Walking on the Elafiti Islands of Croatia – Part 3 – Kolocep and Back to Lopud

The next day we were taking a day trip to the third Elafiti Island, Kolocep. Tickets were booked from the lady in the Jadrolinija office and we went to wait on the pier for the MV Postira to arrive. There was the now familiar sight of a collection of local business people with trolleys laden with packages to go on the ferry. Other trolleys were lined up to collect things being off-loaded. When it arrived we noticed that the boat tied up at different places along the dockside and now we were able to see why. It was all a matter of the direction of the wind. The decision was left to the captain which meant that no one seemed to know where it would come to rest. As the ropes were thrown overboard there was a last minute scramble by the trolley operators to get the best loading/unloading position. The foot passengers were pushed aside to make way.

For the twenty minute journey we decided to sit on the top deck, not a place we had been to before. The seating was utilitarian but totally fit for purpose. We sat and watched the deserted east coast of Lopud and then the approaching Kolocep. This was the smallest of the three islands with a population of little more than 150, mostly living in the two communities of Donje Celo where the boat landed, and Gornje Celo, where our walk would take us. The words “donje” and “gornje” translate to “lower” and “upper” which was hard to understand as both were at sea level. The walk from the pier took us up a paved path between walls with houses on either side. Some of the houses had very attractive gardens with flowers and colourful shrubs. As we reached the higher part of the village, there was a school complete with miniature games pitch and a building signposted as the ambulance station. What the ambulance looked like was anyone’s guess as there were no roads only a narrow concrete path just wide enough for one golf-style buggy. The few buggies we did see had two seats at the front and the back was open to carry anything from groceries to stones. The route now followed the buggy track and, after 10 mins or so, came to the Sv Nikola, the Church of St Nicholas. This church was clearly in regular use and the large graveyard was presumably the main burial place for the whole island. Up to this point the track was generally uphill but for the next couple of kilometres it was level with forest to the right and cultivated fields to the left. Then Gornje Celo came into sight. It was a little smaller than Donje Celo. The path descended steeply to a bay with a small hotel, a sandy beach and a marina. We walked down to the harbour and found a small café where the ritual glass of white wine and half litre of beer were purchased.

Suitably refreshed we then set off to cross to the other side of the island, a grand distance of about 400 metres. The route took us past small rows of cottages and a few villas and always uphill. Then suddenly the path came to a stop at a fence which protected walkers from a sheer drop over cliffs into the sea. Very dramatic. There were voices coming from down below so we walked along the cliff edge a short way till there was a route dropping steeply down towards some rocks near the water. We could now see that the voices were coming from a small group of sun-bathing teenagers. Not a place for old fogies. The cliffs were not particularly high, maybe between 60 and 80 metres, but they were very impressive. By walking a short way in each direction, we found there were viewpoints where full splendour of the cliffs could be seen. Looking out to the open sea, the water had a quite a swell as a result of the recent strong northerly winds. Somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, lay Italy and the port of Bari maybe 200km distance.

To get back to Donje Celo there were a couple of options but we decided just to retrace our steps. And so after an hours stroll we got back to the ferry terminal. It was still some time till the boat was due and our stomachs were indicating that some food would be a good idea. There were a few place to choose between but the café used by the locals seemed the best choice. A pizza to share washed down with some wine and beer filled the gap and nicely took up the time till the ferry appeared nudging its way into the bay. At the time we didn’t know, but this was to be our last journey on the MV Postira, a boat we had come to love over the last week. It really was a workhorse making several round trips a day between Dubrovnic and the islands. It seemed to start and end its day in Sudjeradj so that it could take early morning workers and market customers to Dubrovnik. To ring the changes, this time we sat in the outside gangway beside the main saloon, a good place to observe our fellow passengers moving about the boat.

Back in Lopud Town we had arranged with Gaby to have dinner at Konoba Peggy. It was the kind of meal that made you wish you had eaten there the first night and every night thereafter. The piece de resistance was a beautiful sea bass freshly barbequed on the balcony. The quality of the food was outstanding and the service was that great mix of attentive and unobtrusive. Gaby’s son had learned well from his parents.

It was now Sunday and our last day on Lopud. The ferry taking us back to the mainland was not until late afternoon and we were told we could have the use of our room until then. There was one more walk to do, the less than invitingly named Rat peninsula. It turned out to be a great walk. The Rat was easily visible from the town, a headland out to the northwest. The route went along the promenade passing all the shops and guest house and, of course, the Lafodia Hotel & Resort. It was really a self-contained holiday destination where everything one might need was provided including all meals, drinks, a beach and water sports. Being just past the peak season it was not overcrowded but still busy. Although some Lafodia guests did venture into the town proper, there was plenty of room for the independent travellers.

Continuing past the Lafodia, we found a real curiosity on the wall in front of Villa Vesna. Dr Ante Ramljak, a renowned scholar of the language Esperanto, had lived here and had written in Esperanto along the top of the wall using large concrete and pebble letters the phrase “one language for humanity – a destiny for mankind”. Quite striking. Passing on along the track one or two new, or under construction, villas were evident. Then we left the town and walked through woodland with the sea below us to the right. As we reached the headland, the belvedere came into view. It was a circular tiled-roofed structure with stone seats round the outside and inside. Sitting on the outside about thirty metres above the shoreline, we had great views in all directions. We sat there for a while enjoying the sunny day and the passing marine traffic.

The route then ascended the spine of the peninsula with steep cliffs to the right. At regular intervals there were strategically place seats just far enough back from the cliff edge to be safe, but still with a feeling of exposure when you sat down. At one point, a building site partially obstructed the path, where it appeared either a large villa or a small hotel was being constructed. It being Sunday there were no workmen around. We continued a little further up the path till it made a left turn and started to descend towards the back of the town. We turned round and went back the way we had come both to experience the views from a different angle, and also to extend the length of the walk. Back in Lopud Town, a stop at one of the bakeries got us the ingredients for a late lunch which we ate sitting on a bench overlooking the bay. Very relaxing and civilised.

So our walking holiday was coming to an end. There was just time to go back to the pension, have a shower and change into travelling clothes. Tonight we would be back in Dubrovnik and tomorrow on a flight to London. But first we had to finish the packing and say farewell to Gaby. She had been a superb host, a fount of knowledge and a lovely person to have met.

As for the walking, none of it was overtaxing but, if we come again which we may well do, it would be better to visit at the end of September once the fierce heat of summer has subsided. Also, now we know how efficient and frequent the ferry system is, we would make Lopud our base and just visit the other two islands on day trips. And we would avoid the horrors of Dubrovnik and its myriad of tourists.

And finally, a bit about On Foot, our trip arranger. Their pre-trip organisation was first class. All questions were answered promptly and the information pack provided was very comprehensive. The walks they suggested were for the most part well documented but the timings were very optimistic and seemed to assume that the objective was more to get from A to B rather than enjoy the scenery and the places of interest. The GPX route maps for our smartphones had to be requested after we had left the UK. I couldn’t get them to load and, as we were already travelling, it was too difficult to get the telephone assistance that was needed. Next time we will make sure that they arrive well in advance of our departure and that we get any assistance needed before leaving home. Having said that, we liked the flexibility of the On Foot style of holiday and the way in which it fitted into our dates rather than the other way round.

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Walking on the Elafiti Islands of Croatia – Part 2 – Lopud

Day 3 dawned and we packed ready to catch the mid-morning ferry.  But not before sampling the very well stocked breakfast buffet.  Apart from the cereals, fruit and bread, there was a big choice of cold meats, fish and cheese.  And as if that wasn’t enough, a lady was ready to make you an omelette with fillings of your choice.  We wouldn’t be needing lunch.  A group of us were taken with our luggage by the hotel minibus to the ferry.  It was our old friend the MV Postira still delivering provisions to the island communities.  The journey to Lopud was only about twenty minutes long, so we stood on the foredeck amongst the packages and enjoyed the sea breeze and the view of the approaching island.  Although Lopud is much smaller than Sipan, the main town was much bigger and busier.  To the left was an ancient monastery/fortress in the final stages of renovation and to the extreme right was a monstrosity of a modern hotel, the Lafodia Hotel & Resort.  Between the two were cafes and restaurants, gift shops and grocery stores, small hotels and pensions and, stretching up into the surrounding hills, small stone cottages.  Apart from the Lafodia, it all looked quite historical and attractive.


On landing, we asked at the ferry company office for directions to Pension Pavlovic.  The lady in the office picked up the phone and had a quick conversation with someone who was clearly a friend, then said to us that Gaby would be waiting outside the pension which was only a minute away. And, of course, she was.  Our room was not ready but we could leave our bags in the lobby and come back in an hour or so.  When we returned we were told that Gaby’s son had taken our bags up to the room on the third floor.  We had visions of a young boy lugging them up all the stairs, but, as we found out the next day, Gaby’s son was a tall, well built man in his late 20’s.  Our accommodation turned out to be a spacious apartment with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and balcony.  The balcony looked across some back gardens and up to a scattering of hillside cottages.  We had landed lucky.


