A Travellerspoint blog

Rovinj - Bled

Crossing into Slovenia

sunny 19 °C
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Between the late night revellers, the church bells and the early morning seagulls, I had a dreadful night's sleep. We are up early this morning to explore Rovinj before most tourists wake up.

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The light is very different this morning.

The seagulls that woke me at 04:30 this morning, are now following a fishing trawler.

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The old town of Rovinj is built on a small peninsula, with the Church of St Euphemia at the top of a small hill. A number of steps lead up to the church, through narrow alleyways meandering between tall, ramshackle but quaint buildings. I am finding Rovinj much more agreeable today - probably because of the lack of other tourists and souvenir sellers.

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The town is just beginning to stir, with a smattering of dog-walkers, delivery men and cafés setting up to serve breakfast.

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And cats.

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From the top there is a great view over the harbour and the mainland.

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The Church of St Euphemia
At the top of the hill stands the Church of St Euphemia from 1736, and you can see it from many angles as you climb the steps. As the largest baroque building in Istria, it represents the period during the 18th century when Rovinj was the most populous town in the area.

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St Euphemia is the patron saint of Rovinj’s who was tortured for her Christian faith by Emperor Diocletian before being thrown to the lions in AD 304. She may even have walked on those very stones we stepped on in Pule yesterday.

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Modelled on the belfry of St Mark’s in Venice, the 60m bell tower is topped by a copper statue of St Euphemia, which shows the direction of the wind by turning on a spindle.

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Coming back down we decide to take the cobbled, sloping road (!) rather than the steps, to save any strain on my poorly knee.

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I can't believe, however, that a small van just came up this road to set up a sales store in the car park at the top! There must be another (secret) route up, surely.

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The cobbles under foot are shiny from many years of wear and tear, which worries me somewhat – one slip could ruin the rest of my trip!

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The Balbi Arch is all that remains of the old town walls and marks the start of the old Venetian city – or rather the end of it for us, as we arrive back at the marina end of Rovinj.

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Time for breakfast.

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Time to check out and roll our cases down the cobbled streets to the nearest vehicular access point, where I sit on a bench waiting for David to collect the car.

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Slovenia

We are heading north along the coast this morning; and while the original plan was to make several stops in various villages along the way; because of my knee and ankle injuries, we go straight to Slovenia instead.

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Crossing the border is easy, and we make a small detour out into Sečovlje Salina Nature Park - a wetlands area which is said to have some good bird watching, large scale salt production and various hiking paths. Really? All we see was one small pile of salt, a large, luxury marina and five sparrows. Perhaps we are in the wrong place...

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Lake Bled

As soon as we arrive at the guest house in Lake Bled, we spot our friends Homer and Eddie from Miami, who we will be travelling with for the rest of this trip. We join them for a beer and a late lunch.

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Homer and Ed's Mixed Grill

Despite the dreary and persistent drizzle, we go for a walk along the lake shore.

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We watch a few hardy souls go out in the Pletna Boats, and try to take a few moody photos without getting too wet.

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Eventually we submit and exchange the wet walk for a beer in the bar and later some dinner.

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I order local sausages with cabbage – they are very tasty but with some rather large chunks of fat in them. I try not to look while I am eating, as although I can't taste it, the sight of the fat puts me off. The cabbage is lovely though – I love cabbage!

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David has the tuna fish steak and Homer chooses a schnitzel.

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Having heard about the Blejska kremna rezina – the famous cream slice from Bled – we all want to try it. Shock, horror: they have run out! Instead we try Prekmurska gibanica - another local cake which is full of dried fruit and nuts, and stuffed with cottage cheese.

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I have a Cheese Štruklji – a kind of doughy strudel filled with cottage cheese.

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David, as usual, sticks with his favourite – apple strudel.

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Guest House Mlino
By the time we have finished eating the weather has cleared up some, so we venture down to the lake again for some more photos. Our Guest House Mlino is literally just across the road from the lake, so we are easily positioned to take in the sights on the lake.

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The Pletna Boats
These are traditional boats that are unique to Bled. The origin of the Pletna boats dates back to 1590 and being a “Pletnarrstvo” - Pletna oarsman - is a respected profession handed down from generation to generation.

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The boat is propelled with the special "stehrudder" technique where the oarsman is standing and rowing with two oars.

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It is said that the Pletna boat gained its name after its roof which was once wickered. Another explanation claims that the name comes from the German word "plateboot", meaning flat-bottom boat.

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As the “Blue Hour” approaches an eerie mist descends, hovering just above the surface of the lake, giving the scene a mystical hue and a fairytale atmosphere.

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As the light fades, out come the tripods as Homer and I set up our cameras to capture the scenes around the lake on a timed exposure before retiring for the night.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:54 Archived in Slovenia Comments (2)

Zagreb - Pula - Rovinj

Through mountains and history to the coast

sunny 20 °C
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Driving on the right, in a left hand drive car with manual gear change takes a little bit of getting used to – even as a passenger I tried to get in on the wrong side of the car; and David was heard to mutter (while fumbling with the inside door handle): “Someone has nicked the gear lever”.

