Tag Archives: hiking

Memories of Stavanger

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In 2006, one month after we got married, we moved to Norway (because one major life event in 4 weeks just wasn’t enough). We had never been to Norway before, but there we were with 4 suitcases and 2 new rings on our fingers. We arrived on a grey, rainy day in Stavanger, a small city on the Southwest coast.

Tall ship Stavanger

Three years later we left Stavanger with a toddler, a few more suitcases, and a deep love in our hearts for the city. It was truly a gift to live there for those few years.

I often think of Stavanger with a mixture of fondness and melancholy. I feel a strange heartache to think that it is all still there – our house, our street, our supermarket, the forest, the harbour – but I am not. Bizarrely, it seems to me that places that are dear to you should really freeze when you leave. It should all just pause and be preserved for when you return. I struggle to think that a city that holds such a place in my heart doesn’t hold me in the same regard; my absence doesn’t even register as a bit of a frown on the face of Stavanger. Gasp!

Harbour

This is crazy, I know. But not that crazy, right? Do you have places that you hope are just holding steady until your return?

Oh, but of course Stavanger is ticking along, as it should. And I will keep on loving it from afar.

There is so much to love: the cobbled streets of downtown that rose steeply from the harbour to the watch tower on the hill, the small tranquil harbour that somehow held enormous looming cruise ships, Gamle Stavanger (“Old Stavanger”) with its white wooden houses and cheerful flowers tumbling out of window boxes, the beautiful shops that adhered to the Scandinavian sensibility of effortless style, simplicity, and practicality with a quirky dose of fun.

Gamle Stavanger

Stavanger sign

Gamle Stavanger 2

Queen Mary cruise

Stavanger

I think about the Norwegian people who were fit and always so fresh-faced, who celebrated their national day by wearing traditional outfits called bunader, who valued family over work so much so that people would unflinchingly walk out of meetings simply because it was time to collect their child from school, who never balked at any weather but used every opportunity to get outside, who believed in the power of fresh air and would bundle up babies to nap outside in their prams.

People like our neighbours with their well-intentioned but unsolicited advice on everything from barbecuing to lawn maintenance, our Norwegian language teacher with her valiant effort to get us to say “Bare hyggelig” or “Jeg må gå nå” (any guesses?), or our midwives who proudly praised our choice of a Norwegian name for our baby.

May 17 Bunader

I picture the harbour where they held an annual food and wine festival called Glad Mat (“Happy Food”) at the height of summer that resulted in some of the best eating ever. There were vendors cooking over open fires, there were vintage boats serving cocktails, there was the French guy selling perfect creme brûlée in individual earthenware dishes, there was music and bunting, and the sky stayed light late into the night allowing everyone more precious time to taste and sip and be together.

Glad Mat

Creme brûlée

I remember the hills across the water just begging to be hiked on a sunny Saturday, beautiful trails through forests smelling of pine needles, clear pools of glacial water in the mountains and the way your feet ached as they soaked in the freezing water, the wild blueberries growing low and dense on the side of a hill.

Manafossen

Blueberries

I can still taste the Norwegian strawberries, too, so small, so sweet; the Skolebrød (“School bread”) – ubiquitous buns with a custard filling and a coconut topping; heart-shaped waffles with the heady fragrance of cardamom; the traditional, yet off-putting brown cheese that I happily and hungrily devoured in the hospital with my newly born baby girl swaddled next to me.

Boat house

I think of our cozy, but quirky house with its blue (!) toilets and wood-paneled walls. We had a backyard that was bordered by a beautiful forest and deer would visit regularly, usually to devour my tulips that had just emerged after a long, dark winter.  I also can’t help thinking of when I was accidentally locked out of the house in a torrential downpour by our 15 month old child. Hearing that bolt click closed was not a good moment.

Deer in yard

I remember winter days when the rain would come down in an endless drizzle and the sky would darken at 4:00 p.m, and I remember the lovely summer days when people would go to the beach in droves with their disposable one-use grills, and everyone would swim in the cold water until someone spotted a jelly fish and the kids shrieked. I also remember the poor boy who was stung by a jelly fish, and how his father propped him on the handlebars of his bike and cycled away to retrieve vinegar with his son screaming the whole way. Don’t worry – they were back 30 minutes later. You cannot waste a summer day in Norway!

Winter Hinna Beach

Coast

There is so much more about Stavanger that parades through my thoughts now and again from my favourite salad at Cafe Deja Vu to the resident swans at the pond behind the cathedral to the glass blower’s workshop to the funny shower curtains that were used to close off the alcohol sections at the supermarket after a certain time of day.

