Friday, November 14, 2014

SUNNYLANDS: THE ANNENBERG ESTATE AND HOUSE


This tour exceeded all my expectations — the house, grounds, and art collection were historic and beautiful. My guide was knowledgeable and competent. My fellow tour members, only six, were fun and interesting, and had done their research beforehand. One was retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and was able to fill in the details of the art collection that our guide didn't know.

Walter and Leonore Annenberg bought over 900 acres of undeveloped desert in Rancho Mirage, east of Palm Springs, CA, in the 1960s to build a winter home. Walter became a media mogul and later a US ambassador to the UK under Nixon's presidency; Leonore was a west coast girl from a wealthy family who adored the pink of jacarandas and greens of nature and was Reagan's Chief of Protocol; both were extraordinary philanthropists. The Annenbergs entertained royalty, presidents from around the world including the USA, government and other leaders, and celebrities at Sunnylands until 2009 when Leonore died, seven years after Walter. However, they had ensured that the estate would live on by establishing a foundation. Today it continues to host presidents and royalty, as well as high-level retreats, and the public.

Jennifer, our guide welcomed me and my companions and described the tour we were taking. She made it clear we could not take photos inside the house, which is a pity. The estate is huge and we toured the grounds in an eight passenger golf cart, so the only walking we did was inside the house.

The estate would be much like a park surrounding a British stately home but for the fact that it is a gorgeous nine-hole golf course. I was itching to play the Dick Wilson designed course but you have to be either a head of state or a friend of the Annenberg family. Mature trees line the fairways and hundreds of olive trees deliver their bounty every year. Olive oil pressed from the olives is available to buy. There are lakes, waterfalls, and statues to admire,
along with a pagoda, the Chinese Pavilion, where lunch was served to those playing golf; see below.



There is an interesting Canadian connection too on the golf course. We drove along the long 5th hole with a dogleg to the right. Standing a bit further along was a tall totem pole (below right). This is one of Henry Hunt's creations, an internationally acclaimed carver from the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation of coastal British Columbia.

I became aware that the sight lines throughout the estate had been carefully designed to lure the visitor to exploration and to approach the family home from a spot where it would be seen at its best. I found the grounds peaceful and relaxing, just as the Annenbergs had planned. I ached to get off the golf cart and just walk!

We spent about half an hour touring the house. I could have spent the entire day there enjoying the Monets, Cézannes, Picassos, and many more well-known painters. It is also full of family photos and objets d'art from all over the world, but it's not overdone – it's a home, not a museum or gallery. But from the outside, visitors see a single storey, pink and white house with floor-to-ceiling windows that bring the vistas right inside. It is a classic mid-century modern design by A. Quincy Jones. The views of the Santa Rosa Mountains dominate from the south-facing side, as do the trees and streams.

The entrance is flanked by pink flowering bromeliads (left), and as I entered the atrium
my eyes were drawn to a statue, Eve by Rodin, surrounded by hundreds more and lit from a skylight above. Then I turned and saw the first of many Impressionist paintings on a charcoal grey lava wall. My jaw dropped. The family collected Impressionist and post-Impressionist art for decades. They gave fifty to New York's Metropolitan Museum on the understanding that the collection would never be split up, but there are many left to enjoy here, as well as the repros of those donated.

The home is elegant and refined, full of light, and memorabilia. The colour scheme was pastel pink and greens, Leonore's favourites. There is one whole room dedicated to memories – here the walls and surfaces are filled with photographs of and letters from the rich and famous. The Great Room is simply gorgeous and obviously well used, not a showpiece; the dining room is surprisingly small because the Annenbergs enjoyed intimate dinners with their guests. I'd like to have seen their kitchen but it was not on the tour. However the master bedroom suite was and looks out on the cactus garden. I could live here and never leave!

I walked through the guest suites where the Queen and Presidents have stayed. I examined the suite occupied by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh when they stayed.  Lovely, but hardly opulent. That was reserved for the service given to guests. I drooled over the Steuben glass collection and the china used at the dining table.

Outside was the lovely pool and garden (right) that guests can walk out to from their rooms. If they want to golf, the course is a step away. The rose garden lies close by too and the scent from the flowers was heady, although the blooms were past their best.

Overall my impression was that this is a home created for relaxation and intimate hospitality. There is so much to see, you have to go yourself and enjoy every square inch.

IF YOU GO:
  • Choose to take the tour, not the self-guided walk in gardens close to the new Sunnylands Center. If you do the latter, you will not be in the estate grounds or see the house. 
  • The 90 minute tours for seven visitors at a time cover the grounds and house. Cost: USD$41 and can only be booked online two weeks beforehand, as long as there are no international visitors or a major retreat underway.
  • Visit www.sunnylands.org for all the info.


IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

COACHELLA VALLEY WILD BIRD CENTER, INDIO

Although I've been a devoted pilgrim to the Greater Palm Springs area for over fifteen years, I have never visited the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center in Indio. Today I did.

I'd heard about it from friends who saw pelicans, raptors, shorebirds and waterfowl. The centre is located across the tracks in an industrial area and is part of the Indio water treatment plant of all things!! Apparently the birds love it – it must be the smell. Not a reek, but definitely a noticeable smell. They gather on the ponds in large numbers, but on a windy morning they were skittish and disliked my presence. I had to creep up on the ducks behind trees and reeds.

The centre cares for and rehabilitates orphaned, injured, and sick native wild birds with the goal of releasing them back into their natural habitats. Sadly for me, there wasn't one in the hospital cages, inside or out.

However, I enjoyed walking around the man-made wetlands that are also part of the centre and the water treatment plant. The water, plants, animals and microorganisms here clean the water and provide a stopover for migrating birds on the flyway. One million gallons per day of waste water circulate through the ponds and marshes covering fifteen acres.

About two miles of paths wind through the wetlands and there are two observation towers that give clear views of the ponds over eight foot high reeds. My camera's shutter spooked a flock of ducks that wheeled over the ponds in unison. Enjoyable visit, but not spectacular today.

IF YOU GO:

  • Admission is free but donations are suggested as the center depends on them to function. Take cash, there's no ability to deal with credit or debit cards. 
  • Two-hour, guided birdwalks take place on the first Saturday of the month from October to May at 8 a.m., but self-guided tours through the wetlands are easy on flat, gravel paths.
  • GPS address: 46-500 Van Buren Street, Indio, CA.
  • www.coachellavalleywildbirdcenter.org


IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014


Saturday, October 4, 2014

GATINEAU PARK IS AFLAME WITH FALL COLOUR

Here are a few of my images taken yesterday in Gatineau Park, Quebec. I have long wanted to see the famous fall colours and, despite visiting Ottawa twice a year for decades, I have never seen them. Well, now I have on a sunny, warm fall day. This is a must-do, easy day trip from Ottawa; even a half-day drive.

Champlain Lookout on Eardley Escarpment
overlooking the Ottawa River valley





L: Country lane that I inadvertently drove down.


R: At King Lake











IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Monday, September 29, 2014

ICELAND'S SOUTH SHORE: SEA STACKS, BLACK SAND AND GLACIERS

Reykjavik Excursions
company
Today's tour was our longest at 11 hours and the only one we did in a full-sized bus of Reykjavik Excursions. This 70-pax coach had disadvantages over the mini-bus/van tours we had done previously. The biggest being no spur-of-the-moment stops or detours for photography and little chance to ask the guide questions — they run on a tight, unwavering schedule. The benefit is the height above the road, but I would avoid this mode of tour in the future and willingly pay more for a mini-van tour.

That being said, I had sunshine yet again on my last full day in Iceland. Once we got to the real start of the excursion as we neared the coast, about 90 minutes after we left Reykjavik, it began to get interesting. 

To the north the mountainous highlands appeared capped in snow, and the nearer mountains were craggy and green with moss. We drove through the Icelandic horse breeding region and I saw many foals with their mares in the fields and was lucky enough to watch a horse and rider doing the tolt — a fifth gait that is a cross between a high-stepping walk and a trot. But what is intriguing is the the rider is absolutely still in the saddle and can carry a full glass without spilling it. Of course, it was the only time that I didn't have my camera with me at a rest stop.

This view to the right is typical of the day's drive showing a good road and a farm tucked beneath the hills. Our first major stop was at the Solheim Glacier, where seven tour participants joined some mountain guides for a three-hour hike on the glacier itself.

I joined the rest for a trek along a rocky path past the glacial lagoon to the tongue where the icebergs break off and float away to melt. The bergs and tongue are covered in black volcanic ash and sand, so were dirty and not so beautiful as I'd expected. This trek is not accessible to those with mobility challenges. It takes half an hour of ups and downs over sharp lava rocks. Very worthwhile indeed. On the return, a heavy shower produced a rainbow, but we were drenched. This is common apparently as the prevailing wind blows the clouds up over the first height of land here.

I saw the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010 looking benign in the sun. The farm below was safe but got covered in 15 cms of ash and so were the sheep in the fields. People can be evacuated quickly, but over 200 animals presented difficulties and many did not survive despite heroic efforts on the part of the rescue services.
The sand in the foreground was ebony!

But the highlight for me was the long stop at the Black Sand Beach at Vik. This is a photographer's paradise. Here the wild North Atlantic has carved rocks, holes, stacks, caves, and sand from the black lava. 

The cliffs behind me were home to fulmars and they soared and wheeled around their perches on sheer rock faces. Below the birds were two caves that were bordered by the same hexagonal basalt columns I'd seen in Staffa, Hebrides.







