Bicycling the Virginia Creeper Trail

Bicycling with our in-laws has become one of our favorite exercise-adventure pastimes, and we decided to explore the well-known Virginia rails-to-trails Creeper Trail. The adventure began with an 11-hour drive on Friday with our bicycles to Abingdon, Virginia, where we met up with Julie’s sister & brother-in-law, Pam & A.J. We had decided to stay at the historic Martha Washington Inn which was built in 1832 as a southern mansion for General Francis Preston & his family. After the family left the residence, it was converted to a college for young women (Martha Washington College), before becoming a civil war hospital and then finally closing . In 1934, the facility was used to house aspiring actors who appeared at the Barter Theatre (located across the street). It has been a hotel since 1935, and has active fireplaces, a library, a bar and restaurant, a pool and hot tubs, a spa and saunas, tennis courts and an 18-hole putt-putt golf course with surrounding gardens.  Many of the furnishings and antiques are original to the property.  

The Historic Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon Virginia
The Martha Inn Pool

We have a lovely room on the 3rd floor, twice the size of a normal hotel room, with antique spindle beds and glass chandeliers. We walked the grounds and then strolled to the trailhead of the bicycle trail to see where we would be riding on Sunday, (we had decided to use Saturday to explore the town and relax from the long car ride). The day slowly devolved into cool weather and a misty rain with more of the same predicted for tomorrow (Saturday). We enjoyed dinner (included with the room) at the bar and enjoyed a game of cards on the hotel veranda before enjoying a complementary port by the fire in the library.

Our Room at The Martha

The next morning, we arose for a lovely complementary coffee and breakfast in the Sisters’ Restaurant, which included muffins with yogurt & granola followed by a huge plate of biscuits &gravy, sausage, quiche, and hash browns. Then, we headed out with umbrellas to window shop the downtown area. Negotiating the rain, we visited a number of boutiques and antique shops. before taking a late lunch at a Greek restaurant and heading back to the hotel where we relaxed with a glass of wine in the hot tub and enjoyed a game of cards on the veranda. Then, it was off for a light dinner in the bar and a glass of port on the veranda before preparing our bikes for an early start in the morning.

On Sunday morning, we collected a quick coffee and muffins from the restaurant before boarding our bikes and riding to the trail head by 7:30am. The first 17-miles of the trail are relatively flat heading slightly downhill for the first 9-miles, and then up. We initially traveled past large houses and a city baseball park along the South Holston River, where the water was high due to the week’s past rain. We pedaled past large farms of cattle and crops in the rolling hills of the Appalachian mountains. This trail was originally a pioneer footpath (aka – Daniel Boone).  Then, in 1900, the Virginia North Carolina Railroad was built to haul lumber, iron ore and supplies over the range. The train was nicknamed “The Virginia Creeper” since the steam engine locomotives crept along the trail so slowly. The original steam engine is still on display at the head of the trail. The trail included 47 trestle bridges and numerous gates between properties, both private and public. The last train ran in 1977.

The Original Creeper Locomotive
The Four of Us at the Trail Head

We rode the trail for about 20 minutes when Julie’s sister suffered a flat tire.  After a quick replacement of the tube, we were on our way again along the trail. There were very few people on this part of the trail and they were mostly locals walking their dogs. We rode through farmlands and the Mt. Rogers National Forest. After 17-miles in 2 ½ hours, we arrived in Damascus where we met our shuttle to take us to the top of Whitetop Mountain.

A Flat Tire Along the Way
The Trail to Damascus
A Stop on one of the 47 Trestles

This part of the trail is muddy, rutted and steeply uphill, and our shuttle drive tells us stories of when the train used to still run behind his house, and of spotting bears last night. Wild turkeys ran across the road in front of shuttle when we got near the top of Whitetop Mountain and the North Carolina border. At the top, we got back on our bikes and started heading slowly downhill. Our first stop was a ranger station, and then the trail became more challenging. The downhill is steep and rocky with no need to peddle. Instead, we coasted carefully, holding tight, steering, and breaking to stay on the trail. Next, we stopped at Green Cove Cooperative (a restored train station) that sells souvenirs, drinks, snacks, and a good selection of warm clothing to cater to those who are not fully prepared when the mountain top is cold. Along the trail, we crossed the Appalachian Hiking Trail, before we rode into Taylors Valley and stopped for a light lunch at Hellbender’s Café. After lunch, we rode 6 more miles of trail before arriving in Damascus, which was hosting an annual hiking trail convention, (there are 7 trails that leave from the town of Damascus). This completed the additional 17-miles downhill from Whitetop which took us about 2 ½ hours.

At Whitecap Mountain ready to ride Downhill
One of the Many Streams and Rivers along the Trail

Then, it was onward to Abingdon – 17 more miles back along the trail we had covered in the morning.  We passed a group of horseback riders and now, saw many hikers on the trail. All along the lower trail are places along the river to sit, to camp, and to picnic. Eventually, we reached the confluence of the Middle Fork Holston and South Fork Holston rivers, but much of the remaining trail is in the sun, and day was getting hot. We finally arrived back at the hotel at ~4:30pm – it’s been a long day! After stowing our bikes, we needed showers to wash off the mud and then we all jumped into the hot tub with a cold drink. That evening, we played cards in the garden, enjoyed celebratory drinks at the bar and had a nice,  relaxing dinner.

A Stop in a Hillside Cut
The Longest Trestle at the Confluence of the Holston Rivers
A Rest on the Home Stretch of our 51-mile Ride

Later, we packed our gear and the next morning we all met for an excellent breakfast before saying our “goodbyes” and heading off our separate ways.

Exploring the Venice Lagoon by Houseboat

Part 3: Burano, San Francesco del Deserto, and Porto Grandi

Tuesday, May 7th began with a light rain, and after having breakfast on the boat, we departed Le Vignole and leisurely motored northeast past the island of S. Erasmo – a horticultural island with numerous hiking paths located on it. From here, we motored north past Burano to the island of Mazzorbo. We moored the boat against the green lawn and stone bulkhead, and walked across the local footbridge bridge to Burano. The island of Mazzorbo holds the Burano cemetery and a church from the 1600’s which is still fully functioning, (complete with crypts in the floor), a few homes, a park, and, initially unbeknownst to us, a Michelin Star restaurant. The island and city of Burano greeted us with swans and color, and is known as “The Italian Lace Island.”  The shops are filled with Italian linens and silks, with colorfully painted shops and houses, and the many canals make it “walking island” where deliveries and transport are all via water. 

Following Bricola to Burano
“Leo” Docked at Mazzorbo Bulkhead

The island of Burano has around 27,000 inhabitants and is one of the more densely populated islands in the Venice Lagoon. The town offered us lots of shopping and a variety of quaint restaurants, with excellent seafood and wine. In the cityscape, the bell tower “Campanile San Martino”, which is typical for the area and freestanding from the nave, catches the eye, as it leans at ~3 degrees and has done so for hundreds of years, appearing ready to fall over. We enjoyed a leisurely midday meal in Burano before taking a long stroll around Mazzorbo and returning to the boat. In the late afternoon, we returned to Burano for aperitifs, watching the locals who have now come out to walk their dogs and socialize once the large tourist’s boats have left. On the way back from Burano to our boat berth on Mazzorbo, we noticed that a previously locked gate was open to a vineyard and we decided to explore. This turned out to be the back entrance to a Michelin Star Restaurant and Wine Bar, the Venissa, so we stopped to drink Prosecco and snack on a sardine appetizer before returning to our boat for the evening. However, that evening at 1:30am, our battery alarm sounded indicating we were running low on battery power, and so we idled the engine for an hour to recharge it. This then happened again at 5:30am. We were told that the engine needs to run at least 4-hours per day to keep the batteries charged and we were surprised by this, but we concluded that perhaps we had been negligent in running it the required amount of time.

The Leaning Bell Tower
The Canals of Murano
Vineyard at Mazzorbo Restaurant

Wednesday morning after breakfast on the boat and cappuccinos in town, we bought some drinking water at the local Burano grocery before departing Mazzorbo, motoring all around the island of Burano, and heading to the Isle San Francisco del Deserto, a quiet island with an ancient but active Monastery. We docked along the bulkhead just inside the canal and took lunch on deck while listening to the birds and watching the planes take off at a distance from Venice airport located across the bay. The Monastery was closed as it was only open certain hours, so after lunch, we decided to head to the island of Torcello. Torcello is in the northern part of the lagoon, where the tides are typically less. It is a very small island, but in the past, it was one of the oldest and once most important centers in the lagoon. The typical highlights of the island are the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and the Church of Santa Fosca. The palines are located down a narrow waterway in front of the cathedral, but the limited space, the strong currents, and the sudden failure of one of our bow thrusters made docking there too risky. Therefore, we headed back to Mazzorbo/Burano for groceries, before heading back to San Francesco Del Deserto where the monastery was now open for visitors. Once here, we toured the St. Francis of Assisi church with a local Italian Friar. The Monastery dates from 1220 when St. Francis initially visited the island. A church and Convent were then built, but eventually the island was abandoned and deserted due to the extremely poor conditions of the Venice Lagoon. It was reoccupied and renovated in 1453, and the Friars Minor lived there until 1806. In 1856, the island was given by a patriarch to the San Franciscan Friars. Another renovation was done in the 1980’s and it is now a lovely quiet spot to visit on any trip to the lagoon. After our tour, we had cocktails and chips on our houseboat’s rooftop deck, followed by dinner onboard and a quiet evening of cards. However, that evening at 12:30am, our battery alarm once again sounded requiring us to idled the engine for an hour to recharge it. After it happened again at 4:30am, we disconnected the alarm and decided we would address the issue in the morning.

