Hopping the Pond: Belfast

America is beautiful, but there’s a big world out there beyond its borders. Having achieved our goal of seeing many of the national parks of the Colorado Plateau, visiting

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Time for something completely different

desert-dwelling friends and family, and seeing cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, it was time for something new.

 

We’ve belonged for several years to a site called luxuryhousesitting.com. The concept is: you pay a small annual fee, they check you out, and travelers with luxury homes in vacation destinations post housesitting jobs. You get to stay in some of the most desirable tourist destinations for free, and they get a free housesitter (some of them pay a small amount, if there’s a lot of work involved; some require you to pay for your utility use). While we’ve been tempted by mountaintop retreats in Hawaii, out-island homes in the Bahamas, and luxury lofts and townhomes in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Vienna, they never seemed to co-ordinate with our plans. But when we saw one near Dublin, in Westmeath, Ireland, we decided to go for it!

 

Ireland is a complex and fascinating place. My ancestry is at least 2/3 Irish, maybe more, and I have visited many times, but mostly in the West. I’d never visited Northern Ireland, or spent any time in the UK at all. So, given that our airfare would be about half the price if we arrived a week before the housesit began, we decided to book an AirBnB in Belfast. We flew into Dublin and rented a car, then drove (manual transmission on the “wrong” side of the road, an adventure in itself) to Belfast. Our lovely hostess Una greeted us and settled us in to our truly fabulous room. The entire home was a restored and upgraded Victorian or Georgian townhome, gorgeous and luxurious. Our room had bay windows facing the garden, a comfortable bed, antique-looking furnishings, a kettle in the room, and a luxury bathroom. Una was friendly and helpful. Breakfast was generous and varied. We loved this AirBnB experience!

2017-06-06 09.28.34Belfast is a bustling city, and the optimism in the air is palpable now that a new generation is coming of age since 1998 who don’t remember the Troubles (violent riots, terrorism, and guerilla warfare between those who want the British out, and those loyal to Britain). The Peace Wall is covered with street art; it used to be shut down to segregate the two halves of the city when tensions were high, but now it stands open. Peace and prosperity!

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The Peace Wall’s gates stand open now.

The downtown area is walkable and full of shops and street musicians. The traditional pubs still stand, and architectural marvels old and new are side by side, including the Europa hotel, “the most bombed hotel in Europe” because it’s where journalists used to stay during the Troubles.

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There’s no escaping!

We bought tickets for a bus tour to the Giant’s Causeway; it had a Game of Thrones theme. Much of GOT was filmed in Northern Ireland, and over the years the series (the world-wide most-watched TV series ever, according to one tour guide) has become a major tourist attraction for the area. I am a GOT fan, so of course we had to check it out! Look at the beach where Melisandra gave birth and the King’s Road:

The Causeway itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, just like the Grand Canyon. I’ve learned that some sites are asking to be taken off the UNESCO list, because they are so inundated with visitors the places are having a hard time accommodating all the international visitors and dealing with the crowding. This was certainly the case at the Causeway, but we got to walk around on the unique rock formations and savor the salt air.

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The unique, natural, basalt formations of the Giant’s Causeway

My arthritis took a turn for the worse, so we didn’t go too far out, but the bus up and down from the entry and the sidewalks made it accessible. I napped on the bus instead of attempting the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge (we had seen lots of scary bridges in Ecuador, anyway).

The bus also stopped at a pub with a door carved in a Dothraki (Game of Thrones) theme and a fake Iron Throne to sit in.

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Dothraki-themed pub entrance

 

We explored Belfast Castle next. The Castle is gorgeous and the grounds are spectacular. There are plaques inside that talk about the history, going back to the time before the Castle was built and Wolfe Tone met others on the hill to plot rebellion.

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Giant poppies made Steve look like a garden gnome!

We had coffee and scones in the little shop inside while we waited for the rain (“Irish sunshine”) to abate, then we went out into the Cat Garden, where cat art adorns a classic formal garden.

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One of the cat-garden cats
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You can almost hear it purr

Then it was on to the Belfast Zoo on foot. We had a bit of an adventure getting there; Google Maps shows an entrance right next to the Castle, but that entrance is chained off and looks like it has been for some time. We kept going, assuming there would be another entrance shortly, but there wasn’t. We wound up walking almost seven miles to get to the zoo. Fortunately, Una’s house was just a single bus ride back.

We decided to pass on Titanic Belfast, a city project which sounded to us like a very commercial and expensive development aimed at parting tourists from their money. The Titanic Memorial statue in the city center was beauty enough.

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We walked to Crumlin Gaol, but entry was very expensive ($16 apiece), so we admired it from outside.

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We took a walk by the Quay.

2017-06-02 17.17.42The time in Belfast passed too quickly, but soon it was time to bid our wonderful hostess goodbye and head south.

