A Lesson in Self Discipline

27 08 2015

For our last night in Athens, we meandered through the streets of the Plaka, past the tourist shops selling ouzo, olives and breezy cotton dresses, through Monastiraki Square and up Ermou Street – Athen’s best known and busiest shopping street – to find ourselves at Syntagma Square, the central square of Athens, and finally at the Parliament Building to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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Monastiraki Square

The Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded around the clock and we spent about 15 minutes watching the Evzones, members of the Presidential Guard.  With the exception of switching positions with each other every 15 minutes, the guards remain completely motionless and at attention during their one hour of sentry duty.  Every hour on the hour they have a ‘little change’ where the two incoming and two outgoing sentries exchange places.  But every Sunday at 11AM is when the ‘Grand Change’ takes place, which involves the whole Guard with its officers and a military band.

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As I watched their slow and highly stylized movements as they switched positions, I spent some time really looking at their uniforms.  For one, I loved their shoes.  They were pretty cute with pom poms on them, and although they looked pretty light and fluffy these tsarouchi clogs actually have 60 – 120 nails under the sole and weigh 7.7 lbs/3.5 kilos.

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They’ve got to have some pretty strong legs and amazing discipline to complete their stylized movements in tandem while wearing two sets of white woolen stockings, garters, and a cotton kilt and waistcoat, without wiping away the sweat that was surely soaking into their uniform.  It was high 80’s in temperature at 6PM and as I watched these soldiers stand guard in the setting sun, I could feel a drip of sweat easing its way down the center of my back. It’s a feeling that stands out in my memory and I definitely did not have the self restraint not to press my dress into the small of my back to try to absorb that drop.

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While I was planning our trip to Greece I heard a lot of people say that there wasn’t a lot to do or see in Athens, and that we should not spend too long there.  Those opinions kind of shaped our trip and so I had set aside a day and a half for Athens.  But I don’t think I took into account our jet lag, the heat, or our need for an afternoon nap.  So, although we saw a lot while we were in Athens, and I’m glad we made it a point to see these amazing Evzones, I think I could have used one more day to satisfy my curiosity and my sense of sightseeing accomplishment.

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Athens Treasures

26 08 2015

Part of the reason why I chose to stay at The Electra Palace Hotel in the Plaka District was the rooftop views of The Acropolis it boasted on its website.  I imagined afternoons spent frolicking in the pool, perhaps enjoying a tropical drink, and looking off to the distance to see this iconic view.

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Well, perhaps I should have planned longer than a day and a half in Athens if I wanted to make those daydreams come to life.

Instead, I found myself enjoying the rooftop terrace in an unexpected, and much more intimate way.

Jetlag had me up at 5:30AM the first morning and the excitement of a new place and all of the potential had me jumping out of bed, throwing on some clothes and taking a peek outside.  Just what I thought – The Acropolis was all lit up!

I wasn’t sure if the rooftop terrace would be accessible that early in the morning, but it turns out that it is and I had it ALL to myself.

Just me and the Acropolis, having a little photo shoot!

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After I finished up with my alone time with the Acropolis, and we marched through the city looking for a camera store to replace a polarized filter (a casualty from a fall on my BFF The Acropolis and the second replacement in less than 2 months) we finally got back to the business of exploring the city and a couple little ancient ruins.

Hadrian’s Arch was built by the Athenians, in 131 AD, in honour of Emperor Hadrian.  The monument is built of Pentelic marble and bears two inscriptions.  One inscription, facing west towards the Acropolis and the old town says, “This is Athens, the city of Theseus”.  The other inscription, facing east says “This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus”.  

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Hadrian’s Arch was built after The Olympieion, which includes the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman baths, classical houses as well as a section of the ancient city’s fortification wall.

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View of Hadian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus from The Acropolis

At about 11AM the heat was starting to get a little bit much and we headed indoors to explore The New Acropolis Museum.  It’s been said that construction for this museum was being protested by the ancient Greek gods.  After many protests and delays, work finally started and an ancient urban development was unearthed from the ground dug up for the foundations – construction was immediately halted.  Finally a design was created to build the museum in a way that the ancient site would be preserved and open to view.

When we approached the museum, we thought that it was the coolest thing that they had built the museum overtop of these ancient ruins and showcased them with an opening at the entrance and glass floors.  We hadn’t realized that this unique feature of the museum was not part of the original plans.

Entrance to the New Acropolis Museum is 5 euro and in my opinion, it was worth it.