What an endearing, pristine place. If you have the chance, do go. As for me, I will remember it all with a smile on my face and hope one day that I can pick up where Stavanger and I left off all those years ago.

Winter Sola Beach

 

Birds of a feather picnic together

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Where: Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Canoe

Plate of food: We stayed at the beautiful Rimrock Resort which feels blissfully tucked away from Banff townsite. Little did we know that Rimrock Resort has a cracker-jack of a restaurant, Eden. This is the only 5 Diamond (Canada’s foodie ranking system) restaurant west of Ontario which is important because there is a *touch* of East/West animosity in Canada. Ahem.

We decided to book a table and see what 5 Diamonds gets you.

We were seated at an intimate table in front of floor-to-ceiling windows which offered us dramatic views of the forest and the surrounding mountain peaks. There was a team of 3 people, two waiters and one sommelier, who referred to us by name, and were perfectly attentive and discreet.

Then they started presenting the food. And I realized that 5 diamonds are so gastronomically fabulous that THIS is clearly what they were talking about when they said “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”.

While enjoying our welcome glass of champagne (yes, please!), one waiter brought a spruce log to our table. Yes, a spruce log. It was slightly smouldering on one side, just enough to give off the evocative aroma of the forest. Perched near one end were two bright red “lollipops” skewered on spruce twigs (of course, because someone in that kitchen is a bona fide genius). We popped them in our mouths and were greeted with the pleasant surprise of smooth foie gras encased within a thin layer of tart cherry gelatin. Oh, Eden, you 5 Diamond minx!

I wanted to do THIS at dinner, but not sure if that is completely appropriate.

I wanted to do THIS at dinner, but not sure if that is completely appropriate.

The chef also impressed us with his interpretation of High Tea (thyme infused broth in tea cups with blue cheese biscuits and savoury macarons), fresh bread served with hay-smoked butter ( just enough golden earthiness to transport you to a picnic on a farm) and a cheese platter that could bring about world peace (teeny, tiny jewel-coloured checkerboards of fruit jellies to accompany the cheese – have they got pixies working in the kitchen?! What is the labour law on pixies?).

In case we weren’t yet ready to pledge our undying love to Eden, they sealed the deal by presenting us with a gift bag full of chocolate glazed banana cake to TAKE WITH US.

I surrender.

The best: Hiking in Sunshine Meadows. This is an area near Banff, surrounded by stunning mountain peaks, milky blue lakes, and, in the Autumn, golden larches which are deciduous coniferous trees (go on, just take a moment with that).

Larches

Our waiter at The Bison (another great place for a meal in Banff) recommended that we hike up to Sunshine Meadows. He had such an enthusiastic, positive spirit that I would have done pretty much anything he told me to…well, that’s not true because he also expressed great passion about kayaking over waterfalls.

Death in a kayak. No. Sunshine Meadows. YES!

We were stunned by the beauty of what this hike had to offer. After a steep climb and an amble across a scruffy alpine plateau, we discovered vast swaths of golden larches carpeting the hills. Bathed in sunshine, the needles glowed; the most incredible autumnal sight.

Larches

Although the shuttle bus to the trail head was full, the group quickly dispersed and we spent the entire day on our own, enjoying the views and the fresh mountain air. (And some good quality chocolate, obviously.)

Hike

We just happened to be there at precisely the right time to see the larches in all their glory. Lucky, lucky us!

Story that needs to be told: We visited the breathtaking Chateau Lake Louise for lunch one day. After gawking at the view along with 1/4 of Japan’s population (only a guess), we decided to buy sandwiches and drinks at the hotel deli. The 90 minute wait at the hoity-toity cafe was too much for us (oh, yes I did use hoity-toity. I’m bringing it back into common usage). Plus, what could be better than an impromptu picnic in one of the most stunning locations in Canada? Okay, okay, not being denied the shot of apple brandy in my warm cider due to public drinking laws would have made it marginally better.

Lake Louise

As we sat in the sunshine and admired the view across the lake to the glacier, we nibbled on smoked salmon bagels and salt & vinegar chips (the only flavour that should pass your lips, I believe).

Being in the Rocky Mountains, nature surrounds you and alpine creatures scurry about. We were joined at our picnic by a few birds who landed nearby to chirp and cock their heads, then move on.

I noticed that a large, grey bird with a chip on his shoulder (I could just tell) alighted in the gravel near our feet. I continued to wax lyrical about the mountains and our good fortune of being there at that moment, gesturing with my free hand while the other clasped one half of my salmon bagel.

