request.

After our Christmas lunch, we went to the movies and saw American Hustle, a great show requiring no little concentration and highly recommend by David & Margaret. The theatre was packed to the gills. Movie-going on Christmas Day is obviously a popular pastime in this cold climate.

23 December, 2013

Santa Monica - the cure for jet lag

The Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles was on-time and uneventful. We learned many years ago that the best cure for jet lag after this flight was to spend a day or two in California sunshine before embarking on the next hop, and this time we chose Santa Monica instead of the usual Redondo Beach. It was a good decision. While Redondo is a delightful beachside location, Santa Monica, about the same distance to the north of the airport that Redondo is to the south, is much more interesting because of a vibrant CBD, many, many more accessible dining choices, and, of course, the legendary Santa Monica Pier whose depression-era ballroom was the setting for the iconic movie, They Shoot Horses, Don't They.

Narrow houses separate the Pacific Coast Highway from a wide expanse of sand.

A busker struts his stuff on Santa Monica Pier.

The town of Santa Monica is separated from the beach and Pacific Ocean by the "palisades", steep and crumbling cliffs which resemble the bluffs at Black Rock in Melbourne. At the bottom of the cliffs is the Pacific Coast Highway and a massively wide beach. Nearer the pier there is a large bitumened car park, but further north there is a batch of fascinating, narrow terraced homes between the highway and the sand. These range from ultra-modern to old and facing demolition, but regardless of their age and condition, the land they sit on must be priceless. Maybe its the width of the beach here, but these houses seem to avoid the extreme storms which often devastate Malibu, further up the coast.

Skateboarders love to roar down the steep ramp to Santa Monica Pier, and then hitch a ride on sometimes unwilling cars to get back up the slope.

Whatever, the palisades, these houses, the pier itself, and a great shopping precinct make Santa Monica a great place to while away hours in the winter sun trying to ward off the inevitable jt lag. We discovered a Farmers' Market in Arizona Ave on Saturday, and the Third Street Promenade is a pedestrian mall packed with cute shops, cafes and bars. In this vicinity, we found ample places to have breakfasts, light lunches and nice ice-creams.

Facing west, Santa Monica affords stupendous sunsets which seem to attract a crowd every afternoon.

Our agent, Bob Holliss, had put us up in the Shangri-La hotel, right on the palisades at the corner of Arizona Ave. Bob, a great hotel! Boutique in scale, art-deco in architecture and fit-out, with a fantastic view of the sunset from the rooftop bar. The staff were extremely friendly and personable, something you don't find in larger and more modern style establishments. The lifts reminded us of old style department stores, with doors you had to push open manually and big analog floor indicators.

Beautiful art-deco buildings grace the palisades at Santa Monica, but many have been replaced by more modern structures.

28 November, 2013

Planning for Mississippi and Caribbean Trip

Map from Wikipedia
This blog is where we hope to document our forthcoming visit to the USA and the Caribbean, subject to good internet access, of course! We leave Australia on 20 December, we'll spend Christmas in Chicago (brrr!) then will set out on a rental car drive down the Mississippi River from north to south. It's winter, so we won't attempt to get to the source in Itasca MN, but we will start somewhere north of Minneapolis.
Map from Google with pins in our intended destinations.
A month later, if all goes to plan, we will arrive in New Orleans LA. Then, from Miami FL we will set off on an island hopping tour of the Caribbean, roughly 1 week in each of 6 nations.
Cristo St, Old San Juan. Image by Angel Janer
We return to Australia in late March, just inside the 90 day deadline on our US visas with a comfortable safety margin. Time spent in the Caribbean counts as part of your stay, as far as US Immigration Law is concerned. This is designed to prevent visitors seeking to extend their stay by ducking out to "outlying islands", as well as Canada and Mexico.

05 March, 2013

Lord Howe Island 2013

Lord Howe Island had long been a desirable travel destination for us, but we had previously put off one of two plans to visit there due to fears of too much wind and rain. Finally, reports by friends and colleagues as to how wonderful the island was persuaded us to take the plunge and plan the better part of a week there. We were not disappointed! We enjoyed almost perfect weather at the end of February 2013, and found Lord Howe to be a delightful place to visit. We were able to hike, bike, swim, and kayak to our heart’s content, and would recommend a holiday here to anyone, but not if they want nightlife!

Lord Howe is 700km north-east of Sydney, and is roughly 10km long from tip to tip. Mountains define the east and west of the island, with the developed area (including the airstrip) occupying only a small fraction of the land area in the narrow middle section. Some 70% of the land area is wilderness. The island is a remnant of a volcano, vaguely crescent shaped, with a large lagoon dominating the south side. In total, there are only 5-10km of roads on Lord Howe, and these were easily traversed in their entirety in one afternoon on a bicycle.

Apart from walking, riding a bicycle is the main means of transport on Lord Howe, certainly for the tourists. There are relatively few motorised vehicles here, but all accommodations and tour operators have a mini-bus or something to transport their guests. The speed limit is 25km/hr but that sedentary pace restriction seems to be rarely honoured by locals going about their business, unless they have tourists on board.

It’s easy to get around Lord Howe by yourself, but we opted for a guided tour so we could appreciate some of the finer details which make this place so interesting. Tours like this appear to be run by long term locals whose history on Lord Howe goes back many generations, and Chase ‘n’ Thyme was no exception. We also did a cruise around the island and to Balls Pyramid on board M.V.Noctiluca. Our skipper, Jack, is deeply entrenched in LHI tourism – not only did he know every seabird by name and where it could be found on this cruise, but he told us that he also leads the trek up Mt. Gower twice a week. No wonder he looked so fit!