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James – the not-so-trusted Sat Nav – sends us in the wrong direction this morning. He has a somewhat condescending voice, especially when he tells David: “You're over the speed limit”

David, of course, argues with him. As any man would.

The motorway is nice and clear, very little traffic, and some amazingly long tunnels – with one being over five kilometres long!

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James takes great delight in telling us we have lost all contact.

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There is light at the end of the tunnel

The road meanders through beautiful countryside, and as well as cutting through the mountains in tunnels, many bridges and viaducts are built to span over verdant valleys.

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At one of the many Service Stations, we stop to enjoy a coffee and try out some of the local delicacies – blackcurrant strudel for me and apple strudel for David.

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One of the not-so-enjoyable parts of motorway driving in Croatia is the toll stations. I guess someone has to pay for the building and maintenance of the roads.

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The toll works in the way that you collect a ticket when you enter the motorway, and every exit has its own toll station where you pay the fee according to how far you have travelled on the toll road. Our fees varied between 50Kn and 180Kn on this trip (50p and £18), so it can add a substantial amount to your travel budget.

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Pula

Before I injured my ankle / knee, I had so many plans about what to see between night stops on the trip, but obviously this has had to be modified to take into consideration my now walking difficulties. One thing I do not want to miss, however, is the amphitheatre at Pula.

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You can spot the structure a mile off, and we are lucky enough to find a parking spot almost right outside. We follow a group of French cruise tourists, and instead of going straight inside, we end up walking all around the outside of the amphitheatre.

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Pula's 1st century Roman amphitheatre is arguably in better shape than the one in Rome, and certainly less famous. Built from local limestone, the amphitheatre, known locally as the Arena, was designed to host gladiatorial contests, with seating for up to 20,000 spectators. I think there are already 19,000 inside today, in the form of some large French tour groups. Once they leave, we have the place almost to ourselves.

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Some very nice “modern day gladiators” are erecting a stage for a show tonight.

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We go downstairs to the area where the animals were kept, gladiators prepared and prisoners held. I am disappointed to find that today it is just a museum with a load of old stone jars and an exhibition on olive oil. No large cats – or hunky gladiators for that matter.

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There is something rather humbling about walking around the tunnels though, knowing that around two thousand years ago, someone would have walked on these very stones, preparing to fight for their life.

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Rovinj

As we approach the small town of Rovinj where we are staying tonight, we try ringing the guest house as requested, but the number keeps coming up as 'unrecognised'. We eventually park in the car park on the outskirts of the town and David walks in to find the guest house up a narrow alley way, leaving me and the luggage in the car.

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The owner of the rooms arranges for us to have vehicular access to the pedestrianised area so that we can drop the bags off, then David goes off to park the car a couple of miles or so away while I have a shower.

La Casa di Loreto
The guest house is in a great position, with views over the harbour, the promenade and the old town from the window.

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The room is small, but very bright and modern; and more than adequate with a GREAT shower!

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My first impressions of Rovinj are not that great. It reminds me in many ways of Weston-super-Mare, with seaside tack being sold from pavements stalls all along the seafront promenades as well as many of the narrow alleyways being partially blocked by stands offering naff souvenirs.

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As we somehow missed lunch today, we decide to go for an early dinner, choosing a restaurant very close to our guest house. Asking for recommendations, the waiter suggests Pljeskavica - a local dish of a meat patty stuffed with cheese, which is very good.

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It is certainly preferable to the Pinot Sivi – a locally produced white wine, which is only just passable.

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We even have desserts tonight, David choosing a banana split, whereas I have a crepe filled with ice cream.

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The sun is still shining, it is still early, and it's a lovely evening; so we take a stroll through town after dinner, across to the other side of the peninsula.

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There are lots of other people doing the same thing, and the atmosphere is typical of a Mediterranean seaside resort.

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Returning to the promenade, we sit on a bench and wait for the sunset. While it is not spectacular, it is still worth waiting for.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:07 Archived in Croatia Comments (2)

Slovenia and Croatia Wanderer

Just three days at home before another adventure

overcast
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Our latest trip is (re)visiting some parts of the Balkans – a tour around Slovenia and Croatia.

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When we get to Heathrow it shocks us just how expensive “Duty Free” is within EU. A bottle of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum – which costs around £17 in our local Tesco – is £24 at the “Duty Free” shop at Heathrow. Gulp.

It takes forever to load the plane, especially as four passengers are travelling in wheelchairs. Having damaged the ham string in my left knee and sprained the navicular in my right ankle, I am sporting a walking stick (borrowed from my dad) and am offered special assistance for boarding, which I decline. By the time the plane actually leaves, we are already half an hour behind schedule.

The man sitting behind me seems to have mistaken his tray table as a drum kit, but he fortunately stops when the drinks and “meal” arrive. I say “meal”, as that is what it is advertised as on my ticket.

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Reality is, however, very different to expectations. The “meal” consists of five green olives and five small cubes of cheese in olive oil; with a small packet of seven tasty but very dry pretzels. I hope this is not a sign of things to come.

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Picking up the hire car from the airport is easy. Fill in a form, hand over credit card for deposit, check drivers licence and the keys are handed over. The car is parked just a few yards outside the terminal building. We're on our way!

