Saturday, August 31, 2019

British Invasion: Day 3 - Croeso i Cymru

We had one more long travel day ahead of us as we needed to leave our Premier Inn lodging in Rubery (where my Dad was born and grew up) and make all the way to Bethel in the northwest corner of Wales where a good chunk of my Mom's family is from.

Just like yesterday our journey along the M6 this time was met with considerable traffic and construction which increased our travel time. Our initial destination en route to Wales was Chester which is where the Cheshire Oaks designer outlet mall is. Yes, more shopping.  Our main focus for this stop was the Cadbury store for some delectable British chocolate but we also checked out the Next and M&S outlets as well. Next is a great British clothing store that I always enjoy exploring each time I visit the United Kingdom.

A couple hours later we were back on the road again and soon after we finally entered Wales and continued along the A55 towards Colwyn Bay and the quaint seaside community of Rhos-on-Sea. We stopped in Rhos-on-Sea in order to visit St. Trillo's Chapel which is thought to be the smallest chapel in Britain. The chapel can only seat six people and has an interesting history. The chapel is named after a 6th century saint who built his cell at the same location. The location was chosen as it was directly over a well that provided access to an ancient spring. Even though it is small the site has continued to be a location for Christian worship for 1500 years!

Celtic monks usually built an enclosure round their cell so that they could farm to feed themselves. This was known as a "Llan." This is how Llandrillo yn Rhos (the original name of Rhos-on-Sea)
got its name. Rhos means marsh, so the name means the "Llan of St. Trillo by the marsh." The surrounding area would have been marshy as originally it was an island formed by two branches of
the local river.

After getting our fill of the seaside and history we were back in the car for the final leg to Bethel. Luckily this leg was only 30 minutes so it didn't take too long to arrive at the familiar surroundings of 5 Stad Eryri. We were greeted by my aunt and uncle and were promptly offered a cup of tea.

To finish off the day we headed over to my cousin's house for some fish and chips. My other cousin's kids were there also which was a nice surprise as I don't get to see them very often at all. My cousin lives on a farm and in addition to maintaining sheep he also has been quite successful breeding a variety of dogs. When were there he had a new litter of pure bred sheep dogs that were three weeks old. Both my Mom and I couldn't pass up the chance to have some cuddle time with the adorable puppies.

Friday, August 30, 2019

British Invasion: Day 2 - Bromsgrove

We begin this blog entry on a plane. After a midnight departure from Toronto we spent the following six hours attempting to catch a few hours of sleep before arriving in London just before noon the following day. Everything went pretty much as planned and sure enough we eventually found ourselves deep within terminal 2 of Heathrow airport. After what felt like two days of walking we were met with UK border control and what hands down must be the easiest border crossing I have ever done. It was seriously even easier than returning to my own country. All I had to do was scan my passport and then a gate opened and that was it...welcome to the United Kingdom. Now I assume the United Kingdom is so naiive just to let anyone arriving from certain trusted countries in so it make me realize how much information a government must be able to obtain about an individual simply by scanning a passport. Anyway, I digress, I'm in the United Kingdom now and that's all that really matters.

Once leaving the airport and picking up our rental car (anyone heard of Skoda before?) we sped off to the M25 en route to Bromsgrove. Sorry, I just need to make one small correction. We did not speed off anywhere. The traffic has been insane since arriving in England so there has been a lot of staring at the car in front of us as we slowly make our way to our next destination.

We did make it to Bromsgrove eventually and visited my Dad's Aunt Florence. It had been 20 years since I had seen her last! We all had a cup of tea together as her home and then said farewell.

Next up was a visit to the nearby Marks & Spencer which also happens to be the largest in the country. Spread over two floors this location had plenty of clothes, housewares and their famous food.

If you have been following along closely this this was still our first day in England after an overnight flight so jet lag was really starting to kick in. Knowing the clock was ticking we raced back to the hotel to check in and then went to the attached restaurant to a quick bite before calling it a night at 10:00pm.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

British Invasion: Day 1 - Back to the Homeland

So I am off again. After a brief break back at home I am heading off to the United Kingdom today for ten days. The purpose of trip is mainly to visit with family. I was born in England and still have quite a few aunts, uncles and cousins living in England and Wales. For this trip I will actually be traveling with my parents as well. It has been a long time since the three of us have traveled together so it should be an interesting experience. We will be renting a car for the entire time in the United Kingdom as we travel around visiting various family members. Luckily the area we will be traveling around isn't too big so there won't be long stretches of driving required. I have also volunteered to be the driver for the entire time. Hopefully even with my driving this will allow them to relax and enjoy the ride.

First up however is actually getting to the UK which requires an overnight flight. We're also connecting through Toronto on the way out since the direct Ottawa - Heathrow flight was crazy expensive for some reason. At least on the way back home we'll be flying direct to Ottawa.

I am actually writing this entry as we wait to board our final flight to London in Toronto. So far everything looks like it is on time so we should be arriving in London in about 8 hours from now or just before noon local time. Once we arrive and clear customs we will need to pick up the rental car and then immediately head out towards Bromsgrove which is our first stop.

Anyway, our flight is now boarding...bye!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Costa Rica Adventure: Day 15 - Hello Toronto

We’re home! Today was another travel day but this time it included a flight back to Toronto. After a 3700 km flight, over 900 km of driving and exploring 4 different regions of Costa Rica our adventure has finally come to an end.

This morning started early as usual and we eventually made our way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. We had a shuttle booked to take us to the airport at 11:00 am in order to catch our 1:25 pm flight. Before checking out and catching the shuttle we made one last trip across the street to visit the mini market to pick up some lunch items for later in the day.

The entire airport experience went very smoothly. We checked in, dropped off our bags, went through immigration and finally security with minimal waiting. Even the plane boarding went quickly affording us an early departure and ultimately landing in Toronto 30 minutes early.

While still not quite home our Costa Rica adventure is officially over. We now have many new memories and experiences plus hundreds of photos and videos to sort through.

Goodbye San Jose
Hello Toronto

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Costa Rica Adventure: Day 14 - San Jose

The time has finally come to leave laid back Monteverde (Santa Elena really) and begin our return trip to San Jose. We had all day to reach San Jose so took a scenic route through Sarchi.


That was the original plan but if you read yesterday’s blog you’d know we also decided to squeeze in a morning hike before leaving Monteverde to make up for the two cancelled night hikes. We made sure we were mostly packed the night before so that we could run out to do our hike at 7:30 am and be back in time to leave the AirBnB at 11:00.

The morning hike this time around was at another private reserve called Curi-Cancha. The land for this reserve was purchased in the 1970’s but at the time was mostly pasture land. It wasn’t until 2011 that it finally opened to the public with about 50% virgin forest and 45% secondary growth. The remaining 5% still remains as open pasture. Our guide, Oscar  was superb! His knowledge of all animals, birds and plant life was extensive plus he was great with the kids and had plenty of stories to tell. During our two hour hike we were able to spot a snake, white faced monkeys, quetzals, a three-wattled bellbird and toucans. He was also an expert at using our phones to take photos through his scope. The Monteverde cheese factory just so happened to be right outside the reserve and they also sold ice cream so be had one more indulgence since it was the last time we’d be having their fresh and delicious ice cream.

Now it was really time to leave Monteverde and by noon we were on our way back down the mountain on the bumpy dirt road. Whether going up or down Costa Rica dirt roads doesn’t really make a difference. It it always a bumpy ride and you’re always in a low gear. After about 20 km of brain rattling we were back on pavement albeit still windy but at least it wasn’t bumpy. From there it was a pretty easy drive back towards San Jose on the Pan American highway (CR Hwy 1). The term highway should be used loosely since it is almost entirely two lanes as it snakes it way though the northern mountains before entering the Central Valley. Once you’re stuck behind a truck in the pouring rain on a hill the drive becomes excruciating slow as there is no opportunity to pass. In order to break the monotony we made a slight detour to SarchiA key artisan town in Costa Rica, Sarchi is best known for the vibrant and pretty oxcarts that are handcrafted here and sold all over the country. The oxcart plays a key role in the country’s history, as they were used to transport coffee beans & other goods to nearby and faraway markets and ports. Mostly Sarchi is now just souvenir stores but you can still see the artists at work using traditional tools. The girls wanted to pick up a souvenir so this was all we really needed along with a bathroom break.

Once back on the road we were in the final stretch. Forty minutes left before we reached our final accommodations for the trip and to return the rental car. Traffic began to get slow Ian’s we got closer to San Jose but we made it to the hotel just past 4:00 pm. We quickly dumped the contents of the car in our room and promptly went straight to the pool for one last swim.

In one more day this Costa Rica blog series will be complete. Tomorrow we board our flight back to Toronto.

One more hike
A quetzal
Checking out the wildlife

A ficus tree

Journey to San Jose

The drive down from Monteverde

Stopped for one last drone flight

Monday, August 19, 2019

Costa Rica Adventure: Day 13 - Hiking and Climbing

Since our night hike was cancelled yesterday due to weather meant that today had both a morning and evening hike planned plus some tree climbing in between.

Our morning started out like any other with some breakfast at our AirBnB. We got ready a little quicker in order to take advantage of the nice weather and drove over to the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve. This was the first private reserve to be established in 1972 and really put Monteverde on the map. An initial land purchase of 328 hectares has since grown to 10,500 hectares. Our hike of the reserve lasted about 2.5 hours and covered about 3.7 km over very hilly terrain. Our goal was to reach the continental divide. The continental divide is the exact location where water flows to either the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean depending on what side of the divide it falls. It was a tough up hill climb at times but we made it and the scenery along the way was stunning. It is hard to put into words what experiencing a cloud forest is like. It is a unique environment where the trade winds from the east push warm moist air up the mountain side where is cools and expands forming tiny droplets in the form of mist and clouds. It is these tiny droplets that provide the constant moisture in the cloud forest before it falls as rain. The result is an extremely lush and layered environment where vegitation and certain animals can thrive. 

After sufficiently tiring out the kids (and parents) we heading back down the mountain towards town but decided we deserved a reward so stopped off at Stella’s Bakery for a beverage. With energy levels back up we were ready for our next adventure. Anthony had another one of his “not in any guidebook” experiences up his sleeve. We were off the climb a ficus tree! There a several ficus trees you can pay to climb but there is one such tree tucked up in the hills behind town that is completely free. A ficus tree grows from the top down on a host tree. It’s fast growing vines eventually reach the ground and begin to strangle the host tree. As the ficus continues to grow the host tree eventually dies leaving only the ficus with a hollow core where the tree once was. Sometimes what is left behind is perfect for climbing and that is exactly what we did! The top of the tree must have been a good 70+ feet from the ground and both girls made it all the way to the top. Anthony and Shannon made it up as well but not to the top. This was probably one of the best free activities we did while in Costa Rica.

We then had a quick break back at the AirBnB before starting our evening activities which included dinner and a night hike. Since it was our last night in Costa Rica we wanted to go to a soda again. We chose Sabor Tico for its good reviews and location which just happened to be on the way to the night hike. After our dinner of Casados and Arroz con pollo we make the short drive over to the night hike.

By this time the decent weather we had been having began to turn back into thunder and lightning. It was starting to look like a repeat of the night before and sure enough after a little bit of waiting the night hike was cancelled once again. Now any hope of having a night hike was lost our last solution was to have a morning hike with our guide instead. The following morning we had to check out of our AirBnB and start our drive back to San Jose but we figured we could squeeze in one more two hour hike starting at 7:30 am.

Just completed a big climb 

Loved this hanging bridge

Post hike pose

Drink time (and brownies)!

This view was completely covered in clouds 30 mins later

The climbing ficus tree

On their way back down

You can get all the way to the top

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Costa Rica Adventure: Day 12 - Hanging Bridges

Greetings and welcome to sunny Monteverde! The sun was actually shining this morning so that’s a win. Also, happy birthday to Shannon. Shannon got to celebrate her birthday up in the cloud forests of Monteverde and we had a big day planned to go along with it.

Today was one of the few days this entire trip where we had a planned activity with transportation to pick us up. Our pickup time was 7:50 am for our AirBnB en route to Selvatura Park so we could explore their cloud forest and series of hanging bridges. We originally considered driving ourselves but after taking the shuttle we are sure glad we didn’t. That was one very bumpy ride we’d rather not put the rental car through. At Selvatura there are eight bridges ranging length from 170 feet to 560 feet and they are considered by many to be the best way to experience the cloud forest from above. While the hanging bridges activity is popular we took our time and were rewarded with moments where we had the bridges and cloud forest all to ourselves. At was at these times you could just closes your eyes and listen to all the sounds and smell the crisp air. On the final bridge we even encountered a family of monkeys in the trees right next to the bridge. There were several babies as well and it was amazing to be able to observe them so close.

By 11:00 am we were done and took the shuttle back to our house so we could cook up some lunch. We also took advantage of the little down time to put away some of the laundry before having to head out again. We booked a night hike with a guide which provides the best opportunity to find a variety of animals that are otherwise difficult to locate. Anthony also had a special surprise location to take Shannon. First, however Shannon requested ice cream for her birthday. If you recall from yesterday there is a large Quaker population in Monteverde that are dairy farmers. As a result the area is known for outstanding cheese and ice cream! We’ve been enjoying Monteverde cheese already for our entire vacation but today we also got to try their incredibly delicious and creamy ice cream. It was great!

Next up was the surprise location. We went to the Treehouse Restaurant & Cafe. Usually, a name like this would not be taken literally but in this case the restaurant is actually build around a very large tree that you have to climb through via a narrow staircase. This restaurant gets top marks for location but not so much on its food so the plan was to just stop in and have a drink while sitting next to a tree as something unique for Shannon’s birthday. The drinks were a little pricy but actually tasted very good. Shannon said it was the best iced mocha she’d had and the girls loved their mango milkshakes.

By now it was time to meet up with the guide Anthony booked with for a night hike at the Wildlife Refuge Monteverde. We got there a little early just as it started to rain a little bit. By the time our guide, Oscar, arrived the thunder and lightning started as well. We tried to wait for the storm to pass but in the end Oscar called it off for safety and because the likelihood of seeing anything in this weather was low. We decided to reschedule for the following day and hope for better weather.

So that ends our birthday extravaganza in Monteverde. It ended up not being as jam packed due to weather but as a result we now have a slightly more jam packed day planned for tomorrow that includes two cloud forests and hopefully locating a ficus tree.
The birthday girl!

So much diversity 

A visitor stopped by our house

The tree behind us was in the restaurant 

Playing with the 360 camera