Victoria, Victoria

The waterfront city of Victoria (population 86,000 in the city proper) is the capital of British Columbia and sits on Vancouver Island, about 30 miles south of Vancouver city across the Strait of Georgia.  I mention the distinction since most Americans can barely find Canada on a map, and a large majority in a recent survey identified Argentina as “a kind of dessert.”

It’s a gorgeous 1 1/2 hour ferry ride across the strait, threading among dozens of verdant islands, each a few miles across, most nearly uninhabited. The terminus is Swartz Bay near the resort town of Sidney, where our old friends Larry and Jean met us.

Victoria is a cheerful seaside town whose ambiance is a genial hybrid of British government colony and American seaside resort, the former generally classing up the latter. The waterfront area is overlooked by assorted government buildings sporting ornate Victorian architecture, but the piers themselves are dotted by both fishing and pleasure boats of various sizes — including lots of open-air whale watching boats — as well as street artists and restaurants. Seaplanes buzz surrealistically back and forth overhead and land and takeoff theatrically in the middle of all the port activity. (We watched one seaplane have to taxi out of the way of the departing Seattle ferry.)

A mile or so further up the coast is Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a whole lot smaller but rather more charming than the identically named tourist trap mecca in San Francisco. It sports a number of floating restaurants, including the heavenly-anointed Barb’s Fish and Chips, which serves that and little else, and rightly so.

Fisherman’s Wharf’s most unusual feature is its houseboats, which are not what you think of when you see the word. I think of a houseboat as a boat that has been retrofitted into house-like living quarters; these, however, look more like houses that have been retrofitted to float, e.g.:

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“Honey, the roof and the floor are both leaking again.”

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Most are two stories tall as you can see, and they vary somewhat in floor area but ~900 square feet (~ 81 sq m) is pretty typical. You can pick one up for roughly US$350,000. The property taxes are very low, there not being any actual land underneath them, but be prepared to shell out six or seven thousand dollars a year in moorage fees (yes, really), plus an unknown amount for seasickness tablets. And for God’s sake don’t try and install a man cave in the basement.

Another lively Victoria neighborhood is (inevitably) Chinatown, the oldest one in Canada. Like every other Chinatown in western North America, it dates from the mid-19th century Gold Rush.

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In addition to the expected panoply of Chinese restaurants, temples, produce stores, and souvenir shops, Victoria’s Chinatown boasts a number New Age-y innovative art galleries and non-Chinese restaurants in a maze of hip-looking side streets like this one.

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Larry and I got very excited when one of these — a chocolate and sweets store — trumpeted “Creamsicles” on the advertising blackboard in front of the store. This was very exciting because Creamsicles were treasured icons of our childhood: a Popsicle-like ice cream bar consisting of highly artificial and suspect vanilla ice cream coated in a shell of some kind of petrochemical-based orange sherbet. They were wonderful (and may even still exist), so we skipped happily through the door.

But alas. This sweets shop was far too progressive for our childhood tastes. The beloved additive-laced artificial-everything treat from our boyhood had in this particular establishment been replaced by a politically-correct adjective-laden impostor: vegan, fair trade, non-GMO, artisanal. We didn’t have time to take the sensitivity and diversity training courses that were required to actually eat the things — plus they were made sacrilegiously with coconut instead of vanilla ice cream — so we went Full Curmudgeon and left. (Now get those damn kids of my lawn!)

This being an island, another important feature of Victoria is of course the beach. Views from the coast are all striking: deep blue water, crystalline sky, and — on the eastern-facing coast — the Olympic  Mountains lining the horizon, some 40 miles away.

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(This photo was taken yesterday; the sky was cloudless today.) The beach itself is not the white sand strand of, say, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, being more pebbly than sandy and heavily strewn with bleached driftwood.

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The ubiquity of driftwood — and the impossibility of building sand castles — does not deter the locals (and countless vacationing mainland Canadians) from sunning themselves, jogging, and doing all the usual beach stuff. This does not include a lot of swimming, though: the water temperature is a blue-lipped 53 F (12 C).

