I had heard of Cumberland Island. After all, I am a Georgia native. I just never got around to going there, until now. We spent a whirlwind thirty hours on the island and I loved every minute of it.
The largest barrier island off the coast of Georgia, Cumberland is 18-miles long and ranges between 3/4 to 2½ miles wide. The Atlantic Ocean bounds the east. Tidal estuaries and salt marshes flow along the west. The St. Mary’s river separates Cumberland’s southern tip from the northern tip of Amelia Island Florida. In 1972 the island received a National Seashore designation, preserving most of this pristine and history rich land.
The National Park Service owns 40,000 acres on the island. The remaining 1,000 acres are split between 22 fee simple private owners. The 1,000 fee simple acres are not under the park’s jurisdiction. Recently, one of the fee simple owners (Lumar, LLC composed of Coca-Cola Company heirs) has been seeking permission to subdivide its land into multiple houses. Their acreage is located on one of the narrowest parts of the island, just north of the popular Sea Camp campsite. Negotiations have been ongoing. I sure hope heart conquers greed. The quiet regal beauty of this unspoiled island is a true treasure.
There are two public options for overnight stays: the Greyfield Inn or camping in one of four campgrounds. Either way, reservations are required. If you come for the day, or opt for overnight camping, take the Cumberland Island Ferry from St. Mary’s Check the rules and costs for bringing your own bicycle. The ferry has a first come – first serve policy with a limit on the number of bicycles allowed. Arrive early. Only one of the campgrounds has potable water. Make sure you have access to plenty!
Rather than camping, we opted for the Greyfield Inn. A couple of weeks before our NE Florida trip, we decided to visit Cumberland. We didn’t know the inn fills up months in advance. As luck would have it, they had one room for one night. A rare last-minute score. The cost to stay there is exorbitant. After catching our breaths and rationalizing, (the cost includes parking in Fernandina, transportation on the Inn’s private ferry, full breakfasts, lunches, dinners, kayaks, bicycles and guided tours), we bit the bullet. You only live once. Right? No regrets for me! When we arrived at the Inn’s private ferry dock, we were greeted by staff and taken on a tour and orientation. I kept thinking, “welcome to fantasy island.”
Carnegie family roots run deep on Cumberland. One could spend hours reading about their influence, both positive and negative, on the island. Here are the basics. In 1881 steel magnate Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy purchased a huge part of the island. In 1916 Lucy died, leaving the lands to her nine children. Her will included a very complex and restrictive trust fund. The trust restrictions ended in 1962 after the death of Lucy’s last child. The Carnegie property was divided among heirs in 1965.
Between 1881 and 1965 the Carnegie family built 5 sprawling mansions, including Greyfield and Plum Orchard, for family members. The family lived in Pittsburg during summers and on Cumberland in winters. It was a social honor to be invited to stay with them. The lifestyle was rich and famous east coast blue-blood.
Each generation of Carnegie heirs have lived at least part of their lives on Cumberland Island. Greyfield was converted to an inn in 1962 by descendant Lucy Ferguson. The Inn is still managed by the family. The sprawling estate is well-run and maintained respectfully with care. During our short time on the island we met several Carnegie descendants in chance encounters. We chatted with Lucy’s granddaughter on the beach. A sister-in law who manages the Inn was found in the Greyfield kitchen accompanied by her sweet terrier. When leaving, we rode the ferry with one of Lucy’s great-granddaughters and her toddler daughter. All were friendly and seemed pretty normal to me.
Long before the Carnegies, Cumberland island was occupied by humans. Aboriginal shell mounds evidence occupation as long as 4,000 years ago. Much later, the island was used by the Spaniards, who built missions. The British used it as a military outpost. There are African slave villages. The first African-American church on the island still stands. John Kennedy, Jr. was married there. It is open to the public.
Over recent years, most areas used for agriculture and grazing have been allowed to return to mature oak and pine forests. It is quiet and the birds play songs in surround-sound. The air smells of the sea, pine trees and horse poop. Nature offers adventure around every corner. Wild turkeys, boar, and armadillos roam freely. For a more structured visit, the National Park Service offers interesting activities and tours.
We even enjoyed dressing up for dinner. Sitting at communal tables, plied with ample food and wine, we chatted with interesting folks. Georgia accents were all around. How many syllables are in the word “four?” I eased back into my old roots, fittin’ right on in.
Thanks for joining my adventures.
See you next time!
Driving the scenic coastal route, we stopped for fortifications along the way. Neptune Beach, east of Jacksonville, was the perfect place for lunch and a short walk on the beach.
After lunch and coconut margaritas (for the non-drivers), we journeyed to the St. Johns River car ferry for a short ride across the river, docking at the south end of Amelia Island.
Leaving the ferry, we traveled through Amelia Island State Park, 200 pristine acres with trails, beaches and abundant opportunities for bird watching. Further north, we stayed in an ocean front condo for 2-nights, taking in the festivities of the Fernanadina Beach Isle of Eights 55th Annual Shrimp Festival. Starting in 1562, Fernandina Beach has flown the flags of France, Spain, Great Britain, the Republic of Florida, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of American. The area is known for its abundant shrimp harvest. Thus, the name of the festival.
Filled with shops, restaurants and beautifully restored buildings, Fernandina Beach old town sports a historic designation. Typically quiet, (pop. 12,500), the town fills with thousands of people for the shrimp festival. I over-heard much grumbling from locals. It is safe to say they are not terribly fond of the hordes invading their typically quiet mecca. From a tourist perspective, it was a load of fun. The pirate and looting theme cracked me up.
The shrimp and crawfish were both super yummy. Dining tables? Communal plywood lidded garbage cans with slits in the middle for tossing shells. I do love this part of the country.
