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The (belated) end to a Peruvian adventure

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

After departing the natural wonders of Titilaka and Lake Titicaca, we flew back to Lima and hopped into a van bound for our last destination. We were headed to the city of Paracas, an oceanfront town known for its natural reservation and spectacular wildlife. We drove south with the ocean on one side, and sparsely developed land on the other.

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Except for the occasional small town, the majority of the drive looked like this, exposing us to another side of Peru — the migrant farming communities that look abandoned or industrious depending on the time of year. Looking out on the arid land, it was hard to imagine who was farming what and when, but we were assured that more people lived and worked just over the hills.

The drive took a while, mostly due to the underdeveloped nature of the roads we were traversing. We watched as the sun beautifully dipped below the Pacific.

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When we finally arrived in Paracas, we found ourselves among a very different set of Peruvians than those we had spent the last few days with. Because of its proximity to Lima and its beautiful waterfront, Paracas attracts the moneyed crowd of the capital city, particularly around events like New Year’s. The traditional floral woven dresses were replaced with racy clubbing outfits and skimpy bikinis. Still, we were among very few foreign tourists, so it still felt very Peruvian — albeit a different side of the same country.

We finished off the evening with pasta at the hotel’s trattoria. Because of the ocean’s proximity (less than 100 yards away), most dishes were dotted with seafood. I enjoyed a squid-ink pasta with shellfish.

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We woke up early the next morning, ready to explore what the Reserva Nacional de Paracas had to offer. We boarded a boat and headed out to sea. Our first stop was a mysterious candelabra drawn in the sand. Though it looked from afar like it could have easily been blown away, the etching has in fact been there for hundreds of years. Indigenous tribes carved into the rock under the sand, creating a permanent fixture up on the rocks.

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This is very similar to the Nazca lines, a popular destination further south of Paracas. Indigenous people drew massive pictures in the sand and tourists flock to them; the only way to appreciate them is to take a small plane above the etchings. We had opted to skip this destination, so our mysterious candelabra served as substitute. It is suspected that the candelabra dates back as far as 200 B.C., a relic of the ancient Paracas culture and meant to symbolize the staff of an ancient god.

After boating through open waters for a little while, we saw something rising out of the ocean. As we got closer, we could see that it was a series of large rocks, each completely covered in birds. The stench was overpowering — the rocks have changed color over time from the sheer amount of bird defecation on them.

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Since the 1970s, these rocks out in the ocean have been under protection from the Peruvian government because of the many natural and cultural treasures they hold. Driving around, we saw a dizzying array of birds, including the hilariously named red boobie. (Okay, so we’re a little immature.) We also happened upon a large pack of sea lions.

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It was apparently mating season for the sea lions. This seemingly entails a lot of sleeping, though we were taught that each female sea lion was staking out her area on the beach. The males would later waddle around and start the courtship process. But for now, the large mammals were just hanging out.

Nearby on the rocks, we encountered the most exciting of the Paracas National Reserve’s residents. For reasons I can’t exactly explain, I have a deep fascination with penguins. I was extremely excited when I learned we would meet some of them on our trip to Paracas. While I had always learned that penguins require ice and snow, there are a couple species that thrive in the equatorial climate in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. They’re a bit smaller than their Antarctic brethren, but still very adorable. They do, however, smell terrible.

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We spent the next few hours weaving in and out of the rock formations, observing one interesting animal species after another. We saw many more sea lions, all of whom were either asleep or searching for a new nap spot. The variety of birds was endless — we made many more boobie jokes and spotted several flocks of pelicans. Though harder to spot, we did find more penguins. They were generally more sedentary than I was expecting, but perhaps that’s the influence of movies like Happy Feet.

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After spending a couple hours with the native creatures, it was time for us to head back to shore. We waved farewell to the napping sea lions, the waddling penguins and the very stinky birds.

IMG_3612Jessica and Alix, taking a cue from our sea lion friends

Back ashore, we revisited the ocean, but on our plates. Being able to see the water from our lunch table meant very fresh fish. For me, this came in the form of Peruvian ceviche, prepared in a style very similar to that which we had learned from Penelope earlier that week. This time it was a bit spicier, which I was naturally excited about.

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We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings and taking it easy in order to prepare ourselves for midnight and the start of 2013. Many of our fellow hotel guests were partaking in a massive party on the beach, the entry ticket to which cost about the same as the annual wages of a salt miner. Truly, we had managed to see both ends of the Peruvian lifestyle spectrum over the course of a week.

We had a more low-key evening, but still managed to get dressed up and watch the fireworks light up the sky.

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We woke up to a calm and peaceful 2013 under the southern sun. After our hectic touring schedule of the earlier part of the week, we took the next two days to relax before heading back to work and reality.

We took bicycles out onto a path that very quickly became beach, working against the resistance of the wet sand. During low tide, we came upon the most remarkable creatures I have ever seen — jellyfish with bodies nearly as large as our bike wheels, dotting the entire coastline. They looked prehistoric in size and nature, and navigating around their tentacles added another challenge to the ride.

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We set sail, repeatedly, taking in the coastline from another perspective.

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Our proximity to the water also continued to give us access to a wealth of seafood dishes. Some of the native Peruvian items continued to perplex me, like causa, the boiled potato stuffed with crabmeat and mayo. Others were more redeeming, like the countless ceviches we continued to encounter. Some came prepared with the traditional corn-and-onion base; others artfully decorated seashells and came spotted with brightly colored peppers. I avoided the former and over-indexed on the latter.

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After our week of planes and trains and boats and drives and hikes, Paracas provided many quiet moments to sit and reflect on the trip.

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Peru turned out to be one of the more culturally fascinating places I have ever been. In one country, there were so many different cultures — not to mention languages – and each seemingly lived independently. Among all the Peruvians I met, there was a great sense of pride for their nation and for their people; the same sense of pride in Peru’s growth and confidence in the brightness of its future seemed to extend from the cosmopolitan residents of Lima, like Penelope, to the young weaver near Titilaka. In some ways, I found myself surprised at the underdeveloped nature of the country, but at the same time, it presented us with a richness that I have never seen elsewhere. Truly, colors seemed brighter in Peru, and I still see that now as I look through my photos.

The country and its residents welcomed us with open arms and let us explore what they had to offer, and we really saw just a fraction of the nation’s diversity. The food may not be as spicy as I’d like, and the roads may not all be easily traveled, but Peru is a country worth seeing, and one that I would love to see again a few years down the line.

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Lake in the sky

Written by Emmy on 26 March 2013

We departed the cosmopolitan city of Cusco, and flew up, up and away. We landed in the small town of Juliaca, situated at over 12,000 feet up. Yikes.

We got into a van, opened up our picnic afternoon snack — Andean cheese and tomato sandwiches, and shortbread cookies — and started cruising south.

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We hit the city of Puno and there it was, Lago Titicaca — the highest navigable lake in the world. At this point, we were sipping our coca tea and trying to cope with the altitude adjustments. But the lake under the glow of the sunset was also pretty exciting…

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We drove around the perimeter of the lake for an hour or so before arriving at our destination, Titilaka. (We spent the next few days perpetually confused between Titlaka, the town and hotel, and Titicaca, the lake and region.) We were also now shockingly close to the Bolivian border, but the crossing is not recommended for those with American passports.

