Tales of European Travel & Coming Home

Uncharacteristically, it is a few additional weeks since my last posting. I have been busily occupied by a couple of trips to Europe and overcoming some minor ailments on the tail-end of travels, upon return.

The trips were interesting and typically so, encompassing several countries, involving local outings and offering new experiences.

During recent times and travels I have also been listening to a string of audio-book Detective Novels to simply while-away interludes when enjoying new sights and scenes, further enrich those sedentary times during travelling or when finally, back home.

These have recently included a couple of DCI Logan series by JD Kirk, Comoran Strike tales by Rob Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) and Peter May’s, The Silent Death. Good reading, great listening and recommended entertainment. 😊

In the early part of December, I visited the UK, in-and-out via the SFO-Heathrow connection and after returning for a week departed again pre-Christmas for Sweden. This subsequent travel took in Stockholm (and locally, Hudiksvall), Helsinki (Finland),Tallin (Estonia), Hudiksvall (again), Edinburgh (Scotland), then proceeded down through England with various noteworthy scenic, City, Town and Village visits until reaching an overnight at Heathrow for my return.

The first trip to the UK took in a funeral in the Midlands attended by some new acquaintances and known relatives alike. It was a solemn affair visited with slight drizzles, overcast skies and those in attendance diligently clothed in the traditional black coats and clothing still favored and expected on such occasions in Britain.

This passing means that a regular direct personal connection is now formerly and finally lost to all, and me. A great loss and sad event.

The post-funeral gathering was held in a locally favored pub and eatery (Plough and Harrow, Chester Road) near Aldridge, Staffordshire. A warm, welcoming Inn sometime frequented by the sadly absent guest of honor.

My several days locally were spent nearby at Moor Hall (Restaurant, Hotel and Spa) trotting in-and-out on shopping errands, avoiding rains, overnight snows and freezing temperatures. The place itself provided a warm retreat with 500-year-old wood-paneled features, extensive renovations made through the years, still rather small rooms but unlimited and complete Full English Breakfasts.

On consecutive nights there I secured close, warm, fireside seating in a quiet lounge and enjoyed cross-room chats with first a traveler harboring fascinating (if a little paranoid) conspiracy-theory tendencies and then a father-and-son combo of particularly interesting Indian descent and family history.

My Indian acquaintance was a well-educated ex-RAF, Loughborough Colleges grad who still routinely works for the MOD.

As for driving, the local roads were largely unsalted, but few backroads were slippery and main roads never, even immediately following light, daytime snowfalls.

And then when the time came, I hit the road and returned the couple of hours along the motorway, down to check-in for an overnight at the Hilton (Terminal 2, Heathrow), before returning my car on time, ahead of my evening appointment.

The journey down itself was uneventful but notable for constant sightings of fork-tailed hawks (Red Kites) successfully re-introduced thirty years ago by domestic nature conservationists. Over the last twenty years I have witnessed these flocks spread from somewhat exclusively ~60 miles North of Heathrow on the M40 to now flourish all the way down to London, outnumbering (and dispatching) competing populations of crows. The distinctive tail-fork and wheeling numbers are impressive and memorable. 😊

So next to my evening meeting with my sole remaining, direct-blood Mackintosh relative (a cousin), not seen for many decades…

And I fine evening it was. We met for convenience in one of the decent pubs (The Victoria, Pub and Restaurant) within 5-10 mins walk of Paddington Station from where I had journeyed into London on the Heathrow Express Train.

Arriving first I secured warm bar seats away from drafty doors, in the ornate, traditional Victorian-style pub and soon happily greeted my cousin. Time has changed and aged us both, but the hours passed quickly; we consumed much (6 or more pints of) beer and one good glass of Rioja, catching up on personal and family histories. What a treat. 😊

We parted fondly and separated with renewed, well-defined means of and commitment to, future contact. I wended my way back to the nearest Tube station (the Train option disappeared at 7.00pm when a strike began), quickly purchased my ticket, boarded the Underground, changing in-route to the Piccadilly Line and was back at my Heathrow hotel in what seemed like under an hour.

It was still before midnight for this journey; the Tube itself carried the same stale mechanical operational odors I first encountered while living briefly in London during my early twenties, before returning to University for post-graduate studies. Good-humored, dark-clothed passengers were universally engaged with their phones, girls sitting with made-up sparkle patterns around their eyes and eBikes resting aboard while people came-and-went as stations fell-away. All this brought back fond memories.