But we were here to stroll, not swim, and it was a beautiful sunny day. So I’ll close with a shot of my own personal total solar eclipse, four days early thanks to a gentleman on the earthbound end of about four very impressive kites.

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Running for Vancouver

We were in Vancouver, British Columbia for all of half a day before continuing on to Victoria to stay with friends, but even a whirlwind 4-hour city tour is enough to whet our appetite for the place. Vancouver is ranked as the 4th most livable city in the world (“Hey! Let’s move here!”)… accompanied by the 6th most expensive real estate in the world (“Hey, Let’s each sell a kidney and move here!”). So there went that fantasy in a hurry. Still, it’s a gorgeous, diverse, and generally interesting place.

Vancouver BC 2017-003-EditI shot the cityscape above looking across Coal Harbour from Stanley Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. It’s named after Lord Frederick Stanley of Preston, Canada’s first Governor General and the man after whom professional hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. (His lordship would not be pleased to know that it has been 25 years since a Canadian team actually won his eponymous cup.)

Stanley Park includes an aquarium, horse-drawn carriage tours, bike paths, and similar idyllic activities, none of which we had time for on our flash tour. It also boasts a pretty cool collection of nine totem poles, carved out of red cedar by artisans of several indigenous tribes (known in Canada as the First Nations) whose territory included this area. The totem-makers’ tribes include the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth, which I include because the names are cool to type and make me sound erudite. Here are a couple of examples from the park.

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In addition to Stanley Park, one of Vancouver’s other iconic locales is the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects the city proper to the mountainous area to the north. You can see the bridge for many vantage points around the city, but this one, near the north end of Stanley Park, gives a good sense of the stunning local geography. You can see the bridge on the right.

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As you look out over the bay, the sky is occasionally crisscrossed not only by the usual big jets, but but by small seaplanes ferrying passengers to Victoria (to the west), Seattle (to the south), and Whistler ski resort to the north.

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Vancouver is very much a city of neighborhoods, which include the original part of the city (Gastown, now a trendy, restaurant-rich area) and an extensive Chinatown, second only in size to San Francisco’s in the Western Hemisphere.  One could actually make a case that the entire city is Chinatown: due in part to a large influx of Chinese after the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, nearly 30% of the 2.3 million population of greater Vancouver is ethnic Chinese. (If you include South Asian as well, e.g., Indian and Pakistani, the fraction goes up to 40%.) The suburb of Richmond, where the airport resides, is so heavily Chinese that almost all of the business signage is in both English and Chinese; as the airport shuttle took us to our hotel, I briefly wondered if we had been diverted to Hong Kong.

Sadly, among all this demographic tumult, only about 2% of the population is First Nation. Such is the way of the world, it seems.

Another trendy neighborhood is Granville Island, a former industrial area that has been hipsterized and gentrified till it begs for mercy, much like similar harbor areas in Baltimore, Cleveland, Capetown, and I suppose lots of other places as well. It was a fishing area for the First Nations but in the early 20th century became a factory area: machine shops, corrugated tin manufacturing, and other non-Starbucks businesses. Today the only remnant of that era is an appropriately — and literally — gritty cement factory immediately adjacent to all the shops, art galleries, and so forth.

Vancouver BC 2017-050But notice those cement silos to the left of the tower. They’ve gotten into the local artistic swing of things too:

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The local cafés and shops operate literally in the shadow of the Granville Street Bridge, giving the area an unmistakable but pleasant Urban Hipster Tourists Welcome vibe.

Vancouver BC 2017-056My snark notwithstanding, it’s a fun place, with a large indoor farmer’s market whose outdoor seating area is adjacent to the False Creek canal, bustling with colorful “Aquabus” water taxis.

Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, a 553 ft (169 m) tower and rotating restaurant that affords a 360° view of the city with its impressive mountain vistas. (The white tent-like structure in the panorama below is the cruise ship terminal. The fan-like white pattern at lower right is the heliport.)

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So there are our four hours in Vancouver. On to Victoria!

