Category Archives: Travel

A Hidden Sanctuary in Central Park: Hassett Nature Sanctuary

We had some time to pass in NYC a few weeks ago and decided to go to Central Park.

Rather than wandering aimlessly, which is easy to do, we checked out a guide for interesting things to do.  Up popped the 4 acre Hasset Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park. Perfect!

We didn’t even know this place existed and for good reason. It was just this past April that it opened to the public for the first time since 1934. Back in 1934, it was closed to the public and designated a protected bird sanctuary. The sanctuary was left untouched until 2001, when the Central Park Conservancy took up its restoration and maintenance. Invasive species were removed and native plants reintroduced making this little forested haven once again a healthy and diverse ecosystem.

You enter the sanctuary through this beautiful wooden gate just south of Wollman Rink (Sixth Avenue and Central Park South is the closest Park entrance). From there you enter onto meandering woodchip covered trails and you’d never know you were in the city if it weren’t for the skyscrapers peaking out.

It was early spring when we visited, so the Sanctuary was full of colorful spring flowers and shrubs. As a bonus, most specimens are labeled making identification easy. Here’s just some of what we saw.

Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) and Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum)

Yellow/Orange Azalea

In addition to wonderful plant life there’s plenty of birds to see.  Some common, like these kissing cardinals.

Others like this White Egret and Catbird, are less common in an urban setting.

I also saw an Eastern Towhee (the drink-your-teeeaa bird) and White-Throated Sparrow. Not bad for no binoculars.

If you want more information, you can take a guided tour of the Hallett Sanctuary and lots of other parts of Central Park.  Hallett Nature Sanctuary is closest to Central Park South and Sixth Avenue (find directions here) and is open daily from 10:00 am until 30 minutes before sunset. It’s informally restricted as to how many visitors can enter at one time and no dogs, bicycles, or strollers are allowed. While we were visiting, park naturalists were observing the flora and fauna and recording their observations. Hopefully the addition of people don’t spoil the environment.

What else did we do on this trip to NYC?

We visited the Freedom Tower and went up to the One World Trade Center Observation Deck.

No lines that day!

Truly amazing 360° view!

We also went to the quirky New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. Fun and interesting for all ages!

And we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago which celebrates 39 important woman from history at the table, and 999 more women who have their names inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below table.

Of course I had to find the names of the Grimke sisters, who’s fascinating story was told in the novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Really enjoyed the book and made for a great book club discussion.

What’s your favorite place to visit in Central Park?

PS Need to share photo credits on this post with my husband Steve!

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Chickens of Kauai: Good or Bad???

Chickens and Kauai. Not really two things I would have ever thought go together.

Kauai chickens

Hibiscus, beautiful ferns and gorgeous views, but not chickens. But they were everywhere.  I should have known something was amiss when there were chickens and roosters in the rental car parking lot at the airport.  We thought it cute and other than thinking it was odd, didn’t give it much thought.  Then they were in the garden outside our hotel room, and again thought they were a novelty.  That is until the rooster started crowing at the full moon around 3 am.  We were already a bit delirious from the jet lag and that just added to the fog we were feeling.

But off we went to explore the island.  We found this guy at the Iliau Nature Loop hike.

Kauai chickens

We were greeted when we left the car and actually escorted us down the trail a good ways.

Kauai chickens

We had another trail mascot hiking on the Cliff trail in the Waimea Canyon.

Kauai chickens

There were whole families on Poipu Beach.

Kauai chickens

The strong winds at Lydgate Beach didn’t blow them away.

Kauai chickens

At the Wailua River State Park overlook, the parking turnout was overrun and we were actually in danger of running them over…

Kauai chickens

…or having them try to jump in the car.

Kauai chickens

At Pu’u Poa Beach in Princeville, I think we were in this guys territory.  He seemed ok with us there, but when another rooster wandered too close he was none too happy.

Kauai chickens

Hey, this isn’t a chicken!  Finally got to see some Nene, the Hawaiian state bird.

Nene

So why so many chickens?  The story goes that “mua” or red junglefowl were originally brought to Kauai by the Polynesians when they arrived in Hawaii.  All seemed pretty much ok and in some kind of natural balance.  That was, until hurricanes Iwa in 1982 and Iniki in 1992 wiped out pretty much everything and released domesticated chickens into the jungles to mate with the junglefowl.  This resulted in the feral chickens we see everywhere today.  The problem is certainly compounded by the lack of any natural predators like the mongoose found on all other Hawaiian Islands.

They can be quite a nuisance.  Crowing at all hours of the night and day, scratching and damaging gardens and trees, leaving droppings everywhere and these feral birds are no good for eating unlike their ancestors. But on the flip side, they eat a lot of bugs, are important in keeping the nasty Hawaiian centipede in check and do provide entertainment, great photos and business opportunities for the locals and tourists.  Plus researchers at Michigan State are studying them to find ways to develop hardier breeds of domesticated chickens.

For more information Nature.com has a great visual and article.

Interesting Plants of Kauai

While we were visiting Kauai, in addition to all the gorgeous Hibiscus there were lots of other interesting plants to see and learn about.  I wish I had more time to go plant exploring, but there was so much to do in so little time.  Here’s a little of what we saw.

Uluhe fern (Dicranopteris linearis)

This old world fern is widespread across Kauai and other islands.  It is a quick growing, thick and woody fern found on the sloping mountainsides.  It serves an important function to prevent erosion and keep weaker rooted weeds and invasive species to a minimum.  It is also one of the most dangerous plants a hiker can encounter.  It’s not at all poisonous, but aside from the the woody stems that will scratch the heck out of anyone trying to bushwhack through it, it’s growth habits can give a hiker a false sense of where a cliff side may be.  One step onto what looks like a soft mat of plant growth, can turn out to be a nasty fall down a cliff side.  It’s new growth continues to grow on top of any plant, including itself.

Uluhe fern

Uluhe fern

In areas where it’s been sheared, it’s easy to see all the dead growth underneath.

Uluhe fern

Strawberry Guava (Psidium cattleyanum)

Strawberry Guava

Strawberry guava is native to Brazil and considered a very dangerous invasive species in Hawaii.  Like many invasive species, it interferes with the native ecosystem and is exceedingly hard to eradicate.  On the positive side, the deep, red ripe fruits are edible and can be used for juice, jams, or just a tasty treat on a hike.  I did try a few, but maybe mine weren’t quite ripe since I thought they were little tart.

Iliau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)

Iliau is an ancient plant only found on Kauai.  We came across it on the Iliau Nature Loop trail, a pretty hiking trail on the scenic drive through the Waimea Canyon.  Even if you only have a few minutes on your drive, this 0.3 mi scenic loop is well worth doing.  Placards along the path describe many of the native plants you’ll find in this unique ecosystem.  On the plaque at the beginning of the trail, the trails namesake plant the Iliau, is described as an ancient member of the sunflower family.  It is a monocarpic plant, meaning it will only flower and bear fruit once, then it dies.  It lives an average of 2-10 years, and the spectacular flowers can be seen from May to July.

Since we were there in August, we didn’t see any flowers, but the leaf stalks were nonetheless interesting.

Iliau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)

There were also plenty of seed stalks rising up across the horizon.

iIlau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)

In addition to the plants along the way, the views of the canyon were just breathtaking.  We were lucky to have a relatively clear day.

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At least depending on the direction you are facing 🙂

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There were also plenty of “tree orchids” to add color just about everywhere.

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At dinner one night we had enjoyed this window box growing pineapples and crotons.

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When in Hawaii is there anything better than a real flower lei?   We got to make our own and learn about some of the customs associated with the tradition one afternoon while hanging out at the pool.  Mine was made from the very fragrant plumeria, but unfortunately it didn’t stay fresh very long.   Still smelled wonderful anyway.

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There was plenty more to see and enjoy, but these were some of my favorites and most interesting!

 

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2015!  As many of you have noticed, I had to take a little break this fall.  Sometimes, life just gets busy and something needs to give.  I’ve been taking lots of pictures and notes, so I’m looking forward to catching up over the next few weeks.  In the meantime, here’s a look back at some of my most popular posts of 2014!

Painted Rock Garden Labels

1.  Painting Garden Rock Garden Markers:  A fun project to jazz up the garden.

 

 

Biltmore Estate

2. Girls Weekend in Asheville:  A wonderful weekend away in a great city!

 

 

IMG_5288 (1)3.  Angel Wings in the Snow:  Fascinating tracks in the snow.

 

 

Creeping Thyme4.  Creeping Thyme Problems:  Trying to salvage a mess in the garden.

 

 

snowflakes5.  Peggy’s Snowflakes:  Every snowflake is truly different.

 

 

stephi gardens6.  Gardening:  All in the Family:  From grandparents to great-granchildren, gardening is a family tradition.

 

 

Homemade Suet Cakes7.  Homemade Suet Cakes:  Giving homemade suet a try.  The birds loved it!

 

 

glass pumpkin8.  Visiting the Glass Pumpkin Patch 2014:  I love seeing all the different creations the artists bring every year.  

 

 

Yarn wrapped bottles9.  Yarn Wrapped Bottles:  A fun and easy craft project to decorate for the holidays, a party, a wedding, or for whatever you have that needs some color.

 

 

Raised vegetable bed10.  My New Raised Bed: Construction:  I needed more garden space so we built two new raised bed gardens.

 

 

Girl’s Weekend in Asheville, NC

I was recently lucky to travel to Asheville, NC with two wonderful girlfriends that I’ve known since elementary school. We saw the sites, ate great food and relaxed. Here’s some of the things we did on this fabulous girl’s weekend to this great city.

Thursday

Once we arrived, me coming from Greenville Spartanburg Airport and my girlfriends from Charlotte, we checked into our hotel. We decided to go for clean, reasonably priced and convenient, and found the Country Inn and Suites Asheville Mall to fit the bill perfectly. We caught our breath and then headed right out, not wanting to miss a moment of fun. We planned an early dinner at Cúrate Bar de Tapas, a traditional Spanish Tapas Restaurant. Absolutely delicious, wonderful service and decor!! We just kept ordering one delicious plate after another. Highly recommended, be sure to make reservations.

Curate
Curate
From there, we headed to our first tour, a haunted Asheville trolley tour. While the tour we took is no longer available, you can check out others at Explore Asheville/Haunted Tours.

At dusk, we climbed aboard our open air trolley for a 90 minute tour of the “darker side” of Asheville. Intermixed with an overview tour of Asheville, we were entertained by legendary stories of the spooky and scary and the murder and mayhem, that is part of Asheville’s history. We were thoroughly entertained, and even a bit unnerved by the trip. You can read about many of the haunted stories of Asheville, including the stories associated with the sites below

Basilica of St. Lawrence

Basilica of St. Lawrence

Grove Park Inn

Grove Park Inn

Helen's Bridge

Helen’s Bridge (photo from WLOS)

Friday

The next morning, we went to one of the best breakfast spot we have ever been to, the Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville. Everyone will say it’s the place to go, but this artsy little cafe isn’t touristy at all. Truly a breakfast gem. We arrived a little after the morning rush, so there was no wait. After ordering, their famous biscuits arrived and they, of course, were fabulous. I followed up with a Tupelo Omelet with Maple Peppered Bacon. All of us were full and ready for the day.

IMG_3643 (1) IMG_3645 (1)

 

 

 

 

Shoji Spa

Our next stop was the Shoji Spa for some rejuvenation and relaxation. Shoji Spa is not your typical spa, but instead a secluded, peaceful hideaway offering Japanese style soaking and massage. We weren’t sure what to expect as we drove higher and higher up the mountains south of Asheville. It really wasn’t far, but you felt miles away from civilization. Once we arrived, we knew we had stumbled into something special. We had reserved a decadent sounding soak and massage package. After soaking outdoors in our own private hot tub, complete with Japanese Tea service, our muscles were perfectly relaxed to fully enjoy our massages. Be sure to check their website before making reservation. They have seasonal specials and coupons worth exploring.

Shoji Spa

Now that we were rejuvenated and relaxed, we were off to the 12 Bones (River Store) for some famous Asheville BBQ. I was especially looking forward to this since I had been lucky enough to get some of their sauces as a gift, so I already had an inkling as to how yummy this was going to be. 12 Bones is a unique, casual lunch-only experience that usually includes waiting in a line that snakes around the building to order your food at the counter, then sitting either indoors or outside on picnic tables.

12 Bones

But it’s worth the wait. We each got a different BBQ dinner plate that come with 2 sides and cornbread. Since we were on vacation, we topped it off with a piece of pie. We were really hungry! Then we shopped and all went home with a few bottles of BBQ sauce.

12 Bones

We had a little time at this point and went into downtown Asheville to do some shopping. One of our favorites was Mast General Store. We spent quite a while poking around in the store that is a mixture of traditional clothing, outdoor clothing and gear, and an old-fashioned country store. We had fun picking out candy we remember from way back when to enjoy later. Then we headed to the French Broad Food Co-Op on Biltmore Avenue to pick up our favorite beverages and wait for the 5 pm Lazoom Purple Bus to show up.

Lazoom Comedy Bus Tour

We were curious what a Comedy City Bus tour would be, but it turned out to be both quite interesting and hysterically funny. Truly one of the most unique and funniest comedy shows we’ve ever seen. Our “tour” guide was Erline Hooch, and the comedy just went from there. She and her guests had the bus in tears from laughter. Be sure to make reservations, they frequently sell out their tour. It is also definitely fun adult humor, and they won’t even let you on if you are under 13.

Mellow MushroomWe had skipped dinner, so we stopped by the Mellow Mushroom Pizza for a late night snack. It may sound common to some, but for us northerners, it’s a treat to get to go there.

 

Saturday

Next up on our agenda was a visit to the Biltmore Estate.

Biltmore Estate

We followed their advice and bought our tickets ahead of time, both to save some money and to avoid the lines at the entrance, and got there early to beat the crowds. Unfortunately for us, the weather didn’t cooperate and is poured all day. But, we still got to enjoy the house tour, just not walking the gardens (which we didn’t miss entirely, we just viewed some of them from the car). We chose to do the self-guided tour and found the docents to be full of information whenever we had a question. Lunch was at the Biltmore Stable Cafe. It’s the original 19th–century stable turned into a wonderful café, complete with dining tables in the renovated horse stalls. Interesting place to eat, and delicious too.

Stable Cafe/Biltmore

After lunch, we had just enough time to head up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and visit the Folk Arts Center at milepost 382. The Folk Art Center houses the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which sells authentic traditional and contemporary crafts of the Southern Appalachians. The center also has a bookstore, art galleries and live craft demonstrations. We all found some trinkets to bring home with us.

Blue Ridge Parkway Folk Art Center

Heading back down the mountains to Asheville, we next headed to Historic Biltmore Village to shop and eat. We were a little late getting back, so many of the unique, locally owned shops were already closed for the evening. We did stumble upon the Tree and ViIMG_3749ne, an independent olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting shop. We enjoyed some tastings and found some unique combinations of flavored oils and balsamics to bring home.

Finally, after quite a discussion of all the great choices, we chose The Cantina for dinner. It serves ” Fresh Mex–all your favorite south of the border delights with a local twist”. I’d highly recommend starting with Red Sangria and the Queso Dip.

Sunday

We all had afternoon flights, so on our last day we were able to enjoy breakfast again at Tupelo Honey Cafe. Even though there was a bit of a wait this morning, it was well worth it! After breakfast, we made a quick side trip to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Visitor Center to pick up a couple of books. Lastly, in keeping with the author theme, I visited the memorial of the tragic Highland Hospital fire that took the life of Zelda Fitzgerald. While the exact location is now a shopping and office complex, some of the hospital buildings remain and are pointed out on the tours of Asheville. Then it was off to our respective airports after a wonderful weekend in Asheville with friends. Wish we had more time to do everything on our to do and places to eat lists, but have to save something for another visit!

