Archive for the ‘Natural Wonders’ Category

I first discovered the tales of ancient Greek gods and goddesses as a child; right from the start, I was engrossed (and I continue to be long into adulthood). Many stories revolved around the Underworld, the realm of the dead which was located directly under the ground. For most, there was only one way to enter the Underworld, but on a few occasions, people from the “upper world” travelled there by way of a special passage.

During my visit to the cave system located in Postojna, Slovenia, I couldn’t help but imagine that this was what the Greeks had in mind for their Underworld. Equal parts spooky, fascinating, and otherwordly, these caves are like nothing I’ve seen before or since.

The entire cave system stretches about 20 km, but only a fraction of that is accessible to the public. Its existence was known locally for hundreds of years, but beginning in the early 1800s, explorers discovered new and more amazing caverns within and Postojna started a new life as a “show cave”. Railway tracks were installed inside the caves later in the century and then electric lights, making it even easier for visitors to come and it soon became a popular tourist site for travellers.

The various caverns are huge (so claustrophobics need not fear entering this Underworld), with stalactites fairly dripping from the ceilings and great stalagmites rising up like pillars from the ground. Over millenia, water from the nearby Pivka River has dripped into the caves, despositing new layers of limestone upon existing ones, and the result is that much of the rock looks like it’s been frosted or like puddles of melting ice cream (in fact, I had a desperate craving for some gelato as I picked my way along the trail). Considering all the moisture required to create these caves, most find it quite cool and damp inside so a sweater is essential to have on hand for exploring.

One large cavern within has become home to the Concert Hall, with standing room for literally thousands of people. The accoustics in this cave are stellar and there are regular performances by various symphony and musical groups.

Surprisingly to me, the caves are also home to quite a thriving ecosystem, including fish, bugs and small rodents. The most famous inhabitant is the olm, otherwise known as the “human fish”: a type of blind salamander with no pigment in its skin, who survives on shrimp (though apparently can live for years without eating anything) and with a similar life expectancy as humans (check out the link for a great photo and an interesting article from Wired magazine about these unusual animals). I’m sure if Hades, god of the Underworld, had kept any pets, the strange and creepy-yet-cute olm would have been his favourite.


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When it comes to Christmas, I’ve always been a traditional girl, and the idea of spending the holidays anywhere but at home had never really appealed to me. And yet I was excited when, after a particularly trying year, my family decided to head west for Christmas. My brother lives in Calgary and had suggested renting a ski chalet in the resort town of Fernie, British Columbia.

Spending a week in December in the mountains required some preparation, and I headed to Mountain Equipment Co-op to outfit myself with some warm socks, long underwear, and the first pair of snow pants I’ve bought since I was nine (all of which has come in handy in the years since as supreme snow-shovelling gear).

The drive to Fernie from Calgary is a scenic one, along the Crowsnest Pass through the Rockies, and passing by the tragic curiosity that is the Frank Slide. The area is seriously windy and it was a bitingly cold day: I had barely left Calgary, and my long underwear had become my best friend.

The Fernie Alpine Resort, where our chalet was located, was a picture-perfect scene with the trees and the snow and cute little chalets dotting the roads, all surrounded by mountains. The view out our front window was like something out of a postcard. At home,  we’ve had more green Christmases in recent years than white ones; here, we were in the midst of a real winter wonderland. One of the first things we did was decorate the chalet with the Christmas decorations we had brought with us from my brother’s place and soon our (artificial) Christmas tree shone prettily with multi-coloured lights. We strung more lights along the snow-covered balcony where my brothers barbecued dinner one night. Later, we clomped out to the back deck in our winter boots, getting as close to the edge of the hot tub as we could before we absolutely had to peel down to our bathing suits and quickly pop into the hot water. We lounged in the tub, peering at each other through the steam rising from the water, sipping our drink of choice, and feeling the snow fall on our faces (it snowed every night).

