“God preserve my sanity”

“3 MAY. Bistriz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning…”

So begins, innocuously, one of the most famous horror stories in history – Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

The cover of the first edition, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545797

Stories about vampires had been around for a long time, but Stoker’s foray into the horror genre seemed to enrapture the Victorian psyche, perhaps tapping into the repressions of the era’s morality.

Victorians enjoyed a revival of gothic literature, and were also fascinated by mysticism. Spiritualism, brought  over from America around 1852 by an American medium, Mrs. Hayden,  who conducted séances in London for the fashionable, gave hope to people who’d likely lost a loved one by the age of 35, the average life expectancy at the time.

By the time Stoker wrote his story, the Potato Famine had resulted in over a million deaths, the 1848 cholera epidemic had killed 52,000, and the British had been fighting in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Small wonder that death was prevalent on Victorian minds.

Bram Stoker was born in Dublin in the middle of the Potato Famine, and apparently retained memories of the  mass deaths. He was himself bedridden throughout his early childhood from an unknown illness, from which he eventually recovered, but he wrote that during that time, “I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years.”

Trinity College Library, Dublin

He became interested in the theatre while a student at Trinity College in Dublin, became a theatre critic and eventually managed the Lyceum Theatre in London for his friend Henry Irving. He travelled widely as a result, although he never actually visited the wilds of Transylvania, which he would delineate in atmospheric detail in his sensational novel.

“Beyond…rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered…”

Stoker also began to write his own stories, and novels. He had met Ármin Vámbéry, a Slovak-Jewish writer and traveller who shared legends from the Carpathian mountains, inspiring Stoker to research in more detail, especially the folklore around vampires.

The concept of a creature who transcended death would have appealed to Victorians as much as Spiritualism. Stoker wasn’t the first Brit to write about vampires – John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician who was at the rented house in Switzerland when Byron challenged the group to write a ghost story (inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the other great horror story in history), came up with The Vampyre.

The Vampyre by John Polidori, Public Domain, British Library

Dracula wasn’t greatly successful when published in 1897, although reviewers and fellow authors – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft – liked it, and the book never made much revenue for Stoker. It wasn’t until Hollywood introduced vampires into popular culture, beginning in 1922 with the silent classic Nosferatu, that the public began to lap up the idea of blood-drinking immortals, and our fascination with the concept continues to this day.

Goth fans have been congregating in Whitby, England – a featured location in Stoker’s story – for 25 years for the well-known Whitby Goth Weekend in late October, and vampire enthusiasts can spend Halloween at parties in Transylvania, but now you can go to the source in Dublin. The city has embraced one of its most famous legacies with Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula Experience, which, as a dedicated Halloween enthusiast, I hauled my hubby to straight off when we were in Ireland a couple of weeks ago!

My mother was actually born in Transylvania, in and around Cluj-Napoca, so you might say that I come by my interest in vampires naturally. Some day I’d love to do that Halloween-party thing on Halloween, but the opportunity to visit an attraction tied to Bram Stoker in Dublin was too good to pass up.

You can book tickets online, and you should: the attraction is only available on a limited selection of dates, and seating is limited. As it happened, it was running the day that we arrived in Dublin – it was meant to be.

Attendees meet at a specified point, a fitness club in the Clontarf area, across the street from where Bram Stoker was born, and are then walked over to the ‘castle’. The show is an entertaining fusion of actors getting you into the spirit of things while leading you through recreated eerie medieval stone passageways, and a stage performance that’s essentially an illusionist show which interacts with the audience. I won’t spoil the story for you, in case you’re able to attend in person, but it was all very well done, and a really fun evening during Halloween season. There are numerous items of actual memorabilia from Stoker’s life, and if you purchase VIP tickets you get some swag as well; please note that there is no shop on the premises to just buy the swag separately.

Hallway of historical info and artifacts, Castle Dracula experience
Scene from the stage show, Castle Dracula experience
Yours truly, in Dracula’s throne

If you’ve never read the original Dracula book, I highly recommend it – it’s very well written and very atmospheric. You can buy it in stores or read it on Project Gutenberg.

Also watch the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi – it would have been sensationally creepy at the time.

Movie posters, Castle Dracula Experience

Dracula has gone on to inspire countless vampire novels and movies, endless kids’ Halloween costumes, and some great music. It is a worthy inclusion in your Halloween entertainment.

“But my very feelings turned to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings…”

Chills and things that go bump in the night – Live!

Calling all Halloween aficionados: there are all kinds of places that are happy to creep you out around the world.

I really got into this kind of travel a few years ago when I discovered that Sleepy Hollow is a real place! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic eerie tale by Washington Irving, has always been my favourite Halloween-season story ever since watching Disney’s delightful animated version called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Washington Irving was inspired by a real ghost story in what was then the wilds of Tarry Town, New York, along the Hudson River, where Irving had spent some of his youth.

Irving became arguably the most famous American writer of his day. He was a multi-talented man — architect (he built his own house, Sunnyside), diplomat for the American government, mentor to many other contemporary writers. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which you can tour, and his memory is so revered in that area that his headstone gets rubbed constantly by visitors and has had to be replaced more than once.

Montgomery Place Estate, Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley was the summer recreation spot for the wealthy of New York City, as well as a hub of the American Revolutionary War and the inspiration for the Hudson River School of painters, so there’s a lot of history to be visited. The entire area has also embraced Irving’s gothic legacy and becomes a Halloween-themed playground every autumn. One of our favourite places is the Headless Horseman theme attraction, rated one of the best in the U.S. There’s a 20-minute hayride through monster-filled woods, a dark and creepy corn maze, several haunted houses, several shops full of Halloween treasures (the first time we went, my hubby took one look at the shops, parked himself on a hay bale and gestured for me to go and knock myself out), cafes, magicians, music, stilt walkers — this place is truly amazing!

Of course, Disney always does a bang-up job of Halloween. We particularly liked Halloween at Disneyland in California. It’s not nearly as big as Disney World in Florida — if you stay at one of the onsite hotels at Disneyland, you walk out the door into essentially a giant street party that extends into the two parks, plus you get to dress up in costume and enjoy adult trick-or-treating, photo ops with your favourite villain, dance parties and all the rides.

However, last fall we did the Howl-O-Scream evening at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg Virginia, and I liked it even better. During the day you can see all the wonderful spooky detail throughout the park…

… but as dusk starts to fall, fog begins to creep through the air, and the park turns into something delightfully eerie.

Each zone of the park has its own creatures, from the medieval French version of creepy clowns,

to Jack the Ripper in England, who held a wicked knife to my throat, and responded, “Possibly” in a charming British accent when I asked him if I was going to survive my photo op.

Giant menacing pumpkins oversee shadowed cemeteries,

and walkways become murky trails into the unknown.

Howl-O-Scream is a wonderful combination of fun for kids and eerieness for adults, and there’s no extra admission for the event — you enter any time with your day ticket and you’re good to stay as long as you want.

For all of us Halloween enthusiasts, there are many places, both in North America and abroad, to enjoy some pretend terrors. Watch for details about a new spooky adventure in Ireland next week!

…and speaking of storms

Ah, the memories — rain lashing at our windows, wind howling, four of us huddled in our bedroom nervously riding out the category five hurricane on our honeymoon.

My hubby and I knew very little about hurricanes when we booked our honeymoon in late August in the U.S. Virgin Islands. No one really talked about them at the time, before the advent of satellites, the internet and instantaneous news.

Our travel agent sold us on the island of St. Thomas, and we chose a nice-looking resort on the north side called Point Pleasant. We liked the way it was tucked into the hillside; it had recently won an award for best preservation of the environment, and since the burgeoning field of ecology and environmental science was my major in university, it seemed like the perfect fit.

We arrived on a Monday morning after a series of connecting flights culminating in a hair-raising 30 minutes on a little island hopper airline called Prinair — the door to the cockpit was coffin-shaped, the bolts on the metal housing on the wings were loose and rattling as we flew along (I tried to pretend nothing was wrong, but my hubby could tell something was bothering me).

The resort was perfect — condo-style rooms built into the lush, steep hillside, with 25 feet of sliding glass doors opening onto a wide balcony draped with fronds from a tall palm tree, overlooking the most beautiful blue-green water.

That evening, after dinner, we were chilling out sipping rum punch on one of the terraces when someone mentioned that there was a storm coming in. Okay, we could handle a bit of rain, we thought.

On Tuesday as we explored the small island, the word “hurricane” came up. We asked in town, and found out that there was indeed a hurricane headed in our direction, forecasted to arrive the next day. I remember thinking, you’ve got to be kidding me, then, well, there’s nothing we can do but shelter in place.

Wednesday started out as a gorgeous, sunny day, so we went into town again to do some shopping. Building owners were taping up their windows, and in the harbour small boats were being tied down while the cruise ships fled out to sea. Hmm.

Back at the resort, the owners gave out instructions: the storm was expected to hit around midnight. We were to crack open the sliding glass doors a bit so that the hurricane’s weird air pressure could equalize and avoid blowing them out. Then we were to stay in our bedrooms and close the louvered doors — the bedroom and bathroom were at the back of our unit, almost completely set into the hill. If things got bad, we were to hide in our tub.

We had a nice dinner with another honeymoon couple from Michigan, but the wind began to pick up as darkness fell, and we were worried about them walking all the way down the hill to their unit, which was at the bottom past quite a bit of construction materials where new units were being added. There were no phones in any of the rooms, you see, so we would have no way of knowing if they made it safely.

As our building was the second closest to the main building and restaurant, we convinced them to do spend the night with us. So on the third night of our honeymoon, the other couple and I were in our king sized bed (fully-clothed, of course, in case we lost a wall!), while Mike was on the floor next to the bed, leaning against the nightstand.

