Palenque National Park, Mexico

Mayan ruins of the Yucatán Peninsula UNESCO sites

Palenque, Edzná, Uxmal, Kabah and Chichén Itzá

 Mayan ruins featured on our ‘must see’ list. My husband’s fascination for archaeology, the cradles of civilisation and UNESCO heritage listed sites were rekindled by our recent adventure in Greece, its ruins and antiquities. So when a visit to family in California eventuated, there was no question about including a trip to Mexico, this time to have a look at the Aztec and Mayan (*Mesoamerican) ruins, the latter being unearthed in areas from northern Mexico all the way down to Central America.

Eclipse Travel organised a very flexible itinerary, allowing us to start from Mexico City to journey all the way down to the Yucatán Peninsula, a combination of air and land travel. It was a great way to see Mexico’s diverse countryside. We were anticipating a stress free holiday but what we didn’t expect were the knowledgeable Mayan civilisation experts who would be our guides. They told us that in Mexico, it is a requirement for guides to study archaeology before they earn their certificates. We were thrilled that these ‘experts’ were going to share their knowledge with us. After all, at the heart of this adventure was to learn about the Mayan civilisation and what is left of it. This trip was all about a ‘close encounter’ with the ruins of Palenque, Edzná, Uxmal, Kabah and Chichén Itzá.

Reluctantly we left Mexico City for the state of Tabasco, where, Mina our guide and her driver met us at the airport of Villahermosa. We proceeded straight to Palenque situated in the state of Chiapas, about 141 kms and a 2-hour drive in the air-conditioned car.

The ruins that greeted us were a sight to behold and certainly worth the long trip. Set in a tropical jungle, Palenque although considered a medium sized site by archaeologists, was so exotic and fascinating. Despite the humidity, we somehow managed to climb the 200 plus steps of the Temple of the Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal the Great was discovered.

set in a tropical jungle- Palenque archaeological site

set in a tropical jungle- Palenque archaeological site

steep climb up to the top of the temple

steep climb up to the top of the temple

Temple of the Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal the Great was discovered.

Temple of the Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal the Great was discovered.

Temple of the Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal the Great was discovered.

The Mayan civilisation is noted for its writing system, the Mayan script, also known as Mayan glyphs or Mayan hieroglyphs. These glyphs adorned the pillars and walls of the temples, a defining feature of these shrines in Palenque. One of the interesting rooms shown to us was the chamber where Pacal meditated and where he was assisted and prepared to perform his blood letting (by piercing). Being the great leader, his potent blood offered to the gods was one of the reasons for his ‘being’. A lance made from the spiny stingray bones was used to pierce his tongue and other body parts including his genitalia (ouch!) He did so with the help of hallucinogens, a mixture of herbs and perhaps also a brew of ayuhuasca (a tropical vine of the Amazon region, noted for its hallucinogenic properties)

Pacal

Pacal

Glyphs

Glyphs

Palenque was once a city-state that dated from approximately 226BC to 779 AD and for various reasons the kingdom declined, the Mayan people dispersed and the city was abandoned. Mina said that it is false to assume that the Mayan people have disappeared because they haven’t. They have intermarried with other ethnic groups and have settled in various places in and around the Yucatán. We had our fill of the site, climbing, walking and going through the jungle like forest and fortunately 3 hours later (as my weary legs were about to give in), it was time to be taken to our hotel.

spring water in the jungle like forest of Palenque National Park

spring water in the jungle like forest of Palenque National Park

The hotel was another delightful surprise like the ruins. The boutique hotel Quinta Chanabnal, a lovely 8-suite hotel designed by the owner to look like a Mayan palace complex of the Classic period was totally unexpected. Set in a lush tropical garden, the pool and surrounds were a sight for sore eyes and had a very calming effect on hot and weary guests like us. We naturally enjoyed a dip in the pool before relaxing in the suite and then dinner at the hotel restaurant where the owner, an Italian- German who has a keen interest in glyphs graced us with his presence and shared his knowledge about the Mayan civilisation. He in fact designed the hotel as well as the glyphs on the walls that tell a story about him and his family life.

delightful surprise, the hotel Quinta Chanabnal Palenque

delightful surprise, the hotel Quinta Chanabnal Palenque

pool and lake in the garden of the hotel Quinta Chanabnal

pool and lake in the garden of the hotel Quinta Chanabnal

the 8 bedroom hotel is set in a lush tropical garden

the 8 bedroom hotel is set in a lush tropical garden

the hotel's reception and dinning area is decorated with glyphs created by the owner

the hotel’s reception and dinning area is decorated with glyphs created by the owner

The menu offered a variety of local and international dishes and what we had were just absolutely delicious. The staff were friendly and unobtrusive but much to my disappointment, they too spoke perfect English so there was not much chance for me to utilise my ‘passable Spanish’.

local Mayan food and international cuisine in the restaurant's menu

local Mayan food and international cuisine in the restaurant’s menu

We were warned that we might hear the cry of howler monkeys that inhabited the distant jungle trees. We did hear them but it wasn’t frightening and we slept like babies. Must have been all the walking and climbing that day.

Much to our regret, the next day, right after breakfast, we were picked up by Mina to proceed to our next destination. We were so enchanted by the hotel Quinta Chanabnal that leaving so soon was probably the only regret we had on this trip so far.

The long drive from Palenque to Isla Aguada in Campeche (about 3 and half hours travel time for the 285 kms distance) was very interesting because of the changing landscape and the little stalls selling food and craft that occasionally littered the side of the road. We were on the lookout for the stalls selling piñatas, specifically one with a Donald Trump head. My family in California heard a rumour that enterprising Mexicans were making them as souvenirs. So far, we didn’t see Donald’s piñata.

Fishermen and guides at Isla Iguada

Fishermen and guides at Isla Iguada

waiting for our boat at the Laguna de Terminal

waiting for our boat at the Laguna de Terminos

Isla Aguada is a fishing village and not an island. Our guide took us straight to muelle turístico (tourist dock) to catch the little fishing boat that would take us to Isla de Pájaros (Island of Birds) and to catch glimpses of dolphins, which in fact were gracefully jumping in and out of the water as our boat glided towards the island. We didn’t need to be on Isla de Pájaros to see the abundant birdlife. Even on the dock, we saw pelicans and gulls. The water was clear and lovely and in some of the mangrove trees we saw the frigate birds, noted for the mysterious phenomenon known in Jatinga, India of “committing suicide”. On arrival at Isla de Pájaros, we saw hundreds more of herons, frigates, pelicans and gulls.

abundant birdlife at Isla Pajaros

abundant birdlife at Isla Pajaros

The boat trip over, we proceeded to the ruins of Edzná, a drive that took about 2 and half hours from Isla Aguada and noticed that the land was progressively getting drier and not as lush as tropical Palenque we just left behind. Mina our guide told us that we would also perhaps notice a difference in the designs and style of architecture of temples between Palenque, Edzná and Uxmal.

On arrival at the archaeological ruins of Edzná, located north of Campeche, the building that immediately stood out was the Pirámide de los Cinco Pisos (Pyramid of the Five Storeys) in the great plaza. Our guide said that archaeologists think that the Itza Mayans may have influenced the ruins here, way before they settled south in Chichén Itzá also because the name Edzná comes from ‘House of the Itzaes’. The city was inhabited in 400 BC and abandoned around 1500 AD for reasons unknown. Although the hills of Puuc are not really close to Edzná, the style of architecture and some designs are attributed to the ‘Puuc style’.

Pirámide de los Cinco Pisos (Pyramid of the Five Storeys) Edzna

Pirámide de los Cinco Pisos (Pyramid of the Five Storeys) Edzna

difference in the designs and style of architecture of temples between Palenque and Edzná

difference in the designs and style of architecture of temples between Palenque and Edzná

Soon, it was time to drive down to the coastal and colonial town of Campeche, a drive that took about an hour (52 kms). Mina and our driver showed us around the quaint colonial port city of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico and its charming little streets and colourful houses. The old buildings and ‘colonial’ atmosphere within the walls of the fortress enchanted us no end. Campeche’s history is associated with the Spanish conquistadores who founded the city in 1540.

Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico and its charming little streets and colourful colonial houses

Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico and its charming little streets and colourful colonial houses

Unfortunately, it was soon time to say hasta luego (see you later) to Mina and driver who said they didn’t want to say adios because adios-goodbye sounds so final. We promised we would inform friends about the wonderful time we had with them and hope to encourage tourists to visit Mexico.

Casa Don Gustavo is a restored 18th century mansion

Casa Don Gustavo is a restored 18th century mansion

Our hotel, the Casa Don Gustavo is a restored 18th century mansion located in the heart of the historic centre of Campeche. It was a pretty awesome building with a lovely restaurant in the courtyard and where, after exploring the restaurant scene in the city centre in the early evening, we decided to return to the hotel to have our meal there with my obligatory apéritif cocktail of the classic Margarita. It was an indulgent way to end our tour taking in the wonders of Edzná and Campech

a 10 bedroom boutique hotel with a lovely restaurant in the courtyard

a 10 bedroom boutique hotel with a lovely restaurant in the courtyard

As it was in this ‘Icons of Mexico adventure’, all our guides didn’t muck around; they were never late, were efficient, very polite and good fun to be with. Promptly after breakfast, our next guide arrived to show us the Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. A very interesting man of Mayan, Lebanese and Mexican heritage, he was the quintessential Mayan ruin expert who had the same degree of enthusiasm as our two previous guides. He took us first to Kabah (south of the Uxmal ruins in the Puuc region in Yucatán) and then to Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered to be one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites. The trip from Campeche to Kabah was very comfortable even though it took us 3 hours to get there. As advised by Mina while with her at Edzna the day before, we duly took notice of the various designs and styles of the remnants of these buildings, distinct from those of Palenque. Of note in Kabah is the Palace of the Masks, named for the hundreds of stone masks of the long-nosed rain Mayan god Chaak in its façade. In this region, there are no rivers and water holes (cenotes) so rain was very important for the Mayan’s survival. It is believed that the lack of water was the main reason why the city was abandoned later on. Also among the ruins in Kabah are Temple of the Columns, the House of the Witch and the Arch of Kabah.

Palace of the Masks in Kabah

Palace of the Masks in Kabah

Puuc style architecture in the Kabah ruins

Puuc style architecture in the Kabah ruins

Pyramid of the Magician Uxmal

Pyramid of the Magician Uxmal

Uxmal means ‘thrice-built’ in Mayan, referring to the construction of the Pyramid of the Magician

Uxmal means ‘thrice-built’ in Mayan, referring to the construction of the Pyramid of the Magician

Uxmal ruins, which cover a larger area than Kabah show interesting examples of Puuc architecture influences. The very first ruin we encountered as we entered the site was The Pyramid of the Magician. What I remember most about this building is a charming legend associated to its name. It is said that on a dare, a dwarf boy was asked to build this pyramid in one evening and magically, he did. Also two structures that are highly visible are the Palace of the Governor considered to be one of the best examples of Puuc architecture discovered in the region and next to it is the Casa de las Tortugas (House of the Turtles) because of the frieze of turtles carved around its cornice. The legend also says that turtles prayed to the rain god for abundant rain because they suffered as much as the Mayans did during periods of drought. There was so much to explore and learn about this site but after a couple of hours and with the scorching mid- afternoon sun, it was really getting uncomfortable. Despite the semi-forest around the area, there wasn’t enough shade unlike ‘leafy Palenque’. A late lunch at the resort within walking distance from the site seemed like a good idea.

