Beating Jet Lag at Brooklands

The best travel tip I ever received was to sleep on flights to Europe and stay awake on the way home. Then, once landed, stay on the destination’s schedule. If you land in London at noon, for example, stay awake until bedtime – even if it means propping your eyes open with toothpicks. Jetlag is more quickly overcome this way.
My English friends know this technique and always help us adjust to their time zone by coming up with a Landing Day activity when we visit. The idea is that we will be so captivated by our experience that we are simply too excited to sleep. Most recently they surprised us with a visit to Brooklands, the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation.
Built in 1907, Brooklands was an extremely modern track with intentionally-banked curves on which British motor sports advancements were showcased until World War II closed down racing in 1939. Aviators, however, had descended upon the track in 1908 and made it into a dual-purpose track and aerodrome. From here pilots were trained and aircraft produced through both world wars and beyond.

Visitors walk through British Motorsports history in Brooklands Museum.

We entered through a gift shop in one of several buildings in what was once a paddock area. Another building was home to original Grand Prix cars along with the gear maintained them. These were the fastest and most cutting-edge autos of their time. Historical documents, clothes, artifacts, flags and maps adorned the rooms.
Moving on, we found vintage motorcycles and bicycles that had been raced on the Brooklands circuit. A volunteer explained that it is his job to polish up the motorcycles for weekend drivers and visitors. In this room were also shiny gold and silver trophy cups of all sizes commemorating records that had been broken at Brooklands. 
It is possible to don goggles and step into one of the cars at the property’s 4-D theater to relive a race from the 1930s with full motion, sights, sounds and smells that would have been a part of the experience.  The theater also offers a 3-D film of the British Red Arrows flight squad and a 2-D film of the Le Mans circuit.

There is much to take in at historical Brooklands Museum just outside London, England.

Outside, we turned a corner to find a field full of airliners that had been built at Brooklands’ aircraft manufacturing facilities – including a Concorde. This was the birthplace of the SST in partnership with France. Interestingly, the British half had been built with imperial measurements and the French with metric. Miraculously, the two halves came together in the world’s first supersonic passenger airliner. We toured the plane and sat in passenger seats for a simulated flight experience.
After our walk-through, we visited the Concorde’s flight simulator where pilots had been trained. It was originally off-site and full-motion, but when it was relocated to Brooklands, the movers unceremoniously cut it in two, rendering it useless.  Fortunately, engineering students meticulously reconnected every wire, and it is now open for visitors who can see what the cockpit was like when the nose of this supersonic bird dropped for landing.

A rare walk beneath the supersonic Concorde.

We toured the Vickers VC10 that had belonged to the Sultan of Oman with its gold velvet seats and luxurious sleeping quarters, and we peeked in the tiny shack that became the first air passenger ticket booth in the world when it sold a ticket in 1911. Other firsts that happened in the early 1900s at Brooklands include the first British air show and the licensing of the first British woman pilot. Bombed in 1940, it largely survived the war and continued on as one of the most important aircraft production facilities in Britain, with more than 18,000 airplanes of 250 types being built on-site.
Many of the facilities at Brooklands are indoors, a lovely feature for an often-rainy climate. The centrally located café sits in the shadow of the large building that is home to a post-WWII Stratosphere Chamber where aircraft were tested to conditions that simulated those found as high as 70,000 feet, the expected altitude for Cold War-era aircraft being developed on the field. In the same building were scattered myriad aircraft engines and various types of bombs used in WWII with docents available to explain everything.
In another hangar we walked around the Wellington Bomber, a WWII airplane on an ill-fated training mission that had been lost in Scotland’s Loch Ness during a blizzard on New Year’s Eve, 1940. The aircraft was found and resurrected in 1985 and is now being meticulously rebuilt by volunteers at Brooklands. From where we stood, we could see the controls used by the pilots and gunners and imagine them at their dangerous work.
Stepping even farther back in time, the Vimey Pavilion is home to replica airplanes from the early 1900s. One such aircraft, the Roe I biplane, was the first British airplane home-built and flown at Brooklands in 1908 by its creator.
Visiting Brooklands was a marvelous way to beat our jet lag. It turned out to be an excellent off-beat destination to while away an entire afternoon near London – and we didn’t give a thought to being tired.

Off the Road in Door County

There is something refreshing about a brilliant, cool sunrise on a clear Wisconsin morning in Door County. I had just pulled up to a local coffee roasting company and was greeted by the cheery owner who was repositioning pots of bright flowers to better showcase her homey shop and eatery.

At the advice of a friend with local ties, I had arranged to take part in a Coffee College mini-lesson to learn more about the origins, production and consumption of my favorite morning brew. My classmates and I carried steaming mugs of various coffee blends along with us to a comfortable conference room where we began our short lesson. My coffee had an essence of cherry in it – a nod to the cherries that put Door County on the map in the late 1800s.

Roasters add flavor to gourmet coffee blends in Door County, Wisc.

As we would learn from Vicki Wilson, the owner of Door County Coffee & Tea Company and our instructor, where a bean is grown and its specific quality are essential to the flavor of any coffee. On a mural of the world, she pointed to the countries from which her beans are procured and showed us a life-sized example of a coffee tree where she demonstrated how beans are picked by hand. Wilson passed around beans of different qualities and a plate of coffee grounds that exhibited three kinds of coarseness for various brewing methods; I use a coffee press and need a coarse grind, but my husband needs a medium grind for his drip coffee maker.

Along with her hands-on samples, Wilson had an information-packed PowerPoint presentation and answers to all of our questions. Who knew there was so much to learn about this historic and global morning potion? At the end of our lesson, she pointed a remote control at the back wall of the room, and curtains rose to reveal coffee roasters at work in her small factory. In plastic drums along one wall, we watched a worker add flavor to beans that tumbled inside them like miniature cement mixers.

Wilson clearly has a passion for her profession, and she delights in having her whole family involved in various parts of the company she began over two decades ago.

Eyes twinkling with pride – and maybe a touch of caffeine – Wilson said of her initial decision to start the company, “I didn’t know a damn thing about coffee roasting, but I took a leap of faith, and 24 years later, here we are.”

After a creative and hearty breakfast called the Kitchen Sink that included eggs, potatoes and French toast in a sinful and delicious mix, I grabbed a steaming cherry decaf to go and headed north on the peninsula to the Ridges Sanctuary. This, too, was at the recommendation of a friend who knew I was taking a weekend to relax in Door County, and it was a spot-on suggestion.

A lovely, modern interpretive center welcomed me with information about why the area is called the Ridges. Historical documents, satellite images and old photos adorn the walls, and an interactive video explains the area’s topography.

The Great Lake Michigan laps up against Door County’s peninsula at Baileys Harbor, WI, but centuries ago, the lake level was much higher. Each time the lake receded from shore, it left a ridge of sand along the bank that grew trees and bushes and became its own small ecosystem. An aerial view of the sanctuary shows nearly 10 such ridges have resulted from the ebb and flow of Lake Michigan. Between each is a swale of marsh lands, a low-lying area that was once beachfront property before the next ridge was formed.