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Sons at the Beach

For about the past 30 years, my family has enjoyed a reunion week at the beach. The gathering has near-religious significance; we didn’t even miss the year my father died. It’s very gratifying to watch the family grow over the years — we’re up to four generations now — and since this year is Alice’s and my 20th wedding anniversary we splurged on a more elaborate setting, an 11-bedroom house right on the dunes at Virginia Beach. Here is our temporary Gatsby-esque mansion:

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How did this whole vacation-at-the-beach thing start, anyway? (I mean the whole cultural concept, not just my family.) Turns out it’s mostly a phenomenon of the past couple of hundred years. Although there are records of elite ancient Romans taking the waters at the coast, the historical reputation of the ocean was traditionally a little dark and intimidating: mariners lost at sea, biblical Jonah-eating whales, and so forth.  Plus, for most of recorded history, outside of Polynesia the hoi polloi were too busy starving and/or dying of the pestilence du jour to do a lot of vacation planning or practice body surfing.

But when it comes to not fearing the sea, it’s hard to beat the Dutch — they’ve basically fought it to a standstill for the last several centuries — and it was Dutch landscape artists of the early 17th century whose pastoral seaside imagery started establishing the beach as an attractive place to visit.

Things really stated rolling in 1778 when French nobleman and chemist Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen. Yes, really. Assorted hucksters and promoters of the day seized on the discovery: oxygen is good for you! And the sea air has more and better oxygen than whatever hovel you’re occupying at home, so come to the beach! Oddly enough, there was some truth to this, the Industrial Revolution having recently taken hold, and the air quality in cities like London ranking somewhere between “toxic” and “carbonaceous solid”.

So here we are. Virginia Beach is officially the largest city in Virginia, with a population of about a half a million, but it has grown largely by accretion, having absorbed a number smaller seaside suburbs. There is a downtown resort area with a big boardwalk, but we are a little farther down the coast in an area called Sandbridge, on the northern end of an enormous barrier island that extends southward for roughly 150 miles (250 km) down through North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The Guinness people cite it as the longest pleasure beach on the planet.

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Barrier islands, as you probably know, are threatened by the rising oceans, “threatened” in this case being the reassuring first cousin of the more accurate “doomed”. They are designed by nature to be ephemeral: sand and silt accumulate on the inland side as the ocean washes away the shoreline, causing them to migrate inland and merge with the mainland as the tide creates replacement islands further out to sea. Beach houses are not so mobile, however, so every property owner is fighting what must ultimately be a losing battle against flooding.

A related problem, of course, are storms. Virginia Beach is extremely lucky in that regard, being generally far enough north to be mostly out of reach of the tropical-forming hurricanes, and too far south to be touched by northern storms. So it is in a meteorological “Goldilocks zone”, being jusssst in the right place to perpetually avoid being blown away. (The rising seas will still get it in the end, though.)

Our weather this week has been mostly good, if a little windy on the beach. That can be good news if you’re flying a suitably heavy kite.

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We’ve also had one or two ominous looking days, which if nothing else make for nice dramatic photos… black and white of course.

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Round and Round We Go

First off, a hearty welcome to the nearly 200 (!) of you who started following this blog in the past few days. WordPress picked up my Finger Lakes post about waterfalls in Watkins Glen, NY as one of their “Discover” favorites (see the cute little medallion at right), whereupon my email inbox immediately exploded with hundreds of views, “likes”, comments, and subscriptions from an astounding 41 countries. The power of the Web! But now I feel obliged to feed the proverbial beast with a new post.

If I had been alive in about 1890, I might have had the insight that people would pay money to get a panoramic birds-eye view of their surroundings. And so I would have built an open-frame tower with some kind of elevator-like platform. People would buy a ticket and I would hoist them up and down maybe a half dozen times. Maybe I’d called it “Rich’s Tower”.

One day, a guy named George Ferris might come along, ride up and down a few times, then come up to me and say, “You know what, Rich? You’ve got the right idea but you are a moron.” Then he’d punch me in the nose and go invent the Ferris wheel.

