North Country Rejuvenation

  morning on the dock.jpgThis morning is my last at the lake for this trip. The Adirondacks have received more than their fair share of rain over the last month or so and we've experienced some of that weather during our two weeks up here. On the mornings that have allowed it, I pour my coffee and walk down to the dock to take in the quietest part of the day. The gentle lapping of the water against the rocky shore and the ruffling of the leaves in the breeze accompany the slight rocking of the dock.

On the rainy days, I've scribbled out some stories and curled on the couch to read books. But most days, the weather allowed me to paddle out on my beloved red kayak. One day I saw a gaggle of geese. I wondered at the chicks' innate ability to line up neatly between two adults.

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When I walked my dog, I noted again the rock cairns that someone has created. They hold a mysterious benevolence to me.

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One sunny day, when my arms were tired from so much paddling, I hopped on a mountain bike to explore a park that we've driven past many times. What I found enchanted me. Narrow, but well-groomed trails barely held off the lush greens of ferns, firs and birch. Wooden bridges crossed bubbling streams packed with moss-covered rocks. When I learned that the park was conceived and built specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, I loved it even more.

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On July 4, we walked to the town beach to enjoy sausages grilled by the Fire Department and live music. When evening began to fall, we returned to our dock for the fireworks.

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Though this morning broke gray, the clouds are moving fast and the sun is peeking through. I hope for one more paddle before we begin to pack up for our return home. If not, I can take the peace of this place with me, knowing that I will return.

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Not a Drop to Drink

We're up at the lake house for the week between Christmas and New Year's. We come up here most every year at this time - except last year when we stayed home to have a party for our younger son's 16th birthday. long-lakeWe arrived on Monday to a nice layer of snow on the ground. The lake is partially frozen and if the current weather continues, it'll be completely frozen by February. On Tuesday, our caretaker called to ask if we had water. Tom tried the tap. The pressure was down, but we had water. Turns out that there was a leak in one of the pipes that runs beneath the lake. They couldn't find the leak so they were turning off some people's water. Whew, we thought. Dodged that  bullet.

Having lost water at our new house at the same time last year, we knew how challenging it is to live in a house with no running water. Just to be safe, I filled some empty pots and water containers. The next day, after returning from cross-country skiing, I flipped on the faucet to wash my hands. No water.

water-jugs

I'm not going to lie. I was bummed. I wondered if we could stay in the house for four more days without running water. We got a call late that afternoon. The diver had gotten too cold to continue working. They'd turned our water back on for the evening, but it would be off again in the morning - as soon as a new diver arrived with a heated diving suit. I filled more containers with water, did a load of laundry, ran the dishwasher and prepared for a full day of no water.

As it turned out, we ended up having water intermittently throughout the day, which was a pleasant surprise. We didn't have water during the time I was preparing our son's birthday cake. I stared at the dirty dishes piled in the sink and wondered how best to tackle them. I wanted them clean, but I wanted to use the least amount of water possible. I did my best. Then - when I realized the water had returned - I washed them all a second time.

That night, after celebrating our son's birthday, he thanked us for everything and said how excited he was about the online class led by a director he admired, which we'd purchased for him. Werner Herzog, he told me, was born at the end of WW II and was forced to hide for years in the forest living with no electricity or running water. Years. With no running water.

Here's what I learned about myself: I'm a wimp who needs a minimum of 19th century technology in order to live happily. Also, I'm a scarcitist. Okay, I made up that word. But there should be a word for someone who has a fear of scarcity. After I brought home 4 gallons of water, my husband wanted to make coffee. I said no, that I didn't think it made sense to use some of our precious water on coffee. As if we couldn't drive 2 miles to the Stewart's buy more. I guess I need to go back and read my own post on Abundance.

Last thing I learned is something that tend to need to re-learn over and over: it'll all be okay.

tom-and-nala

I'll leave you with images from today's cross-country excursion. Pure abundance - of peace, beauty and joy.

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A Maiden Voyage

ADK chair.jpg As you might know, I’m the only person in my little family not to row. Though my older son no longer rows – only because his college doesn’t offer it – my younger son and my husband both do. My husband is the most devout of the three, rising well before dawn on most mornings to drive down to the Schuylkill River to row before work. Loyal readers might remember my husband as a triathlete. That was true for many years. But several years ago, he’d become weary of the long training hours and after his 5th Ironman, he lost the passion for the sport.

Rowing was a return for him. He’d rowed briefly in college as a freshman and it had made a great impression on him. Several years ago he started up again and ever since, it has been a dream for him to row on the lake where our cabin sits.

This past year, he made the leap to buying a single. For those of you uninitiated, boats can be singles, doubles, quads or eights. And it’s not actually that simple because there is sculling (when you hold two oars) and sweeping (when you hold only one oar). In sweeping, it’s not a double, it’s a pair – as in a pair of oars – and it’s not a quad, it’s a four. At least, I think I’ve got that right.

Anyway, he bought a single, which set in motion a series of plans necessary for him to row on the lake. For example, we’d need an addition to the dock because our existing dock was too high. Sculls sit right on the water, so you need a dock only about eight inches above the water. The dock needed to be in a specific spot because the boat is 26’ long. No, that’s not a typo. It’s that long. We’d also, of course, need a new roof rack because the existing one couldn’t hold both the boat and the cargo carrier. We’d need a place to store the boat at the lake. And – perhaps the most difficult of all of these — Tom would need me to rise early in the morning to help him carry the boat down to our dock.

The boat is feather-light, but so long that one person cannot navigate the trip around pine trees and down two flights of steps to the dock. Now, if you’ve ever met me, you might already know that sleep is my thing. I mean, not my only thing. I run. I write. I do other stuff. But I love to sleep. I haven’t generally been a “good” sleeper for most of my life and getting up early is generally a bummer for me because I don’t fall asleep easily.

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But Tom couldn't make his dream come true unless I woke early. On my vacation. On the first morning, he didn’t wake me early. We went out on kayaks together and he spent much of the rest of the morning gazing at the lake with the same longing one would see on the face of a child in a toy store at Christmas.

The second morning, I woke with him. In truth, it wasn’t so bad. I’d worried that wanted to wake at 5 a.m., as he sometimes does at home. But because the lake stays calm longer than the river, he didn’t need me until almost 6:30. I’ll admit, that’s a pretty civilized time to wake – rower or not. I decided to join him – me on my beloved kayak and he on his scull - and was rewarded by a peaceful and gorgeous view of the quiet morning water.

 

 

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A bear, finally.

We’ve had our cabin in the Adirondacks for five years this month. The town where we are is Long Lake, which is smack in the middle of the park and the symbol for the town is this. images.png

In the foyer of the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake stands an 8 ft tall stuffed bear. And yet, for five years, we’ve never seen one.