Visitors enjoy a guided walk through the ridges and swales of Baileys Harbor in Door County, Wisc.

The video helped visualize how these ridges and swales were formed, but it was a guided walk through the sanctuary with a well-educated naturalist that brought it to life. We left the interpretive center on a wooden boardwalk through a lush forest and learned about orchid restoration projects and the difference between deciduous and evergreen conifers. The deeper we pushed into the forest, the more rustic the boardwalk became. We navigated bridges over marshes and padded on mossy paths through forests that varied based on each ridge’s age.

One boardwalk was strikingly different than the rest. It was poker-straight and set in a wide-open swath of clear-cut forest. At either end was a restored structure that I learned were range lights from the mid-1800s. Inside the larger building was a docent who explained that we were in a home as well as a navigational beacon. In its cupola was a bright white light that, when aligned with the bright red light from the smaller building, would guide shipping vessels into the rocky harbor.

The range lights were in service from 1869-1969 when the house evolved into being a minister’s home and then a private residence. Fortunately, it is being restored by donations and has already been re-approved by the US Coast Guard as an operational range light. Who knew there was so much to learn in a northern forest?

For a century, this range light helped guide ships through the dangerously rocky Baileys Harbor in Door County, Wisc.

I was able to walk the range lights’ boardwalk down to a sandy beach along Lake Michigan and dip my toes in its cool water. Tucking into my jacket as the breezes tossed my curls, I savored what had turned out to be a delightful day of relaxing education.

The Enticing Sounds of Seward

Drip, drop; the rain echoed on my rubberized hood, and squeak, squish; my boots scuffed across the rough boat deck for better balance. Click, whizzz…I disengaged the bale on my reel and flung my line out into the rich, green water that pattered playfully in the gentle rain and added to the cacophony of sound that is fishing in the arctic summer waters of Resurrection Bay outside Seward, Alaska.

“Fish on!” yelled a fellow fisherman on the other side of our boat, and I heard thumping feet rush to grab a metal framed net that scraped across the floor and shot out into the water where a 15-pound silver salmon splashed and flipped into it. Plop- another bait hit the water, and then click, click, click, it was carefully reeled in to entice another silver. The anticipation was exciting, but who knew fishing would be so noisy?

Fog and rain surround an intrepid fisherman in search of a prize-winning salmon.

I was in Seward for a long weekend and had every intention of landing enough salmon to ship home and enjoy for months to come. Fortunately, I was there in early August when the silver salmon make their appearance in droves as they move toward the streams where they were born in hope of leaving the eggs that will continue their age-old life cycle. I was on a boat with experienced fisher people and had enough enthusiasm for all of us. Fortunately, I was not disappointed, and soon I was the person yelling, “fish on!” as the crew scrambled to net my catch.

The day before had also been spent on the water, but on a much bigger vessel where I was an observer more than a participant. I was out for the day to look at the wildlife that teems in Alaska’s verdant summer waters. In a chilly August breeze I found my perfect perch near the bow of the boat where I could better see breaching killer whales and diving puffins, but I soon realized that the best view was at the back of the vessel out of the wind where the deck was clear of other adventurers.

Our experienced captain shared statistics and details as he guided his tour toward pods of humpback whales previously spotted by other boats in the area. Gently, he steered us into tight coves where cormorants and puffins perched side-by-side, and gulls swooped down to catch abundant fish for lunch with a screech as they soared by. Near the mouth of Aialik Bay, he introduced his passengers to the endangered Steller Sea Lions who make their homes in these abundant waters. We cozied up to a tiny island where a harem of these giant creatures lazed in the sun and were barked at by the even larger male, as we got too close for his comfort.

Leaving these noisy creatures behind, we headed deep into Aialik Bay past Holgate and Pederson Glaciers to the bay’s namesake, Aialik Glacier. Again, the noises surprised me. As we neared the tidewater glacier I could hear the gentle thump of ice cubes against the hull of our vessel and a sound like tinkling glass as the ice chunks clinked against one another in our wake.

The air cooled even more, and ahead of us loomed the glacier whose massive size was more vast and breathtaking than I had imagined it would be. The blue crevasses of pressed snow folded in on one another and calved in chunks that splashed into the bay with clattering echoes that resounded in the silence left by the wise captain who had stilled his engines for the majestic display.

Two otters play in the icy water near Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Turning back toward Seward, we were escorted out of Aialik Bay by a playful pod of Dall’s Porpoises that surfed the bow waves of our boat and leapt from the water in graceful arcs. Their bon voyage display was matched by the greeting we received from the small and sleek endangered sea otters who make their home in the Seward harbor with a few harbor seal friends. The antics of these aquatic creatures all inspired the whirs and clicks of dozens of cameras that sought to capture their elusive charm.

For those of us who were too gob smacked by reality to think of training a camera on the quickly moving creatures, the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward provides up-close encounters with a variety of marine mammals and birds. Built on the site of the former harbor that was lost in a devastating 1964 earthquake, this building is filled with educational hands-on exhibits and is home to injured animals that are being rehabilitated to go back into their natural habitat. I stood transfixed as an enormous Stellar Sea Lion glided past me with only a thick pane of glass between us.

In another exhibit I learned that puffins swim; they actually dive below the water and flap their wings as if they were high in flight as they seek the fish upon which they feast. Still intrigued by the salmon run, I was fascinated by the mounted fish that show the physical changes endured by these prehistoric animals as they move through their life cycle.

Prehistory was recounted for me again as I drove up toward Exit Glacier through the temperate rain forest. Small signs along the road indicate where the glacier’s toe reached hundreds and thousands of years before people ever recorded their visits to this wilderness. As I moved from ancient forests into more recent forests and then new growth, I could see for myself the effects of the receding glacier has on the land beneath and around it.

Moving downhill from the same Harding Ice Field that feeds the tidewater glaciers I had visited two days before, Exit is the only glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park that is easily accessible by road, and it boasts a creative hands-on nature center where the ice fields, glacial movement and archeology of the area is explained through interactive displays. A knowledgeable park ranger is also available to answer questions and lead a daily hike up to the edge of the glacier.

Exit Glacier peeks through the trees behind a nature center that educates hikers about the rapidly-melting glacier before they hit the trail to visit it themselves.

I opted to explore the windy path on my own and feel the gravity of my impermanence as I neared such an awe-inspiring and primeval force of nature. I could hear the gravel crunch beneath my feet and knew it was deposited there by the giant ice flow. It was one more sound to remember from my summer retreat to Seward and the temperate rainforest of the Kenai Fjords.

Off the Grid and Into the Wild Talkeetna

The last time I was in Talkeetna it was on a rainy day trip out of Anchorage. I tasted local beers, visited art galleries and museums and ducked into gift shops. The quaintness of the town lured me back for a second look, and this summer my husband and I settled in for a few days to explore the area more fully.

Happily we arrived on a day when the clouds parted, and Mt. McKinley showed her majesty in the distance, the tallest mountain peak in North America. Ensconced in a hillside inn, our fourth floor room boasted a wide view of the Alaska mountain range from one window and a salmon stream from another. Surrounded by a boreal forest, the stream was literally hopping with salmon, and we were as captivated by that view as if we were engrossed in a movie; it far surpassed any Oscar-winners we’d seen.