As for my cousin, my unfortunate lack of much recent contact is corrected, and I am certain my now-reconnected relative will be reading these very lines. 😊

The following morning, I checked out of the Hotel and in with United Airways. After lounging around and scouring the Terminal 2 stores for potential gifts I indulged my now traditional, pre-flight (from London) Scottish Salmon, Oysters and Sauvignon Blanc feast at the central airport caviar stand.

Finally, I quickly trekked the 15 mins out to the gate, boarded, hunkered down, then drank, ate and slept the arduous fight back to SFO, and endured the wearisome drive home.

And then followed 8-9 days of meticulous preparations required for (and before) the upcoming, almost month-long return journey to Europe to visit family, friends and enjoy familiar and many new sights.

But, before this travel we hosted our newlywed eldest son and his wife for a pre-Xmas, Christmas celebration in Santa Cruz. My wife had the house well decked-out and decorated for seasonal events during my recent absence and this two-day affair went off like clockwork…

We enjoyed our small family gathering, Turkey Christmas Dinner and excited gift-giving. The surprise insertion of the traditional family Treasure Hunt entertained the Newlyweds and the following morning we were spoiled with our typical Boxing Day left-over fare (including bubble-and-squeak) and activities. And all this, just days before the officiality of the actual December 25th.  😉

The following couple of days and remaining hours involved frantic final last-minute packing for travel and the rabid disassembly of extensive Christmas decorations to avoid superstitiously invoking retribution and supposed bad luck incurred from NOT having these removed by Twelfth Night.

Finally, we left Santa Cruz on December 23rd, flying out of SFO, changing in Frankfurt to be checked into our Stockholm overnight airport hotel by late afternoon on the 24th. After a sleepless night I picked-up a rental car early on Christmas Day and by 2.00pm we were unlocking our Airbnb just outside of Hudiksvall after a snowy, four-hour drive North from Stockholm.

The rental place was great. We quickly settled-in, deciphered the lighting, heating, TV, kitchen and electrical arrangements and shopped locally in familiar stores. We relaxed, enjoying the surroundings and shops (happily regularly revisiting Wayne’s Coffee, in town) for a few days until all our extended family group could be assembled. Finally, my (younger) son was recovered from a recent bout of Covid and we reconnected to host a traditional US/UK-style Christmas meal and gathering for friends and family.

This was the second time we have hosted a larger group in Sweden. The gift exchange was great fun and I again set up our personally traditional Treasure Hunt for surprise gifts; this provides an excited treat for both young and older participants and was again thoroughly enjoyed by all. 😉

After a quick clean-up and re-packing for short-term travel, we quit our rental Airbnb, stashed unnecessary clothing elsewhere and set out in a group of four, for a couple of cruise trips we had planned out of Stockholm.


I always enjoy my stays in Sweden; not just because my youngest son and his extended family now reside there, but the environment, climate and culture appeals…

Driving in Sweden throughout this visit is fun, providing you are not a long-term resident, I suppose. The few weeks I am there involve constant snow clearing, de-icing, driving about in ruts that pull the rental SUV about; wipers often brush aside flurries and you wait exquisite minutes for the car to warm up when first entering each day.

Restaurants are fewer and are entered with stamping feet to clean your boots. There is local Traditional, Mediterranean, Sushi, Pizza (endless pizza offerings), Fast-food and other fare from which to choose. Prices are perhaps only 60% of back home. Service is polite, efficient and considerate; people seem genuinely happy when greeting one another.  It is different, experiential. It is not here. This is an easy place to be.


And next, we (four) were on the road heading South from Hudiksvall, anticipating the two cruises planned, both departing from Stockholm…

After remembering how to approach the expansive Tallink Disembarkation Port and Parking Lot, we parked the SUV, entered the Terminal and began the wait to check-in and board. A few hours later were aboard and secured in our (2) cabins along with our minimal baggage for a 2-night, New Year round-trip to Helsinki, Finland.

First night out was the usual dinner service crush, followed by a show featuring a dancing and singing ABBA Cover Band. It was fun. A HUGELY different diversion for me and good entertainment.

After briefly wandering around the large cruise vessel’s bars and shops with howling (+20 knot winds) Baltic weather outdoors, we finally slipped into our berths to later wake for early breakfast to be followed by a full day wandering about the Helsinki Old Town and harbor area where we were to dock shortly.

As for myself, I remained jet-lagged and sleepless, so finally rose to wander about upper and lower decks around 3.00am, peaking out at the blow, finally grabbing some strong coffee and playing with eMail for entertainment in a 24hr lounge. At this hour there were just a few drunken men, wandering around harmlessly and fighting sleep.