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Well, the last four words of that tale are basically true. George Washington Ferris , Jr. (1859-1896) did in fact invent the modern version of the Ferris wheel, building a 264 ft (80.4 m) iron behemoth for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. He was motivated by wanting to “out-Eiffel” Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower (which is much taller) had opened in Paris four years earlier. Ferris’s original wheel could carry over 2100 people at a time.

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So-called “pleasure wheels” had actually been around for centuries, made mostly of wood and usually quite small by modern standards. Ferris’s contribution was an all-iron design and construction — particularly the central axle — that could support much more weight and thus be made much bigger. Here’s a view of a contemporary bit of Ferris’s handiwork, the hub of the 180 ft (54 m) “Capital Wheel” just outside Washington DC. (All of the photos in this post are from that wheel, which is about a half hour drive from our home.)

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Ferris’s name is thus famous throughout the English-speaking world, entirely because of its association with his wheel. But most other countries have left him out of the nomenclatural picture: in most languages, the object is simply called the equivalent of “giant wheel”, or something similar. One of the exceptions is Spanish, in which it is a rueda de ferris. But as for most of the others, see for yourself:

  • Dutch/German:        Reuzenrad/Riesenrad
  • French:                      Grand roue
  • Italian:                       Ruota panoramica
  • Russian:                     колесо обозрения (koleso obozreniya, “overview wheel”)
  • Japanese:                   観覧車 (kanran-sha, “viewing wheel”)

…and so on. But my favorite is definitely Farsi, in which it is چرخ فلک, pronounced charkhe-falak. It means “wheel of the universe”, which I find very poetic. (Shout-out to my friend Mo K for telling me this!)

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The name notwithstanding, the world seems to be engaged in some kind of Ferris wheel arms race to see who can build the biggest one. The famous London Eye, built for the Y2K millennium celebrations in 1999, was a wonder of the world at the time, 443 ft (135 m) high, but has since been eclipsed by 476 ft (145 m)  and 525 ft (160 m) ones in China and a 541 ft (165 m) giant in Singapore. But this is America, dammit, and if we’re going to Make America Great Again we need the biggest Ferris wheel on the planet. Which is why the tallest in the world at this moment, at a stratospheric 550 ft (167.6 m), is in… Las Vegas! It is called the High Roller, which I must grudgingly admit is extremely clever. But there’s an even taller one being planned for New York City.

Of course, the world being what it is, this won’t last. As I type this, the oil-rich sheikhs in the Middle East are with characteristic understatement constructing the Dubai Eye, which will give a panoramic view of sand — lots and lots of sand — from a dizzying 690 ft (210 m) height.

Alice and I are Ferris wheel fans, though not obsessively so. We’ve been on a few famous ones, e.g., in Vienna (which has appeared in a number of movies), Santa Monica, and Capetown. As it happens we will be in London in late September and will certainly ride on the Eye. So I will close with this shot from the Capital Wheel, in which a (literally) reflective Alice surveys her domain from on high.

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Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

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Pretty cool, huh?

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Finger Lake-in’ Good

In case you happen not to be familiar with the geography of New York State, the central region of the state — north of Pennsylvania and southeast of Lake Erie — is dominated by the scenic and aptly-named Finger Lakes region. It’s called that because, um, well, look at the map:

There are technically 12 Finger Lakes, but the “big four” are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. Those intimidating-looking names are from the Iroquois language, the Iroquois having populated the region well before we did. The lakes themselves were carved by the retreating glaciers a mere 20,000 or so years ago. They’re all long, skinny, and very deep, as much as 600 ft (180 m) in places. They’re also cold and silty — fine for boating, not so much for swimming or diving. (One of my college friends actually learned to scuba dive there. The water was so opaque that he never saw a thing, including his own hands.) But the entire region is extraordinarily scenic.

The region is dear to my heart because everything about it hearkens back to my long-receded youth: I went to college here, at Cornell University in Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake.  So it seemed a natural destination when we were discussing a joint getaway weekend destination with our friends and occasional traveling companions Laura and David.

Thing is, this is wine country. There are over 100 wineries in the region, which is great if you like wine, which I do not. So it was pretty clear that I was going to be the permanent designated driver on this trip, which I do not mind.

