Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Escaping to Virginia's Cool Rolling Hills

Scottsville, VA
This July, I enjoyed a few days away from the summer heat of the Chesapeake Bay by heading south, ironically. We headed west to an area just east of the Shenandoah Valley to a little town called Scottsville. A few months earlier, I made reservations with a Bed and Breakfast called the High Meadows Vineyard Inn. The reviews looked good and I was hoping to combine a pleasure trip along with a work day for my husband as he often had to drive down there for business. My plan worked and that Friday, after he finished his appointments in Fredericksburg, we continued southwest to our destination. 

Kickshaws Downtown Market

But let me back up for just a second. If you like antiquing, Fredericksburg has more antique stores than I have ever seen. I browsed through many but didn't find anything that I needed so they didn't get my money. I did stop in a little shop, Kickshaws Downtown Market for a drink and ended up buying a basket of little beautiful red plums. They have a nice assortment of fresh produce and grains, coffee, and I think they are worth your time to check out. We did find a little place to get lunch close by that is worth mentioning, the Happy Clam

The Happy Clam
We drove by the place and there was a big open sign and with a name like that, we took the bait. The food was simple, but so delicious; huge portions of fried flounder, very lightly breaded with cornmeal and served as fresh as if it came out of the water. The price was low and the sides were fun, but it was the fish that shone. We saw that they served softshelled crabs as well as a nice assortment of seafood. Plenty of customers were ordering food to go while we ate our lunch.

The High Meadows Vineyard Inn
Check in was around four, but we didn't make it until closer to five. Thankfully, we had GPS for directions as the Inn was in a little town, on a little road, on a little driveway. The Inn is eclectic at fist sight. Bright colors adorn every surface of the exterior and bright pink doors accepted our entrance. The hostess, Nancy greeted us as we entered and proceeded to explain the home, the history and her passion for the place. Our room was large with high ceilings, a handsome king-sized bed that was almost too high for me to jump up on and a large jacuzzi tub. After wandering around the place and the well gardened grounds, we headed out to check out the James River and the downtown of Scottsville. A large levee held back potential flood waters and kept the tiny town safe but blocked off the view of the river. The river made a deep bend at the town and a tall bridge crosses at the site. A train track runs between the town and the river and plenty of history is obvious in the older homes and buildings. Heavy rain made the water brown and filled the banks. 

The Smokehouse Grille

There were a few restaurants in town and we chose the Smokehouse Grille. There was a decent crowd inside and we had to wait a few minutes at the bar. We didn't even notice the wait when their bartender served us a perfectly poured mint mojito. The restaurant interior was a nicely decorated mix of wood walls and floors and artwork. Since it was summertime and still a decent temperature outside, we chose to sit on their outside patio overlooking the smoker. Writing a good review of our dinner was not hard as the brisket was so well flavored and incredibly tender. The ribs were full of smoky flavor and we had three of their house-made sauces to dip them in. A shout-out also goes to the baked beans - some of the best we have ever eaten. We assumed we ordered enough to take back with us for a midnight snack, but we finished every bite.  Apparently they also had some amazing desserts but we were too full to try any. Our sweet tooth was satisfied with a delicious locally brewed stout beer.

Inside the High Meadows Vineyard Inn
That night, we situated ourselves in our room and watched a movie on my laptop as none of the other guests of the Inn were around and it was too buggy to go outside. As morning greeted us with a rather gray face and with the sound of rain on the windows, we were dubious about rafting on the rain-swollen river. We decided on a change of plans that involved checking out the local wineries - but after breakfast. 

Bed and breakfasts are always a risk as you never know what kind of accommodations or food you might get - but we are not too worried about the risk as we enjoy the newness of each one. Our breakfast was served on the back porch and included tender crepes, plenty of fresh fruit and great coffee. We left for the day with our appetites satisfied.

The James River Brewery

  If you ever have the time, you should check out the vineyards of Virginia. The rolling hills patterned with the rows of vines make you think you are visiting Italy. We checked out several wineries and got the impression that the wine industry is still evolving in Virginia, even though commercial.grapevines were planted as early as 1970. The humidity and rain are not friendly to grapevines. Lots of the wineries are experimenting with fruit flavored wines. By the end of the day, we were ready for a change and found a brewpub (The James River Brewery) to listen to some live music in their beer garden and enjoy some of their stout. Since they did not serve food, we ordered pizza from a restaurant across the street and relaxed until the sun set and the mosquitoes took over. 