Suddenly and with deadly accuracy, that bird swooped at my bagel, his claws grazing my hand as he tugged once at my food with his beak. Luckily my instincts kicked in to protect such a tasty morsel as smoked salmon and I held on tight. His wing brushed against my hair and, with that, he was gone.

Well, I can assure you that I reacted in a very calm manner (there are no witnesses except for Matt and he ain’t saying a thing), but I was outraged at the audacity of this bird, even with his refined tastes. I abandoned that half of my bagel because his claws and his beak had made contact with it and – do I really need to elaborate here?

I continued to rant about the sheer balls of this bird who would try to take the lunch right out of my hand to Matt who was already over it (no surprise there) when – GET THIS – the bird swooped again. This time he came from my blind side and tried once more to pilfer my bagel. I was not impressed.

He and I spent the rest of the time eyeing each other suspiciously. Him hopping around with his wee beady eyes, me shouting out “OY!!” like I had Tourette’s every time I saw his feathers shift.

You know, I really felt like I convened with nature. I clearly have a gift.

fall

“It is wonderful to feel the grandness of Canada in the raw.”
– Emily Carr

Who are you calling a tramp?

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Where: Lake Waikaremoana, New Zealand

Plate of food: Seeing as we had to bring all of our supplies with us for our party of 15+, I don’t have a lot to say about the food. The area is very remote and the accommodation very basic. We brought everything in by boat: our food, the cooking fuel, and the two hot plates we used. I will say, however, that nothing tastes better after an 8 hour hike than a bowl full of instant noodles. In fact, that may be the ONLY time that instant noodles taste great.

Also, “scroggin” was along on every hike we did; this is the New Zealand word for trail mix consisting mostly of nuts and dried fruit. I decided my scroggin needed some pizzazz so I added wasabi peas. Do you know these? They are dried and roasted green peas with a dusting of spicy wasabi powder that will tickle your sinuses (that’s what we look for in a snack, right?). Needless to say, I was alone in my passion for wasabi peas. Wimps, I say! (Just not to their faces.)

The best: The New Zealand walking tracks. “Tramping” as it is called in New Zealand (hiking to the rest of us who don’t want to sound promiscuous) is very popular and there are well-maintained tracks to explore all over the country. Lake Waikaremoana (“Sea of Rippling Waters” in Maori) is special because of its 46 km track around the remote lake set in amongst spectacular native bush.

This is waiting for you in New Zealand.

Our first hike was from where we left the cars to our hut which would be home for the next few days. There was no road access. Some of our group went by boat to bring in the food while the rest of us ambled across a swing bridge and through marshes to reach the lakeside hut. It was composed of two modest wooden buildings, one with a communal cooking/eating area and one with 40 bunk beds. It was surrounded by dense forest and flax bushes with views out over the lake.

No cars. No electricity. No cell phone coverage. The real New Zealand. Unspoilt.

Lush brush. Green scene. Boss of moss. Good woods. (What’s wrong with me?)

From there we had a number of day hikes which were incredible in their variety: some tracks climbed up great rocky bluffs while others forged through long golden grass near the water’s edge. At times it was all moss and shade, at others it was slabs of rock and sun glinting off water. All the hikes we did were satisfyingly lengthy and just demanding enough to make it a huge relief to tug off  your boots at the end of the day. And tuck into those instant noodles.

Story that needs to be told: On the final day, 4 of us decided to take a boat across the lake to another point along the track. The motor boat picked us up bright and early – most of the hut had not woken up yet – again, I say wimps. We had to wade into the lake to get on board the boat. I gasped as my feet plunged into the icy water (I heard you whisper “Wimp”).

Gaily waving! 8 hours later it would be a different story.

We jetted across the silvery water to the distant shore. The air was cold and damp, but the sun was shining. The water taxi dropped us off, assuring us that he would be at the pick-up point at the pre-arranged time that afternoon. It was imperative that he pick us up before dark.

From the shore, we climbed up through dark, mossy, otherworldly forests with trees twisting and towering above us. Ferns and fungi luxuriated in the misty undergrowth. At the highest point was a trig marker (1180m) next to a small hut where we rested for a bit before continuing down along the bluff. This rocky outcrop allowed us breathtaking views out across the shimmering lake in one direction and , in the other, views across the green hills of the North Island. The path was steep and the bluff dropped off suddenly to the bush below carpeting the ground all the way to the water’s edge.

View of the lake from Panekiri bluff

We finally descended off the bluff back into the forest and the track widened. After 8 or so hours of hiking, we reached the lake shore and looked around for the boat. It wasn’t there, but we were a bit early so we sat on some rocks and took inventory: sore feet, one grazed knee, not much scroggin left, but absolutely exhilarated by our day’s adventure.

