Bonnie and Bill Neely

270 POSTS

We don’t enjoy big cities but we had to see the capital of all New Zealand, Wellington, a big, thriving and pretty city with ocean bay all around it.  We are always drawn to capitol buildings and docks and both were in the City Center, and Sunday was a perfect time to go with no traffic.  This was the last day of Christmas holidays and parking is always free after 6 pm. Days are long so there is plenty of daylight till about 9:30 p.m.  We enjoyed strolling over the beautiful capitol grounds with the Capitol, Parliament, and the Cathedral. Gigantic trees spread their branches widely, some with old, gnarled arms in full bloom with gorgeous, fluffy red flowers. Seeing many families having fun on these beautiful grounds, we reminisced of when we were here with our two year old daughter many years ago.

2. Wellington NZ Executive Wing of Parliament The Beehive 372K

We walked along the Battery Docks for a good while, but it grew cold and windy. This city is on a long peninsula at the bottom of the North Island of New Zealand between the very large Cook Strait and Wellington Harbour, where ships and ferries are constantly bringing people and goods to New Zealand. It was discovered by the British in 1770 when Captain James Cook was attempting to circumnavigate the world on the Pacific Ocean. He stayed here 100 days and climbed one of the mountains, which form the backdrop of Wellington at the water’s edge. He named this body of water Cook Strait and claimed it for  Great Britain.  Three years later he returned and sent a group of sailors from his ship in search of grass on one of the small islands to combat scurvy. The 10 men were killed and cannibalized by Maori Tribesmen!

3 three-hour ferry ride 416K

But New Zealanders of every type are very friendly now. The Maori live all over the country now and have pride of their heritage, which everyone respects. New Zealand tourism adopted from the Maori language the motto Kia Ora, or Welcome, which we heard everywhere. Almost all the names of streets and many businesses have Maori names and children have been relearning this native heritage and language in all schools since the 70’s, although for several decades prior to that it was forbidden.

4. Tatima Maori warriors 212K

We found food in all the restaurants and cafes to be very expensive by comparison to other countries we have visited and to the USA, so we frequently stopped at the New World Super Market and bought breakfast and fruit, which saves almost exactly half of the price of the very same items in restaurants. TV dinners and prepared foods are available and motels rooms are little studio apartments with small refrigerator, microwave, sink, and often a two-burner stove. All the utensils and dishes are supplied also. Packets of instant coffee, sugar, instant hot chocolate, and tea bags are standard supplies and the quick boiling pot for water is amazing. Each time we checked-in the manager would give us a small bottle of milk for coffee or tea. All accommodations we reserved through Bookings.com have private shower, toilet, sink, hair dryer, soap, etc. and very comfortable beds, TV DVD & free WiFi. This is a very modern country and one of the youngest in the world. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. But beware those from the USA will find that driving is not an easy adjustment because it is on the “wrong” side of the street with steering wheel and gear shifts also “other-handed,” and crossing a street by foot is downright dangerous because we forget and look the wrong way! Roadways are two-lane with no shoulders, very winding and slow going, although they are in good condition throughout North and South Islands.

5 Interislander Ferry on Cook Strait NZ 388K

The crossing Cook Strait on one of the huge ferries from Wellington Harbor on North Island or Picton on South Island is really fun for us Central Texans who have no bodies of ocean for hundreds of miles. We watched in amazement as a 28-car train was unloaded from the belly of the ferry, where there is a railway track. A dozen 18-wheel trucks were also unloaded from the same ferry’s upper deck! When you are not accustomed to this it is really a thrilling sight. The pleasant and comfortable three-hour crossing for us with our rental car was fun.  Although December and January are summer in the Southern Hemisphere and whales and dolphins come here to breed, we were not lucky this time to see them. The meals on board are really good and not too expensive.

6. cars on ferry NZ 400K

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cookhttp://www.wellingtonnz.com/http://www.newzealand.com/us/campaign/book-your-new-zealand-holiday-now/?cid=p:sem:us:FY17:Branded_New%20Zealand_Exact:Google:Branded_New%20Zealand_Exact&kwid=new%20zealand&gclid=Cj0KEQiAwrbEBRDqxqzMsrTGmogBEiQAeSE6ZY9lc-fZcVJpp6cRCFYQhWC5lBsAXt4iXOr-KBxoGV4aAvA58P8HAQhttps://www.google.com/search?q=maori+people&rlz=1C1EODB_enUS573US581&oq=Maori&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j69i61j69i59l3j69i61.7257j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cook_Strait

 

In New Zealand North Island State Highway 27 from the north to Rotorua is a beautiful road of wineries and dense conifer forests mixed with jungles of tall jungle fern trees.  We stopped just inside Rotorua to see Rainbow Springs Nature Park, a magical tropical forest with flora and fauna preserved and identified. It is a GREAT Family place for an educational preview of New Zealand’s natural environs, unlike anywhere else on earth. We expected to quickly look through this learning center, but it was so much fun and the exhibits were so attractive and informative we stayed half a day, FASCINATED and in WONDER.

2 the springs 450K

At first we had our photo taken with the adorable native Kiwi bird, (which was magically processed into the photo by the photographer) since the endangered Kiwi birds are nocturnal and very shy. Our trail led us to a series of glass terraria, each beautifully set as a natural environment for each of the herpeto-fauna that live within. Geckos and skinks are the only species of these natives of New Zealand and these species are found nowhere else on earth. There are also four very rare types of frogs native to New Zealand. These primitive natives have changed very little over the last 70 million years.  Fascinating signs, which even young children can understand and enjoy, explained the habits, foods, and life cycles of these unusual beings.

