Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What to Expect on a Road Trip Around Scotland

When my husband and I planned our Scotland trip in 2012, we knew we wanted to get out of the cities and explore the country's many castles and cathedrals. However, we did not want to be trapped in a tour bus, seeing the beauty of the Scottish countryside out of a window. So we decided to rent a vehicle, and read up on driving in Scotland. It was a fantastic way to see some of Scotland's sights, but a huge learning experience for us regarding European driving. Some things research just can't prepare you for!

The misty highlands of Scotland are beautiful to drive through.

Of all the things we encountered on the road, here are the five most important "lessons" I'd like to share with you, so you know what to expect on a road trip around Scotland.

Driving on the "Other" Side of the Road is Disconcerting

I live in North America, so naturally I am used to driving on the right hand side of the road. In Scotland, however, it is the opposite. It sounds like a simple thing - just drive on the left side of the road. But it is a strange experience, and a challenge for your brain to become accustomed to. Not only is the vehicle on the opposite side, but all of the levers and handles INSIDE the car as well. Joey, my husband, had to use different hands to shift, different feet to brake, and constantly mixed up the windshield wiper switch with the turning signal.

Joey poses with our trusty rental vehicle - oh, the fun we had together!

Even for the passenger it is a strange matter. I kept freaking out on Joey because it always looked like we were veering off the side of the road. It was only because I was sitting in the seat where usually the driver perches. To me, it felt like we should have been driving significantly more towards the centre line, but that was only because of my perception that my seat was supposed to be centre to the road. It was slightly disconcerting, and more than a few times Joey snapped at me to let him drive, because my paranoia was making him nervous.

Scotland has the best scenery of any road trip!

Eventually we both got used to driving on the left hand side of the road, but it took a few days. The thing that helped the most was driving down smaller country roads versus the highway or busy city streets. It felt more natural driving in the country, and after that driving in the city on the 'opposite' side of the street became more normal.

Rural Roads are Narrow and Passing Places Few

On the road to Loch Ness, we took a route that veered off one of the main highways because we wanted to skirt the lake and see the beautiful views. This meant driving on the country roads, which can be insanely narrow. These are called 'single track roads' and are basically created for one car to drive down - one way only.

One of the narrow single track roads we encountered.

The road we were on wove through several forested areas, cutting through hills and valleys, often with sharp drops on one or both sides of the road. Joey and I fretted about what would happen if we encountered another car coming in the opposite direction. Would we have to back up until we found a flat spot to pull over? Would the other car? How would we know? How do people drive like this?

There are sporadic flattened areas along the side of the road called "Passing Places". This is where slower vehicles can pull over to allow cars and trucks behind them to pass and continue on their way, or where two vehicles heading opposite directions can get past one another without scraping doors. Sometimes drivers honestly need to back up until they reach a passing place to allow oncoming traffic to move through. (Sounds nuts I know, but it is what it is.)

A good ol' 'Passing Place' sign. I'm not sure I'm a fan of this system.

And for the love of Scotland, don't PARK in a passing place. That is one of the most ignorant, not to mention dangerous, things you can do on a single track road.

Other things to remember when driving these narrow single track roads are to slow down near corners or bends to avoid colliding with an oncoming vehicle just past the turn, never speeding, watching for pedestrians or animals on the shoulder (since the shoulder takes up at least half the road!), and not dawdling when there are other drivers behind you, since it could be a long time before they get the opportunity to pass you.

There are Lots and Lots of Roundabouts

In Alberta, we don't have many traffic circles. Of course, we do have them and I know how to use one, but I don't often have the opportunity.

In Scotland, they are everywhere. Traffic signal lights are actually the more rare phenomenon.

A lovely example of a roundabout. Image via.

Five minutes into our first drive using our rental car, we hit a traffic circle that wasn't on our GPS - it was a brand new one at the airport. We, naturally, got lost instantly and ended up parking in a hotel parking lot to regain our bearings. After that initial kerfuffle, using the roundabouts was easy peasy. Just remember to take a wee refresher course on how to properly drive in a traffic circle before you head to Scotland to avoid crashing your vehicle or making the locals angry!

Use That GPS!

Before we even boarded our plane to Scotland, I'd already mapped out driving routes and saved images of driving directions and distances on my phone. I wanted to make sure we didn't get lost and find ourselves out of gas in the middle of nowhere with no rescue in sight. What I didn't account for, however, are the unusual roads and lanes in rural Scotland.

When we were driving through the Lothians on our castle tour, one castle was just off the highway, according to the Google Maps driving directions. It seemed rather simple and straightforward. We could have just puttered along using the map I had downloaded, but Joey, always the practical one, decided to enter the location into the GPS just to be safe.

It isn't all stress and narrow lanes - driving in Scotland can be extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful.

Boy, was I glad he did! The castle was decidedly NOT just 'off the highway', but down meandering country single track lanes, and even a rutted dirt road or two. I felt like we should have been navigating our way using a horse and carriage for most of that excursion, it took us down such a rustic path. Thank goodness we used the GPS, or we would have turned back early into the drive due to fear of getting lost.

