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Often, eating during round the world travel is purely about survival, and you might never know where or when your next meal is going to be – or whether it will even be safe. Indeed, you can go an entire day on nothing more than a pack of salty nuts and a Fanta, so rare might be the opportunity to chow down.

However, other times, food can be the Epicurean delight I love it to be. In Belize, for instance, despite being there for a mere 10 days, I was amazed by the variety and quality of the simple but tasty fare on offer.

Reliant on seasonality and availability, cooks prepare food that is by and large genuinely local and fresh. Let’s be clear – we’re not talking about meals of startling compexity, but the reality is they don’t need to be. Fruit and vegetables taste like they’re supposed to – not the hormone-pumped, artificially-ripened and preserved excuses for produce we suffer routinely in the East Dulwich Sainsburys.

Belizean food has three key influences – Caribbean, Latin American, and Creole. What could be better? Of course, you can sprinkle in a little French, American, Chinese and so on – you can literally taste the multi-ethnic cultural flavour of this hot, humid and wonderful land in its genuinely varied recipes.

Anyway, I’m bound to discover more delicacies along the way, and I’ll blog about ones that I think you might find interesting. Now, however, as I sit here in a darkened Nicaraguan hotel room wondering what my food experience I this poetic country will be like, I’m hustling together a quick list of the top five Belizean foods you must try before you can say ‘ready, steady, cook’.

1. Best street snack: Pupusas

These corn meal pancakes are stuffed with meat, cheese and beans. Originating from El Salvador, pupusas are soulful folk food snacks usually served on street stalls at night – and they’re insanely good. Anyone I have asked about them from from Belize, Honduras, or Nicaragua goes all misty-eyed on the subject. My favourites were in San Pedro, the scene of “the great pupusa war“. A young upstart faced off against an older mama in the classic youth versus experience food fight. Rather than take sides, I sampled both. Each was excellent.

2. Best breakfast treat: Fry Jack.

Of course, I should have put in some healthy fruit fare here, given the sheer quality and delicious flavour of the Belizean produce. That’d be to easy, however, so let’s stick with the unhealthy stuff.  This breakfast favourite, fry jack, is a puffed-up pastr. Flavourwise, it seems halfway between a brioche and a Yorkshire pud – with the flavour of the former and consistency of the latter, only a bit lighter. Have it savoury or sweet, though my favourite is served cashew fruit jam and cashew syrup. The best one so far is Stephanie’s at the Bird’s Eye View Lodge in Crooked Tree.

3. Best tastes-like-home dish: Mennonite steak

When it comes to meat, chicken rules the culinary roost (I have no shame) in Belize. No matter how many different ways you eat it, you will get bored of out of your clucking mind with the white meat. However, when you just gotta have some red flesh, decent steak is hard to find. That’s where French cook Valerie, at Chez Didi in Sarteneja, comes in handier than an horloge for timing a boiled oeuf.

This intense woman, who dropped out of rat race to live simply by the sea and cherish every moment of her life with her two men – husband and son – is a stickler for simple classics using using good quality ingredients. So where does she get them? It would be easier to stop Gordon Brown insulting his target voters than prise Valerie’s supplier details from her. She did tell us however, that she bought her steak and dairy from Mennonite farmers, two hours drive away acoss croc-infested rivers and past steaming jungles in West Belize.

The Mennonites live life as if they’re in the Little House on the Prairie, stuck in time living as they did so many years ago. Shunning technology in favour of traditional methods, they may look weird in their blue dungarees and stetsons, but man, they produce the goods like they’re the Jedi knights of farming. And their steak – which Valerie, unusually for a French cook, actually showed to the grill – was delicious. Who needs progress when the past tastes this good?

4. Best regional classic: Rice and beans

With so much of the country situated in the Caribbean, how could rice and beans not feature in Belizean menus? There’s no doubt about who makes the best version – anyone who is a woman and over 40, a long-suffering wife and mum with a bottomless resevoir of love for her kith and kin. Experienced mum-food is often characterised by a small but tight repertoire of around 10 dishes, cooked countless times until highly personal and  perfected. So it goes with rice and beans.