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We even saw several tuatara, actual living creatures whose line dates from the dinosaur era, which is the only species of lizard native to New Zealand. Tuatara are green lizards, about the size of my fore arm, which can change colors for camouflage. They take years to reach maturity and there are only about 100,000 living ones today, the oldest living species on earth. We could see the actual third eye in the middle of its high forehead on one tuatara, who looked very sleepy.

In the Aviary there are large areas enclosed with tall fences and planted with small trees and other natural species of the understory. Each of these areas had several kinds of birds native to this country, some of which migrate to New Zealand seasonally. In the South Pacific, the spring/summers coincide with fall/winter in the Northern hemisphere, so many species of birds come here to escape the cold.

We saw beautiful parrots with bright red and yellow and green feathers which enable them to hide within jungle flowers and green leaves. Adults and children enjoy a wonderful Trained Bird Show where trainers have native birds and African gray parrots do tricks on command, rewarded by seeds each time. This is a MUST SEE show for families, and you may want to volunteer to help with an act.

Next we walked into a totally dark room, which is the daytime viewing area for kiwi birds, since they only are active at night. It took a while for our eyes to adjust, but finally we could make out the creatures, which are about the size of a chicken and also flightless.  They are in big glassed-in areas with a natural setting of trees, soil, and under-brush. We could see them moving around… long legs and long slightly curved beak, reaching into soil for bugs. One kept going around a tree in circles as long as we watched, which means it is upset about something. If you are lucky enough to walk in the forest at night and listen carefully you may hear or see these very shy little natives. They only live in New Zealand.  Don’t be fooled by their look-alike wannabe, the weka bird, which is active in the daytime along some roads.

4 child at pond

The total area of our Rainbow Springs trail was like a jungle walk through all the different varieties of plants native to New Zealand, and many of these are unique to this country. Signs taught much about the plants of this South Pacific paradise and the uses for them.  We found answers to many questions we have had as we hiked in wonder through the beautiful forest trails of North and South Islands.  As native Texans and with years of hiking also on other continents we are always wary and on the lookout for dangerous animals… bears, wolves, poisonous frogs and snakes, etc.  The New Zealand forests are a dense mixture of jungle-like plants and tall evergreens along with many broad leaf trees, making us hyper-alert to possible dangers.  But we learned at Rainbow Springs that we can walk

anywhere without fears: there are NO snakes in all of New Zealand, and the only native mammals are bats, which are nocturnal. All the other mammals were brought here by settlers. Some of these foreign species have become dangerous to indigenous species of plants and the birds. Possums and ferrets, rabbits and other rodents eat bird eggs and plants and these varmints have no predators here. It is a perfect example of why no one should transport any living thing to an environment where it is not native. New Zealand is constantly fighting the problem of these foreign species of both plants and animals harming the natural environment of these beautiful islands.

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Don’t miss the gift shop, where you will find many New Zealand souvenirs of all types and prices. Kids enjoy browsing and you can purchase your photo with a kiwi, and buy a Maori Tiki, the symbol of creation. Our last stop at Rainbow Springs was a fun boat ride through time, where we learned New Zealand is the newest land on earth. We traveled through the Jurassic Era and saw a computerized Alliosaurus dinosaur. Then we floated through the simulated arrival of Maori people about 1,000 years ago. Next we came to the arrival of British settlers 200 years ago. Then our boat was pulled up a steep water track and we had a fun splashy ride down to our landing.  You might get a wet spray in the first or second seats. It was just very happy family fun. We really enjoyed Rainbow Springs, and it is definitely not just for kids. We highly Rainbow Springs as a perfect place to start your New Zealand adventure, as it will inform you so much about what you will see while there.

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NOTE: Since we returned from New Zealand scientists have discovered it is actually not two islands but part of the newly named Zealandia, earth’s eighth continent!

http://www.rotoruanz.com/

http://www.rainbowsprings.co.nz/?gclid=Cj0KEQiAwrbEBRDqxqzMsrTGmogBEiQAeSE6ZYRptOMYQwng0aU05mfYgeUfQKz6JaTR_1JKVRWTAEEaAmC08P8HAQ

http://www.newzealand.com/us/

http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/reptiles-and-frogs/

http://www.doc.govt.nz/nztcs

http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weka

http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/weka

http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/16/travel/zealandia-new-continent-discovered/

We spent New Year’s Eve in the Southern Hemisphere, a day early for us, since we crossed the International Date Line to get there. It is the second week of summer in New Zealand, so the 4.5 million residents are celebrating in the way we in the USA celebrate 4th of July with camping, picnics, swimming, and beaches, and fireworks. All the facilities and grounds everywhere are so clean with no litter. People are friendly and helpful, and we enjoy their accent, which, to our ears, seems to be a mixture of lilting Australian and British.

The closest town to our City Escape B&B is Matamata, formerly a quiet little agriculture village. Today this is a thriving tourist town thanks to the largest attraction and business in New Zealand: Hobbiton Movie Set, where the Lord of the Rings  and The Hobbit  trilogies were filmed. The Director, Writer, and Producer Peter Jackson  is a native of Wellington, NZ, and he had his scouts fly all over New Zealand to determine the best location to replicate accurately J.R.Tolken’s The Hobbit.  The Kaimai  Mountain Range on the North Island fit, and the setting chosen was the vast and hilly sheep farm belonging to The Alexander Family of Matamata. Now even the I-Site, or Tourist Information Center, looks like a Hobbit building.