Waiting and not knowing what was going to happen was the worst part. We had some drinks and chatted nervously for a while, then tried to doze off a bit. At one point the window air conditioner kicked in suddenly over our heads and startled the crap out of us.

As it turned out, we got lucky. Fifty miles south of us, Hurricane David suddenly turned due west and took out the Dominican Republic. We ended up with only the fringes of the storm, which was bad enough — a couple of other units in our resort did lose their sliding windows, and in the morning we no longer had a palm tree draped over our balcony.

The night had been stormy but not overly dangerous, although for months afterward I would tense up at home whenever the wind picked up. The skies remained grey and the waters continued to churn down on the beach, tossing boats around vigorously. We could see beheaded cacti all up and down the hillside.

There was a lot of debris on the roads, which were all closed, so most of the resort guests ended up in the restaurant and bar at some point. We met two couples from the southern U.S. and had dinner with them.

No one could call into the island, but we were able to call out and reassure our families that we were safe and sound. My dad had been frantic because news reports had said the island had been evacuated. My hubby’s larger family was still post-wedding partying around their pool when we got through to them.

We were playing cards in the glass-walled restaurant into the evening, fairly relaxed, when I noticed the big window next to me bowing in at least 12 inches, then popped back into place. I was just wondering if anyone else had seen that, when all of a sudden the wind picked up and began to howl strangely. We could see small trees flying past the window, the wind shrieked, and the lights went out. As a group, we dove under the table, not sure what the hell was happening.

After a few tense minutes, the staff said we could come back out. Everyone was shaken, and they told us to head for our rooms. The electricity was out throughout the resort, so we were given lanterns to use — and here’s a tip: in utter darkness, don’t hold the lantern in front of you, because it will effectively blind you to anything else. My hubby slipped on the wet wooden stairs and bruised a rib. The six of us headed back to our room, again because we were the closest; my hubby and I joked afterward that to the resort staff we must have looked like one kinky honeymoon couple!

The remainder of the night was quiet. We found out the next day that a tornado had torn through the other side of the hill that our resort was on. Lucky again (all in all)!

When we could get out and about again, we found out how bad our hurricane turned out to be, and how truly fortunate we’d been, ideally positioned in a resort on an island made of one big hill, tucked securely into the hillside on the north while the hurricane raged south of us.

What also saved us at the time was the speed at which the hurricane moved, unlike Dorian, which has hovered over the Bahamas this week to do extensive damage, and hurricane Harvey which dumped so much water onto Texas two years ago. There’s been a great deal of speculation lately regarding how much effect climate change has had on these storms to make them so slow and so much more damaging. Hurricane David resulted in over 2,000 lives lost, I think in large part because there weren’t fast and effective warning systems in place back then; now we have warnings that people often ignore, and storms that lurk in place like monsters.

Mother Nature always wins. Should you ever find yourself in the path of a hurricane, don’t risk your life.

Lion Tail Magic supports IFAW, which is collecting donations to help the animal victims of Hurricane Dorian.

How to take a much-needed break

It’s so easy to be grumpy. I’m not sure why that should be the case, but in our ever-shrinking world, it can be hard to find time and space to decompress. We feel the press of responsibilities, of aches and pains, of unsettling news from around the world.

Add some home renovations into the mix and things start to ramp up. You know that the end result will justify the weeks of toil, but that thought doesn’t really help when you’re twisted into a corner trying to get the last bit of flooring laid and paint applied.

My hubby and I just finished renovating our main bathroom, and it looks great. It was a long haul, though, and we have to turn around almost immediately and empty out plus repaint our bedroom before we take delivery of our new split-king adjustable bed (which we are very excited about).

So, we snuck in a long-weekend getaway to the Muskoka region of Ontario, and it was the best thing we could have done.

Despite battling our way through some heavy highway traffic, the moment we arrived at the pine-scented resort at the edge of sparkling Lake Muskoka, we could feel ourselves starting to relax.

The skies had clouded over and the air held just a hint of fall as we played a round of golf on the resort’s gorgeous golf course. What we love about this course is that it emerges naturally from its forested, granite-strewn landscape, embracing nature at its best rather than a manicured garden.

Evenings were spent peacefully watching the sun set over the lake and the stars come out overhead.

Saturday dawned with a clear blue sky and a fresh breeze. The motorboats beckoned, so we rented one and spent an hour exploring the lake.

There were quite a few people out on the lake, from fellow boaters to kayakers to Sea-doos to SUPers, with a few lake steamers in the mix, and even with the variety of traffic, everyone seemed to be gently enjoying a blissful summer day on the water.

After lunch we decided to explore some of the hiking trails on the resort property.

Studies continue to show how restorative nature is. Staying at a resort so in tune with it, where the outdoors irresistibly beckons in myriad ways, induces a slowing-down of pace that can be hard to manage during our regular lives. Even though this was just a long-weekend getaway, it was amazingly effective.

Even if you can’t manage a longer escape, spending a few days in nature can work magic when you least expect it. Now, we might actually feel ready to do some more painting 🙂

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.