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Right before we left the museum we saw this small silver cup encased in glass and a video playing.  This was the trophy won by the Greek Marathon winner, Spyros Louis, in the first modern Olympic Games.  He was the only Greek athlete to win at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens.  As he approached the stadium to win the Marathon race, people yelled, ‘He’s GREEEEK’, and the crowd went wild!

The marathon created for the 1896 Games was inspired by the legendary run of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to bring the news of victory by the ancient Greeks in their battle over the Persians.  He died moments after delivering the message of victory after running the 25 miles/40 km distance – and there you have the historical roots of the Marathon.

When the Breal’s Silver Cup was displayed at the museum in 2012, this was the first time it had been displayed in Greece.

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The Sacred Rock: The Acropolis

19 08 2015

There is a lot of pressure when you are the sole trip planner.  Sure, it’s nice to get that pat on the back if you bring your travel companions to the perfect view at sunset, or the best kept secret restaurant in the city, or if you just have THE BEST time ever.  But what happens if things don’t go according to plan, if your sources turn out to be full of shit, or perhaps you failed to notice that the site was last updated in 2012?  Well either way, I felt a lot of pressure on this trip.  I felt like we couldn’t truly ‘wing it’ to see the sights effectively, nor did I want to overfill our itinerary, and I definitely wanted to see what we could do to avoid getting caught up in a sea of cruise ship tours.  (get it ‘sea of cruise ships tours’ – HA).

I tried to ask Nathan’s opinion on a few things: do we go to the Acropolis first thing in the morning when it opens at 8AM or at the end of the day when the heat is dying down and the cruise ships are gone…. Little response.  Private tour or bus tour? what’s the price difference.  Ferry ride or flight to the islands? What’s our timeline again? I tried to show Nathan photos a couple of nights before we left, and he said ‘NO – I don’t want to see anything.  I want to be surprised.’

So there you have it.  The fate of our trip rests on my shoulders.

And so, after our 3 hour nap and a cup of mango and lemon gelato, we are off to The Acropolis.  At the end of the day.  It was still really hot.  But the light for photographs was what won me over.  First decision made.

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The Acropolis is Greece’s most emblematic monument, the sacred rock, an ancient citadel on a flat-topped rock that rises 490 feet above sea level from the heart of the city.  It is a compass that you look to to orient yourself in the city, and it may involve you walking round and round and round trying to figure out where you started and which way to go now.  But, regardless of user error – you can see it from pretty much anywhere.

After hours spent looking at the names of the different ancient sites and monuments on the computer before our trip, it all seemed a little overwhelming.  I was worried that there was a certain order to view the sites and a best view point for photos.  But once we started the trek up the dusty path, I began to realize that it really doesn’t matter.  Every ancient structure is impressive and it is mind boggling that people have been ascending this sacred rock for over 6000 years, and it just gets better and better the further you climb.

We entered at the South Slope of the Acropolis, and so our first big site was The Ancient Theatre of Dionysos.  It is the most ancient theatre in the world and saw the premiere performances of the plays from ancient Greek poets: Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles in 5th century BC.

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Ancient Theatre of Dionysos

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There is something to be said for sitting in seats at the world’s most ancient theatre.

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The Odeion on Herodes Atticus was built in 161 AD by Herodes Tiberius Claudius Atticus, a teacher and philosopher who inherited a fortune from his father.  To this day, this theatre is used as a venue for concerts during the Athens Festival – which would be a pretty cool experience.

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The Propylaia is the monumental gateway, and grand entrance to The Acropolis.

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Built in 437 – 432 BC, it is made almost entirely of Pentelic marble.  Now, Pentelic marble is flawless white with a uniform, faint yellow tint that makes it shine golden in the sunlight (which makes it just lovely at sunset), and comes from Mount Penteli, which according to google maps is almost 15 miles away from the Acropolis.  Considering that the monuments, including the Parthenon, are all made of Pentelic marble, can you imagine what it would have taken to harvest all of the marble and move it that distance?! Crazy!

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Temple of Athena Nike

The Temple of Athena Nike showed its golden hue as the sun started to set during our visit.  Built in 421 BC, it commemorated the victory of the Athenians against the Persians.

As we passed through the Propylaia gateway, I could see the Parthenon up ahead to my left, but I felt like we had to delay the anticipation and leave the Grand Finale to the end, so we went ahead to the right.

The Erechtheion was built between 421 and 406 BC at the most holy site of The Acropolis.  Athena and Poseidon both wanted to be the patron of Athens and it was decided that whoever gave the city the best gift would preside over the city and surrounding lands.  Poseidon struck the earth with his trident and a spring of salt water poured out of the ground.  Although impressed, the people were not that impressed when they tasted the salt water.  Athena’s gift was the Olive Tree, which ultimately won her the prize, and naming rights, since the people found value in the food (olives), oil and wood provided by her gift.