We spent the rest of the day exploring the town, buying two enormous pieces of pizza from a bakery and generally settling in to our rooms.  There were two suggested walks on Lopud.  One was past the Lafodia Hotel, out to the headland known as Rat where there is a belvedere, then looping back and climbing uphill before descending back to the town.  A total distance of about 6km.  The second walk was over the hills to Sunj beach on the opposite side of the island passing a number of old churches and monasteries along the way and returning via more direct path to Lopud Town.  This walk was nearly 8km.  For a third walk, the suggestion was to take the ferry to the smallest island, Kolocep, and take a 7km route that would more or less circumnavigate the whole island.  We decided to do the Sunj beach walk first, followed by a day on Kolocep and leave the Rat walk for our last day when we were scheduled to catch the evening ferry back to Dubrovnik.


Pension Pavlovic served breakfast in the Konoba Peggy, their restaurant a little higher up the hill.  As we learned over the next three days chatting with Gaby, the whole place had been run by Gaby and her husband.  Sadly her husband died and she was left to bring up her then teenage son.  At first she managed to run the whole business with a bit of casual help but once her son had completed his education, he came into the business.  Gaby was now keen to give her son his own responsibilities and so turned over the konoba to him whilst she concentrated on the pension.  It all seemed to be working well.  Gaby, with the help of a local lady, did the breakfast as they were only for the guests of the pension.  The son now officially owns the restaurant and runs it very well as we found on our last night.


Konoba Peggy has a magnificent panoramic view over the bay and way out over the Adriatic.  The breakfasts were superb with no two days the same.  There were different types of bread, different meats and cheeses, eggs as you wished and plenty of delicious coffee.  This was particularly good coffee to my taste but in our experience from three trips to Croatia, the coffee always ranges from good to outstanding.  We were given a table with an uninterrupted view over the town and the sea.  A lovely way to start each day.


The walk to Sunj beach started from the seafront at the Hotel Glavovic.  It took the form of a paved path with steps as it climbed between the village houses and upwards to the treeline.  We took it at a steady pace occasionally being passed by younger and fitter walkers.  Once into the trees the instructions were to look for a sign pointing to the right which would lead us to St Ivan’s church.  When we reached there the path became steeper but we could already see the church so knew we’d be there soon.  The church was perched on the top of a rocky promontory with a wonderful view down to Lopud Town and out over the sea.  The building which dates from the 9th century had undergone renovation and is still used for a special service on the 24th June, St John’s (Ivan’s) Day.  From here we had a good view of the Kastio Fortress a short distance to our left and with a steep, rocky path to reach it.  We decided to admire it from afar as the guide book said it was a half hour round trip which, from experience of other time estimates, meant more like one hour for us.  Back on the main path, we continued past some cultivated fields then slightly downhill to another paved path with a great view down to Sunj beach.  Then we came to a magnificent church and graveyard.  This was the Gospa od Sunj (The Church of Our Lady of Sunj).  There were major renovations going on with students from Germany and Belgium working there as a summer project.  The outside of the church has already been restored and the work is now focused on the interior.  The students were happy for us to walk inside  and see what they were doing.  There was clearly a lot more to done and it will probably be another two or three years before the restoration is complete.  The graveyard had also had some renovation work and was still in active use.  The actual graves were mostly stone and concrete structures above ground as the ground was too rocky for burials.


It was whilst we were looking round the graveyard that we realised the sky was getting darker and threatening clouds were building up overhead.  From this point the “official” path went straight ahead towards a headland then turned back towards Sunj.  Given the approaching storm the shorter, more direct path to the beach seemed the best option.  As we started to descend, we could hear the occasional motor lower down in the forest.  Soon all became clear.  Lopud Island has no conventional road system and no normal motor vehicles.  What they do have, however, is a concrete track about two metres wide running from Lopud Town to Sunj beach with six-seater golf buggies.  This must be one of the world’s most unusual public transport systems.  As we headed down to the sandy beach we had to walk on the verge to avoid the regular traffic taking people to and from Sunj.  The guidebook said that food and drink was available at the beach and that proved to be true.  We arrived just as the first big drops of rain started and were lucky to get seats under a raffia roof which acted as a bit of a shelter.  As the rain got heavier and heavier the beach and the open-air café emptied and the place where we had got seats turned out to be the place to be.  After an acceptable seafood pasta and a beer and with the rain abating, we decided it was time to find the path back to the town.  The directions said to find a gap between two canvas sections of the café and, even though it doesn’t look very promising, stick to it and a proper path will emerge.  And so it did.  The path followed the line of a gully between the trees and was a bit damp but underfoot was mostly stone slabs or steps so no mud and puddles.  Twenty minutes or so got us up to the ridge, across the buggy trail, and onto another path that climbed by a tiny ruined chapel and then dropped down to share a track with the buggies back into the town.


The route emerged onto the sea front beside a very sad building, the old Grand Hotel.  The hotel had been built in the 1930’s in the brutalist concrete style that was the vogue in those days.  It was indeed a grand place.  Here is an extract from the hotel brochure in its very early days.


80 rooms equipped by modern standards, each room has a balcony, hot and cold running water, electric lights, wireless, and good ventilation, electricity, automatic phones, electric
cooking, coffee on the terrace, dining room (partially closed, partially open).  Meals are served, and in the garden are electric fans, a pond, a darkroom for photography, two spacious roof terraces, daily concerts, bathrooms, and showers on each floor.  Between the hotel and the beach is a park 60 yards long, with an area of 2,000 square yards, planted with cypress and olive trees, oleanders, orange and lemon trees, many varieties of palm trees and cactus, rosemary, eucalyptus, mimosas, etc. …


It all sounds ideal but now it is completely deserted, a victim of poor management, misjudgement of tourism needs, and latterly, architecture that could not be adapted to modern day tourist requirements.  With the building of the Lafodia Hotel it is hard to see any room on this small island for another modern hotel on such a scale.

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Walking on the Elafiti Islands of Croatia – Part 1 – Dubrovnik and Sipan

Walking is our passion and an opportunity to take a walking holiday on a group of islands off the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia was too good to miss.  We already had a family week booked in Croatia and were wondering how to spend another week exploring a new part of the country.  Serendipity stepped in when we saw a piece in the travel section of The Guardian newspaper.  It described a walking holiday starting in Dubrovnik and travelling around the islands to the north that stretch out into the Adriatic.  Ideal.  We booked up straight away.


To start from the beginning, Margaret and myself had been invited to join our daughter Kirsten, son-in-law Julian and granddaughter Martha at their holiday house on the island of Brac a few miles off-shore from the large Croatian city of Split.  The end of August is a time for celebration in our family as both Kirsten and Margaret have birthdays and Julian & Kirsten their wedding anniversary – they were married on Brac.  So we knew it would be a great week of celebrations and conviviality intermixed with relaxing and sunbathing.  And so it turned out to be and even better than we’d anticipated.  By the end of the week we had both put on weight and some drastic action was necessary.


The walking holiday was organised by a specialist travel company, On Foot Holidays.  They have an interesting travel proposition based on self-guided walking.  They work out the routes, strike deals with accommodation providers and, certainly in the case of Croatia, have link with a local travel company who fine tune the details and provide a degree of support.  Every holiday is bespoke insofar as the start and end dates are not pre-set, rather they are chosen by the traveller.  Also, the traveller books the flights.  And for the walks themselves, maps, descriptions of the routes and GPS files are provided.  (We did not get the GPS files to work but did use our own GPS to check where we were and to find alternative paths when needed.)


The walking adventure started on the 2nd September when the family drove us to Supertar the main town on Brac.  From here we caught a bus across the island to the port of Bol.  The journey took about an hour, crossing the mountainous interior of the island and dropping down over cliffs into Bol.  At this point it started to rain.  We had to cover ourselves as best as possible and walk along the promenade to the Dubrovnik ferry pier.  When we got there a sheltered set of seats had been provided.  There was provision for about 10 people undercover and we were about the 20th to arrive so we just had to stand in the rain for the next half hour or so till the boat arrived.  I say boat, in fact it was a highspeed catamaran.  The ferry, operated by the largest Croatian ferry company, Jadrolinija, holds about 300 passengers in a single saloon with windows but no access to the outside whilst travelling.  And the reason for this is that as the boat travels at between 30 and 35 knots standing on deck would be distinctly dangerous.  It reminded us of travelling in the late 70’s and early 80’s by hovercraft across the English Channel en route for camping holidays in France. 


For the next five hours we raced through the twilight, stopping at two other islands before heading south, passing islands of all shapes and sizes as darkness set in.  Before reaching Dubrovnik the ferry passed the three islands that we would be walking on over the coming week but a combination of the dark and the salt covered windows of the saloon prevented us from seeing anything.  Disembarking was quite efficient and we soon found our driver bearing an “On Foot” sign.  A fifteen minute ride took us to the Old City Walls and the Ploce Gate.  There waiting for us was the owner of the Miljak Apartments where we were to be staying for two nights.  She walked us through the old city which was still busy at gone eleven at night.  A few twists and turns through ever narrowing passageways led us to the door of the Miljak.  Our apartment was lovely in every respect except that it was on the third floor and there was no lift or porter.  We’d kept weight down knowing that we would be doing a bit of heaving during the holiday but a 17kg case is a quite a load to drag up five flights of steep steps.  Once settled in it was getting close to midnight so we went straight to bed.


