Don't hate me. I'm NOT a big Star Wars fan. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike it, and the movies are a lot of fun, but I'm no fanatic. My first thought when I heard that The Moorings/Bridge Bar in Portmagee, Ireland was going to host the first-ever May the Fourth Festival was "Uh oh."
I booked my trip to Ireland, with the plan to be in Portmagee over the weekend of May 4th months ago, not really thinking much about it being the "May the Fourth Be With You" day/weekend. No, I planned the trip around the annual set dancing and music weekend, which is always a lot of fun just to enjoy some awesome traditional Irish tunes, along with plenty of Guinness, of course.
So what does Portmagee have to do with Star Wars, you might ask? Skellig Michael, an island that sits about eight miles off the coast near the village of Portmagee, was the filming site of the blockbuster final scene in "The Force Awakens in which Rey (Daisy Ridley) extends a light saber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The island is hosts the ruins of an ancient monastery built between the 6th and 8th centuries. and offers breathtaking views of the other Skellig Islands and the glistening expanse of the Atlantic. The Bridge Bar in Portmagee was the spot where cast and crew, including Hamill, enjoyed a few pints. Well, probably more than a few I would think as it's never easy leaving that place!
So music, or Star Wars? Well, when I'm in Ireland, enjoying the live music is a no-brainer. But if you're a big Star Wars fan, you might want to think about planning a trip, if not this year then in 2019, because odds are, there's going to be a second annual May the Fourth Festival next year and you'll need to book in advance. Portmagee is a very small village, so most likely, it'll be easy to take in a little of both. And, if the crowds get too thick, there's miles and miles of spectacular Irish countryside and coastline where you can find a spot to enjoy on your own.
Here's just a few of the Star Wars events on offer, if you're into that kind of thing:
If you don't care about Star Wars, come for the scenery, the music and the people - that's what continues to bring me back to this little fishing village time and again.
See you there on the 4th?
If you've been following me for a while, you know I've been 'on the road' an awful lot lately. These days I'm more likely to be traveling than at home. Most recently I spent a week back in Hawaii, on the Big Island, where I went on a challenging hike to view the active lava in Volcanoes National Park. It was a good reminder that I need to get back in the habit of regular workouts - traveling all the time makes it easy to break a routine. Between the heat and the uneven terrain, it was pretty brutal - tough even for my guide who makes the trek a couple of times a week.
I was gone much of last month in Baja, Mexico, swimming with the sea lions and meeting the grey whales, an incredible experience - and in early January, I visited both Kauai and the Big Island. Just the month before, it was the Amazon jungle in Ecuador.
While I'm grateful for all of those experiences, being constantly on the go can start to wear you down after awhile, making it hard to appreciate the little moments, especially when you're working at the same time. I came to a realization recently that it's time to start slowing down and avoid over planning, not only to avoid the risk of burnout, but to make the most out of every experience rather than trying to cram in every bucket list adventure possible. It's something I had gotten in the habit of doing, with so little time off at most "regular" jobs. If I was lucky enough to have an entire two weeks off, I'd plan every minute of it. But there was no time for just reveling in the moment, and actually enjoying the experience for what it was.
I remember a trip I took with my daughters to Tulum, Mexico. We never left the place we stayed. We spent our days, snorkeling, swimming, and taking afternoon naps instead of rushing around to see the sights. When we came back, we all had a different perspective, we felt so relaxed, as if we were on a different plane, watching all of those people frantically moving around us and wondering why they were all so in a hurry.
Over planning your day-to-day activities can make you a neurotic, stressed-out person who feels like you would have been better off if you hadn’t planned anything in the first place.
One of the keys to avoiding that is to leave plenty of room in your schedule for the unexpected and stop being constantly worried about having “the perfect trip." What's the worst that can happen? You'll have some downtime for chatting with locals in that cafe or pub? Maybe you'll wander the streets and discover an unexpected gem. Maybe you'll meet someone who will invite you into their home for dinner, or bring you to places you might never have found without the insider knowledge?
Do you really want to follow the exact same itinerary as every other tourist, spending your entire trip wedged between them as if you're being herded from sight to sight? Escape the crowds but focusing on slower travel, which will give time to venture off that well-worn path, and still enjoy a few bucket list attractions too.
Plans change - let them. Don't go overboard with the planning. Instead just have a general idea of what you want to and where you want to go, rolling with whatever might happen. It's an amazing feeling, without the pressure to do and see it all.