Mt. Gower(875m), together with its partner Mt. Lidgbird, are the dominant features of the Lord Howe landscape, and climbing it is the epitome of adventure on the island. There are a lot of marked walks possible on the island, but the route for this one is not even marked on maps and to undertake it requires a guide, and about 8 hours to cover the mere 10km return distance. It is often quoted as “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done” by tourists. We didn’t attempt it, but we did do its “training run” up to Lidgbird’s Goat House Cave, which was tough enough, but assisted by strategically placed ropes in the most precipitous places.

One interesting bushwalk goes up a long ridge to the top of Malabar Hill at the western end of LHI. It offers spectacular views over Settlement Beach and Neds Beach (pic), with Mutton Bird Island in the background. The view at the top is spectacular, with hundreds of red-tailed tropic birds (Amokura) swooping around and into nesting places on the steep windswept cliffs which face Roach Island. This walk passes the spot where an old flying boat crashed in 1948.

Spiders seem to abound on LHI. Luckily there seem to be few dangerous ones, but the Golden Orb Weaver is a large, pretty harmless, species commonly seen because it is prolific and it has a habit of weaving its web across walking tracks. The spider in this picture lives on the ridge up to Malabar Hill and has given himself a spectacular view over Settlement Beach.

Kayaking in LHI’s huge lagoon is a pleasant pastime, especially when the wind is low. We were able to pick up our kayak from Lovers Bay, a pretty little inlet very close to Capella Lodge. This is also a nice little location to have a quiet swim, but the entire lagoon is equally calm and pleasant for children to play safely, or just for sun baking. Another idyllic location is Cobby’s Corner. Surfers go to the northern side of the island, to Blinky Beach at the end of the airport runway, or to the more popular Neds Beach, which is just on the edge of town. At some tides, a surf rolls on to the coral reef which defines the lagoon, and we saw surfers take their tinny out to ride those waves, or just hop in after walking to Little Island, which is the start of the trek to Mt. Gower.

The cruise on Noctiluca gave us a unique appreciation of the island, the amazing cliffs around it, and some of the surrounding islets. Roach Island, off Malabar Hill, is notable for its natural bridge which allows you to peek through to others in this little cluster of so-called Admirality Islands. We saw Boat Harbour, apparently associated with nefarious dealings in the past and rumours of buried treasure.

Most of the half dozen punters on board Noctiluca are there for the bird-watching so half way to Balls Pyramid, Captain Jack entices hundreds of Wedge Tailed Shearwaters to the boat with burley. The chaos as they fly around the boat and dive after the bait is not exactly “free of the hand of man” but very spectacular. Also on the trip jack points out many other rarer species. The birdwatchers are happy with glimpses, but they were impossible for us to photograph. The colour of the water is incredible!

Of course, the highlight is Balls Pyramid itself, like Lord Howe Island, another remnant of a long-ago volcano. It is 562m high, but only 1100m long and 300m across, making it the tallest volcanic stack in the world, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball%27s_Pyramid. It’s a stunning sight, poking straight out of the ocean, as it does.

Apart from tourism, Lord Howe’s main industry appears to be Kentia Palms which are native and endemic here. Kentia Palms have become the world’s most popular decorative palm tree, ideal for indoors or outdoors and adaptable to many climates.

Lord Howe Island conveys the impression of being extremely well managed, and the bureaucratic structure appears to have served the island and its conservation very well. The island is managed by a fairly autonomous Board, on which islanders outnumber the NSW Government appointees. The island is really strong on preserving its natural environment: the latest campaign is trying to eradicate rats which and are blamed for the extinction of numerous endemic species and now threaten native woodhens. It’s probably apocryphal but we’re told that the rats originally swam ashore from a shipwreck! The SS Makambo gets the blame in some artwork we saw.

The resident population is about 350. The Board restricts the number of tourists on LHI to 400 at any one time, and makes it difficult to become a “local”, so the island is pretty quiet. There is a full range of accommodations available for visitors, but we splurged out and stayed at Capella, arguably the best. Capella represents true luxury and fine dining. But what made our stay exceptional is how Capella handled problems. Our Qantas flight home was cancelled due to mechanical problems. Qantas paid our additional accommodation for the night, but not at Capella, which was fully booked anyway. Nevertheless, Capella treated us as their responsibility and provided us with meals and transportation even after we had checked out. Well done Capella, and we have no complaints about how Qantas handled the matter either!

No-one comes to Lord Howe Island for its urban bustle or nightlife. There is a bowling club but no pub. A couple of mini-markets and boutiques serve the local population and tourists. These are replenished on a 2-3 weekly schedule by the Island Trader which comes from Port Macquarie. You pay a premium for anything fresher, or more frequent, all of which has to be flown in (if not grown locally). There are quite a few cafes and restaurants, often associated with accommodation, many of which seemed to be closed during our visit, admittedly not peak season. We had breakfast one morning at the Anchorage Café in town, and were surprised to hear both staff and patrons speaking French. The main part of town spreads out over a kilometre or so from the Museum (well worth a visit, cute café too!) to the shops, and fronts onto Lagoon Beach with its Norfolk Island Pines and lots of white terns.