Despite the winding route, I really enjoyed that drive. Setting aside the stress that our GPS had lost its mind and was just spitting out random directions for fun, it was lovely seeing the Scottish countryside, dotted with grazing sheep amid the vibrant green hills. Getting lost, or at least thinking you are getting lost, can be fun if you are surrounded by beauty!

So even if your destination seems straightforward, it is always sensible to use the GPS anyway. Because you never know. And you don't want to miss that castle.

Have Fun Discovering Unusual Road Signs

While cruising through the lush and beautiful wilds of Loch Ness, my husband and I continually encountered some very odd road signs posted for drivers. After passing a few different ones, I finally begged Joey to stop the car, and I dashed (through a light mist of rain) back to the sign to take a photograph...

The Scottish truly value their Red Squirrels!

They are very protective of their squirrels over in northern Scotland!  The ironic (and yes, very sad) thing about this is that while we were chuckling over the silly road sign as we continued towards our destination, we saw a flattened red squirrel on the pavement ahead of us. So I guess the signs are necessary after all.

Other strange road signs found in Scotland, but unfortunately un-photographed: "Caution: Cat Crossing"  and "Slow Children at Play". I realize the latter sign was meant to say "Slow - Children at Play" but that lack of hyphen must have done some damage to the self-esteem of those poor kids who live nearby!

Once you have these rules of the road under your belt, driving in Scotland is just the same as driving at home (at home for me being North America). Wear your seat belt, keep your gas tank full, follow the laws of the land, enjoy the scenery, and have an amazing road trip!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Foodie Bucket List: Learn to Make Sushi

"A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there." ~ Anonymous

This is one of my favourite quotes, and I apply it to my travel philosophy all the time. Try new things. Experience new places. Meet new people. Get out there and make the most of your life instead of wrapping yourself in the comforts and safety of your own home. At least, when you have the time and money!

However, I realized a while ago that I don't usually apply this to my every day life. Of course, having children was a major step outside of my comfort zone, but now life with my kidlets is the new normal. And once again, I seem to have settled into a daily routine that sometimes threatens to become a rut. 

My sushi supplies all ready to go, minus the seafood.

So... I decided I was going to try something new, and I signed up for a cooking class at our local Lifelong Learning Association. I am a great cook when it comes to the staple meals I love to make: sweet dijon chicken with scalloped potatoes (from a box) and Parmesan asparagus, honey garlic salmon with Asian green beans, and chicken and leek lasagna are a few of my signature dishes. Yes, they have a little flair, but for the most part are simple, easy, and quick to whip up.

But sushi was something that has always been on my bucket list to learn how to create. Today I can confidently say that I now know how to make sushi, at least a basic roll. 

Pressing the rice onto the seaweed paper - so fun!

My class was a small one consisting of eleven 'students' and one teacher, which was nice because she was able to answer our questions and bring us supplies pretty much instantly. She had the rice pre-made for us, so that is something that I will still have to learn to do. (Don't scoff - I'm surprisingly bad at making rice.) Our teacher demonstrated how to make two different types of California rolls, then handed us our supplies and set us loose.

Adding my tasty fillings - cucumber, avocado, and carrot so far...

I was amazed at how easy it is to make sushi. I always thought that it would be a long, drawn-out process, but I was wrong. The most time-consuming aspect is the preparation - making the rice, cutting the vegetables, blanching some vegetables (such as carrots or asparagus), and shopping for supplies. But once you are prepared, you can whip out rolls like you are a one-woman factory! Our teacher even gave us some tips to make prep even easier, such as cut your veggies the evening before, and cook the rice in the morning, then put it into a roaster and have it stay warm until you are ready to roll (literally). 

My favourite part was the actual rolling process, where you roll, pull the mat out, squish, roll, pull the  mat out, squish, and on and on until the sushi roll is nicely compacted and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. I also had fun mashing the sticky rice onto the seaweed paper with wet fingers (you MUST use wet fingers or you will have rice attached to them for the rest of your days). 

Making sure my hands are nice and wet so the rice doesn't get glued to my skin.

Because of the small size of the class, I was able to make three full rolls - one traditional California roll with the crab sticks, one roll with shrimp, and one roll with shrimp, crab AND smoked salmon. Yum! Dinner for tonight is done!

I am glad that I stepped out of my culinary comfort zone and tried learning a new cooking skill. Now that I know how simple sushi is to make, I know I can add it to the usual rotation of yummy dinners that I like to feed my family. And if I ever travel to Japan - which might be in the works! Stay tuned! - I can take a class there and build on my knowledge base. 

My finished products, before slicing them into pieces. They look pretty!

If you have a sushi-making class in your area, I encourage you to try it! It is tons of fun, very informative, and the best part, extremely tasty!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

10 Things For People With Itchy Feet To Do When They CAN'T Travel

Not able to travel? Here are some suggestions on how to stay inspired while stuck at home!

