Day with the Druids

June 5, 2015
London, England

As the Eiffel Tower is synonymous with France, so is Stonehenge to England.

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As wikipedia says, “Stonehenge was produced by a culture that left no written records.” Both interesting and infuriating. You would think that after time we could eventually figure out the purpose behind these stone columns, but there is still debate and mystery that surrounds them.
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Did the stones have healing powers? Were they used as a calculator or calendar? Why were some dragged over 200 miles?
2015-06-05 06.08.33Unfortunately the site itself reveals no answers, but offers many theories in it’s beautiful and brand new Visitor Centre. Included with the entrance fee is a shuttle to the stones (and back), the Centre and some outdoor displays, including replica huts and a replica of one of the sarsen stones.

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The huts were recreated based on remains found just over a mile from Stonehenge. Ten buildings were excavated dating from around 2500 BC, but it’s likely there were many more. They were likely used for feasting, based on animal bones and pottery found, but also possible they were built for people to live in while they built Stonehenge.

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This is an exact replica of Stone 60 from the inner horseshoe and weighs about 28 tonnes. One theory for moving them, that did not involve divine intervention, was that the stone was secured to a wooden sled and pulled over rollers. It would have been hard, long and dirty work that required upwards of 100 people per stone.

It’s an awesome mystery and one that I hope is solved and remains unsolved in equal measure.

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The Big Three

June 3, 2015
Paris, France

It’s no secret that I don’t like crowds. Really don’t like crowds. I mean, slighly agoraphobic, out of breath, my brain starts scream, I hate crowds. But I really wanted to see the Louvre and the “Big Three” – Mona Lisa, Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo. After visiting the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe earlier in the day I went back to the apartment and waited until evening to make my move because on Wednesday and Friday evenings the Louve is open until 945pm.

I also planned on using one of the “secret entrances” to the Louvre to skip the long security lines at I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. If you go to 99 Rue Rivoli, head through the glass doors of the “Carrousel du Louvre” and take the escalator down you’ll find yourself in an underground shopping mall, but don’t panic. Follow the signs for the Louvre, breeze through the non-existent line at security and then all you have to do is buy a ticket and you’re in!

With a mission in mind I headed straight for Mona Lisa as I was expecting her to be the most difficult to see. It’s quite a hike through the Denon wing, but well marked with signs and you can always follow the crowd.

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And then there she was. A small crowd around her, but nothing panic inducing. A lot of people say they are disappointed when they finally see her in person, but I didn’t really get that. It’s a small painting, not very vibrant but she just has that indescribable something that have made people need to have her. She’s so calm, so composed and her eyes tell nothing.

On the opposite end of calm is the badass Winged Victory of Samothrace.WingedVictory

She’s 8ft tall, marble and missing a head but she’s absolutely breathtaking. Thought to have been created around 200–190 BC the statue was to not only honor the goddess, Nike, but to honor a victorious sea battle. Though her arms have never been recovered it’s thought her right arm was raised to her mouth to deliver the shout of “Victory” and I would love to be able to see the expression on her face.

Down a little way is the Venus de Milo, created sometime between 130 and 100 BC. 2015-06-03 13.38.15The statue is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty and as with the Winged Victory her arms have been lost to time though some believed she may have been holding an apple in one hand, similar to this statue that was just a little ways down.

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With a few hours left to spend wandering and the “big three” completed I headed to the Egyptian Wing, which is always my favourite part of any museum and the Louvre did not disappoint.2015-06-03 14.15.53 2015-06-03 14.20.03 2015-06-03 14.21.56 2015-06-03 14.22.43 2015-06-03 14.24.27 2015-06-03 14.33.11

Last, but not least, I wanted to share my favourite painting I saw while at the Louvre. It was tucked in a small dead end room, but made me do a double take when I first walked by.2015-06-03 13.47.51It is Magdalena Bay by Auguste François Biard, painted in 1840. Possibly inspired by his own experience in a scientific expedition to the Arctic, the painting depicts the aurora borealis from a bay on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen. In the foreground are five figures, presumably explorers, who are either dying or dead. I love it. And the Louvre.2015-06-03 14.41.12

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Famous Landmarks

June 3, 2015
Paris, France

With an overcast sky this morning I hoped Paris’ most famous landmark wouldn’t be too busy and though the sky was grey, it was still worth the trip.

