Santa Cruz Island and the Kingdom of the Giant Tortoise (day 7)

At the Galápagos National Park Service headquarters and the Charles Darwin Research Station, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our last full day of the cruise was spent mostly on dry land. No Galápagos visit would be complete without seeing the giant tortoises.

A mural on the side of a building on Av. Charles Darwin in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.

There are statues and streets in Darwin’s honor around the area. Ecuador is doing a very good job in regards to protecting their National Park and the giant tortoises. We toured the visitors center where they hatch the tortoise eggs collected from the islands.

Alex, our guide, explains how the government collects and hatches the tortoises with their Giant Tortoise Breeding & Rearing Program.

Each batch of eggs is marked with a color to indicate which island it came from. The program began in 1970 when the last 14 remaining tortoises were rescued from the island of Espanola. The program has restored that population to over 1,000 individuals today.

These small tortoises came from Espanola as eggs in 2020. After hatching their shells are marked with colors just as the eggs were.
These small tortoises hatched this year. The eggs were collected on Floreana. When the young tortoises are big enough to survive on their own they are returned to the island from which they were taken.
As they grow larger the tortoises are moved to larger pens.
They grow very large, weighing hundreds of pounds.
These two large Giant Tortoises had a disagreement.

After our morning visit to the Research Station, we headed up into the Santa Cruz Highlands. The flora changed from cactus to lush green fields and forests.

Wild Tortoise Reserve in the Santa Cruz Highlands.
We had lunch at the reserve restaurant, which is open to the fields where the tortoises are free to roam.
Descending into a lava tube at the tortoise reserve.
Alex demonstrates how to approach a Giant Tortoise without scaring it.

We walked through the fields and counted many tortoises.

Tucker attempts to make a connection with a tortoise.

Back onboard the Evolution we had a farewell dinner of lobster and a champagne toast for our wonderful crew.

Lobster dinner

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North Seymour Island and Santa Fe Island (day 5) & Floreana Island (day 6)

A male frigate bird inflates his red pouch (gular pouch) to attract a mate on North Seymour Island.

We started the morning by touring North Seymour Island, known for its nesting frigate population.

This yellow land iguana is being cleaned of dry skin and parasites by finches. Our guide was very excited when he saw this and said you don’t get to see this often.

After our frigate bird observations we again donned our wetsuits and snorkeled along the shore of the same island. The water was cool and choppy. Our best sighting today was a spotted eagle ray.

Lunch on board the Evolution.

Back onboard we took a hot shower and sat down for lunch. Lunch usually includes a discussion of the mornings snorkel sightings.

After lunch we repositioned to Santa Fe Island for kayaking and a nature walk.

Looking at the sea lions from the kayak as they look at us.
On the kayaks in a sheltered bay on Santa Fe Island.

We saw a lot of turtles and sharks while kayaking.

Following the lagoon kayak, we landed on the beach of Santa Fe Island for our nature walk. As we sat on the rocks and put on our walking shoes, a sea lion pup emerged from the rocks. Like all the pups, it showed no fear, only curiosity.

Santa Fe Island is also called Barrington Island. Our guides told us the islands have several names, and one even has seven. Santa Fe is one of the oldest islands, having been formed from an uplift instead of a volcanic eruption. That makes the island flat, instead of conical. We walked through rocky terrain and a cactus forest. Alex said some of these cactus are over 200 years old.

200 year old cactus forest.
Alex, our naturalist guide, photographs a Santa Fe land iguana.
A sea lion relaxes on the top rock while the Evolution is anchored in the background.
The crew surprised Tucker with a cake and a round of “Happy Birthday.”

Today we started on Floreana Island. The bay is called Post Office Bay.

From our itinerary package:

In 1793 British whalers set up a barrel as the islands post office, to send letters home on passing ships. The tradition continues to this day, simply by dropping a post card into the barrel without a stamp. The catch is you must take a post card from the barrel and see that it gets to the right place.

I dropped 2 postcards in the barrel; one to Maine and one to Oregon. I picked out 4 postcards to deliver; two to Portland, Oregon, one to Salem, Oregon and one to Seattle.

We had two opportunities to snorkel today and we did them both. Our first swim was in Post Office Bay. We saw many turtles feeding in the rocks. It was the best turtle snorkel yet.

Our second snorkel was around a small island very close to Floreana called Champion Islet. It is billed as “one of the top snorkeling sites the Galápagos offering prime underwater sea lion interactions.” We can vouch for that. We swam with pups and year old sea lions. It was great. These two snorkeling experiences were the best of the trip. We saw turtles, sharks, and had some very close encounters with sea lions.

King angel fish.
Lennie and me after our last snorkel of the trip.

After two wonderful snorkel experiences we had lunch and repositioned to a different side of the same island of Floreana. We took a panga to the beach. Walking a rocky trail onto yet another beach we came upon a stretch of sand where two smaller sea turtles were struggling. Judging from the tracks, the turtles had come up on the beach and then turned around to go back into the sea. One was close to the water and slowly making progress. The other sea turtle was higher up on the sand and stopped. She looked exhausted. Several of our group picked her up and set her closer to the water. We watched as she made her way back to the safety of the sea.

On a beach on Floreana Island, the Galápagos.
A Sally lightfoot crab and reflection on Floreana Island as the sun nears the horizon.
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Sombrero Chino Island, and Santiago Island, James Bay (Day 3) & Genovesa Island, Darwin Bay Beach and Prince Phillip’s Steps (Day 4).

The map of our route.

Overnight we had motored to Sombrero Chino Island. It is a tiny cone island off the coast of Santiago Island. This is one of the few places you can see the Galápagos penguin. After breakfast we climbed into the pangas and slowly cruised the coastline, but no penguins.

Sea Lion pups playing.

As we pulled up onto the beach, we could already see that this small sandy spot served as a sea lion pup nursery. There were pups playing with each other, as one large male sea lion kept watch.

This sea lion pup was just hours old. The after birth was on the rocks.

We saw a mother nursing her pup and Alex, our Naturalist Guide, found the afterbirth in the rocks. This little pup was hours old.

Tucker photographing the Galápagos hawk.
Galápagos hawk
Me on the trail.
Sombrero Chino Island, lava and Galápagos carpet weed.
We saw many Marine Iguanas.

At the end of the trail we had a true photo opportunity with Marine Iguanas, crabs, and beautiful waves.

Marine iguana surrounded by Sally light foot crabs.
Marine iguanas.
Marine iguanas.
Walking the trail back to the pick up spot.
The panga returns to pick us up.

Making our way back to the Evolution we cruised along the lava rock shore and found blue-footed boobies.

Three blue-footed boobies with the Evolution in the background.
Blue-footed boobies.

After our morning walk we once again squeezed into our wetsuits for a snorkel. The hope was to possibly see penguins in the water. Today’s snorkel was in cooler and choppier water. The water temp was 21 C, approximately 70 F. We saw more fish, but it felt colder. Thank goodness for the wetsuits. My wetsuit is 5 mm thick, and I haven’t felt much of the cold water. The wetsuits loaned out by Quasar are 3 mm, and some of the other guests felt the cold. One of the crew members helped me remove mine, he hefted it and said “you are a polar bear.” I’m good with that! We saw king angelfish, surgeonfish, another shark and so many colorfully designed Panamic cushion stars (starfish) it was impressive. The current picked up and we just floated along at a good clip.

Post snorkel.

Back on board we ate lunch as the crew repositioned the boat to the west side of Santiago Island. At 3:30 we took a panga into shore, landing on a black sand beach in James Bay (Puerto Egas). During this walk Alex gave us a history lesson, including that Darwin spent more time on this island than any other. This island is home to many large land iguanas. We saw about 6 large ones.

Our guide Alex photographs a land iguana.
Land iguanas on the trail on Santiago, James Bay.
Land iguana.

We walked the trail, then the coastline and saw a large sea turtle and a fur seal in the crystal clear grottos formed of broken lava tubes. We also saw many more marine iguanas. As the sun was sinking and we were walking back to the beach for our pick up, we saw a mass of 17 marine iguanas settling in the the night.

The grotto where we saw the turtle.

Back on the Evolution we had our customary post walk snack and beverage. Tonight we watched the sunset over James Bay.

Sunset in James Bay.
Post walk relaxation.
Cesar shows us an Ecuadorian rose. We liked it.

Every evening at 7 pm one of our two Naturalist Guides, Alex or Lenin, gives a lecture and then briefs us on the schedule for the next day. Then we have dinner. I owe our guide Lenin (Lennie) a huge debt of gratitude. I accidentally packed only one battery for my Nikon, and unfortunately I packed the bad battery. I was dead in the water. Lennie carries his Nikon on every walk. He loaned me one of his batteries so I could continue to take photos. If it were not for his generosity, I would be stuck with only iPhone pictures. He is an accomplished photographer and has worked for National Geographic, plus he’s funny.

