Nicola here, introducing our monthly Ask A Wench feature. A few weeks ago, the Wenches got chatting about past holiday/vacation experiences and all sorts of stories came out of trips that were variously good, bad, fascinating, hilarious, life-changing and emotional. With the world the way it is at the moment, most of us are travelling vicariously, so we thought that for the AAW we would share some of those travellers’ tales and ask you for your own stories of memorable trips.
The first time I went to Britain and Europe was the first I had ever left the country, been on a plane, or traveled with friends rather than family. I was in grad school when I went to England, France, and Belgium for nearly a month, in mostly glorious June weather, with an art history professor and another student and her husband, and the professor's wife for part of the trip as well. It was an incredible adventure, one crazy, fun day after another as we traveled by train, Hovercraft, and little tin-can rental cars, hauling this way and that to visit cathedrals, castles, and museums, especially those off the beaten track. I was immersed in medieval studies and the prof and student were 19th century specialists, so we had quite the wish list between us for art and architecture, and hit every high point belonging in the art history texts – and a few low ones that maybe didn't – that we could find.
Our adventures included lost luggage, getting lost in the English and French countrysides – and while happily toodling along through the Loire Valley in a little Renault, suddenly finding ourselves in the crazy midst of the Tour de France (who knew that was going on, it was before the internet, and the papers were all in French so we understandably missed that little detail). From Paris through the Loire and back again, I tried out my French, and even with six years of study and a French grandmama, it was a constant but exciting challenge, with some memorable faux pas (no, I did not know that le poisson I ordered would come served with its eyeballs staring at me, and I still don't like to order fish in a restaurant). In England, we covered a lot of territory by train and car and on foot. At one point I developed a raging case of strep throat and had to find a doctor in London – whose receptionist had no idea how to take a payment from a foreigner. "How about five pounds," the doctor finally said with a shrug, and I paid and went off to the chemists for an antibiotic before we took off for Canterbury and southern England, then France. In Paris, I fell in love with Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle and a million other wonderful things, and then Chartres, Versailles…and off to Amiens, where our hotel reservations had somehow not been confirmed on the French side, and my friend's husband, who spoke very bad French, came back to report that "Le sitchoowaysheeon ay tray grave," which made us all howl with laughter and became our trip's motto.
And on through the castles and towns of the Loire, past golden and lavender fields, stone castles, a thousand bicycles, and back up again to Rouen to feed my lifelong obsession for Jeanne d'Arc… and then up to Belgium and Bruges – a medievalist's paradise – and Ghent to study more of Van Eyck, all related to my thesis work. And along the way, I learned a great deal about 19th c. art and how to order food for a finicky stomach, and more, courtesy of my friends. Just an unforgettable trip that still sticks with me today. I'm so grateful to have seen it all with good friends, including a professor who was not only a brilliant historian and a great teacher, but just a hoot, which made all the difference when we were all jammed in that petit Renault. And finally, back home to the new husband who didn't mind me leaving to go do my art history thing – and back to the studies, with much-improved French and a greater appreciation for history, art, the world, les bicyclettes on le road, and friendship as well.
Holidays with my family were often memorable for the wrong reasons and one of them more so
than others. When I was 17, my parents took me and my brother on what was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. We started off with a few days in the Seychelles – so far so good – and then continued on to Kenya to go on safari. There were no decent roads so we had to fly to the safari park in a tiny propeller plane that made me feel very ill. Once there, we found that we were supposed to sleep in tents – luxurious ones with showers and proper beds, but still … with wild animals nearby? And I had to share my shower with the biggest spider I’d ever seen in my life! He wouldn’t budge and I wasn’t going to touch him. During the first night, a herd of elephants rampaged through the tent compound. Luckily no one was hurt and I’d managed to sleep through it (thus proving that nothing wakes me!), but even hearing about it afterwards was more than a little scary. Being a typical teenager, I didn’t enjoy the following days spent roaming the countryside looking for wild animals – not my thing. And just before leaving for the next safari park, my brother decided to feed the local monkeys. One of them bit him – cue a whole afternoon spent at a hospital in Nairobi while he had to have rabies shots and I thought he was going to die!
Leaving Kenya was a relief, and the next stop was Egypt, something I’d been looking forward to enormously. I knew I wouldn’t be bored there, being a history buff! The only problem was that Tutankhamun and his famous mask weren’t there – they’d gone on tour – so I didn’t get to see them (although I did go in his tomb). We hired a private guide to take us to the Pyramids, and on the way back to the hotel he stopped at a perfume shop (presumably owned by his family) where we were herded inside by a couple of rather intimidating men who wouldn’t let us leave until we’d bought some yucky perfume bottles – scary! I also developed the mother of all colds with a raging sore throat, and felt so ill I fainted in the temple of Karnak. (In my defence, it was 40 degrees Celsius I the shade). It didn’t stop me from visiting Luxor though, and at least there were no monkeys …
I had recovered somewhat by the time we continued on to Greece, where I was looking forward to seeing the Acropolis. When we arrived, however, the airline had lost my suitcase which was upsetting. We visited the airport several times to see if they’d found it and they must have got sick of seeing us so they said we could go and look for ourselves. Turned out in the basement they had literally thousands of lost suitcases, but would you believe it – I found mine! Anyway, I did enjoy the sights but it was quite a relief to go home after all that.