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Steve, Una, and me…

 

 

Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?

From Mesa Verde, it was back to Texas. I’d been wanting to have the flooring replaced in the motorhome (it’s ten-year-old carpet and linoleum), and I figured a big, prosperous city like Dallas would be a good place to find someone to do the work.


We made better time getting to Texas than we expected, but found that most campgrounds were full. Finally, we found a campground in a rural area between Dallas and Fort Worth. The price was a bargain: $16 a night. The park itself was pretty rough, with only the barest vestiges of pavement and markings remaining on the sites. But the hook-ups worked fine, and beggars can’t be choosers.
The second day we were there, the owner’s wife, one of these skeletal 80-year-olds who tries to look 35 by trowelling on the makeup, came and knocked on the door to tell us our front door rug was over the line to the neighbor’s lot. She pointed to a patch of dirt with crumbled asphalt, one crumb of which was, on close inspection, painted white. “We did you a favor by letting you take this site, it’s a monthly site. Didn’t Marvin tell you that?” (No, Marvin didn’t.) Anyway, she didn’t make us move, which was good, because this is what was on the left side of our motorhome which made us park closer to the right border:

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The entire park was plastered with warning signs, like this:

These:

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Or my personal favorite:

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Damn government!

Anyway, we moved out after a few nights to a more expensive but much nicer campground, and the Bluebird of Happiness greeted us.

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The bluebird of happiness!

I called, messaged, and e-mailed numerous flooring places and RV places to try and get estimates. I found a consistent theme: RV places didn’t want to do flooring, and flooring places didn’t want to work on RVs. I finally found an RV place that would give me an estimate, but it turned out they were just wasting my time. They do their business billing insurance companies to repair damaged RVs, and their estimate (delivered 5 days late) for 230 square feet of flooring was a jaw-dropping $17,502! I finally found a man who would do the work at a fair price through word-of-mouth, but his first available slot was in December!

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In the meantime, we put the motorhome in storage and stayed at an AirBnB in McKinney pending our flight to Ireland. Now, I am normally an adherent of Jimmy Buffett’s advice: “If you ever get a chance to go to Dallas, don’t.” But McKinney is  an adorable little hipster burb with a walkable downtown, live music, shops and restaurants. We enjoyed our week there, walking or riding our bikes into town almost daily, except for the AirBnB. It turned out to be, let’s say, not exactly as specified. The listing described it as a “roomy one-bedroom suite,” but it was actually an enclosed porch with a rickety daybed. By the time we left for the airport, our poor backs were pretty rickety as well!

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“Roomy, one-bedroom suite”

We were definitely ready for something completely different…

 

The Living Desert

Not far from Carlsbad Caverns is a truly delightful New Mexico State Park called The Living Desert.

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Dam!

This park is a tiny jewel, including a selection of desert botany which we were there at just the right time to see in glorious bloom, displays of desert wildlife,

and a wonderful viewpoint of the desert plain extending in all directions.

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An interesting tale told by the local indigenous people is found on a plaque in the visitor center of the park. I’ll leave the alien-visitation crowd to make their own theories about what this could mean (not so far from area 51) and just include it here without comment…

 

The sunsets are spectacular.

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The wildlife is adorable,

majestic,

and also frightening.

Don’t miss the chance to visit The Living Desert!

I love bats!
I LOVE THIS PLACE!

Carlsbad Caverns

Once we crossed over into New Mexico, we began to feel the arid desert sucking the moisture from our skin and nasal passages. That’s why the sight of Brantley Lake was so welcome when we pulled into Brantley Lake State Park for a little stay. This lake is beautiful, and the sight of the tiny specks of  cars on the highway on the other side gave our eyes their first chance to really adjust to the scale of distance of the American Southwest. This campground was absolutely swarming with jackrabbits and had a nice trail from the campground loop down to the rocky lakeside.

Lake Brantley
Lake Brantley

We continued along our merry way to Carlsbad Caverns. You may have noticed a cavern theme to our visits; yes, we love caverns. Besides the fact that we are now fat people, I’ve been a little claustrophobic since childhood, so true spelunking, as when you get down on your belly and squirm through passageways too small to get up in, is my idea of a nightmare. But I LOVE caverns, where you can walk (or, if you’ll recall my Kentucky experience, ride a boat!) around and see the natural sculptures and jewel-like gleaming treasures hidden beneath the surface of the earth. However, I suspect that Carlsbad has ruined me for life on other caverns.

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Ruined for Other Caverns!

Carlsbad has an elevator system, drilled hundreds of feet into the rock below. When you get off, instead of a uniformed tour guide herding you through, they hand you a little device like an old-fashioned telephone receiver, and you wander through at your own pace. Every so often there is a number, and you punch that number into the self-guided tour device and it tells you a few things about what you’re looking at.

