Ireland for sightseers and music lovers

Ireland is for golfers. But what has changed dramatically in recent years, is its appeal to anybody and everybody. The tour company we used for our ‘golf’ trip to Ireland, by the name of ‘Links Golf-Ireland‘, informed us that 10-15 years ago their tours consisted of about 80-20 percent in favor of golf tours, but in recent years that percentage has totally flip-flopped. The word is out – Ireland has a host of noteworthy places to visit. From a multitude of sea-ports, to the jaw-dropping rugged shorelines, to the lush ’emerald’ green countryside full of shamrocks, leprechauns, and fairy trees.

Shamrocks everywhere in Ireland, even painted on the back of our travel mate’s head!

Wonder what kind of mischief this leprechaun is up to. If we grab him he has to grant us 3 wishes for his freedom!

One of many fairy trees that dot the Irish countryside – reminding us of the importance of Irish folklore.

As mentioned in the previous post, the culture of Ireland is worth a visit to experience. The locals either stay local, or after a stint to check out what the rest of the world is all about, tend to return to their original roots. If you need to learn how to relax and enjoy what just being alive really means, spend some time in Ireland for a front row seat to what the Irish have perfected. I believe I also mildly touched on the importance of ‘music’ to the Irish culture in my previous post. One of the true highlights of our 10-day excursion was listening to our tour guide/shuttle driver, Eamon Hegarty, regale us with Irish tunes in his melodic Irish lilt and soothing voice. We couldn’t get enough and rarely did he repeat himself with the same song – and one song, Seven Drunken Nights, went through the whole week as each stanza started with the day of the week.

It was of great importance that we didn’t tucker ourselves out during the day, so we always had enough left in the tank to make it to a local pub, or three, each night to listen to live Irish music. Music that takes you in, and quite often takes you from a place of grief to a place of joy and happiness by the end of the song. Or take you on a journey of self-deprecating humor that has a place for everyone to connect. I can only imagine many of these songs being born on the bar stools of many a pub, plenty of Guinness to loosen the tongue and lips.

The entrance to the Guinness Brewery – looks like you’re entering Fort Knox.

Look at all those vats of Guinness – they must have known the beer drinking North Americans were coming!

Little known fact – Guinness owns the right to the harp logo. If any other entity, including the state of Ireland wants to use the harp logo they have to use the mirror image of it.

Luckily several of our party had been to Ireland several times, so we wasted no time winging it through our trip.  On our way to have our first pint of Guinness at Gogarty’s Pub and before we took in some great live Irish music off the back entrance off another great pub, Stag’s Head, we took in some of the local history: The General Post OfficeThe Ha’penny Bridge; Illen Bagpipes; Phoenix Park.

The General Post Office, where an uprising was held in 1916 for Irish Independence from the British Empire.

The Ha’penny bridge over the River Liffey.

A random gathering of an Irish musical group outside the back entrance to Stag’s Head Pub in Dublin.

The next morning had us up bright and early and off to Old Head Golf Links – in the rain and thick fog. Afterwards we headed to the idyllic little port town of Kinsale. After checking into Perryville House, and a long hot shower to thaw out from the chilly day on the course, we snuggled up in our jeans and sweaters and walked down to Finns’ Table to enjoy a relaxing 5-star dining experience. Followed by another walk, and a pop into a pub for a little music and what would become a regularity of having a Red Breast Irish Whiskey or some other Irish scotch whiskey for a proper wind down to our long day.

Perryville House, Kinsale. A quaint Inn off the bay in Kinsale – large comfy rooms and a great bar lounge area.

The harbour in Kinsale – a beautiful backdrop to a quaint little town where you can enjoy 5-star dining in your jeans.

The following day after our round at Tralee Golf Club we worked our way towards the more inland base of Killarney – where we spent two nights at the Ross Hotel. One great thing about all the Irish towns – they are all very walkable. After a dinner of Irish Stew and a very intense tutorial on the proper pouring and drinking of Guinness by our gracious host Eamon Hegarty, we set off to do a little late night shopping of soft and cozy Irish wool sweaters and accessories, and jewelry before tracking down more live Irish music and Irish whiskey.

Ross Hotel, Killarney – great location in the town center, next to a beautiful church, walking distance to castles, pubs, shopping…

How to properly pour a Guinness: Step 1 – pour the glass 1/3 full – let sitl; pour second 1/3 – let sit; pour final 1/3 – let sit. Takes about 20 mins.

Amazingly the glass is still cold. Now ‘stroke’ glass to help beer separate from head. If dranken properly the size of the head should remain the same until the beer is gone.

After a day of golf at Waterville Golf Links, the gals took the next day to explore around Killarney, a couple of us hiking up to one of the many castles that dot the Irish countryside, Ross Castle ruins, circa 15th century. Followed by a visit to Inch Beach – a long stretch of beach that is slowly connecting the arms of the Iveragh (Waterville) Peninsula and the Dingle Peninsula, our next destination.

Ross Castle – a 15th century ruin that sits on the edge of Killarney, a 30-minute easy walk from the town center.