Casa de las Tortugas (House of the Turtles)

Casa de las Tortugas (House of the Turtles)

no cenotes in Uxmal and it was very dry

no cenotes in Uxmal and it was very dry

At Uxmal, iguanas everywhere

At Uxmal, iguanas everywhere

As soon as our lunch was over, our guide drove us to the town of Mérida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán and approximately 85 kms form Uxmal.

At Mérida, once again, we felt indulged upon checking in the boutique hotel chosen for us by Eclipse Travel. The Casa Lecanda is a mansion typical of Mérida’s golden age of the Sisal barons and was converted to a 7 bedroom intimate hotel while retaining its European ambience. The beautifully landscaped patio, pool and kitchen were, for me, the more interesting features of the hotel. Although centrally located within walking distance to the historic town centre the hotel was very quiet and the staff were solicitous.

exterior of the 7 bedroom boutique hotel Casa Lecanda in Mérida

exterior of the 7 bedroom boutique hotel Casa Lecanda in Mérida

patio leading to suites of the hotel

patio leading to suites of the hotel

gorgeous kitchen of the old mansion is still used

gorgeous kitchen of the old mansion is still used

pool in the courtyard

pool in the courtyard

That evening, we wandered around the town fascinated by the numerous old houses that looked abandoned, the town’s plaza and churches reminiscent of Old Spanish towns. We ended up having a meal at a courtyard full of different little stalls and restaurants for the ambience and also because right in the middle of the patio was a big TV screen with the Super bowl on show. Glad we chose to dine here as we had a great time with other tourists and witnessed the awesome Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots (American National Football League) magnificently turning their losing streak around to win his 5th Super Bowl ring. What a game! Needless to say, it was a fun night where we indulged in mojitos, chorizos and pizza topped with huitlacoche (Pronounced whee-tla-KO-cheh and is made from corn fungus).

dinner while watching Tom Brady do his magic

dinner while watching Tom Brady do his magic

We wanted an extra day in Mérida as we heard so much about this town from friends and the Eclipse Travel website. Wandering around the old city centre, it seemed that time stood still. Would Cuba look like this? We wondered. We felt as if we were in a time warp with the very old houses and buildings circa, 16th century, the public buses that looked like it came from a 1950’s catalogue and some big houses and mansions that would have looked grand during the city’s heyday but now somehow looked sad and abandoned.

in a time warp with the very old houses and buildings circa

in a time warp with the very old houses and buildings circa

very old bus

very old bus

houses that look abandoned

houses that look abandoned

Beyond exploring the structures around the Plaza Grande and the Catedral de San Ildefonso, which included the Casa de Montejo and the Palacio de Gobierno, we decided to see more of the city on a hop- on, hop – off bus, which went around the places of interest along the Paseo de Montejo lined this time with prettier colonial houses, some restored as hotels, restaurants or commercial buildings. That evening, we were tempted to try the Oliva Enoteca (Italian cuisine), highly recommended by our guide and only a few steps away from our hotel but since it was to be our last evening in the Yucatán region, we decided to have another meal of traditional Yucatán dishes. We went to El Pórtico del Peregrino for an alfresco meal at the restaurant’s courtyard and had the pollo pibil (chicken cooked with achiote paste, the spice that is commonly used in Yucatán dishes from the seeds of the annatto tree- and then wrapped in banana leaves).

the Casa de Montejo

the Casa de Montejo

Mérida- Centro

Mérida- Centro

Finally the last ruin to explore; we were picked up early, right after breakfast to join a small group of tourists and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Chichén Itzá, about 120 kms east from Mérida. (Chichén Itzá means “At the mouth of the well of the Itza”)

Much has been said about Chichén Itzá. Recently, Chichén Itzá was given the accolade of ‘one of the New 7 Wonders of the World’. This famous Mayan archaeological site receives a large number of visitors because of its accessibility and probably because it is the best restored Mayan ruin in the Yucatán peninsula. The complex was certainly the biggest we’ve seen with more buildings, such as the Temple of the Warriors, Temple of the Jaguars, the High Priest’s Temple, the Great Ballcourt and the Sacred Cenote (a natural well or waterhole that became the burial place of humans sacrificed during the Mayan days).

What was easily recognisable was the towering and imposing El Castillo step pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulcan (Kukulcan-the plumed Mayan serpent deity). Famous for its astronomic symbols, it speaks of the Mayan civilisation’s sophisticated understanding of the skies and the universe. The 4-sided pyramid has 365 steps representing the days of the year (91 steps on each side plus 1 on the very top makes 365), 52 panels for the weeks of the year as well as each Mayan year in the century and 18 terraces for the 18 moths of the Mayan religious year. Our guide pointed to the steps, which, according to him, during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rising and setting sun casts a shadow on the pyramid and a form in the outline of a serpent or snake (Kukulcan) is seen on these steps.

El Castillo step pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulcan,Chichén Itzá

El Castillo step pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulcan,Chichén Itzá

We walked around to admire this iconic symbol that showcased the prowess of the Mayan civilisation and my husband and I could actually see the shape of the serpent coming down the steps- shadow or no shadow! Unfortunately (or fortunately in our case as we didn’t think we could climb the steep steps) visitors are no longer allowed to climb El Castillo.

Climbing aspirations aside, we asked our guide about the ‘doomsday’ prophesy associated to the Mayan calendar. He explained that the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 didn’t mean the end of the world but rather, the end of the long cycle and the beginning of a new one. One has to delve into the study and understanding of the Mayan calendar to appreciate this comment but our group was getting impatient to move on to the next structures being shown to us so we never discussed the logic of this theory.

In fact, I now recall a National Geographic documentary that discussed a recent discovery of hieroglyphs in various staircase steps of the ruins at the ancient Mayan city of La Corona in Guatemala. According to archaeologists, the text discredited the end of the world theory inasmuch as the reference of December 21, 2012 had more to do with ancient Mayan politics and kingship and its cosmological dimensions and not the end of the world.

Temple of Kukulcan-the plumed Mayan serpent deity. The sun casts a shadow on the pyramid and a form in the outline of a serpent or snake

Temple of Kukulcan-the plumed Mayan serpent deity. The sun casts a shadow on the pyramid and a form in the outline of a serpent or snake

Despite the fact that it was considered low season when we were there, there were busloads of tourists and it was quite difficult to get a really close look or take good photos of El Castillo and various temples spread out around the site. It was also a very hot, windy day and the gust of wind blew a lot of dust our way. It wasn’t as pleasant as our day at Palenque but we persevered.

The Great Ball Court

The Great Ball Court

The other building that impressed was the Great Ball Court, the largest ball court in Mesoamerica* with an area measuring 166 by 68 meters (545 by 232 feet). In Mesoamerica, there is an estimated 1300 ballcourts where a popular game played by 2 teams with a rubber ball is called Pok- Ta- Pok, named for the sound of the ball bouncing. It was also considered a religious, political and highly complex competition. The aim is to put the solid ball through the ring. The rules are complicated but to simplify, the players are allowed to use only their forehead, shoulders, elbows, thighs and knees to handle the ball and aim to put it through the ring in the centre of the long walls. Difficult in this Great Ballcourt , considering the walls here are 12 meters high (39 feet). In the centre of the high wall measuring 95 meters (312 ft) long and 8 meters (26 ft) high, is a ring where the ball is aimed to go through.

I found this YouTube that illustrates the Mayan game

In the Great Ball Court, one could see that the rings were adorned with intertwining serpents carved on the stones and in one wall; there was a depiction of the captain of the winning team being beheaded as sacrifice. Yes, the winner and not the loser was beheaded. According to our guide, it was a privilege to be sacrificed to the gods and the winner gets this honour. I was wondering about this because all the articles I read about the game said that the losers were sacrificed (?) Nevertheless, someone was beheaded at the conclusion of the game. And as drought escalated, so did the number of human sacrifices.

(*a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica)

The Sacred Cenote also tells a story of human sacrifice to please Chaak, the god of life-giving rain. The natural well is directly northwest of the main staircase of El Castillo and archaeologists believe that there is significance in the town planning that has to do with the underworld and belief in the rain god. Archaeologists have unearthed bones of over 50 warriors in the bottom of the well. No one is allowed to swim in this particular cenote but some of the younger tourists wanted to see a waterhole nearby and our guide obliged. A 10-minute ride later, we arrived at an eco-park that surrounded Cenote Yokdzonot. The day was hot so it was not a surprise that the park was swarming with visitors. We had a chance to cool down in the lovely shade and watched the other guests plunge in the deep water hole.

Cenote Yokdzonot near the ruins of Chichén Itzá

Cenote Yokdzonot near the ruins of Chichén Itzá

It was time to go back to Chichén Itzá for a late lunch and later to head off to Cancún where we were to end this fabulous experience. Noted for its beautiful and glamorous resorts, white beaches and nightspots, we were looking forward to transition from the past to the present. We were dropped off at the Westin Resort and Spa. The scene was very Gold Coast (Queensland, Australia) and somewhat reminded us also of Florida. Unabashedly, we can claim ourselves as ‘beach snobs’. Being Queenslanders, we are really spoilt for choice as far as resorts and beaches, fishing grounds and eco- marine spots for whale and dolphin spotting are concerned, so this side of Mexico while appreciated was not the highlight.

Cancun, Mexico

Cancun, Mexico

There is no doubt we will do our bit to help promote visitors to Mexico. We think the current sentiment from the USA regarding safety in Mexico while prudent to keep in mind, shouldn’t deter a trip to Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula. History, art, culture, lovely people and great food (don’t forget the very inexpensive Margaritas) Mexico has it all. What’s there not to love?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spain: El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

My husband is an avid train traveller. If he were given modes of transport to choose from, the train wins, hands down. Having said that, given that our kids have just flown the coop, our wanderlust came to surface as we discovered the appeal of having the freedom and time to travel ‘at a drop of a hat’. We decided it was time to resume our nomadic lifestyle while we can, albeit in comfort. So, in the spirit of celebrating our empty nest status, I set about searching for train travels known for luxury and gastronomy. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, great food and wine were essentials and the entire travel experience had to be decadent. This was after all a celebration of some kind, our rationale for having survived parenthood.

