Kayaking Patagonia: The Icebergs of Upsala Glacier

We are standing on a ferry cruising across the icy blue waters of Lago Argentina in southern Patagonia. We are in our underwear. Our thirteen shipmates—Germans, French, Argentines, Spaniards, and Brazilians among them—are also in various states of undress. We are alone on the water, two hours from any hint of civilization.

Somewhere ahead of us lies Upsala Glacier, the country’s second largest, and we have disrobed in preparation to kayak among the icebergs that have sheered from its face and tumbled into the lake. In the distance, a giant iceberg grows larger as we draw near.

Kayaking in such a place as this requires special gear. Each participant starts with a base layer, which is essentially a thermal onesie for grown ups, and then wriggles awkwardly into a dry suit that seals at the wrists, neck, and ankles with rubber gaskets. Next come a pair of neoprene booties, and finally kayaking skirts, which will stretch over the mouth of the kayak to seal out the lake’s icy water.

The guide gives careful instructions in both English and Spanish. He demonstrates how to squeeze out the extra air trapped in our dry suits. We crouch in the fetal position, knees together, elbows in, and pull at the rubber gasket around the neck of our suits, forcing the air out. We’ve become human whoopee cushions, and as the air loudly expresses itself between the rubber and our necks, we giggle. But the action is no laughing matter; if we were to fall in the water without performing this crucial step, our suits would be buoyant, but our heads would not, and we would drown.

The boat pulls ashore—a pebbled, black sand beach framed by rocky promontories. In the water, icebergs balance awkwardly, opaque limbs protruding in all directions. Upsala Glacier looms in the distance, partially shrouded by the rain that has begun to fall.

On the beach, in the gentle drizzle, the guide gives basic kayaking instructions and leads the group through a series of stretches. Moments later we shove off into the water and paddle for a giant iceberg that towers 20 or 30 feet above the surface.

The tempo is quick in an effort to experience as much of the area as possible in two hours on the water. With one eye on Patagonia’s ever-changing sky, the guides weave us around. Like a row of ducklings, we follow, gliding single file from berg to berg, pausing to admire each one’s signature look: this one, a half pipe for skateboarders; this one’s been shot clean through with a cannonball; this one has a lever you can push to make waves.

For the finale, the guide offers each kayaking pair the opportunity to enjoy a “Patagonian shower;” a glacial waterfall that flows over a rocky ledge and empties into the lake. We pull our kayak parallel to the cliff and paddle hard toward the falls. The water pounds down on our heads with a deafening roar, and time momentarily stops until the guides shouts of “Keep paddling!” cut through, and we emerge breathless on the other side.

It was an allegory for all of Patagonia, a place that takes your mind and body by force, and turns you out on the other side wide-eyed and amazed.

If you go:

  • The glacial habitat is highly protected; our 15-person group would be the only one sailing that day, and departures are allowed only 4 days of the week.
  • Mil Outdoor, in partnership with Viva Patagonia, runs the Upsala Kayak Experience from November through April. To book online, we used CalafateMountainPark.com and checked in at the Viva Patagonia office in El Calafate the evening before our trip. It sounds confusing but it all went very smoothly.
  • The guides take plenty of pictures and at the time of our trip, provided them to participants for no extra charge. Bring a flash drive with; otherwise they’ll upload them to a website for a couple weeks, and you can download them when you have a chance.
  • It’s a two- to three-hour sail to the icebergs, but time passes quickly, between taking in the scenery, getting into the gear, and learning about the ecological and geological significance of the region from the guide. I and many others passed out hard on the ride back but awoke to find a photo slideshow of our day playing on the ferry’s tv screen.

Finding Solitude in the Patagonian Steppe

IMG_6858 The approach to El Chalten, Argentina.

This past March, we spent time in southern Patagonia at the tip of Chile and Argentina, hiking in Torres del Paine, El Calafate, and El Chalten. Though those destinations offer some of the most epic scenery in the world, driving across the steppe to get to these destinations (around 20 hours on the road over 9 days) was an experience in and of itself.

The steppe are the rolling, wide-open spaces that dominate Patagonia. Set against the dramatic Andes mountains to the west, with their enormous glaciers and milky blue glacial lakes, it would be easy to overlook the dry, arid steppe. But in its endlessness, its remoteness, and its barrenness, it is equally dramatic.