2 I-site Matamata, NZ 450K

Matamata locals embraced the fact that Hollywood was coming to town and did all in their power to supply the needs and help in every way. The company was to create the temporary set and take it down when the filming was complete after a few months, which was the typical Hollywood custom. But it didn’t happen that way. Before the set was struck there were torrential rains. People wanted to see the remains of the set, which inspired the Russel Alexander to petition the film studios to keep the remaining set of Hobbiton.  and reconstruct it in permanent materials to create a tourist attraction. Hollywood had never granted permission for a set to be kept, so lawyers spent years getting the proper paperwork.

Tours begin at the Shire’s Rest where you’ll find the ticket office, gift store and café about 10 minutes’ drive outside Matamata. The views of rolling green hills dotted with thousands of sheep and cattle along the way are stunning. At Shire’s Rest, since no one is allowed to wander Hobbiton on their own, you will board a Hobbiton bus, and your guide will take you on foot all around the adorable, fabled, little 11th Century village of Middle Earth. The setting is a picturesque valley amidst tall pastoral hillsides with hundreds of sheep grazing nearby.

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The village is complete with thirty-seven little Hobbit Holes, each with a business necessary to the everyday life of the little people. (You can imagine that you ARE one of the villagers as are the other tourists because the village is miniature and real but not actually inhabited.) You see the home of the baker, one for the butcher, one for the pottery maker, a seamstress, etc. Each house has its little garden, flowers, window box, curtains. Behind each little fence in front of the home the details are fascinating and each home has different features and decor.  Several of the houses are one fourth size, some are half size, and some are full size for the little villagers, since cameras were placed at different distances when the set was filmed. The imagination of the creators and care for detail thrilled us. Even the clothing hanging on the line beside several houses was diminutive in size.

4 Bilbo Baggins Home & fake tree 400K

When we got to the large home of Bilbo Baggins at the top of Hobbiton we saw the big tree which is prominent in the films. This is the only unreal tree in Hobbiton set and was masterfully created and put together by amazing artists. The huge real tree under which Bilbo’s 111th birthday party takes place in the center of the village in the movie is there for your mind’s eye to recreate all the festive movie scenes that took place here.

5 Green Dragon Bar 400 K

At the end of the tour we stopped at the Green Dragon Inn to have a drink from their list of specialties made locally. Some are alcoholic and some are not, and your selection is a tasty treat included in your tour. You can reserve a banquet tour instead of a normal one and then enjoy a special theme dinner in the Banquet Hall of the Green Dragon. The really fun visit to Hobbiton in Middle Earth exercises imagination and also body. The two hour tours require walking and some hill climbing. The set covers 12 acres with the pond and mill house.  Hobbiton Movie Set is a must see, even if you have not viewed the movies that were filmed here…You will really want to see the trilogies afterwards!

6 City Escape B&B patio 450K

We selected nearby accommodations City Escape B&B in the pretty Kaimai Mountains . Phil and Alison Jones were our hosts. We had a private, apartment over the garage: clean, lovely, modern and much larger than we needed. It has a great private balcony overlooking the lovely landscape of their garden, swimming  pool, exercise equipment, chickens, sheep, dog, cats (outside only) many flowers and trees.  Alison brought us snacks and fruit when we arrived and a big, delicious breakfast in the mornings. They are gracious hosts on this large estate. We highly recommend this wonderful Bed and Breakfast in the quiet countryside, but note it is about 25 minutes from a town, restaurants, and supplies, so eat before you arrive or bring your groceries.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matamata, http://www.hobbitontours.com/, https://www.tolkiensociety.org/author/biography/, http://www.hobbitontours.com/the-shires-rest/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Jackson, http://www.cityescape.co.nz/.

 

 

While at Lake Tekapo in the center of New Zealand’s South Island we drove up to the Astro Cafe on Mount John for good food and spectacular views of the surrounding Southern Alps and lakes of MacKenzie Southern Basin Flats, but the wind at the top was blowing about 60 mph.  We were looking forward to the Earth and Sky night tour to see one of the largest telescopes in the world. No other observatory is situated so far South on Earth. It would be exciting to learn from the guide about the stars and constellations of the Southern Hemisphere, which include ones we cannot see above the Equator.

2 Central south Island NZ Lakes 450k

The location for the telescope on Mt John was chosen because it is 1,037 meters (about 3,100 feet) high above any artificial lights and has the darkest atmosphere of any near the bottom of the world. The nearly pollution-free air provides more clear nights than any other location, and weather is mostly good for viewing, although wind is always a factor. At this location scientists and students from Canterbury University search the Universe as far away as over 11 billion light years in distance. At this observatory 44 planets, previously never seen, have been discovered and verified.  The workers are on continual search for other life in the Universe.  Many computers constantly collect the data and images from the telescope and help interpret and catalogue it for the world’s scientists. The 9:30 P.M. and 2 A.M. most nights The Earth and Sky Tour is scheduled for two hours, the first half hour at the observatory learning about the giant telescope and the rest for star-gazing through other telescopes.

3 mt john observatory tour 450K

The wind speed was hovering around 76-78 kilometers per hour, so we could only hope for the best, since the mountain must be evacuated if wind speeds reach 80 kph. The tour offered coats to anyone who needed them. On the English-speaking tour there are no translations, as tours in other languages are offered at other times. The guides told us to hold hands with our partners as the wind is ferocious. Bill and I connected and we all hastened in the near darkness with the others into the shelter of the round building, which houses the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Our guide, Carol, an advanced student from Canterbury University, was very experienced and knowledgeable. She told us all about the giant telescope, which reached almost to the domed ceiling that opens to varying degrees for the telescope to search the Universe. The telescope is on special legs which will not stay rigidly attached to the floor because during one of the many earthquakes in this area it would shake to destruction.  Instead it is perched in such a way as to move around within the close confines of the room. This movement prevents it from being ruined when the earth shakes.