Finding a list of famous luxury train travel was relatively easy. My Google search brought me to the International Railway Society’s website  which in 2011 was actively promoting FEVE’s recently launched luxury train trip across northern Spain. Ferrocarriles Espaňoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE) or narrow gauge railroads, is a state-owned Spanish railway company that controls most of Spain’s 1,250 km of metre gauge railway. It operates three tourist trains in Spain, one of which is the El Transcantábrico Classico. At the time, it was Spain’s answer to the luxury train trips of the world, providing train travellers an experience that evokes the same nostalgia of the fabled Orient Express, the exotic ambience of the Trans- Siberian rail and the romance of other notable deluxe trains of the world.
El Transcantabrico-Gran Lujo

Twenty seven years later, FEVE went one step further and in May 2011, launched El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo, an exclusive, grand luxury train designed to satisfy the demands of the most discerning train traveller. “Gran Lujo” is Spanish for Grand Luxury and FEVE conceived of a special train that will live up to its name which it has. In 2012, El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was named the “most luxurious train” in the world along with the Blue Train of South Africa.

Having decided on  El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo , we set off for Spain with great anticipation, imagining a Spanish version of train legends like the Orient express. Mind you, I stress the word imagine as we haven’t experienced the renowned Orient express either.Mapas Rutas El Transcantabrico

For various reasons, we opted for the west to east route that started from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia all the way to San Sebastian in the Basque region. The journey was to be over a period of seven nights and eight days.

Our tour group was told to assemble at the famed Parador Los Reyes Catolicos, located in the Plaza do Obradoiro in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, right next to its equally celebrated Cathedral of Saint James. We met our fellow train travellers for a group briefing at the lobby of the hotel, the best of Spain’s paradores. Paradors are government-sponsored hotels in buildings of important cultural and historical interest.

The famous cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The famous cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

After the briefing and a tour of the town centre and its attraction, we were transported by luxury coach from Santiago de Compostela to the train station in Ferrol where El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo was on the narrow track ready to take us on our trip of a lifetime. We were greeted by the crew assembled on the platform alongside the train, resplendent in their gold-trimmed uniforms and black bow ties. It was indeed an impressive way to be welcomed and certainly set the tone for our five- star experience!
cama matrominio suite gran lujo

But nothing prepared us for the experience that was the train itself .To say that El Transcantábrico-Gran Lujo is the gem of the FEVE train fleet is an understatement. With only fourteen double suites (two compartments in a carriage, thus one suite occupying half the carriage); this exclusive train can accommodate an intimate group of twenty-eight people. Each large suite is wood panelled, air conditioned, fitted with a queen bed or two twin beds, a living room, large windows, and a private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Each passenger is provided with amenity kits of a full range of high-end toiletry brands and bathroom accessories such as a hair dryer and bathrobes. It also features private PC with Internet access, flat screen TVs with on-demand movies, and games console. Although, I should add that the Internet access seems dependent on where the train is travelling and in most cases, only works when the train pulls in a station.

Here’s a brief rundown of how the days unfolded during the eight-day journey. Passengers started with a full breakfast on board while the train chugged along the track. Soon after, the train stopped at the chosen historic and cultural site where, at the station, the luxury bus that surreptitiously tailed the train overnight met the travellers for a guided tour. This was followed by a multi- course lunch (usually three courses) at the operator’s chosen local restaurant of repute and then back to the train for a little siesta, or a drink or two at the train bar. Soon after, the train stopped again at the next destination where once more, the luxury bus took over to ferry passengers for a tour on the bus and on foot to attractions not accessible by bus. The day culminated with a multi -course dinner, needless to say, at a fabulous local restaurant. Finally, passengers were taken back to the train where entertainment was provided and more drinks at the lounge bar which was also some hybrid club and then, bedtime for most; but the adventurous also were given the choice to savour the town’s nightlife and make the most of the train’s overnight stop. As you can imagine, a full day with so much food to sample could cause digestive discomfort, which could lead to wakefulness, or worse, sleepless nights. Under normal circumstances, getting a good night’s sleep was not a worry at all.When I told a friend we were going to vacation in Northern Spain on a train, she was horrified with the thought of sleepless nights disturbed by the swaying and noise created by a rattling locomotive. With El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, this was not going to be the case. Each night, the train would remain stationary at the railway station to allow passengers a peaceful night’s sleep. I thought that this was paramount.

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo luxury coach

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo luxury coach

A word to the wise from me: If you are an obsessive weight watcher, you will find it difficult to resist the tempting cuisine. You’ll either have to miss out on the gastronomic delights or ditch the diet! Dieting is definitely not an option!

El Transcantábrico’s superb dining lounge

El Transcantábrico’s superb dining lounge

Another key point to note is with so much history and culture to take in, a tour guide can make or break an otherwise exceptional tour. With El Transcantábrico’s tour expert who spoke five languages fluently communication was not an issue. The guide’s every utterance about the facts, history and trivia of the places we explored made the tour one that wasn’t only fabulous but highly educational and entertaining.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain)

Available through online retailers: Barnes & Noble and Google Books

often referred to as the "true" Grand Canyon, the south rim entrance is popular among visitors

Santa Fe to Grand Canyon South Rim

Last leg- Santa Fe, Flagstaff, South Rim Grand Canyon and Sedona.

It wasn’t a good day to drive anywhere, especially down to New Mexico. At Cortez, we could see dark clouds on the horizon and rain was a certainty. So instead of taking US-160E and US 84-E as planned, we took the advice from the friendly young man at the hotel reception and headed south using a direct but scenic route to Santa Fe. The route he suggested was US 550-S then 1-25N/Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe County. This was an estimated 278 miles and 4.5 to 5 hours drive on a good day.

route we took from Cortez to Santa Fe

route we took from Cortez to Santa Fe

As soon as it was possible, we started our journey to Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. However, a couple of hours into the drive, the heavens opened with such ferocity that it affected our visibility. We needed to slow down to 30 miles an hour but we weren’t alone. We saw a few of our fellow road travellers on their Harley Davidsons soaked to their skin and some sensible ones took shelter at petrol/gas stations. Lucky our caddy was waterproof!

The rain was relentless. It didn’t get any better when we finally reached historic Santa Fe a few hours later. The heavy downpour seemed to follow us from a few hours back and it somewhat spoiled our plans to explore the town proper that evening. We wanted to head straight to the heart of the city and its renowned Plaza to soak in its distinctly old world Spanish ambience but the rain was a real spoiler. Fortunately, the intimate Santa Fe Motel and Inn was a lovely and delightful refuge from the rain. The staff were efficient and friendly and suggested we try the Italian restaurant, Andiamo, just next to the motel. We really didn’t want to drive in the rain to search for a good meal so this was a welcome option. We weren’t disappointed. The menu featured some of our favourite Italian classics and the restaurant’s atmosphere lent a unique Santa Fe twist to the whole dining experience.

delicious Italian meal at Andiamo restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico

delicious Italian meal at Andiamo restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico

But in fact, the evening was also made more interesting by an encounter with a lone English traveller dining by himself. Seated at a table next to us, we noted the bottle of red wine he was enjoying while perusing a USA road trip travel book (as one does when travelling solo). To break the ice, my husband enquired whether he would recommend the wine he was having… the rest of the evening was a pleasant exchange of travel stories, opinions and suggestions. It turned out our new acquaintance was a fan of American music and earlier in his youth, was inspired to see America by road, on a Mustang to visit towns and cities he has heard in pop tunes. He was pretty much exploring the south west as we were doing but stopping also at places like Wichita (from the well known tune sang by Glen Campbell -Wichita Lineman) , San Francisco ( Scott Mackenzie’s If you’re going to San Francisco) Lodi ( Credence Clearwater Revival) Las Vegas ( Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Presley) San Jose ( Do you know the way to San Jose) and the list went on. He said, growing up, he had a map of the USA on his wall with different coloured pins so he could plot a route for an adventure he swore he would experience one day. It was to be a trip of a lifetime with a friend who shared the same wish. Unfortunately his friend died unexpectedly. What a wake up call! His sympathetic wife didn’t want to travel but nevertheless urged him to realise the dream on his own. So here he was, seeing and experiencing America on his rented Mustang with the American tunes he downloaded on his iPod, blaring away. The next day after breakfast, my husband showed off our rented caddy and in turn was invited by the Englishman to take his rented Mustang for a spin. Men and their toys! And you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that there will be another American road trip for us down the track on a Mustang.

We only had half a day to have a slice of the Santa Fe experience, so after breakfast we headed straight to the Plaza. What we saw of this picturesque and conspicuously Spanish –Mexican influenced town was so impressive; we earmarked it for a longer visit in the near future.

delicious, freshly baked rolls at theSanta Fe Motel and Inn .

delicious, freshly baked rolls at theSanta Fe Motel and Inn .

On the road again taking 1-40 W, this time we were going to head straight to Flagstaff for a couple of nights where we were going to visit the south entrance of the Grand Canyon and a day trip to Sedona. The afternoon trip was more pleasant than the drive to Santa Fe the day before and traversing the 384 miles took us only a good 6 hours.

After a long drive, once settled in Flagstaff, we didn’t want to venture too far from our motel for dinner. We ended up going to Buffalo Wild Wings across the road at 2700 S Woodlands Village Blvd. A lively and noisy venue for sports enthusiasts, the bar/restaurant boasts of more than 30 large flat screen TVs tuned to various sports games. The menu was typical of American bar food and we naturally tried the wings (which they are famous for) and shared a plate of fries and chicken quesadilla. I’m sure the wings would have pleased my palate had it not been smothered with their legendary sauce but apparently that’s how the local patrons like it. Hmmm…

Finally, the last major sight to visit transpired the next day. The 80-mile drive to the South rim Grand Canyon from Flagstaff was pretty and took approximately 2 hours (via route I-40 W then highway 64 N). This entrance to the Grand Canyon is open all year round and very popular among families and overseas visitors. On arrival at the park gate we drove to the parking area (be sure to come early specially at the height of the summer season as the four parking areas can get crowded) and made the Visitor Centre our first stop. While there, we watched a 20-minute movie of the Grand Canyon rim and river, called Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. It was engrossing and educational.

This is how the Grand Canyon looks like as explained by and courtesy of the Visitor Centre

This is how the Grand Canyon looks like as explained by and courtesy of the Visitor Centre

We then took the free shuttle bus to the overlooks and walked along Mather Point and Yavapai Point. Needless to say, the views were spectacular and from this vantage point, we could clearly see and feel the difference between the north and south rims.

breathtaking views from Mather Point

breathtaking views from Mather Point

overlooking the south rim from Mather Point

overlooking the south rim from Mather Point

another vantage point to admire the Grand Canyon south

another vantage point to admire the Grand Canyon south

As we have earlier visited the north during our stay at Kanab we were somewhat more knowledgeable about the geology of the Grand Canyon. Regardless we made an effort to visit the Yavapai geology museum which is situated at Yavapai Point overlook. There we had a more thorough orientation on how the almighty 1,450-mile-long (2,330 km) Colorado River and nature sculpted the Grand Canyon. It is highly recommended to visit this museum, if not for the views one can see through the panoramic windows. At the end of this exploration, I personally felt so privileged to have seen the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon and the many natural attractions within the Colorado Plateau. Everything we saw was spectacular but I still somewhat favour Grand Canyon North overall as it really was a very peaceful spiritual place and I felt connected to nature and God. A truly humbling experience.

unique and spectacular vista of the Grand Canyon- south

unique and spectacular vista of the Grand Canyon- south

Since we had an extra day at Flagstaff, we decided to enjoy our stop here with a day trip to Sedona. It wasn’t far to drive, about an hour and a few minutes to traverse the 30-mile distance on AZ 89-A. But my husband who was driving the wide caddy didn’t like the winding road at all and took a little bit of care and time to take us to our destination. Surrounded by pine forests, red buttes and canyons, the pretty little town resembled a village out of a fairy tale book cover. The main street was lined with interesting little shops selling arty things, gemstones, galleries and restaurants. The town had a ‘New Age’ feel to it which reminded us somewhat of Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia and Noosa , north of Brisbane, Queensland Australia. We enjoyed the day just meandering and leisurely taking in the town’s views and character while fossicking and perusing the various shops. Though we liked the pretty town, it was a bit anti-climactic and felt that seeing the various places within the Colorado Plateau, unfairly made us accustomed to the beauty around us. In the outskirts of the village there are camping and picnic grounds for families, most notable being Red Rock State Park.

Soon it was time to pack and move on to make our way to California and visit my family. We were also scheduled to return the caddy there. Having finally completed and crossed off one of the things we wanted to experience before we get too old, I can guarantee that the road trip was one big awesome experience and confirms what Stephen Fry said… that America is a beautiful, vast, country and interesting in its diversity. It is definitely God’s country !

 

 

 

 

Anasazi Heritage, Spruce Tree House

Cortez, Mesa Verde and Canyons of the Ancients

The detour to Canon de Chelly delayed our arrival at Cortez by half a day but we had NO regrets. Canyon de Chelly was inspiring and we learned so much about the ancient people of America and appreciated the mysticism associated with the desolate setting of the Navajo land and its people.

Our next destination was to visit the Canyon of the Ancients near Cortez. We drove north from Canyon de Chelly via Indian route 64 and then US 49. US 191-N then 160-E would have been a more direct and quicker route, but what was the hurry?

Inching closer towards Cortez, we noted the changing colours of the rocks, desert and cliffs; from the ‘Red Rock Country’ in and around Kanab and Monument Valley to the limestone and green colours of the shrubs in Colorado. Once again, the vast, rugged and diverse beauty of the region known as the Colorado Plateau captivated us. It was a delight to observe the changing colours and landscape mile by mile as we approached our destination.

We pre-arranged to make Cortez our base for 3 nights and visit the territory where Ancient Puebloans lived for hundreds of years. Nearby sites at the Canyons of the Ancients, mainly Lowry Pueblo Ruins, Hovenweep National Monument and Mesa Verde were going to be the feature of the last two major stops of our American Southwest road trip.

That evening, for dinner there were notably more restaurants to choose from compared to Bluff. We were after all in the most populous municipality of Montezuma County. The meal we had at Destination Grill was a delicious surprise. The quail pleased my husband’s palate and the entire atmosphere was relaxed even at its busiest.

delicious quail for dinner at Cortez

delicious quail for dinner at Cortez

Canyon of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado is home to numerous archaeological sites within the 170,000 acres administered and protected by the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation System. Collectively, the numerous archaeological finds represent the largest in the USA and are mostly those of Ancestral Puebloans’ ruins. The ancient people inhabited and established communities here around AD750 to 1100.

It is important to note that most of the roads around the sites are not sealed and the attractions are what they call ’outdoor museums’. Because of the vastness of the area and the fact that some places are best explored on foot, to visit the Lowry Pueblo Ruins and Hovenweep National Monument one must obtain information and maps from the Anasazi Heritage Center, 10 miles north of Cortez. The ‘must stop’ at the Anasazi Heritage Center is important because there is also a museum in the visitor centre that provides rich information about the life of the Ancestral Puebloans as well as a very interesting interactive exhibit that offer insights on ancient dwellers’ way of life. This first point of contact is highly recommended.

We began our exploration at the 1000 year old Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site of Lowry Pueblo Ruins, located 28 miles northwest of Cortez, off Highway 491 at Pleasant View on County Road CC.

Archaeological relics and ruins suggest that Lowry Pueblo began as a small village when it was first built around 1060 AD. The ancients who inhabited Lowry Pueblo started with a few rooms and kivas (the traditional pit house dwellings of the Anasazi or the Ancient Puebloans and ceremonial underground rooms). Among the notable discoveries were a Great House, a multi-story structure with a pre-planned, rectangular layout with large rooms and a Great Kiva.

We spent a good part of the day at Lowry Pueblo ruins before we drove to Hovenweep National Monument located 40-45 miles from Cortez and only 24.5 miles southwest of Lowry Pueblo Ruins, via road 10. As always, we suggest that it is best to get the lay of the land and follow instructions from the rangers at the Visitor center.

ruins at Canyon of the Ancients

ruins at Canyon of the Ancients

Lowry Pueblo ruins

Lowry Pueblo ruins

wildlife at the Lowry Pueblo Ruins

wildlife at the Lowry Pueblo Ruins

Hovenweep was a very interesting stop because of the castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims. Clearly these are indications of how the early dwellers were skilled with masonry. They also showed the Ancient people’s determination to build a community in the rugged southwest corner of Colorado. From other discoveries of tools and varying remnants of plants, these proof suggest that the people were hunters and farmers. They cultivated corn, beans, squash and even cotton.

Hovenweep

Hovenweep

We began our exploration of Hovenweep on foot at Square Tower Group in Little Ruin Canyon near the Visitor Center. Then we went around the Rim Trail Loop, which took approximately a couple of hours as we lingered a fair bit to see the towers up close. By this time, we had our fill of history and suitably impressed with the fierce determination of the ancient people in the way they lived and survived the harsh environment. We then drove back to Cortez for a fabulous dinner at Farm Bistro on Main Street.

castles and towers at Hovenweep Ruins

castles and towers at Hovenweep Ruins

ruins at Hovenweep

ruins at Hovenweep

castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims

castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims

Mesa Verde was a highly anticipated visit, our last national park for this American road trip. Dubbed as the ‘first national park set aside to preserve the works of humankind’ Mesa Verde is a UNESCO designated World Cultural Heritage Park and one of the ‘must see places’ for our road trip. The phrase mesa verde is Spanish for green table. Mesas are flat-topped mountains or hills and from 600 to 1300 AD, the Ancestral Pueblo people made the cliffs of these flat-topped limestone and sandstone mountains their home for over 700 years. Like previous visits to different parks, we began our exploration of Mesa Verde at the Visitor Center, located just off Highway 160 near the park entrance. For us it’s a pre-requisite to get our bearings and to map out what we really needed to explore as we only had a full day allotted for this all-important stop. After paying our entrance fee and obtaining the information we needed, we were directed to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, just 22 miles from the Visitor Center for a more in depth orientation on the park and trail conditions; but more importantly, to have a better understanding of the Ancestral Puebloans and their lives at the cliff dwellings. The museum provides a 25-minute video every half hour for visitors as well as a store with books and gifts. I loved browsing at this particular store and bought a few books. Seeing that the entire Mesa Verde park was made up of a several sub-mesas and archaeological sites that were closed off to visitors we decided to focus our time and energy around the scenic Chapin Mesa area. Which in fact had the famous Spruce House and Petroglyph trail.

Although there are ranger-guided tours for visitors but we decided to explore the hiking trails on our own. From the museum we set off to trek to Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best-preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, estimated to have been constructed between 1200-1278 AD. We were treated to glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community made up of several kivas (8 in total) , 120 rooms, 10 ledge rooms and 2 towers. The alcove is 66 meters long and 27 meters deep. It was just so fascinating!

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling constructed by the Ancient Puebloans

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling constructed by the Ancient Puebloans

glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community , Spruce Tree House Mesa Verde

glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community , Spruce Tree House Mesa Verde

Then we decided to take up the task of going through the Petroglyph Trail which was a 3 mile round trip loop trail that afforded views of the scenic pullouts, canyons, an introduction to the fauna and foliage in this part of Colorado and the highpoint being the Indian petroglyphs. The rangers warned of the very steep climb (and I mean almost 90 degrees climb on some of the points. Warning: wear sturdy walking shoes, take bottled water and be very fit. This trail is not for the faint hearted)

The steep walk and climb Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

The steep walk and climb Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

on our way to explore the difficult and steep climb to Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

on our way to explore the difficult and steep climb to Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

petroglyphs, Mesa Verde, Colorado

petroglyphs, Mesa Verde, Colorado

It took us approximately 3 hours to complete the loop and though challenging indeed, the views and the sites were worth it.

Santa Fe in New Mexico was the intended next stop from Cortez. From there, we were going to make the final stop at Flagstaff to visit the West entrance Grand Canyon and surrounds. Early next morning, we took off…

 

 

iconic Monument Valley

Monument Valley to Canyon de Chelly

Monument Valley- Kayenta, Mexican Hat, Bluff and Canyon de Chelly

Our brief sojourn at Lake Powell Resort was very pleasant. Stephen Fry will be happy to know that thanks to him, our USA road trip with Lake Powell as the incentive was due to his fascinating TV series on America. We would have liked to linger for a few more days but unfortunately we had to continue this fabulous American southwest road trip and make our way to Monument Valley via highway 160. We estimated approximately 3 hours of continuous driving to cover the 126 miles (203 km) distance between Page, Arizona and Monument Valley.

Thanks to John Wayne and iconic western (cowboy) movies, Monument Valley is recognisable due to its various landscape used as the setting for many Western films. Located within the Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley is 5,564 ft. above sea level and lies on the border between southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona. Driving into what is seemingly desolate flat land, the red rock formations of buttes and mesas, route 160 took us to the heart of well known images of the valley, that of stark red cliffs and the mesas at Monument Pass .
Our guidebook suggested to head towards the valley (on the Arizona and Utah border) from the north as it apparently provides a spectacular and dramatic image of the Southwest area. One drives through a long and flat road for miles and miles to the crimson desert towards the 1,000 foot cliffs. Cutting through the sealed road towards the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Visitor centre is easy to spot. The centre complex has the usual gift shop and amenities as well as an area to view the stunning landscape, the Lookout Point. Here, one can clearly see the identifiable group of red cliffs and buttes.

Monument Valley

rugged landscape Monument Valley

For a closer look at these rock formations, the park’s scenic road or Valley Drive takes visitors deep into the impressive landscape. We made a choice not to go through Valley Drive, as this road is unpaved. What would it do to our rented ‘caddy’ then? It wasn’t an option at all so we stayed near and around the complex using sealed roads. Regardless, we saw everything we wanted to see from the lookout and had time to explore the visor complex, which had an informative exhibit of the Navajo Tribe.

Some handy tips:

1. Find out when daylight saving is inasmuch as Navajo Nation observes daylight saving. So depending on the time of year one wants to travel, when daylight saving kicks in, there will be a time change from the southern routes such as Page Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to Monument Valley.

2. There is so much to see along Valley Drive and if one is adventurous and want to really explore, options include horse rental, a basic tour of the valley, and more involved but expensive tours that are off the beaten track.

Having had our fill of the magnificent panorama, we headed north, using route 163-N towards Mexican Hat and eventually Bluff where we had previously arranged lodgings at the Desert Rose Inn. Mexican Hat is actually a small town on the San Juan River on the northern edge of the Navajo Nations’ borders in south-central San Juan County, Utah. It is named after the strange rock formation that resembles a Mexican hat

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

The Dessert Inn at Bluff was a very welcome respite from the drive. It somewhat took us by surprise, albeit a pleasant one. The expanded guesthouse seemed like an oasis in the midst of the rugged country. After settling in our beautiful and comfortable suite, I went for a swim in the well-appointed indoor pool while my husband chatted up a group of middle-aged German men as they parked their great big motorbikes in the driveway. It would seem that as Harley Davidson enthusiasts, high on their bucket list was to explore America on their rented Harleys. What fun! Come to think of it, we noted that all throughout our drive in the southwest, there were indeed quite a few of these legendary bikes but the interesting thing was the motorcycle drivers didn’t ‘speed’ like they do in Australia. Instead, they took their time and roared through the interstate highways while maintaining a speed limit slower than what I would do, if I were to get on a powerful motorbike. Note that I say ‘roar’. This is because the distinctive sound of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine is recognisable. It is such a distinguishing feature of the Harley Davidson engine that the company tried to file a ‘sound trademark’ on February 1, 1994. This resulted to an outcry from its competitors and litigations followed, which in turn made Harley Davidson drop their trademark application in the year 2000.

Soon, it was time to sample the cuisine this small town founded by early Mormon settlers had to offer. After a quick drive around Bluff, we settled for a table and a meal at the Twin Rocks Café. We were fleetingly reminded that we were indeed back in Mormon country and Utah’s restrictive liquor laws. We nevertheless indulged in a glass of wine and one of Utah’s boutique beers, ‘Polygamy Porter’ but it had to be consumed with our meal of a serve of classic buffalo chicken wings and marinated gilled sirloin steak. Delicious and inexpensive!

Twin Rocks Cafe was named after this Twin Rock

Twin Rocks Cafe was named after this Twin Rock

Polygamy Porter

interesting label of Polygamy Porter beer

Utah beer

deliciousPolygamy Porter Beer

The next day, we intended to head straight to Cortez in Colorado but got side tracked. We were told that another nearby attraction, the lesser known Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) National Monument, owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation is an easy drive from Bluff . Situated about 98 miles (158 Km) south of Bluff, we travelled via highway 191, approximately 2 hours to Chinle (Apache county in Arizona) a community that serves as a gateway to Canyon de Chelly.

Navajo Indian Hogan at Chinle

Navajo Indian Hogan at Chinle

This change of plan meant delaying our arrival at Cortez by half a day but it was well worth the detour. The scenery along the way was simply exquisite.

At Canyon de Chelly archaeologists found numerous evidence that this area was occupied as early as 5,000 years ago and home to many American Indian tribes as well as the *Ancestral Puebloans.( also referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.”)

*an ancient Native American culture in the area of southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.

The recognisable features of this park are the 1,000 foot steep sandstone walls, one called by the Dine Indian (Navajo) Tribe as Spider Rock, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art.

Canyon de Chelly washome to many American Indian tribes as early as 5,000 years ago

Canyon de Chelly was home to many American Indian tribes as early as 5,000 years ago

Spider Rock

spider rock spectacular red sandstone monolith formed 280 million years ago, standing 800 foot high

Canyon de Chelly

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art

steep sandstone walls, images on the cliff walls and well-preserved Anasazi pueblo ruins on the canyon walls and prehistoric rock art

The few hours it took to explore the different sites at Canyon de Chelly were enchanting. In fact the experience was awesome! Once more, a delightful discovery of one of the most sacred lands in the Navajo Nation cemented the indelible fascination my husband has for America. Alas, it was time to head north to Cortez in Colorado.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2015-05-12-09-43-35-1000

The American southwest- the Colorado Plateau region by car

An amazing discovery of the mystery and awesomeness of the Colorado Plateau created by nature billions of years ago… stunning canyons, buttes, vibrant colours and many hidden secrets of the natural beauty of the American Southwest.

Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, Zion Park and Kanab:

Many non- Americans are fascinated by the American Interstate Highway not only because of the impressive modern engineering marvel that it is but also the fact that it was a catalyst for economic progress and changes in American cultural expression. In fact it was President Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of the USA who made it his mission to have the major arteries of America built and improved for security reasons. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated the largest public works program in American history. Since then the longest and most modern system of highways in the world brought America closer together but paradoxically also widened its differences in culture and living conditions.

The highway was also a result of America’s car culture, thanks to the introduction of Henry Ford’s ‘Model T’ in 1908. To underline this phenomenon, in recent times it is estimated that the USA has over 250 million cars and trucks plying the roads and sophisticated interstate network either for work, play and adventure. It is this ‘mythical romance’ attributed to the American highway system that brought us back to our wish list of exploring America by car. So when a planned surprise visit to our son in Vancouver didn’t happen, my Yankeephile husband thought it wasn’t a big deal. We would still go to North America and explore the region that is considered one of the most beautiful in the USA and the world… and this time, by car. The drive would roughly cover the Colorado Plateaus, which is actually the physiographic province that comprises southwestern United States, the southeastern half of Utah, the extreme western and southwestern parts of Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and the northern half of Arizona.

The Colorado Plateau

a large and uplifted region covering areas of Central Utah, Northern Arizona and parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

It was the perfect excuse to realise his ‘wish’ to hire and drive the quintessential American Cadillac. With this in mind we flew to LAX then on to Las Vegas where we spent a couple of days to get over the jet lag, re-visit ‘ The Strip’ and pick up the hired caddy. It was also a chance to check out Rick Harrison and his mates at the world famous Gold and Silver Pawnshop, located in the ‘seedy’ side of town.

Gold and Silver Pawnshop Las Vegas

Rick Harrison ( wax) at the Gold and Silver Pawnshop

Gold andSilver Pawnshop Las Vegas

Rick (the wax) and Bob at the Gold and Silver Pawnshop

Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert is the most populous city in Nevada with 583,756 inhabitants. Vegas is known though for its glitzy ‘strip’, gambling casinos and resorts. In 2015, it welcomed 42,312,216 visitors, 16% of which were from overseas and reported gambling revenue of US$6.3 Billion. Impressive? Perhaps, but a few months before our visit to Las Vegas, we were in Macau, also known as the Las Vegas of Asia. This small peninsula in China reported gambling revenue of 360 billion patacas or US$45 billion in the year 2013. This clearly makes this tiny enclave in the Chinese territories the undisputed winner in the gambling industry. More recently though, there was a dramatic decline in earnings due to a crackdown from the Chinese government on corruption associated with the industry and a ban on smoking in the casinos. But back to Vegas…

We took our sons to see the Grand Canyon when they were young in tandem with stops in LA to visit family and Disneyland. Las Vegas was our base enroute to attractions nearby. At the time, we witnessed the makeover of the city to be equally family friendly and not just a destination for conventions, gambling and all sorts of hedonistic pursuits associated with gambling. Back then ‘The Strip’ was already interesting, its bright neon lights providing an aura of glamour and magic to visitors who wandered around.

The Strip

The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip Las Vegas

The older hotels and casinos in Las Vegas

Bellagio, Las Vegas

The dancing water fountains Bellagio, Las Vegas

Magic in Las Vegas

‘Magic’ on sidewalk at The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las Vegas

For this visit without kids, we explored the newer hotels and resorts that have mushroomed through the years. Over the 2 evenings, we delighted ourselves with the bright lights along ‘The Strip’ and sampled a few of Las Vegas’ bars and restaurants. Like most destinations that rely on tourists’ dollars, cuisine from all over the world was available and cocktails of various influences aplenty. While we had no gastronomic expectations on this road trip, we thoroughly enjoyed the meals in Vegas.

international cuisine

gourmet sushi meal in Las Vegas

On our third day in America and having regained our equilibrium, it was time to leave Las Vegas and pick the infamous ‘Caddy’ on my husband’s ‘bucket list.’ We had a schedule to follow for the next 12 days. Roughly we were to follow this route, encompassing what many refer to as the Grand Circle and beyond:
Las Vegas to Valley of Fire to Zion Park to Kanab(our base for 4 nights) where we were to explore Bryce Canyon, North Rim Grand Canyon Coral Sand Dunes, Grand Escalante; and then move on to Lake Powell ( Page, Arizona), Monument Valley, Bluff, Cortez-Mesa Verde , Santa Fe, Flagstaff for the South Grand Canyon and Sedona. The last leg was to slowly drive back to California to visit family. This ‘road trip’ would roughly cover almost 2,000 miles.

Roadtrip to discover the American Southwest encompassing the Colorado Plateau

Roadtrip to discover the American Southwest encompassing the Colorado Plateau

In mapping out this itinerary, we were really keen to see Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend in East Grand Canyon. Inspired by Stephen Fry (British actor, writer, comic, author and TV host) we wanted to visit and explore what he called the True West; episode 5 of the six part BBC series ‘ Stephen Fry in America’. This fascinating 2008 program in which he travelled all 50 states of America driving his black London Cab featured the magnificent mesas and buttes of Arizona and New Mexico and the spectacular beauty of Lake Powell. The series by the way is so interesting; it should be compulsory viewing for both American and non- American audience.

Our rented Cadillac was not as exotic as Fry’s London Cab but my husband couldn’t wait to try out his rented ‘toy’. As soon as we were satisfied that the GPS and everything else in the Cadillac worked, we hit the road using route I-15 N to make our way to our first stop, the Valley of Fire State Park about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Las Vegas. Considered the oldest state park in Nevada, USA, Valley of Fire covers an area of about 36,000 acres of red and crimson sand and rocks.

Black Caddy

Black Caddy

On arrival, the sight of red sandstone formations, rocks of various shapes and sizes, greeted us. Over 150 million years ago, Mother Nature crafted the odd shaped rock formations through a shift in the earth’s crust, faulting and also effect of erosion by wind and water. It was a virtual ‘sea of red’ of fossilised sandstone and sand dunes in the middle of the dessert interrupted only by vegetation of cactus, yucca, mesquite tree, prickly pear and beaver tail.

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

Valley of Fire, Nevada

From Valley of Fire, we continued northeast to southwestern Utah and stopped at the town of Springdale within the Zion Park. This Utah Park formed 250 million years ago is right along the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Armed with a map and information obtained from the Visitor Centre (located at the South entrance of the park in Springdale) we hopped on the free shuttle in Springdale for a drive up Zion Canyon and to catch glimpses of the park’s highlights. Zion Park is accessible to many visitors and attracts approximately 3 million visitors each year.

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

on our way to Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

on our way to Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

Zion Park, Utah

To Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

To Kanab from Zion Park, Utah

The breath taking natural beauty of the 2 parks we just visited was a refreshing change to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Soaking in the wondrous splendour of these geological formations, we slowly drove to Kanab where we stayed for four nights. Kanab is the ideal base for those who want to explore southhwestern America’s park heartland due to its central location to major places of interest. On our ‘must see’ list nearby were the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (very close to Kanab), Zion Park of course, and the Vermillon Cliffs National Monument( in Arizona but so close to Kanab and located south of the Utah and Arizona border). After the four-day stop, we would make our way to Page and Lake Powell.