Our hotel was a beautiful lodge poised right on the edge of the lake. Climbing to the second floor of the hotel was a little bit of a challenge with the altitude, but we recovered and made it back downstairs for dinner.

We enjoyed a lovely meal composed of local ingredients while overlooking the lake. I started with a carpaccio of eggplant and zucchini, the hotel’s special for the night. I followed with chicken brochettes and quinoa risotto. Quinoa can in fact be used in anything, as the Peruvians regularly demonstrated.

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And then, just for good measure, we had some cheesecake with local berries.

We woke up the next morning to the beautiful light streaming over the lake, looked out on Lake Titicaca, and prepared for our day of adventure.

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We set out on a boat for the island of Taquile, about 45 minutes away from the shore. The island is filled with traditional people who speak Quechua, despite being surrounded by Spanish and Aymara speakers. For centuries, the island was totally isolated, and an independent culture and society developed.

The island is less isolated today than it used to be — we saw homes with solar panels and heard Rihanna blasting from one area. But on the other hand, the island is still governed by its ancient rules. Our entry fee to the island was collected by an older man — the mayor — who put the change inside his hand-sewn fanny pack. Families on the island are restricted to a limited amount of space and can only have two cows and twenty sheep because of a strong desire to protect the land.

Walking around, we met a group of little boys who begged us to take their photos so they could see the result on the little screen.

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The views from the island were incredible, especially as we climbed up into the hills. In every direction, all you could see was the very blue sky and the glassy clear lake. I would say that it took my breath away, but the altitude had already done that.

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After walking around the island for a bit, our guide led us to the home of Roberto and Alicia. Lifelong residents of the island, the two are its unofficial welcome committee, along with their two-year-old daughter, Martiza. They are farmers and weavers, and Roberto oversees several branches of the extended family who come by to do their sewing and work.

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The family showed off several of their wares and explained the island traditions to us. For example, all boys are required to learn to sew and the most important item they can make is their own hat. Starting at a young age, boys wear floppy colorful hats made from alpaca wool; any alternates they have are ones they have made themselves. Walking around the island, it’s not uncommon to see boys following sheep with knitting needles in hand. Once the boys enter their teenage years, they begin making a stiffer, sturdier hat, and when a boy has found a girl he wants to marry, he brings her father his hat. The father pours a cup of water inside and if none leaks out (meaning the boy is capable and industrious), he is granted the daughter’s hand. But if his hat leaks, he is considered an unworthy candidate.

Once married — which happens only after the couple has lived together for about two years in a sort of trial run — the boy becomes a man and graduates to a bigger, floppier, more colorful hat. This hat is adorned with a pom-pom, which carries a special meaning. On the island of Taquile, you never ask a man “How are you?” — if the pom-pom of his hat is on his right shoulder, he is having a good day; on his left, and you’re better off saying nothing at all.

For women, subtle communication is done through scarves. The more you are searching for a man, the brighter and more colorful the tassels on your scarf will be.

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After explaining and modeling the local traditions, Alicia and Roberto served us a lovely late morning snack — quinoa soup and fried bread with a spicy topping of peppers and onions. It was very authentic, and quite delicious.

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We bid our new friends farewell (only after giving Martiza an extreme number of hugs — she was easy to grow quickly attached to) and continued our journey around the island, pausing for epic vista after vista.

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We headed back to the boat and back to the mainland, leaving behind the somewhat magical little island of Taquile.

And because one lunch is not enough, we got back just in time for a very colorful quinoa salad, continuing my culinary journey through all possible iterations of the local grain.

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IMG_3171We went on a little canoe expedition after lunch, staying in the protected area of the reeds to prevent from flipping (as we saw several other people do). Nevertheless, it was not an adventure my camera was invited to attend — we got quite wet paddling around as the afternoon current picked up.

Since we had arrived at the hotel, we had been admiring the pillows and other weavings all around us. We mentioned this to one of the guides, who offered that we could go meet the family responsible for all of the beautiful handicrafts; we happily accepted the invitation.

We drove through fields and farms for about 30 minutes before coming upon a village made up of huts and farming plots. We were led into one of the homes, where we met three generations of weavers working together in the courtyard: the grandmother worked on embroidery, her son operated a large loom, his wife stretched out a carpet, and their 14-year-old daughter spun wool into yarn.

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The process is collaborative — meant to be a shared family experience as the four sit together sewing and talking. Midway through our visit, mother and daughter took a time-out from their separate projects to come together for an instructional lesson. Like we learned earlier in our trip, everything about weaving patterns is passed down through the family, and so it is critical for mothers to teach their daughters the special patterns and techniques.

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The older generations spoke only Aymara, in which we had not gotten much further than “Hello and nice to meet you,” but the shy teenage daughter spoke a bit of Spanish. After showing us around and telling us about the work her family does, she offered us an opportunity to play dress up. The blue coat she let me try on she had made for a school event of hers held earlier that year.

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We decided to take a couple pillow cases home with us, and when we went to pay, the matriarch of the family pulled the cash register and her cell phone out of her chest. That’s a tight security system. Jokes and costumes aside, it was a unique and wonderful experience to be so welcomed into the family’s home and to be given an introduction to the work that they do.

Back on the shores of the lake, we rose the next day to a similarly spectacular view as the sun climbed above the water.

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We piled back into a van and drove toward the largest town on the lake, Puno, which we had passed through in the dark on our way in. Puno has the largest harbor of the surrounding towns and instantly felt more touristy than where we had spent our previous few days. But Puno is the launch point for many areas of the lake, and that was the cause for our visit.

The destination of the morning was Uros, or the Floating Islands as they are better known. Until we came up upon them, I could not even begin to conceptualize what a “floating island” meant.

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The Uros islands are an old tradition, but even today, new islands sprout up all the time. The man-made islands are called the Floating Islands because the hunks of land, though somewhat anchored, are pretty movable. One tour guide we met at the hotel told us that he grew up on an island and his mother cared deeply about education; when he was in primary school, she relocated their island so it wouldn’t be such a far commute for him to go study.

Most of the islands are just a bit bigger than my Manhattan apartment, and over 70 of them dot the area.

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We pulled up to one of the islands and were greeted by Rita, her sister-in-law, Gladys, and their mother-in-law, Lucia. Rita is currently serving as president of her island and its neighbors, so she was more than happy to give us a brief explanation of life on the island. Only catch? The island dwellers speak mostly Quechua. But no problem — Rita had it down to a science.

Using a diorama, she showed us how the islands are constructed — a process that takes a better part of a year as the roots of reeds are laid down, and then covered in carefully piled reeds, with each layer interwoven into the next. Residents constantly add to the floor to make sure it’s stable. Then, families build small huts atop the island. Sons always stay with their mothers and their brides come to join them on their islands. Rita and Gladys both married onto the island we visited; Gladys, though younger, had a much nicer house. We learned this is because her husband is a better fisherman than Rita’s; much of the local people’s livelihood depends on the success of their men at hunting, and skill is rewarded.

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We spent time exploring Rita, Gladys and Lucia’s island — they also insisted in dressing us up in traditional costumes and showing us their weavings. It was fascinating, mostly because all the while we were standing on a man-made island. The only downside was our proximity to Puno, which has turned the Uros into a major tourist attraction spot and has made the area much more popular than Taquile and other islands. It colored our vision of the islands’ authenticity a bit, but it was still a truly unique spot to visit.

