Tag Archives: Airbnb

Shant-outings*

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*Thanks to Joshua for the oh-so-punny title

As mentioned previously, Shantou is tucked into the coastline of the South China Sea, making it the perfect jumping off point for day trips to the numerous surrounding islands. On our first weekend in China, myself and the other Canadian exchange students took the ferry for 1 yuan (~20 cents) across the Shantou Harbour and landed on the idyllic shores of Queshi island. We were greeted by a woman expertly dissecting pineapples with a machete and neatly skewering the slices onto long skewers. An entire pineapple for 7¥ ($1.5) seemed a reasonable price to pay for a snack as we walked along the island’s meandering paths.

View of Queshi from the Shantou side of the sea

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Our goal was the pagoda we had seen every morning we walked along our side of the harbour. On our way up the mountain, we explored a series of naturally formed granite caverns with such enchanting names as “Rainbow Lying Cave,” “Happy Fate Cave,” “God’s Shoe,” “The Platform for Watching Sight of Flame Mount,” and “Three-Tier Cave Toilet” (on second thought, maybe that last one was 2 separate stops…)

View of Shantou from the Queshi side of the sea! 

Terrifyingly steep steps into the caves!

Lovely lunchtime stop
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Giant Buddha (only after an entire photo sesh with G.B. did we realise we had been sitting in front of a sign that read, in Chinese, that pictures cost 2¥ each… and consequently a terrifying encounter with the giant security guard ensued)

After eating lunch in the pagoda at the mountain peak and paying our respects to giant Buddha back down on the ground, we headed back to the ferry. Before we had even landed back on mainland, we were already receiving WeChats from our host students, inviting us out for an evening of quintessential Chinese cultural fun: KTV.

KTV (aka karaoke) is more than just a past time in China… it’s practically an art form. Whole streets are lined with massive KTV buildings, each hosting a multitude of private rooms where groups can order food & drinks and custom-create a karaoke setlist of K-Pop and the newest Swifty singles. At KTV, the most stoic and shy of students suddenly comes into their own and discovers their latent pop stardom, belting out sexy ballads with no restraint or reserve whatsoever!

Post-KTV, we were up bright and early to board the bus taking us to a village about 2 hours from Shantou. Interestingly enough for a self-declared Communist country, healthcare is not publicly funded in China, and therefore many citizens cannot afford basic medications or even a simple doctor’s visit. Thanks to Guangdong-born Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist, the Li Ka-Shing foundation has instituted numerous charitable works to address health inequities across the country, including the one we were participating in that morning – Medical Aid for the Poor (MAP). Once a month, MAP physicians set up free clinics in villages near Shantou, providing free medications, blood pressure readings, and specialist consults. They also provide home visits for any rural citizens unable to transport themselves to the clinic.

My lunch at MAP won the honour of being the most interesting food I have ever eaten to date: I was so proud of myself initially for trying what I was convinced was liver, since I had never had that before. But when I checked in with my Chinese friend, she blithely corrected me: “Oh no, those are blood clots. Maybe pig? Probably dog.”

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Home visits & tour of the village temple

Since we were spending so much time in “small town” China (remember that Shantou’s population is a mere 5 million), we thought we should grab the chance to see big city China at its most iconic: Hong Kong.

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For being so close to Shantou, it was a headache and a half to actually make our way to HKSAR. A chartered car, a bullet train, a subway, a walk through two sets of customs, and another subway later, we were finally in our Hong Kong home for the weekend – an itty bitty hostel room on the 14th floor. The rule was that some part of each person had to be touching their bunk at all times, otherwise there was not enough space for us all in the room!

Hong Kong had some noteworthy features: milk tea, pork floss toast, the mind-blowing bus ride up to Victoria Peak (call me small town, but I have never seen buildings rising up higher than the surrounding mountains!!), and the hilarious experience of finding our way up to the “Highest Bar in the World” and negotiating with the hostesses and fellow patrons for rented pants so our male compatriots could actually enter the bar (because apparently, while shorts are incredibly offensive and inappropriate, ankle-skimming polyester gems passed around to 3 different gentleman in 1 hour are far, far more acceptable). However, in general, I do not feel the need to go back to HKSAR. I feel so privileged to have spent the majority of my time in “small town” China that actually felt unique, and not simply like a crowded version of any forgettable kitschy American town.

Buildings, buildings everywhere…

The day after arriving back in Shantou from HKSAR, we were again packed into a bus, this time to trek several hours to Nan’ao island, where we spent a lazy day hiking up to yet more pagodas, watching our bus driver carve roast chicken with his bare hands, and getting yelled at by locals for daring to swim in the ocean (apparently, that’s just not done).

All in all, our Shant”outings” made an already memorable exchange even more extraordinary. And after three weeks of this, I still had a week of true holidays left…
(To be continued!)

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Bike Gear 101 for the Casual Diehard 

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Biking has been a huge part of my life ever since we moved back to Canada and got rid of Josh’s car, making cycling our primary form of transportation. I love the physical act of biking, as well as all it represents: transportation that is better for our earth, better for my body, and much much better for the wallet. But for all my diehard convictions regarding biking, I often feel intimidated talking to other members of the biking community because I never feel like I quite fit in. They  blithely argue the specs of their $2000 hybrid road bikes, standing in their $300 custom bike shoes, while I sneakily wheel my Canadian Tire special past them all. The same holds for all the gear. Sure, a custom kit looks awesome, but I manage the streets of Winnipeg just fine in my old soccer shorts and a t-shirt.