Most days, we headed to the ski mountain and spent the better part skiing or snowshoeing, until we headed back in the afternoon, cheeks flushed and hungry for dinner (but not before soaking in the hot tub for our alpine version of Happy Hour).

Despite being away from home, we were able to indulge in our best-loved traditions in this homey chalet in B.C., including turkey dinner with all the trimmings and our annual post-dinner viewing of SCTV’s Christmas specials. It was noisy and cheery, filled with good food and drink, and pretty much all we could have hoped for. Not to mention, we all slept like babies after days of breathing in cold, fresh air while skiing and hiking through the snow.

I was amazed that a family of 10 was able to live there for five days without getting completely on each other’s nerves, but it was a success. So much so, we hope to do it again sometime soon. I will say, I’ll never worry about where we spend Christmas, as long as we do it together as a family.

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Often when I am looking for inspiration (either for this blog or for life in general), I’ll look over all of my photos and marvel over the many wonderful things I’ve been privileged to see. Sometimes, I’ll come across a photo that I’d particularly love to share, but words will often fail me – there is no interesting story attached, it’s just a photo I happened to take that has struck me later as something special.

I was on a hike at a beach somewhere in Iceland when I took this photo. I could retrace my steps and try to figure out which beach, but where this is exactly isn’t really the point. It’s not a place that this reminds me of so much as a feeling. I look at that photo, and I can hear the waves, feel the wind, and smell the salt and wet sand of that beach.

It’s completely by chance that the rock was created in that formation, and yet it belongs there. It’s just rock, but it’s ageless – the sea has washed up along these shores for countless years and will continue to after I’m gone. I can stand at a place like this and truly feel how ancient the Earth is. I can feel a connection to the history of this planet, the people that have come to this beach over hundreds of years and watched the waves flow in and out among those rocks just as I have, and I feel alive in a way I don’t as I go about my everyday life, working and paying bills and so on.

I may never go back to that beach, but I always have this photo.

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* Imagine this sung to the tune of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” for full effect

According to sources in the know (i.e., my tour guide and my guidebooks), Dyrhólaey is one of the best places in Iceland to catch a glimpse of puffins. Located on the southern coast of the island, Dyrhólaey is a black-sand beach surrounded by jagged cliffs in which many seabirds make their nests.

Unfortunately, there were no puffins to be spotted the day we landed at the beach (insert sad face). Apparently, the waters around Dyrhólaey had warmed up the last couple of years, and the fish that puffins like to snack on have moved on to colder spots for now. Since it didn’t feel very warm the day I was there, I must trust this to be true. Were you a vacationer from, say, Australia, who had come from halfway across the world to see a puffin, this situation was devastating (and not an exaggeration, according to one of my tourmates). To compensate, we began “puffin-spotting” every place we stopped from there on. Though we saw many of the stuffed variety, a live puffin sighting was sadly not to be. (There are other spots in Iceland where you can find puffins; we just didn’t stop at any of the others on our tour.)

Even in the absence of these soon-to-be legendary seabirds, Dyrhólaey is a wonderful place to see. Like much of Iceland, it seems a bit forbidding – rocky and hard-looking, but beautiful in its austerity. I picked my way over the rocks,  stood at the edges of the cliffs and just watched the waves rush in and out along the beach and crash against the rocks. There is power and peace in a place like this, if you stop to appreciate it.

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Iceland is a country with a quite varied and unusual landscape, but one thing it has by the truckload is waterfalls. I saw a lot of waterfalls on my trip. In fact, at the beginning, my tour group leader joked (I thought) that each day we would stop at the “waterfall of the day”. The only joke was that most days, we weren’t limited to just one.

Many of my fellow travellers soon grew tired of the parade of waterfalls, but I have to confess that I never did. I love the sound of water rushing over the rocks and feeling the mist on my face. There are some that are basically trickles wearing a path down stone walls to the ground, and others that are powerful run-offs shooting off a cliff face to join a churning whirlpool of energy at the base. No two are alike, and to me, it’s nature at its most mesmerizing.

