Exhausting

I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.

When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.

When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.

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Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.

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A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.

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sd04No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.

One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.

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Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.

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Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.

One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.

It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.

sd07And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)

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Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.

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sd09Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so  utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.

The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.

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After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Oeuf to France

The annual plume of unseasonal warm air making its way up towards the British Isles from North Africa (aka fake summer) coincided with a trip to France. In some ways it was a shame to miss out on such glorious weather in Britain over Easter – how I would miss the opportunity to pop to Tesco in my shorts to battle for the last bag of charcoal and three packs of sausages for a fiver. Or negotiate the single track roads to Cornish coves whose hillsides are coated in cars charged eight quid for the privilege. But France would be nice.

fr02Indeed, the weather didn’t bring too much to grumble about and my shorts proved a justified inclusion on the continent. There were countryside ambles and meanders through parks, Easter egg hunts in the garden and trips to the market. All the usual trappings of life on the French-Swiss border in Ville-la-Grand, snow coating distant peaks while spring was springing all around.

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Out of town, a morning amble around Lac du Mole took us slightly closer to the snow. Yet here the sights of ducklings and the sounds of randy toads were ample testament to the fact that things were hotting up.

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It was good to be out, within flirting distance of the mountains, the sight of which always entice you to explore more. However, the primary rationale for this particular outing wasn’t really to survey mountain tops and randy toads. It was – of course – the proximity of the lake to a patisserie; a roadside stop that could be a Little Chef or a Costa Coffee in the UK, but here was brim with fondant artistry and crème extravagance. As opposed to despondent mediocrity and frothy incompetence.

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While there was gateau and – naturally – cheese aplenty, this was also a trip featuring roast dinners, toads in holes and homemade lasagne; a franglais stew to cater for cross-cultural cravings. I find ice cream works in any language, whether this is whipped in Walsall or churned in Chernobyl. Both places where you’d hope not to find yourself buying ice cream to be honest.

fr06Annecy, on the other hand, is a gem of a place to take in an ice cream or do whatever you should please. From the hive of construction that is Annemasse station, a pleasing hour long train ride delivered my nephew Guillaume and I to what has been described as the Venice of the Alps, largely on the count of a canal infiltrating a few of the streets and – possibly – gondoliers wailing about their need for Walls Cornettos.

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Passing through France almost every town or village you come upon proclaims itself as a Ville Fleurie, going on to illustrate this with an intricate arrangement featuring a cast iron cow and a cluster of geraniums in the middle of a roundabout. Annecy would live up to Ville Fleurie and then some, at least in its medieval centre chock full of flower boxes and civic blooms. The suburbs could well be as grimy as Walsall for all I know, but in the midst of town, much is done to attract and charm.

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fr09The waterways and the flowers and the daytrippers milling about eating ice cream largely find their way towards the jewel in the crown that is Lac d’Annecy and its quite dazzling surrounds. Clear, glacial water hosts an array of boats, encircled by forests, villages and rapidly elevating peaks. It’s a popular spot to row or cruise or be a hoon on a jetski. Or even pedalo for half an hour in a large figure eight. Everybody loves a tourist.

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fr10bThe frequent sight of tourists eating ice cream impels one to wander the streets like a tourist to seek out an ice cream. Heavily topped cornets increase in frequency back near one of the canals, and a large queue meanders from the serving hatch of Glacier des Alpes. Patience may be rewarded with sublime ice cream but neither Guillaume nor I had much patience and opted for a perfectly satisfactory version nearby. Safe from the clutches of any devious gondoliers.

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Leaving Annecy, storm clouds were gathering over the mountains and the very fine weather would break the following day to deliver a period of wind and rain. Preparation for my return to England – and the frequently damp northwest of England to boot. Unlike in the northwest of England, the weather front passed here and left a glorious late afternoon and evening, ripe for a walk across to Switzerland.

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A recurring spectacle across my trip this year – both in France and the UK – was the sight of rapeseed flowering in the fields. A swathe of lurid yellow regularly interrupting the tranquil patchwork of green, unable to be contained within its boundaries and peppering nearby hedges and springing from cracks in the concrete. Insatiable and seemingly inevitable around every corner, in places stretching as far as the eye can see. Only the mountains appear to stop it.

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fr13And so, the last evening in France turned out as sunny as the unseasonably warm sun that was soon to fade away in Great Britain; to be replaced by a storm so irritating it was awarded a name (Hannah), heralding a permanent return to long trousers. One last slice of gateau would compensate for the impending doom, and cap off a very fine Easter; my first in the northern hemisphere since 2006. So, fake summer or real, it was undoubtedly one that will go down in history.

Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Sound

The town of Te Anau has one of the most unexpectedly elongated high streets perhaps anywhere in New Zealand. Plonked in the remote southwest corner of the country, it possesses two supermarkets, three petrol stations, at least four places where you can buy pizza, several pubs, numerous cafes and restaurants, something resembling a department store and more shops selling sheep key rings than you can shake a shepherd’s crook at.