Tearing ourselves away from the view, we wandered into town and listened to live bands while we dined on light, thin-crust pizza and a variety of local brews at a pizza restaurant we’d been told is one of the best in Alaska; we completely agreed. Later we strolled through the evening streets and drifted in and out of galleries until we landed at a local pub for a nightcap. We knew the weather would deteriorate while we were in town, and we asked for some recommendations from the locals about how to make the most of our rainy visit. Without hesitation, a zip line experience and a jet boat tour were at the top of the list, so we headed out and booked our spots.

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we found ourselves suited up and strapped into gear for my first-ever zip line escapade. This was unlike anything I had done before. We started with ground school, and our two guides teased and laughed with us as we learned the very serious safety rules of the game. Both extremely experienced guides, they were a fun-loving couple who winter away from icy Alaska…in Antarctica! After testing out our abilities on the “bunny hill,” a short zip only six feet off the ground, we were ready to roll.

We clipped into the safety lines, climbed to the top of a swaying tree and had our first real zip across a road. One at a time we zipped what we thought was a daunting line – until we got to the next one and the next. Each increased in length and speed until we were zinging through the branches like wild monkeys. Once aware of how to “cannonball,” we all pulled our legs up tight and increased our speed down the lines. We braved suspension bridges and rappelled from one platform to another. Our hosts, Sandra and Loomy, took photos, told stories and created camaraderie for our group that made our fun complete. Despite this frivolity, however, they never once took their eyes or hands off of our safety equipment. We zipped across an Alaskan lake and had only to worry about the wind in our hair and our reflections below.

The rain began just as we loaded the van back to town, and although the company will zip in any weather except dangerous winds, we were glad to have had our zip on a cool, dry morning in mid-August when fall was in the increasingly misty air. Our guides explained that summer is over when the fireweed is finished blooming. This glorious calendar plant gets its name from its resilience after wild fires; it is always the first plant to return. It blooms from the bottom to the top of long stalks. When the hot pink blooms on the top come out, it’s time for summer to end. We were in Talkeetna just as the last bright blossoms were beginning to fade.

My husband and I are both pilots, and we spent much of the rest of that day knocking around the local airports. We admired airplanes and talked to people who told us about the history of Talkeetna as an important aviation stopping point. It is from here that people are taken up to hike Denali or to land on its glaciers for a thrilling few minutes. Rescue missions are an important part of the airports here, but sight-seeing is happily more frequent. Infamous bush pilot Don Sheldon developed the art of glacier landings from the Talkeetna airport, and he flew rescue and supply missions out of Talkeetna, too, in the mid 1900s.

Across the street from the airport is an old cemetery with chilling reminders of how remote and dangerous Alaska can be. Old propellers stick up from the ground to serve as tombstones of fallen pilots, and a well-maintained wall of plaques names every person who has lost their life on Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range. Mountain hikers have to check in at the ranger station in Talkeetna, and over a thousand come each year to face the challenges of Denali.

With the rain coming down at a steady clip the next morning, we downed our homemade breakfasts – private B&Bs are wonderful for this – and showed up at Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures. Reviews on line had me curious. The two words that kept reappearing in them were “amazing” and “boring.” Which would it be?

We checked in and were shown on a map where our boat would take us. Talkeetna sits at the confluence of three rivers, and natives used to store their fish here; the name of the town comes from this bounty and literally means ‘place where food is stored near the river.’ The map showed the other rivers that merge at this point to make the Big Susitna that flows on down to the Cook Inlet and out to sea. Our five-hour tour would take us from the confluence up into the Susitna and ultimately into Devil’s Canyon where Don Sheldon once bravely landed a floatplane to rescue Conservation Corps workers from high rapids when their exploration vessel had smashed to pieces.

But first we had to get to our boat. A short bus ride away, we wandered through the woods with the man who designed the boats, although he kept this detail humbly to himself. He is one of only two men who have succeeded in navigating the high rapids of Devil’s Canyon, and he designed steady, strong, high-powered jet boats so that others can enjoy the thrill, too. He passed us over to our crew, and we were off.

Captain Isreal Mahay and his naturalist partner, Jennifer, shared details and history about the rivers as we launched, and they paused the boat periodically to point out wildlife and tell interesting and relevant stories. Mahay, for example, is the son of homesteaders who came to Alaska in the 1970s to stake their claim. The eventual birth of their son forced Mahay’s parents into town with running water and electricity, but the family’s love of the area never faded, and they have been on this river ever since. We could see Mahay’s love of Alaska, the river and Talkeetna radiate in his warm smile.

As we moved deeper into the wilds, Mahay reminded us that we were completely off the grid. For more than three hours we had no cell service, and the nearest roads were many miles away. In some spots we could see the flag-stop railway that is used by people in the bush to get into town when they don’t have access to roads. Deeper and deeper we went into the untamed wilderness. Trees scarred by spring ice floes bent into the water, glacial flour clouded the waves, and waterfalls splashed down rocky walls into the river. Our guides pointed out bald eagles, and we spotted a bear cub swimming across the river. In another spot, a bear was fishing for her dinner.

“I want people to know what we are doing and how remote we are out here,” explained Mahay.

Mist hung on the Talkeetna Mountain Range to our right, and the air was crisp and clean when we opened the windows of our cozy, dry vessel. When asked how anyone could find this natural beauty boring, Mahay was truly puzzled. Perhaps we are too addicted to high stimulation video games and movies, and the instant gratification of cell phones and microwave meals. To be off the grid even for a few hours was extremely relaxing and stimulating in a naughty way, too, that brought cheers from everyone on the boat.

But for the adrenaline junkies, just wait…there’s more. At the upper end of the Susitna journey are Class 5 rapids, and this boat is made to handle them. Mahay expertly guided our group into strong rapids where he held the boat steady so guests could snap photos of the raging water from dry safety. Once finished with the photo op, he spun the boat around, and we wooshed and splashed through the wild rapids back down the river.

“Every day I feel like I’m taking people on a big adventure – cause that’s what we’re doin!” Mahay beamed; I firmly believe he was as delighted with the adventure as we were.

After a boxed lunch served as we shot back down the river, we stopped for a nature hike that included a replicated trappers cabin and native encampment where we learned how the smoked fish from this abundant area was stored in a pit lined with sticks and birch bark. Our guide carried a gun in case we ran into an unruly bear, but we happily emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, this part of the tour was not off the grid, and angry cell phones were beeping, chirping and pinging as they demanded the attention of people who had ignored them for the previous few hours.

In an age of pounding video games, cell phone addictions, and constant stimulation, our trip to Talkeetna offered us an opportunity to fly through the trees on a cloudy morning and delve into the wild for one afternoon of adventure. Boring? Never. How can wild nature, untouched by man be boring? We had experienced more than just a view through the trees or a boat ride, we’d had a trek through time into the wilds of Alaska; boreal forests, raging rapids, wild bears, and a nature hike were just the icing on the cake.