As it is a late night arrival, we have booked a hotel near the airport for tonight. The receptionist surprises me by speaking fluent Swedish when we check in. Despite being late, there is still time for a glass of the (very expensive) Captain before bed.

The trip has begun.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:13 Archived in Slovenia Comments (0)

Returning to Whitchurch

The last incident-filled day of an incident-filled holiday

semi-overcast
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The farmer came along this morning (before I was up) and scooped up the calf in the bucket of his tractor and took it away along with the mother. Glad to know it was still OK.

Today is our last full day on the canals - we have to hand over the boat by 9:00 tomorrow morning - so we want to make the most of it by trying to get through all the locks today and moor somewhere within easy reach of the marina so that we don't have to travel too far tomorrow.

We get as far as Baddeley No 2 lock before things start to go wrong. Now that my ankle is a little better, Lyn and I are taking it in turns to open the locks, and this one is mine. I soon notice something is very wrong. The lock gate doesn't open more than a couple of feet; it appears something is jammed under the water line, preventing it from moving. Taking a closer look, I see that the whole mechanism is broken; the cogs having come away from the wheel.

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We try pushing and shoving, poking around with a pole, manipulating and jabbing, but to no avail. The lock is well and truly jammed.

Not being able to find the telephone number for the Canal and River Trust, David phones the marina where we got the boat from. Explaining that the lock is jammed and broken, he asks them to pass the information on to the right people for assistance.

As we wait for someone to turn up and rescue us, the queue of boats waiting to enter through the lock grows rapidly.

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The receptionist at the marina obviously does not speak the same language as David (and the rest of us) does, as his conversation was translated as “The boat has broken down in the lock” to their maintenance guys, who sends an engineer out. Doh. He takes a look at the problem, agrees with us that it is definitely best left to the experts as tampering with it is most likely to make it worse; and promptly calls the Canal and River Trust for us.

In every crowd there is always someone who thinks they know better than everyone else, trying to take over the situation. This time is no different. In fact we have two. One who is all mouth (little man syndrome), giving it all the talk, suggestions, criticism and sarcasm; but is not willing to get his hands dirty to actually do something. Then there is the wannabe sergeant-major. Marching up to the lock with some “authority”, this chap starts trying to free it. Not listening to our claims of “We've tried that”, he goes through every motion we have already attempted. To no avail of course. Then he starts fiddling with the cogs themselves, and instead of fixing it, he messes it up completely, losing the lot down into the machinery. Good one!

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Eventually the maintenance guys from the trust arrive, and asses the situation. They use a pitch fork to try and free the blockage under water, but that doesn't seem to work either. Mr sergeant-major looks on as if to supervise them. Pratt.

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If everyone had just left it well alone, this would have been an easy job for the men, but as it now stands, they have to try and fish the missing cogs out of the insides of the machinery. Not an easy task. The crow bar does not reach, and it takes many, many attempts with a rope to try and hook it around the top of the cogs to bring it up above ground again.

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Not being one to hold back, I ask Mr Sergeant-Major what happened (as if I didn't know), and then suggest that “That's why it is usually better to leave these things to the experts rather than fiddling with it ourselves when we don't know what we are doing and then make it worse” He is not amused and walks off in a huff. Good.

The experts of course, manage to get the missing part back into its rightful place, but the mechanism is still broken.

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However, it does not affect the ability to open the lock gate, and soon we can start getting the boats through, one by one while the men decommission the one paddle.

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As the men are working, a number of boaters and their dogs have gathered to watch what is going on. Bruno decides he wants to play with another dog on the opposite side of the canal, and starts to cross the small “bridge” over the lock (basically just two planks of wood on the lock gates). The other dog has the same idea, and they meet in the middle. Bruno is the first to back off and tries to turn around. Large dog + narrow plank = one wet dog!

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Bruno is no worse off for his little swim, and soon dries off as we make our way – somewhat delayed – along the canal towards Whitchurch.

The rest of the day is totally uneventful, and consists of watching the birds along the bank...

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... or just enjoying the scenery.

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We make it through all the locks with plenty of time to spare, and moor up in our intended place just as a light rain sets in. No chairs on the bank tonight; drinking (and eating) inside instead. We have had a fabulous holiday with great company, beautiful scenery and a few “interesting” incidents.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:01 Archived in England Comments (2)

Another Great Day in Paradise

Time to do a animal midwifery course

sunny 28 °C
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Another glorious day out there today, the hottest one so far. Plenty of suntan lotion and not a fleece in sight – that's the way we like it!

At one of the very first locks of the day, I suddenly hear Chris scream my name from the lock-side as I sit in the bow of the boat. The next thing I see is the windlass flying through the air. Fortunately it didn't hit my head or Lyn's camera, it bounced off the side of Ragnar and sunk to the bottom of the lock. Oops.

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Thankfully there is a chandlery store after the next lock, so we only have one lock to negotiate with just a single lock key. As it turns out, there are other boaters there too, so we get some help opening the lock gates.

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The locks here on the Llangollen Canal are much narrower than they were on the Shropshire Union, some of them having literally just an inch to spare each side of the boat – meaning that you have to lift your fenders so that they don't get stuck.