After sunset, the Indie Rock Bank Flipturn played a nice long set. Watch for this upcoming group of young Florida university students. They’re really good! Next, we were treated to the invasion of the pirates (an overblown lead-up resulting in a lame “event” with lots of “ARGHING” and not much more).
The night ended with a great fireworks display over the bay.
From Fernandina Beach, Conde and I traveled to Cumberland Island Georgia. Wow!!!
See you there.
Spanish moss thrives. It drapes ancient Live Oaks and nestles into Palm trunk crannies, playing host to clusters of ferns. Towering Magnolia’s sport huge creamy blossoms. Doves coo in the morning. And, …I swear it…, the crows caw with a southern accent. People generously share smiles and pleasantries. There is no mistaking, this NE corner of Florida has deep south roots.
St. Augustine bills itself as “America’s oldest city.” In reality, it is America’s oldest continuously occupied by Europeans city. A fascinating place with a diverse, and often violent, history incorporating cultures from around the world.
In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived on the shore of Matanzas Bay with 5 ships and 800 Spaniards, settling San Agustin, La Florida. It was the perfect strategic base for protecting resource rich Spanish territory and treasure ships from marauding Portuguese, French, English and Dutch challengers.
To protect its sprawling territory from pirates and invaders, in 1672 the Spaniards constructed a massive fortress, The Castillo de San Marcos. Now a National Monument, it is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
Spain ruled St. Augustine until 1763. Then Great British took control. Under the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Year War, Spain abandoned Florida in exchange for full control of Cuba. The Brits were not too fond of anything Spanish, so proceeded to destroy communities in St. Augustine. This pillage lasted for 20 years, a part of history not fondly embraced by many in St. Augustine. In 1783 the Peace of Paris accord recognized the independence of the United States, ousted the British and returned Florida to Spain. The Spaniards proceeded to fully develop the city. Many of the structures erected during this time remain. In 1821 Spain ceded Florida to the United States.
The lives of enslaved and freed Africans comprise an important, and under-reported, part of St. Augustine’s history. While Spain granted freedom to runaway British slaves in 1783, this right was not extended to all.
During the 1960s, St. Augustine played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King sent Andrew Jackson to St. Augustine to stage a non-violent march. Horrific violence ensued when a white mobs attacked and beat marchers. On the site of the former slave market, a small tribute to this event was erected.
There is much to do in St. Augustine. Old town has been lovingly restored, filled with amenities for every visitor. Lots of good restaurants and bars. Hop on/off tour trolleys. Horse drawn carriages are easy to hail. The Lightner Museum is housed in a beautiful building with a well curated collection. Just walking around old town is fun.
Our hotel was one of the best places I’ve ever stayed. The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens is a cluster of meticulously restored old homes in a bucolic park-like setting. The property occupies a full city block in the heart of Old Town. The hotel offers a complimentary hour-long historical tour led by Melissa. Her enthusiasm and intimate knowledge of the people who occupied the area is infectious and awe-inspiring. A native of St. Augustine, Melissa exhibited the immense pride many St. Augustinians carry for their city. The entire hotel and its staff reflect this spirit.
Minorca Prince Murat built the block’s first home in 1790. Napoleon’s nephew stayed there, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson. We stayed in the “newer” section of the Murat house. Maybe Emerson channeled my brain while I slept? I can only hope.
Other homes were added and expanded over the years filling the block. In 1939 Kenneth Dow, an eccentric and very wealthy collector (aka hoarder), purchased most of the houses. He and his wife filled them to the brim with amazing, and not so amazing, items collected over many years from their world travels. It was Dow’s dream that the houses and his collection be utilized as a public museum. Although the scale of this dream was not realized, the Dow Museum of Arts & Sciences was created, opening in 2000. A few of the houses were cleaned-up, furnished and opened to the public. There were self-guided tours operated group of women volunteers. As hard as they tried, it was clear the place was falling apart and the museum’s owner had no interest in restoration or helping realize Dow’s dream.
In 2014 David Corneal purchased the property and turned it into a luxury hotel, opening in 2017. Corneal was not a developer or hotel manager. Yet somehow he managed to meticulously incorporate artifacts from Dow’s remaining collection through-out the property. Corneal was respectful of preserving the history of the property while creating a wonderful peaceful refuge for visitors. It is a ton of fun to walk around the gardens looking for items from Dow’s collection, which are everywhere.
Oilman and Railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s wealthy fingerprints dominate sections of Old Town. Flagler was responsible for the beautiful brick roads throughout the city. Years later, when the city decided the brick was too difficult to maintain, it pulled many out. Kenneth Dow followed the city trucks, filling his vehicle with discarded bricks. These reclaimed bricks were used to pave the paths throughout the Collector’s gardens.
St. Augustine lays claim to everything Old. The oldest house in America. The oldest fort. The oldest wooden school in America … It even lays claim to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth The oldest fountain of youth in the Country? Hmmm.
Properties throughout the city have been cleverly repurposed. The St. Augustine Distillery is housed in “Florida’s oldest ice plant.” This craft spirits distillery is hugely successful, producing good products with a local bent and an environmental conscience. Tours of the facility are conducted daily. Upstairs there is a nice restaurant and bar. Definitely worth a visit.
Anastasia State Park is located on Anastasia Island. The park entrance is a 10-minute drive from Old Town, accessed across the Matanzas River via the stately Bridge of Lions. There are beautiful squeaky white sand beaches with dunes intact.
Gopher turtles burrow in the dunes. They are a protected species, unknowingly helping to preserve an area well worth preserving.
We traveled to St. Augustine to visit family. They showed us a great time! There was enough to do to fill a week. Unfortunately we only had a couple of days. We will return to finish-up.
Thanks for joining me on my adventures! See you on Amelia Island.
In typical Geezer On The Go style, we morphed a 2-day Seattle seminar into an 8-day road trip through Washington State.