The reason for this is – principally – Milford Sound, with Te Anau handily positioned as a coffee / lunch / afternoon tea / dinner stop on very full day excursions from Queenstown, or as a closer base from which to discover Fiordland. And while most trippers and trampers understandably head for the hills, Te Anau has a certain charm that is worth a linger. Despite the throughflow of visitors, it seems a lot quieter and subdued than Queenstown or Wanaka. The countryside around is greener and lusher, and its lakeside situation with views across to snow-capped peaks is divine.

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Lest Te Anau get a little too busy we stayed a tad out of town in a log cabin wedged into the side of a hill. This was the Barnyard Backpackers complex, and while it retained a style of basic but comfortable accommodation, I was struck by how different staying in hostels is these days. Mostly this is down to the internet and its ability to transport you away from the here and now. So while I may have played shithead accompanied with a bottle of cheap wine with a group of randoms twenty years ago, nowadays it’s all about WhatsApp calls home and squinting solitarily into a small screen. Something I did with limited success thanks to all the bandwidth being taken up by WhatsApp calls to Germany! Still, at least here you can just look up and soak in the views.

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From Te Anau, the inevitable stream of people and cars converging on Milford Sound benefits from a little strategising; a calculation involving the avoidance of peak coach tour times, maximum weather and reflection opportunities, and which of the plethora of boat trips to pick. But really it’s just luck and we got pretty lucky. Striking out early via a coffee stop at the Sandfly Café, dawn light gradually infiltrated the Eglinton Valley, the sunlight and early mist rising from the river serving to accentuate its majesty.

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The calm of morning also meant that Mirror Lakes were actually mirror-like, reflecting the glowing mountains, and observed by just a smattering of early day-trippers like us.

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NZc04The sunny start changed around The Divide as we headed into the clouds and prospects for a clear cruise on the sound were diminished. It was the kind of weather I expected, typical of this area which is famed for being the wettest spot in New Zealand[1]. But emerging into and out of the Homer Tunnel there were breaks, mountain tops could be seen, and the winding road down to the water remained largely clear. Sure, it was not the rare blue sky day that you see in the advertising, but the pinnacle of Mitre Peak emerged, the tide was in, and there was ample time for relaxation and reflection before hitting the water.

This was to be my third visit to Milford Sound and each time has offered different conditions. The first visit was one of those wet affairs that delivered little visibility, only compensated by numerous spectacular waterfalls plunging from the heavens; second time around gave some blue sky, a brisk breeze and significant glare; and today was without doubt the most placid I had seen it, clear, calm under a high level white sky. Seasickness would not be a problem.

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And so the obligatory cruise, which is a very pleasant experience but one which somehow you are fairly content to finish after two hours. Up to the Tasman Sea and back, taking in waterfalls, forests and seal-dotted rocks, neck-craned constantly to fathom the height of the precipitous mountains that encircle the fiord. The scale is hard to comprehend and harder to capture, but a steady stream of sightseeing planes and choppers looking the size of seagulls against the cliffs provided a persistent sense of perspective. All washed down by a ‘glacial facial’.

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Our cruise finished at 12:30, meaning we had time to pause along the road back to Te Anau. What was an empty coach park (containing at least 40 bays) when we set off on the boat was now crammed, and the tide receding and breeze rising had scuppered any iconic Mitre Peak reflections for the masses. Strategy or luck, it ran out briefly at The Chasm, where we lingered long for a car park and failed to find a delightful glade for lunch. But further stops along the highway offered more opportunity to delight, to take in waterfalls, peaks and pristine river valleys.

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Back in the Eglinton Valley – where it had all really started this morning – the warm sun was once again shining and the day did its very best to resemble an idyll. I was more than happy to linger here, to wallow in the golden grasses beside jade waters, while Dad wallowed in a little fishing time. And even if the trout don’t bite so much here, surely in such a setting netting doesn’t matter.

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It turns out the better (aka easier haha!) fishing spots are closer to Te Anau. A prime spot to dump Dad and take the hire car for a bit of an explore, down south of Te Anau to Manapouri. If Te Anau had a serene calm about it, Manapouri was decidedly comatose. But I mean that in a good way, the lake wild and rugged, visitors few and far between and mostly heading toward or coming back from trips to Doubtful Sound. Doubtless there are trout here too, on the edge of the world.

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With this little foray, three hours and five fish had passed and we joined up to dine on takeaway pizza in the car overlooking Lake Te Anau. The breeze was up, the weather closing in a little, the car rocking. Omens of the mostly fine post-cyclone weather that we had enjoyed in the last few days coming to an end. It was looking as if rain might just visit us again, transforming Milford Sound to a funnel of waterfalls and blowing us back towards our final stop, Queenstown.

 

[1] The day after our visit, Milford Sound received over 30 centimetres (not millimetres!) of rain

Driving Green Bogey Photography

Take a train, take a photo

In the space of an hour I crossed from France to Switzerland to France to Switzerland again. It would’ve been shorter if it weren’t for the fact that Switzerland obscures the presence of France, and France fails to advertise its presence at all. With our hire car eventually returned in a space smaller than – well – a hire car and the assistants nonchalantly watching with a shrug and a keen eye for scratches, it clearly felt like France. Then efficiently down an escalator Dad and I re-entered Switzerland, which was doing its best to imitate France.