The next morning, leaving Margaret to get showered and dressed, I went out for a short recce of the nearby passageways and streets.  It was before 10am but the streets were packed liked sardines.  And no, these weren’t locals going about their daily activities, they were groups after group of herded tourists.  In pursuit of their next place of interest, and they took no prisoners.  Other tourists were jostled out of the way.  I got as far as Big Onofrio’s Fountain, not much more than 100 metres, where you could hardly move through the assembled masses.  This was not my idea of an ideal holiday destination.  As we discovered a few days later, speaking with a taxi driver from the travel company, the local people who used to live in the Old City have largely moved out and their homes have been turned into tourist accommodation.  In fact it is even worse.  The city used to have industry and commerce giving employment and purpose.  Since the Balkans war in the nineties that resulted in the break up of Yugoslavia into independent countries, Dubrovnik, an ancient city packed full of history and historical buildings, has sold itself to the god of tourism. We were lucky to be in town on a day when there were no cruise ships in harbour.  Apparently it gets ten times worse on those days, if that’s possible.


I went back to the apartment to collect Margaret and we found a nearby place that served a decent Croatian style breakfast of fruit, cheese, cold meats, bread and excellent coffee.  We had intended to follow a recommendation of our tour company and climb up to the top of the city walls and walk the 2 km circuit giving great view into and out of the old city.  But it was not to be.  Looking up to the top of the walls all we could see was an almost unbroken human crocodile all the way round.  And it wasn’t cheap to join this conga, 150 kuna which is not far short of £20.  Instead we looked round a couple of churches before deciding to head for the cable car that goes up the mountain behind the city.  This involved climbing a steep passageway – partly cobbles and partly stone steps – passing a Game of Thrones “experience” with a long queue – till we arrived at a pedestrian gateway through the walls.  The cable car station was a short walk further up the hillside.  The queue seemed long but we were soon in a gondola and being swished up the mountainside.  The views got better and better as we ascended.  We could now get a better understanding of the layout of the city and a view out to the nearby island of Lokrum which is largely a nature reserve.


Getting out of the cable car we came on to a large platform giving us the opportunity to get a panoramic view of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic.  Looking northwards to the right we got our first proper view of the Elafiti Islands where we would be travelling the next day.  They looked very picturesque and, even more importantly, quiet.  The top station of the cable car is on the edge of a plateau and looking eastwards inland, we could see the start of the mountains of Montenegro.  They looked enticing.  There were rough roads leading across the plateau so we decided to take a short amble.  Very quickly we left behind the noise and were into the quiet of the countryside.  We didn’t want to venture too far as we had no detailed maps but did think that it was an opportunity for On Foot to develop a walk.  Speaking later to a local, he said that his mother used to walk around that area almost every day.  It was now well after lunchtime so we made our way back to an open-air café near the cable car station.  We’d heard from a girl we had met in the queue for the cable car, that it had a good menu and was sensibly priced.  And she was right. And by way of a bonus, when a wasp landed in my nearly finished beer glass, the manager came over and insisted on replacing it with a new, full glass on the house.  Result.


Back in the Old City it was about 5pm and the streets had calmed down a bit.  We did a little sightseeing then back to the apartment to get cleaned up for the evening.  An hour or so later we were out on the streets looking at the dinner possibilities.  There were loads of choices but the crowds made so many of them a bit uninviting.  And then we heard some lively jazz coming from somewhere round a corner.  We soon discovered the Troubadour, a small café/restaurant with space for a 5-piece band outside and tables to seat about 50/60 people.  All the seats were occupied so we just stopped to listen to the lively band playing music from the 20’s in the Hot Jazz style.  Excellent.  There was no booking system for the tables it was a case of watch for someone leaving and pounce.  We were soon sitting at a table for two with a direct view of the musicians and drinks in hand.  What could be better.  Then we remembered we hadn’t eaten yet.  There was a very small food menu which made choosing simple.  Margaret had a tuna salad and I had shrimp pasta with dark green spinach tagliatelle.  Both were of the best.  We finished up spending three hours there loving the music, the wine and the general ambiance.


The next morning was an early start – up at 7 – to drag our cases back to the Polce Gate from where our taxi driver took us to the ferry port at Gruz on the northern fringes of the city.  A small crowd were already at the harbour, mostly local people with a smattering of travellers.  The MV Postira was quite obviously a workhorse.  The front deck which covered nearly half the boat, was already loaded with bundles of all shapes and sizes and all types of commodities.  Planks of wood, cases of wine, packs of toilet rolls, sealed boxes with unspecified contents, a plastic wrapped pallet of bags of sugar, some tools, packets of biscuits, gas bottles, etc, etc.  And they were being added to all the time from vans arriving at the side of the boat and throwing more boxes and loose goods on to the deck.  There were no sophisticated methods of loading and most items were unlabelled, at least to the untrained eye.  Still the three deckhands seemed to have everything under control by using a form of organised chaos.


The Postira had three passenger areas.  On top was an open deck with plastic chairs and canopies, below was a saloon with red leatherette seats and dark wood tables and below that was another seating area.  The tourist mostly headed straight for the top deck but judging by the choice of the locals, the saloon was the place to be as that was where the café was.  We got a small table by a window and, as seemed to be the form, packed our luggage around us.  As we learned, our fellow saloon passengers were mostly locals from the islands who had travelled in on the very early ferry to shop at the Gruz daily market and were now laden with fruit vegetables and general groceries.  Coffees and pastries were ordered from the bar and we settled back to soak up the local scene whilst looking out at the passing land and seascapes.


The first sight was the dramatic Franjo Tudjman Bridge, built in 2002, and carrying the main coastal highway that links Dubrovnik with the city of Split and onwards to the capital Zagreb.  It’s a fine structure in white concrete with long metal supporting cables and a fine curve as it takes the road over the entrance to the Sustjepan Ffiord. The ferry continued in a northerly direction but veering away from the coast and towards the first and smallest of the Elafiti Islands, Kolocep.  This island is only about 3km by 2km with a population is less than 200 people and no roads.  At least not in the conventional sense.  The ferry docked, a few passengers disembarked and even fewer boarded.  But passenger movements were just a sideshow.  The main event was an assorted collection of hotel keepers, café owners, shopkeepers and other residents appeared at the side of the boat and shouted out to the deckhands to pass them their packages, parcels and odds and ends.  It all seemed a bit disorganised and based entirely on trust but it seemed to work to everyone’s satisfaction.  There was no paperwork.  The collected goods were then loaded onto hand pulled trolleys or golf carts which form the islands only transport.  As we discovered later in the week when we came back to the island for a day’s rambling, there was a network of concrete pathways just wide enough for the golf carts and leading to the small number of hamlets scattered around the island.


Soon the ferry was on its way again as we set sail for the second largest island, Lopud.  Lopud has a proper little town stretching right round the harbour bay from the ancient monastery on one side to the most enormous flashy modern concrete hotel on the other side and up the hill into the hinterland.  Once again the local business people appeared to collect their things being carried on the ferry.  Once again we were on a car free island.  It looked an interesting place which was great as we were coming back here for three nights as part of the holiday.


So finally, the ferry set out from Lopud for Sipan the largest of the Elafiti Islands and where we were going to spend the next two night.  By this time there were only a handful of passengers on board and the front cargo deck was considerably depleted.  The ferry landed at the southern town of Sudjaradj where we would be staying.  This time we were not so much interested in to cargo as finding someone from our hotel.  We guessed the minibus waiting by the pier might be for us and so it turned out.  Our hotel was probably only 400m along the coast but there is no coast road so the journey proceeded up steep roads to a high point then down another set of roads back to the shore and our hotel.  As we discovered later in the day, we had already covered a significant proportion of the island’s road system.


The Hotel Bozica is a 4* modern but tasteful establishment.  The clientele seemed to be relatively well off holidaymakers there for a relaxing time.  It didn’t quite meet our expectations for a walkers hotel and it soon became obvious that we did not fit the normal mould.  It was barely mid-day so we were not surprised that our room was not immediately available.  We left our bags with the receptionist and went to seek an outside seating place and a lunchtime refreshment.  All seemed fine if a little upmarket.  A while later I went back to reception to see if our rooms were ready and were told they were.  Then began a farce that could have been funny if it had not involved the disappearance of our luggage.  A member of staff said they would take us up to the room and the bags would follow.  It now became obvious that something serious was amiss. They had lost our bags.  Even worse, they discovered that the bags had been put on a high-speed boat that was ferrying some guests to Dubrovnik Airport.  Over the next couple of hours we were given various versions of what was being done to re-unite us with our bags, whilst the hotel manager totally failed her profession when she told Margaret that she was getting too upset at our separation from our personal possessions.  Eventually the bags appeared, having been transferred off the original boat,and onto an island where yet another boat from the hotel collected them.  We were so relieved that we decided to head off on one of the walks straightaway and try to calm down.