I had never needed anything fancier because I had never biked longer than the 30 km or so that commuting around our lovely flat little city demanded of you. I was also skeptical of the need to spend tons of money on things that I wasn’t convinced made a practical difference to outcome. Did cyclists really need those spandex jerseys and fancy shoes? What were the things that were worth the investment for a good ride*, and in which cases could the borrowed/second-hand/super sale piece of equipment work just as well?

*”Good Ride” – A saratreetravels special term denoting a challenging but satisfying, exhausting but exhilarating cycle

Hence, this little guide to the gear needed for a good (& long) ride, of which cycling the Cabot Trail was the first of hopefully many for us. This guide is for all the people out there who are also “Casual Diehards” like me. Who love and believe in cycling passionately, but aren’t crazy about spending a ton of money simply to have new stuff if it isn’t going to make the ride. Who make cycling part of their everyday life because it makes sense to their everyday life. Who have never really thought to “train” (dear Lord, the number of people who sagely nodded and asked me if I was “in training” when I would mention we were going to cycle the Cabot. Training?? I would often nod sagely back and Josh-Bergmann-mumble the hell outta there).

“Josh-Bergmann-Mumble” – A classic maneouvre of extricating oneself from a tricky situation by muttering incomprehensible sounds under your breath while slowly inching away from the questioner and smiling.

My version of “training” – cruising the hills around Notre Dame de Lourdes, MB while on my rural Family Med rotation

You may note that every single piece of gear here is from MEC. I’m sure there are many other great places to find stuff out there (particularly second-hand, which would be even more awesome), but we tend to stick with MEC because we like their co-op mentality and their industry accountability, not to mention their quality and selection. And it’s within easy biking distance from our place 🙂

Soo, without further ado…

BIKES
We rented our bikes (Norco Hybrids, which were AWESOME) from Framework Fitness on Cape Breton Island, for many reasons: Our home bikes were definitely not up to mountain climbing, the logistics of bringing a bike on a plane escape me, and Framework was super cheap to rent from and then drove us right to the start of the trail from our Airbnb. They also provided helmets, pannier racks, and repair kits.

Moral of the story: Save yourself a ton of hassle and just rent bikes from these guys (or someone like them)!

SHOES
I biked using my New Balance runners I bought back in high school, and I had no complaints. Yes, my feet did occasionally slip forward on the pedals and required readjusting, but nothing that actually affected the ride. The one issue with runners is how soggy they get if it rains… which it did. Often. And generously. However, the one perk with biking by the sea is that you are blessed each night with stiff winds that managed to dry our shoes out by the next morning. In addition, we chose to take a break day between each biking day, which gave our shoes more time to dry. Biking with runners also gave us the flexibility to hop off the bike and go hiking (such as the gorgeous hike up the Skyline Trail midway through Bike Day 2) and have another pair of useful footwear for break days.

Skyline Trail:

Drying au naturel in Pleasant Bay:

Moral of the story: Clip-on bike shoes are not necessary for a good ride. Waterproof bike shoes would be amazing, but are crazy expensive and are not necessary for a good ride (but put on the Christmas list for rich Uncle Bob!)

SOCKS
When we shopped for Argentina, we found these socks at MEC that looked comfy and promised to somehow not get too smelly. And we have fell head over heels (punny!!). Super light and breathable, nicely padded, and with a new ankle guard at the back (and now in fun new colours!!), these socks are amazing. Also durable – our pairs have been hand-washed in many a river stream, and are still holding strong.

Moral of the story: BUY THESE SOCKS. In all seriousness, for a good ride, you need good socks that are light and breathable and that don’t slip down as you ride. WrightSocks are highly recommended.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5026-380/Double-Layer-Coolmesh-II-Quarter-Socks

SHORTS
Ohhh man, everyone’s favourite topic – the padded shorts! Are they actually necessary? Are they just an excuse for cyclists to look even weirder and more pretentious than ever? In my opinion after this experience, there are 3 components to bike shorts to consider: the length, the fit, and the padding (fun bike fact for you: the bum and groin area shall henceforth be referred to as “chamois” by us casual diehards).
i. Length – A good ride needs longer shorts. I didn’t realise how much the edge of the seat rubbed against one’s thigh until we did a quickie bike to our sea kayaking meeting spot and I just wore my regular city shorts.
ii. Fit – A good ride needs a snug fit. You don’t want to have to re-adjust loose shorts or pick out wedgies every time you hop on or off or put a foot down to steady yoursef. In addition, there is so much wind billowing in your face as you’re flying down the side of a mountain, and the last thing you want is that same wind billowing up your pants and creating a sail out of your butt.
iii. Padding – Truth be told, I have never done an extensive bike trip without padding, so I really have nothing to compare it to. But our padded shorts were super comfortable and my tailbone didn’t hurt at the end of a long ride like it does at the beginning of the city (read: non-padded) biking season.