The view from Carter Mountain Orchard
We found the area perfect for a weekend visit and were ready to hit the road again (after another delicious breakfast of eggs benedict and multi-colored melon wedges.) On the way out of town, we found the most amazing  apple orchard on the top of a mountain overlooking the whole area - The Carter Mountain Orchard. Fresh peach doughnuts perfumed the orchard store and if you are ever looking for an amazing place to enjoy lunch, they have plenty of picnic tables overlooking the panorama below.

So that was our escape to  the cool rolling hills of Virginia. Check it out for yourself if you have a weekend free.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Camping in the Sand Dunes

Have you ever gone to the beach for the day and after having been lulled into the comfort of the rhythm of the waves, the cool briney air in your face and the sun on your back and wished you could just sleep right there? Evenings and night times on the beach were exactly what we were looking for when we researched camping on the dunes of the Outer Banks: the wild and crazy waves and the abandonment of the area, so battered by the ocean that nothing permanent seems possible.
The Oregon Inlet Campground was the only site that had space left on Memorial Day Weekend and their spaces were on a first come, first served basis.
The campground was easy to find and we tried to get there as early in the day as we could so we wouldn't be left with the last available campsite. We had about a five hour drive so we arrived in the early afternoon. The camp rangers were friendly and seemed quite jovial between themselves. They gave us maps and explained the setup and let us pick a site from the available openings. Since the camping was a bit closer than we were used to and there were no trees - only sand dunes for privacy, we chose one that sheltered us from the wind and most of our neighbors.

It was windy! Normally, I absolutely love the windy ocean, but putting up our tent was a little challenging and we were not convinced the wind wouldn't blow it over so we used extra rope to tie it down to the picnic table and the grill, both of which were well anchored. Once settled in, we set out to explore the area. We could hear music and climbed over the dunes (on the pathways provided) and saw a long row of trucks. Apparently, this was an area where folks could drive in and park on the sand. A few kids were swimming but most of the people were enjoying the sunshine in spite of the cool air. We meandered along the sand, stepping into the water and checking out the amazing collection of sea shells littering the beach. 

The fresh air made us hungry and we went back to our site to cook up some specialty sausages that Eric had found earlier in the week. We brought a butane stove as open fires are not allowed and it worked well even in the wind. By the time the sun set, we were ready to crawl into our tent. We could hear the wind from the ocean and the waves, but no people. There were no bugs because of the strong winds, but there were sand thorns - a little sharp 1/4 inch sized bit of plant that blows along the area, clinging to anything, including your skin. We did read the literature about them and were prepared with shoes, but they were so aggravating when they got in the tent. Our remedy was duct tape used like a lint roller.
 The morning was fresh and quieter than the evening and we found waking up easy as the brightness of the sun permeated our tent. Of course, we had to try to see the sunrise over the water at least once. Coffee brewed outside is so delicious! 

On our second day, we explored by driving down the island and checking out other areas. The sand moves constantly and I always look to see how different the dunes look or where the road is almost covered after a strong wind.

Most of the beaches were empty and it was hard to fathom going to a beach where crowds line up in the sand, smelling each others' coconut lotions. The rawness of nature was refreshing and inspiring. Of course, as we drove, we found communities where the noise and the commotion came back but we didn't mind. 

We really wanted to go crabbing and looked around for a perfect spot only to realize that most people didn't take the time to crab. We did try a few different spots and used a regular fishing pole with a small bait fish tied to the end. A few crabs met their demise and we had a beautiful lunch.

With our food supplies running low, we decided to drive into Nags Head and see if we could find a good restaurant along the water. We did a little online research with Yelp, and were happy to find a seat on the beach at the Pier House Restaurant. The people watching was great fun and the food was good, but the location was perfect. Lots of folks pass through the restaurant to go fishing and then they can bring back their catch to be cooked by the chefs. If we had known, we would have tried fishing, but maybe next time.

The temperatures warmed up on the day of our departure for home and as the bugs came in and the humidity soared, we were glad to move on. The campground is rustic with only cold showers and toilets. We had no electricity or internet access and although it's unique for a night or two, we were missing the comforts of life as we know it.

I love the Outer Banks and highly recommend visiting them to anyone who doesn't need the boardwalk or nightlife to be entertained. Even if you don't camp on the dunes, a day at the beach there is so refreshing of an experience, I think most people would find even a few hours very enjoyable.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Backpacking from the MYR Airport to Myrtle Beach State Park

Last month, I had the fun adventure of taking a trip to Myrtle Beach with my husband, Eric. It was a beach I had heard of often, but had never actually spent any time visiting. Spirit Airlines was offering a deeply discounted price for round trip tickets so my husband Eric and I decided to take a weekend trip. With lots of budgets keeping tight reign on our finances, we decided we could walk the couple of miles from the airport to a campground right off the ocean. We saved a bundle of money by not having to rent a car or paying for an expensive hotel room - besides we were looking for adventure. As good travelers, we made our reservations a few weeks in advance and took the time to get a few  extra camping items. 

