Hokitika Gorge and the town of the same name on New Zealand’s West Coast

The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.

There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.

On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”

Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.

Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.

Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.

I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.

Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.

“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.

The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.

The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.

New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.

The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.

Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, Spain review

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Foodie fantasy outside the city of Barcelona

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I’ve avoided driving in any nation except my ownokay, I’m ignoring Canada. Forgive me, neighbor to the north! But your roads are so similar to my own, and I can bring my own trusted car. It doesn’t count.

On this, my most recent trip to Europe, I faced a conundrum. Hire a rental car, or give up a much anticipated trip?

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking car Renault Espace - 1

Renault Espace, felt like the largest car in  Spain

I rented a car. I hated almost every minute of driving the lovely but oversized Renault Espace in even small cities like Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, but it did provide me with the means to reach a really sublime rural experience: a mother and son private cooking class with the owner at B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona.

Background: civil unrest in Catalunya & a nervous husband

Barcelona 2017 Vilafranca Catalan flag - 1

Monument in Vilafranca with Catalan flag flying proud, NOT the national flag of Spain

My husband, whom we might politely describe as “travel averse,” was trying to dissuade me from joining him in Barcelona with DS2 at all. DH was near to canceling his own appearance at a really interesting conference. Why? The Catalan independence movement, and media depictions of dissent and violence that were widespread in the months leading up to our trip.

Back in the spring, when I found a reasonable* coach airfare to join DH on this jaunt to Spain, I immediately invited my children to come along. Shocking no one, my little guy opted to miss a week of school and join us; to my chagrin, my punk teen decided he would rather stick to his usual academic routine at home and demurred.

Though I find myself pondering whether someone could have switched DS1 at birth** for my rightful child, I do sort of understand the teenager’s desire to assert his independence by doing something—anything!—different from what his parent suggests.

Beyond the city limits: choosing an experience

So there were three of us headed to Spain in the early winter of 2017. We would be staying in the heart of Barcelona for the four nights of the conference. After that, DH booked his ticket home at the earliest possible moment. To save over $1000 each, DS2 and I needed to stay over until Saturday.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking outside flowers

Spain flowers even in winter

Originally, I’d booked accommodations in the medieval center of Girona for the parent-child short break. Girona is about an hour north/northwest of Barcelona. Trains, while available, aren’t super convenient to that village, however. There is no city-traffic-avoiding route back to BCN Barcelona International Airport during morning rush hour without a private car. Parking in old Girona is also not known to be convenient.

While I was keen to visit this ancient town due to its beautifully preserved Jewish quarter and its being the setting for a great series of medieval mysteries, it turns out that the world has discovered Girona because Game of Thrones has filmed there. That’s a little too much pop popularity for me to visit El Call right now.

DH, fearing he would leave and then a transit strike—or worse, total civil unrest!—would leave his wife and child at the mercy of a rioting mass of Catalan separatists, wanted me to make a plan better suited to last minute changes and further removed from the politicized masses.

I booked a rental car from BCN for the morning of DH’s departure. This option provided us with freedom of movement in the face of taxi strikes or to flee more serious unrest in that unlikely event. I then found an intriguing bed and breakfast outside the city in which DS2 and I would spend our final two nights in Spain.

As an aside, I never felt unsafe in Barcelona or the surrounding region. Except possibly while negotiating the narrow, winding exit from the airport parking garage in an SUV the size of a semi, but you can’t blame that on politics.

Catalunya: experiencing hearth & home

One of the ideas I’d entertained for making the trip to Spain a pleasure for both myself and my younger son was a cooking class.

barcelona-2017-b-and-b-wine-cooking-class-mom-with-kid-e1517158098792.jpg

We (helped Marta while she) made that paella!

Yes, it’s true, any regular reader knows that I’m not typically an enthusiastic cook.

That said, I am an enthusiastic student of what makes other people—and other cultures—tick, and it is hard to place a finger on the pulse of Catalunya without discussing food. These are people who love to eat, who know how food really ought to be, and who seem to enjoy sharing all of the same.

I’d entertained the notion of this class in Barcelona, but the timing wasn’t working out quite right. Plus, if I’m honest, I would rather visit a nice, dusty history museum any day, whereas my son was hoping to stay in the hotel watching his favorite cartoons in various languages.