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The Eiffel Tower (named after the engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel) was erected in 1889 as the entrance arch to the World’s Fair. Initially it was criticized and called, “elephant”, a “giraffe”, a “hulking metal beast crouched on all fours,” but eventually it was accepted and has become synonymous with Paris and one of the most recognizable structures in the world.

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For only €5 you can take the stairs all the way to the second floor, which is a bit of a hike but offers you the opportunity to really see the structure up close and appreciate what went into designing and building it. The line for the stairs is almost always shorter than the line for the elevator so if time is short that is something worth considering.

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The first floor has a cafe, washrooms, gift shop and a new glass floor section that only induces a mild case of vertigo.

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From the second floor the elevator ride to the top is another €6.50, but it’s not possible to climb all the way by yourself…and I’m not sure many people would be up for the challenge. Once at the top it’s cold and windy and crowded, but the view is lovely.

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Seeing the Arc de Triomphe from the Eiffel was like zeroing in on a target as that was where I was heading next.

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The Arc de Triomphe was designed in 1806 and honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars. The names of all French victories and generals are inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces and beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

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Although the weather was a bit off today I think it helped to keep some of the crowds away. The Louvre is open late tonight (Wednesdays and Fridays) so I hope our luck holds out and it’s not too much of a zoo when we go later tonight.

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Chimeras and Catacombes

June 2, 2015
Paris, France

As a kid I loved Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and this morning it was my first stop…too bad everyone else in Paris had the same idea. As a very popular tourist attraction all the books say to arrive early and I did not so I faced a massive line to get inside. Luckily it moved pretty quickly (inside within 10 minutes) and it’s 100% free to marvel at the architecture, stained glass windows and statues.

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Fun fact: I learnt that Notre Dame’s famous gargoyles are actually the stone creatures that help drain rainwater from the roof and chimeras are the half human-half beast decorations that gaze out over the city.

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Near the top you’re able to climb the south tower belfry and see the Cathedral’s largest bell (weighs more than 13 tonnes) that is only rung on major Catholic feast days.2015-06-02 07.58.00

After a 360 view at the very top of the tower it’s time to work your way back down again and once on the ground you can really appreciate the masterwork of thoughtfulness and architecture that is Notre Dame.

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To continue the slightly creepy theme for the day, the Catacombes were the next (and last stop). After waiting in line for close to two hours (again!) I bought my ticket and started going down and down and down. And then, you’re all alone in a dimly lit passageway. The people in front of me had moved quickly and the people behind had stopped on the stairs to catch their breath. It was quiet, except for the crunch of my feel on the stone and the dripping of water from the rock ceiling.
2015-06-02 10.37.56 Following little green arrows down alleys and around blind corners I kept expecting someone to jump out at me like an old school haunted house, but the trail just kept going until I finally heard hushed voices and the chambers opened up.2015-06-02 10.43.30

The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of femurs and tibias stacked with all the skulls. My research later estimated that there are roughly 6 millions sets of bones buried in the catacombes and it made me a bit sad to think that none of them are complete skeletons. 2015-06-02 10.53.14 2015-06-02 10.56.36A lot of the bones had been stacked in patterns, like hearts and crosses, and you could see where some were damaged or had been removed. Although the wait had been lengthly there was absolutely no rush once inside and there were times when you were completely alone with the bones, no crowds and no pushing, just the whispers coming from the next chamber.

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Bonjour Paris!