Still no boat, so we took some photos. Took our shoes and socks off and dipped our toes into the cool water.

Still no boat, so we took turns peering out across the water. Raise hand to your brow, squint, repeat.

Still no boat. Now we started to worry. With no cell phone coverage, we had no way of reaching anyone. We had no way to walk back to the hut because that would take days. Where was the boat? What happened to the boat? Where’s the bloody boat?!

No panic yet! The thought of spending the night in the bush had not yet crossed our minds! Yay!

More than anything we were aware that the rest of our group, including some of our parents, were expecting us. Or rather had been expecting us half an hour ago. We realized with dread that each passing minute was another minute for them to think the worst.  As spellbinding as the isolation is, it also poses a real threat if something goes wrong.

With growing concern and darkening shadows as the sun set, we stood and paced along the shore. Suddenly we heard voices and saw the boat bobbing next to a pier, not even 200m from us.

I’m not sure if the water taxi guys wanted to hug us or wring or necks (ditto for our parents), but they were pleased to see us, and perplexed as to how we missed each other. They had been moored there for the entire time and we had sat just on the other side of some bushes from them for an hour at least. It sounds unbelievable, I know. They were only able to wait another 5 minutes before they were going to leave for the night. Now THAT would have sucked.

Relieved and exhausted, we arrived back at the hut to a mixed welcome; of course, there was great relief that we were okay, but there were a fair amount of frayed nerves, too. Fair enough. We were pretty frayed ourselves.

It had been magical to be separated from the world for the day; alone with our thoughts, the fresh air, the inspiring views. It was as if we were the only 4 people in New Zealand. Fantastic. But the truth is that at the end of any great experience, you long for your people, for that boat to safely return you to the candlelight and the warmth of the camp stove, to the well-deserved glass of wine and charades by torchlight.

Both the remoteness and the company are sweeter because of the existence of the other.

Leaving Waikaremoana…reluctantly

Take a moment and watch this video as it gives a great sense of the Waikaremoana track, and even shows the hut we stayed in. Plus, you can snigger/swoon over the Kiwi accent.

We Odda go to Norway! (forgive me)

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Where: Odda, Norway (unfairly called Norway’s ugliest town by Lonely Planet!)

Looking down the fjord from above Odda. Kindly ignore the smelting factory down there.

Plate of food: At the time of our visit, Odda had not expanded its culinary offerings beyond hotdogs (which are a national obsession) and Dolly Dimple’s pizza (arguably another national obsession based on their sheer number of locations). Turns out that suited us just fine because we felt we earned pizza and beer after some day-long hikes and all of that fresh mountain air.

We did eat at a cheerful cafe in Kinsarvik at the other end of the Hardangerfjord. It was nestled next to the camping site and the ferry dock which sums up Kinsarvik in all its glory. The cafe was run by a Kiwi couple who served us some great fish and chips with fish caught from the fjord that morning. I love when you can look up from your plate and see the precise spot your food came from. Doesn’t happen very often, does it? Unless your apartment faces a Dolly Dimple’s….

The best: The beauty of Norway. Odda sits at the edge of a stunning Norwegian fjord in the Hardanger region. It is surrounded by deep green pine forests, glass-like water, and an iron-smelting factory (therein may be the argument for LP’s “ugliest” comment). We arrived there after driving from Stavanger, marveling at the views along the way: thundering waterfalls, rocky peaks, and perfect reflections in the lakes and fjords.

Mirror images from the road to Odda.

On one side of the Hardangerfjord is Folgefonna glacier and on the other there are apple orchards which were in bloom when we were there. It was spectacular to look out across rows of white blossoming trees to the dark waters of the fjord and the icy lip of the glacier above. The composer Edvard Grieg composed some of his most famous works here – it’s no surprise, this scenery nearly rendered me musical, too.

The fruit orchards and Folgefonna glacier on the far side.

Story that needs to be told: One of our hikes took us straight up out of the sleepy town through a pine forest. The path climbed sharply following the equally steep side of the fjord. We stopped often to admire the view and to drink fresh glacial water that poured from special spouts in the hillside. It was refreshing, but we could only drink a few handfuls before our fingers became red and stiff from the cold. We continued up along pathways made bouncy by the deep cover of fragrant pine needles until we reached a waterfall.

This was our destination chosen from our map, but we saw that the route continued upwards. We consulted the map and, indeed, you could follow the path up to a hiker’s hut. We still felt fairly fresh so we decided to forge on.