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Compared with last year's boat trip along the river, we haven't seen as many birds this year. I guess there are different fish in the canal to the river, as well as the type of vegetation that grows along the banks.

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Last year herons were the most common variety, whereas this time it has been swallows. They are so quick the way they dart above the surface of the water, twisting and turning as they go. I set myself a challenge at the start of the trip: to photograph one in flight. I have failed miserably. I did catch this one sitting on a fence though.

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Another unusual bird we have seen a few of this time, is the grey wagtail.

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A wren

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Snow geese

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Pied Wagtail

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My main excitement on the bird front, however; is the reed bunting. I haven't seen one for years and never been able to photograph one before.

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Suddenly Captain Dave exclaims: “Giraffe on the hillside”. It might have looked like a giraffe at first (fleeting) glance in silhouette (giving him masses of benefit of the doubt), but it was of course a deer.

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Not just one deer, several. In fact, a whole deer farm. “As you were guys. Excitement over”.

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Today has been the hottest day of the trip so far, and at times it seems even too hot sitting at the front of the boat. We are glad of the shade when we travel under bridges or overhanging trees. So for mooring tonight, we are looking for shade rather than sun!

We find the absolutely perfect spot: shade from some large trees, a great view, far enough away from other boaters to offer some privacy, and the tow-path wide enough to set up the table, chairs and BBQ. It isn't until we have moored up – after Chris yet again manages to do his signature backward somersault as he tries to pull the boat into the bank with a rope that isn't attached the other end – that we realise we have been beaten to this little piece of paradise by thousands of flying ants! Onward we go.

The next place we stop gets the thumbs down by the crew (Lyn and me) as the local farmer is spreading “fertilizer” on his fields adjacent to the canal. Finally we find a suitable area, with shade and cows in the fields both sides of the canal. Very rural and countryfied.

We'd just settled down with a drink when we notice a cow having very recently given birth. The calf is still limp on the ground and she is licking it.

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We watch with fascination as she tries to gently nudge the little fellah into standing up.

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He manages a few unsteady steps before stumbling down and crumbling into a heap on the ground again.

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He receives a lot of attention from his mum in the way of gentle nudging and a lot of cleaning, but the most he can manage is to raise his head up again. Other mothers come and investigate, as if to offer congratulations and advice on the new baby. Nothing. He remains down. After around half an hour of seeing no life whatsoever from the calf, we decide that we should let someone know. Chris goes off to find the farmer, who seems quite unperturbed about the whole thing. He arrives some time later on his quad bike, prods the baby a little and drives over to tell us that all is well and they usually rest like this for ages after being born when the sun is hot.

Still feeling a little distressed about the situation, we keep a close eye on the mother and newborn while we light up the BBQ and grill some sausages and burgers. And have a drink. Or three. Just to calm our nerves you understand.

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Eventually, quite a few Bratwurst (and Captain Morgan) later, the little'un is on his feet and feeding from his mum. Phew. We can sleep well tonight after all.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:15 Archived in England Comments (1)

Starting our return journey via Chester

A rude awakening

sunny
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I am fast asleep in the middle of the night when I hear an almighty bang. Sitting upright with a jolt and a shout of “Shit! What was that!”, I put my legs over the edge of the bed, only to find something soft underfoot on the floor. It must have been even more of a rude awakening for David – not only does he fall out of bed while asleep; he also has someone try to step on him while he is down!

Ragnar is a well equipped boat for six people, so has ample room for four plus a large dog. However, space is still very restricted on board, and the two single beds in the stern of the boat are extremely narrow at only 50cm wide. For someone who is used to a 200 cm wide super king sized bed, it can be a trifle challenging to try to turn over. David's mattress leans outward and the shifting of weight during a rotisserie-style manoeuvre in the sleep, meant he toppled over the edge.

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Having travelled on Ragnar two years ago, we were fully aware of the size restrictions, so I came prepared with my inflatable Thermarest mattress this time to try and soften up the bed a little to help my back. It certainly helped me sleep a lot better, without waking up every 20 minutes or so with pins and needles or a backache as I did the previous two trips. The “double” bed at the bow of the boat is if possible even narrower comparatively.

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There is plenty of seating on the boat, although none of it comfortable. The dining area converts to another “double” bed if we so desire, but we chose a six berth to have the extra room – not just for the dog, but because the cabins and separate toilets are at either end of the boat for some privacy.

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There is also room for the crew (Grete & Lyn) to sit at the bow of the boat, watching the world go by as the captains (David and Chris) take it in turns to be in charge of the boat.

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Although Lyn did have a go at steering Ragnar for a while.

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Bruno doesn't like the noise or loud bangs / shaking as the boat hits the side of the locks, so we try and get him off the boat and onto the towpath at the earliest opportunity.

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Going through Northgate Staircase on the way up is nowhere near as intimidating – mostly because this time it's manned by a lock-keeper!

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Some locks are easier to open than others – the gates weigh in excess of a ton!

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Mother Moorhen seem to like our suet pellets (which we brought with us because our garden birds back home refused to eat this particular brand!), which they in turn feed to their young. I have to say that baby moorhen are not attractive – they are scrawny and bald, not at all cute as baby birds should be.