Docked in San Francesco del Deserto

Thursday morning, we started and idled the engine as the low batteries had begun to allow our refrigerator to warm. After breakfast on the boat, we left a message with the Charter Office outlining our issues with the battery charging system and our failed bow thruster. After leaving the peacefulness of San Francesco Del Deserto and beginning to head back towards Chioggia, the Charter Office contacted us and suggested going to Porte Grandi instead – a town on the mainland in the opposite direction, located northeast of the city of Venice. Therefore, we turned the boat around and headed to Porte Grandi through canals that isolated islands and farms that were lower than the water in the canal. The shores were lined with reeds and stone bags shoring up the island edges and protecting acres and acres of farm land. Along the way we saw swans and their cygnets, and a variety of waterfowl. Porte Grandi is massive boat repair area in front of a set of locks that allow entrance to the Sile River, (The River of Silence), system. Once arriving and while waiting for the repairman, we docked at an out-of-the-way location, observed boats passing through the locks, and had lunch on the top deck. Once the boat technician arrived, he fixed the bow thrusters, (a bad switch) and fixed a broken electrical connection that was preventing the batteries from fully charging. After the repairs were made, we traveled back the way we came to Burano/ Mazzorbo for groceries and dinner. When we arrived and docked, another large cruise boat arrived bringing a crowd of visitors. We found a little café off the main path where we had drinks. For dinner, we went to an excellent restaurant named “Gailluipi” for squid appetizer, mussels, risotto, and tortellini. After dinner, Roc used the restaurant’s wifi to run an SEG Board of Director’s meeting from his phone. Then, it was back to the boat for nightcaps and relaxation.

Swan with Cygnets on the way to Porto Grande

On Friday morning after a casual breakfast on the boat and on a beautiful, sunny morning, we decided to head off to Torcello again to explore the Cathedral and vineyard there. However, when we arrived we observed some of our sister boats that had spent the night there now sitting grounded in the mud since it was low tide. After watching another couple struggle for a while to get their moored boat off of the bottom mud, we decided to skip Torcello and headed off motoring through the canal on the west side of Mazzorbo past Burano and around the Palude de Burano (swamp of Burano) and the Isle Crevan (which is for sale for $6.9M), and back to berth on Mazzorbo. We then headed back into Burano where we found a new, “classy” grocery that let us taste local-made botanical gin, sold us a bottle of Grand Marnier, before heading to the post office to mail postcards. It was then time for lunch, which we had at a small café that was surrounded by locals eating at their personal tables, on  their  front stoops, all along the street. Back at the boat, we relaxed and waited for news on Peter’s wife’s follow-up arthroscopic surgery, (which went well). That night we took dinner late, after the tourists’ boats and ferries had all left and found and ended up at Al Ombré – a restaurant with a tiny, narrow doorway opening into a courtyard of 10 tables, surrounded by bright yellow walls and flowers. For dinner we had homemade lasagna and melanzane ( i.e. Italian eggplant Parmesan) – the best dinner thus far!

Colorful homes in Burano
Typical Burano Residential Street

Then, it was back to  the boat for nightcaps and a game of cards.

On Saturday, May 11, we decided to explore some of the area to our east and position ourselves closer for our eventual trip back to Chioggia. Saturday morning was very quiet in town and on the water with few boats or people around. After breakfast on board, we headed to town for a quick grocery run and cappuccinos, before saying “good-bye” to Burano and motoring down the canal and past Lio Piccolo, an old fishing village. As the morning progressed, numerous small boats came out for a Saturday on the water, and we observed a number of local fishermen returning, along with numerous swamps and lowlands. We headed to Punta Sabbioni, where we tied to the city dock near a restaurant, but decided to have lunch on board with the supplies that we had bought at the store,  (wine, bread, cheese, hard boil eggs, and salami). From there, we headed south past the “MOSE” and its massive flood gates protecting Venice. “MOSE” is the “Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico” which translates into, ’Experimental Electromechanical Module’), and it is a project designed to protect the city of Venice and the Venetian Lagoon from flooding by blocking the lagoon off from the Adriatic Sea during extreme high tides. The project consists of rows of mobile gates that are installed on the seafloor at the Lido, Malamocco, and Chioggia inlets, and that can be raised by filling them with compressed air. After crossing the Lido inlet, we motored on to our berth at Le Vignole for the night. Since it was Saturday afternoon, young kids with their speedboats boats were jumping off the bridges and partying until dark. After that, we bought one more bottle of Prosecco from our favorite farmer and enjoyed a light dinner of duck pate, cheese, and bread.

Women Rowers in Gondola

Sunday, we would have to bring the boat back to Chioggia, since check-out was at 8:30am on Monday morning. After breakfast, we left Le Vignole and headed up Canal Nicolo towards Venice before turning on to Canal Lazzaretto to Canal dells Scoasse. Here, it became very shallow and we needed to be careful to stay in the narrow channel. We then headed past the isle Lazzaretto Vecchio, passing many sail boats that were motoring towards the inlet to the Adriatic Sea. Along the way were people out practicing paddling their gondolas and crewing shells. To the south of where we spent our first night in Malamocco, we temporarily got the wrong side of a bricole and dragged bottom slightly, stirring up the mud. Soon afterwards, we stopped at an unused commercial dock at Alberoni for lunch on deck before continuing our journey towards Chioggia. Once we arrived, we moored the boat in one of our Charter Company’s slips, and made our way to old town Chioggia to locate a sports bar in which we could watch soccer (EPL). This was a non-trivial exercise, and, after 45-minutes of strolling about, we found a little pizzeria and watched the Italian league, instead. Then we headed back to Sottomarina, stopping for drinks at the Budapest Caffe, before arriving at the beach at the Havana Club, where we ate dinner and watched Arsenal play. On the way back to the boat, we stopped at the grocery and bought chocolate, palinka, and limoncello, which we sipped that evening while playing cards.

Viga Bridge in Chioggia

On Monday, May 13, we arose early, finished up our eggs, toast, and coffee, and “checked-out” with the Charter Company staff. All was well, and we left on our reserved taxi at 9:00am and headed to Marco Polo Airport where we dropped off Peter for his early flight. We then had the driver take us to our hotel for the night that was located in Quarto d’Altino, about 10 minutes from the airport. Although we were very early to check in, we were greeted with cappuccinos and cookies, and then given a room in about 40 minutes. We left our belongings in the room and we went walking around, exploring the town. The Train station is only a block away, and the Town Center is a short 10-minute walk. There we found a pizzeria/restaurant where we ate a lunch of salads and spicy mussels marinara. Two and one-half hours later, we walked back to our hotel, showered, and prepared our bags for our flight back to the USA in the morning 

Tuesday morning, we were up early for the shuttle to the airport, where we checked-in and went to the lounge before catching our direct flight to Atlanta, and our connection back to our home in Melbourne, Florida. The trip convinced us that other river-canal houseboat adventures are likely in our future! Stay tuned!

Exploring the Venice Lagoon by Houseboat

Part 2: Venice and Murano

We finally pass the southern end of Venice and head to Le Vignole a small farming island divided by a small, quiet canal with lovely pedestrian bridges and footpaths. Halfway down the canal are located paline that are reserved for our Charter Company and we moored alongside the poles, and then walk to the northern end of canal where there is a ACTV Vaporetto, (water ferry), every 30 minutes to the island and city of Venice. Twenty-five years ago, large cruise ships would dock at the island of Venice, but this is no longer allowed. Given the chaos and expense of the Venice island marinas, we decide this is a more convenient way to visit the historic city.

Gondola Lessons in Le Vignole Canal
Vaporetto to Venice

Once in Venice, we walked to St. Mark’s Square, which was fairly crowded. Tourists were taking gondola rides and taking pictures on the Rialto Bridge. We were impressed at how different Venice was from 25 years ago – the canals were clean and clear, the streets and walks were clean and in excellent condition, and there were no hordes of pigeons annoying one’s every movement (feeding pigeons in Venice was outlawed with a 500 Euro fine in 2008). We stopped for a late lunch of spinach cannelloni, lasagna, and gnocchi  accompanied with G&Ts, before heading on to an Irish Pub to watch an English Premiere League match on television and to drink Irish whiskey and Guinness stout. After the game, it was back to the houseboat via vaporetto, where we were met on Le Vignole by a local farmer and purchased fresh strawberries, artichokes, and a local bottle of Prosecco. This was accompanied by a lesson in how to peel and eat raw artichoke hearts with olive oil and pepper, which we promptly snacked on. Back at the houseboat, we met some charter neighbors who had arrived and docked nearby.

