Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Across the Pond

The Llangollen Canal, Ellesmere, England to Horseshoe Falls, Wales

There is nothing that I like more than a challenge.  When my husband told me he was getting tired of our usual vacation of sun, surf, and fun and wanted to do something "different", I set out on my quest to find the most different vacation I could.  While this type of vacation is apparently quite common in England, for these Americans it was a breath of fresh, clean air.

Riding a canal boat was a completely new thought and experience for us, but I didn't hesitate.  The boat itself looked easy to navigate and I'm not one to shy away from a new adventure.  The boat looked a bit like the American campers and RVs we were more familiar with, except they were on water.  There was a kitchen, two small (really small) bathrooms and place to sleep for all four of us.  I wasn't daunted a bit by not having a daily hot shower (every other day and luke-warm proved good enough) and it wasn't too hard to generate our own electricity and heat (you have to travel for four hours to get enough juice for the heat at night).  Plus, if other people have done it and lived through it, so can we.  Thus, we had booked our flight and headed for a skip across the pond.

We started out a couple of days ahead of time because we wanted to look around a bit before boarding the boat.  Because we had never been to the area before, I had no idea what I was doing and booked an inn a couple of hours farther away than I needed to.  I'm so glad of that mistake, though, because we had a great time driving down winding country roads during what has to be the most beautiful time of year in England--the spring and lambing season.  As an American, I've always wondered why lambs were  associated with the Easter season.  Now, I know.  Everywhere we looked there were daffodils and other flowers popping up and field after field of, I can't even begin to impress upon how many there were, honest-to-goodness lambs frolicking in the fields.  Not running or standing, but frolicking an jumping in pure joy.  I must have taken a thousand pictures and the sight of them was so hilarious.  While it did rain almost every day, it was a drizzle and the cool, damp air didn't bother us a bit.

It was quite a change from our typical tropical locations.  When people ask me about the most amazing place we've ever been or the most amazing thing we've ever done, I have to answer, "Wales and England in spring on a canal boat".  I loved every moment and have plans to go back next year on a different trail.  The trail we took was supposed to be the most scenic and I would have to agree.  Daily there were pinch-myself moments--moments where we saw things so beautiful I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real.  The old-fashioned canals intersect and weave throughout England and my goal is to see as many of them as I can. 

There's so much to see and do that you can't possibly take all of it on one trip, but we sure made a good trip.  Here are the highlights of our trip:

Things to See and Do and Eat:

There was so much to see and do everywhere we went.  We honestly hadn't planned a bit of it ahead of time since I didn't know exactly where our travels would take us.  Most, if not all of the places we visited had little or no advertising, certainly not like we do in the States so almost all of our trip was happy accidents and discoveries.  Of course, that always makes for the best vacations. 
  • On our first night in Wales, we stayed at the Cain Valley Inn at Llanfyllin, Wales.  The drive there was so beautiful and the area is known for its stunning scenic activities like Lake Vyrnwy, Powys Castle, and Llanrhaedr Waterfall.  The town itself is more like a little village with quaint and rustic pubs.  On the cold, rainy evening, relaxing in the pub downstairs while getting to know the locals was great fun, as was walking around and enjoying the sites.  Dinner was delicious and the ales were cold.  It was our first introduction to pints and I enjoyed the meeting.  Breakfast was a full spread--a full English breakfast in every sense of the word with beans, bacon (more like our version of country ham), fried tomatoes, and fried toast, which I'd never had before.  Delicious, every bite! 
  • After that, we had to backtrack to get to the boat dock location, but the gorgeous drive softened any irritation.  The boat leaves from the charming village of Ellesmere, England.  Ellesmere is known as the "Lake District of Shropshire" because of the charming mere, or lake, close to the town.  The mere is lovely and there are a lot of footpaths that run alongside the canal that makes for lovely afternoon walks.  There are shops and restaurants galore in this small village and you won't for a second think you're anywhere but England.  The thatched roofs of the cottages, tiny winding streets, and plethora of pubs make this a unique experience.  We found a fun shop called a "cat rescue" which is apparently like an American rummage shop with all proceeds to benefit a local cat shelter.  Wandering around the streets made for a pleasant end, and beginning, to our trip.  The best place to eat in town is definitely at the Black Lion Hotel.  It's an easy walk from the dock and the food was simply amazing.  If you're expecting pub food, you'll be disappointed.  While we did tarry a bit in the pub, we also went to the dining room for a full dinner. We had a delicious time gnoshing on Glamorgan sausages, Shropshire blue cheese, jacket potatoes filled with chili and beans and even saved room for "'sticky toffee", my new favorite dessert.
  • Our first night out wasn't very exciting--at least to read about.  It took us a bit to figure out how the boat worked and ran and we spent most of the afternoon trolling along the ancient towpaths, just in wonder about the surrounding farms.  There is absolutely no better way to see the "real" England than along these towpaths and canal channels.  We stopped for the night at the first real available sign of active civilization, in a tiny hamlet called Hindford, Oswestry, Shrophire at The Jack Mytton Inn.  The inn was so much fun--it was full of locals and travelers sitting around a roaring fire and enjoying some pints and laughs at the bar and pub.  We learned our table wouldn't be ready for two hours and while that might have caused consternation in the US, in England it was just enough time to get to know our fellow travelers.  We had an amazing time with several colorful characters, including the pub owner, chatting over our pints and trying to answer his riddles.  The food was nothing short of gourmet--no pub fare here!  The onion thyme soup was more like a thick warm chowder.  We also enjoyed fish and chips, steak and ale pie and the local sausages which was so finely ground it didn't even compare to a US version. The food was so amazing we also stopped here on our way back to town
  • Our first full day out brought us to the charming village of Chirk.  The dock master told us to make a point of stopping here and I'm so glad we did.  It didn't look like much from the water, but there was so much to see and do.  The walk to the town is very short and the view from the docking area so picturesque.  My favorite part was walking in the stores and buying things we can't in the US.  The florist had flowers she had just picked up in Manchester, which had just arrived from Holland and the butcher's had an amazing assortment of meat pies.  While you're there, make sure to stop in at the local church.  For a small donation, you can wander around and the inside is worthy of a museum.  We made sure to buy and try several.  We ate, more than once, at the Tea Rooms, located just downtown in an adorable thatched building.  There, you're served an entire bowl of American coffee to go with the full breakfast--a whole, roasted tomato; a sausage (more like our version of a brat); ham; crock of beans; sautéed mushrooms; hash browns; and black pudding.  They have pages and pages of tea choices including a hand-made "wedding coronation" tea specially created for the Duke and Duchess's 2011 wedding.  It was beautiful and delicious!  They also have high tea and afternoon tea, which consisted of tea with cram and scones with clotted cream and black currant jam.  And, of course, my new favorite--the sticky toffee pudding.  After that full breakfast, you'll have plenty of energy to walk the one mile to Chirk Castle.  The castle is over 700 years old and full of fascinating history.  It sits up on a hill and is in amazing shape.  The owner still lives in part of the castle and you get an amazing tour of the place.  We were lucky enough to be there when an art show was going on and it was really interesting how they incorporated parts of the castle into the art.  There are history re-enactors scattered around and they are happy to let you practice with the swords.  There are a lot of buildings to go through and it's easy to spend an entire day here.  If you happen to get hungry, make sure to try the tea room.  It's full of yummy drinks and sandwiches.  If you're looking for dinner, you'll be hard pressed to do better than The Hand Hotel.  There are a few others, but this inn and pub is located right downtown and the food was great.  We arrived on the night of a local Mason's meeting and had a great time sitting and chatting with them.  Most of them were local farmers and they regaled us with hilarious stories the whole time.  I had read before I went to England that residents were stand-offish.  Not a bit true--everyone we met was so friendly and so funny.  And, the food at The Hand Hotel was so good.  We had the mushroom, spinach and brie wellington and the fisherman's' pie.  Everything was so good and sitting by the fire in the cozy dining room was a perfect night.  If you're braver than me, you might want to try something more interesting on their menu, like the belly pork and braised pig's cheek with black pudding mash or the pigeon breast.  My companions stuck with the good old stand-by, fish and chips.
  • While we were at Chirk, we decided to take a break for the day and ride the train in to Chester.  The train depot is a short walk from the town and riding into Chester is worth a day off your trip.  Chester is a lovely and walkable city, and a very cheap day!  The town publishes a walkabout map and guide that you can pick up practically anywhere (stop at the Visitor Information Center for more information) and the town history is absolutely fascinating.  We saw churches from 900 AD, the oldest surviving shop front in Britain, various museums, a castle, a medieval gate and church, Roman gardens and the remnants of Roman Colonnades and amphitheaters, towers, clocks and more.  The whole thing is walkable within a day and there are plenty of restaurants and shops along the way.  We ate at Old Queen's Head, a tavern and pub centrally located, and had a delicious late lunch of cream of mushroom soup, a cheese and onion sandwich, bangers and mash is a Yorkshire pud with mushy peas, washed down with cold cider from the tap.  It's a great day and be sure not miss this experience.
  • The next part of our trip was jaw-dropping, mouth-watering, bucket-list worthy in every way.  The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a World Heritage Site and of the most beautiful and inspiring architectural feats I have ever seen.  On the canal, you'll be carried along the waters of the River Dee looking 120 down into the valley below for over 1000 feet.  Time just seems to slow down as you look into those beautiful British valleys beyond.  It has been called "the stream in the sky" and the view from below is just as awesome making this the most beautiful of all the canal routes in England, or so we were told.  After you cross it, be sure to stop on the other side and walk around for a big.  You'll get spectacular views of the Dee Valley and the Vale of Llangollen.  While there, be sure to stop at the Telford Inn.  The food is traditional pub fare and the fish and chips quite good, but the wait staff is the best part.  We were in stitches the whole night from their stories.  This is what gave us the true understanding of the beauty and fun of an English pub:  after venturing about in cold and drizzly weather, walking into a warm pub with a blazing fire and sharing stories and laughs with fellow life travelers.
  • The end of the tour into Wales was quite definitely the best.  The views were the most gorgeous; the walking paths winding and picturesque and the people walking along our boat so friendly; the limestone cliffs towering above us made me feel as if I were in another century.  Many people ask me the most beautiful place I've ever seen on my travels and this small speck of heaven is it.  Words truly cannot describe the majesty of Wales.  There was ample room at Llangollen Wharf to stay for an extended time, but we were told this is not true in the summer season, so be sure to make alternate plans if you're going during warm weather.  In the spring, we only had a few neighbors and loved spending the night in such a lovely and fun town.  There's so much to do in Llangollen.  Walking over the Bishop Trevor Bridge into the town is a short trip and the town itself has so much shopping, streets full of unique stores and restaurants.  There is plenty to do within walking distance including a Motor Museum, Plas Newydd, the Llangollen Railway and a horse-drawn carriage along the canal to Horseshoe Falls.  While you're in town, be sure to stop in at James Bailey's Delicatessen and try the Welsh Oggies (a pasty with lamb, carrots, potatoes, peas, onions, mint sauce and red currant jelly)--Wow!  We also tried the Naughty Poacher (because who doesn't love that name) which consisted of venison, rabbit and pheasant with black currant jelly made in a jug of port.  Naughty indeed.  We tried two restaurants, The Sun Trevor, a delightful pub with a jolly good breakfast and lunch and the Corn Mill, a restored 18th century mill with gourmet dining and million dollar views. 
  • The end of the line on the Llangollen canal trip is, in reality, just the half-way point.  If you didn't have time to try all these things on your first trip, try again on your way back. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Chattanooga Choo Choo

A Stop in the Past

"Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?
Track twenty nine, boy you can gimme a shine
I can afford to board a Chattanooga Choo Choo
I've got my fare and just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania station 'bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham 'n' eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in, gotta keep it rollin'
Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are

There's gonna be a certain party at the station
Satin and lace, I used to call funny face
She's gonna cry until I tell her that I'll never roam"
I'm sure everyone has heard snippets of that song from long ago.  If not, then surely everyone has head of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.  I thought the Choo Choo, like that song from long ago, was in the past, but the Chattanooga Choo is alive and well and roaring into the modern ages as a themed hotel in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Chattanooga is the perfect blend of old-world charm and modern amenities, with first-class museums, quaint restaurants, and everything else a visitor could want.  No matter the age or inclination, you're guaranteed to find it here.

Where To Stay:

  • I am sure there are plenty of nice hotels and beds and breakfasts in the area, and these are bound to be more luxurious than my recommendation.  But, really, what can compete with the Chattanooga Choo Choo?  The old railroad yard and rail cars have been turned into a unique hotel, the most interesting and delightful place I've ever rested my head.  It is listed in the prestigious Historic Hotels list, but the Victorian train cars and gorgeous grounds should enough to convince you to stay.  I have never slept aboard a train car before and didn't know what to expect, but the opulence truly blew me away.  We had one half of a train car all to ourselves, with a huge luxusious bed, a period quaint bathroom, and all the ambiance one would expect.  If I'd never left the room the entire trip, I would still have called this the best getaway ever.  The Terminal is still amazing to look at and don't pass up the chance to eat in the restaurant. Sitting in the Gardens Restaurant where yesterday's travelers rushed to catch a train, while staring at the legendary Chattanooga Choo Choo was "bucket list" worthy.  The terminal has been remade into a charming restaurant with cast-iron chairs and tables overlooking the tracks and that famous Engine 29 with 1930s music playing in the background.   I highly recommend a skillet--full of your choices of toppings and covered with eggs and cheese--as well as the pecan waffle.  For more information, see the Chattanooga Choo Choo website. 
Things to See and Do:
  • No visit to Chattanooga is complete without a trip up Lookout Mountain.  It's hard to decide how best to get to the top.  One form of transportation is the Incline Railway, "The World's Steepest Passenger Railway".  Grab your tickets at St. Elmo's Station and get ready for a hair-raising ride.   Unbelievably, the Railway has been in operation since 1895 and the gift shop has pictures to prove it, along with some fascinating historic pictures of the entire area.  The ride takes about 15 minutes and it about one mile long.  From the top, you can take a short walk to look at the million dollar homes in the area and a few short blocks away is Point Park, a National Park and site of the "Battle of the Clouds", an 1863 Civil War battle.  The Chickamauge and Chattanoog Military Park, also known as Point Park, does have an entry fee but it is well worth the price to walk those historic footsteps and to look over the entire valley below.  The adjacent museum will give visitors a great insight into why this area was so important and so famous.  For more information, visit Incline Railway Up Lookout Mountain.
  • While you're on the mountain, there's plenty to see.  Next up is geographic and botanical wonder, as stated on their brochure.  You've probably seen the signs--the red barns along endless Southern backways painted with "See Rock City".  Ever wondered where it was and what the big deal is?  Wonder no longer, your trip is finally at an end!  Rock City began as one avid gardener's backyard dream.  When her adoring husband entered into the mix, the backyard plan turned into an entire city made of rocks and plants with an overlook that scans seven states.  Rock City truly has to be seen to be believed.  Each meandering path will have you gasping with astonishment, no matter the season. For more information, see the website at Rock City.
  • No trip to the mountain is complete without looking underneath all that dirt.  Ruby Falls is another testament of love from an adoring husband to his wife.  When cave enthusiast Leo Lambert uncovered the amazing cave in the 1920s, he named it for his wife Ruby.  The "falls" is for the waterfall deep inside the cave.  I have been to dozens of caves (having written a book on caves), and can honestly say this one is my favorite.  The beauty, the history, the amazing tour, the location--it all combines for an amazing attraction.  For more information, see the website Ruby Falls.
  • It's a short trip from the top of the mountains to the bottom of the seas!  Next, be sure to travel to downtown Chattanooga.  Nestled right on the banks of the Tennessee River is the nicest aquarium I've ever been to, the Tennessee Aquarium.  That's saying a lot--I have been to aquariums all across the country and this one was amazing.  It's as much an art exhibit as it is a giant fish tank.  There are two different buildings to explore--the River Journey and the Ocean Journey.  I really expected to like the Ocean Journey better, sure that it would be full of wondrous things this Kentucky native could only marvel at.  Yet, the River Journey was the one that blew me away.  I saw animals and read about plant life I had no idea existed that was just as exotic as any sea creature could be.  The River Journey building is actually like  a river itself, winding through various ecosystems and creatures that were just dazzling. My favorite exhibit had to be the sea dragons, those tiny fragile seahorses that seem too delicate to be alive.  It felt a bit like I was in a fantasy, walking through and watching them swim and cavort.   With over 12,000 creatures to see, it took an entire afternoon to look at them all and we only left because the place was closing!  The aquarium also links to an IMAX 3D, so be sure to take advantage of the cheaper ticket price when visiting both.  For more information, visit Tennessee Aquarium.
Places To Eat:
  • No Southern food for this Kentucky girl!  Instead, we traveled to the Brewhaus Brew Pub, a German-American gastro pub with an extensive ale and beer menu.  The vibe was so fun and laid-back with a big indoor bar area and large outdoor patio area.  We started with the Kraut Balls-bratwurst, cheese and sauerkraut all fried to a golden perfection and served with strong ale mustard.  Next up was the Southern Style Obatzada--pimento cheese with sourdough and pickled beets.  Honestly, the food was so good and we were so full we could have stopped there and called it a fine meal.  But, I can't resist schnitzel and order it whenever and wherever I find it.  This was not a disappointment.  The Jager Schnitzer Weiner Art--a port schnitzel thin-fried and served with creamy mushroom gravy--was so good and was served with amazing German potato salad and a vinegar slaw.  Just as much care went into the preparation of the side dishes as the main dish and everything was finger-licking good.  For good measure, we had  dessert of a flame-grilled brat and a Laughing Skull beer.  Can't wait to return!  For more information, visit Brewhaus Beer Pub.
  • The Terminal Brewhouse in downtown Chattanooga is more than just an ordinary pub.  While they do have a healthy selection of brews and flights, their food is more in line with an eclectic gourmet restaurant.  The Brewhouse Pot Roast Nachos were so unique--comprised of succulent pot roast meat and onions, all smothered in queso.  The Fru Fru sandwich was also a delight--chicken and apple slices with Brie with a green bean casserole sidedish.  No greasy pub food here!  They also have some fun beer cocktails and the beer and Belgian mimosa was delicious.  For more information, visit the website at Terminal Brewhouse.