England, how do we love thee? Let me count the ways

The iconic logo for The Tube, as the London subway system is locally known
The iconic logo for The Tube, as the London subway system is locally known

You’re driving along a country road at dusk, navigating through hills and along hedgerows. The sky is turning lavender, while over the rolling  hills a mist is creeping down the slopes. Any moment you expect a Druid to appear, collecting mistletoe for some ancient ritual…

You’re at a subway stop deep in the bowels of the earth. The tracks disappear into black holes in both directions. A small electronic sign on the ceiling advises you of how long you have to wait while you read and re-read huge curved billboards on the wall across from your platform. Soon a sooty puff of air blowing out of the tunnel like a dragon’s breath announces that your train is approaching.

Where are you? In England, of course.

England is one of my favourite places to visit, evidenced by the fact that my hubby Mike and I have been there at least half a dozen times. England was where I first learned about a decent cup of tea, had a meal in a 600-yr-old pub, saw thatched roofs and 1000-yr-old tombs, and generally fell in love with this beautiful, quirky country. Every time we step out onto British soil we feel like we’re in our second home, even though neither of us has any British background in our families. There’s just something about the place that fascinates, amuses and endears people. Every time there’s a celebration in Britain, thousands of Anglophiles around the world either attend in person or make their own party at home.

Why the hubbub? I imagine everyone has their own slant, but I can list some general reasons:

–          The Brits can and have turned just about anything into an excuse for a celebration: royal wedding, royal birth, QueThe sign for the Black Friar puben’s Jubilee, Bank Holiday, cricket test matches, Wimbledon…even afternoon tea, which humble beverage they’ve elevated into a national pastime and a sprawling multi-level industry that has included china makers and silversmiths, tea purveyors and smugglers, tea shops/salons/rooms, and probably the largest variety of sweets in the world. Everything the British do is larger-than-life and seems a lot more fun than the way we live over here in North America.

–          Tradition: there’s a sense of solidity and comfort in traditions that have literally been handed down over hundreds of years. One of the most fun things to do in a visit to London is to attend the nightly Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, which has been going on for over 900 years without missing a night. You can walk the streets and halls of places you’ve read about, eat a typical English meal in a pub complete with a pint of beer, and buy products from purveyors that have been endorsed by the Royal Family  with a Royal Warrant. You can shop where James Bond does, stand under the sign at 221b Baker Street for an obligatory photo at the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes and then walk across the road to buy some memorabilia, and bring home mugs with a map of the Tube to remind you of the wonderfully eccentric but efficient subway system.

–          English culture is a wonderful mixture of playful, grandiose, eccentric and murky that continually reinvents itself, making it relevant to every succeeding generation. Where else would you find things like an annual count of mute swans in open water (which officially belong to the reigning monarch), or having a race that involves rolling  rounds of cheese down a hill? To balance that, you can be uplifted by the sounds of Evensong filling the massive stone chambers of a cathedral, watch Phantom of the Opera at the London theatre, or stand in front of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. The fact that there’s a living monarchy makes every bit of history just as important today as it has been for centuries.

–          This rich cultural heritage has provided the inspiration for some of the greatest classics in literature, music, film, and fertile ground for some of the most innovative artists around today. On top of that, if you’ve read it in a book or watched it in a movie set in England, you can likely find it in real life à England excels at preservation, making it a paradise for pilgrims. Because the British empire touched so many countries at its height, inspiring the famous saying that ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’, visiting England is a trip of instant recognition for people around the globe, and the culture, particularly in page and film, continues to enthrall us all, from the legends of King Arthur to Shakespeare to Downton Abbey to Harry Potter, and everything in between.

–          England loves visitors! The transportation system is fantastic, many museums are free, there’s a pub to rest your feet practically on every corner…in London they’ve even thoughtfully painted instructions at every intersection for walkers to “Look right” or “Look left” so that visitors don’t get run over adjusting to the reverse traffic directions.

Atmospheric front of the Red Lion pub
Atmospheric front of the Red Lion pub

While the world basks in royal baby excitement, even if you can’t be there in person, celebrate at home with a good cup of English Breakfast tea and fresh scones draped in Liberty’s crème fraiche and Greaves strawberry jam. Then take the next opportunity to book a trip to England, whether it’s a glorious week exploring London, which you can never tire of, or including some extra time to go out to Stonehenge, Bath, Nottingham, or wherever takes your fancy, and drop me a note if you need help planning your trip.

Put your hand up if you too loathe summer

I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me, but this is the kind of summer I hate — excessively hot and humid. I live in the Niagara Region, an area where the humidity can really climb in July and August; Lake Erie to the south of us, the Welland Canal to the east, and Lake Ontario to the north. For the past couple of years we’ve had cooler summers that I’ve actually enjoyed, but this summer is the kind that makes me grumpy for 8-10 weeks. This week the temperatures have soared to 45 deg C with the humidex, and the humidity is routinely over 60%, often over 90%. Thoughtless people keep taking their dogs with them to the grocery store in these conditions, and the local humane society is rescuing the poor animals every single day — heartbreakingly, not all of them have survived. Golfing is impossible — I had heat exhaustion three years ago when we golfed in Zimbabwe, and I really don’t want to do that again.