Looking back, I've realized the travel experiences that have most impacted me are the ones where I've been able to actually spend time - a week or more, really getting to know the locals, their favorite restaurants, their favorite things to do, connecting with the people. Even if you are limited to two weeks of vacation time, I think you'll get more out of it spending time in one or two places, rather than trying to cram in as many different cities as possible. Otherwise, you may be "seeing" a place, but it's not much different than watching a documentary on TV. Instead, get to know it, understand it, connect with the people.
That's why on my next trip to Ireland, leaving May 1st, I'm taking it slow, with nearly an entire week on Inisheer Island, and nothing planned at all - other than lying on those rocks and listening to the sounds of the waves crash against them anyway. Soon after in June I have an entire week in my dream house in a remote area of Newfoundland on the Great Northern Peninsula, timed to enjoy the St. Anthony Iceberg Festival, iceberg viewing and whale watching, though what happens in between will all be a surprise!
My third trip to Baja California Sur, Mexico was the best one yet, with much of that thanks to Jahaziel of Baja Sur Tours, and, of course, the wealth of wildlife that welcomed us there. It's not only the wonderful Mexican people that are incredibly friendly, but the gray whales too. Aptly nicknamed "The Friendlies," the whales come to three breeding lagoons in the Sea of Cortez: Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio Lagoon and Scammon’s Lagoon, gathering here between mid-January and mid-April before heading north to Alaska on their annual migration.
Many of these whales specifically seek out human contact in the lagoons, with mothers bringing their calves to “introduce them” to curious visitors. These lagoons are the only three places in the world where the gray whales birth their babies. The government strictly regulates all access, ensuring that human activities don’t negatively affect these magnificent creatures.
The lagoons are protected from the strong waves and currents of the Pacific Ocean, and the lagoons are shallow. The gray whales' only predator, the killer whale, won't enter into such shallow water, making it the ideal environment for the mothers to nurse their newly born calves. It's also easy for the mothers to supervise while the young whales learn how to swim, how to breath properly, feed, dive and teach them how to interact with other whales.
The whales really seem to enjoy the interactions with humans, just as much as humans enjoy them. The mothers sometimes even lift the babies out of the water or let them rest on top of them while the baby gets all of the attention.
The trip to Magadalena Bay takes several hours from La Paz, but our tour guide and owner of Baja Sur Tours, Jahaziel, drove us there and we made a number of fun stops along the way, including a cafe with some of the best coffee I've ever had. As there are fossils found throughout the area, I even picked up some Megalodon shark teeth!
Our tour included only myself and my daughter Brooke, Jahaziel, and the boat captain. As we stepped inside the boat, we were excited with anticipation, and the day truly turned out to be one of the best of our lives. How grateful I am that the whales chose to meet with us.
Olivia, as one of the mother friendlies was referred to, floated right next to the boat as I rubbed her head for a good 10 minutes - until, baby suddenly popped up, nudging my arm similar to a jealous dog, looking for attention.
The first video you'll see below is thanks to our amazing tour guide, Jahaziel of Baja Sur Tours, while I captured the one that follows - something I realized is not so easy to do when all you want to really do is enjoy this magical and even transformational experience that makes all the bad in the world seem to fade away as you connect with these magnificent animals.
This was only one day of our 8-day trip in Baja, so more posts to come, including snorkeling with sea lions and our stay in Cabo Pulmo National Park. There is so much to see and do on the Baja Peninsula, it would take years, if not a lifetime to experience it all.
When you're in Hawaii, it's hard not to feel like everything is going to be okay (with the exception of the recent incident involving a ballistic missile headed straight to the islands, of course).
The problem is, eventually, you have to go back to the real world, unless you're lucky enough to live there like my friend Marci. The Aloha spirit, and signs like this can be found throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Between that, the spectacular scenery, the fantastic snorkeling, the wildlife, the people, it's really hard to leave. Maybe that's why I got so ill right after I came back - I went from 80 degrees and sun to 40 degrees, rain, dark and cold in what seemed like a instant.
Nevertheless, I feel like I'm finally on the mend ater a week of "the crud" and can finally think clearly back on my experience on the Big Island and Kauai. Strangely, for some reason I never really had the desire to visit Hawaii until fairly recently. After going, I can't recall for the life of me why that was. It might have been the scenes of Waikiki with all the high rises and countless tourists is what made me feel that way, but on the Big Island and especially Kauai, it was a totally different story.