Overnight we had our longest cruise, crossing the equator northbound. We cruised from Santiago Island to Genovesa Island, also known as Bird Island.

Darwin’s Bay

The next mornings nature walk along the shore of Darwin’s Bay we saw every stage of chick development, from newly hatched chicks with no fuzz at all, fuzz covered babies, to week old chicks and “teenagers” demanding to be fed. If yesterday was sea lion pup nursery, today was a bird hatchery.

Swallow-tail gull on a nest.
Swallow-tail chick.
Frigate bird chick in a nest.
A red-footed boobie.

After the morning nature walk we participated in the mid morning snorkel, our third of the trip. For today’s snorkel we were on the western edge of the caldera, more open to the sea. This area is known for hammerhead sharks, and the guides gave us an 80% chance of seeing them. I really wasn’t thrilled about that but everyone else was. And sure enough, we saw quite a few hammerhead sharks, including a few large ones. At this point, a bit late actually, I asked Lennie about the dangers. He assured me, as the sharks cruised about twenty feet below us and I’m trying to talk between the swells, that there has never been a hammerhead shark attack on humans in the Galápagos. We survived the snorkeling expedition and returned to the boat for lunch.

After lunch and a rest, we again took the pangas to the island, but this time to the eastern side of the caldera. We climbed Prince Phillip’s Steps to the plateau about 80 feet above the waters surface.

On the plateau is another bird nursery. We passed many boobie nests with chicks as young as hatched that day to fledglings.

The trail through the “Palo Santo Forest”
The plateau on Genovesa.
Short-eared owl.

The goal on our walk this evening was to spot a short-eared owl. We had binoculars and scanned the lava field during our walk. We saw one from a distance. As the sun sank in the west and we made our way back along the trail we nearly stepped on an owl. It was the sighting of the day and we all got a good picture.

Descending the Prince Phillip Steps
The panga ride back to the Evolution after sunset.
Tuna appetizer on the Evolution.
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Exploring the Galápagos Islands on the Evolution

600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, The Galápagos Islands are home to many species of wildlife that never learned to fear humans.

We landed on San Cristobal Island and were met by the crew of the M/V Evolution, operated by Quasar. We have a Saturday to Saturday cruise. Onboard we met more crew members, learned the rules of the Galápagos National Park, participated in a safety drill, found our cabin, and had lunch.

M/V Evolution

Our first cruise was to Cerro Brujo Beach on the island of San Cristóbal. After anchoring, we loaded into the pangas and headed towards the beach. The Evolution has accommodations for 32 guests, but this week they are hosting only 17. Two pangas can handle all guests. We have been divided into two groups; albatross and boobies. We are in the albatross group.

Our first nature walk in The Galápagos was not disappointing. We saw sea lions, blue footed boobies, marine iguanas, sea turtles, and many other bird species. We stayed on the beach to nearly sunset, then climbed back in the pangas for the short ride back to the Evolution.

Blue-footed boobie.
Tucker with a marine iguana.

We enjoyed a dinner of amberjack and met more of our fellow guests.

Overnight we motored from San Cristobol to South Plaza Island where we did a morning nature walk. South Plaza is a small island, 3/4 mile long, off the east coast of Santa Cruz. It was very windy, and cloudy, so at times it felt cool. The la nina is causing this year to be cooler than average.

National Park Of The Galápagos marker.

Seeing the colorful crabs, marine and land iguanas and watching very new baby sea lions nursing took our minds off the cool temps, plus I was wearing my tried and true Helly Hansen gear. The Galápagos Land Iguanas demonstrated their technique for eating prickly pear cactus fruit.

A female land iguana eats a prickly pear. She first rolled it around to remove the spines.
The iguana carries off the prickly pear.
Prickly pear cactus.
Juvenile swallow-tail gull.
Galápagos carpet weed.
Land iguana on the trail.
Land iguana in his mating colors.
Swallow-tail gull.

The nature walk got us warmed up, just in time to take our first plunge into the 68 F water, our next activity. There is an opportunity to snorkel every day and we plan to do just that. Today we snorkeled at Punta Carrion.

We brought our own wetsuits, but the Evolution also carries enough for everyone. This was my first experience at snorkeling with a wetsuit, having only snorkeled in warm tropical waters before. I was a bit apprehensive, but it went well. A shout out to my neighbor Janet who gave me her wetsuit, mask and snorkel. They were perfect, and I wasn’t cold at all. Our first day of snorkeling ended in a shallow sandy area where over a dozen white-tip reef sharks were loitering. It was great.