I’ve had a number of memorable trips (including those where Everything Went Wrong) . . . backpacking with my brothers in the Wind
River mountains of Wyoming . . . discovering Tuscany . . . a river barge trip through Scotland . . . But I think the most special experience was traveling through Switzerland with my mother—just the two of us—and seeing all the places that were part of her childhood. I was leaving my first job after college and we decided to take a month to travel before I went on to my new job.
We started in Zurich, where she grew up right on the lake, a few miles out of the city. We then traveled by scenic train and boat through the Alps, where she had spent a year away at school learning French in French Switzerland, and then down to the Engadine, where she had skied every winter with her family. We did lots of hiking every day, and over dinner and wine had a chance to bond in a new way than just as Mother and Child. We had always been close—I don’t have sisters—but this was exploring not only a gorgeous country, and her family memories, but also the changing relationship of child becoming an independent adult. It was a very meaningful experience that both of us treasured.
One of her favorite places was the Silsersee, a breathtakingly beautiful lake near St. Moritz. We hiked around it, and she told of how much she loved cross country skiing on the frozen lake in winter, and beauty of walking there in Fall. I went back two years ago, and brought with me a small vial of her ashes, which I put into the lake. It was a crystal-clear day and I like to think she was smiling at joining a part of the cosmos that was dear to her heart.
Pat: We travel a great deal for research as well as pleasure, so it’s hard to sort out all the lovely memories. Our first trip down the Danube last year was certainly memorable in many ways, as was our research trip to the Orkneys with Mary Jo and spouse. But if we’re talking about emotional memories, I think it would have to be our last vacation with our kids when they were both teens and young enough to be forced into the car with us. <G>
The kids were still in school. I was writing and working, and my husband had a job that took up a lot of time, so scheduling all four
of us required effort. But we spent two weeks on the road, traveling from the Mississippi River through the Southwest to the California coast and back through the Rockies. One kid wanted Disneyland, the other wanted Haight-Asbury. All the wondrous parks and mountains and deserts in between meant nothing to them—but Chaco Canyon and the Rocky Mountains are the photos we took. We all have those memories now, and nothing can take them away from us—now that’s special.
But perhaps the most memorable was my first trip to Europe. My mother spent much of her childhood abroad, and we were raised with stories of her living in China, Thailand, Switzerland. I was passionate to travel myself, and I managed my first grand journey after my sophomore year of college. I worked part time in the university library to earn money to pay for the trip–in retrospect, I'm not sure how I managed it!
I traveled with Merril, one of my college roommates. I guess our parents figured we were both steady enough to be allowed loose on another continent. We took a charter flight full of students from New York to London, and then–we were there! Jetlagged and eyes full of wonder. The plan had been to buy bicycles in London and head north, staying at youth hostels. A lot of the other hostelers were hitchhiking, and we soon realized that bicycles were very limiting in terms of the ground we could cover, so we stashed them in a hostel in Lichfield and stuck out our thumbs.
Yes, we covered lots of ground and never had a problem with the people who picked us up. (Safety in numbers?) North to Scotland, then back to London. (We retrieved the bikes in Lichfield and sold them back to the London shop where we bought them.) Then the ferry to Belgium, north to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, south to Switzerland and Italy, then to Paris and back to London.
In retrospect, I'm amazed at our intrepidity. (Possibly stupidity. <G>) We saw many great places, had café au lait with fresh croissants in Paris, and met many, many wonderful young people in the hostels. This is where I first met the amazing young women of Australia and New Zealand who were doing their version of the Grand Tour by taking a year off to travel around the world. (Anne Gracie, our Aussie wench, has some great stories about her journeys!)
As I write this, I'm remembering all kinds of specific incidents, too many to relate here, but most of all, I'm recognizing what an amazing, life changing experience Merril and I had. Three months after we left, we returned to New York intact and still friends. And I'd taken the first big step to a lifetime of travel.
Anne here. Like Mary Jo, I've done a fair bit of travel in my time, and each trip has been memorable in some way. One was a backpacking trip I took when I was about nineteen, hitch-hiking around NZ during the long university holidays with a friend. We stayed in youth hostels a lot, but my brother had given me a little two-person tent for Christmas, and it certainly got plenty of use. We pitched it in all sorts of weird and wonderful places, as well as the occasional actual camping ground, and got quite used to sleeping on the ground. One time we got a lift into the middle of a forest with some forest workers, and then didn't see another vehicle for the rest of the day. But we found a gorgeous stream and camped next to it under a wide bridge where it was dry.