4 mt John telescope 450K

Although the location chosen for this Observatory is on the Alpine Fault, which is overdue to cause destruction at any time, it was carefully selected for its darkness because the atmosphere at Mt. John is high above the closest lights from the little Lake Tekapo town. Here the atmosphere is clear of pollution and stray lights and has more clear nights than any other place in New Zealand. We were each given small red lights to see our way around the mountain as we moved as a group and were given strict instructions of NO white lights (camera flash, flashlights, cell phones, etc.)  Any tiny ray of extraneous white lights could ruin what the scientists are observing on the computers connected to the gigantic telescopes as they work from control rooms in several buildings which dot this mountain. Even the bus for the tours must use only the smallest light for navigation.

5 observatory computers 450K

At this Observatory, since the 1980’s, when the camera on the telescope was the largest in the world with over 83 pixels, the scientists and students have discovered and confirmed 44 previously undiscovered planets. Each night when the ceiling is opened for the observations they first take a photo of the existing “noise,” which is the dust particles, clouds, or moonlight which could distort the faraway observations, and then the noise can be filtered away from each scientific photo collected to be sure observations and conclusions are accurate.

6 observatory dome 450MG

We were learning so very much and went into the control room to see the large computer system collecting the photos. The wind was louder and louder outside and then our guide got the dreaded call, Evacuate the mountain immediately because winds had reached 80 kph and people could be blown off the mountain. This rule is strict. We were all disappointed but Carol explained that one night she had been stranded with a large group of tourists on the mountain all night because the wind reached over 200 kilometers per hour. The buildings are built to withstand 300 kilometers per hour. Everyone was offered rain-checks or refunds.

Day tours are nominal since there is no star-gazing. Tourists never get to look through the big telescope, but the star gazing at night is through more conventional telescopes with scientists there to explain and teach about the Universe, stars, constellations, and planets. The 2 A.M. tour is the best time for those who want to stay up late and really see stars and sometimes the Aurora, whose natural colored light array is beautiful when conditions are right.  Earth and Sky Tour should be high on your list if you are in the area of Lake Tekapo, just three hours’ drive from either Queenstown or Christchurch.  Remember full moon nights make the stars much fainter, so if possible plan to be there on darker nights when the moon is in a smaller phase.

http://www.tekapotourism.com/

http://www.newzealandtravelinsider.com/day-walks/mt-john-walkway-lake-tekapo-walk-new-zealand.htm

 http://www.earthandsky.co.nz/

www.tekapotourism.com/info/mt_john.html

 

Our original plan was to spend our RV camping week in East Glacier National Park in the United States, but we had failed to make reservations and found it full. Fortunately, we had our passports with us and papers from our veterinarian showing our little dog was safe to go, so we drove into Canada and discovered three wonderful National Parks, now among our favorites.

We were fortunate to spend two nights in beautiful Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada. We would have named it Waterfall National Park because it has so many gorgeous cascades. The lovely sound of rushing water while we breathed deeply the scent of spruce and fir trees made all our senses thrill. Yoho National Park is small and has few visitors by comparison to nearby Revelstoke and Glacier, but Yoho is breathtakingly beautiful.

On our first day at Yoho we took an early morning moderate hike down a mountain, about five miles roundtrip. Our destination was Wapta Falls, but we had no idea what to expect. To us the trail seemed  very steep in parts but really worth the effort because the waterfall had spent centuries to cut through enormous rocks of granite and was very, very powerful and gorgeous. Wapta Falls is second only to Niagara Falls in volume of water! What a way to start our stay!

We drove many more miles along the scenic highway beside the huge Rocky Mountain peaks, stopping for smaller hikes the rest of the day appreciating the scenery and capturing perfect photo spots. We spent time at Yoho Visitor Center. We had lunch at the lovely Emerald Lake with the little Swiss chalet restaurant in the background while we ate sandwiches on a rock facing the lake at the edge of the thick forest with deep grass at our feet and thankfully, no snakes or mosquitoes!!!  (I would not dare sit on a rock like this in Texas!)

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In the afternoon our hike led us to the huge but narrow Takakkaw Falls.  Although we were exhausted by then, the three mile round-trip hike was on level ground, thank goodness. We were determined to see this powerful wonder of natural beauty. It was fun to walk right up to the waterfall and get a bit wet in the mist.  We loved Yoho National Park, however the Golden Community Campground nearby did not offer much except its location and loud train whistles during the night.

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We spent the next five nights in our RV at the very nice and quite large Canyon Hot Springs RV Park, about halfway between two of the oldest of British Columbia’s National Parks linked by the Trans-Canada Highway: Mt. Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park.  Luckily we reserved ahead and got the last spot during this Canada Day July holiday weekend when it seems all of British Columbia is traveling, like Fourth of July vacationers in the USA.  Canyon Hot Springs RV Park is a BEAUTIFUL setting…like gardens that surround European castles with huge hemlock and cedar forests and lush under-story of ferns. Large, grassy, level grounds for all kinds of camping vehicles are near a natural hot springs pool which many enjoyed each day. Our Internet barely worked, but we have weened ourselves from it while enjoying out of doors.