After lunch we motored to Santa Cruz Island for another beach walk on Mosquera Island Beach.

Sally light foot crab

Here we saw quite a few baby sea lions and dozens of Sally light foot crabs. Once again we stayed on the beach until almost sunset, then boarded our panga and returned to the Evolution.

Interaction with a sea lion pup.
Sea lion pup.
Whale bones.
Boarding a panga to return to the Evolution.
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Quito, Ecuador

Plaza Grande o de la Independencia

Here we are in Quito, one of the oldest capital cities in South America and second highest capital city in the world. Quito is at 9,350 feet, while La Paz, Bolivia is at 11,976. It was an easy five hour flight from Atlanta. The flight was far less stressful than the $25 taxi ride from the airport to the Zona Turistica Centro Historico. Our driver would have been competitive against any NASCAR driver.

Arriving at La Casona de la Ronda in the evening, we wanted to walk around a bit. The hotel security guard instructed us on safe areas and eventually pointed us to a great dinner spot.

The potato soup at the Restaurante Los Geranios was served in the most impressive way, and the sangria was stellar.

The potato soup was served on a bed of flaming salt or rocks, not sure which, but it was impressive.

The stop here in Quito is for only two nights. We will continue on to the Galápagos Islands. This is my second visit to Quito, having visited in 2009 with my brother. A fact that the customs official at the airport pointed out. I didn’t know they kept track.

We walked from the south end of the historic district to the north end. Early in the morning it was 48 F and we needed a jacket, but soon had to peel those off. We toured the Basilica del Voto Nacional, including the tower. I did this 13 years ago, and it has changed quite a bit.

This walkway inside the basilica leads to the tower. Thirteen years ago when my brother and I climbed the tower it was just wooden planks. Now they even have a gift shop up inside the basilica on the same level as the stained glass window.
The last set of stairs/ladder to the top of the tower.
The view from the very top of the tower of the basilica.

The historic district has many colorful houses and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. It was first settled by the indigenous people, the Valdivia, before they were conquered by the Inca. The Spanish then occupied the city starting in 1534.

La Casona de la Ronda in Quito.
A souvenir.

Everyone we have met has been very nice, but the funniest encounter was this morning walking back to our hotel. As we walked through the Plaza Belmonte two police officers stopped us to talk. They asked where we were from and then asked if they could take a photo. One of the men handed me a map while the other one took a cell phone photo. They wanted the picture taken as he handed me the map. I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of that exchange as well. That was the second time we had been approached by a uniformed police officer and asked if we needed any assistance or directions. They have been very solicitous.

From the tourist information map:

In the center of the World, and north of Quito, lies the equator which marks latitude O degrees, this is where science, spirituality and history converge in the heart of Earth.

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Day Trips Out Of Hilo

Coasting down Waikoloa Road headed to the west coast.

I prefer to stay on the east side of the big island, due to its slower pace and lack of large resorts.  But I also like to look around.  One day we did a circle drive, starting in Kea’au and taking Highway 200, or the Saddle Road, that runs between Mauna Loa (elevation 13,680’) and Mauna Kea (elevation 13,803’) heading west.  Legend says that the two mountains were sisters and their arguments took place in the area between the mountains.  It takes about one hour and forty five minutes to drive from the east coast to the west coast on this road.  We headed to the Waikoloa area on the Kohala Coast and a black sand beach we had visited on our trip in 2017.   The beach is unmarked, with just a pull out off Highway 19.  There is a rough trail through black lava to the beach, a good fifteen minute walk requiring tough shoes (don’t try this in flip flops).

The trail to Ke-awa-iki Beach.

We have found many cowries on this beach, where at times we were the only occupants.  I found several small cowries, but Tucker got the best one of all.   The name of this “secret beach” is Ke-awa-iki.   

After beach-combing and wading in the waves, we had a very good lunch at what one guide book called the best beach bar on this coast, Lava Lava Beach Club.  No reservations, first come first served.  We stood in line at 12:30 and waited for the 1 pm opening.  It was a pleasant place to wait, and the lunch was good.  The fish tacos were great, but $25.  I liked the vintage style graphics on the t-shirts so bought one here.