Inch Strand – an idyllic stretch of beach. Great for strolling, searching for seashells, and surfing – if you are so inclined.

Dingle. What a great name for a town. It had a vibe and a style that put a perennial smile on our faces. Colorful buildings filled with local artisans working away at their art, from jewelry to leather goods to knitting. We were also treated to a tour of Dingle Crystal, where we met the owner and head craftsman, Sean Daly, and watched him create one of his original cut-glass styles on Waterford Crystal he brings in uncut. One of Sean’s original cut-glass designs is called the ‘beehive’ named after the beehive huts that exist on Slea Head, Dingle Peninsula, where a big part of the recent Star Wars movie was filmed. We had dinner at Sean’s son’s restaurant, called Solas, named after one of Sean’s styles of cut-glass.

Colorful buildings align the streets of dingle, housing multiple artisans and pubs.

The gals huddle around Sean Daly in his workspace where he spins his magic cut-glass freehand designs.

Then the real highlight of the trip was waiting for us at John Benny’s Pub, where the owner’s wife, Eilis Kennedy, one of the world renown Celtic Divas, and of the duo, Lumiere, gave a somewhat impromptu mini-concert with several of her Irish musical friends. We were mesmerized by their vocal talent and instrumental savvy, with several drop-in’s adding to the musical mix.

Eilis Kennedy and her colleagues regale us with their Irish folklore music – both vocal and instrumental.

The next day took us to our most favorite lodging of the whole trip, Moy House. I could just post pictures and need not write another word – but this a ‘writers blog’ so write I shall. At least a caption or two. Moy House is a 200-year-old home that stood in disrepair for most of its life until a family member lovingly and meticulously renovated it about 20-years ago into a magnificent country house with each room as unique as the lay of the land, and a chef that creates a 5-star dining experience for every meal, with produce and proteins grown on site.

Moy House – a country home turned into lodging of 12 rooms, a full stocked self-serve bar, 5-star restaurant, and 50-acres of walkable grounds.

The rear views of Moy House – overlooking Lahinch Bay.

Stone walls fill the Irish countryside. People could only carry the rocks so far and just piled them up in a line that became property lines.

Lahinch Beach parallels the western holes of Lahinch Golf Club. It is a long expansive beach that allows for some pretty big waves to be created and is well known for its surfing. That’s a little out of our comfort zone being from the AZ desert, so we watched the youngins’ give it a go and stuck to strolling the wide swath of sand with the tide being out giving us ample room to spread out and each find our own private beach experience.

Lahinch Beach – lined with massive boulders to protect the town from high tide.

The bright buildings in the town of Lahinch sit as a colorful backdrop to Lahinch Beach – one of the most popular surfing beaches around.

Enroute to our next destination of Galway, we stopped at the ‘must see’ destination of the Cliffs of Moher. Stunning sea cliffs that go on for about 14 kilometers and range from 390 feet at the low-end up to the biggest drop-off at 702 feet – with no railings along any part of the ridge, so visitor be ware!

One of the highest points at the Cliffs of Moher, just outside of Dingle. A sight to be seen!

The pathways run along the edge of the Cliffs of Moher for 14 km, no railings in sight.

We arrived into Galway on a misty day, but ventured out on a beautiful walk along the waterways outlining this quaint city, dotted with a 14th century Gothic Church, a majestic Cathedral, and more history than all of the US combined. We sauntered around the city streets and low and behold found an interesting little pub to imbibe in our nightly Guinness consumption – at the 800-year-old historic King’s Head Pub. But the music wasn’t your regular Irish fodder so we went to the streets and were greeted with an ensemble of young musicians who randomly gathered and gave the people a musical treat streaming from a multitude of traditional Irish instruments.

Galway, sandwiched between two waterways is a great walking city with beauty along every shoreline.

Galway Cathedral stands tall within the town of Galway.

But the interior was the real sight to behold!

We finished our trip with a three-day stay back where we started, at the Brooks Hotel in Dublin. Now that we were comfortable with our surroundings we spread out and took in as much of the city as we could in what little time we had – more pubs, more shopping, more golf. Our second to last day in Ireland provided a few of us with a highlight of one of the most visually satisfying hikes I have ever experienced. The Howth Coastal Walk – about 10 miles north of Dublin, was a moderately challenging hike along the water’s edge, up and down steep embankments, with views of the ocean, a lighthouse, and immersed in a plethora of colorful unique flora and unique rock outcroppings.

Some of the views from our Coastal Walk on Howth Head were absolutely stunning.

The original Baily Lighthouse off of Howth Head was built in 1667, and is now a fully automated but still working lighthouse.

Some of the colorful flora that dotted the Coastal Walk on Howth.

As busy and full our 10 days in Ireland was – exhaustion never fully set in because the full experience was too exhilarating and left us saying good-bye to Ireland with very big smiles on our faces and a definitive intent to return to the Emerald Isle. But I won’t wait 40 years again for that to happen.

Stay tuned for more great pictures from Ireland in the Global Gallery.