 

 

Following Harry Potter Through London

Shopping in Harry Potter's London

It is possible to peer into the very shop window used in the Harry Potter movies at Warner Brothers Studio in London.

“So, I’m a Gryffindor, which house is yours?” asked the blonde-braided girl from Idaho. Her question was directed at our shy thirteen-year-old Harry Potter fan on her first trip to England. In line at King’s Cross Station to visit the magical Platform 9 ¾ with her muggle sister, mother and grandmother, it was a relief to be approached by a kindred spirit. The two fans giddily launched into a discussion of the books and movies that connected them and compared notes about their pilgrimage to London to trace the steps of their favorite characters.

In a city that is full of history and rich in personalities both real and imagined, it is fun to visit the places made popular by books and films and then find the secret pockets that may have inspired them. Our journey began with a stop at Warner Brothers Harry Potter studios where the eight now-famous films were shot. The visit was a surprise for our birthday girl who was asleep in the car after a long flight from the United States. When we shook her awake to look around, her eyes grew with delight and her mouth fell open. This was an enchanted place she did not even know existed, and we were all unsure about exactly what to expect.

Unlike the recreated Harry Potter World in Orlando with rides and shops, this place is the actual studio where the actors worked and were educated as they made the movies based on J.K. Rowling’s world-renowned novels. Here were the sets, costumes and props that were lovingly designed by craftsmen and artists who worked diligently for up to ___ months on any given scene. This was where we could learn how the giant monsters were made and take a turn with a green screen to fly on a broom. Through audio guides and informative videos we learned countless facts and details. The Gryffindor Common Room set, for example, had flyers on the walls made by the actor/students to set the scene more realistically, and the tomes in Dumbledor’s office are mostly London phone books covered with carefully constructed leather bindings. In several areas of the studios we found out how Hagrid was made to look so gigantic compared to his actor peers, and throughout the tour we used special passport booklets to gather stamps that showed our progress through the exhibits.

Our favorite part, however, came at the beginning of our visit when the guide asked if there were any birthdays being celebrated among the guests. Our enthusiast was the only one, and after she made her way to the front of the crowd, she was invited to open the oversized wooden doors to the echoing Great Hall of Hogwarts. As she pushed the heavy doors open, we were treated to a magnificent view of the vast, empty chamber complete with stone floor, fireplace and headmaster’s table ready for incoming students. Authentic costumes from the four houses lined the side walls, and the real sorting hat rested on a platform toward the front of the room. Our guide explained the technical background about how it was made to talk in the movies.

In the back lot after a butterbeer and a sandwich, we visited the Knight Bus and the house where Harry had lived with his parents before Voldemort brutally murdered them. Squeezed into the corner of the courtyard is the house on Privet Drive where Harry subsequently lived with his aunt, uncle and cousin before being rescued into an unexpected life of wizadry on his eleventh birthday by the half-giant Hagrid. The rickety and imbalanced suspension bridge from the back side of Hogwarts to its quidditch pitch was open for a few visitors at a time, and we had an opportunity to sit on Hagrid’s motorcycle and in the flying car that Ron and Harry took to school in the second movie when they missed the Hogwart’s Express that left from Platform 9 ¾, the very one we visited later in our visit to London.

The rest of the trip revealed its Harry Potter connections like little rare gems that emerged from the cobbled streets of London. It was on a Jack the Ripper walking tour through London’s East End that we found a narrow Victorian alley that we learned was the inspiration and on-site filming location for Diagon Alley. Detailed scenes had been shot at the elaborate movie set we had visited days before, so it was fun to walk the real alley…twice.

At Hampton Court Palace on the western edge of London we found the inspiration for the Hogwarts Great Hall. In this so-called Pleasure Palace of Henry VIII, the hall’s ornate ceiling is filled with majestic and intricate details that were carved at the direction of the king and his then-wife, Anne Boleyn. It felt eerily similar there to the hall in which we had stood at the film studios. They even had a table at the front of the hall set for the nobility just as the Hogwarts hall had been set for the teachers’ head table. The tapestries on the great hall walls and grand windows set a scene that felt ready for magic.

Also at Hampton Court Palace we found a hedge maze that launched us directly into the fourth Harry Potter movie in which participants in a tri-wizard tournament fight for their lives in exactly such a maze. For £5, we could walk through it and imagine ourselves in competition for the tri-wizard cup, just as Harry Potter had done.

Old stone buildings and wrought iron fences make many parts of London feel like a stroll through a Harry Potter novel.

Our Potter fan is not a shopper by nature, and she was baffled when we wanted to drag her to a department store, but we assured her this would be worth the trip. She had just asked what the big deal was when we rounded the corner and emerged in front of Liberty, a world famous department store with a 92-year-old, Tudor-styled exterior that looks like it should have featured in the films along Diagon Alley even though it didn’t. Ornate wooden stairs led us to uneven timber floors that connect small rooms and balconies. In one corner, we even found a tiny wooden elevator with intricate carvings that made us all feel like we were whisking floor to floor while shopping for Hogwarts robes or a Yule Ball gown.

Even a trip to Covent Garden for dinner before the theater revealed a Harry Potter gem when we wandered into a paper shop that sold quill pens and ink. The clerk pulled out a piece of parchment on which we could test the quills and decide if a feather pen or wooden one would be best for our Hogwarts fan. She decided on a wooden pen with a well of green ink that would replicate the ink used in the first movie on the many acceptance letters that flooded the Privet Drive cottage after Harry’s unkind and wildly non-magical aunt and uncle tried to keep him from knowing about the wizardry school and his place in it.

Covent Garden offers creative shops where even a quill for a Hogwarts student can be found.

Our Harry Potter tour had been largely unplanned and unexpected; the trip had been more about visiting friends and seeing sights. But the magic that it inspired in each of us was palpable, and the connection it created between fans and travelers was an unforeseen bonus to an already enchanted trip.

Rarotonga, Cook Islands

 

Coral toes find a touch of green on a coral shore of Rarotonga.

Pa, a revered medicine man, prays for the well-being of the group he has led to the highest point on Rarotonga.

 

A tropical sunset over an infinity pool at one of the family-owned resorts on the island.

 

 

Papua waterfall invites tired hikers to take a refreshing plunge into its cool waters after a trek to Te Rua Manga (The Needle) atop Rarotonga, the capital island of the Polynesian Cook Islands. (Lesley Sauls)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step over step, step over step. I focused on the sinewy brown calves ahead of me as they carefully climbed over twisted roots and jagged rocks higher and higher through the tropical jungle of Rarotonga to its highest point, an enormous rock called Te Rua Manga (The Needle). The medicine man I followed, Pa Teuruaa, said our reward would be a silent meditation at an intensely spiritual place.

 

A visit with him hadn’t been the reason for my trip to this tiny island nestled just south of the Equator and east of the International Date Line, the capital of the Cook Islands. He was an unexpected surprise. I had come with friends to explore the islands for a week and was delighted when our guide suggested a hike across Rarotonga with an experienced medicine man. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to take my tropical holiday into a more spiritual realm.

