The air was chill but the rising sun surprisingly bright as we reached Stonehenge at a much-too-early hour when any sensible person would have still been in bed. Everything around us was still; no coaches, no crowds, not even an open gift shop. This was Stonehenge as you imagine it to be, standing alone in the Wiltshire landscape as if the builders had abandoned the stone circle for us alone to find.
But sadly the Stonehenge experience isn’t always like this. A couple of years ago I had visited with my blogging friend Barbara – she wrote about our day here. Although we were lucky enough to be first in the queue as Stonehenge opened and had the monument to ourself for a brief 5 minutes, it wasn’t long before the perimeter of the circle was flooded with other visitors. This is one of the major tourist ticklist sites and a convenient coach tour destination for day trips from London, so by the time we left, the experience was far from magical.
On a typical visit to Stonehenge you can skirt around the stones and photograph them from a distance, but without walking among them. This time our early morning tour allowed us to walk into the circle and hear our excellent guide Pat Shelley of Stonehenge-Tours.com tell us all about the stones and the stories and myths that surround them. But first a warning; don’t touch the stones, don’t kiss the stones, don’t hug the stones, don’t lick the stones! Those of us who visited Stonehenge as children will remember that this was once an open monument where you could walk among, sit upon and even picnic by these stones, but these days they are now treated with almost religious care for their preservation.
The stone circle was a masteriece of engineering with the sarsens weighing up to 50 tons being brought on rollers from the Marlborough downs and the smaller blue stones used in the inner circle being brought by river from the Preseli Hills 150 miles away in Wales. The lintels that sit balanced on the top of the larger stones are held in place with interlocking joints and were slightly curved to make the circle – you can see the bulge on top of some of the stones and the hole on others that have fallen. While it is clear that Stonehenge was built to be aligned with the sun and is part of a wider landscape of other stone circles and burial barrows, no-one really knows why it was built or exactly how it was used. Our guide Pat confided that Stonehenge is believed to have been built for ceremonial and ritual purpose which is archaeological code for ‘we’ve absolutely no idea!’
If you’d like to visit on a special sunrise or sunset tour of Stonehenge that will enable you to have that magical experience without the crowds, you need to plan well ahead. The early morning visit including access to the stone circle can be requested in advance at a cost of £30 per person via the Stonehenge website (this does not include a guided tour or even an audioguide) but guides like Pat Shelley also offer the special tour including transport from Salisbury and a guide for £98 per person. Twice a year you can walk within the stone circle during the winter and summer solstice but you will still be sharing the experience with thousands of other visitors. The normal entry price is £14.50 and is bookable in advance, by timed entry. A free audio-tour is available for download on iTunes here.
While you’re in the area there is plenty more to visit, so I would make a weekend or few days to stay in Salisbury while you explore the surrounding area – more information on the Visit Wiltshire Website.
On the road from Stonehenge to Avebury you will pass Silbury Hill, which at 40m high is the largest man-made chalk mound of its kind in Europe. The flat topped cone shape is too regular to be natural, yet no-one knows why it was constructed and no burial chambers have been discovered. There’s no public access to the base or top of the hill but on the opposite side of the road you can walk up the hill to West Kennet Barrow. This Neolithic long barrow or burial mound has a stone chamber at one end that you can enter and you are free to walk along the top of the barrow, with the wind blowing in your hair.
A more personal experience of the stones at Avebury
If you were disappointed at having to share Stonehenge with crowds of other visitors, I recommend that you drive 40 minutes north to Avebury, a larger site of standing stones that is also managed by English Heritage. Visiting Avebury is a much more personal experience and while the individual stones are not as impressive as Stonehenge, you can wander among them, touch them and hug them at will. The stones are well spaced out, making large stone circles across the landscape and a village has grown up in the midst of them, making for a pleasant visit, since you can wander freely around the stones, banks and ditches and then finish off with an excellent pub lunch at the Red Lion.
The beautiful cathedral is as much a living place of worship and community as a tourist attraction, and the spire can be seen for miles around as you approach the city from any direction. If you are spiritually inclined I’d recommend attending evensong or the Sunday morning service to hear the beautiful music and choral singing. The cathedral has undergone a major repair programme over recent years and you can read the cathedral blog to find out what’s been going on behind the scenes. You won’t find a crypt or hear a peal of bells here, since the cathedral is built on shallow foundations due to the high water table and too much vibration could make it unstable.
A perfect photography spot can be found from the footpath that runs in between the water meadows, leading to the Mill House Hotel at Harnham a pub and restaurant where we had supper, in a 15th century building with a garden, with views of the river and mill pond.
800 years of Magna Carta
In the chapter house of Salisbury cathedral you can see the best preserved of the four original copies of Magna Carta, sealed in 1215 by King John in an agreement to preserve the constitutional rights of his nobility. The ‘Great Charter’ guarantees certain rights, including the right to a free trial and copies were sent around the kindom after King John made peace with his barons at Runnymead, to ensure he didn’t change his mind (which of course he did).