As the ship had already passed the curious mid-point stop and momentary docking requirement at Mariehamn, there was no close-by land to be seen outside. The outdoor leeward side of the vessel was still chilly and quite breezy; all there was visible were other occasional, far-off heavily lighted cruise liners crossing the Baltic and intermittent, and sometime lighted buoys bouncing on our wake as we pounded by.

So, I eventually retired for a few hours more sleep, rising with the others to enjoy a hearty breakfast and a rapid disembarkation into Old Town of Helsinki

The Harbor and Town are just 10 mins walk away and the large brick, historic, well-stocked Old Market building is the first port of call for most travelers. Any fish, meat or game you can imagine was for sale here and intermittent Cafés offered appealing breaks, snacks and drinks. You can purchase all sorts of breads, preserves and pastries; varied meats from Reindeer, Bear, Venison, Elk, Boar and more are available. And the stalls, people and building itself offer great photo-ops.  😊

After this we hit a couple of nearby Churches/ Cathedrals, each within 10-15 mins walk and sight of the harbor. The massive white church on the hill that loomed over the annual (just removed/ closed) Christmas Market had Lutheran origins and the other, red-brick, more ornate, domed edifice is now known as Finnish Orthodox in defiance of its Russian-built origins.

Following these visits, we wandered the few hundred yards back passed a busy outdoor sauna / dive pool setup nestled into the side of the sporadically ice-bound lower harbor and then through the year-round grouping of a half-dozen Outdoor Market stalls offering hot drinks, food and souvenirs for the small groups of tourists milling about in the freezing air.

We crossed from here into an adjacent square housing a massive, heated, glass-built (walls and arched roof) café and restaurant to board a bus-tour around the Finnish Capitol. The one-hour tour of Helsinki entertained and provided English-language descriptions of the City and its history for a nominal price.

When this tour was complete, we headed back to the brick Old Market for hot drinks, last minute shopping and respite before hiking back the few short minutes to the Boat. Once returned we readied for dinner, evening show and the scheduled New Year revelries.

Dinner was crowded, decadent with exorbitant buffet offerings of good food and the show was the same Cover band from the previous evening, but this time dancing and singing in a Queen Tribute. They were followed by a four-man singing troop who would give the Righteous Brothers a run for their money. 😉

As we moved about the ship, I had noticed several dozen, well-dressed women wearing ornate black and silvered evening gowns featuring large, stand-out wide-hip structures from which their dresses hung to the floor. Upon enquiry I found these to be Finnish Gypsies who have been uniquely allowed to legally settle permanently in Finland. Their male companions were correspondingly attired in black suits with white shirts and long black ties; all were dressed ready to proudly celebrate the New Year as a group. It was a heartening to behold; something I have never heard of nor seen, before.   😊

Growing increasingly tired as midnight approached, we slunk off to mid-ships on the main central shopping deck, next to a small operational stage and singing concert, where we seated ourselves in an up-scale wine-bar in preparation for the calling of Midnight and the ringing-in of the New Year.

Finally, the count-down was made; hundreds of balloons released from above into the raucous, yet well-behaved crowd all cheering, singing, jumping, dancing, hugging and kissing as mobile videos and selfies recorded from countless outstretched arms.  Overhead, large arrays and strings of colored lightbulbs swung gently in concert with the slight, subtle roll and dipping of the ship. 

Within 20-30 mins that main deck was empty and the previously large crowd dispersed into numerous cabins and bunks. And a great time was had by all.  😊

The next morning, we timed our Stockholm disembarkation to dodge the crowds and went ashore into the terminal to watch over our group baggage until we could check in for our second cruise, another 2-night return, booked to Tallin, Estonia. Two of the group headed into Stockholm to pass the hours; I chose to wait and played games on my cell phone until our boarding.

Our cabin had a sizeable outboard porthole through which to view the journey and usual momentary Mariehamn required mid-point Baltic Ocean docking. The trip itself was uneventful yet pleasant and we arrived to plan the following morning.

And then came the trip around Tallin. It is an older town with much, particularly medieval, history and architecture. The reason for this trip was to see the incredibly special Christmas Market still running (for another week of January) in the Old Town Main Square. It was as picturesque and special as I recalled from a few years prior visit.

We wound our way from the dock to the middle of the Old Town, taking pictures and admiring buildings as we passed. The main square housed several dozen stalls offering hearty hot-food plates, drinks, woolen and hand-made goods and souvenirs alike. I desperately wanted to eat foods from the Market but was spoiled more by a meal in a square-side restaurant after we were heavily courted by an animated and solicitous Maître D.