 

Before we had met with him, though, my group spent a couple of days exploring. After picking up drivers licenses and a couple of mopeds, we scootered the circumference of the island capital on an 18-mile coral road, Ara Metua, that had been laid by native Rarotongans in the 11th century – long before Captain Cook happened upon the island chain. In this country there are no stoplights, and buildings are limited in size by the height of the island’s tallest palm tree. We stopped at a small hotel for a tropical cocktail and lounged in hammocks strung from palm trees by the lapping lagoon’s edge.

 

A petanque championship at another resort lured us to roll tiny metal balls across a grassy poolside lawn with the resort’s staff and owners and splashed between plays in the warm, clear pool. Strict Cook Islands law prevents property from being owned by foreigners or sold in any way. Instead, land is owned by the six tribes who originally inhabited the island and is handed out to family members as they marry or have need, so hotels and resorts are family-run and small – from the most spare to the most elegant – and at any restaurant or hotel, patrons are the owner’s guests and treated as friends.

 

We dined al fresco at a large restaurant where dancers on floating stages twirled fire and twisted their hips in provocative grass skirts to tell the Cook Islands history through music and dance. After the show, the restaurant’s owner, a tribal chief, generously greeted all of her guests. We felt like family in this island nation where everyone freely shares and helps one another. Without the barriers of land ownership, people pluck fruit from each other’s trees and flowers to tuck behind their ears – right side for married people and left for people who are looking.

 

We hired snorkel gear from The Big Fish Dive Centre, a property expats rent from an islander, to explore the reef around Rarotonga. The company runs regular dive trips to deeper water, but we were there on a day when the ocean was churning and visibility was low. Our decision to snorkel in the protected lagoon paid off. We were rewarded by discovering octopus, parrot fish and a variety of corals and sea life that were brightly colored, interestingly shaped and completely unfamiliar.

 

By the time we went to the island’s weekly open-air market, we were comfortable in the easy way of the island. We wandered along to the drumming sounds of local musicians and followed our noses to a variety of culinary treats. Rainbows of scarves adorned small tents in which polished wood salad tongs were displayed beside intricately carved statues representative of the island nation’s long history. Children darted among stands where I found local Nomi fruit juice, known internationally for its restorative properties. At one booth, a young man talked me into buying two bracelets made from the taro seeds he had gathered with his sister, and at another stand I found the South Pacific’s legendary opalescent black pearls.

 

We had only just settled into the crowded atmosphere when it was time to join up with Pa, our medicine man. In the market full of colorfully dressed men and women, most with flowers behind their ears, Pa stood out in his black shorts and naked chest. He had a vine tied around each calf and old shoes on his feet. His wide smile was warm and welcoming below his dreadlocked hair, and he greeted each of us with a hug that said he knew us before we’d even met.

 

Together we drove to the trailhead that would lead us to The Needle. We were a happy group of carefree travelers until our driver flung us out on a dead-end road and zoomed away with a toot and a wave.

 

Then we were alone with Pa, our man of the jungle. He draped his shoulders with long, wide leaves to keep himself cool and pulled out a jar of fermented Noni fruit to spread liberally on our shoulders and arms as a natural insect repellant. The pungent smell was eye-watering. Then he stood our small group in a ring and asked for silence as he blessed us in his native tongue, in a Buddhist chant and in a Christian prayer. The tone was set as we began a meditative walk to the heart of the island, and we silently copied Pa’s example of mindful foot placement on a rugged trail.

 

At the top of the mountain, Pa pulled out sweet, succulent star fruit that bore no resemblance to the anemic, hard buffet-line garnishes I had known. With fruit juice dripping from our chins, we had time to ask him our questions. One man asked what direction Pa would give a divorcee, and Pa laughingly said that no one could predict the future. I asked how a person could find balance and inner peace, and he became more serious.

 

“You can climb the holiest mountain with the holiest man, and you will only find peace in yourself,” he said gently.

 

Pa told us to walk or swim for meditation in silence – and for support with friends. In a world of many boundaries, he advised us to move forward in clear moments and to pause for introspection when things seemed less clear. He challenged us to look into the mirror once each day and really like ourselves – a difficult but rewarding task – and he told us to think about ourselves first before helping others.

 

“How can you help others when you are not healed yourself?” he asked.

 

From the top of Rarotonga all things seemed possible. The jungle was a lush green carpet around us, and the most daring of our group climbed to the top of the actual giant stone that was The Needle – prompting 141 prayers from Pa for his eventual safety. We all felt alive and spiritually renewed, and there was a sense among us that we were ready to begin the rest of our lives.

 

We leaped down the trail on the back side of the mountain like gazelles. We hopped over giant boulders, danced across clear running streams and clambered over fallen trees. Our feet padded on the mossy path, slipped on leafy inclines and gripped sandstone ledges with a refreshed energy that made us giddy. At the bottom of the trail, we peeled off our clothes and dove into the refreshing pool of a gushing waterfall to complete our symbolic baptism. Pa joined us and squeezed a tropical ginger flower’s pulp into our open hands so that we could use it as a natural shampoo. We scrambled up the Papua Falls and jumped from the top with squealing abandon.

 

“This is our defining moment,” one woman called out from the mossy cliff before leaping out into the warm air.

 

And so it was.

#          #          #

When you go:

 

Getting there:

Several airlines partner connecting flights through Auckland to Rarotonga, but the only direct flight from the United States is on Air New Zealand out of Los Angeles.  It leaves on Sunday night to arrive in the islands at sunrise on Monday morning and returns the following Saturday night to arrive in Los Angeles midday on Sunday. This round-trip flight lasts about 10 hours and costs around $1,000.

 

Where to stay:

There are no high-rise hotels on Rarotonga or anywhere in the Cook Islands; travelers delight in the luxury of smaller resorts.  Pacific Resort (www.pacificresort.com) on Muri Beach is one of the largest with about 40 guest suites.  At Royale Takitumu (www.royaletakitumu.com), accommodations are more intimate with 10 private villas. The Little Polynesian Resort’s 14 suites are secluded on the southern tip of the island (www.littlepolynesian.com), and the Crown Beach Resort offers spectacular sunsets on the west side of the island. All resorts enjoy white sand beaches, and most offer dining, pools and petanque courts – the islanders’ version of lawn bowling.

 

Getting around:

Ara Tapu is the only road around the island, although some smaller roads reach toward its jungled center. City buses travel clockwise and counterclockwise around the 20-mile circumference at regular intervals and can be flagged down from anywhere along the road.  To travel more independently, a visitor can obtain a Cook Islands drivers license, good for a year, which is required for moped rentals. To see the jungle depths of the island, Coconut Tours offers an exciting way to drive Ara Metua – the ancient road- learn about jungle plants and take in ocean views from the highest points reachable by road. Hiking trails to The Needle are well marked on maps, and any resort will be able to arrange a guide – perhaps even with Pa.

