Friday, October 28, 2011

Tenerife's Loro Parque

Incredible dolphins performed acrobatic stunts, mischievous sea lions show off their talents, a family of orca whales soared and dived and cheeky parrots had us laughing at Loro Parque in Puerto de la Cruz in the north of Tenerife. And that's not all. There are more than 300 species of birds, gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers, sloths, jaguars, meerkats, and giant tortoises - just to name a few.

Just a few days before our visit, Loro Parque also welcomed the Canary Islands' and Spain's first  orca whale born in captivity. The baby weighed in at 150 kilos and measured 2 meters long. We were lucky to not only see a short video of his birth, but also got to meet Loro Parque's newest orca.

The Loro Show was quite cute with parrots showing off just how smart they are. One parrot loved riding his tricycle, another amazed us with his geography and yet another knew his car was out of gas. 

The largest replica of the Antarctic continent yet constructed is also located in Planet Penguin. There is ice and snow, courtesy of Loro Parque's machine that produces 12 tons of snow daily so that the penguins can feel perfectly at home.

Loro Parque was a great way to spend a day on Tenerife!

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spain's Highest Mountain: Mount Teide

Rising a staggering 12,200 feet above Tenerife in the Canary Islands, stands Spain's highest mountain and Europe's largest volcano: El Teide. The ascent to Mount Teide is like going to another world. As we left the beach and climbed, the landscape slowly began to change from black volcanic rock and cacti to an alpine forest and finally to a lunar-like landscape.

The park itself lies at around 6,562 feet above sea level and is home to the rock formations of Los Roques de Garcia. Here, you can see the work of thousands and thousands of years worth of erosion, where the wind and grit sculpt eerie and strikingly beautiful shapes out of standing pillars of rock.

The best way to reach the highest point of the peak is by the cable car, Teleférico del Teide. In just about 8 minutes, the cable car swooped us up to just 200 meters from the summit.We were literally above the clouds and enjoyed breathtaking views of the islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro.

With a pre-arranged permit, however, you can walk up to the very mouth of the dormant volcano itself. We learned, unfortunately too late, that to get the permit, you have to contact the Park Administration office in Santa Cruz and take your passport there to get the free permit. Limiting visitors in this way protects the extremely fragile ecosystem. 

Since we couldn't ascend, we hiked down to the Refugio de Altavista where we were hoping to locate the Cueva del Hielo, or ice cave, we'd read about. It too proved elusive; despite following the directions given to us at the Refugio, we never did locate the ice cave. None the less, the lunar landscape was beautiful and we both got quite the workout on our hike back up to the cable car station. 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Adventure on Eden Catamaran in Tenerife

The boat sails away from the busy Porto Colon harbor and we gaze back as El Teide mountain reveals itself, reaching into the clouds behind Tenerife’s popular coastal strip.

There are few sights more awe-inspiring than a whale or dolphin rising from the surface of the sea. The south-west coast of Tenerife is a privileged place for watching whales in the wild as there are permanent pods of dolphins and pilot whales living just three miles offshore. 

The pilot whales did not disappoint! As we idled halfway between Tenerife and La Gomera a shout goes up: "Look! Whales!" Breaking the surface a few meters away is a big black-backed pilot whale. Then there's more, lazing in the water on the other side. 

Pilot whales are smaller whales that seem to have permanently smiling faces. They are highly social and can grow to around 6.5 meters in length. 

After some time watching the whales, we sailed on to a cove along the coast where Tim and I had the opportunity to swim with a family of giant sea turtles living in the cove. What a great adventure we had with Eden Catamaran!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Buckingham Palace: Changing of the Guard

The men you will see in front of Buckingham Palace (and other locations like the Tower of London Jewel House) are not just ceremonial guards but also serving soldiers. While upholding the traditions of the past, they also perform duties throughout the world as professional soldiers and are known as some of the most elite and skilled soldiers in the British Army. The soldiers are drawn from one of the five regiments of Foot Guards in the British Army: the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards, the Grenadier Guards and the Coldstream Guards.

The Changing of the Guard is when a new guard exchanges duty with the old guard. The handover is accompanied by a Guards band. The music played ranges from traditional military marches to songs from films and musicals and even familiar pop songs.

The guards march out of one gate, around the Victoria Memorial, and back in to the other gate in front of the Palace. The Horse Guards parade down the Mall to the Admiralty Arch and back before exchanging duty. The whole process takes approximately 45 minutes.

To get a good spot, you must arrive very early at Buckingham Palace. The Changing of the Guard takes place in front of the place at 11:30am daily from May through July and on alternating days the remainder of the year. 

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

NFL International Series Game 5: The Chicago Bears Take London

Tim's dad called one Saturday and said he heard the Bears would be playing in London. American football in London? No way! A quick Google search confirmed that the NFL does in fact play in London as part of the NFL International Series in which one game per year is played the last weekend in October overseas. I didn't even have to ask if Tim wanted to go; I knew the answer would be yes! We had been planning to visit the Canary Islands for eight days, but a little shifting of our plans, a multi destination plane ticket, and two lower level tickets to Wembley Stadium, we added a stop in London to our itinerary.

On game day, Wembley Stadium was packed full of Americans and Brits alike all eager to cheer on the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Goo Goo Dolls kicked off the party with a pre-game concert. In a show of American patriotism, each seat on the lower level had either a red, white, or blue card to be held up during the national anthem. On queue we all donned our cards and from overhead, the cards made up a Union Jack inside the stadium while those on the field became the American Flag. Both the American and British National Anthems were performed.

The Bears led 21-5 going into the fourth quarter after touchdowns by Matt Forte, Roy Williams and Marion Barber. The momentum then switched to the Buccaneers with Kellen Winslow and Dez Briscoe both going over over in the space of five minutes. But a field goal and an interception made it safe for the Bears, who came back to win 24 - 18.

