Sunday, July 12, 2015

Top 4: Reasons to Use a Travel Agent

Disclosure: I'm a librarian.  I do research for a living and for over 20 years I have researched all of our trips and done a fine job.  So, using a travel agent wasn't on my mind. I was really surprised at how helpful it was to have someone else take the research burden off my plate.

Reason 1: To Manage YOUR Time More Effectively

However, one of the reasons to use a travel agent is so YOU don't have to do the planning and the research. This year, work was  overwhelming.  I mean, it is always a whirlwind, but added to that, I was our association's president and our association was going to have its annual conference in our city, and I was co-chair of the planning committee.  I was a little stressed.  Vacations were going to have to take a back seat.  Someone else was going to have plan it for me.

Who Do You Choose?

The first thing you want to do is find a travel agent who you can talk to and who you enjoy working with.  You and your travel agent will be phoning, texting and emailing, so trust is essential.  Also, if you don't get their sense of humor or find if you find them annoying, you are not going to have a good time planning your trip and remember, you need to plan months in advance (at least I do).  So, if their personality doesn't gel with yours, move on and find someone else.  Fortunately for me, I had Chip at Oceans and Lands Custom Travel Planners.

My travel agent Chip Barker, he looks a bit angelic here, but don't let that throw you.  He works miracles.
Funny, sweet and uber helpful, he was the perfect match.

Reason 2: Are You Going Someplace Odd, Travel Agents Are Helpful with the Odd

Chip had his work cut out for him because we had asked for our trip to fly into Edinburgh then we wanted to drive to the Isle of Skye, spend some time and then drive to the Orkneys and spend some time.  Oh, and we had 10 days.  Work your magic. Of course, we had no idea of the distances. And poor Chip, I had sent him this crazy ass itinerary that I found for a 16 day itinerary as an example meaning, this is Skye and Orkney, we want to go only to those places...but did I say that? No.  So, for two days Chip was thinking, How do I get these people into all of these places in 10 days? Then we talked.  He was relieved. All was good.

Our approx. route: Edinburgh to Skye off to the left and then up to Orkney.  Then it would have been straight back to Edinburgh skipping Skye on the way back.  Only 8.5 hours to drive back.

See why I say it is crucial to have a travel agent who is on the same page and who you have a good working relationship with?  Instead of drop kicking me out the window, Chip started asking me lots of questions (rather like a good reference librarian 8-), like, how many days did we want to stay in each place? Did we want a rental? Automatic? This is very important because automatics require booking ahead and reserving.  Most people don't have automatics there.  And they don't have air conditioning, which Chip also got for us.  And a GPS (mandatory for international, IMHO). 

Not only did Chip do the usual car rental, air fare, but he also figured our all of Scotland's confusing ferry system for us and got us booked and paid for to and from Orkney as well as reservations on two ferries to two different islands for scenic trips, which was a major hassle.  Certain ferries only take people where other ferries will take people AND cars. But the website will let you make a reservation for ALL of them.  GRRRR.  Leave it to Chip to figure it all out for us!

Reason 3: Quality of Accommodation Is Maintained

Since this was a vacation where we were staying in three different spots (Edinburgh, Skye and Orkney), it would have been easy for me to just look up three B&Bs, book them and then be done with it.  In fact that's what I did last time we went to Scotland and England.  And let me tell you the difference between my bookings and Chip's bookings:

Quality of accomodation.  I thought I was concerned with that as well.  But my places were all over the place in terms of size and quality.  In one, we literally couldn't open up a suitcase and open the door to the room.  Chip's list on the other hand maintained a consistent size of room and quality of furnishings and sundries.  Additionally, the service was always top notch.  

Scottish B&Bs

The view from our room in Skye at the Duisdale House.
 Checking into the Duisdale House was great.  We were greeted by a lovely water view, which also happened to be the view out our bedroom window.

The Duisdale House
 Duisdale House itself was very well maintained and charming.

Our lovely and comfy bed at the Duisdale House.
 Our room was extra cozy, with a four-poster bed, down comforter and the largest bathroom.  It was super.

The amazing garden view from our B&B The Quoy at Houton in Orkney.
 The Quoy at Houton was a luxury B&B.  The service here was at least at a 6 star level.  The gardens were fabulous, the room was so sweet and comfortable and our yummy breakfast was on fine china with crystal.
Here's a view of the house where our room was.  We were on the second floor on the right.
 Lovely view, amazing room, and the best service we have EVER had.
It was all so relaxing, you didn't want to leave.

Are You Really Communicating?

There was one hiccup.  And it was my fault.  My husband said that he wanted a hotel close to the airport for our last night. He meant extremely close, as in almost walking distance, turn the rental in and take a taxi close.  I didn't really understand that desire.  The turn the taxi in bit.  So when Chip and I were talking about the last night and he said he had found a great place Melville Castle, I said, Fred wants to be close to the airport.  Chip said the hotel was near the airport.

At this point, Fred and I aren't communicating and Chip and I aren't communicating and I am the one who needs to be in charge of defining terms.  What is near?  What is close?  And I let it go.  It's on me.  You need to be sure that all of these places are where you want them to be. And you need to double check with the people you are traveling with that their needs are being met as well.  Don't wait until the end, or the end of the trip. Fred drove 1300 miles on the other side of the road and was stressed and wanted it to end. My advice is to make sure that you know what your partners real fears and anxieties are.  I didn't realize that he was so stressed about driving.  I was a bit too carefree about it.  The last hotel was the only one that looked great on the outside, was roomy on the inside and yet, was not updated.  Everything else was amazing.

Reason 4: Organization - All Confirmations in One Place

When Chip had it all finished for us, he sent me a document that had all of our ticket info, our ferry confirmations, our hotel confirmations and a day by day itinerary with links to maps on how to get to each place along with space to write in daily activities.  It was a trip planning document, perfect for the obsessive organizer that I am.  Everything was at my fingertips.

By this time, I had time to do some planning and I was able to take that doc and then plan all of my restaurants and side visits to museums and sights around town. It was so helpful to have everything else worked out.

All in all Fred drove 1300 miles in a country that is breathtakingly gorgeous.  We stayed in gorgeous places, ate great food and visited castles, museums and 5,000 year old monuments that were just outrageous.  It wouldn't have been as smooth and as nice a trip without the hard work that Chip did for us.  If you would like to see our photo album, just click here. If you haven't tried a travel agent in a while, I recommend it.  You can leave the big stuff to them and plan the little stuff like restaurants, museums, etc.  If things go wrong, you have someone to call.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

What NOT to Wear When Hiking

When we went to Santa Fe, one of the things we wanted to do was go on a hike.  We usually go to Tent Rocks, but we wanted to try someplace new, so we asked my friend Catherine for some advice.

Catherine and I at her library at Santa Fe Prep.
Now, you might notice that Catherine is very fit and athletic.  When I asked Catherine for some advice on trails, I figured she would look at me and take notice of my general shape and remember my eating habits (we did just eat lunch and I did just have a milk shake and split fries with her). But no, she looked at Fred and saw his slender hiking frame and super hiker fitness level and remembered that he had ordered the super skinny yogurt man meal or whatever something that isn't fried and isn't greasy and is good for you is called these days.

"Why don't you try the Chamisa trail? It is a nice hike and has some elevations and some great views," she said.  Did you notice how she snuck those elevations in there? I didn't.  I really didn't.

"Sounds lovely," I said.  I was thinking about my green chile cheeseburger and how good the fries were and if Fred would want to go back and get some more.  Probably not.

Fred on the Chamisa Trail.
So, the next day, we got ready for a nice hike.  I put together my outfit and Fred put on his hiking clothes.

After about 10 minutes in the car, I asked, "How far up do you think this trail is?"