After bidding our hostesses farewell, we set our course back to the shore, where we piled into a van and said adiós to the beautiful Lago Titicaca.

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The ancient wonder of Machu Picchu

Written by Emmy on 8 February 2013

Just as we were growing accustomed to the Sacred Valley, we woke up early on Wednesday morning, packed our things together and (with very little time to spare) boarded a Peru Rail train. The colorful railroad company has a 90% hold on the market of trains bound for Machu Picchu; we were very much among tourists as we climbed aboard in a small town along Rio Urubamba.

The train chugged along with nice thematic music in the background and we were each served a morning snack in an equally thematic basket.

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When people say they are climbing Machu Picchu, what that means is that they are walking the Inca Trail — an approximately 100 km path that winds through the Andes and follows a route that the Incas are are said to have taken themselves. There are a couple entry points to the path — doing the full hundred isn’t mandatory — but regardless of where you start, you are required to take a guide and two porters with you. For even the most experienced of hikers, there is a worry about the 10,000+-foot altitude. Also, requiring you to hire guides and porters is a great source of revenue for Peru.

For those who opt to take the train (us), you take a winding path from the town of Ollantayltambo along the river and up the hills until you get to the town of Machu Picchu, which is still several hundred feet below the site.

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We pulled into the station at Machu Picchu, dropped our stuff and boarded a bus, taking a narrow and winding path up the mountains for about another 30 minutes. I can confidently say my eyes were closed the entire time.

We got up to the top and filed through the line alongside many, many other tourists. Over 3,500 people visit Machu Picchu every day — the government caps it at 4,000 for safety reasons — and they have their system down to a science. Passports are required to enter because so many people try to reuse tickets or manufacture their own. There was something lost in translation in the issuing of my ticket, which said I was 13 years old, but that somehow didn’t seem to bother border patrol.

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Once through the gates, we walked along a narrow path surrounded by rocks. And then suddenly, Machu Picchu appeared.

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It looked like a page out of my high school Spanish textbook. The shockingly tall peaks against the blue sky, alternating between clear and cloudy, with the perfectly constructed villages below was truly a sight.

Machu Picchu was accidentally discovered by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s and has remained somewhat of a mystery ever since. There are a handful of competing theories as to its purpose — last hideaway from the Spanish, religious retreat, summer vacation home of the king — but none have been validated thanks to the lack of written record. We have many clues and there’s a pretty clear understanding of what purpose each individual structure served, but we’re left to imagine the broader purpose.

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We spent several hours touring around, climbing in and out of little houses. The wealthiest families had multi-room abodes, complete with what look like toilets. The lowest of the three classes had about five people sharing a space the size of my bedroom. (And my bedroom is not very big.)

Around the site, there are countless examples of the Incas’ scientific prowess — running aqueducts, sundials that could tell the time of day and time of year, original structures that have withstood many earthquakes, and complex systems for growing and storing resources.

The ingenuity of the place just seemed endless.

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When we completed our tour and came back through the gates, we noted a long line of people near the exit. Intrigued, we got up close and to my grand surprise, found a passport stamping pad. I felt immediate pangs of regret for not packing my NPS passport. But, I did have my real passport and so we followed the example of other tourists and all put Machu Picchu’s ink on our pages. There is a chance we may have all invalidated our passports as a result.

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We took the bus back down the mountain after having a touristy buffet lunch, and took a quick look at the town of Machu Picchu. There wasn’t much to see, so we retired to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation. We took in afternoon tea — the common coca tea, which is said to relieve altitude sickness, but may just have been getting us all slightly high. Either way, it seemed to have some soothing principles and kept any of our headaches from getting too bad.

At dinnertime, we migrated into the hotel’s dining room, where we were greeted with a number of delightful Peruvian specialties. To start, I enjoyed a creative take on a classic local dish. Called causa, the dish is traditionally a potato stuffed with anything from crab to vegetables to meat to fish. The hotel decided to put the potato on the side and stuff avocado instead. Yum. This rendition had veggies inside, though it tasted almost like cole slaw thanks to the mayo-like dressing.

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Other members of my family enjoyed quinoa soup and quinoa with local cheese and peppers.

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My main course was probably one of the better things I ate while we were in Peru: simply grilled tilapa over a fava bean puree with pomegranates. It was simple in preparation, but the combination of flavors was very well thought out and the result was excellent.

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IMG_2931Normally, I have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to dessert — I generally would rather just eat more food — but cheesecake happens to be a personal weakness and here it was offered with muña, the same local mint we had encountered in other dishes. It was not overly sweet, and quite enjoyable.

Many people do just a day trip to Machu Picchu, but given the distance and the sheer awesomeness of the site, we had opted to do a day-and-a-half. Our visit coincided with the start of rainy season and in Machu Picchu it rains 80+ inches a year, so we knew we were taking chances. Generally the weather rolls in and out though, so a messy morning is not necessarily a sign of a calamitous day.

But Thursday morning was indeed messy and so we slept a bit later than planned to try and wait out some of the dense fog. We didn’t want to waste our time at the site though, so we did board the bus in the drizzle and made our way back to the top, where we found ourselves essentially in the clouds.

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The day before, our guide had joked about it being Machu Poncho this time of year; we joined the ranks when we bought plastic ponchos in five different colors and put them on over our raincoats to better guard ourselves (and of course, the cameras).

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We had been deliberating over one of the area’s more intense hikes, but decided to skip it because of warnings of slippery, steep steps. Instead, we took a calmer route to an old Inca bridge, which supposedly boasted good views of the full area.

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Because of the altitude, it was actually amazing to watch the weather. The clouds were rapidly rolling in and out — but all below the point where we were standing. This only enhanced our usual intensity around photography as we all waited for the clouds to move to the perfect spot to enable the perfect picture.

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It wasn’t happening from our spot on the bridge, so we headed in the opposite direction on a different hike, toward the Sun Gate. This is the spot that marks the end of the Inca Trail, or the Intipunku, and it provides the first glimpse of Machu Picchu to those who do endure the three- or four-day adventure.

It also enables those doing just a day trip to envision what it would be like to have that moment; there were many posed photos to reenact that victorious ascent from the other tour groups around us. Okay, and us.

After taking one last foggy, wet look at Machu Picchu, we boarded the bus yet again and made our way to the bottom. We had time for a luxurious lunch before boarding our Peru Rail train, and so returned to the hotel for more fresh fish. This time I enjoyed a piece of trout cooked with local vegetables.

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IMG_2998We boarded the train and each plugged into our headphones and other devices, but quickly put them away once we realized there would be on-board entertainment.

First, we were introduced to an elaborately dressed (and somewhat disturbing) clown, who began dancing down the aisles to the tune of the festive music now blaring over the train’s announcement system.  He pulled people out of their seats to dance with him (including the Lissisters) and gave a sort of lap dance to those unwilling to get up and join him. The whole thing was a bit hard to comprehend, and no one in the car could keep a straight face.

After the clown went away, one of the train attendants announced that the crew would be coming around with the company’s line of alpaca goods. On the way to Machu Picchu, the crew had pushed a cart down the aisles with sweaters and scarves, much like duty-free sales on an airline. But today, the crew would be taking advantage of our rapt attention and began parading down the aisles in a fashion show.