I stayed in Kona on the Big Island, where my lucky friend happens to reside. While there is definitely some traffic there to contend with, just as soon as you're a few miles from town, things change.
The Polulu Valley Lookout, pictured above, was breathtaking and there were no Disneyland-size crowds to interrupt the view. I made my way from there across the incredible lush countryside, with the green so vibrant it felt like Ireland, with the exception of the sun and idyllic 75 to 80 degree temperatures, of course.
My next stop was the Waipio Valley Lookout - a view from the opposite side of Polulu.
One of the best days during my time on the Big Island, was a boat trip. I was extremely lucky in that I didn't have to join a tour - Marci's friend has his own boat and offered to take us out fishing and to watch for whales along the way. While we didn't catch anything, luck was on our side when it came to the whales. We got to enjoy quite the show. With a pair of humpbacks surfacing incredibly close at one point.
Another day, we drove to Punalu'u black sand beach: sea turtles!
There were at least a dozen sea turtles snoozing on the beach under the sun. Another one of my favorite animals, when I went snorkeling, I swam alongside one, just me and the sea turtle hanging out together for a good 15 minutes or more. I found out later that Kealakekua Bay was where the animators from "Finding Nemo" got their inspiration. So, yep, I was swimming near what's as close to Crush as you can possibly get in real life.
I loved the Big Island, but before I knew it, it was time to go to Kauai.
We went straight from the airport to Wailua Falls which was famously featured on the opening credits of the '70s TV show, "Fantasy Island." It was absolutely breathtaking, as was the entire island. Kauai is surely one of the most beautiful places on Earth. While there was a little rain, there was a lot more sun - and, lots of rainbows.
It's hard to decide what my favorite spot was on Kauai with so many beautiful places, like Waimea Canyon, and remote Polihale Beach that required a long, bumpy ride to get there. Snorkeling at Anini Beach was fantastic, and I had the privilege of swimming with sea turtles again - this time, there were three giant ones all around me, and another that was peering out at me from behind the coral. My next trip, I will have a good underwater camera. I attempted shots from my iPhone that was tucked into a protective case, but as it turns out, it takes a lot of practice to capture anything decent. A GoPro might be a must.
The grand finale on the island was with Air Ventures Hawaii - a flight over Kauai, and it was something I'll truly never forget. The pictures here really don't do it justice as the sun was so bright that morning.
It was on my final day, just a couple of hours before heading to the airport, that I saw the sign: "Happy New Year! Everything is going to be okay!" It made me a little teary-eyed, as I didn't want to leave, but I decided right then and there, that I was going to bring that attitude home. With so much turmoil going on in the world, some days that's hard to believe, but we have to hold out hope, and I believe in the Aloha spirit, and that we can take that with us everywhere we go.
"Aloha is being a part of all, and all being a part of me. When there is pain - it is my pain. When there is joy - it is also mine. I respect all that is as part of the Creator and part of me. I will not willfully harm anyone or anything. When food is needed I will take only my need and explain why it is being taken. The earth, the sky, the sea are mine to care for, to cherish and to protect. "
The adventure began at Ecuador's Coca Airport, where Victor, our small group's guide, led us into taxis that would bring the five of us, myself, Ian and Catherine, a couple from Australia, David from the U.K. and his fellow-Brit friend Shom who now lives in Sydney, Australia, to a motorized canoe on the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon River that rises in Ecuador on the flanks of the east Andean volcanoes.
It was a journey into the unknown, as none of us really knew what to expect, other than what we'd seen on television and in films anyway.
We flew across the wide expanse of the river, dodging sand banks and tree trunks, searching for a glimpse of wildlife along the banks.
While there was nothing to speak of, the ride felt surreal, as if we were heading into a dream. A dream that was hard to imagine was actually real life.
After two-and-a-half hours or so, we landed at the dock, welcomed by a Sani Lodge sign. From here, we'd take a 10-minute trek down the tree-lined wooden boardwalk where monkeys watched from above. Our eagle-eyed guide saw them first. We all stopped, gazing up into the trees trying to catch a glimpse until the animals' movements gave them away.
We'd make the same walk a number of times, learning that a number of different monkey species enjoyed hanging out in these trees, from squirrel monkeys and capuchins to dusky titis and more. Unfortunately, they weren't all that easy to capture on film, blending in with the lush greenery, though the red-hued dusky titi stood out a bit more.
We hopped into another canoe at the end of the boardwalk, gently floating down the calm, slow moving water as all sorts of colorful birds flittered about.
Was there a python lurking along the banks? A caiman ready to lunge out of the dark, almost black waters to enjoy a little human snack?
Of course, we all lived to tell the tale. Shom continued to be on the lookout for those snakes, but we never did catch a glimpse of even one, though caimans are another story. To date, our guide Victor said no tourists have been injured in all of the visits to Sani Lodge over the past 25 years since it's been open.
An incident did occur at another lodge, he pointed out, when two probably not-so-smart visitors decided to dangle their legs over a dock and into the water. Tourists going into the water was banned after that.
Upon our arrival to Sani Lodge, we were greeted by a delicious passion fruit and rum drink, an incredibly tasty beverage we went back to the bar for more than a few times.
The drink wasn't all that greeted us. We were also welcomed by the resident caiman Lucy, who had been lurking underneath the lodge deck in the water below, but ventured onto land after Victor offered her a bite to eat.
We didn't have much time to relax, however. Not long after heading to our cabins and unpacking our bags, dinner called, followed by a night hike.
Yes, a night hike, into the dark jungle, with only our flashlights, with our guide Victor leading the way. There were all sorts of interesting things to see - unfortunately, many of them blended in so well with the terrain, capturing many of them on film, like the fascinating stick bugs, proved difficult. Shom was relieved that there were no snakes waiting on the trail for a midnight snack, though Victor advised us they like to hang out up in the trees - a friend kindly pointed out that the only worse thing than accidentally stepping on a snake would be to have one fall out of the sky and land on you, something I hadn't really thought about until then. Thanks Steven.
Luckily, there were no snakes falling from the sky that night, or any other. We did see quite a few creatures, including two tarantulas, bats and a big frog. I managed to capture a couple of decent shots.
After making it through the night trek unscathed, we were all pretty worn out and made our way to the individual cabins on the property to sleep for the night. Breakfasts were very early - 5:30 a.m. as the wildlife is most active just after sunrise.
The possibilities that awaited that day filled us with excitement, and as Victor paddled the canoe across the calm water, we knew the early wake up call had been worth it. Stinky turkeys, parrots, parakeets, herons and other birds of all sorts could be seen soaring overhead and perched on branches.
We were on our way to the Sani Lodge observation tower, a 100-foot-tall tower built next to a massive Kapok tree, where you can look through the canopy of the rainforest and view some of the amazing Amazon biodiversity. (tower photo thanks to Ian and Catherine Cook)
From here, we heard the loud sounds of the red howler monkeys - which sound like very angry apes, or jet engines - and we saw numerous birds, including a sleeping owl that blended into the branches of the trees so well we wouldn't have known he was there had Victor not pointed him out, along with countless macaws, hummingbirds and a number of toucans who seemed to like posing for the camera, much to our delight.
Listen to the sounds of the birds - and in the background, you'll hear the incredibly loud grumblings of the howler monkeys in the distance:
Much of our time we spent walking the trails learning about the various plants and trees, like the Dragon's blood tree which has a rich, red sap known for its healing properties. It's been scientifically found to heal wounds, cuts, scrapes, insect bites, bacterial, viral and fungal infections of the skin, rashes, herpes, skin cancer, and much more. Something the natives to the region have known for years.
While paddling through the water, we had a discussion about whether or not the piranhas would instantly attack if one of us fell in, which ultimately led to another excursion - fishing for piranhas, although as Victor joked, it was more like feeding the piranhas.
We went out in the late afternoon, using a small piece of wood, fishing line, a hook and some chunks of meat to lure them in. Most of us were getting bites - the fish tend to nibble little bits off at a time, making them difficult to catch - but actually catching one seemed to be an impossible task. Victor decided to throw his line in and it was only a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds, before he pulled up a rat fish. We brought the fish back to the lodge and it was cooked up by the chefs to complement dinner that night. He landed a catfish too, but that was quickly released back into the water - Victor also finally managed to get a piranha on his line, but it got out of control and went straight back to where it came from. None of the rest of us had any luck, but the experience was something I don't think we'll ever forget.
Up early again the next day, we headed out to the macaw salt licks, a place where hundreds of the parrots come to gorge on the clay banks in order to augment their diet with important minerals.
After watching the parrots, we rode down the river in our canoe once again, this time, for a visit to a butterfly farm. We'd been lucky until this point not to get caught out in a rain storm. That luck ran out as we trekked through the jungle, but our trusty ponchos kept us mostly dry while we walked the trail, carefully crossing via makeshift bridges made from fallen trees.
Along the way, Victor broke off a branch and showed us the "lemon ants" inside. We all had a sample, and while our guide seemed to enjoy their sour flavor - something I usually love - most of us found that they unappetizingly stuck in the back of our throats.
We did very much enjoy our visit to Gustavo's butterfly farm, a Sani family-run project. We were shown the entire life cycle of the butterfly.
Next was a visit to the tribal community center for an insight into Kichwa life. We took a tour of the grounds and the school before watching our other guide, Cerillo, eat a live grub. He simply popped one of the rather gross looking, thick white creatures head first into his mouth and ate it like a delectable rare treat.
None of us took him up on the offer to try one for ourselves.
David and I both thought the white cocoa beans looked like little bird brains - and overhearing us, Victor told us that's just what they were. After everything we'd seen, we took him at his word, but they turned out to be white coca beans. We enjoyed a bite of those and even took a few sips of chicha, a chew-and-spit fermented alcoholic drink before dining on a tasty traditional meal cooked by the hard-working Sani women, who also make an impressive range of handmade crafts as well as coffee.
It was time for face painting and blowgun practice after that, something that brought a lot of laughs, and surprisingly, some rather accurate shots. Most of us hit the target on the second try, but if I believe it was Ian who was the real natural, managing to hit it both the first and second try.
On our last night we enjoyed time together, sipping a few too many beers and passion fruit/rum drinks, wishing we could stay a little longer.
We had to say goodbye to Ian and Catherine as their flight was arranged far too early, requiring a 4 a.m. trip for the four-hour journey back to Coca. Waking to the loud boom of thunder at 3:30 a.m., I can only imagine what traveling back in the canoe, in the pouring rain and darkness must have been like.
The three of us that remained, myself, David and Shom, wearily hopped in for our trip back that was thankfully minus the rain and the darkness, though still quite early. What were big smiles the night before, turned into quiet contemplation, and a rather heart-pounding scare when we nearly missed our flight.
Our time at Sani Lodge wasn't nearly long enough. But I did have Quito and a couple of tours from the capital to look forward to.
I landed in Quito, Ecuador late Tuesday night. I had no plans at all until Friday morning when I'd fly out to Sani Lodge in the Amazon (pictured to the left), and I really needed to catch up with work before going offline for nearly four days. Four days is the longest I've gone without Internet (and a cell signal) in years! I'm looking forward to it and also a little bit anxious about it, but I also know that it's a much needed break from work and an addiction to staring at a screen all the time.
But back to the point. That left me spending Thanksgiving working most of the day and pretty much stuck at my hotel as it's located near the airport and not close to much of anything else at all. While traveling is obviously one of my most favorite things to do, and I'm very grateful that I get to do it so often, it was just a little depressing knowing my family and friends were enjoying a big feast and time together while I was alone.
Still, I made the most of it, and, thankfully, the restaurant here at the San Jose de Puembo hotel is fantastic. It's so much fun to try new foods, and my Thanksgiving dinner definitely didn't disappoint. Yes, I missed my favorite dessert, pumpkin pie, but I had one of the most delicious meals. Ecuadorian food is diverse and highly underrated.
I started out with a homemade chicken soup - it was the best I've ever had, with lots of fresh veggies and huge chunks of chicken breast. My main dish was prawns with rice covered in a coconut sauce and fried plantains. If you never had plantains, they look like bananas, but they aren't sweet. I love them! The other day, I had ceviche and they brought out a little bowl with fried plantains, popcorn and Andean corn nuts - I wish I could bring a bunch of that back home!
Now, it's nearly time for me to leave once again, heading back to Quito Airport and into the Amazon where the real adventure awaits...parrots, monkeys, sloths...
No Internet until Monday afternoon., so I will see you all on the other side!
I'm overdue for a post. It's been nearly three weeks, but I've been busy catching up from my last trip, and getting ready for my next one: Ecuador. Why Ecuador you ask? Well, my first thought was to visit the Galapagos, a place that's been on my travel bucket list for awhile, and probably many others. But after doing some research, I decided that I needed to visit the Amazon first.
Ecuador's Yasuní National Park is considered one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, it’s home to more than 600 bird species, jaguars, pumas, monkeys, caimans and sloths, one of the most adorable creatures on Earth. The chance to see a sloth is what really got me.
Unfortunately this incredible region of the world is seriously threatened due to deforestation, climate change and a number of other factors, which is why it's so important to see it now before it's too late, and do it in a more eco-friendly way.
Many of the jungle lodges are a community initiative or operated with a view to helping the local indigenous communities, like Sani Lodge, which is where I'll be staying. It's run by the local Sani community deep within the Ecuadoran Amazon between the Cuyabeno Reserve and Yasuni National Park. Profits stays within the community which helps improve healthcare, education, and sustainable projects. The eco-lodge also uses pure solar energy, which not only helps limit the impact on the region, but tends to draw a greater abundance of wildlife due to the lack of noise.
Accommodation include meals as well as both day and night hikes, canoe excursions and more. While there is some limited Internet, I likely won't be able to do much more than check emails, so this will be an opportunity to truly relax and get back to nature, for 4 days and 3 nights, a longer period than I've had in years. But when I return to the capital city, Quito, the Monday after Thanksgiving, you can expect an update, and lots of pictures too.
ne of the questions I'm asked the most frequently is, "How do you find those low airfares?"
Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer. There's no one magical way to always get the cheapest airfare every time. It takes a lot of time and effort, and there are no guarantees. Being flexible is really a must, as the cost can vary by hundreds of dollars from one day to the next. Usually, if you can avoid traveling on a Friday, Sunday or Monday, you'll get a better rate, but that's not always the case. And, if you have your heart set on flying around a major holiday, don't expect bargain prices (the exception is flying internationally over the Thanksgiving holiday, a time when airfares can be very low).
Check Google Flights
It's important to compare fares on a few third-party booking engines like Expedia or Travelocity, but one of the best places to start these days is on Google. Google Flights will let you pull up a calendar so you can choose the date with the lowest airfare, and it tends to be very reliable too. While you can't book it directly there, it will tell you where you can. You may want to check directly on the airline site as well.
Sign Up For Alerts
Many travel web sites offer to email airfare alerts, letting you know when an airfare goes below a certain price. Google Flights is one of them, but you may want to sign up for a few as they all work differently.
Low Cost U.S. to Europe Airlines
If you want to go to Europe, there are now two low-cost carriers flying between the U.S. and many locations throughout Europe, including Norwegian Air and Wow Air. Wow Air is based in Iceland, and it also offers the chance to spend a layover in Iceland without any extra cost. You will have to pay extra for baggage fees and other services, but most of the time, you'll still save big. Norwegian is very bare bones, but I paid just $149 for a one-way airfare from London to JFK recently.
Timing Your Purchase Right
Timing your airline ticket purchase right is essential, as rates change daily, and sometimes even hourly. Certain trends can help to increase your chances of getting the lowest airfare; the best deals are usually found between Tuesday and Thursday, while purchasing 11 to 12 weeks ahead of your anticipated travel dates is also considered optimal. As that's not always the case, your best bet is to check frequently - every day, and even more often, at various times of the day, if you're able.
On my return trip from Greece, I had a self-imposed 2-night layover in London as I hoped to visit my cousin and her husband who live about a two hour drive from Gatwick Airport, as well as explore a bit of the English countryside, perhaps visit Stonehenge and Salisbury and take a tour of the city as well.
As it turned out, the tour was cancelled for lack of participants, but that ended up being a good thing as that would have been way too much to cram into the time I had. When I learned the tour was a no go, I did some searching online and found a great deal for a stay in a castle in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, not far from where my cousin lives in Wiltshire. I've stayed in quite a few Irish castles, but never an English castle and I'd never even heard of this one. It looked spectacular. And it was.
Closely listening to my GPS, I made one turn after another through the winding lane that was framed by the vibrant colors of autumn. It was a residential neighborhood, and I questioned whether or not Siri was sending me on a goose chase. "You've arrived," Siri announced as I reached a stone gate and a long driveway with a sign posted Thornbury Castle. Just before the castle to the right was St. Mary's Church, the oldest surviving building in Thornbury, dating all the way back to the 12th century. As I made my way through the gate and the castle itself came into view, the exhaustion of the late night flight from Athens to London quickly faded away. I couldn't believe this was where I was actually going to spend the night.