Another time we hiked for a day into the wilderness on beautiful Stuart Island (at the bottom of NZ) and camped there beside a little stream for nearly a week, until our food ran out, and then hiked back, intending to catch the ferry in the morning. We were salivating at the thought of the counter dinner we'd have at the only hotel in the small town of Oban, but when we got there, everything in the whole town was closed. The only camping ground was a mile the other side of town and we were tired and hungry, and it was getting dark, so we decided to find a bit of bush (wilderness) on the edge of town and camp there. We found a spot on a bit of a hill, set up the tent, dined on a couple of slices of stale salami and a little bit of semi-melted chocolate, and went to sleep. At dawn I was woken by the sound of a rooster crowing. I unzipped the tent and looked out. We had camped in someone's back yard!!! I guess they don't need fences on Stuart Island. So we furtively packed up the tent and hurried down to the town to wait for the hotel to open so we could get some breakfast. Here's a photo of me being brave and explorer-y (ie posing shamelessly) on a glacier, a few weeks later.
Nicola: Like the rest of the Wenches I’ve had more than my share of exciting trips both abroad and in the UK, and I love to travel when I can. I’ve driven across Africa, Iceland, Jordan and Costa Rica in a Land Rover (on separate occasions!) as well as sailed to the Arctic and the Sea of Cortes, but one of my favourite trips was to see the Northern Lights. It was about 20 years ago and we flew to Tromso in Northern Norway in February. We’d been prepared for the cold and packed loads of woolly jumpers, but hadn’t been prepared for driving in snow and ice. The Norwegians were taking it all in their stride, but as we hopped in our tiny hire car and drove off through a six foot high tunnel of snow, we were more than a little nervous.
We found our way safely to the island of Sommeroy where we had booked a cosy chalet on the beach for a week. We’d been assured that this was one of the best places to see the Northern Lights and confidently settled down to wait. On the first night there was thick cloud and the darkness was impenetrable. On the second night it snowed, which was very pretty but not what we were looking for.
With some disappointment we headed into the town the next day to drown our sorrows with a mug of hot chocolate at Unna Tun’s café. We had quickly discovered that this, the only café on the island, was both a very warm place to thaw out after a walk and also did the best cooked breakfasts. We got chatting to some of the locals who solemnly assured us that the Northern Lights would be out that night and not just that, they would appear at 8pm precisely. We thought they were making fun of us but nevertheless we went out and lay in the snow at five to eight, and at eight o’clock on the dot, out came the Northern Lights, rippling in billows of green, red and purple across the sky like the finest gauze curtain. It was the most magical experience.
The following night we were out again at eight but we had to wait until ten past before the Lights came out and put on a magnificent show for us again. Even now I can remember how cold it felt lying on my back in the snow, staring up at the sky where the Northern Lights seemed to drift so low you could almost reach out and touch them.
The following day was the last of our holiday and to celebrate we climbed the only mountain on the island, more of a hill really. There was a superb view out across the sea and not a soul for miles around. Then just as we were reaching the summit, there was a strange rumbling noise, some of the hillside slid away to reveal a concealed metal door and a soldier in uniform popped out. It was like a scene from a James Bond film. He apologised that we weren’t allowed to walk there as it was a NATO installation and escorted us politely back down the hillside. Just another extraordinary experience to add to our trip!
When I was a kid we’d all pile into the woody-sided station wagon, (five kids) and drive off to a cabin on the Chesapeake Bay. I'd get car sick. We’d go out on the Bay in a little Boston Whaler, all of us stuffed into life jackets. I'd get seasick. We’d watch the sea birds and catch a surprising number of fish. On our way back to the cabin we’d buy fresh corn at a farmers’ market and bring my mother our flounder to bread in corn meal and serve for dinner.
Some days we’d sit and fish off one of the piers that stuck out over the water of a slow tidal river running into the estuary. Boats would come and go and we’d all go over to admire everybody’s big sports fish catch, which aren’t really much good to eat but we respected their bragging rights. We’d buy cokes at the bait and tackle shop, and run out to ease in our lines with chicken necks tied to them and scoop up the crabs that had come to nibble.
Best of all, we’d go out to Scientists’ Cliffs on the Chesapeake and collect fossils. This was before the communities living on the cliffs above got stroppy about folks splashing along the shoreline.
Scientists’ Cliffs and Calvert Cliffs and the other communities down there are built at the top of huge cliffs. Doomed cliffs, slowly eroding into the sea, full of fossils. My sisters and I would go splashing along the waterline in tennis shoes. I'd get sunburned. We'd bring home bucketfuls of broken seashells and Miocene shark’s teeth and, once, a shark's vertebra.
These can be BIG shark’s teeth, some of them the size of the palm of your hand.
What are your tales of memorable trips? We'd love to hear them – the good, the bad, the funny, the emotional – they are all special! And if you are travelling mainly through reading at the moment, which trips have you enjoyed reading about?