Fast forward to the morning of... noaa.gov was telling us that the first tropical storm of the season was hitting Myrtle Beach but should move up the coast by the time we arrived.
The weather was warm and rain wouldn't hurt us so we slung our backpacks over our shoulders and headed for the airport. 

I wish I could remember the name of our flight attendant on the way down because he was a real comedian. We hit several bouts of turbulence but he had the whole plane laughing with his hilarious take on the circumstances. The whole plane clapped when he welcomed us to Myrtle Beach. We enjoyed his addition to the beginning of our weekend. When we walked into the baggage area of the small airport, we were surprised to see just how windy and rainy it was, realizing that we really couldn't walk out into it with any degree of self respect. Eric was quick to come up with the solution of taking a free shuttle to a local hotel. We enjoyed the shelter from the storm and view of the ocean as we waited for a respite from the heavy rain before we set out on foot for the campground.

Of course, as fate often has it, as soon as we headed out, the rain started gusting again so we tried walking from one awning to another as we headed south. Then we decided to get a bite to eat for lunch, hoping to give the storm a little extra time to move away. Being soaking wet with a heavy backpack is not pleasant at all and after lunch, the rain started again. We found a little store that sold beach supplies and bought large white plastic ponchos to wear, covering our bodies and our backpacks. What a sight we were walking down the street with only a small circle of our faces showing and huge humpback white orbs for bodies. The directions told us that the campground was right off the beach so we walked along the sand for about half a mile, glad the sand was wet and hard. 

The campground was just over the dunes and such a welcome sight for our tired feet. Maybe we only walked three miles but the combination of rain, wind and heavy backpacks made the trek feel like ten miles.

The folks at the camp office were very pleasant but were a little perplexed as we had no car or camper. The rain had stopped so we Food Lion, so we could stock up on some grub for dinner and maybe a bottle of wine for dessert. Of course, the rain came back, but we had our ponchos and the store was only a mile away. We bought only what Eric could carry in his pack, and headed out to the liquor store only to find it closed on Sundays in South Carolina. If we had only slowed down a little in our shopping, we might have noticed that the grocery store carried beer and wine, but that realization came the next day.
were quick to set up our tent and head out to the closest grocery store, 

The campfire was our next conquest. The woods were dripping wet and the rain kept coming in intervals so Eric decided to buy some dry wood from the camp office. After a few tries, we had a fire going and for the rest of the camping experience, Eric found logs from all over the campground to keep it blazing until we left, despite the rain. Supper consisted of rotisserie chicken and potato chips eaten with our fingers as we stood by the fire.

As the area darkened, we were only too happy to crawl into our little tent with the air mattresses set up and ready for us. The campgrounds offered free wifi so we rigged up a way to hang an iPad from the ceiling of the tent and we ate chocolate and watched movies as the rain danced on the thin fabric over our heads. We had no problem sleeping...until one air mattress deflated. After trying to sleep sideways so we could both have the inflated mattress under our chests, I made the sacrifice to let Eric have the whole good mattress and I took the ground. I figured that he was the strength of our team and I needed him to get a good rest, besides, I had more padding on my bones than he did.

Breakfast was delicious leftovers. The fire was waiting for us and we walked up to the camp office to get coffee. Thankfully, the storm was mostly over and the sun came out for a few hours. We strung a clothesline and hung our damp clothes and ponchos up to dry. Like most campgrounds, there were hot showers just a short walk from our site. Most of the other campers were living in the luxury of large campers or trailers and we only saw one other fire as we walked around the circles.

Even though the rain came back again every few hours, we really
had a fun time. We walked to the beach and checked out the long fishing pier where folks were fishing about a hundred feet up from the water. We saw a young woman trying to catch something on the beach and found out they were baby flounder which she then would use for bait. The second time we went to the beach, a thundercloud rolled in and we had to sit low by the sand dunes to stay out of the lightning until we were tired of being rained on. But the beach was so beautiful; long stretches of empty sand and crashing waves with almost no one in sight.

On our second night, supper was better as we had beer to enjoy while cooking and then wine later, but there is something to be said for
cooking in the open air. We had the most delicious burgers that night. Our air mattress patch didn't hold but the leak was much slower so Eric slept on it, pumping it back up every few hours. By morning, everything was feeling damp and dirty and we were ready to pack up and head for the airport. Seemingly, the word had traveled around the campground that we were backpackers with no car and folks would slowly walk past our spot watching us, once even mentioning that they were sorry that we were rained out at the beach. We found it refreshing to be able to roll up our bedding and tent, pop it into our packs and walk out with no car or mess to clean up.

But we still had to walk to the airport. Our smartphones directed us to walk through the woods on a paved path, onto King's Highway and then into the airport.  By that time, the sun had come out in full force and we felt the heat of the South Carolina sun. We found a spot to get some lunch (K&W Cafeterias) as we were quite hungry and wanted to take a break from walking and enjoy ourselves. The airport was only a short distance from the restaurant, but we found ourselves lagging in energy in the full heat of the day and with heavy backpacks weighing us down. 

We were quite happy to drop our backpacks into the checked baggage area. Going through security was a little funny. We were both pulled aside and patted down as they noticed the backs of our shirts were wet, but they quickly realized we were not hiding anything other than sweat! Our car was waiting for us when we returned to our hometown airport of BWI (Baltimore Washington International), of course.

You might ask what my favorite part of camping is and I think I would say it's sleeping outside, My least favorite part of camping...having to climb out of the tent and find a bathroom in the middle of the night.

We enjoyed getting home and cleaning up our gear, but within two weeks we were back out there camping again. Stay tuned....

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Smith Island - Back in Time

If you happen to live on the East Coast somewhere close by the Chesapeake Bay, you should take a trip to visit Smith Island either for a few hours or for a weekend.

You can pick up a ferry boat out of Crisfield ( we used Captain Jason) for around $20 one way per person and enjoy a nice ride across the waves, but be warned, don't be late as they don't wait for anyone. We happened to go on a day when the weather was a little rough and the waves tossed the boat a bit, enough to make me hold on tight to my seat. The captain was a hardy soul and didn't seem to mind that water was dripping from the ceiling in many points and sloshing around the deck as we plowed through the seas. It was exciting and scary for a landlubber like myself.

Once the island comes into the view of the ferry, you can see immediately that it is a waterman's island. Crab traps, boats, piers and pilings decorate the water's edge for most of the coast. Shantys dot the landscape where crab processing still goes on. Most of the wood structures have a gray weathered look and nothing seems to stand quite straight due to the storms that roll over the island every year.

We stepped off the ferry and walked to our bed and breakfast, the Smith Island Inn, one of only a few in Ewell that we knew about. Little streets lined with tall trees and old houses on either sides formed communities, although we were surprised at just how quiet everything was. Very few people were visible and since the island was tiny, there were almost no cars. Once in a while a person would pass by on a bicycle and smile and wave, but to us, the island seemed deserted,

Upon arriving at our lodgings, we were happy to see our host and a few other guests. He was quite willing to talk and fill us in on everything about the island. He mentioned that they had a few bikes for our use to tour the island a little faster than walking as well as a couple of kayaks for navigating the waterways - both of which we did. Our bedroom on the first floor was comfortable with a spacious bathroom, I loved the beautiful old wood floors covered here and there tastefully with woven rugs. Although no televisions were available, plenty of books and games were ours for the stay. Besides, we spent most of our time outside exploring.

The bikes were great for allowing us to explore the other side of the island, only about a mile away but very different and even quieter than Ewell. Everyone pays attention to the tide as roads flood over everyday during high tide and without a boat, you just have to wait for the water to subside before you can get to the other parts of the island. All the school aged children took a ferry boat to the mainland so we only saw a few in the late afternoon. Some old houses stood empty, in fact many beautiful old structures were empty, some partially rebuilt, pointing to a more prosperous time when the schools and churches were filled with a vibrant community of people.

Kayaking was pleasant on the southern side of the island where grasses stood tall and channels zigzagged through them. We saw eagles and osprey, white cranes and plenty of other birds. I imagine the bug population provided a feast for all the birds, which reminds me to recommend the strongest bug repellant you can get. Flies and mosquitoes seemed to enjoy our Deet and kept us either moving or inside. I could understand why some of the locals chose to stay inside and away from being live bait for the creatures.

Little islands were everywhere along with signs of previous inhabitants who had since long gone, leaving their homes to slowly sink into the ground, but generations of goats and turkeys still dominate the land, living wild. We found it fascinating to see herds of goats with one prominent male standing high on a leaning tree limb or rock while the rest of the flock grazed below.

Our first night was interesting as we didn't realize that the only restaurant open on the island at that time, Ruke's Seafood Deck closed at five, before we thought to plan ahead, since dinner for us was closer to seven or eight. Thankfully, we did have some sandwiches that we brought from home to tide us over. Early in the morning, before we were even thinking of waking up, we could hear men's voices calling out to each other in a brogue too hard to understand and then boat motors starting up. It seemed like almost a hundred of the watermen headed out at once, but later we found out that there were really more like twenty or thirty of them. Around three o'clock in the afternoon, they all flooded back into town and then disappeared into their homes, except for a few who came out to greet the kids that came home on the boat from school shortly thereafter.

