Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Misty Mountain Hop

What a difference a few miles can make. London's density thins, parks become fields, apartment blocks barns, and clogged traffic arteries anemic, winding country lanes. Green replaces gray, rounded hills form, and ideally rustic stone walls crisscross towards the horizon.

I took in as much of this bucolic bounty as I could from behind the wheel of my first left-hand drive (with a left-hand stick, to boot). Whipping the tiny sedan around blind curves, wincing at each narrow miss of an oncoming vehicle, holding my breath at each roundabout.

Wales. The roads grew even narrower, and the scenery even more breathtaking. Bypassing Cardiff, my route took me through the heart of the Brecon Beacons, its broad, towering hills perfectly backdropping the stone huts and mossy, forgotten castle ruins. But by the time I crossed the high pass into North Wales, the sun had set. I navigated the comically thin and twisty "highways" in darkness. Each tiny village along the way was but a candle flame in the vast night.

Perhaps this was the perfect entrance to Snowdonia. Because when I walked out of the shabby bunkhouse early the next morning, the sheer fantasy of the place hit me all at once. Massively rugged, brilliantly green peaks surrounded the valley. Sheep clustered in the early morning chill, and mist hung over the lake.

And it only got better during the hike up to the highest point in England and Wales, Mt. Snowdon. The peak itself was blanketed in damp clouds and buffeted by a bitter wind, but the rest of the trail was held in a quiet stillness.

A million miles from London.

Friday, September 19, 2008

City of Parks

Like any well-planned city, London has its fair share of green spaces. Whether originated as royal hunting grounds or created as a result of the eighteenth-century revelation of their healthful benefits, today these parks offer a respite from the frenzied city traffic and a chance to find the natural within the urban.

Battersea Park
, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park, St. James's Park, Hampstead Heath--in the past two days, my mother and I have walked to and through each of these. I have the blister on my pinky toe to prove it. In addition to getting some exercise and soaking up the greens of the towering trees and expansive lawns, we found a few geocaches--a great way to add a little diversity and entertainment to any outing.

Each park showcases different sights. There's the huge Peace Pagoda in Battersea and the even larger Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. From the footbridge over St. James's tranquil pond, you can see Buckingham Palace in one direction and the London Eye in the other.

But our favorite by far was Hampstead Heath. Situated a good four miles northwest of Central London, it took a 30-minute bus ride past Trafalgar Square, along the edge of Soho, and through funky Camden to access this monumental park, one of the city's largest. Here, the carefully arranged gardens and neatly manicured lawns we had grown accustomed to were replaced by rolling woodlands and wild, heather-covered meadows. Up and down the hills we strolled, stopping at the top of each to admire the views back towards the city. An excellent finale to our tour of London's parks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Off to the Center of the World...

...well, meridian-wise, anyhow. I fly out of Boston tomorrow evening at 7:00. Ironically, my carrier is Air Canada, and I'll be laying over in Halifax for a couple hours. It was a month ago exactly, I think, that I passed by the Halifax airport on a bus on my way to Cape Breton Island.

While technically my second visit to London and the UK, my exploration of the center of the "civilized" world will be much more thorough this time around. Here's what I'm looking forward to:

1. Seeing where all those New England town names came from

Portsmouth, Chichester, Gloucester, St. Albans, Bristol, Bath, Colchester, Worcester, Camden, Reading, Essex, Hampshire, Rochester, etc., etc. A mere 30-second perusal of the Southeast England map brings to the eye a host of familiar names. It really calls into question the creativity of those early Americans. I'm anxious to discover whether the original locales warrant all the homage.

2. Filling my belly with "abominable" British food

Ask anyone what they think of England and this stereotype is sure to top the list. But according to various sources, vast improvements have been made in recent years. I'm particularly eager to sniff out some hole-in-the-wall joints serving up Indian and other South Asian cuisine. Fish 'n' chips wrapped in newspaper is another must, and both of these options should be bugdet. In addition, Eva Holland pinpoints quite a few open-air markets in her article "How to Enjoy London on $100 a Day." Oh yeah, can't wait to sample some real English ales, as well.

3. Visiting the Celtic realms

Besides England, the two countries that make up the island of Great Britain are Scotland and Wales. I plan to travel to the capitals of both (Edinburgh and Cardiff, respectively) by car. The histories of all three nations, and how they relate to one another, are very intriguing, and I'm excited to learn more.

4. Exploring the big city on foot

The world's largest metropolises can seem quite intimidating, but I've found a great way to shrink them down to a comprehensible size: strike out on foot. Without fail, the primary areas of interest lie in the older districts, and by nature these are never very expansive. It's one thing to digest an urban landscape through its map, or to traverse its entirety by public transportation. But there's something about connecting individual locations with your own footsteps that really ties it all together in your mind. London, feel my boots!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cheers to Me Mum!

I'd like to give a quick shout-out to my mother, who just last week arrived in London, where she'll be living for the next few months. She's teaching two classes to students from San Antonio's St. Mary's University, who are participating in a study-abroad program.

Mom seems to be settling in quite well and has already accumulated a wealth of local knowledge to pass on to me in preparation for my trip to visit her next week. In addition, she's keeping a well-updated blog about her experiences, Bridges to London.

I've been to London before but didn't get to take in much more than Heathrow. Needless to say, I'm very excited to see both her and her temporary home!

Here's to you, mum!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Highlights from the Maritimes

So...computer access was a bit tougher to find on the road than I had hoped; hence the lack of posts during the tour. But I'm back home safe and sound now (a little earlier than planned, but what're you gonna do?), so without further ado, here are some of the high points of the trip.

Peggy's Cove

Yes, this is one of the most visited destinations in the region, but I found it very deserving of its reputation. Specific attractions aren't the draw--it's the overall atmosphere and landscape that captivate. The little village of 60 permanent residents was probably my favorite part of the South Shore Lighthouse Trail.

Being a touristy place, it is advisable to try and beat the crowds. The best way to do this is to arrive early, right around 9:00 when everything is opening up. You should have the place nearly to yourself on a weekday morning. By 11:00, the tour buses will start rolling in, but you'll be ready to roll out.

Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail

Okay, okay, this is a pretty broad one, but Cape Breton represented the best part of the tour. Ruggedly beautiful coastlines and myriad outdoor activity options--what more could you ask for?

I cycled what's considered the most striking section of the Cabot Trail, from Englishtown to Margaree Harbour. And striking it was! The scenery was absolutely breathtaking, the climbs rewardingly challenging. After this, everything else on the tour seemed like a bore...which may have contributed to the decision to cut it short by a week. Learning about and being a part of the cycling culture surrounding this route was half the fun.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park was well-managed and worth the $7.50/day admission fee, but my favorite campgrounds were actually outside the park boundaries. The view from my site at Englishtown Ridge Campground was only narrowly beaten out by the one at Hideaway Campground and Oyster Market. Yeah, the oysters were awesome too.

Antigonish and Whidden's Park

Slightly strange, but for some reason I got quite a kick out of this huge camping complex situated right in the middle of an atmospheric college town. The hustle and bustle of all the campers was exciting, and at night the collective campfire smoke did a wonderful job of keeping the mosquitoes at bay. I'd be very interested to learn the origins of this camping park. You just don't see such a place that often!

New Glasgow, PEI

Tiny New Glasgow was a bright spot in an otherwise rather dreary tour around the "gentle island." Its quiet country charm was addictive, and I took a much-longer-than-expected stroll through the Country Gardens, adjacent to the PEI Preserve Company and Cafe on the Clyde, a delicious dining spot. And of course, who could overlook the New Glasgow Lobster Suppers, one of the best places on the island to participate in this tradition of crustaceous gluttony!