The restaurant served Venison, Bear and Elk meals. Everyone tried a little of everything including some local beers and good red wine. We then finally visited all the stalls and a few nearby shops but were eventually forced to head back towards the boat for embarkation.

As daylight began to fade the Old Square, Market Stalls and massive, decorated Christmas Tree presented increasingly pretty, photographic opportunities sprinkled with countless twinkling lights.

Along the return walk we made a final stop at an exceptionally large, old medieval Ale (and dining) Tavern. No modern dress or electric lights here; servers and food were the style of >500 years ago and candles offered the only lighting. We quickly indulged ourselves with coffees and snacks then meandered back through the streets to board our cruise ship and depart on schedule.

The return trip was memorable for next-day views of the early daylight winding journey through the Swedish Archipelago into the Port of Stockholm. It is a unique experience; our huge vessel passing within 100’s and sometimes 10’s of yards of the countless snow-covered, frequently forested, steep-sided islands dotted all along the route, exposing their occasional and isolated, very private homes and often ramshackle docking areas below.

Unfortunately, Tallin is in Estonia, where I assume many Russians (and Ukrainians?) might happily wander if escaping the proxy war in the Ukraine. So, unlike our prior journey into Finland which requires almost no identity check when re-entering Sweden, Tallin provides a different proposition. There was major scrutiny of all persons entering Sweden upon return.

As a consequence, inefficient, slow passport checks at Stockholm backed up some 3000 (est.) disembarking passengers in a 250-yard (long) by 30-yard (wide) gangway for an hour. Such Low temperatures, Winter climate and overcrowding has consequences. Upon my subsequent return to Hudiksvall I turned up a Positive Covid test within a couple of days. No surprise, here! My second infection and fortunately, again feverless. ☹

Well, the Covid blight followed the usual track of later viral mutations: seemingly more contagious (certainly in immediate environs) but far less virulent. Within ~72 hours after arrival I was still ploughing through my 5-day course of Paxlovid and already testing negative; the symptoms were quite mild and very similar to my first such infection last August when returning from Alaska.

Before shortly thereafter leaving Sweden, I was able enjoy a few more experiences: First, to drive out to the local village of Hog, wade into knee-deep snow surrounding the local church and get some snaps of a couple of 6’ high Viking Rune Stones stationed outside of the cemetery walls. Next, negotiate my rented SUV out of a shallow, snow-filled depression and finally, go Ice Fishing.

Such Rune Stones are more common in this area of Sweden; these were >500 years old and more recently moved to their current location.

The escape from the off-road snow-bound layby was a really fortunate experience. I was turning around on a narrow country road after seeing a monster snowplow (shovels front and another channeling snow, nearside rear) approaching from ahead; better to move over and let it pass. Consequentially I backed into the shallowest roadside depression that proved too much for the modest, rented SUV. There I sat, wheels spinning, within 250-yds of my latest Airbnb accommodation which loomed above, across the way, perched atop a long, steep, icy gravel driveway.

So, I worked with a local farmer who was fortunately feeding cattle 20 yards away to contact a town tow company, which arrived within 20 mins. It then took less than two minutes to attach a front axle cable hitch from a large flatbed towing truck to underneath the SUV and effortlessly pull it the couple of feet required, back into the narrow road. Problem solved.

And all achieved with aid from a couple of helpful locals, both speaking only very broken English. 

The moral of this story: Do not bother needlessly moving-over for snowplows, no matter how large. 😉

As for the fishing, that was a very typical Swedish experience…

We set out before light and drove around 20 miles, the last seven or so being on fresh, thick virgin powder that had not been ploughed this day. There was nobody ahead of us and the few, long snow-covered hills along the road required some speed and concentration to successfully mount the climbs and stay within the narrow confines of high white berms piled either side.

And then we arrived at our destination.  An untouched, 10” deep snow-covered deserted parking lot, surrounded by pines and deciduous growth; it was deathly quiet with little-or-no breeze.

The lake had fresh powder and the recent fall sat over a foot of ice. We slogged out onto and along the ice to a known, fancied fishing spot.

We drilled a lot of 10” diameter holes that day with a newly re-bladed manual auger.

Beneath the snow upon the lake sat water which appeared to fill every footprint and depression made; this made relocations and finding new sites hard going. No fish that day, maybe a couple of knocks, but the experience was nevertheless spectacular.

This section of lake was tree-lined and perhaps 300 yards across where we fished. At one end it appeared to terminate in shrubs and grasses that quickly blended into the tree line and half mile in the other direction, it narrowed and turned a corner vanishing into the woods. Throughout the hours we fished a heavy mist moved closer, in then out, sometimes settling close and upon the immediate tree-tops, only to later lift a little and slip back away.