June 1, 2015
Paris, France

I’ve left Denmark (and some lovely Danes) behind to continue on to Paris, the City of Lights, the City of Romance…possibly the most photographed city in the world and with good reason. It’s beautiful here. I get it now. I didn’t really understand the appeal before, but standing in the middle of so much history and so much beauty I can say that I understand why millions flock here every year and why some keep coming back for more.

To help with our bearings and get a birds eye view we went to The Centre Pompidou and for €3 you can ascend to the 6th floor for a “view of Paris.” Access to the museum itself is €14 and the view is included with that.2015-06-01 13.18.23 2015-06-01 13.33.07 2015-06-01 13.34.14One thing to note with the Centre Pompidou is that the view is not 360 and a lot of it is in a covered plastic tube with little windows that are open. I was hoping it would be open air and I could get some nice panoramic shots, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case (for €3 though I can’t really complain). There is a restaurant on the 6th floor that looked very nice (ie. expensive) that seemed to have a large, uncovered view so that could always be an option if you’re feeling fancy.

From the Pompidou we wandered down to the Seine where we took a cruise of the river with Vedettes du Pont Neuf. The cruise was about an hour, narrated in French and English, and covered a lot of the major sites.

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Our cruise departed at 10pm, second last of the night, just after the sun had gone down and the city started to glow. I wanted to take the cruise at night because of how the city would be lit, but I failed to think about how pictures would turn out in the dark, on a quick moving boat.

Musée d’Orsay

Musée d’Orsay

Assemblée Nationale

Assemblée Nationale

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Place de la Concorde

Place de la Concorde

Pont Neuf

Pont Neuf

The highlight was the Eiffel Tower, which was lit up and sparkling as we went past.

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The reason we chose Vedettes du Pont Neuf was because they had pretty decent reviews and a good price (€10 pp if booked in advance). I thought the commentary was good, you could hear the guide despite the school group that chatted the whole time, and really it’s just a taste of what the city has to offer.

Try arriving a bit early and choose your seat carefully. We ended up on the inside aisle, not at the railing and I had a security camera in most of my shots. I loved seeing the city at night, but would have preferred a bit earlier so it wasn’t completely dark by the end, which compromised a lot of photos. I think 9pm would probably have been a better time to set out.

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Beautiful Buildings

May 30, 2015
Copenhagen, Denmark

A bit of a slow day today. My traditional Danish dinner last night turned into traditional Danish snaps (a shot you do while eating dinner), and then traditional Danish beer, which continued into a night of traditional Danish drinking. It was a very cultural experience.

When I finally willed myself out of the apartment I decided to do a little wandering, eventually making my way to Nyhavn. My first stop was to go through the Central Station, instead of around it. The Station is beautiful, with red brick and huge wooden arches. It was rush hour in the station so I didn’t take any pictures inside, maybe tomorrow if I plan the timing better, but the outside is just as beautiful – and this is the back entrance!2015-05-29 06.50.24Emerging from the NE exit of the building I passed Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park built in the centre of town in 1843, which I am hoping to visit tomorrow and continued on to the Rådhus (or City Hall). It was inaugurated in 1905 and was designed in the National Romantic style with intricate decorative details. Apparently you can do tours inside but everything was locked up when I was there, probably due to it being a Saturday evening.

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Down the street from the Rådhus is the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, another stunning building built by Carl Jacobsen (of Carlsberg beer) as a home to his private art collection. The architecture here is so obviously different than Canada, more than I thought it would be. I mean, we have our own beautiful structures but the amount of historical buildings here, in such a small area is just wonderful. You can’t walk down the street with seeing something architecturally stunning.

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Just a couple short blocks away from the Glyptotek is Christiansborg Slot (or Christiansborg Palace), again stunning. And huge.

