Aug 18 2013

Upper Letts Lake – camping off the beaten track


When you find a jewel of a campsite, a dilemma arises: do you say nothing, and keep this knowledge to yourself? Or do you scream it from the rooftops, and risk changing the tranquil nature of a little slice of heaven?

I hope to find a middle way… to tell only the relative few who read this blog regularly, and to provide a little more information for anyone who has already heard of Upper Letts Lake, and is seeking out some additional information to determine if this rustic spot is right for them.


A three and a half hour drive from San Francisco, located at 4,500 feet in the Mendocino National Forest, Letts Lake is accessible enough for a weekend camping trip, yet remote enough for a peaceful getaway.

Upper Letts Lake Campground

Upper Letts Lake Campground

With 42 first come, first served campsites spread throughout 4 loops along the lake, it never feels too busy. And even on busy summer weekends, spots are often still available throughout the weekend.


Ideal for kayaking and fishing, the lake takes about 40 minutes to walk around, and is home to ospreys and otters.

The campsite has running water and pit toilets, and campers should fill up with gas and supplies at Stonyford General Store, some 17 miles east of the lake, and the only stop coming from Interstate 5.

It’s a little off the beaten track, but well worth the drive. Ask around the campsite, and many people will tell you they visit every year.

Oct 17 2012

Exploring Angkor Wat

So this is a post with a mission. I had wanted to visit Angkor Wat for many years, and finally got to do so in 2008. I was amazed at the sheer number of Khmer temples around Siem Reap; the architectural variety – from the step-pyramid like Phimeanakas (reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid) to the temple of Angkor Wat itself with its five soaring towers; and the artistic themes – from the fluid bas reliefs of Apsaras (dancers) at the Terrace of the Leper King, to the cobblestone-like carved lingams in the river bed of Kbal Spean. Now my daughter, living in Thailand for a year, is about to visit and asked me for some pointers.

There is so much to see in and around Angkor Wat – where to start? I definitely did not get to see it all in the few days I was there. So here, very briefly, are some of the places that touched me most. Click on the photos below for more details…

Jul 22 2012

Adventure on 2 Wheels

Motorcycle riders develop a sixth sense for road hazards. Learning to ride in Ireland, I developed a healthy respect for slick, windy roads, and the need to share the road with occasional sheep or cattle grazing “the long meadow” (the grass strip along the edge of the road). All this honed my reaction time. But it really did not prepare me for my biggest adventure on 2 wheels: 9 months around India on a 350cc Enfield India Bullet. Hazards included rickshaws, camel carts, elephants, and more bicycles, trucks and buses than I had ever seen in my whole life to date. More on that soon…

Over the years I’ve explored a lot on 2 wheels, both on my own bikes, friends’ bikes, and rental bikes. I’ve also commuted by bike in London, Edinburgh, and here in San Francisco.

So I thought it might be fun to look back at some of those great (and in some cases not so great – click on photos for details!) sets of wheels…

Photo credits:,_Kathgodam,_India.jpg

Jun 30 2012

Barcelona – Gaudi, and so much more!

Port Vell, Barcelona

Port Vell, Barcelona

Barcelona is famous for the inspirational architectural designs of Antoni Gaudi, futuristic works of art that appear to transcend time and place. But, with a history dating back to Roman times, Barcelona has many layers waiting to be peeled back and discovered, and is a city well worth several days of exploration…

Here’s a quick visual sampler…

Apr 29 2012

My Favorite Travel App

So there are LOTS of great travel apps out there, like Tripit (to tame all those wild, travel-related emails and cage them in a single itinerary) and Kayak (to research alternatives to that canceled flight!), but my current favorite is WhatsApp.


photo credit:

One of my pet peeves is being hit up for international texting charges, both when I’m traveling, and when I’m home and just want to exchange a quick text with a friend or relative overseas. And even more frustrating than the 50c per text charge, is the fact that I often don’t even receive the texts I’m sent. So I send a text, wait for a response, and wait… and wait… Grrr!

Yes, it’s not even a ‘rea’l travel app, but WhatsApp allows me to exchange texts for free with friends on non US networks, at no charge, with no delivery issues.  And when I’m traveling I can use it over WiFi and not incur any data roaming charges. And I can even attach photos… What’s not to love?

Found a travel app you just love? Do tell…

Mar 30 2012

“Nature Deficit Disorder”

Occasionally you hear a phrase that just resonates! For me “Nature Deficit Disorder” sums up in 3 words a key issue we face in our 24/7 wired, digital age. An article in today’s New York Times discusses America’s fight with obesity, states that surgery and diets may not be the answer, and suggests that “there is an obvious solution — just outside the window.”