Heading further south on 19 you pass the Kona International Airport and drive through Kailua-Kona.  We walked along the waterfront of the Kailua-Kona area where King Kamehameha’s Hulihe’e Palace still stands.   There is a definite 1970s vibe in this area, as opposed to the more upscale newer resorts further north in the Kohala Coast area.

Hulihe’e Palace

Just a bit further south on Hwy 11 is the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park.  We arrived late in the day and walked through the area almost completely empty of people.  We had hoped to see turtles in the lagoon, but only saw fish. 

To complete our circle route, we continued south on Highway 11 towards Ka Lae (South Point), the southernmost point in the United States.   Key West likes to claim that title, but it is the southernmost point in the continental US, while the tip of Hawaii is the southernmost point in the entire US.

Highway 11 turns eastward and then northward again, heading into Hilo.  This was my first drive around the southern tip and I found it very beautiful.  The narrow two lane road winds through coffee farms and small settlements.  It is a very serene setting, and we vowed to make another day trip to take a closer look.

Punalu’u Beach

That closer look came just two days later.  We headed south out of Kea’au on Highway 11, passing through the Volcano National Park.  We stopped at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.   It is known for sea turtles and the beautiful sand.   When we first arrived there weren’t many people and we saw quite a few turtles feeding in the shallows.  There was a turtle nesting area blocked off, and a sign warning tourists not to take the black sand.  The sand is very fine, shiny black, and very beautiful.  As the people started to arrive, we headed further south.

We had no agenda for the day and pulled over at a market that looked interesting in the small town of Na’alehu.  It was a local market with just a few vendors, some selling food, some selling local honey or coffee, and a few handmade items.  I bought a necklace made of velvet seeds called hua wele weka, and we had fish tacos for lunch in the shade of a large tree while listening to a live band.   The fish tacos were quite good, and only $12.  The band was also pretty good, mostly grey haired, playing blues, west coast swing and some Tom Petty and Dire Straits.  It was a good stop.

A scenic view looking north along Hwy 11
Looking south from the same view point along Hwy 11.

Continuing further south, we took the turn off onto South Point Road.  This leads to the southernmost point, and to a green sand beach.   Our thought was to hike down to the green sand beach, but when we saw the crowd of cars in the parking area, we changed our minds. 

Cliffs at the southern end of the island.

Instead we headed over to the cliffs at the southernmost point.  There was a smaller crowd, some fishing, and a few young guys jumping into the very clear blue water that seemed quite far below.  They called themselves cliff divers, but the diving was feet first.  Of course, you could buy a “Hawaii Cliff Divers Club” t-shirt out of the back of a guy’s pick up.  It is always windy here, as you can see from the trees and the wind turbine power generators.

Lining up to jump off the cliff.

We passed an honor fruit stand on the South Point Road.

For my birthday dinner, we ate at the Kilauea Lodge in Volcano Village.  It may be 75 to 80 degrees in Hilo, but when the sun goes down and the showers start, it dropped to 58 F up at the Lodge at 3,000’ elevation.  They had a fire going in the large fireplace which made it very cozy.  Any establishment that has a sign posted to be mindful of the old resident cat is a great place in my book.

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Hawai’i.  Messing around on the Big Island.

Our cottage near Hilo.

Although the act of traveling is starting to improve, it is still more difficult than it was five years ago, the last time I visited Hawaii.  This trip was put together on fairly short notice, a month or so, and it required creating a Clear account (for vaccination records) and then a State of Hawaii account into which you loaded your Clear account.  All of this paperwork was only a slight deterrent, but time consuming.

We flew from Portland, Oregon nonstop to Kona.  From Kona, we drove approximately two hours to the east side of the island where we had our accommodations.  We had booked a VRBO in the small community of Kea’au, a cottage on the grounds of a former sugar plantation.  Gisella was a gracious hostess, even giving us a tour of the Big House, situated on 10 lush acres.

The Big House on the former sugar plantation.

Our first full day we spent in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.  Upon arrival a park ranger told us that the lava flow had stopped at 1:39 am that morning, and was no longer visible.  Oh well. 

We viewed the Kilauea Caldera (Kaluapele o Kilauea) from the Crater Rim Drive viewpoints and walked the Crater Rim Trail.   We walked through the Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku) and the trail to the petroglyphs (pu’uloa). 

Steam vents along the trail.