The site of The Erechtheion is said to be build where Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and Athena planted her olive tree.  The Western section dedicated to Poseidon, and the Eastern section, with its southern balcony featuring the 6 Caryatids, is dedicated to Athena.  And the olive tree growing on its left, although not the original olive tree, is said to have sprouted miraculously after the original olive tree was destroyed by the Persians at this very same spot.

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We wandered around looking at the view.  And I was also that person that was hovering around the water fountain, taking my turn guzzling straight from the source, rather than filling up a water bottle.   I don’t know why I even questioned bringing my water bottle, much less didn’t even buy one when we were at the bottom!  But just in case that happens to you too – there is a water fountain at the top.

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We could see the flag waving to us from our hotel rooftop terrace.

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And oh look – there’s our roof top terrace!

And finally….The Parthenon! 

The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to Athena, built in 447-438 BC, and the most important surviving building of Classical Greece.   It is built from an estimated 13,400 blocks of Pentelic marble that was transported from the quarries on Mount Penteli.

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During the last 2,500 years, The Parthenon has endured many different transformations.  During the Roman Period, after acquiring many new votive offerings and statues, The Parthenon became a Christian cathedral and many statues and friezes were destroyed.  It was then turned into a Mosque during the Ottoman Period.  For the majority of its life, the building remained intact – a Doric peripteral temple with 8 columns on the front and 17 columns on each side, with no straight lines in its design, so the columns appear to bulge, as if straining from the weight.  It wasn’t until 1687, when the Venetians bombarded the Acropolis, causing an explosion that created the gap in the south side of The Parthenon, that the structure began to falter.  And in 1801-1812, Britain’s Lord Elgin, removed much of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, including 1 Caryatid, which is presently displayed in the British Museum and the Greek government has been trying to bring back to Greece to be displayed with the other 5 original Caryatids at the Acropolis Museum (which is amazing by the way).

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So there you have it.  Our tour of The Acropolis.  From 5:30PM – 7:30PM, we sweated under the setting sun, stirring up little clouds of dust under our feet.  But we didn’t have to deal with hoards of tour groups!

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Greece It Is!

19 08 2015

It took me a little while, but I finally convinced Nathan that it was time to extend our travel outside of the US and Canada.  Don’t get me wrong, I love visiting Santa Fe, Vancouver, San Diego, NYC, Arizona, Hawaii! and there are still 9 states I have left to visit, but after 6 years, it’s time to spread our wings!

So it was Greece or New Zealand.  Those were the options I was given.  And since our travel plans were going to be in July, and New Zealand is in the midst of its winter – GREECE IT IS!

After months of reading travel sites and looking at maps, reading ‘top 10 things to do’ and ‘top things to eat’ lists, researching admission prices, operating hours, and loading up on euros after checking on the financial situation in Greece, we were finally ready for our trip.  Well, I can’t say that we were ready exactly, but it was time to go!

After a 15 hour travel day/night, we touched down around 10AM in Athens; a little bleary-eyed, a little frizzy-haired and just a little bit excited to be in Greece!

We stayed at the Electra Palace Hotel in the Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, and it proved to be a fantastic home base for our adventures the next few days.  Armed with a map, 2 cameras and the anticipation of a new city to discover, we headed out to explore….that is, after a much-needed 3 hour nap.

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One of the most popular modes of transportation…especially for date night!

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Was not expecting Athens to have so much graffiti

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Streets of the Plaka with a view of Hadrian’s Arch

 





Family Time on Orcas Island

25 07 2015

It was pretty tough to top our amazing time on San Juan Island.  Orcas. Alpacas. Crab Mac & Cheese….

But as we rolled our suitcases up the deck at Friday Harbor Marina, a little wet from the unexpected rain shower we experienced overnight, we were determined to make our experience on Orcas Island every bit as memorable.

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Now that we had checked ‘See Orca Whales’ off of our list, there wasn’t as much pressure to stand outside in the drizzly grey weather.  But I still found a few reasons to stay outside on the deck.  With the marina layer laying low, the trip from Friday Harbor to Orcas Island took on a mystical feel.

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And although we didn’t see any whales during our trip, perhaps we saw an even more unusual sight.  A bald eagle swimming.

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With giant breaststrokes, we watched it swim towards the shore.  I’m not sure why it was in the water, but it didn’t seem to be struggling.  Perhaps it had caught something in its talons that it wasn’t willing to give up, something worth a few wet feathers.