Moral of the story: Good bike shorts are a good investment for a good ride. Make sure they are long enough (mid-thigh), snug enough (no bunching around the groin or gaping around the butt or legs), and comfy enough to sit for hours both on and off bike. Note that “good” does not equal “most expensive”! We bought the most basic MEC pair (on sale, booyah!) and were very happy.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5040-474/Mass-Transit-Shorts

Josh resting comfy on his padded bum

JERSEYS
Like our favourite topic (padded bums!), a good bike top has 3 components, just slightly different from the previous three to keep y’all on your toes and vaguely engaged in this long and highly opinionated post: length, fit, breathability.
i. Length – The reason there are special “cycle jerseys” is in part how they are shaped, with a back hem that scoops down farther than the front and is lined with a grip to keep it from riding up your back. Also fun fact: Bike jerseys come with back hem pockets that are weirdly secure and can fit everything from sunglasses to granola bars, and are completely unobtrusive while riding. Very handy place to stash your bike gloves when going to the bathroom.
ii. Fit – Bike jerseys should be snug. Much like the aforementioned shorts, the last thing you want while struggling up a mountain is to have so much wind surging up and under your shirt that you become a human parachute who literally triples your efforts to get up said mountain.
iii. Breathability – Biking is hard. Hard work makes you sweat. Sweat, if collected and hugged close to your hard-working body, is very uncomfortable. Get a jersey that is light and breathable and quick-drying. The drying bit is necessary not only for while you’re  biking and working and sweating (as previously outlined), but also for at the end of the day when you want to rinse out your jersey because you’re travelling only with 2 panniers and so have brought a very limited amount of clothes (and also you’re wisely frugal and not going to buy more than 1 or 2 expensive bike jerseys).

Moral of the story: See the Moral of the Shorts. Invest in a good cycling jersey or 2. You really don’t need more than that, unless you’re planning on biking daily up a mountain for the next 6 years.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5035-483/Bolt-SS-Jersey

RAINGEAR
While cycling, the main concern for me isn’t getting wet (trust me, if it starts raining on a bike, you’re going to get wet no matter how snazzy your gear is), but getting cold. On Deluge Day 1, I was SO chilled by the rain and wind, and the last 2 hours of the ride would have been unbearable without the wind protection and extra layer of my raingear.
i. Top – Raingear is expensive and takes up relatively a lot of space, and here is where I don’t feel I can justify buying a specific “cycling” rain jacket that is then pretty useless as an everyday rain jacket (a cycling jacket is SUPER thin, doesn’t have a hood, etc.) I found a pretty perfect jacket on sale (of course!) at MEC – thin and waterproof but with a light lining so it can also be worn as a regular jacket for chillier nights, with a rain hood (I feel that a rain jacket without a hood is pretty useless!) My previous multipurpose jacket was bought 6 years ago to go to Argentina and only this year – after travelling through South America, Europe, Mexico, and Cuba – did the zipper break and the water-resistant coating wear off. So in my experience, MEC jackets are worthwhile investments 🙂
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5045-436/Aquanator-Jacket

ii. Bottoms – This is one item I borrowed (thanks Joanna!!). If I was at a point in my life where I was doing big bike or hiking trips every weekend, I would definitely invest in a nice light pair of rain pants for myself. But at this point, going on an annual trip doesn’t make it worth it to spend $60 on pants I literally wore once.

Moral of the story: You don’t need to spend money on a fancy cycling jacket. Buy a light rain jacket you could wear both on or off bike. Specific rain pants are nice to have on rare occasions, but ultimately just make sure you have a pair of light, wind-resistant-ish pants (eg. Even track pants) for those cold days on or off bike.

Rain jacket highly effective while cycling in a downpour…

…aaaand while dining on oysters!

GLOVES
Let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more like a badass than sporting biking gloves. And, best of all for us casual diehards, they are also amazingly practical. Like so much (read: all) of our gear, we opted for the MEC option on super sale, and were not disappointed. They kept our palms from blistering, dried quickly and didn’t smell horrific, and had handy little areas on which to wipe your sweaty brow or nose. Our one complaint was that the area of most padding was over the lateral side, which would maybe make sense if you had bullhorn handlebars, but we would have preferred more padding around the thumb.

Moral of the story: Get some badass gloves for a good ride. Don’t spend big bucks, but if you find some reasonably priced ones with additional thumb joint padding, let us know.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5035-499/Metro-Cycling-Gloves

Dayum, that guy could take on any storm with those badass gloves!

MIRROR
I look forward to the day when bikes start coming with mirrors and lights and panniers, rather than having to piece them together yourself, since all those elements are not fun extras but are necessary pieces of a good ride. Our mirrors were (surprise!) the cheapest we could find at MEC, but they were perfectly adequate. Because we were renting bikes out there and weren’t sure of the frame specifics, it was very handy to have a mirror with an easy-to-apply velcro strap that could be adjusted to any handlebar. They did have a tendency to slide around and required frequent readjustment.