We had been given two suggestions of walks on Sipan.  One was a climb to the highest point of the island whilst the other was a round trip involving a road walk followed by a climb to a ridge that formed the spine of the island.  As the road/ridge walk started and ended at Sudjaradj, we chose it despite the description saying it was “perhaps the most challenging walk on the islands”.  The total route was just over 11 km but there was an official shortcut that missed a steep road descent and climb and cut off about 3.5 km.  We decided on the shorter route  for a first venture out. The walk took us from the hotel and down to the old harbour before climbing up through the village to the main road of the island.  Apart from a few short spurs, the ‘main’ road was less than 5 kms in length and just wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other.  It linked the two communities of Sudjardj and Sipanska Luka and carried the only bus route on the island linking with the ferry.  At the top of the village we joined the road at a roundabout where three very local roads joined the highway.  On our right, looking down over the roundabout, was an ancient church that was undergoing major renovations.  The work on the building seemed to be nearly completed as the three workmen were removing overgrown trees and shrubs and generally tidying up the grounds.

The route now followed the road towards Sipanska Luka along one side of a wide valley with cultivated fields and vineyards to the left and on the lower slopes of the hills to the right were fruit trees, mostly olives.  It was a beautiful, warm afternoon and combined with the fruit laden trees and shrubs, made for an idyllic scene.  The directions said to walk for about half an hour till we reached an industrial building with a pylon.  On reaching it, it was much smaller than the description implied and probably housed a press for the olives.  We were then told to walk a further 700 metres till we could see a large house and ruin across the valley on our left.  Opposite there would be a track leading up the hillside.  After about the right distance we found a road leading to a big house and a ruin and there was the track, a little overgrown but obviously a pathway.  We set off going slowly upwards between stone walls and into an olive grove.  Very soon the path started to get a bit steeper and we had to clamber over loose stones and a broken wall.  Then it got even steeper, with no distinct path and definitely no longer a ‘walk’.  Retreat was the best and safest option.

Back on the main road we decided to continue a little further towards Sipanska Luka as, apart from anything else, it would be a bit of a short walk for our first outing.  And there, after about 5 minutes, we saw another large house and ruin on our left and a more distinct track heading up to the right.  This must be the route.  Following the walk description very carefully, looking out for all the mentioned landmarks and features, we found ourselves on a good path climbing up through a forest and with signs that it had been used fairly recently.  The climb became quite steep but still definitely a walk.  After about 15 to 20 minutes we reached a junction with the path that followed the line of the ridge.  Great.  Turning right we were now on a good but narrow path running more or less level through the forest with good views every now and again down to the valley where we had been walking.  The path followed the line of the ridge but ran a little bit below the crest so we didn’t get a view to east.  No matter, we would get that another day.  The instructions told us to take a right fork to avoid walking across farmed land.  After a while, the path joined a farm track which, in turn, became a narrow surfaced road.  A diversion to our left took us to an ancient Benedictine monastery in Pakljena and the Church of St Mary.  The buildings had undergone recent renovations but sadly were not open to the public.  We walked all around the site and admired the beautiful job of cleaning and repointing the stonework.  From there, a short walk along the road and over a low hill and we were descending back to the port of Sudjaradj and the hotel.

For day two on Sipan the recommended walk was to climb 234m to Velji Vrh, the highest point on the island.  The walk started from Sipanska Luka which meant we had to catch the island bus from the ferry terminal.  The bus was a conventional vehicle with a full-height aisle and doors at the back and front.  It had seats for about 20 people.  We were amongst the first to get on just before the ferry arrived.  The single fare for the 5km journey was 15  Kuna – a little less than £2.  The bus made a number of stops, mostly to let people off, and ten minutes or so later was navigating down the steep hill back to the sea at Sipanska Luka.  This was a much bigger place than Sudjaradj with small shops, cafes, holiday houses and a largish hotel, the Hotel Sipan.

The route to Velji Vrh started beside a café, “No Name”, along a stone path between to buildings.  Soon we were out of the village and climbing steadily upwards past a small outdoor centre and the odd farm building.  I was wearing a T-shirt of the “Friends of Blencathra”, a pressure group I had supported in the English Lake District.  It turned out to be an ice-breaker when we met a couple descending who came from Kendal in the Lake District.  They had been up Velji Vrh the previous day so were able to give us some route finding pointers.  Today they had been trying to ascend another small hill but found the trails completely overgrown and had given up when they couldn’t stand being ripped apart by the thorny branches.  We bade them farewell and headed upwards.  Close attention had to be kept to the route guide as our trail joined a small tarmac road, branched off into scrub land with a few exposed drops to avoid, across a couple of farm track then onto an old stony road that had been used during the construction of a radio mast on the top.  We had been warned not to slavishly follow this track but to look out for a small cairn on the left, marking the start of the trail to the top.  By now it was the middle of the day, the sun was beating down and, despite drinking plenty of water, heat exhaustion was beginning to take its effect.  We took a break and soaked up the view across the Adriatic to our right and to the left across to the mountainous mainland of Croatia.  With probably only about 300-400 m to walk, but uncertain as to whether we would be able to see the summit for the trees, I decided that I’d had enough but, Margaret said she would walk on a little way to see what the terrain was like.  After about twenty minutes and just about the time I was beginning to worry about the decision to separate, I heard approaching footsteps and there she was having made it to the top and having had a great view of most of the island.

On the way down, we were advised to make a small diversion to see a ruined church Sv Petar.  Ancient churches, dating back as far as the 9th Century, are a feature of the Elafiti Islands.  On Lopud, where we were going next, the owner of the pension where we were to stay, had written a handbook about the churches and monasteries.  She had documented over thirty on Lopud alone.  Sv Petar was a just a single small stone room about 20m x 5m.  The roof had long since gone and there were signs that it was used as a shelter by animals and humans.  After a short break, we continued back down the track and stopped when we reached “No Name”.  Their menu was a little sparse but there were a few items that could make up a late lunch.  But it was not to be.  It turned out that the menu was a work of fiction and they only had drinks and ice-cream.  So cold beers it had to be.  A short stroll took us to a grocery store where we were able to buy a few provisions and eat our al fresco lunch on a bench overlooking the sea.  We walked along the promenade to the end of the village where we found a few large and expensive looking villas with their own jetties into the sea.  Our guess was that these were the weekend and holiday homes of people from Dubrovnik.

Walking back into the centre of the village we saw a small group of people gathering near the bus stop.  And sure enough, the bus came into view.  It was time to return to Sudjaradj.  The bus dropped us at the ferry terminal which was right next to the old harbour.  There were a couple of small café/restaurants.  One was almost deserted and had the appearance of being mostly for visitors, the other was busy with locals at the end of the working day.  One was the receptionist from our hotel with her little boy and a group of her friends.  We found a table and were soon enjoying cold refreshments at the end of our second day.  On the first night we had dined at the hotel.  The food was excellent and a complimentary bottle of wine was offered as some redress for the luggage near-disaster.  A look at the café menu decided for us that we should eat there that night.  So a walk back to our room, showers and a change of clothes and we were soon heading back to the harbour.

It was dark by the time we reached the café which was now busy with diners.  We got the only table left which was in a corner of the large outdoor area and great for people watching.  It was difficult for us to judge but most of the customers seemed to be locals or at least regulars.  We seemed to be the only non-Croatians.  The food was slow in coming, but some wine and beer made the wait quite bearable.  When it did arrive, it was excellent and obviously freshly cooked.   Back at the hotel, the poolside bar was quite busy so we thought that a coffee and nightcaps would be in order.  Maybe it’s an age factor, but why do young people, and some not so young, talk so loudly.  There was a clear sky, a lovely view over the sea to Lopud and it was a balmy evening, but none of our fellow guests seemed interested.  It was time for bed.

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Exploring the North American Pacific Coast by Ferry – part 2

 

The Pacific coast of Alaska, from the Canadian border to the
Aleutian Islands, is served by the boats of the Alaska Marine Highway, a state-owned
ferry company.  We took two journeys on the
AMH.  The first was from Prince Rupert to
Juneau, the Alaskan capital, on a journey that lasted, for us, from a Friday to
Sunday.  The second was a one day trip
from Juneau northwards to Skagway and the start of the Yukon Trail.

At the Prince Rupert ferry terminal most of the passengers had cars and RVs.  They had their
own boarding facilities.  For the small
handful of foot passengers, there was a separate boarding hall with its own
immigration/customs room.  All would have
been easy except that a bus load of pensioners from the Mid-West arrived
complete with walking frames and infirmities. 
Our peaceful haven became a noisy and chaotic scene.  For the most part, they were cheerful but loud and a significant number looked as though they really weren’t enjoying
themselves.  And once I discovered that
they were travelling by coach and boat from Minneapolis in the US Mid-West to
Fairbanks in the far north of Alaska and then turning round to get back to
Minneapolis by an inland route, their pain was understandable. I love travel
but that sounded too much like a route march to be much fun.

The ferry was the M/V Matanuska, a boat built in Seattle and now registered in
Haines, Alaska.  She is more than 50 years old having been
launched in 1963.  In 1978 she was
acquired by the Government of Alaska to serve the route from Seattle to Juneau but now dedicated to the routes north from Prince Rupert.  All in all, she is wearing very well.  There are plenty of lounges spread over two
decks and a cafeteria with a full range of meals and snacks.  The only thing missing is a bar.  By a fairly recent order of the State
government, this is now a dry ship.  By a
lucky premonition (or good forward planning) we had bought a couple of bottles
of wine in Prince Rupert for our cabin. 
Speaking to one of the crew he said that the ship used to have a bar –
and there are signs that would indicate this – but the Government in their
wisdom decided to remove them.  I wonder
it dates from the days when Sarah Palin was Governor.  She had some very strange ideas.

