Monday, December 30, 2013

A Few Days in London - Spent More Money on Taxi's Than Hotel/Food

After our magical  Christmas in Finland,  The Traveling Hillbilly was looking forward to some fun and non-reindeer food in London.   I was not disappointed.   We had a fabulous dinner at Maze, a Gordon Ramsey restaurant in London.   We all decided to do the Chef's tasting menu and it was delicious!   Despite the small serving sizes, it was really quite filling!   I was so full, I couldn't quite finish my main course.   Of course, I somehow managed to have room for desert, but had to pass on the SECOND desert they brought out!   We all left completely stuffed, but thoroughly pleased with our dinner.

80's Fun
We also went to the Victoria & Albert museum to see an exhibit on British 80s fashion!   Interesting stuff.  I wish there had been more to see.

One can't come to London without seeing at least one show, so my last night one of my friends and I headed over to see the matinee showing of "Thriller" Live.   It was all Michael Jackson music.   The show was good and if you like Michael Jackson music, it would be hard not to enjoy it.   It was basically a MJ concert, not a real musical with a story.  But I was a little disappointed.   The choreography wasn't that great overall.  There were a few numbers that were awesome, but most of them were a little uninspired.   While the male dancers were great, most of the women were not very good.   Given the music they had to work with, this show could have been much more exciting.   There were multiple "Michael" performers which was a little odd and distracting.   One performer however, was amazing!  He was so great, you truly felt like you were watching Michael Jackson perform.  If he had been the performer for the whole show, it would have been much better.   But all in all, a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Bit of a Mishap on Christmas Day

We woke up Christmas morning and it was snowing pretty hard.  We headed over to "Snow Games" for a day of fun.    Below is a quick video taken at  Snow Games before we hopped on our snow mobiles.

Christmas day was spent snowmobiling thru the fells with a stop for a lovely lunch (of reindeer of course) before heading back.    Again the scenery was just stunning.  With the grayish sky and everything covered in snow, everything just blends together.  It feels as if you're literally inside a snow globe.  I still can't get over how beautiful it is.

One of my friend's and I were taking turns driving the snowmobile.   You really get bounced around as a passenger on the back of one but you it's also a lot of work driving one, so it's easier to switch back and forth, especially on such on a long ride.  We were having a great time and were on our way back, when we realized the lights weren't working on our snowmobile.   The guide replaced the fuses and tried a few other things, but couldn't get the lights working again.   Luckily, we had just left the ski resort where we had lunch so he was able to take it back and grab another one fairly quickly.  We were lucky it didn't happen when we were further along and far from everything.

Lights fixed, we are back on track and continuing on our way when we got off the path and ran onto the huge snow embankment.   The snow was so deep and high, the snowmobile flipped over and we crashed.  It seemed to happen in such slow mot ion.  We both knew we were going over and all I good see was a tree right in front of me.  I was certain my head was going to smack into the tree.  Luckily we missed the tree by inches and the snow was so deep it really softened our fall.   We quickly realized we were ok but had a difficult time getting out from under the snowmobile.   We were in the very back of the group so everyone else was ahead of us and didn't see this happen.  Luckily my friend's husband and two other girls were behind us.  They were able to lift the snowmobile up just enough for us to slide out from under it
It didn't take the guide long to realize we were no longer behind them so he came back looking for us in about 10 minutes.   He was able to pull the snowmobile up, and get it out of the snow.   We were back on our way, a little shaken up but okay!

As we got back on and headed back down to Luosto, I realized suddenly all the trees were green.  Apparently while we were going up the hills, the temperatures had risen to the point where the snow had fallen off the trees.  Our winter wonderland was quickly disappearing!  This photo was taken about 4:30pm.   Very different look than the one taken the night before.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sledding, Snowmobiling & Husky Ride = One Totally Fun Day!

Today was a truly fun day!   It was like being a kid again.