But the iconic view was off the beach — the sea stacks. The sun was shining brightly from behind them through the sea spray kicked up by the breaking waves. The photography was tricky. But here are my efforts below.
















I had one of my fave Icelandic dishes for lunch here — the famous meat soup. This is really lamb stew packed with veggies and butter-tender shredded lamb and served in a huge bowl with a spoon. It lasted me till 8 p.m!

After lunch I saw two more stunning waterfalls — Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the one you can walk behind if you want to get soaked through. Also stopped for over-long at an Icelandic Folk Museum next door to Skogafoss that was ridiculously packed with every artifact they had been given, and a modern transportation museum next door. The latter was of no interest to me so I went out to see the turf houses. They had been restored inside as they were during the early 1900s with small but cosy living quarters, storerooms and workrooms. 


On the left is a typical "box bed." They are shorter than we are and often have a curtain for privacy. The living/dining room (right) was roomy and well- equipped.

The ride back to Reykjavik was long and covered the same ground as we had traveled in the morning, so it was boring. The tour company failed to deliver everyone back to their hotel door, which was disappointing as everyone was very tired. For my husband, the half-mile walk uphill was impossible so we refused to get out of the bus. They then took us back to the terminal and a mini-van drove us home. By then it was 8 p.m. and a beer and dinner beckoned.

I appreciated the opportunity that Reykjavik Excursions provided so I could experience the south shore of Iceland.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

LEARNING ABOUT THE AURORA BOREALIS


The Northern Lights can only be seen in Iceland during the darker months between the autumn and spring equinoxes. I was there at the end of September, which is one of the best times for this phenomenon. However, I didn't see them; not because of cloud conditions but due to long day tours that had me exhausted. It was not of prime importance as I had already seen the aurora borealis at their best in rural Canada in a display of many colours weaving over the sky for about 40 minutes. Here the colour is mostly green.

Many of those on our tours were mad keen to go out at night, well away from the city lights, and observe them. The tour companies here are experienced in the best spots to view the lights and make every effort to ensure visitors see them.

For those that are unlucky, I would suggest that they visit a new exhibit, Aurora Reykjavik, down by the harbour and close to the Maritime Museum. It is not a big place, but especially informative about sun spots and how they cause the lights.



Northern European countries have many ancient explanations about the aurora that will make you smile. Alongside that is the scientific explanation with excellent diagrams, images, and a video. In the small theatre, a time-lapse movie of some sightings around Iceland runs continuously, so visitors can see what they've missed.

A photo of a photo!
The last section is devoted to how to photograph the Northern Lights, which are demanding as they occur at night. Tripods are essential, of course. Aurora Reykjavik have set up a means for photographers to try it out and it's very helpful. I was able to find out exactly the settings I need to use for my Nikon prime 35mm and kit 18-55mm lenses. Phone cameras won't work too well!

This is an interesting visit for adults, but I feel not really suitable for children under 14.


Cost: Adults, 1,600ISK; students, seniors, 1,400ISK; 6-18yrs, 1,000ISK.
Small gift shop and café with free tea and coffee.

Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska — The Aurora Bo...
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska — The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 IMAGES: Except the last image, © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE SPLENDOUR OF SOUTHERN ICELAND

 Today brought a major tour with a highly recommended small tour company. They use only small Mercedes vans and wash their windows everyday.

GeoIceland operates out of Reykjavik and offers most of the popular tours. However, our guide Baldvin added a few extras on the Golden Circle tour for us. This meant we detoured through craggy mountains east of Reykjavik to Lake Pingvellir along a small road that was built to service the new hot water pipeline supplying Reykjavik. No traffic, no tourists here.

Hot water pipeline at lower left



Iceland's geothermal geology provides unlimited hot water for everyone and heats 90% of the homes using radiators. It also supplies every settlement with 29C water for their outdoor swimming pools, which are social centres rather like pubs and are open all year. Everyone swims here.


I took the chance to examine some of the flora that grows on the lava rock in the south. Moss, reindeer lichen, and the low-growing wild blueberry bush. The patches of lava that looks like coal are eventually covered with moss, mosi in Iclandic. The moss is everywhere and very thick. It's just like a cushion to sit on, and when you stand up, it springs back into shape. The reindeer lichen are light coloured plants that are about two inches high and branch out like twigs. No reindeer here, but there are imported herds in the east of Iceland.


The road meandered around Lake Pingvellir on the way to Pingvellir, Iceland's national shrine and UNESCO World Heritage site. This is also a national park and is a must-visit, despite being over-run with tourists in the summer. I saw the area with only a handful.

Pingvellir is in a wide rift valley between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which are pulling apart a few millimetres each year; it has grown wider by 70m in the past 10,000years. The valley is fractured by fissures in the rock. This is an area of high volcanic activity.