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is situated on the western Colorado Plateau in the county seat of Kane in South Utah, just north of the Arizona border. Long before the Mormons came, Native Americans settled Kanab for thousands of years. Then in 1776, the Spanish explorers led by Franciscan missionary Silvestre ‘lez de Escalante discovered the region. About 100 years later, the Mormon pioneers followed the Spaniards in waves of migration between 1850 and 1870. However, the more interesting transient occupants were from tinsel town. In the early 1920’s, 40’s and 50’s, location scouters of Hollywood favoured the authentic natural Western Frontier setting of the Kanab area for Western movies. Consequently, more than 100 movies and TV shows were filmed in Kanab with the likes of John Wayne starring on ‘Stagecoach’ , Robert Taylor in ‘Billy the Kid’, Clint Eastwood in The ‘Outlaw Josey Wales’ and many more, filming in the region thus making Kanab earn the moniker of ‘Little Hollywood’ .

Driving all day works up quite a thirst. On arrival at our lodging, the first thing we were hankering for was a nice cold alcoholic beverage. Knowing my husband’s ‘cocktail hour’ habit, I knew he was looking forward to a cold drink. “A cold beer would really go down well” …he would say; but surprise, surpise! Not a bar or pub as we know it in Australia was in sight. Our friendly hotel receptionist informed us that liquor laws in the state of Utah is a bit different from the rest of America. We later found out that this was an understatement. In fact the liquor law in Utah is quite restricted…to say the least. It is, in our opinion, heavily regulated and a bit complex. It sets a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4 percent by volume) in beer sold at supermarkets or convenience stores and higher alcohol content beer are only available in bottles or something to that effect. Cocktails also have a pre-determined limit to the proportion and amount of alcohol that can be used with mixers while all types of liquor including wine and strong beer can be purchased only at state run stores that have very limited trading times. One can have alcoholic beverages at restaurants that have licenses to serve these drinks but food must be on the table first. By the time we worked out how and where we could have our aperitif, we gave up on the ‘pub search’ and headed straight to the restaurant recommended by everyone to try; the Rocking V Café . This was a pleasant dining experience despite the wait for our wine and beer (remember we had to have the meal on the table first). As I said, we designed this trip to discover the natural beauty of south-western America and didn’t harbour exigent culinary standards but some of the restaurants specially the Rocking V Café were satisfying discoveries. For four evenings, we tried some of the eclectic mix of dining establishments at Kanab. Mexican at Escobar’s ( NO Margaritas and tequilas though to my dismay) Chinese at Luo’s Café and in fact on our last evening in Kanab, we uncovered a ‘western themed’ saloon restaurant with a full service bar. Their unique selling proposition (USP)? “ Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon- Kanab’s only full service bar where you can drink without having to eat. “ Now, why didn’t we find this place earlier on?

On our stroll back to the lodge, we saw an outdoor advertising billboard for family dining with a message that said:
“Were history and culture meet ” …

Let’s see if you can spot the error.

The next day, after a full breakfast at the rustic and well-situated Canyons Lodge, we drove off and made our way to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Horseshoe  Bend

Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend- Grand Canyon East

Only in America! …Snow one day and a drive through the middle of the desert the next. We regretfully left Kanab and the surrounding national parks to make our way to Page in Arizona for our 2-day stay at Lake Powell Resorts. British actor, writer and comedian Stephen Fry’s TV series ‘Stephen Fry in America’ was the catalyst for our Southwest USA road trip and check out the lesser known attractions of Lake Powell. But instead of taking the shorter route from Kanab to Lake Powell via highway 89, we drove further down past Fredonia and took highway Alt 89, a scenic and pleasant drive through the desert.

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Kanab is centrally located and an ideal base to visit and explore Zion Park, Bryce, North Rim Grand Canyon and Lake Powell

Going the longer way (Alt 89 is 117 miles and about 3 hours from Kanab) there were no vehicles on the road for miles and miles. My husband wanted to play with his rented ‘Caddy’ and tested it at 100mph (but only for a few miles, just in case the highway patrol was actually lurking behind the buttes and cliffs, waiting to catch some reckless driver). This route also gave us a chance to stop and have a closer look at the Vermillion Cliffs, Marble Canyon and the Navajo bridge. We stopped only for a few minutes because time was actually a factor. We wanted to be at Horseshoe Bend Overlook before it was too hot. (Horseshoe Bend is in the east side of the ‘Grand Canyon complex’ and just 7 miles before the beginning of the Grand Canyon). We were also ‘thirsty’. A week of no bar or pub in Utah can be a very long time! Arizona was a very attractive proposition.

Even though the trip took an hour longer , we didn’t regret taking this route because we saw so much of the rugged and arid beauty of the immense desert area of the Colorado Plateau. The scenery still took our breath away even after a week of being indulged with a range of exquisite landforms and fantastically carved canyons. Entertained by our satellite radio* I was more content with the landscape of the desert than the ‘sound of music’. We stopped to take images of the different shades of red in the dirt and rock, from rust to vermillion to a sandy pink; the scrub brush that wasn’t quite green and the wild desert plants. Red-hued mesas and sheer rock walls rose up steeply, some of it were lime and silvery, a striking contrast against the monochromatic tones of the earth. The desert sounds had also been different. The eerily quiet was interrupted only by bees and other insects humming.

*(to keep the peace between my husband and me, we rotated our favourite stations and genres of music every hour. Not just Elvis and Frank for him but the Motown sound, Bossa Nova, Earth Wind and Fire and One Republic for me)

sclerocactus flower

sclerocactus flower

different shades of red in the dirt and rock, from rust to vermillion to a sandy pink; the scrub brush that wasn’t quite green

different shades of red in the dirt and rock, from rust to vermillion to a sandy pink; the scrub brush that wasn’t quite green

rugged and arid beauty of the desert

rugged and arid beauty of the desert

scrub brush that wasn’t quite so green

scrub brush that wasn’t quite so green

Just off highway 89, on the turnoff is a parking area that leads to one of the most photographed sights in southwest USA, Horseshoe Bend. It’s only a ¾ mile hike to get there from the car park area but on a day when the sun is blazing hot, this short distance will seem a lot longer than what it actually is. So our tip for those who want to experience Horseshoe Bend is to go there early in the day. Also take water, wear a hat and slop on some sunscreen. If you can choose the time of year, maybe make your trip in spring or autumn and not during the height of summer.

Following a few eager stragglers, we finally reached the top of the hill to the Horseshoe Bend Overlook (where the Colorado River curves around by 270 degrees, shaped like a horseshoe hence the name) and what a sight to behold! Drawing in a quick breath at the sudden unexpected and spectacular view, we were somewhat perturbed by the adventurous youngsters as they scrambled up and took photos right on the edge of the ledge where the Colorado River on the background was better seen. Made my heart stop! They obviously couldn’t see the danger. Despite signs everywhere no one paid attention. Thankfully, nothing dramatic happened.

spectacular scenery

spectacular scenery

heed the warning

heed the warning

Being at Horseshoe Bend Overlook was one moment when I wished I had a pro- camera, complete with tripod and wide-angle lenses. It was an unbelievable sight and once again thanked my lucky stars we made it to this part of the Grand Canyon. Irrespective of our wariness of heights, (the Colorado River is a drop of 1,000 ft. from the rim of the cliffs) we looked down and took some images of this marvellous scene. We could actually spot a tiny speck on the water, a speedboat cruising on the river. As the day warmed, the reptiles began to stir.

boat on the river could be spotted from our vantage point

boat on the river could be spotted from our vantage point

Lizard on Rock

Lizard on Rock

We saw a brown lizard dart into a crevice as we approached and headed back to our ‘caddy’ eager to discover the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell Resort. Prior to this road trip, we knew little of Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell so we were really thrilled!

breathtaking view looking down - Horseshoe Bend

breathtaking view looking down – Horseshoe Bend

The Glen Canyon is part of the natural canyons complex carved by the Colorado River but the necessity to provide water and power to the southwest (California, Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Mexico) meant it was inevitable to dam the Colorado River. The environmentalists were not too happy about this but the project went through nevertheless and Glen Canyon Dam was built and then completed in 1963. The result was the creation of almost 2000 miles of shorelines that is now the Lake Powell Reservoir with most of the Glen Canyon complex (about 96 of canyons) submerged in water. Stretching 186 miles across the crimson desert, rocks, buttes and canyons from Page, Arizona all the way to Hite, Utah, the reservoir has a storage capacity of 27,000,000 acre feet. This makes it one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the USA, second only to Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam near Las Vegas in the states of Nevada and Arizona.

Glen Canyon Dam from Marble Canyon

Glen Canyon Dam from Marble Canyon

Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963

Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963

Finally, it was time to go to Lake Powell Resorts where we booked accommodation for 2 nights. In episode 5 of the BBC series of ‘Stephen Fry in America’ Lake Powell was shown in its most scenic. But being there, seeing the impressive views was even better than TV. Miles and miles of water interrupted by red rocks and sandstone was the backdrop of our resort. The view was stunning!

Lake Powell Resorts view

Lake Powell Resorts view

The hidden secrets of Lake Powell were made accessible by boat. Before we departed for this trip, we booked the Antelope boat cruise online for late that afternoon, a very good move because it was quite a busy weekend at the resort. We wanted to uncover the reasons why Lake Powell Reservoir is now considered a destination for avid kayakers, bass anglers, photographers and a vacation paradise for those who like houseboats. The cruise took us to see the 10 mile stretch of Antelope Canyon, known for its slot canyon. Unfortunately for this excursion it wasn’t possible to get to the slot canyon, as it is actually located in the upper Antelope canyon. To experience the much photographed slot canyon, a Navajo guide is required and can be organised in Page Arizona, near Lake Powell, (Address: 55 S. Lake Powell Blvd. Page, Arizona 86040, phone number + 1- 928-645-5594)

The hidden secrets of Lake Powell

The hidden secrets of Lake Powell

solid rock and stones and the high walled Navajo sandstone

solid rock and stones and the high walled Navajo sandstone

sandstone and canyons made for a fascinating setting

sandstone and canyons made for a fascinating setting

What we saw close up on our boat however was miles and miles of solid rock and stones and the high walled Navajo sandstone. On the way to this stretch of geological wonder was also a closer view of the Glen Canyon Dam.

There is something seductive about the water and the boat cruise was a reminder of this. We happily ended our long day of driving through the desert with a cruise on the calm waters of Lake Powell, followed by a stop at the Driftwood Lounge of Lake Powell Resorts for a delicious cocktail (our favourite classic Margarita). The good news was, Lake Powell Reservoir is both in Arizona and Utah but our hotel was in the Arizona side so restrictive Utah law towards alcohol consumption didn’t apply.