It sounds so simple, yet it can be so tasty. I remember when I simply had to get a recipe, but shunned the regular cookbooks (pointless reference sources for this kind of dish). In a market in Caribbean Grenada, I practically accosted this lovely old lady and quizzed her about her recipe. Pigeon peas were her secret ingredient but even those little beauties couldn’t rescue my sorry gruel.

No, the perfect rice and beans is all about a ruthlessly-protected secret recipe made over and over again until you feel that it’s all you have lived to do. So my favourite version was from a random street stall in San Ignacio, deep in the West Belize jungle (where we saw our first Mennoinite farmers, coincidentally). Naturally, it was made by a glorious mama, who had clearly been serving it up to her brood for years. Sorry Ainsley Harriot, but your recipe is shite.

5. Best side dish: Squash and onions

Ah Stephanie, your warmth would see us through a Russian winter, but it’s your food I’m honouring here once more. And this particular side dish is a breakfast speciality of Stephanie’s, who happens to be one of the most charismatic and loving cooks I have ever met.

It’s not an easy dish to get your head around at 7am, when your brain thinks it should be eating cereal or something equally uninspiring. However, I was mentally prepared.  Previously, the most confusing breakfast I had was in Vegas. It was a salad  that cost about $15. The most perplexing element was actually eating salad for breakfast. However, it was a buffet and I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in a week in America – and my body was literally promising me amazing things in return for a mere leaf or two. It really threw my tastebuds though, they just weren’t expecting it – indeed, they later compared it to coming out of a coma (until I countered that they had no refernce point for such a claim). And, my body kept its promise to go the extra mile; ever since, I have occasionally eaten some suspect food in seriously unhygenic places in the past 10 weeks – and haven’t heard so much as a whisper of protest from my guts.

Creating a new food dawn, at least for breakfast, really paves the way for future surprises, so powerful is its trick on the mind. And it certainly helped me to enjoy Stephanie’s spiced squash and onion as a tasty brekkie side dish in Crooked Tree. Sure, spiced pumpkin in the UK feels like quite a warming lunch or dinner side dish in late Autumn. Yet here, squash is ubiqitous, during breakfast, lunch and dinner, and quite rightly so – it tastes amazing.

Indeed, the way Stephanie cooked it, mincing the squash, shredding the onions, adding her special Belize spice mix, and adding in some garlic powder (fresh would create too harsh a flavour) was pure heaven. And incredibly healthy too – so much so that it gave me license to down a case of beer before lunch. Kidding. Only a quarter of a case.

The water is around 80F, cobalt blue, darker in places, and the visibility is about 25 ft. We are seven divers, 90 ft (about 6 stories) deep down in the Carribbean sea, of the coast of Belize, on the second bigest barrier reef in the world, near San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) where we’re enjoying a fasntrastic holidasy.

The main pack of divers is in sight, but swimming about 15 foot away from me, some flailing enough to frighten away the fish. It’s my 50th dive, and I’m finning smoothly, trying to disturb the water as much as possible. Then it happens – something with fins of its own emerges from the gloom.


Sh-sh-sh-shaaaaark!

It’s a shark. Or should I say, sh-sh-sh-shaaaark!, as they say in Jaws. About 6ft long, with a large dorsal fin as well as a smaller one, and looks like the most confident animal in the water. Ignoring me, it either cares not a jot or is sizing me up. Its posture isn’t intimidating  but – with a perfect design that, fundamentally, has barely changed since the dinosaur era – that could change all too easily. With wild animals, I have an observe but don’t touch policy – I wonderwhat code of conduct the shark has?

Perfectly adapted

Its a real wonder to watch it its environment. Perfectly adapted, its long tail sways side to side rythmically, effortlessly moving the fish through the water. A quick flick turns it on a dime, and it powers off into the darkess, leaving me far beind in seconds. No-one else sees it. It disappears.

Then  it comes back for another run,  coming closer to me, and disappears again. Finally, the rest of the dive group sees what’s going on, and fin over to join me in witnessingn this graceful predator in motion…but then it disappears into the darkness. We’re just about to head back on course when it reappears. And it has brought a friend.

