Costa Rica – Landing Page

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Welcome to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a green jewel at the heart of Central America, a country blessed with abundant coastlines, silver beaches, and some of the most unspoiled wilderness destinations to be found anywhere on Earth.  Come here to experience a mix of glorious forests, captivating wildlife, picturesque history and fabulous coastal scenery.

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The Sand and Surf of the Pacific Coast

Costa Rica is famed for its wonderful array of beaches, surf and water sport attractions. The Pacific coast is the main draw – Guanacaste province in the north boasts such beaches as Playa Avellana and Nosara Beach, with opportunities to swim, surf and enjoy the beachfront bars and cafes.  The Nicoya Peninsula features the sheltered bay of Bahia Ballena, ideal for less confident swimmers.  The sweeping sands and crashing surf of Dominical are a haven for water sports fans, with surfing, kayaking and kitesurfing all available.  And you can scuba dive at nearby Caño Island, to discover the rainbow colours of the coral reefs and the dazzling marine wildlife.

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Turtles, Volcanoes and Wonderful Wildlife

Costa Rica is famed for its diversity of natural attractions.  The Arenal Volcano National Park is a must see, offering visitors the chance to get up close to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, within a spectacular rainforest setting.  There is no better place to see turtles than the Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast – experience the mangrove swamps, coastal lagoons and rainforest, and descend to the beach to see these wonderful creatures lay their eggs.  And there is a wonderful choice of wildlife reserves, from the Nosara Wildlife Sanctuary in Guanacaste province to the Foundation Jaguar Rescue Centre on the Caribbean coast.

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San Jose and San Ramón

San Jose is Costa Rica’s capital, a bustling, friendly city filled with historical, cultural and natural attractions. The Precolombian Gold Museum showcases the gleaming craftsmanship of the region’s original inhabitants, and the Pueblo Antiguo is a full-scale recreation of a Costa Rican town of a hundred years ago.  San Ramón is a charming little town nestling in the central highlands, with a history and a cultural life that belies its size. It is surrounded by pristine cloud forests – take a guided tour of the El Silencio de Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve, and check out the wonderful diversity of plant and animal species in the Nectandra Cloud Forest Garden.

 

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Things to See and Do

There is so much to see and do in Costa Rica, from hiking and wildlife-spotting, to horse riding and 4×4 driving, to ziplining and canyoning, that your challenge will be fitting it all in. Few countries pack as many wonderful wildlife reserves within their borders as Costa Rica, and these expanses of pristine rainforest, cloud forest and mangrove swamp plenty of things to do. Corcovado National Park on the south Pacific coast offers guided tours, hiking and camping. Guanacaste’s Black Stallion Eco Park offers horseback riding and ziplining activities, and you can try fishing, boating and kayaking in Lake Arenal, under the shadow of the volcano.

 

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Ice Station Cairngorm

Learning the essentials of mountain survival, Andrew Murray also learns to appreciate just how much weather the Scottish Highlands get in winter

Crampons in the Coire an t-Sneachda

I’m plunging head-first down a mountainside in the Coire an t-Sneachda, the Hollow of the Snow, my mental gyroscope confounded as I struggle to right myself. My brain is unable to process the simplest way to correct my position and it takes a series of convoluted twists before my head is finally above my feet. But I’m still sliding, on my front now, knees, chest and face hissing against the icy crust. I must keep my knees bent and my feet well away from the slope, because crampons will snag in the snow and very likely break my legs. And then I recall Mick’s instructions, and ease my ice axe into the snow as smoothly as I can, at the same time raising my midriff so that my knees can also dig in. I clench my core muscles, turn my face away from the axe tip, and finally, the three points of contact bring me to a halt.

Happily, it’s just an exercise in self-arresting, checking your fall if the worst comes to the worst, on one of the more benign slopes of the spectacular bowl of mountain peaks that is the Coire an t-Sneachda. Even more happily, I’m not wearing crampons. But a sober reality check awaits, as Mick tells my group that in all his years in the mountains he’s only ever seen one real, successful self-arrest…

It’s my second time at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Mountain Centre, a few snowball throws from Aviemore, and my first in winter. The previous summer I had spent five days as a box-fresh novice to rock-climbing, being patiently introduced by my instructor Andy to the mysteries of scaling, effortlessly in his case, and with far too much ungainly use of the knees in mine, the spectacular diversity of Northern Scotland’s rock faces. Our day at the crumbly sandstone cliffs of Cummingston was blazingly hot, and we were glad of the cooling breeze from the azure Moray Firth.