A Commercial Delivery Canal in Venice
Tourists taking a Gondola Ride
The Campanile of St. Marks
The Piazza of St. Marks
A Residential Canal in Venice
Rialti Bridge in Venice
Gondoliers Practicing their Technique

On Monday, we slept-in and had breakfast before taking the vaporetto to Murano. As is not unusual in Italy, this day was appointed as “strike day” for ACTV and vaporetto service was sporadic and handled by alternative companies. By agreement, “worker transports” only were going to run focusing on the early morning and early evening routes. Like Venice, Murano consists of seven smaller islands, two of which are of artificial origin. However, they are all connected by bridges, albeit separated by canals and narrow watercourses. The town has become famous worldwide for its glass art. Once there, we explored the shops and found a glass factory where we met the manager, Fabrizio, who lives part-time in West Palm Beach. There, we observed a glass blowing demonstration, before being invited upstairs to see the higher quality items, including vases, chandeliers, aquariums, and large pieces of glass art. After window shopping, we lunched at a nearby square, where we had a set 3-course meal, before shopping for souvenirs, and heading back to the vaporetto station only to find no boats for an hour-and-a-half. While waiting, we shared a local beer and avoided a brief rain shower, before catching a vaporetto back to Le Vignole, where we greeted our favorite farmer and bought and drank more Prosecco and ate snacks while playing a game of cards.

Entrance to the Canal in Murano
Commercial Canal in Murano
Glass Factory in Murano
Island in Venice Lagoon

Exploring the Venice Lagoon by Houseboat

Part 1: Chioggia to Le Vignole

We last explored Venice ~25-years ago, and although the town was magical, the canals were fouled, the piazzas were filled with pigeons, and the crowds of people were suffocating. Since then, we have spent a good bit of our holiday time exploring places on the water that are accessible by chartering sailboats, and these adventures have taken us around the world. However, there are interesting places along riverways that are too difficult to visit via sailboat. Therefore, when our friends pointed out that there were now houseboats available for charter in Europe, so that one can explore the riverways and coastal lagoons, we decided to “test the waters” and charter a houseboat to explore the Venice Lagoon.

The Venetian Lagoon, Laguna di Venezia; is a shallow bay of the Adriatic Sea in the north of Italy, in which a number of islands are located, including the city of Venice. The Lagoon reaches from the River Sile in the north to the Brenta River in the south. It is only ~8% land, 11% open water and dredged canals, with ~80% of the area covered by mud flats, tidal shallows, and salt marshes. The Lagoon is connected to the Adriatic Sea by three inlets: at Lido to the north, Malamocco centrally, and Chioggia in the south. The Lagoon is subject to large tidal variations (~1-meter) with extreme tides common in the Spring season.

Map of Venice Lagoon & Route

We would fly into Marco Polo Airport located just north of Venice on the mainland, and then travel via chartered car to the southern extent of the Lagoon to the city of Chioggia, (pronounced “Chioggia”), where our charter would begin. The town of Chioggia is important and is known for its harbor, fishing, salt pans, fruit and vegetable crops and its cuisine. Chioggia is often called “Little Venice” because of its alleys, squares, palaces, and canals. The most important canal is the Vena Canal, which is crossed by nine bridges, and is guarded by the Vigo Bridge that separates the lagoon from the Piazza Vigo, where the town’s landmark, the San Marco Lion is located. Chioggia has a long and exciting founding and history, as its seafood resources and salt pans were fought over and historically generated great wealth. During World War II, the town was saved from Allied bombing when a revolt by the locals drove the German occupying forces to surrender.

We arrived on Thursday, May 2nd, in preparation to pick-up our charter boat the next day, and stayed in a hotel in Sottomarina, a short walk from the beach located on the most eastern extent of the barrier island that protects the lagoon and stretches north to the first inlet. The area is clearly a summer resort town that is just gearing up for their busy season. We checked-in to our hotel, were greeted with cappuccinos & Prosecco, and then explored the area locating grocery stores, the boat charter offices, and houseboat itself. We then returned to the Sottomarina area and stopped at a local pizzeria for a beer and homemade “spicy salami & sausage pizza” cooked on massive sheet pan with 8 other orders and then our part cut for us. That night, we returned to the hotel and visited the rooftop for a view of the city at night where we enjoyed a glass of wine while watching the ships that move along the coast in the Adriatic.

Entrance to Sottomarina Hotel
View of the Adriatic & Beach from Hotel Rooftop

On Friday, we enjoyed a beautiful, classic, Italian breakfast buffet at the hotel before checking-in at the Boat Charter Office and finalizing our charter details. We then checked-out of the hotel, dropped our luggage at the boat office, and proceeded to explore the town of Chioggia. After lunch at San Marco’s, we explored the “old town”, the wharfs, the stores, and the fish market until 3pm when we gathered our belongings and boarded the houseboat for our official briefing and check-out. After a review of the boat’s systems and a short check-out trip out to the Chioggia Harbor entrance and back, we unpacked; gathered minimal supplies at the grocery stores, and returned to old town Chioggia for dinner. After dinner, it was back to the boat for drinks and preparing for our shipmate, Peter, who had been delayed via airline issues, but who arrived at 12:30am.

Chioggia Fishing Vessels
Chioggia Canal
Chioggia Fish Market
Chioggia Residential Old Town

Peter was originally scheduled to come with his wife, but an untimely accident and leg injury prevented her from accompanying him on the trip. However, we all viewed this as a “check-out” trip to evaluate potential houseboat charters in Europe in the future and he wanted to evaluate the experience firsthand.

The Leo – Our Houseboat

Saturday morning, we enjoyed coffee and croissants onshore and, after a brief tour of the beach and Sottomarina, we embarked toward Venice. In order to navigate the shallows of the Venice Lagoon, we pay close attention to the bricola that are located every 100-300ft apart from each other. A bricole is a group of three wooden poles that are in the water of the lagoon and the canals. The three pole make a sort of triangular pyramid with one taller pole that has white reflectors on one side. The bricola indicate to boats the limits of the navigable channel, so that the boats do not end up in shallow water and run aground. The white reflectors face the deeper waters indicating which side of them to stay on. Today there are over 90.000 of these bricola, which are principally made up of oak posts that must be replaced every 5-10 years. Single poles in the lagoon which are often colored at the top or marked, are called paline and these poles can be used for docking one’s boat to.

Following the Bricola

After a few hours of motoring, we docked at a paline in Pellestrina for lunch (bricole #139) at restaurant Del Celeste on the Lido di Venezia, which is a narrow 12 km long island between the lagoon and the Mediterranean Sea (connected to Pellestrina), and which is only connected to the city and the mainland exclusively by boats and ferries. We dined on mussels, shrimp, and crabs before walking north towards the inlet at Malamocco and then stopping at a fine little establishment called Osteria Del Mare for gin & tonics, made with local “Ginurue” gin. After returning to the boat, we motored to bricole #7, just past Malamocco, and tied up to the bulkhead for the night. In the small village at Malamocco, we dined at Travitta Scarso, where we had a dinner of rigatoni’s, mussels, cheese, and wine sitting on the local piazza. Then it was back on to the boat for more wine and a good game of cards. 

On Sunday, we had breakfast onboard before heading back to town for a leisurely cappuccino and then disembarking towards Venice. We passed various islands: lsle Poveglia – currently undergong renovations; Isle Spirito – the last undeveloped isle in the lagoon, (last for sale in 2011 for 38M$); and Isle Clemente – now the San Clemente Palace Hotel by Kempinski; and Isle Sacco Sessioli – a man-made island built in 1870 and now a Marriott Hotel Resort. Then, we continued on to our destination at the island of Le Vignole.

Gondola Rowers on Break
Tied up at the Bulkhead at Le Vignole

Sailing in the BVI – Again – but “in comfort”

Part 3 – Back in Tortola & Jost van Dyke

Sunday morning, we made a breakfast hash out of leftovers before making another quick run to shore for some dinner items, and then setting off for nearby (3-hours sail) Sandy Cay – a small uninhabited sandy islet and National Park where we could explore, snorkel, and swim. While there, we saw a pod of dolphins swim around us and Juju saw another octopus while snorkeling at the local reef. Unfortunately, when we were ready to leave, our generator would not start, so we contacted the MOD and an engineer soon came over to us by dinghy. The problem was a broken wire in the generator box, and repairs were soon completed. We then made the short sail to the island of Jost van Dyke where we visited the famous Foxy’s Tamarind Bar for drinks. 

Julie Floating while visiting Sandy Cay

Foxy was a local, Calypso-singing jokester with an unlimited repertoire of politically incorrect riffs, who presided over his continuously-open bar for over 50-years. Although he recently passed away, there still stands a life-size mannequin of him on duty 24/7. Foxy’s is globally known for its hospitality and some of the largest beach parties ever held. After playing our respects, we grilled hamburgers, enjoyed cocktails, and enjoyed the mild evening.

At Foxy’s on Jost van Dyke
The “As You Wish” from Shore

Monday morning, we decided to have a lite breakfast before sailing back to Sandy Cay for a little more recreation in the water and onshore. After exploring and snorkeling, we sailed over to Soper’s Hole, a protected port at the eastern tip of Tortola surrounded by steep mountainous slopes. Soper’s Hole is home to a fleet of charter boats and the only other Pusser’s in the Caribbean. That evening, we shopped at the local stores, had dinner at Pusser’s, and bar-hopped having drinks with local yacht captains at Omar’s Bar and Grill.