 

Ireland for golfers

Yes – Ireland is for golfers. And it has castles galore. But it’s the people and their culture that are the true highlights of the Emerald Isle. Although my husband and I set out with three other couples on a 10-day excursion touted as a ‘golf’ trip – and golf we did – we also absorbed the love of life the Irish have perfected. You certainly don’t go to Ireland for the weather – although we did experience a couple of truly nice weather days with no rain, no mist, no fog and only a light wind. But you definitely need to go for the music, the beer, the music, the smiles, the music, the beautiful architecture, the music, the golf, the music, the lush green countryside, the music. Did I mention the music??

Our days, no matter how long and arduous, always ended up in a local pub listening to local Irish songs regaling us with their entertaining folklore. It was amazing how you could enjoy listening to so many songs you’ve never heard of in a style most are not accustomed to hearing. There was music everywhere – you didn’t need to search it out. Almost every pub, on almost every night had live music. And if it was a nice evening, there were street performers everywhere we turned. They were young, they were old; they were father and son, they were brother and sister; they were the wife of the pub owner; they were a random gathering of musicians.

But more on the Irish culture and people in the next post. As this was intended to be a trip focused on the amazing golf in Ireland, I’ll share our golf experiences in this post and share all the other highlights of Ireland in a follow-up post.

Golf in Ireland. A bucket list dream of mine for the 40+ years I’ve been playing golf. Check that one of the list – but not one and done – I’d head back tomorrow. We arrived on the heels of an abnormal summer drought. The courses were in tough shape, but you don’t expect pristine conditions where they use very little artificial irrigation methods. This is walking with caddies golf, which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to having somebody looking over your shoulder on every shot. But ‘buggies’ a/k/a golf carts are generally only available for medical reasons. Some courses don’t have any on hand, or are only provided by a handful of members.

Many courses individually name each hole – often to coincide with a story that goes along with that hole. Which adds to the historical element of playing these amazing tracts of land that often have a lot of local influence into their success. The locals love their golf as much as the tourists. All of our caddies had single digit handicaps, so even though you really just want them to carry your clubs and give you the yardage, their local knowledge of where to aim your drives and approach shots, and read the greens, was imperative to navigating these challenging courses. Caddies ranged from a couple of college aged knuckleheads out to make a few bucks for beer, to ‘professional’ caddies who were a wealth of knowledge. Some tended to get a little too deep into your psyche – thinking by the end of the round they knew more about your game than you did. The right caddy can make your golf experience, but the wrong caddy can break your golfing spirit.

We started in Dublin and made our way along the coast of Southern Ireland until we reached Galway and then we shot straight across the country to finish in Dublin. The courses were all links courses – defined as being the ‘link’ between the land and the sea, built among the natural sand dunes and lay of the land, void of trees. Can you say WINDY!! Nothing to stop those coastal breezes as you buffet your way around these courses. We rarely golfed with less than a few layers on top, thermal pants, and kept our rain pants handy as much to cut the wind as to counter any rain. But there was no complaining about the conditions, and we were never ‘chilled to the bone’. We wanted to play in whatever the coast or Ireland could throw at us, and she didn’t hold back! We mixed up our pairings – couples and couples, just guys and just gals, mix of guys and gals.

A map showing all the amazing golf options – in Ireland (aka Southern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.)

1st round – the brainchild of one John O’ConnorOld Head Golf Links, circa 1997, Kinsale. This was to be thee golf photo-op of the trip. Driving in you come up over a rise and apparently below sits the diamond shape of one of the most amazing tracts of a golf course property ever developed. All we saw was fog so thick we did well to see the road or fairway in front of us. But we were there to play golf – and golf we did! Among the rows of thick fragrant hydrangea and wild rose bushes, 400-year-old ruins, an austere lighthouse, and 300-foot cliffs with no barriers to the sea below. We may have missed a great photo opportunity of the peninsula as a whole, but we did get some great on course shots of this very unique golf setting. We’ll be back! Signature Hole: #12 – a 564-yard par 5 – perched along the 300-foot cliffs, from tee to green. You better hope the golf Gods are on your side with this hole or you might as well put down your max.

The view of Old Head as we would’ve experienced it had we arrived on a clear day. The signature 12th hole lies along the right side of the neck heading towards the point that is Old Head. (picture courtesy of Old Head facebook page.)

The 4th hole at Old Head. During our visit, the lighthouse stood shrouded in fog. And the remains of the Lusitania sit in the deep waters off Old Head, where it was sunk in 1915.

Last year during a horrific storm, the storm surge threw 160 golf balls back up onto the 17th green at Old Head.

2nd Round – the Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club, circa 1896, Killarney. No fog, nor rain, but plenty of wind. Even the inland holes were a solid 2-club wind on what the locals considered a pretty normal day. Built along an expansive beach open to the wild Atlantic Ocean, the salty sea breeze was intoxicating. The vistas are as impressive as the course is challenging, and we all battled the uniqueness of each hole while absorbing the history of the area. Signature Hole: #17 – Ryan’s Daughter – a 361-yard par 4 – where the ocean scenes from the epic movie Ryan’s Daughter were filmed in 1970.