Soon we were above the tree line, walking through scrubby heather and over great bulges of rock. Out of the protection of the trees the wind howled and we were soon met by the cold air blasting off of the glacier. We piled on the layers we had shed earlier in the day with the exertion of the climb. Up and up we went. Colder and colder it became.

I started to lose interest in our little hike and I’ll tell you why: I knew that freakin’ hut wasn’t worth dying for.

Although we started walking on a sunny spring day, we somehow found ourselves smack dab in a foggy wintery hell. Clouds rolled in, obscuring the view and, more critically, the red-painted ‘T’s that showed the direction of our route. The wind stung our cheeks and cut through our many layers of clothes. Further along, hard-packed snow covered the rocks, making it treacherously slippery. I was forced to adopt the classic “walking on ice” technique. That is: I got low, my arms went wide, and I moved at the same pace as the glacier itself. I also cursed Norwegian weather, the steepness of fjords, and Edvard Grieg (for good measure).

This image does not properly capture the icy blast of glacial air coming from behind me. It does, however, capture my desire for this hike to be over.

Eventually we reached the small wooden hut and went inside. We sat on two simple benches to catch our breath. We looked around at the wooden floor boards, the one small window, and an empty tin can sitting on a beam. Then we looked at each other.

My face said this: “This clearly was not worth it”.

Matt’s face said this: “I’ll buy you a stuffed-crust pizza”.

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” Henry David Thoreau

Sportswoman of the Year (for jerky consumption?)

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Where: Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa (the link actually shows where we stayed)

Beautiful view of Northern Drakensberg mountains from our cottage.

Plate of food: The food that is memorable from my time in the Drakensberg mountains is biltong. Biltong is simply strips of dried meat. Full stop. Done. Lamest post ever.

Well, I guess I can elaborate a bit.

No one likes to admit that they like beef jerky, except me, that is. Biltong is tastier than beef jerky and generally easier on the mandibular joints. I liked trying the more exotic game meats which as far as I could tell were just beef that had been mislabeled.

You can find biltong in almost every shop/cafe/petrol station, so we often bought paper bags of it whenever the chance presented itself. Filling up the car? We should really get some biltong. Waiting for my mother-in-law to buy souvenirs? We should chew around on some biltong. Just ate breakfast 20 minutes ago? Man, I have a hankering for biltong!

It’s also a very handy food to take along on hiking trips. Those Voortrekkers really knew a good thing when it came to desiccating meat! We hiked nearly every day that we were in the Drakensberg and someone always had a stash of biltong to munch on. Besides being good fuel for some of the longer walks (we took Matt’s Mum on an unexpectedly long and complicated journey – this did not earn us ANY points with Matt’s Dad), gnawing on biltong made me feel like I was hardy and robust. Believe it or not (mostly not) I am neither hardy nor robust, as the story below will illustrate, but once in a while a girl wants to feel like she can conquer the wilds of Africa…one piece of biltong at a time.

It was part of the whole picture: walking many kilometres over rugged terrain, watching baboons thunder along the path in front of us, resting on huge rocks to catch our breath and look at the expanse of Africa below us, deliberately not thinking about snakes resting under those same rocks…and eating biltong. Do you get it?

The best: Surviving to see another day (see below)

Story that needs to be told: On our last morning in the ‘Berg a group of us decided to climb to the top of the Amphitheatre, a 5km long escarpment and one of the distinguishing features of the mountain range. It was rumoured to be a 5 hour round-trip, but we had an added time constraint in that the rest of our group wanted to hit the road back to Durban. Nothing like hiking under duress!

There was a helpful man where we parked our car who explained that there were two routes to the summit. Pointing to his right, he said “That way is behd.” And then pointing to his left, he said emphatically “But this way is werse.” He also informed us that the path to the right culminates in “the Chain Ledder“. Huh? What was that? Wait, I wasn’t paying attention! And with that, led by my father-in-law who only ever does things quickly, we set off at a brisk walk/jog along the path to the right.

The track was narrow and already very high – we had driven a long way up and started walking from the car park – and it clung precariously to the side of the mountain. At certain points there were coils of barbed wire set along the steep hillside about 10m below our track. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved that there was something there to stop my fall if I lost my footing or if I should be terrorized by the thought of getting tangled up in that barbed wire. I found a happy medium and went with “slightly terrorized”. To compensate for the drop of doom on my right, I spent most of the time jogging with a strong tilt to my left.

Run! Run! Run! Then stop and pose! Good.