What did pop up when I started researching lodgings outside the city of Barcelona, but within a radius of about one hour, were farm- and winery- based experiences.

Penedès, if I’m getting this right, is the heart of the grape growing region that produces some the world’s best sparkling wines, or cava, as it’s known locally. At least one person with whom I spoke implied that champagne is basically just a French knock off of Catalan cava!

I won’t take a position in the subjective argument of “best” or the historical question of “first,” but I can tell you that it is easy for a non- aficionado to learn about and experience great sparkling wines in Penedès, even with a child in tow.

Barcelona 2017 B and B Wine Cooking street sign

Signpost guides the way. Take the narrow dirt track to the right around the cluster of houses.

So I booked the B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès and hoped for the best. It had good reviews on Trip Advisor, but was mostly an unknown. I chose to use Hotels.com for booking, just in case any of it was less than legit, but, in the end, have nothing but good experiences to report from Penedès.

BandB WineandCooking Cava welcome - 1If I return, next time I will book directly with the B&B. When you do, they guarantee you the lowest room rate and give you a free bottle of cava as a welcome gift.

B&B Wine & Cooking, El Pla del Penedès

This bed and breakfast is family friendly. I’ll start there, because so many B&Bs in the USA are fussy establishments that seek to insulate their guests from such inconveniences as children and telecommunications. This is not that. Continue reading

Fly or drive? Mode of travel and its impact on planet, wallet & joy

Are you a road tripper or a frequent flier?

I chose to drive from New England to northern Minnesota last month. Five of us were scheduled to attend summer camp there, so the endpoints were set: home, and Bemidji, MN.

I elected driving over flying for many reasons, but a consideration for my summer vacation’s environmental impact was on the list.

RoadTrip round trip mapYou can read the more conventional road trip story by clicking Part I or Part II if you want to know more about why and how we made this journey. You could also read about my carefully thought out wardrobe for the trip!

I live within reasonable driving distance of a major airport, so convenient flights abound. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) is four hours south of Bemidji, which also hosts a regional airport of its own (BJI.) The camp offers a fairly priced shuttle from BJI, and a costlier, less convenient bus all the way to MSP.

The particulars of this trip were not decided by availability of choices. We had our pick of several decent options, if we were willing to pay for them.

Environmental impact of flying vs. driving

Here’s an article from Yale Climate Connections that presents a pretty balanced picture of the complex question: is flying or driving better for the planet?

Similar discussions on the New York Times and at ThoughtCo draw similar conclusions: it depends, a lot, on how many bodies are in which type of car.

Calculators like those mentioned in the articles shine some light on how I assessed this aspect of my choice to drive, not fly.

For my van, with four to five average travelers on board, it’s pretty clear even before running the specific numbers that we opted a reasonably environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Passenger count varied from five (5) during the home to camp phase; four to six (4-6) headed from Minnesota to Ohio; and just my two kids and myself (3) for the final 750 miles from Ohio to New England.

Using the BeFrugal Fly or Drive Calculator for the first, best documented leg of my trip, I can estimate that I saved 4318 lbs of CO2, or, stated differently, that I generated only about 25% as much CO2.

A difference that great is likely to hold up in spite of the controversy about how some of the underlying statistics are generated.

Financial cost to drive vs. fly

As for cost in the traditional sense (dollars and cents!), it also appears probable that I made a better financial choice. That scenario could be very different for a trip involving only major airports where competition keeps prices down.

Bemidji (BJI) is by far the most convenient option when this camp is in session, especially for flights arriving the day of, or the day before, camp sessions begin. Availability is also quite limited for those popular flights.

I used airline miles to buy a rewards ticket the last time I visited Bemidji. The cash price was not one I would willingly pay to suffer in economy class.

The same BeFrugal calculations I showed above reflect as many of my actual costs as I could input into the tool—like actual airfare to BJI researched months ago during the planning process and my preference for a higher class of hotel than the calculator assumes—though some numbers were not user adjustable.

Once again, I’m confident that my actual cost savings were at least as good as the tool predicted. We made a few more frugal choices:

Coffee cup travel mug - 1

  • We carried healthy food with us and avoided overpriced “convenience” snacks.
  • We refilled our reusable water bottles (and my coffee cup!) at the hotel each morning.
  • Aside from one nice steak dinner, the kids actually voted for affordable stops like Subway for sandwiches.
  • I used Gas Buddy to plan fuel stops in the less expensive state when there was a choice, and I knew what a ballpark “good” price was for a given area.