4 Revelstoke flowers Small

Established in 1914 Mt. Revelstoke is 100 square miles in size and the short drive on the scenic parkway led us to great mountaintop scenery and views of the city below, whose citizens raised the money to establish this protected area. All summer visitors enjoy high meadows with multi-colored wildflowers in prolific bloom. Trails are easy and sunny and lead through many delightful photo spots and wide-open views. It is a pleasant day in nature. There are boardwalks through wetlands with unusual vegetation and many kinds of migratory birds…a paradise for ornithologist amateurs.

Traveling a bit Easterly from Revelstoke we delighted in finding totally different scenery, protected as Glacier National Park. The highway led us through steep narrow valleys as we gazed upward to giant peaks. Glacier has great icefields which have only recently begun to shrink with the warming of our earth. We found the inland rainforests such a wondrous contrast.  Some of the best deep powder snow-skiing in North America is in these mountains. This park is 521 square miles in size.

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We also spent the next day at Glacier,a thickly forested park with beautiful hikes, mostly very difficult. Starting our day was The Rogers Pass Discovery Center and Museum was helpful and very interesting. Their friendly staff offered enticing and informative information. We watched a film about bears, which convinced us not to take food on hikes ever again!

We enjoyed an easy hike on boardwalks through the only non-coastal Hemlock and Cedar Rainforest with good interpretive signs. One of our other finds near the highway was the unusual trek through the Rock Garden Trail, climbing up, over, and around these unusual rock mounds and observing the tiny vegetation growing on the surface. How difficult life is for some species!

6 Glacier nat park BC SMALL

Our favorite hike was through the historic site of the Victorian Era Hotel from 1880’s when trains brought the first excited tourists here. Pictures and signs helped us imagine the difficult way of travel those brave and wealthy travelers experienced. We climbed up a difficult, steep path beside the river hoping to view the Glacier waterfall miles above us. We made it about 7 miles roundtrip, but that was only about halfway to the actual glacier. Hiking in this high altitude was a challenge but very beautiful. We found rocks for resting along the way and took it slowly. Sadly, almost no glaciers are left in this Canadian Glacier National Park and most snow has melted except in high mountains.  We happened to be there during a terrible heatwave which was very unusual for Canada, but it only lasted a few days.

If you plan a trip there early spring is the time to make reservations for hotels and campgrounds. You will enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in North America, capturing memories that will be treasures ever after.

 

We chose the National Parks recommendation of the Mangroves Boat Tour and stepped into the quiet motor boat which seated six very comfortably. Captain David is experienced with boating and knows so much about the flora and fauna of the Everglades. This Northern part of the Everglades National Park is at the Bird Rookery and is a perfect place for ornithologist and birding tours.  This area is home or host to over 350 species, so you can spot many and observe their habits, especially on sunny days.  Ours was a mild, cloudy December day but we learned a lot about birds in our 90 minute boat tour through the open waters of Turner River into the protected waterways beneath tunnel formed by the millions of mangrove trees and their eerie roots

David told us the habits of each of the birds we spotted along the way, slowing or stopping for us to look closely at the markings on the feathers, and noting shape and color of beak and legs. We learned the following:

  • The Rosette Spoonbill’s lovely pink color is from eating shrimp. It is the only spoonbill species in the USA. It wades in shallow waters searching for shrimp.
  • The Great Blue Heron is the largest predator of alligator babies.
  • White Ibis are known as the “hurricane bird” because it is the last to leave before a hurricane and the first to return. They are easily distinguished from white egrets because ibis have long, curved, yellow beaks. Since white is a perfect target for predators, Nature gave fledglings gray-brown feathers for about 18 months. By this time they turn white since they have learned how to protect themselves.
  • Cormorants are large black birds with a huge wing spans and dense bones to help them dive straight down into the water many feet deep to catch fish in their powerful beaks. We saw some also sitting with open wings on the dock in order to get dry, since they do not have the body oils of other sea birds and these cannot fly as fast with wet wings.
  • The Anhinga looks like a Cormorant but has a long, thinner, sharper beak with which it spears its fish.
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  • The Royal Tern, proudly claiming a post in the water, is nature’s weathervane because he always faces into the wind. It is easy to identify from other terns by its black band on the white head and its orange-yellow beak. When sailors cannot determine correct wind direction, they look for this brave bird.
  • By contrast to the White Ibis, young Brown Pelicans are white for about 18 months.
  • Tri-colored Herons sit patiently in trees awaiting crabs, their favorite feast.
  • Turkey Vultures have a keen sense of smell and soar high above, circling the carrion to eat. They follow the Black Vultures to get their food.
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  • Crows work together to open trash cans and food packs and search hungrily for treats. These are smart birds, known as the Trickster to Native Americans. In Japan Crows have learned to lay walnuts in the path of traffic to get them cracked!
  • Did fishermen learn the secrets of Green Herons, which use bait at the water’s edge and swish it to attract fish?
  • White Egrets have gold feet which attract fish in the water. Their beaks are black.
  • On the 10,000 Islands Tour during a heavy rain the next day we discovered Great White Pelicans in a large flock. They huddled together with heads tucked on the spate of land farthest out at the edge of the open Gulf of Mexico. Their beaks can hold three gallons of water! That weighs 24 pounds!
  • 4 white_pelicans resizedAt the National Park Visitor Center we enjoyed a nature walk with a park ranger and then Andrew, another Ranger had an excellent Bird Smart Talk. Birds get their food in a variety of ways specific to each species, so they don’t compete for their food but often help each other. Herons and egrets are sight feeders and wait patiently to stab their fish.  Ibis are deep mud fishers. Rosette Spoonbills are tactile fishers who feel the fish with their feet as they wade in the shallows.  Great Brown Pelicans have sharp eyesight and dive from 50 or 60 feet to get fish they spot from above. Their special head structure with air sacs to cushion the blow helps prevent these dive-bombers from injury.