Twenty minutes after leaving our Portland home, Conde’ and I, with puppy dog Ari in tow, crossed the Interstate-5 Columbia River bridge. The Oregon / Washington state lines are at river’s center. I find comfort in this equitable division. The Columbia is North America’s 4th largest river and a critical resource for the environmental and economic well-being of all who share her bounties.
We followed the river’s north shore for several hours. It was a cold stormy day with high buffeting winds accompanied by a staccato rap from slanting sheets of rain. Apt weather for a visit to Dismal Nitch.
On June 20, 1803 President Thomas Jefferson instructed Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead a 10-12 man exploration mission of the Missouri river and its “principal streams” to the Pacific ocean. They were to map and take detailed notes during the journey. The goal, to establish the best means for commerce across the great expanse of land, now known as the United States mainland. Lewis recruited Lieutenant William Clark to join the mission. The infamous Lewis and Clark expedition was born.
A November 10, 1805 entry from Clark’s journal details a miserable 10-day delay to cross the Columbia and to return to Fort Clatsup (Oregon side). Clark’s precise description of their temporary campsite was “that dismal little nitch.” It is now a picnic area with interpretive signage along Highway 401 across from Astoria Oregon.
I easily imagined the expedition’s angst on our visit. I too saw the rage of the mighty Columbia river roiling with windblown whitecaps. Without a doubt, attempting to cross in a small vessel during such weather would be foolhardy. I wondered what Clark’s journal entry would have read if they had traveled in the middle of August instead? Perhaps a historic picnic area called “Devine Nook” would have resulted.
The Long Beach Peninsula claims fame to the longest beach in the US. In the town of Long Beach one can snag a great basket of fish and chips, eat Willapa bay oysters and shop for souvenirs. Long Beach is also home to Marsh’s Free Museum which is a misnomer. Marsh’s is actually a shop crammed with trinkets and curios for sale. Marsh’s main draw is the mummified body of Jake The Alligator Man, an unofficial and hugely embraced mascot of Long Beach. Stories of Jake’s origin’s remain murky. Part of his mystique.
Cape Disappointment State Park comprises 1,882 wooded acres on the peninsula’s far southern tip. You can see the Columbia river and Pacific ocean merge in a majestic confluence. The narrow passage from the ocean into the river used to be very dangerous and often resulted in disaster, including many sinking ships. Thus, the park’s name.
In reality the area is far from disappointing. There is ample camping and lot’s of hiking trails. The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center is well curated and fronted by the remains of Fort Canby’s two circa 1905 batteries. The historic lighthouses are interesting, offer stellar views of the ocean and are, well, historic.
The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is divided into three distinct areas. One section is on the north end of the Long Beach peninsula, just past Oysterville and abutting Leadbetter Point State Park. Plenty of bucolic nature filled hiking trails, some with views of Willapa Bay to the east and the Pacific ocean in the west. A delightful way to spend a few hours among nature.
After 2-days exploring the peninsula, it was time to move on. We got an early start for a 4-hour drive northeast. The goal, a 3:30 pm ferry reservation from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island with extra time for exploring along the way.
Our first stop was a section of the Willapa Wildlife Refuge along southern Highway 101 just west of the peninsula. A bayside gallery art installation trail meanders in a 1-mile loop peppered with interpretative boxes and wildlife sculptures. The morning was clear and chilly. The air damp and filled with the sweet aroma of fresh evergreens and earthy forest mulch. I relished the head clearing tree bath stroll. An auspicious beginning for a fun-filled sunny day.
Leaving the refuge we traveled northwest, stopping at Alderbrook Resort in Union for lunch. The food was very good and a healthy welcome change from fish and chips. The restaurant overlooks the Hood canal with views of snow-capped mountains. After lunch we continued north along the Hood Canal on a scenic, twisty, two-lane section of Hwy. 101 through the Olympic National Forest. I learned the canal is popular with scuba divers due to its “calm clear waters and giant Pacific octopus.” Didn’t partake in that adventure. Just before the Hamma Hamma river we encountered the Hama Hama Oyster Farm Can’t explain the spelling disparity. Too bad we weren’t hungry!
We arrived in Port Townsend almost an hour before our car ferry reservation. The ride is 45-minutes across Puget Sound to the Coupeville ferry port on Whidbey Island. We took advantage of the extra time to drive through Port Townsend. Beautiful historic Victorian homes spot hillsides overlooking the Sound. A dreamlike setting. Almost made we want to live there … almost… It was a rare sunny day.
The Washington ferry system is incredibly efficient. We disembarked right on schedule, drove to our cabin on a pond in the woods arriving before 5:00 pm. We cooked our dinners in. At night the frogs serenaded with oddly timed symphonic compositions. What a wonderful base for exploring Whidbey Island!
Whidbey Island is approximately 50 miles long by 12 miles wide, population 80,000. It is home to a large US Naval Air Station and Field. There are acres of active farmland, old growth forests and plenty of public spaces for hiking, camping and enjoying the spectacular scenery.
On our first day we visited Oak Harbor, the island’s largest city, pop. 22,000. I was really glad we happened upon, and popped into, the Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center A delightful young woman imparted ample useful information. I left with an armload of free maps that proved essential for planning daily hikes. And, she threw in a couple of bottles of water, gratis. Made Ari happy.
Washington State Park system requires a paid pass for parking. Called the Discover Pass, you can pay $10 for each single day or $30 unlimited for one-year access. Many parks have kiosks where you can purchase on site. There is a $99 penalty for failure to use a parking pass.
Deception Pass State Park is at the far northern end of Whidbey. The park’s name comes from the area’s proclivity to shifting fogs. There is hiking trails on both sides of Hwy. 20 and across Deception Bridge on Fidalgo Island. (Learned this from a Chamber map). We picked the areas of West Beach by Cranberry Lake and then to North Beach for our hike. It was rainy with welcome sun breaks. Loved every minute of it.
Whidbey Island has a number of cities ranging from “don’t blink” tiny to real cities. Each area has a distinct personality. Some are touristy and others totally local. We ate everything from local Bar-B-Que in Oak Harbor, Jalapeno Cheesburgers in Clinton to duck confit in Langley.
Just north of Langley are lush hiking and horse back riding trails, created, preserved and maintained by the non-profit Washington Trail Association. The Putney Woods, Saratoga Woods, & Metcalf Trust Trail System provided a quiet clean air escape from the world on well marked and maintained trails. We did not see another sole the day we visited.
We spent a couple of hours in the delightful tourist town of Langley before catching the Clinton ferry for a 20 minute ride back to the mainland north of Seattle. Lot’s of good shopping, book stores and cafes. Whales frequently pass through the Sound along Langley and can been seen from the beach or boardwalk.
I’m ending the story of our Washington road trip on Whidbey Island. Seattle is a story in and of itself. Thanks for joining me on my adventures! See you next month in St. Augustine Florida.
Portland winters can be tough. Bone chilling drizzle and endless gray skies. When ennui settles in my soul its time for SUNSHINE! Nature’s Vitamin D. Southern California is a sure bet and is only a 2 hour plane flight direct on Alaska Air.
Palm Springs has become a repeat destination. With a disclaimer: A sprawling automobile centric lifestyle spans from Palm Springs south to LaQuinta. The main roads are lined with ugly big box stores fronted by expanses of asphalt. Ritzy resorts with high-end golf courses are in over abundance and consume an obscene amount of water in an arid desert climate. Wealth is frequently flaunted like a badge of honor.
Yet, I’ve developed a fondness for Palm Springs proper and many of the surrounding amenities. I enjoy the distinctly California mid-century modern architecture with a Hollywood legend vibe. It was a renown playground for the stars in the 1950s and 60s. Old Palm Springs is a fun place to window shop, browse galleries and eat California style.
The air is dry and winter nights can be delightfully chilly with star studded skies. The high-desert sunlight and drop-dead gorgeous mountain views are stellar. Great hiking opportunities include the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
I just returned from a six night mini vacation to Palm Springs with my friend Sue. She bought a hip home in a Mobile Home Park developed in 1958. Common areas are painted turquoise and the streets have names like Mars and Jupiter. A hiking trail to Bob Hope’s old home runs right above her back yard. What’s not to like about that?
While in Palm Springs we participated in some Modernism Week events including a 2½ hour open double decker bus architectural tour guided by the flamboyant Charles Phoenix Tons of fun and a great opportunity to soak up sun.
One of my favorite sites is a home smack dab in the middle of The Movie Colony neighborhood. Artist Kenny Irwin, Jr. has turned the yard of his father’s home into an alien inspired sculpture gardens. Tickled my fancy.
A fun thing to do while in the area is take a Big Wheel Bike Tour downhill along the San Andreas Fault. The tour company takes you to the top of the mountain where you mount your bike for the 20 mile downhill roller coaster ride.
The Mojave and Colorado deserts come together in Joshua Tree National Park which is only an hour drive from Palm Springs. You can drive the park road, stopping for hikes along the way. Pack a picnic and take plenty of water, as there are few amenities in the park. It’s fun to sit and watch rock climbers while soaking up some rays.
It can be fun to stay in the community of Joshua Tree for a couple of nights, spending days exploring the park. Spin and Margie’s is a great 1950s gussied up motel. The rooms have been remodeled, some with little kitchenettes. Their desert garden has a BBQ grill and fire pit for guest’s enjoyment. Camping is another great options. Make sure to blanket up as the high desert nights can be cold!
Mini Vacays can do the trick when time is in limited supplies. Next month we head out on a road trip to Washington State. I look forward to catching up with you then. Thanks for joining me on my adventures.
We took the train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. Vietnam Railway’s Online schedule and reservation system is easy to use. The train was timely, clean and comfortable. The cost, $28 per person for the 11-hour journey sitting in reserved “soft seats.” Lunch and dinner were included. (Note to cook: please quit your day job).
Arriving in Hanoi at 8:00 pm, we took a short cab ride to our home for the next six nights. Located on the edge of the Old Quarter, we chose a bright airy one bedroom apartment rented through VRBO. Typical to Hanoi, the entrance to our 6-story building is down a narrow alley co-occupied by food vendor kitchens, a nail salon / massage parlor (legit), day care center and other “stuff.” It’s been fun getting to know our neighbors and their daily routines.
Friends recommended we check out a Hanoi Kids tour (thanks Jamie & David!). Hanoikids is a non-profit student-run organization based in Hanoi. College student volunteers escort English-speaking travelers on free tours of Hanoi. The goal is exchanging cultural information while the students practice English. Our delightful well-informed guides, Momo and Daniel, led us around Old Town and the French Quarter. What a great first great impression of Hanoi! Kudos to Hanoikids! Caution: there are some fake organizations out there using the name Hanoikids. Don’t reward them.
No way I was going visit Hanoi and not scope out the spot where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama shared a meal. Talk about two of my idols! If you haven’t seen it, Bourdain’s show on Hanoi is a good watch. The Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant food was good. The scene beyond fun. Order the Obama Combo.
I really wanted to see Ho Chi Minh. Okay, I know he died in 1969. But his body is displayed in a large glass coffin inside a giant mausoleum. Depending on your source, he is sent to Russian or China for an annual beauty makeover. He must have been napping when we visited. No one was getting anywhere near his heavily guarded compound. The map of Hanoi shows a huge green area around the mausoleum including the presidential palace, botanical gardens, Ho’s stilt house and the Ho Chi Minh museum. I expected a delightful day of exploring the area. Instead, all roads led to the exit. Clearly a showcase where the masses are not welcome.
The Vietnam Military History Museum is worth a visit. There are 30 galleries tracing the history of Vietnam’s armed forces, starting with battles against the Chinese and Mongols and chronologically moving to the wars against France, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and America. I found the exhibits of the Vietnam war disturbing. Too close to home even though the Vietnamese perspective rendered was fair.
The Temple of Literature was established in 1070 in honor of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It served as an institute of higher learning. The complex is huge, takes a couple of hours to meander through and is well worth a visit.
The Dong Xuan Market is the oldest and largest covered market in Hanoi. It is a fun manic place to visit. Think Walmart Superstore, Home Depot, the Party Store, JC Penny’s and the Food Court combined. Each section of the market specializes in different types of goods. I so love the smells, sights and energy of a bustling market place!
Hanoi is a great walking city. There are countless nooks and crannies for exploration. Truly something for everyone. The streets teem with motorbikes and the constant din of honking horns. The smell of cooking permeates everything. People are friendly and the city safe. One of our favorite spots turned out to be Hoan Siem Lake. It is surrounded by trees and comfortable benches for relaxing and people watching. The mythology of the lake is delightful. I would return to Hanoi in a heartbeat.
We were treated to a special local scene when Vietnam made it into the finals for the Asian Soccer Cup. In the hour leading up to the game’s end, huge crowds gathered around shops with visible televisions. Groups huddled on curbs hunkering over cell phones streaming the game. The tension was palpable. When Vietnam made its final winning goal, the city erupted in cheers. I found myself shouting along. The partying went on into the wee hours of the morning, way past Hanoi’s enforced midnight curfew. Joyful chants of”Vietnam Ho Chi Minh” erupted while thousands of people paraded on foot, motorbike and car waving the Vietnam flag. I’ve never seen anything like it. I sure hope Vietnam wins the finals!
There is something incongruous about our final day in Vietnam beginning with a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. The truth be told, Conde visited the prison. I opted out. Just downloading the photos he gave me caused the HeBeeJeBees. Here are a couple.
We rounded out the day with a visit to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum and the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Both well worth a visit. What a great city.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park borders the Laotian Hen Namno national reserve. The Vietnamese side is 340 square miles of near-pristine mountainous evergreen jungle. Formed 400 million years ago, the park sports hundreds of limestone cave systems and crystal clear underground rivers. New cave systems are being discovered annually. On your high-tech map above, the park is located just NW of the city of Dong Hoi.
From Hue, we drove (aka were chauffeured) north on the Ho Chi Minh Highway for 4½ hours. Formerly the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the highway was fully paved in 1995. One section is paved directly over an aircraft runway, visible on both sides of the road and serving as extended road shoulders.
We began and ended our four night stay in the National Park area at Chay Lap Farmstay As suggested by the name, accommodations are located in the heart of farmlands. Kayaks and bicycles are available for guest use. We paddled the river and rode bicycles along the country road. The Farmstay rooms are comfortable, the staff amazing, views to die for, decent wine and pretty good food. Locals found our photo op choices humorous.
After a night at the Farmstay, we embarked on a 3 day 2 night Wild Tu Lan Cave Adventure guided by Oxalis Adventure Tours. Once on board their van we met our fellow trekkers. Ten of us in all. Nationalities included French, British, Austrian, Australian, Vietnamese and two Geezer Americans. It was a compatible fun-loving group. Lot’s of laughter. Zero drama.
The 1½ hour van ride over bumpy rural roads ended at Oxalis Headquarters in Son Trach Village, pop. 3,000. We were briefed and suited-up. The adventure was billed as moderate fitness level. Little did I know…
We forded rivers, scaled mountains, squeezed through narrow cave openings and swam across deep cave rivers fully clothed, boots and all. I made the trip with help from the kind professional Oxalis staff and support of fellow travelers. Had I understood the physical challenges of the adventure, I would have said I can’t do it. But I did! I’m so proud — ripped pants, bruises, aching muscles and all. I learned I am much better at swimming than rock climbing. It was an experience of a life time.
Each of the 5 caves visited showcases a different personality. The magnificence is overwhelming. We took hundreds of photos. Here’s a small sampling that does not do justice to the overall experience.
We were pampered by a cadre of Porters and staff. Campsites were fully erected and our belongings already delivered when we trekked in. Meals were expertly prepared, delicious, plentiful and diverse. The toilets composting, using giant scoops of rice hulls to aid the process. I learned that night jungle rats have an affinity for rice hulls. Better to shine your flashlight and kick at the toilet before sitting down. Fewer surprises. All equipment was provided. Our job was to show up, rock scramble, swim, gawk, eat, play games and laugh. Applegate Glamping Ladies, we need to up our game!
After 3 days and 2 nights of being lulled to sleep by waterfalls, it was time to leave jungle paradise. We ended where we started. After showers and a chang into clean dry clothes we had a final group meal at a village restaurant. Here are a few photos of Son Trach.
Oxalis delivered us to Chay Lap Farmstay for our final night in the area. First thing, we delivered a giant plastic garbage bag filled with wet mud caked clothes to the hotel laundry. Two hours later, at a cost of $10, we got back a basket of spotless folded clothes. How they got the mud out, i’ll never know. Before bed we shared wine and a light dinner with our new Aussie friends. The next morning it was an early start to Dong Hoi for an eleven hour train ride to Hanoi.
We flew Cambodia Air, an 8 plane carrier, from Siem Reap Cambodia to Danang Vietnam. A couple of overhead bins were secured shut with duct tape. The bathroom door literally fell off when I paid a visit. No worries. A flight attendant monitored to ensure privacy. I chose to believe the airlines spends their money on mechanical maintenance rather than interior features. We didn’t crash so I guess I was right.
We pre-arranged a private car for the 50 minute drive from Danang to Hoi An. Along the way we saw one massive resort construction site after another. We were told it was Chinese money. Someone else said Russian money. Anyone’s guess. Just glad these behemoths don’t bleed over into the charm of Hoi An.
Hoi An is a bit like San Miguel de Allende Mexico or Santa Fe New Mexico. The original old town stayed intact during the war. The city took advantage and developed a thriving tourist industry. Lots of shops, galleries and restaurants. And yes, there are tourists here too. But plenty of locals as well. The town is known for its custom clothing industry. There are hundreds of tailor shops to chose from. I had three cotton skirts with matching silk blouses custom made. The turn-around was less than 24-hours. Nice quality at a very reasonable price.
The weather in Hoi An was cool and rainy. For my 61st Birthday Conde signed us up for a 2½ cooking class.. We ate everything we cooked and then some. We had a blast at Vy’s Market and Cooking School
While in Hoi An we stayed at Camilla Homestay The Homestay is literally a family home with four large ensuite guest rooms. A full breakfast is included in the $26 per night room cost. The family, Ms. Nahn, Mr. Chinh and their niece Ms. Hoa, are kind generous hosts. The home, a beautiful old four story with marble floors and a sweeping staircase. The location is ideal. Far enough from the hubbub to be quiet at night and a nice 20 minute walk to old town and the river center. Unexpectedly, the family invited all the guests to a homemade Vietnamese Bar-B-Que on Saturday night. There was no charge on our bill for this delightful surprise. The guest roster included a couple from Great Britain, a German woman, a Finnish couple and Conde and me. I loved the warm hospitality of the home and slept like a baby while under their roof.
Another notable activity in Hoi An is a visit to the Precious Heritage Museum. The museum houses a collection of photographs documenting ethnic cultures in Vietnam. Photographer Rehahn focuses on the faces of women. Directly across the street from the museum is a nice gallery worth a visit.
After 3 nights in Hoi An we traveled north to Hue. A 3½ hour drive by private car. I’ve really taken a liking to this chauffeur driven mode of transportation.
Hue is a little less than half-way between Hoi An and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. At the last minute, we cancelled a forth night in Hoi An to break up what would have been a 7½ drive.
As a disclaimer, we spent less than 24-hours in Hue. With that said, other than its huge historical significance, Hue has been my least favorite destination in Vietnam, thus far.
The air quality is poor, the wide boulevards almost impossible to cross, sidewalks are either torn-up with construction or filled with parked motorbikes. The Perfume River is brown and littered with debris. Definitely not a pleasant place to walk around and explore the sights. Fortunately we booked a stellar hotel that offered respite and a chance to recharge. La Residence Hue is elegant and we nabbed a last minute deal. If you go to Hue, save some shoe sole and use cabs or bicycle driven Tuk Tuks.
The Hue Citadel: Imperial City was established in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long and declared a World Heritage Site in 1993. The complex is huge and surrounded by two moats. At one time it clearly was magnificent. Now, a bit shabby and in need of lots of TLC, it is still worth a visit. The exhibits are well curated and taught me a lot about the history of Vietnam.
Here’s my cliff notes version. Vietnam’s long reign of Emperor rule ended in 1945 when Emperor Bas Dai abdicated the throne and Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France. Thus began the first Indochina War. In 1946 France began its fight to regain control of the country. In 1954 the French finally suffered a huge defeat. That same year a Geneva Convention Treaty was signed sanctioning Vietnam’s partition into North and South. US money was committed to prop up the leadership of South Vietnam. When that wasn’t enough, in 1960 the US military arrived in Vietnam. A bloody 15-year war ensued known either as as The Vietnam War or The American War, depending on your perspective. In 1975 the US conceded defeat. North and South Vietnam reunified under a communist government. The economy suffered. In response, Vietnam declared Reformation in 1986 and adapted a more market driven economy. Vietnam’s constitution was amended in 1992 in recognition of the impact of the private sector on the economy. In 1994 the US embargo on Vietnam was lifted and in 1995 diplomatic relations with the US were reinstated. Today, the economy of Vietnam thrives and memories of the war seem a distant past.
The Hue War Museum was shuttered-up. The only remaining exhibits on display were on the grounds and unattended.
For dinner, our hotel recommended a local family run restaurant called Le Hanh on Tri Phuong right off Ben Nghe across from the market. Not much ambiance but definitely worth the visit. Order the spring rolls and you can assemble them yourselves.
What grows on a Curmudgeon On The Couch…
The Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap Cambodia is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. I cringe to think we almost did not go there after reading reviews about the site being too touristy. There are over 100 monuments in the area created by thousands of artisans starting more than 1,000 years ago. It is the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia and deeply touched my soul.
Prince Jayavarman II claimed independence from Java founding the Angkor Kingdom in AD 802. About the same time as Charlemagne became the Holy Roman Emperor. Jayavarman II declared himself to be the first Khmer God-King, a tradition which continues in current times. The reigning monarch identified with Shiva, the King of Hindu Gods.
After a succession of leaders, Suryavarman II became leader of the Angkor Empire. He hugely expanded the Empire and was responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat between AD 1113 and 1150. Suryavarman II was relentless in attacking and driving out the Champa State. In 1177 the Chams took revenge and sacked Angkor.
Then came Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1218). After four years of war he drove out the Chams and expanded the Khmer Empire even further. He constructed Preah Khan to use as a temporary seat of government until Angkor Thom could be completed. Jayavarman VII built hospitals, rest houses and a complex road system. The Angkor complex covers 77 square miles.
Bas Reliefs in Angkor Wat
In 1218 the Empire began to fall into decline which continued over the next two hundred years. The temples were decaying and the once magnificent architectural system fell into ruins. Angkor became uninhabitable and the royal capital was abandoned to the Siamese in 1431.
The Angkor Empire lasted for about 500 years. There is much speculation around the fall of the Empire. The Thais were encroaching on Khmer territory making Angkor an unsuitable location. Perhaps the huge population put a strain on the forest and water resources. Some say the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th Century undermined the prestige of the King and priests. The precise reason for the decline of the Empire continues to be a topic of debate.
The ruins of Angkor were reported by foreigners as early as the 16th Century. The jungle had encroached on the structures, but the magnificence was apparent. Over the years the temples were heavily looted. Some of the treasures remain on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
In 1992 Angkor was declared a World Heritage Site and opened to the public. Monies and efforts from around the world have gone into restoration. As I wandered around I decided 1,000 archeologists could spend 100 years and still have plenty of work to do.
This family owned restaurant is just on the east side of Angkor Thom. It is called Ta Prohm (like the temple) and has killer noodle bowls.
We arrived in Chau Doc at 7:00 pm and checked into the classic colonial Victoria Chau Doc Hotel A lovely property. Having traveled long and far we decided to dine in the hotel. The food was okay and a pricey for what was offered. On the other hand, our room was huge with beautiful dark wood floors, a nice walk-in shower and a comfortable king sized bed. At 5:00 am I was awakened to the melodic call of prayers from the Mubarak Mosque across the river from our hotel.
After a quick traditional Vietnamese breakfast we boarded the Victoria Speedboat for a pleasant 5 hour trip up the Mekong to Phnom Penh Cambodia.
When we crossed into Cambodia the Captain lowered the Vietnam flag and raised the Cambodian flag. Soon we arrived at immigration control. The Visa cost per person is $33 US cash. A current passport photograph is required. The border crossing process was slow but painless, thanks in large part to the Victoria’s agent on board the boat. For entertainment while waiting I watched a hen teaching her chicks to fend for themselves, making a big show of scratching earth to turn up insects. One smart chick got it, looking at the others with confusion when they followed mama and waited for her to do the scratching. I figured they were the roosters to be and the quick study was a female.
The Victoria is not the cheapest speedboat available for the trip, but worth the extra money. The boat was comfortable with a nice well maintained bathroom. Refreshments were provided including muffins, tea, coffee, colas and water. Conde even snagged a beer. It was a fun way to travel from Vietnam into Cambodia.
We read a lot about Phnom Penh, much of which was not flattering. Lonely Planet put the fear of god in us, warning against theft and highlighting a story about a French woman who was dragged from the back of a moto and killed when thieves tried to snatch a bag with a long strap hanging from her shoulder. As we got off the boat we braced for an anticipated onslaught and gathered our belongings close by.
It turned out the process turned out to be was easy and calm. Nothing threatening about it. We immediately found a Tuk Tuk and negotiated the driver down from $6 US to $4 US. Negotiating is part of the culture and is a matter of pride for all. Conde still reminds me we overpaid by a dollar.
The Tuk Tuk took us directly to the Plantation Hotel A very cushy and comfortable property.
I never fully recovered from the flu and had a nasty relapse. My health wasn’t going anywhere but down. I contacted my US doctor who recommended a broad spectrum antibiotic. This was available without a prescription in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh story is Conde’s as my version consists of drawn curtains and the bed at the Plantation Hotel. Oh yes, and a short walk to the pharmacy dogged by Conde with a camera. (Spoiler Alert: the antibiotics worked and I am 90% human again).
Conde’s favorite restaurant find. Go figure.
A rooftop bar with a sweeping view of the city.
A few street scenes.
Phnom Penh is filled with French colonial buildings. There are tree line boulevards and lots of parks. As we drove through the town on our way out we saw what appeared to be a blossoming arts culture and beautiful museums and buildings worth noting. No doubt few days here would be time well spent.
The Plantation Hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Seim Reap. He arrived promptly at noon, as requested. The cost was $85 US for the 4½ hour drive northwest. The car was a spotless newer model Lexus SUV. Our driver a quiet, shy Cambodian man with a delightful sense of humor. He anticipated our needs before we could voice them. We couldn’t have been happier.
The area between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is largely agricultural. Lots of cows, family farms and water buffalo wallowing in mud ponds. The countryside offered lots of candy for the eyes.
The evening before traveling to Can Tho I did two things. First I reserved a room at the magnificent Victoria Can Tho getting a crazy good last minute deal. Second, I secured spots for a Floating Market Tour with Heiu’s Tour Company. Both proved to be excellent choices.
The 7-hour floating market tour started at 4:10 am. Seeing the sun rise on the river was worth every second of missed sleep. A picture is worth a 1,000 words, so here goes:
Many of the boats have eyes in the front to ensure one never gets lost. Larger boats bring produce from the fields to sell. Smaller boats purchase from the larger boats and re-sell. The “Seller” boats stay for as long as it takes to move all of their product. Each large boat sports a long pole with a sample of its wares tied to the pole to advertise.
The floating markets are rapidly shrinking in size. The change is attributed to the dramatic improvement in roads and modernization of transportation throughout the Mekong Delta. Simply put, it has become easier and much more efficient to transport produce over land. The floating market commerce is a way of life for many. There are concerns over what will happen if the markets completely disappear.
Our Floating Market tour included breakfast, Vietnamese style. Fresh fruit and a bowl of noodles is a great way to start the day.
Can Tho is a delightful mid-sized city. I would definitely stay there an extra day or two given the opportunity. A lovely waterfront boardwalk meanders from one end of town to the other. Saturday night at the waterfront city center was extremely active and safe. Wedding celebration parties, families eating picnic style with young children wearing pajamas, and couples strolling hand-in-hand mingled with tourists from around the world. The scene reminded me of an active Mexican Zocalo on a weekend night.
We ate dinner on a pier overlooking the river. Conde had frog legs. I had a fresh seafood stew with local vegetables, including bright yellow pumpkin flowers, cooked table side. And, the wine wasn’t half bad either.
Less than 24 hours after our arrival in Can Tho we departed for Chau Doc. A three hour drive northeast on the river near the Cambodian border. Having become Futa Bus Masters, we opted for this mode of transportation. $4 US for the two of us.
Saigon is an assault to the senses. There is an incessant din of honking horns, rumbling trucks, puttering motor scooters, smog thickened humidity, aromatic foods, charcoal fires, incense, and hidden garbage. The sidewalks are filled with Vendors creating and selling everything imaginable. At night the city lights up with color. One can’t help but be swept up in the energy. The city felt safe.
The architecture is hodgepodge and indicative of the city’s history. It’s not uncommon to see a row of buildings with a tall skinny house from the French occupation era beside a 70s building followed by a dilapidated brick structure. The city is divided into Districts, each sporting its own personality. It is not hard to navigate on foot, although locals far prefer the speed and efficiency of motor scooters (Motos). Many wear face masks to protect from polluted air. It is clear these masks can be used as a playful fashion statements.
There are hidden jewels in every big city. Unearthing those jewels can be an exciting part of travel adventure.
While wandering Saigon one evening, Conde noticed an innocuous building. “Let’s go in!” he declared. I followed into a greasy, dank and poorly lit Moto parking garage. After passing through we discovered an elevator along side a grungy tiled curved stairwell. A small group of well-dressed young Vietnamese was waiting for the elevator; another group filing up the stairs. We joined the elevator queue. The door slid open and a full load piled out. The operator was charging 3,000 VND (approx. 15 cents) for a ride up.
Since we had no clue where we were headed, we opted for the stairs. Each floor revealed a handful of shops, restaurants and other businesses run by enthusiastic young entrepreneurial Vietnamese. We sat down at a cute restaurant airing a fun playlist called The Maker (the restaurant, not the play list). Great salads with a nice Vietnamese twist and decent beer selection. And perfect wifi reception.
In spite of being American Geezers, we were truly welcomed. A later internet search showed the building was one of the hippest new retail spots in District 1 for upstarts.
The only way to rent a car in Vietnam is with a driver. With the crazy maniacal “flow” of traffic, this is a very logical rule. We had planned to rent a private car for travel south from Saigon to the Mekong Delta. Lonely Planet says this can be found for $75 US per day. Our search failed to unearth this option. There were cars with drivers, but at triple the cost. We decided to take the bus from Saigon to Can Tho.
Lonely Planet advises the choice for bus travel is Futa Buslines. We popped into a local travel agency to inquire. We learned buses ran every hour from Saigon to Can Tho. A 3 hour ride. The nice travel agency lady wrote down an address. We figured it was the bus station. After a leisurely breakfast the following day we took a cab to the noted destination, a Futa office. Turned out you could neither buy a bus ticket there nor could you catch a bus from that location. Never did figure out what service was provided there. The clerk instructed that we us go to the bus station. She furnished a pre-printed list of addresses with pertinent information highlighted in yellow. I asked for directions to the bus station. “Too far to walk,” she said. There was a line of Futa owned cabs outside. I handed the driver my highlighted paper. We had a fun, albeit unexpected, cab tour to the other side of town where we were delivered to a small Futa station.
I went inside and learned that for 220,000VND (approx. $10 US for both) and a 10 minutes wait we would be on our way to Can Tho. I paid up. A mini van promptly arrived. We loaded, along with 11 other passengers, for the trip to Can Tho. So we thought. It turned out this was a shuttle to the main Futa bus station. As the van unloaded I asked the driver, where to now? “Go inside,” he replied with a broad gesture toward the station. It was large adorned with multiple departure and arrival boards. Our untrained eyes couldn’t figure it out. The PA announcements didn’t help either. Not to be deterred we exited the station and marched up and down a long line of diesel huffing busses, luggage in tow. (Did I mention I failed in my resolve to pack lightly? Well, I did. Notice how I buried this confession?)
We found a bus marked Can Tho and showed an agent our tickets. He gave a perfunctory, almost imperceptible, nod. We trotted along side as the bus edged forward each time the bus at the front of the line departed. I stuck close. This geezer wasn’t getting left behind! During a brief pause in forward momentum the agent took our luggage and stowed it in the underneath compartment. He made copious notes on my ticket, so I figured all was good here. Still, we trotted along every time the bus moved forward.
When we boarded we were told to sit in 4A and 4C. Okay, got it. Just as I was turning to walk down the aisle the official firmly grabbed my wrist. I stopped. The driver was holding open a black plastic sack and the agent pointed to my feet. But of course. They need me to take off my shoes and stow them in the black bag. Done!
The bus had two tiers of seats. Much like bunk beds. Each seat resembled a soap box race car. I settled into the 4A lower tier. Nope. The official ordered me “Top! Top!” his patience clearly being tried. I smiled nicely and used my best monkey skills to climb to the top tier.
Halfway to Can Tho we stopped at a huge warehouse, clearly owned by Futa, for refreshments and a toilet break. As we filed off the bus, we were instructed to don green and orange flip flops dumped on the ground from a laundry basket. The inner child in me delighted as I slipped into a mismatched pair several sizes too big and clomped about the warehouse. I tried hard not to imagine who had proceeded me in these shoes.
We now know the system for bus travel in Vietnam. We arrived in Can Tho safe and sound. What a great city!
In the Mekong Delta Vietnam it is common to inter your dead in an above ground shrine located in your home’s rice paddy or garden area. Many are very elaborate. Birth dates in Vietnam are not important. Death date is very important. When a baby is born in Vietnam, it is automatically one year old. Each year on Tet (Vietnamese new year) another year is added. If Tet falls on February 16th and a baby is born on February 15th, the baby turns two the day after birth. Every year a large family celebration is held on the date of death of each relative. If the person was very old when they died, a bamboo stick is placed on the grave site. This can serve as a cane for the elderly dead to use for making it back to the house to join in the celebration.