Posts Filed Under: Excursion Exclusives
Posted by Rachel
on February 10, 2018 at 3:29 pm
Provence, a region in the southeastern part of France, was the last stop in our scholastic escapades around Europe and a relaxed, sunny escape from Paris’ congestion and crowds.
L’Occitane is surrounded by the terra of Provence.
The very earth in Provence reflects its cultural divergence from France’s busier areas. There, white limestone cliffs jut out beyond waving hills silvered with olive groves or lined with vineyards. Tradition permeates everything, and even time seems hesitant to spoil the splendor of the tranquility with change.
Aix-en-Provence is known as the City of a Thousand Fountains.
Directly after arriving in Provence, we did a business tour at the cosmetic company L’Occitane. Afterward, we headed into Aix-en-Provence, our base for the area. That evening, we ate dinner at an outdoor cafe in one of the town’s squares. The whole plaza was packed with clusters of hodgepodge tables from different restaurants; it looked like a scene from a movie.
Every one of Aix-en-Provence’s many fountains is unique.
The next day, we visited Chateau Virant, a 320-acre winery and olive farm. During our tour, we entered the chateau’s cellar, which was built in 1632, through tunnels constructed hundreds of years ago. There, oak barrels filled with Dionysus’ harvest waited patiently for their moment of perfection. Pretty cool.
Chateau Virant’s cellar fit my imaginings perfectly.
Aix-en-Provence’s town hall dates back to the 14th century.
In the afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence and touched the same stones that built Rome 2,000 years ago. Later, we sampled calissons, the local version of marzipan, and walked 50 minutes to buy a community of santons, Provence’s unique hand-painted terracotta nativity figurines. We ate dinner at a restaurant called La Bouchee. In its small space, we felt like flies on a French wall as the only non-French patrons. We sat in a corner taking in the genial interactions between couples and groups of friends while enjoying our yummy cheese ravioli and its truffle cream sauce. It was Jason’s favorite meal of our entire trip.
The Mediterranean Sea looked like a frothy sapphire.
On our last day in France, we spent the morning strolling Aix-en-Provence’s famous Saturday market. There, we bought citrus fruits and scarfs while appreciating the general bazaar ambiance. We encountered bent old men with canes taking home huge bouquets of flowers, a weekly ritual probably performed most of their lives.
In Cassis, brightly-colored boats bobbed just beyond colorful cafes.
In the afternoon, we went to Cassis, a petite town situated picturesquely on the Mediterranean Sea. The coral, lemon, and apricot-colored cafes and shops were charming. We savored a lunch of seafood and pasta at one of these restaurants while the Mediterranean sunshine curled around us like a sleepy cat. We walked along the breezy waterfront and took a boat ride through the crevices of the coastline before heading back to Aix-en-Provence. Our flight for home departed the next morning.
The Calanques, slender inlets bounded by jagged limestone cliffs, are fascinating fingers.
Before closing this traveling trilogy, allow me to pass along two more of our French discoveries: 1. All French beaches are nude beaches whether they indicate so or not. While nothing official labeled the small beach in Cassis as “nude,” that didn’t stop the beachgoers from removing their clothing as convenience dictated. As we walked by, we saw a man pull off his swim shorts and several topless women taking an invigorating stroll together. There were kids playing soccer on this same beach, so, obviously, nudity is considered family friendly in France. Expect accordingly. 2. Despite claims to the contrary, not all of the pastries in France are amazing. Yes, you can find many fantastic bakery delicacies in France, but don’t just pop anything in your mouth expecting it to be worth the calories. Choose selectively.
Cassis felt airy and welcoming.
This busy trip came with a significant amount of cultural revelations, including some discoveries about our own culture. With nearly 40 students in our group, cliques formed over the course of our trip where few preexisted. It was interesting and disturbing to see them develop over just two weeks. Jason and I purposefully avoided being cliquey and invited everyone to come sightseeing with us without exclusions. Come on people, cliques weren’t even cool back in high school. Haven’t we moved past that asinine elitism as adults?
Jason insisted I include this selfie, despite my drool strings.
We came back from Europe depleted within days of our Halloween party, a topic I will address next week without further delay.
Posted by Rachel
on January 29, 2018 at 8:44 pm
Paris is a city of contradictions, as its picturesque boulevards streaked with urine puddles attest. Our experience there was one of contradictions also; it validated some French stereotypes for us and disproved others.
Like a life-giving artery, the Seine River flows through the heart of Paris.
We got right to sightseeing when we reached Paris. Our tour bus took a circuitous route to our hotel, so we could promptly begin our oohing and aahing. We ate lunch at Galeries Lafayette, the oldest department store in Paris and the fanciest retail space I’ve ever seen. (Even the ones in NYC can’t compete.) We circled the Palais Garnier, the famous opera house that’s the setting for The Phantom of the Opera, and stopped to gawk at the Eiffel Tower.
“Love locks” have been a problem in Paris since an Italian novel for young adults popularized them a decade ago. On one bridge, 700,000 locks, the weight of 20 elephants, had to be removed when the fencing began to collapse. That’s not love.
After checking into our hotel, most of our group took the metro back into the center of Paris. There, we walked by the Hotel de Ville, witnessed the glow of Notre-Dame, ate crepes at a cafe in Notre-Dame’s shadow, meandered along the Seine River by Parisians picnicking in the dark, and passed by the Louvre’s unconventional pyramid. It would have been a tremendously-romantic stroll if it weren’t for the 18 students accompanying Jason and me.
Versailles’ most famous water feature, Apollo’s Fountain, was made of gilded lead in 1670.
We spent the majority of the next day completing business visits, but no need to feel bad for us; these weren’t with common corporations. At BNP Paribas, we saw where Napoleon and Josephine got married. We toured the American Embassy at the Hotel de Talleyrand, gilded halls that once welcomed emperors and kings. In between, we ate French onion soup and crème brulee at the first restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, with representatives of another company. This eating establishment used to be frequented by Ben Franklin and is now home to Napoleon’s hat.
The fountains at Versailles still use centuries-old plumbing.
During our free evening, we took a boat ride on the Seine River and saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle like a 1000-foot sparkler. Afterward, we got sociable with some of Paris’ most enduring citizens. The bushes along the river were literally crawling with rats that fine night. On the positive side, they were cuter than New York City subway rats.
The rats in Paris are nearly as common as the croissants.
The following day, we spent the morning and afternoon at Versailles, the largest palace in Europe. Most of the main building was packed with Asian tourists. The opalescence was impressive, but the crowds were oppressive. The nearly-2,000-acre gardens were far less peopled. These grounds, monuments to man’s mastery over nature, seemed boundless. We walked through them for two hours and only saw some highlights. If you go to Paris, don’t miss Versailles’ gardens.
Climbing the Eiffel Tower is just something you have to do when in Paris.
The Eiffel Tower is something you have to do in Paris whether you really want to or not. That evening, we crossed that “must” off our you-have-no-choice-but-to-do-this bucket list. Going up the Eiffel Tower involves a series of lines. The whole process of waiting in one line after another took us a few hours. The views were pretty cool though… and you HAVE to do it. Afterward, we ate dinner down the street at Café Gustave. There, one of the members of our group got her first “French” kiss from our frisky waiter, much to the amusement of the rest of us. He was relentless in his pursuits, despite her lack of enthusiasm. I laughed so hard I hit my head on our table. I guess that French stereotype has some truth to it.
We planned appropriately to see the sun disappear in an orange haze from the Eiffel Tower.
Our last day in Paris, Jason and I got up early to reach the Louvre before things got too crazy there- they were still crazy. We did the “Welcome to the Louvre” tour that covers many of the museum’s most popular pieces like the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa. The tour was a good intro, but the museum was so busy that we could hardly see some of the masterpieces discussed. The Mona Lisa, a small painting, was the most disappointing. We couldn’t even get within about 20 feet of it due to the crowds. Also, there were way too many aggressive Asian tourists in the Louvre. Jason got pushed, elbowed, and shoved by them for no reason. (The old ladies were particularly belligerent.) So, while the building is beautiful, and the collections are overwhelmingly magnificent, the Louvre isn’t my favorite museum. I prefer Eugène Delacroix without an elbow. In contrast, at the MOMA in New York City, you can get close to such works as The Starry Night without having to put someone in a half nelson.
The creatures of Notre-Dame have been watching over Paris’ boulevards for hundreds of years.
After that artsy insanity, we took sanctuary amongst the grotesque chimeras and gargoyles of Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame was enchanting, and we preferred its views to those provided by the Eiffel Tower.
Jason’s back seemed abnormally hunched during much of our Notre-Dame visit.
Following our Notre-Dame refresher, we gave the Louvre another try. It happened to be one of its open-late days. We had heard these evenings were the best time to visit the museum as most tourists are unaware that its hours are occasionally extended. Those claims were correct. We had a much better experience without the distracting and discourteous throngs.