Up and up we went, until we came to the base of a cliff. There, dangling down, were the Chain Ladders. That’s not a euphemism; they really were ladders made out of metal chains. After running along the narrow path and then being faced with 40m of rusted, rickety chain ladder stretching up the rocky cliff, I did what any person girl would do: I sat down and cried. I am not afraid of heights, but it turns out I have a healthy fear of falling from a chain ladder onto the rocks below and having to be carried 2 hours back to the car by people who don’t have nearly enough biltong to keep them going.

I told Matt I wouldn’t go. He told me I didn’t have to, which we both knew was rubbish, but it was nice of him to say. My feebleness was made worse (or “werse” which is how we still say it to each other to this very day) by the fact that we were hiking with my brother- and sister-in-law who are the sportiest people ever bar Olympians.

After some deep breaths I got up and grabbed a rung of the ladder. It felt dishearteningly thin. The chains wobbled as I put my weight onto them. The metal clinked and clanked with each step.  I looked only straight ahead of me, seeing my white knuckles grip the next rung. I was sure that one chain link would give way. I mean, how often do you think this ladder is maintained? It’s such a bloody hassle to get up there with my tools…meh, forget it.

That's me teetering near the top on the right. One of my better angles, I think.

My heart was pounding and I was breathing loudly. Beside me was my unflappable brother-in-law who was chatting about this and that as he climbed effortlessly. Bless him for trying to maintain some semblance of enjoyment while I practised my histrionics. Eventually we reached the top of the ladder, but lo and behold, that was not the top of the escarpment. There was a small lip on the cliff and then…another chain ladder (only 20m high this time, ha!).

We all made it to the top, but I cannot tell you about the view. I remember it being expansive, undulating, and brown – the grass scorched from the African sun – but nothing else. I was still shaky and the knowledge that we had to return the way we came was never far from my mind. That first backwards step over the edge of the cliff with my foot searching in the air for the ladder rung was serious butt-clenching stuff. My palms are sweaty as I type, even 9 years later. How are you holding up?

The Chain Ladder experience has remained one of my defining moments. Many people do that walk and many people probably don’t bat an eye at it, but for one girl who is neither hardy nor robust, it was a big deal. It was the conquering of a fear that was heretofore unknown. I have returned to the memory of it over the years as proof of my ability to do things: move to yet another country, give birth to 2 babies, go for a job interview, write a blog, etc. I always end up with “Well, I climbed that Chain Ladder, so…I guess I can do this, too.” Come to think of it, biltong would have helped in all those situations, too…

Triumphant! And heavily cloaked in fleece...

What’s your equivalent of the Chain Ladder? What fears have you conquered? How sweaty are your palms after reading this? (Here is a spectacular 360 degree photo of the Chain Ladder – click and explore it for yourself!)

“Travel can also be the spirit of adventure somewhat tamed, for those who desire to do something they are a bit afraid of.” Ella Maillart

A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck

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Where: Waterton, Alberta, Canada

At the top of Bear's Hump for a view of Waterton Lake

Plate of food: This isn’t a plate of food; it isn’t even a complete meal, but it deserves a place here. It is a Bear Paw (sometimes known as a Bear Claw). Before I have animal rights activists lashing out at me with their non-leather shoes (oops), let me explain that this isn’t actually a bear’s paw. Us Canadians, we like to name our foods in a way that challenges the mind as well as the palate: each food is like a riddle. Those that are unaware ask themselves, “What am I actually eating?”, while the friendly Canadian chuckles and wryly shakes his head. Take, for example, the Beaver Tail or Cowboy Caviar or Moose Droppings….it is typical of our latent (albeit hokey) humour. Anyway…

A Bear Paw is a disc of caramel toffee coated with chocolate (obviously dark chocolate is the best, right? Right!). To complete the illusion of a real bear’s paw, cashew nuts are stuck into the caramel as claws. Aha! Genius!

No chocolate here, but a cast of a real paw. So scarily big that it made my butt cheeks clench. Yeah, you heard me right.

Culinary snobs might sneer at this being my memorable food from Waterton, which is home to many fine restaurants. The rest of us, however, will acknowledge that you cannot go wrong with caramel and chocolate and nuts – in the shape of a BEAR’S PAW.

When you go to Waterton (you really should), you take yourself straight to Welch’s Chocolate Shop and buy yourself some Bear Paws. Hopefully it is the closest encounter with a bear that you will have during your visit!

The best: A day hike to Bertha Lake (to work off those Bear Paws or, in my case, to justify eating 3 more of them). There are innumerable hiking paths around Waterton and we did a different hike each day we were there, but this was my favourite.