East Ridge Trail, Redwood Park

East Ridge Trail, Redwood Park

Of course, getting outside and into nature does more than exercise the body. It takes us out of our digital environment, away from the stress of work, school and society, and helps us relax and unwind. When I feel abnormally stressed, there is a particular trail I like to hike in nearby Redwood Regional Park. As I walk beneath the redwoods that tower above Stream Trail, I can’t help but feel that my troubles are pretty insignificant. I reflect on how long those redwoods have been growing along the banks of the stream, and how long they will be there after I am gone. As I breathe in the clean air and hear only the murmur of water tumbling along the streambed, my stress just evaporates. For me, this helps provide the balance I need to offset the stress of my wired world.

Stream Trail, Redwood Park

Stream Trail, Redwood Park

Even though I had no words to describe it at that time, I first discovered the therapeutic effects of nature as a young boy exploring the woods and fields of my native Ireland. Writer Timothy Egan credits Richard Louv with coining the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. According to Egan, Louv finds that “Kids who do play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive, and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns”. That certainly makes sense to me!

Hiking along Stream Trail, Redwood Park

Hiking along Stream Trail, Redwood Park

I’ve added Last Child in the Woods to my ‘need to read’ list. But before I check to see if I can find a Kindle edition, I just need to grab the kids, turn off the smartphones and laptops, and head for Stream Trail!

Mar 7 2012

And the Award for Creative Recycling goes to…

Vientiane may be the capital of Laos, but it is still pretty off the beaten path. So, wandering around the hot and fairly empty streets, the last thing I expected to see was truly creative recycling. But, wandering into a store that sold everything from wooden bowls to brightly colored cloth, there it was… an old TV with live fish swimming around inside the “screen”! Now that’s thoughtful recycling!

TV reborn as Fish Tank, Vientiane, Laos

TV reborn as Fish Tank, Vientiane, Laos

Mar 1 2012

You collect shoes? I collect doors…

OK, so I don’t collect actual doors… But when I travel to a new city or country, one of the things I love to do is to get well away from the main thoroughfares, to explore interesting smaller side streets and alleyways in older neighborhoods. People are friendlier, and often take time to stop to chat. And the older houses are often mysterious and inaccessible behind carved wooden doors and intricate entryways.

Maybe my fascination with doors is a literal interpretation of my desire to see what lies beyond, a manifestation of a “portal to another world” fantasy?

Feb 2 2012

Exploring San Francisco…

old and new in San Francisco

Sometimes we are so busy with our daily lives, that we forget how much fun it can be to slow down, and explore the world at our own doorstep.

Yesterday I got to do just that for a few hours. My colleagues and I took an afternoon off work to go bond in the city! We took a BART train from Oakland, traveled under the bay to San Francisco, and met Lily, an Urban Adventures tour guide, at the Ferry Building to embark on the Embarcadero, Ferry Building and Fortunes Tour.

We first took some time to look across the bay to Treasure Island as Lily explained its 1939 World Fair origins. Then we explored the Ferry Building, indulging our lunchtime appetites with some of the great fare on offer – personally I recommend the Turkey Pot Pies offered by the Golden Gate Meat Company, very tasty!

Striking out from the Ferry Building, we navigated some of the elevated walkways of the Embarcadero Towers. With their giant pots of bamboo and quiet corners, it’s easy to forget you are in the middle of the Financial district – even more so when you arrive at the half acre Redwood Grove at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid! Transplanted from the Santa Cruz mountains, the redwoods bring a tranquility and natural beauty to this corner of the city that I was previously unaware of!

From there it was just a few blocks to Vesuvio Cafe. At the intersection of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial district, Vesuvio and the neighboring City Lights bookstore are filled with mementos of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlingheti and the beat generation. So of course we had to stop for liquid refreshment, and some appropriately contemplative conversation, at this historic shrine!

We then strolled the colorful streets of Chinatown, and stopped briefly at the old Bank of Italy to marvel at the workmanship of the impressively over-engineered vault door. At the Wells Fargo Museum (another previously unknown ‘gem’ for me!) I left my colleagues to explore the stagecoaches and look at nuggets of gold, as I cut short the tour to catch a train back to the East Bay, happy to have discovered some new treasures at my doorstep…

Jan 22 2012

Time to plan a trip?


So I know I can’t complain about living in the San Francisco bay area! But even though we don’t get snow, and rarely even need to scrape ice off our windshields, winter can still be wet and (for us at least!) relatively cold!

And yes, I know we need the rain, but when it’s coming down as hard as it was today, my mind tends to turn to travel… Somehow an afternoon downpour, viewed from the porch of a jungle lodge in Costa Rica, is SO much easier to take than from behind the wheel on a slick four lane highway.

So, time to break out the maps and travel brochures, and start planning a trip to more hospitable climes… Any good recommendations for a jungle lodge?