Dinner at the Rainbow Room at the resort didn’t disappoint either. Cheers…

Dinner at the Rainbow Room Lake Powell Resorts

Dinner at the Rainbow Room Lake Powell Resorts

The next day, to satisfy my husband’s interest in boats, we explored the resort’s surrounds and Wahweap Marina. Lake Powell Resorts manages 5 marinas where recreational boats and houseboats and other marina services are provided. We were driven down to the marina by one of Lake Powell Resort’s buggy cart. The driver was a fountain of information and for his efforts, earned a nice gratuity from my husband. (Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, is managed by Aramark,
an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.)

Wahweap Marina Lake Powell Resorts

Wahweap Marina Lake Powell Resorts

Soon it was time for another excursion, once again by boat to the isolated canyons below the Navajo Mountain where the Rainbow Bridge is located. Known to be the world’s largest natural bridge, this geological wonder carved by water over millions of years is managed by the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in southern Utah, USA. It is sacred to the Native Americans who live in the area.

One can only get to Rainbow Bridge by boat or if interested in hiking, a permit must be obtained from the Navajo Nation.

We took the easy and scenic way to get to Rainbow Bridge, which is about 50 miles from Wahweap Marina at Lake Powell Resorts. We also booked this cruise online , ahead of our departure to the USA as it is a very popular cruise. The entire excursion would take about 4 hours round trip. As far as I was concerned, time was not an issue as getting to our destination was relaxing and so interesting. Passing through Warm Creek Bay we saw sandy beaches and coves. The day was glorious and not a cloud in the sky; clear blue waters of the lake and the surrounding red rocks, sandstone and canyons made for a fascinating setting. The guide told us that some scenes from the 1968 film ‘Planet of the Apes’ starring Charlton Heston were filmed here. The isolation and barren landscape does make one think of another planet and I could see why they chose this location for the movie.

The boat cruise provided a supply of bottled water and refreshments, but prior to arrival at the dock for our trek to Rainbow Bridge, we were urged to use the facilities, as there are no toilets at the site. To get to Rainbow Bridge, we had to hike for about 1.5 miles from the dock, across a trail of red dirt. It wasn’t really an easy stroll down the park so our advice is to wear a hat, sunglasses, take bottled water and ease your way slowly to the destination.

As we slogged along, coming closer to the site, we could see the arch of the bridge. It stands 290 feet (88 m) high and has a span of 275′ across. Made of sandstone, wind and water sculpted this magnificent structure over millions of years towards the end of the Triassic and Jurassic periods. It is so tall that the Statue of Liberty would be able to fit under its arch. The Puebloans (an ancient Native American culture) and other indigenous people occupied this area long ago and in more recent times, people of the Navajo, Southern Paiute, San Juan, Ute, Kaibab Paiute, White Mesa Ute, and Hopi tribes use the surrounding land. They named the bridge Nonnezoshe or “rainbow turned to stone.”

By the time we neared the bridge, the sun was blazing hot and despite the occasional cool breeze, the trek was difficult for most of us.

hiking slowly towards Rainbow Bridge

hiking slowly towards Rainbow Bridge

However, the magical scenery took our minds of our discomfort and being at an isolated, ‘sacred’ and unique geological site was a privilege.

Sacred site- Rainbow Bridge

Sacred site- Rainbow Bridge

Sacred Rainbow Bridge

Sacred Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge isso tall that the Statue of Liberty would be able to fit under its arch

Rainbow Bridge isso tall that the Statue of Liberty would be able to fit under its arch

The ultimate reward of seeing the bridge as well as the dinosaur tracks nearby was well worth the effort.

fossilised dinosaur tracks at Rainbow Bridge

fossilised dinosaur tracks at Rainbow Bridge

After a short exploration along the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, we made our way back to the boat and looked forward to a stop at Dangling Rope Marina, a mid-lake marina only accessible by boat.

The end of our short stay at Lake Powell was celebrated with a delicious and delightful meal once again at the Rainbow Room restaurant with views of the lake. We were fortunate to have been looked after by a gentleman who loved being a waiter. All his adult life he lived on a Winnebago and followed the availability of hospitality jobs on a seasonal basis; Aspen in winter, Lake Powell and other resorts for the rest of the year. Other than the Europeans who regard a job as ‘servers’ or waiters as an important career, it was refreshing to meet an American who took pride in his vocation. Needless to say, service was tops!

 

dining at Rainbow Room Lake Powell Resorts

dining at Rainbow Room Lake Powell Resorts

delicious meal at Rainbow Room Lake Powell Resorts

delicious meal at Rainbow Room Lake Powell Resorts

From Lake Powell, our next destination moving on was Monument Valley on the Arizona- Utah border.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bryce Canyon National Park and the North Rim of Grand Canyon

We were looking forward to our day of excursion at Bryce Canyon- a misnomer, because in fact Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. It is a vast spread of reserve covering an area of 145 km² (14,500 hectares or 35,835 acres) of distinctive rock formations, specifically the spiral shaped hoodoos, fluted walls, sculptured pinnacles, lookouts, forests and valleys. Through the millions of years, weather had landscaped, carved and created this wild but strikingly scenic park. The surrounds were not entirely just rock formations. In fact, the higher altitude of Bryce Canyon receives more rainfall than the surrounding desert so it wasn’t a surprise to see different varieties of pines like Douglas fir, Limber pine and Bristlecone pine as well as a great assortment of wild flowers and shrubs. The lower and drier levels of the park hosted varieties of plants such as cactus and yucca. Bryce is also the natural habitat of more than 50 species of wildlife such as elks, gray foxes, mountain lions, mule deer, the difficult to spot black bears and many more plus a throng of different bird species including the raven.

Hoodoos rock formation at Bryce Canyon

Hoodoos rock formation at Bryce Canyon

Use your imagination- Hoodoo at Bryce Canyon

Use your imagination- Hoodoo at Bryce Canyon

Vast parkland, Bryce Canyon

Vast parkland, Bryce Canyon

Just a handy tip; it’s always good to start early to avoid the long queues and to enjoy the full day at the park. We left Kanab as soon as we had our breakfast to get there right after their opening at 8 a.m. The drive north via highway 63 took only 90 minutes and even though it was a bit foggy when we left, the sun broke through the clouds and beamed down on us as we set out to find our way. It’s always good to plan ahead and get the current information about opening hours, weather conditions and the like. Our first stop was the Visitor Centre where we obtained information about the free shuttle bus services. For us, this was the most efficient way of seeing the highlights of the reserve as it allowed us to stop and take photos of the various points and places of interest. Gorgeous weather and gorgeous sights. The highlight for me would have been the Bryce amphitheater, situated between Sunrise Point and Sunset Point on the Rim Trail. Sunrise Point is the perfect spot to see an unobstructed view of the canyon amphitheatre.

arches formed by erosion millions of years ago- Bryce Canyon

arches formed by erosion millions of years ago- Bryce Canyon

Different shades of rust-Bryce Canyon

Different shades of rust-Bryce Canyon

At the end of the day, we thought that so far this national park, settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850’s, named after homesteader Ebenezer Bryce and visited by over one million each year was so extraordinarily beautiful and as the story goes, Bryce described this vast reserve as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”.

"one hell of a place to lose a cow" - vast expanse of Bryce Canyon

“one hell of a place to lose a cow” – vast expanse of Bryce Canyon

as far as the eye can see from Sunrise Point and Sunset Point on the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park

as far as the eye can see from Sunrise Point and Sunset Point on the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park

The north to south drive back to Kanab was leisurely via highway 63 to take in closer views of the Grand Staircase Escalante, and the pink cliffs. Earlier on from Farview Point at Bryce National Park majestic sceneries of the natural bridge and other formations including those in Yuvimpa Point and the hoodoos at Agua Canyon were a medley of different shades of red, represented in the dirt and rock, from rust to vermillion to a sandy pink. Just gorgeous!

caves at Kanab

caves at Kanab

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

The next day, we had the North Rim Grand Canyon on our agenda. When we planned this road trip, we wanted to see the Grand Canyon from the north, the east and the south. We already had been to the west entrance coming from Las Vegas when we took our sons to the USA many years ago. The north is less accessible than the south and the west vantages of the Grand Canyon and unless one is already in the vicinity of Arizona and south Utah, it is considerably remote. This is probably why it has fewer visitors per year (only 10% of the total Grand Canyon visitors per year) compared to the other three points. Our day trip to the north rim was much anticipated.
It would take 80 miles of driving south from our base in Kanab to get to the entrance of North Rim Grand Canyon. It was a very pleasant and scenic drive as our ‘caddy’ slowly drove through the Kaibab National Forest (elevation varied from 5,500 to 10,418 feet). The higher up we drove, we felt the drop in temperature at the same time. And as our car climbed up and up, at some point, we found ourselves driving through the snow. It was just breathtaking!

snow on the way to North Rim Grand Canyon

snow on the way to North Rim Grand Canyon

a lot of snow as we got closer to the entrance of the North Rim Grand Canyon

a lot of snow as we got closer to the entrance of the North Rim Grand Canyon

snow everywhere- gorgeous!

snow everywhere- gorgeous!

The North Rim Grand Canyon is closed for the winter but we planned our visit to coincide with the first day of the opening of the summer season in May. In fact, Grand Canyon North Rim’s season is short. From approximately mid-May (dependent on the snow fall and whether roads are passable) to mid- October, visitors who want to explore, hike, and camp in the park keep the rangers busy at the height of summer. Word of advice: Go early(just like the day trip to Bryce). When we reached our destination, there were only 12 cars lining up on the gate; on our way out, there would have been 200 plus in the queue waiting to get in!

first day of the spring/summer season and still snowing

first day of the spring/summer season and still snowing

Once inside the campground and parked, we headed for the Grand Canyon Lodge, built in the 1920’s and funded by the Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad. The lodge reminded me somehow of a scene in the movie based on Stephen King’s book ( made into a movie with Jack Nicholson) , ‘The Shining’. The Lodge however had a more friendly and cosy ambience, walls adorned with memorabilia from the era when it was built and fire blazing in the fireplace.

Grand Canyon Lodge, built in the 1920’s

Grand Canyon Lodge, built in the 1920’s

Brighty the Burro,'Hermit of Bright Angel Creek' Grand Lodge, North Rim Grand Canyon

Brighty the Burro,’Hermit of Bright Angel Creek’ Grand Lodge, North Rim Grand Canyon

Brighty - the Burro

Brighty – the Burro

We stood out on the veranda to take in the magnificent grandeur of the canyon, and tried to commit everything we saw to memory… peaks, plateaus and canyons of different hues of crimson, albeit sprinkled with snow.The north rim is elevated at 8827 ft., which is 1000 ft. higher in altitude than the south rim and about 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler. Just as well we came prepared and were well rugged up. It was freezing (28 degrees Fahrenheit or -2 Celsius that day) and I also felt light headed*. It was a good excuse to go back indoors and into the warmth to peruse at the Grand Canyon Association bookstore and gift shop adjacent to the Lodge. The next stop was at the kiosk for a drink of hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows!