Steve Contemplating the Caverns
Steve Contemplating the Caverns

Because caverns promote silence and contemplation, this is a much more satisfying way to see a cave. There are points at which you just want to stand and drink in the beauty of the formations and the tiny dripping sounds that formed the huge chambers over millions of years.

Patterns formed by water along the ceiling
Patterns formed by water along the ceiling

The knowledge that the 2.5-mile loop you are walking is just a tiny fraction of the caves’ immense length, and that the caves lay underground unexplored for all of humanity’s time on earth, is awe-inspiring and humbling.

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Since Carlsbad is part of the US National Parks System, and we were planning to visit others on the Grand Circle in the Four Corners (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado) area, we spent $80 for a Parks Pass, which allows us entry into any national park and discounts on some of the amenities in the Parks as well.

I highly recommend Carlsbad Caverns as a peak experience for any cavern enthusiast.

 

Messin’ With Texas: San Antonio and Gruene Dance Hall

Once we left the Texas Gulf Coast, we felt like we were really in Texas. Up until that point, the Gulf of Mexico had more or less blended seamlessly from Snowbird city to the Redneck Riviera to the Big Easy and the Bayou to Offshore Oil Central. But once the sea faded away in our rear-view mirrors, we began to see the big-hat, big-truck aloofness that gives the second-largest state its character.

 

San Antonio is famous for two main things: the Alamo, a fort where the Spanish-American War had one of its most famous sieges, and the Riverwalk. We found a quiet campground not far north of the city of San Antonio proper and set out to explore the Riverwalk first.

My general philosophy is that the best way to explore a river is by boat. And conveniently enough, there are riverboat tours available which take you all the way around the looping commercial canal known as San Antonio Riverwalk. Many cities have a downtown area which they have spruced up to cultivate tourism. But San Antonio is perhaps unique in that their tourist district is oriented around the San Antonio river.

We located the booth and bought our tickets, and rode around in the watercraft seeing restaurants, bars, hotels, and more restaurants, bars and hotels alongside the riverbanks. The history of the area was narrated by a college-age young woman who frequently mentioned that she was happy that the Riverwalk existed because otherwise she wouldn’t have a job. There were quite a few picturesque sights along the way. We ate lunch at one of the restaurants, an indifferent, overpriced affair, and then we sought out the Alamo.

Riverwalk

One thing I found surprising about the Alamo is that it is located right in the middle of what is now downtown San Antonio. We were there in early spring, and we expected it not to be too crowded, but we thought we were mistaken. We paid our $8 and stood in line to enter the big gaping former church, former barracks, former field hospital. Several places had a list of the soldiers who were killed in the battle with Santa Ana. Between the items of equipment shoved in front of the historical plaques and the poorly-managed crowds, it was not what I would describe as a peak educational experience.
The courtyard was nice, though. And one has to have a soft spot for a historical site which buries its cats with grave markers like these!

The Alamo Cats
The Alamo Cats (RIP)

But we were just as happy to make our way back to the motorhome for a quick dinner and change of clothing before our night’s outing.

 

Being in Texas, we had to take the opportunity to visit the oldest dance hall in the state. Located in the little village of Gruene, Gruene dance hall has been hosting country and western performers since XXXX. We found a spot on one of the crude wood benches and got a hard cider and enjoyed the show.

We really enjoyed the opening act, Hunter Hutchinson, an up-and-coming performer with a great sound and a great stage presence who performed covers and original songs with a flare that tells us he has what it takes to become a star one day. We actually liked him better than the headliner, Zane Williams, but judging by all the hootin’ and hollerin’ going on when Zane took the stage, ours was a minority opinion.

The crowd at Gruene
The crowd at Gruene

The wood dance floor was soon covered by couples waltzing and Texas two-stepping to the music. Attire varied from urban-cowboy redux with big hats and thousand-dollar boots for the men and sprayed-on denim miniskirts with cowgirl boots for the women, to simple cotton shirts (some with, yes, pearlescent snaps!) and jeans, to band T-shirts and nylon shorts with running shoes. After the show ended, we walked the streets of the quiet little town in the moonlight, listening to the crickets and holding hands as the traffic cleared out and we made our way back to our little RV snailshell.

Bolivar and Galveston

Down around the Gulf Coast we went, heading for Texas! After a one-night stay at the Cajun Corner campground, where we shared a hot tub with an obnoxious drunken Canadian woman and her entourage, we headed down to Bolivar.

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Leaving Cajun Country.

The Bolivar peninsula is a barrier island, not much more than a line of sand dunes, not far from Houston. It’s basically a single strip of road with beach homes and small businesses on either side. Bolivar’s beaches are open for cars to drive on (with a permit, purchasable at the bait shop; the government has to get its cut somehow!). The crowd on the beach varies from fishermen to surfers to families out for a picnic, and ranged from ebony-skinned to pallid folks like me, with the language overheard as likely to be Spanish as English.