Faring Dad well in the tobacco-scented chaos, my train left a minute or two late from Geneva Airport into the city, where I met up with Caroline and encountered more scandalous mayhem queuing for a train ticket. Onwards to Lausanne, where our train was one of only a handful not encountering a delay of five minutes or so. Heads will roll for this, I thought. Perhaps this French-speaking corner of Switzerland is attempting to be more like La Republique, I mused. But with no Orangina.

Michael Portillo would have been as pleased as pink pants to find that the trains were running like clockwork the following day. A good job too as we took eight train journeys (and missed a ferry, oops) to maximise rail pass value and soak up an array of succulent Swiss scenery. The kind of scenery where cows chew happily away to produce creamy chocolate and flavoursome cheese, luring visitors to revel in a pleasant cliché or two.

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swiss02Indeed, many visitors were lured by the smells of the Cailler chocolate factory in Broc; so much so that we skipped the long wait times and went straight to the chocolate tasting (i.e. shop) instead. One bar later we were getting off the train in Gruyeres, straight opposite the fromage factory and down below the castled old town. Undeniably cheesy with a touch of theme park, it is nonetheless a fine spot in which to amble and eat a random picnic from the Coop.

For me, the fifth, sixth and seventh train journeys of the day broke new ground, shifting south from Gruyeres through a scenic valley to the main street of Montbovon. From here, train number six was as delightful as a lime green blazer and yellow trouser combo. Outside, the landscape became increasingly mountainous, idyllically scattered with wooden chalets bathed in baskets of red geranium. Inside, the train was a treasure of wood panelling, art deco lamps and antiquated buffet service. At some point, somewhere, everything became Germanic. Guten tag Gstaad.

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Forty minutes in Gstaad was enough to gauge that this was another kind of Gruyeres, the Swiss theme park of gold bullion, creative offshore accounting and thousand dollar sunglasses. There were few cuckoo clocks in sight and even the vending machine at the station offered gourmet meats and diamond-encrusted olives pooped out by a rare Tuscan unicorn which belongs to Her Majesty. The supermarket water was cheap enough though and – I’m sure with more time and exploration – there would be plenty of opportunities to penetrate beyond the slightly false exterior and into nature.

swiss04Retracing some of the route back into the French speaking side of Switzerland, train seven rolled and lulled its way to snoozeville, climbing up through a hole in the rock to emerge way above Lake Geneva. The descent was disorienting as the lake shifted from left to right and eventually lapped at the foot of Montreux. What better way to stretch the legs than to walk along the lake shore in the early evening sunshine, ambling towards a Legoland castle jutting out into the water?

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Turns out it was a magical castle that disappears from view only to re-emerge further in the distance the closer you get to it. It may have been a mirage or a hallucinogenic vision created by too much train travel and ice cream. Michael Portillo would’ve had a private boat tour in some reconditioned U-boat; by time we reached the Chateau de Chillon, we missed our ferry back. Oops. Train number eight it is then.

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swiss06Following an epic day cruising the rails of eastern Switzerland, the next day – Sunday – proved a quieter affair. I mean, it did start with a train, the Lausanne metro transporting us to a dormant university campus and close to more lakeside ambles. Lausanne was emerging to life in its dog walkers and cyclists and rowers and barbecue in the park chefs. It was still rather quiet, in a Canberra-like kind of state.

The parkland serenity of Lausanne was in stark contrast to the triathlon taking place on the streets, an event that seemed to go on for like forever. It was still finishing up after another walk from the edge of the Lavaux vine terraces back into the city. Ice cream and midges accompanied the stroll past small parks, gravelly bays and waterfront homes. More people were out and about this afternoon, topping up tans and a healthy constitution. And still the triathletes finished, not at all concerned about being drug-tested as they sauntered past IOC HQ.

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Lausanne proved a good base to spend a few days in Switzerland and I am sure it could offer an agreeable life. There’s probably more to see and more that can be done (just ask our AirBnB host!) but, crucially, did it pass the ‘I could live here test?’ Well, probably…like if you were placed here for work or study or something. There could be far worse spots in which to dwell, even if you don’t like trains or triathlons.

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After vaguely bestowing some half-arsed compliments to a city that I spent a few days in (hey, this is rigorous Lonely Planet stuff here), Monday was an opportunity to get out of said city and use up our other all-inclusive travel day. Just the three trains and three ferries but these proved more than enough to recover the rail pass expenditure two-fold.

swiss08The trip from Montreux up to Rochers-de-Naye would cost an arm and a leg in itself. Better than cramp and a heart attack that would be the inevitable result of trying to make this journey on foot. Old and old at heart alike were more than happy to board the open air carriages, passing the raffish suburbs of Higher Montreux, up through clusters of chalets and expensive hotel restaurants commanding views of the lake, into pine forest under deep blue skies and out into open meadows way up high. At around two thousand metres in height, panoramas of Switzerland and France abound.