Wineries and quaintness always seem to go hand in hand for some reason; vineyards somehow make otherwise economically depressed areas seem attractive. The Finger Lakes are no exception. We are staying at a B&B in the town of Geneva, a small lakefront town at the top of Lake Seneca, whose downtown is graced by 1940’s building facades and Gothic churches and which is otherwise ringed by spectacular venerable estate homes on the water. The B&B itself, look many such establishments, has a picket-fence, overstuffed-furniture wholesomeness to it, as you can tell just by looking at the front.

It’s a very pleasant inn, the kind of place whose room decor includes this:

And there are of course wreaths. If you live within a block of a B&B you apparently must have a wreath on your door.

But back to the wineries. Visiting all 100+ was not a practical option, but our B&B host kindly presented us with free tasting coupons for several nearby ones. David handed me the car keys, and off we went.  As we approached our first destination (out of what would eventually be five), Laura expounded a very profound insight: “You know you’re at a winery when there’s a chandelier in the barn.” True dat.

The day consisted of a great deal of sloshing, spitting, and pronouncing. (“Too acidic.” “Notes of oak, cinnamon, cat dander, and feldspar.” “Hey! This is Diet Coke!”) They tasted, I photographed (and drove), we all admired the scenery.

Now here is today’s riddle for you: what do wineries and the Special Olympics have in common? Answer: everybody gets medals. There is not a winery on the planet — or at least not in the Finger Lakes — that does not boast a slew of awards of mysterious provenance. The Governor’s Cup. The Decanter Awards. The Chardonnay Showdown. La Mouffete d’Or. Whatever. Here’s a set won by a local winery that you’ve probably never heard of.

No matter… I don’t drink the stuff anyway, and everyone had a good time. It was crystalline sunny day, about 80F, when the area is at its most beautiful. Tomorrow we will visit some spectacular local waterfalls, our admiration doubtless punctuated with more wine.

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Last Day on Kauai

A week ago I promised a photo of our AirBnB on Kauai, the aptly-named Asia House. Here are two:

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Our room was off the hall through the doorway left of center in the picture.

Our last day in Princeville was a beautiful one, sunny and warm, and so we undertook the somewhat precarious hike down the hillside to Queen’s Bath, popular local swimming hole. (And I use that term literally, as you’ll see in a moment.) When I say that the hike was precarious, I am paraphrasing the local authorities, who are little more emphatic as evidenced by this sign at the trailhead.

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The path down was muddy, rocky, root-tangled, and generally difficult, but the view at the destination was hard to beat:

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The Queen’s Bath itself is an idyllic natural tide pool adjacent to the above scene. We were lucky to be there at low tide on a relatively calm day, and so the dire warnings on the trailhead sign were somewhat less applicable than usual.

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The pool is seven or eight feet deep and attracts a lot of families on nice days (of which this was one). Waves occasionally crashed over the left side, injecting the pool with white sea foam that made it look like some kind of giant tropical soft drink. It’s pretty easy to see how on a rough day the pool and surrounding rock shelf could be incredibly hazardous: there’s a nearby hand-carved sign with etched tick marks indicating the number of drownings (29 so far over the past few decades). But it was heavenly yesterday.

A storm moved in last night. We left Kauai this morning under heavily overcast skies and landed a half hour later in Honolulu in the middle of a downpour. The weather is supposed to stay bad for another day or two, but no matter… we’re here primarily to visit our old friends. Then it’s off to Arizona before heading home.

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Whales, Kayaking, a Lighthouse, and Stuff

Kind of a grab bag of topics since I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been tired in the evenings: there is a haze of “vog” (volcanic fog) on the island — it having made its way 500 km to Kauai all the way from the Big Island — which has given me a minor but enervating cough. But there is nonetheless lots to tell, and I want to get it down before we leave tomorrow for the penultimate leg of this trip, three days in Honolulu with our old friends Laura and Brian. (That will be followed by four days in Scottsdale, Arizona on our way home.)