We had been driving up a road to the ski trail and the road just kept going up and up and up.  We hadn't seen our trail yet.

"Keep going," Fred said.  We kept going.

At 7800 ft, we found the sign for Chamisa Trail.  Remember, we live at sea level.  We don't have mountains we were are.  Fifty feet above sea level is considered a big deal. Really. Don't laugh. I live on a mountain.  It's 50 ft above sea level.  I get winded walking up to it.

"Ah.  7800 feet. This will be interesting."

I pull over and we get out of the car.  There are several cars parked on both sides of the road indicating what a popular trail this is.

Chamisa Trail, a ravine on the left and mountain on the right.  Trees all around.
We begin to walk up the trail. And I do mean walk UP the trail.  It is all uphill.  I'm wheezing and panting and sounding like a wounded bear and we haven't even rounded the first bend.  As we turn the corner, we see this young family approaching.  The dad is carrying his two daughters, one is in his arms and the other is on his back.  As they get closer, it appears that these girls are IN MIDDLE SCHOOL.

What is wrong with this trail that even young children can't handle it?!!

I look at the dad and say, "Tough hike."

"Don't I know it."  He plods forward.  His wife comes after with a baby in a baby sack in front of her.  She is smiling.  How far did you walk, I want to ask, but they are past us and it is too late.

I turn to Fred.  "We don't have water!"


"The water is in the car."

"I'll go get it," he says and jogs easily back to the car.  I spend my time trying to breathe normally and not think about what lies ahead.
Fred looking very handsome on the Chamisa Trail.
 Fred returns with nary a huff or a puff and hands me a large bottle of water, which I put into my hiking purse, which also carries my long lens, and my sweater and a few other things I might need. I'm beginning to think perhaps I haven't gotten the outfit right for this outing.  For one thing, I don't even have real tennis shoes on.  I have skechers on.  Who wears skechers to a hike?  What was I thinking?  Where were my tennis shoes?  And why does Fred always look like he belongs on a ranch? And I always look like that sidekick character who falls off the horse or down the ravine.

My hiking purse.  It's lovely isn't it? A big burlap bag
with an Indian design.  It is about 2.5 ft by 2.5 ft big.
We start hiking in earnest.  It is a lovely day and there is a nice breeze.  The trail is only about 3 feet wide, but that's ok.  I can handle that.  I'm looking for views and ask Fred if he sees any as he is out in front.

View of the narrow trail.

View of Fred way out front.
Just when we are getting going, along comes this group of really old lady hikers.  And they are hiking really fast.  Like, get out of my way fast.  And they all have matching hiking outfits.  AND they all have hiking sticks!

Sticks!  We need sticks for this trail?!

Seriously, is there a dress code for this hike? These old ladies are wearing hiker couture: REI, Columbia.  Not to mention, they are walking really FAST.  Also, they didn't pant or wheeze or gasp.  Nor did they grab onto a tree and yell out, "Hey, slow down, I'm dying here!"  I don't know anyone who did that....

Old lady hikers with sticks.
I snapped a secret photo.


He turned and looked at me.

"I want a stick!" I pointed at the old ladies who were disappearing around the bend at a fast clip.  "We need to find me a stick."

Fred shook his head and continued to walk.  I looked for a stick.

The Ravine is great.
 I just couldn't find a good stick.  So, I sat down. I needed to reevaluate this hike.  This hike, where we were going. Whether I wanted to continue.  I was not enamored with Chamisa.

It was at that moment when a running woman appeared.  She quickly approaching Fred.  I had my bottle of water out and was watching her well dressed self.  She slowed a little as she caught sight of me.  As she came near, she said,

"My, what a lovely purse you have."

My eyes narrowed.  "Thank you."  I tracked her as she ran past and around the corner.  Then I turned to Fred.

"Did you hear that?"

Fred wrinkled his brow.  "What?  She said it was lovely."

"That was hiker speak for 'what kind of moron are you?'" I started gesticulating wildly in the direction she had disappeared. "She meant, "Did you think there was a TJ Maxx out here in the mountains? Were you planning on going shopping out here?"

"I don't think so."

 I gazed back in her direction.  I whispered, "I do."

"Fred, I think it is time for us to go back," I said.  "My purse just got really heavy."
Me with my totally wrong hiking outfit.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Photography Tour of Taos with Steven Bundy

On our vacations I usually try to find something unusual to do.  Last year I did bike tours of Paris, the year before it was horseback riding in Madras, NM.  So, this year, I thought since I have been trying to up my game in photography, that we would try to do something related to that.  So, I booked us a day with a photographer: Steven Bundy (Website, ).  I did the usual research and was very pleased with the reviews I found on  tripadvisor and with the awards that he has won and the museums that have purchased his work.

But mostly, it seemed like he knew what he was doing AND he would be a fun guy to spend some time with.  So, we chose the high road to Taos tour.

It was a delightful day!

So, what can you expect from a day with Steven?

Photo by Fred McLean. Cheryl on rock with camera.
Steven is watching from a distance behind.
Let me start first by telling you about us.  I am an experienced beginner.  I have a Canon Rebel T3 with several nice lenses that I have been using for several years.  However, I rarely get off the several different programming buttons.  My goal for the day was to learn how to do that and develop the confidence to do that.

My husband shoots photos with his phone exclusively.  I had borrowed a Canon for him to use on this trip. He just wanted to learn how to use a nice digital camera and decide if that was something he wanted to do.

My worry was he wouldn't like the day at all and we were scheduled to be gone from 9 am until 7:30 pm. Oh, and all of these photos are taken by Cheryl McLean, unless otherwise stated.
Photo 1.  Wood Cross with a wood fence trailing off into distance.
 We met at Steven's house and we got into his very clean and very nice and comfortable extended cab truck.  There were back roads were going to be traversing and having an SUV or truck was going to be necessary.  But his vehicle was super comfortable.  Our first stop was in the city and that was where got our first lesson on aperture priority and how to use this setting of our camera.  
Photo 2.  Wood Cross with a wood fence trailing off into distance, narrow version.
 I also learned about white balance.  My friend Gabriele had tried to teach me all of this as well, but I had never had the confidence to go it alone on this setting.  Today I had 8 hours to shoot this way. I was determined to try.
Photo 3.  Old adobe building with wood cross and snow capped peak in distance.
Crumbling adobe fence to the right.
Steven also told us to use the histogram setting for our photo display.  That lets you see if you are too over or under exposed.  For each photo I would try the white balance option of + or - and see what the difference made in the histogram.
Photo 4.  Old adobe building with blue door.
He also talked to us about placement, what to look for, and what made a good composition.
Photo 5.  Adobe church side view with shadows.
Sometimes he would set the shot up for us, like with the above photo of the church.

Photo 6.  Beautiful NM valley.
 Other times, he would let us decide what to take and then either make suggestions or corrections.

Photo 9. Crazy colorful road memorial.
 Now on some shots, like the above, I had a hard time finding the right angle.  This memorial had a lot going on. Fred's shot is probably better than mine.

Photo 10. Metal bridge.
The bridge and the bridge corner were interesting to shoot.  I don't think I am very good at architectural photos.  I think that is a specialty that takes a particular eye.

Photo 11. Bridge corner.
 Frankly, I wouldn't have even seen the corners as a likely shot if Steven hadn't pointed them out. They are pretty.
Photo 12. Dirt road.
 I really like roads and streams and churches.

Photo 13. Back of adobe church.
Sometimes the backs of churches are more interesting. Odd, isn't it.
Photo 14. Old wooden church with a wire fence.
All along the way, Steven had a cooler packed with snacks and cold water and sodas. Everything was thought of and taken care of.
Photo 15. Rusty roof with dormer.

Photo 16. Crazy house with two dormers.

Photo 17. Dormer with wide view of roof.

Photo 18. Las Trampa church using my 24-105 lens.
Now this is where you can see the difference a lens makes.  Here is my average lens (24-105 mm, which is my walking around lens).
Photo 19. Las Trampas church using the wide angle lens.
Much better view of stairs leading up to church.
 But to get a super nice shot, Steven suggested that I use the wide angle lens.

Photo by Steven Bundy: Fred and Cheryl at Las Trampas.
I still cut off the stairway a bit.  I need to look more carefully into the viewfinder and take several shots.
Photo 20. View of Truchas. Snow capped peaks in background.

Photo 21. Falling down shed.  Fred's favorite kind!

Photo 22. Truchas church.
This was a hard church to shoot.  It was in the middle of everything.
Photo 23.  Another view of the Truchas church.

Photo 24.  This is a puzzle photo.  There is something unusual hanging from the cross.
Photos 24, 25, and 26 get you closer and closer.  Photo of the exterior of a building with a white cross in the corner where a fence meets the edge of the building.  A wire birdcage hangs from the cross.

Photo 25.  This is a puzzle photo.  There is something unusual hanging from the cross.
Photos 24, 25, and 26 get you closer and closer.  Photo of the exterior of a building with a white cross in the corner where a fence meets the edge of the building.  A wire birdcage hangs from the cross.

Photo 26.  This is a puzzle photo.  It is a skull inside the birdcage.  So weird.
 I just like the fact that someone stuck a skull in a birdcage and hung it from a cross.  That is so weird.
Photo 27. Photo of Steve and Fred talking about their photos.

Photo 28.  Before my wide angle lens. The Chimayo Sanctuary.

Photo 29. Chimayo gates.

Photo 30 After the wide angle lens. Chimayo Sanctuary.

 Again, I should have looked more closely at my shot and gotten the doors fully, but I do like the shot.

Photo 31. Rushing water.

 We learned about how to catch the effect of rushing water, which was such a cool effect.  That was using our tripods with a long exposure.
Photo 32. The earthships.
 I love the sky on these next shots as the sun was getting ready to set.  These houses are called earthships because they are a special type of bioengineering houses.
Photo 33. The earthships, view of the front of one.

Photo 34. The earthships, view of the second strange one that is grey with sparkles.

Photo 35.  My one coyote photo.
 Our trip to find big horned sheep was a bust.  They were all hiding.  But we were successful in finding a coyote.  I didn't change my ISO setting up high enough to catch the swiftly moving coyote, but I did get one nice shot of him.
Photo 36. Night photography: so cool! The Taos church at night with statue in foreground.
 What I enjoyed the best, though, was our instruction on night photography and using the tripod with the St. Francis church.  It is one of the church's that Ansel Adams really loved.
Photo 37. Taos church side view with side lights.  Full dark.
 Using a long exposure to capture all the available light and varying the white balance created these amazing blue skies from skies that appeared to be night black to my eyes.

Photo 38. The back of the St. Francis church: this shot just stunned me by how cool it turned out to be.
Not that I am amazing, just that the shot turned out really interesting and unexpected.
If you want to see the photograph that Ansel Adams took of the St. Francis church, you have to use the link.  They are very finicky with his photos.  8-)

Here is what he said about the church
What impressed Adams about this structure?When he first saw the church, Adams was impressed by it's "magnificent form" and its "rigorous and simple design and structure." The photograph of this church was shot from the rear, which was the angle that Adams thought made it "one of the great architectural monuments of America." He wrote in Elements, "it is not really large, but it appears immense. The forms are fully functional; the massive rear buttress and the secondary buttress to the left are organically related to the basic masses of adobe, and all together seem an outcropping of the earth rather than merely an object constructed upon it." (Examples - The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams, pp 90-93)

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our day and think of Steven as a friend of ours.  He is a lovely person, very easy to talk to, to learn from and to be with.  Not only that, but we learned a lot that we can use for our next trip.