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Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

During baseball season, fireworks are displayed on Fridays after every home game the Reds play in Cincinnati. After the game it’s about a 20 minute wait before fireworks begin, allowing time for the spectators sitting in the right outfield bleachers to move over to the other side of the stadium. It’s worth the wait, cauz it’s quite a show! If you’re not attending the game, the next best place to watch the dazzling display is from the other side of the Ohio River, in Covington or Newport, KY.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

On a recent visit, I set my camera and tripod up on the shores of Covington, KY and shot from the convenience of one of the many park benches scattered along the grassy embankment. Other people including families with small kids also gathered and waited for the game to end. Since it started at 7:30pm, the crowd grew around 9pm thinking fireworks would begin soon after. But this particular night, the Reds and Bluejays were a good match and the game kept going and going…we’d hear an update every so often as to what the score was and what inning (only the top of the 7th?!) from men sitting nearby on other park benches who were listening to the game. When the Reds finally lost, it was close to 10:40pm. Fireworks started around 11pm.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

The long wait gave me plenty of time to choose the composition and check manual focus. I knew that I wanted to include the boats that had drifted into shafts of light and anchored to watch the show, as they provided interest and depth. I especially liked how some spectators on one boat were silhouetted in the key light, and tried to include them in the foreground.

Fireworks can be tricky to shoot. And I couldn’t remember the last time I tried. So it was purely experimental. Like I said, I initially decided on the basic composition (switching between vertical and horizontal) and checked the manual focus of my camera on the tripod before the fireworks began. This allowed me to simply keep the camera stationary on the tripod, my eyes on the sky, and my trigger finger ready to click whenever something caught my fancy. Using live view, I could glance at the LCD screen to see the captured image and make adjustments regarding exposures, primarily changing the ISO from 800 to 1600. The experimental part involved varying the shutter speed and f/stop at whim.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

Sometimes I used a faster shutter to freeze the action. Shot: f/2.8 at 1/30 SS.

 

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

Other times I chose a slow shutter to show the firework formations falling toward the water. Shot:  f/16 at 4 seconds.

 Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

And when I wanted the skyline to be in focus, I chose an f/stop of 16, which also resulted in the starburst effect on the boat lights.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

Some shots were total misses. Like the overexposed shots when too many fireworks hit the skies at once.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

But sometimes I got lucky capturing the color and formations exactly as my eyes saw it. Shot: f/6.7 at .7 SS

I was impressed that the Reds home game firework show over the Ohio River in Cincinnati was just as spectacular as our big 4th of July celebration over the Ohio River back home in Evansville. And watching from the quiet KY side was easy and traffic hassle free. Keep that in mind…cauz there are more Friday night Reds home games to come, and an even bigger fireworks display every Labor Day weekend in Cincinnati–this year on August 31. Check out P&G Riverfest for more info!

 

KarlovyVaryTown

People have flocked to 14th century Karlovy Vary for centuries to “take the waters.” Mozart, Freud, Beethoven, & Marx included. So I made it my first stop after I landed in the Czech Republic. My private driver sped like crazy to bring me to this alluring place in record time–1.5 hours instead of the expected two–even though I was in no hurry, as it was early morning and my room at Hotel Romance wouldn’t be available until after lunch. No matter. The helpful desk attendant handed me a map, whisked my luggage into storage, and sent me on my merry way to meander the streets where tall beautiful pastel European buildings stretched to the clouds. I was traveling solo, but felt perfectly safe and at ease in these streets. There were many high end shops–featuring jewelry, designer clothes, and of course the famous crystal stemware from Moser’s nearby factory where the glassblowers work their magic. I took a bus to visit Moser’s fascinating plant the next morning (read my earlier blog entry about it here)

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During my 2 night stay I didn’t run into any English speaking tourists. Most seemed to be German visitors, which made sense as the border was so close. Some appeared to be there simply for the therapeutic benefit of the mineral waters. They walked between the five buildings that housed different mineral waters that sprouted warm from little fountains or rusted taps. After stooping to fill their porcelain cups, they’d then plod along, sipping warm water through their porcelain built-in straws as they made their way to the next spring. I bought one of the porcelain cups as a souvenir. Out of curiosity I dipped it under one of the fountains at the Market Colonnade, and took a sip. Hmmm…salty. Back in 1522, doctors prescribed 46-60 cups of mineral water a day! Nowadays, doctors prescribe 15-20. But I couldn’t even down one. Instead, I enjoyed watching the people come and go.