The Arnold Palmer designed Tralee Golf Club has a statue to commemorate him and his legacy in golf.

The beach along Tralee Golf Club where the epic film Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in 1970.

3rd round – modern era designers John Mulcahy, Eddie Hackett, Claude HarmonWaterville Golf Links, circa 1889, Killarney. Rated as the #1 links golf course in Ireland, it was easy to see why. We hit a great weather day, and I finally got to experience the beauty of this layout my brothers and father have raved about from when they played here some 30 years ago. Each hole just feels right – nothing quirky, all magical in their own way. Mark Twain may have said, ‘Golf is a good walk wasted,’ but I think if he had ever played Waterville he would have changed his mind. And I liked it so much I can’t wait to go back. Signature Hole: #12 – The Mass hole – a 200-yard par 3 – a very low spot protected by high dunes was used by Irish Catholics to hold secretive masses during a time when British rulers disallowed the religion. When the course was being built the local Irish would not touch the sacred ground so now the tee boxes sit high atop one dune and the green on a high flat top across the untouched mass grounds.

One of the very few truly flat holes at Waterville, carved along the seaside beach.

The vista showcasing some of the holes on the back 9 at Waterville. A truly beautiful links course.

4th round – Dooks Golf Club, circa 1889, Dingle. Dooks almost closed in the early 1960’s due to lack of funds, but the members rose up bought the land and literally, with shovel in hand, built another 9 holes, creating a championship level course that is today still owned and run by the members. Signature Hole: the members are the highlight of this club – dubbed the ‘friendliest golf club’ in Ireland – and that’s saying a lot – Dooks is the envy of golf clubs everywhere in how they treat their guests while giving them a great golf experience.

Not a true links course, but plenty of gorse and other elements to battle. (Photo courtesy of Dooks Golf Club website.)

5th round – Tom Simpson designed the modern era Ballybunion Golf Club Old Course, circa 1893, Lahinch. Mother Nature was in prime form the day we came visiting and had us looking for extra layers and cement shoes to battle the elements. The course is beyond tough in the best of conditions – today we were truly humbled – ie. hitting a 3-wood to a 125-yard par 3 and coming up short. This course was hardest hit by the drought, but the lack of grass on the fairways did not diminish the experience of a full line-up of 18 challenging holes. Each hole had a unique quality that had us saying wow over and over again. So much so that I need to go back an re-experience this whole round. Signature Hole: #11 – Watsons, because Tom Watson calls this the best golf hole anywhere. Riding the ridge along the ocean, you have to be brave enough to ride the boundary line with your tee shot to have a chance of landing in the fairway. The approach shot is blind, up a narrow neck, that is all carry to the green – the only safe landing area. We earned our Guinness that day!

The 1st hole at Ballybunion Old Course where it is said that whoever puts their drive into the cemetary buys the first round of Guinness.

One of many blind shots at Ballybunion. The walkways are artificially irrigated, but the fairways are left to Mother Nature to tend to.

“I’m flying!” – to take a line from Titanic. And you could have almost taken flight with the gale force winds we experienced off the west coast of Ireland along the 12th hole at Ballybunion.

6th round – the Old Tom Morris and Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed Lahinch Golf Club, circa 1892, Lahinch. Probably in the best condition of any of the courses following the drought, the thick grass covered giant dunes and the ocean breeze made sure Lahinch still stood as a strong test of links golf. The gals took a raincheck on golf today, and after hearing the guys rave about the condition and the layout, I absolutely have to return to Ireland so I can experience Lahinch. Signature Holes: #4 – Klondyke Hill – 475-yd par 5 – a blind approach shot over Klondyke Hill has you waiting for the flagman on the hill to give you the all clear – failing to take enough club to clear the hill will surely result in a bogey or worse; #5 – Dell – 154-yard par 3, the only indication of where to aim your tee shot is a white stone sitting atop another giant dune that blocks your view of the green.

The goat is the Lahinch Golf Course logo/mascot – for good reason. When the weather apps go on the fritz, rely on the reliable on course goats to tell you what’s ahead for the day’s weather. Goats on the hill – all is clear; goats by the clubhouse – nasty weather is near.

Lahinch had the best recovery from the drought of any of the links golf courses we played.

7th round – Portmarnock Golf Club, circa 1894, Dublin. Filling the whole of a flat barren peninsula just north of Dublin, this course has hosted major amateur and professional events over its history as well as some of the games greats dating all the way back to Harry Vardon who held the course record of 69 over what was then at a full course yardage of 5800+ yards. It has been called the fairest test of links golf due all the holes laying out in front of you – no hidden shots. No wonder my husband enjoyed this course the most. Signature Hole: #15 – 204-yard par 3 – this iconic Irish style hole parallels the ocean and a straight shot is needed on this long hole and well bunkered green to have a chance at par.

The 15th hole at Portmarnock. (Photo courtesy of Portmarnock Golf Club website.)

