Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hiking in Garrison NY

In this day and age of long lines at the airport, TSA rules and regulations, and grumpy flight personnel, sometimes the best travel we do is what we can reach by car … or even better, within just 10 miles of one’s own house. This weekend I went hiking right in our own neck of the woods. The daily highs were a lot lower than that brief flirtation we had with the 70s, but even in the low 40s the weather was pleasant for hiking due to the crisp air and warm sun.

We have a surprising number of trails accessible within just a few miles of our home – including the Appalachian trail, Storm King and Manitoga (aka the Russel Wright Design Center) - but on Saturday I headed for Castle Rock, which the locals refer to as the “Osborne Loop”.

The Osbornes are an old family in Garrison, who at one point owned much of the land, and still own the large Castle that gives the Castle Rock area its name (although local rumors are that the Castle will be sold to a developer who is going to build a high-end spa there). A description from a hiking book on this trail states: "As you approach the Castle Rock Unique Area, the beauty of the castle that towers over this area is striking. Originally constructed by railroad magnate William Henry Osborne in 1881, the mansion is still privately owned and boasts more than 34 rooms and four interior chimneys."

We also refer to it as the Kevin Kline trail, since the start of the trail goes through a large field that borders the property of one of his homes. Kevin has not been around much since way back when his kids were little … who knows maybe he will decide to sell the place. Fortunately we have Patty Hearst in the neighborhood to take up the slack if he leaves. She bought a beautiful home with a view of the river on Upper Post Road, and has been renovating it for the past few years. At this point she has easily doubled the size of the house which was a mansion to begin with ... but I digress.

One of the benefits of hiking in the Hudson Valley is that pretty much every trail goes up. This has the triple bonus of being aerobically stimulating on the way up, providing the reward of views once one gets to the top, and then knowing that it’s all downhill on the way home :-) On the Osborne loop, the views tend to be seasonal, since once the trees fill in, the views of the Hudson are mostly obscured.

View of the Hudson from the Osborn Loop
On Sunday I hiked even more locally, literally walking off the back of our property. We border 180 acres of forest that were bequeathed to the Garrison School. From the school’s website: 
Beginning in 1956, the land comprising the School Forest was given to the Garrison Union Free School District by members of the Sloan, Osborn, and Gunther families. The Forest is to be kept wild and used for educational purposes.”

Blueberry Swamp is part of the school forest – not swampy at all actually, but a wonderful habitat for many different types of birds – and named for the fact that it is surrounded by wild blueberry bushes that bear fruit in the summer. The patches of white visible in the photo are snow - surprised to see it still there, but it can't last much longer.

Like most places, the trails in the school forest are marked with small painted color spots on the trees, and they are easy to miss. Fortunately I have a hiking buddy, who invariably races along the trail ahead of me, never missing a turn. He has a slight advantage in that he runs with his nose to the ground so he can spot a turn in the trail even if there isn't the slightest trace of it visible among the leaves and rocks.

My hiking buddy

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Finding Xpu Ha ... the secret beach

For several years now I had been reading about the well kept secret beach at Xpu Ha, perfect for snorkeling, with white velvety sand and crystal clear waters (and in that respect not significantly different from a large number of other beaches in the area). The Guide books would mention that it was south of Playa del Carmen, but north of Akumal. Mind you that leaves a fairly long stretch of road, but I had always felt that given the one (and only) significant north-south road, it could not be too hard to find it. Yet, every year as we traveled the road, either heading down or back from places south of us, such as Xel-Ha and Tulum, we always failed to find any mention of Xpu-Ha. Hah indeed, I thought to myself. No wonder it is such a secret beach - nobody can find it. Determined that this year would be different, I used Google Maps satellite views BEFORE our trip, to scout out which dirt road might lead down to this beach. It's a good thing I did since the entrance to the dirt road is somewhat obscured, and with the presence of a house and a car parked in the road, it appears that you are going to visit some folks - who are not expecting you - rather than heading to a beach that all the guidebooks seem to know about. The key is to know that it is located between the Catalonia Royal Tulum hotel, and the Club Tulum hotel, both named rather interestingly for a town that they are not anywhere near. Also, keep your eyes peeled for a small, hand-painted sign advertising the Xpu-Ha Restaurant and Beach club.

Here too we requested the 'now-becoming-ubiquitous-on-the-Riviera-Maya-beer-bucket', but instead of 160 pesos as it was on Isla Mujeres for 4 bottles of Sol, it was 60 pesos for 4 beers of your choice .... we chose Modelos (a combination of Modelo Especial and Negro Modelo). The restaurant itself was also of a better caliber than we one we experienced on Isla Mujures. I ordered Tacos de Camarons and my husband had fish tacos. In both cases the seafood was lovely and fresh, the tortillas warm and the guacamole about as perfect as you might expect. The one false note we ran into on this expedition was the little 'store' which sold souvenirs. We found a fair wool blanket at a good price - but in the end walked away without it since the shop girl was being difficult and the blanket was not really worth the room it would take up in the suitcases. (Far better in this case are the blankets that can be had in the shops on the road out to Coba).

These colors have not been 'photoshop'ed !!
One last word of advice ... bring your own snorkel gear. We normally do, but since we had traveled down to mexico directly after a business trip, we did not for this trip. They do rent gear on the beach but it is overpriced relative to everything else.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Of Pelicans and Palms - February 5, 2011

Life takes on different hue when the movement that catches your eye through the window of the health club is a low flying pelican. Startled out of my exercise reverie, I take stock of the turquoise blue of the Mexican Caribbean, and the fact that I need to peek at it around the cluster of palm tree tops outside this upstairs, beautifully air-conditioned tribute to modern machinery.  I think briefly of the snow clogged roads, scraping sounds of large plows, and frustratingly permanent icicles that hang from cars back home. We have returned to the Grand Mayan resort in the Riviera Maya after a year’s absence. My husband and I like to stroll the property when we first arrive and make note of the changes that have cropped up in our absence. We comment on a new sculpture in a fountain, changes to the layout of the gift store, and how the jungle has grown since we first starting coming here in 2006. One of the massive Grand Mayan structures is now virtually obscured by the tropical growth and we idly wonder what they will do when it disappears behind the large stately palms.

 Escaping the winter as we have on this trip, our priority is to rest and recuperate after a fairly grueling year in 2010. Thus we don't feel much of a pressing urge to travel to the ruins of Coba, Tulum and Chichen Itza since we have visited - in some cases on multiple occasions. We are disappointed to find that the Mayan Sanctuary (the pool and gardens for guests of the Grand Mayan - see my blog from December 2009 for images) has less of a sanctuary feel than before, since the resort has relaxed its stance with regard to allowing folks staying at the Mayan Palace (who would normally use those pools) to use the Sanctuary. The other piece of disappointing news this year is that they have changed the happy hour rules, and rather than a 2-for-1 drink, you get instead a 'supersized' drink (now, how american is that?) These two changes did indeed lessen theamount of time we spent poolside, and instead we ventured out to explore other blue horizons.

View from the UltraMar on the way to Isla Mujeres
We returned to Isla Mujeres on this trip since the last time we had gone it was July and incredibly hot. Strolling the short distance from the dock to the Playa Norte, we investigated the choices for lunch. We had promised ourselves ceviche and cold beer with our feet in the sand, and this was an easy need to accommodate, given the plethora of restaurants right on the beach. In the end we chose Sunset Grill (does that sound like a Mexican name to you?) not only because the sand is silky and use of the lounge chairs and umbrella is free if you eat lunch there, but possibly also because of a prominent sign that advertised a bucket of cerveza for 160 pesos J

As the lazy afternoon slipped by, punctuated with dips in the crystalline waters and the arrival of (fairly mediocre) ceviche and fish soft tacos, we observed the gathering of very large and very dark clouds on the horizon. It was a casual and fairly distant observation (more clinical than personal), as the waitress assured us that the storm would not come ‘ahorita’ but that it would undoubtedly rain … at some point in the future.

And thus one learns that people who live on an island, and scan the sky daily for the arrival of the rare rain event ... can be wrong. Starting with large wet drops that soon built to a tropical downpour, it rained and rained as we walked back to the ferry dock. Since we were salty from swimming, and still warm from having baked in the sun, the rain did not deter us, especially since we had bathing suits under our T-shirts and plastic flip-flops on our feet. Walking the now deserted pedestrian street, we stopped occasionally in the storefronts to look more closely at the vast array of  Tallavera plates, and inquire as to prices. Perhaps because of the diminished crowds, or the knowledge that continued rain would soon bringing an early closing of the store, we got a terrific bargain on a gorgeous plate which I happily tucked away in my backpack, and now graces our kitchen wall as part of our plate collection.