In early afternoon the sun could briefly be discerned, trying and failing to peek through the more determined clouds and mists.

With all the gear we wore it was never cold; all day the temperature held -1 to -2deg C. The air was constantly still, and I never felt the slightest breeze. If hands got wet till tested, they were best covered quickly to avoid further discomfort in already chilled fingers.

After four or more hours we trudged back to the lake’s edge breathing heavily, lugging gear up the final few hundred yards through the forest to the SUV, where we quickly shed our heavy clothing, repacked the trunk and wended our way out of the pristine parking lot, retracing our lonely inbound tracks.

No photographs were taken. But the memory of that place and outing will hold strong.

And then the time in Sweden was done. The following morning, we rose early, completed packing, drove to make saddened rushed farewells to local family and barreled South the four-hour journey to Stockholm, finally boarding our late afternoon flight to Edinburgh, Scotland.

We overnighted in an Airport hotel then next day rented a small SUV from Hertz and headed South through Northumberland to catch the major sites and stay two nights in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

This region houses more castles than any other in England and is worth a visit, especially in the less busy off-season. On this journey we stopped first in the quaint fishing Village of Eyemouth during a downpour, then drove a little further, crossing onto Holy Island at low tide, capturing spectacular snaps of historic Lindisfarne, rising defiant and majestically from the watery flats into clear skies.

Next, we ran down to Banburgh Castle and opened the unlocked entry gates, enjoying our exclusive private viewing of Grounds, Buildings, Battlements and ancient Keep. The phot-op and panorama were unprecedented. There were no tourists to disrupt our views and shots as this great edifice was momentarily closed for the Winter season.

A solitary couple later followed us inside to the consternation of an indignant worker who shooed us all off, in a belated bid for enforcement of the current closure. We already had our experience and photographs, so meandered back passed fortifications, cannon-filled balustrades and old stone buildings, politely closing and bolting the gate behind us as we set off into the local village nestled right below, beneath the massive Castle.

The village itself is worth the visit. A Bakery, Michelin Restaurant, Hotel/ Pub/Restaurant and Shop(s) all side-by-side across from a large central Green. Picturesque and a phot-op itself. The pub food and beer by an open fire were well worth the stop-in, too. 😊

We finished the day at Alnwick Castle, made famous for the filming of Hogwarts School in Harry Potter movies. The castle is massive, rambling and in various, mixed stages of aging, from fine condition to notable disrepair.

Here we learned about free local (time-limited) parking in multiple locations throughout the town for the price of a simple, re-usable display disk; this must be set and displayed to indicate time of arrival. The disk costs 1.00GBP (~$1.20) and is re-usable forever once purchased and displayed. What a great deal. 😉

The castle itself presented well for decent photographs, even in failing daylight. We forwarded those to friends and family who are Harry Potter (HP) junkies. There is also a modern HP/ Castle Theme Park attached for those with children who might be interested; this is closed during Winter months.

After cappuccinos and snacks we trundled the last few miles into Newcastle City, its rush-hour and the newly minted, torturous one-way system. After frantically circling the hotel in heavy traffic we finally found ready local parking and checked-in, before heading out to local pubs, late-night Indian fare and a short walk back to the hotel.

The following morning, we again over-ate yet another Full English Breakfast and set out on a walkabout. Newcastle has a long and important history, evidenced by the magnificent, well-preserved 1000-year-old Keep and Barbican (heavily fortified gated entrance) we toured. The Cathedral is right next door and houses an impressive refectory and well-stocked Café.

After teas, scones, pies and biscuits there, we walked the mere 10 mins back to our Hilton Garden Hotel opposite to the grand old Central Train Station, grabbed the SUV and headed out of town.

Next stop was a visit to Hadrian’s Wall (circa 120 AD) and accompanying Roman Town/ Fort ruins. We pay-parked, surveyed the bleak, windswept, rain-lashed exposed walk, read the posted notes about the town remains that we could easily view from our ½ mile distance, then jumped back into our heated vehicle. With some wisdom we drove back a few miles to another, far less-exposed section of the Wall / ditches and took some snaps for the records, just as some brief welcome sunshine emerged. A much wiser choice. 😉

NOTE: Hadrian’s Wall and accompanying ditch-systems was built to keep out unfriendly warring tribes of Picts from further North.  It is visible on-and-off for 10’s of miles in this region. After almost 2000 years it remains discernable, rambling, utilizing erratic natural geographic contours and still present over much of its 80–90-mile length.