So that’s my partial litany of summertime gripes. I do have a home-grown therapy for it though: I watch the British Open Golf Championship! It’s never hot over there during the tournament, so I spend a week living vicariously through the golfers in sweaters under cool gray skies. I’m spending this week at home, venturing out as little as possible, with the chill from the central A/C simulating the temperatures my hubby and I are watching on the telly. I even cook British food all week to really capture the mood.

Today I gathered together a list of all my errands and braved the stifling heat to get everything done in one giant trip. Exhausted but successful, I returned home, threw anything perishable in the fridge, and treated myself to a Ploughman’s Lunch: ham, a nice mature cheddar, pickles, whole-grain bread with creamery butter, and a stiff cup of Irish Breakfast tea — absolutely heavenly after the earlier ordeal! Finished it all off with a lovely slice of Apple & Spice Tea Loaf, a recipe from the BBC Good Food website, which seems to have erased the link, so I’m including the actual recipe here, in case you’d like to join me in a virtual escape to a cooler place:

photo courtesy of the BBC Good Food website
photo courtesy of the BBC Good Food website

 

Apple & spice tea loaf

By Jane Hornby                           

Perfect with a fresh pot of tea, this looks and tastes just as good as a farmers’ market buy

Cooking time Prep: 10 mins  Cook: 1 hr, 30 mins      Skill level Easy     Servings Serves 10

Ingredients

  • 175g butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 175g light muscovado sugar, plus 1 tsp
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 eating apple
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 200g dried mixed vine fruits (I used golden raisins)
  • 85g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 175g plain flour (I used gluten-free flour, gave a less-fluffy texture, but still tasted wonderfulP)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg (I used ginger)
  • splash lemon or orange juice
  • 1 tbsp  marmalade or apricot jam

Method

  1. Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Butter a 900g/2lb loaf tin and line with a strip of baking paper, or use a loaf tin liner (see tip, below). Beat together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, then beat in the eggs one by one. Grate half the apple and mix it into the batter with the vanilla, dried fruit and ground almonds. Mix the baking powder, flour and spices together with a pinch of salt, then fold into the mix until even. Spoon into the tin and level the top.
  2. Thinly  slice the remaining apple half, toss with the lemon or orange juice, poke the slices a little way into the batter, then sprinkle with 1 tsp more sugar. Bake for 45 mins, then turn the oven down to 140C/fan 120C/gas 1. Cover the cake with foil, then bake for another 45 mins until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin.
  3. To finish the cake, melt the marmalade or jam in a small pan, sieve to remove any lumps, then brush it over the cake to glaze the top. Serve cut into thick slices, and spread with a little butter, if you like. Will freeze for up to 1 month.

Recipe from Good Food magazine, May 2009

Dream Trip No. 1

Rice farmers in Bali - 35mm slide by E. Jurus
Rice farmers in Bali – 35mm slide by E. Jurus

I’ve been very fortunate in my life so far to have been able to travel to many places in the world. Once in a while, though, a trip is advertised that I can’t swing but that I dream about being able to take.

A new offering by Oceania Cruises that’s making its debut in 2015 is one such that’s making me drool. Called “Around the World in 180 Days”, the company describes it as “something more than a cruise, truly a voyage, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really enjoy all the best your world has to offer”. The cruise departs from Miami on January 10, 2015, and takes you around the world to places like Guadeloupe and Tobago, Devil’s Island in French Guiana, Cape Town in S. Africa, cruising around the Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Seychelles and Maldives, cruising the Andaman Sea, Rangoon, Bangkok, Singapore, Borneo, Bali, New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti, and much more, finally docking back in Miami on July 8th.

For this inaugural voyage, Oceania is offering 2 for 1 cruise fares, which changes a Concierge Level Veranda room from $176,784 to $ 58,999! You also get an Exclusive Prestige Package that includes free pre-paid gratuities, transfers, luggage delivery, unlimited laundry services, etc.

I’m not sure I could talk my husband into spending 6 months on a cruise, but if I had the $59K to spend I’d love to give it a try. I can envision myself enjoying some of the special shore events, like a private cocktail party at the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, or having a classic English-style afternoon tea after a day at sea. The tour includes a large number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so there’s lots of world culture included.

Sigh. This would be a fantastic bucket list item. If you can swing this trip, you have to tell me all about it afterwards, photos included! You’ll find more information on the Oceania website.

Machu Picchu a little differently

The setting of Machu Picchu is spectacular
The setting of Machu Picchu is spectacular

If you’re not up for the strenuous hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, you’ll likely end up taking one of the trains along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes, where you can catch a bus up to the top of the mountain to see one of the world’s most famous ancient citadels.

If you do it as a day trip, you’ll arrive at Machu Picchu amidst hordes of other tourists, spend a few hours at the citadel in the peak of the midday heat, and zip back to Cusco on the train without having had a chance to absorb the cloud forest in which Machu Picchu is set. There’s a better way.