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Tower of London

The Tower of London, with its 900 years of history, has earned itself a multitude of spine tingling stories, mainly due to its infamous reputation as a place of execution. There are many stories of ghosts, poltergeists and other malevolent spirits connected to the Tower of London. Who hasn't heard the one about the headless apparition of Anne Boleyn stalking the Tower grounds at night or stories of the chained and headless Sir Walter Raliegh being seen on the ramparts close to where he was kept prisoner? One of the thirty-six Yeoman Warders that guard the Tower and live there may just take you on a tour and tell stories of the Tower's many famous prisoners.

The Yeoman Warders are also popularly known as the Beefeaters most likely because the Warders' payment was in rations that included beef, mutton and veal, and various historical commentators have noted a preference for beef among the Warders and the Yeomen of the Guard.

Another of the Yeoman Warders is the Ravenmaster, who takes care of the Tower's most celebrated residents: a colony of seven ravens. Legend has it that should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London the White Tower will crumble and a great disaster shall befall England.

Ravens were not the only creatures to reside at the Tower. In 1235, King Henry III received three lions from Emperor Frederick II. The Emperor had just married Henry’s sister Isabella so this gift was a sign of their alliance and friendship.More exotic animals were to follow such as ‘a white bear’ (believed to be a Polar bear) from King Haakon of Norway in 1252 and a male African elephant from King Louis IX of France in 1255. Visiting the exotic animals at the Tower was a popular excursion and the only way that most people could see such creatures they would normally only have heard about in stories.
Today the only live animals that remain are the ravens. Recreating the menagerie of various exotic animals in sculpture form, visitors can see lions, monkeys and all kinds of exotic beasts as you roam the Tower's rooms.

Of course, one of the highlights of the Tower of London is the Jewel House, which holds the Crown Jewels. The Crown Jewels are the regalia of crowns, scepters, orbs, and swords used at coronations and other state events. Most of the Crown Jewels date from 1661 when a new set was made for the coronation of Charles II. Parliament had destroyed the previous crowns and scepters after the execution of Charles I in 1649 and only a few pieces survived which had been hidden by the clergy of Westminster Abbey.

The Crown Jewels contain some of the most famous diamonds in the world. The  First Star of Africa, now mounted at the top of the Sovereign's Scepter, is the largest cut diamond in the world. The Imperial State Crown alone has 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 5 rubies.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Not Hell's Kitchen: Our Experience Dining at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's

After nine seasons of watching contestants try to make a perfect beef wellington to meet Chef Ramsay's standards, I just had to see what all the fuss was about! Tim booked us a reservation for Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and off we went to the lavish restaurant for a once in a lifetime meal.

We both opted for the three course meal, which was more like nine courses by the time we were done!

After deciding on our first courses, the sommelier brought an iPad with the wine list on it. We chose the 2009 Malbec from Argentina.

Lobster ravioli
We began the meal with an amuse bouche of delicate breadsticks served with hummus and a yellow tomato mustard. Next, compliments of the chef, was a vegetable connsome that had an almost sweet after taste. Then we were served beef carpaccio with foie gras mousse rolled in shaved truffle and Parmesan on toast. Our first courses then arrived: thai-spiced lobster ravioli in a lemongrass, lime and coconut broth for me and roasted loin of rabbit for Tim.

Bread choices were onion, olive and potato with homemade lemon and curry butters. The onion with the curry butter was fantastic!

Beef Wellington
Finally our beef wellington (only served for two) arrived and our waiter carved it table-side. A traditional British dish, it is a perfectly seared piece of beef tenderloin wrapped with parma ham and encompassed by a light puffy pastry shell. It practically melted in our mouth.

Of course, the surprises weren't yet over. We each received pre-dessert of passionfruit mousse, sorbet and foam with a pistachio biscuit.  For our actual desserts, I ordered the pecan and coffee soufflé with rum and raisin ice cream and Tim ordered the dark chocolate pear and cinnamon sphere. The waiter poured a hot milk sauce over the dark chocolate sphere table-side, releasing the aromas of the pear and cinnamon.

Pecan and coffee soufflé
Dessert was followed by one last surprise: an assortment of homemade chocolate truffles and marshmallows.

Although we both left stuffed, everything was delicious and it is a meal we will always remember.

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Autumn in Hyde Park

One of the largest parks in London and one of the Royal Parks, Hyde Park is a great place to spend a sunny autumn afternoon on foot, bike, or even horseback. Take in the changing leaves: bright yellows, blazing oranges, and fiery reds. Bring some peanuts to feed the friendly squirrels; they will practically come take the peanuts from your hand!

Aside from the wonderful autumn colors, there are some other sights to see in Hyde Park.

Begin your walk at the Marble Arch, which was the chief entrance to Buckingham Palace until 1851 when it was moved to Hyde Park.  By tradition, only senior members of the royal family, the King’s Troop and the Royal Horse Artillery are allowed to ride or drive through the Arch. 

Stroll along to the Queen Elizabeth Gate. This gate was opened on July 6, 1993 by the Queen to honor the Queen Mother's 93rd birthday. The six gates, railings and lamps are made from forged stainless steel and bronze and the design of the gates is meant to span the styles of the 20th Century. 
Also at Hyde Park corner is the biggest monument: the Wellington Monument from 1822. It consists of a nude Achilles, with cloak draped over his arm, his armor beside him. He carries a leaf-shaped short sword, and holds aloft a shield.

My favorite sculpture in the park is much less elaborate. There is a humble fountain on the west side with two embracing bears. It dates from 1939 and is due to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association celebrating their 80th anniversary. 

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