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Well, it is summer no more. I’m here for the five day Introduction to Winter Skills: and as we are introduced to our guides, the eternally ebullient Mick, and the phlegmatic Giles, and venture out into the sweeping grandeur of the high Cairngorms, I will begin to appreciate the extraordinary climate that prevails in the Highlands in winter. Scotland’s mountains are old, and worn down by age and attrition: compared to the Alps they are no more than large hills. So their actual elevation, the height you climb from valley to summit, is relatively modest.

But such are the winds that roar across Northern Scotland – situated as it is, a long way north and at the junction of four weather systems – that the difference in weather between the valley floor and the summit is one of the most extraordinary things I have experienced. The valley feels like London in a snowy December – minus 2, say. The summit feels like you have been transported to an Arctic weather station – in real terms it is a few degrees colder, but the constant, knee-buckling gale brings the wind chill closer to minus 20. Ferny fronds of ice grow horizontally from each boulder to shelter from the blast. We strap on crampons, swaddle our faces, and press on, bent almost as horizontally as the ice ferns. It feels fantastic.

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Navigation is the cement that binds the other mountain skills together, and I’m not very good at it. I feel acutely my lack of hill-walking experience as Mick calls a halt and my companions whip out their maps and compasses and confidently correlate the contour lines on the paper to our surrounding topography. By the time Muggins here has managed to bring map and Silva together in some kind of purposeful union, everyone else has packed away and is marching into the distance. It’s a myth that navigation is a mystic art – it takes practice, the repetitive discipline of observing the three dimensional landscape around you and relating it to the two dimensions of your map – and I just need to grind out a lot more map-miles.

Another myth: that the Inuit have more words for snow than us. Not even close – spindrift and sastrugi, firn and frazil, hardpack and hoarfrost, suncup and slurpee are just a taste of the English lexicon of the white stuff. Mick gives us a hands-on education into the nature of avalanches, carving out cross-sections of snow to reveal distinct strata, each layer a subtly distinct snow type that can speak volumes about the likelihood of this particular region of snow to avalanche, if you have eyes to read it.

And certain words in the lexicon loom large. The Scottish Highlands are a tad windy, and falling snowflakes rarely settle on one hillside for long: rather, they are scoured away from the windward side of a hill and dumped on the leeward side as windslab. This battering by the wind knocks the pretty edges off each snowflake, turning it into a shape more akin to a sand grain, and so the deposited windslab has a textural composition very different from the fluffy original. Cross-loading is a term for the dumping of successive loads of snow, from alternating directions, into a gully. These and many more features speak to Mick’s educated eyes, and begin, falteringly, to speak to mine. But I know I have a long, long way to go before I can read the snowy slopes with even basic fluency.

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Trains run from King’s Cross to Aviemore – you can save time and hassle with a no-changes service – and Glenmore Lodge is just 5 minutes away via the local cab company (not cheap, so share if you can). Glenmore is a centre of outdoor excellence, with instructors of the highest calibre – but it has an unfailingly relaxed and friendly atmosphere which should put newcomers at their ease. Evening lectures inject rich seams of information with impishly sharp humour – although to say that Muggins here was not at his most mentally receptive, huddled round his coffee in a warm lecture theatre after a richly rewarding but long day’s adventuring, would be an understatement…

You can find more information about Glenmore Lodge’s courses at

www.glenmorelodge.org.uk

Photos by the author and Mick Hunter www.mickhunter.com

Andrew Murray 2015

Cornflake Climbers and Cranberry Ninjas

Gravitationally-challenged Andrew Murray learns the basic body grammar of rock climbing at Scotland’s Glenmore Lodge

Turned out nice again at the Pass of Ballater
Turned out nice again at the Pass of Ballater

I’m box-fresh to climbing. An earliest memory is of my first day at primary school, falling off the climbing frame, bumping my head (which explains much) and scoffing a consoling lunchtime jelly as bosomy teachers cooed and soothed. I climbed a few trees. At secondary school I baulked at being six foot up the climbing wall. Might have been five. But having tried, and loved, a variety of outdoor courses, including a summer mountain skills week at Wales’ National Mountain Centre, Plas y Brenin, I fancied having my first proper exposure to what has to be one of the core skillsets – with navigation, first aid and skiing – of the outdoor all-rounder. But I also wanted to see Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s answer to Plas, a hub of outdoor adventuring a few Cairngorm caber tosses from tiny, friendly Aviemore. And so I booked the Centre’s five day Introduction to Rock Climbing.