 

Where to eat:

Many restaurants beckon to passers-by, and almost all offer fresh produce, savory seafood and a waterfront hammock.  A casual lunch at Sails Restaurant and Bar can include local Matutu beer and traditional ika mata – fresh tuna with lemon and coconut cream. For dramatic dining, cultural entertainment is available at several locations. Te Vara Nui Village provides afternoon education and experiences in the legends, costumes, medicines and history of the Cook Islands.  When night falls, the village comes to life on an overwater island where dancers bring the history to life after guests enjoy a generous Umu Buffet dinner: www.tevaranui.co.ck

 

Diving:

The Dive Centre Ltd is owned by Sabine Janneck and Sascha Schmitt, expats who are eager to share the beauty of Rarotonga’s underwater paradise:  www.thidivecentre-rarotonga.com

 

More information:

For more detailed information about the Cook Islands and all that is available there, visit www.cookislands.travel.

New Buffalo, MI

Ryan Gerard, owner of Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., teaches a stand-up paddle-boarding class on the banks of the Galien River in Michigan’s Harbor Country.

 

At Warren Dunes State Park in Berrien County, Mich., deeply wooded hiking trails give way to sugary sand dunes that tower hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan

The Round Barn Winery in southwest Michigan is one of many on the Lake Michigan Wine Trail which take advantage of climate and soil conditions similar to regions in France and Germany.

Lake Michigan is chilly in October, but the surfing is great!

Ready and Willing to Surf Icy Lake Michigan

“Are you ready?” asked surf instructor Ryan Gerard as he pointed me toward the beach ahead of an approaching wave.

“No, but I’m willing!” I called back over the sound of rushing wind and whitewater.

It was mid-October, and as I approached a landmark birthday I found myself surfing for the first time. But from atop my long board, I wasn’t gazing at palm trees and tropical beaches; I was swooshing toward western Michigan’s shores, ablaze in the reds and golds that were a harbinger of the soon-approaching snow.

Despite losing feeling in three cold toes, the rest of my body was toasty warm in a wet suit provided by Gerard’s Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., where I’d come for a much-appreciated break from my usual routine. In an attempt to step out of my box, I’d signed up for a surfing class with this small shop that had been named after the Great Lakes’ shores.

“There are more than 10,000 miles of shoreline on the Great Lakes,” Gerard told me. “That’s more than the East and West coasts combined.”

He went on to explain that the windy days of autumn are perfect for surfing because of the wind movement down Lake Michigan. But autumn isn’t the only surfing season. In New Buffalo, they surf every month of the year — sometimes even dodging ice sheets in hooded and bootied wet suits to catch a wave.

“We can’t use dry suits,” Gerard said when asked how surfers stay warm in the frigid water. “They don’t allow as much flexibility as wet suits and could be dangerous in cold water if compromised.”

Lake water is a bit less buoyant than salty ocean water, but it’s also a little easier to swallow in the occasional unanticipated gulp. And if the waves are less predictable, they are also more forgiving and an excellent place for a beginner to learn how to ride. People in my class ranged in age from 20s to 70s, and no matter what their skill level, they left the beach with beaming faces and well-earned bragging rights.

Third Coast also provides wet suits to their stand-up paddling students. Sometimes called “SUP,” as in “whassup,” the activity is becoming popular across the country because it can be done by almost anyone on almost any kind of water. Lakes, rivers, oceans and bays are all excellent places to paddle.

“Paddle-boarding is more approachable for more people,” said Gerard. “If you can kayak, then you can probably paddle-board.”

How could I resist? I whipped on another wet suit and spent an afternoon tackling this new outdoor water sport. After learning how to maneuver the paddle and use core muscles to balance on the 32-inch-wide board, I headed out to SUP the Galien River with my fellow adventurers. My upper body was still sore from powering a surfboard through beating waves, so the gentle motion of quiet paddling was a welcome change. Instructors Jack Nordgren and Chris Peterson joined Gerard to guide us down the lazy stream toward Lake Michigan. Each dip of my paddle swirled orange and brown leaves that had drifted from the vibrant trees along the shoreline. It was an unusually magical way to be immersed in Michigan’s autumn glory that would soon be hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow.

A hike through Warren Dunes State Park offered another way to soak up the natural beauty of Michigan’s southwest coast. More than a million people annually take advantage of the 1,952-acre park for camping, hiking, sledding, astronomy, snowshoeing, sand-boarding and swimming, and I got to explore its six miles of hiking trails with new water-loving friends who were ready to have a day on terra firma. The canopy of color above our heads was a natural cathedral from which we emerged atop a 260-foot dune of sugary sand to find a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan and the faint outline of Chicago’s skyline hovering on the horizon.

The dunes along this and other Great Lakes are the result of complex wind and erosion patterns and differ from desert dunes in that they are often covered with vegetation that stabilizes them and adds to their beauty.

Our guide, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment Park Ranger Matt Porter, said that the park’s diversity draws year-round day trippers and campers.

“This is a fun park,” he said of Warren Dunes. “It’s an extremely mayhem kind of park.”

The part of my psyche that was re-energized by a connection with nature was ready to get in balance with the parts of my body that were a touch sore from physical exertion. At Revive Spa, Lithuanian native Alma Zastarskiene relaxed and warmed my aching muscles with an all-organic massage in a dimly lit and lightly fragranced room.

After being relaxed by Zastarskiene, it seemed the perfect time to explore a few of southwest Michigan’s wineries which have taken advantage of soil and climate that mimic some French and German regions. Not surprisingly, their common theme seemed to echo the easy-going creativity that I found in the Third Coast Surf Shop.

“California wineries don’t have the same pressures that we do here in Michigan,” explained Tabor Hill’s vice president and general manager, Paul Landek, of the state’s varied climate and shorter growing season.

I got the same message from Hickory Creek’s winemaker and manager, Michael de Schaaf, who has embraced those challenges, too. Instead of trying to manipulate his grapes to produce equivalent wines every year, he lets the rain and sun determine the best outcome for every vintage.

“Big guys have schedules to meet. I don’t have to worry about that, so I wait for the grapes,” he told me.

De Schaaf’s easy manner was typical of everyone I met in Harbor Country, and it was that attitude that has motivated me to plan a quick return to southwest Michigan.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: New Buffalo, Mich., a 90-minute drive from Chicago, is easily accessible from South Bend, Ind., and Grand Rapids, Mich., airports. New Buffalo’s Amtrak station is located in the center of town and is an easy walk to nearby hotels.

Where to stay: Both the Marina Grand, www.marinagrandresort.com and Harbor Grand, www.harborgrand.com, resorts boast indoor pools and harbor views and are walking distance to downtown New Buffalo.

Outdoor adventuring: Third Coast Surf Shop: 269-932-4575 or www.thirdcoastsurfshop.com; begin_of_the_skype_highlightingWarren Dunes State Park: www.harborcountry.org

Time for you: Revive Spa: 269-469-9111 or www.therevivespa.com

Wine touring: www.lakemichiganshorewinetrail.com; www.michiganwines.com

Dining: Cozy up by the fire at The Stray Dog, www.thestraydog.com, or savor luscious plum or blueberry preserves after lunch at the Retro Cafe, 269-469-1800. For a gourmet dinner with a local flair, visit the Bentwood Tavern at the Marina Grand Resort or enjoy the cosmopolitan quality of Copper Rock Steakhouse at the Four Winds Casino Resort, www.fouwindscasino.com.