Before we knew it, the 50 minute ride from San Juan Island to Orcas Island was complete and we were approaching Orcas Village, with its crown jewel – The Orcas Hotel
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The Orcas Hotel first opened its doors to guests in 1904 and has kept its Victorian heritage charm.  And this would be our destination for the night…

But first, we had a few adventures to take on:

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East Sound was our first stop.  Jerry was determined to enjoy a few tasty treats at Brown Bear Baking. And who am I to prevent him from his wish!

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We strolled the streets, shopped the shops and got down to the nitty gritty on the beach.

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And then off to Deer Harbor to enjoy an afternoon sail with Captain Ward and his sailboat Aura.

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We may not have been the best sailing companions, since Nathan and I were juggling 2 phones and work calls, but he treated us well and took us out for a beautiful sail where we saw harbor seals and enjoyed our time out on the water.

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From on the water to 2,409 feet above sea level, within an hour of stepping off the boat, we were gazing at the panoramic views at Mt. Constitution, the highest point on the San Juan Islands.

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It was beautiful and we just had to take advantage of the views for a family photo.  We did pack the tripod, so I guess we should at least take it out of its bag once…

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But then we got a little crazy.  The timer was set, there was running involved.  We didn’t always make it, but the end result was everyone was smiling, because we were laughing so hard and also amazed that I made it down the rocks each time without falling on my face!

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Finally, we made it to the stone observation tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936.  The tower offered panoramic views of the surrounding islands, the Cascade Mountains and even over to Canada!

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As we made our way back down to sea level, we got a little distracted by these moss covered cement stumps – all that remained from some old guard rails it looked like.

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And of course, we saw just a few deer on our way out – since it was prime dinner time.

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After dinner at Madrona Bar & Grill in East Sound, we eased our way back to The Orcas Hotel.  And there it was, awaiting our arrival.

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A great place to end our day on Orcas Island, and a wonderful way to complete our family vacation in the San Juan Islands!





#1 Favourite Thing

24 07 2015

You may not have realized, but I didn’t mention what my favorite #1 thing that we experienced on San Juan Island was on my last post.  And if Alpacas made #2 on my list (and really, how cute were they – you can’t get much better than that!)…..

You also may not have realized that I never did go back to the topic of whale watching….

Now, before I get to the big reveal, let me set the scene.

During my research for our family trip to the San Juan’s, one thing was clear.  I wanted to see whales.  Ideally more than one.  But definitely Orca whales in the wild, while not on a whale watching tour.

Luckily for me, San Juan Island has Lime Kiln Point State Park, otherwise known as ‘Whale Watch Park‘.  It is a 36 acre day use park set on the west side of San Juan Island and is considered to be one of the best places in the world to view whales from shore.  So, this stop was what the entire trip was built around.

The San Juan Islands are home to 3 resident pods of Orca Whales.  J-Pod, K-Pod and L-Pod.  Individually, each pod has more than 20 members, and as a total more than 80 whales.  Great odds that we would be able to see these whales in the wild.  Especially since they are known to hang out together and intermingle.  The males visit other pods to mate, but they always go back to mama.  Orca whales exist in a matriarchal society.

On it’s own, the park is beautiful and a great place to stop for a picnic lunch.  Too bad we were too impatient, and also had our heart (and stomach’s) set on lunching at Madrona Bar & Grill at Roche Harbor.  So we had to settle for taking in the views while munching on granola bars.

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Just like on the ferry boat, we looked as hard as we could.  We scoured the horizon and I had my camera poised for action.

Nothing.

Then I started watching the other people around us doing the same thing.  Until I finally saw someone pointing.  I whipped my head around and I swear I saw a flash of black and white.  It was an Orca!  I swear….it was an Orca.

The family was a little skeptical, until I started doubting myself as well.

And then we saw a dorsal fin breach.  I was redeemed.

Until I zoomed in and compared what was on the camera with what was on the informational chart.  There’s no way that fin belongs to an Orca.  Instead, it appears that what I saw was a Minke Whale.  The second smallest of the baleen whales, and black/gray/purple in colour on the body and white underneath.  So I guess that’s why I thought I saw a flash of black and white.  Because I did.

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We watched for a while longer.  People started to get bored and wandered off to explore the lighthouse.  Finally, our stomachs started talking, no, demanding – that if this is all we were going to see than there were other things that we need to be moving onto.  Like food.  Like crab mac and cheese and clam chowder, sitting on the deck while watching harbor seals in the marina.  Ok, well maybe my stomach wasn’t demanding to watch harbor seals, but my stomach and my mind were in agreement.  Time to move on.