That’s the way to do it…

Glenmore Lodge is a centre of outdoor excellence, with as high a level of instruction as you could find anywhere. But what I appreciated from the moment of arrival was the genuinely relaxed ethos of the place. I soon sussed that I had less rambling, hiking and Munro-bagging experience than almost anyone there, but that’s fine. As people gather for the hearty breakfasts in the canteen, and quietly ninja the prime roll fillings for the day’s packed lunches (the early bird gets the cranberry cheese), and natter about yesterday’s travails, and today’s high hopes, then people happily accept that people are people, whether beginners, intermediates or experts. And that the best scrambler or skier, hiker or biker, is the one who is happiest.

Errr…

Andy (T) will be my guide for the week, and I, to my surprise, will constitute his class of one (an instructor on a course like this will have a maximum of two instructees). We hook up with fellow guide George and his two wards, who are taking the Lead Climber course, to share a minibus. Three Andys, one Andy Murray, and no mention of tennis (don’t start). The Lead Climber course looks impossibly advanced and, well, responsible, to me. But this week I shall see what I shall see…

Climbing the Cornflake

Cummingston on the Moray Firth could this day be twinned with the Côte d’Azur – it’s blazingly hot, and we are glad of the cooling breeze rolling in off the turquoise waters. Time to climb some breakfast cereals. Cummingston’s cliffs are crumbly sandstone, and wind and weather have etched them into textures resembling… well, I’ll let the route names speak for themselves. Cornflake Wall, Shredded Wheat and Rice Crispie Wall look as they sound (though other route names show more free-form creativity on the namers’ part – Surf Nazis Must Die, Sandy Volestrangler or Anal Stretch, anyone?)

It’s my second day, and I am beginning to get an inkling of the basic physical grammar of climbing. I’m still clutching on like grim death, which is exhausting on the arm muscles. But today my mind and body are becoming aware of a first principle – that you should do as little work as possible with your arms. Hang down from your hand-holds and relax, then drive with your legs to the next set of holds. Hang and relax, then repeat the process. But I’m still so slow. I hang paralysed, clutching to one spot until my biceps burn, because I lack the climber’s eye for the next hold; I lack basic confidence; and when I do resume my ascent, labouring like an aged, arthritic toad, my knock-knees finding as many holds as my feet, I lack marks for artistic impression. A pair of roosting gulls mock my efforts like a seaside Statler and Waldorf.  What a muppet.

Chasing the Dry

Do you want the bad news, or the bad news? An MWIS weather report
Do you want the bad news, or the bad news? An MWIS weather report

In a nutshell, you can’t climb on wet rock. And so each evening Andy and George huddle around the weather forecasts for the following day – not only the Met Office but also MWIS, the Mountain Weather Information Service, and others if tomorrow’s skies promise to be dreich and drippy and a third, or even fourth, meteorological opinion is required. And Andy and George get it right, five days running. We chase the dry across northern Scotland: on day one the weather gods are kindly and let us play at Kingussie, on Glenmore’s Cairngorm  doorstep; day two beckons us to Cummingston, which feels positively Mediterranean; day three to the Pass of Ballater, and still nary a fleck of Scotch mist; day four, and we fling ourselves to Glen Nevis in the far west; and day five returns us to Kingussie. I think a drop or two fell at the end of the final day – literally a drop or two – and that this is all the wet we encountered in a Scottish week is testament to the painstaking backroom work put in each evening by Andy and George.

The Confidence to Commit

Smearing. That’s the technique, when the cliff surface is sheer and obvious footholds are unavailable, of trusting the tremendously tacky grip of your climbing shoes to adhere to the rock. Doing this effectively requires you to have the confidence to fully commit your weight to your foot. Apply your weight half-heartedly, and your security of grip will be halved, or worse. (Kick turning when skiing is similar, leaving you a sprawling snow-angel if you don’t fully commit yourself.) And on day five, back full-circle to Kingussie, I begin to have the confidence to commit. Full weight onto foot, to shoe, to rubber sole. And what do you know, it works!

Maybe I can do this...
Maybe I can do this…

I’ve learned a lot in five days. Inevitably, I’ve learned just how little I know about rock climbing, but that’s fine. There is so much to master, and a realistic perspective is always best. I’ve dipped my toe in the water of another ocean, and that’s what I love to do. Andy T has been eternally patient (and taken some very nice photos) while his neophyte client Andy M blundered, knees akimbo, below him. George wowed me with his effortless, ropeless assurance, perched like a parental Peregrine above his chicks. I think the Three Andys were happy. The Other Two were happy. And I wanted to come back again to Glenmore Lodge. Maybe to climb, maybe to do something else. I’m not seeking to be an expert in anything. I just want to have a go at as many things as possible. And Glenmore Lodge is as fine and friendly a place to have a go at outdoor fun and adventure as you’re ever going to find. I’ll be back soon. See you there for breakfast, and leave a cranberry cheese roll for me.