Minivan as economical people mover

I checked the average MPG (as calculated by the van itself) after each of the three major stages of the trip. We averaged 26 MPG from New England to Bemidji, 28 MPG from Bemidji to Ohio, and 27 MPG from Ohio back home.

That’s spot on with published numbers for my van, and really admirable performance for a large vehicle that comfortably seats a crowd.

My typical MPG around town in the van is 18-19, but that’s driving in crowded suburb of a major city.

We needed to stop for gas about 1.5 times per day with that fuel economy. The human passengers required vastly more frequent stops to empty their “tanks” than the minivan required filling up with gasoline.

Gas prices ranged from a low of $1.98 per gallon to a high of around $2.50 per gallon at a toll road service plaza.

I didn’t leave my planned route to seek out the cheapest gas, but I did stop at Costco stations whenever they were well located. I prioritized convenient stops over price, but didn’t find any prices particularly onerous. They almost all hovered just above the $2 mark.

But, have I mentioned comfort?

Minivans are more comfortable than modern planes

We carried a full load of luggage in the back (up to the headrests, which you can read more about here), and each of us had at least a mid-sized “carry on” up front. We had a small cooler stocked with cold drinks and produce and a dry snack bag of equivalent size.

The kids were annoyed by my insistence that all electronics be invisibly stowed for every (shockingly frequent) rest break, but they didn’t have to struggle to climb out of the van due to cargo in the passenger area. Space in the vehicle was well utilized, not overstuffed.

No passenger was forced to sit with his body touching anyone else. Leg room could have been an issue with a similar load of tall adults, but it wasn’t a problem for a group composed of children and young teens.

Being kids, they often did touch each other, or sit with heads together, but that was voluntary.

All of this descriptive information is provided to make clear: all of us were seated more comfortably than we would be in a modern, coach class airline seat. Most of us had significantly more legroom and personal space than one gets in a domestic first class seat.

Convenience is another factor

I don’t want to give the impression that this was my only consideration when planning this trip. Modern life is complicated, and we all make trade offs between convenience, cost, and conscience.

In my case, every point I’ve made in this post up to now has been predicated on one simple reality: I had time to take this trip.

My primary work these days is caring for and educating my children. That means most of my time can be planned according to my own wants, needs, and preferences. Most of what I do, I can choose where I want to do it.

Even so, time was our biggest constraint for this road trip.

We couldn’t leave any earlier due to school schedules for some of the participants. We had to arrive at camp by the scheduled date and time. Without another driver in our crew, my health risked becoming a factor by limiting the number of hours in the day that could safely be spent on the road.

Family fun factor & reasons for sharing

Every time I write a post on Really Wonderful Things describing how I did something, it’s because I hope that information proves useful for a reader somewhere.

If I made a mistake, perhaps you can learn from it. If I came up with a clever idea, I hope it works for you, too.

This post is my attempt to break down how I decided to drive instead of fly to Minnesota with a group of four kids destined for summer camp. It also details why I think this was a good choice, environmentally, and economically.

The trip was also a lot of fun, almost all of the time, which is something about which I haven’t written much yet. That’s a factor—the family fun factor!—that really matters to me.

My kids are going to remember this trip. My temporary charges are now much better friends of mine as well as to my boys. We worked together and accomplished a goal. All of us learned something. We saw corners of America that were new to each and every one of us.

It’s hard to run the calculations for the value of the fun factor, but let’s just agree that it’s high.

Summer camp capsule wardrobe UNPACKED: What got worn?

In a previous post, I described most what I packed for a multiple week road trip involving lots of time outdoors but also some city visits.

Here’s that post, detailing my capsule wardrobe for a week of summer camp in Minnesota, and travel thereafter.

But you know what’s even more helpful than a description of what I put in my suitcase a month ago?

A breakdown of which items I pulled out of my suitcase, and how often. In short, what did I actually wear?

I did not pack light for this trip

As I confessed in my original post, I did not pack in a particularly light way for this trip. I prioritized comfort over minimalism, and knew I could leave excess baggage in the car when it wasn’t needed.