The May 2016 issue of National Geographic focuses on Yellowstone National Park on account of the 100th anniversary of the national park system and in it there is much about the tension between pleasing the visitors to the park and at the same time keeping it wild. Used to be that seeing bears in garbage dumps was not only a common occurrence, but served as an attraction. At some point, people figured out that this wasn’t such a great idea for either bear or person and the habit was stopped. This is true in Yellowstone as it’s true in the Adirondacks.

Bearjam Jonathan Blair NG May 2016.jpg

A month or so ago, a bear was sighted in the Wissahickon Valley park that begins less than a mile from my home. Though it’s a protected area including 50 miles of trails, it exists within Philadelphia and most certainly not where you’d expect to see a bear. The sighting of the small bear was announced on local news along with dire warnings not go hiking alone.

As far as wildlife goes at our cabin on Long Lake, we’ve seen otters and a snapping turtle, lots of chipmunks and a ton of dragonflies, not to mention the biggest spiders I’ve ever laid eyes on. But no bears. Until yesterday.

Tom and I went for a run on one of my favorite routes. After running a couple of miles on paved roads, we descended down a hill on a dirt road to a wooden bridge that looks over wetlands. I love the view, though I’ve never captured an image of it because I don’t run with my phone. Tom and I stopped at the bridge and took in the stunning view before turning around. As we ran back up the dirt road, the only exit from the area, Tom said, “Um, that’s a bear.”

I looked up to see a small bear sniffing about in the middle of the road. To be clear, it’s the only road. This isn’t like the suburbs where you could just take a different route home. There are no other routes home.

“That is a bear, right?” Tom said, no doubt remembering the time he thought he saw a bear, but it turned out to be a Newfoundland.

“Yes, that’s definitely a bear,” I said.

He was a ways away. Maybe a hundred yards. We didn’t feel that we were in immediate danger, except that the bear blocked our exit. And we didn’t have any pots and pans.

“He’s small,” I said.

“Which means that the mom is probably nearby,” Tom said.

While the bear continued sniffing at the road, completely oblivious of us and our worry about how to get by him, two trucks rumbled down the road. The bear, mirroring our own response to seeing him, looked at the trucks and started booking it in the opposite direction. Toward us.He was far enough away that my reaction just a mild uh oh and not a full-fledged freak-out.

The trucks stopped and the bear veered into the woods. Tom and I agreed that it made sense to run as fast as possible up the hill while the trucks were there. You know, in case we needed a shield. As we booked it up the hill, the first truck slowed as we approached. The driver rolled down the passenger window and said in the calm unsurprised manner of Adirondack people, “You might want to keep a look out on the right. Little bear in those woods.”

My gut response was Um, yeah, can we jump in your truck bed, please? Instead, Tom and I just nodded our understanding and continued running until we crested the hill. A look behind us confirmed that the bear had not re-emerged from the woods.

It had never occurred to me that I’d see a bear sniffing about on my favorite running route. As if that dirt road with the view from the bridge belongs to me. Maybe it’s the bear’s favorite area too. Because after all, we chose to settle in his territory, right? Not the other way around.

(Long Lake image from wikipedia. Bearjam from National Geographic, May 2016. Photo by Jonathan Blair.)

 

Accidental Trail Run

81 The other day I was scheduled for a long run, the longest of this training season so far, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’m up at the lake and as beautiful as it is up here, there are few quiet shaded roads that go for miles and miles. Not to mention that there’s nothing that remotely resembles flat. It is, after all, the Adirondack Mountains.

After plenty of procrastinating, I set out and cobbled together several miles on some of my favorite roads and then resigned myself to running the second half on Route 30, a major road traversed by logging trucks, RVs and motorcycles. A little more than a mile on Rt 30, I saw the entrance to a park where we’ve cross-country skied in the winter. I trotted in, worked my way past the many campsites and found the snowmobile trail. The sign, with an arrow and bright orange trail marker, told me that the trail ended near a familiar trailhead. Running the mileage calculations, I figured that the trail, plus the run home from the trailhead, would get me to my goal.

I didn’t give a second thought to embarking on the trail because I knew that if it seemed dicey, I could simply turn around after a mile or two and complete my run as planned. Once I’d gone beyond the two miles and I was committed to completing the trail to its endpoint, I admit to feeling a bit nervous to be running on an unfamiliar trail with no phone and no one aware of my location. While that’s not the safe way to go — everyone knows that the first rule of hiking alone is to let someone know where you’ll be and when you plan to return — the risk was small (weather forecast was good, the route was short). After skimming the nervousness off the top, waiting like a kid on Christmas morning, I found exhilaration, bringing to mind that Eleanor Roosevelt quote about doing things that scare us.

Right away, I realized is that running on a new trail is tricky – at least for me. While keeping my eyes on the trail to avoid rocks and logs, I wasn’t keeping my head up to watch for trail markers. Several times, I paused, nervous that I’d lost the trail and reminded that I had no phone and no map and then I’d see the bright orange marker and I’d continue on. The mountains must have gotten quite a bit of rain in the days previous. At first, picking my way around the sloppy mess, I worried that I’d reach a part so flooded that I wouldn’t find a way around it, but eventually I was committed come hell or high water. The route was almost all flat, bursting with ferns, and much of it ran alongside a lake. Even in my imagination, I couldn’t have dreamed up a greener, more peaceful environment to complete that long run. At one point, my foot landed in a mucky soup of mud and I found that when I slowed to a walk, deer flies found me delicious, but that was the worst of it. When I landed at the trailhead and the road that I run on most often, I experienced a swell of pride. I’d tried something unexpected and it ended up even better than I’d hoped.

The thing about Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote is that we find magic when we push past our comfort zones and the go beyond the familiar. I don’t believe, when she said that famous sentence, she intended that every day we must climb a mountain or leap off of a 20-foot ledge. I think Eleanor meant that each day we have the opportunity to take one step outside of what we know and possibly find out who we are. What could you do today that scares you a little bit?

(image from buymeposters.com)

Putting a Damper on Things

VENICE DAY 4 Winged Lion

We’d been pretty upbeat about the weather, but when we woke on Saturday to more rain, we were bumming. Once again armed with umbrellas and rain jackets, we forged on with our plan from the day previous working our way toward the famous Rialto bridge by way of Scuola San Rocco and the Frari church. Both of these places were amazing in their own right and both very different. Scuolo San Rocco is referred to as Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel because the artist painted his own rendition of the period from Adam and Eve to Christ’s resurrection on an even bigger ceiling than the Sistine. And this one is in a much less-crowded environment. Plus, they provide mirrors so you can get a good look at the ceiling without craning your neck.

