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 Our normally frigid temperatures with bright sunshine had been replaced by a dark, wet, and at times freakishly moderate climate.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

An Afternoon at the Beach in Bournemouth

If you didn’t already believe that England was experiencing a rare heat wave, these photos of Bournemouth will convince you.

Bournemouth in summer
It seemed like half of the country took the day off of work to go to the beach. Bournemouth has seven miles of beautiful beaches, and apparently the warmest water in England.

Bournemouth beach and pier

Fun fact: Bournemouth also has Europe’s first artificial surf reef, which was created in 2009. I didn’t see many surfers (apparently the waves aren’t big enough), but I did see lots of painful-looking sunburns.
Bournemouth Beach

I wound around a maze of streets crowded with houses, inns, restaurants, and shops and headed straight for the pier for some excellent people watching.

Bournemouth tiltawhirl

Bournemouth tiltawhirl 2

It was lunch time, so some fish and chips at the seaside were in order. I don’t eat fish but I am a big fan of fries with malt vinegar (different to white vinegar) and sea salt. I make them at home sometimes but they just don’t taste the same. Is the secret ingredient the paper bag chips always come in? I think it might be.

Chips with salt and vinegar
There are plenty of film and television references that joyfully conjure up the cheesiness of English seaside towns. Bournemouth isn’t really cheesy, but it does have some Fawlty Towers elements to it away from the pier. On a much grayer day I could imagine Basil Fawlty skulking along the sidewalks outside one of the inns.

Bournemouth pier

My afternoon in Bournemouth went by quickly, but on a day like this how could I not head to one of England’s most famous beach towns?

Bournemouth rides

Bournemouth carousel 2

After a death-defying exit from a heaving parking lot that involved maneuvering a manual car through a very tight 57-point turn while everyone watched and waved, I bid Bournemouth (and the beach) goodbye.

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.

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.

Elk, Deer, and Hermits

Grand Canyon snowstorm

Only hours into our first full day of exploring the Grand Canyon, I discovered the real benefit to visiting in the height of winter. It’s not the lack of crowds or the solitude (although that’s nice). It’s definitely not the weather. It’s not even the fact that the animals feel comfortable enough to wander up to you.

Deer Grand Canyon 3

Elk Grand Canyon

The biggest advantage of visiting in January is the ability to take in the Grand Canyon’s best vistas on your own timeline. The Hermit Road is only open to private cars during the lowest of the low season – December, January, and February. The other nine months of the year, you’ll have to park at the visitor’s center and take a shuttle to each of the scenic lookouts with everyone else. In winter, the Hermit Road is all yours.

Hermit Road Grand Canyon

This scenic drive (formerly called the West Rim Drive) was designed and created in 1935 along the southwestern rim of the canyon. The road was redone in 2008 for safety reasons, but a lot of the original details (like the hand rails at the overlooks and the stone masonry) were maintained.

There are nine scenic stops along this route, and each provides a different vantage point of the canyon.

GCNP2Grand Canyon in winterGrand Canyon NP

People say that the Hermit Road has the best views of the Grand Canyon. You won’t hear any argument from me.

Pima Point

At Pima Point, you can get a clear view of Granite Rapids, part of the Colorado River.

Grand Canyon in winter 3

Hopi Point

You can also see the Colorado River from Hopi Point’s 7,071-foot elevation. (Those blustery cloud funnels are snow storms, by the way.)

Grand Canyon in winter 2

GCNPGrand Canyon snowGrand Canyon

So, who was the hermit? That would be Louis Boucher, a Canadian prospector who moved here in 1891. He worked on a path that went from the Hermit’s Rest arch down to the canyon. He spent his time there alone, looking for copper in Dipping Springs. Boucher really took to life in the Grand Canyon, and even worked as a guide for awhile.

Hermit's Rest Grand Canyon

Eventually, we arrived at the end of the road: the stone arch of Hermit’s Rest. This point is as far west as you can go on a paved road along the South Rim. (That bell was salvaged from a Spanish mission in New Mexico.)

Grand Canyon

Louis Boucher clearly liked his alone time, but as we found out, you’re never really alone here. Good thing the locals are friendly.

Hermit Road deerDeer Grand Canyon

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.