IMG_7338

The elements are simple: scrub, wind, sheep, and a thin line of simple fencing that traces along Ruta 40. (It became a game to scan the fence for skeletons of sheep who got tangled in the wire and were picked clean by birds of prey, such as condors, eagles and falcons.)

IMG_6585

Guanacos and rheas are common roadside sightings, as well.

IMG_6842
Guanacos are as common as deer are in the states.

IMG_6037
A gaucho surveying his terrain.

Even after 20 hours of driving across southern Patagonia, the steppe never got old. There was beauty in its sparseness, drama in its scope. To be on the steppe is to know what it feels like to be alone in the world. To leave all trace of civilization behind. No power lines, no airplanes, no exits, no lights, no traffic, and no buildings, except the occasional estancia set far off the road.

IMG_7359

To be in a place so vast and so far from any elements of civilization, and to be able to look across hundreds of miles of nothing is just as inspiring as any mountain or waterfall. There is only the highway, the endless steppe, and you.

IMG_0952
Carrying extra gasoline in a “bidon” was a necessity due to the lack of gas stations between destinations.

36 Hours in Saugatuck Part 1: The Anti-B&B

Saugatuck, Michigan, is an ideal weekend destination. It’s convenient—about a two-hour drive from Chicago—but far enough to feel like you’ve completely escaped the city’s reach.

The Saugatuck area, a rural beach town that survives on tourism, has its fair share of lodging options. While it’s awesome to escape the stresses of the city, it’s a shame to leave behind the city’s high standards of quality.

A stay at the Kirby means you don’t have to. It’s a breath of fresh air for anyone who wants the best of both worlds—the peace and quiet of a rural getaway, and the luxury comforts of an urban boutique hotel.

In 2014, a new Chicago-based owner purchased the historic building and gave it a top-notch renovation.

The Kirby is a B&B, but calling it that feels a little wrong. Inside the 125-year-old Victorian is a totally modern hotel that retains all of the character but none of the corniness of your average B&B.

The Kirby is kind of like an anti-B&B. Yes, you get a bed for the night and you a breakfast in the morning. But you’ll find no lace curtains. No floral bedspreads, no teddy bears, no rocking chairs, no potpourri. No innkeeper in a needlepoint apron asking too many questions with a too-big smile.

Instead, it’s all chic décor, neutral colors, flat screen TVs, and high-end bedding.

It’s comfort-oriented details like Malin & Goetz bath products, squishy bath mats, super soft robes, and memory foam mattresses.

It’s the bar stocked with good wine and craft beer, and the gourmet breakfast in the morning.

After our drive from the city Friday night, Mindy, the manager and host, treated us to an impressive wine and cheese tasting.

Cheese and wine tasting: Aged Manchego (Spain), Sweet Gorgonzola (Italy), Delice de Bourgogne triple cream, Cana de Cabra (Spain), Fig Jam (Portugal), Jamming with Marguerite’s Cider Jelly (Michigan), dried cherries (Michigan), Earl’s honey (Michigan), Marcona Almonds (Spain)

Mindy is a great host and an instant friend. A Chicagoan and longtime restaurateur, she is down-to-earth, attentive without being nosy, extremely knowledgeable about food and wine, and one of the nicest people we’ve met in our travels. She made us feel right at home.

If you’re looking for a typical country breakfast in the morning, go elsewhere. The Kirby’s chef, Chris, started us out with killer beignets baked fresh that morning, followed by poached eggs served atop crab cakes and pulled pork and potato latkes.

It was on par with any of Chicago’s great brunch spots. The dining room (soon to be a full-fledged restaurant serving dinner as well) has small private tables, meaning you can keep to yourself, if that’s what you prefer.

A lot of care has been put into making the Kirby stand apart and offer something new to visitors who want to get away from the city but still want sophistication and luxury. It’s at the top of the list in the Saugatuck area and we’re so glad we found it.

If you go:

  • Be sure to check out the acclaimed Oval Beach, which is right down the street from the Kirby.
  • The chef will accommodate any dietary restrictions.
  • Saugatuck and The Kirby are gay friendly.
  • We went in the off season and enjoyed an impressive amount of peace and quiet.
  • Check the Kirby’s Facebook page for special events and packages.
  • Guests can dine at the hotel, and the restaurant is scheduled to open to the general public in early March. In the meantime, check out the tasty menu.