Shortly after this photo-op we returned the few miles to a one-lane bridge over the heavily swollen river Sill (?). Alongside stood The George Hotel in Chollerford, where Baden Powell often visited before founding the now world-wide Boy Scout movement in 1908.

It is a nice old hotel with its own docks, sitting along the banks of the river, stretching out towards the solid, stately multi-arched stone narrow bridge. We took drinks there in a warm lounge in front of an open fire. Although aging, the Hotel has great ambiance and offers rooms and a large dining restaurant for travelers.

As the day was fading it was time to head back to our Newcastle hotel.

Along the way it seemed that every time we passed the smallest of villages or towns there were often visible signs of the Strip Farming that had been practiced there by peasants and farmers from >>500 years ago. The characteristic rows of consecutive, humped, typ. 10-15-yard-wide strips are still clearly impressed and exposed upon obviously ancient fields, particularly in the immediate proximity of older clustered dwellings and structures.

These sightings caused me to keep looking for similar signs throughout England as I journeyed South. Indeed, the evidence is there, visible from roads and Motorways even down in the farmlands North of London, but less so. Time does not always quickly erase all.

And so, we returned to Newcastle and deposited the SUV back in the low-cost long-term parking of the main Railway Station immediately across the street from the Hotel. This gave us the opportunity to stop in the station’s Centurion Bar, which has been fully restored by private investors to its magnificence as an exotic, floor-to-ceiling fully tiled, ornate 1839 First Class passenger lounge for early train travelers.

What an edifice. Even today commuters stop in while waiting for trains and it is a go-to place for evenings out, watching televised sports and photo-ops. The bar offers a large range of tap beers, some snacks and was a welcome stop to begin this evening out.

Following this we wandered just a couple of hundred yards along the same street and found multiple attractive pub/ eatery options and settled there for beers, pies, fish-and-chip (French fries) meals before catching the end of a Premiership game and settling in for the night back at the Hotel.

SIDE NOTE: Despite constant sampling of food and drinks I didn’t fare too badly in maintaining weight this trip. Must have been all the walking?  😉

The next day I rose early, got the SUV packed and headed the few hours’ drive South to the familiar, old City of York. Traffic was forgiving along the way; even the rush-hour congestion when entering town favored my route at every turn and I checked-in at the Hilton and parked before the 3.00pm crush of new arrivals.

The hotel entrance stood 100 yards directly across the road from the 1000-year-old Clifton Tower, an ancient Keep perched sedately atop an ~60’ high dirt mound. It makes an impressive setting though oddly does not always photograph well at night, even though spotlighted and illuminated.

That evening we were off around town, checking a few pubs and eateries, enjoying the lighted streets, open stores and historic architectures before returning to enjoy the open fire and drinks in the Hotel bar.

The following day we savored breakfast at the well-run and stately hotel restaurant. After this we hit the well-known and prescribed sites that every visit to York should embrace. Firstly a 1-hour orientation and  history-class tour atop a Hop-on-Hop-off bus around the City, followed by a visit to York Minster Cathedral.

The Minster has its foundations laid in part upon the remains of a more massive major Roman Fort. It is a unique structure with classic English Architecture providing the only remaining example of an expansive, stained-glass-window central tower, whose supporting pillars had to be surgically reenforced with gigantic concrete footing collars secured by innumerable horizontal steel rods, to prevent its weight from crushing its own foundations.

This mighty building is full of light penetrating through enormous stained-glass window structures, making the Cathedral an architectural marvel. Well worth a visit. I recommend making an advance on-line reservation to enjoy a scheduled climb of the main tower to the roof above. That is truly special.  😊

Surrounding the Cathedral are streets and buildings that go back some 700 years. We wandered the narrow street of The Shambles and affiliated street market. There are cafés, souvenir and various other shops to browse. We stopped for a Cream Tea (local jam and clotted cream on scones with a pot-of-tea for two) along the way.

In The Shambles stores offering Harry Potter souvenirs, Ghostly goods and providing Ghost Tours now enjoy much of the excited, busy trade from Gen Xr’s and Millennials alike.

There are always new things and facts that pique my interest when I visit this ancient walled city. First this time was the huge, impressive, fortified gate (Micklegate Bar) where the heads of transgressors were rolled in tar and impaled on high for all entering the City to behold. Second, is the fact that TWO Roman emperors died in York and a THIRD (Constantine) was proclaimed there; the Romans treasured Britain, their most Northerly important conquest.

After the stay in York, we moved down to the lush green countryside of the Midlands and overnighted in my familiar childhood nearby town of Warwick. In the past I have usually favored visiting Stratford (some 10 miles distant) but have been there so frequently that my memories of Shakespeare’s picturesque Town Centre, Tudor buildings, Canal, Avon River and Theatres do not need refreshing anytime soon.