If you are like me, you are addicted to traveling. Your daydreams are all about discovering new places and experiencing everything the world has to offer. Your home decor revolves around fitting in knick-knacks from all corners of the Earth. Your feet are perpetually itching to move.

But life has other plans for you. For me, it was two babies in two years, which meant I had to quit my job and our family moved down to one income. Granted, my husband earned a fantastic promotion, but with his promotion also came a demand for increased work hours on his part. We have responsibilities like never before, and payments constantly depleting our bank account. (Am I complaining? NEVER! I am happier than I have ever been and enjoy *almost* every second with my little ones. Stinky bums and tantrums in the grocery store excluded.)

Yet the dream to travel the world will not fade. I am only on a hiatus from travel, and I vow to return!

So what does a travel-bug-infected dreamer do when NOT able to travel? Here are some fun ideas to keep people like you and me inspired when our itchy feet are tied to the floor!

1. Make future trip itineraries 

I have been spending a ridiculous amount of time planning future trips that I may or may not ever go on. (Shh. Don't tell my husband. He thinks I've been *cleaning the house*. Pfft.) I have detailed and extensive plans for trips to the Amalfi coast, Poland, the Grand Canyon, New Zealand, and the California coast to name a few. They go day-by-day, with sights to see on each day, opening times, admission fees, distances between stops, driving times - you name it! 

My itineraries stop just short of naming exact hotels to stay at, and specific pricing for car rentals and flight plans. But if we ever did select one of these itineraries, I'd have the hotels, flights, and car rentals locked down in a matter of hours. I keep telling myself that having a fun trip pre-organized in this way will make it more likely that we will eventually go.

Planning future trips gives me great joy. Image via.

2. Create trip-specific Pinterest boards

It is easy to go click-crazy when pinning beautiful travel destinations you see on Pinterest. I admittedly have a "Travel Bucket List" board on my Pinterest account where I slam images willy-nilly in a frenzy of "Ooh, I want to go there!" madness. But that board, so full of amazing visuals yet so disorganized, can also make it feel like the world is a huge, overwhelming place and I'll never get to see it all.

To stay inspired and to hold on to that feeling of hope - yes, there is hope that I might be able to see even a portion of my bucket list - I try to spend a little time in the evening, after the kids are asleep, to pick apart my "Travel Bucket List" Pinterest board. I will choose a destination that seems to keep popping up, such as Brazil for example, and combine all of the Brazil photos from the scattered "Travel Bucket List" board onto just a "Brazil" board. This might sound a little OCD, but in the end, it helps me feel like I'm better prepared for the moment when my husband announces, quite out of the blue, "Hey, I bought us two first-class tickets to Brazil. We leave in two weeks."

Some of my more organized travel boards.

3. Work on photo albums or scrapbooks of past trips

Sometimes it is helpful, when you are in the throes of wishing and praying for an all-expenses-paid world trip, to look back on the places you have been lucky enough to visit and just be grateful. Having a little perspective helps to reel me in when I start whining about wanting to begin traveling again. Yes, my travel bucket list remains largely unexplored, but many people would be thrilled to see some of the things I have been able to see. 

I use digital scrapbooking to memorialize my travel photos and memories. I have been trying to use this break in travel to catch up on all my trip albums and to feel thankful for the places I have been.

My scrapbook for our 2013 Mexico trip.

4. Learn a new language for a future trip

I really, really, really want to use my Amalfi coast travel itinerary in the near future. Italy is so gorgeous, and the Amalfi coast is one of Italy's gems in my humble opinion. I'd love to travel there, either with my kids or with just my husband - I don't really care as long as I get there.

But since this trip doesn't look like it is coming to fruition anytime soon - hey, we need a backyard fence more than a trip so my children don't get squished on the road - I will invest a little time in future travel preparations. Learning a new language doesn't happen magically overnight, so if I want to travel to the Amalfi coast within three years time, I should have plenty of opportunities to grasp the basics of Italian. I use a free program called 'busuu' that can be downloaded to your computer, or as an app on your phone. Every few nights, I spend a bit of time learning some new words and phrases. This makes me feel like I really WILL be going to Italy, but I'm not panicked about learning the language quickly, because we all know I won't be going any time soon. Unless that lotto ticket ends up being the winning one!

Learning a new language is time-consuming - be thankful you have a travel break! Image via.

5. Try foreign foods in nearby restaurants

With today's society a veritable cultural melting pot, there are always new restaurants available for you to test out foreign foods. Once Vietnamese food was a strange and scary sounding notion - today I start salivating whenever someone mentions grabbing some for take-out. I actually want some now. 

Before heading to a country, it is always a good idea to educate yourself on its food - both its traditional and modern dishes. Then, if you have restaurants nearby that serve similar cuisine, go try it! Usually the meals here are more Westernized, but you will still get an idea of what suits your palate and what doesn't. On my list to try is the new Ethiopian restaurant which opened in our city - what's on yours?

Try a new dish while waiting for your chance to eat in-country! Image via.