Stepping in, I was treated like royalty from the start, with the front desk receptionist insisting on lugging my heavy suitcase up several flights of stairs up to my room, called the "deClare." If you've ever seen the movie "The Holiday," that scene where Kate Winslet runs through Cameron Diaz's Hollywood home jumping for joy, that's just how I felt. Especially when I saw the bed. The four-poster bed has a chandelier right above it, with silky draperies wrapped around. I had one of the best night's sleeps in recent memory. Good thing, because I had a long day ahead.
The plan was to drive through The Cotswolds, visit Salisbury Cathedral and at least try to see Stonehenge from a distance - all before 2 p.m., the time I had to be back at the airport for my flight to New York.
Just driving through the countryside was enjoyable, but The Cotswold District truly looked like something out of a fairy-tale. I had just enough time to walk around and take a few pictures before speeding off to Salisbury. Salisbury Cathedral's tall spire came into view well before I reached the city. It's the tallest church spire in the entire United Kingdom, at 404 feet, and it also boasts the oldest working clock in the world, dating to 1386.
Just driving by it isn't an option - you've got to park and walk, and the sand in that hour glass was quickly running out. I found a spot and ran, literally running through the streets of Salisbury in order to capture images of the 13th-century cathedral up close.
It was truly one of the most breathtaking things I've ever laid eyes on. For a few minutes I completely forgot about the time. When I finally looked, it was 12:15 p.m., and I was an hour and 45 minutes from Gatwick Airport.
I barely made it, returning my car at 2:01 p.m., making the decision on the journey back, that I will return next year.
When I got home, I dug through my huge box of ancestry papers and discovered that not only were a number of my ancestors from Gloucestershire, I have an ancestor with a connection to Berkeley Castle, just 8 miles from Thornbury.
On my next trip, I'm going to need a lot more than 2 days.
If you're interested in traveling to discover your roots, be sure to check out DNA Adventures!
With popular shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Finding Your Roots," a lot of people have been thinking about, or are already in the process of, discovering their roots. Many would love to travel to some of the places their ancestors are from, maybe visiting a magnificent castle that a great great grandfather once called home, or simply taking a walk through a farm where a great great grandmother once planted seeds to grow produce for the family's meals. Experiences like these are extraordinary, and can even be life changing.
But how do you find where these places are? And, if you don't know where your ancestors are from, it can be even trickier. While traveling to a far-off place like Ireland, Scotland, Germany or any foreign country can be an exciting prospect, if you hope to find out more about your family tree and enjoy a rewarding experience, you'll need to do some research before you get there.
Where to begin?
Understand that it's going to take a lot of time and effort, but the best place to start is with what you already know. Gather together all the information you can about your parents, grandparents and great grandparents, if possible, on both sides. Talk to older relatives, or perhaps you have a relative who's already done some research and can give you a good head start.
Sites like Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org and Genealogy.com can help get you on the right track. For example, Ancestry.com has literally billions of searchable, indexed records -- everything from passenger records to census data and more. Begin with one family member, such as a grandparent, and branch out from there. For each person, create a timeline of where and when they were born, where they lived, went to school, were married, and so on. This can help you discover gaps and help you determine what you need to look for.
Once you know the destinations you want to visit related to your family history, it can really help to get in touch with a few of the locals, like city clerks, museum staff, librarians and clergy.
If you can provide them with information, they may be able to flag potential documents that can maximize time on the ground while visiting. But don't stop there, when booking reservations at places like inns or bed and breakfasts, be sure to mention the reason for your stay. You might be surprised to learn that your host has information about your family, and there may even be relatives living in the area today. Once you've arrived, don't be shy about mentioning it during conversations either.
If you're short on time, and are anxious to visit your desired travel destination, you may want to consider getting some assistance. As exploring your DNA through travel can be such a rewarding experience, there are an increasing number of experts out there who can help at a relatively reasonable cost.
As both travel and genealogy are passions of mine, and I have extensive experience with both, I've partnered with another knowledgeable traveler/genealogy enthusiast, Patti Kelsey Nicklaw, to help put these types of trips together, in addition to offering travel planning itinerary services.
Nearly two decades ago, after extensive research and a couple of visits to Ireland, I found my Irish family and was able to walk through the very home that my great great grandparents, and great grandfather lived in, in addition to meeting countless extended family members. It changed my life, and I relish the opportunity to help do that for others through DNA Adventures, coming soon!
If this service is something you might be interested in - or, if you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to leave them here, or email me directly at KCDermody@gmail.com.