Julie Exploring Sandy Cay
Pussers at Soper’s Hole at the West End of Tortola
Dinner at Pussers
Nightlife and Bar-hopping at Soper’s Hole

Tuesday we paid our mooring ball before setting sail to “beat” our way northwest to Cooper Island. After sailing all day, we finally motored our way into the Cooper Island’s beautiful Manchioneel Bay – a bay fronting the private Cooper Island Beach Resort which was still closed until the end of the week. This eco-friendly area does not allow anchoring, and the blossoming sea grass attracts sea turtles and considerable wildlife. After mooring onto a ball, we went snorkeling where we spotted octopi, nurse sharks, and a pod of large remora that liked to hang out below our hull. After our water sports, we grilled BBQ chicken on the grill and enjoyed our last evening aboard. 

Our Final BVI Sunset while On-board “As You Wish”

The next morning, we made the short sail back to Nanny Cay and brought the catamaran into the fuel dock about 10am where we refueled and turned the boat back into ”Horizon”, our marina Charter Company. Juju and Craig set off for the airport for their flight to Puerto Rico, and the rest of us ate lunch at the local marina restaurant, Mulligan’s, before checking into our rooms for the night at Nanny Cay Resort. That evening, the 4 of us had a light dinner at Peg Leg’s Bar before having drinks together at our rooms. The next morning everyone set off early for flights back to the United States after a great holiday sailing trip.

Children’s Sailing Lessons back at Nanny Cay

Our Airplane back to Puerto Rico – a 5 seater

Sailing in the BVI – Again – but “in comfort”

Part 2 – The Catamaran, “As You Wish” and Anegada

Thursday morning we enjoyed a lovely homemade feast for breakfast before a diesel motor expert arrived to fix our engine. However, after a few hours of no success, the decision was made to offer us an alternative yacht – a 46’ Lagoon Catamaran “As You Wish”. Although never having captained a catamaran before, Rocky and the crew accepted the offer and frantic packing/unpacking and movement across boats ensued. In less than two hours, and with minimal preparation, we had left the harbor, had the sails up, and were headed towards the harbor of The Bitter End.

Leaving “Paradise Found” Sailboat for the “As You Wish” Catamaran

Once there, we picked up a mooring ball off the coastline of Saba Rock, a group of adventurers took the dingy to the old Saba Rock restaurant, formerly the home a fantastic place before being wiped of the map by Hurricane Irma. However, in spite of its all new construction, and the ever-present enormous tarpon jumping around, it was scheduled to open October 13th for the season, which was still a week away. Instead, the proprietor gave us a grand tour before we returned to our boat for dinner outside on our back deck, and a rousing game of cards called “Phase 10”.

Captain Rocky at the Helm of the 46 foot “As You Wish” Catamaran
The Restaurant at Saba Rock near The Bitter End

Friday morning, we were up for a lazy breakfast and then decided to explore The Bitter End Marina and town on Virgin Gorda. We took our dinghy to the Bitter End which was under massive reconstruction and also not yet open. Here too, all new construction is underway. Once upon a time, the Bitter End marina and resort town was a very “happening” place. However, it was completely destroyed on September 6th, 2017 by Hurricane Irma. Today, it was still in the process of rebuilding and is targeting a reopening soon. When getting ready to leave our mooring ball, we suffered another setback as the starboard catamaran engine would not start. We notified the Manager on Duty at the Charter Marina and they sent a local engineer by boat out to take a look. A wiry old mechanic named “Polo” showed up and resolved the problem quickly by overriding the automatic primer allowing the engine to start and filling the self-primer. While waiting on the fix, we were blessed to see a jumping, twirling manta ray.  Once repairs we complete, we set sail north, setting a course for the BVI’s northern most island, Anegada, the home of some of the largest lobsters we have ever seen. The Island of Anegada is the only inhabited British Virgin Island formed from coral and limestone rather than being of volcanic origin. While the other BVI islands are mountainous, Anegada is flat and low and its highest point is only about 28 feet above sea level, earning it its name, which is the Spanish term for the flooded land, “tierra anegada”.

Sailing the Catamaran to Anegada

At about 15 square miles (38 square kilometers), Anegada is the second largest of the British Virgin Islands, but it is also the most sparsely populated of the main islands, with a population of 285 as at the 2010 Census.[4] Most of the population on Anegada live in the only village, The Settlement. Anegada is known for miles of white sand beaches and the 18-mile (29 km)-long Horseshoe Reef, one of the largest barrier coral reefs in the Caribbean. The reef makes navigation to Anegada by sailing ships complex. While we can freely sail among most of the other Virgin Islands, sailing to Anegada is discouraged by the Charter Companies because of the risk of running aground or scuttling on the reef. To date, the reef has caused hundreds of shipwrecks, including the large ships HMS Astraea in 1808, the Donna Paula in 1819, and the MS Rocus in 1929.  Anegada is also known for the large salt ponds that cover much of the west end of the island, These ponds, which support unique fauna, were designated a protected site in 1999. In the 1830s, thousands of Caribbean flamingos lived in these ponds, but they were hunted for food and feathers throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and disappeared by 1950. They have now been reestablished and the flamingo flock numbers are in the hundreds today. 

Enjoying the Deck Space on the “As You Wish” Catamaran
The Harbor at Anegada

On the sail to Anegada, we tried to avoid the sargassum (seaweed), but made good time at about 8 knots. The entry to the Anegada Harbor is very shallow (8’-10’) and the only other sailing vessels that were there were six other catamarans. Once we picked-up a mooring ball, we sent a contingent to shore to explore the possibilities of getting lobsters for dinner. Unfortunately, lobsters were “out-of-season”, but the local hotel beach bar was open for painkillers and drinks for all. Juju and Craig arranged for a tour of the flamingo salt ponds, while the rest of us socialized with the locals until we returned to our catamaran for a dinner of homemade bacon-wrapped grilled shrimp and sausage, and a lively card game. 

Drinking with the Locals at Anegada Beach Bar
Julie, Rocky, Craig and Peter at the Bar
Visiting the Flamingo Salt Ponds in Anegada
Sunset at Anegada

Saturday morning, we made breakfast burritos onboard before setting off to sail south-by-southeast to Cane Garden Bay located on the eastern end of Tortola. Along the way, we successfully caught a 4’ barracuda, which we cleaned, skinned, breaded, and ate, as “barracuda bites” – delicious. We arrived by mid-afternoon and after picking-up a mooring ball, headed to the local beach bar and store to purchase ice and water, a few supplies, and to have drinks with the locals. After a long day, we took it easy that evening and enjoyed the view of the setting sun.

Baracuda that becomes Lunch
Relaxing on the long sail back from Anegada

Sailing in the BVI – Again – but “in comfort”

Part 1 – Getting settled on the monohull, “Paradise Found”

After a long break from sailing due the pandemic, (last captained out of Naples in 2019), it was time to get back to the beautiful British Virgin Islands and charter a bareboat yacht for us and friends. We decided to go for adventure and comfort, and chartered a 54’ Jeanneau monohull with 3 large cabins, (each with their own head with walk-in shower), generator, and air-conditioning, for a 10-day adventure. Our friends, Nikki & Peter, and Juju & Craig were excited to sail with us. We arrived on Saturday, a day early, with Peter & Nikki at the local Nanny Cay Resort on the BVI island of Tortola to settle in, collect provisions, inspect the boat, and meet with locals at the bar.

Nanny Cay Marina & Resort in Tortola

On Sunday, we enjoyed breakfast at the Island Root Café before completing paperwork and boarding our yacht, the “Paradise Found”. We checked all systems, unpacked, loaded provisions, and welcomed aboard Juju and Craig before heading to the famous “Pusser’s” restaurant located In Road Town. That night we had drinks, caught-up with each other, and slept aboard in harbor ready to disembark the next morning.

The 54 foot Jeanneau “Paradise Found”
Rocky and Craig on the rear Swim Deck

Monday morning, after a quick breakfast at the Island Root Café, we left port and sailed across the Drake Passage to The Bight, a protected harbor at Norman Island and the home of a floating restaurant, bar, and club known as “Willy-T’s”. After hitching-up to a mooring ball, we took the dingy over to Willy-T’s for lunch and drinks, We then motored around the corner of The Bight to The Caves where we picked-up another mooring ball with the intent of snorkel-exploring the caves. Unfortunately, the ocean current and wind directions and the size of our vessel made this untenable, and we soon left for other harbors.

Willy-Ts Bar & Grill at Norman Island
Paradise Found on a Mooring Ball near Willy-Ts
The Famous Caves where Treasure was once Found

Norman Island also has a history of pirate booty being stowed upon the island. In 1750, part of the treasure from the Spanish treasure galleon named Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was buried on the island by mutineer Owen Lloyd. Lloyd was later arrested, but word of the treasure spread, and residents of Tortola went to Norman Island and dug it up for themselves. Part of the booty was later recovered by authorities, but much of it was not. Since then, rumors or local treasure discoveries in and around Norman Island’s caves have persisted.

After leaving Norman Island, we sailed to Little Harbor at nearby Peter Island, a private island with a distant small resort and little development. Here we anchored and enjoyed a quiet night with no other boats or people visible until morning. Several of us went snorkeling near a broken-down dock where rays, turtles, and fish congregated. That night, we grilled shrimp, salmon, and veggies on the barbecue  and enjoyed each other’s company before calling it a night in our air-conditioned cabins.

Tuesday morning, we kept an eye on the weather, and hurricane Philippe as it was skirting past us 200 miles away. After breakfast on the boat, we pulled anchor and set sail along the Drake Passage towards the island of Virgin Gorda, so named by Christopher Columbus because the island’s profile on the horizon looks like a fat woman lying on her side. Along the way, Rocky caught a 4’ King Mackerel while trolling behind the boat, which we let go. Virgin Gorda contains two of the best harbors in the BVI, and the city of Spanish Town was once the capitol of the BVI. Of particular interest is the unusual geologic formation known as “the Baths” located on the southern end of the island.  At the Baths, huge granite boulders lie in piles on the beach, forming isolated grottoes that are open to the ocean’s waves. This landmark is a popular tourist attraction as well as a National Park and offers an adventurous hike/scramble through them to a trail leading up the hillside to the Top of the Baths. In order to access these from our boat, we picked-up a National Park mooring ball offshore, then took everyone via dingy to the beach’s swim limits roped-off area, and let them swim to shore. The dingy must be tethered to a mooring ball outside of the swimming area as this is the only method of access from the sea. Once ashore, we hiked to the restaurant at the Top of the Baths where we had lunch and enjoyed the view. Soon, an enormous influx of tourists showed up by bus having arrived on an excursion from the Disney ship in harbor in Road Town. After lunch, we hiked back down to the Baths and explored the trail through the granite boulders before arriving at the final beach, and swimming back to our dingy. From there, we returned to our boat and sailed to the protected harbor of Marina Cay, where we picked up a mooring ball anticipating a night of degrading weather from Philippe. Through intermittent rains, we enjoyed a dinner of salad and pasta with meatballs before our generator suddenly stopped working and would not restart. We contacted our Charter Company’s Manager on Duty, but with the winds reaching 30-knots and driving rain, it was not possible for them to come to us that evening. That night we endured high winds and torrential rains from Hurricane Philippe with no air conditioning before awakening to slowly improving conditions in the morning.

Rocky with a King Mackerel caught in the Drake Channel
The Granite Batholiths at Virgin Gorda
A View from inside the Baths Trail
The Group at the Top of the Baths Restaurant

Wednesday morning it was still raining and the generator was still down. We had breakfast on-board and called back to the Charter Operator at the marina at Nanny Cay. After much discussion, we finally decided it would be best to return the boat to the marina where personnel and parts to potentially fix the generator could be readily available. In 30-knot winds, we left the safety of our mooring ball and proceeded to motor our way back to Tortola. Unfortunately, halfway there, our diesel engine displayed a sensor error, and once it was turned off would not restart. We raised the jib and continue to sail towards Nanny Cay without any power, while talking with the marina on a plan to get the yacht safely into harbor.

When just outside the harbor, the marina captain, Henry, and the Charter Company owner came to meet us and we onboarded Henry. Captain Henry sailed us into marina and landed us at the fuel dock with assistance from the support boat that pushed “Paradise Found” into position. Once safely docked, an engineer boarded to fix the engine. Since we connected to shore power, we again had air-conditioning and electrical systems. While in harbor, Nikki and Julie bought additional groceries for the boat and then went to Captain Mulligan’s restaurant for drinks and a snack. As the weather slowly improved, and since the engine had not yet been repaired, we all went to Peg Leg’s Beach Bar for drinks before returning to the boat for a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, and a quiet night’s sleep.

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 5: Relaxing in South Africa’s Western Cape

Tuesday morning, we awoke to a dreary view as it had rained during the night. Lucky for us, we have a fully stocked kitchen for breakfast and got familiar with what would be “our space” for the next week. The management restocks basics daily, (including eggs, bacon, and all condiments), and also delivers fresh baguettes and croissants to our door promptly at 7:30am. After breakfast, we did a load of laundry, made a meager grocery list, and walked to the local grocery to plan a lamb chop dinner, before exploring the nearby beach, all in spite of the rain. That afternoon, we drove to the nearest liquor/wine store to top-off our stock, (Camp’s Bay does not allow packaged alcohol sales, so we needed to head along the beach to the next town, Sea Point).

View northwest along Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town South Africa
Beach Sculpture at Camps Bay

The next morning, after breakfast, we drove to Stellenbosch – wine country – as we hoped to visit a few wineries that day. We started with Warwick Estates – set in a group of old, white-washed buildings.  This is an historic farm with a coffee house and restaurant, as well as daily wine tastings. There are no crowds, as it is winter in the southern hemisphere.  Here we decided to taste the “First Lady” line of wines. We started with a sparkling rose, (the “Cape Classic”), which was very nice, then a dry Rose wine, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a Pintotage (developed from hybrid grafting a Pinot Noir vine with a Hermitage vine). Pintotage wines are now a preferred blend from this area of South Africa and it was very nice. Finally, we finished with a Cabernet Sauvignon.   As were tasting we were told the legend of “The Wedding Cup” which revolves around the beautiful princess, Kunigunde.  She was the daughter of the King and Queen of old Nuremberg, whose hand was promised in marriage to a prince from a faraway kingdom. However, the princess wanted to marry a local, so he was challenged to build a wedding cup for her that they could both drink from at the same time.  He successfully constructed one thus winning her father over and allowing her to marry her love.  As we were leaving we met two women who were in the wine courier business, and who recommended we next go the Muratie Wine Estate and try their port. 

So, based upon their recommendation, we visited the Muratie Wine Estate next and ordered a cheese plate. Soon, the 2 women who recommended we come here for the port showed up and joined us. However, the port had apparently become so popular that it had been removed from the tasting list. But, because these women were wine couriers, we were all promised a tasting. Muratie Wine Estate is a very old winery which has windows full of ancient, preserved cobwebs, which have been there for years.   Even with the generational change in owners, the spider webs and old calendars on the wall have been left “as is”. Finally, we decided on the Premium Tasting options that included the “Lady Alice” (a sparkling Pinot Noir which was very nice), the “Lauren’s Camphor” (a white blend), the “Isabella” (a Chardonnay), the Mr. May (a Grenache Noir), the “Martin Merck” (a Cabernet Sauvignon), and lastly the port which we were promised, and which was quite lovely.

After this lunch, we drove to Beyerskloof which is considered “the home” of Pinotage wines. It is a young winery (only about 30 years old) and was not far from Muratie. After a tasting of a few Pinotage, including the Pinotage Rose, Pinotage 2021, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Reserve Pinotage, we chose our favorite and carried on to the next vineyard. Next, we went to Simonsig – the home of sparkling wines.  Rocky tasted several whites (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Chardonnay), and a couple of reds (a Pinotage, and Cabernet Sauvignon), while Julie tasted several sparkling wines (a Cuvée, a Vonkel Brut, a Brut Rose, a Satin Néctar and a Satin Néctar Rose). After Simonsig, it was late afternoon and we moved on to Rust en Vrede Vineyards, which was recommended to us by some other travelers. It was a very old vineyard that had been modernized in the 1970’s with white washed buildings and a wonderful view. Here we did a tasting of the Estate Syrah, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Estate 2020.  This vineyard actually has solar panels on their roofs which supply 40% of their power, which is useful in a country that has rolling power rationing. Upon returning to Camps Bay it was time for a light dinner and a relaxing evening.

Stellenbosch Vineyard

The next morning, we had breakfast before setting off northwest along the coastal road 2-hours to the village of Paternoster. Along the route, as we left the city behind, we saw farms and several nature reserves as well as the West Coast National Park.  Across the landscape, we saw impalas, dik-diks, ostriches, and a few zebras.  There was also an Air Force Base, sheep and cattle farms, and a massive windmill farm. Here, the landscape was green, with only a few sandy-colored dunes. Paternoster is on the ocean on a large, secluded bay, and consists of a small village of white washed cottages with blue shutters and roofs. It is often described as South Africa’s most beautiful village.  It has a long wide isolated beach with large rocks at each end for protection from the surf.  Paternoster means “Our Father” and was named such by shipwrecked Portuguese sailors.  Hundreds of ships have shipwrecked in South Africa’s dangerous West Coast coastline over the years.

When we arrived at the beach, we were greeted by boys trying to sell us fresh mussels.  We walked the long, secluded, pristine beach, past mussel-covered rocks and enjoyed the quiet and peacefulness.  There was no trash and only a few mussel shells on the shore. As it was winter, there were very few people out and about.  However, there was a red-roofed building on the beach, which you could see from everywhere. It is the Voorstrand Restaurant.  There we met a man throwing his dog a ball and as we spent time talking, the dog kept bringing Rocky his ball to throw. He told us that the restaurant would be open later for lunch. We returned to our car and drove around the village. As it was winter-time, a lot of businesses were closed or renovating, or were on holiday.  It was chilly out, but the sun was shining and the people were friendly and hospitable. We checked the local hotel to see its famous “panty bar”, but the bar was not open. The local art galleries were also closed but a few souvenir shops were open and we visited and shopped.  The town started to come to life around 2pm, and we went back to the Voorstrand Restaurant for lunch.  It was not a big place but they have a large, covered patio on the beach with a great view, so we ordered gumbo, a hake fish plate, and a snack plate with mussels, prawns, samosas, calamari, and oysters. It was a feast, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was the best. By the time we left, the restaurant was full of guests – a very enjoyable lunch. Eventually, we headed back to Camps Bay. 