The views from Notre-Dame’s balcony rivaled the Eiffel Tower’s.
So, which rumors about the French and Paris are true and which aren’t? True Facts: 1. Paris smells like urine. 2. The French have a pride in their heritage that borders on elitism. 3. Ratatouille is real. 4. The French are casually affectionate in ways that some Americans might find inappropriate. Untrue Myths: 1. The French are rude. We found the opposite. A random lady on the metro saw our confused faces and came to our aid unsolicited, speaking in English, when we couldn’t figure out which platform to get on. 2. The French won’t even try to communicate with you if you don’t speak French. Plenty of Parisians were happy to converse with us in English. 3. The Eiffel Tower is the best part of Paris. No, visit it if you must, but Notre-Dame and Versailles are more impressive.
The magnitude of the masterpieces at the Louvre was completely overwhelming.
Next week, I will discuss Provence, a quaint region that has been a tourist destination for two thousand years, dating back to its days as a Roman spa retreat.
Posted by Rachel
on January 25, 2018 at 1:27 pm
Jason and I traveled to Europe with 35 other master’s students back in October. Over 11 days, we visited Amsterdam, Paris, and Provence. This was a packed and productive trip filled with both sights and school work. We came home exhausted and jet lagged just in time to do the final preparations for our Halloween party. But that’s a story for another time; here’s the story for this time.
At the Aalsmeer flower market, trains and carts of flowers zoom around the world’s fourth-largest building with a nerve-racking rapidity.
As Amsterdam was the first stop of our travels, we took a direct flight to that city. This plane ride wasn’t too awful, but why is it that the snoring guy sleeps just fine for half the flight while everyone else only manages to doze for an hour or so?
Rembrandt’s house has been superbly restored.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam, we wandered the streets a bit and succeeded in staying up until 8:00 PM, after being awake for almost 30 hours. With a little ZzzQuil, Jason and I were able to sleep reasonably well until 5:00 AM the next morning when we had to rise for a business visit. Since this trip was part of my master’s program, seven business visits were scheduled throughout it to help students understand the cultural nuances of the region. We toured two businesses that morning while experiencing a hefty helping of jet lag, including the largest flower market in the world at Aalsmeer. There, in the fourth-largest building in the world, 20 million flowers are traded and shipped worldwide every day. The pace of it was remarkable and dizzying, especially to those suffering from a circadian desynchronization.
The Grote Kerk has dwarfed Haarlem’s market square since 1550.
The Grote Kerk’s showy organ has attracted many famous musicians over the centuries, like Handel and Mozart.
Since Jason and I visited Amsterdam just a year ago, we didn’t feel a need to see the “main attractions” with the rest of the group. Instead, we went out on our own in the afternoon and visited the St. Nicholas Basilica, Nieuwe Kerk, and Rembrandt House Museum. The “We Have a Dream” exhibit at the Nieuwe Kerk on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela was interesting, and I loved walking up the coiling steps Rembrandt once wandered. After that long day, we slowed down for dinner at a yummy Indian restaurant. (Yes, Dutch Indian food is surprisingly excellent.)
Zaanse Schans is an idyllically-preserved piece of Dutch countryside.
On our final day in the Netherlands, the whole group went to Haarlem, Zaanse Schans, and Volendam. Haarlem’s famous church, with its prestigious organ that once attracted talented musicians like Mozart, was magnificent. Haarlem was also holding its weekly town-square market that day, the same market it has held since the Middle Ages. I felt pleasantly foreign as I watched locals buy their fresh produce, breads, and fashions from little tents in that cobblestoned plaza. Zaanse Schans was much the same as the last time we visited it a year ago. However, the sails of The Cat windmill were moving at an even brisker pace and grounding chalk with a playful enthusiasm. We had just enough time in Volendam to visit the Volendams Museum and eat frites on the quaint shores of the IJsselmeer.
The IJsselmeer, the freshwater lake bordering Volendam, was created by the industrious Dutch from an inland bay decades ago.
The next day, we were on a high-speed train to Paris. In my next post, I will discuss the urine-streaked grandeur of the most romantic city in the world.
Posted by Rachel
on December 20, 2017 at 9:06 pm
Yes, I’m back to blogging after some temporary impediments (AKA life).
Orderville Canyon, rated a 3B III, is one of Zion National Park’s famous slot canyons. This fall, my father organized a family outing to this narrow ravine with one of his friends as our guide. More family members ended up joining this expedition than expected, so our group of nine wadded and jumped through frigid waters as an odd entourage.
The Canyon Overlook Trail is short but stunning.