There was an obvious temperature drop between the coastal town of Hilo and the Kilauea Visitor’s Center at 3,980 feet elevation.  At times it can be cool, rainy, and cloudy at the entrance of the park and the higher elevation trails.  It was quite sunny and warm when we walked the trail to the petroglyphs near the coastline.  Five years ago I saw the lava flowing into the sea, but the park is worth a visit even if you don’t see lava flowing. 

The crater rim trail.
Lava tube entrance.
Inside the Lava Tube.
The boardwalk around the petroglyphs.

The Volcano Art Center, in a small original building next to the visitor’s center is also worth a visit.

The Volcano Art Center near the park entrance.

The park entrance was a short 30 minute drive from where we stayed, and Hilo was just 7 miles.  Hilo has a farmer’s market, which we visited on a Wednesday, one of the ‘big’ days.  It had fruits and vegetables, local coffee, flowers and vendors selling t-shirts and every other possible souvenir.  Although it was not the local season for some fruits, they were there, so those had to be imports.  We bought fruit and coffee beans.  They are proud of their coffee, charging upwards of $25 for 8 oz of beans.  Being on vacation, we splurged and tried three different beans;  Volcano, Wai Puna medium roast and Wai Puna Peaberry.   

Hilo is a cute little town with a lot of historic buildings, murals, and small shops.  We liked the artist co-op and the natural and organic shop.  I can recommend the banana chocolate smoothie at the Puna Chocolate Company, breakfast at The Booch Bar, and the Mai Tais and sangria at Pineapple’s.  The best dinner of the trip was the Mahi Mahi at Jackie Rey’s.

A mural on the side of a building in Hilo.
Mushroom omelette at The Booch Bar.
The Mai Tai at Pineapples.
Banana chocolate smoothie at Puna Chocolate Company.
The grilled mahi mahi at Jackie Rey’s.

The day we cruised the farmers market, we also made the short drive north on Highway 19, turning off on the Scenic Route, to the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden.  Founded in 1978, it opened to the public in 1984.  It was a beautiful and relaxing spot to spend the afternoon.

A scenic view along the Scenic Route off highway 19 north of Hilo.
Australian fern tree.

Near a small park across from the Hilo Airport, we even saw a turtle.  There is much to do in and around Hilo. 

The King Kamehameha statue near downtown Hilo.
Bridge from 1938.

When we weren’t exploring we were relaxing at the cottage. The plantation house and cottage sit in the middle of ten acres. We loved the lush feeling and even enjoyed the chickens who came to visit.

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Napa Valley. Open, with reservations.

Our trip to Napa was a planned trip, so we had already made reservations at several vineyards for tastings. September is harvest time, and we expected it to be busy. It was difficult to find a B & B with vacancy, so we ended up renting a home in St. Helena through VRBO. It turned out to be a good central location and a nice home, although a bit pricey. But most hotels were booked.

We flew in on a Thursday. On our drive from the airport to Napa, I thought I’d call a few places to see if we could fit in a tasting on our way to the house. Every place I called was “booked to capacity.” In fact, they were booked all weekend. Thank goodness we had planned several in advance. We called Hall Wines, and only got a spot on Sunday due to my travel companion’s club membership.

The house we rented was walking distance to the main street in St. Helena. It’s a nice little town with a fabulous bakery, cute shops, and quite a few restaurants. We found the same issues in Napa as in many places, lack of wait staff. Restrictions for indoor capacity and the lack of wait staff have made planning essential. All the shops in the Napa Valley had signs in the windows that face masks are required indoors. Most people complied.

Kelham Vineyards

Friday we had our first tasting scheduled at Kelham Vineyards, early enough that we were the only guests. Susanna has a beautiful property. One of my travel companions is a club member there, and that was the only way we got in. All tastings at Kelham are reserved in advance, but Susanna, the owner, told us the only way we got in was Tucker’s A List status and that she answered the phone.

Kelham has very good wine and beautiful grounds. Susanna, the founder, is very interesting and full of information. She is working on a new food and wine experience, of which she graciously gave us a short demonstration. It combines a dinner with her wines, and a virtual theater experience. The table top, the walls, and even the plates are the screen. It was amazing and we cannot wait until it is complete. Like most other employers, she has found it difficult to hire staff. Other guests started arriving as we left. It was a great way to start the day.

Susanna gave Tucker a piece of her wine label art for his 65th birthday. The original art is made in France from wine foils and then used as labels for her wine.

Also on Friday, we had seats at the table of a Vintner’s Dinner at Tamber Bey in Calistoga. This was planned well in advance. As a matter of fact, our first attempt to get into the dinner months earlier was too late, and they were fully booked. Luckily we got in when someone else cancelled.