Our innkeeper arranged for a local islander to make us a wonderful breakfast of french toast, fig jam made from local trees (which incidentally grow into massive trees with huge trunks there) delicious Smith Island Coffee and sausages, We paid attention to time and did get into the restaurant twice, once for lunch and then for dinner. For lunch we sat inside and were amazed at the antiques all around the room. The restaurant served as the antique shop for the town and everything had a little paper price tag tied to it. The servers were so friendly and the portions were huge. Of course, we tried the crabcakes and the local specialties. Our dinner was outside on a back screened in area overlooking the water where all the crabbers worked. A young boy was practicing using a hammer, securing any nails that the weather had popped out, and that was the extent of the people in our room. We sat at picnic tables and put our feet up on the benches as we waited for our dinner. Service was friendly but on island time so we just relaxed and enjoyed the quaintness of the place.

Time seemed to be at a standstill here with most of the focus on times past when there was a thriving community and before the Bay had reclaimed so much of the soil. Organizations are hard at work to keep the island from disappearing totally under water, but I recommend taking at least a day to come here and see this community before it sinks, so close to the major cities of the world but in a land far away from all the hubbub of our life as we know it. Here is a link to an article done by Boston.com, The Big Picture, with amazing photography.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Windy Rincon

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Rincon, Puerto Rico for a few days Traveling there wasn't hard as it is a US territory and no passports or currency exchange are necessary. We took a flight to San Juan, rented a car and drove along the top of the island to the west coast where Rincon is located.

Now, I will mention that I don't enjoy getting hot, by which I mean anything over 78 degrees basically makes me uncomfortable and searching for a means of cooling off. So you might ask, why are you going to Puerto Rico? Well, I still love traveling and as long as there is water close by, I figure I can deal with the heat. 

Rincon was amazingly cool, at least where we stayed. The constant breezes that kick up the waves for the surfers also kept the air amazingly cool. Did I mention the waves? Rincon is a surfing town where experienced surfers come to seek the rough waters for the thrill of riding the waves. It is a quiet area where little boutique shops line the narrow roads that wind around the island. 

I happened to stay in a private residence (Caracol Che, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling in a group) that was built with open walls throughout and the breezes never stopped, keeping any bugs at bay. From there we could walk to beaches and restaurants. The walking was easy until we had to go uphill, but then we just walked a little slower. Walking gave us a chance to see the tropical plants like banana trees and coconut palms and beautiful vines that were in bloom all around. Colorful but strange birds and lizards would catch our eye and then we would be fascinated by the sightings of goats or horses or chickens that seem very common in the tropics.

We chose to cook most of our own meals which meant we got to go shopping. Their stores were filled with foods I had never seen or heard of and strangely lacking in some things I would consider a staple, like bread flour. However, I liked the challenge to work with the ingredients offered and had fun trying to correspond with the locals without speaking much Spanish. However, my favorite part of shopping was stopping at roadside stands and buying fresh fruits and vegetables and whole fish from a guy who spoke almost no English. 

We visited a few restaurants when we were tired of cooking and most were priced similar to what we were used to at home. Since fresh herbs are in abundance there, cocktails like mint mojitos were fresh and enjoyable.

One spot we found on the beach, blew all the other establishments out of my memory, the Tamboo Tavern Beach Bar. It was a beach bar with casual seating overlooking the ocean and open walls all around. Wind whipped through strong enough to blow the lighter foods off our plates but it was not irritating in any way. We could watch wind surfers playing on the waves while we ate the freshest appetizers of seafood or pork with fruits and vegetables prepared with minimal steps. Don't forget to try the tostones.

I like vacationing where I can interact with the locals as I want and eat the foods they like and Rincon gave us such a great visit. The prices of staying there were almost half of the Virgin Island's and although it is a US owned territory, I felt like we were in a different country. 

If you are a traveler that likes to venture beyond the normal American chain hotels and restaurants, I highly recommend Rincon but kind of hope that you don't go so that it can stay the quiet and laid back community that it is. I would like to say that I can't wait to go back, but I still want to visit so many other parts of the world that I haven't seen yet.

I can't write about Rincon without remembering to mention the beach glass. The waves seem to bring up shards of sand-softened colored glass, more than the usual beaches I am used to. When you feel like taking a little walk along the coast, look down and be amazed at what you might find.

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