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I found the history behind the buildings really interesting so I am going to paraphrase from my friend Wikipedia. Christiansborg is the seat of the Danish Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court. Several parts of the palace are also used by the monarchy, including the Royal Reception Rooms, the Palace Chapel and the Royal Stables. Thus, the palace houses three of Denmark’s supreme powers: the executive power, the legislative power, and the judicial power. It is the only building in the world that houses all three of a country’s branches of government.

The present building, the third to be built on the site, is the last in a series of successive castles and palaces constructed on the same site since the erection of the first castle in 1167. Since the early fifteenth century, the various buildings have served as the base of the central administration; until 1794 as the principal residence of the Danish kings and after 1849 as the seat of parliament.

The palace today bears witness to three eras of Danish architecture, as the result of two serious fires. The first fire occurred in 1794 and the second in 1884. See? Super interesting!

The last stop (and ultimate goal) of my solo walking tour was to visit Nyhavn, the picturesque waterfront district you see on all the postcards and guidebooks for Copenhagen. It’s a tiny strip of canal front property that mostly houses bars and restaurants on land and historical wooden ships in the water.

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It’s a very cute area, brightly painted houses and lots of places to grab a drink – for a price. Architecturally I found it quite different than what I’ve seen in the rest of the city and maybe that’s part of it’s appeal. You can hop on a boat for a tour of the canals but I was there a little late in the day and there weren’t any more running. My favourite part of the history of this area was about it’s darker past as a haven for prostitution in the 1600s and that Hans Christian Anderson lived in the area for 18 years…though I’m not sure if those two elements ever crossed paths.

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First Day in Denmark

May 29, 2015
Copenhagen, Denmark

On my first morning in Copenhagen my lovely tour guide Lene (a friend I met while in Africa in 2012), took me around to some of her favourite spots in the city. We started at the Carlsberg Brewery, not for a brewery tour but to walk around the grounds (free to the public). You can see the founder’s house, J.C. Jacobsen, that looks onto a beautiful green space as well as his son’s house (Carl – the namesake of Carlsberg) and it’s opulent facade.

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I think the most famous architectural element on the whole grounds is the Elephant Gate, so named for the four gigantic marble elephants carrying a small tower on their backs.

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After the brewery we headed to the Frederiksberg Have (or the Frederiksberg Park), established by King Frederik IV in the 1690s. It is a huge park, absolutely massive, and very British in style with rolling greens and manicured gardens. It was lovely and quiet, being a Friday morning, but busy with runners and moms pushing buggies. The Park borders the zoo and from a certain vantage point you can see into the elephant enclosure, though I’m not sure how much the elephants like the Danish weather.

One of the sort of weird (but culturally neat) things Lene showed me in the park was the pacifier tree. Tradition states that when a child turns three they no longer need their pacifier so they gift it to the pacifier tree, that way they can always come back and visit it if they want. The tree itself is very old, but brightly coloured with curling ribbons, notes and gifts to the tree and of course, the pacifiers themselves.IMG_20150529_111739

My tour guide had some work stuff to take care of in the afternoon so I struck out on my own and visited the Nationalmuseet (or the National Museum of Denmark) because it’s free and really, how lost could I get in a museum. I’ll give you a hint: very lost. From the street the museum doesn’t look that large, but it’s really deceptive as I found myself in a maze of interconnecting hallways and surprising dead ends, but seeing as I’m writing this now I must have made it out ok.

There was so much to see and I get museum fatigue pretty quickly so I knew I should choose some highlights and get to work. I feel like the museum covered a lot of history, from early man to present day with a sort of creepy children’s toy section on the top floor.2015-05-29 08.29.28

My favourite stuff was the early man section, like this skull from a young boy and the silver Gundestrup Cauldron, found in a bog in 1891 but thought to have originally been made between 150 BC and the Birth of Christ.

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I also really loved this painting, A Beggar at the Door by Carl V. Meyer, 1911. From the plaque, “There was little construction work in the winter. If a builder was without work he could be forged to receive poor relief and thereby lose the right to vote. Begging, although illegal, was one way of avoiding poor relief.”Beggar

I thought the museum was really well curated, a great way to spend a few hours but really extensive and a little overwhelming at times. Kudos to the museum for keeping it free, the lower levels look recently renovated and the effective use of graphic design and lighting really highlighted the works on display.