We didn't have to be anywhere today until after 3pm, so we slept in and had a late breakfast.   Over breakfast we pondered what to do and then saw some kids sledding outside the restaurant window.   We all thought, let's do that.  It'll be fun.  We grabbed one of the little plastic sleds they have outside the hotel and headed off in search of a hill.  We didn't have to go far.  Right behind the hotel, is a walking path to the lake that has a nice downhill slope.   We each took turns sledding, well some of us luged, down the hill.  We had so much fun.   After a few runs each, we went in search of a steeper hill.   We found one right by the lake.   This gave us the opportunity to fly down the hill and then glide across the snow covered, iced over lake!   While we weren't always graceful heading down, it was a truly fun way to spend the morning.

But the fun wasn't over.   After lunch we took snowmobiles over to a husky farm.   The Traveling Hillbilly has never been on a snowmobile so I admit I was a little nervous.   Plus they only gave us about 5 minutes of instruction before letting us hop on one and take off.  I mean we did have a guide in front leading the way, but still I was nervous.   The path was really bumpy and more than once, I thought I might pop right off!  But all in all, a very fun adventure.

Now let's talk about the Husky safari.   Being this is a part of the culture here, I was looking forward to going.  It seems like the thing to do when you're in this part of the world,  I have to admit it was an amazing experience.  I can't believe how much those dogs just want to run and take off!    They just don't slow down!  There were often times where it was almost pitch black, despite the fact it was only about 4:30 in the afternoon).   Luckily the dogs are familiar with the trail and knew exactly where to  go!   Otherwise, we could have easily gotten off the path. 

But while we were waiting for the run to start I started thinking about what this does to the dogs.  They truly do seem to want to run, but this has to be hard on their bodies.   There really is no need to use this form of transportation any longer, so it really is just for tourists.   I don't know, it just made me feel guilty and miss my hounds.

But all in all, we had a truly fun day.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Traveling Hillbilly Goes Snowshoeing

We started the day snowshoeing through the forest and then up to the top of the mountain. I was hoping we would get the chance to see a fox or artic hare on this adventure, maybe some reindeer.  However, those hopes were quickly dashed when I realized how much noise we were going to be making on our trek.   Between the clank of the shoes, the swish, swish, swish, sound of our artic gear, there was no way we were going to sneak up on any wildlife.   They would have heard coming a mile away.  However, it was awesome to be able to get deeper into the forest.

I just l can't get over how stunningly beautiful this place is.  We are staying in a village with less than 1,000 people.   I think the total people population is 881, but the reindeer population is significantly higher.   In the Lapland area, the reindeer significantly outnumber the residents by a significant margin.  

Given the small, population, the limited traffic and clean air, the snow is just so pristine and stays undisturbed where it softly fell, except for the occasional animal track.   I have taken some many pictures of trees, I wonder how many more I can take, but the scenery is so beautiful, I find I can't resist trying capture the memory, the moment on film. 

The view from the top of the mountain (or hill as our guide called it), literally took my breath away.    You truly do feel like you're standing in a black and white world.  The ground and every tree is covered in snow, the sky a light grey that just blends in.    The only color was the red and blue from our snow suits.  

Time to Visit the Reindeer!

After our snowshoe adventure, it was time to go see the reindeer!   Here we finally got to get up close to the reindeer and got the opportunity to feed them.   We had to make sure they were well fed, especially Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen as they have a very big day coming up!   They need to fuel up for that trip around the globe with Santa.   Unfortunately, we didn't get to see Rudolph.  He was resting.   As the leader of the sleigh, he needed a little extra rest.

But we did get to see the others and even some of the "reindeer in training."  See they are training some of the other reindeer to take the sleigh just in case one of the others comes down with a cold or something.   They can't run the risk of not having enough reindeer to pull Santa's sleigh!