It was a beautiful sunny day. We climbed up from the townsite on a dirt path through pine forests. We often stopped along the way, where the trees parted and wildflowers bloomed, to gaze down at the valley. Despite being in Waterton at the height of summer, there were hardly any other hikers on the trail. It was quiet and peaceful, and satisfyingly hard work. We crossed clear, rushing streams with water so cold it made your fingers ache. Soon we moved further into the trees where it was darker and spongy underfoot with pine needles. Eventually we descended to Bertha Lake and saw a majestic sight:

Wow. Just, wow.

It was breathtaking to come across this perfect vignette of green trees, silver mountains, and blue sky, all mirrored in the crystal waters of the lake. The view made me want to burst into a moving rendition of “Oh, Canada” (even the French verses, that’s how touched I was by this). It was worth the effort of hiking for hours. Bertha Lake is not easily accessible and for that I am grateful – it can remain a hidden treasure, unspoilt and untouched.

We did not linger at the lake, despite its magnificence. As I communed with nature and made grand statements about spirituality, Mother Earth, and giving up eating Bear Paws just for this, Matt’s body suddenly went rigid next to me.

“I saw a bear”, he said.

“S**t”, I said.

Gone was the spirituality and the nature and the beauty. It was replaced with us frantically searching to see where the bear had gone, me hissing at Matt about whether he saw a black bear or a grizzly bear (really? Does it matter at this point?), and me maniacally clapping my hands like a deranged seal because we all know that that is how you scare off a bear. Either that or it is like a dinner gong to a bear – clap, clap, Bear! I am dumb enough to think this will scare you away. Come and get me!

Luckily we had lingered at many lovely spots along the way to Bertha Lake because our return trip was very hasty indeed. I went at a steady trot the entire way, still clapping intermittently which startled a group of Texans, but no doubt had no effect on bears in the vicinity. We made it back to Waterton without any problem, and promptly went and had a…beer (you didn’t think that a Bear Paw was going to cut it this time, did you?).

Story that needs to be told: One afternoon as we walked through town we came upon a house set amongst tall pine trees. It had a pleasant yard, but the owners had placed two plastic deer on their lawn. You’ve seen these before – a doe laying in the grass and a buck standing frozen with one hoof poised to take a step. They exist in the realm of duck ornaments stuck on the exterior of a house or macramé owls hung in the kitchen. That they exist at all confounds me.

It struck me as funny that people would have these lawn ornaments in a place where you regularly see wildlife, but it takes all sorts. I laughed, joking, “You should take a photo of me with that deer in a headlock. We could tell people it was real!”

Smiles still on our faces, we continued walking. As we crossed the street, the lawn ornaments suddenly got to their feet and stared at us. Now, I know that most of you knew that was going to happen, but I assure you, I did not. Blame it on the chocolate I had consumed, but it took some real brain work to figure out that the figurines had moved…no, wait…oh, they’re NOT figurines!

We stopped and waited as the deer delicately picked their way across the lawn and disappeared into the trees.

I then spent the rest of the evening (much to Matt’s delight) pondering what would have happened if I had tried to get my headlock photo. Play along with me, won’t you?

Imagine me cockily crossing the street and doing some body builder poses for Matt. Ha, so funny! Then, imagine me actually getting close enough to the doe (in my mind I had targeted the one laying on the ground) to get my hands on it. Warmer than I had expected! Imagine the deer being so bewildered by this giggling, show-boating girl that she would freeze rather than flee. Imagine me locking my arms around the deer’s neck while I try to arrange my face into an outdoorsy and fearless expression. Cor! Now imagine the look on my face as that deer rears up to her feet, fed up with this foolish girl trying to strangle her. What the..?

Imagine all of that caught on camera. I’m almost sorry we didn’t try.

All together now - "Oh, Canada...!"

“When I’m in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like.” Jane Fonda

For whom the bell tolls

Standard

Where: Breitenbach, Alsace, France (otherwise known as “the quaintest village in the most spectacular setting”, but Breitenbach works, too)

Plate of food: So, France overheard that Sicily was allowed two foods in this category. You can imagine the trouble. In the spirit of fairness and equality, I have two heart healthy foods to share with you about Alsace. That’s not true – nothing about French cuisine is heart healthy, unless you count the joy you feel within your heart as you savour every indulgent mouthful.

First, we have Tart Flambée d’Alsace or Flammkuchen (Alsace is a wonderful mix of French and German culture and language). This is a flat bread topped with onions, bacon, and sour cream. I love the simplicity of it all. Why complicate it with anything else? Onions and bacon and cream love each other, and more importantly, I love them together. We enjoyed Tart Flambée courtesy of our hosts at the holiday home we were renting for the week. One evening we were invited to the main house for dinner which consisted of Tart Flambée and….Tart Flambée. Perfection! Our jolly, rosy-cheeked host cranked out these delicious flat breads from his wood fired oven. It was all washed down with Alsatian white wine in the customary green stemmed wine glasses. Ah. We didn’t have to eat for the rest of the month.