This time, the shark swims right at me. We’re on a chicken course, swiming at each other, me as hydro-dynamic as a Xmas tree, the shark like a torpedo. We’re practically nose-to-nose when we split.  It’s either not bothered or its trying to suss me out – friend or foe.  What’s shark for ‘friend’?

Fortunately, these guys are nurse sharks – harmless to humans. Unless you wiggle your fingers, that is, which they might mistake for squid, their favourite meal. As it goes, almost all sharks will only eat what they can fit in their mouth, and attacks on humans are infesstimally rare. Of course any attack is reported wih disproportionate drama thanks to Jaws, which has in turn made it socially acceptable to slaughter these magnificent creatures to the point of extinction.

Even these docile sharks give us a shiver, though – they just look sharky. Sharks are often bigger than other fish you see – and sharing the same water in such close proximity with such big creatures is a rare pleasure. Before long, we’re seeing more and more.

Where there’s big sharks, there’s big fish

Where there are sharks, there tend to be other big fish. We see the biggest reef fish in these waters, the goliath grouper. At about 6-7ft long, and really chunky, they are massive. Images of fish and chips keep flashing into mind – they also look tasty. There’s a big turtle having varous diseases removed by cleaner fish, and giant moray eels, one of which ugly animals comes righy up to my face,  inches away, as if for a twisted kissing experiment. I feel like I’m being stalked by a 10-pinter in a regional nightclub.

The dive ended on an even bigger high. In additon the to huge fish and large schools of smaller ones swirling around this mother of all aquariums,  more and more gentle nurse sharks appeared. Big and small, there were about 15 in total, some swimming in a school, others all alone, each one masters of their domain. Everyone is capivated, non-one terrified, in spite of the shouty propoganda.

Back on the boat, speeding away from San Pedro Canyon and Esmerelda dive sites on a twin 200 engine speed boat (fast), the group is buzzed. Munching on fresh pineapple and gulping down water, it’s all shark tales from the from the group that lived to spin the yarn. For my 50th dive, it couldn’t have been much better.

Yikes, looks like I’ve been doing too much travelig and not enough blogging. Ok, I didn’t undertake the trip to blog, but I do want to keep you folks updated. So here goes, week 2, Yosemite Valley and San Francisco.

Yosemite

Ansel Adams wrote that Yosemite Valley is “always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Between quotes like that and so many iconic images of the place, I wasn’t, however, expecting to be surprised when I arrived. Indeed, having visited so many beatific superlatives in the USA, I was worried that ennui would set in with a tell-tale shrug of ‘who cares?’

However, as I seem to discover time and time again in this country, I needn’t have worried. At the ‘Tunnel View’ viewpoint, where you stop to first set eyes on Yosemite Valley – and, trust me, you will stop – you look out at a picture you will have seen thousands of times, but still feel like you’re the first to stumble on this natural paradise. Even surrounded by crowds of equally stunned visitors, you’ll feel like the only one there.

Awesome peaks like El Capitan and Half Dome – which provide rock climbers with a vertical slice of heaven – wowed us, albeit from a comfortable distance (there’s no way I’m scaling those sheer faces). The spring snowmelt ensured the waterfalls showed their gushing best – Bridal Falls, for instance, shimmered sublimely in the sunshine, so I clicked away on the camera till my finger hurt.

We donned our crampons – cunningly kept from our Grand Canyon excursion, and beat a path up into the snowline of the hills and far, far away from the hustle and bustle of our pre-holiday lives. The only thing disturbing the calm were the thunder of distant avalanches and ominous signs that black bears were on the loose after hibernation. With a backpack full of ursine goodies like berries, fruit and chocolate, I had turned myself into bear bait.

Needn’t have worried too much though – the nearest we see to a black bear is, by the roadside, an overfed Alsatian which we nickname (unimaginatively) “Bear Dog”. However, we do see a bobcat stalking prey at dusk. Now, its name seems cute enough – a cat named ‘bob’. Don’t be fooled – these things are bigger than Dobermans and much more feral. They look like proper ‘big cats’ – and as I creep closer with my camera, it stares me out without flinching an inch. Spooked, I backed off and made my way back to the car. Aye, Yosemite is wild alright, but thankfully not dangerous. Just wild and beautiful.

San Francisco

What a city! I want to live here, now! Entering San Francisco for about four days, we’re blown away by how much untamed countryside surrounds it. In London, you can drive an hour and a half without seeing a single field, but not here. With giant redwood forests to the north, huge Pacific waves to the west, mountain ranges to the east, and rolling, green hills to the south, rugged nature is never too far. Like sexy-looking Sydney in Oz, San Fran’s vast harbour area leading out to the Pacific makes this town look good. But it’s not the wildlife we’re here for – it’s an uncut shot in the arm of pure urban fix.

That said, we can’t resist a trip to Half Moon Bay to kind of transition from wilderness to city. About 20 drive from the financial district, this is the home to the infamous Mavericks wave, the biggest surfable break in the US. Adrenalin junkies risk life and limb paddling through frigid, shark-infested waters, to reach 20 foot monster waves, while we sip hot chocolates from the cosy confines of our car.

Next is must-see feat of engineering that is the groovy Golden Gate bridge, whose 2.5 miles or so round-trip we make on foot. We later discover that it’s a far better to rent bikes from the harbour and ride the whole way to Sausalito (in Marin county) for cocktails at sunset. We had sound advice from a local girl I know about the cocktails part, but not about the bikes. We blew it there – we enjoy the walk out, but it’s a blister-fest on the return leg.

Every city has its clichés – but you can’t be a snob, you have to see them. Preferably with child-like eyes, but without their lack of sensitivity to locals. So of course we check out the other tourist trails hot spots like Haight Ashbury, the far out epicentre of the hippy movement. Sure, the place is crawling with teens trying to ‘be authntic’ by being street urchins, and we overhear one such alt kid kid boast that his, like, dog had, like, taken LSD, man. Yet there are many human remains from the era, and we chat to mellow hobos who haven’t left the place since its hippy heyday – still living the dream, bearded and weirded but older. Most have hilariously honest begging signs such as “Let’s face it, I need a beer” and witty ones like “Father killed by ninjas, need money for karate lessons.” The place has a humour and civility about it. Colour bursts from every surface – I loved checking out the old and new street art from the 60s to present day on house, shop and street walls. We ate in lower Haight, at Burger Grill, which offers a burger “you must eat before you die,” according to Oprah Winfrey, of all people.

Locals loathe Pier 39, apparently, but we can’t resist this tacky tourist trap. The main reason was the shellfish bounty on offer here – Dungeness crab and clam chowder are must-eats in this seaside city sprawl. So we eat our fill, getting hands-on with crab and garlic fries – and pretty much reek of garlic for days afterwards.

San Fran also offers us a good ‘civilisation’ stop where we can sort a few things out. Same day opticians replace a lost pair of prescription sunglasses fast, a mobile phone store give me a new charger for free (San Franciscans are so nice, helpful and friendly), and we’re able to burn memory cards to disc to send back home for protection. We end up sorting so many things that we almost forget we’re on holiday. So we take advantage of the city’s excellent public transport system and visit other wonderful neighbourhoods such as Mission and Castro, sampling the excellent nightlife on offer. This would be a great city to live in, and it’s a fantastic one to visit. Next stop, the South Pacific!

Peace and love, 2010.

Wild, untamed and unashamed – and that’s just the town’s hippy population – Santa Cruz is a helluva beach town.

A fading breach front with a boardwalk defined by rollercoasters and somewhat tacky souvenir shops may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I kinda like it. Having grown up in a Scottish version – by ‘version’ I mean a vastly inferior version of a beach town (and by ‘grown up’ I mean Peter Pan syndrome) – I’m immediately fascinated by these kind of places.

What captivates me far more, however, is the ravishing scenery,so wild and untamed in places: redwoods colonise nearby hills and mountains; endless swells roll along miles of golden coastline to be share shared by surfers, swimmers and sea lions alike; thundering waves crash constantly into a rugged coastline, cutting it ever-changing shapes. Amidst all this, oceanic giants often appear.

Yesterday, as we watched the surfers, huge migrating humpbacks appeared from the deep to give us a stunning show. Thrashing their huge tails to thrust their hulking bodies out of the water, they were performing incredible mating displays – massive backflips to smash the water, creating a real splash on the dating scene. Not for them speed dating in dank cafés or nights spent uploading supposedly-seductive pics to their internet dating site. Hell no!

As we watch, minutes turn into a couple of hours. This natural wonder is the kind of thing you can never get tired watching. A typically friendly local mom says that, despite being a native, she still gets wowed by such impressive displays. Small wonder when such big beasts are routinely spelbinding. I only use my own pics on this blog, and naturally I was too spellbound by the creatures to hit my shutter. So no pics, I’m afraid! Aside, clearly word had gotten out that the whales were breaching close to the surfers – before long a hoard of snappers both underwater and land-based – appeared out of thin air.

Despite the town’s tacky tourist stuff – which, let’s face it, the child in all of us loves anyway, at least a wee bit – Santa Cruz has a real community feel. And, as I have found with everywhere in California, the average Joe and Jane seems forever relaxed, warm and friendly to us stiff Brits. As a result, I really enjoyed the time we spent here – but it was far too short.

Ok, Santa Cruz is a bit more boisterous than those places down the coast; it lacks the perfect poise of Carmel (the upscale resort town where Dirty Harry – Clint Eastwood – is mayor), or the groomed thoughtfulness of Pacific Grove. Mind you, those places somewhat lack the sheer adrenalin buzz of Santa Cruz.

Aye, it’s not for everyone with only a little – or maybe even a lot of time to spend here – but it’s a fine place for me, I like it. Give it a try.

Leaving Flagstaff
If you look out my hotel window this evening in Flagstaff, you’ll see snow drifts getting higher, above 5 foot. However, all I see is tomorrow’s 172 mile journey to Monument Valley being in jeopardy. Overnight, a further 17 inches fell in this mountain town which averages over 100 inches per year – placing it amongst the US’s snowiest cities.

Amazingly, we wake to clear skies. The snow plough teams have been out and seem to have summoned the sun to keep the roads clear and hot for us. We seize our window and high tail it to Monument Valley before the next big storm blows in from the Pacific.

Monument Valley

Wind whips up dust devils in mesmerising red whirls as we approach Monument Valley. We pull over to get out and perch at the rim of the rocky canyon, almost waiting for a message from the valley to let us enter these mysterious, sacred tribal lands. As the powdery clouds disperse, a Navajo guide emerges from the dust storm to welcome us, and show us the mysterious, alien landscape that emerges from below.

It being winter, we practically have the place to ourselves. As such, though we’re in one of the most recognisable Western movie landscapes on the planet, it feels like we might as well be on Mars, or the set of a sci-fi film. For a start, absolutely everything is red – a deep, intense umber that shifts shades as the sun arcs. And then there are those weird shapes that the valley is famous for. Flat-topped mountains – or sandstone buttes, as the geologists call them – rise out of the rust-coloured, rocky ground. They seem proud, magnificent – the stories they could tell! Since rocks can’t speak, someone else explains to us the area’s rich history.

The Navajo Nation manage these lands and our guide is a native American from that tribe. guide – these are Navajo nation lands – explains how you can literally see about 70 million year’s of Earth’s history written into the rock face. More interestingly, what turns out to be the best ’camp fire story’ we have heard to date, he tells us bewitching stories of the Navajo’s history in this area.

We leave awe-stricken, not just by the landscape, but also with a better understanding and a profound respect for the native people that thrived in this unforgiving, yet visually incredible area. Next stop, Colorado, and Puebloan Indian cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde!

Mesa Verde

We leave the geological jaw dropper that is Monument Valley, and head through the ‘Four Corners’ – the only place in the US where four states meet on one point (Arizona, Utah, Colorado & New Mexico) – to reach Mesa Verde, where we’ll see how America’s Puebloan ancestors used to live.

Situated in Colorado, Mesa Verde park protects over 4,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings from people who lived there from A.D. 600 to 1300. Seeing the improbably-situated cliff dwellings is the key reason we have come here. You kind of expect them to be a wee bit of shelter where people huddled under with a few rugs – and then you see them and see just how wrong you were There are entire villages built into cliffs – with buildings including 3 story apartment blocks with balconies – and that’s from A.D. 1200. Some British councils can barely get such accommodation right today! People farmed on the ‘mesa’ or land above the canyon above, and brought rocks up from the valley. How they did this I have no idea. I have enough trouble clambering over a seven foot wall to get into my flat when I’m locked out, let alone climb 500 foot up or down a sheer cliff laden with this week’s shopping or the spoils of an IKEA spree.

The best part of Mesa Verde however, wasn’t just looking at the long abandoned cliff dwellings – it was visualising them as living, breathing communities with the help of our native American guide, park ranger Jose Castillo. In Puebloan times, storytelling was hugely important: it was the key source of entertainment so storytellers were the rock stars of their day. Charismatic Jose has clearly inherited the best of those storytelling skills, and transforms our Mesa Verde visit. He vividly brings life circa A.D. 1200 to life and makes this trip so much more memorable for it. If you visit this amazing place, be sure to look this great guy up. As for us, our next stop is about 700 miles away – Death Valley. Best not overnight in dry state Utah – we’ll need a few cold ones before attempting that monster drive tomorrow!

Death Valley

Having ploughed through freezing snow storms and clambered around native American ruins at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, we’re off to somewhere completely different: the hottest place on earth at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere: Death Valley, California. So it’s off with the long johns and on with the Speedos (ok, cargo shorts); out with the porridge and in with the ice cream.

The only place that has recorded a higher temperature than Death Valley (134 degrees Fahrenheit, July 10th, 1913) is Libya with 136 degrees Fahrenheit on September 13th 1922. It regularly average above 120 degrees. It’s almost always sunny and, with salt pans, sand and mountains reflecting the burning solar rays in every direction, it’s a perfect place for making my milk-white Scottish skin crispier than KFC.

In the park, we stay at one of two hotels in Furnace Creek. Being in the park itself, the hotel can – and does – make up whatever price it likes. They’re milking us like the cash cows we are as we’re too knackered from the ten hour drive to find somewhere else – the closest is 40 miles in either direction. The great thing, however, is the location. We enjoy unparalleled views of clear skies glittering with millions of stars, as well as the best bit – close proximity and fast access to south Death Valley’s premiere sites.

Using the location to the maximum, we spring out of bed like exited bunnies in the morning and hop to Zabriskie point. We catch the one of the most amazing sunrises that we have witnessed, seeing that big yellow smile in the sky light up the mountain range which, in response, yawns and flushes with colour.

Then it’s off to Badwater basin, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, about 260 feet below sea level, off the top of my head. This giant salt pan is not only great for stocking up your larder on the cheap, it’s also the starting point for the gruelling, 100 mile Badwater ultra marathon – the ultimate endurance race for gazelle-legged masochists. None of that nonsense for us, we hop back in the car and roll on through the multicoloured geological landscape that is Mosaic canyon.

Camera battery suitably drained, we suddenly decide to drain our physical energy after all, by embarking on a sweaty, 5 mile, hike to the ‘cathedral‘, a giant red mountain set against a stark, sand-coloured range. Flippin’ ‘eck, it’s barely lunchtime and we feel like we’ve done an exhilarating few days worth of stuff – something we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in the park. Time to slow down though.

In the afternoon, H and I seriously take the foot off the pedal. We do one big thing after lunch – we visit the sand dunes in the desert within the park. Suitably exhausted, we finish the day with two relaxing tubs – a tub of ice cream as big as my head and a soak in one of the several, cool mineral water tubs featuring ‘magical’ Death Valley waters. Rub a dub dub!

Sequoia National Park

Next stop, land of the living US giants. And on this stop, I’m going to be an all-out tree hugger, getting up close and personal with the world’s biggest branched beings – the giant sequoias and giant redwoods of Sequoia National Park.

I’m particularly excited about this one as Star Wars – Return of the Jedi’s bike chase sequence was shot here – a movie I loved as a kid. Our base is the sleepy, beautiful Three Rivers – a village founded in the late 1800s as an idealist community that aimed to live life on its own terms. Today, a friendly blend of artists, teachers, retired actors, healers, farmers and outdoors people keep the vibe alive.

Three Rivers’ welcome for us couldn’t have been better – the rolling hills exploded into colour. As far as you could see, a riot of oranges, whites and purples carpeted the countryside – the wildflowers had sprung into life early.

Arriving at Sequoia national park, it seems we hadn’t figured on its altitude and Alpine climate. Indeed, the park’s elevation starts at 6,000 feet, and it‘s snow-covered – beautifully so. The ranger tells us we have to rent snow chains to enter the park, so we do, and I get covered head to toe in muddy slush putting them on – but it’s all part of the fun. In fact, I feel all the more manly for it!

As soon as we enter the park, it feels like we have been shrunk to a 100th of our normal size – it’s brilliant. Everything is just so huge. No wonder ’Jedi was shot here, it really does look like a forest from another planet. The biggest living thing on Earth lives here, a giant sequoia named General Sherman – the ‘Force’ is certainly strong in that one.

Really appreciating the sheer size of these trees is difficult, however – the surrounding sequoias have an average size of a 26 story building. Even the giant redwoods are tall – taller in most cases, than the sequoias, if not as thickly-girthed. And the pines are massive, too – just outside the park, in the Sierra Nevada range, you’ll find the world’s biggest pine tree. I scramble around trying to find a horse chestnut tree to see if I can find cannonball-sized conkers, for my nephews, to no avail.

Since it’s winter, the park is quiet – in terms of traffic and noise – so we feel like we have it to ourselves. We spend the day hiking around the park in rented snowshoes, occasionally running into friendly Americans, and from time to time exchanging camera tips with fellow DSLR snappers.

Otherwise, it‘s about the most silent silence I have ever experienced – a wonderful antidote to London’s constant big city drone. And save for the sporadic sound of snow falling off of laden branches, perfectly peaceful. With our appetite suitably worked up, we head back down to Three Rivers for steaming hot bowls of chilli filling enough for any wannabee Jedi master.

A great way to end our second week!

Aloha from Kailua-Kona.

Volcanoes created Big Island in Hawaii, and I love Big Island. So going to the source of this creation yesterday (22nd March) was a huge buzz.

Earth made here - just add rock

As a sea lover, I’m often exposed to – and acutely aware of – the powerfully elemental and unpredictable forces of nature. That said, I’ve never visited anything on quite this scale – earth’s most active volcano, Kilauea.

Seeing Earth’s cauldron at work, melting rock into molten lava – at +2000 degrees – easier than we can boil the kettle for tea, provokes a deeply visceral reaction. Seeing land being made in front of your very eyes certainly changes your perception of the world – and your place in it. It makes you at once feel insignificant, pathetic really;in another way, it gives you a sense of place in the greater order of planetary things – a quite stellar, intergalactic feeling.

Hawaiian goddess and all-round Earth-mama, Pele

Just as we watch steam plumes seethe out of ground, smoke belch out of a lava lake 2 miles below the surface of the crater, and melting Earth crust generate toasty-looking glow, under the water to the south a new volcano is rising out of the ocean to grow Big Island yet further. The arrival is hardly imminent, by human standards – estimates range from 5,000 to 100,000 years. What will Earth be like then? Will tourists still be standing at the crater rim saluting the great goddess, Pele, like the ancient islanders did, by shouting “Aloha Pele! “? Will the machines have turned against us or will be ruled by lizard people from another dimension? We we still be here to see any of these awesome, natural forces at work?

Smoke belches out of the Kilauea Caldera

I hope so, and I hope my kids (if they ever materialise) and future generations get to witness this truly stunning spectacle. And I hope you do, too.

Mahalo!