Here are some pictures, all taken in the dark!   Even though it was only 2:45 in the afternoon it is already dark here.    During the winter, they don't' get much sunlight at all, maybe a couple of hours a day.  But this close to Christmas, they don't really get any sunlight.  I think the Reindeer need the extra rest before they have to pull all those presents around the world.   You can even see some of them sleeping in the background.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Truly Magical Adventure

Words can not describe how beautiful this place is.   It is a real live winter wonderland.  Living in Los Angeles, the Traveling Hillbilly does not see much snow.   Of course, I have seen it before in various places but I've never seen anything like this.    We are in the middle of a forest, where the snow lies undisturbed by people, cars, and pollutants.    It's just pure white, powder that looks so stunningly beautiful.   The trees look as if they've just been flocked and the rooftops are covered with the pristine powder.   It truly is magical to walk through the forest.

Although we technically had ZERO minutes of sunlight yesterday, we did get a few hours of dusky brightness.  It looked like a dark cloudy rainy day.    I thought I'd share a few snapshots I took during this time.   I know they look like black and white photos but they aren't.  I even included one with a stop sign so you can see they aren't.  These are not doctored photos.  They were just taken with my old and simple Nikon Coolpix.

I love this little guy!

Friday, December 20, 2013

It's Beginning to Feel A Lot Like Christmas!

So we arrive in Helsinki and head to Border Patrol to get our passports stamped.   The stern looking gentleman that takes my passport, looks at it and my boarding pass and asks very stoically, “are you going to see Santa Clause?”   I of course say yes and hopefully the northern lights.   He hands my passport back to me, says “NEXT” and I exit.   Apparently my friends were all asked the same thing as they handed over their passports.

As we head to the gate to catch our next flight, we run into some carolers, singing as they walk through the airport.   They sound quite beautiful and it puts us all in the holiday spirit.   The spirit quickly goes away as I board the plane and see a ton of kids.    There must be at least two kids for every adult on the flight.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many kids on one flight.  I guess everyone must be going to see Santa Clause!

Time to Say Goodbye to the Sun! And...

 possibly the chance of capturing great pictures!  This time of year, there are only a couple of hours of sunlight a day.   I’m curious to see the effect both physically and mentally this has on all of us.   I’m even more curious to see how this will impact my ability take some great photos!

Hopefully the many hours of darkness mean we will actually get to see the Aurora borealis, but with it being so dark, I may not be able to capture the moment on film.

If we do manage to get some great shots, trust me I’ll share them with you all!


How is that I get lost in Los Angeles - Visiting Princes' Islands

But have no trouble taking the metro, to the funicular to the ferry to visit the Princes' Islands in a completely foreign country?   This just makes no sense to me.  I couldn't take the bus from home to work in Los Angeles but somehow can figure out any other countries public transit system in no time!

Well enough about my poor sense of direction in my home town.  Let's get back to the Princes' Islands.  I had read about them over a year ago and they were one of main places I wanted to go while visiting in Istanbul.   I had read they are just about an hour by ferry from Istanbul and that there are no cars on the islands.  Everyone gets around by foot, by bicycle or horse drawn carriage.  It sounded like a step back in time and an opportunity to take some great photos!

So of course, it was one of the first places I asked the concierge about when I arrived and I was more than a little disappointed when he told me it would not be worth my time to go.  It's completely off season, so he  said there wouldn't be much to do.

As usual, I didn't listen to advice and I'm glad I didn't.  He was right about there not being a ton to do, but it's not like I wanted to go and lie on the beach anyway!   I wanted to wander around and see what it was like and hopefully take some great photos.
Now there are five islands in all and you can visit four of them.   Given my limited  time, I went to two of the five, Heybeliada and Buyukada (the largest of the five).   I spent a little time wandering around Heybeliada and then grabbed lunch.  Lunch consisted of some chips I bought at a little store and a panini this elderly man made me at what I guess was a cafe.   I'm not exactly sure what it was but it was delicious!  I have to say so far the best food I've had in Turkey has been "street" food!

After lunch, I hopped on another ferry and headed to Buyukada.   If this was "off-season" I would hate to visit during the season.  It was swarming with people and there were a ton of shops and restaurants right by the dock.   I quickly left the dock area and just wandered the streets.   What a beautiful and charming place.  Given the crazy traffic congestion in Istanbul, I can see why people from this city flock here in the summer. 