Find out more at Glenmore Lodge

Andrew Murray 2015

Photos by AM, Andy Townsend and MWIS

Colorado’s Best Small Towns

The high peaks and passes of the Colorado mountains are studded with gold – not so much the gold that drew prospectors here in the nineteenth century, but a glittering variety of mountain resort towns to be treasured for their historic and contemporary charms, often their restful thermal springs, and always their variety of summer and winter activities.

Here are six of our favorites.  All are within easy reach of Denver and other major cities; all boast an excellent range of places to stay, eat and be entertained; and all place you on the threshold of the Great Out There.  So step out, get hiking or biking, fishing or boating, jeeping or climbing, skiing or boarding – and unwind at day’s end with the soothing waters, soothing music and scrumptious food and drink of the Rockies’ prettiest and friendliest small towns…

Crested Butte

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CBLocated in southwest Colorado within the Gunnison National Forest and the Elk Mountain Range, Crested Butte is a place that combines genuine small-town charm with a broad range of summer and winter activities. Originally settled in the 1880s as a mining supply camp, Crested Butte has seen the swing of pick-axe give way to the kick of crampon and twirl of kayak paddle, and can now claim to be one of the most fully-featured vacation destinations in the Rockies.

Come summer there are rich climbing opportunities, guided or non-guided, in Taylor Canyon, Cement Creek and the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. Why not try whitewater rafting or kayaking in the class II-IV rapids? Or bombing down the extensive mountain bike trails? If you’re looking for something a little more sedate, the Mount Crested Butte region has endless choices for hiking in alpine meadows and forests – few places on Earth can match the Rockies for their panoply of summer wildflowers. Or you can fish in crystal clear rivers, streams and lakes.

Voted best steeps, best snow and best groomed corduroy in Colorado, Crested Butte Mountain Resort offers over a thousand acres of ski and board slopes suiting all from beginners to experts. Fourteen chairlifts carry you to the next run as swiftly as possible, and there are half-pipes and terrain runs to please the funkiest freestyler.

Telluride

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TellIn the heart of San Miguel County lies the charming town of Telluride. Nestling in a dramatic box canyon, it offers a blend of nineteenth century charm and world-class cultural events which have earned it the moniker ‘City of Festivals’. Come to the outdoor amphitheater in June to see acts from across the nation perform at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And pop into the Telluride Historical Museum to learn of the area’s history, from mining to slope-shredding.

World-class skiing is available by road or by gondola to Mountain Village and Telluride Ski & Golf Resort. This is the highest concentration of 13,000 and 14,000 peaks in America, with slopes for all. Ute Park and The Meadows will get beginners off to a gentle start, See Forever and Prospect Bowl will keep intermediates happy, and The Plunge, Revelation Bowl and Gold Hill offer plenty of challenges for the serious shredder.

Fodor’s ranked Telluride in the nation’s top ten for foodies – 221 South Oak offers top-class New American cuisine with Deep South, Calypso, Californian and Creole flavors; Brown Dog Pizza offers terrific, you guessed it, pizza in a sports bar atmosphere; and Allred’s, at the top of the gondola, combines a marvelously eclectic menu with the best views in Telluride

Ouray

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OurSet at the head of a valley and surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks, the intimate community of Ouray has managed the transition from the mining boom days to the present because it offers so many opportunities for rest and recreation. Thermal springs feed the town pool, where people come from near and far to soak those aching bones in its healing waters. It is said that the Ute Indian Chief Ouray, after whom the town is named, held religious ceremonies at these sacred waters. The town is also surrounded by spectacular waterfalls, and a popular excursion is to hike up to Box Canyon Falls to view the almost 300 foot cascade.

Ouray dubs itself the Jeeping Capital of the World, and it seems as if every inhabitant owns a four-wheel drive, as the rugged surrounding heights offer unlimited mountain roads to traverse. Bring along your own 4×4 or rent locally, and head out into the vast network of trails, graded from 1 (easiest) to 5 (use extreme caution); but whatever the difficulty, all the trails offer a spectacular variety of views, from ghost towns and abandoned mines to alpine woods and tundra studded with beautiful wildflowers.

After a rugged day’s driving, and a soak in the pool, it’s time to refuel. The Outlaw Restaurant cooks up great rib-eye steaks; the Bon Ton offers a range of quality Italian and modern Continental dishes; and Mouses Chocolates and Coffee does exactly what is says on the sign.

Salida

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SalSalida sits squarely in the heart of Colorado, about 3 hours from Denver and 2 hours from Colorado Springs. As with so many CO mountain towns it was gold that first brought settlers here, but farming and ranching made Salida a lasting community. The Arkansas River flows through the downtown, which hosts the annual FibArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas) Festival each summer. The river is a great place to try rafting and kayaking; and the town’s watery diversions extend to the local geothermal springs, which are now housed in a public pool.