The Frari Church is impressive in scope and houses many famous dead Venetians. The coolest aspect of it, in my opinion, is the carved choir seats and the altar screen featuring the apostles carved in the top of it. Of course, as it is a church, no photos were allowed. (sidenote: this didn't seem to stop many, many people from snapping images in all the churches we visited. I chose to follow the rules. Big surprise, right?)

We loved this instant coffee machine. Latte, espresso, hot chocolate, you name it. Only .80 euro each!

By this time, our older son was definitely on church overload so when our younger son saw a sign for the da Vinci museum, we agreed. In this museum, people have used da Vinci’s drawings and notes to re-create some of his inventions and the kids can manipulate many of them. It’s only a few rooms and, in my opinion, not really worth the charge, but if you have a museum pass and kids in tow, definitely worth a peek. A plus? If it’s as cold and rainy as it was when we were there, the museum was toasty warm, whereas neither the San Rocco nor the Frari were heated. Brrr…

Hungry from all that looking at old stuff, we worked our way through puddles and dodged umbrellas to the Rialto bridge. I’d heard it was a busy place, but that in no way prepared me for the crowds. And every person seemed to be seeking the bit of refuge from rain that we were seeking. We searched out Cafe Vergnano, recommended for views of the Grand Canal, but the only seats available were on the second floor with no windows. By this point, we were experiencing a fair amount of tourist fatigue, not to mention we were all a bit damp and chilled. Tom lightened the mood by asking us all to lay on the table, metaphorically speaking, our three complaints about the cafe. They included the weird electronic runway/club music, the fact that all the upper windows were covered by posters of the restaurant, and our table’s proximity to the WC. By the amount of traffic going in and out of that bathroom, you would have thought either it was the only one in town or someone was dealing drugs in the back. At one point no less than five teenage girls went in there together. I don’t know how they all fit and they were in there for a while, too. Fortunately, the food was great and after gobbling up our lunch, we returned downstairs to take our coffee and dessert by the window where we watched the rain fall in the canal.

View of Grand Canal from Rialto One more canal Laura at grand canal Fearless gondoliers Boys on Rialto Bridge Another canal

After taking the obligatory photo on the Rialto bridge, we were all pretty much done trouncing through puddles, so we thought we’d grab a water taxi for a ride down the Grand Canal to our hotel, but when the guy quoted us 60 euro, we decided that it wasn’t really raining all that bad after all.

By the time we made it back to our hotel, we were bedraggled and tired. By dinner time, the rain was getting worse rather than better. Tom and I surprised the kids with perfect end to our rainy time in Venice. We ordered pizza and brought it back to the room where we ate in pj’s on the bed and watched a movie.

Looking back at all that I’ve written about Venice, it seems that maybe I didn’t have a wonderful time. I was entranced by Venice and the kids said that they enjoyed it more than Rome. The pace is wonderfully relaxed and the environment hauntingly magical and the people kind and helpful. Venice won me over completely and I'd love to experience again during a sunnier, warmer season.

The Vaporetto is No Friend of Mine

VENICE DAY 3 After a day of chilly off and on rain, we were thrilled to wake to sun. We scampered onto our shuttle intending to make our way to Rialto bridge via Frari Church and Scuola San Rocco. With the better weather, we made a last minute decision to make a trip to neighboring islands instead.

Unfortunately, confusion about the public boat schedules combined with pushy crowds left us stuck under cover on a boat stop during the only sun of the day. By the time we finally muscled our way onto a vaporetto packed to standing room only, the weather had turned raw. It’s a 45-minute ride to Murano, which would be more than tolerable if you have a seat, but smushed against the steel wall of a hull made me feel less like a tourist on vacation and more like cattle.

On the way to Murano, you have the option to get off the vaporetto at Cimitero. When Napolean decreed it unsanitary to bury the dead near the living, Venetians reserved a nearby island as a burial place and Venetians are still buried there today. Now if you know me even a little bit, you know that there is no way I'd miss a chance to see a cemetery island.

Cemetary StatueCemetary IslandCrypt doorCemetary gate

Nothing so romantic as a cemetery on a rainy day, right? (Kidding!)

Laura and Tom in cemetary

From Cimitero, we took the vaporetto to Murano, which is a small island featuring glass-making businesses. Seeing a glassmaker create a prancing horse from a molten bubble is nothing short of magic. I could have watched him all day and I would have if it weren’t for the fact that I felt guilty for taking up space when children were waiting to watch. After lunch, each of us selected a glass object for a souvenir.

MuranoMuran glass sculptureMurano lighthouse

We then hopped the next packed vaporetto to Burano, an even smaller island of fisherman and lace-makers. I’m talking small island. We walked from one end to the other in about ten minutes.

Boys in Burano Burano again

We grabbed some Burano bicuits (famous ‘S’ shaped cookies), took photos of the charming pastel-colored houses and we were back on yet another packed vaporetto heading to Venice. This time, the boat was so full that we couldn’t get inside so we were stuck on the main deck in the cold. I admit it: I was on sensory overload at this point. The many boats, the many stops, the many languages being spoken all around me, the many people shoving and pushing  - all of it combined to make this my least favorite moment during our trip to Venice. The islands themselves were charming and offered a wonderful addition to the experience of Venice. It was the vaporetto that I didn’t love. Had I known better, I would have splurged on the private tour, but everything is so expensive in Venice that it's sometimes hard to figure how where to spend money and where to save.

The weather worsened in the late afternoon so rather than return to the main island for dinner, we elected to go to a restaurant on our own island just a few blocks down from the hotel. Again, we were greeted with a warm staff and a cozy environment. Even better? Tom found a place that sold HDMI cables so we could watch movies from our younger son’s laptop for free rather than pay the 14 euro charge from the hotel!

The Doge’s CIA and Losing St. Mark

VENICE DAY 2 This was our day dedicated to St. Mark’s Square. The day before had just been exploring and getting a sense of the place. Here's where you can see how few pigeons frequent the square today.

St Marks Square

In the morning, we toured the Doge's Palace. Doge is loosely translated as duke in English and the Doge, the ruler of Venice, was elected by a body of Venetians - wealthy men over 25 years of age. The Doge then served until death.

Doge's Palace Courtyard Staircase in Doge's Palace Courtyard of Doge's PalaceGolden Staircase in Doges Palace

From the frothy palace with its stairway of 24 karat gold (called Scala d'Or) we were guided through a locked door for our Secret Itineraries tour, which was quite good. It wasn’t as full of torture chambers as I’d expected, but I learned a lot about Venetian politics and the Venetian version of the CIA: the Council of Ten also known as CX. (Love that, don't you? Major story possibilities...) The Council of Ten supervised spies and was led by an appointed director who was paid a great sum of money so that he might be incorruptible. If Venetian secrets were leaked, the buck stopped with him and he would lose his head. Literally.