Moral of the story: If you were buying a mirror for your daily commuter bike, I’d recommend buying one that attached more firmly than this one. But for a travel mirror, this did the trick (and did I mention it was cheap!)
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/4011-495/Mountain-Cycling-Mirror

PANNIERS
Buying a second large pannier was the biggest investment we made for this trip. Panniers are unfortunately not cheap, but a good pannier is absolutely unequivocally inarguably necessary for a good ride (/for even the shortest commute). Let’s return to our Rule of 3s, Pannier Edition: size, waterproofness, portability.
i. Size – For our 2 week trip, Josh and I both had a 30L pannier, and one 15L pannier to share, which was more than enough room.

ii. Waterproofness – My daily pannier is literally a canoe drybag with a pannier hook attached, and it’s fantastic. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be in existence anymore. Our new pannier (dubbed “Big Blue” because, well, we’re super creative like that) is not waterproof, but did come with a rain cover that was put to the test immediately during Downpour Day 1, and proved very effective. Our 15L (aka “Junior”) is not at all waterproof and has no rain cover, but that obstacle was surmounted by keeping only our rain gear and our plastic bag of toiletries in him.
** Practical packing tip: Rolling up clothes and packing them in empty tortilla bags not only keeps things super organized, but also dry in case of an unexpected deluge!

iii. Portability – I include this component not because any of our panniers were particularly comfortable to shlep around off bike, but to publish my bewildered rant about WHY DO COMPANIES NOT MAKE PANNIERS WITH BACKPACK STRAPS?! WHY NOT?!! ARRRRRRRGH.

Moral of the story: Every good ride needs a good pannier of adequate size with some form of waterproofness – if the shell itself is waterproof that is much preferred, but the covers do work well. And for the love of bikes, if you find a pannier with backpack straps, let me know IMMEDIATELY.
Link: https://www.mec.ca/en/product/5035-448/World-Tour-30L-Pannier

Meet Big Blue:

Junior & Red, respectively:

UNDERGARMENTS
**Are there still people squeamish about TMI? If so, maybe skip this bit. Lots of info ahead re: anatomy and chafing**
i. Top half – Before leaving, I actually tried so hard to research what to wear under my jersey before leaving because I had NO idea what protocol was, and couldn’t find anything helpful. So in the end, I did not wear anything under my jersey. I realise this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I do not need bra support of any kind to avoid backaches or whatnot, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that nipples are inherently evil. Some people apparently wear a light tank under their jersey to help with sweat / avoid nipple chafing, but neither Josh nor I found this was necessary. Top commando all the way!

ii. Bottom half – Here’s something I just found out on this trip (thanks Velodonnas!): Bike shorts are meant to be worn commando (whaaa?) and chamois (pronounced “shammy,” dear casual diehards) cream is to be liberally applied to both short-chamois and human-chamois to prevent chafing of your sensitive bits. Dutifully before leaving, I purchased my very own Hoo Ha Ride Glide Chamois Cream and divvied it up into carry-on-friendly containers for the flight over. However. I feel unfit to give an accurate review of Ride Glide’s efficacy since our first bike day was also a day of torrential, unrelenting downpours, and therefore all bits of me – chamois and otherwise – were thoroughly purged of any hint of cream, with no hope of reapplication in the rain. And my sensitive bits were pretty dang sensitive during subsequent rides. Nevertheless, I did use Ride Glide daily with reapplication after 3-4 hours of riding, and found it helped especially to reduce chafing in the inguinal crease.

As far as application goes, I did not love the euphemistic instructions given by the chamois bottle (WHICH nooks and crannies?!), so here goes my own version:
**More TMI warnings ahead!! But if you’ve been okay with nipples and inguinal creases, you’ll probably be okay with the following** Apply a generous (at least loonie-size) dollop of cream to the perineal body, posterior labial commissure, and over both labia majorum. Then take another very generous dollop and spread over both inguinal creases, right down to the gluteal fold.

Moral of the story: Be comfortable. If you find wearing a bra helps your back and neck ache less, do it. If you find wearing a bra just makes you sweat more, get rid of it. If your inguinal creases are peachy keen but you are feeling itchy and sore behind your knees, try some chamois cream there. Our bodies are chatty and like to inform us of how they’re feeling – don’t be afraid to listen and look for solutions to address its specific concerns!

And now, just enjoy the good ride 🙂

Off the trail

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For this trip, while I was struggling to get through my first year of Clerkship (third year of Medicine), Josh outdid himself in travel agent mode and spectacularly organized all accommodations on the booked-months-in-advance Cabot Trail, as well as ensuring that we had adequate time between cycling days to rest our mountain-naïve bones. Our first rest day was spent in a state of relative shock. Having survived Deluge Day 1 on the trail – which consisted not only of 100 km of riding, but also approximately 100 litres of water absorbed into our bike shorts – we did little else in Chéticamp except consume large quantities of of donair pizza and poutine at Wabos Pizza Sub & Donair (not sure what it is about donair and Cape Breton, but it’s everywhere and it’s excellent), as well as Nova Scotian Jost Vineyards “Great Big Friggin’ Red,” which was much like the province itself: hilariously unpretentious on the surface, but addictively delightful once sampled. (Also, surprisingly elusive – while I faithfully trolled each wine list and LC for the rest of the trip, I have yet to track down another bottle of GBFR, much to my distress.)