This was also a bit odd and unexpected, but made even more extreme by the contrast of our surroundings. The train had stopped between two towns and so we sat on the rails near rundown homes and farmland. A group of young kids, who clearly knew the train would be there, had scampered down the rocks and were politely rapping at our windows, making mimes for money. And meanwhile, the train crew was strutting to the tune of very loud music inside our fairly luxurious train and trying to entice us into buying expensive woolen goods. The contrast of the two scenes — inside and outside the car — was a perfect encapsulation of the split between haves and have-nots in Peru.

Machu Picchu is the area’s pride and joy, and economic engine — entry to the site costs $45 per person (and multiply that by nearly 4,000 every day, 365 days of the year). But less than 12% of the money goes to the maintenance of the site and to the surrounding towns. The rest flows to Lima, creating somewhat of a bitter relationship. And so every day, countless train cars of tourists with money run through the riverfront towns, but none of that money ever really touches those towns. The windows on our train car were sealed, but there was a little crack at the top. Many of us with window seats pushed our Peru Rail snacks out the opening, where they were caught by the kids below. They waved goodbye to us when the train finally started moving again, but no doubt they returned to the same place when the next train came rolling through a few hours later.

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Crossing a checkpoint and ending an adventure

Written by Emmy on 23 October 2012

We woke up with the sun on Sunday morning and discovered why we were the only people staying in the woods of Fundy: fall comes early. We snuggled into our sleeping bags for a bit longer before emerging into the morning fog. Originally we had planned to hang around, make some coffee and have breakfast straight from the backpacks, but the chill overtook us, and so we quickly packed up and made our way back to the parking lot and to Adrienne.

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We started driving south, back past Saint John and then through long passes of rural New Brunswick with spectacularly well-paved stretches of highway. We came to a southern tip of Canada and boarded a ferry, the first of the day. We were planning to take the boat to Deer Island, where we would take another ferry, this one from Deer Island to Campobello Island. Campobello, the summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is home to an international park, co-managed by the U.S. and Canadian parks services. The island is actually part of Canada, but during the months when the ferry is not running, is only accessible by a U.S.-controlled bridge. It’s a bit of a brainteaser.

But given the season of our trip, we boarded the first of our two ferries for the day and hit the open seas.

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While on board the ship, I aimed to recreated what Chaz now claims was his favorite snack of America Part 1: Trader Joe’s multigrain crackers, sliced asiago and a spicy dip; in this case, it was the leftover spicy chicken salad. In keeping with tradition, I pulled out a cutting board and knife while the vehicle was moving. I like a little adventure.

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IMG_1865We arrived on Deer Island, which, as part of New Brunswick, has all its signage displayed in English and French. Because of the prevailing religious traditions and the fact that it was Sunday, we found very little to see or do on the sleepy island. We hadn’t planned to do much, truthfully, but were at the whims of the dual ferry schedules. So we meandered our way from one end of the island to the other, pausing to check out what is rumored to be the largest lobster pound in the world, and ending up at the largest whirlpool in the northern hemisphere.

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The lobster pound was uninspiring, but the whirlpool was very cool. The somewhat mesmerizing rush of the currents was captivating enough that we nearly missed our ferry, ending up last in line of the cars waiting to board a boat that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in about three decades, give or take.

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Seriously, the boat was really old. So old that the steering part detached from the car part. The ocean was looking awfully cold, but despite its creaky parts, the ferry ferried us across safely.

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We docked at Campobello and drove to the interior of the park, where we were directed to photo opportunities and to the house that FDR spent his summers in. We walked through an interesting exhibit about the history of friendship between the U.S. and Canada. I was most excited to see that friendship manifest in an international stamp for my parks passport.

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We weren’t interested in waiting for someone to come show us around, so we took the self-guided version of the FDR house tour, pausing of course, in the kitchen.

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We drove around the island a bit, but without planning to take a hike or bike ride, there wasn’t much to tour; we stopped at a few rocky overlooks to gaze out on the water and identify distant land masses. I was more amused by the traffic signs that pointed to “U.S.A.”

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After cruising around for a bit, we selected the only completely empty picnic spot and overlooking the water, emptied the contents of our cooler onto a table – of course using a Delta blanket as the picnic cloth. Using a couple different containers of already-ready ingredients, I whipped up sandwiches of turkey, grilled eggplant, and red pepper and feta spread.

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Once we had finished our sandwiches and packed back in all the cooking implements, we loaded the car and made haste toward the tip of Campobello. We made the requisite lighthouse visit before approaching the bridge to the other side.

We were briefly reprimanded at customs. Evidently, limes cannot cross the border between Maine and Canada because of some weird soil disease; we think the border attendant just needed a spritz for his drink. (This was not my first time being stopped at a border crossing for a citrus infraction, but this stop was a little less alarming.) We entered the U.S. into Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the country. The town itself didn’t have much going on, but we made a pit stop at West Quoddy Head lighthouse, noted for being the easternmost point in the country.

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IMG_1998Now able to say we’d dangled out feet over the eastern edge of the modern world (or, you know, something dramatic like that), we headed a bit south to the entrance to Cutler Coast. Cutler is an area of land preserved and maintained by the state of Maine, but in a much more rugged way than the national parks. Cutler’s waterfront campsites are first come, first serve, and you claim them by logging your name into a guestbook at the trailhead. But when we found a completely packed parking lot and a fairly empty guestbook, we were a bit confused. If we chanced it and found the campsites totally full, we would have to turn back – a challenging feat given threatening rainclouds, vanishing daylight (ok, it was 3 p.m.) and a relatively lengthy hike (almost 10 miles to do the full loop past the campsite and back to the lot). But if we gave up and found the campsites empty, it would have been hugely disappointing. So we decided to hedge our bets, assume most of the parked cars belonged to day hikers and charge forward. The only people who had signed the guestbook were a pair from New York, Adam and Jake, who we kept calling for as we hiked through the brush, assuming that they would take us in under their wing if all else failed.

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IMG_2015The hike took us almost immediately down to the water, where we could see several bits of Canada off in the distance. But mostly, we were just surrounded by the very vast ocean – a truly beautiful site. We could feel bits of rain beginning to fall from the sky, but luckily had brought layers and the majority of the trail weaved through trees, providing cover. The only catch was that the state of Maine seemed content to let the wild run wild and so maintains their trails a bit less than the NPS, leading to overgrown brush. I think that might explain the mosquito bites I later discovered in somewhat inexplicable places.

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As we hiked, we could hear a dim noise in the distance, growing louder and louder. Chaz was convinced it was an owl, but I was determined to prove it was mechanical. We had to round several craggy corners and summit many slippery rocks, but eventually, a lighthouse came into distant view. To keep myself entertained, I yelled back to it every time it yelled hi to us.

After the yelling, beeping and raining went on for a while, we found ourselves at the first campsite, where a woman was standing guard. We kept walking until we came to the second site, where we found Adam and Jake, setting up fancy hammocks in the trees. Excited as we had been to make friends, we abandoned the cause, and like Goldilocks, tried out the third campsite, which was just right. We set up shop and I began to prepare our gourmet dinner, beginning with a cocktail hour of G+Ts (yes, we had managed to import them), cheese, crackers, sliced veggies, and Annie’s bunnies.

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Dinner was going to be a fancy home-cooked affair, which required a series of spices. In lieu of bringing spice jars with us, we had mixed Thai spices in a ziplock bag, to which we added peppers, celery, scallions, cashews and spiced chicken sausage.

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As we dined, we enjoyed the bright, glowing sunset over the water. We could still see our lighthouse friend blinking and beeping in the distance.

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IMG_2146We awoke the next morning, rolled up our sort-of soggy tent and hiked the five or so miles back to the parking lot, which was significantly less full than it had been the prior afternoon. We started the drive back south, where we encountered a rather strange site – several towers looming in the near distance. Ever the journalists, we got closer to investigate, stopping just short of the “Property of the federal government” and “No trespassing” signs. We later uncovered that we had happened upon the VLF Transmitter Cutler, which provides one-way low-transmission communications with U.S. submarines. Having completed our journalistic mission of the morning, we picked up the scenic Route 1 and a bit of speed, making our way back down past the turnoff for MDI and toward new pastures. As soon as we regained cell service, I was hot on the pursuit of little-known and well-regarded lobster rolls, figuring I should get one more in before leaving the state. Our other major planned stop was to be Freeport, Maine, birthplace of L.L. Bean. Our attempt to stop at the famous Red’s in Wiscasset, Maine proved a bit fruitless when we encountered its 30 minute line. The food did look good from a distance. Just after Freeport we stopped at Cindy’s Lobster Rolls, which had been hyped on the internet for its lobster roll (what I was most excited about) and its fried clams (which Chaz had requested as a final item).

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IMG_2165We had a little fun at the kitschy roadside stand while we waited, but at 2 p.m. or so, we were among the stand’s only patrons and so our lobster roll, clams and mix of french fries arrived quite quickly. We dug into our seafood, hob-nobbed with Cindy’s eclectic owner and after not too long, hopped back into the car for the less scenic portion of our day’s drive.

From Cindy’s, we left behind the scenic highways of Maine and merged onto 95, making our way south through traffic-filled New Hampshire. But with shocking expediency, we found ourselves back in Boston. We undertook the great feat of unloading the car, making quite a mess of Chaz’s sidewalk in the process. We hadn’t been back in the urban world for long before Chaz walked me to the train, where I boarded my New York-bound Amtrak, and he walked back across alone. It had been nearly a year since we had bid each other farewell from our last road trip adventure, as we ran to our separate gates in the Detroit airport. We were older (definitely), wiser (debatable), and heading home to our grown-up lives and real person jobs. But really, we’re still the same people as when the checkpoint began. We’ve still got backpacks full of unnecessary electronics, eyes bigger than our stomachs, and a sense of adventure tuned to the open road ahead.

The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

From sunrise to sunset

Written by Emmy on 4 October 2012

On Thursday morning, we rose bright (well, not even bright yet) and early to see the sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain again. The weather forecast was a bit more cloudy, but since there was no rain, we made our way to the top again to see the clouds lit against the horizon line. It was a bit chillier, but still beautiful.

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Chaz, Liz and I made our way back down the mountain — Chaz on bike, Liz and I in the car. We parked along the beginning of the one-way loop road that runs through the park and each mounted our own bike, this time with me on one that actually fit, and began along the beautiful route, which winds along the park’s most scenic water and mountain views, and is made all the more conducive to biking by the relative lack of traffic.

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IMG_0906Following our bike ride, we made a pit stop at Beech Hill Farm, a local farmer’s market we had been trying to visit all week to no avail. Call it flexible summer hours. But Thursday was a good day for the farm and we were able to spend some time in its small store.

Chaz made a new friend, who was highly entertained by chasing a small piece of basil. Meanwhile, we inspected the fresh produce and selected a few goodies to bring home for brunch. (Waking up for the sunrise and biking for nearly two hours left us hungry and ready for our second meal at about 9:30 a.m.)

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With the summer squash and fresh yellow onions, we whipped up a vegetable, basil and goat cheese frittata, accompanied by fresh berries.

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We ate our brunch on the patio of the house while overlooking the water, a remarkably calm and beautiful surrounding. But no rest for the weary. Once we had gotten our fill and regained our energy, Chaz and I refilled the backpacks and headed back out onto the open road. We bagged another peak; this one was Dorr Mountain, the initial ascent of which we did along the Ladder Trail, yet another aptly named vertical climb.

But a vertical climb always makes for a beautiful view, and we received one standing atop the summit.

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We found company in a number of tourists atop the mountain, and so after asking them to take our picture, quickly fled the scene.

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We sought refuge along a stream running by the return trail and pulled out our picnic basket containing sandwiches with homemade spicy chicken salad. (I had needed an activity while the frittata was cooking, and we also had begun to realize that the kitchen was full of ingredients we should probably think about using up.) Full from lunch part two, we basked in the sunlight briefly, but then packed it all back in and moved along in an effort to stay on a relatively tight schedule.

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We ran a few quick errands, took the fastest showers imaginable, and hopped back in the car to make a beeline for Seal Harbor. Charlie and Rosemary had graciously invited us to join them for a dinner picnic on board their boat, and so we loaded tote bags and coolers onto the boat and pushed off into the open seas. Liz had prepared a large helping of homemade guacamole for the voyage; we enjoyed cocktail hour in the middle of the ocean for a change of pace from our usual ocean view from the patio.

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Rosemary had prepared a lovely picnic dinner, which we spread out across the front of the boat: a selection of cocktail hour goodies, including cheese spread and vegetables; corn salad; cole slaw; and homemade chicken salad in wraps. (Let’s just call chicken salad the theme of the day.) We enjoyed our dinner with local brews while idling in Otter Cove.

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IMG_1177The water became increasingly choppy, so once we had all finished eating (and of course, taking photos of all the eating), we packed the picnic back in and headed toward shore. We had one minor mishap when a lobster trap got stuck in the boat’s motor, but thankfully were able to get it out before too much damage was done (to us or to the trap).

We anchored back in Seal Harbor, waved goodbye to our hosts and headed home to the other side of the island, just in time to catch the sunset over our own personal harbor.

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The next morning we uncharacteristically overslept, missing our scheduled 6 a.m. departure by a few hours. We had a very full morning planned, but rather than compromise on activity, found a way to compress a very packed schedule into a shortened time frame.

We loaded the bikes back onto the car and within moments, were racing toward the start of the carriage roads. The carriage roads are one of the features Acadia is most famous for; a network of gravelly paths, they were once used by the Rockefellers and their carriages for scenic rides throughout the island. Now mostly subsumed by the park, the carriage roads are used by runners and bikers, making for a beautiful and completely car-free riding experience (even if uphill gravel is a bit tough on the tires). We each completed a solo ride, able to select the length that worked best for our personal pace thanks to the multiple options provided by the vast circuit.

90 minutes and 12 miles (or 17, depending who you are) later, we met back at the car, loaded the bikes on and hopped in. We drove to the Beehive, one of the park’s most popular hikes, named for its beehive-like shape. We quickly scrambled up and took in yet another panoramic vista of the park’s surroundings.

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We hiked back down and found ourselves at the car basically on schedule, despite the late start. Taking a break from physical activity, we went into real estate mode, poking around at a few For Sale properties along the park’s boundaries. After letting ourselves into a more or less deserted house and taking a few pictures, we abandoned mission in favor of some lunch.

We returned to the Docksider, where Liz and I each had a crab salad and Chaz tucked into a fried clam roll. I had essentially made it my mission to eat only seafood while in Maine and was more or less succeeding.

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IMG_1236Despite having just finished lunch, we came home to begin work on a large scale cooking project. Chaz and I had plans to pack up the car and hit the open road very early the next morning, waving goodbye to Acadia and making our way north for a weekend road trip through New Brunswick and more remote coastal Maine. The accommodations would be less plush than our gorgeous house on MDI (read: tent), but while the checkpoint may compromise on places to sleep, never on things to eat. In order to make the cooking-while-camping experience a bit simpler, I had planned to precook several items in our very well-stocked kitchen, including pasta with fresh shrimp and tomatoes.

There was a brief moment of panic when I poured the pasta out of the box and noticed things moving at the bottom of the box. The only natural reaction was to shriek and thrust the box at Chaz. After we determined that, in fact, someone else had gotten to our pasta before we had, we handled the situation, recovered our emotions and resolved to seek out a new base for our now steaming shrimp.

IMG_1256With our various dishes cooling, we cleaned ourselves up and headed over to the Claremont, one of the island’s more historic locations and one of the venues the Obamas visited on their own trip to the island. The old hotel is in the town of Southwest Harbor with, of course, stunning water views. We took ourselves on a self-guided tour of the grounds and the dock.

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And because a view like that just begs for a scenic cocktail, we obliged.

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Following Chaz’s boring gin and tonic and my more exotic blueberry mint mojito (local flavors! come on!), we drove slightly inland to meet Liz for dinner at a Southwest Harbor favorite, Red Sky. The cozy local restaurant was filled and the owners wandered around checking on all the diners, making for a friendly, intimate experience.

We continued the strategy from earlier that week, ordering a selection of starters to share before committing to our own entrees. Up front, we sampled crispy polenta with fresh greens, a lobster-filled puff pastry and pate, served with a cranberry relish. All were as beautiful as they were delicious (even if the mood lighting of the restaurant didn’t aid my photographic efforts).

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For my main course, I decided I needed to have one last lobster before departing the island. Red Sky made it easy – no cracking or shelling required – by serving the beast of the sea over a mushroom risotto and grilled asparagus.

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Chaz looked at the menu for a whole 30 seconds before announcing he would be having the ribs, having had and thoroughly enjoyed them at this venue before. Between his bones and my decorative lobster tail shell, we had quite the discard pile building on a bread plate.

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IMG_1377Liz had the special, a steak with caramelized onions and blue cheese, served alongside the same fresh string beans and scalloped potatoes as Chaz’s entree.

Everyone was pleased with their ordering choices and though we could have left without dessert, we rationalized that we had biked around one mountain and climbed another that morning. So we ordered the lemon blueberry cake (deemed to have a better lemon-to-blueberry ratio than a similar item from a previous day) and a slice of gingerbread cake with homemade caramel sauce.

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After dinner, we drove down to the water to look up at the stars and listen to the ocean splash against the shore, taking one last look at the island before heading back to get in bed. We caught a spontaneous fireworks show, a coincidental celebration of the end of a wonderful week on MDI.

More whirlwind adventure

Written by Chaz on 30 September 2012

The weather forecast for Tuesday morning was, for the first time since I arrived in Maine, rain. The thought of getting wet scared off all but the most hardy travelers, and my mother, Emmy and I left home very early on Tuesday morning for a hike up Mansell Mountain and around the Great Pond Trail. Mansell is one of the more scenic trails on the much quieter western side of Mount Desert Island, where a large section of the national park lies, and we did not see anyone on the trails for the first couple hours of our hike.

We climbed Mansell using the Perpendicular Trail, famous for its long granite staircase.

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Though it was barely raining for most of our hike, the mountain was entirely shrouded in fog, so there were no views from the top. But still, the different climate made a nice change from the full sun we had been having. (Not to say I wasn’t delighted when the full sun returned.)

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As we began descending the back side of the mountain into Great Notch, a small mountain pass, the fog swirled around us through a beautiful lichen-covered forest.

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We wound around the mountain through a damp, lush forest back to the shores of Long Pond, where the fog had barely begun to rise.

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We headed home for breakfast, where we waited for the last of the rain to leave the island before we headed out to Bass Harbor Head Light, a lighthouse that has become an icon of Acadia and is even now featured on a quarter. The view out to sea remained bleak.

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From the lighthouse, we drove just east to the Ship Harbor and Wonderland trails, which, both being flat and easy, made a nice change from all the peaks we had bagged a couple days earlier. The trails opened onto the rocky Maine coast, and we explored the tide pools a bit.

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For lunch, we drove over to Seawall, a long stretch of beautiful granite that anchors its section of the national park. We explored the rocks more and took the opportunity to take a few more inspired photographs.

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Lunch was again turkey, muenster and avocado with spicy honey mustard on rosemary bread, and it paired very nicely with the scenery.

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We also took the opportunity for one final shot of all of us in our T-shirts.

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Ben was leaving us that afternoon, and I had planned to drive him to Bangor. After lunch, I realized that we were relatively tight on time to get him to the airport. So we stopped at Sawyer’s Market, an adorable grocery store in Southwest Harbor that my family has been patronizing for nearly three decades, with items for each of us to grab already distributed. We high-tailed it from there back to Seal Cove Pond, where Joanna and I dove into the pond for an express swim that was refreshing by both its nature and its cadence.

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We went home and left Joanna, Seth and Emmy to enjoy cocktail hour on the porch while I drove Ben back to the airport in Bangor. From the looks of it, I missed a very nice afternoon.

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I returned just in time for the sunset.

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The parents of a college friend live on the island full-time and we see them whenever we come up here now. When my mother and I took a long-weekend winter trip, we stayed Rosemary and Charlie and spent time exploring the ice-covered park. On this much more summery evening, Rosemary came over for dinner, and we had an amazing feast. We began with a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad, and my mother reprised her homemade crab cakes that I had enjoyed in sandwich form on Isle au Haut, served with potatoes and string beans.

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As Ben’s departure left us with four people, I tried to teach the group to play spades, a Kelsh family favorite, which was only moderately successful but a still a very good time.

Emmy and I rose early on Wednesday, threw two bikes on the car and tried to take a bike road on Acadia’s beautiful carriage road, but due to technical issues with my mother’s bike, we barely got anywhere. We returned home before 7, and decided to do a bit of kayaking in the little inlet by our house. For reasons of safety — the camera’s, not ours — there are no photos.

Once the full gang was up and at ’em, we drove into Bar Harbor for one last meal as a group before Joanna and Seth had to return to the airport. We were able to be seated right away at Cafe This Way, which was a minor miracle. Cafe This Way, an island landmark in recent years, is perhaps the only restaurant I have ever known that serves only breakfast and dinner. Emmy, Joanna and I had omelets — Greek, trout and sundried tomatoes with mozzarella, respectively — while Seth enjoyed a veggie sausage burrito and my mother went for the eggs benedict.

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After breakfast, it was time for another chauffeur run up to Bangor. Emmy and I said goodbye to Joanna and Seth inside the tiny terminal, delighted at what a great time we friends had had together and sorry it had to end. Emmy and I stopped at Walmart on the way back to pick up some supplies, and by the time we made it back to the house, it was time for lunch. Emmy whipped up some tuna melts, which we enjoyed on the porch.

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Unable to rally ourselves for much physical activity, and not excited at the notion of doing something in the mid-afternoon sun, we settled for a quick dip in Seal Cove Pond. As we wove through the backroads of the park, we spotted some friends along the way.

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After an abbreviated cocktail hour, we drove back into Bar Harbor for the early showing of Headhunters, a Norwegian film about an executive recruiter who moonlights as an art thief. We didn’t know much about the film and had basically no expectations, which made it even better when we thoroughly enjoyed it. For dinner, we began with a nachos platter during the first half of the movie, and at intermission moved on to the High Plains Drifter pizza, Reel Pizza’s take on the classic barbecue chicken pizza, one of our favorites in Providence.

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We returned home full and happy, and got in bed early, ready to start the next day bright and early.

Icy cold water and red hot lobsters

Written by Emmy on 26 September 2012

Monday morning began early for half the group, as Ben, Chaz and I set off to conquer the Precipice Trail in the post-dawn sunlight. Precipice was advertised as a very steep ascent; parts of the trail are comprised of iron rungs stuck into rock, requiring you to hoist your full body weight up while sort of dangling in the air. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

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Truthfully, it wasn’t that scary. (I’d put it at comparable to Angels Landing and far less terrifying than the final moments of our Half Dome ascent, which I use as my barometer for holy-crap-I’m-nervous statements.) We gained height quickly thanks to the vertical ladders and iron bars, and before long our parked car was like a tiny ant on the ground below.

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By the time we reached the summit, the sun was already blinding overhead, making us all very glad for our crack-of-dawn departure time. The views both along the way and from the very top were positively stunning.

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After scrambling down a more rock-based and less iron-rung-reliant trail, we arrived back at the car and headed home to pick up the rest of the troops. The five of us and Chaz’s mother Liz set out for the Great Head trail for an oceanfront jaunt and the moment of the trip I was most excited about.

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We had been discussing the need to brand ourselves for quite some time, and in advance of the trip to Maine, I finally took the plunge and designed our 120 T-shirts. A note about this group: We were all, to some degree or another, friends before we took on the newspaper reins in early 2010. But while serving in our role and in the subsequent semester, we formed a bond that I have to believe is truly unique. It has its roots and its heart in our shared commitment to spending time at The Herald when we could have been in a million other places, though it has come to stand for far, far more than that at this point.

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Our shirts did inspire a bit of amusing confusion, as passersby inquired as to why we all had the same number on our backs. Call us a less-than-standard sports team.

From our perch atop Great Head, we could see Sand Beach, one of the island’s most popular sunbathing and dip-your-toes-in-the-ocean settings. We looked down on it from up above, but decided to bypass it in favor of installing ourselves somewhere quieter.

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IMG_0141We set up shop on rocks and picnic blankets (thanks Delta!) at Little Hunters Beach, a quiet alcove where we were the only picnickers in sight. We dined on sandwiches of turkey, avocado, muenster and spicy honey mustard, a checkpoint picnic lunch favorite.

We did dip our toes into the ocean, largely for the shock effect. The last time I visited Acadia, I was 14 and on a trip with my sleepaway camp. We visited Sand Beach and standing in a line, walked into the ocean. The wager was simple: last person standing would be exempt from cleaning the bunk (or something similarly lucrative). I made it to the final five, but surrendered when I lost the feeling in my toes and emerged with them slightly purple in color.

The water this time around was just about as cold as I remembered, but we braved it briefly as a group.

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Given our inability to get further than ankle deep, we relocated back to our personal swimming pond and lounged about in the significantly warmer water. We learned that despite being, in some senses, a professional swimmer, Joanna is terrified of touching the bottom. Thankfully Seth was willing enough to hold her upright. (And really, Chaz and I lost at a competitive game of chicken fight to the pair completely out of courtesy to Joanna’s fears; I’m less worried about hitting the bottom of the pond.)

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We returned to the house and began cocktail hour a bit early in anticipation of an early dinner to follow. The selection of noshes was quite generous, including 120’s absolute favorite, and fresh summer rolls from the cleverly named Chow Maine. Joanna had infused gin with cardamom in preparation for the trip up north and we splashed it into our drinks for a bit of fancy flair.

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We had one minor mishap during our otherwise calm and relaxed cocktail hour.

After cocktail hour, we squeezed ourselves into one car and made our way to Thurston’s Lobster Pound, a noted lobster shack poised right above the water.

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We walked up to the restaurant and took a quick look at the menu before walking in. Basically our options boiled (no pun intended) down to what size the lobsters would be.

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Hi friends!!

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With our sea beasts boiling in their pots, we picked out a picnic table on the roofed-in patio and settled down with crab dip and crackers and a pitcher of Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale. We switched tables a few times, concerned there wouldn’t be enough room for us and all of our clawed friends. But we finally committed to a table and before not too long, received a tray full of bright red lobsters, ready for the taking. I could barely contain my excitement.

 

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Because we had a few novices at the table, Liz provided an instructional lesson on how best to handle the whole lobster.

For some, her lesson created great success.

The before: 

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…and the after: 

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What was most exciting (or rather, a bit alarming) about the whole experience was Seth’s display. Seth has been a vegetarian for as long as I’ve known him, but a fresh Maine lobster left even him weak in the knees. Growing up as a Long Island lobster eater, I’m all about getting every last morsel out of the thing. Seth really did a number on his, extracting more meat than I think I knew possible.

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It was messy. It was aggressive. It was delicious.

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IMG_0456We returned home, covered in a combination of lobster juices and lemon juice to mask the lobster juice smell. Back at home, Liz produced a triple berry pie that she had picked up at the farmer’s market down the road that morning. Well, when in Rome…

With pie and port in hand, we decided to play a round of Celebrity, a game I learned from a good friend in college. The competition was fierce, but after a couple surprise moves by Liz, she, Chaz and I triumphed over our competitors, who sat watching in awe. (Or something like that.)

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Another wonderful day.

Beasts of the northern wild

Written by Chaz on 26 September 2012

I had planned for us to rise early on Saturday morning in Bangor and high-tail it down to Mount Desert Island for an early hike to introduce the newcomers to the park. But a canceled flight got in my way, and so our Saturday turned out to have a more relaxed cadence than I had originally envisioned. But no matter — we more than made up for that on Sunday.

We woke up at four, poured coffee into a thermos and piled into the car for the drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the U.S. East Coast, where the sun’s rays first hit the United States each morning. We made it to the top with plenty of time before sunrise, and were among the first to settle onto the granite ledges and hunker down under blankets to protect ourselves from the chilly morning. There was already a bunch of fire-red light on the horizon, and morning fog was rolling across Schoodic Peninsula and Frenchman Bay.

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Before long, the sun was peeking up over the horizon. It was a perfect, clear morning to watch the sunrise.

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The sunrise was one of many moments that I have loved all my life and loved even more as I shared it with some of my closest friends.

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We drove back down the mountain and over to Upper Hadlock Pond, where we left the car and began our morning’s hike, which one guidebook lovingly calls Peak Bagger’s Delight because you can summit four peaks with relatively low mileage. Sure enough, before long, we had make it to our first peak, Bald Peak.

We had made such an early start that we had the trails entirely to ourselves, and we were on our second summit, Parkman Mountain, by 8:00. We continued to have stunningly gorgeous weather, which we were very fortunate to have for almost all of our time in Maine.

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The troops began to tire as we approached the top of Gilmore Peak, but our hike was far from over.

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Another push took us to the top of Sargent Mountain, Acadia’s second highest peak, where there were more panoramic views, a bit of a rest, and, best of all, snack.

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From Sargent, we were due to head back down to the car. But it was still very early, much too early for lunch, and though there was a bit of dissent among the ranks, I guided us onward to the top of yet another mountain, Penobscot Mountain. The hidden benefit of this added effort was that we would pass one of Acadia’s few truly hidden gems, Sargent Mountain Pond.

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By the time we got to the pond, we were all hot and tired, and we peeled off our clothes and dove in to the small body of water (allegedly Maine’s first lake). It was unbelievably refreshing, and so quiet and secluded, and we swam and splashed for a while.

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From the pond, we bee-lined back to the car, where the scene was quite a bit more crowded than when we had left it before 6:30.

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By the time we returned to the car, it was noon, and we were all more than ready for a hearty lunch. So we drove down into Northeast Harbor to one of my oldest favorite places, the Docksider. Though the restaurant is world-famous for its lobster roll, I’m a relative newcomer to that menu item, as my seafood odyssey is much newer than my family’s Maine tradition. But lobster roll it was, except for Seth, our resident vegetarian. We each also began with a cup of chowder.

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Though I of course was overcome by nostalgia, temporarily incapable of rational analysis, and completely in love with the food, there was not overwhelming delight with the lobster roll at the table, unfortunately.

After lunch, we headed home for some much needed naps and relaxation after a quick grocery stop in Northeast Harbor. We drove back across the island for an early movie at Reel Pizza, my personal favorite movie theater. You order pizza in the lobby and are alerted that your order’s ready using a bingo board in each theater. Even better, the pizza is phenomenal. We went for the Babette’s Feast — chicken, avocado, roasted garlic, walnuts and sweet red pepper sauce — and the Five Easy Pieces — breaded eggplant, spinach, garlic, summer squash and tomato. Both excellent.

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Our film for the evening was “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fantasy based loosely on the real-life location of Isle de Jean Charles, where people continue to live on land that lies outside the levee system and is therefore sinking into the sea. The film, which had a mixed reception among the group, seemed to ask more questions than it answered, and for me personally, it was difficult to enjoy a story described as fantasy without desperately trying to understand how much of it pertained to actual lives in coastal Louisiana. We spent much of the drive home frantically researching the movie’s origins and the reality of the Louisiana bayou.

We continued the vigorous discussion over port when we arrived home, and before long, we were all heading off to bed, exhausted by the day’s agenda.

In which we reassemble and our adventures begin

Written by Emmy on 20 September 2012

On a Friday afternoon in late August, I triumphantly put my out-of-office auto-reply on my work email, grabbed my debatably excessive luggage and made my way to LaGuardia. It was a good dry run, for the flight Ben and I were set to board was canceled immediately upon our arrival at the airport. But we returned early the next morning, boarded our flight and by 10 a.m., were on the ground in Bangor, Maine, with Chaz, Joanna and Seth waving frantically at us from baggage claim. We all piled into a rental car — who Chaz had named Adrienne, which I never found as fitting as our dear Dorothy’s moniker, but never thought of a substitute — and off we went!

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Less than 90 minutes later, we were pulling into Acadia National Park. Chaz immediately went into tour guide mode, pointing out the various mountains, water views and trails. Our first stop was naturally the visitor center, where we watched a quick movie about Acadia and its history. I also picked up an official National Park Service passport; after playing assistant to Chaz’s stamping mission all last summer, I was jealous and ready to graduate to my own copy.

From the visitor center, we headed to the Jordan Pond House, an Acadia landmark where we had planned to meet Chaz’s mom, Liz, and her friend Maureen for lunch. We were a bit early, so took a quick walk around the pond. Eager to begin documentation of our reunion, we asked a nice looking man with a camera similar to mine if he wouldn’t mind taking our photo. Turns out he was an official photographer for the Friends of Acadia magazine; look for us on a cover near you soon.

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IMG_9392In the style of our favorite band

We sat down to lunch on the lawn overlooking the pond and the mountains, and eagerly ordered our first round of local seafood dishes. At the recommendation of the regulars, nearly all of us sampled the lobster stew.

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Compulsory at JPH are the popovers, which have made the restaurant famous. Everyone’s dish came with at least one of the fluffy, crunchy bits of deliciousness. Though at first perplexed by my photography, our waitress eventually got into it and came over with the basket to give me an opportunity for a close-up.

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Stuffed with our first Maine meal, we set out for our first group hike (following a scenic drive that allowed for a bit of digestion). We quickly ascended Flying Mountain, a short hike with spectacular views. It was a good way to get our aerial bearings of Mount Desert Island, which is home to the majority of the park. (Only one small piece can be found on the mainland of Maine, in addition to Isle au Haut.) Though it pales in size when compared to some of the western park locales — I was amused last summer to learn that Yosemite is larger than Rhode Island (most things are) — MDI is still pretty substantial, a land mass three times larger than Manhattan. And on a day as clear as our first in the park, we could see miles and miles of it from Flying Mountain’s low summit.

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After our hike, we made a quick stop at Chaz’s favorite swimming hole, a deserted corner of Seal Cove Pond with water far warmer and far less crowded than that of the ocean beaches on the island.

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We made our way to the home we would be staying in for the week on the southwest side of the island. Poised right on the water, it was a postcard-perfect setting. Chaz had sent out an advanced email about the trip with a pretty regimented “daily cadence” and we had all carefully noted the inclusion of a daily cocktail hour at home. With a view like the one outside our porch, we had no objections. (We would have had few objections to a cocktail hour regardless of the setting; but the view was an extra special added touch.)

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We sat outside with our drinks and a snack of spiced nuts imported from Joanna’s kitchen until the sun began to set. While Maine, as the easternmost state in the country, is generally noted for its sunrises, being on the western side of the island afforded us some pretty spectacular views over the course of the week.

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As the sun dipped below the horizon line, we piled back into the cars and made our way to Burning Tree, one of Chaz and Liz’s favorite local restaurants. Notable for both its seafood and vegetarian entrees, it was a perfect fit for our group.

Overwhelmed by all of the excitement on the menu, we settled on a game plan of appetizers for the table and individual entrees (on the condition that sampling would be permitted across the table).

Upfront, we ordered seafood fritters with a spicy aioli, clams with crispy kale, crab and mango salad, stuffed squash blossoms, and a gorgonzola and beet salad. (The latter two are not photographed below, possibly because I was last in the circular rotation to receive them and was too focused on making sure I didn’t lose out against anyone eagerly seeking seconds.) As a huge seafood fan generally, I was already thrilled about what the week ahead looked like it would offer.

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Our main courses were all gorgeous, in addition to being positively delicious. Depicted below: halibut and mussels in a coconut curry sauce, ordered by both Joanna and Maureen; Ben’s monkfish with eggplant in a Thai chili sauce; Chaz’s chicken, clams and chorizo pan roast, cooked in its own savory juices; Liz’s sole, one of the evening’s specials, served in cream sauce over spinach; Seth’s Indian stuffed cabbage (have you identified the vegetarian?); and my very delicious swordfish cooked with lemon, almonds and roasted tomatoes.

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We were all too full for dessert, but sampled the two most exciting options anyway: a blueberry lemon tart (which I loved, but Chaz called “too lemon-y”) and a peach ginger cake with Persian vanilla ice cream.

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With plans for a very early rise the following day, we returned to the house, dispersed to our respective bedrooms — Ben and I took the bunk beds with an epic water view — and fell into a restful slumber.