6. Learn to cook an exotic dish

Not everyone lives in an area where culturally-diverse restaurants abound. I grew up in such a place. My little hometown's most exotic meal was served in a Chinese food restaurant that also coincidentally served the best burgers and fries. So I get it. 

Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. If you want to experience a country's national dish but don't have an establishment in your area that cooks it, cook it yourself! It may call for some strange ingredients that you don't recognize, and you might have to try a method you've never heard of before (and needed to Google), but you may surprise yourself. 

If you have to wait three years before you travel to the country itself, that will give you tons of time to perfect your cooking skills. Then you can impress the locals with what you know once you arrive!

Learn to cook something exotic so you feel like you are travelling.

7. Read books about life in a distant country

These can be legitimate travel books, such as guidebooks or non-fiction books, but you can also use fiction to inspire your sleeping travel bug. I like to use both - the guidebooks give me a realistic idea of places to visit, things to watch out for, and how much money I might need to bring. The fiction books give me a sense of how a place might 'feel', or what it might have been like at a certain time. 

Historical fictions often romanticize a location, and once you get to where you want to go, you can sink back into your memories of the novel and imagine yourself strolling the same streets. Then be sure to use the guidebook to make sure you are actually on the right street.

Reading can take you anywhere! Image via.

8. Use documentaries to research a country you'd like to visit 

If reading just isn't your bag, baby, then you could try spending a nice evening with a bowl of popcorn and a documentary about traveling. The documentary could be country-specific, teaching you about the customs, the culture, and the history of a place. Videos such as these are extremely helpful in preparing you for a future visit, and although not as detailed as guidebooks, can give you a good idea on what you might get to see and do once there.

I also enjoy a good general travel documentary every now and then. Netflix has a great one called "Departures" which follows two Canadian gentlemen in their 20s as they roam the great, wide world. (I'm always a supporter of my fellow Canucks.) You can add frantically to your own bucket list as you watch them explore some of the more unusual spots on the globe.

9. Watch movies set in a country you'd like to visit

Not everyone is a documentary person, and that's okay. There are plenty of travel-motivating movies out there produced by Hollywood and the like. Alas, not every country on your bucket list will be featured, but there are a surprising amount of destination-related films available. You might not learn one single thing about the country you are viewing except how much you truly want to visit, and that's okay too.

Movies and documentaries can stave off the pain of not traveling for at least two hours. Image via.

10. Connect with other travellers on Facebook and Twitter and share experiences

If you really want to prepare for a future trip, regardless of how soon you will actually be visiting (or if ever), you will want to hear your advice straight from the horse's mouth. Find Twitter channels about or from your destination location, and connect with other Twitter users who can direct you to other useful Twitter users. They can find you almost any information you desire.

Find a Facebook page or group from that country, and ask to join. Then ask all the questions you may have about what to see, how to see it, when to go, what the locals recommend, etc. You might make some valuable friends who can help you out when you do finally choose to make your journey. I myself have been personally and enthusiastically invited to dine by the gentleman who runs a cute cafe I want to visit in Warsaw. Use the power of social media to make your trip daydream a firm reality!

Social media is a great way to connect with the world when not traveling the world.

What else do you adventurers out there do when your adventure opportunities are slow? Share in the comments below!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Making Memory Lane: Digital Scrapbooking with "Mixbook"

Since I began my perpetual maternity leave in January of 2014, I have felt quite out of the loop regarding my old job. My life used to revolve around constant learning: the content I taught my students, pedagogical changes and updates to the education sector, child psychology, advances in technology, etc. There was always something new to soak in. Over the last two years, life has certainly changed. I'm not saying you don't learn new things as a mother - because oh, you do! - it is just a whole different ballgame. (I can read the contents of a diaper like a fortune teller can read tea leaves, and you don't learn that at conferences...)

So I was incredibly excited when I was asked to present a session at a conference hosted by our local school division. I get to reconnect with some of my old colleagues! I get to teach others and guide my peers in their own learning journey! I get to wear something other than yoga pants! Yay!

My session is on how to use an online digital scrapbooking program called "Mixbook" to create vibrant, sleek, high-quality photo albums that take up hardly any room on your bookshelf (unlike all those bulky cardboard binder style photo albums that I'm currently eliminating from my home). I use Mixbook for everything: all of my travel adventures, my family photo albums, and other projects too, like educational books for my kids, recipe books, etc. It is a very handy program and fun to use. (No, I don't work for Mixbook, but at the rate I buy them, they really should be giving me massive discounts...)

The cover of my Iceland Mixbook photo album.

For all the wonderful people who signed up for my session (Hi! Thanks!) here is the Mixbook Tutorial that we are using for the session. It is password protected so that means you actually have to come to the session and see me to get it. (For my blog readers, I might open it up after the sessions are over so you can try your hand at Mixbooking as well.)

Have fun, and happy memory making!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sinclair Canyon: Gateway to Beauty

For eight years now, my husband's immediate family and my own little clan have been vacationing in British Columbia for a week each summer. This little getaway enables us to enjoy precious family time surrounded by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, with its deep valleys, towering peaks, and glistening rivers.