The base of the waterfall - click on the picture to enlarge and get a better view of the trail that runs behind it

One of the first waterfalls of the day we visited was Seljalandsfoss (“foss” means “waterfall” in Icelandic), located not far from Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that caused mass chaos for European travellers in the spring of 2010. (Don’t ask me to pronounce any of those names – there are sounds in Icelandic that just don’t exist in English, and tried as I might to mimic my guide when he said any of these names, I was hopeless at picking up the pronounciations.)

The surrounding ground is covered in ash from the volcano, which turns into mud due to the mist coming off the waterfall. You can actually walk behind it, but as much as I wanted to, the ground looked slippery and uneven and all I could picture was my klutzy self careening off the rock and into the pool below. Not how I wanted to start my time in Iceland. Some of the others in my group made the trek and looking at their photos after, I wish I had gone – the view from behind a waterfall is not an everyday sight, and it’s too bad I have such a strong sense of self-preservation that I missed out on a rare opportunity.

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I think we can all agree – the best moments are never planned, they just happen.

A few years ago, I accompanied some friends on a trip to Croatia. The last few days were spent in Dubrovnik, and we had rented a three-bedroom flat for the eight of us about a ten-minute walk from the old walled city. Our landlord, a long-time resident of the city, graciously took us on a walking tour our first morning there. We bought him lunch to say thank you, and before we all split up, he offered to take us out on his sailboat the next day. What a treat!

We could not have been luckier: in addition to being an avid sailor, he was also a semi-regular tour guide. We toured around the Dubrovnik harbour, listening to all the stories and history he shared with us. Between the walking tour the day before and that morning’s sail, we had been spoiled: we booked a tour with a professional company for the “wall walk” along the walls of the city later that day, and all later agreed it could not compare to our time with Maro. He was blunt, colourful and knew so many interesting facts about the city, particularly with regard to the siege of the city that occurred about 15 years prior.

This was the colour of the water around the dock. This shot was taken from the edge of the dock, looking straight down.

After sailing for a while, he anchored the boat in a bay so we could go swimming. He took his snorkel and fins and went octopus hunting while we, one by one, jumped into the clear blue sea. As I bobbed around in the water and looked down, it seemed as though I could reach down and touch the sea floor, but after diving underwater, it became apparent how deep the water was where we were. As someone who grew up swimming in the cold, murky lakes of Ontario, I was mesmerized by the crystal-clear water in Croatia.

I lay on my back for a while, floating, drifting, soaking in the sunshine. It was an absolutely perfect moment: relaxing, peaceful, and one I could have lived in for a while. There were a few “sun-kissed” red cheeks and shoulders by the time we pulled anchor and sailed back to the docks, but it was so worth it!

The sail that morning stood out for many of us as a highlight, if not the highlight, of our trip – and to think, it happened all by chance.

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Like many people in recent years, my life has been financially topsy-turvy for a while now. One large consequence (at least for me) was my inability to justify the expense of a vacation away from home – I had caught the travel bug, only to be tragically rendered housebound thanks to the busted economy. 2011 is a brand new year and a fresh start, and I am thrilled that my travel plans are back on track.

I have decided on a trip to Iceland, leaving at the end of June. Not only am I expecting the landscape to be incredibly beautiful, but at that time of year I can experience “White Nights” when the sun sets at midnight and rises at 3:00! Should be memorable, which is what I hope for with every trip I take.

Usually once I’ve booked the trip, it becomes an all-consuming part of my days and it’s all I can think about. I spend the time remaining poring through guidebooks and making lists (to do lists, packing list). If only I could harness the energy I put into feverishly working through all those details, I would never have to pay for an electricity bill again!

Instead, I’ll harness it in a healthier way, through this blog. Guide books, travel accessories, what to pack: I will mull these over here and share with all of you who might be interested.

If you have any tips for me, about Iceland or travel in general that you’ve found to be helpful, please leave a comment and let me know. I love hearing other people’s travel tips and recommendations.

Photo from http://www.iceland2go.com/iceland.asp

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