Tonight I’m going out for a traditional Danish dinner. I’m expecting herring. Lots of herring.

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Stuck in San Francisco

Day 8+9 – February 1-2, 2015
San Francisco, California
Best Western Grosvenor Hotel

The journey home, for better or for worse, was not an uneventful one. After landing in San Francisco we were informed that our flights to Chicago and, ultimately, Toronto had been cancelled due to weather. As the agent tried to find us new flights she apologized over and over for the delay and when she finally relayed the news that we wouldn’t be leaving until Wednesday (it was Monday) I think she was a little surprised when I responded, “Awesome!” I had never been to San Fran before but it had always been on my list. On the way to our airport hotel home for 2 nights my mind went crazy trying to think of all the things we would get to see and how I would get us there in one day.

Alcatraz was at the top of my list and I snagged us some online tickets for the first ferry leaving the dock the next morning. Muir Woods and the redwoods were next so I staked out some companies that do tours and I figured we would end our day on Fisherman’s Wharf. A full day for sure but I was determined to take full advantage of this extra vacation time.

By taking the hotel’s shuttle back to the airport we were able to hop on the BART train that took us down to the piers and we joined the line for the Alcatraz ferry. The ferry ride was smooth and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we landed on the pier we were greeted by a Park Ranger, happy to tell us some brief history (it was originally a military fortress?), general directions and warnings to be careful and not try to take any unauthorized souvenirs home with us.

The first thing we saw when stepping off the pier is the original military barracks, with evidence from the 1969 19 month occupation by a group of aboriginal people. A lot of the barracks have been converted into presentation spaces and a small museum.

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Continuing up the hill and towards the cell house we passed the former Officer’s Club where they held dinners and dances.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As a detour before the cell house we stopped at the New Industries Building for a special exhibit, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. The New Industries Building is not generally open to the public so it was interesting to see this little slice of what used to be used as a workshop for inmates that had exhibited good behaviour. The space was filled with light and through the windows were gorgeous views of the bay and the city skyline. I can imagine how bittersweet it would have been for those prisoners lucky enough to work in this space. Out of the dark, damp cells and so close to freedom, but surrounded by water and ultimately trapped.

One of the Ai Weiwei exhibits in the building was With Wind, a traditional Chinese dragon kite with quotations from activists who have been imprisoned or exiled, including Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden.

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Another exhibit in the lower gun gallery was Refraction, a bit hard to see through the small windows but gorgeous – an enormous metal wing made from Tibetan solar cookers.
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We exited the New Industries Building and continued up the steep hill towards the cell house where we lined up through the original shower room, one of the most dangerous rooms in the prison, to get our audio guides.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe audio guide provided with our entry fee was absolutely essential to the whole experience. It was narrated by four former correctional officers and four former prisoners who told stories of their time on the island while guiding you through the building. The sound effects made it feel absolutely real and hearing the stories from the men who lived through it sent chills down my spine.

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While we were there we were lucky enough to witness one of the park rangers demonstrate how the cell door closing mechanism worked. You could close anywhere from a single door to every single one on a row and hearing 20 or so steel doors slam shut at once was haunting.

When we were back on the mainland we started looking for a tour company that would take us to Muir Woods, but every place we checked was closed. Around the corner from one of the closed offices was a car rental place and we decided that was our next best alternative that would let us see even more of the area. Pit stop #1 was Fort Hood, a great place for a photo op of the world famous Golden Gate Bridge.

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I have to say that driving over the Golden Gate with the convertible top down was both a major highlight and majorly touristy, but sometimes you just gotta give in! The drive out to Muir Woods was as picturesque as it could get and the closer we got the more twisty and turny the road became, Jeff’s favourite.