Once we had calmed down a little from the “dry ship”
revelation, we joined the queue for dinner in the cafeteria.  It seemed as though most of our fellow passengers
had the same idea.  The line was very
good humoured and gradually we got to the point where the choices could be
identified.  And there was plenty of
choice.  We both chose ham hock and beans
with corn bread washed down with “vintage” water. 
The portion sizes were generous with almost too much ham.

For the first hour or so of the journey there was nothing
much to see.  To one side was the
mainland of Canada in the distance and to the other the wide Pacific Ocean and
a few small islands.  It was not long
before an announcement over the ship’s tannoy told us we were about to cross
the Canada/US border in Chatham Sound. 
With the wonders of GPS and modern technology, our phone and PC clocks
changed to Alaska time, one hour behind BC, so we gained that hour.

After dinner, we went back to our cabin to break open the
wine.  Glug glug.  The cabin is a generous size for a ship with
enough room to swing the proverbial cat. 
There was a big square window giving a good view and three single beds
with two bunk-style and the other free-standing.  There was also an en suite bathroom with
sink, toilet and shower.  The final touch
was a desk with power-points.  What more
could you want? Apart from a well-stocked bar.

Then it was time to get back on deck and enjoy the
sunset.  By now we were sailing into a
gradually narrowing sea channel.  To the
west were relatively low islands with small hills that helped to enhance the
colour effects of the setting sun.  Once
the sun was gone, it got dark quite quickly. 
We decided to go to bed, it had been a tiring day with packing, hefting
bags and coping with the Mid-West bus party who managed to be everywhere on the
boat bringing their noise with them.

Some time after midnight, I was woken by some noises which
turned out to be the sound of the boat docking at the town of Ketchican.  This is a big town with an interesting
history.  It has constantly re-invented
itself as different groups of immigrants have moved in and the local industries
have changed.  One of the bigger changes
happened in the 1880’s with the arrival of Norwegian fishermen.  They increased the intensity of fishing which
then needed many seasonal workers to process and can the fish.  These workers came from the Far East, especially
from the Philippines and Japan.  The
Norwegians also brought missionaries who proceeded to start schools for their
own people and for the First Nations native peoples.  This lead to all kinds of tensions and the inevitable gradual westernisation of the indigenous people.  Over the years industry has changed as the
fishing stocks were over exploited leading to shortages.  At the same time, the processing of
timber moved to other parts of the region and to other countries.  Today Ketchican has adopted more specialised
trades, especially wood carving.  It has also learnt to exploit the opportunities of tourism and is thriving again.

I tell all this story as, although very little of the
current town could be seen in the semi-dark, it is indicative of the
development of South East Alaska.  The
towns we would stop at on this ferry voyage all have similar histories.  They were also important towns during the
Klondike Gold Rush.  They provided
resting places during the long voyages and also helped with the provision of
supplies.

Around six in the morning I woke again and looking out the
window saw the sister ship of the Matanuska passing about one mile away,
heading south.  Then around 8am the boat
arrived at the township of Wrangell. 
Apart from the setting down and loading of passengers and vehicles, the
stop had another important function. 
About twenty passengers were seen walking up the ramp with their
dogs.  It was time for walkies.

Shortly after setting sail again, the boat turned into the
Wrangell Narrows.  For an hour or more
the boat was confined to a narrow channel well marked with green and red
buoys.  A watchman stood in the bow
throughout this stretch.  The shore line
was close on both sides with many holiday homes.  Only a few were obviously occupied but next
month being the peak holiday month could see many more in use.

At the head of the narrows is the town of Petersburg, an
old Norwegian settlement.  This seemed to
be a prosperous community with many fishing boats and a fishing support
infrastructure.  There were more cars and
trucks than we had seen for a while indicating that this island, Mitkof Island, must have a
reasonable road network.

During the day, we noticed an increasing number of
passengers walking circuits round the main deck.  When you are going to be on a boat for the
best part of 48 hours, exercise is important. 
We joined in and continued to do five or ten circuits at intervals
throughout the day.  Very
invigorating.   

The day had been overcast with occasional
showers.  It had also been a bit windy
and cold on deck.  Sunset effectively
didn’t happen, just some yellowness to the clouds to the northwest around
10pm.  Before turning in for the night we
did a final couple of turns round the deck. 
I decided to try the GPS mapping function on my phone.  It worked and we could see exactly where the
boat was and its course for the next few hours. We were travelling the length
of the winding Peril Strait.  Not exactly
the stuff of sweet dreams.

Around 2am we were woken by the noises of the boat arriving
at Sitka.  Sitka was the capital city of
Alaska from 1884 until 1906.  As mentioned earlier, it sits on the outer edge of the coastal island chain facing out to the wide Pacific Ocean and is described as a very attractive town with beautiful countryside. But, in the
early hours of the morning, there was not a lot to be seen.  In the boom times of the late 1800’s when
gold was discovered on the mainland of Alaska and in the Yukon, the city of
Juneau was established and became the commercial centre.  In 1906 the US Senate decreed that the capital
be moved there.  And it has remained that
way ever since.

By morning the boat had left Sitka and had sailed back along
the Peril Strait.  When we got back on
deck the boat was almost at exactly the same point that it had been when we
went to bed but travelling in the opposite direction.  To reach Sitka had entailed a long
diversion.  When asked about the route followed by the ferry,
the purser explained that it depended on the tides.  The timetable was just a best guess and could
not be relied upon.

The weather was a bit miserable with squally showers and
grey skies.  We passed a lot of fishing
boats taking advantage of the dullness. 
The channel we passed through for almost all the morning was the Chatham
Strait.  It was rather wide, maybe 5
miles across, so we didn’t see much detail of the shorelines.  The mountains, when they emerged from the
clouds, were heavily covered with snow above about 2,000 feet. It was strange
to think that they had seldom if ever been climbed.

And then the boat started to make a wide sweep to starboard
– the right (we were getting very used to the nautical language after so much
time on the ferry system).  Although we
couldn’t see Juneau yet, we were clearly getting close.  Wow, wow, wow.  One after the other, gigantic humpbacks
appeared above the waves, then rose further out of the water and with a flip of
the tail disappeared into the depths.  As
we watched from our grandstand seats on the Matanuska, tourist whale watching
boats came racing across the waves hoping to catch a glimpse of the spectacle.  A man on the boat told us the local name for
this bit of water was humpback alley.  It
lived up to its name today.  Weren’t we
lucky.

The last few miles into
the Auke Bay terminal were a bit tame after all that excitement.  Not
having done enough research, it quickly became obvious that Auke Bay was not a
suburb of the City of Juneau in any practical sense.  It was nearly 20
miles from Downtown.  There was no bus service so it would have to be a
taxi.  It was at this point that we met Helen, an English girl who had been on the same ferry and was in
the same predicament.  After about 15 minutes a free taxi appeared and we
shared the $35 ride into town.


After a few nights in Juneau spending a day at the Mendenhall
Glacier and another on Mount Roberts, it was time to catch our next ferry
northwards.  This was to take us to Skagway and the start of the Yukon
Trail.  Juneau is a small place and we bumped into Helen several
times.  She was catching the same ferry so we arranged to share a taxi
once again to Auke Bay.  When  we arrived at the terminal, there
waiting for us, was the Matanuska, having made a direct return sailing back to
Prince Rupert.

The route to Skagway followed a long, ever narrowing water
channel. In Norway this would be called a fjord.  At its widest, not long
after we left Auke Bay, the boat entered Stephens Passage which is maybe 10
miles wide.  As the two shorelines grow ever nearer, It narrows down to 5 or 6 miles and becomes the 90
mile stretch known as the Lynn Canal where the water is over 2000 feet
deep.  It is the deepest fjord in North America and ranks amongst the
longest and deepest in the world.  It is followed to the north by Chilkoot Inlet which
leads to the port of Haines and finally it becomes the Taiya Inlet by which
time it is only a few hundred yards wide.  The whole journey, including a
stop at Haines, took about 8 hours.

Whilst in Juneau we had visited the City Museum.  One section was
devoted to a tragic shipwreck of 1918 in the Lynn Canal.  The SS Princess
Sofia, a steel-built passenger liner in the coastal service fleet of
the Canadian Pacific Railway, went aground on the Vanderbilt Reef in a snow
storm.  The reef is actually the summit of an underwater mountain.  Despite some desperate efforts to rescue the 343 passengers and
crew, the weather made all attempts impossible.  Nor could the Princess
Sofia launch her own lifeboats as the wind and the reef would have destroyed
them when they entered the water.  After some 40 hours enduring the
atrocious weather, the boat eventually was blown off the reef and sank. 
It was the worst maritime disaster in British Columbia and Alaska.  We
counted ourselves lucky that today the visibility was good despite the rain and
we sailed north without incident.