    White pelicans work as a group and push their fish to the shallows. These birds have a nine-foot wing-span. Pelican pouches can hold three gallons of water. He told us about several species that are not here, including the Clark’s Nutcracker, which collects and buries pine needles in warm weather and remembers in winter where hundreds of these are buried to eat. Of course, birds can fly to where food is plentiful. The Arctic Tern has the longest of all migrations, flying around the world twice in a year.

    NOTE: Photos from website Free Stock Photos

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Thanks to President Woodrow Wilson, the National Parks Service in the United States is celebrating its 100 year birthday this year, 2016, although the first National Park to be designated as such was Yellowstone, which was so designated by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Now the Service protects 394 areas with total of over 84 million acres, but some of these have the designation of military parks, battlefields, scenic rivers and trails, even the White House. We have had the privilege of visiting 49 of the 59 areas designated as National Parks.  These are incredible places, in which natural beauty is preserved for as long as we the people appreciate and protect it.  Twenty-seven states have at least one National Park, and California has the most, nine.  Each of these is preserved because it is a unique landscape in all the earth. Each has its own special, unusual and wondrous beauty, and each is awe-inspiring in a way no human-built place could ever match.

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We all have a part ownership in these marvelous wonderlands through our taxes and donations, and there is one fairly near anywhere you live. Bill and I urge you to take advantage of these natural cathedrals and go to see any that you possibly can, whether for a day or a week or more. You will experience the wonder of vastness beyond any human’s ability to create. You will be inspired to look up in wonder at the huge trees and mountains and cloud pictures and the starry nights beyond imagining. You will look down as you walk and see tiny creations of beauty on the forest floor, or the rugged and colorful rock formations, or the clear lake or river waters, or the meadows of abundant blooms no person planted. You will hear the happy chatter of other people expressing the joy of being out in nature, away from city noises. You will hear birdsongs, animal calls, and even the insect world communicating with their kind, and you will experience total silence you didn’t even know existed. The wondrous aromas of the evergreen needles beneath your feet and swaying in breezes all around you inspire healing, deep breaths. In the evenings the smell of the campfires throughout quiet campgrounds fills you with a kind of nostalgia for ancient times long forgotten but still part of our human collective memory.  And the canopy of billions of twinkling stars above you as you look up at night is totally overwhelming. It makes you know what a tiny spec we are in the vast, mysterious Universe. Give yourself this gift of experiencing humility, peace, and extreme joy of freedom you cannot experience in your everyday life of normal, busy, overwhelming daily demands and noises of civilization. The time you spend in one of our National Parks is the least expensive and most rewarding of any vacations you could ever experience.

Find a way to go visit a National Park soon, and you will be forever enlarged and the memories will inspire joy always. Well-maintained trails are available for every type of ability: walking, hiking, backpacking into the wilderness, wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, climbing, scaling steep rock faces, biking, horseback, or jeep trails. And each is in a carefully chosen place where you will see different forms of natural beauty. Campgrounds are the least expensive and best maintained ones you will find anywhere. You can choose perfectly planned tent sites, or large RV spaces with full hook-ups or no hook-ups, or backpack into the wilds of nature undisturbed. You can drive your own vehicles through the vast parks on carefully maintained highways at low speeds, or you can take the free site-seeing buses which transport you to any trails or carefully chosen places of wonder and beauty beyond any you have ever imagined.

Rangers provide free programs daily and many at night for all ages and interests, from nature walks to films. In each of these you will learn so much about the nature around you and you can ask questions to learn more. The free Visitor Centers are filled with information and tell the history, geology, wildlife habitats and behaviors of many of the native plants, animals, and rocks of that particular Park, with real life displays and professional photos of each. There are easy, short, accessible hikes and programs at each of these Centers. You’ll find clean restrooms and pure drinking water, souvenirs, snack-bars, maps, and supplies. In many there are free films made by professionals to explain and give an overview of what you can anticipate as you experience the wonders of each Park.

We have been so privileged to visit National Parks, Monuments, Historic Park, Designated Waterways, etc., in every state, and each is unique in its natural landscape, and that is why it has been carefully chosen to be preserved for us and future generations to appreciate and enjoy. School children brought pennies to their classrooms to help raise the money to preserve this vast mountain scenery and wildlife and create Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. With the deep, gentle streams and waterfalls, and blue-green forests and understory of wildflowers and ferns blanketing ancient mountains of up 6,643 feet high at Clingman’s Dome, which are some of the oldest mountains in the United States. This Park is beckoning any nature lover on the Eastern side of the United States. And the Appalachian Trail, which traverses it leads on up to the North-East.

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In the South-West the mountains and scenery preserved in the National Parks of Utah are so very different. Many of these much younger mountains have no vegetation covering their multi-colored, enormous rock formations, which provide an open book to geologists who study the layering of the formation of our Earth. From the gigantic gray boulders in Zion National Park, which make you look up in awe, to the weird orange rock formations of Bryce National Park, which look like giant drizzle sand castles and inspire your imagination to see different familiar statue shapes as if formed by a human sculptor, you will be fascinated.  In Canyonlands National Park you gaze down into a vast pit of enormous rock sculptures formed by river waters, and in nearby Arches National Park your eyes are drawn upward to more and different huge orange formations carved by wind, rain, snow, freezing and thawing.

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In the North-West you will marvel at the beautiful fairy-lands of the Cascade Mountains and of many different kinds of waterfalls, streams, and gigantic evergreen trees, some over 2,000 years old. The Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula is one of our top favorites with moss covered paths and windy ocean shores and some of the tallest trees on earth with gnarled, exposed roots higher than any person.

In the South-East places like Everglades National Park and Pensacola Gulf Islands National Seashore preserve waterways and ocean shores with a totally different kind of natural beauty with tropical vegetation, beautiful under-water wonders, and varieties of ocean life as you have never imagined but can experience in these peaceful places of birds, whales, manatees, alligators, shells, sandy beaches, mangrove forests with walking trees, and much more.

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Mid-America’s Rocky Mountain Range, which extends into Canada, has many different National Parks with conifer forests hosting large herds of elk in the wild-flower filled meadows and shyer long-horn sheep on the steep, bare, rocky precipices. Snow-covered peaks and deep glaciers are part of the wonderland in winter. Sadly, for the past decade global warming has increased the North American mountain pine beetle, whose population had been kept in check in the past by sub-freezing temperatures. These little creatures have destroyed over half percent of the magnificent evergreen forests. Scientists are working to find a solution for this destruction.

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But each of us can do a small part to help heal our increasing global temperatures by turning our air-conditioners up a few degrees and our heaters down a few degrees, by turning off computers and other electronics when they are not in use, since keeping them plugged in drains a little electricity constantly. We can install solar panels, which are now free in many areas, to take us off the grid totally. We can use water sparingly, as if we had to walk a mile with a heavy jug to get water from a stream for daily use, as millions of people in the world still must do. We can choose to walk or bicycle more and drive less. These are little things each of us can do to save our planet for future generations and to insure our own comfort in the near future while still enjoying the easy advantage of modern life, which we take for granted and so overuse unnecessarily. Tiny changes are easy and make a huge difference.  Remind ourselves and our children that 21 days create a habit so we can practice and create the habits of conservative use of our precious resources. Going to a National Park will inspire you to do this. GO AND ENJOY!

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It was with excitement we took our RV out of storage this year and eagerly drove toward the wonderful KOA welcome as we traveled across the USA. Traveling Highway I-40 this time we stopped first at Buffalo, TN, KOA for an overnight at Exit 143. Although it is not named a Journey KOA, Sam, who greeted us told us most people spend one night in this convenient and lovely small KOA nestled in the beautiful forest of Tennessee. It is located halfway between Nashville and Jackson, TN, and is a great place to break the drive across this long state.

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We noted that the swimming pool is one of the prettiest we have seen in campgrounds, and it felt so good after 10 hours on the road in July heat! The K9 Kamp was a welcome place to let our little dog run and explore in safety. There is also a volleyball court and horseshoe pits and all the clean amenities you need at a campground, whether you are in your vehicle, a tent or camping cabins. Pizza delivered to your site is available for the asking, but using generators is not allowed.

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Next we returned to one of our favorite KOA’s, where we have stayed several times at Bristol/Kingsport, TN.  This is a very large KOA built on a lovely hillside, but all the sites are level. If you arrive before 7 P.M. you can have supper in the pretty Rocky Branch Cafe in the office/store. Or you can have your choices from the menu delivered to your site…a great help for tired travelers who don’t wish to unhook from their tow vehicle.

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Whether it is your small pet travel companion or your horses, each has a special place at this campground: the K9 park or the grassy fenced paddock. Family fun activities abound here, almost as if you are at a sort of amusement park. The gigantic jumping pillow is a favorite for all ages, and the large, well-equipped two fenced playgrounds are shady choices for all youngsters. There is a basketball and badminton/volleyball court, blongo, horseshoes, and even pony rides on Saturdays. The Game Room is also fun. This is an excellent KOA for long stays and just a short drive to the Bristol Race Track and the new Country Music Museum. What a fun place to stay!!

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For a shorter day of driving, we checked into Virginia’s Natural Bridge KOA just out of Lexington. This is a very large KOA park nestled beneath beautiful Virginia forest of trees with most sites in full shade. Set up and down a hillside, there are so many fun discoveries to make, whether you are camping in your own rig or staying in the variety of cabins or pitching your tent in the well-kept grassy tent sites. You can reserve a site with your own deck, firepit and grill. We arrived for the fun, annual Christmas in July where families have a variety of themed activities for all day on Saturdays, since everyone wishes Christmas came more than once a year.

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From this KOA a visit to the historic natural wonder just 10 minutes’ drive away is a must. Natural Bridge was surveyed by George Washington and granted later to Thomas Jefferson and is a gigantic rock formation created by the river and it towers higher than Niagara Falls.  The lovely, level walkway beside the river leads to the Monacan Indian demonstration village and on to the Salt Petre mines used for finding sodium nitrate for gun powder in the early American wars. The wide, accessible trail ends about 20 minutes farther at beautiful Lacey Falls.  In the evenings at dusk there is an impressive Light Show with emphasis on Biblical Creation stories. Ticket prices are nominal and the parking lot will accommodate RV’s. After centuries of various ownerships, this 1500 acre historic forest and natural wonder has been preserved for posterity and becomes a Virginia State Park in October 2016. There is a beautiful hotel and several choices of dining. A shuttle to and from the Natural Bridge trail is free for anyone who does not wish to navigate the 137 steps down to the trail.