At home we are avid if not particularly ambitious kayakers, and since Kauai is the only one of the Hawaiian islands with navigable rivers — six of them, supposedly — it seemed reasonable to find a riverside kayak rental outfit. Such a place existed, quite close to us in fact, and so we spent a pleasant three hours kayaking on the Hanalei River, beginning about a mile from Hanalei Bay and working our way upstream to a nature reserve a few miles away.

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The experience was, as I remarked in a Facebook post, just like kayaking at home except for the palm trees, the hibiscus blossoms floating on the water, and the whole laid-back tropical gestalt of it all. We did not see a lot of animal life in the nature reserve — a few fish, some turtles, a few egrets — but gliding among the palms and pandanus trees and spotting modest mini-waterfalls along the banks gave the whole experience a pleasantly dreamy ambience.

A few miles down the road from our house, east of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse perches on a dramatic promontory, overseeing a violent surf and a hillside heavily dotted with red-footed boobies. Here’s the scene:

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If the lighting looks a little unusual in this picture it is because it is actually a nighttime scene, a twelve-minute time exposure taken by moonlight… hence the creamy, blurred-looking surf. But back to the birds. The red-footed boobies, thousands of them, look like white confetti on the far hillside, but close up resemble ungainly seagulls with enormous red feet and blue bills. You can see them as white dots at upper right in the shot below. (You can also see that you would not want to swim here.) We have seen their more famous cousins, the blue-footed boobies, in the Galapagos.

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The lighthouse’s location is quite the quite the focus for local wildlife. There were some nenes (Hawaii’s state bird) walking around the parking lot, a pod of whales cavorting offshore, and the occasional Laysan albatross — an endangered species — gliding by on what could be a several thousand mile journey. They breed in Hawaii but may travel as far as Japan or the west coast of North America to feed. Here’s one that we saw:

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When we returned from the lighthouse our AirBnB hosts invited us to attend a bonfire and barbecue on the beach at Hanalei Bay at sunset that evening, a practice they happily indulge in every Friday night. We went, enjoying the sunset over the waves and silhouetted mountains along with about four other couples, all with interesting backgrounds. (You kind of have to have an interesting background if you’re living here.)

The next day (yesterday, Saturday Feb 4) was our opportunity to complete the geographical trifecta, as the day dawned clear and we got to see the Na Pali coast from the sea. (We had already seen it from the hiking trail lookout and via helicopter.) Our tour operator, Na Pali Riders, were quite the cowboys, leading about 20 of us into what was essentially a large Zodiac, a rubberized pontoon boat right at the water level, powered by twin 250 HP motors. That thing could move, and with the trade winds coming up and the surf high, the ride was anything but smooth. How bone-shatteringly bumpy was it? Well, in addition to a rope handhold running along the edge — and you sit on the edge — there was a rope foothold around the perimeter of the floor. You keep one foot slid underneath it to keep you from bouncing backwards into your own personal whale-watching adventure.

Speaking of which, en route to Na Pali we first encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins, maybe 100 in number all told, to set the stage for the excitement that would follow. Here are a few of them:

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(My photos from this boat trip, by the way, were taken with our “backup camera”, a nice waterproof point-and-shoot, since I did want to risk my nice SLR and expensive lenses ending up photographing the cetaceans from underneath. Picture quality is not as high, but the thing is indestructible, which is a big plus in this environment.)

Anyway, whales. We got lucky: we encountered a number of them, most thrillingly a mother and a juvenile. The latter was only a few weeks or a month old, “only” 10 ft long or so and just learning to breach:

na-pali-whales-kauai-021That’s Mom’s pectoral fin on the right, the baby breaching on the left. Notice that baby is flopping over on his back: that’s how whales actually do it. So here are two more shots, ’cause you can never have too many whales.

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The whales were clustered near the southwest corner of the island, a little south of Na Pali itself. So we motored up the coast to catch these striking scenes, which I promise will be the last ones I show you of Na Pali.

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We’ve already had the Jurassic Park discussion, but if it all looks a little “Skull Island”-ish to you, there’s a good reason for that too: the 1979 remake of King Kong was filmed here.