Tamber Bey’s winery and tasting room are also stables. It’s a fun place to visit, and they have my favorite Sauvignon Blanc, Lizzy’s Vineyard.

The tasting area is also horse stables.

We started with one of the most amazing appetizers I’ve ever had. It was fresh mozzarella, really fresh. Thirty seconds old. The chef was there making it, and it was good.

The chef making fresh mozzarella.

Barry entertained the diners with a great story about their new Friesian horse while we sampled their wonderful wine and great food.

The Tamber Bey vintner dinner.
The mushroom ravioli was wonderful.

Saturday morning we walked the 0.7 miles to the Model Bakery. It was worth the walk. A sign on the wall said that the Model Bakery made Oprah’s favorite english muffin.

We had nothing scheduled for Saturday, so we spent some time driving the area, visiting the little town of Calistoga and looking for grape pictures. We also checked out the cute shops on the main street in St. Helena, and found a consignment shop, Lolo’s. I bought a very pretty sequin top for $8, the deal of the weekend. There is evidence of the fires, mostly in the hills on the north-east side of Silverado Trail. You can see areas of blackened trees and the remains of some homes no longer there.

The local grocery, Sunshine Foods Market, was well stocked with fresh local veggies, fresh bread, pastries, and cheese. It also has a very large selection of local wines.

A pastry at Sunshine Foods Market

Sunday was another day of reservations. We got a Sunday brunch reservation at Brix with only one week’s notice. I would highly recommend their brunch. It is in a beautilful setting and the food was excellent.

The outside dining area at Brix.
These were hands down the best deviled eggs I’ve ever had. They are called “crispy lobster deviled eggs.”
The Brix gardens.
Brix vines.

After brunch and wandering the Brix gardens, we headed to Hall Wines. Calling on Thursday got us a Sunday members area reservation. At first I was told they were at capacity for the weekend, but with a wine membership we got a Sunday slot. The member’s area was not over crowded, definitely less people than on a previous visit. So they are restricting the number of guests and all tastings are outside.

The Hall rabbit
Hall Wines outdoor members tasting area.

We took our time, relaxed, and had a nice tasting.

The reflecting pool at Hall.

Leaving Hall Wines we headed to Quintessa, our last tasting for the day and the weekend.

The view at Quintessa.

The tastings and tours are all by reservation. The view above is from the hill behind the winery. We got a tour and then the tasting.

The three of us were in agreement on our opinions of three varietals. We all liked the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs better than the California Savs. California does a superb job with Cabernet Sauvignon. Oregon makes the best Pinot Noir in the world.

It really was a fun three days. I could always spend more time here, three days is not enough, and planning tasting stops well in advance would help in these current times.

Posted in California, Food and Wine | 1 Comment

Last Day

Our last full day in Finland had us headed back to Helsinki, with one urgent task. We hated to leave the archipelago on such a beautiful day, but we had to get covid tests prior to returning to the US.

We had paid a Finnish company, 9Lives (, in advance for tests in Finland. It was 214 euros. It was rapid testing, so we should have our test results prior to departure. Because it was Midsummer weekend, some of the test sites were closed, but we found one close to the Helsinki airport that was open on Sunday.

A road sign showing just how close Finland is to Russia.

We left the archipelago around 1130, headed to the testing site. Upon arrival at 2 pm, we were the only car in line. It was quite efficient. We gave our names and ID and that was all. The woman said we should have results in 12 hours. It was cutting it a bit close, but we had no choice. There is a very small window of opportunity for the required tests. You must have your results to check in and check bags and get a boarding pass, but the results can’t be more than 48 hours old. Many sites were closed on Saturday, Midsummer Day.

With the tests complete and waiting for results, we drove to Hvitträsk to see the home and studio of Eliel Saarinen, one of the most famous Finnish architects, if not the most famous.

Three young Finnish architects purchased the property in 1901, drew up plans, and built the home and studio in 1902 and 1903. The house is on 16 hectares by lake Vittrask, and used wooden logs and granite for construction material.

The view from the property.

In 1923, Saarinen moved to the US with his family, settling in Michigan. In 1949, they sold the house. Since 1981 Hvitträsk has been owned by the Finnish State, and in 2000 it became part of the National Board of Antiquities.

Eliel Saarinen’s Hvitträsk living room.
Living room stove.
Fireplace detail.
Hvitträsk dining room.
Ceiling detail.