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There are plenty of opportunities to take a photo of the approaching train as you wait upon the platform for the ride down. A ride down that pauses somewhere and you see a couple of friends from Canberra on the other train going up! An occurrence almost as random, as bizarre as the Nolan sisters ordering spaghetti bolognaise and chips at a swanky hotel nearby.

Swank is in the air in Montreux, which is a pleasing-on-the-eye, sun-kissed kind of affair seemingly designed for lakeside promenading (as opposed to scrambling frantically for a ferry near a mysteriously disappearing chateau). Today, there was no major rush for our next connection, with time just about right to eat the world’s most expensive bagel and soak up a little of the shoreline ambience. And then, having covered every piece of rail in the area, it was only fitting that we should now take to the water.

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The ride on the lake to Lausanne offered an alternately sunny and hot or shady and cool experience in which to marvel at the mountains, to peer up and pick out the bulbous summit of Rochers-de-Naye, and to appreciate the tumbling green steps of the Lavaux. At Lausanne, an efficient interchange swept us, alongside the omnipresent youngsters of the Wessex Youth Orchestra, on board to a ferry to cross over to Evian, and back again into France.

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Evian was more charming than I remember from my one previous visit here. There was great ice cream, crepes and Orangina-au-wasp, pretty shops and houses, a Carrefour full of oddments, little in the way of French litter and dog poop, and – of course – a tap pumping out free water from an ornate unicorn’s mouth or something. Here, an amalgam of curious tourists and mischievous restaurateurs gathered to fill bottles, supping on cool refreshing water that tasted just like water.

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There’s also a free, old-fashioned funicular in Evian and on this trip there was no way we were going to miss out on such a thing! The Wessex Youth Orchestra were also keen; if only they had brought their instruments along we could have had a jaunty rendition of Climb Every Mountain and even less air in which to breathe. They then followed us to an overlook and we buddied up again on the way back down. Key take outs were that not all yoof are horrendous, I don’t miss the awkwardness of those years, thank god we didn’t have phones and social media when I was their age, and where the hell is Wessex anyway?

As the orchestra diminuendoed their way back across to Switzerland we lingered for dinner and a later sailing that coincided with dusk. Leaving France for the fourth time, it was rather sedate and beautiful: the triple-pronged peaks of an Evian bottle fading in the sky, the lights twinkling on around the shore, the calm of the water interrupted by birds and the chop of the ferry. The scene like an ending from some movie, or perhaps the closing credits of a Great Continental railway, bus, funicular, cog train, metro, foot and ferry journey.

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Europe Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

Gap Fillers 1: Southeast Cornwall

I am behind, seriously behind. Numerous distractions scattered within a 30 mile radius of Plymouth have conspired to infiltrate the memory card of my camera and ingratiate the memory banks of my brain. Blogging was so much easier when I was marooned in Canberra, with just the occasional escape to regurgitate and local tree pictures to upload. Today I forget what day of the week it was yesterday and where I popped out in the afternoon after labouring in front of my computer doing work (eeek).

So, in an effort to catch up to the present day, here is the first of a non-sequential, scattergun melee of words and pictures. To provide some semblance of logic, the focus is on Southeast Cornwall and various trips I have made across the Tamar to this somewhat understated of back yards. It’s an area that can get overlooked – in fact I have been guilty of such – for the drama and mystique of the North Cornish coast. But there are many gems, some of them new to me, littered within the rolling fields and crystal coves of the south.

Literally just across the Tamar are the twin villages of Cawsand and Kingsand. It’s a small pedestrian ferry ride away from the salty sewage and sinister seagulls of Plymouth’s Barbican. Despite the influx of Janners, it is undeniably charming courtesy of its narrow streets and pastel ocean tones. Stick around as a sunny Sunday afternoon lengthens, and you can gleefully soak in the mellow vibes with a Doom Bar outside the front of the Devonport Inn.

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Around the corner from here is Whitsand Bay. An area that I frequently bypass in pursuit of those finer grains of sand. Come at high tide and there will be little of it to walk on. But when the tide is out, the bay stretches on and on and on. The ribbon of road skirting the cliff tops bears a passing resemblance to a small section of Great Ocean Road, and steep tracks lead down to the sands and rocks and pools far below. Not so bad to reach, but harder to return.

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There is a great sense of space here – of vast ocean and big sky, Plymouth hidden by the hulking spine of Maker Heights and Rame Head. Small fibro shacks with names like Eddystone View and Shipwreck Haven add a rough and ready, ends of the earth, windswept aura. It could be coastal Tasmania, Devonport around the corner and Launceston up the road.