Beach at Paternoster
Table Mountain above Cape Town

Once back to Camps Bay we walked along the beach and then enjoyed sundowners at the hotel’s pool deck.  The night’s special drink was a “Plumosa” (tequila, grapefruit/lemon juice and sparkly wine) which was very refreshing.  The pool was heated but since it was winter, no one was swimming.

Camps Bay beach and 12 Apostles (mountain peaks) looking southeast

The next day we drove the Beach Road to The Victoria and Albert Waterfront, specifically to the V&A Wharf Shopping Center. It is a three-story mall with parking underground, with a major grocery store on the ground level, and retail stores above. We window-shopped for a while before heading out onto the wharf.  Along the wharf, we walked among old warehouses that had been converted to shops. There were also sightseeing boats that one could book, and lots of restaurants. But this is also a working wharf with drydocks and marine yards scattered among the tourists, with boats going to Robbin Island, boats being repaired, and with wharf improvements all taking place.  We went to the clock tower, and saw seals swimming in the dock area near the ferries. We finally stopped at Quay 4 for lunch having gumbo and the best fish and chips ever! Rocky ordered a Castle beer and received the beer with a scratch off card for a “beer lottery” chance! However, his card said “Sorry”!  We eventually found some souvenirs before heading back along the Beach Road to our place at Camps Bay. Later that afternoon, we took a walk on the beach looking for beach glass and watching the local youth team practice their rugby skills.

Working shipyard at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront
Painted Rhino art for sale

Saturday morning, after breakfast, we decided to drive around Table Mountain to the Boulders Penguin Colony located about an hour away on the East Coast of South Africa. This colony of African Penguins live in a sheltered cove of massive boulders and within a dense thicket of mangroves in a  residential area south of Simon’s Town. The African Penguin once numbered 1.5 million (in 1910) but was down to just 2-breeding pairs by 1982.  The uncontrolled harvesting of penguin eggs and commercial fishing nearly drove them to extinction.  However, once pelagic trawling was eliminated in False Bay, an increase in the pilchards (herring) and anchovies supply helped the penguin population recover. The penguins are now part of Table Mountain National Park and the area is full of thick brush for nesting and recent estimates put the population of penguins at 2200-2500 – significantly larger than our during our last visit here 13-years ago. We saw penguins nesting in holes and under bushes, sheltering their downy newborns. There were also young juveniles – the “blue” baby blues – so named because when they lose their baby down, it is replaced with an initial waterproof, dark blue-grey plumage. There were large groups of penguins on the dunes and other groups in and out of the water. There were many swimming to a large flat top rock offshore and then hopping to the top of the rock for a little sun before coming back to shore. One of their biggest enemies is the Kelp Gull, which likes to steal the eggs and attack very young chicks. We walked the boardwalks at Foxy Beach watching enjoying the penguins’ antics.  We also climbed some of the large Boulders at Boulders Beach. Afterwards, we drove the beach road south to Miller’s Point where we spotted a whale out in the surf, occasionally surfacing – just like we had seen during our visit here 13 years ago. Our drive back to Camps Bay took us along the beach road through Simone’s Town then Houk Bay before crossing over and around the edge of Table Mountain. Once in Camps Bay we headed to a restaurant named “Primi” for a late lunch of zucchini sticks, pizza, and wine. 

African penguins at The Boulders Colony
The Boulders Penguin Colony near Simons Town

Sunday morning after breakfast, we decided to take a leisurely drive and head to a very historic area called “Constantia”, where there were lots of older residences with a bit of land, as well as a few local wineries. We went to see the “Groot Constantia Wine Estate” which was founded in 1685 by Jan van Riebeeck who had been sent here to establish a “replenishment station” for ships heading to the Far East.  Instead, he started a vineyard. Fast forward to 1792 when the first restoration took place, and then to 1885 when the estate was sold in public auction to the government.  In 1925 there was another major restoration due to a fire, and this time it was meticulously restored. Finally, the government turned over the farm/estate (~170 hectares) to a private trust in 1993. Since then it has been run as a profit-making business with the grounds open to the public.  As we entered the gates we saw people walking and jogging among the vineyard groves, as well as numerous people heading to the two different restaurants on the grounds for Sunday coffee, hot chocolate, donuts, or a full breakfast. There were children in the yards playing ball and families feeding the ducks in the ponds.  The buildings (the Manor House, the Vineyards, the Cellars, and Gift Shop) were all open and busy.  We heading to the tasting room, which was very quiet at this early hour, and settled on a 5 wine tasting, including a Sauvignon Blanc, a Rose, and several reds. We really enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, and the Gouverneur’s Reserve (red) 2019.  We had an excellent wine guide, Abram, who was a delight to converse with and very knowledgeable and curious.   We also had the  opportunity to taste the Grand Constance 2018, a lovely sweet but smooth desert wine. We finished the morning purchasing the desert wine and parting with 2 wine glasses as a gift and memory of the day.

Monday would be our last day in South Africa and we started with a leisurely breakfast. Our suite has a 2-burner stove, an oven/microwave, a fridge, and freezer, with the fridge being fully stocked daily, (eggs, bacon, salmon, cheese, fruits, OJ, almond milk, yogurt, granola, etc.), plus fresh croissants and baguettes. We have gotten very spoiled. We completed our final packing and loaded the luggage into the car’s boot. We checked out of our accommodations and said “goodbye” to Camps Bay – still one of our most favorite places to visit.  We have a few hours, so we head to the world-renown “Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens”. It is probably one of the most spacious and beautiful gardens we have visited as it encompasses many different types of gardens, many of which are built into the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. They even boast a yellow version of the “bird-of-paradise” plant that was developed in honor of Nelson Mandela. After 2 1/2 hours visiting the conservatory, many, many gardens, and even an elevated canopy tree walk, it was time to head to the airport where we turned in the car and ran into teams of rugby players, teams of net ball players (as the Netball World Cup is going on in Cape Town), and other foreign travelers from England, Saudi Arabia, and the USA.  

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
The yellow bird-of-paradise hybrid in honor of Nelson Mandella

Our long flight home is uneventful as we return from another great African adventure.. 

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 4: Etosha National Park

We were welcomed at the Gröotberg Lodge and were shown to our stone cabin located on the hillside. Unfortunately, the cabins had no way to be heated or had any electricity, phone, or Wi-Fi. After returning to the reception area, we found a “charging room” near the dining hall where we could charge our devices and where limited Wi-Fi was operating. There were sofas, chairs, and blankets since this area was also not heated and it really was the only place to gather and relax. We drank hot tea, charged our electronics, and ordered a bottle of red Shiraz for warmth and for dinner. Dinner was eaten while we were bundled in our coats, but consisted of an excellent steak with yams, rice, and peach gingerbread pudding. The chef came and talked to everyone and then we went off to bed for a well-deserved rest while the winds continued to howl!

After snuggling under the covers in our warm beds all night to hold off the cold on the mountain, we were up early breakfast, and then we started down the mountain to go to Etosha National Park. The roads remained gravel for a ways, but travel was easy. Along the way, we saw giraffes and springboks, and since we arrived early, we decided to drive past our lodge and travel straight into the southern entrance of the National Park at the Anderson Gate. Soon we were among herds of giraffes, blue wildebeests, springboks, zebras, ostriches, oryx, and elephants. We found ourselves having to stop often for animals crossing the road. At the Aus waterhole, we saw 12 elephants, red hartebeests, black-faced impala, zebra, and a dik-dik. Then, along came another herd of elephants and some kudu at Oilfantsbad water hole.  Lastly we stopped at the Gemsbokvlakte water hole to see more black-faced impalas, springboks, ostriches, and blue wildebeests. Throughout the day, the weather improved considerably, and by afternoon it had warmed up to nearly 70 degrees F.

Lone giraffe near Anderson Gate entering Etosha National Park
Elephant family getting water at Etosha National Park

Finally, at 3pm we made our way back to the Anderson Gate park entrance. To exit we had to show our day’s pass and allow our vehicle to be inspected for any contraband or smuggling!  While in the Park, no one is permitted to exit their vehicle except in very controlled, designated spots.  We later learned that one of the items that the park is searching for is red meat and that no one is allowed to leave the park with such items. 

We went to our lodge where we would be staying for the next 2 nights – the Etosha Oberland – located a short ways outside of the southern park gate. The drive through the property’s entrance gate and through its reserve included 22 speed bumps created by placing 4-inch thick ship rope across the ground. The lodge was comprised of 20 chalets each with its own view of the reserve and totally private. Our chalet was spectacular and consisted of 3 large rooms: a bedroom, a sitting room/bar area, and a bathroom, all overlooking the game reserve with sliding glass doors in every room. Since strict privacy is ensured, there is also an outdoor shower for those who wish to shower with nature. After settling in and unpacking, we went to the lodge for sunset drinks, taking our binoculars to watch the springboks, the blue wildebeests, the birds, and the kudos all coming to enjoy the local watering hole. The lodge/reserve reports that they have 6 rhinos on the property and we hope to eventually see one. Then, it was time for dinner, nightcaps, and a comfortable bed.