In designing the house, Saarinen made it a “complete work of art” by also designing the furniture, rugs and fireplace tiles.

The master bedroom stove.
Tile and stove door detail.
Stove door detail.
Children’s room stove.
Children’s room stove detail.
Saarinen’s desk.
A door detail.

Here is a list of just some of the buildings Eliel Saarinen designed:

  • The Swedish Theatre in Helsinki
  • Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York
  • Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa
  • Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • The Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri
  • Aspen Music Center, Aspen, Colorado
  • Massachusettes Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • University of Michigan School of Music, Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • TWA Terminal, New York City, New York
  • Dulles International Airport, Washington DC
  • Vivian Beaumont Repertory Theater & Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Library and Museum, New York City, New York
  • And the Tulip Chair.
The Gateway Arch was designed by Saarinen in 1947.
The TWA Terminals was designed in 1956.
Dulles International Airport Terminal designed in 1958.
The Tulip Chair, Pedestal Series, 1954.
Some of the gardens.

The house was full of details and quite beautiful. It was partially under restoration, so there was scaffolding around parts of the exterior. It has a wonderful view of the lake. Saarinen and his wife Loja, and Herman Gesellius (one of the original three young architects) are buried in the woods near Hvitträsk. There was a path marked to their resting places.

After touring the house and gardens, we headed to the Helsinki area waterfront for a last late lunch/early dinner. It was beautiful weather, and we ate outside by the water.

For convenience, we stayed our last night at the Helsinki airport Hilton. We tried to check our bags the night before departure, but we still did not have our negative test results. The Lufthansa counter person said no test results, no check in and no bag check. So back to the hotel we went to await the test results.

The Helsinki Hilton junior suite sauna.

Luckily, this Hilton has suites with their own sauna. Nice. The test results came in around 9 pm, so about seven hours after taking our nose swabs. You had to have a digital device as the link to the results needed a pass code which was texted to your phone. All very digital and efficient, and pricey. I was glad to be in a country as tech savvy and health conscious as it is. It would be difficult to get tested and the results back in time in some less organized countries.

It seems that the US government is leaving all the checking of documents to the airlines. Our documents were checked several times in Helsinki, about four times at our connection stop in Munich, but not once at the customs control in the US.

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Midsummer Day

Saturday morning, Midsummer Day, we packed up from Ruissalo and drove back through Turku, east on E18, then turned south onto 180. This route would take us to Nagu/Nauvo, deeper into the archipelago. This destination was suggested by Pamela, as a spot we might like.

Crossing one of the bridges we got the smiley face for driving at the speed limit.

The Finnish archipelago is connected by many bridges and ferries, but we had only one to catch. The ferry between Pargus and Nagu departs every 15 minutes. Our timing was good, and there were only about ten cars lined up. The ferry was automated, lights showing which lane to pull into.

Between the ferry stop and Nagu, we saw one fox cross the road, and three large rabbits in a field. At first we thought they were dogs, due to their large size. But we doubled back to check, and sure enough, they were rabbits. The largest rabbits I’ve ever seen.

We passed though the little town of Nagu and drove the remaining 4 km to our next overnight spot at Hotel Stallbacken. It is a very pretty property in the country, with guests staying in a former sheep barn (beautifully renovated), and has a sauna.

Arriving well before check in, we hopped on bikes and pedaled back into Nagu. We stopped for fika at a home/cafe, and walked around the stone church dated 1767.

The church has a beautiful wood shingle roof.

A short distance away we found the bustling waterfront area of Nagu. It was much busier and a younger crowd than what we had experienced on Ruissalo. Shops and restaurants were open, it was packed with people, and boats were coming in and out. It had a party atmosphere.

We had a glass of wine at a very cute restaurant and did a little shopping. Eventually we climbed back on the bikes and headed back to the hotel.

We had reserved the sauna for one hour at 5 pm, but my sauna tolerance hasn’t built up and this was a really hot sauna. We were only able to stay in for 30 minutes, but it felt good.

The sauna house.

The dining room for guests includes an outdoor patio, and with perfect weather, we dined outside. We were so glad we did, because as we sat on the patio, a moose wandered through the field next door. The food was excellent.

Their salmon soup was very good. It took silver behind Hanku’s gold.

Everyone has been extremely nice. The young women who work at Hotel Stellbacken and served us dinner answered all our questions and gave us tips and information about the area. One had never seen a moose and was very surprised and delighted when the moose showed itself.

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