We made our way back to the parking lot.  Thinking about lunch, but already planning on when we could come back to really whale watch.  Maybe we double back and come back after lunch, or maybe we have to plan a whole other trip back another time.

THEN WAIT.  We ran into a kindhearted stranger who was rushing to her car to grab jackets for her and her husband.  WHALES!  There are reports that K Pod is coming around the point!  WHAT????

I ran.  Screw the crab mac and cheese (that incidentally, did end up being delicious).  I want to see whales.  So we went crashing back down the path, and I got a little excited and kind of went off roading and careened full steam into some bushes before I got redirected to the more civilized and correct path to walk down.

People were lined up on the rocky point by the Lighthouse.  Waiting.  Watching.

My camera was poised, my muscles tense.

Jonathan was manning the binoculars and yells out, ‘They’re coming!! They’re coming! There’s so many of them!’ 

We looked out to the water, and just barely you could see some white waters waves – a little bigger than white caps, coming around the point.  But it could just as easily have been ferry waves that were heading towards the shore.

But then the whale watching boats start to appear and here comes the whales!

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I was so focused on trying to take photos, I felt stressed and excited and nervous and exhilarated, all at the same time.  I heard laughing and cheering.  Ooohs and Aaahhs.  There they are.  Over there.  Now that one.  Look at that!

I was so zoomed in I had to look away and up to make sure that I wasn’t so focused on the macro that I was missing leaps and breaches.

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But these whales were on the move.  They came in fast and furious – porpoising in groups of 2, 3, 4 at a time.

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They came tearing past us for what seemed like forever, but probably was more like 5 minutes.  We saw this resident pod of whales, as we stood on the rocks, closer than we ever would have on a whale watching tour (unless they actually came up to the boat and swam under us like you see on the youtube videos).

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Finally, the last of the pod disappeared around the lighthouse, ready for their next audience at the other end of the park.  It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.  And it would be hard to compete with.

It took a while before I could stop watching for the whales, running back down the trail to see if I could catch up with them (never going to happen).  Throughout the rest of the trip, whenever there was a silent moment, one of us would say, ‘those whales’ and we would all relive the experience.  THE Best experience ever.

Which makes me think that I’ve ruined myself for future whale sightings.  I’m spoiled and unless I see a full breach and backflip, nothing is going to top this experience.

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22 Hours on San Juan Island

23 07 2015

Gray skies greeted us Sunday morning as we boarded the ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island.

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Jerry and I were determined to see whales.  We were bundled and huddled up outside, scouring the waterscape trying to see as hard as we could some sort of sign of whales.  A water spout, a tail slap, a dorsal fin….Any sign of whales.

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The fog didn’t make it the easiest. And before we knew it, the sixty-five minute ferry ride was over and no whales…

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San Juan Island has a unique history.  In 1859, Great Britain and the United States agreed to a joint occupation of San Juan Island until the water boundary between the two nations could be settled.  So on this little island of 621 square miles, the US and Great Britain settled into camps located on opposite ends of the island.

At the South end of the island we found the American Camp complete with a couple deer sightings and a telescope aimed at an Eagle nest.

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And on the North side of the island, the English camp, with some pretty nice views and a telescope aimed at an Ospray nest.  In terms of views, I think the English camp may have won the battle, but ultimately the United States won the territory dispute and the British left their camp with a view in 1872.

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Although I was happy to see these historical places, it was the wild life that I came to San Juan Island for.

The first time I asked Nathan to stop the car:  Cows.

I believe when I got out of the car, the question was asked, ‘Doesn’t Canada have cows?’ 

 Of course, but laugh all you want, I got some fun photos!

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And the second best part of the day:  The Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. 

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I never really thought about how many different colours of Alpacas there are, or how different they can all look.  And I admit, I had my favourites.

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It’s a toss up between these last two – I can’t decide which one is my favourite, but they both make me smile!

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One of the most beautiful parts of the island was Roche Harbor.  With blue skies as the backdrop for a picturesque marina, historic Hotel de Haro, remnants of old lime kilns, and a fragrant flowering arbor, it was a picture perfect scene.

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We found ourselves back at Friday Harbor, ready to settle in for the night, around 5PM.  It was definitely a jam-packed day, and although we missed the opportunity to stroll the streets and browse the colourful shops, we didn’t miss out on the chance for enjoying a little marina life.  And for the first time for some of us, we spent the night breathing in the salty sea air and rocking to the lullaby of the harbour.

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