In addition to these A-list destinations, Kauai has its share of minor touristic oddities as well. We hit a couple of them on the way back from our Na Pali expedition. They include salt evaporation ponds, which are basically very shallow artificial lake beds next to the sea. Just add water and wait, and voila! Sea salt! (Add pink food coloring and you can pretend it’s from the Himalayas, a designation about which I have always been deeply suspicious.)

But probably the surrealistic best of the B-list sights is the “Russian Fort”, which we visited briefly. Very briefly. Still, its history is so weird that it is worth relating.

Kamehameha I unified the islands under his monarchy in 1810, but unsurprisingly not everybody got with the program immediately. Chief among these (hah! get it?) was Kaumuali’i, who ruled Kauai and much preferred doing his own thing. This included seizing a cargo ship belonging to the  Russian-American Trading Company in 1815. The Russians were none too pleased at this and dispatched an agent, a German physician named Georg Schäffer, to free the goods.

Schäffer figured his best play was to befriend Kamehameha and then convince the latter to pressure Kaumuali’i. The befriending part worked OK… the pressuring part, not so much; Kamehameha didn’t see much upside to antagonizing his disgruntled underling on behalf of a guy who looked like the Wizard of Oz. So Schäffer went straight to Kaumuali’i, who promptly conned him. Kaumuali’i convinced Schäffer that if the Russians would build a fort, they could seize the entire island chain from Kamehameha. Schäffer promised the Tsar’s support, and had the fort built.  Then things went predictably sideways: (1) upon learning of all this the Tsar said, “WTF?”; and (2) what Kaumuali’i was really planning, of course, was to take the islands for himself (“We don’ need no steenkin’ Russians!”). So the whole endeavor collapsed, Kamehameha’s supporters took over the fort, and after a halfhearted attempt to retake it several years later, Kaumuali’i’s guys threw in the towel. The place was abandoned in 1853 after decades of proudly defending Kauai against, well, nothing. Today it’s a rock wall about shoulder-high (about 1/4 of its original height), tracing out a rough octagon a few hundred feet across. We were positively rapt for about 3 seconds.

I never did learn what was on those cargo ships, but in the interest of adding some irony to the whole bizarre tale I like to imagine that it turned out to be something of absolutely no use to the Hawaiians. Fur-lined mittens and frostbite ointment, say. You can think of your own.

Today was our last day on Kauai. The weather was beautiful, and so we made the precarious hike down to Queen’s Bath on the coast. I’ll post some photos of that in a few days. But for now, on to Honolulu.

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Kauai from the Skai…er…Sky

Yesterday was Helicopter Day for us, that means of transportation being far and away the best way to get a real sense of the geography and vegetation of Kauai.

We woke up with the chickens. I do not mean by this that we woke up early; I mean we literally woke up with the chickens. There are *&%^$# chickens — that is pronounced “frickin’ chickens” — absolutely everywhere on Kauai: on the roads, on the sidewalks, on the golf courses, underfoot. Today we had lunch at an outdoor food court where, for very good reason, there was a sign posted that said “Please Do Not Feed The Chickens”. I have no idea why, but the island is plain crawling with chickens. (Hmm. Somehow “crawling” doesn’t seem like the right word when discussing chickens. But “scratching with chickens” doesn’t sound right.) The consequence of all this is that there are three constant sounds that form the backdrop of life on Kauai: the surf crashing (dramatic!), the suserration of the wind in the palm trees (soothing!), and the ubiquitous roosters crowing (um…).

We made the 50 minute drive to Lihue airport, received a safety briefing, and entered a helo with four other passengers. The bird had bulbous windows in order to accommodate photography and a more panoramic view, at the expense of all sorts of inconvenient reflections and glare. (Fifteen years ago we took a similar helo tour in a ‘copter with no doors, which affords a spectacularly ideal view for the non-nervous.)