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We took a mixture of some of the easier trails, criss-crossing over bridges before hitting Cathedral Grove and looping back. You know how you see pictures in National Geographic or read about something online and you worried you’re going to be disappointed when you see it in person? This was NOT one of those times. “Majestic” truly seems like the only accurate word to describe redwoods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wish we had had more time on the trails, it would have been awesome to do one of the more challenging ones, like the Ocean View Trail. But time was not on our side and after two hours in this magical forest it was time to head back South.

On re-entering San Fran we still had a bit of time on the rental so I quickly looked up a couple famous landmarks, the Fullhouse house, the Mrs Doubtfire house and the Painted Ladies…all of which we successfully spied on.

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We returned the rental car and as our last stop of the day we took all our quarters and blew them on vintage games at the Musée Mécanique, one of the world’s largest privately owned collection of coin-operated machines that you’re allowed and encouraged to play with!

{video courtesy of Musée Mécanique}

Jeff got his butt kicked by a strength tester, only for him to turn around and kick my butt at the original Pong game (so much harder than it looks!). I got my fortune read by a frightening robotic Grandmother and my little tin boxer was knocked out cold. Jeff got a blast from the past playing San Francisco Rush (so meta) and I happily used the last of my quarters to feed my Indiana Jones pinpall addiction.

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A Bit of History

Day 7 – January 31, 2015
Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii
Aloha Kauai Courtyard

On our last full day we decided to check out the Kauai Museum. It’s a small museum that is absolutely jam packed with artifacts and info about the islands past, present and future.

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There were sections on the original indigenous people of Hawaii, the missionaries that came, the sugar cane industry, the wildlife, the role of Hawaii during WWII and more, it was hard to keep it all straight!

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Right in the lobby there was a lovely gentleman demonstrating how to hand tie a fishing net.

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We spent a few hours at the museum and learnt so much. We probably could have spent even longer but I get museum fatigue after a couple hours and needed a beach break.

On our very first night we watched the sun set at Salt Pond Beach Park so we thought it was only fitting to return and watch the sun set on our last night. Kauai has been absolutely lovely. It’s hard for me to do a “relaxing vacation” but I’ve done my best and this little island has treated us very well.

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Mahaulepu Beach

Day 6 – January 30, 2015
Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii
Aloha Kauai Courtyard

Yesterday, our kayak guide recommended an isolated beach on the south shore called Mahaulepu. The directions we were given were along the lines of, “drive until the paved road ends and it looks like you aren’t supposed to be there. Then keep going.” To get there we had to drive through private property on an old sugar cane road that was better suited to a Jeep than our Mustang rental car. The dirt road was really beat up, with 6″ deep potholes and large stones sticking up randomly. It was a bumpy ride and we weaved back and forth across the road to avoid the worst of it, sometimes brushing up against the trees and bushes that lined the road.

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When we got to the end of the road and what we guessed was the “parking lot” for the beach we surveyed the damage and momentarily freaked out. But luckily the scratches were just dust and washed off easily.

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Mahaulepu Beach is one of the beaches from the movies that you can’t possibly think exists in real life. The water is too blue, the cliffs are too dramatic, the sand is too soft…it was the perfect place to spend the day. Lucky for us the water was pretty calm because there is no lifeguard post at this beach. There are also no washrooms and no snack bar, so plan your day accordingly.

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There’s a hiking trail that runs along the cliffs that we explored at a leisurely pace in the afternoon. It takes you across cliffs and around blowholes, over lava tubes and continued further up the coast than we were willing to go. This trail is more of less unmarked and there are no safety barriers along the cliffs, which are made from brittle lava rock so hike at your risk and bring lots of water.

January is part of whale season on Kauai and from the top of a cliff we watched dozens of whales jumping and spouting in the distance. When the sun got too hot we turned around and headed back. The scenery was absolutely awesome and I totally get why they call Kauai the “garden isle.”

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