The mountains around Salida boast over a dozen 14,000 foot peaks, and the area provides as wide a range of outdoor activities as you could find anywhere. Go hiking and camping amid beautiful alpine meadows with stunning mountain views. Get chalked up for a range of rock climbing routes suitable for beginners to experts. Try archery, golf, mountain biking, or take the kids to the brand new Captain Zipline Aerial Adventure Park, with its endless combinations of catwalks, ropes, ladders and flying elements – there are even several Via Ferrata routes, ‘iron highways’ hammered into otherwise unscalable faces.

For food, Ploughboy inc. is a blend of daily farmer’s market and deli, with a delicious range of local produce, and the ever-popular Sweetie’s Sandwich Shop offers a tempting range of hot and cold sandwiches, and salads.

Lake City

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Lake CIn 1874 six gold prospectors became trapped in a blizzard in the appropriately bleak-sounding Slumgullion Pass, and Alfred Packer, Lake City’s most infamous resident, was subsequently jailed for killing and eating his five companions. After his release from jail he allegedly became a vegetarian. Thankfully the eating opportunities have improved since, and now Lake City boasts such excellent eateries as the Restless Spirits Saloon, the Lake City Bakery and the San Juan Soda Company.

Lake City is your gateway to the San Juans, and here you can enjoy hiking, camping, boating, mountain biking, horseback riding and fishing. There are also historic and mine tours, hunting, rafting and mini-golf. When the white stuff arrives, check out the Lake City Ski Hill: opened in 1966, it’s a friendly boutique resort, with four runs served by one life, and prides itself on value (at time of writing it quotes that a family of four can ski here for as little as $44 a day).

The surrounding Hindsdale County offers up a glorious array of natural wonders, from the blue waters of Lake San Cristobal, with fishing, rafting and kayaking; to spectacular cascades at North Clear Creek Falls, Whitmore Falls and Nellie Creek Falls; and the four public wilderness areas Uncompaghre, La Garita, Weminuche and Powderhorn.

Steamboat Springs

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SSAs with so many of Colorado’s most appealing mountain towns, Steamboat Springs has wonderful geothermal waters. Fur trappers visiting the area in the late nineteenth century thought that the churning sound made by the springs resembled a steamboat coming down the Yampa River.

Summer delights include a scenic hike to Fish Creek Falls, or a variety of hiking and mountain biking routes through the surrounding forests and parks. And don’t be surprised to find the sky filled with giants – for Steamboat Springs is a famous hot-air ballooning hub, hosting the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo each summer – book a basket for the best Colorado mountain views money can buy. In the summer evenings stroll down to the Strings Music Festival, or to the hundred year old rodeo.

Steamboat Springs has produced more Winter Olympians than any other US town (88 and counting), so head out to Steamboat Ski Resort and Howelsen Hill to discover why. Champagne snow is one reason – the Pacific rain fronts are partially stripped of their moisture over the Mojave Desert, before climbing into the Rockies, cooling, and dumping the most perfectly dry, flaky snow. Off-piste heaven. With nearly 3000 acres of skiable terrain for all levels, Steamboat Ski Resort will get you wondering if you might just be able to qualify for the next Olympics…

Estes Park

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EstEstes Park is the eastern entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Lake Estes offers blissful boating opportunities, and the surrounding peaks are prime targets for rock and ice climbers. Early morning is a gorgeous time to explore the Park’s crystal-clear lakes, rolling alpine meadows and forests, and to sample the summer wildflowers and wildlife. There is also a good range of horse-riding and mountain-biking trails.

Estes Park itself is a bustling retail centre, with over 200 outlets, and a restaurant scene and event calendar rivalling those of much larger cities. The century-old Stanley Hotel overlooks the town, and its white pillared, old-world grandeur is not to be missed – if you are staying elsewhere, be sure to pop in to its fine restaurant and whiskey bar. Elkhorn Avenue is the town’s thriving main thoroughfare, but take a scenic riverside walk along the Big Thompston if you fancy a breather from the bargain-hunting crowds.

For food, the unassuming-looking Baba’s Burgers and Gyros serves excellent burgers and Greek fries; The Egg and I serves one of the best breakfast menus in the Rockies; and Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Tap House is the place to go if you like your beef and pork slow-cooked, juicy and dressed with a range of homemade sauces to your own personal taste.