Our peaceful porch at Albert’s Motel

Assembly line lunch-making, optimistically assuming we WILL be able to eat lunch without it drowning on the trail the next day:

Where we’ve come from, where we’re headed:

We rolled into Pleasant Bay, aka Rest Day 2, only moderately soaked this time: we nearly escaped the rain on Trail Day 2 except for our final half hour of riding, when we encountered our first mountain descent, highway construction, and a sudden downpour all at once. However, our Airbnb accommodations had not only a private bathroom with beautifully fluffy towels (real towels quickly become one of the greatest luxuries when using travel towels for any length of time), but also one of the largest and most comfortable beds ever known to cyclist-kind. We lay down just for a moment to talk about our evening plans… and woke up 2 hours later, ready for anything 🙂 Our Airbnb host Jeff had left not only a 20% off coupon for the restaurant where he worked, but tips on when the live music started – one of the many advantages to staying with a local! We ended up at The Mountain View Restaurant 2 evenings in a row to enjoy their enormously generous glasses of wine and literal toe-tapping local fiddle music and Highland dance. In between Mountain View visits, we spent our time on the Pleasant Bay beach, a mere 5 minute walk down the hill from our house. The mesmerizing sound of the waves dragging beach pebbles along the shore and the odd beauty of lobster traps piled against the harbour made for a delicious way to pass an afternoon.

View from the porch:

Pleasant Bay beach day:

Mountain View does not skimp on wine!

Of COURSE we would bump into a fellow Winnipegger staying at the same Airbnb… Judy, hearing your voice in the hallway was the best surprise of the trip! 🙂

Rest Day 3 was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the rest days, and in some ways, the pinnacle of the trip. To arrive at Hideaway Campground in Dingwall, our Trail Day 3 destination, we had to summit North Mountain, the most challenging ascent on the trail, made even more daunting by the fact that, for the first time, we had to cycle in blazing sun and the subsequent heat that accompanied this rare Cape Breton phenomenon, as well as manoeuvre through kilometres of construction over the slope of the mountain. Having successfully negotiated all the above, we rolled into Hideaway and made our way to our most delightful accommodations yet: The Lighthouse. (When our bike guy heard Josh had booked the Lighthouse, he went into rhapsodies of acclamation for Josh’s excellent planning, since apparently this is the most coveted spot to stay on the island).

Waking up to this view every morning made every gruesome turn of the pedals up North Mtn well worth it:

That evening, we walked the two kilometres or so to the “Secret Beach” whose existence had been hinted at by our previous Airbnb host. The Hideaway staff member had assured us that it was a sprawling white sand beach, “Just like Verrraderrro, Cooooba” (those are not rolled Latino Rs, mind you, but rather the piratey Nova Scotian variety). While not precisely like Varadero, it was beautiful, secluded, and the definition of restful.

The following morning, our actual Rest Day 3, was definitely the least restful of the rest days, but in the best possible way: We cycled 5 minutes down the highway (in city clothes, which just felt wrong after growing accustomed to padded shorts and jerseys!) to Eagle North Kayak, where we spent the afternoon with local sea kayaking guide Mike and 4 lovely tourists from Ohio. Together, we navigated the sea-bird strewn marshes and white-capped waves of the wild Atlantic. Then, to cap off an already-perfect afternoon, Mike offered Josh & I the use of his kids’ paddleboards to try in his harbour.

We had grand plans to go out for a lavish dinner that night, but realised no view could top the one from our own cabin porch. So, we cycled to the Red Store (aka the one store in the entire Aspy Bay area), artfully packed slices of Donair pizza and cold beer into our paniers, and enjoyed a delectable evening of star-gazing from the Lighthouse.

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Trail Days 4 and 5 were back to back, with no rest days in between. We detoured off the official Cabot Trail on Trail Day 4, following the serendipitous advice of a local we chatted with while buying ice cream, who advised us to veer off onto the Coastal Loop to avoid the horrendous construction that had taken over South Mountain. Not only did we successfully avoid all construction, but the Coastal Loop views and unavoidable encounter with the Neil Harbour Chowderhouse made the detour well worth it.

Trail Day 5 was beautiful and bittersweet, both looking forward to the triumph of completing the trail and dreading the end of such a spectacular journey. We stretched it out, enjoying a languid brunch of bacon-ginger pannekoeken at The Dancing Moose Cafe, celebrating not only our grand journey on the trail, but also our 6th wedding anniversary. When we got married 6 years ago, we had no way of imagining all the adventures we have since experienced and written about on this blog… so I can only imagine what we’ll look back on in another 6 years!

