Safari Luck and Lessons in South Africa

 

lion.gifIt wasn’t until I heard the guttural cry of an old lion that I truly felt I was in Africa. We had just finished our Sundowner cocktail when our safari ranger got word that a lion was nearby. As the fiery sun sank behind the golden savanna bushland, our ranger veered off the rutted road and ploughed the Land Rover through November’s dry crackling brush. We positioned ourselves not four metres from this king of predators.

The lion was lying on his side, his large scraggly mane and tawny fur blending into the dying yellow grass. It was impossible to tell that this slumbering cat was about 1.2 m to the shoulder and 3m long.

 

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old male lion calling for mates

As dusk descended into darkness, one of the other two encircling vehicles flipped on a giant spotlight, and the lion lifted his head and began to call softly. The deep-throated growl lasted more than 45 seconds before fading into short grunts. The lion’s sound, which can be projected eight kms, vibrated through the clear night air and rippled through every cell in my body.

When he gathered his 500 lb. body to stand, I lowered my camera to better see what would happen next. It was time to hunt. In the dark, his eyesight is five times better than mine, and he can smell prey a mile away. He looked around then padded directly towards me. We were told not to lean out of the open-air 4x4vehicle. No problem; I was frozen in my seat behind the driver as this king of beasts sauntered past my side into the bush. I don’t remember exhaling.

Raw and Beautiful South Africa

This was raw and beautiful South Africa at its most exhilarating. We are on a five-day safari in the kingdom of the wild, surrounded by hundreds of big and medium-sized game animals that must kill or be killed. We are witnessing the primal circle of life and we are experiencing it with our senses heightened.

Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve is located in Sabi Sands, a 10,000-hectare private game reserve next to the renowned Kruger National Park in northeast South Africa. Kruger Park has more species of large mammals – including the rare black rhino – than any African reserve. There is no fenced border between Sabi Sands and Kruger’s two million-hectare wildlife sanctuary so animals can move freely across the grasslands and woodlands.

Unlike Kruger Park, where visitors must stay on the roads in search of wildlife unless they hire a private guide, the rangers at smaller private game reserves can drive off road through the tangled brush to get their guests as close as safely possible to the wildlife. Our ranger, like many, is an excellent photographer and always finds us the best spot for a picture, whether we’re shooting a mammal, bird, tree or sunset.

Many of the big tribal animals living in the 800-hectare Leopard Hills are known to the lodge rangers and the trackers who accompany them on drives. Both are trained in animal and bird habitat and behaviour. Drivers also have to learn to navigate the network of roads around and between the connecting private reserves without a map.

Our ranger recognized this ageing lion. Driving back to our lodge, under a starry sky, he explained the male had been cast out of his pride because he was too old to travel with the other males.

“What was he saying?” I asked. “He didn’t sound threatened by our vehicles or angry about being in the glare of the spotlight.”

“He was calling out to see if any of his mates were nearby.” We learned lions typically communicate at sunrise or sunset when the pride is on the move. This call went unanswered.

Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve

Our resort has eight luxury suites built on stilts along an outcrop providing an expansive view of the plains below. Each air-conditioned suite has a private sun deck with plunge pool and outdoor shower.

 

It’s early November and the weather remains warm and drought-dry, making it easier to spot wildlife through bare bushes. Our ranger says they are waiting for the rains, but as our luck would have it, there was only a sprinkle one evening.

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to see animals in search of food and water. So our days start with a five a.m. wake up knock on the door, and after a light breakfast, the three-hour morning game drive begins After a relaxing lunch and afternoon, guests gather for tea at the main lodge at 4 p.m. before heading out on the afternoon drive.

Leopard Hills’ safari vehicles are customized by Land Rover. They have three tiered rows of seats behind the driver, but each row has two bucket seats instead of three. There’s no middle person to get in the way of your perfect shot. The middle seat is converted into a wide armrest and storage compartment for camera cases, water bottles, and lined ponchos for use on cool or wet days.

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heading back to Leopard Hills lodge in background

At dusk, our ranger finds another scenic water spot to set up a portable bar and serve a selection of Sundowner drinks to watch the day’s setting sun. Tonight the clouds reflect the sun in sheets of orange and purple. We return to our room to freshen up for cocktails and dinner with our ranger at the main lodge. Wild animals roam the area at night and we are always escorted back to our suite by a security guard.

The Big Five

The highlight of any African safari is to see the Big Five (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo) in the wild. These safari favourites are the most dangerous and hardest to hunt on foot. We have three days to spot the other four.

We were told that close encounters with the Big Five, including the more elusive leopard, is the specialty of Leopard Hills. The next day we are thrilled to be radioed the whereabouts of a pair of mating leopards. We bounce over deep dry ruts to get to the location. Sturdy branches snap like twigs as we inch forward into position. Leopards are nocturnal but during the day can be seen snoozing on the limbs of shady trees. Seeing wild leopards mating was another stroke of luck.

 

It takes me a few minutes to see the head and shoulders of this male cat resting behind a bush. Like the tawny lion, the leopard’s spotted body makes an excellent camouflage. The female is resting nearby and the male waits. These five-year-old leopards will mate every 15 minutes for the next three days, says our ranger, adding this female had recently mated with three other leopards. She does this so the males won’t kill her cubs for risk of killing their own.

The male yawns. The female slinks down the mound and rubs up against the male. Within seconds he mounts her, and just before he dismounts he clamps his jaws on the top of her neck. He growls. She snarls back.

“What is he doing?” I whisper, thinking this isn’t going well at all. A leopard can kill its prey by breaking its neck with one bite.

“He’s biting her to stimulate her hormones and to protect himself from being swatted by her when he jumps off.” On cue, she rolls over and swipes at him. They settle down a meter apart and rest again.

 

elephantsThe next morning, we encounter a mother and two baby elephants eating along both sides of the road. The baby crosses in front of us to stand behind her mother. The African elephant is the world’s largest land animal and has an appetite to match. While the African lion sleeps 20 hours a day, the elephant grazes 18 hours a day to consume the required 300 kg of vegetation.

They use their trunk to tear at tree limbs and I am astonished to watch this mother demolish this tree, ripping the trunk out of the earth. The elephant’s trunk weighs as much as a female lion. They also use their trunk to communicate over miles through ground vibrations. I have no doubt the rest of this matriarch-led group knew we were coming long before we did.

On our final two days, we see the last of the Big Five – the two most dangerous and sought-after trophy-animals – the one-ton Cape buffalo, which will attack a vehicle if provoked, and the endangered two-horned rhino.

 

Returning to the lodge, our ranger tells us more about the threatened white and rare black rhinos, whose horns sell in Vietnam for up to $100,000 per kg. He drives us along the open Kruger Park border and stops to speak in Afrikaans with two armed guards patrolling for illegal hunters.

While some African countries have dehorned their rhinos to discourage poaching, our ranger says Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands does not, believing poachers will still kill rhinos for the horn stub.

I pack my checklist, which had grown to include the rare wild dogs, hyenas, sable antelope, baboons, wildebeest, reedbuck, kudu, Zebra, impalas, gazelles, giraffes and hippos.

After seven hours of game drives for five days with an expert ranger, I leave more aware of this incredibly diverse plant and animal ecosystem. Watching these animals, whose life and death keeps nature in balance, teaches me once again that today is the only day that matters.

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Yoga reveals universal truths to a weekend warrior

balancing pose on hands

Bodies lay splattered across the darkened room as I maneuver around them to an empty spot along the far wall. Unrolling my yoga mat, I notice a man on the floor in front of me, his fingers reaching for the front mirror in a wide-legged child’s pose, his hair pulled into a Samurai top knot. Although yoga has been practiced by men in India for at least 5,000 years, women make up 80 per cent of classes in the Western World, and my Saturday morning warm and gentle is a perfect example of a man-led, all-women weekend warrior practice.

I join the other relaxed corpses in Shavasana, close my eyes and fill my lungs with air, exhaling deeply, evenly, emptying my mind and melting my body into the earth. The air still stinks from the previous hot yoga class, but I know the temperature will quickly drop from the sweat-inducing 39C to a more comfortable 30C.

The door clicks softly closed behind our instructor, but it is a woman’s voice that floats above us as she crosses to the centre of the room: “Welcome to this special hot core power yoga class. My name is Cynthia. I am your guest instructor today and will be guiding you through your practice for the next 60 minutes.”

Hot yoga is the same dish baked at 40C for an hour

OMG. Did she just say Hot. Core. Power. Yoga. I feel my breath shorten and my pulse begin to throb in my fingertips. Power yoga is a challenging, high-energy workout, combining Hatha poses with continuous movement and deep breathing. It requires strength and stamina. Hot yoga is the same dish baked for an hour at 40 degrees. It kicks up your heart rate while your higher body temperature helps stretch muscles even further. I tried hot yoga once, but had to get out of that kitchen. I’ve even tried iron yoga, that’s power with dumbbells, but couldn’t keep up with the instructor.

Serves me right, I think, as we wiggle awake our ankles and wrists. I forgot to check the monthly calendar this morning. I have shown up before only to discover the class was cancelled for teacher training. Had I checked before dashing out the door, I would have saved myself the gas and grief.

We begin with hot breath breathing to warm our bodies, although my clammy palms would suggest this isn’t really necessary. Cynthia has placed a rectangular yoga block beside each mat and we are told to put it between our ankles for a series of straight leg raises to be held at a 30-, 60- and 90- degree angle from the floor. Then we place the block prop between our thighs and continue the stomach- contracting leg raises while keeping our lower backs flat on the floor. By now the class has found its rhythm, exhaling in unison. Three more breaths, says the instructor. Forcing out our collective ujjayi breath, we sound like a strong wind whistling through a narrow opening.

plank pose

plank pose

These core strengthening exercises remind me of Pilates, and the time my husband joined me for a year, seeking relief from work-related tension in his neck and shoulders. And to think I had almost convinced him to attend this class because a) it was led by a man, b) it would provide a remedial hour of gentle stretching and c) chanting at the end is an option. Thank goodness he had a golf game, I smile to myself, as we take our first of several breaks to slurp water from plastic bottles. The Samurai wipes his bearded face with a towel. The skin on his back glistens with newly-released toxins.

Yoga teaches you to listen to your body. And my body said no.

We move into the Sun Salutation sequence and, according to our instructor, we are going to jump our legs back to a high plank position, drop to a Chaturanga low plank, swoop to a cobra and then hop our feet forward to the top of the mat – all while holding this block between our now trembling thighs. Over years of yoga practice, you learn to listen to your body to avoid injury, and my body is telling me it has no intention of doing this. It says I couldn’t do these three sequential moves if my legs were tied to the block. And judging by the he-grunts and rapid expulsion of breaths that follow this series, I am not alone in my struggle to keep up.

resting in child's pose

relaxing child’s pose

Catching my breath in the restorative child’s pose – knees together, arms by my side, cheek pressed to mat – I check out the other yoginis. I see two long ladies (they’d be tall if we were standing) to my left, their young, fat-free bodies hovering above their mats in a low bent elbow plank. The white team headbands and smooth dark ponytailed hair give them away. They’re yoga plants, I decide, students recruited by Cynthia to a) replace the warm gentle no-shows who looked at today’s revised class calendar, and b) provide an example to the warm and gentle regulars like me.

You get what you need

At the end of the class, while spraying my mat in the hallway, I overhear a curly-haired blonde with flaming cheeks telling the instructor she thought she was coming to the warm and gentle class. “So did I,” I pipe up. Another freckled redhead I recognize from class chimes her agreement. “I guess you get what you deserve,” the blonde concludes wryly, which I take to mean she didn’t check her calendar this morning either. “No,” said the Samurai, from behind me this time: “You get what you need.”

Our thoughts are energy magnets seeking a match in the universe

Walking to my car, the breeze chilling my sweaty skin, I realize there might be some truth in what the man had said. I’ve read about the universal law of attraction, which, simply put, means you attract what you think about. By giving your attention to something, you can begin to attract that something into your life. Like thinking about an old friend and the next day she calls you. Or thinking about your deceased dad and seeing the colour and model of the car he used to drive pull up to the intersection with an elderly man behind the wheel wearing the same cap your dad always wore. We are connected by our thoughts, and our thoughts are like energy magnets, seeking a match in the universe. By focusing your thoughts positively on what you desire you will begin to bring the essence of that subject into your experience. (This universal law applies to negative thinking too, so focus your thoughts on what you do want. If you keep saying you’re broke, or fat, your life experience will keep trying to match that thought.)

Hadn’t I also read that the universe is always answering your questions, through people or circumstances or events, but that we aren’t always aware that we are receiving the answers? Wasn’t I telling myself all winter I should be doing more core exercises so I can play better golf this summer? And wasn’t I just thinking how convenient it would be if my yoga class incorporated some hard core Pilate moves like the scissors and corkscrew?

Back home, I check my yoga calendar and sure enough, my regular class had been replaced by an introduction to hot core power yoga class. And because I was running late, I didn’t confirm with the girl at the front desk that the class was warm and gentle when I flashed my token. I was meant to take this class.

Yoga acknowledges the divine in each of us

Each yoga practice — be it relaxing and meditative or a full body workout –encourages a deeper physical-spiritual connection through the calm and focused coordination of movement and breath. By leaving all external stressors and distracting mind-chatter (still working on that) at the door, yoga’s mind-body practice helps reconnect us to the universal spirit, or life force, in all of us.

And give us the answers we need.

Namaste.

Further reading: The Essential Law of Attraction Collection by Esther and Jerry Hicks
Namaste Greeting Translation: I bow to you. I honor the devine in you which is also in me.

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Iceland is In – active volcanic island is a tourist hotspot

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What I liked most about Iceland was the things I didn’t do, which is great, really, because it means I have to go back.

Last spring, Edmonton was buzzing about Icelandair’s new, low-cost transatlantic service to Europe, and the opportunity to stopover for up to seven days at no additional airfare.

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Iceland was never a bucket-list contender. My impression of this remote, shell-shaped island near the Arctic Circle was as scant as the raw landscape, although I was impressed in 2010 when one of its active volcanos blew ash and smoke across to Europe and stopped international air traffic for five days.

But here we were last August, a month after Holuhraun blew, flying Icelandair to Greece, with a 17-hour-layover in Reykjavik, the most northern capital city in the world.

Island a geothermal tour de forcelandscape2

Iceland is a virtual hotspot of earthquakes and volcanic activity, attracting geologists, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. Holuhraun is still rumbling with minor earthquakes after it erupted last summer, and its lava field now covers an area the size of Manhattan.

Despite this, (or because of it, I’m not sure), tourism has soared since the big plume of 2010. In 2014, one million tourists descended on this sparsely populated island of 325,000. And 80 per cent were coming to see and experience the natural wonders of this unspoiled playground – the glowing Northern Lights, the famous spouting Geysir (after which other geysers were named), the glaciers and fjords, whale watching and ice climbing, and relaxing at the Blue Lagoon’s geothermal pool and spa and restaurant.

The things I didn’t see or do.

Iceland’s location, midway between North America and Europe, should tell you right away how expensive everything is. This was immediately confirmed when an airport taxi driver quoted a fare to the city that has so many zeros I thought he misunderstood my question.

“15,000,” he replied, which I made him repeat twice while I remembered the quickest conversion from the Islandic krona to Canadian dollars was to drop the last two zeros. “One hundred and fifty Canadian dollars?” I sputtered to my husband, and we hopped an airport express bus to Reykjavik 50 km away for 1,700ISK each.

We checked into a day hotel about 7:30 a.m. Greenwich Meantime (GMT), which was 1:30 a.m. in Alberta, and sank into this divine duvet-covered bed and slept for three solid hours. In crossing nine time zones to our final destination, we knew we’d need a nap on this short layover, but it was hard to find a day hotel that wasn’t going to charge us for two nights.

We found a day rate at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, a modern conference hotel; Scandinavian by design and North American by size. Oversized tub, hot rain shower, Peter Thomas Roth toiletries, free WiFi, A/C, a safe, black-out blinds, and a bottle of the purest water you’ve ever tasted — or not tasted, it was that good.

Rousing ourselves at 4:30 a.m. Alberta time (10:30 a.m. local time), we showered and redressed with all the clothes in our carry-on and headed out to explore the city.  There was a bit of confusion with this new Icelandair service as to whether we would see our luggage in Iceland or not. Our travel agent said with a 17-hour layover, we would. But airport check-in said we would not because we were stopping for less than 20 hours. (Do confirm this if you are planning a brief layover on your way to warmer destinations. I only managed to stash a summer sweater, windbreaker, gloves, and scarf in my carry-on before they tagged my luggage for Athens.)

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Hallgrimskirkja, the largest chruch in Iceland

From our hotel’s central location, we could have walked 12 minutes to the city centre, but given our time constraint and seasonal 9C (48F), we opted to use the proffered free bus pass card for hotel guests to take public transit (the bus stop was across the street from the hotel) to the main shopping street of Laugavegur, where we browsed the gift and designer shops, and coffee houses, walked to the famous church landmark Hallgrimskirkja, and dined on the local Nordic cuisine.

The city’s Old Harbour and dockside will remind you that this has been a fishing village for centuries. Viking explorers from Norway and the British Isles settled here in the late 9th century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Iceland was ruled by the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden and Denmark before falling under Danish rule until its independence in 1944.

Cool island is warm and friendly

Back at the hotel, with only six more hours before returning to the airport by 11 p.m., we made a reservation for dinner at the fine dining restaurant upstairs and stopped for a cocktail in the library lobby lounge by the circular gas-lit fireplace.

The Danes have a word to describe a cosy, friendly atmosphere – hyggelig. And as we sat by the glow of fire on this cool, outdoorsy, sophisticated island, I felt the welcoming warmth of its people. And I realized that their casual charm had been there from the moment we boarded the aircraft in Edmonton and received a complimentary bottle of Iceland water and thick snuggly blanket.

lansdcape rainbowFlying home two weeks later, a promotional ad for Iceland was looping on the seat-back monitor in front of me while we waited to take off. After the first loop, Iceland had edged its way onto my bucket list, and I knew what I wanted to do when I came back.

I’d like to dine at the Lava restaurant, which is built into the side of a towering lava cliff, after bathing in the geothermal water and having a massage at the Blue Lagoon, where I’ll smear silica, algae, minerals, and other active ingredients all over my skin. I’ll eat torched haddock and pan fried cod and beer-cooked blue mussels before visiting the gushing Geysir. I’ll watch for humpback, blue, orca or killer whales in the North Atlantic.

Oh, I’d also like to take the deluxe tour to find the Northern Lights, which includes a blanket, reclining seat, and late night snack and refreshments. And if time permits, I’d like to take that boat over to Grimsey Island and get the certificate proving I crossed the Arctic Circle.

Icelandair says Iceland is where East meets West. But this big-hearted island isn’t a stopover between continents. It’s a destination.

Happy to footnote the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, which I reviewed on Trip Advisor last fall, won Trip Advisor’s 2015 Travellers’ Choice Award in January 2015.

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Braving the Glacier Skywalk

 Even though I’m afraid of heights, there’s plenty of places

to pose and ponder along the Glacier Skywalk

Glacier Skywalk

Yes, I’m smiling. I just walked around the glass-bottom lookout.

 

“Come on, you can do it,” coaxes the woman in uniform when she sees me falter. She is standing two feet away and 280 m (918 ft) above the Sunwapta Valley, on the glass-floored platform of the newly-opened Glacier Skywalk in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

I stand frozen, like the mighty Athabasca Glacier, at the edge of the steel walkway that leads to the glass portion of the horseshoe-shaped lookout.

“I can’t look down,” I explain weakly, as other braver men, women and children circumvent my husband and me to step out into space and take in the sweeping beauty of the mountain-fed glaciers and glacier-carved valleys formed thousands of years ago.

“It’s cloudy today and the sky is reflected in the glass, so you won’t get a clear view beneath your feet. Just look out,” she adds encouragingly.

cloudy sky reflected in glass floor

cloudy sky reflected in glass floor

My husband, who has already walked around the lookout that extends 30 m (100 ft) out over the canyon, knows my stomach drops below my centre of gravity when the ground beside me suddenly drops away.

I recall approaching the indoor glass floor on the observation deck of the CN Tower in Toronto, the tallest building in the world until 2009, on my hands and knees. But I was much braver than those who inched up on their bellies to peer down the 342 m (1,122 ft) drop to the street below.

“It will be fine,” my husband agrees, grasping my hand firmly in his. “We won’t stop.”

I step forward, thankful we’re here in May, two weeks after the opening and before the summer tourist season. We easily, and quickly, navigate around the people pausing by the railing to ponder and pose.

We’ve come from Jasper, along the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93), considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. The alpine views in the Columbia Icefield are spectacular, as we motor past 100 ft waterfalls, rugged canyon walls, snow-capped mountain peaks and the rushing Athabasca River. The Columbia Icefield is the largest frozen ice mass south of the Arctic Circle and feeds six major glaciers. The famous Athabasca Glacier is six km long and one km wide.

 

one of the six major glaciers at Columbia Icefield

one of the six major glaciers at Columbia Icefield

This well-travelled highway – and I mean high-way – links Jasper National Park to Banff National Park. Up here, above the tree-line at 2,088 m (6,850 ft), we are winding along the crest of the Continental Divide of North America, where the mountain water flows to the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Approaching the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre, (about 1 hour south of Jasper and 2.5 hours north of Banff), I could see how much the Athabasca Glacier has retreated. It used to come down to meet the highway, but is now reported to have receded 1.5 kms (.93 mi) since 1890.

glass-bottom portion of observation platform

The glass floor is 280 m (918 ft) above the canyon floor of the Sunwapta Valley in the Columbia Icefield

A free, six-minute shuttle bus gets you to the skywalk. Designed in 2011, the skywalk underwent three years of environmental assessment studies and wildlife impact studies before opening in May. The architecturally-acclaimed structure is built into the bedrock with iron oxidizing steel, glass and wood, and blends discretely into the rocky landscape. My brochure says it is free of paint and other toxins and it leaves a near zero footprint.

On the bus back, I chat with a young woman who had been to the Grand Canyon South Rim in Arizona. She thought the horseshoe lookouts were about the same size. The Grand Canyon Skywalk extends 21 m (70 ft) from the canyon rim, while the Glacier Skywalk extends 30 m (100 ft) over the canyon and rushing river below. But, the glass observation platform at the Grand Canyon Skywalk is 4,000 ft. (1,219 m) above the canyon floor.

I was pleased to discover that the solid steel fences along the inside cliff-edge walkway actually shields you from inadvertently catching a glimpse of the canyon below as you make your way to the lookout. So you can stop along the fully-accessible path to read the interpretive exhibits, describing the local ecosystem and wildlife, and find a few safe alcoves to do your posing and pondering. And if you still haven’t mustered the courage when you find yourself at the glass floor, look to the sky for guidance. Is it cloudy?

http://www.glacierskywalk.com

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Bears a Spring hazard on mountain golf courses

 Grizzlies are more frequently sighted in Jasper National Park than anywhere else in Alberta

waiting to tee off on the 18th hole at Jasper Park Golf Club

waiting to tee off on the 18th hole at Jasper Park Golf Club in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains

It’s not often a resort golf course presents a hazard that could be life-threatening, but this is springtime and I’m playing in the Canadian Rockies, so I paused to read  the white warning notice stamped to a fence post by the tee box on the 14th hole.

   Bear Warning

says the poster, and I glance over my shoulder before reading that black and grizzly bears have been seen in the vicinity. It’s dated May 22, 2014. Three days ago.

We’re on the back nine at the scenic Fairmont Jasper Park Golf Course in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, about three hours west of Edmonton. The course was designed in 1925 and is still part of a wildlife corridor, home to elk, deer, caribou, moose, wolves, cougars, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bears. There are about 300 black bears in this subalpine forest and 200 grizzlies in Jasper National Park, making it one of the largest protected populations of grizzlies in the world.

It’s a typically cool and unsettled spring day, with a mix of sun and cloud and showers in the forecast, but I wasn’t going to miss playing at Canada’s #1 golf resort, according to SCOREGolf magazine. Locals say the mountain weather changes in minutes so my husband and I are dressed in layers  and my rain gear is stuffed into my golf bag.

This is one of the most attractive golf courses in Canada with snow-capped mountain views from every hole, but the only wildlife we saw was a family of deer trotting daintily across the fairway. Elk however, are plentiful around the Jasper townsite, and plenty dangerous in the spring when females will do anything to protect their calves.

Sitting outside by the fire pit at the 19th hole, I ask our waitress if she has seen any bears on the course this year. “Oh yes, almost every day since early May,” she enthused, as most young seasonal staff tend to do when talking about this wild and beautiful mountain destination. May is when the bears come down to forage for food after hibernating at higher elevations all winter.

“Which are the best holes for bear spotting?” I had asked the starter four hours earlier, but she neatly sidestepped the question, leaving me to figure out myself why holes 13 and 14 are completely fenced in with cattle crossing exits on the cart paths.

“The 13th and 14th,” our waitress now confirms, adding that she regularly sees  the same cinnamon-coloured momma bear and her two ‘cute’ baby bears on the 14th hole, which runs along Lac Beauvert.

“You mean a Brown bear?” I ask. “I thought the bears in Jasper National Park are either Grizzly or Black.” “No, not Brown,” she says. “People do get them confused.  It’s a black bear but it’s not black colored.”

Apparently the common North American Black Bear can be blue-gray or blue-black, brown or cinnamon — even  cream in colour. Black bears, which can weigh up to 270 kg (600 lbs), have smaller heads with pointed noses, tall ears and no shoulder hump.

Grizzly Bear

The Grizzly bear, a North American subspecies of the Brown bear, has a distinctive shoulder hump, larger head and flatter face with short rounded ears and claws as long as a human finger. A male grizzly can weight up to 390 kg (800 lbs) and can reach 2.5 meters (7 ft) when standing on hind legs. They  can run up to 55 km/h (35 mph) and can smell food a mile away. Thank goodness these omnivores only eat grass and berries and fish and mammals.

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The Imperial City of St. Petersburg

A Marquee Port on the Baltic Sea

The Hermitage State Museum

The Hermitage state museum

If this city hadn’t changed its name back to what it was two centuries ago, I don’t think it would have made my bucket list. Born and raised in Canada during the Cold War, I remember the Soviet Union as a threatening world superpower, and Leningrad as a scary socialist country under Communism.

But when I think of Czarist Russia, I picture legendary Emperors, Faberge´s Imperial Easter Eggs, Cossack

a winter sleigh on display at the Hermitage

a winter sleigh on display at the Hermitage

hats and fur hand muffs, hand-painted wooden nesting dolls, and lacquered boxes of horse-drawn winter sleighs on frozen white tundra. This is the Russian Empire of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the 18th century home of the imperial opera houses and concert halls, and the 19th century ballet capital of the world.

St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad in 1924, was and still is the imperial and cultural capital of Russia. Built in 1703 by Czar Peter I, it is a relatively modern city, compared to other historic European cities. But it has an art collection to rival the Louvre and a palace as grand as the one in Versailles. It’s now a star port on the popular Baltic Sea cruises and, last summer, became the highlight of our 11-day cruise through Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

The City of White Nights

It’s a cool 61F (16C) outside when our moving hotel reaches its pier in early August. It’s before daybreak, but it’s not dark. Twilight lasts all night during the summer when you’re only 90 miles (145 km) from the Arctic Circle.

St. Petersburg opened its doors to the West years ago, but there are still cities and regions in the Russian Federation that are closed to foreigners. Normally, when tourists arrive by cruise ships to ports of call, customs officials board to pre-clear passengers, but we have to line-up to show our passport and migration cards to enter and exit the country both days.

As I wait in line, before unsmiling customs and border control agents who don’t speak to us, I imagine being taken away by thin-lipped men in uniform for appearing too impatient for this strictly-run society. Standing in line the second day, I must have looked happy to be back, because the blonde-haired woman who solemnly stamped my passport the day before beckoned me with a smile when it was my turn to approach her glass-enclosed booth.

En-route to our champagne river and canal cruise, our Russian tour guide, who studied abroad and spoke fluent English, tells us tourism didn’t really take off in St. Petersburg until the new port terminal for international passengers was completed in 2011.

This new facility has berths for seven superliners. Our 19-deck Emerald Princess carries about 3,000 passengers plus a crew of 1,200. So I’m thinking a possible 14,000 to 20,000 people could stream down the gangways of cruise ships every day between May and September.

As we make our way by bus to the city’s historic centre, the rows of identical concrete apartment buildings, built in the Communist era, give way to the newer glass office towers and restored 19th century apartment complexes. “The middle class is growing,” confirms our tour guide, citing three million cars for five million residents as evidence of healthy consumerism. “But only the Russian tycoons can afford to live here,” she gestures to the neoclassical façade of renovated 19th century condos stretching along the banks of the Neva River.

Aristocratic by birth and Westernized by design

Czar Peter I defeated the Swedes, who controlled the Baltic Sea, so he could have Russia’s first port. From uninhabited lowlands on the eastern Gulf of Finland, he created this series of 42 islands across the delta of the Neva River. Arched bridges over the river and miles of canals connect the islands that give the city its nickname Venice of the North.

Influenced by his time spent in Amsterdam and London, this tall, energetic emperor was determined to bring Western Europe to Russia, our guide says. Not only did he hire European architects and city planners, he expected all men (except the peasants) to shave their beards and dress in Western clothes.

Cruising around the Venice of the North

Cruising down the wide and restless Neva River is simply the best way to take in the history and beauty of this imperial city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hosted along the river and nearby canals, in baroque and neoclassical buildings, palaces, cathedrals and fortresses, are more than 100 museums.

We pass the Peter and Paul Fortress, built by Peter I to defend Russia from Sweden, and later occupied by Hitler during WWII. All Russia’s Czars are buried behind the fortress at the Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral. We pass the opulent Summer Palace of Catherine II, where lavish parties were held during her reign, and see St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which dominates the skyline with one of the largest gold domes in the world.

Peter’s home, and by that I mean the home of Russian monarchy for two centuries, was the Winter Palace, which he built in 1711. He slept in one of the 1,500 rooms (it slept 6,500) while waiting for his country retreat, the Peterhof, to be completed.

Peterhof comprises a series of gardens and parks and palaces, designed in the Italian baroque colours of yellow and white lime. The lower parks feature 140 fountains and canals. Time did not permit a visit, but our guide says Peter the Great told his builders he wanted the palace to be grander than the royal chateau in Versailles, and it is sometimes referred to as the Russian Versaille.

IMG_1246After the cruise, we visit the dazzling, multi-domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the medieval Russian-style church built where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It took 25 years to build and was finished by Russia’s last Emperor, Czar Nicholas II.

 

Lockets of love

There is a canal near the church where newlyweds come for photos and to declare their undying love by placing a lock on the bridge railing and throwing the key into the canal. We looked for a lock to buy but couldn’t find any for sale.a love canal

sampling the vodka in the Grand Europe Hotel

sampling the vodka back on our ship that evening

On our way back to the bus, we pop into the elegant Grand Europe Hotel, off the main Nevsky drag, for a vodka sampler. Tomorrow, we will visit one of the world’s most famous museums.

The State Hermitage Museum

Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great, started to collect Western European art in 1764 and built a small hermitage building at Peterhof to display her private collection. Over the 34 years she ruled Russia, her collection grew to fill three hermitage buildings at Peterhof.

When the Winter Palace was declared a state museum after the October Revolution of 1917, it joined the other three hermitage buildings to form the State Hermitage museum of art and culture. The four buildings have been connected to make a square in the centre.

We line up in the drizzle outside the riverside entrance to the Hermitage, standing along what seems like an endless façade of yellow and white lime buildings. Millions of visitors come each year to see the world’s largest collection (15,000) of paintings.

Our guide tells us the Hermitage is the second largest art museum in the world, after the Louvre in Paris. Put another way, if you spent 24 hours a day here, and looked at each piece for 10 seconds, it would take three years to see it all.

A 2012 travel magazine called the Hermitage the world’s largest, but size doesn’t matter when your tour group only has about four hours in the museum. Fortunately, cruise ship excursions to the museum begin before the doors open to the public, so we have an uncrowded, but hurried walk through most of the state rooms and living apartments of Russian Czars.

A Museum of Art and Architecture 

I quickly realize that the Hermitage is really two museums in one. Not only do these majestic four buildings house nearly three million separate pieces of art, they are also an architectural exhibition of the private living quarters of Russian rulers.

drimson fabric in the inteior of the boudoir

crimson fabric in the interior of the boudoir

The first floor (one up from ground) was my favourite with paintings from the 15th to 19th centuries from the French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish.

I read somewhere the collection of works from the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism—is one of the finest in the world.

The Red  Room (1909) Henri Matisse

The Red Room (1909) Henri Matisse

I’m a huge admirer of Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings, so was thrilled to see so many recognizable pieces from Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse under one roof.

climbing up the main State Staircase in the Winter Palace

climbing up the main State Staircase in the Winter Palace

Tourist Tip: You really need to keep those headsets on throughout the tour. Not just to hear about a particular piece of art, but to remain with your group when your guide disappears from sight when you’re shuffling shoulder to shoulder up one of 117 staircases or squeezing through one of 1,786 doorways.

A city by any other name

St. Petersburg was named after St. Peter and changed to Petrograd (Peter’s City) in 1914 and then to Leningrad in 1924. It was renamed St. Petersburg in 1991 to recognize Peter the Great, the founder of modern Russia.

Our guide jokes about the city changing its name again. I don’t think Putinburg would have made my must-see list. And that would have been my loss.

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Thinking Creatively about Living and Dying

Is death a right? Should we be able to decide when to die if terminally ill? I’ve been following the debate in Canada on whether to legalize assisted dying, or doctor-assisted suicide, or whether to pour more money into palliative, end-of-life care. I’m quite certain there won’t be enough hospices or hospital beds for my Boomer generation when the time comes to go gently into that good night.

Then I came across a book that helped to clarify my thoughts on dying, and living. There are many such books out there on how your thoughts affect your physical reality, and how important it is to focus on what you want. I got the part about choosing your thoughts and feelings to create the life you want, but I had never applied the universal law of attraction to how I wanted to die. Until now.

When I lay me down to sleep

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