No matter how hot it is in Zion, the park’s slot canyons don’t offer much heat. The sun can’t reach into those deep and slim crevices, and the icy waters that seep through stone to fill their innards assure that no passer retains what limited warmth is offered by the air. However, the rest of the park does not share this all-too-efficient cooling system and was blazing hot during our stay.
The Canyon Overlook Trail provides a touch of adventure.
Jason and I went down to Zion a day earlier than my family and completed two hikes. We did these at both ends of the day to avoid the sun’s most intense beams. During the morning, we took a 3.5-mile trek to a fantastic viewpoint of the Watchman, a spire that overlooks the valley holding Springdale. In the evening, we hiked the Canyon Overlook, a short one-mile jaunt with a gorgeous endpoint above Zion Canyon.
Birch Hollow is one way to enter Orderville Canyon. It’s not the way we came in, but we stopped there long enough for me to slip on a loose rock and fall flat on my face.
The next day, we got up at an ungodly hour to begin our slot adventure. Hiking Orderville involves a one-way journey down a thin gap that empties into Zion’s famous Narrows almost two miles from the Temple of Sinawava. Only 80 permits/day are given to enter this canyon. The distance is 10-12 miles, depending on how far along a bumpy dirt road you dare go in your vehicle. We did the 12-mile version. We started walking at 9:15 AM and barely caught the last shuttle out of the park from the Temple of Sinawava at 9:15 PM. Yup, those 12 miles took us 12 hours. One mile an hour? Perhaps a little pitiful. This trek is supposed to take 7-10 hours, so we were about 25% slower than normal human beings.
Our rappel off the Border Boulder ended right in a deep mud pock.
Why so sluggish? For one, our group was relatively large, so each rappel took considerably longer just based off our numbers. Second, our group was relatively timid, so prompting its members into freezing pools of unknown depth wasn’t always quick. Why rush into misery?
Pictures don’t convey Orderville’s vertically-vibrant awe.
The thing about hiking slot canyons is that there isn’t a go-back option after a certain point. Once you make your first rappel, you are committed. So, even when an obstacle makes you think “I can’t do that,” you know you must. It’s both intimidating and empowering. In this case, our first rappel, and the point of no return, was a 15-foot drop off a chunk of stone known as the Border Boulder. Once our ragtag group bounded beyond that rotund pebble, we were past retreat.
Our group wasn’t exactly A-team material.
The Guillotine, Orderville’s second rappel, falls between two massive boulders wedged into the canyon’s slender gap. A cold and cloudy pool obscures the rappel’s landing. While only about a 12-foot drop, the unknown depth of that water made us all hesitant to get harnessed up. Thus, Jason got elected to take the first descent into its indeterminate deepness, an honor he was not terribly excited about receiving. It turned out to only be about three feet deep, so no one had to attempt detaching from the line while swimming.
The Guillotine sits in a hazy pool.
Orderville’s terrain and obstructions change frequently, more than most slot canyons’. Each flashflood alters the sand levels and debris clogs, shifting the wading, swimming, and maneuvering requirements. Beyond the Guillotine, the landscape went from a little wet to much worse for us. This section, officially Bulloch Gulch, is commonly called the “Orderville Waterpark” or the “Obstacle Course.” Somehow, frigid water escapes the towering canyon walls to gain mass and momentum here. This runoff is opaque with a turquoise hue, similar to glacier runoff. Therefore, the depth and subsurface conditions of its puddles are impossible to ascertain before jumping in. We had to wade nearly constantly once we hit this section, and we crossed at least three or four pools that required full swims. There might have been a few more… we lost track.
Our encounters with Orderville’s fluids began innocently enough.
A friend warned me that wearing a wetsuit or drysuit is necessary when maneuvering through parts of Orderville, regardless of the temperature outside. I didn’t believe him. Zion was 102 degrees the day we trekked through Orderville, hardly wetsuit weather. So, with the exception of neoprene socks and amphibious canyoneering shoes, Jason and I passed on donning aqueous attire. Bad decision. Continual plunges into icy puddles combined with constant shade created by high canyon walls meant we all were soon shivering uncontrollably once the swims began. My body has a hard time staying warm anyway, so I was hit by fiercer shivers than most. Jason said I turned pale and my lips went blue. It’s been a while since I’ve been that cold.
Slippery logs and rocks are frequent hurdles in the Waterpark.