We made a clockwise circuit of the island, passing over the coastal plains; hovering next to stratospherically-high thread-thin waterfalls; banking through green valleys and Waimea Canyon (about which more shortly); and surveying the dramatic Na Pali coast. (Na Pali simply means “the cliffs”, by the way.) Here are some shots:

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Eastern coastal plain, looking west towards the interior

 

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One of six zillion waterfalls

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Na Pali, Kauai’s signature vista

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Looking east towards fabled Hanalei Bay. Our B&B is on the north shore (leftmost point) of the peninsula.

The flight took a little under an hour. The sights along the way included some of the venues where “Jurassic Park” was filmed.

After leaving the airport we continued on our own clockwise tour of the island, the first stop being Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s second most well-known geological feature. It is in the interior, accessible by a very winding 18 mile (30 km) road to a lookout point. The canyon itself is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 ft (900 m) deep, strikingly reminiscent of a scale model of the Grand Canyon, thus:

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Though very much younger than the Grand Canyon, it was formed by a similar erosive process. In the Grand Canyon’s case, that would be the Colorado River; Waimea Canyon was formed by rain runoff from 5000′ Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest peak on the island and purportedly the rainiest spot on the planet. Mt. Waialeale averages roughly 14″ (35 cm) of rain per day. You do not want to plan a picnic on Mt. Waialeale.

For our demographic there is little to do here except gawk at the declivity from the lookout point and take a bunch of pictures. It is true that there are bicycle tours that zoom down the side of the canyon, which is also threaded by hiking trails. I could plausibly claim that 35 years ago these are activities that we might have ambitiously undertaken. But I visited here 35 years ago and didn’t want to do it then either, so just enjoy the view. (Which, by the way, nicely illustrates the characteristic colors of Kauai: the iron-rich orange soil and red sedimentary stripes on the formations, dotted with emerald green vegetation.)

We snaked back down the mountain and continued our clockwise course until the road petered out altogether near Polihale State Park, at the westernmost point of the island. The beach there is spectacular: an endlessly long, broad, and flat expanse of coarse pale orange sand, terminating at the Na Pali cliffs a few miles to the north. On calm days, the water is so clear that you can see the sand being sucked up off the bottom by gentle waves as the rollers come close to shore. But that is not a sight for winter, when the surf is ceaselessly punishing.

The main problem with Polihale is getting there, since the last 4 miles of the road isn’t a road at all, but rather a spine-jangling washboard surface of packed dirt and small craters. You are not allowed to take rental cars there, and certainly not our rented Nissan Versa, which appears to be made out of aluminum foil. So I would like to state for the record that we were transported by a giant eagle, like Gandalf in “The Hobbit”.

Since this is the westernmost point of Kauai, it affords the best vantage point to glimpse the last major island in the Hawaiian chain: the “forbidden island” of Niihau, 17 miles (28 km) away. If the nickname sounds a tad melodramatic to you, here is what it looked like yesterday:

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Yep, looks forbidden to me all right.

But the reason Niihau is called “forbidden” is not because the ancient gods will smite you if you land there, the above photo notwithstanding. No, you will be smitten by the lawyers from the Robinson family, a venerable clan of major Kauai landowners who own Niihau outright and maintain it as a preserve of Hawaiian culture. The residents are of native Hawaiian blood — among the very few left — and the primary language of the island is Hawaiian. Tourism is by and large forbidden, though there are a small number of special permits issued. The Robinsons also have an arrangement with the Navy, which maintains a small unmanned facility there which they occasionally use for training exercises.

How did this come about? The answer, simply enough, is that in 1864 a wealthy woman named Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair flat-out bought the island from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. It passed down through the family and in 1915 her grandson Aubrey Robinson closed it off to visitors. Aubrey’s grandsons own the island today, along with significant swaths of Kauai itself.

I’ve mentioned Na Pali a number of times on this leg of the trip, not unreasonably because it is a genuinely extraordinary sight. We have so far seen it on foot during our hike two days ago, and yesterday by air. We were supposed to have completed the trifecta by taking a boat trip to it earlier this afternoon, but the excursion was canceled because we were the only people who signed up. We have rebooked it for Saturday, so stay tuned for yet more pictures of the place.

 

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