 

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We drove to Portree in the Isle of Skye, where we loved our stay at Gleann an Ronariche B&B. Stuart was so accommodating, and quite a good cook. The breakfast was the most elaborate of any on our trip, and the rooms are delightful with his murals on the wall. We asked Stuart the best places to go in Skye, and he said, “Take your map and drop your finger at any place in Skye, and THAT is the most beautiful place to go!” And we found he was absolutely right!

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We drove completely around the large Isle of Skye and the scenery is BEAUTIFUL, with huge mountains covered with soft green grass and shaggy Highland Cows and literally millions of sheep. In most places the mountains had no trees, but some forests were scattered here and there. There are wonderful hikes and biking all around Skye, and outfitters and tours are there for booking in advance. The tall stone cliffs near Staffin overlook the rocky shore on the Sea of Hebrides (North Atlantic) and are ruggedly enticing, picturesque, and extremely windy. This is a volcanic area from ages ago, and scientists have found huge three-toed Hadrosaur dinosaur tracks here. Near Staffin is a replica of an ancient Scottish village with interesting little stone houses and farming implement.  It is worth stopping to appreciate how very hard life was in these highlands and still is. We stopped at the Port of Uig to see the ferries to the Hebrides Islands.  Plan ahead because Ferry reservations are necessary.

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A few miles below Portree we watched for the small sign pointing the way to the famous Fairy Pools. We had to drive up into the western highlands and through pastures on a one-track road to Glenbrittle, which cuts a belt across the The Cullins mountains, the source of the River Brittle.  We finally found the place, barely marked. It is in an enormous valley. The nearest town to the Fairy Pools is Carbost.  This glacial valley is covered with lush grasses and singing streams flowing down the mountains in many places to a larger river in the valley bottom. Waterfalls, large and small, are everywhere! The waters in Skye all run a bit red on waterfalls because of the iron ore in the ground. The Fairy Pools are wherever the waterfalls land. Many brave souls dare to swim in this very cold water! We hiked carefully down the little trail to see the first and largest waterfall, crossed the deep grass with soggy peat beneath it, and tiptoed through muddy bogs to the water’s edge, the first Fairy Pool. The hillside seemed so steep to us seventy year old flat-landers and there were many waters below us, but we chose to be satisfied with this beautiful spot. A small flock of sheep strolled to graze and drink nearby. Families and kids of all ages love spending a whole day on this mountainside!

After several hours of driving through beautiful scenery, descending in altitude, we arrived at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, which is a center for great hiking tours through valley and steep mountains. We were not hiking, but the many back-packers reported that they loved it, even in rain. Everywhere the natural landscape is amazingly beautiful!

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We drove through the beautiful Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park on the West side of the very long Loch Lomond, the largest water source in Great Britain. This narrow, winding road leads to the town of Gartocharn just outside Alexandria and Balloch. Our Ardoch Cottage B&B  was charming, and our hosts are a pleasant couple who gave great advice about the best way to spend our two days there. We had a sunny day of delightful temperatures, so they advised we first climb The Dumpling for the best viewpoint of the area. We hurried to do so because the weather changes from sun to rain quite frequently. The short but steep hike through woods and pasture felt good after our long drive. Then we went to The House of Darrach nearby for the best meal of any we had in Scotland. This is a lovely Tea Room Restaurant in a wonderful shop containing an array of items from clothing to foods. Lunch was a carvery (today it was ham and turkey) and a nominally priced, delicious buffet of many hot vegetables: always potatoes (both mashed and boiled ”tatties”), mashed turnips (“neeps”), peas, cauliflower cheese casserole, carrots,  bread and sauces for a nominal price. Every bite was delicious!

We spent two grand days of sightseeing in the area, which included much of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. About halfway, the beautiful hills of soft, light green grass became dark green forests of huge cedars, sequoias, pines, and deciduous trees. The understory is literally a dense forest of ferns about six feet high. This is gorgeous countryside.

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We stopped in Aberfoyle for coffee and pastry, but we were fortunate to find The Scottish Wool Centre just in time for the last demonstration of how border collie dogs are trained to herd the sheep. We watched fascinated as the young dog herded the sheep into pens, making each one go into the correct stall. The shepherdess showed how he is trained by herding ducks that run, not just waddle. He herded them into a series of inclined platforms, pools, and “bridges” and back into their pen. She explained each of six kinds of sheep to us and showed us how their wool and its uses differ according to the texture and softness. Everyone was enthralled with this live demonstration, which is repeated several times each day!

We continued up to see the 1882 Sir Walter Scott steamship on Loch Katrine.  It is over 100 feet long and was brought up here in the 1960’s in pieces by teams of Clydesdale horses and reassembled here. You can take one or two hour rides on this smaller lake, but we arrived too late to cruise. The scenic drive and/or hikes along the way are well worth it.  On our return drive we stopped at the little village of Dryden, which has a lot of nightlife in the popular pubs, so we chose The Ptarmigan for some really good pun food.

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On our last day we had a few hours in Edinburgh before our flight, so we left our car and took the comfortable, clean commuter train to avoid traffic and parking problems. We walked the fascinating lower level of the city, taking many pictures and enjoying a wonderful meal at one of the many pubs on Rose Street. We climbed up the very steep hill to Edinburgh Castle, but we just missed the last tour at 4:30 p.m.  We perused the Tartan Weaving Mill Shop nearby, which during the day has demonstrations of weaving and production of many of the products for which Scotland is famous, from bagpipes to whiskey. We so wished we had arrived earlier with more time… Hopefully, that will be on our itinerary next time. We found Scotland to be a very special place, truly like traveling through a wonderful Fairy Tale!