Along from Whitsand Bay the trappings of modernity return at Looe, a place of many a childhood day. There is nothing overly special about Looe – it’s just your regular run-of-the-mill southern Cornish fishing port nestled into a steep valley. Peppered with fish and chips and amusements it is a resort town, though not of the same ilk as Skegness or St Tropez. Two prime assets are its leafy branch rail line linked with Liskeard and Sarah’s Pasty Shop. Both in the same day make it worth an afternoon.

scorn03Many of the emmets and grockles and – indeed – locals combine a trip to Looe with a stop in Polperro. Polperro is undoubtedly the prettier of the two, with narrow (mostly car-free) streets, cosier cottages, and a ruggedly fishy pungency. Pasties look no more than average, but the recent revival in crumbly fudge (as opposed to the bland, processed slabs packed in Huddersfield) has blessed the town with a new outlet to be commended. Cornish sea salt is the fitting and fulfilling way to go.

From here I am going to skip a huge section of the coastline and return to it in a jiffy. Mainly because I want to build this post up towards a marvellous, heady climax. So, shifting further west, if I was to pick a line between Mevagissey and Falmouth I would be marking unchartered territory. It excites me that I still have unchartered territory in this part of the world. I made a small incursion into it the day after returning from London and it confirmed that if I was ever to move back to the UK it would not be in London (but never say never right?!).

scorn04Gorran Haven is, I suppose, nothing remarkable and its town beach would disappear with a high tide. But it offers a less touristified alternative to nearby Mevagissey, possessing enough steep narrow streets and cobbled harbour walkways to keep seaside amblers happy. I think it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and their business, which is no doubt discussed in lurid detail at the local RNLI supporters group meeting every third Tuesday of the month following the gathering of the Retired St Austell Druids and Mystic Circle Society. But I think I might like that. Its fish and chips and fairly remote and secret sandy beach around the headland might also make it bearable.

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But if we are looking for blissful sandy beaches in azure seas there is a gem amongst gems, a golden crown gleaming through the rubies and pearls of Southeast Cornwall. I had not set my eyes on it until a month or so ago, benign and more subdued under cloudy skies. A sunny day in early September gave me inspiration to return.

Eschewing another day of winding lanes and tractor blockages, I took the train for a change, disembarking at Par for a bus to Fowey. Fowey is kind of like Looe and Polperro, being yet another steep harbour lined with pastel cottages and granite townhouses. I like it the most out of the lot of them, maybe because it is a bit more upper class when I am not. I could live here but doubt if I could afford it. You can tell it’s on the Islington radar, with a beautiful bakery and organic butcher and delicatessen and many a cosy cafe to wait for a water taxi to take you to your yacht. I think this might help explain why I think I could live here.

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scorn09I could just as equally live in Polruan, across the river from Fowey and gateway to another luscious corner of cotton wool clouds hovering over creamy fields spilling into the sea.  No fancy bakery, no organic quinoa, just good old fashioned St Austell Ales and the sound of circular saws emanating from the boatyard. A steep, steep hill laden with bunting, or a slightly less severe meander lead to St Saviour’s headland, and expansive views south, east and west.

scorn08Back in classic South West Coast Path territory, the trail dips and rises steeply once again, the glare from a becalmed sea radiating heat like the sun through a windscreen. Turn a corner and you cross over into the Mediterranean, as the horseshoe cove of Lantic Bay welcomes the weary. Islington-on-sea may have anchored down below, but the ultimate satisfaction is to arrive on foot, rewarded for effort beyond expectation. I cannot think of a better place to eat some of my provisions from that bakery and delicatessen, marvelled by the colours from on high.

A jewel for the keeping.

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Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Up Pompey

I must confess to an inexplicable, in-built prejudice towards the city of Portsmouth. While not quite as menacing as the Daily Mail’s fear-stoking crusade for an antiquated version of middle England, my prejudice stems from uninformed and socially constructed antipathy. Nurtured through supposed rivalry – the battle of the dockyards – between Plymouth and Portsmouth, I have naturally taken the side of Plymouth, envisioning Portsmouth as lacking anything of appeal.

This prejudice of course exists without ever having been there. And so, it seems obvious to say that the best way to make an informed decision about the city of Portsmouth is to actually base it on real experience and facts, a principle that seems out-of-reach of many a lazy newspaper editor and Facebook re-poster the world around.

bas01One (of many) positive things I can now say about Portsmouth is that it actually has a summer. Well, at least for one day at the start of August. This may score it points over Plymouth, whose current endless drizzle is slowly driving me mad. The summer skies (which now seem an age away) are penetrated by a rather large erection – the Spinnaker Tower – brought to you, almost inevitably, by emirates.com. This protuberance now dominates the skyline, suddenly popping up around various corners and appearing from distant vantages. It has a Sydney Harbour Bridge quality in this respect, and is almost as photographically alluring.

bas02Indeed, atop the tower you could kid yourself that you are staring out at that great harbour of the southern continent, ferries bustling, sails billowing, cruisers cruising, waters glimmering in the sun. Then you taste a coffee and are brought back down to earth, only one hundred metres up, and your feet are plonked precariously on a glass floor. Shortbread for millionaires and the far-reaching views sweeten the bitterness and steady the nerves.

bas04The First Fleet left this same harbour a smidge over 225 years ago, just one small trinket of history in what is, undeniably, a great naval city. Today, the Historic Dockyard aims to pack all of this in around one sprawling site. Such is its richness that you cannot hope to cover it all in one day, but a harbour tour offers a good overview and – again – sat out on the deck on a warming clear day, a slight pang of the Sydneyesque emerges.