And the Artic Journey Begins

After a very lengthy delay leaving LAX, The Traveling Hillbilly arrived in London late yesterday.   My friends from San Francisco arrived just minutes after.   Given we were in different terminals we decided we’d head to our hotel and meet up for dinner later.

After checking in and getting settled, I headed over to meet my friends at their hotel for a drink and then dinner.   We ordered some champagne, toasted our adventure ahead and spent time catching up.  We then had a very bland dinner at the “oriental” restaurant in their hotel.

After a very unrestful night with little sleep, I’m sitting on a Finnair flight headed to Helsinki, where I’ll switch planes and catch another flight to Rovaniemi where we’ll be met with a car to take us to our final destination Luosto, in the Finnish Laplands.

I sit on the plane with a deep hope of actually getting to see the Northern Lights.  The sun is reaching the peak of its 11 year solar activity cycle, meaning this one of the best opportunities for seeing the northern lights!  Cross your fingers and wish us luck!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

ESPA Spa...Quite the Experience

The ESPA spa at the Istanbul Edition is on floors -3, -4 and -5.   Three floors in the "basement" of the building?   I'm intrigued.  Plus when I checked in, the front desk gave me a ticket for a "30 minute extension" for whatever treatment I wanted at the spa.  It was just too hard to resist.  I had to check this spa out for myself.   So after I returned to the hotel from my day of sightseeing, I headed to the spa to see when I could get an appointment.  Luckily, I was able to secure one within about 45 minutes!   The spa did not disappoint.  It is warm and inviting and very relaxing from the moment you walk in.  They have all the usual amenities, steam room (which is amazing), sauna, quiet space and they also have a pool.  I didn't use the pool so I never even saw it.  It must be on one of the floors I didn't go on. 

As for my massage, I think I actually nodded off one or twice during my massage.  Even with the extra 30 minutes, it seemed far too short.  I left feeling relaxed and ready for another nap!   A much needed recharge for the couple more days of sightseeing ahead!


The Traveling Hillbilly Visits a Mosque?

If you don't know much about Istanbul, you have probably at least heard about the Blue Mosque. It was the sight I was most looking forward to seeing.  I decided to do a half-day tour, figuring it would give me a chance to see some of the main sights of the city including the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar

A 7:30am pick up almost made me rethink the whole plan, but at least I'd still have most of day and evening left after the tour.  So up I got and out I went.

The first stop was the Blue Mosque.   I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed.   Maybe my expectations were too high.   Don't get me wrong, it is worth seeing and very majestic from the outside, but when you've seen some of the other churches in Europe the Blue Mosque just doesn't compare.  What is amazing is the fact that about 10,000 people pray there on Fridays.   People pray there everyday, but Friday is comparable to Christian's Sunday so everyone is there and many have to pray outside in the courtyard.

After the Blue Mosque, it was on to the Hippodrome and then Aya Sofya which is apparently Istanbul's most famous monument.   What makes this monument so unique is it was originally built as a church and later converted into a mosque.  Unlike christian churches there are no images or mosaics in mosques.   So now you have mosque that has images of saints, angels, Madonna and Child on one side and huge medallions inscribed with Arabic on the other.  It's no longer used as a church or a mosque, it's now more of a "museum" that is going under near constant renovation.

These were all within steps of each other, so it made seeing them in a shorter amount of time easier.  After Aya Sofya, it was time to head to the world famous Grand Bazaar.   It is definitely Grand and I think a little bizzare!    It's like a gigantic flea market, mainly enclosed with over 4,000 shops inside.   It's crazy and quite the spectacle.  I didn't last too long.  Everyone is really aggressive and you are constantly being bombarded with, "come into my store,"  "come look," "hello, come, come, come here."   It can be quite overwhelming for some and quite frustrating for others.  If you are a shopper and you enjoy haggling you could spend a whole day here.  I am not a shopper, so I came, I saw, I left.

All in all a good day of sightseeing before heading home for some much needed rest or maybe a visit to the spa.