Friday Photo: What Lurks Beneath North Dakota

Last summer, I went to the badlands of North Dakota in search of ancient fossils for The New York Times. I came back with more dinosaur knowledge than an entire Boy Scout troop, a renewed love of wide open spaces and an existential appreciation of our fleeting place in time. You can read all about the state’s public fossil digs and how you can play paleontologist for the day on the cover of this Sunday’s travel section.

Beach Hopping on the Paradise Coast

Some people might question the logic in leaving for a flight at 4am the morning after a big New Year’s party. To those people I say: You clearly don’t know me at all.

Champagne glasses

I kicked off 2015 bright and early, with a flight down to Florida to attend my college friend’s wedding on Marco Island.

Newark Airport sunrise

A three-hour drive through Florida in January called for one thing: a beach-hopping road trip on the Paradise Coast.

The tail end of 2014 was dark. Literally, not figuratively. Our normally frigid temperatures with bright sunshine had been replaced by a dark, wet, and at times freakishly moderate climate. It was the kind of weather that guarantees a slow descent into madness. (Madness, I tell you. Madness.)

I stood in the airport rental car area of Tampa like winter refugees from Newark, positively giddy as the 85-degree heat belted us in our black down jackets, jeans, and boots. Tanned employees sauntered by in brightly colored polo shirts and Ray-Bans. A Chicago family in line with me practically exploded like vampires when the first Florida sunbeams hit them.

Yellow bridge Florida

Florida road trip

There is no state more perfect than Florida for beach hopping. I’m used to doing this kind of road trip to Florida, so this long weekend seemed extra short. But, as I found out, you can do a lot on the Gulf Coast in a short amount of time.

Florida Road Trip 1

I spent the day cruising around Cape Coral and Naples. This is the start of the “Paradise Coast,” a moniker I just heard for the first time through work. Bonus points for branding, Florida tourism.

The Paradise Coast consists of the Southwestern part of Florida along the Gulf. It includes Naples, Marco Island, Everglades City, Immokalee, and Ave Maria.

Toes and Seashells

Since it was approaching the single digits at home and beach season was still another six months away, I shamelessly did the tell-tale tourist things – like requesting outdoor seating at a restaurant and pointing out every single stretch of sand along the ocean. While people at home were doing the Polar Bear Plunge, I opted to jump right into the unheated hotel pool. (Brave by Floridian standards, I’m told, but actually not brave at all.)

Marco Island

Marco Island Beach

 

The next day, I checked in to Marco Island for the wedding, catching some mid-morning beach time pre-ceremony. Then we all danced the night away … and a random woman on her tenth-floor hotel balcony who rocked out so hard to the wedding deejay’s songs.

Christmas tree Marco IslandFlorida Christmas Sand SculptureFlorida Christmas tree Marco Island

Nutcracker Marco Island

The Christmas spirit was still alive and kicking in Florida. While a hot Christmas will never, ever make sense to me, I loved the Floridian twists on tradition in our hotels. I was on the hunt for a palm tree wrapped in white Christmas lights or a lawn flamingo in a Santa hat. I finally found the palm tree at my third beach hopping stop… but it wasn’t plugged in.

Florida Christmas decorationsFlorida Christmas fish

After Marco Island, I cruised up to Pinellas County and spent the day at Indian Rocks Beach, a beachy little town on a barrier island. I passed the usual Florida suspects on our search for dinner: the open-air seafood place with the live band and a parking lot full of pristine Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, the karaoke joint with an oversized bouncer, a suspiciously empty Italian restaurant, an ice cream parlor, and a bunch of restaurants that closed before 7pm. (It’s not New York City, guys.)

Crabby Bills Indian Rocks

Crab shack

The newest restaurant in town happened to be a Chicago brewpub. The owner of Chicago Jaqx Pizzeria and Taphouse brought his native deep-dish pizza to the coast, along with a carefully curated selection of craft beers. Pizza and beer right off the beach? Well, it is vacation, after all.

Chicago Jaqx

I chatted with the owner for awhile. When my pizza came, he brought out a bottle of honey and rather mysteriously told us to save our pizza crusts for later. As it turns out, he once saw someone dip pizza crusts in honey at one of his previous restaurants. He loved the idea so much that he encourages people to try it for dessert. I once watched a table nearly come to blows in a New York City pizzeria over the concept of dipping pizza into cups of ranch dressing. Honey on crusts seems much more logical, somehow.