See the guy below with Princess Leia sort of head gear? He wasn't just a pretty face. He was a letterbox for complaints and accusations. Citizens placed their accusations in the mouth and the Doge's staff read and acted on them. If someone was found to falsely accuse another, he would be subject to the punishment of the alleged crime. The second photo features the kids in the hallway of prison cells.  In the next photo, that tiny covered bridge leads from the palace to the prisons. Called the bridge of sighs, it would have offered prisoners their last glimpse of Venice before being placed in their cells.

Mouth of TruthBoys in Doge's PrisonBridge of Sighs

The weather was turning bad with rain off and on so we ducked into a jovially packed bar that looked about 200 years old, if it was a day and chowed down on an odd assortment of Italian sandwiches. (The sandwiches themselves weren't odd, but the selections we made were all over the place.)

Next, we toured St. Mark's Basilica. Apparently, St. Mark (of gospel fame) was buried in muslim-occupied Egypt and sometime around 828 A.D, two Venetians appropriated the body of St. Mark and brought it to the Doge in Venice. Then construction began for a basilica suitable to the burial place of a saint. (I think I have this right, but don’t base your term paper on it.) During the long construction of the church, however, they lost track of St. Mark's remains. There is a mosaic in the church that depicts the entire town of Venice praying for the recovery of the bones. They were found in a hollow column in the church and were then buried beneath the altar, where they remain today. (Unless someone else decided that poor old Mark should be resting somewhere else.) It is St. Mark's symbol of the winged lion that decorates pillars, monuments and churches throughout the city.

St. Mark's Basilica outside

St. Mark’s Basilica was my favorite. I know, I know, nothing beats the opulence of St. Peter’s, but I preferred the Eastern sensibility of St. Mark’s. The golden mosaics glow in the dim light and dome after dome features new images. The church layout is based on the Greek cross, which features arms of equal length on all sides allowing the entire cross to fit into a circle, representing the world and all of its elements.

After a rejuvenating break at the hotel, we ventured out in the rain for dinner at a restaurant we’d scouted out the day before. We were rewarded with a warm welcome from the owner and the best dinner I’d had since our arrival in Italy. We swore we’d return for at least another meal. (Of course that didn’t happen, but it had more to do with bad weather than anything else.)

Our favorite restaurant in Venice. My favorite of our whole trip.

By Rail or by Water

VENICE DAY 1 In the morning, we had an especially good breakfast at the B&B because Cristiano wanted to treat us to an Italian Easter breakfast of hard boiled eggs, salami and a delicious breads. Then we were off for the train. I was so glad that we splurged on first class for the four hour trip. The scenery was beautiful and we were able to sit in reserved seats facing one another.

Train ride

Arriving in Venice is like arriving nowhere I’ve ever been before. Of course you know that there will be water for roadways and yet nothing quite prepares you to step out of a train station and face a wide swath of rippling water for a road. People in Rome described Venice as beautiful, unique and even strange and it is all of those things.

Water taxi

When you walk the back canals and walkway of Venice, there is only the shush of water lapping against boats and your footsteps on stones. The soft sounds of water and the absence of motors combine to create a sense of other-worldliness. All of us were smitten immediately.

Gondoliers Gondolas Rio Sunset on a canal

On our first trek out of the hotel, we quickly became lost. Fortunately, I’d heard that this is a part of the experience and we didn’t allow it to bother us. Of course the blue skies and soft sun helped our spirits and eventually we found St. Mark’s Square. I’d wanted to see this for some time ever since I’d seen a black and white photo of my aunt as a teen standing in the square surrounded by pigeons. Apparently the pigeons are not as welcome as they once were, but there were many people feeding them and taking photos with them anyway.

A corner of St Marks Square Boys at St Marks Basilica

After a while of exploring, the temperature began to drop so we found a bar near the Accademia bridge. It was warm and had good pizza and that’s all we needed.

Laundry Day in Rome

ROME DAY 5 Gelato: Bacio e pistaccio (chocolate with hazelnut – which might be baccio. One means ‘kiss’ and the other a gelato flavor. Also, pistachio)

Pasta: Nope! Veal sautéed with ham and sage.

By now, we needed to do laundry. Tom, not wanting to waste a moment of our dwindling time in Rome, suggested that we drop our laundry off and then return to St. Peter’s Basilica to climb the dome. We’d skipped it on the previous day because the lines were so long. Our older son was psyched about this. Our younger son would have preferred to stay in the room with his laptop.

The trip up to the dome is not for the faint of heart even if, like us, you elect to take the lazy man’s way and pay the extra euro for the elevator. Once on the roof of the basilica, where the elevator drops you off, it’s another 323 steps up to the dome. Three hundred twenty-three single file steps packed tight with strangers and the only air coming from the occasional slit in the wall offering a prisoner’s view of Rome. I was wishing fervently that the young man behind me hadn’t eaten so much garlic the night before. Whew! One woman bailed and I heard a word that sounded like the Italian version of ‘claustrophobic.’ BUT – if you hang in there, the view is tremendous.

Harrowing journey to domeSt Peters DomeView of St Peters from DomeView of Piazza from DomeDescending the dome

After the amazing view and the clean laundry, we hoofed it back to the Metro in the rain and stopped for sandwiches on the way. I continued to be surprised by the difference in cost if you choose to sit in a restaurant and eat versus taking away. After a filling lunch of mozzarella and prosciutto sandwiches washed down with Coke, we were ready for our next journey. This was our last afternoon in Rome and Tom and I wanted to use every minute.

We jumped on the Metro and walked up the beautiful and upscale Via Veneto to the Capuccin Museum. I thought the kids would get a kick out of seeing the many ways that the monks arranged the bones of their dead brothers. Yeah, I knew it would be morbid, but also sort of cool. They were not as amused or intrigued as I was. Mostly, they were grossed out. Admittedly, seeing a chandelier made of knee joints is a bit off-putting. Not to mention the arch of hip bones. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the ceiling decorations made of ribs and jaw bones. No photos were allowed (and you’re probably relieved!)

Onward from there, we hopped on the metro again (we had bought day passes because the weather was spotty and we’d walked miles and miles in the days previous) to the Borghese Gardens where we visited the museum there.This had been Pauline Bonaparte Borghese's (as in Napolean's sister) palace in Rome and the opulence was staggering, though no photos were allowed, so I cannot show you all that I saw. This is a photo of the outside, which denies the sense of the interior completely.

Galleria Borghese

I admit it — I appreciate sculpture more than painting. Maybe it's a matter of education. When I look at ages old paintings, I appreciate the work, but I don’t know what went into it. When I look at Apollo and Daphne or the Rape of Persephone, I am struck by Bernini’s ability to coax movement, nuance and emotion from stone. I'm so sad that photos weren't allowed so that I could not share those statues with you.