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The town was made for walking, but so was the adjacent forest. Patients that came for medical treatment–ingesting the mineral waters–were instructed to walk, walk, walk. So trails were developed–180 kilometers to be exact–up into the forested hills. You can also take a funicular ride up to the Diana Observation tower for an overview of the town and walk back, which is what I decided to do. And I didn’t even get lost! I also walked to a different area of the town to visit the Becherovka museum to learn about, and taste, the liqueur created by chemist Josef Becher in 1807 to aid digestion. The tour was interesting from the audiovisuals to seeing the original cellars, and the herbal samples tasted better than I expected.

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My favorite hot spring was the architectural gem Mill Colonnade, which has five springs that flow among the 124 Corinthian columns here. Another popular spring is the Hot Geyser spring which shoots upward toward a modern glassed ceiling.

 

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I loved my stay at the Hotel Romance Pushkin. My room was lovely, the service personnel friendly and helpful, and the restaurant was divine. Paying $20 extra for half board was well worth it. No need for lunch! The hotel served the most impressive selection of hot and cold foods I’d ever seen at a breakfast buffet, and the set dinner meal of three courses was delicious every night. My room had a window with wrought iron detail that looked out on the back woods, and was very comfortable. And I lucked out on the location. It was perfectly situated.

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Directly across the street was Castle Spa (Zamecke Lazne) Karlovy Vary’s premiere spa, and a bit further down the street were two of the springs that put this town on the map: Market Colonnade and Hot Geyser Springs. The hotel explained how to catch the bus to the Moser crystal and arranged my private transfer from Prague airport. They also arranged a spa appointment for me across the street–which is more my style–soaking in thermal waters rather than drinking them. I’d recommend a spa treatment there even if the language barrier was a bit problematic at times. I wasn’t sure what was happening when I disrobed and minutes later my masseuse stifled a gasp and left the room. She brought back reinforcements–to remove a tick that I must’ve brought back from the forest. The natural rocks felt good to walk on in the wading pool, and soaking in the curative mineral pool was soooo relaxing, and fun too with a little audiovisual surprise that I won’t ruin for you.

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This church, located between Market Colonnade and the Hot Geyser Spring buildings, scheduled musical concerts in the evenings. Musicians attempted to lure visitors into buying tickets for upcoming performances by strolling outside with their violins in the late afternoon. Seemed fitting entertainment in this spa city that catered to mellow people on the mend.

Karlovy Vary was indeed mellow–which was appealing to me–an excellent introduction to the Czech Republic, another new country to explore…

Machu Picchu. The name itself conjures up mystery, intrigue. That fabled Lost City that the Incas carefully crafted with perfectly fitted stones in a picturesque valley surrounded by towering Andean peaks. I remember seeing a picture of Machu Picchu taken from the Sun Gate, a vantage point allowing for an overview of the city awakening at dawn, and immediately feeling a passionate desire to go there. To be there. I wanted to wander the ruins, and explore those nooks and crannies.

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru

 

So I chose Peru (and Ecuador) for my first trip outside North America. Top on my list was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, followed by the Galapagos.

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With my brother, Chris, at Dead Woman’s Pass, 4200 meters, on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

That was 17 years ago.

I wasn’t really into photography then. Took these with a cheap film camera (thus the poor quality). But what better way to relive past memories than to look back at old photos? And read old journals?