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bas05Within the dockyard itself several old ships of worldly significance stand, a reminder of empire and industry and rambunctious naval warfare between derring-do admirals and rascally foreigners with finely groomed beards and bouts of Syphilis. The hipsters of their time, strutting the maze of stairs and low ceilings of HMS Victory or gliding the gleaming decks of HMS Warrior. Doing things that will later appear in vaguely recalled history lessons and espoused more memorably by Stephen Fry and co on TV.

The dockyard experience makes a sudden swell of patriotism hard to resist, and it is inevitable that Rule Britannia will start pounding through your head, interspersed with Sideshow Bob Sings Songs from HMS Pinafore. How patriotic then to have delicious fish and chips in a pub and drive back through Jane Austen countryside, satisfied that the city of Portsmouth is actually one of suitable constitution to befit inclusion in this Jerusalem.

bas06Now, if I had prejudice for the English countryside it would undeniably be overly-favourable and rose-tinted, photoshopping out little blips like power pylons, speed cameras, and fields of slurry. It would be a scene closely resembling a walk through the Wiltshire countryside, starting in the quiet, affluent high street of Amesbury and finishing atop an ancient hill fort with the needle spire of Salisbury Cathedral gleaming in the middle distance.

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bas09Along this serene, sun-filled walk, thatched cottages and glorious gardens scatter amongst sweeping fields of wheat and undulating grassy meadows. Shady wooded copses harbour tinkling streams and melodic songbirds. A village meanders along the banks of a crystal clear river, the pub garden its heart and soul. Country lanes melt away into the hedgerow landscape, and weathered stone bridges hint at a past industriousness.

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bas11This is all enjoyed on the second day of summer weather in a row, a rarity as scarce as the ability to wear shorts, which is also somehow happening. It is pleasantly warm rather than scorching, but conditions are adequate enough for cidery refreshment at the midpoint. While post-drink malaise now seems a little more conducive for a nap than a hike, we push on up onto a ridge and then to the summit culmination of Old Sarum.

With 360 degree views, Old Sarum obviously made sense for original Middle Englanders (and then various waves of migrants) to construct defences and forts and castles and cathedrals. Sat atop its slope eating lunch, it is quite easy to imagine pouring some scalding hot oil on a pesky interloper who has made it across the deep moat. However, life today is generally more sedate and the only oil to be found is something like cold pressed balsamic infused deluxe extra virgin organic Tuscan olive oil offered with semi-dried tomato and wild chevre slow-rise sourdough served up in nearby Salisbury. I would have settled for an ice cream, but then not everything can be perfect on this exemplary English day, on a consummate, enlightening British weekend.

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Great Britain Green Bogey Walking

British Columbian

One week…one week of finishing work, packing up a white flat, jamming in flat whites, lingering in the bush and avoiding the fog. A week successfully navigated, with the generous bonus of a grating cough and snotty nose from the city of Canberra to see me on my way. Something to make an interminable fourteen hour flight even cheerier. But one week and fourteen hours later, I descended through a cloud of smoke and a sinus of pain into the city of Vancouver, and then beyond, out into the grizzly wilds…

In Whistler while you work

Skipping through Vancouver I had decided to head straight to the hills, for some post-journey restitution and mountain air. What sounded good on paper was challenged in practice, as huge forest fires courtesy of a severe drought had enshrouded most of BC in a layer of smoke. Whistler, it seems, was quite probably the worst place to be, with an air quality rating akin to bad days in Beijing. Oh to live in Beijing.

bc01There was little for it than to venture out in short bursts, around the shops and maze of pedestrian streets that make navigating Canberra suburbs seem a breeze. Oh for a breeze, to lift this constant eau-de-campfire. It came eventually, and there was minor visibility later in the day. Enough to see a red sun above the pines, encounter a moose, and stumble across a black bear.

The black bear sighting was a definitive highlight of the day, even more for the fact that I had probably already passed it once without noticing. Just munching on some berries beside a shared cycle and walking path, possibly waiting for some hapless campers with a picnic basket. Or people like me lost and doing an about turn. I passed, I saw, I lingered for a few seconds to weigh up the pros of making the most of a picture opportunity and the cons of being eaten. I carried on and the bear carried on regardless.