*( 8,000 ft is apparently the point when one feels symptoms of altitude sickness)

view from the Grand Lodge- North Rim Grand Canyon

view from the Grand Lodge- North Rim Grand Canyon

desolate and peaceful at the North Rim Grand Canyon

desolate and peaceful at the North Rim Grand Canyon

The visitation area of the North is smaller than South Grand Canyon with only three major viewpoints. Standing on the bluff, regardless of the low clouds interrupting the vista, somehow, I could see down the canyons and over the peaks. I really felt the quiet and wild beauty of this vast land, offering comfort in reflective moments like this one. Indeed, time was different here. The magnificence of the North Rim Grand Canyon is indescribable; so peaceful and sacred it almost made me cry.

awesome beauty of the Grand Canyon, so quiet and soothing

awesome beauty of the Grand Canyon, so quiet and soothing

taking in the undisturbed beauty of this magnificent canyon-North Rim Grand Canyon

taking in the undisturbed beauty of this magnificent canyon-North Rim Grand Canyon

On our way out from the Lodge, we drove to one of the three overlooks, ‘Point Imperial’ where, even with the snow we saw glimpses of the Painted Desert, Marble Canyon, and eastern Grand Canyon. It was one of those precious moments where I wished we had organised to stay longer and just soak in the magic that surrounded us. But it was not to be and soon we headed back to Kanab via the Coral Pink sand Dunes (between Mount Carmel Junction and Kanab)

views from the lookout-North Rim Grand Canyon

views from the lookout-North Rim Grand Canyon

Still overcome by the awesomeness of the North Rim Grand Canyon, we were delighted with the sight of the pink and coral coloured sand, littered with juniper and pinion pines. On our drive back to Kanab, we veered just off highway 89 to Coral Pink Sand Dunes. This park is popular with campers, picnickers because it has about 22 campground rests, modern service amenities and facilities. Those who want to use the Coral Pink Sand Dunes as their base camp can do so quite comfortably. We didn’t stay very long but managed to take some interesting images to remember.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

The next day came too soon and it was time to pack up and continue our journey towards Monument Valley, Bluff and Canyon de Chelly.

times-square-3

New York to Montreal via the Adirondacks

Autumn in New York and New England were on our globe trotting list so when our son went to Vancouver Canada for an indefinite stay, we decided to pay him a visit…in autumn. But, since flying out of Australia beyond the Asia Pacific region is a long haul we always make the most of a trip by visiting as many places as we possibly can. For this journey, it was an opportunity to revisit New York and to savour outstanding cuisine. It was also a perfectly good excuse to see the autumn foliage in the New England coastline before we make our way to Vancouver in the west Coast of Canada. As if these were not enough, it was a perfect time to satisfy our interest to try the Adirondack (Amtrak) service from New York to Montreal where we would board a Seabourn cruise bound for ports of interest in Eastern Canada, the east coast of USA- New England then Charleston and Florida. A ridiculously long way to get to Vancouver, but why not? So, from Australia, the first stop was New York.

During our last trip to New York, Central Park was knee deep in snow. It was a magical sight! At the time, my husband was in New York on business but we managed to include the usual sightseeing around Lower Manhattan and Wall Street, Battery Park and Staten Island, Tribeca and Little Italy. This time around, we wanted to see Central Park in autumn and enjoy the cool weather, that nip in the air conducive to sightseeing on foot and see the fabulous landscape and colours associated with autumn leaves…red, gold, orange. New York is always an exciting place to visit. So much to see and do but if a traveller only has a few days like we did, it’s best to plan and prioritise. On this trip, other than a stroll to Central park, we chose to explore the streets around the Upper East Side, Midtown and to visit a couple of our favourite galleries and museum.

Central Park is huge…more than 750 acres of urban garden, the first landscaped park in the USA, and an oasis in a concrete jungle right smack in the middle of upper Manhattan. In the 19th century, thanks to the wealthy merchants and residents of New York who agitated for the state government to allocate land to create a park, a place of recreation for the public was designed. It was at the time, America’s answer to the gardens in Paris, London and other European cities. There are different ways to see and explore the park. On our first day, we devoted time to walk from the south entrance and see specific sights right up to the eastern side, the middle and the west. Having said that, there were many tourists who chose to cycle (rent a bike) hire a pedicab tour or take the horse drawn carriage. Of particular interest to us were the Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, the Obelisk, Conservatory Pond, Belvedere lake and Castle (mid –park) and up the northern end, the Harlem Meer and the picturesque Huddlestone Arch.

Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY
Central Park NY

It took us nearly the entire day to enjoy the park but we still had time to have a quick look at the exterior of The Guggenheim museum on our stroll back along 5th avenue (corner 89th). The interesting cylindrical building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is now on our ‘must visit’ place for the next New York visit; one that will be exclusively for a trip to galleries and museums that dot Manhattan’s streets.

A visit to New York has to include a stop at the iconic Grand Central Station, regarded as the busiest rail terminal in the world. Built in 1871 this engineering and architectural marvel is linked to 19th century legendary American rail and shipping magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt. The New York Times has a very interesting YouTube video video about the Grand Central and its secrets.

Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY
Grand Central Station NY

Not only is this building one of New York’s famous landmarks, it is also where one of New York’s older culinary establishments is located (at the basement). Fondly known as The Oyster Bar, we think of this restaurant as the place to go to for some of the freshest and succulent seafood. I sort of knew that oysters were associated with ‘New York food’ along with hotdogs, pretzels and the like but it wasn’t until I saw an image at the New York public library that I was educated about the history of oysters as a staple in New York eateries. According to food historians, this was the case even as early as when the Europeans settled after Henry Hudson sailed into the Hudson river. In fact, even before the Europeans came, the Indians were already harvesting and shucking oysters which were abundant. Oysters were plentiful in the lower Hudson estuary and the waters around Ellis and Liberty islands. In time, enterprising colonists opened up what they called the oyster cellars which became commonplace in the city’s early history. The rich supply of oysters at the time meant that even those who were not wealthy could afford to have the large and succulent New York oysters from street vendors. These were consumed in the streets just like one does these days with hotdogs. According to a former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, oysters were regular and common ingredients to New York food. His book, Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York is a fascinating read for foodies. It was with oysters in mind that we had dinner at The Oyster Bar. Not only does this celebrated restaurant have an interesting menu of raw and a variety of cooked oysters, there are options of other seafood and non-seafood meals as well. The Oyster Bar was established in 1913 in the lower concourse of Grand Central station and has become a New York attraction since then. We think it is a fine testament to New York’s early culinary history.

The Oyster Bar - Grand Central Station
The Oyster Bar - Grand Central Station
The Oyster Bar - Grand Central Station

Celebrity travel writer, Paul Theroux said that travellers (as opposed to tourists) ‘observe’. On every journey, we are by definition ‘tourists’ trying to cram as many things to do, see and experience. However, we do try and make every effort to observe and engage other travellers and locals, simply because we learn from them. We found that by doing so , we are guaranteed to have travel experiences that are more enjoyable and unforgettable. At our dinner at The Oyster Bar, the waiter entertained and educated us with tidbits, trivia and facts about the restaurant, its history and the food we ordered. Next to our table, dining by herself was an elegantly dressed lady, an obvious regular client at The Oyster Bar. We initiated a conversation with her, seeing she was dining alone. We had a most interesting and informative evening as it turned out that she was a former resident of New York. She gave us plenty of advice to chew on for our next intended visit to New York; the one which will focus on galleries and museums. As it turned out, she is heavily involved with the arts herself and was in New York City for a few days to attend gallery function and exhibits.

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant
Location: Grand Central Terminal
Address: 89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, United States
Phone:+1 212-490-6650
Hours: Monday to Saturday 11;30 a.m. to 9:30 pm
Sunday and major holidays: Closed

MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) was the next on our list for this trip. A walking distance from our hotel in upper Manhattan, it is located in Midtown Manhattan in New York City, on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Established in 1929, MOMA has almost 200,000 works of art from around the world; Picasso, Calo, Warhol, Dali… some obscure, most are by famous artists.The list goes on and on. One needs a day to explore the extensive collection and exhibition of modern art expressed in various mediums. Even then, it won’t be a comprehensive viewing. There is so much to see it warrants another visit.
Address: 11 W 53rd St, New York
Hours: Daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30

A leisurely stroll to explore Midtown was invigorating. New York has a unique and exhilarating energy, which is contagious. We could have just kept on walking, absorbing, observing and admiring buildings, monuments and surrounds. A stop at Bryant Garden behind the Public Library took us to the Bryant Park Grill, a charming Parisian style bistro set in the middle of one of Manhattan’s beautiful gardens. Resting our weary feet we could only have drinks enjoyed at their rooftop as we already have made dinner reservations at the Red Eye Grill, across Carnegie Hall. A pity, because a glance at their menu promised what I’m sure would be delicious options of good modern American cuisine. One can choose casual dining in the alfresco setting and the Grill for a more formal dinner.

Bryant Garden
Bryant Garden

New York is a major point of entry for immigrants. Haven’t we all seen and know of the statue of Liberty, an enduring symbol of welcome to those who fled their countries and seek freedom from oppression? A quote from Emma Lazarus ‘poem, The New Colossus, associated with the statue of Liberty- “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – says it all. Consequently, New York is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America. From its early beginnings as a Dutch enclave, early European colonists populated New York but in the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, the Irish, Germans, Russians, many South East Asians, Central Americans and Caribbean came to America via New York and stayed there to call it home. Can you imagine then the variety of food that has since evolved and are identified with New York? The city’s cuisine is so varied and speaks of its rich history. One can find the ethnic influence on street food (stands or trucks serving tacos, hot dogs to name a few), bakeries and delis (bagels, pretzels, pastrami in Reuben sandwiches) diners (clam chowder, Waldorf salad) and yes, restaurants such as The Oyster Bar and the Grill at Bryant Park…both have food in their menu that speak of the layers of flavours influenced by New York’s multi ethnic population.

Our last meal in New York was at the Red Eye Grill, a buzzing and hip restaurant located at 890, 7Th Avenue. Needless to say, the offerings were varied, from seafood, steak and a very modern fusion American cuisine; the restaurant also has a sushi and oyster bar. Surely this has to be indication of the varied mix of cuisine in New York? We had a thoroughly fun evening served by very able hostesses and the live band providing the right mood.

Ending our last night in New York was a stroll back to Midtown to join the hundreds of tourists and pedestrians milling around Times Square. Renowned as the place to be on New Year’s Eve to witness the ‘ball drop’ from the roof of the old New York Times building (now known as One Times Square) this junction between Broadway and Seventh Avenue attract as many as an estimated 50 million tourists every year. The best time to visit Times Square is at night when, as you can imagine, brightly coloured billboards and other outdoor advertising are lit up and street performers and buskers entertain the visitors. Every night, Times Square being the hub of the Broadway theatre district is alive and buzzing and for the tourists, visitors and residents alike there’s a myriad of entertain options. It’s one big party!

Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square
Times Square

Although excited to move on, we were hesitant to leave New York but Eastern Canada beckoned. The next morning we dutifully boarded the Amtrak Adirondack service for Montreal at Penn station.