Night life: Find live entertainment, drama, comedy and music at the Acorn Theater, www.acorntheater.com, in Three Oaks, or try your luck at the Four Winds Casino Resort, www.fourwindscasino.com, where kids and adults can find enticing activities.

Believe in Santa…

I have been thinking recently about the person responsible for leaving treats in stockings and gifts by the tree on Christmas morning. Who munches on cookies washed down with warm milk by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree? I believe it may be Santa Claus.

Do I think a jolly old man slithers down my chimney on Dec 24? Hmm…I’m not really sure. Although I do leave the cookies just in case. I think Santa Claus is alive in the spirit that ties us all together. At Christmas time, music is gentle and kind, people are generous and thoughtful, and the world around me twinkles with merriment and joy. Neighbors call out holiday greetings, children giggle and toss snow, families come together. It is in the dark hours of late December that we seek goodness between each other and share the bounty of our lives.

Last Christmas was a hard one for our family – our first to be separated into two homes. But it was alive with the spirit of Santa Claus. A friend surprised us with a card at the Christmas Tree Farm saying that our tree was her gift to us. A neighbor came by to help decorate it and brought us shiny new ornaments that sparkled in the colored lights while another came by with her massage table to give us Christmas massages. Throughout the month, we found gifts from a secret Santa peppering our home in unexpected places. Four days before Christmas, I got a call that my dad and step-mom were going to surprise us with a holiday visit from Indiana, and for the first time in over 25 years, I had all of my parents under the same roof for Christmas Eve and woke with them and my children on Christmas morning.

But even more was happening outside my home. In the weeks before Christmas, a good friend survived a dangerous surgery. Another friend’s husband found an amazing job that would allow her to stay home with their young daughters full-time. A woman I know who was afraid her cancer wouldn’t allow her to live through Thanksgiving found liberation from her pain enough to host Christmas Eve with extended family. My neighbor’s daughter healed from a surgery that she had to undergo three days before Christmas. With enough thought, everyone could remember something wonderful that happened around the time of year when Santa Claus makes his appearance. I found a few more pennies on the ground, I had good interactions at difficult meetings, I heard favorite songs and noticed the clock turn 11:11 more frequently (an enchanted wishing time). I magically found a sense of calm in the middle of an emotionally stormy time. It’s like that every year during the Christmas season.

Is it miraculous? Is it religious? I don’t think so. I think Santa Claus is simply the energy between us – the tie that binds us. At Christmas time in our culture, we peel off some of our cynicism and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to the kindness of others. Maybe there is a jolly old man in a wooly red suit sitting in the frozen tundra of the North Pole helping us to find this freedom to give and show the respect and love that we should show each other year-round. Maybe there isn’t. But instead of a bumper sticker asking what would Wellstone, Jesus or John Lennon do, what about a bumper sticker asking what would Santa do? WWSD?

Surely he wouldn’t pack away his good will with Christmas ornaments into a box in the garage on New Year’s Day. I can’t imagine him lying, honking and shouting unkind words to someone who doesn’t notice the light has changed or underhandedly trying to manipulate documents or situations to benefit himself. No, Santa would find the good in any situation. He would smile and open the door for the person next to him – of any age. He would donate what he could and would share his time and effort if he couldn’t give money or things. He would think before he spoke and wouldn’t lash out in hostility to innocent people because he was having a bad day. He would offer ten positives for every creatively constructed negative bit of information, and he would look for opportunities to share sparkly magic. He would compliment a pretty hat, he would notice bright earrings, he would be interested to meet a new friend. He would listen to friends’ concerns, remember their important days, light candles or pray to send energy to people having important events in their lives. And in so doing, he would bolster and grow his own stockpile of love and happiness because it would come back to him tenfold. How else could he share his magic with so many people around the world?

How can I not believe in Santa Claus? I live with the hope that I can somehow emulate what I think he stands for. I strive to share his magic with the people around me by being open, honest, loving, kind, fair and thoughtful. I donate my time. I try to treat people with respect –even when they aren’t returning the favor. I try to see where help is needed and offer a hand whether it’s picking up a dropped earring or raising funds for field trips. I’m human, and I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but when in doubt, I try to live up to Santa’s example and tap into his spirit – at any time of the year.

And so, I’ll always leave out carrots for reindeer and look out at bedtime on Christmas Eve to see if Rudolph is dashing through the park outside or flying overhead in the starry, cold sky. And on Christmas morning, I’ll always look to see if the cookies are eaten – just in case. I don’t need gifts. I have plenty. I have two beautiful daughters that I love and of whom I am utterly proud, my mom has moved to Eau Claire, my brother and dad are healthy and having good lives. I have friends that surround me in my darkest days with hugs, love and support that I would never have imagined. My cup overflows. No, I don’t need things. I just wish we could all remember to keep out the spirit of Santa Claus when we pack away our ornaments and decorations. I wish we could continue treating each other with the love and respect he inspires in December. I see that devotion come out every year, I hear stories of unexpected kindness, and I find unexplained magic in my daily life. Is it a jolly man, a spirit, an energy? I don’t know, but I feel it and I see it shine when Santa Claus is near. And because of that, I believe.

Christmas Gifts

With the holidays fast approaching, people are trying to find the perfect gifts to give.  Some want to give a sentimental gift, others want to show their humorous side.  For many people this will be a chance to show how they feel about someone, and for others the gift they give will stylishly fulfill an obligation.  In any case, everyone wants to come up with a gift that will convey just the message they want to send.

Sometimes the memory of a perfect gift outlasts the given item.  The thoughtfulness or creativity that was woven into it inspires a happy feeling for years to come.  I recently asked a few women around the Chippewa Valley if they had any such gift memories to share.  Some had ones that warm the heart, and others had funny memories.  Here’s what they said:

Jan – One year when my sister didn’t have much money, I came downstairs Christmas morning, and her sewing machine cabinet was there by the tree. She wanted to give it to me for my gift, as she knew I loved to sew and didn’t have one. I protested, saying it was too much, but she insisted, a little teary-eyed. That was pretty cool.

Barbara – I grew up in a family where money was tight, and my mother made my clothes.  One year I begged for a robe I’d seen in the Sears catalog – it was beautiful. To my delight it was under the tree on Christmas morning, my first store-bought item, and I wore it until it was threadbare.  After my mother died many years later I was going through her things and found the pattern and some material from that robe.  She had secretly sewn it herself – complete with a borrowed Sears tag – so that I would have my dream come true.

Amanda – When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend of 18 months worked with – and probably begged – my mom to allow him to get me a kitten for a gift.  She was a sweet little orange kitty who lasted quite a bit longer in my life than my boyfriend.  He went on to date my best friend four months later, and now she’s his wife.

Ann – My sweetest Christmas gifts came from my husband.  Three weeks after we met in October 1991, he went to Texas for work and was already thinking of being with me at Christmas.  My gifts came from that trip – a stuffed armadillo and a Texas longhorn sweatshirt.  And yes, I still have them.

Glenda – One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received arrived under the tree the year my daughter was 11. It was in a huge box, and I couldn’t imagine what a child her age could afford with her small weekly allowance. On Christmas morning she could hardly wait until I opened the big package and then several inside it, each one smaller than the last, each individually wrapped. At last I came to a small ring box, and inside was a gold ring set with a tiny ruby — my birthstone. She had spotted it in the jewelry store window and saved every penny she had to buy it for me. The little girl is now 40, and the ring remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Pat -  My Aunt Pepper was known for giving meaningful gifts, but one year she shook things up.  She gave me a crazy brown and white purse made of fake fur.  Its strap was a chain.  I was grateful for the gift that had been chosen and given with love, but I wasn’t about to take it out of its hiding spot in the back of my closet.  A year later, I found it again and realized that my hip aunt had been incredibly fashion-forward and given me something that was indeed very cool.  It became my favorite purse.

No matter what the gift or who the giver, there are thoughtful and funny gifts that pepper our memories.  Maybe it’s a piece of special jewelry or a traditional gift that passes between family members. It could be a child’s hand-made treasure or a gift certificate for romantic dance lessons meant to rekindle a flame.  In any case, remembering these gifts recalls the affection we shared and inspires us to keep the tradition alive.

My own memory involved a gift that didn’t cost much but is worth its weight in gold.  My brother works in Los Angeles and knows that my favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  Several years ago, a book came through his publicity office about the making of the movie.  He called Jimmy Stewart’s publicist and thoughtfully arranged to have it autographed to me.  In the movie, the actor’s tender character ultimately realizes how incredibly important each of our tightly interconnected lives is – a lesson worth revisiting at least once each year.  In my book he wrote:  “To Lesley – I send you all my best wishes and have a merry Christmas,  James Stewart.”  I wish the same for everyone.  Happy Holidays.

 

Life of Travel

My first rush of travel adrenaline hit me on the St. Louis airport tarmac in an airplane headed to Indiana.  My mother had sent me at age 14 to visit my father for spring break.  She had told me how exciting it was to feel the press of one’s body into the seat when an airplane accelerated and leapt from the ground into the great unknown, and she was right.

Before boarding the plane, I had passed through a cluster of orange-robed Hare Krishnas who provided a book that eventually set me on a 15-year course of vegetarianism. Their exuberance was captivating to a young girl, and “A Higher Taste” was just the right length book for my trip.  I boarded the plane in Missouri loving burgers and stepped off with a certainty that I’d never touch one again.

The following year, Mom and I packed our things and moved to London for a semester abroad.  She wanted me to see what life was like in other places and to look back at my own country through a foreign lens.  Although our address was in a swanky neighborhood, we shared a house with 25 college kids stacked two to a room. On weekends, we traveled to museums and theaters in London or to nearby countries.  We celebrated Halloween in Paris, walked quietly through Anne Frank’s secret home in Amsterdam and wandered flower-covered hills in Aviemore, Scotland.

On a trip to visit a friend of my mother’s in Marseille, France, I met her younger brother, who was only a few years older than I.  As we strolled around a double-decker carousel in the city made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ “Count of Monte Cristo,” it became clear that Raoul and I were relating as if language wasn’t a barrier for us.  We were tight friends by the end of the weekend despite not having a single common word.

Another excursion took us across the English Channel on a tour that had been arranged for a group of young businessmen but had a few extra seats available.  Mom and I were the last two people on the coach, and I plopped down next to a lanky music lover named Lee with whom I quickly struck up a camaraderie. On the ferry to Belgium I stood at the bow of the boat awash in sea spray and laughed with him and his friends.  In the weeks after the trip, Lee brought local color to our lives.  One evening, he brought a car to Hyde Park and taught me to drive from the “wrong” side of the car on the “wrong” side of the road. Another time he took me to an ice-skating rink where I quickly learned that the major difference between ice- and roller-skating is that ice makes for a wet bottom on anyone who sits and laughs after falling.

Our friendship didn’t end there. After Mom and I returned to the United States and moved to California, Lee showed up on our doorstep with his brother and friends as they toured this country.  And when I went to work in Greece for a college summer, I stopped through London on my way to and from Athens to meet up with Lee for a curry.  He continued to introduce me to his friends, and some have become as close as family.

Two years ago, Mom and I returned to England to visit with those friends at their North Sea cottage for Easter.  From the couple’s children I learned that the Easter Bunny delivers oversized chocolate eggs to English children in lieu of the bunnies to which I am accustomed.  And from me they learned to dye eggs – something they had never done. I had brought a dye kit from home and was initially worried that we could only find brown eggs at the market.  Fortunately, the dark eggs yielded rich jewel tones when dyed. And they tasted just as delicious after I taught the kids how to bash the eggs in contest on Easter morning and then make them into a wicked new creation that made everyone howl in delight – deviled eggs.

My summer in Greece included the expected pilgrimage to the Acropolis and a surprise appreciation for the best tomatoes on Earth, but it was richer and more interesting because of the people I met there.  I worked for a concert promoter in Athens and went around the city and country touting the upcoming performances of music icons Nikos Karvelas and Anna Vissi.  In between tour dates, my local co-workers became my friends and tour guides.  They coaxed me to join them topless on a Greek beach – something the locals don’t consider risqué – and taught me how to speak basic Greek phrases and read words written in capital letters – the only alphabet I was able to master.

After a late night on the town in Athens, my new friend, Marina, insisted that we go to an underground club for after-hours celebrating.  I was surprised when we actually went underground and found ourselves in the basement of an office building where Greek folk music was played on traditional instruments.  Marina and I joined the other women in the room to dance on paper-covered dining tables while our dark-haired companions bought pie tins filled with carnation heads whose petals they broke apart and tossed over us in appreciation.

More recently, I took a trip to the Cook Islands to celebrate a landmark birthday.  I went as a travel writer and was joined by four other writers and a tourism representative whom I met on the airplane to the South Pacific.  Two days after we all met, we flew to the tiny island of Aitutaki, where we snorkeled in a cerulean lagoon with turtles, fish and coral.  We lunched on grilled bananas, fresh papaya and seared ahi, and we got to know each other’s life stories.  That night, we sat on the balcony of my beachside bungalow listening to classics like Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” telling tall tales, and watching a tropical rain fall.  When the shower moved offshore and the moon began to rise behind us, we noticed a gentle white arc appear over the ocean.  It was a moonbow – something none of us had ever experienced before. We all agreed that the best way to savor the moment was to wade into the warm sea toward it, laughing and sharing the chance event.

I still feel my mom’s identifiable rush of adrenaline when an airplane roars down the runway and pushes me into my seat as it takes me off to new adventures, but when I look back I realize that the most special memories I have had aren’t tied into where I was, but with whom. It is people who have added color and texture to who I am and what I do. Leaving home does shed the baggage of daily life for a brief period, but I always return with exotic new bags in tow.  These are in the form of the new relationships I’ve created with the people I’ve met. It doesn’t matter if I’m learning a different diet in St. Louis, being blessed by a medicine man in Rarotonga or laughing with friends on my front porch, at the end of the day, it’s the people who make life colorful, interesting, challenging, different and memorable.  I don’t need to grab my passport and head out of town to find the best that world travel has to offer, I just need to phone a friend.