Surfboard lifeguard Florida

The next day, I left the Paradise Coast for the afternoon and drove to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area. It’s not officially “Paradise” but pretty darn close.

Clearwater Beach

One giant cloud cleared everyone off of Clearwater beach for the evening, with grumblings from the locals about unpredictable winter weather. You might say some of them were downright crabby.

Clearwater Beach Crabs

My flight was at noon the next day, so I drove up to a Greek town my dad once brought me to. They were celebrating Epiphany, so we caught some of the festivities and had lunch at a nice restaurant on the water.

Greek Orthodox Church Epiphany

Greek doorSponge diver Christmas tree

Tarpon Springs church dome

Tarpon SpringsIs this not the most perfect Greek salad? There are few things in life that a giant brick of cheese can’t improve.

Greek salad

A few hours later, I were halfway up the East Coast and headed home. It was dark and the forecast called for snow. We would go on to get more snow this winter than we could ever have imagined, but in the meantime I unpacked the seashells that made their way into my suitcase. I ordered Greek food and blasted the heat inside in an effort to extend vacation a little longer.

Tiny clam shellsSunset from a plane

The Baths in Bath

bath abbey

The key to a successful long-term road trip is in planning your overnight stops. The not-so-secret secret? Choose towns that you’d like to spend the most time in instead of ones that are convenient for your route. (If that sounds counterproductive, think of it this way: you’ll spend at least 12 hours anywhere you stop for the night. That’s half the day!)

bath abbey church courtyard

I had my heart set on spending a night in Bath. I don’t know why. I just had a feeling Bath was my kind of place… and I was right. It turned out to be the perfect first overnight stop on the Great England Road Trip.

roman baths in bath

This scenic little town has it all: ancient history, charm, shopping, great food… and magical healing waters.

Bath was a favorite of the Romans back in the first century, when they discovered an underground hot spring (which is naturally a consistent 116 degrees Fahrenheit). To take advantage of its healing powers, the Romans built a network of baths and dedicated a temple to the goddess Minerva. (Fun fact: the word “spa” comes from the Roman acronym salus per aquam, which means “healing through water.”)

kings and queens bath

After the Romans, bathing “fell out of fashion” with people for awhile. (Think about that for a few minutes.) When Queen Anne visited in 1702, the well-to-do flocked to Bath. The town built shops and theaters to entertain its new holidaymakers, and created some very pristine English gardens.

bath garden

You can still see the original Roman baths, but you can’t swim in them. You can, however, drink some of the healing water if you feel so inclined. After watching people’s faces and hearing descriptions like “bad eggs” and “tastes off,” I opted for the osmosis experience instead.

cross bath exterior

the cross bath in bath

To fully take advantage of the thermal healing waters, you’ll have to walk across the street and visit Thermae Bath Spa.

After a day of driving in the heat, cavorting with sheep, pondering the mysterious remnants of ancient societies, and dodging sunbathers during lunch, the idea of unwinding at a world-famous spa seemed heavenly. (You know me: how could I not “bath” in Bath? When in…. former Roman strongholds…)

roman cross bath

Thermae Bath Spa kept the original architecture and reworked it in a very modern way while keeping the underground taps in-tact. There are three levels with several pools, as well as a number of treatment rooms and a café.

I started in the Minerva Bath main pool with its therapeutic neon lights and waterfall showers, then pool-hopped our way up to the rooftop bath.

rooftop pool bath

bath spa

This open-air pool on the roof was my favorite. I enjoyed peeking out at Bath’s rooftops through the glass windows as the sun started to set.

rooftop bath

The Ancient Mysteries of Stonehenge and the Avebury Stone Circles

London is a huge sprawl, but it’s amazing to me that within an hour you can be out in the countryside with sheep and cows and absolutely no trace of a city at all.

Wiltshire countryside

I drove from Heathrow to the Cotswolds, a quaint area in south central England that goes from Stratford-Upon-Avon to just shy of Bath. (If the geography doesn’t mean anything to you, this is roughly 90 miles by 25 miles.) I could easily spend a week here, but since it’s so close to London, I figured this would be the easiest area to return to on my next trip. England was experiencing a rare heat wave, so it was the perfect opportunity to cruise down the winding lanes with the windows down, taking it all in.