Aquitaine – Holiday Cottage Heaven on France’s other South Coast

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Dream of holiday cottage perfection in combination with silver sands and azure waters, and most minds are drawn eastwards to the Riviera and the Mediterranean coast. But follow the stepping stones of the Pyrenees west, to the Atlantic, and you will discover another, lesser known France. Aquitaine, a France draped with the longest sandy shore in Europe, not to mention the continent’s greatest sand dune. Aquitaine, a France carpeted with Europe’s largest pine forest. Aquitaine, a France delved with the Lascaux Caves, the Sistine Chapels of our Neolithic ancestors. Aquitaine, whose verdant valleys boast some of France’s grandest chateaux and some of the world’s greatest wines. So why not book a holiday cottage in Aquitaine, a world away from the Mediterranean masses? Shh, it’ll be our little secret…

White Sands

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With over 200 kilometres of fine golden sands, Aquitaine’s Atlantic coast is Europe’s longest beach, and one of the least crowded. Miles of undeveloped shoreline stretch from Bayonne to the Gironde, taking in such modestly-sized and family-friendly resorts as Contis-Plage, Biscarosse-Plage and Mimizan-Plage. Don’t miss the spectacular Dune du Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe, which guards the entrance to Arcachon Bay in the Landes of Gascony. Slip on the sunglasses, slap on the sunscreen, and stretch out on your own slice of sandy heaven – it’s yours, all yours…

The Lascaux Caves

lascaux-cave-paintingThe Dordogne region is one of the oldest centres of human habitation in Europe, and the world-renowned Lascaux Caves, stumbled upon by a group of children only some seventy years ago, are a cathedral to the spiritual aspirations of our Neolithic ancestors. The Caves themselves are closed to the public, but a perfect facsimile has been created, so step inside and let the paintings speak to you with an artistic spirit so distant and yet so eerily close to our own.

Europe’s Largest Pine Forest

Les Landes Forest

Aquitaine’s natural superlatives are not confined to its coastline. Les Landes is the most heavily-forested area in Europe, a pine-scented playground some 150km wide and 200km long, latticed with well-marked trails that offer a wealth of opportunities for hiking, biking and horse-riding. Les Landes is sparsely-populated even by Aquitaine’s spacious standards, so why not set your best foot, wheel or hoof forward to enjoy its verdant wonders?

They make wine here, apparently…

St. Emilion

If the mere mention of ‘Bordeaux’ sets your nostrils a-quivering and your taste buds a-salivating, then you’ve come to the right place. To the north of Bordeaux itself, west of the Gironde estuary, lies Médoc, the most prestigious wine-producing area in south-western France. But Médoc is merely first among equals, as the land around Bordeaux is an embarrassment of vinicultural riches. Visit pretty old St. Emilion, not just for its vineyards but for its narrow streets and unique underground church, and pop in to Saint Estèphe or the Côtes de Bourg for the grand chateaux winery experience.

Three more to visit:

Bayonne – indulge your sweet tooth in the self-styled French Capital of Chocolate, not to mention the Capital of the French Basque Country. Every chocolatier has its own scrumptious speciality…

Biarritz – once popular with the great and good of the Belle Epoque, Biarritz combines old world elegance with the gnarly vibe of being the surf capital of Europe. But getting tubular isn’t compulsory – stroll instead along the promenade, visit the attractive aquarium, or tuck into the morning’s catch beside the pretty fishing harbour.

Les Eyzies – there’s more to Aquitanian prehistory than Lascaux: for it was in the Cro Magnon site of Les Eyzies that the earliest remains of homo sapiens were uncovered in 1868.

Aquitaine

 

Andrew Murray 2015

Paris’ top four literary haunts

The task of picking the four best literary destinations in Paris, a city whose cobblestones echo with the declamations of the Left Bank and the leftfield, the home truths of Paris’ native scribes and the outsider observations of Anglophone exiles, is gloriously futile. So shall we agree to disagree, mon ami? Here’s my pick of the city’s top literary divertissements to get you arguing over your aperitifs…

Café Procope

Voltaire hails his 40th coffee of the day at the Café Procope
Voltaire hails his 40th coffee of the day at the Café Procope

The oldest restaurant in Paris, Café Procope was the watering hole of the Comédie française across the street, and a nexus of the Parisian, and American, Enlightenment. Rousseau drowned his theatrical sorrows here, Voltaire risked caffeine poisoning, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson convened to debate the uplift of the modern mind and the downfall of the damned British redcoats…

Shakespeare & Company

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Founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and famously alluded to in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Shakespeare & Company is Paris’ premier English-language bookshop. This may not be the place to confess you couldn’t get past page 10 of Ulysses – Sylvia played patron not only to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, but also to James Joyce, whose impenetrable masterwork she tirelessly championed.