Our tented chalet at the Etosha Oberland Lodge

Thursday morning started with a lovely made-to-order breakfast while overlooking the lodge’s two watering holes. After breakfast, we drove ourselves back to Etosha Park’s entrance to explore areas further east in the park. Once back into the park, we saw zebras, springboks, ostriches, and several giraffe before reaching the Homob waterhole. Here we saw large herds of springboks, wildebeest, and zebra.  We then drove along Rhino Drive, but saw no wildlife there. Once back to the main road, we continued east to the Noniams waterhole, but again saw no animals.  However, this part of the park was much hillier and boasted many more trees. Adventure awaits those who seek it and we proceeded to the Goas waterhole.  Here there were herds of black-faced impala, springboks, zebras, & oryx.  Since we were driving a large loop we eventually turned back toward the park entrance and stopped at the Nuamses water hole to observe 2 lonely impala.  Then, while heading towards the Etosha Lookout we saw a Honey Badger digging under a tree looking for insects to eat. At the Etosha Lookout the road runs out into an enormous pan where one has a 270-degree view across the pan.  From here, one can see animal tracks along a vista that goes on as far as one can see.  Once we returned to the main road, we came across a cheetah stalking something from under a tree. There were very large herds of zebras, wildebeests, and springboks in this area.  Then, along the side of the road, we came across two zebra fighting and a couple of dozen ostriches.  At the Rieffontein waterhole, there were more zebra herds, impala, and oryx hanging out.  We proceeded to the Salvadoran waterhole where there were more springboks and lots of birds, including the bronze wing courser. The following 2 waterholes that we visited, (Charitsaub and Sueda), were filled with springboks.  Back on the main road we saw ostriches and then several Kori Bustards – a very large brown bird. Then, a family of elephants appeared and we stopped to watch as they crossed the road right in front of us. It was getting late, and we headed back to Anderson Gate, where we had a final sighting of another oryx before reaching the lodge.

Elephant herd crossing the road at Etosha National Park

Back at the lodge, we enjoyed sundowners, watched animals visit the watering hole, and left to return to our room to shower for dinner. On the way back to our room, we startled a group of wildebeest who were grazing near the walkway. Their snorting told us that they were not happy we were there. The night we enjoyed a lamb dinner while watching kudu and springboks visit the waterhole before heading off to bed.

The next morning, we checked out of Oberland Lodge after a lovely breakfast while over-looking the water hole.  The drive to our next lodge will take us east from Etosha’s Anderson Gate across the park to the Namutoni Gate located at the far eastern end of the park. As we start our drive springboks and kudos run in front of our car, and then, as we travel across the park we see more springboks, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest herds, ostriches, and an eagle in the tree.  A short distance later, we came upon a huge Black Rhino grazing off on the side of the road. As we stopped and watched, he made his way close to our vehicle, until he crossed in front of us and continued on his way. The drive this morning is an endless parade of animals with more black-faced antelopes, wildebeest herds, and red hartebeest herds. Then, we spot 3 large bull elephants on the move, eating grass along the way when they too decide to cross the road in front of us. Next, giraffes and Kori Bustards are sighted.  We route ourselves to the Springbokfontein, Batia, Ngobib, and Kawkheuwel watering holes and see plenty of wildebeests, springboks, zebras, black-faced impalas, and a Southern Yellow-billed hornbill. Driving on we saw a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, several families of giraffe, and at the Chudop watering hole, we saw kudus and warthogs.

Black Rhino at Etosha National Park
Elephant matron crossing the road in Etosha National Park

At the park’s eastern gate is located Fort Namutoni, now a national monument that was originally built in 1896 as a German Police Post and a veterinary control point.  Later, the fort was used by the Germans to hold English prisoners during World War 1. Leaving Namutoni Gate, we head to the Klein Namutoni waterhole where we see kudu, impala, wildebeest,  zebra, red hartebeest, and guinea fowl being stalked by a jackal.On final road to Onguma Camp we see wildebeest and zebra and a Bradfield Hornbill.

Upon arriving at our next lodge/reserve – the Onguma Lodge – located immediately adjacent to the park, we received a welcome drink and orientation talk. We are assigned tent #1 with a great view of the watering hole which is only a few yards away. We can even observe the watering hole from our bed. The Onguma Tented Camp was originally built in 2006, and includes 5 other camps on the reserve of ~32,000 hectares of land and desert. There are only 7 tents in this camp.  “Onguma” in the local Herero language means “the place you don’t want to leave”.  The reserve’s 36,000 hectares were purchased in 1994 and has several accommodation locations on the reserve, each with their own waterhole. In 2001, 6 rhinos (white & black) were gifted to the reserve. There are also elephants and lions, at least one leopard, and herds of common impala on the reserve. Being located next to the park, it is impossible to constrain many animals, including rhinos, elephants, lions, and leopards, to stay within their designated areas. There are also palm trees on the property, although they are not indigenous. It is likely that the seeds were carried by animals from Angola located to the north. Palm trees are popular for vulture nests, (they lay only 1 egg which then the parents incubates for 48 days).  

In the late afternoon we headed out for a game drive with the lodge’s guide. Yesterday, there had been a lion kill of a baby giraffe and now the lions (a pride of 9) are laying under a tree resting and protecting their kill laying nearby.  We watch the lions which include one large male, 5 females, and 3 younger male siblings. Eventually, they stretch and start strolling around.  However, it is getting dark and near time for sundowners, and it is not safe to be out among the pride at night.  We need to find a place away from the lions before watching the sunset and enjoying our gin & tonics, but first we must encourage the lions laying in front of our vehicle to get up and move.

Young male lion at Onguma Reserve

Due to the camp’s remoteness and the proximity to dangerous animals, everyone is required to have an escort after sundown to and from their tents, and we gladly are escorted from our tent to the lobby/dining area. After a 4-course dinner we had a nightcap at the camp fire site with the camp photographers (who were from the Netherlands). Then, it was to bed to be ready for an early morning Etosha game drive. That night, we were kept awake for hours by lions located nearby roaring and calling each other – seemingly very close. 

Saturday morning was a quick and early breakfast so we could leave for an early morning game drive. We started on the Onguma Reserve, spotting 3 lions hunting wildebeest – however, they were somewhat lazy and were not close to success.  Then the young male lions decided to stalk a springbok – also without success. We then drove into Etosha Park, where giraffes had taken over the road. After they moved on, we saw a cheetah sunning herself on the warm gravel limestone. We then observed a lion alone at a waterhole. Further along, we spotted a brown hyena limping across the pan with a family of 3 giraffe watching warily. Finally off in the distance, we spotted a White Rhino crossing the pan towards a brushy “island” outcrop.  While driving to the opposite side of the pan to see the rhino, we came across a brindled gnu and a banded mongoose. We also saw a dik-dik, numerous giraffes, zebras, springboks, impalas, and wildebeest in abundance. 

Lone lion stops for a drink or water near the Fort Namutoni Gate
Young Cheetah at the eastern end of Etosha National Park
Herd of zebra at the watering hole in Etosha National Park

After the game drive, we returned to camp to enjoy the view over the waterhole from our deck and to relax. The  impala and warthogs made their appearances there before we went to the restaurant and had a light lunch. After lunch, we relaxed for a short time until it was time for a sunset game drive through the Onguma Reserve. There we spot a bull elephant wandering along and then 2 lions (a male and female) laying under a tree napping. After watching them slumber, we came across kudus, oryx, warthogs, dik-diks, a Kori Bustard, and a grey heron all at different watering holes. We then saw a vulture nest in a palm tree (with a vulture feeding a baby in it), an owl (juvenile and then his mother) in another palm tree. He was pale and light colored while she was big and powerful. Then, it was time to find our sundowner spot for drinks and nibbles before heading back to camp for a delicious dinner overlooking the waterhole which was calm and quiet. Once we were in bed, the lion’s roars began again, but this night, they were far away.

Warthogs at our camp at Onguma Tented Camp watering hole
Sunset at Onguma Reserve

Sunday, we were packed and ready to drive the 6 hours south, back to Windhoek. But, before leaving, we enjoyed a dish of Royal Eggs Benedict  for breakfast. Once leaving the reserve and getting back to the highway, the rest of the journey was on paved asphalt roads and we made good progress, only stopping twice for diesel fuel. Our GPS was working and we had written instructions that got us to the car depot around 2pm where we met by Marc who took possession of the vehicle and drove us to the Omaanda Lodge for our last night in Namibia. Omaanda Lodge is located on top of a hill outside of Windhoek, in an animal reserve of 9000 hectares, with no other ranches or houses in sight, and fairly close to the Windhoek airport. Our hut is a concrete round massive bedroom with a balcony overlooking the reserve where we can see a water hole in the distance that has impala surrounding it. Our room has a large bath with a fireplace between the bedroom and the tub. We watched the sun set from the pool bar, before having a dinner of Oryx steak with a delicious jus, grilled vegetables, and potato cake – absolutely the best oryx dish we have ever had! Then we returned to our toasty-warm room, where a fire in the fireplace had been lit, and relaxed for the night.