Solo Travel: 36 Hours on Amelia Island

[In today’s post, Go Go Go’s New York correspondent Leslie Griffin goes solo and likes it.]

I’ve always enjoyed a little solo getaway, and sometimes circumstances require it as when your significant other is out of vacation days, and you have some left. This was the situation I found myself in recently, so after doing some research, I decided to go to Amelia Island in Florida for a long weekend.

As the trip neared, the forecast looked rather dismal. It had been raining pretty much nonstop for weeks, so I was prepared to find things to do inside if need be (tough on an island that’s known for outdoor pursuits). As luck would have it, however, the weather took a dramatic turn for the better on the very day I arrived, and remained gorgeous for the three days I was there: sunny, upper 70s, and not humid or buggy—a rarity in Florida.

I landed in Jacksonville on the first Saturday in October, picked up my rental car, and drove the 30 minutes to the island. Though it is an island, the bridge to get there is very short, so it almost feels connected to the mainland. And at first, the scenery is not what you might consider islandy. In fact, it looks like Anytown, USA with strip malls, fast food places, and gas stations. But then you arrive in Fernandina Beach, the main (only?) town on the island, and everything changes. Suddenly, you have entered a beautiful historic area with lovely Victorian houses and a quaint downtown.

 Lesesne House, c. 1860, downtown Fernandina Beach

This is definitely the area you want to stay in if you visit the island, because it’s within walking distance of dozens of restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s also extremely easy to navigate because all the streets are numbered. Coming from me, this is saying something because as anyone who knows me knows, nothing is easy for me to navigate since I have the world’s worst sense of direction.

 Downtown Fernandina Beach

It was too early to check into the Hampton Inn on S. 2nd Street, so I walked to Timoti’s Seafood Shak for lunch. I had read great things about this place before the trip, and was not disappointed. In fact, it was so good that I ate lunch there two days in a row. All of the seafood is fresh, local, and delicious, and I can heartily recommend the shrimp wrap and the fish sandwich (made with flounder that day).

After checking in at the hotel, I immediately set off for the southern end of the island about 12 miles away to go to Amelia Island State Park, which is one of many beaches on the island. Although this beach is primarily known for horseback riding, I didn’t see any horses. Mostly there were people fishing from the beach. The downside to this is that you’re allowed to drive onto the sand, so there were a lot of trucks everywhere. Not such a pristine atmosphere. It wasn’t until I walked quite a ways down the beach and reached a “no vehicles beyond this point” sign that it started to feel more secluded and peaceful. This section was filled with brown pelicans, black skimmers, gulls, and various other shorebirds.

Black skimmers at Amelia Island State Park

Done with the beach, I headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at Le Clos, a charming French restaurant across the street from the Hampton Inn. I had made a reservation about a week in advance, which I certainly advise. It’s quite popular and for good reason: This is about as close to a 5-star meal as you will get on the island. I had panko-crusted grouper for an entree and creme brulee for dessert, both of which were phenomenal.

On Sunday, I had a kayaking trip booked with Up the Creek Xpeditions, which was a few miles off the island on Lofton Creek. When I showed up at the boat dock, I met Pete, my guide, and learned that it would just be the two of us on the tour since the others who had reserved for that day had canceled. I’ve kayaked before, but not extensively, so he gave me a short tutorial, and off we went. Lofton Creek is what’s known as a blackwater creek, meaning the water appears to be black and is highly reflective. It’s also extremely calm, which makes paddling about as easy as it can be.

Kayaking on Lofton Creek (Pete takes photos of the people he guides and e-mails the photos to you!)

Unfortunately, the water level was higher than normal that day, which seemed to deter animals from being out and about. We saw some turtles, a couple of kingfishers swooping across the water, and a giant hornet nest, but that was about it. It was still a lovely trip, though.

 Hornet nest

Pete provided a wealth of information on the flora and fauna as well as the history of the area. Did you know that the Native Americans used pine needle tea to help rid European sailors of scurvy? Or that on a visit to the area, Henry Ford noticed that the inside of Spanish moss looks like horsehair, so he began using it to stuff the seats of his cars? Neither did I, until Pete told me.