8th and final round: The Island Golf Club, circa 1890, Dublin. Surrounded by water on 3 sides it looked like an island from across the bay and until the 1970’s it was only reachable by boat. Sitting on the north end of Dublin, it is a comfortably challenging links course with a few wow holes. Being so open to the water, the wind had a big influence on our ball flight, but its a fair track and one I’d definitely return to play. Signature Holes: #13 – a 197-yards par 4 – Broadmeadow– a classic short par 4 that’s all carry over a large grassy bowl and along the water; and #14 – a 333-yards part 4 – Old Clubhouse – behind the tee box is where the old clubhouse stood when the course was only reachable by water and boasts the narrowest fairway in all of Ireland with water along the whole right side.

At the Island Club we had a great caddy, and that made the experience all the more enjoyable and necessary with blind shots such as this one.

The 18th hole at The Island Golf Club – a unique private club started by a group called the ‘Syndicate’ and is still run by the members today.

More amazing pictures from the golf courses in an upcoming Ireland photo gallery in the Global Gallery.

Brazil – Rio de Janeiro

We’re being jostled around in a little 6-seater prop plane – making our way from Angra dos Reis to Rio de Janeiro. The skies are gray and gloomy with heavy rain up ahead. The runway is in sight, but the pilot turns around and gives a thumbs down – the tower will not let us land and we must return to Angra. Then just as quickly he turns back around and gives us a thumbs up – the tower says ‘NOW’. We have 8 seconds to land – the pilot holds the steering mechanism as tight as he can, the wings are teetering heavily side to side. We drop hard onto the runway, the skies open up and the rain comes down in sheets. A van meets us right at the door to the plane and we get drenched in the 10-feet we have to walk from the plane to the van. “Welcome to Rio!” says our driver.

Landing strip in the bay off of Rio de Janeiro where we landed in the prop-plane we took from Angra dos Reis.

Rio de Janeiro. The name rolls off your tongue and evokes a sense of beauty. Fitting for a city that is undeniably one of the most beautiful in the world. The saying in Rio is – ‘God built Rio on the 8th day.’ As I said in my earlier Brazil posts, the country was never on my bucket list – but Rio has always held a bit of an interest, especially since the 2016 Rio Olympics when I witnessed one enticing iconic photo or video after another. How can one deny a pull to experience the marrying of white powder sandy beaches and tropical forests rising up out of the ocean encasing a culture known for a love of living life to the fullest.

One of the first visuals that stood out to me was the emptiness of beaches Monday through Friday. But on the weekends these beaches were transformed into a sea of humanity. The locals work hard during the week so they can play harder over the weekend. Arriving at the beaches by 9am and staying on well past midnight. Plied with local beverages – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and fresh seafood and fruits, by walking vendors – there is no need to leave. If you forgot your swimsuit – there are vendors selling swimsuits. If you forgot your sunscreen, or sarong, or hat – there are vendors to take care of you. None of the vendors are pushy – they are just there, walking up and down the beach in numbers so great you don’t have to wait long for the right one to come along.

Ipanema Beach, empty during the week except for the long line-up of orange garbage bins that people are very good at using to keep these beaches spotless.

Ipanema Beach on a Saturday – when a mass of humanity descends on the beaches for a day of fun in the sun.

If you forgot or lost your swimsuit – no problem walking vendors have you ‘covered’!

If you are hungry or thirsty but you don’t want to risk losing your prime beach spot, no problem – walking vendors will serve your every need.

Although we felt fairly safe on the beaches – Ipanema Beach is definitely more inclined to host the tourists, while Copacabana Beach was the locals haven. And no question as to what someone is talking about when they mention ‘wearing a thong’ – that has nothing to do with flip-flops for your feet. That is the ONLY kind of swimsuit bottom worn by the women – no matter what age or size of bum. I have never seen so many butts in all my life! And the speedo for men may have gone by the wayside in most regions of the world, but in Rio it is alive and doing quite well!

Speedos for the men – thongs for the women. My husband looks very nonplussed by all of it. Life is good while on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

Ironically, the poorer the citizen the higher up they live in Rio. The most financially depressed parts of the city, or favelas, are the ones that sit high up in the hills. I guess it’s the least they deserve – a good view even if they can’t afford a car, a nice home or to put much food on the table. The economy may be depressed, but the people certainly are not. They take an attitude that tomorrow is another day and it could be better so why worry about today. When basic needs are met and your every waking hour allows you to exist in such beauty no matter how much money is in your pocket, it is hard to argue their attitude.

High up in the city, the buildings show disrepair and a multitude of electrical wires looking like a fire hazard – but the monkeys love the easy access to their favorite trees.

The Olympics were held 6 months prior to our arrival in Rio de Janeiro, but by then most of the venues had already fallen into disrepair, the golf course hardly had a round played on it, and the influx of interest in the area had waned. But alas the locals carry on as they always have. Nothing much changed in getting ready for the Olympics and nothing much has changed since the Olympics. Life goes on as usual and they are fine with that.

There is no lack of culture or history to go along with some of the world’s most amazing natural vistas. Usually a city is renowned for one or the other – beauty or culture. Rio ticks off both those boxes – multiple times. When the word breathtaking was created, the creator must have been standing atop Sugarloaf Mountain looking across at the future pinnacle for  Christ the Redeemer.

Christ the Redeemer stands tall as a protector over all the people of Rio and the many visitors to this magical destination.

Sugarloaf Mountain rises up out of the harbor in Rio into the shape of a what was a sugar-loaf back in the 1600’s. Sugar cane was a major commodity in the area and it was transported in conical clay forms from Rio to other parts of the world. In 1912 the first set of cable cars was built to carry people up to the highest point of Sugarloaf Mountain. Today the glass cable cars can hold up to 65 people. You can take one cable car from the base of the mountain to the first hill-top, and then a second cable car all the way up to the top of Sugarloaf = 1200 feet elevation. Or you can hike up the first mountain and then take the second cable car from there. We did the latter and our guide said we were the first people in 5 years he had guided to choose to do so. It is a steep elevation and it was very hot and humid, but it was lush green, heavily shaded and we saw monkeys!

We saw several marmosets or monkeys – but were absolutely forbidden to feed them.

The iconic Sugarloaf Mountain rising up out of the harbor – with a tram going from the lower hilltop to the high peak.

The panoramic views from Sugarloaf Mountain are truly breathtaking!

Christ the Redeemer became the iconic visual of the Rio Olympics – day and night. It is eye-catching from afar and you can see it from miles and miles away. But the actual statue was less ornate than I thought it would be. Even so, what an awe-inspiring task when you look at how this was resurrected back in 1922-1931. The wing span of Christ’s arms (92 feet) is almost as long as he is tall (98 feet) – and stands on a 26-foot high granite pedestal. It is a monolithic piece weighing in at over 630 tons that sits atop a 2300-foot high peak. You take a railway tram up a very steep hillside and your only thought is – ‘I hope the brakes don’t give out!’ The statue is constructed mainly of iron and concrete, with an outer-shell of soapstone. The statue has been struck by lighting 3 times with minimal damage.

The rail cars that take you up the hillside to the base of Christ the Redeemer. I am sure this grade would not meet US standards.

Christ the Redeemer stands as a beacon of hope and peace on one of the highest points in Rio.

Other Rio cultural highlights and must sees: The Metropolitan Cathedral – a 264-foot high conical-shaped church with four floor to ceiling stain-glassed panels coming together at the top to create a cross; the Real Gabinete Portugues da Leitura is tucked among narrow side streets – but this library is a must see for its uniqueness and beauty; the Museum of Tomorrow sits on the edge of the harbor like a spaceship from another world; Korda‘s 3,000sm mural (15.5m high by 190m long) may have been created for the olympics, but it will stay on as an artistic masterpiece highlighting the cultures of each amazing continent in this world; the ‘Selaron Steps‘ were designed by the artist as a tribute to Brazil and it’s people, but you can find a tile from just about every spot in the world.

The conical-shaped Metropolitan Cathedral in the heart of Rio.

The interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral showcasing the stained glass floor to ceiling panels coming together at the peak into the shape of a cross.

The Royal Portuguese Library – a magical reading room and fitting for the area as Portuguese is the main language of Brazil.

The Museum of Tomorrow built for the Rio Olympics in 2016 – an innovative scientific look at sustainability and the start of revitalizing a once struggling waterfront.

World renowned mural artist Eduardo Korda was commissioned to create and paint a mural for the 2016 Olympics.

The ‘Selaron Steps’ created over 20 years by artist Jorge Selaron as a tribute to Brazil – anybody can now add a tile when they visit, making it a tribute to the world we live in.

Our days consisted of a morning run or walk on Ipanema Beach across the street from our Fasano Hotel, followed by a day of touring the area, then retreat to the rooftop pool for the refreshing local drink – Caipirinha, and finish with an amazing dinner touting local Brazilian flavors and style of cooking, like Churrascaria. While Brazil may not have been on my bucket list – it is on my list of places to return to. I still have 362 islands to see in Angra dos Reis; more beach time to enjoy in Rio; and inner country sanctums such as the Amazon and Iguazu Falls to experience.

Watch for a Global Gallery with more pics from Brazil, specifically Sao Paulo, Angra dos Reis, and Rio de Janeiro.

Montana – Big Sky

Montana, known as “Big Sky” country is aptly named. Even with all of the Rocky Mountains ranges that dot the skyline of this expansive state, the ‘sky’ itself invokes a majesty all its own. The experiences in Montana are as vast as the sky, so I will break up our 10-day road trip to Montana into multiple postings to properly capture the highlights of the trip. Our trip began in Arizona, and we made our way up through Utah, Nevada, Idaho and into Montana. Any one of these states can and will garner a need for their own post – but for now my focus is on Montana.

When you arrive into Montana, it’s like a calm settles over you – your heart rate drops and you breathe easier. People who visit and live here, choose this destination to inhale and enjoy what nature created over the centuries. Montana by land mass ranks as the 4th largest state, but ranks 44th in population. Montana’s largest city, Billings, comes in at 110,000 people – leaving an awful lot of land preserved in its natural state, allowing for wildlife to populate in numbers not seen in many places and lots of room for people and that wildlife to co-habitate together peacefully.

We entered Montana in the southwest corner of the state, driving by the very western edge of  Yellowstone  National Park. This stretch of Hwy 191 is beyond gorgeous. The two lane road winds through lush green forests of pine and birch, and low-lying meadows dotted with ponds and running streams – a perfect setting for some big Montana moose, but sadly we never spotted one. The air was as fresh as the setting was serene. Smiles settled in on our faces, as life’s stresses melted away the deeper we made our way into this beautiful state.

Our first stop in Montana was in Big Sky – a ski resort town, about a 30-minute drive south of Bozeman, that we had visited many times in the 7 years we lived in Montana back in the late 80’s and late 90’s. We were initially drawn to the area for the skiing because it has remained un-commercialized and un-congested unlike its Colorado counterparts i.e. Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen. But the area shows its raw beauty even more in the summer months with no shortage of things to do: hiking, golfing, biking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, tram and chairlift rides, zip lines, rock climbing, and the list goes on and on.

The pathway leading up into the hiking trails along the ski runs at Big Sky.

The zip line comes out into the open below the chair lifts on the backside of the Summit Lodge.

River rafting down the Gallatin along highway 191 between Big Sky and Bozeman.

The entrance of Big Sky intersects the famed Gallatin River (think ‘A River Runs Through It‘) known for its great fly-fishing and white water rafting. Or in our case the place, some 20 years ago, where our chocolate lab puppy decided to test out her water dog skills. My husband was out fly fishing on the Gallatin and our new puppy so wanted to be near him, she jumped into the water, but the water was too strong for this little 8-week-old 12-pound puppy and she went swirling down the river. I never saw my husband move so fast through a fast running river, up onto the bank and down the river bank until he got ahead of where the puppy was in the water and reached down and yanked her out of the water like a fish on the end of a fly fishing pole!

Big Sky is separated into distinct topographies – the lower village (6,800’ elevation) or ‘meadows’ where some great golfing, shopping, galleries and lodging exists. And the upper village (7,500′ elevation) or ‘mountain’ where some of the best skiing in the US exists and most of the main resorts. The highest point of Big Sky is atop Lone Mountain Peak, boasting a tram that takes you across a wide bowl to its highest point at an elevation of 11,166 feet. Not for the faint of heart – this area above the tree line is double-black diamonds to get down the peak to were the bulk of the ski hill lies.

Lone Mountain Peak looms above Lake Levinsky and the blue Lake Condos at the entrance of Big Sky Mountain Village.

The runs at Big Sky show bright and green in the summer sun.

In the winter we went as far as taking the high-speed chairlift to the base of the tram. From there we pointed our skis downward into the single black diamond bowl before you ascend into the tree-lined slopes. Our last trip to Big Sky was to ski. Our son, 8, was a fearless snowboarder, taking black diamonds, through the trees, over jumps. Our, 10, daughter stuck with skiing and on one of our last runs she took off in front of us down into the bowl. In an instant she was tumbling ass over tea-kettle. Our hearts in our throats as we raced to where she had come to a stop – skis going in every direction, body in an upside down pretzel position. Instinctively my husband grabbed her around the waist to gently lift her up out of the contortion of body parts fearful to find our dainty daughter unconscious. Instead, a howl of laughter broke from her lips. She said that was the most fun she’d had all week and can we do it again! Suffice to say our mind was on a bottle of wine to calm our jangled nerves after that escapade! Kids!

But I digress – this trip (and post) is about our summertime fun at Big Sky – some 14 years later. We stayed at the rustic Summit Lodge – replete with log furniture, deer antler chandeliers, and bear skin rugs. With the lodge at the base of ski hill, we had easy access to trek up the mountain to access the hiking trails that meander up and through all the ski runs, over mountain creeks usually hidden by several feet of snow, and along logging trails that double as catwalks in the winter . Reaching some of the higher ridges, it was once again evident as to how the state and this specific ski resort acquired it’s title of ‘Big Sky’. The vistas are breathtaking and sky has no end in sight.

The Summit Lodge at the base of the runs at Big Sky Mountain Village.

A large deer antler chandelier in the Summit Lodge.

About halfway down the mountain, between the upper and lower villages, is a rustic but high-end resort, Lone Mountain Resort, where you can rent log cabins of multiple configurations and sizes. The restaurant is one of the best in Big Sky and is worth a stop for anything from a great brunch to a fine dining experience. As well as horse back riding in the summer, or sleigh rides in the winter.

The entrance to Lone Mountain Ranch midway between upper and lower villages at Big Sky.

Log cabin accommodations at Lone Mountain Ranch.

A little closer to the lower village is another great area for hiking, called Ousel Falls Trail. It doesn’t have the breathtaking expansive views as the hikes up on the ski hill, but the lush beauty of trekking your way along the fast running South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River and take a breather for a picnic with the Ousel Falls for a backdrop is equally enticing.

Ousel Falls Trail head just above the lower village in Big Sky.

A great picnic spot along the Ousel Falls of the South Fork River.

Down in the meadows of the lower village is an Arnold Palmer designed golf course. As well as multiple galleries showcasing many local artists, our favorite being Harry Koyama. My husband so fell in love with one of his paintings that served as the back drop to the reservation desk at the Summit Lodge, that I commissioned Harry to replicate the same picture (in a much smaller size) for a surprise birthday present for my husband and serves as the backdrop of his home office.

Original painting by Harry Koyama, behind the reception desk at the Summit Lodge in Big Sky, called ‘Bruins of Lone Mountain.’

Interspersed between galleries and gift shops are a multitude of great restaurants. Most taking local flavors – such as elk or bison meat, huckleberries (my personal favorite), or fresh trout from the Gallatin River – and putting their own spin on recipes to satisfy even the pickiest palates.

Enjoy more beautiful pics of the very scenic Big Sky area in the Global Gallery under Montana.

 

New York et al – where sleeping is overrated!

‘Old blue eyes’ (and many others) sing, New York, New York is a city “that never sleeps.” To sleep in NYC is to miss out on seeing a city that offers its visitors a never-ending line-up of must see places and must do events. If you waste extra time sleeping you will miss out on the sun rising over the East River and setting over the Hudson River and all points in between, day and night.

Sunrise over the East River, NYC

Sunrise over the East River, NYC

Late afternoon over the Hudson River, NYC

Late afternoon over the Hudson River, NYC

New York is a place better visited in shorter blocks of time because you feel compelled to partake in the ongoing life that is NYC – which can be exhausting no matter how good of shape you’re in or how old you are. There is no better array of breakfast, lunch and dinner venues. From Harlem in upper Manhattan to Battery Park in lower Manhattan, from the five New York Burroughs to New Jersey, from the well-known hot spots to the unknown boutique neighborhoods – NYC has a life unlike any other in the world.

I made my first trek to NYC, at age 19, during the Christmas holiday season – undoubtedly the most magical time of the year in NYC. Starting with The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; then the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center; add in the holiday themed windows lining the shops on 5th Avenue; the Nutcracker performed by the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall; hotels like the Plaza and the New York Palace decorated for the holidays; chestnuts roasting on the city corners; and finish off with the dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall at the Christmas Spectacular, NYC

Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall at the Christmas Spectacular, NYC

Decorated for the holidays, New York Palace, NYC

Decorated for the holidays, New York Palace, NYC

But any time of the year is a good time of the year to visit NYC. The first couple of visits to NYC are all about seeing the main tourist sites: the Statue of Liberty which survived Hurricane Sandy: the Empire State Building with its top lit up in special colors to commemorate special events; Central Park where taking a bike ride and a ride in the horse-drawn carriages are a must; Times Square with the bright lights and shops that don’t close until the wee hours of the morning; a Broadway Show leaving you sitting on the edge of your seat in an air of pure entertainment; World Trade Center Memorial to pay homage to the fallen.

Empire State Building lit up in blue to commemorate Columbia University graduates, NYC

Empire State Building lit up in blue to commemorate Columbia University graduates, NYC

World Trade Center Memorial, NYC

World Trade Center Memorial, NYC

Living my whole life west of the Mississippi, NYC was rarely on my radar as a place I would visit often. But that all changed the day my daughter chose to go to university in NYC. This gave me a great reason to visit this great city – often! As the years have moved on my ‘never let the grass grow under your feet’ minded daughter has taken to checking out every nook and cranny of this marvelous city, and I have been lucky enough to reap the benefits of her curious personality.

I now have a personal tour guide who has not only shown me the next level of hotspots: Bryant Park – movies in the summer, skating in the winter; Mario Batali‘s restaurants and Eataly Deli; the Highline – a converted overhead railroad track now used for strolling; Katz Diner for melt in your mouth pastrami sandwiches – Shake Shack for melt in your mouth burgers  – Peter Luger for melt in your mouth steaks; museums – The Met, MoMA, Guggenheim, The Frick.

But she has also taken me beyond the borders of Manhattan to: Governor’s Island to ride bikes and drink a new St. Germaine infused cocktail while watching era dressed flappers dance to jazz; north of Harlem to the medieval architecture of The Cloisters museum and gardens; the elaborate Brooklyn Botanical Gardens; Flushing Meadows to watch the fast paced U.S. Open tennis tourney; Carlo’s Bakery in Jersey for “ta die for” cupcakes.

U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, NYC

U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, NYC

Carlo's Bake Shop, New Jersey

Carlo’s Bake Shop, New Jersey

This may be my first NYC blog posting, but it certainly won’t be the last about this great city!

Where to stay: The Plaza for opulence or The Surrey for Upper East Boutique (5-star); The New York Palace for reasonable midtown luxury or the London New York for modern roominess in midtown (4+star); the Hotel Belleclaire boutique style on the Upper Westside or the Sofitel for larger rooms and great midtown location (3+star).

Where to eat: I can safely say almost anywhere. The competition is so fierce, the restauranteurs know they have to bring it or they won’t be around long. In the dozen times I’ve been to NYC I can’t recall having even a mediocre meal.

Check out more pictures in the Global Gallery: NYC.