Some distance to the west lies the Glacier Bay National Park with over
5,000 square miles of glaciers and high mountains reaching up to 15,000
feet.  It was too far away for us to see.  But we were not
disappointed as there were high mountains to both sides of the fjord and some had
there own glaciers within clear view of the Matanuska.  Very
dramatic.  These are places that must be rarely visited as they have no
road system, we could see no landing places for boats and little level ground
for light aircraft.

This was not a day for wildlife although we did see several groups
of the high-speed Dalls Porpoise.  They are about 6 feet in length and
have distinctive black and white colouring.  They move at such speed that
they produce highly visible white spray.  We didn’t see any other marine
life but there were plenty of sea birds.  Apart from recognising gulls and
terns my ornithological knowledge does not extend to specific species
recognition.

What I did recognise on the boat, were two Jehovah’s
Witnesses.  They do get everywhere. Even in this remote part of the world
with very small populations, they are still intent on their role as
missionaries.  As you would see in more conventional
suburban environment,
the two men were dressed in suits with white shirts whereas everyone else was
dressed in much more appropriate clothing for the weather.  I wondered if
they only go about their work for a short period in the summer when the
temperatures are better for their type of clothing.

At Haines, the only stop on the journey, there was another strange incident.  The first two vehicles to disembark were a government 4×4 vehicle and a large blue van of the Alaska Correctional Industries Laundry.  Were there prisoners on-board?  The two vehicles parked together on the pier and re-boarded the boat then it was ready to leave.  I read later that the prison laundry services has the Alaska Marine Highway System as one of its largest customers.

As we approached Skagway, a gold rush town from Klondike days, we could see today’s “gold rush” in the unsightly form of three very large cruise ships.  The presence of these ships is regulated in an attempt to keep under control the number of passengers descending on a small town or national park at any one time.  The controls are only partially successful.  Our dislike of these hordes was only slightly tempered when the conductor on our “heritage” train the next day on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad explained that the railway only existed today because of the cruise dollar.  Before the cruise ships came the railway, such an important supply run of the Yukon Gold Rush days, had fallen into disrepair and disuse.  The cruise ship companies provided serious money that enabled a band of enthusiastic railway buffs to rebuild the track and refurbish/replace the rolling stock.

And so our experience of coastal ferries on the Pacific came to an end.  These ferries are the only way to see the stunning scenery and wildlife of this fascinating region.  There are very few roads and, in any case, they do not connect to other roads.  Small planes, especially those fitted with floats, can take you to see many things, some inaccessible in any other practical way, but they are expensive and a flight can be over before it has really begun.  The ferries are affordable, comfortable and pass very slowly through the amazing landscapes.  They also make regular stops in isolated places allowing a savvy traveller to see many parts of this great country and its ocean.  You can travel at your own pace and spend as little or as much time at one place as you like.  We booked most of our travel in advance but next time we go we’ll take pot luck.  It will work,  I’m sure. 

 

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Exploring the North American Pacific Coast by Ferry – part 1

 

The Pacific Coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska
is well served with ferries.   It needs
to be.  As well as the many island communities,
even places on the mainland have no road links with the rest of continental
North America.  As a taxi driver in
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, said to us “There are three ways arrive in Juneau.  By plane. By ferry. By birth canal.”  In theory, you could also walk but that would
involve miles and miles of trekking over very high mountains – many over 10,000
feet (3,000 metres) – across vast glaciers and through bear country.

For the independent traveller, the ferries provide a
relatively low budget means of transport to amazing scenery.  We booked most of our journeys directly with
the ferry companies through the internet from the comfort of our home.  It was straightforward and proved to be trouble
free.  In reality, June is not actually peak
season so we could have just turned up and would have been able to travel where
and when we wanted without pre-booked tickets.

There used to be a ferry service that ran from Washington
State in the US right up the coast serving British Columbia in Canada and
Alaska in the United States.  Today, with
all the issues of security and cross-border travel, the service is totally
fragmented.  We chose to fly from Seattle
to Vancouver though you can also do this journey by train, coach or ferry.

The coastal route followed by the ferries is known as the
Inside Passage.  Essentially the route
takes advantage of the shelter proved by sailing between the coast and the
chain of off-shore islands.  Of course,
not all of the route is protected from the Pacific.  There are exposed gaps between the
islands.  On one occasion, the ferry stopped
at Sitka, the former capital of Alaska and situated on the Pacific facing shore
of Baranof Island.  To get there the
route left the shelter of the Inside Passage through the ominously named Peril
Strait and into the open Pacific.

In Canada, the ferries were operated by BC Ferries.  They seem to have a monopoly of routes except
in the busiest area for services which is between Vancouver City and Victoria
on Vancouver Island. Our first ferry journey was from Horseshoe Bay, half an
hour’s drive northwest of Vancouver.
We took advantage of the connecting bus service from the magnificent art deco Union Station in Vancouver to the ferry terminal.  The combination of the bus and the ferry should have given us a very scenic journey but it was a typical British Columbia day of rain, rain and more rain. 
The Queen of Cowichan was to take us to Departure Bay, Nanaimo roughly half way up
the 400 mile long Vancouver Island.  The
route crosses the Strait of Georgia and takes a little under 2 hours.   The boat, although 40 years old, was comfortable and had plenty of seating.  It was not a day to spend much time on deck so once on the ferry, it being lunchtime, a
visit to the cafeteria seemed the best plan.
The food was excellent and the cooked-to-order sockeye salmon burgers
were generously portioned and delicious.

The ferry terminal at Departure Bay is a modern building.  There was a large inside area to wait for
connecting buses.  This worked well for
locals as they could watch for their bus arriving and make a dash through the,
by now, heavy rain.  For us strangers it
was a little different.  The buses didn’t
have signs to say where they were going so we had to dash out to each bus as it
arrived and check with the driver if it was going to Campbell River, our
destination for the night.  Sods law, our
bus was the last to arrive by which time we were drenched.

We spent six nights on Vancouver Island, using buses and a
rental car to slowly make our way up to the northern end at Port Hardy, for our
next ferry journey.  This time we were
going up the Inside Passage on a more modern boat, less than 10 years in service, the BC Ferries Northern Explorer.  The journey took eighteen
hours to sail to Prince Rupert at the most north westerly corner of mainland
British Columbia.  We boarded the ferry
just after 6am.  A modest fare supplement
gave us reserved seats in the luxury of the forward observation lounge and included all
meals.

This must rank as one of the world’s most scenic scheduled
sea journeys.  It was a day of mixed
weather but that didn’t detract from the beauty and magnificence of the
mountains, cliffs and islands.

The boat made one stop at the port of Bella Bella on
Campbell Island.  A lot of vehicles
disembarked including cars, lorries and the ubiquitous RV’s.  A few disappeared over the hill out of the
terminal, others joined queues waiting for smaller connecting ferry services
but the majority turned around and lined up ready to re-board.  It looked as though not a lot of thought had
been given to boarding at Port Hardy.
This added about an hour to the journey but it did afford us with a most
magnificent experience with loads of wow factor. 
Suddenly, with the ferry still tied up in the harbour,
two massive humpback whales surfaced right at the front of the boat.  They were just yards away but appeared
without warning so cameras were not at the ready.  After breaching, with their bodies almost
completely out of the water and a final flourish of the tail, they dipped back
below the surface.  They then slowly swam
out of the bay showing their route by blowing large spouts of water and
occasional flips of their tails.  To see
such massive creatures at such close quarters more than made our day.

By this point on our trip, we were getting used to seeing sea
life, especially seals and porpoises, but it didn’t stop a buzz of excitement
whenever some came into view.  The seals
were mostly near to the coastline.  As we
moved further north, the Inside Passage narrowed to two or three hundred metres
wide, sometimes even narrower, so we saw more seals.  The Dall’s Porpoises, relatives of the whale
family, regularly passed the ferry in schools of six to eight.  They move very quickly, up to 40 knots, and
leave a wake behind as they race across the ocean. 

Our first sighting of a bald eagle had been on an island off the east coast of Vancouver Island.  It had been
fishing and was now perched near the top of a tree with its wings outspread to
dry.  We were amazed to see the
emblematic bird of the United States at such close quarters.  Weren’t we in luck.  Actually, no.
Over the course of our time along the Pacific coast, we saw hundreds of
them.  In numbers, they vied with the
big, black, noisy ravens that were everywhere in the forests.  The ravens made their presence known but emitting
loud squawking noises.  It’s no
co-incidence that these two large birds have such a prominent place in the art
of the First Nations people especially on totem poles.

One advantage of being in these northern latitudes in June
is the long days.  Although it was nearly
midnight by the time the ferry docked in Prince Rupert, we had good views of
the mainland and the passing islands until the last hour when the sky became
heavily overcast and the rain started to fall.
After a whole day seeing only scattered, sparsely populated coastal communities,
the street lights of the city looked rather incongruous.  Prince Rupert only has a population of some
12,000 but to us it seemed like a real metropolis.
It would be our home for the next three nights whilst we waited for next
ferry to take us north to Alaska.

 

(note : There will be one more posts in this short series covering the two ferry journeys that took us to the northern extremity of the Inside Passage.  It will be published very soon.)