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Chester
While everyone else goes for a walk around Chester, I stay on board reading a magazine in the sunshine as my ankle is complaining loudly after overdoing the walking yesterday.

They come back with black bin-bags and a few other items of necessity (toilet roll, wine, bread and bacon), with David claiming vehemently that he has never been to Chester before. I assure him he has, but it isn't until I show him the photos I took last time we were there (on my Flickr account on line); that he actually believes me.

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A short journey through Chester and its suburbs with some pretty amazing properties along the canal-side, we reach the countryside yet again, with its rabbits, geese and horses; and buzzards soaring above.

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After a hard day's work, Chris and Bruno enjoy a well-deserved snooze in the sun before we light the BBQ. At last a reasonably warm evening. Chris and I are now sporting matching bruises: Chris from hitting his shin with a hammer; me from being pushed into the side of the boat when I asked David for a push ON TO the boat.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:05 Archived in England Comments (0)

Chester Zoo

The animals are not co-operating today

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As I said yesterday, the cooker is not exactly efficient on the boat, but I still manage to make bacon sandwiches for breakfast this morning. I also manage to set off the smoke alarm on the boat.

Today the plan is to take a break from canal boating and visit Chester Zoo, which is a short walk from a mooring point by Bridge 134. Chris stays behind with Bruno, while the three of us set off on foot to get to the animal park. The path goes through the middle of the zoo – although you cannot tell or see any of the beasts from the path unfortunately – to the entrance the other side. With my sprained ankle I am finding it rather painful to walk, but I am determined to get there!

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The zoo is very impressive – beautifully laid out with meandering paths, elevated wooden walkways and large enclosures for the animals.

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The only problem we are finding is that the enclosures are so verdant, to the point of being overgrown, that it is quite hard to spot the animals. As our local zoo in Bristol does not have any of the large animals, these are at the top of our list, such as elephants, giraffe, cheetah, jaguar; but I was also enthralled with the flamingo on her egg and the onager (a new species to us – although it looks suspiciously like a donkey!) All in all, it was a beautiful zoo but the animal spotting – and photography – was somewhat disappointing; as was echoed by a couple of locals we talked to who visit regularly.

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With my ankle feeling extremely sore after four hours of gentle walking – I decide I want to take a taxi back to the boat rather than walk. The Guest Services at the Zoo call a cab for us, but trying to explain to the driver where we want to go proves easier said than done. “Bridge 134 please” “You what? What's the name of the road?” No idea. Eventually, after a lot of explaining, pointing, guessing and a couple of U-turns, we are all singing from the same hymn sheet and the taxi driver finds the road which goes over Bridge 134. Result!

We join Chris and Bruno for a rest stop, watching a couple of guys in army fatigues banging something against the brick built bridge. None of us can work out what on earth they are doing. After a while they walk on over and asks if we have a can opener they can borrow. It turns out they are trying to open a can on sweetcorn (obviously) to bait the fish (of course) so that the fish would hang around for when they bring their rods back after work later (naturally). We not only lend them a can opener but also give them a bunch of suet pellets which the birds don't want.

From Chester we continue along the canal to Ellesmere Port, through some pretty grotty industrial areas where the canal is full of flotsam and rubbish. I miss most of it as I take a nap with my foot on the bed after having overdone the walking this morning.

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Late afternoon sun, dark storm clouds and lovely scenery - just such a shame about the pollution in the water.

For the last couple of days we have all four taken part in the Great Bin-bag Hunt of 2015. We know we packed some, but none of us can find them. I can remember seeing them, as can Chris. Lyn and David deny all knowledge. As the one bag the marina provided us with is now full and beginning to smell, the hunt intensifies. Seeing a retail park near the canal, Lyn and Chris set off on part II of the Bin-bag Hunt. Unsuccessfully as it turns out. David and I meanwhile finally find some swans who actually want our food, although it seems they bite into David's fingers as often as the suet pellets.

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Last year, when we toured the Severn and Avon Rivers, we saw a number of herons, but this year we haven't seen a single one – until today.

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As we pass Bridge 134 again, we see the soldiers in their civilian clothes, sitting on the riverbank, trying to reacquaint themselves with the fish they fed earlier on. Strange hobby. Some fishermen have extremely long rods which stretch right across to the other side of the canal; and they send you looks that could kill as they reluctantly remove it at the very last minute. You'd think that if you fish along a canal you might just expect there to be boats coming along...

We go back to the same place we moored last night and settle down for the night. Chris grabs the rope at the stern to drag the boat in to the edge of the canal, but finds the other end is not attached to the boat and he ends up doing a very spectacular backward somersault into the bushes at the side of the tow- path.

Although the threatened thunderstorm did not materialise this afternoon, it is still too cold to sit outside drinking this evening, so we retire to the "lounge" for the evening.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:31 Archived in England Comments (0)

A 60s day through Northgate Staircase

Flower Power rules!

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This is the third year we have shared a narrow boat holiday with our friends Lyn and Chris; and dressing up for a day has now become a ritual. The first year we were pirates, last year we dressed as sailors and this year we chose a 1960s hippy theme.

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Clothes, wigs, 60s music and posters on the side of the boat – there was no doubt to passing boats and pedestrians that we were having a Flower-Power sort of day as we went about our daily boating tasks.

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On the outskirts of Chester, we encounter “The Mad Duck Woman” who is walking around with three carrier bags full of bird food which she doles out to the birds on the waterways, while talking to herself and anyone else who happens to be within earshot. She has a lot of pent up anger towards the boating community as she tells us the sad story of dubious origin about a swan which became stuck in a lock last week and got squashed between two boats and died.

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Today we have another experience, where the canal goes over a the A5480 road at the Deva Aqueduct.

At Northgate Staircase, the Chester Canal goes under the railway in a series of three interconnected locks. As we approach the locks, a boat is coming out and shouts across to us: “You are lucky, you can go straight in”. Which we do, with no further ado.

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Today's captain is David with Lyn and Chris operating the locks, opening the sluices to let the water out of the top lock for us to go down to the next level. Soon all hell is let loose – there is water everywhere! The middle lock is flooding, spouting out water over the pavement both sides of the locks, down the pedestrian slope and the staircase next to the locks. Chris runs over in a panic: “Dave, there is something terribly wrong...” I shout to the ground crew to close the paddle again, which they duly do. Captain David hands over the reign to Captain Chris and goes off to investigate. He figures out that we should have emptied the bottom two locks before emptying the top one into the middle and the middle lock into the bottom one. It makes perfect sense of course had we stopped to think. In our defence, the previous staircase we encountered had an escape channel to the side, so that when you empty the top lock, the middle lock just overflows naturally to the sides. Not this one, here we flooded the entire area.

The locks here are wide enough for two boats side by side, and we share it with a family of three. The mother-in-law is to one side, taking video of the lock with her iPad. She has to jump to safety as the water flows over the top on the lock gates, over the side of the lock and tries to wash her away down the stairs. We are all very concerned that had there been a frail elderly person, or a young child there, they could easily have been washed into the canal.

You can see the water on the side of the canal in the photo below, even after we lowered the level considerably. The water is still flowing over the top of the gates at this stage.

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Once we have it all figured out, the descent runs smoothly and safely, and calm is restored to the boating community yet again.

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The other boat – whose captain and crew were not very confident or experienced – did ask us if we would be available to help them on the way back up again on the return journey in a couple of days' time. We find out later that the flooding happens regularly - at least once a week – and no-one has ever been washed into the canal as the water is not powerful enough. Apparently it always happens when a boat comes out of the top lock at the same time as the boat travelling downstream goes straight into the lock (as we did) rather than pull up next to the huge sign with the instructions. Oh well, you live and learn.

There is absolutely nothing glamorous about sitting in the front of the barge as it goes into or out of the locks. The bottom is dark and smelly, with slippery, muddy, mouldy sides that attract molluscs which will spit dirty water at you like a fountain stream! The scenery is not that great either.

We travel past Chester itself to secure a place to moor for the night, but find it quite difficult as the aroma from a sewage farm keeps following us. Eventually we settle down for the evening and actually have a proper dinner (spaghetti bolognaise courtesy of Lyn). Although the boat is very well equipped, and has a four burner cooker, the bottled gas is extremely slow so cooking is a bit of a challenge.

Normal drinking service assumes after dinner, followed by a few card games.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:53 Archived in England Comments (0)

Ready, steady, slow!

Tranquillity reigns

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This morning at Wrenbury Mill we have to stop the traffic as the main road crosses the lift bridge. Oh the power!

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In fact, it is not just traffic – Lyn is proud to say she stopped an entire bicycle road race!

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Having packed a huge 3kg tub of wild bird food; I get really excited when we spot a duck with her brood this morning. However, they seem totally disinterested in the food and just swim happily by. Humph!

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The swans with their cygnets are equally oblivious to the "delicious" suet pellets.

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Once we enter the Shropshire Canal, life becomes even more tranquil and serene, with surprising little traffic on the waterways.

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In fact, life is so tranquil and slow that we are no longer moving. Oh dear. Not another call-out for an engineer? No power. Again. Nothing. Frustration reigns. This is getting beyond a joke – surely we can't break down again so soon after having the boat fixed yesterday. After a few curse words, and a bit of pushing and shoving; we realise that we are stuck on a sand bank. Grounded. Captain David puts Ragnar into reverse and eventually manages to free us from our predicament. Phew!

Soon we are on our way again, we a few more lift bridges and locks to negotiate before we moor for the night.

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Some of the locks are really quite deep – claustrophobically so – and the sides are very damp and mucky. As I found out when I try to lean out to take a photo and touch the lock walls with my elbow. Yuck!

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It has been a "fleece on – fleece off – fleece on – fleece off" kind of day, and there is still a cool wind so we try to find somewhere to stop for the night with shelter from the wind but in the sun for a bit of warmth.

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For the second evening running, we get too piddled – and to full up – on drinks and snacks to be bothered to cook dinner. This cannot go on!