Today I fulfilled my daughter’s 7th grade Spanish teacher’s request–to do a presentation for her class about “all the Spanish speaking countries you’ve been to.” Preparing to do so allowed me to linger over fading photos stuck to cellophane and read old journal entries about past experiences…some details I’d completely forgotten, some were still vivid.

I still remember the thin air and the effort it took to climb the stone steps along the Inca Trail that seemed to tall for the Inca men who historically were no taller than me at 5’3.” I still remember the surprise and joy I felt seeing other Inca ruins along the trail, not just the magical gem at the finish line. I remember walking around those ruins on my own, wondering what life was like back then.

 

Chris looking out at the intriguing Runkeracay ruins along the Inca Trail

Chris looking out at the intriguing Runkeracay ruins along the Inca Trail on day 3

But I also remember the awful train ride at the end.

Our 2:30 train finally approached at 6:15pm. As the already jam-packed train slowed (never stopped), our guide yelled, “RUN, jump on any car and get off at Ollyantambo!!” I remember being trampled, hanging on to an open doorway in a contorted position in what turned out to be three hours, forced into unnatural positions by aggressive backpackers, feeling pain, fright, and especially fear when someone pulled a lever beside me causing a foul steam to emit along with a shrieking blast that deafened my ears. Tear gas?! I covered by face until it dissipated. People were screaming, wailing, crying, vomiting. Pure chaos. The only English speaking girl on my car kept repeating, “I’m scared! I’m scared!” Her eyes were wild and she decided to jump off the moving train. The conductor couldn’t get through the passengers squished like sardines so he proceeded to collect tickets by walking across people—mostly their shoulders, but he stepped on my calves–as my legs were trapped behind me between weighted rice bags. I had no idea how long the train ride was supposed to be, and no way to communicate. All attempts were in vain. I remember my surprise seeing an local woman huddled on the floor underneath us with a sleeping baby at her breast and a toddler nuzzled under her arm. Her eyes were gentle and caring. Through gestures and fragmented Spanish, she understood my dilemma and indicated 3 hours time till arrival, and that she would alert me when to jump off the train as it slowed at Ollyantambo’s station. She was a godsend.

I later found out that the shiny, practically vacant, tourist train that left when we did was only 15 soles more than the 5 soles we paid. Our guide had waved it off as impossible, telling us it cost hundreds of dollars and there was no difference in travel time. We would have all paid the paltry extra fee of 15 soles gladly. We were never given the option. Had we taken it, we would’ve traveled to Cuzco directly, instead of taking a train to Ollyantambo and then a bus from there to Cuzco, arriving six hours later, after midnight. I don’t really like that kind of adventure.

That experience taught me the importance of doing your own research when planning a trip. (Maybe especially if taking an organized budget tour where everything is “arranged” for you.) Of knowing what possible hassles or dangers to expect, and what alternate options exist.

And it also reminded me… You do get what you pay for.

 

 

 

 

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When traveling around the Western Cape of South Africa with my sister last March, we noticed that picnics were common everywhere–from Cape Town, up the Garden Route, and through the Winelands. In Cape Town, locals headed to the beach or rode the cable car to the top of Table Mountain to watch the sunset while picnicking with friends. Along the Garden Route and in the Winelands, we saw couples and friends picnicking along remote coasts, expansive lawns, in vineyards, or under giant willow trees next to lakes or creeks. And Sundays were popular for families–whether small intimate moments or large groups of extended families–picnics were everywhere!

CouplePicnicSouthAfrica

Many inns, tiny B&B, large hotels and wineries offer a range of gourmet picnic baskets so that tourists can picnic too.  Yummy selections range from chicken satay skewers to salmon, salads, brownies, cheeses, meats, quiche, olives, loaves of french bread, jams, various spreads in tiny containers, champagne soaked strawberries, chocolates or gelato…. Some baskets had to be ordered 24 hours in advance, but others could be selected and purchased on site. And blankets too were provided, to spread out beside a lake or the edge of a vineyard or sit at little tables set with linen or plaid tablecloths…the choices were as vast as the assorted menus.