There are a variety of hotels in and around Aguas Calientes where you can spend a couple of days enjoying the ambience and exploring not only Machu Picchu itself, but also the cloud forest that cloaks the mountains in which this amazing ancient wonder is located — the same cloud forest through which Hiram Bingham and his guide hacked their way in 1911 to find what has become the most famous ancient ruin in South America.

Peru is a patchwork of widely differing habitats: vast stretches of desert along the coast, the craggy Andes mountains down the spine, the cold and desolate Altiplano high up in the Andes, the lush rainforests of the Amazon basin on the eastern side of the Andes, and the marvelous cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu, which many people don’t take the trouble to visit.

The hotel we stayed at, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, just across a short bridge from the main part of Aguas Calientes, has won numerous awards and this year was named one of the top 5 resorts and lodges in Central and South America by Travel & Leisure magazine.  It’s more affordable than you might think, though, and makes a wonderful base for a few nights.

Bungalows at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
Bungalows at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

You’ll stay in your own bungalow set amid the gardens, where thick woolen blankets ward off the night-time chill, toiletries are made from botanicals right on the property, and you’ll eat some of the finest food in Peru.

The ambience is very relaxing, so you can choose to just chill out a bit after the challenges of the altitude in Cuzco (about 4,300′ higher than Aguas Calientes), although you’ll still get a bit breathless walking up and down the stone paths at the hotel, but there’s plenty to do if you feel like exploring.

The first thing you’ll probably want to do is visit Machu Picchu, which you can arrange through the hotel, who’ll provide a private guide and the entry passes – the site is now restricted to only 500 people a day. You’ll get up for an early breakfast and take the bus up the mountain (a hair-raising ride in itself) at dawn to be among the earliest to arrive, and you’ll spend several hours exploring the massive site, stopping to rest for a light snack as well.

Some things to know beforehand: the morning air heats up very quickly to an intense blaze, so wear a good sunblock, a wide-brimmed hat and an overshirt with sleeves that you can roll down when you start to broil. There are no washrooms inside the citadel, so make sure you visit the ones outside the entrance gate. The site is very steep, and the ancient staircases are worn and slippery, with little in the way of handholds or barriers, so be very careful and take walking poles if you’re not steady on your feet. On the way out, don’t forget to have your passport stamped — Machu Picchu has its own stamp that you can add to your collection.

Aguas Calientes is easily explored on your own, and is just steps away from the Inkaterra hotel
Aguas Calientes is easily explored on your own, and is just steps away from the Inkaterra hotel

After your visit to Machu Picchu, you can have lunch in the charming and picturesque town of Aguas Calientes, which has plenty of decent restaurants to try authentic Andean food and a thriving craft market, or you can return to the hotel. Make sure you try the passion fruit cheesecake at least once either in town or at the hotel.

The hotel is set in its own private 12 acres of cloud forest, so if you feel like exploring after lunch, you can do so on your own or in the company of a naturalist, just viewing the forest ecosystem or doing some bird-watching.

Our orchid guide, Joseph, explains the physiology of these beautiful plants
Our orchid guide, Joseph, explains the physiology of these beautiful plants

The cloud forest is also home to over 300 species of wild orchids, and if you visit in the November orchid season as we did, you’ll be treated to an amazing variety of the flowers in all shapes and sizes. I’d recommend booking the orchid tour with one of the naturalists, though — many of the plants are quite tough to spot without an expert eye.

Spectacle bears are sweet and gentle herbivores; they love avocados
Spectacle bears are sweet and gentle herbivores; they love avocados

The Inkaterra has also partnered with the Peruvian government to rescue and rehabilitate the native Spectacled Bear, the only bear in South America. The bears are gentle arboreal creatures who are often captured illegally to either sold as pets or killed for their body parts, for which there is an appalling trade in Asia. There were 3 bears on hand when we visited, and they were delightful to watch.

The Inkaterra also grows its own herbs for the kitchen, and has its own small tea plantation, where you can learn all about tea production and make your own bag of tea to try out.

Most of these activities are included at no extra cost in your stay at the Inkaterra, but if you like there are a nice selection of activities with a range of prices as well: you can book a spa treatment — I had a fantastic massage with fragrant botanical oils — or have a native Andean purification ceremony, see a musical performance, etc.

Breakfasts and dinners are included, and the food is terrific. The breakfast buffet alone is worth getting up early for!
Breakfasts and dinners are included, and the food is terrific. The breakfast buffet alone is worth getting up early for!

At the end of the day, you can snuggle up in your comfortable bungalow and listen to some of the night sounds of the forest all around you. It’s a great way to see a bit more of Machu Picchu than most people bother to experience. The people at the Inkaterra were great to deal with, and very enthusiastic about their hotel and Machu Picchu. If you’d like to do Machu Picchu a little off the beaten path, you can’t go wrong with this choice!

The extremely comfortable bedrooms at the Inkaterra
The extremely comfortable bedrooms at the Inkaterra