Who are you calling a tart?

The next food that fueled my entire week in Breitenbach is not specifically Alsatian, but it is where I first discovered it. This little gem is called Rillette de  Porc -shredded, slow cooked pork mixed with pork fat and herbs to make a sort of pâté. We would buy it in the supermarket in little glass jars and eat it on crusty bread. I soon realized that rillette had something special about it, that is to say, it had pork fat. I unapologetically ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don’t judge, just go buy some rillette.

The best: Breitenbach was my first introduction to France, although the region has such a unique identity that it cannot be compared to the rest of the country. I fell deeply in love with the hills, the half-timbered houses, the church steeples, the wine, the food….all of it. It was the perfect package. We spent our days walking in the quiet hills, eating wonderful food, and drinking lovely wine. I started to wonder why you ever need to do anything else. The village itself had no tourist attractions, being just a cluster of houses on a few cobbled streets. Surrounding the quiet village were hills green with fir trees and valleys quilted with vineyards. We were lucky enough for it to snow during our stay (we were there after Christmas one year). The snowflakes made the silence more profound and I felt even more insulated from the world. Bliss.

Alsatian tranquility

Story that needs to be told: My husband and I enjoyed early morning walks in the local area for most of the week. Towards the end of our stay we decided to do a more serious hike through the hills to one of the “peaks”. We woke early, before our friends had even stirred, and crept down from our attic room (we had drawn the short straw) to make sandwiches and fill a thermos with tea. Armed with our hand drawn map, we were off.

It had snowed the day before, so we set off in ankle-deep powder. The morning was still and peaceful. To me, there are few sweeter sounds than footsteps in snow  – I am Canadian after all. We lapsed into a silent, meditative pace as we headed uphill. We followed wide paths through the forest of pine trees. On either side, the trees loomed high above us; their trunks were solid and straight. Every so often a light dusting of snow would fall from the highest boughs, dislodged from its perch by a squirrel or a bird, and slowly descend in a swirling shimmer.

Beautiful snow

We reached the top of the hill and celebrated by sharing our tea and snacks. I kicked myself for not packing rillette. Feeling rested and refueled, we trudged off in the snow to complete our loop. It turns out that our hand drawn map was very approximate in its distances and landmarks…really in anything that would make it a map. We soon realized that we were not on the right track. We came across a ski field that was not expected and a village that was equally surprising, but the situation was never dire.

The only vague concern was that our sandwiches and tea were long gone, and we were poorly dressed for the weather conditions. We had ample coats, scarves and hats, but we were both wearing jeans. I appreciate that my choice of denim as hiking gear will forever alter your view of me, but then, come to think of it, that may have happened already with the Lithuania and Sicily posts…. So be it!

My jeans had not adapted well to their 3 hours in the snow. The hems had accumulated so much snow that I estimate I was carrying around an extra 2 kilograms…on each leg. As I soldiered on, my body heat would partially melt the snow cuffs, only to have them quickly refreeze. This vicious cycle continued until, eventually, my feet had disappeared under a layer of ice and mounds of sodden snow. Then, the melting/freezing madness migrated up my pant legs to knee height. In the final hour of walking, my jeans were rigid and the bottoms swung like enormous bells with each step. Dong. Dong.

The extra exertion of carrying an Abominable Snowman on each ankle meant that I was sweating, so I had disrobed as much as I could on my top half (within reason, I know we were in France, but c’mon). Suddenly and surprisingly, we found ourselves close to home. We traipsed down the street past all of the quaint cottages, their windows twinkling with Christmas decorations. And behind those decorations were the villagers peering out, no doubt, at the woman stomping along, each step going well wide of centre to accommodate the girth of her *gasp* jeans. Her face was flushed, her hair plastered to her forehead, various clothing layers were tied around her waist, and her scarf was dragging out behind. Dong. Dong. 

Fabulous hike, though.

Peaceful winter valley

Photo: You’ve probably noticed that I have integrated the photos into the rest of the post, rather than set them apart. It’s better that way, don’t you think? I knew you would!

Well, with this post, we have completed our first three trips together. It went well, I think. You were awfully kind and gracious. Thank you! I can see that this will be great fun as our adventures continue. Where to next, I wonder?

By the way, the place we stayed at in Breitenbach is still available as a holiday home. Book your own week of bliss here. Leave your jeans at home.

Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.  Ray Bradbury