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The Bolivar peninsula also appears to be one of the towns with the highest concentration of RVs of anywhere I’ve ever been! The peninsula is vulnerable to hurricanes, so all the houses built in the last 40 or 50 years are up on stilts. The area underneath the homes makes a perfect RV parking pad, and many homes have sewer and electric hookups at ground level included in their construction. Quite a few landowners have skipped the house part of the equation entirely, and they just have a sundeck on stilts with hookups underneath. (One local told me that lots of people couldn’t afford to insure a house, but they can afford to lose an RV in a hurricane). Some of them are single hookups for just the owner’s 5th-wheel or motorhome, but quite a few of them also have slots available for rent.
We had already reserved a space at an actual RV park, Paula’s Vineyard, with which we were delighted. It was gated and quiet and had excellent laundry facilities. Laundry facilities are one of the make-or-break items when you are traveling by motorhome, and good ones make the inevitable laundry day so much more pleasant. It also was home to this little cutie, a calico-point Siamese who trotted right up and made herself at home! We miss World Traveler Kitty Tapioca since she left for the sunny window in the sky last Fall, but we are planning to do more international travel soon, so we are not ready to take on another cat. We had a hard time convincing Dirt (that’s what they’d named her at the campground) of that!

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Dirt wanted to be our kitty!

Bolivar is connected to Galveston by a ferry, and we took our toad (towed car) across on Saturday night to look around and enjoy the nightlife.

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Galveston at Night.

We had a great Mexican dinner at Salsa’s on the beach and then enjoyed a local singer-songwriter performing at a little club called The Old Quarter, complete with an impromptu belly-dance performance by an audience member. 2017-03-25 23.51.03When we got back “home” to our snail shell, guess who was waiting for us on top of the front tire?

 

I was a little apprehensive about the trip across on the ferry in the motorhome the next day. As I’ve mentioned before, when you choose the snail’s life of full-time RV living, you put everything you can’t live without into a box hurtling through space. Putting that box on a big floating platform in the middle of the water was a whole new level of trust in the benevolence of the Universe!

But we made it across just fine, and then it was inland, to experience Texas proper!

Mississipi Gulf Coast and the Casino

No USA motorhome tour would be complete without at least one stop at a casino. Everywhere you go nowadays, casinos seem to be an attraction. I guess I’m showing my age when I say that I remember when you had to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to gamble legally; it used to be that huge amounts of money changed hands off the record, in the form of bets, and I guess the government and its coddled spawn, the corporations, decided that they needed to get a cut, so now big hotel complexes with golf courses, RV parks, and overpriced gift shops dot the landscape, nationwide.

 

Biloxi, Mississipi was one of the first areas to jump on the casino trend, and the Hollywood Casino Hotel and RV park is one of the most-highly reviewed online, so we made our way across the Mobile Bay area, skirted New Orleans, and checked into a campsite with a fabulous view of the bayou out our bedroom window!

Trees and wetlands on a sunny morning
View of the Bayou out our bedroom window.

The property was huge and even the non-golf-course portions were criss-crossed with asphalt trails which their maintenance staff used to get around in golf carts, so I got some great bike riding in. I had been looking forward to using their advertised hot tub and enjoying their poolside bar and grill, but when we got there we found that while the pool was accessible, the hot tub was not, and the services were not yet open for the season, despite the lovely Gulf Coast March weather.

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On the other side of the causeway

A day trip across the causeway to the beach town of Pass Christian brought us to more of the Gulf Coast’s famous sugar sand beaches, with restaurants and chic shops right across the way. The New Orleans influence was undeniable, both in the menus, and in other details. Recycling is popular everywhere right now, but where else do you find Mardis-Gras-bead recycling stations in the grocery stores?

We popped our inflatable beach loungers open and let them catch the breeze and enjoyed a lazy afternoon in the sun.

Lying on the beach on inflatable loungers
Pass Christian Mississipi has the famous Gulf of Mexico white sand beaches

Oh, and we did visit the casino a couple of times. I was looking forward to the musical clinkety-chink of quarters dropping into the slots and spilling out into the cup when you won. But alas, that’s apparently not how it’s done anymore. The woman at the counter shook her head as she sold me a plastic card. “No, no more quarters,” she lamented. “They evacuated us for Katrina, and when we came back after Katrina they told us it was all plastic cards now.” I put $100 on the card and began: I played the slots for a while, but they were all electronic push-buttons; I missed the tactile satisfaction of pulling down the handle. I couldn’t ignore the niggling awareness of how much easier it is to rig the system when an electronic card tracks your winnings and the machines are all wired into a network. I got $18.75 ahead, and quit.

 

The hotel did offer a huge, decadently lavish buffet. Steve ate his weight in crab claws and I made a pig of myself at the dessert table. Then it was time to pull up stakes and move on!