Posted by Grete Howard 07:15 Archived in England Comments (0)

Life in the slow lane

A week on board a narrowboat called Ragnar

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For the next seven nights, Ragnar will be home for the five of us: Captains David and Chris with deckhands Grete and Lyn; plus Bruno, the Deputy Dawg; as we travel slowly along the Llangollen and Shropshire canals from Whitchurch to Chester and back.

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Picking the boat up is smooth and painless, and as soon as we manage to load our mountain(s) of stuff, we are on our way.

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Our stuff (minus clothes) before we left home. The others have about the same amount again...

As the boat is facing the opposite direction to the one we want to travel, our first task is to find somewhere to turn the boat around. At 57ft, the boat is not exactly easy to manoeuvre, especially as the canals are generally no wide than 30ft. Fortunately, there are a number of turning circles – otherwise known as winding holes in boating speak – where there is enough room to turn your narrow-boat.

To say the the captain of the boat in front of us is inexperienced is a grave understatement – he has obviously just picked the boat up from the marina like we did. Unlike the roads in the UK, on the canals you drive on the right. Well, most people do; this guy is all over the place, and eventually he gets stuck in the reeds on the left hand side of the canal, just before the winding point. Not sure whether he is trying to turn the boat around completely or just totally messing up a right turn, we decide to overtake him and get our own boat facing the correct direction. Captain David makes a smooth turn but our passage is now completely blocked by the wayward boat which is diagonally across the canal. Chris jumps off to try and hold our craft in place while the other captain sorts himself off. There is quite a strong wind today, and both boats are fighting against it. Chris pulls hard on the rope to try and haul Ragnar to the side of the canal, walking backwards across the tow path that follows the length of the canal.

The tow path is much used by joggers, fishermen, dogwalkers as well as people from the boats; and usually everyone gets by with a little mutual respect. Not so with this afternoon's jogger. Maybe it isn't obvious to her that there is a 60ft boat across the canal in front of us? Maybe it isn't obvious to her that there is a strong wind today? Maybe it isn't obvious to her that Chris is trying desperately to pull the boat to the side of the canal? Maybe it is too much for her to wait until everyone has their crafts under control? Whatever her problem is, she voices it loudly and then impatiently tries to climb under the rope. Oh well, you can't please all the people all the time...

Our next “obstacle” is a lifting bridge. We have just a couple of these little bridges on this trip, as well as a total of 66 locks to negotiate. It does not help that I managed to sprain the navicular in my ankle (as well as tear my facia which causes plantar faciitis) less than a week before we left home, so a lot of the hard work is down to Lyn today (and very probably for the next few days).

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Before we even reach the first set of locks, the engine starts whimpering and we lose power. Nothing. No forward, no reverse, no power. We manage to drift into the bank and tie up while the captains look at the engine. No sign of life. We ring the boat yard who promise to send an engineer out. Getting someone out to help you can be quite a problem as a) you are never quite sure exactly where you are, b)the nearest road may be some distance from where we are for the engineer to reach the boat from where he can park his car, and c) not knowing what is wrong with the boat engine, he may not have spares, or even be able to repair it. Not a good start to the holiday.

The repair man arrives reasonably quickly, and assesses the situation. The problem is down to a very dead hydraulic seal. He has a spare one in the van, and manages to eventually get us going again. As long as we can get to the Grindley Brook Staircase (a series of three locks joined together) before the lock keeper goes home for the day, we'll be OK.

No problem. We get there with plenty of time to spare.

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The “cheerful” lock keeper comments that helping boaters these days is becoming more and more like “care in the community”. I later find myself understanding what he means as we encounter a man with a terribly irritating laugh like the comedian Paul Whitehouse in one of his roles; who is travelling an extremely talkative woman.

The rest of the afternoon goes by uneventfully, and as the sun is going down we pick our spot to moor for the night. We set out the table and chairs on the tow path, chatting to passers by and enjoying a drink or two (or three or four). Before we know it, time has passed and we are beyond trying to cook dinner, having snacked on crisps and nuts all evening.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:53 Archived in England Comments (2)

Rodney Bay - Vieux Fort - London - Bristol

It's goodbye to sunshine, Caribbean warmth, traffic free roads and nightly cocktails

Our flight doesn't leave until 20:30 this evening, so we have some decisions to make this morning. We can either stay in the hotel until late afternoon and take advantage of the free lunch (or rather pre-paid; there is no such thing as a free lunch); or we can take the long way round to the airport doing some sightseeing on the way. We decide on the latter. I get easily restless and bored, and we have to check out of the hotel by 11:00, so we can't really go anywhere too far in the morning; and having a sunbed for the day is out of the question unless you get up at 05:00 and secure it with a towel.

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We check out of the hotel soon after breakfast and make our way along the west coast rather than taking the main road across the island. There are some beautiful vistas of the rugged coastline along the way.

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Just outside Anse la Raye, we stop at a woodcarving place where we have a lovely long chat with the owner of the workshop – he explains how a university education from England is the most coveted here in St Lucia, way above any others, including the US. Canada is the second best he reckons. Who are we to argue.

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We choose a smallish but somewhat unusual piece for our collection - partly because of the price of the work, partly because we are running out of space for the masks on the walls at home.

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Cape Moule a Chique

From this small peninsula in the far south of the island – with an awesome road leading up the steep hillside – the view is pretty spectacular in every direction.