After the Borghese, we made our way to Piazza del Popolo, a lovely piazza near where we were staying.

Piazza del PopoloLaura at Piazza del Popolo foutain Laura and Tom at Piazza del Popolo Boys at Piazza del Popolo

We had dinner at the nearby Gran Sasso, a restaurant where one of our younger son’s teachers worked when he lived in Rome. The owner was very excited that we knew Fio and he treated us to a delicious dessert, which was a lovely end to our trip to Rome.

Boys with owner of Gran Sasso

The Vatican Museums with thousands of my closest friends

ROME DAY 4 Gelato: nicciola e ciaccolato (hazelnut, but I’m not sure I spelled it correctly, and chocolate)

Pasta: Bucatini alla matriciana (bucatini looks like spaghetti, but it’s tubular. The sauce is a thick tomato sauce with bacon. This is a traditional Roman pasta dish.)

This was the day we spent at the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. The experience, while visually stunning, puts a visitor on unavoidable sensory overload. All tourists are pushed through the same rooms packed shoulder to shoulder with people from all over the world looking at art from all over the world that spans 5000 years. Here is Sumerian writing from 3000 B.C. and an Egyptian stone coffin and mummy, both from about 1000 B.C.

Sumerian Writing Stone Coffin Mummy

As you can imagine, there were many, many statues on the tour. Below are two of them. Rick Steves tells us that Lacoon (on the left) was lost for more than one thousand years and when it was found, the unbridled emotion in it inspired Michelangelo's later work on the Sistine Chapel. The golden ceiling is the quarter mile papal map room. The walls feature maps of areas of Italy while the ceiling shows scenes in history from those geographical areas.

IMG_5071LacoonMap Gallery

The map gallery feels like a long march of history and opulence until, just when you think you’d give your left leg for a place to sit down, you land in the darkened Sistine Chapel where the only sound is guards intoning ‘Silencio!’ (Of course there are no photos allowed.)

I was happy for this second opportunity to see the chapel because I wasn’t fully aware of what I was seeing the first time around. This time, I leaned back and appreciated the amount of time, thought and talent Michelangelo took in creating the many scenes and prophets he chose to illuminate in the ceiling. The gorgeous image of God extending Life to Adam and that of Adam and Eve sent from Heaven are incredible, but the Final Judgment that spans the entire wall behind the alter possesses a particular drama and emotion. First of all, I’ve never seen a Jesus depicted as so physically commanding. Making the judgments on all human beings in the world is a grim business and Jesus is determined in his role, deciding who goes up and who goes down. It was also cool to think that the popes had been there just a week prior deciding on the next pope. Even though I'm not Catholic, it seemed remarkable to me to stand in a room where important decisions were made. I didn't see where they let off the smoke signal, though. I know there is a chimny on the roof, but I didn't see a fireplace in the chapel.

One little sidenote — and I don’t mean any disrespect at all because Micheangelo was da man — but did you ever notice the biceps on Eve? Check it out sometime. She’s got some guns.

 

From the Sistine Chapel, we exited down a few steps an into St. Peter’s Basilica. Are there even words to capture this church of churches? Awe-inspiring in scope, for sure. Grandeur? No doubt. Standing in the entry way of the church, the window on the far wall above the altar is two football fields away.

Boys in St Peter'sSt Peters ceiling

The canopy (behind me in the photo below) above the alter is seven stories high, but it doesn’t seem so because the dome is 100 yards from floor to ceiling. Yeah, big church.

Laura in front of the canopyIMG_5133

My two favorite things in this church are Michelangelo’s Pieta, so full of grace, emotion and beauty, that it brought tears to my eyes in a way that no Jesus on a cross could ever do.

Pieta

My other favorite aspect of St. Peter's? The dome.

St Peter's Dome

Boys in front of St Peter's

When we left St. Peter's hungry and tired, we needed to get Tom's bag from the 'gardaroba' - bag check. (Everything sounds better in Italian, doesn't it?) The guard told us to walk out of St. Peter's Piazza and turn left. Sounds like it's right next door, right? No. At this point it was raining and we'd left two umbrellas and one rain jacket in -- you guessed it -- the bag that was checked! We followed the Vatican wall, swimming our way upstream against the current of tourists, dodging the tour mongers every 10 feet ("You speak English? Tour the Vatican. No line!") We walked, I'm guessing, about 1/2 mile until we arrived back at the entrance to the Vatican Museums where the guard let me back in to retrieve our bag. I was afraid that I would be denied re-entry, but apparently we weren't the only ones who gotten mixed up. There were several others filing in behind me to gather their bags, too. We were all relieved to duck into a tiny pizzeria and sit down for a while before more walking back to the B&B for a much needed afternoon off of our feet.

Rome Metro Serves as Time Travel Device

ROME DAY 3 Gelato: Cannella e cremina (cinnamon and something with globs of delicious fudge. Yum!) and later -- coconut and amaretto - double yum!

Pasta: Ravioli con caciofi e rosa (with artichokes and a pink sauce)

On this day, we were quite bold (for us) and made a day trip to Ostia Antica, an ancient and well-preserved city about one hour by metro and train from Rome. By this point, all of us were happy to leave the hustle and bustle of Rome and we welcomed the relative quiet of Ostia. In fact, we were beside ourselves to find a little deli where we ordered sandwiches, sides and drinks to go for a reasonable 20 euros. It's amazing what you can do with a little Italian and a lot of pointing.

After our wonderful lunch, we were ready to tackle Ostia Antica. This is a town that was founded around 650 B.C. Let that sink in for a moment. 650 B.C. A relatively brief train ride takes you to a town that's completely laid out as it was over two thousand years ago. Wow, right? The tradition at that time was to bury the dead on the road leading to the city so the first thing you see as you enter Ostia Antica is rows and rows of burial chambers. When you finally enter the city, you have the opportunity to explore the remarkably well-preserved theater, apartments, stores - and even a bar! And when I say explore, I mean that you can climb the stairs to the rooftop, peer into the old buildings. walk through the mill. Talk about stepping back in time! This was a highlight of our trip as a whole.

Entry to Ostia AnticaView of shop areaIMG_4990

Around the columns of the square, merchants sold fresh fish and other goods or services.

This theater is still in use today for shows

Zach in Ostia TheaterBoys on top ledge of theater

Celebrating our ability to navigate the metro and regional rail without incident, we treated ourselves to an afternoon gelato before dinner!

Dinner was at Alla Campana on the recommendation of an American friend who travels to Rome every year. The service was fantastic and the food delicious.

Ancient Rome and Not So Ancient Politics

Colosseum DAY 2: Saturday, March 23

Gelato: Cannella (cinnamon) and creme caramel (the cinnamon knocked my socks off. You’ll see I had trouble staying away.)

Pasta: none! Instead, I had the largest, most expensive hamburger of my life.

During the day, we explored the Roman Forum, which our younger son, who is in 7th grade, loved. Our older son, a sophomore in high school, was dying to experience the Colosseum, which we could see from the Roman Forum teasing him all the while. Hungry from all that walking among ruins, we went in search of a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves. Of course we got lost. Well, we weren't lost so much as we were on the complete opposite side of the Colosseum from where we were supposed to be. It's a big monument and it would take a while to walk all the way around (again) so we agreed to the beckoning guy at the most tourist-y restaurant I could imagine. The only way this restaurant could have been more touristy is if the waiters were dressed as gladiators. No matter, the food was good and the prices were not outrageious. Finally, we tackled the Colosseum where we elected to hire a tour guide on Zach’s request. She was an adorable Italian architecture student and seemed eager to share her knowledge. Part of her mission, it seemed, was to dispel a myth (she said) that Christians were martyred in the Colosseum. Outside the Colosseum, sure, she said. But not inside.

Roman Forum

Laura and Zach at Roman Forum with Arch of Titus in background.

Arch of Constantine Laura and Tom in front of Colosseum Zach and Mitch in front of Colosseum

The area beneath the stage where the gladiators and animals were kept.

In the evening we walked to the Spanish Steps, where a major Berlusconi rally was in full stride on the steps and being broadcasted to the packed crowed via huge video monitors. This may have been interesting to us if any of us could speak a word of Italian, but as we do not, the moment was lost on us. What little I understand is that there remains a stalemate. I guess the rally wasn't so effective after all. Anyway, from the Spanish Steps, we made our way to the Trevi Fountain. Of course we got lost and, tired and hungry, I nearly gave up, but Tom urged us on. The fountain, lit for the evening in the soft orange lights of Rome and crushed by young tourists, was quite dramatic. The boys and I threw our coins in the fountain to ensure our return. Then, we made our way to Nino, an upscale restaurant near the Spanish Steps, just in time for our 9 pm reservation. I ordered a meal which I had mistaken for a filet. When it arrived, it turned out to be a giant hamburger. It was good, but not what I’d had in mind. Scared away by the prices, we departed without dolce (dessert) and instead, found a gelateria on our block, which was still open at 10:30 pm. Yay!

IMG_4942

Laura, Zach and Mitch on major shopping street with Spanish Steps in background.

Berlusconi rally on Spanish Steps.

Days of Pasta and Gelati

Pantheon interior DAY 1: Friday, March 22

Gelato flavor: Stracciatella (like chocolate chip, but not really like chocolate chip)

Pasta: Fettucine con funghi (with a light cream sauce and fresh mushrooms.)

Oh, and we saw Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. This was our first day. None of us had slept well on the plane, so we were all a little delirious. On a recommendation from both Rick Steves and the owner of our B&B, we set out to find Baffetto, a local pizzaria. We got lost. Little did we know that this would be a trend for us — setting out to find a restaurant and getting lost. Good news? We ended up very near Piazza Navona – a beautiful piazza and former racetrack. It boasts the famous Four Rivers Fountain by Bernini. My man, Bernini, could work with some marble.

Piazza Cavour

 

The boys in front of Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain

 

Laura and Tom inside the Pantheon

 

Umberto Bridge

 

ROME

THINGS YOU SEE IN ROME Ancient ruins resting amidst the modern city. Women in three-inch heels riding scooters. Down jackets. Motorcycles, so many motorcycles and scooters and smart cars parked in impossibly small spaces. Fountains at every turn. People smoking. Cobblestones. Gelaterias. Pizzarias. Couples kissing. Giant, two story tall heavy wooden doors that open into regular apartment complexes. Marble in altars, as flooring, on the street. Churches with domes or without. Piazzas, broad and modest, with fountains and sometimes obelisks. Walls, great unscalable walls guarding the entire Vatican City and another spanning a large part of North Rome. Well-dressed police officers.

One of many statues lining the Umberto Bridge from Castel Sant'Angelo toward the Piazza Navona section of Rome.

Three police question a roasted chestnut seller. Or maybe they're just buying some roasted chestnuts. Who know?

Vine-covered building with street sign

We happened upon this church after lunch on the first day.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE IN ROME

Large cars: a Range Rover is a beast among kittens. People wearing khakis. International cuisine. Very few Asian restaurants and no other types that we saw. Starbucks. Bright colors in clothing. Skycrapers. Fleece jackets. Runners, except in Borghese Park where they don’t look awfully serious about it.

Our Stay in Middle-earth

Maybe it was the fact that we watched all three Lord of the Rings movies while we stayed in the condo. Maybe it was the mention in Fodor’s that this area looked like Middle-earth. All I know is that from the moment we arrived at Peace Lodge and Waterfall Gardens, I could think of nothing else.

As we crested a steep incline, unfettered by human or machine, I expected Aragorn to gallop across the green hills. And when we entered our room, I felt sure that Elrond himself would greet us and welcome us to Rivendell.

The landscape was breathtaking in its rugged beauty and the lodge was stunning, down to every detail. The Peace Lodge has only seventeen rooms. There are four or five buildings, which look like houses, each of which has four rooms with separate outside entrances. I’ve never stayed anywhere remotely like this.

Okay, this next one -- this is in our bathroom. Yes, those are live ferns with a waterfall. In my bathroom.

Peace Lodge is also home to a nature preserve and wildlife refuge. It's like having a small zoo just below your hotel room. Eager to make the most of our short time in this enchanted place, we scurried down to the park where we saw monkeys, jaguars and vipers. We also fed hummingbirds.

We were sad to find the frog house closed but John, a young tour guide with just enough English to be funny – or possibly dangerous, convinced us to sign up for a night-time frog tour. It turned out to be amazing – if not for the fantastic pictures then for the animated descriptions given by John. His excitement was infectious. His dedication toward helping our younger son nail the perfect photo endeared me to him, even as he more often than not, misunderstood our questions.

When night fell, clouds swallowed mountains whole and then reached up to our veranda as if offering us passage to the land beyond. That night, with the mountain air coming through the screens, I slept like a princess under silky mosquito netting and woke to the bright sunshine angling through the window and the calls of birds in the aviary below. Next -- our visit to Poas Volcano, a coffee plantation and Rivendell - er, the Waterfall Gardens.

Trouble Communicating on More Than One Level

In an epic example of marital miscommunication, Tom and I found ourselves on a standing room only bus bearing all the local beach goers back to the town of Quepos.

We’d spent the morning on a walking tour of Manuel Antonio National Park with a fantastic tour guide. Johan pointed out monkeys, red-eyed tree frogs, several sloths, toucans and many basilisk lizards. These delicate-looking reptiles are about ten inches long and have the ability to walk on their hind legs across water, earning them the nickname ‘Jesus Christ Lizard,’ which I thought was hysterical.

Anyway, after our tour, we elected to stay in the park and enjoy the beach. Though crowded, the beach inside the park was nowhere near as packed at the public beach just on the other side of a huge lava rock. There was a friend with us, too.

We rested on towels, munched on a packed lunch and enjoyed ourselves. Nonetheless, we were quite tired when we returned so when Tom suggested that we get moving to catch the bus to Quepos, I inwardly groaned. Our condo is gorgeous, with plenty of space, a full kitchen and amazing views of the ocean. Understandably, after the busy days we’d had, he wanted to be comfortable and eat in. I wouldn’t say I was psyched to cook but I was certainly willing, I mean, that’s part of the reason we’d gotten the condo.

There was a small supermarket two blocks from our condo. Imagine shopping in Wawa for all of your groceries. Now imagine that everything in the Wawa is in Spanish. That’s shopping at Super Joseth. Even with the inflated prices, it was still much cheaper than going out to eat but after hearing our local guide talk about Pali, ‘Walmart of Costa Rica,’ Tom got it in his head that if we were saving money, he wanted to do it right.

So it was that we boarded a bus packed so tight that I felt like we were in an intimate relationship with the sleepy, sandy Tico teenagers returning from the beach. Tom said that it was pretty much the last thing he wanted to do. What!? But it was his idea. It was the last thing I wanted to do.

As it turned out, I thought Tom wanted to get the cheaper groceries; he thought I wanted the cheaper groceries. The bus dumped us next to our destination just in time for the worker to shake his head and shut the door. It was Maundy Thursday and everything was closing early for Holy Week. We stumbled into a fruit market and decided we would make rice and beans. Because we hadn’t had enough rice and beans at all the tour lunches we’d eaten during the week.  For real. Tom was seriously smitten with the Costa Rican ‘gallo pinto’ and he wanted to recreate it at home. Never mind that we could order it from a little storefront down the street.

We grabbed some fruit, veggies, rice and beans that we needed and then looked for chicken. Didn’t see any. Tom asked if they had chicken. The elderly owner of the market looked at him blankly. I went through the restaurant menus I’d seen – Pollo, I said. Pollo? He replied with a rapid-fire question. I heard ‘para’ and figured that he was trying to learn if we wanted it for cooking or already cooked.  I ran through the meager Spanish vocabulary I’d picked up in a couple of day. Nothing. I thought to say ‘Pollo para cucina’ – like I wanted chicken for the kitchen, but I knew that wouldn’t make sense. Or at least it wouldn’t help.

Luckily, the man’s son arrived and with a kind smile he said he spoke a little English. We told him what we needed and he directed us to market. He pointed and said it was some amount of meters but I had no idea what that meant so we just walked. It turned out to be about two blocks. Tom suggested that I stay outside with our groceries while he went inside for the meat.

Proudly, he emerged with both ground beef and chicken breast. Three pounds of each. For two nights. Still, I give the guy credit. I couldn’t begin to guess the translation between grams and pounds. He knew how much he was buying and actually thought we needed that much meat! (Note to self: educate Tom on average consumption amounts). Having had just about enough adventure for one day, we elected to return home by taxi. Sure, it was more money but we’d just saved money by shopping in Quepos, right?

Costa Rica: Best Day Ever!

You have to sing the subject line of this post like Spongebob Squarepants, then you get the real sense of it. On Friday morning, we were scheduled for a 7:30 a.m. pick-up to go white water rafting. By this time, I was second-guessing the way I'd planned the tours this week.  We had to be out the door early every morning, and we were all a little worn out. I was a bit testy, barking out orders to the kids to get in their bathing suits (again), put on sunscreen (again), find their caps (again) - you get the picture. Then the concierge knocked on the door to tell us our guide from Quepoa Exepeditions had arrived. Early. In Costa Rica. I thought no one was early in Costa Rica! We hustled some more and scampered downstairs to board our fourth van in as many days.

A word about tours and vans. The first two days, we were picked up first so Tom and I boarded in the back, thinking it would be considerate for others boarding after us. After two days bumping around in the back of the van on the aforesaid unpaved roads, we vowed not to sit in the back again. Especially after our experience with the family from SoCal.

On the third day, we weren't the first to be picked up. And what do know? The family who was picked up first took the first seats. We were in the back again. Luckily, it wasn't a long journey - just a short drive on a well-paved road to Manuel Antonio Park. Yesterday, once again, we were second to be picked up and the other family was in the front seats. They seemed like nice enough people so we started to think we were just silly to worry about the consideration of others.  To the back we went. The guides piled in -- four of them -- with the one American literally lounging across two seats in the front while Tom and his long legs were cramped into the back seat. Tom muttered about poor customer service. About ten minutes into the drive, we pulled over at a bus stop and picked up a woman and two teenage children. The wife and children of the driver. They squeezed in beside the American guide and we understood why he'd kept the seat open. The was so absurd to me and yet so obviously normal for them that I fell into a fit of giggles. There were five Americans in the van, paying a good deal of money to go rafting and there was the driver, his wife, his two kids and four guides.  Am I the only one who sees the silliness? Anyway -- rafting.

My kids and family have my friend, Colette, to thank for this trip because I wasn't sure about it. Having just traveled to the same area last year, she encouraged us to go for it. As said above - it was absolutely thrilling.  Every one us loved it. Our guide, Nacho, was fantastic. The kids had a blast and as you'll see, we all had huge grins on our faces for most of the trip. I'll let the pictures speak for us:



Naturally, we took our break at a waterfall where our guides prepared fresh mango and pineapple along with Costa Rican cookies and crackers. It was, by far, the most beautiful waterfall we'd seen all week. And remember, we saw two before this one!

After the waterfall stop, it was more rafting -- so thrilling! -- and then a 'typical' lunch at a roadside restaurant. Have I mentioned 'typical' food yet? No? That might be a post for another day.

We're off now for the beach -- yes, we are walking again. We know the way this time so it can't be so bad, right? 

Costa Rica Day 3: The View from a Saddle

Another day and one more 'never' crossed off the list. As in: I've never ridden a horse in the Costa Rican rain forest. In fact, I've only ridden horses a handful of times in my life. (One of them into the mountains of Kauai, which was amazing). The rest of the family had never been on a live horse ever. Going into it, our younger son was excited, Tom was game and our older son was not interested. Once more, we found ourselves in the back of a van for over an hour through the African Palm plantation. Seems like in order to get anywhere down here, you need to drive on unpaved rocky roads through acres and acres of African palms. I joked that by the end of the week, I'll be able to give the shpiel on African Palms, having heard it first from our driver, second from the Canopy tour guide and now again from our horseback tour leader. To me, the most interesting fact about the African Palm is not that they produce fruit every two weeks for twenty-five years but that Nicaraguans are bussed in to do the work because Costa Ricans don't want that job.

Back to horseback riding. We arrived at the Finca Valmy stable and were quickly given 'goofy hats' (dubbed such by our tour guide, Che) and horses. The horses looked healthy and clean. They were docile as can be and well-trained. There were seven of us on the tour, a lovely family from the UK, another family from southern California and the four of us. We had two guides: Oscar, who was young and spoke no English, led the group with me just behind. My family followed me, then the SoCal family and finally UK with Che, our guide.

Che was a story unto himself. Tall and wiry with more gray in his mustache than black, he told us that he was born and raised in Buenos Aires, but left there eleven years ago and doesn't miss it for a minute. A self-professed 'Dead Head', Che was easily fifteen years older than me, unless his hard-partying lifestyle had added more years to his face. Dedicated to ayurvedic medicine, Che regaled us with information about spices, fruits and plants that cure everything from hangovers to tumors.

Also well-versed in the ecological history of the land, Che pointed out hickory trees, walking palms and countless other flora during our ambling ride through a quiet river basin.

After a while, we arrived at a hiking trail where we dismounted the horses and took an easy path to the waterfall and pond.

On the way back, Valentin, the owner (I think) arrived on his horse and we were given the option to take a longer path home which would allow us to trot or even gallop or to take the shorter, easier route. Tom shocked me by requesting the longer route. Since they'd given us no instruction whatsoever about successfully trotting or galloping, I was unsure how the boys would respond. Heck, I was unsure how I'd respond! At first, I thought that I had excellent control over my wonderful horse, Bandito, but soon, I realized that Bandito wanted to do whatever the horse in front of him wanted to do. When Oscar, the guide, stopped, Bandito stopped. When Oscar moved ahead, Bandito moved ahead.

When the SoCal family passed me on the right at a nice clip, Bandito took off like he was going for the Triple Crown. Okay, I'm exaggerating. He did surge but I'd say we made it just past trot and up to canter. Definitely not a gallop but that was just fine for me! Tom thought it was a ball, our younger son loved it and our older son was afraid he'd fall off. About halfway in, the SoCal dad decided that he wanted run faster so he tried to pass our tour guide, whose horse freaked out. That was the end of our trotting.

Once we arrived back at the stables, Valentin drove us to his house where we had a delicious home-cooked 'typical' lunch of chicken and rice (all a part of the package). By the time we got home, our older son just wanted to go swimming, Tom was thrilled that he'd tried something new and our younger son was wishing for his own horse. Just another day in Paradise.

Costa Rica: Zipping, Motoring and Splashing

Tuesday was the sort of day that made me wonder who on earth was living this adventurous life? Surely, not me! We were picked up a little after 7 a.m. in front of our condo by a young Costa Rican who wore braces and called himself Alex. Seven a.m. sounds early unless you are still operating on east coast time, aided by the early Costa Rican sunrise.  After an hour long ride through the African Palm plantation over a rocky road (our guides dubbed it the 'Tico massage'), we arrived at La Selvita's Canopy Tour. We were welcomed with a 'typical' breakfast of rice, beans, tortillas and fresh pineapple -- all made by a cook up in the mountains. After that, we were ready for some zip lining!

And man, was it amazing! I felt like I was flying through the jungle. The guides, three of them, were fantastic, giving us plenty of tips for the optimal experience as well as a million tidbits about the flora and fauna in the jungle. They even proved to be wise guys. Alex,though only eighteen, was fluent in English and smart as a whip. As he offered a serious explanation of the walking palm, another guide in the back vigorously shook a rooster palm, making most of us jump and some of us (read: me) scream.

Hi-jinx aside, sailing through the canopy is an experience that doesn't truly translate into pictures. While the you see the green of the jungle and the length of the line, you can't feel the wind in your face, hear the birds calling or feel the dizzy euphoria of looking down into the jungle while flying over it. Here, Tom is leaving the first platform. The large building to the left is the rustic restaurant.

And our younger son leaves the first platform - cool as a cucumber. Those two summers at Hideaway prepared him well!

Zach professed to be cured of his fear of heights after this experience.

And me, on one of the longest lines. Are there enough words in the English language to describe all this green?

One of the lines was long but slowed toward the end. As you can see, our younger son got stuck and had to be 'rescued'.

Then, as if ten ziplines through the jungle was not enough, we donned even bigger helmets and headed out to the dry river basin for some ATVing. Is that a verb? Probably not, but you know what I mean.

First, I rode behind Zach, letting him drive but we had no idea that we were going to be descending on a gravel road that snaked like an 'S' and ended in gullies on either side. Within minutes, Zach and I were in one of those gullies. Alex, our intrepid and impossibly unruffled guide, asked for Tom's help to maneuver the ATV out and it was agreed that I would take over the driving. Now, I'd never driven an ATV before either and definitely not across a rocky river bed. I was pretty nervous at first but once I got the hang of it, it was fun. Especially for Alex who made a show of splashing us through rivers and kicking dust around corners.

I admit, there were moments that I wondered about the fact that I was entrusting all of us to an 18-year old guide who liked to do donuts. In fact, when we paused for a rest halfway there, I wondered why.  And when he said that we were getting a 'free' lunch, I wondered about that, too. We ended our ride at the entrance to a path leading us to a lovely, private waterfall.  Alex told us to take our time but it started to rain and then pour so we booked it back to the restaurant. It was there that we found out the reason for our leisurely pace and the extra meal. The van had broken down and we had to wait for the next one.  But we'd been here a whole two days already. We were on 'Tico time' and we didn't care.

We arrived back at the condo around 3:30, about 90 minutes later than we expected, ready for a nap before dinner. Remember, we had left at 7 a.m. -- we were all dirty and tired. So imagine my surprise when the someone knocked at the door just as I was ready for a hot shower. See, the concierge had arranged for a private chef to make dinner in our condo. We knew that, of course, but we had thought he was coming at 5:30.

We rebounded and I've got to say -- if you ever want to feel like royalty -- hire a private chef to serve dinner in your home. There's nothing like someone cooking a gourmet meal in the comfort of your home, serving it and cleaning up all the mess. And since we had someone in the condo, we were on our best behavior. The kids didn't demand to watch TV while we ate, no one brought a book to the table and best of all - I wasn't sinking into my seat, wiping sweat from my brow as everyone dug in. So, yeah, as I said above -- pretty much a rock star of a day that left me feeling like I'd had the experience of a lifetime.