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A Trip with the Wow Factor Day after Day

In mid June we made our first flight on a Boeing 787 – the Dreamliner as it is called. That name was so appropriate for the trip we were embarking upon, a “trip of a lifetime”.  For us, a perfect journey includes mountainous country, dramatic seascapes and an element of remoteness.  So where better
to go than to the northern Pacific coast of North America, where the mountains and glaciers meet the ocean and where Canada and Alaska are intertwined.

We’ve now been back for nearly a month and there has been time to gather together notes and start to make a coherent tale of our adventures.  The whole trip had been organised from my desk at home with a little help from Flight Centre who got us a good deal on Premium flights to cross the Atlantic and for internal flights in Canada and the United States.  Amazingly, everything worked to plan and we received great welcomes everywhere.  One reason for this turned out to be that we were travelling independently and, as the people we met said, we had chosen to visit their countries, cities, communities and to stay at a particular B&B or use a particular bit of transport.  This was in contrast to the relatively large numbers travelling in organised groups or on cruise ships who are largely insulated from the local people.    

As I started to write some notes on the plane flying from London to Vancouver via Seattle, my train of thought was suddenly interrupted.  Since take-off from Heathrow the flight had been entirely above a heavy cloud base.  Now about 4 hours into the flight the clouds parted and Wow!!!! The mountains and glaciers of Greenland appeared, literally out of the blue. Fantastic. The sea was still completely frozen. Near to us were black, rocky mountains marking the eastern edge of the landmass. To the north was one
vast snow and ice field stretching as far as the eye could see.
 Somewhere up there was the North Pole. I was mesmerized by the spectacle until, a while later, we had crossed the western seaboard of this remote and almost uninhabited country and the plane moved back into the clouds.

Back to the trip. True to the title of this blog, there would be elements of trains and boats and planes.
In addition, there would be bus journeys and a few days with a rental car.  The latter was to get us around an area of Vancouver Island with few buses otherwise everything was by schedules
transport.
  And, of course, we would be walking as much as possible although, disappointingly, we didn’t do as much as we had hoped.

Vancouver was our first stop.  We were only there for two nights giving us a chance to get a feel for the city, see some of the main sights, sample the cuisine and walk the Pacific sea wall trail of Stanley Park but not to explore the place in depth.  Next stop was across the Strait of Georgia by one of the regular ferry services, provided by BC Ferries, joining Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia. The island is about 350 miles from top to bottom and 60 miles across.  The length is about the same distance as it is from southernmost point of the Scottish mainland near Stranraer to its most northerly point at John O’Groats.   A big island.  On landing in Nanaimo, a bus took us in pouring rain up the east coast of the island to the town of Campbell River.  Whilst on the island took a sea trip to see whales and other sea mammals.  It was way beyond our dreams with everything from Humpbacks to Bald Eagles to Black Bears.

After six nights, we boarded a ferry at Port Hardy near the north end of the island.  This took us
northwards up the Inside Passage, a sea route that weaves between the coast of British Columbia and the off-shore Pacific islands.
  It was a long day of sailing – 17 hours – to the city of Prince Rupert in northwest British Columbia.  After a couple of days there, yet another ferry took us up the coast of south east Alaska with a number of stops for two nights and three days to the capital city Juneau.  It was there that we encountered glaciers at close quarters. There had been some warnings that global warming has resulted in a less spectacular display than there was just a few years ago.  Despite that the wow factor was high.

If any of you, my dear readers, have watched the recent BBC TV programme Wild Alaska Live, the base for that production, in the Tongass National Forest and the Mendenhall Glacier, featured heavily in each episode, and was where we spent a stunning day. 

After three nights, we took a final ferry journey from Juneau to the town of Skagway near the northern end of this part of Alaska.  In its day, Skagway was the entry point to the Klondike in the days of gold mining.  The main attraction today is the heritage train that took us nearly 100 miles over the mountains to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory.  There was dramatic mountain and river spectacles and time spent in high tundra with empty country and stunted trees.

Throughout the trip, we saw an amazing array of wildlife.  Our knowledge of the animal kingdom is fairly
rudimentary so there were lots of other oooh’s and aaah’s, without necessarily a lot of specific species identification. 
We couldn’t help but recognise the magnificent humpback whales and a variety of seals and porpoises.  In the sky there were seagulls, terns, bald eagles and ravens.  And on land we saw black bears, red squirrels, porcupines and various deer.  And, of course, we saw literally millions of trees, the most common being the Sitka Spruce which typically is 50 to 60 metres high (nearly 200 feet).  We were
there in their Spring, so there were plenty of flowers and tree blossom.
  One of the most common plants was the blue lupin.

So that’s our adventure in summary, I’ll be posting some more specific pieces.  Hope you enjoy reading about this fascinating part of the world as much as we did experiencing it a first hand.



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Rambling Round London – The London LOOP

Setting a target

Laziness can be a
bit of a curse.
  You put off things for
trivial reasons.
  Even things that you
really enjoy get left to one side.
  So,
having reached the age of 75 at the end of 2016, to ensure that laziness would
not take over, it was time to set a walking goal for 2017.
 Walking is my favourite pastime.

A number of years
ago we had walked a stretch of the North Downs Way – about 50 miles from
Guildford in Surrey to Wrotham in Kent – that follows the high ground to the
south of London.  It was a great walk taking five separate days over
a period of three months.  In the course of the walks, we climbed Box
Hill, looked down on Winston Churchill’s long-time home at Chartwell and had
great views northwards over London and southward over Surrey and Sussex to the
South Downs.  Key to the success of the walk was the public transport that
got us to the start of each section and brought us home from the end.

A bit of exploration
of maps and guidebooks soon identified an excellent candidate for the 2017
project.  A bit more detailed study and the London LOOP, or to give it its
full name the London Outer Orbital Path, became the target.  The walk
covers about 150 miles and circumnavigates London from Erith on the south bank
of the Thames in Kent, to Purfleet on the opposite north bank in Essex. 
It is entirely within the other orbital route, the London Orbital Motorway,
otherwise known as the M25, and seeks to use greenbelt wherever
possible.  Also, and very importantly, the route has been adopted by TfL
(Transport for London) who have produced a series of twenty-four guides
describing the route in detail and showing the transport links to get to and
from every part of the LOOP.  An added bonus would be provided
by our London Freedom Passes that would give us free
transport throughout our adventures.

A mid-term report

It is now nearly four months into the project and it’s
really going very well.
  That is except
for a period near the beginning when Margaret had fallen victim to the ills of
winter and I had to do a few sections by myself.
  We have passed the halfway point and
completed the whole of the route north of the River Thames.
  So, it’s 95 miles down and 55 miles to go.

In real terms, the journey has been substantially
longer.
  To get to the start of a section
and back from the end involves buses, trains and the underground and a fair
amount of extra walking.
  That extra
walking has probably added another twenty-five miles to the total so far.
  By the time we have finished, we’ll have
walked nearer to 200 miles!!

So, for the past few months, we’ve been walking the trail
round the outskirts of London to the north of the River Thames.
  It’s been a fascinating amble.  When you live in a big city you don’t realise
how much green land there is and how much of it is accessible.
  We’ve walked through a Royal Park, followed a
tributary of the Thames as it meanders through urban woodland and skirts around
Heathrow airport, passed numerous stately homes (some now just a memory) and
walked along the banks of the stream where Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly laid
down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to cross the water.

To get to the start of a section or to get back from the end
of it, we have been to places that were just names before, but that now take on
a totally different perspective.
  Cockfosters
has always been a distant station at the end of the Piccadilly Line underground
route.
  I had no real idea where it was
as those iconic London Underground maps are perfect for route finding but give
no real idea of where a place actually is.
 
Now, I know that Cockfosters is a fairly swanky suburb in north London
with the London Loop trail passing the station entrance.
  Similarly, with Hainault, a mysterious place
on a strange loop at the eastern end of the Central Line which we passed
through on the train back from Chigwell.
 
Harefield Hospital is a hospital of world renown in the field of Heart
and Lung surgery, to the west of London.
 
Little did I know that the bus linking the end of section 12 on the
towpath of the Grand Union Canal to Uxbridge underground station, passes right
through the hospital grounds.
  And as for
Chigwell, of “Birds of a Feather” fame, you could see Sharon and Tracey behind
every set of net curtains and Dorien flitting from one pillared house to the next.
  This was at the end of section 19.

We’ve been impressed by the level of maintenance of the
trail, mostly excellent but very occasionally a disappointment.
  One example was where the trail was using a
designated public footpath across farm fields in a part of Hertfordshire.
  The fields are attached to horses’ stables
and the horses had been allowed to congregate close to a crucial style.
  It was still winter and the London clay was
very claggy.
  The horses had turned the
area around the style into a no-go area.
 
It only needed a small area to be fenced off and it would have been ok
to cross.
  Instead the only alternative
was across another field and through the actual stable yard.
  The farmer was, to say the least, unwelcoming.

On another day, in the Borough of Havering, what should have
been a very picturesque stream in a wooded valley between areas of housing, had
been allowed to become a rubbish dump and a drinking den, judging by the number
of discarded beer cans.
  The squalor was
only off-set by the presence of a beautiful white egret.
  There must have been a few small fish or
frogs in the stream.