The Bust of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Aristocrat, aviator, and author of the children’s classic The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has an asteroid and an Andean mountain peak named after him, but his commemorative sculpture in the Invalides Park at the Square Santiago du Chili grants him posterity on a human scale. Buy a copy of The Little Prince for your little prince or princess to enjoy on the flight home (which might not be the best time to tell them the author died in a plane crash…)

20 Rue Jacob

The two-story pavillon at 20 Rue Jacob
The two-story pavillon at 20 Rue Jacob

American expat Natalie Clifford Barney hosted a who’s who of twentieth century letters at 20 Rue Jacob – Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Somerset Maugham and Truman Capote are just a few of the greats who graced her literary symposium. Hemingway was notable by his absence, but grants Barney an acerbic mention in A Moveable Feast.

Andrew Murray 2015

Grizzly Gourmets and Boondock Banquets – a Gastro-Guide to Backcountry Cooking

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Whether your outdoor eating tastes are more Grizzly Adams or Gourmet on the Go, there are few better feelings than to step out into nature knowing that you carry all your culinary needs for the next few days on your back. But the trade-off between happy eating and a heavy backpack is one that takes a bit of careful preparation. So let us guide you through the essentials of planning your pack, planning your fire, and planning your cook, with some hearty backcountry recipes to reward you after a happy day’s hike…

Keep it simple with a stove, or go back to nature with a fire?

A first issue to consider is whether you want to take a fuel stove, or to really go back to nature and build campfires as you go. If you’re considering the latter, do check the campfire regulations for the area you are visiting – many designated areas in Colorado do permit campfires depending on the season. If you would like to build fires, and your route permits this, then you could consider packing a stove and cylinder as a backup, but of course there is a trade-off in weight and bulk.

Stoves

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A Primus Express Spider stove

There are a wide variety of compact stove types, from alcohol burners to solid tablet devices, but you’re probably most familiar with the cylinder stoves provided by the likes of Primus, Trangia, MSR and Jetboil. I use a Primus Express Spider, which I feel has two advantages over many cylinder stoves. The cylinder sits to one side of the stove, rather than being clamped beneath, which gives a lower center of gravity and more stability to your cook (the last thing you want is a boiling brew toppling over on your kit, or worse, your legs). Also, if you are heading to very cold or high altitude climes, the Spider has a reheat coil to deal with any liquefaction of the gas supply.

Campfires

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There are many good websites and YouTube channels to guide you through the ins and outs of building a campfire, but here are a few key points:

Preparation – before you try to strike a light, gather enough fuel. Have your kindling, whether tissue paper, cotton wool or something more natural, ready, then garner good piles of sticks (as dry as possible – look for dead standing wood) of different diameters – match thickness, pencil thickness, finger thickness and then larger logs to maintain a longer burn.

Making a flame – if you want to play the romantic traditionalist you can use a flint and steel, or even try bow-drilling (be warned, it’s exhausting); more realistically, you can use a fire-sparker; or be humdrum yet pragmatic and pack a lighter and matches.

Leaving no trace (or forest fire) behind you – the principle of leaving no mark on nature counts a thousand-fold when there is a fire risk. Do get some instruction on how to properly douse your fire – the ashes, the remaining partially-burned ‘dogs’, and the top layer of the ground itself, which can retain the fire’s heat for a remarkably long time after you’ve gone.

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A backcountry cooking kit list:

  • Stove and fuel cylinder
  • Windshield (which may be supplied with the stove)
  • Means of making a flame – see above, and take at least two types
  • Billy-can and lid
  • Frying pan and lightweight tongs (optional)
  • Pot gripper
  • Bushcraft knife – essential all-purpose item, including food preparation
  • Cup, perhaps with integral lid
  • Bowl – a shallow bowl acts as a bowl/plate hybrid
  • Spoon or spork
  • Condiments and seasonings
  • Plastic bags for rubbish
  • And if you want to wash up as you go, a scrubbing sponge, dishcloth and sieve for straining dishwater.

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Some handy backcountry food tips:

 

Think about weight and longevity

Compact, high energy foods like chocolate and nuts cover the calorific basics. Many brands of the add-hot-water variety are available. But plenty of hearty home cooking can be added to your list. Think of the meals you enjoy making in your own kitchen, and think about how you can substitute ingredients for ones that are lighter or longer-lasting. Bring the most stable version of each food that you can, but take the minimum of packaging (a foil pack may substitute for a can; ingredients that you intend to cook together can be combined into one plastic bag, etc.)

Dehydrate

Water is weight, so dehydrate as much as you can. Precooked, dehydrated meals supplied by the likes of Wayfayrer, Mountain House and AlpineAire are light and very simple to prepare. But you could also consider investing in a dehydrator, to adapt every favorite home recipe for the trail.