We finished the paddling trip in a little more than two hours, at which point I was ready to continue exploring. I drove to the northern end of Amelia Island to another state park: Fort Clinch. As the name suggests, the main point of interest in this park is the Civil War-era fort. Tourist season on the island is largely over by October, so there were only a handful of people roaming around the fort. Almost all of it is open, and you can freely wander in and out of various bastions, barracks, and other rooms.

Fort Clinch

From the top of any of the bastions, there are unobstructed views of the beach and the ocean.

View from the top of a bastion

In addition to the fort, this park also has a beach, and this one doesn’t allow vehicles on it. I walked along there for a while hunting specifically for shark teeth, which are supposed to be easier to find on the northern end of the island. I only found a couple, but the search is always fun. There weren’t as many shorebirds on this beach, but there were quite a few ospreys.

Osprey with a snack in its talons

Monday was my last day on the island, and I was determined to see more wildlife, so I headed to the Egans Creek Greenway, which is a series of interconnected trails that runs along a creek. There are numerous access points, but I opted to start at Atlantic Avenue on the northern end and work my way down. From this direction, the first section of trails up to Jasmine Street goes through a large wetland area with open marsh that is ideal for spotting wading birds.

Egans Creek Greenway

I saw egrets, great blue herons, white ibis, roseate spoonbills, hawks, and ospreys.

Great white egret with white ibises

After Jasmine Street, the wetland disappears and the trail hugs the creek. Trees line the bank, making it harder to see beyond that. Though the wading birds weren’t as prevalent here, I did see a couple of alligators, rabbits, dozens of turtles, a kingfisher, and a gorgeous pileated woodpecker.

I saw very few people on either section of the greenway, and the ones I did see were clearly locals walking their dogs and the like. I was the only person with a camera and binoculars in tow.

For lunch that day, I ate at the Salty Pelican in downtown Fernandina Beach, which had surprisingly great shrimp tacos. Despite being full, my final stop before heading to the airport was a roadside stand selling boiled peanuts. If you’re not familiar with this particular regional snack, it’s common in Florida and Georgia. A lot of people hate them (too mushy, too salty, or both), but I have very fond memories of eating them during car trips when I lived in Florida as a kid. So, I was pretty excited to relive that experience. For four bucks, I got a giant bag of hot, salty peanuts dripping with salt water, which I then devoured in a parking lot. I forgot how messy they are, but they still tasted great. A lovely parting memory before returning to New York.

Photo Log: 36 Hours in Pittsburgh

Yeah, I know. “36 hours in…” is the NY Times format. But we really did have just 36 hours in Pittsburgh, so let’s just call it an homage, shall we?

This trip came about when we decided to spend my 35th birthday at a Steelers preseason game. We took off from Chicago on Friday after work and headed east, across Indiana and Ohio and into the hills of Pennsylvania, arriving late.

Saturday, we started early to beat the hungry masses to Pamela’s Diner, famous for their crepe-style hotcakes: crispy, buttery edges, soft in the middle, and filled with your choice of fruit and whipped cream.

The Strip isn’t really what it sounds like. Rather, it’s a congested strip along Penn Ave packed with old Pittsburgh character in the form of eclectic shopping, cafes, grocers, farm stands, and bootleg Steelers fan gear.

I bought a Terrible Towel for $8, after checking to make sure “Terrible” was spelled correctly. (Once I got to the stadium I found they sold way nicer ones for $10, but mine has… character.)

Highlights of the Strip were the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a true Italian grocer, a stop at Enrico’s for some biscotti, and Mon Aimee Chocolat, which had the largest variety of chocolate brands I’ve ever seen in once place.

We moved on to Lawrenceville, an “up-and-coming” area that’s undergone a “revival.” Now it’s a “hot” destination and a good place to invest in real estate. It’s always interesting to see a neighborhood in transition, with old dive bars and pizza joints next to craft beer shops and trendy restaurants. Having seen our share of hipster boutiques and restaurants, we found ourselves more interested in the hilly residential streets, as the home styles are different than anything we have in Chicago.

Next we headed into downtown and grabbed lunch at Winghart’s in Market Square. Winghart’s… looks like a dive bar, sounds like a dive bar (think: old Metallica blasting), tastes pretty great. We had their popular Shipwrecked Burger and the Pau’a (Hawaii’an) Pizza, and I would order them both again if we went back. If you want to avoid the loud music, try for a seat on the upstairs balcony overlooking the square.