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Maria Island, a wildlife reserve only accessible by boat and a steep scramble to get ashore.

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Vieux Fort Town - parts of which were the most unsavoury areas we have come across on all our travels criss-crossing St Lucia.

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Hewannorra International Airport

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Vieux Fort Lighthouse is said to be the highest lighthouse in the Caribbean and the second highest in the world at 730ft above sea level. Built in 1912, the lighthouse is no longer in operation.

Naturally we kept an eye out for birds while on the peninsula.

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Grey Kingbird

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American Kestrel

Having driven through the somewhat grotty town of Vieux Fort, we were keen to find somewhere else to stop for lunch. We spot this resort hotel from the top of the hill and decide to head for that for a nice, long, leisurely lunch.

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When we get there, we find that it is an All-Inclusive resort, and the restaurant is not open to non-residents. Time for Plan B. Not sure what Plan B is, so we drive along the coast until we find a cute little rustic beach shack which is also a kite-surfing school. It's a cool, popular, laid back place, set amongst mature trees right on the beach.

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We order a lunch of fish fillet baguettes and the most enormous “basket of fries” I have ever seen – enough for at least six people. I can't even finish the fish sandwich, let alone the fries.

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We stay a while, just chilling with a cool drink, watching the kite surfers out on the bay, the birds in the trees and the dog in the shade, then walk along the beach taking photos. Life is good.

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Carib Grackle

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Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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Tropical Mockingbird

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Makoté Mangrove

With still some time to kill before the flight, we head further along the coast to some mangroves we noticed on the map. This really is off the beaten track, if you can call it a track. Once again we are grateful for the four-wheel drive.

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The mangroves may be remote, but they certainly aren't unspoilt. Judging by the amount of rubbish strewn around and I would say this is a popular BBQ place for local youngsters at the weekend. The beach is not a sunbathing place for sure, with huge amounts of sea weed washed up on the sand.

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I have mentioned several times before how incredibly chilled the St Lucians are. The handover ceremony for the hire car proves just how laid back they are: leave the car in the airport car park, unlocked, with the paperwork and key under the mat.

And there ends another holiday. St Lucia was not how I expected it – good and bad – but thoroughly enjoyable all the same. The All-Inclusive concept and the hotel was way better than I feared, the bird watching a little disappointing, although we did notch up 31 different species in the end, 10 of which were new to us. Would we go again? No. Not because we didn't like it, but because there isn't enough here to warrant a second visit. Would we recommend it? Most definitely!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:33 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Mamiku Gardens

Flowers, birds, butterflies, lizards. And chocolate ice cream.

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Mamiku Gardens

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After finding Millet Reserve closed yesterday, I was concerned about whether Mamiku would be open or not today, but thankfully it is. We are today's first visitors and the guy in the entrance booth comments on the size of my lens. When he hears I am interested in bird watching, he points out the endemic St Lucia Warbler in a tree right inside gate. One more ticked off the list.

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The gardens are nicely laid out on a hillside with well defined paths and a self-guide to all the trees, bushes and herbs from a pamphlet which ties up numbers on the plants with explanations and facts in the leaflet.

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One of the gardeners proudly approaches us to show off their hummingbird nest – hummingbirds are not exactly big birds, and their babies are so unbelievably tiny!

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I am seriously impressed by perfectly formed nest and the amount of accurate and detailed work that has gone in to create it. Clever little things those tiny hummers.

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Mum is hanging around keeping a close eye on her babies.

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On the veranda of the little restaurant, we share a snack with a bullfinch. I had no idea birds enjoyed chocolate ice cream too!

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The lizard is less impressed with the offerings.

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More birds flit around the tables and trees surrounding the café, with special mention to the Red Eyed Vireo which is a new one to us, making the ninth new bird for our “Life List” on this trip. Not a massive amount but still quite exciting.

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Red Eyed Vireo

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Carib Grackle

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Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (female)

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lesser Antillean Bullfinch (male)

We wander up and down the shaded paths which meander around the grounds, admiring the orchids, bougainvillea and other pretty flowers.

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Later we come across a group of mixed nationality cruise tourists. One guest looks at my camera equipment – I am rather laden with not only the 100-400mm on my EOS5DIII around my neck, but also the EOS6D with a Tokina 18-28mm – and quips “You could have traded all that in and got an iPhone, you know.” I grab my mobile from my pocket and hold it up, replying: “like this you mean?” We all chuckle.

We come across a pile of stones representing “Grandpa's House” according to a sign nearby. The house belonged to Henry Shingleton Smith (affectionately known as Grandpa) and was supposedly built in the 1700s. Henry spent most of his life farming this land, mostly coconuts. Henry died in 1948 from pneumonia/malaria, and his son Michael (the current owner of the estate) continued to live in the house until 1952. The last paragraph on the sign amuses me: “Since then, the house has been left relatively uninhabited” Hmm, really?

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I could easily spend all day wandering around the grounds, sitting on one of the many benches dotted around the gardens or in the café with a cool drink watching the birds, but we have a relatively long drive right across the island to get back for our last night in St Lucia.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:41 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

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