So, there I was in Warwick. We stayed at The Globe, a comfortable place where the off-site parking was a little inconvenient but the Hotel and Restaurant/ Bar itself sat right below the main Old Town Square, just 2 mins walk away and loaded with pubs, eateries, coffees houses and convenient local shops.

That night we wandered around the Old Town then ate out at a local pub in front of an open fire, nestled in deep sofas and warm surroundings. After dinner we sat and cleaned up our aging eMail business then eventually left when a couple arrived and proceeded to spend an hour in increasingly loud, wholesale vocal disagreement. A manager spoke to them to quiet the spectacle, which was apparently a frequent occurrence for this local pair. But we were tired and faced an early morning so moved back to our hotel, grabbed a drink at the bar then turned in.

Pressed for time the next day we quickly visited the Old Alms House and Lord Leycester Hospital (built from 1126AD to late 1400’s) which is currently undergoing extensive repairs and renovation. This is an important historical structure of medieval courtyard architecture and sited on the High Street, next to the old West Gate Town entrance just 5 mins walk from the Old Town Centre. Again, worth a visit, check for re-opening if you are in the area.

And do not forget Warwick Castle, one of the finest, most complete medieval examples in the UK, that I have enjoyed several times before. Its fortifications, battlements, encircling wall, interior buildings, historical displays and extensive gardens are a popular Summer destination. However, we were short of time and so passed on visiting this trip.

After packing I drove the few hours South to my familiar haunt of the Hilton at Terminal 2, Heathrow Airport. As mentioned earlier, the trip down again presented several views of Strip Farming activities, and the now familiar Fork-tailed Hawks made their appearances above.

Upon arrival I snagged a couple of free trolleys from the airport parking areas, loaded them with all the bags, checked-in then returned the rental vehicle to prepare for a last evening out.

Upon Hotel recommendations we took a Taxi to the apparently wildly popular and trendy Pheasant Inn on West End Lane near Heathrow. It is a very different place to dine. The Pub/ Restaurant has a great menu and good drink offerings. Most everything seems to be served in robustly tented heated areas attached to and wrapped about the main building. Most unusual.

After seating by the Maître D you scan the provided menus then take your orders to an ordering position where your choices are diligently recorded. Same goes for drinks, where you approach the bar. Then you sit and wait. Appropriate utensils arrive which are quickly followed by really well-prepared appetizers, meals and desserts, as ordered. The food is great.

Basically, there are no traditional waiters taking orders. Just a well-dressed crew of timely workers delivering food and bussing as required. The interior is modern with simple grey walls and stained-wood appointments. Service is crisp and helpful, and they seem to be insanely profitable. Clientele appear to be well-heeled locals, eclectic diners with a sprinkling of travelers such as we out of Heathrow. 😊

We returned to the Hotel by Taxi, having earlier dropped-off the Hertz rental SUV. The Maître D courteously and willingly arranged this transport home.

The next morning, we left the Hotel, walked across the terminal with our trolleys and labored through the (albethey helpful and friendly people) new, extensive automated check-in and data-entry procedure now required for International Travel with United. Sigh.  😉

After muscling through security checks, we did our own thing with preferred pre-trip dining (Scottish Salmon, Oysters and Sauvignon Blanc again for me), a quick visit to the United Lounge and boarded on time for a 45min delayed departure. The return trip was well-served but seemed grueling, and eventually passed.

Upon reaching SFO I sped through Global Entry in minutes, paid the exorbitant fees ($8.00 ea. ONLY required in CA… sigh) for a couple of trolleys, collected all our baggage, retrieved our SUV from Alamo Parking and drove back to Santa Cruz, quite weary upon arrival home.

After quickly unloading the baggage, I surveyed the garden and house surroundings for obvious damage from the preceding weeks of globally publicized, local California Winter Storms. A few garden furniture coverings were torn-up and those were superficially addressed, to be more fully secured the next day. We were then officially returned.

During these travels I notably greatly benefitted financially, from THREE things: The strength of the US dollar versus more badly struggling currencies (Euro, SEK, GBP), the largely vanishing practice of TIPPING outside of the US and the typically 30% (oft times 40%) lower prices of goods and services in Europe.