We walked off our lunch by heading on foot to Pointe State Park, where you can observe the confluence of the three rivers (the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela), the sports stadiums, Mt. Washington, and the cityscape.

We continued on foot to the Duquesne Incline, an old cable car that takes riders to the top of Mt. Washington, high above the city, where you get to look down on the sky scrapers. It’s a short, 0.75-mile walk to the Monongahela Incline, which we took back down. While waiting in line, we noticed that you can request a free transfer for the T, the city’s rapid transit train. So we gave our feet a rest and hopped on the T at Station Square and rode it back downtown.

After getting what we needed for the game, we headed on foot across another bridge, this time to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Fans lucky enough to have a boat (or a friend with a boat) can dock right along the river walk and tailgate. The great thing about preseason is you can get pretty good seats!

Sunday morning we headed to Squirrel Hill, a nice little neighborhood with a to-die-for little place called Waffallonia. Gooey inside, crispy outside, topped with a giant scoop of speculoos ice cream. Nom. If we had one here in Chicago, I’d eat there all the time until I needed a motorized chair to get around. That place has ruined me for waffles.

We drove though Oakland, where the universities and museums live, but it was move-in day for the students, so it was a little hectic.

We moved on instead to the Mexican War Streets, which was a highlight. The man who developed this real estate in the mid 1800s was a big proponent of the Mexican-American War, hence the name of the neighborhood. The streets are named after battles. It’s a little visited area, despite its proximity to the National Aviary, the zoo, and the Andy Warhol museum.

It was noon, now, and time to head home. On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, which has a very nice waterfall (Brandywine Falls) and some nice trails we didn’t have time for, like the Ledges Trail. But I’m glad we got to stop at the closest national park to Chicago.

You can research the heck out of a place, but once you get there, it still holds a bit of surprise and delight when you see it in real life. The delights for me in Pittsburgh were the dramatic hills and cliffs and the buildings tucked into every nook and cranny. The expansiveness of the rivers was another surprise; they were easily 5 times as wide as our little Chicago River and were a dominating feature of the city’s geography.

It was a short weekend, but we really crammed in a lot, and I’m so glad I got to visit!

5 Things: Louisville, KY


Art for sale in the NuLu neighborhood.

Before venturing into Kentucky’s belly at Mammoth Cave National Park, we spent a day hoofing it (pun totally intended) around Louisville, the home of the Kentucky Derby. If you want to judge a city by the quality of its cat art, then I’m sure you can already tell that there’s more to Louisville than southern charm and bourbon. So here are five things you may not know about Louisville, a very worthy weekend destination.

  1. American Pickers’ Antique Archaeology (in Nashville), step aside. You’ve got nothing on Joe Ley Antiques, which lived in the East Market neighborhood long before it became the fun, foodie-oriented and arty NuLu. This place is freaking enormous. It should be featured on a TV show, if it hasn’t been already. It’s three stories—and a basement—packed with antiques and reclaimed pieces from some of the area’s old Victorian mansions (See #3.) If I lived in Louisville, I would set aside a couple hours each weekend to inspect one corner of Joe Ley. And in a few years time, I may have been able to cover the entire store.
  2. Colonel Sanders was a real guy, and he’s buried in Louisville.
  3. Old Louisville has the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country, with some blocks that are pedestrian-only courts still lit by gas lamps. It’s an area in transition, with some homes that look like this:And others that have been parsed out into low-cost rental units, with sports paraphernalia that double as drapes hanging in windows. These are a renovator’s dream. If you’ve got some spare cash and a good hammer, there are some serious investment deals to be had here.
  4. Keep Louisville Weird” is a thing. Particularly along Bardstown Rd in the Highlands neighborhood, a multi-mile stretch of one-of-a-kind shops that seem more suited to Austin than to a city steeped in southern tradition.
  5. Being from Chicago, we’ve had our fair share of tasty burgers (I’m looking at you, Au Cheval.) But we found some serious competition in an unlikely place. In a very suburban, tree-lined strip mall on the outskirts of Louisville, you’ll find the reputed Mussel & Burger Bar. If you go, try the Breakfast Burger, with a thick piece of pork belly, a fried egg, maple syrup aioli, caramelized onions, and cheese. Can a burger alone make a weekend getaway worthwhile? It just might.