Cotswolds

I passed stone houses with thatched roofs, pubs with colorful flowers outside, and fields full of fluffy little sheep.

Red Lion pub

Next up was something I’ve always wanted to see: Stonehenge. I am more than a little obsessed with ancient Celtic archaeology and mythology. When I said I wanted to see Stonehenge at the height of tourist season, Alan agreed — but he asked me several times if there are any dolmens in England and made me promise we wouldn’t go looking for them. (Dolmens are those stone structures that look like large pi signs.) It’s a long story, but one of us wanted to see every possible dolmen in Ireland many years ago and one of us declared (after hours of searching a field in the back end of County Carlow) that under no circumstances would we ever, ever go visit another dolmen as long as he lived.

I won’t name names, though.

Stonehenge 2

The intrigue with Stonehenge is that the entire thing is just one unsolvable mystery. To this day, nobody can figure out exactly how it was built. The giant stone slabs just kind of appeared sometime between 3,000 BC and 2,000 BC. People originally thought Stonehenge might have been a type of calendar because of the way the light and shadows move throughout the day, but it’s now thought to have been a burial ground. Archeologists are still digging up artifacts and remains around the site in order to figure out this mystery. In 2013, a dig unearthed 50,000 bones belonging to 63 ancient people.

Stonehenge 1

All of that pales in comparison to the folklore. Sometime in the 12th century, the Historia Regum Britanniae introduced Merlin the Wizard, and attributed the construction of Stonehenge to him. According to the book, giants brought the stones from Africa to Ireland in order to take advantage of their healing powers. After several enormous battles where mortal English troops attempted to take the stones out of Ireland on behalf of the king, Merlin went in and successfully transported them via magic.

Stonehenge 3

Everyone has heard of Stonehenge, obviously, but the Avebury Stone Circles have remained a relative secret. The stone circles are tucked away in the tiny little village of Avebury, about 25 miles from its more famous neighbor. We took the (very winding) scenic route.

On the way there, I spotted this giant horse in the mountain. I vowed to find out more information later, because how many white horses on a mountain could there be? There are several, many of which are in these chalk hills. Some of the Wiltshire White Horses date back 250 years.

Cherhill Horse Wiltshire White Horse

This is apparently the Cherhill Horse, which was cut in 1780 by a local known as “the mad doctor.” This horse, which stretches for 129 feet by 142 feet, is the second oldest in Wiltshire.

I’d never seen a photo of the stone circles before, so each time I passed some out-of-place stone structure with a pull-off I stopped and walked around.

Avebury Stones

On my walk it was sheep, sheep, and more sheep, with the occasional giant stone.

Sheep

They were no help with directions, but they were adorable.

English sheep

Sheep field

It was a little too hot for their wool coats, though.

English countryside

Finally, I found the stones, somewhere past several signs in an empty field for a “car boot sale.” (I know what that is — a kind of portable flea market in the trunks of cars, similar to how we’d have a garage sale — but I still find the name hilarious.)

Avebury Stone Circle

 

There are three circles in the Avebury monument. Two smaller circles are encased by an outer ring, which is the largest stone circle in Europe. The structures date back to 2600 BC, and archeologists believe they served as some kind of ceremonial location.

Avebury Stone Circle 2

Avebury Stone Circle 3

Always eager to find the hidden gems or the next best thing, several guides and articles have named Avebury as an alternative to Stonehenge. I don’t agree. Both of these World Heritage Sites build on each other, with their shared histories and shared mysteries.

Avebury Stone Circle black and white

Aside from the Stonehenge bus tours using Avebury as a secondary stop, there were very few people at the site. Without Stonehenge’s unwavering crowds, you can feel the mystery associated with these structures, which seem to have simply sprung up in a perfect order with no clear explanation. The site is an excellent complement to Stonehenge, but I wouldn’t skip seeing Stonehenge altogether and only do Avebury by any means.

Switching gears completely (that’s a manual car joke), I left the countryside and headed way down south towards the coast.

The Great England Road Trip

Chances are, England isn’t the first country you think of when you plan a road trip.

It doesn’t seem to be the first country English people think of, either.