Following the trail is generally straightforward but from
time to time we have had to retrace our steps or, as on a couple of occasions,
realised we had taken a different route and re-joined the official trail a
little further along.
  This has been
caused by missing signs or, in one place, where the sign has been knocked over
and it was impossible to work out which route to take.

Throughout we have used both the Transport for London
internet based guides (
https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/loop-walk)
and the National Trails Guidebook for the London LOOP.
  These are invaluable for keeping the walker
on track – more or less – and also for highlighting the points of interest
along the way.
  They are not
infallible.
  In a big city things are
changing all the time.
  At one point, one
guide said to cross a field to a small hut, the other said to cross a field to
small barn.
  In fact, the hut/barn, we’ll
never know which, has been demolished.
  A
constant problem for writers of guides.

Along the way, we have had to cross many major arterial
roads such as the M1, M11, M4, M40 and A1, all by tunnels or bridges.
  Much more scary, was the A12 Colchester dual
carriageway where the official trail crosses a very busy section.
  Only the traffic lights, ¼ mile or so away in
both direction, caused welcome short breaks in the continuous traffic
flow.
  The A30 proved to be a real
barrier and could only be crossed by making a 1mile diversion via a distant
junction with a pedestrian crossing.
  But
apart from those few encounters with the road system of the capital, the route
was well separated from through traffic.

Walking the LOOP

On the 17th January, the project started at the
bus stop opposite our flat in Richmond from where we travelled the five or so
miles to Kingston-upon-Thames.
  This is
the closest the LOOP gets to home.
  The
route is almost a complete circle broken only by the River Thames estuary to
the east of the city.
  The official
starting point is on the south bank of the river at Erith and the finish is on
the north shore at Purfleet.
 Our route
would take us first along the longer, north-of-the-Thames part of the LOOP.
  Later on, we would tackle the southern
sections.

Our starting point was at Kingston Bridge where the route
crosses the Thames to the west of London.
 
Section 9 (out of the total of 24), runs from Kingston Bridge to Hatton
Cross, on the south-eastern perimeter of Heathrow Airport.
  It’s about 8 ½ miles in length, rather more
than we wanted to do in one afternoon.
  We
knew we would be able to break off at a number of points along the way where
the LOOP crosses a bus route or suburban rail route, so we set out knowing that
if time or inclination faded, an escape route would be nearby.

And so, section after section, we have progressed towards
our goal of conquering the London LOOP.
 
In January, the weather was fine but February and March were wet.  Long sections of the walk were through claggy
London clay.
  Boot cleaning was a serious
activity at the end of each day.
 

Here’s a random selection of some of the most interesting
bits of the walk.

·        
Early on in the project, two days were spent
skirting Heathrow Airport and weaving through industrial estates that are an
integral part of the Heathrow infrastructure.
 
Much of this was along the banks of the River Crane.  To the north of the airport, and dwarfed by
junction 3 of the M4 motorway, the LOOP passes St Dunstan’s.
  There has been a church here since Saxon
times.
  The current church dates back to
the 15
th century.  This was,
and still is, the family church of the Berkeleys, an English aristocratic
family of very long pedigree.
  It’s
constructed of an interesting combination of flint and brick.
  There is a memorial plaque to the late, great
English comedian Tony Hancock and to his mother Lucie Lilian Sennett, who is
buried in the churchyard.
  Such a
fascinating corner in the midst of 20
th/21st  century hustle and bustle.  

·        
A little further north, the LOOP follows, for
the most part, the banks of the Grand Union Canal through Hayes, West Drayton
and Uxbridge, then onto Harefield.
  It
makes for flat walking but underfoot can be very muddy.
  It was along this stretch, at Uxbridge, that
we came upon the General Eliott pub.
 
This was an excellent, unpretentious, canal-side pub with a good
selection of beers and superb home-cooked food.
 
A lady, maybe the landlady, gave us a small piece of paper with a
hand-written menu.
  We both chose the
spaghetti carbonara.
  It was the best we
have ever tasted.
   

·        
Grimsdyke House was built for WS Gilbert, of
Gilbert and Sullivan fame, in fine woodland on the edge of Harrow Weald
Common.
  The trail meanders through the
rhododendrons and beside the ponds, in the extensive grounds.
  WS Gilbert loved the place so much that he is
recorded as having declared that he would like to die there on a summer’s day.
  Poignantly that is what happened.  He drowned in one of the ponds whilst
rescuing a young female house-guest. 
 

·        
Beyond High Barnet are the picturesque villages
of Hadley Green and Monken Hadley.
  It
was here in 1471 that the English Civil War Battle of Barnet took place.
  This was a decisive battle as it was here
that Warwick, the kingmaker, was slain.
 
Just past the church, there stands the Sir Roger Wilbraham’s Almshouses
built, as it says, for “six decayed housekeepers”.
  Interesting how the meaning of words changes
with time.
 

·        
On the stretch between Cockfosters and Enfield
Lock, the LOOP follows, for a time, Turkey Brook.
  This is named after the hamlet, now a suburb,
of Turkey Street.
  The “Turkey” is
nothing to do with the bird or the country.
 
The name derives from the name of the landed family Toke who built some
houses known as Tokestreete, now Turkey Street.
 
Anyway, I digress.  Maidens
Bridge, over Turkey Brook, is reputed to be the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh
spread his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth could cross without
getting her feet wet.
  However
questionable this story may be, it is known that the Queen loved to stay at
Elsynge Palace (long since demolished) which was across the brook on the far
side of the big ponds that the LOOP skirts.
 

·        
After crossing Enfield Lock the LOOP briefly
follows the River Lea down the Lea Valley.
 
Here you can see the workers’ cottages of the Royal Small Arms Factory,
the home of the famous Lee Enfield rifles used by the British Army in the Boer
War and in the two World Wars.
  Ahead there
is a high embankment.
  This is part of
the enclosure of the massive King George’s Reservoir, nearly two miles long and
named after King George V.
  The
reservoir, along with its neighbouring William Girling Reservoir, supply over
one quarter of London’s fresh water.
 

·        
To the east of the reservoirs, the LOOP passes Gilwell
Park, home of the scouting movement.
  As
a comment on modern day obsessions, some well-founded, with security and
unsavoury intruders, the campsites are now enclosed by high wire fences.
  Gone are the days of camping in semi-wild
fringes of Epping Forest.
 

·        
After leaving Chingford and crossing part of the
Chingford Plain, the path comes to three large buildings.
  The first one is the Royal Forest Hotel.  The last one is the weather-boarded Butlers
Retreat, now a tearoom of which we took advantage.
  In the middle is the 16th century
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.
  Now a
museum, it is where the queen would come to view hunting parties in Epping
Forest.
  The upper floors now have
windows but in Elizabeth’s day they were open balconies.
 

·        
Shortly before reaching Chigwell, in the middle
of sports fields and parkland, lies a substantial lake with no name.
  It was created in the 1970’s when gravel was
extracted for the construction of the nearby M11 motorway.
  Today it is an attractive expanse of water in
the Roding Valley Meadows Nature Reserve.
 

·        
And so to Chigwell.  Earlier in the walk, the LOOP passes through
the Moor Park Private Estate, built by Lord Leverhulme and Lever Brothers in
the 1920s, 1930s and, with a break for World War II, in the 1950s.
  The houses are all built on individual plots
with ornamental hedges forming the boundaries between one plot and the
next.
  As the original sales brochure
stated “One may enjoy quietude and seclusion (without isolation} in an old
English park”.
  Today the large houses
sell for in excess of £2m.
  The cars in
the driveways are usually top-of-the-range Mercedes and, to a lesser extent,
BMWs.
  There are classy SUVs but not as
many as you would see in other posh London suburbs.
  Most houses have two or three cars.  All very refined and expensive.


In contrast, Chigwell sets out to be posh but misses the
mark.
  For a start, the houses are mostly
very close together with solid walls or fences between them.
  There is excessive use of over-elaborate decorative
effects.
  Typical are large colonnades in
front of standard, fairly large estate brick-built houses.
  Mock-Tudor is much in evidence.  As for the cars, SUVs dominate along with
flashy versions of Mercedes and BMWs.
 
Showing off wealth, or access to money, is obviously important
here.
  “Quietude and seclusion” it is
not.

·        
You can’t go far in England without finding a
connection to King Henry VIII.
  To the east
of Havering-atte-Bower there had been a royal palace occupied originally by
Edward the Confessor and much later by Henry VIII.
  The latter had a house built for his two
daughters Mary and Elizabeth. PIrgo (now spelt Pyrgo) has long since been
demolished and all that remains are a pair of elaborate iron gate posts.
  The LOOP passes through this gateway

·        
And finally, to the Concrete Barges on the shore
of the Thames Estuary near Rainham.
 
These barges were built during WWII for Mulberry Harbour in France to
support the D-Day Landings.
  They were
then brought back to the Thames to add to the defences of London.
  However, they never found a proper function
and have lain on the banks of the Thames estuary ever since.
  Despite being there for over seventy years
they show no sign of disintegrating.

 

So, it is now the middle of May and we’ve reached the Thames
again.
  Roughly two thirds of the LOOP
completed and the summer ahead of us.
 Must find out how to get to Erith for the next
section.

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