Our cabin at the Omaanda Lodge in Windhoek

Monday morning, we had a poached egg breakfast, checked out of the lodge, and were transported to the airport where we caught a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. We had lunch aboard the plane before arriving in Cape Town in the late afternoon, where we picked up another rental car and made our way to Camps Bay South Beach –  the location of our hotel. The traffic was terrible and we arrived at the hotel, which was located across the street from the beach, after dark. After checking into our lovely apartment with a view of the beach, we cooked a light snack and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

Our beachside accomodations at South Beach, Camps Bay, South Africa

Namibia and South Africa 2023

Exploring the Winter Deserts

Part 3: The Skeleton Coast

On Sunday, July 9th, we left Swakopmund early and began our trip north along the Skeleton Coast. The first ~250km through the Durob National Park were on relatively good gravel roads. Along the way, there were numerous shipwrecks and salt and diamond mining operations. One large ship, the Zeila, was wrecked on the shore of Henties Bay as recently as in 2008. We saw  an old, rusty, derelict oil rig, and many abandoned operations. Halfway along, we officially entered the Skeleton Coast National Park at Ugab River Gate, where, according to the log book, the last road traveler to enter this way had been over a week before! Once we made it to the final town of Torra Bay, the roads deteriorated significantly and we left all vestiges of civilization – no cell phone service, no towns, no homes, no other roads, and no people! Meanwhile, the wind was still fierce, but blowing from the east off of the Atlantic Ocean. The temperature was in the mid 40’s Fahrenheit, and once we passed Terrace Bay (where we filled up with diesel), we never saw another vehicle for the last ~100km. The road is rarely traveled as most people traveling to this region opt to fly-in on small planes. However, today’s weather would have made flying impossible. When we reached the “end of the road”, at Möwe Bay, there was an abandoned gate, a small block-house, and a colony of over 500,000 seals. We parked to await the arrival of our transport to the lodge and used the time to explore the beach. When our guide/driver arrived, we shared drinks and nibbles while making introductions and getting oriented. Before continuing our drive with 4-wheel drive the additional 45 km north to Shipwreck Lodge, we visited the seal colony and were lucky enough to meet and visit with Dr. Philip Stander, an eco-biologist studying the desert lions of the Skeleton Coast. He has been tracking and studying over 80 desert lions for over 20-years using GPS collars and game cameras. By the 1990’s, the Skeleton Coast’s desert lions had almost been eliminated from the area, but they have returned and are re-adapting to the extreme environment, including hunting seals. Dr. Stander let us know that a female had recently returned to the area near the lodge, but the lodge area covers over 145,000 hectares. Dr. Stander then gave us a DVD documentary of the chronology of one of the desert lion prides.

Map of Namibia’s shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast
The ship Zeila, lies wrecked on the shore of Henties Bay from 2008
The Skeleton Coast National Parks southern entrance at Ugab Gate
The Möwe Bay seal colony

Driving north to Shipwreck Lodge, we encountered numerous whale bones along the beach. It was low tide, so we could navigate partly on the beach and partly on the dunes to get to the lodge. The lodge is located near the mouth of the Hoarusib River and has a 25-year lease with the government, including a clause to eventually return the land as if no lodge was ever there. It opened in 2018, relies completely on solar power with a small backup generator. It is built into sand dunes, and there is no noise pollution. The view is stunning with breathtaking vistas of desert, sky, and ocean for as far as one can see. After arrival and orientation, we settled in our room and then did a sundowner drive to the beach for drinks. This area of the beach had lots of drift wood and high winds that were now coming from out of the south with 24-foot waves. Because of the high winds and salt mist and sand in the air, the sunset was unusual.  We actually had to back the vehicle off the sand ridge as the tides were coming in and almost washed away our drink table. That evening, we had a lovely oryx steak and fish dinner and a great conversation with the other 12 guest that were there. Later that night, we returned to our room where a fire had been lit for us in our cast iron stove, warming the room.

Shipwreck Lodge cabin nestled amond the sand dunes
Sunset on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

Monday morning, we were up for coffee and a leisurely breakfast. The weather had improved significantly as the front had passed and the wind had died. However, some of the camp’s raised wooden walkways had become buried by the night’s moving sands and, reminiscent of analog snowstorms in the northern USA, staff were busy shoveling them out.  After breakfast, we met our guide for riding 4×4’s over the sand dunes, exploring the area, and looking for signs of local animals. We were out among the dunes for about 2-hours – spotting oryx and springboks, finding hyena tracks, and trekking across an other-worldly landscape more akin to the moon or a distant planet. We even learned to “walk” our 4×4’s down the steepest face of the dunes, surfing downhill on a controlled landslide.

Four-wheeling over the Skeleton Coast sand dunes
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast sand dunes as far as the eye can see

After returning to the lodge for a hot tea, we decided to take advantage of the good weather and embarked on a ~1-mile, one-way, self-hike from the lodge to the ocean over a series of small dunes. Along the way, we saw springboks, picked up a jaw bone of a zebra, and unsuccessfully looked for diamonds on the beach. There were lots of animal tracks on the dunes (brown hyaena, oryx, springbok, jackal, rabbit, and lots of birds).  Nearer the ocean, we encountered reeds and succulents and lots of drift wood from the ocean, which was much calmer than it had been the day before. We then had to hike back to the lodge, as our walkie-talkie radio did not work, and our “Uber” pick-up never arrived!

A lunch of stuffed mushrooms and lamb chops was lovely, and after a refreshing shower, we relaxed in the lounge for a few hours before meeting our guide again for a scenic drive up the Hoarusib River Valley, which was dry for the first few miles from the coast. Eventually, small signs of groundwater started to appear with greenery that attracted wildlife. Small herds of Springboks and Oryx appeared and elephant dung and baboon tracks were prevalent. The river valley deepened into small canyons which had green reeds and other greenery and, eventually, some small watering holes, We headed up the sides of the river canyon to rejoin the dunes and mountains and to climb to the top of a series of granite boulders at the top. From this vantage point, the view was one of sand, rocks, and desolation – like a moonscapes with massive canyons, Two hours later we’re heading back where we encountered a large, single male oryx in the lodge’s parking lot. We enjoyed our afternoon sundowners and met the new arrivals (4 who flew in from London). Dinner was mussels and fish with eclairs for desert. After dinner we sat and talked with Ozzie, the camp’s contracted engineer, who had assembled a collection of quartzite and calcite, which he insisted on sharing a few pieces from with us. Then, it was back to our room for a fire, night-cap and packing.

The dry Hoarusib River Valley near the seashore
The inland Hoarusib River Valley where some greenery exists
A lonely Oryx among the Skeleton Coast dunes

Tuesday morning we awoke to a howling sandstorm. The wind was now at 45-60 mph blowing the sands east from the dunes out towards the ocean. We fought our way from our cabin to the lodge where we had breakfast, and then were to be ferried back to our vehicle, Pauline. Unfortunately, the visibility was so low that the landmarks that the driver would have used to guide him back to our vehicle were not visible, and he got lost amongst the dunes and blowing sand. After backtracking numerous times and climbing down some impressive descents, we finally made it back to Pauline having turned a 45-minute trip into one of over 90-minutes.

The Shipwreck Lodge cabins in a vicious sandstorm

As we began our journey south down the Skeleton Coast, the winds increased and the visibility decreased. The wind pelted the left side of the truck with sand and rocks and the dust was so thick it hurt your throat. One could not see the hood of the vehicle, but, traveling at less than 10-mph with Julie looking down at the ground on the left side, and with Rocky looking down at the ground on the right side, the gravel road’s berms could barely be identified and slow progress could be made. Luckly, no other vehicles we encountered, but a breakdown could have stranded us for days. After over 3-hours of intense operating in this manner, we finally reached Terrance Bay hoping to stop for relief and diesel, but the petrol station was deserted and locked up tight. We continued our journey to the town of Torra Bay where we would find a paved road that would take us east into the sand storm. Although we now turned into the storm, we soon left the sand dunes of the west coast and the visibility improved significantly. After traveling ~30km we came to the Skeleton Coast National Park’s Springbok (East) Gate, which had been blown down and was blocking the road and our exit from the park. After showing our Park Permit papers, and complementing the Park’s Ranger, Rocky & 4 others lifted and moved the iron gate out of the way (to the cheering of other waiting vehicles). From the park, we continued east towards the Damaraland area and to our accommodation for the night at Gröotberg Lodge. Visibility had improved, but our left-side window were left pitted and barely transparent, and a smog-like haze of fine dust continued to hang over everything.

The Skeleton Coast National Park’s Springbok (East) Iron Gate blown down by the sandstorm

Finally in the countryside cloud, we see a giraffe, and then a 2nd one. We continued driving until, in the middle of nowhere, we spotted the sign for the lodge and started a treacherous climb up a narrow one car track that is so steep that one cannot see the road in front of the vehicle. When we finally reach the top of Gröotberg mountain, we are at a lodge built out over a steep ravine for a spectacular view of the valley below. Unfortunately, the air is so full of dust that we cannot see more than 100 feet. It has taken us 8 grueling hours to get here and the winds are still howling at hurricane force, and the temperatures are very cold – a few degrees above freezing.

Giraffes eating at Acacia Tree
Gröotberg Lodge on the top of Gröotberg mountain embedded in dust and sand