So one day in and I had already ticked off a few Canadian clichés. The next day I had a Canadian coffee, which was still relatively awful despite it being called a flat white and despite at least one Australian working in the coffee shop at the time. Never fear, British coffee awaits! Oh wait. On the plus side, while there was still a distinctive campfire smell, the smoke haze had lifted a little, meaning some bigger lumps of terrain could be spotted, down which numerous mountain bikers hurtled themselves faithfully like lemmings off a cliff.

bc03What goes down must go up and there is a generous lift system in Whistler for the intrepid explorer. This includes the Peak to Peak, a seemingly endless high wire linking Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, its small red cabins dangling over a gigantic precipice in between. Turns out the Swiss don’t have a monopoly on gravity defiance after all. Thanks to such engineering feats I was able to walk in a high alpine environment, and while the views were naturally hazy and the going a challenge (think jetlag, chest infection, altitude, smoke, heat, bad coffee) I made it to a small tarn on the Blackcomb side of the world.

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The trails stretch on to glacial views and craggy ridges and summit peaks and hidden valleys and – in another time, in other conditions – I could have gone on and on. But Whistler proved hard work and there was some relief at coming down from the mountains, away from the smoke and into brief Vancouver sea-level summertime ambience.

Clearer and coola

Not that there was much time for recovery. Early Friday and I was off to the airport to hop on a twelve-seater to the Bella Coola Valley. Where I hear you ask? Exactly. I am not sure myself how I first found out about this place and how I came to be here. But, after an hour flying over an astonishing wilderness of glacial river valleys, high ridges and gigantic icefields, I emerged in clear blue skies, uplifted to arrive in a momentously attractive spot.

A short boat ride took me across to the ever-photogenic and sublimely blissful Tallheo Cannery. Here stand the remnants of a once bustling enterprise, in which the plentiful salmon – sockeye, pink, and the highly prized spring – were netted, off-loaded, canned and shipped away to Vancouver and beyond. Nowadays, it is preserved in a ramshackle kind of way by a young family who have taken on with passion and gusto the task of maintaining and sharing this magical place with those lucky enough to find their way here.

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Making landfall again upon the small jetty I knew I had stumbled across what would be the undoubted highlight of my time in Canada. A pathway meandered through a small pocket of forest towards a rocky beach, next to which the remains of the cannery building protruded upon a series of weathered stilts, stained by the constant ebb and flow of the tide. Elsewhere, various other wooden structures – the old general store, bunkhouse, outhouse, and two or three more buildings for the important people – offered testament to the thriving place this once was, with up to 300 souls living and working here during peak seasons. Throughout, there are enough trinkets and relics – from fishing nets and boats to paperwork for credit accounts and old cans of soda – to keep anyone with curiosity and a camera happy for several hours.

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In what must be a labour of love, more and more bits and pieces appear to be unearthed in cupboards and drawers on an almost daily basis, while any inclement spell can reveal a new leak, another piece of rotting timber, an additional piece of roof sheeting down. But you can likely forgive all these quirks – embrace them even – given the setting, best appreciated from the veranda or, better still, the hammock of the bunkhouse, which is now a charming guest house for people like me.

It was a house I ended up having all to myself, though I was thankful for the company of the owners in a building nearby and their dogs who were accomplished at keeping the bears and wolves at bay. There was little to do here other than relax in that hammock, broken by occasional wanderings onto the beach or out to a point to sight eagles and gaze at the changing light on the mountains, or head over behind the buildings to explore the clear waters of the back creek into which salmon spawn. Not a bad way to pass the remainder of the day, not bad at all.

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bc10After the best night’s sleep so far, a new day emerged in which the weather gradually turned and cast a new mood upon the scene. Because even I could not potter around taking pictures of the same things over and over again, I caught a lift by boat into the township of Bella Coola and explored its buzzing downtown metropolis, something which took all of twenty minutes. The town is a mixed settlement, with vital services and stores, more ramshackle wooden houses, and a significant First Nations population, the local Nuxalk people, whose land provides several totem pole and traditional craft viewing opportunities.

After a lunch here involving a quite delicious burger with a Poutine topping (yes, a meat patty topped with chips, gravy and cheese!) the greying skies finally delivered some rain. This was marvellous news for the locals, who had endured weeks on end of uncharacteristic searing dry heat; however, tourists like me were somewhat less enthused. Nonetheless, the smell of fresh rain on dry earth, the droplets forming upon ferns and pine needles, the mists and grey clouds hovering upon mountainsides, offered a new perspective, a new angle, a new opportunity to potter about the cannery and soak up its serene, wood-soaked ambience.

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It was an ‘ambience’ that was to persist into the next day, shrouding scenery alongside the pristine inlets and channels of the Great Bear Rainforest as the journey moved on…

A damp inside passage   

If there was one day in Canada that I was hoping would be clear and calm this was it. Bella Coola to Port Hardy, via the fjord-like waters of the Dean Channel, Inside Passage and Queen Charlotte Sound. As it turned out, it was the wettest day of my whole trip but when you are going via a place called Ocean Falls which prides itself on receiving 173 inches of rain in an average year, I guess it’s to be expected. I was, alas, viewing the area in its natural state, rather than this surreal drought of the past month.

bc12In the end, the scheduled stop at the place where half the Ocean Falls was cancelled due to the late departure of the BC ferry from Bella Coola. The harbour was positively buzzing as cars, motorbikes and the odd foot passenger crammed onto a boat a third of the size of the Torpoint ferry. Oh, and there was a coach as well, transporting a delightful assortment of seniors on something called an Ageless tour. A coach that became stuck half on and half off the ferry for a good hour, grounded due to the incline. It was a fascinating drama for passengers and locals alike, whose intense gaze upon crew armed with a plethora of jacks and ramps and pulleys and increasing exasperation was only made all the better by the friendly advice shouted down from above.

Thankfully once again the Americans saved the day. Some smartass from Colorado with a monumental RV possessing incredible torque and a gas-guzzling capacity the size of Texas managed to use his diamond reinforced tow rope to budge the bus a few inches, getting it off the ground and on to the ferry. The whole episode meant that the Ageless people had aged a few more years and I feared some of them might not make the trip. But almost two hours late, we sailed out of port and passed the red maple leaf flying above the Tallheo Cannery, bound for Bella Bella.

bc13The delay at least meant that the rain had stopped and there was a sense that the cloud might even lift. Every time the odd ray of sunshine filtered through, the outside decks became laden by a hubbub of grey hair and long lenses. However, the weather worsened as we approached the area of Ocean Falls, where the people were no doubt dancing with joy in the rain and wondering where on earth the ferry had got to.

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So, around eight hours after leaving port, the boat arrived in Bella Bella, having failed to encounter any whales or bears or much of note at all along the way. But at least the Ageless posse were invariably entertaining, and the glimpses of scenery were serenely beautiful. Indeed, the change of boats at Bella Bella was a little sad, the intimacy and camaraderie lost with the transfer to a much larger vessel sailing the main Inside Passage between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy.

bc15With every dark cloud there is a silver lining, and the bigger ferry was far more luxurious – padded and reclining seats, cafes, even an all-you-can-eat buffet that proved ferry tempting but one I avoided in anticipation of what might happen in the open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. The dark clouds outside also yielded silver, in the form of a marriage equality rainbow (now featuring everywhere but Australia), as the sun lowered through the heavy clouds and shimmered off a gently rolling tin foil sea.

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The long day finally turned dark and the lights of Port Hardy twinkled as if some New York City in a sea of nothingness. Everyone from Ageless and the coach had made it, something that was not always inevitable. And I stepped off with many more foot passengers who had come down the entire passage, dumped onto land towards a school bus onwards to the hotels and motels of town.

The islands

bc18Port Hardy – from what I saw during a couple of early morning hours – appeared a charming, even cosmopolitan place. It’s all relative I suppose, from the isolation of the cannery and the minimalism of Bella Coola to at least three cafes and possibly even a shopping mall. While there remains enough in the way of grizzled looking locals smelling of fish and sufficient remoteness to offer a frontier feel, the continuous transit of ferry passengers has also fostered an air of gentility and rustic comfort. Bears may still invade the campgrounds and giant trucks may still trawl the streets, but you can also buy an almond croissant and city-style substandard coffee.

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Meandering south and east, a half empty greyhound bus trundled leisurely beside the forests and lakes of Vancouver Island, with fleeting glances of gentle mountains and occasional snatches of the Johnstone Strait. The sun became more familiar and was amply bathing the wharf three hours down the road in Campbell River. Fish and chips for lunch proved a good use of time while waiting for another ferry, though this one just the fifteen minutes, across to Quadra Island.

bc19Like Bella Coola, I had no strong idea of what this place would be like or exactly what I would do here – the main reason for stopping being its position as an approximate halfway point between Port Hardy and Vancouver. A sunny, moderately-sized holiday island, with rocky shores, forests and a penchant for ageing hippies who have done far too many drugs in their lifetime. I did not know this before, but it became patently clear at any visit to the local shopping area.

bc21The tie-dyed highlight here was a day with a bike, which allowed me to truly explore the flatter, southern half of the island. I say flatter, but there were a few, sustained uphill workouts made all the more arduous by a lack of gears. Who would have thought getting high here would have been so difficult? But I loved being on a bike again, exploring the thin stretch of Rebecca Spit, meandering through a forest trail, cycling and then hiking down to the water, and resting up for an afternoon doze in the sun.

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Departing from Quadra and onto Vancouver meant another two ferry journeys. First it was the short hop back across to Campbell River, where I feasted on a delicious breakfast wrap before getting back on another half empty greyhound. And then, there was the longer crossing from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay, back on the mainland. A final chance to look for elusive whales which – if this was a perfectly crafted travel story – would have launched into the sky off starboard in a climatic ecstatic finale.

bc22Alas, this is clearly not a perfectly crafted travel story but there is a happy ending of sorts. My first and best Nanaimo bar, a gooey, creamy, chocolaty concoction from this incredibly beautiful part of the world. Like this jaunt, a touch earthy and rustic but providing a heady buzz. Smoke free, devoid of whales (I assume no whales were used in the making of this bar), and useful to temper the bitterness of the local coffee. Indeed it seems to me life here is like a local bar of chocolate. Deliciously sweet.

Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography USA & Canada