There are some unique picnic spots around South Africa! Here were some of my favorites… first up along the coastal Garden Route:

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Nature Valley beach:

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Tranquility Lodge Nature Valley is a delightful place to stay on the Garden Route for honeymooners, couples or anyone looking for a quiet place nestled in nature. Situated in a remote hamlet among trees across from a beautiful curved bay, the location is steps away from the ocean and coastal hiking trails. There are many outdoor activities around the area–from the world’s highest bungy jumping at Bloukrans Bridge to tree top canopy tours at Storms River–and lots of animal park attractions too, where you can walk among monkeys, tropical birds, elephants or cats. But my favorite here was exploring the beach–walking the trail, collecting shells, finding rock pools and just hanging out listening to the waves crash as the sun set. The wonderful couple who run the place offer great picnics too! Stroll over to the beach with a hamper and bottle of wine or sparkling juice or reserve their little hot rock snuggle puddle pool for romantic privacy.

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Botlieksop Safari Game Lodge, located inland of Mosselbay, offers their guests an option to enjoy a luxurious picnic in the bush…with elephants!

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And after dining on quiche, salad, fruit and brownies, you get to feed the hungry elephants! They also offer a chance to ride elephants through the valley, game drives, nature walks, and a unique opportunity to walk with non-collared lion cubs in the bush!! (which was amazing…)

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The Winelands in South Africa cover 3 distinct regions: Franschhoek, Stellenbosch & Paarl. The wineries that offer gourmet picnic baskets here are seemingly endless…

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Franschoek, Winelands, South Africa

At the Holden Winery in Franschhoek, you can sit at little iron tables situated at the edge of the vineyards or near a bubbling brook.

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picnic fare

At the Remhoogte  Winery in Stellenbosch, you can nibble on cheeses, meats, spanakopitas, and Greek salad while sitting at a table on the veranda, or on a blanket spread out on the lawn. Their wine is delicious too! And the setting–serene! Gorgeous mountains form the backdrop to grassy fields where zebra are grazing.

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There are also a few wildebeest that every once in awhile like to chase a herd of springboks—and when they do, it’s fun to watch the springboks “pronking”–a series of high spirited jumps in the middle of their run. They also rent out one guest cottage that has 2 bedrooms, full kitchen, living room and patio covered veranda that overlooks the zebras.

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Mont Rochelle Winery is a fancy first class winery estate located in the mountains of Franschhoek. Gourmet picnics range in content and price, and guests have a variety of choices where to spread that blanket.

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We chose a scenic spot between vineyards and a serene lake. Also on offer here is the option to go mountain biking, enjoy a vinotherapy spa with products made from grapes, or go horseback riding in the mountains. We did all three!

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Rhebokskloof Winery in Paarl is a hit with families–kids are encouraged to play with bikes and toys on the grassy lawn, ride ponies or jump on inflatable castles–while parents sit back and relax with good wine. Sunday afternoons are perfect for a little bonding time. Most stayed the entire afternoon…and why not? It has wide beautiful lawns that offer lots of space for intimate moments or large family affairs–plenty of private space for eating, drinking, talking, playing, relaxing and napping…

SundayPicnictime

PaarlWinelandsPicnicI’m writing this a year later (almost to the day in March) on a Sunday afternoon in Indiana, and here it’s hailing outside with dropping temps and predictions for more snow. Oh, how I wish I were back in South Africa enjoying a family picnic instead!  Picnicking there was so great–such yummy fare, beautiful surroundings and no bugs! It’s something I rarely do at home. But I know if I lived there in the Western Cape, picnics would become a part of my lifestyle. With such variety to sample, there are soooooo many more picnic places left to explore.

So, those were my favorites so far. Where’s yours?