However, the main significance for Icelanders is this is the place where Iceland was born. Settlers arrived in growing numbers after 870CE and soon needed a form of government. A general assembly met here for the first time in 930CE, and later its highest court was established. An important decision was made – the Icelanders converted to Christianity in 1000CE. The fields where the Icelanders met can be seen at the far end of the rock split (right). Close by to the south is a river delta which opens into Lake Pingvellir (below).





Driving further east, we came to one of Iceland's most visited geothermal spots at Geysir. Here the sun came out and I watched Strokkur, the biggest geyser erupt repeatedly. There are also smaller, less dramatic geysers, hot pools and streams. The water temp is about 90C and signs warn visitors that the nearest hospital is 62 kms away. Still, I saw many dipping their fingers into the water to see if it was true; also a few were walking outside the marked paths – they were lucky not to disappear in a deep crack or a hidden pool. Along the way on this eight-hour tour there were stops for bathroom breaks, photo ops, and I ate a delicious lunch at Geysir. There are two restos here: one fast food place, and one with a sumptuous buffet serving Icelandic specialties and has a superb view.


After lunch were more waterfalls. Gullfoss is a huge favourite. It's actually two waterfalls that thunder down a gorge at right angles to each other. Between the two parts a cliff juts out where tourists stand and get drenched with spray (left of centre). There are two other viewpoints – one high above and one lower down that looks upstream.

Faxi is smaller and has a salmon ladder. Unfortunately Iceland's efforts to introduce Atlantic salmon failed, so the ladder works but has never seen a salmon leap upstream.

I spied Langjokul, Iceland's second largest glacier (and 600m thick) between mountain peaks and hundreds of sheep corralled for shearing as we turned for home. We stopped at a small town near the southern coast where a recent earthquake ripped apart several houses. Underneath the small shopping centre is a huge crack that can be seen under glass. There is also an exhibit of the damage, but to someone from western Canada, it was a bit tame. Driving through the mountains, dozens of steam vents could be seen as well as the largest power plant supplying all Reykjavik's hot water nestling below the peaks.

I am very grateful to GeoIceland and Promote Iceland for making this exploration of the geology and landscapes east of Reykjavik possible.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Thursday, September 25, 2014

REYKJAVIK: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Reykjavik's skyline from Perland

After a typical Iceland cold breakfast of toast, hard boiled egg, and cold meats, we meandered along the main shopping street from our hotel, the Center Hotel Skjaldbreid. We set off at 10am when the stores opened and it was very quiet,
though I noticed it was busy at 5pm and later. Everything is expensive here. A glass of ordinary wine is over $10, as is a bottle of beer (beer on tap is cheaper). The stores were upmarket fashion boutiques and costly Icelandic wool shops. However if you buy more than $40 worth per day, visitors get 25%% taken off on departure at the airport. Sweaters run up from about $180 each, but have been knitted by professional knitters around Iceland. Along here are cafés, bistros, winebars, and coffee shops that are packed morning, noon, and night.




We took a three hour city tour with Reykjavik Excursions to get oriented this afternoon. I felt it could have benefited from omitting the industrial areas and some of the neighbourhoods and been finished in two hours. The guide was good, but no one assisted those passengers with mobility challenges. The steps into and off the bus were deep and did not have handrails on both sides. One old boy from Newfoundland was unable to get off the bus once he was on it. This was a pity as we had three stops en route to visit a museum, Perland, and the cathedral.

I did enjoy the Lutheran cathedral built in 1940 on a hill with a commanding view of the city – it's modern, airy, and graceful outside and in. The organ is astounding with over 5000 pipes, but they are fundraising in order to clean each one.





I liked the look of the old part of Reykjavik, close to the harbour, which has been operating for several hundred years. I plan to poke around and eat lunch there on Saturday. The fishing harbour is close by and today also has a lively whale-watching industry.




The two tour highlights for me were Perland and the famous Viking sculpture on the waterfront. Perland is unusual – it is built around and on top of four gigantic water tanks kept filled for the city in case of an emergency. Inside is a geyser that erupts every few minutes, but upstairs is a 360 degree view platform around the glass dome that houses an excellent café. One floor up is an award-winning resto that rotates. The skyline up here is worth seeing alone, but the architecture is superb inside and out. Brilliant design to disguise the water tanks.


However it was the steel sculpture on the waterfront that knocked my socks off. It's huge and captivating in its simplicity. Vikings discovered Iceland in the late 800s CE and you can still recognize the genes in some stocky, red-haired citizens.


Dinner was also a delight tonight. In a very French bistro we had Icelandic lamb stew served in a small saucepan. It was so tender the meat fell apart. As is so common here, it was served with potatoes and root veggies. Not much else can be grown in this climate. And so ended our first full day in Reykjavik. Not a bad one at that!!

IMAGES: Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved