Thursday, October 13, 2016

HIking at Paros Greece

Being in Santa Barbara recently reminded me about our hiking holiday in Greece.  We hadn't really intended for it to be a hiking holiday, but because it was spring and the islands were completely covered in wildflowers, it became the thing to do.  We were there in late March, which is the off season for tourism, especially on the islands.
Amazing views and color everywhere

We visited Paros first. Normally this is a beachlover's destination because it has so many beautiful beaches.  The water was way too cold for that, and strong winds blew nearly every day during our stay, so we definitely didn't go swimming, though we made it to the beaches just to see them.
You can see how many beaches are around Paros

The water was rough and choppy all the time

We rented a small apartment at Anezina Village, which turned out to be an unforgettable experience. Most hotels were still closed so we got a great deal by renting for an entire week, and the room had a full kitchen as well as breakfast for just a few euro. Turns out the chef was fantastic, so we ended up eating here several nights for dinner too. With a small grocery store just on the other side of the property, it was easy to buy coffee and other foods for picnics. What made it special was the people who owned and managed it.  A family run business, we came away feeling like WE were their family.  I might add that the views from the upper terrace were really nice, but the beds were quite firm. There are pluses and minuses with every stay, I think.
Breakfast could be outdoors when it was sunny, though it wasn't warm

Having a tailgate picnic

Since they weren't that busy, we were offered a tour of the island one day. It was a great way to see the outdoors. We had our own car, so we followed our guide, who was related to the owner. If you're there for a visit, it helps to have a car, but it's not mandatory.  There is a bus service and many places are walkable from the city centers. We saw a couple churches. The most memorable was the one with 100 doors. Then we were off to Yria ceramics, beaches, and spent more than an hour hiking at Paros Park, which I thought was the highlight.  You get scenic views of the shoreline, lighthouse, rock structures, and wildflowers. The paths are well marked, and they appreciate if you stay on them.
Yria Ceramic Studio- just a very small collection

The stones along this beach are carved by wind and waves
Church of 100 doors at Parikia

We recharged with a coffee and pastries before hiking

Stunning views at Paros Park

 We enjoyed hiking so much that we asked where we might do another half day hike.  The Byzantine Road begins at Lefkes and takes you to Marpissa.  We left our car at Marpissa and got a ride to Lefkes, which is another fascinating town to explore. We found cats on nearly every corner. This was not as scenic as Paros Park, but it was an easy hike which takes you back in time.  We saw olive trees, bees and bee boxes, stone bridges and other stone structures.
We took a break here at this beautiful bridge

The path is mostly stones like these- an old road from a bygone era

Within walking distance was an old dock made of stones, so we got up early one morning to see the beach. Walking through quiet neighborhoods at daybreak, we met a colony of cats and the man who takes care of them through a non-profit organization, Paros Animal Welfare Society. There are cats everywhere on the island, yet so few seem to belong to anyone. We thought they were strays because many look unkempt. Omar thought it was great he got to help feed them. We also met a herd of goats. Instead of fencing them, the goats are tied at the ankles, which we thought quite cruel.
The dock seems to be carved from one large stone
Most were friendly

Cats near Anezina Village love Omar
The goat has rope tied around the ankles to keep him from running
This was simply such a fantastic destination to get into nature and enjoy the good food one can enjoy in Greece.  I rarely go back to a place we've been, but I would make an exception with Paros.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Santa Barbara a bit off the Beaten Path including Neverland Ranch

We recently spent a few days at Santa Barbara.  I had been there in 1998, for a conference promoting biking and walking, but wanted to see if it had changed. At that time, it had a lot going for it in terms of making a city more enjoyable without lots of traffic.  Because the city hugs the coast and has a mountain range just behind, the geography prevents it from having too much sprawl. There was a fire burning in the nearby mountain range, so we weren't sure how the air would be, but it was tolerable most days. Most people only tend to see the beaches and maybe climb the tower in the courthouse, which are great ideas that we did too, but we wanted to find some more interesting places. Of course, we also visited the zoo, which is small and very beautiful.  Be sure to feed the giraffes and ride the train if you go there.  If you have a zoo membership in your home city, they offer reciprocal free admission, and you get to stand in a line for members which might get you in faster.
Santa Barbara Mission on a smoky afternoon

Hotels in this area are quite expensive, but we managed to find a good deal using Trivago. Using a Turkish website,, we found a rate that even the hotel couldn't beat booking directly. We stayed at the Fess Parker Doubletree near the beach, which is the same hotel I used back then.  It was still comfortable, though it's quite big so you are bound to have to walk quite a distance to enjoy the pools and restaurants.  Trying to live more like locals, we used the places listed on Yelp as local favorites. We had breakfast at a place called Jeannine's three times because it had such amazing choices.  There is more than one location. We ate at the Figueroa store, which is set on an alley filled with artwork and a turtle pond. Super cool place to wander while you wait for your eggs. You're bound to see homeless people anywhere you go in the city. We had breakfast with one of the homeless men we met.  Turned out he'd come from Texas hoping to find a job and nicer weather, but he had been unlucky. The homeless population has remained stable at about 1500 people, which is quite a high number if you're from a community where you never see any. You're discouraged from giving them money, but if you pay for a breakfast or lunch, that's a kindness which is well received. Some push their belongings around on a bike or stroller.  Others live in cars.
Lobster benedict and fresh fruit