Helpful Asheville Travel Resources:
Explore Asheville
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
Asheville.com
Romantic Asheville

 

First Day of Spring in Northern Michigan

Happy First Day of Spring!  Ok, a little late, but so is spring this year so I thought it was fine to still say it.

I spent the last few days up in Northern Michigan with my mom where there are very few signs of spring yet.  The sun is definitely a bit brighter in the sky and the birds are chirping a bit earlier in the morning, but it is still pretty cold and there is still a lot of snow that needs to melt before any plants can start to grow.  The lakes in the area are still completely frozen over.  No ice-fishing huts anymore, but the ice is still thick enough for a pick-up truck to go speeding across the lake while we were there.  Maybe their winter short cut across town?

winter

Not a very inviting place to sit today!

winter

Even without the signs of spring outside, there were plenty in the stores.  The farm and feed stores are all ready to get going, so of course I had to pick up a few items I “needed”.

garden supplies

My husband is very glad I did not come home with one of these… although mostly I didn’t since I don’t think our zoning allows for raising farm animals in our backyards.  They sure were cute and I’m wishing I could have farm fresh eggs every morning.

chicks

On the way back home, I stopped to visit a fairly new, unique specialty market, the Willow Mercantile in Cadillac, MI.  Whether you’re visiting the Cadillac area or passing through on your way further north, it’s worth a stop.  You can even mail order your “up-north” favorites from them. 

Willow Mercantile

They offer their own line of locally made preserves, salsas, butters and jarred vegetables, specialty olive oils and vinegars, locally grown vegetables and farm fresh meats, interesting treats from around the world, a huge selection of local MI craft beers and an extensive wine inventory.  Everything a specialty food shopper would want!  Then throw in some kitchen essentials and a nursery, and you have one fun place to visit and shop.

Willow Mercantile

Just some of what I came home with.

Willow Mercantile

I’m back home where temperatures are a bit warmer (50’s woohoo) and I’ll have some signs of spring in Chicago in tomorrow’s post.

 

 

Trips Down Memory Lane

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed while blogging is having my memory jogged by reading other blogs.  For example, reading about lichens and mushrooms on  another site brought back memories of when I was in high school and my family went to a huge Audubon gathering in the Allegheny State Park called the Allegheny Nature Pilgrimage.  Even though we went more than 30 years ago, I remember it being an amazing weekend gathering of nature enthusiasts.  Everyone got to choose from lots of interesting walks led by specialists in their areas and participate in scheduled group events.  I was really surprised to see that it is celebrating its 56th year.  If I lived closer, I would definately be going!

Turkey Tail Fungi

One walk that really stood out and stuck with me was one on mushrooms and ferns.  I really enjoyed learning about their biology and how to identify them in the field.  That afternoon was probably one of the reasons I sought out taking Botany as a biology elective in college.

Puffballs

Then somewhere along the line that interest was forgotten.  I still have a bookshelf full of bird and flower books and always carry them along with me on hikes and trips.

IMG_2570

But the ferns and mushrooms, forgotten.  There on the bookshelf is also my fern book, bought in 1984 according to the date written on the inside cover, but barely touched.  I guess I never actually bought any of my own mushroom and lichen books either.  I must have just used my mom’s “library”.

IMG_2573

I think it’s time to open this untouched book and see what is inside.  I think it’s also time to take a trip to a local bookstore and see what local reference books they might have to offer.  I find that specialized bookstores, like the one at the Morton Arboretum or in a National Park, carry the best local flora and fauna books.  They tend to stock what their local experts recommend.  I’ll let you know what I find—

 

An Icy Chicago River

This past weekend we were downtown and had a great view of the Chicago River that runs right through the heart of Chicago. With a winter like this, it’s no wonder it’s covered with ice. Even Lake Michigan has the most ice cover to date in 20 years. The ice in the river did make for some interesting photos…

Icy Chicago River

 

Icy Chicago River

 

Icy Chicago River

 

Icy Chicago River

 

Icy Chicago River

Of course, no pictures of Chicago are complete without a skyline view.

Chicago Skyline

(Some photos by Steve)

A Midwinter Walk

Between polar vortexes, my husband and I had a chance to go for a walk in one of our local forest preserves.  One thing that that I find remarkable about the Chicago area is the forest preserve system.  They are maintained by the individual counties, but their common general goals are to preserve open, natural space and land conservation.  Considering we are within such a huge major metropolitan area, the forest preserve system is amazing in it’s success in preserving natural spaces and proving places for people to go and connect with nature.  One of these, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, currently owns or manages over 25,000 acres of land at over 60 forest preserves, or about 12 percent of the total land in DuPage County.  And it’s still growing.

Dupage County Forest Preserve

These Forest Preserves include places to do most any outdoor recreational activity you could imagine, and many have educational programs for all ages.  Adding into that the local parks, I can’t imagine you’re ever more than 5-10 minutes from a beautiful natural space.

So only a short drive from my house, we had a wonderful scenic walk on a relatively warm, snowy day.

On a sunny day in the winter, the river is running bright and clear.

Dupage County Forest Preserve

 

Dupage County Forest Preserve

There are always resident Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks to be found on the water.

Canadian Geese

 

Dupage County Forest Preserve

 

Canadian Geese

Watching the ducks hop in and out of the water was quite entertaining and the ice made the funniest squeaking noise every time they hopped up onto it.

Mallard Ducks

I, and others, have been finding such interesting patterns in the ice and frost this winter.  Looks like some kind of alien spiders have landed on the ice here.

Ice patterns

 

Ice

Cross Country Skiing-25 Years Later

Trak cross country skis

I’m not sure why, but ever since we moved to Chicago, my cross country skis have been in storage in the basement.  Many years, there just wasn’t enough snow to ski, and then when there was snow, I’d come up with reasons why the conditions were never quite right.  Mostly, it was that I grew up in Buffalo and had great places to cross country ski.  In my mind, nothing here would compare,  so it wasn’t worth the effort.  I realize that’s not entirely rational, nor fair.

We started cross country skiing as a family back when I was maybe around 8 yrs. old. I give my parents a lot of credit for taking 3 young kids out in the cold snow to go cross country skiing.  In those days, the skis required waxing, which was a complicated art, especially for five people.  For fun, I checked out this Swix Waxing Guide to see if it was as complicated as I remember,  It was, so kudos to my dad for figuring it all out.  Thankfully, no-wax skis were invented and made everyone’s lives simpler.  I have fond memories of those trips (except for the frozen feet), but I’m sure we weren’t always happy skiers.

So this weekend, before the next polar vortex arrived, I finally decided to get my skis and poles out of the basement.  I had some cleaning up to do with them, and actually needed to use goo-gone to get the moving tape residue off (mind you, we haven’t moved in 20 years). Then off to find the boots, which are actually my mom’s old boots since mine have long since disintegrated.  I still have the old, 3 pin bindings so when she upgraded her equipment, I luckily inherited her boots. Finally, I had everything together including my original, now vintage, bamboo poles complete with yellow tape markings to distinguish them as mine.

Trak cross country skis

Of course, I had an absolutely wonderful time!  It was cold, but not too windy and the sun was shining.  The snow was just perfect for skiing, either in other skiers trails or blazing my own.

Trak cross country skis

 

cross country skiing

Everything came right back as if I had been out yesterday. I even had the chance to herringbone up a small hill.

cross country skiing

I think my skis will stay in the garage now and get more use. Next up will be to get my husband out there, or, if the weather would ever cooperate, take my skis up to my mom’s and ski with her.

wind blown snow

 

wind blown snow

Stay warm!