You see, the US is the home of the road trip. Cars are part of our lifestyle, and roads are part of our history. We have Route 66 and Route 1. We go on fall foliage weekends in New England and drive the Pacific Coast Highway in California. We have giant, empty spaces. There are plenty of roads where you can drive for hours and not see a soul. In the overwhelming majority of this country, you really do need to own a car.

This just isn’t the case in England.

I don’t remember what planted the initial seed, but I decided that it would be a great idea to go explore England in the summer. I have been to London several times, with a trip out to Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon somewhere in there. Alan is in London semi-regularly for work these days. He lived in the city for a year before going to college, but outside of traveling for soccer (ahem: football) games, he hadn’t really seen too much of the countryside.

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The easiest and most logical way to do this was to rent a car, and thus the idea for the Great England Road Trip was born.

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I excitedly told every British person I knew about my road trip plans. There were a lot of confused, awkward silences. When I asked for recommendations, everyone – from locals to people who whose actual paying job it is to promote UK tourism to Americans – stared blankly at me. After a lot of coaxing, I got answers like “I went to the seaside growing up” and “My aunt lives in a nice town up north.” I wanted to check some birth certificates.

The funniest part of this is that I know dozens and dozens of British and Irish people who have gone on major road trips in the past couple of years – but they’ve each come all the way to the US to do them. (San Francisco or Los Angeles to Las Vegas is a favorite route, so if you’re on US 5, Route 15, or the Pacific Coast Highway, watch out for people veering towards the left side of the road.)

Apparently, it’s the vastness of this country that’s such a novelty for our friends across the pond. People want to drive for hours along the open road, just like in the movies. Very simply: England’s size and historical villages prevent that kind of layout.

England 012

England 040

Americans look at car travel a little differently. Do you remember those math word problems where you had to be at a certain town by a certain time, so if you travel on the train that runs at X speed with 10 stops and a 15-minute station switch, what time would you get in assuming n = 75 and how much would it cost and what are you going to name your first born if it’s a girl? The correct answer is: we’ll just drive.

England 008

More importantly than the convenience factor is the see it all factor. When I see an entire country the size of England, I see the potential to see it all by car. Six hours from top to bottom? I did that any weekend I came home from college. Sign me up.

I admit that I have See It All syndrome. My name is Hillary, and I want to See. It. All. Outside of cities, a road trip is a great facilitator for that.

England 044

I’m not alone. European travel seems to trigger this condition. Anyone who has planned a European vacation and studied the maps is probably familiar with the heartbreak of time constrictions.  It’s just too tempting, because geographically it’s all right there. The idea of crossing an international border from one amazing country into a completely different one in a matter of hours is just mind-blowing, for Americans.

You can drive for a week and never leave Texas.

The East Coast gets storm systems the size of Western Europe.

Meanwhile, the entire United Kingdom is roughly the size of Louisiana.

Of course, it’s never really possible to see it all – especially in a country like England, which is chock-full of charming villages and abbeys – but that is what I set out to do on The Great England Road Trip.

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The whole idea of this trip was to see the natural, unexplored side of England, so I avoided cities. The plan was to hike in the Lake District for a couple of days, see a beach or two along the coast, hit up Yorkshire, check out Cambridge in honor of two big birthdays: the impending royal baby (who would be born any day!), hike along Hadrian’s Wall, and go to the baths in Bath. Aside from that, I would see where the wind took us.

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If you’re into spoilers, here is a map of where we ended up:

Road Trip Map of UK

Friday Photo: Foxgloves in England

Foxgloves

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Friday Photo. In the past few weeks I’ve gone from Africa to Albuquerque, but here’s a little hint at what’s coming up on Life With Luggage. Prepare for lots of scenic countryside photos from all over England, like these wild foxgloves just outside the Yorkshire Dales.

Video: Driving the Hermit Road

Maybe it was the snow, or maybe it was the must-see scenery, but the Hermit Road felt a lot longer than its seven miles. It starts around the Bright Angel trail head ends at the appropriately named Hermit’s Rest. This winding drive is full of eager tourists at other points during the year, but we had it more or less to ourselves in the dead of winter. It felt a lot more hermit-y.

This is my first (public) attempt at travel video editing. I hope you enjoy it.