Is he real?  Nope- an art installation
One of the turtles in this small pond
There's a great park for kids downtown- Kids World at Alameda Park. The play structure has lots of opportunity for climbing and hiding, and it was community built.  Across the street is Alice Keck Park, where you can see beautiful flowers and loads of waterfowl.  For more information about the many parks, check the parks interactive Santa Barbara Parks webpage. We could have spent an entire day just exploring the parks.  All the beach parks are included on the map too.
Part of the Kids World Playground
Another day we headed to the dog beach which has a restaurant with a view of the ocean, The Boathouse at Hendry's Beach.  I had heard about this and a few other great places we visited on the Amateur Traveler podcast about Santa Barbara. The key to eating here is to come early.  It was breezy and cool, so we ate indoors, but there are heaters if you prefer dining outdoors. The best part for Omar, who is 11, was seeing so many dogs playing in the water and running up and down the beach. If you happen to bike here, there is bike parking and even a station to repair your bike. With a small wetland next to the parking lot, you might see birds swimming around too.
Happy dogs sniffing the seaweed washed up on shore

One more worthy meal place was lunch at Montecito Cafe.   Unfortunately, it plans to close for good in November. They just don't make these places any more- linen tablecloths, fountain filled with flowers, fruity ice water, and decadent desserts.
What a welcoming sight

This coconut cake was delicious

If you enjoy art, there are plenty of options for museums or galleries. We decided to visit a couple other museums though, since we belong to our local public museum which offers reciprocity across the US in the ASTC collective. This gets you into the science or history based museums. We did the Museum of Natural History, which included access to the boardwalk museum, the Sea Center. With lots of hands on exhibits, you could spend a half day at the two places and feel like you learned something.
You can pet sharks at the Sea Center!

Probably the best fun we had was the day we drove through the mountains, on Highway 154. There were two places we wanted to stop, but both were closed due to the fire.  If you are able, check out Chumash Painted Cave, which requires a short hike to see real cave paintings. Then plan to have a drink or lunch at Cold Spring Tavern.  There's a very cool arch bridge near the tavern. It actually spans a huge canyon on 154, but if you want a better view, follow stagecoach road past the tavern and you can see the commemorative plate. From here we drove to Neverland Ranch at Los Olivos. The link I've used is a current article with aerial photos. With Michael Jackson tunes blaring through the car to put us in the mood, we arrived at the locked gates.  There really isn't anything to see of the ranch.  It's on the market for 100 million dollars, and has been for years.  People aren't allowed inside, but they do leave memorabilia in the form of photos, signatures, and even decorated rocks to pay tribute to MJ.  We spent about 20 minutes looking around at all the tributes. A few carloads of people came and went.  Then Omar put on Thriller and did the choreographed dance he'd learned from Youtube, sort of to celebrate the moment. I wonder if MJ knows how beloved he is, even after his death.
Messages from fans

After Los Olivos, you can keep going to Solvang, a touristy resemblance of a Danish village, complete with windmills. If you're hungry, or want to take some pea soup home with you, make a detour to Pea Soup Andersens restaurant.  It's kid friendly. We spent a few hours at Solvang, but having been to the real Denmark, I can tell you, it's more of a fairytale town.  We enjoyed it anyway, taking a self guided tour through the Santa Ynez mission before hitting the streets. This is typical of the missions you'll see across the California coast, with gardens and a small museum.  The church is still being used for services, so we had to wait for the service to end to get inside the chapel.
A mill at Solvang

Horse drawn rides

Inside the chapel at the mission

Make the loop to see the coastline along Highway 101. There's a cool rest stop with a bridge and a fish elevator by Arroyo Hondo Preserve. While we were making our way through the circle route, we met up with some firefighters headed out to fight the fire. Omar got a closer look at the equipment they use. The fire stayed away from the city, but it destroyed many acres.
Nice view of the ocean from here

The fire smoked for days

Checking out the firefighting equipment

There are some cool places in the city that don't see a lot of tourists.  One was the Ronald Reagan Ranch Center. I don't necessarily support the organization that runs this, but the museum has some great videos and photos that show how his life was away from the white house when he'd come out to the ranch and relax. He was a firm believer that it helped a person get perspective by being outdoors with time to think. Especially moving was the center's story about his secret service agent who rode horses on the ranch with him.  I learned a lot and so will you, even if you weren't fond of his political views.
A jeep used at the ranch
Another day we visited the Santa Barbara Cemetery.  You don't hear much about Fess Parker, who played Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in Disney films.  He is buried in this beautiful cemetery on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Of course, it's free to enter, though maybe most people wouldn't think of doing this.  We asked a maintenance crew about his grave, and they showed us.  Surprisingly, it was very modest.  I had somehow expected more of a presumed millionaire. His children still operate his wineries and resort at Los Olivos.
One of the more interesting graves at the cemetery
 Overall, it was a great getaway. There are lots of outdoor spots to visit here.