Each year we choose to haunt the same area: the Kootenay region near Radium and Invermere. I have written in the past about some of the great places to visit around this stretch, such as Lussier Hot Springs or going white water rafting.

There are also some beautiful hiking areas nearby, both official and unofficial, and last year we took our two little ones to one of my favourite hiking places. My husband would like me to stress that this particular spot is not a HIKE in the official sense, although I call it one because you have to walk a little ways to enjoy the beauty. In my opinion, if you are walking, and there's nature, it is a hike. But that's neither here nor there.

There are a lot of beautiful and easy 'hiking' locations between Radium and Invermere, B.C.

I'm talking about the Sinclair Canyon Pass near the entrance to Radium. Many people may have driven through the canyon, as it towers above each side of Highway 93 South, which is one of the main roads to access Radium. Most people I know marvel at the tall canyon walls as they pass through, but not many have stopped to stroll around the canyon and enjoy the views. Granted, it is a busy road, narrow and twisty and not the most ideal for taking the fam-jam out on a jaunt, but I am telling you now that it IS worth it.

If you are driving towards Radium on Highway 93 South, you will pass the entrance to the Radium Hot Springs. Not three minutes away from the springs is a small parking lot, dusty and narrow, that provides a space for visitors to get off the highway just outside the Sinclair Canyon walls. That's where my family and I left our car as we began our short HIKE around the canyon. (Yes, I said it. We hiked.)

The towering walls of Sinclair Canyon just outside of Radium

Sinclair Canyon isn't the deepest canyon I've ever seen, but what makes this canyon spectacular is how it opens up into an amazing view of the valley below. It is very narrow, just wide enough for a strip of highway to roll through, allowing traffic entering the town limits of Radium to witness the valley emerging as they exit the canyon's shadow.

What drivers view as they pass through Sinclair Canyon towards Radium

A small strip of sidewalk lines the highway, guiding visitors along the canyon walls. Halfway through the canyon, there is a shallow cave to explore.

The tiny 'cave' in Sinclair Canyon

Just past the cave, Sinclair Creek turns into Sinclair Canyon Falls, a short waterfall that leads down into the valley. If you hike further down the valley, you will find the entrance to Juniper Trail and can hike (for real hike) along Sinclair Creek into the valley's base.

Sinclair Falls, which are tiny, just outside Sinclair Canyon

We didn't walk that far (although Joey and I have hiked part of Juniper Trail in the past, long before we had our children). This time around, we had the double stroller with us and taking that sucker down Juniper Trail's valley stairs did NOT seem fun. Or smart. So we loitered around Sinclair Canyon, the falls, and the lookout.

A view of the Radium valley from the Sinclair Canyon lookout point

I love the lookout point. It branches away from the highway-hugging sidewalk, and takes visitors to a precipice overlooking the canyon and part of the town of Radium. You can look back towards the way you came to see Sinclair Canyon and Sinclair Canyon Falls with a view of the Rocky Mountains peeping through the crack. There is a giant boulder in the centre of the lookout area to climb for some really spectacular photos.

Enjoying the lookout point at Sinclair Canyon before descending down Juniper Trail

That is about it, however, for things to see and do at Sinclair Canyon. There are hikes dotting Highway 93 up and down the road in both directions, and they are usually empty so you have the trails and the trees to yourself. In the past, Joey and I have hiked back towards the hot springs and enjoyed splashing around in Sinclair Creek. I recommend taking advantage of the ease of the trails, and the peacefulness you are sure to encounter there.

Sinclair Creek as it makes its way to Sinclair Canyon

This summer we hope to do more hiking, especially around Olive Lake and Marble Canyon. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Athabasca Falls of Jasper, Alberta

down the wrabbit hole

The Jasper area of Alberta's Rocky Mountains is often overlooked in favor of the more popular tourist destination of Banff. I myself, a resident of Alberta, Canada, am guilty of choosing to visit Banff over Jasper in the past. However, a quick trip in May of 2015 with my family convinced me that Jasper has a lot to offer, and is often times more appealing to visit. It is beautiful, clean, and not as busy as the more touted Banff region.

My husband had never been to Jasper, and I had last visited when I was still in elementary school, so for both of us, the trip was a fun treat. During our road trip, we stopped to walk the Glacier Skywalk, located along the Icefields Parkway highway (otherwise known as AB-93) just outside of Jasper. This excursion set us up nicely for our mountain experience. We had our fourteen-month-old with us, so the rest of our first day in Jasper was spent unloading our never-ending baggage and setting up the hotel room. No need for a blog post on that!

jasper alberta canada
Athabasca Falls in Jasper, Alberta is thunderous and breathtaking

The next morning, we headed down the Icefields Parkway towards Athabasca Falls as early as our babe would let us. I had read it is better to arrive early in the day to avoid large crowds, so that is what we, the ever obedient tourists, did. The drive to the falls from the town of Jasper is about 28 minutes, driving south down the Icefields Parkway. If you turn left at the "Athabasca Falls" sign, you'll enter a large, looped parking lot and it will be obvious that you have arrived. The sign off the highway isn't terribly large or glamorous, so keep your eyes peeled.

Once parked, we secured our 1 1/2 year old into the hiking carrier and began our trek. The falls are free to visit, including parking, so it was just a matter of getting out of the car and going. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect regarding the duration and difficulty of the hike to the falls, but I needn't have worried. The 'trails' around the falls are literally wide, smooth, paved sidewalks designed for hundreds of tourists to access at a time. The falls are about a five minute stroll down one of these paved trails from the parking lot itself. I wouldn't even call the venture down to the falls a hike. I could have easily done it in heels and an evening gown. Nevertheless, it was still very beautiful.

jasper alberta canada
My family (including one unborn Parker) enjoys our first view of the Athabasca River

The paths are nicely maintained, and of course, placed very strategically. Around the first bend, you get a clear view of the Athabasca River, a distant glimpse of the mouth of the falls, and can see the sunlight sparkling in the spray. There is a look-out point placed just so, where you can take a selfie or family photo with the falls in the background.

jasper alberta canada
Peeking at Athabasca Falls through its unusual gorge walls

After that first look, you cross a sturdy bridge that spans the Athabasca River as it continues downstream. The water is a vibrant, glacial, icy blue, bubbling with white froth. You can hear the roar of the falls echoing through the undulating gorge walls, carved by millennia of water run-off.

jasper alberta canada
Rock formations surrounding Athabasca Falls

Once you've crossed the bridge, you walk for a little bit more before finding yourself at the mouth of the waterfall itself. The freezing water thunders down, wetting your skin with escaping droplets. Various lookout point jut along the retaining wall, allowing visitors to get great photographs from multiple angles. It isn't a record-breaking drop (it is a Class 5 waterfall with a drop of only 80 feet), but the curious rock formations along the sides of the waterfall make for a majestic scene. What makes Athabasca Falls so famous is the force at which the water is jettisoned through the relatively narrow waterfall mouth - this waterfall moves with deadly strength.

jasper alberta canada
The mouth of the Athabasca Falls

There are beautiful flat rocks overhanging the waterfall, and they appear to give visitors a foothold for an amazing view of the drop below. However, several signs warn that the rocks are extremely slippery, and that many unfortunate people have slipped over the edge after ignoring or not seeing the park's warnings. (I read somewhere that at least ONCE a YEAR someone dies trying to explore these rocks. Once a year! People, please be careful!)

jasper alberta canada
A beautiful memorial - please stay behind the retaining walls when visiting the falls

There are other trails to venture down, once you have finished with the waterfall. One trail, a for-real dirt-packed root-infested trail, leads down past the mouth of the waterfall, along the river into the woods. We followed that one for a short distance, hopping down off the trail after awhile to scrabble along the rocky beach beside the river. The view of the Rocky Mountains from the river's edge is incredible, and it was fun to sit on the larger rocks and relax in the sun for a spell.

jasper alberta canada
The rocky beach of the Athabasca River has a great Rocky Mountain view

You can also explore the river downstream from the waterfall. A trail leads you into an old river tunnel, carved ages ago by the rushing waters of the Athabasca River before it was eventually diverted into its current course. It was my daughter's favourite part of the trail, since she is obsessed with rocks.

river rocks jasper alberta canada
A pathway carved by the river eons ago

The path takes you around a rocky precipice (where I will warn you, the path gets a little narrow - we had to back up at one point to let a family come through before we could continue) to a giant bowl of water where the gorge empties itself of the rushing river. It is calm and quiet at this part of the trail, but there weren't any places to simply sit and relax, so we turned around and went back the way we came after enjoying the scenery.

athabasca falls canada
The beautiful blue area where the gorge empties

There are also some prominent potholes dotting this area of the gorge. I was curious to see them, so we followed one trail promising to take us to the largest of the potholes. It was extremely disappointing. People had been using the potholes as giant garbage pails, and they were littered with pop bottles, wrappers, and cigarette butts. Pretty disgusting. (The behaviour more so than the garbage!)

All in all, we spent a few hours at the falls, strolling up and down virtually all of the trails. Our daughter ran around a little, collecting rocks and pinecones ("cones!"), and then it was time to head back into Jasper for lunch. I really enjoyed our foray to the Athabasca Falls and recommend it to anyone who visits the Jasper area. Just please don't climb the rocks, or litter when you visit! Stay safe and try to keep this treasure of an area looking pristine, because it is worth it.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Monteverde Coffee Farm Tour: Life Monteverde

Well, this post was a long time coming. Life is beginning to settle (a little) with my two kidlets. Avy is almost two and Parker is almost seven months old - I can hardly believe how fast they are growing! I am hoping that 2016 will see a return to our travels as the kids are now accustomed to each other, and both are quite good travelers, other than the fact that Avy gets car sick every now and then. I would relish any advice on car sickness in children, because I'd like to do a road trip this summer with them down into the United States to check out some parks.

My family - a future troupe of travelers?

My husband would really like to spend some time in Costa Rica again this year, and since we've been chatting about it, I realized that I still haven't written about our amazing coffee farm tour from 2014! So here we go...

We visited Costa Rica in November of 2014 with our daughter when she was 10 months old. She was a fabulous traveler and we were so pleased. I was, on the other hand, not such a great traveler as I was suffering from extreme morning sickness, being pregnant with our son at the time. But that's another story. Despite the multiple stops we had to make on our drive to the cloud forest, we did eventually make it to Monteverde and spent one day touring Selvatura Adventure Park.

I had also booked another day trip to explore a real-life coffee farm, Life Monteverde Coffee Farm. It was a 'green' farm, so I was really interested in how they produced and maintained their product in such an environmentally sound fashion.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Touring a true-blue coffee farm sounded excellent to me!

A company van picked us up at our hotel and drove us out of town to the farm, which was located at the top of a relatively steep hill that provided a stunning view of the Monteverde valleys and slopes. My husband, daughter and I were the only participants that morning, and it was nice having a 'private' tour of the establishment. Apparently we were there between busy times, as the company offers work experience semesters for local and foreign agriculture and environmental studies students. Our guide was a former environmental studies student who liked the 'green' aspect of the farm and signed on to help increase its effectiveness.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Joey and Avy having a chat with our guide.

Our tour started in a mess hall-type building, where we sat for a short slide show depicting a brief history of farming and agriculture in the Monteverde region, naturally focusing on the coffee trade. I won't go into detail here, but it was interesting to hear how coffee plantations developed in the region. We didn't stay long here, as our daughter was getting squirmy, and since no one else was there to object, our guide decided to just give us a casual walking tour of the farm and threw the formal tour guidelines to the wind.

Unripe coffee beans on the bush

We wandered through the coffee fields, which featured a variety of older, more established plants growing among younger, smaller coffee plants. Every now and then, a lime or orange tree would tower above the coffee bushes.

There were several distinct, separate fields, but my favorite was the one planted right on the steep hillside with a fantastic view of the valley.

coffee tour Costa Rica
A coffee field with a view.

Our guide showed us the various stages of coffee bean maturation on the plant. Green beans were still immature and not ready for picking. Red or brown beans were ripe and ready to be harvested. We pulled a few red beans from the plants and our guide showed us how to skin them to find the coffee bean used for brewing inside.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Ripe coffee beans, picked fresh from the bush.

He explained that different coffee flavors come not only from roasting times, but also from how the bean is peeled. Some prefer an unpeeled bean, some prefer coffee beans with the sticky, sweet middle membrane intact (called a 'mucilage'), and some prefer a bean completely peeled and washed of the sweet membrane. He showed us how to scrape the bean of its outer layer to find the mucilage, and encouraged us to taste it. It was surprisingly sweet, and I was curious how this layer would affect the flavor of coffee. Naturally, I was due to find out during the course of the tour.

coffee tour Costa Rica
A coffee bean with its sticky, sweet mucilage still intact

One special field was being used to test a particular blight that affected coffee plants. The coffee farm does not use pesticides or herbicides, but tries to employ natural resistances to plant disease, and they were using this specific field as a testing ground. You could see which plants were infected, as they had shriveled, yellowed leaves with pock marks on them. Their beans were smaller and seemed dried out.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Evidence of coffee plant blight

The employees of the farm were open, friendly, welcoming, and very informative. The man harvesting the yuca was using the moon as his guide, harvesting during the waning moon, as the plants' water content is affected by the pull of the moon's gravity. If harvesting during the waning moon, the root lasts longer in storage, and the stems have more water present so it is easier to grow a new plant from the unharvested portion.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Harvesting yuca.

The farm also produces other plants, such as yuca, and sustained a small number of animals, such as pigs and chickens. They used the animals for food, and collected their waste for fertilizer. It was an extremely efficient and economical business, where nothing was wasted and everything had a purpose. Even the pigs' waste was useful - it was stored in a giant methane bag. From there, the methane gas was piped into the kitchen and used as gas for cooking.

Avy was not a fan of the chickens - one of them squawked and lunged at her and she cried for about fifteen minutes afterwards!

coffee tour Costa Rica
The methane gas is stored and used to power aspects of the farm.

After learning about the farm and its environs, we were led to a building which stored the picked coffee beans and layed them out to dry. The building also acted as a greenhouse for coffee tree seedlings. There, the guide showed us several trays which demonstrated just how versatile one coffee bean can be. One tray held unpeeled beans, dried in the sun and ready to roast. Another tray held beans that had been peeled down to the sweet mucilage. One tray had dried beans that had been completely peeled. They all had distinctive appearances, and I knew that they would also inevitably have very different tastes.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Dried beans ready to be roasted. Who knew they came in such a variety?

Finally, the farm portion of the tour ended back at the mess hall, and this time, our friendly yuca harvester was waiting for us. He had plates piled with fried plantains for us to snack on - Avy was a huge fan! (It was here I realized that cooking with methane made from pigs' waste was probably not meant for my home.)

The yuca harvester demonstrated how to brew coffee in a traditional Costa Rican brewer, made from wood (like the one at the farm) or dried yuca stalks (which is what we bought) and a cloth filtration bag. It was a very slow, methodical brew process, but the coffee it made was thick and rich and delicious! I can't remember what type of bean he ground for us, but it had a strong flavor that was perfectly complimented by the sweet plantains.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Brewing coffee the Costa Rican way

Once we'd had our fill, the two men (our guide and the yuca harvester) decided that instead of taking the giant tour van to the coffee mill, we'd all pile in their rickety farm truck so they could deliver some beans and kill two birds with one stone. We were super casual about the tour and didn't care at all - in fact, it was quite fun to be treated as a local instead of a formal guest, just piling into this dusty ol' truck! The two men loaded the truck bed while Joey, Avy and I climbed into the backseat. The two men hopped into the front seats, and we were off to the mill.

The ride was extremely bumpy, and I think it was Avy's favorite part! She giggled the entire ride while I just tried to keep from getting jostled right off the seat.

coffee tour Costa Rica
The coffee lab is part of the collective, where all local farmers have their beans roasted and packaged.

The mill, Monteverde Coffee Lab, is not part of the Life Monteverde Coffee Farm. We learned that it is a separate, independently-owned business that services all of the coffee farms in the area. Its main job is coffee quality control, and coffee farming education, but it also works with the smaller coffee farms to act as their roaster. When we arrived, however, we were once again the only ones there and got special, personalized treatment. It was fantastic.

The roast man was amazing. He was young, but so passionate about what he was doing it was infectious. He knew his stuff! He didn't speak English, but the speed and vehemence at which he spoke translated well enough. Our guide tried to translate everything, but we knew we were missing information because the roast master was going a mile a minute, he was so excited to share his knowledge.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable roast master.

We learned the difference between roasting a light roast, a medium roast and a dark roast. The light and medium roasts are the most difficult to make, because they require diligent attention on part of the roast master. He has to listen to the sounds of the beans as they roast, and take them out after the first few 'pops' before they get too dark. He had the system down, and roasted two batches of perfectly light roasted coffee while we watched all without referring to his charts (but he charted every batch anyway). Of the dark roasts, he said dismissively, "Anyone can burn coffee beans." A true artist!

coffee tour Costa Rica
An unroasted vs a roasted bean - the roasted beans expand to twice their original size.

It was quite fun watching the beans roast in the big metal vat. It was a like a giant popcorn machine, and indeed, the beans sound like popcorn as they heat. Chaff gets puffed up into a vent by the heat and air flow inside the roaster, and what is left after the process are pure and delicious smelling beans.

coffee tour Costa Rica
The roasting equipment at Monteverde Coffee Lab

I enjoyed the open bags of beans in the back room of the coffee lab. I liked to sink my hand deep inside the beans and feel their silkiness as I wiggled my fingers. There was something very alluring about working in that coffee lab, surrounded by the wonderful smell of roasted coffee beans, the cozy heat from the roasting vat, and the possibility to relax and sip delicious fresh coffee between customers. Oh yeah, and you live in Costa Rica. I seriously began to question my life's career choices.

coffee tasting Costa Rica
The inviting interior of Monteverde Coffee Lab

After the last batch was roasted, the roast master took us to the front room and introduced us to the idea of 'cupping', or coffee tasting. The roast master took five different beans, and had us first stir the coffee and smell the aroma, then taste the coffee to try and determine which roast and type of harvested bean the coffee was made from. I got three out of five.

My favorite coffee turned out to be the medium roast of the bean harvested with the mucilage membrane still attached. This roast is called "honey roast" and for good reason: it is sweetened by the membrane but not so much that it tastes like someone just added a packet of sugar to the brew. It left a delightful aftertaste as well. The most surprising coffee was made from the unpeeled, or natural, bean. Because the coffee bean's casing is left intact, the coffee actually tastes much more plant-like, and has a blackberry aftertaste.

monteverde coffee lab, cupping coffee
Our 'cupping' session - tasting one delicious coffee after another.

Our coffee tasting session ended a little early, because Avy, tempted by the mesmerizing liquids in the steaming hot cups, shoved her little hand inside of one. Luckily, it had been after quite a long period of coffee tasting, and the brews had cooled a little. She wasn't burned, but she was quite upset at the nasty surprise.

We left the tour laden with bags of coffee: Joey bought a medium roast fully-peeled bag of beans, and I chose to get some of the honey roast I liked so much. We also bought a bag of the natural roast because we knew no one would believe us that we had drank coffee that tasted like blackberries, without anything added to it to make it taste that way.

I highly recommend attending this coffee tour if you are in the Monteverde area. It is loaded with information about the region's history, biology, agriculture, and economics. You will learn about self-sustaining farm practices, harvesting rituals, and planting processes. You will get a first-hand look at how coffee is roasted and might even get to help. And of course, you get to drink delicious fresh coffee made locally and roasted before your own eyes. You can book with them here.