This Adventure Made Possible By…

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Anna Maria Esposita for finding us on the side of the road in Salerno, putting up with our feeble attempts at Italian, and magically making our luggage appear out of nowhere.  Maya, for introducing us to AirBnB in the first place…our travels will never be the same.  Our barista in Vietri Sul Mare (thank you for the doughnuts, we hope you made it to Australia!), and our wildly flirtatious maitre d’ (that wine was impressively strong!).  Fernando, for the ride to the Tiber (we’re sorry if we gave the impression that we wanted to boat back to Rome).  Pope Francis for instilling humanity into our visit to the Vatican.  University of Manitoba College of Medicine for changing the direction of our lives while sitting in a Roman burlap tent!  Jamie Pierce, for pointing us in the direction of Cinque Terre in the first place.  Kaya and Aeden for being the best roommates we could have asked for, and Sarah, Alicia, and Stacey for getting lost with us in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  And for the calamari cones.  Genius.  The Lemon Man, for delicious homemade wine with a side of really disgusting jokes, and the Pizza Man for abusing/believing in your employees (either way, you made a pizza in record time, well done!).  Pak Kashmir Doner Kebab for starting a 3-month-long love affair with kebab…and for not judging us when we came back twice in one day.  The Sprachcaffe receptionist for helping two confused travelers find a place to sleep in a language school.  Pietro for being a (very charming) walking encyclopedia of Florentine espionage.  All’antico Vinaio for your legendary sandwiches and free wine refills (no, seriously, it’s for real!).  The lovely couple who shared coffee with us on the train to Venice.  Archie & sons…your front hall will forever evoke in us a sense of oriental mystery.  The kiosco girl (and all of Vienna, for that matter) for your patience as we realized we knew literally NO Deutsch (“Card!…48?”).  The Musikverien Usher for engaging us in a Viennese musical intrigue and, therefore, much better seats!  Our Bulgarian/Brazillian (Bulgrillian?) cellist hostel roommate.  We tried to find you on iTunes but alas we were…so far…but…so close.  The Heinrich and Kress families for welcoming us so generously into your homes (and travel snacks that nearly broke the bus tables!).  Artur & Irina, we feel like we have a real home in Germany thanks to you.  Robert, Christian, and Erwin, we hope we can jam and play Dutch Blitz again one day!  Johannes for an unexpected evening of German tango (we’ll bring our dancing shoes next time).  Julia & your roommate for making us feel so at home in Köln.  Viel Glück to both of you in your new jobs!  Oma for always talking about your home country and inspiring us to retrace your Sunday walks down the Rhine.  Maybe one day we can go back with you!  Linda, dankjewel for your bikes, your lovely attic, and taking a chance on us as your first AirBnBers!  Edwin and Farah, for taking the time to hang out with us even with your wedding being a week away.  Once a WOOFer, always a WOOFer (ps come to Manitoba, we’ll take you to the snake pits!)  The stars, for aligning so perfectly as to allow us to have a lovely lunch with Dorien.  The Alma Dixons for getting us to and from Europe in the first place (Mom, your axiom of ‘would you rather have stuff or memories?’ has successfully stuck with me into adulthood) and for showing us all the places you always talk about.  The Farnham Dixons for a lovely afternoon and some authentically British fish’n’chips (sans mushy peas, thank-you!).  Wendy for taking this whole motley crew into your home and showing us around Glastonbury. Elly for introducing us to your family (I cannot imagine a more adorable kid to blow bubbles with than your granddaughter) and an evening of reminiscing about icebergs and penguins.  Pete & Patricia for the most incredible Welsh hospitality, and for driving us all over the country at all hours of the night.  Mark Hanford for keeping us simultaneously amused and not dead as we threw ourselves off cliffs into the sea (still waiting for those carpets!).  The disembodied Welsh couple whose voices helped us find our way out of the mist and back to the path somewhere on Mount Snowdon.  Jack Johnson, for being you, and for entirely coincidentally being in Paris at the same time as us.  Andréanne, for showing us around your beautiful new Swiss home.  Irene and Martin for sharing so many things with us: your inspiring work and outlook on life and faith, the truly breathtaking landscapes, and yes, the little bears :P.  Andreas and Simone, also for sharing so many things with us (like mother like son, eh?): your friends, your family, your food, your car, your bike…. That night with the giant map (and the many road trips that ensued) is still a memory that we talk about regularly!  Aric and Gabriel, for being as excited about the high-ropes garden as we were and never judging us on our (lack of) Swiss German. Joël for sharing your beautiful pays et famille. Yannick for the best duck I’ve ever tasted, and Hélène for showing us the work you’re doing to help new immigrants become self-sufficient in Toulouse.  Ron, Nicole, Aimée, Sean (and yes, Cougar) for making us recognize the name Carcassonne, even if we’ll never pronounce it properly.  Les Cabys des Taillades (et oui, de Paris aussi!) for sharing your passion for history, many hours of games (we now have our own Möllky set!), French puns, and more wine and cheese than any North American could comprehend.  Mami Caby, for a beautiful afternoon in St. Jean du Gard, and the silk scarf that’s currently on display in our living room.  Isaac and Sylvia of JUCUM Barcelona for the generous hospitality, the 2AM tour of your majestic city, and showing us what we truly believe is the best beach in Europe.  Hind, Nour, and Adam for helping us finish off the bag of snails and confirming everything we’d heard about the welcoming nature of Moroccans.  Nour, of Sahara Desert Crew, for an unforgettable few days of sights and culture unlike anything else we’ve ever seen (also, your mad photography skills. ‘Nuff said.).  Cafe Restaurant Nora, for providing a literal oasis in the desert (Nothing tastes as good as Berber pizza and Berber whiskey at +50C!) The Samnoun family for taking us in when our hostel was suddenly infested with bedbugs, and Bousha for introducing us to the madness of the Medina (and many, many friends ;)…)

And of course, contributions from VIEWERS LIKE YOU!