Most (non-US) Countries now take payments for everything by contactless Credit Card. This means the option to tip seldom comes up nor is directly inserted into the automatic billing process. I asked people about this in several Countries, and each assured me that tipping is nice (and appreciated) but really neither necessary nor expected with current local pay levels. Wow. This certainly beats the 18% (often 20%) expectation commonly seen in the US, where, as mentioned, prices are also typically much higher than in Europe. 😊

As for using cash, do not ask. I have never seen it expected regardless how inexpensive the purchase. And in many European places (stores, restaurants and Hotels) cash is often unable to be accepted at all.

In the days following my return I worked through the inevitable jetlag and snuffles, a seemingly inevitable result of long-term travel. And there were immediate, scheduled regular medical tests and appointments to attend and local damage to view that had resulted from the extensive storms centered around my Santa Cruz home.

Storm damage was close to, but not at my home. Some 300 yards East, the almost sea-level Moran Lake inlet had lost several feet of sand off the short beach and countless logs and branches, some as long as 30’ feet and 2’ in diameter had washed up to, and over the road. Now annual sea glass hunters have arrived early and search a graveled beach for (often) 100-year-old small, smooth, colored fragments mingled with the pebbles, washed back to land after being dumped off-shore by glass-waste disposal practices common hereabouts, many years ago.

Some 400 yards West, East Cliff Drive falls again to almost reach sea-level. The standing water, sand, trees and branches that had washed in have already been quickly removed and 5’ high sand berms flank each side of the road, holding off further flooding and clearing way for cars to pass.

Some 250 yds from my home the wooden steps descending ~30’ to the beach, winding through the massive seawall of giant boulders were destroyed, and water reached up and onto that immediate area of 26th Avenue.

Amazingly there were few or no signs of fallen Eucalyptus trees. The recent, aggressive proactive removal and pruning of the numerous stands in this neighborhood following last year’s storms and damage has fulfilled its purpose. 

All the beaches hereabouts are strewn with massive logs and driftwood that was tumbled, stripped, then washed in. Now each night there are impressive wood bonfires that light the skies with flames and sparks and slowly help diminish the piles of debris. The beaches are no longer feared after a week or two of calm, and normalcy has returned.

Down in Capitola Village the storms wreaked some havoc, with waves again making progress into the low-lying central Victorian buildings that stand just 50 yards from the short, futile seawall barrier. Several of the half-dozen frontage restaurants had their aging underpinnings, support pilings and even some interiors damaged or destroyed by waves and the debris they bore. A couple are amazingly already open again for business. 😊

The Britannia Arms stands slightly further East, nearer cliffs and on fractionally higher ground, yet only 60 yards or so from the same Seawall; there was no damage apparent there. After a forced evacuation one storm day they were brazenly opened-up for business the next even during continuing heavy weather.

The entire Capitola beach seems lowered several feet by the loss of sand, and the old concrete spit reaching to the ocean from the Creek now stands fully exposed again, protruding boldly on wood-strewn flats.

And the Capitola Pier still stands, but with some 40 yards or so gone of its decking and rails in one place, oddly absent from above the pilings that remain there, resolute. Here, cables and service lines now hang listlessly between the two lengthy, still-decked sections of Pier that live on.

The decking lost was to waves reflecting off the tall cliffs behind the Pier, accumulating height with those incoming on the storm, thence attacking the structure from below; it was much the same location and damage suffered similarly and recorded in the 1960’s.

Out on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk the mile or so of frontage beach is also strewn with massive logs and drift, as is all seafront surrounding much of the Monterey Bay. There appears to be no specific notable storm damage to the Santa Cruz Pier and Boardwalk entertainments.

And the President himself made a brief, superficial flyby to survey the damage, alarming some residents with the enormous din produced from his squad of intimidating, thunderous black military helicopters.

The major storms are now behind us and repairs are well underway.

Following these local inspections, I took enjoyment in a rare visit to the Cinema on 41st to enjoy an evening, 3-D showing of AVATAR: The Way of The Water. No matter your convictions, likes and dislikes, this is a spectacularly entertaining treat for both young and old. It provides a happy distraction from the woes and troubled News that surrounds us all. I highly recommend it for everyone. 😉

In closing, my most recent, happy particularly personal news is a reported clean bill of health. I apparently remain currently cancer-free, as determined by my latest six-monthly checks. 😊

And so, this completes a chronical of (much of) my recent journeys. Time away, travelling, visiting new (and even old) sights is refreshing, enervating and a joy. I do enjoy my Winter, Holiday-Season travels.

How about you? Did you take time out and meet up with Family, Acquaintances and Loved ones? Have you enjoyed recent travels and diversions?

If not, it is a New Year, so why not treat yourself and make some of these choices happen!

Ian R. Mackintosh is the author of Empower Your Inner Manager Twitter@ianrmackintosh.