The interactive exhibition has been created within the Chapter House to commemorate the 800 year celebrations with films and displays about the charter’s history and volunteer guides on hand to explain everything. Within a darkened enclosure, you can see the actual Magna Carta, written on vellum and with the mark where the seal would once have been, which signified the king’s approval.
Salisbury Cathedral Close
The cathedral is enclosed in a grassy close of 80 acres, surrounded by the houses that were constructed in the middle ages to house the clergy but have since been enlarged and beautified with grand Georgian facades. The houses, walls and gatehouses form a barrier that was designed to separate town from gown in troubled times – normally when the church was charging to local people too much in taxes. There’s plenty to see within the close including Mompesson House, an elegant Queen Anne style town house that is open through the National Trust, The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum that tells the story of the County infantry regiments and the Salisbury Museum that houses local archaeological collections found in the area.
Visit Arundells, home of Sir Edward Heath
While you’re in the Salisbury Cathedral Close, be sure to visit Arundells, the former home of British Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath who lived here from 1985 until his death in 2005. The Grade 1 listed house has all those ingredients that make a perfect country gentleman’s residence; the gravelled courtyard with wrought iron gates, the honey stone Georgian frontage and the gardens leading down to the river. Inside the house is preserved as it was when Sir Edward lived there and reflects the passions of his later years. In the hall you’ll see models of his yacht, Morning Cloud and he described the rich man’s sport of ocean racing as ” like standing under a cold shower tearing up £5 notes.”
In the sitting room is a grand piano which visitors are invited to play, covered with silver framed photos of the great and the good, while the terracotta formal dining room, filled with Chinese artworks, saw many a Sunday lunch with everyone from pop stars to royalty. As you walk up the stairs you’ll admire the hand painted wallpaper depicting Chinese fables and stand behind Sir Edward’s desk in the study looking along the length of the garden towards the river. This is certainly a house that oozes the personality of its owner.
Stay within the cathedral close at Sarum College
I stayed at Sarum College while attending the Social Travel Britain conference and highly recommend it if you are looking for tranquil and comfortable accommodation right opposite the cathedral. Parts of the college date back to the 18th century and it is now used as a Christian study and conference centre, but anyone is welcome to book one of their 40 rooms. This is the only place that you can stay within the cathedral close, so you can drink in that cathedral view in the early morning, before other visitors are allowed in. The en-suite bedrooms are fresh and simply furnished and there is a refectory that serves excellent home cooked meals using local ingredients. Should you wish to venture out of the cathedral close to eat at one of the nearby restaurants, you can borrow a key to get back in after the gates are locked at 10.30. Probably not the place for party animals though.
More places to visit in the South of England
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April 10, 2015 by Guest Author
Filed under Accommodation, Beaches and swimming, Cruise, Eating and drinking, Ecuador, featured, Guest post, Leisure, Misc, Nature, Photography, Sightseeing, South America, Walking
In this article, our guest author, Kate Convissor, shares an unforgettable week in the Galapagos, with pristine beaches, aquamarine seas and of course the birds, seals and other wildlife.
Most people travel through Quito in Ecuador, heading for the Galapagos Islands as their main destination. My experience was the opposite. I was already traveling through Ecuador and planned to spend several days in lovely Quito. The city was UNESCO’s first cultural World Heritage Site, so it’s very historic and photogenic. Since I was already so close, my trip had to include the Galapagos and when my sister learned of my plans, she decided to join me.
Still, my expectations were, well, non-existent. Other than cute sea lions and birds with funny names, I had no idea what to expect from an 8-day cruise through one of the most precious and unique places on the planet.
I must say, my first sight of the Galapagos through the windows of the tiny Baltra airport was underwhelming. It looked like a dry, shrubby, rocky moonscape with heat that would melt your eyeballs.
On board the San Jose
But things improved once onboard the breezy deck of the San Jose, the ship that would be our home for the next eight days. Once we found our cabin, which was more comfortable and spacious than I had expected, with twin beds (not bunks) and a nice-sized bathroom and a big window (not to mention blessed air-conditioning for those blistering afternoons), I began to feel the excitement build and the tension drain away.
A ship at sea! What could be more delightful?
And indeed, once we were underway, slicing through an impossibly blue ocean with a far horizon melting into a similarly blue sky and the wind rushing off the bow of the ship, I began to catch the magic of the Galapagos.
The amazing animal culture
Our first landing that afternoon was on the tiny islet of Mosquera, which was little more than a lump of sand with sea lions lazily scattered about and a handful of other creatures I’d read about, like Sally-lightfoot crabs and tiny lava lizards. At this point, I was completely smitten.
This would be a great week.
Almost every day we woke to sun, sea, maybe another boat or two at anchor, a satisfying breakfast, and new wonders to explore. Days were filled with activity, which usually involved one or two hikes and/or one or two snorkeling adventures, and maybe a panga ride to some interesting cove. We usually visited two different sites each day, but the boat motored during mealtimes or at night, so we weren’t twiddling our thumbs en route to the next place.
The hikes, while sometimes very hot, were always interesting and sometimes entrancing. And, of course, there was always the blue ocean to cool off in.
Snorkeling is almost de rigueur in the Galapagos since the water is teeming with all sorts of life, from sea turtles to small sharks to schools of colorful fish. The color and variety is fascinating.
I am not an avid swimmer, but I was determined not to miss this opportunity, so I grit my teeth and wore a life jacket for the first snorkel. It was fantastic! The water was warm and so bouyant that staying afloat was effortless and all that aquatic life under the surface of the ocean was worth enduring any momentary discomfort.
One of the more delightful hikes was at Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. Since it was high tide with waves crashing against the rock, our “dry” landing was a little tricky. (This is where you want experienced guys driving your panga – the little boats that takes you from your cruise ship to the shore.) We walked across a tide-flooded inlet guarded by a big bull sea lion who was jealous of his girls. (This is where you want an experienced naturalist-guide who knows the ways of macho sea lions.)
Birds, birds, birds
Espanola is a nesting condo for Nazca boobies and other birds I’ve forgotten the names of. The rocks are dripping with whitewash, and fluffy juveniles are waiting patiently (or not) for a snack, while their beleaguered parents are trying to oblige (by regurgitating the fish they’ve worked hard to find). Bird families were strewn haphazardly across the relatively flat and somewhat rocky clifftop. An occasional blue-footed booby broke the monotony.
We clambered over rocks snapping photos like crazed tourists, while the birds couldn’t have cared less. The trail wound among the nesting birds and along a cliff edge until we all settled cliff-side to watch the waves crash on the black volcanic rock and send plumes of mist and water through a blowhole. All of which formed a dramatic foreground as the sun slowly rode down the western sky.
Now, I ask you, where else in the world can you sit with 16 people with this kind of natural wonder playing out around you? (Okay, there was another small tour group waiting to take our place on the rocks, but that doesn’t change the overall picture.)
Small luxuries combine with pleasant company
After every activity, our long-suffering steward, Jackson, met us with his broad smile and a juice drink and snacks. Every evening we passengers gathered for a beer to chat and swap notes about the birds or fish we’d seen. And every night we fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the boat as it steamed toward our next magical destination.
Our naturalist-guide, Carlos, was an energetic, informed and personable 26-year-old. He, like many other guides, had grown up on the islands and that native knowledge was honed by the compulsory training all the guides receive.
My sister and I were also lucky in that all the passengers on our small boat were wonderful to travel with for a week, from the 86-year-old lawyer and his wife (Please, God, may I be like them when I am old) to the young brother and sister who came with their mom.
I think our group was so compatible, in part, because we all opted for a small, less luxurious boat (but make no mistake, the San Jose was very clean and comfortable) so that we could focus on experiencing the islands and not staying comfy and entertained on board the ship. Some of the luxury cruise liners carry 100 passengers and can’t get to as many islands as the smaller boats.
“If you want a bigger cabin and more amenities, you should choose a luxury cruise. If you want to really experience the islands, you can have a very good time on a smaller boat,” said Evelyn, my agent at Happy Gringo, through whom I booked our cruise.
True in every way. Cruising in the Galapagos Islands was a fantastic experience, and a longer cruise on a smaller boat like the San Jose was, for me, the best way to do it.
About our guest author: Many thanks for this story to Kate Convissor who has been traveling more or less continually since she sold her house in 2010 and trailered around North America. Kate blogs semi-regularly at Wandering Not Lost. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter
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In this article our guest author, Susan Foster shares her girl’s weekend getaway at the historic Hotel del Coronado, set by the sea in San Diego, California.
My friend Cherie and I traveled quite a bit together in college and for some years afterwards. These trips came to a halt during the years we raised our children. Recently however, we have enjoyed a girl’s weekend getaway together every-other year. A perk of midlife has been the significant upgrade in the accommodations we can now both afford!
This year’s destination: San Diego
Cherie is from Virginia and I live in Montana. This year, we chose to meet at the warm coastal resort town of Coronado, just across a bridge from San Diego, California.
Deciding to splurge, we booked a long-weekend stay at one of the leading San Diego hotels, the historic and luxurious Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1880, it is now an American National Historic Landmark.
A glitch in our plans!
Our flights were originally scheduled to arrive into San Diego late morning on a Friday, within minutes of each other. Unfortunately, an airplane mechanical difficulty delayed Cherie’s arrival until evening. I found out by reading a text from her just before boarding my own flight:
Despite feeling horrible for Cherie, the Hotel del Coronado was a lovely place to spend an afternoon alone.
I explored the sprawling grounds and beautiful building, walked several miles on the hotel’s private beach, ate a lovely ocean-side meal, and watched an incredible sunset from the balcony of our full ocean-view room.
Once Cherie finally arrived, we salvaged the rest of her day by enjoying a light meal and some talented live music downstairs in the Babcock and Story Bar.
Saturday was a full day!
Wearing the matching outfits we had unknowingly packed, we headed down to the beach for a walk, then consulted the helpful hotel concierge to assist with the planning of our day.
Old Town Trolley Tour and a day in San Diego
It had seemed unnecessary to rent a car. A cab from the airport cost about $30 US, and the village of Coronado is an easy walk from the hotel. Coronado offered more than enough to entertain us, but we decided to spend a day exploring San Diego. We purchasing discounted Old Town Trolley Tour tickets ($33 US each) from the concierge, which turned out to be the perfect way to experience the city.
The trolley route covers 25 miles in about two hours, and the driver provides an entertaining and informative narrative. Passengers can get on and off as they please at any of the 11 different points of interest. Trolleys cycle through each stop about every half hour throughout the day.
Typically, I prefer to be “off the beaten path” and avoid tourist-type activities. With our limited time schedule though, I enjoyed the comprehensive overview of San Diego provided by the Trolley Tour. We disembarked at five stops.
Our first stop was Balboa park in San Diego
Home to 15 museums, and a vast number of other interests, several days could easily be spent at Balboa Park. A free, narrated 15-minute tram tour of the park convinced us both to return someday with more time to explore.
Next up: Little Italy, San Diego
This hilly community with many enticing shops and restaurants is, according to our driver, the largest “Little Italy” in the United States. Had we desired Italian food, this would have been a perfect place for lunch. Or – we could have had a pint in the British Pub we discovered there!
Visiting Old Town, San Diego
We couldn’t leave without a stop at Old Town San Diego. Established in the 1700’s, we enjoyed walking through the historic buildings.
Our concierge recommended El Agave Tequileria. The authentic Mexican food and margaritas (mine was avocado!) were excellent.
A stop at San Diego Harbor
You could easily spend an entire afternoon at the San Diego Harbor. We just briefly walked up and down the harbor, but enjoyed seeing the ships and submarines which can be toured there.
Shopping at Seaport Village, San Diego
We enjoyed the quaint shops here, and saw some incredibly beautiful jewelry.
The sea wall was the perfect place to sit and sip a cup of coffee.
The setting sun looked like a ball of fire, back-lighting the sailboats and ships at sea, and the beautiful trees in the park. We were so enchanted we lost track of time, and missed the last trolley – which we had planned to take to the Gaslamp District, known as the “happening place” for nightlife!
Back to Hotel del Coronado
Reevaluating our plan, we took a taxi back to the Hotel del Coronado. Once there, we ended the day with a glass of wine and some tasty snacks. The February temperatures had cooled enough to need a coat, but we were comfortably warm sitting by an outdoor fire-pit at the Sunset Bar.
Sunday: Relaxation and spa day!
After a walk on the beach we reported to the Del’s Fitness Center, to join a group for a yoga session on the beach. It was my first yoga experience, and I absolutely loved it, perhaps thanks to the ocean setting!
The Spa at the Del offers over 50 different treatments and advance reservations are recommended. We pampered ourselves with manicures, pedicures, and facials, and enjoyed all of the delightful spa amenities, such as the steam room, hot tub and sunbathing by the infinity pool.
We watched the sun set while enjoying delicious “Charred Brussels Sprouts,” followed by salad and wood-fired pizza outdoors at ENO Pizzaria and Wine Bar.
It would be impossible to fully sing the praises of the Hotel Del Coronado, without making this article much too lengthy. You can read the article on my own blog with more about the history and amenities of this glorious hotel.
My only complaint is that our stay was much too short. Planning our next reunion will be easy – returning to San Diego and the Hotel del Coronado is a must!
About Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado is a luxury seaside resort in Coronado, California, just minutes from downtown San Diego. In existence since 1888, the hotel is now a beautiful National Historic landmark and a world-class luxury resort. Rooms rates are from $425 USD; book mid-week for lowest rates and be sure to check the resort website for special offers. Website | Twitter | Facebook
Read more about Hotel del Coronado in Susan’s article: Hotel del Coronado – Perhaps a glimpse of heaven
Susan received some complimentary services from the Hotel del Coronado during her stay, however all opinions expressed are her own.
Thanks to Susan Foster for sharing her weekend in San Diego. Susan’s blog the most – of every moment is about making the most of all life’s moments with recipes, tips, inspiring stories and excerpts of life in Montana. You can connect with Susan on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Instagram | Pinterest
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