…to the Highest Heights

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Continued from the previous post

Our taste of Wales’ natural beauty left us wanting more, so the next morning, we were again awake early and were again blessed by the incredible generosity of Pete, who drove us this time to the foot of Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park. Although we ended up on the “advanced” trail (we were only following Pete’s instructions!), the first half of the climb was relaxing, offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the lakes below.

Lake

Mtn2

Sheep mtn

Then, we climbed into clouds. Suddenly, the world disappeared, covering us with mist and obscuring all but the next few feet in front of us. The path that had seemed luxuriously wide and almost painfully gentle suddenly shot straight upwards, with no markers in sight.

Josh path

Mist sheep

We climbed on for a few more meters until we realised that we were completely turned around and making up our own path in the middle of suffocating cloud cover, which did not seem like a good idea. Thankfully, voices came our way: although we couldn’t see them, we managed to talk to two other hikers, who assured us that the path was just below us.

Back on track, we continued on up, finally reaching the summit of Mount Snowdon… or at least what we could vaguely see of it! The winds at the peak were ferocious and the mist was so thick that objects even a few steps ahead of us on the trail disappeared into vague shadows. The temperature had dropped 15°C as we climbed, and every exposed hair on our body was covered with droplets of mist and ice. This is apparently not unusual for Mt. Snowdon: a local who arrived at the summit moments after us took one look at the white void and sighed. “Oh well,” she muttered to herself, “perhaps one of these days I’ll actually see the view.”

Summit

However, just a few meters down the mountain, a whole new world reappeared!

Thinking back to the original three elements that had brought us to Wales, all three proved true. The uniqueness of Welsh culture is evident not only in the raw, magnificent beauty that composes the landscape, but also in the earthy language that garnishes every interaction, from the post office to a scenic drive with a local. There is something magical about Wales, where myth and reality live side by side, where mountains disappear into the mist and ancient castles sit cooly beside play structures.

Airbnb

Cat

Sheepies

And finally, the Welsh really do scramble off cliffs. And now, so have we.

Snow. Adv.

From the Deepest Depths…

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Coasteering?

It was a word I had never heard before March, and my first introduction to it occurred when Josh and I were looking at where in the UK outside of England we wanted to travel.

This was the introduction:
“Hey Sara, I found a website that said they do this thing called coasteering in Wales. It looks really cool.”
“Really? What is it?”
“I don’t really know. Something about scrambling off cliffs. But it looks really cool.”

This may seem like a less than thrilling recommendation to most. Bear in mind, however, that we moved to Argentina for eight months based on a website Josh had found after typing “learn about organic farming and stay for free” into Google, which ended up turning out very well (which if you’re already reading this blog, you already know! 🙂 )

So, it kept us intrigued, this cliff-scrambling thing, and when June rolled around and we still hadn’t made a decision between Scotland and Wales, we bought train tickets to Wales based on three factors:
1. They have a crazy language (see more about that here!)
2. Merlin was from there
3. Josh had read on a website that they scramble off cliffs

It was only when we were already on the train that we realised that although we had been talking and dreaming about cliff scrambles for months, we had never shared those dreams with, you know, anyone who could actually make them a reality. Thankfully, Mark from Snowdonia Adventures responded to our frantic last-minute emails, and early one morning, our amazingly gracious Airbnb host Pete drove us to Holyhead to meet up with Mark. Fitted into wetsuits, helmets, and hiking shoes, we proceeded to walk with Mark along the breezy top of cliffs that swept down to the Irish Sea. It quickly became apparent that we were about to spend the day with a Welsh version of my brother-in-law Borden.

After throwing ourselves into the sea, a shocking 14°C after the 26°C of the air, we received some brief technical pointers from Mark, things such as “Always swim feet first when approaching shore” and “If it looks green and slippery, it is.” He then showed us some different swimming techniques, such as how to swim in strong currents, how to rapidly swim backwards, and how to spin yourself in circles really fast.

“Spin! Faster! Faster!!! Really fast! Keep going!” yelled this bizarre Welsh apparition of Borden. “Isn’t that awesome?”

Josh

“I’ll add it to your tab,” he added as he floated away. “£5 for the non-pharmaceutical psychedelic experience. £10 for the very flattering pictures I’ll take. Then, we’ll go into Beaumaris and I’ll take you to my cousin’s store to buy some carpets…”

Needless to say, the cliff scrambles were not the only entertainment of the day!

“I’m not usually this surreal,” he mused as he clutched the rock face and snapped a series of ridiculous pictures.

Silly

Coasteering, in short, is mountain-climbing, but horizontally along the coast. You scramble along coastal cliffs until you reach a point where scrambling is impossible, at which point you hurl yourself (safely – don’t worry, Moms!) off the cliff and into the frothing sea below.