Treat yourself on day one

If you’re heading out for a few days, pack some heavier, more perishable luxuries that you can shift from bag to belly on day one. Pack fresh bread, vegetables, meat, perishable cheese, whatever you like to give yourself an indulgent first lunch and supper, then set out with a lighter, more durable food supply on the second morning.

Spice is nice (and pretty light)

Pack whatever condiments you like to add some zest to your campfire cooking. Dried herbs and spices are very light, and ketchup, mustard, chilli or soy sauce can be brought in packets or small leakproof bottles (outdoor suppliers sell sets of small bottles and containers)

Leave no trace

Take enough plastic bags to stow all your rubbish and leave no trace behind bar your footprints.

Live off the land as far as is safe (and legal)

The more intrepid traveler will seek to supplement their supplies with freshly foraged plants and freshly caught fish and even game. But be safe – if in doubt about that plant, leave it alone. It can take a long time for emergency services to locate you out there, let alone reach you. And unless you have had proper instruction, my advice is to leave all mushrooms well alone. Check the laws of the area you are traveling to if you intend to fish or hunt.

Cheese makes everything better

Hard cheese like Parmesan or pecorino may not seem super-light, but it will last several days without refrigeration and will add fun to just about any meal. And the further you carry it, the more flavorsome it will become!

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Some Tasty Trek Recipes

 Breakfast

 Chocolate Banana Oatmeal

  • 1/3 cup instant oatmeal
  • 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoon powdered milk
  • 1/4 cup freeze-dried bananas
  • Chocolate cookies, crumbled (optional)

At home: Combine all but the cookies into a zip-lock bag. If you are bringing the cookies, pack them separately.

On the trail: Bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add the oatmeal mix and stir. Simmer until the oatmeal is cooked through. Serve topped with the cookies.  Makes 1 serving.

Breakfast Scramble

  • 1 3/4 cup instant mashed potatoes
  • 1/2 cup freeze-dried eggs with bacon
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon dry milk
  • Cheddar cheese (optional)

At home: Combine all dry ingredients in a zip-lock bag.

On the trail: Heat water in pot. Add to freezer bag and stir. Let sit for 5 minutes.  Makes 1 serving.

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Dinner

 

Thai Beef Wraps (if you have a dehydrator)

  • 1 pound lean beef or venison
  • 1-2 sweet bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle pepper (1/2 teaspoon for those sensitive to spices)
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

Cook meat, drain very well. Add peppers, garlic and ginger, cook until peppers are soft. Meanwhile, whisk together all other ingredients to create a stiff sauce, and then add to beef mixture when peppers are a little soft. Dry in a dehydrator at 135° on parchment lined trays (approx 10 hours). Mixture will not be thoroughly dried due to sesame oil and fatty peanut butter, but, if dried properly and then stored in freezer, should last for up to a week. Serve over pitas, bagels or tortillas in camp.

Tuna Spaghetti

  • 1 8-ounce package angel hair pasta
  • 1 6-ounce can or packet of tuna in oil
  • 8 dried tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

At home: Mix the basil, oregano, Parmesan cheese and garlic powder in a zip-lock bag. Store other items separately.

On the trail: Soak tomatoes in 4 cups of water for 10 minutes or until rehydrated. Remove the tomatoes from water and bring to a boil. Break the angel hair pasta in half and add to the boiling water. Cook pasta until done, drain water. Leave noodles in the pot and add tuna, tomatoes, and contents of the cheese and spice bag. Stir well.  Makes 2 servings.

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Desserts

Blueberry Rice Cake

  • 3 cups sweet rice flour
  • 1 1⁄4 cups sugar
  • 1 1⁄3 cups dried blueberries
  • 3 eggs
  • 3⁄4 cup canola oil
  • 1 1⁄2 cups water

Preparation at home:

Preheat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add the canola oil and water. Next, combine the dry ingredients with the wet and mix again. Pour into 24 greased muffin holes. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. A knife poked into the middle should come out clean.

On The Go Strawberry Cheesecake

  •    9 full graham crackers
  •    5 tablespoons butter, melted
  •    1 tablespoon sugar
  •    a pinch of salt
  •    8 ounces cream cheese
  •    1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  •    1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  •    2 tablespoons lemon juice
  •   1/2 pound strawberries, chopped

Use something heavy like a rolling pin or can to crush graham crackers in a zip top bag. Combine graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Mix well.

Beat cream cheese, condensed milk, lemon zest and lemon juice until smooth and creamy.

Using small spoons, layer half each of graham cracker crumb mixture, cream cheese mixture, and strawberries in small jars. Repeat layers. Cover jars and place in a cooler until completely chilled.

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 Andrew Murray 2015