That’s what I did. I used packing cubes and multiple mid-sized bags to subdivide clothing, and I packed and re-packed between segments of the trip with differing priorities.

luggage in van redacted

Test fitting luggage; all bags were stowed below headrest level under a black blanket when I was done packing

We traveled by minivan—a conveyance notable for vast amounts of storage space. I preferred to bring everything I might need to avoid the tedious type of shopping during the trip.

We were going to be away for several weeks and expecting weather ranging from 40 – 90+°F. We would be spending time outdoors, getting dirty, but also visiting friends in town where the dirt might not be appreciated.

I took steps to avoid tempting thieves with luggage

I brought a black blanket that I draped over the luggage in the back of the van to minimize risk of break ins. With the van’s factory tinted windows, you couldn’t see any stuff in the vehicle at night.

Even during the day, the black mass didn’t look like much of anything.

We made a point to avoid opening the back hatch at all at nightly hotel stops, pulling our small overnight bags into the front of the van at a late afternoon rest stop. Since we were well organized from the get go, we hardly ever opened the rear liftgate during the day, either.

We only needed to access the large items in the back for our three long, planned stops—summer camp, the cabin, and the multi-day city visit at a friend’s home.

Defining a capsule wardrobe

How is this a capsule wardrobe, if it isn’t a minimalist one for traveling light?

I selected a color scheme, and most (if not all) garments could be mixed and matched or layered in an aesthetically pleasing way based upon color. I made sure virtually every piece could be worn in any combination with the others by shape/style, too.

This is the same philosophy that makes a very small wardrobe work for trips of indefinite length. I just had more pieces with which to work.

What never left the suitcase?

Weather realities

We experienced temperatures mostly below average for northern Minnesota in early/mid June. Nights were chilly; a few days barely reached 60°F. Typical days were cold to cool in the morning, briefly warm enough at midday in the sun to want summer clothing, then warm to cool as evening came on.

The hottest days of our trip (upper 90’s) coincided with travel days in the air conditioned van.

It rained many times, but always in passing bursts of showers. We had a tornado warning urgent enough to warrant a call to our specific location by the county sheriff, but, luckily, did not get to experience an actual tornado.

Swimwear

I packed swimwear, and mine never left the van, let alone the suitcase.

Knowing myself well, that’s why I packed my suit (a UV blocking combo of long sleeved top and mid-leg bottoms by Coolibar) in a small pouch tucked into an accessible cubby in the back of the van. As expected, I didn’t swim, but I was happy to know I could have, if I wanted to, or if the kids begged me to join them.

The boys’ swimsuits were also packed in separate, grab-and-go modules by person.

Tops I packed just in case

I never wore my two least favorite Insect Shield tops: the periwinkle pullover by White Sierra and the olive/taupe safari style Craghoppers shirt.

 

If I were packing today for this trip, I would leave the taupe shirt at home, but I might still bring the unloved peri pullover.

Why? Because DS1 came home with paint stains on one set of his clothing.

Camp activities are planned by someone else, and they can be messy. The pullover is my “grubby” Insect Shield top. I want it in case a sacrifice is necessary.

Every time I wanted a sun- and insect-protective shirt to layer over my tank, I reached for the bright, coral colored one. I like it better. I like the color. The fit is looser and therefore more comfortable when it’s warm weather. That won’t ever change.

I probably ought to pass the Craghoppers top on to a friend, because my fundamental fashion preferences haven’t changed in decades and likely never will.

What did I wear?

After writing my capsule wardrobe post, and the night before the trip, I actually added five garments to my already long packing list. In addition to what I listed, I brought:

  • lightweight, ankle length jeans by NYDJ
  • white cotton short-sleeved turtleneck
  • Tilley sleeveless, dark brown jersey funnel neck travel top
  • Coolibar UV protective, cropped open front cardigan in melon/coral
  • sheer, floaty silk vest/scarf in shades of melon/coral/pink and white

While adding items last minute can be a very bad idea, especially for over-packers, these were excellent choices for this trip. All the pieces could be worn with many other items; most could layer with everything else.

A look at the last minute weather forecast convinced me to bring them, and the cooling trend did continue during our time away.

 

Comfortable choices to wear while driving

In addition to providing warmth as layers on our coldest days, my short torso means that automobile seatbelts can sometimes hit me at the neck. That’s bad (for safety restraint reasons), and it isn’t a terrible issue in my van, but even the feeling of seatbelt webbing against my shoulder, where it belongs, can be irrititating.

As the only driver doing ten hour days, I realized that I should take every possible step to avoid discomfort. I wore these lightweight—but neck covering—tops on all the days where I drove more than a few hours. I wore the sun protective coral colored wrap over them to shade my arms.

These were good outfits for travel days, protecting me from the hazards of a long drive, which are different from those I would face in the woods.

Camp clothes vs. car clothes

My camping clothing could have served for this stage of the trip, but I prefer not to wear the Insect Shield clothing when it isn’t necessary. I want to avoid excess pesticide exposure where conditions don’t warrant it.

I did feel my investment in insect repellent clothing was justified. There was definitely a plethora of ticks in evidence.

A young child in our dormitory cried loudly while his dad picked them off his body almost every night; another was brought into our room on the head of one of the friends we brought along. (Don’t worry: he got it off before it was attached.)

I never found a tick on my boys, who wore Insect Shield pants almost exclusively, and treated tops and hats at times as well. I did pull one tick from the ends of my long hair after walking along a trail with encroaching brush.

 

All of the bottoms I packed for the trip—including the last minute addition of jeans—were worn many times and felt like good choices. I wouldn’t change anything about what I packed for my lower body. Layering these over long underwear gave me comfortable clothing right down to the coldest 40°F night.

Footwear

The same goes for shoes. My second pair of Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers (the waterproof ones) didn’t leave the van much, but I was glad to know they were available if needed.

I never wore the Propet sandal-alternative shoes at camp, but I enjoyed having them in town. My sneakers and my Crocs were worn every day.

Lessons learned from this wardrobe

Upon reflection, I packed so much because what I needed on this trip was really two separate wardrobes: one to protect against insect born disease and sun exposure while spending all day outdoors, and one for more benign conditions in town.

Why? If I don’t want to wear Insect Shield clothing when it isn’t needed, I’m going to need more garments.

That’s hard to avoid unless I’m willing to wear the same treated pieces constantly during the outdoors segment of a trip. Unless I’m flying in and subject to weight restrictions, or carrying all my stuff by myself for long distances, I won’t make that choice.

In the end, my luggage fit the space I had available to carry it. Organizing with packing cubes and smaller suitcases meant it was easy to access what I needed, when I needed it. Planning ahead meant that I always had wardrobe choices that made me happy; I felt appropriately dressed in a social sense as well as adequately prepared for what nature offered.

Camp accessories scarfThat scarf I added to my original packing list just before my post? I wore it a lot, got multiple compliments on it while at camp, and it kept my neck warm.

I brought two pairs of utterly frivolous—but absolutely me—earrings, too.

Packing clothing that you love, and that makes you feel good about yourself, is always good sense. Just don’t pack too much of it at any one time, and make sure it coordinates with everything else you’ve brought.

Oh yeah, and the kids were warm enough, protected from insects, and shielded from damaging UV rays, too, but I think that’s a separate post that wants writing…

Summer road trip planned? Schedule a check up for your car now!

It’s a great idea to have a professional give your vehicle a once over before a road trip, especially if you didn’t ace auto shop. According to my mechanic, I’m the rare customer who schedules a car appointment well in advance.

Welcome to Iowa signI was going to include a list of stuff to have them check. There’s a battery, and there are tires and fluids… Then I realized how much I rely upon having an excellent mechanic to keep my vehicle in good operating condition!

I’m planning to drive several thousand miles across multiple regions of the United States this summer, so I scheduled a check up for my van. I made an appointment for the week before our departure date. I did this when I had my snow tires taken off in April.

I asked the scheduler at the auto shop, “Is one week ahead of my trip okay? If you find a problem, will that give you enough time to fix it?”

He said yes, and I scheduled the appointment.

The mechanic also laughed and included this wisdom:

Most people come in the day before a trip. When I find something wrong, they beg me to fix it immediately. I don’t always have the parts or the time!”

Anecdotally, I believe the mechanic.

Yesterday, my husband came home from work and asked what time we’re headed out to visit friends today.

He said, “I’m going to be driving back and forth to that conference next week, and it’s pretty far away. I want to get an oil change in the morning and have them check whether anything is wrong with my car.”

He’s driving out of state to his conference tomorrow…

I had already written the first paragraph of this post.

Coincidence? You decide…

Cue Twilight Zone music