I could continue to type, but these will do more justice:

Scramble

Easing into it: our first little jump!
First jump

Mark

Moving on up… Many meters above sea level!!
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Observing

Underwater

There’s only one way down from here!
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With numb feet and hearts still pounding, we made our last scramble up a sheer cliff face, anchored only to a rope tied around Mark’s waist at the top, then walked back to his car. Although the expedition was technically over, he offered to drive us along the coast for some magnificent views, regaling us with tidbits of ancient and local Welsh history. After an hour, we arrived in Beaumaris, a lovely little fishing town. After instructing us on where to find the best mussels, we finally said goodbye to Mark and dashed through the pouring rain to a well-earned lunch.

Mussels

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To be continued…

Ps. You can watch Mark’s video of us coasteering here!

Dutch Blitz 2: Bikes & Beaches

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From Amsterdam, our train passed through Rotterdam, but since our photographer friend (read the backstory here) was shooting a wedding in Norway, we continued on to Delft to pay our respects to the great master of light, Vermeer.

Vermeer

A mere hour in Delft, Vermeer’s lifelong home, is enough to understand the bewitching quality of light that inspired Vermeer’s paintings. Three days in Delft is enough to inspire you to start a career in painting yourself!*
*Just to clarify, I mean your own career in painting, not a career dedicated to self-portraits.

Delft

Old Church

Venice is universally renowned for the beauty of its canals. However, as far as canal towns go, Delft is a strong contender for beauty, and a clear winner for not having its beauty drowned by tourists. The cobblestone streets of this charming town wind over bridges and through the town square, ringed by the Old and New churches and countless little shops offering everything from free samples of regional cheeses (needless to say, we didn’t need to eat lunch that day… Smoked goat cheese, where have you been all my life?!?) to free football jerseys with the purchase of 2 pints of Dutch beer.

Square

Josh cheese

Cheese

We were given a thoroughly authentic welcome to the town when on our first evening, two young guys hanging out their window holding orange tarps started yelling at us in Dutch. We eventually yelled back in confusion that we didn’t speak Dutch, and they politely apologized in English. “We are trying to turn our windows orange for the World Cup… You know the World Cup? (we assured them that yes, even though we didn’t know Dutch, we still had knowledge of some of the important things in life!) Do these covers look – how you say it – nicer? tucked in? Or hanging free like flags?” We carefully considered the craftsmanship of the tarps from all angles, eventually yelling back that yes, tucked in was superior. The next day, all windows were World Cup ready!

Hup Holland Hup!

Having covered several Dutch stereotypes in our first day (art, cheese, crazy language), the next day we decided to go for broke and check out the famous Dutch bike industry. Much to our delight, this stereotype also proved true!

In Winnipeg, biking is always a political statement. As a cyclist, you are at best committing to rolled eyes and incredulous looks when you tell people you bike to work. More likely, you are also committing to a daily commute of hurled insults and progressively tighter space in your lane as cars attempt to crush their feelings of defensiveness by crushing you against the curb.

This battle against bikes doesn’t exist in Holland: it can’t, due to the sheer number of bikes on the road. According to the European Cycling Federation, the Dutch make approximately 14 million bike trips per day, a fact evidenced by the ubiquitous multi-layered bike parking lots and the clear superiority of bikers’ right of way. In Winnipeg, you feel pressured to constantly apologize for being on a bike and taking up space on the road. In the Netherlands, if you stopped to apologize, you would get run over by a horde of bikes.

Bikes!!!

After walking to the train station from our lovely Airbnb home, we rented bikes for €7 and spent a glorious day biking from town to town. It was an exhilarating experience to be biking on a highway and be asked by another biker, “Oh, is Rotterdam that way?” In Manitoba, the very odd time we have seen a cyclist on the highway, we always wonder where exactly they could have come from or where they could be going… Since the next town is 200 km away, you always have to assume that Prairie highway bikers are either completely lost or completely insane!

Bike signs

Bike trip from Delft to Den Haag and the Peace Palace. Learning more about the establishment of the International Court of Justice was especially meaningful after seeing the consequences of the Nuremberg Trials (see Josh’s post here).
Den Haag

Biking continued out of the city into the dunes north of Den Haag:
Dunes

Following the bike paths, we took one turn that we thought would lead us home, and ended up at the beach!
Beach

Although delighted by the beauty of the beach, we were furious at ourselves for not thinking to bring bathing suits along. The temperature had soared into the twenties, and after a long day of biking, a swim in the North Sea would have been the perfect reward. However, as we strolled along the sand, we became aware of the fact that this was the ideal beach to have forgotten a bathing suit… How serendipitous! 😉

Jelly bellies

On our last day in the Netherlands, we had one hour in the Rotterdam train station before having to catch the last train to the Hoek Van Holland ferry. That same day, our photographer friend Dorien happened to be back in Rotterdam for just one day, en route from one wedding directly to another, but traveling through the Rotterdam train station. We put our serendipitous one hour lunch together to very good use: as soon as she saw us, Dorien hugged us, then said seriously, “Okay, shall we play cards?” Good thing we carry Dutch Blitz in our backpack! 🙂

Rotterdam

For a tiny country, the Netherlands are brimming with character, quirks, and charm. It was immensely difficult to say doei! to the Dutch, but our next adventure was calling us…

Windmill