Our last rappel wasn’t planned but was necessary. Veiled Falls, a waterfall, is typically only around six feet tall, but it’s the most frequent search-and-rescue site in the canyon due to people jumping from its ledges and breaking their ankles. To get past it without snapping our limbs, we concocted a makeshift rappel line using Jason and my dad as the anchor. Designing this workaround took a bit of time and left our shaking bunch even more dejected.
With all the shivering, I couldn’t keep my hands steady enough to take pictures. All of my photos turned out a bit blurry once we got substantially wet.
Due to our slower-than-average pace, we didn’t make it out of The Narrows before dark. We had to wander down nearly a mile of the Virgin River in the pitch of night. Wading through a flowing waterway when everything is black around you is an interesting experience.
Veiled Falls made us snappier, but it didn’t snap us.
The consensus on Orderville? It was unimaginably beautiful and unbelievably cold. The experience, a jumbled bundle of misery and majesty, will never be forgotten. While others from our group might not be eager to experience it again, I would be game. A wetsuit would not be considered optional attire though.
Posted by Rachel
on October 8, 2017 at 11:23 pm
The landscapes around Moab are unlike any others on Earth. So, we couldn’t let a couple of Jason’s relatives, Steve and Wendy, come halfway across the globe from New Zealand without taking them to see that region. Jason’s parents opted to join us for this little weekend excursion, which was during August’s hot thralls. Appallingly, they had never been to Moab in all their years in Utah. Say what? Jason and I have visited Moab dozens of times and, like any self-respecting insufferable-know-it-all, I’ve picked up quite a few useful and not-entirely-useful area details during those many trips. Hence, we made pretty decent guides. Our guests received no shortage of facts and recreation options. Moab stunned them and we wore them out.
The Shafer Canyon Overlook offered our guests their first glimpse of the striking layers that form Canyonlands drop upon drop.
Although we arrived in Moab late in the afternoon, we had enough time before sundown to drive to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park and check out the Shafer Canyon Overlook and Mesa Arch. The Kiwis in our group were awed by the sheer scope of Canyonlands’ sheerness. They weren’t prepared for its 1,400-foot plunges of pristine crimson and auburn sandstone.
Mesa Arch is one of Canyonlands’ most famous features.
The next morning, we got up at 6:45 AM to hike to Delicate Arch, one of Utah’s most iconic features. Despite our early rising, this 3.2-mile trek was a bit on the unpleasantly warm side. Still, our climb was cool enough that we could legitimately shake our heads at the suckers going up the trail when we were heading down. That’s all that matters, right?
From above, Mesa Arch’s precarious position is more apparent.
In the afternoon, we went on a rafting expedition down the Colorado River. We thought we’d be cooler on the water. As it turns out, being near water doesn’t actually make you wet… go figure. A little sweat didn’t ruin our ride though. Fine scenery can make one forget about cascades of perspiration flooding every crevice. We saw five otters during our float. Four of these comprised a happy otter family and the other one was a curious and playful fellow that raced our boat for quite a while just for fun. I love otters!
Glory to the tripod!
Interestingly, the particular rafting company we used didn’t provide paddles for anyone but our guide, which made me feel slightly pathetic. We went through rapids like White’s Rapid and the Trash Compactor but there really wasn’t much point to adrenaline with our fingers securely wrapped around ropes; whitewater is a much different experience when it’s only your flexed toes holding you in a bobbing raft.
Our group was game for the goofy.
The wind swelled to 35 MPH with gusts up to 60 MPH a mile or two from our take-out point. That rushed air insisted on carrying us upstream so our guide expended a whole lot of energy rowing our raft in circles for half an hour or so. Without oars, the best assistance the rest of us could offer was huddling at the bottom of the boat to keep our wind resistance at a minimum. Still, we made it to our journey’s end only about 15 minutes behind schedule.
Jason and I have been to Delicate Arch a number of times but we enjoyed experiencing it with new recruits.
On our way home the next day, we stopped at Dead Horse Point State Park and took a little stroll 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. It was two miles of splendid misery. On that skyward plateau, the fierce fingers of the sun pushed waves of sticky heat onto us from above and the extraordinary vistas carved by the Colorado plummeted away from below.
Dead Horse Point is on a plateau 2,000 feet above the Colorado. Looking over its ever-present edges, you feel every inch.
I believe Moab was a hit with our foreign visitors and deprived locals. Steve and Wendy kept saying that they wouldn’t know how to describe what they had seen to others, that it would be hard to convey the size and scope of Moab’s canyons and colors even with pictures. So, I guess that means there isn’t any point in reading this post or contemplating its photos. Just get yourself down to Moab… preferably not in August though.