St. Maarten: One of the Few Places in the World for this Beach Adventure

Adam Twidell, PrivateFly frames the oncoming KLM 747. Also in the shot are Miquel Ros of AllPlanes (left) and Commander Bud Slabbaert. Courtesy Alain Duzant

Adam Twidell, PrivateFly, frames the oncoming KLM 747. Also in the shot are Miquel Ros of AllPlanes (left) and Commander Bud Slabbaert. Courtesy Alain Duzant

By Kathryn B. Creedy

St. Maarten has long been on my bucket list not only because it offers tropical beaches, but because it feeds my insatiable appetite for all things aviation. So when I was invited on a press trip to cover the development of the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), I jumped at the chance. I knew I was in for a beachside adventure but had no idea further adventures awaited at neighbor islands St. Barth’s and Sabo — but more on that in a later post.

A KLM 747 just above the heads of travel and aviation journalists. Alain Duzant.

A KLM 747 just above the heads of travel and aviation journalists. Alain Duzant.

The SXM runway is literally several feet from Maho Beach and landing aircraft come in to Runway 10 several meters above the heads of sunbathers bobbing calmly in warm, blue-green waters of Maho Bay. The scene is captivating even to those who would otherwise not give aircraft a second thought. After all, we don’t normally get to be this close to aircraft in flight.

The American morning flight lands feet above the warm, clear waters of Maho Bay. Kathryn B. Creedy

The American morning flight lands feet above the warm, clear waters of Maho Bay. Kathryn B. Creedy

WestJet 737 aircraft landing. Courtesy Chris Kjelgaard, Airlines and Destinations

WestJet 737 aircraft landing. Courtesy Chris Kjelgaard, Airlines and Destinations

“People are aviation enthusiasts without even knowing it,” Sheldon Palm, who runs a fixed base operation serving private jets at the airport. “They see a plane and think, no big deal. But then they come to Maho Beach and the light dawns. I always have to chuckle when I see their reaction to a large jet landing so close.”

Indeed, Palm can often be found at the world renowned Sunset Beach Bar where flight times are posted on — what else — a surf board planted upright in the sand. The wide variety of large and small aircraft landing repeatedly distracts patrons as they grab a mouthful before popping up excitedly to get a shot of the latest aircraft on approach. This is no beach dive. Sunset Beach Bar @sunsetbeachbar not only offers great waterside and airside views but really delicious food.

Steak Salad at Sunset Beach Bar. Mmmm, Good. Kathryn B. Creedy

Steak Salad at Sunset Beach Bar. Mmmm, Good. Kathryn B. Creedy

Maho Beach, too, is world-renowned in AvGeek circles. Long ago, the History Channel made it even more famous by including it in a collection of the most extreme airports naming it the fourth most dangerous airport in the world. That, I think, was dramatic license. In reality, SXM landings and takeoffs are far from dangerous with a 7,500-foot runway and a safety record to match the best in the world. Even the largest jets can handily make the turn required to avoid the mountains on take off. Still, the low approach and easy access to get spectacular photographs make it a plane-spotters paradise.

A tiny, narrow roadway separates a thin strip of sand from the chain link fence surrounding SXM. When the KLM and Air France wide bodies are on approach, crowds gather on the rocky beach and at the fence and drivers carefully navigate the gawkers who are otherwise distracted by a huge aircraft roaring just above their heads. Luckily, we were there in the low summer season and the crowd was manageable. But, locals report that in the high season the place becomes a zoo as tourists push and jostle their way to just the right spot.

That first day, we gathered in a darkened boardroom for a briefing with SXM Director Regina LaBrega, speaking in low tones about the ambitious and impressive expansion plans for the airport. As 10 am approached the 10 travel writers and aviation journalists launched from their seats. It was time to interrupt the briefing for a quick side trip to Maho Beach for the 10:45 KLM 747 landing. We all bundled into Taxi 322 for the five-minute trip and excitedly tumbled out, shielding our eyes from the bright morning glare. With cameras in hand, we were ready for action.

A strong wind blowing from the east greeted us as we scrambled among the rocks placed to maintain the beach during the summer season when sand is eroded away. Unashamedly, and despite numerous warning signs, we climbed the fence to take pictures of departing planes and the looming mountains they must climb as they take off. It was AvGeeks on parade as the cars struggled to pass.

Most pay little attention to the danger warnings. For that reason, the airport moved runway touchdown/takeoff a little further east so gawkers would not get literally blown away in the jet wash. Still that does not stop InselAir from giving gawkers a thrill by revving up its engines near the fence.

Most pay little attention to the danger warnings. For that reason, the airport moved runway touchdown/takeoff a little further east so gawkers would not get literally blown away in the jet wash. Still that does not stop InselAir from giving gawkers a thrill by revving up its jet engines near the fence. Miquel Ros

Then all eyes turned west as an old Amerijet Cargo Boeing 727 approached, providing us with a great practice run for the main event. It closed in on us, dropping lower and lower and screamed so loudly as it passed overhead vibrations tickled the inside of my ears. It was all I could do not to reflexively duck.

A few minutes later, the KLM 747 approached as a tiny speck in the Western sky. We positioned ourselves and it seemed like forever before that tiny dot loomed into one of the largest aircraft in the world. All of a sudden, however, it was upon us, roaring overhead, a ground-shaking rumble compared to the high-pitched scream of the 727. It seemed so close you could almost reach up to touch the drooping undercarriage.

The KLM “speck” appears about frame 50. The audio of this film does not capture the magnitude of the experience. My pitiful attempts at getting good footage were dismal so I am unashamedly poaching from my colleagues with due credit, of course. Video courtesy Chris Kjelgaard, Airlines & Destinations

There was laughter and giggles as we compared notes and immediately checked to see if we captured the mighty event on video. Wow, it was better than we expected, surpassing every inch of dramatic hype we’ve seen over the years. Too soon we were back in that darkened boardroom at SXM, windblown and chattering like excited children. As we returned to business we knew we would be back out there. Lunch was scheduled for the Sunset Beach Bar.

After tours of the airport and the air traffic control tower as well as briefings on air traffic services and how the airport prepares for hurricanes, it was time to head back to the hotel. The hot, sticky, sweat-drenched day had taken its toll and all I could think of was peeling off my clothes at the Sonesta Ocean Point where we stayed. In record time I was jumping into Maho Bay. As I bobbled along in the gently rolling, blue-green surf, a US Airways 767-200 took off overhead, the only aircraft to use Runway 28 for takeoffs owing to its high weight. As it roared by and I floated on my back to watch, I realized it was the perfect capper to the first of many hectic, sun, sea, surf and sky days.

Here’s a KLM takeoff from SXM. 

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Beach Easter

Leafy Sea Dragon - Irene Diamente

Leafy Sea Dragon – Irene Diamente

By Kathryn B. Creedy

A soft pink hibiscus flower lay in sharp contrast to the off-white sand as we walked toward the sparkling water early on Easter morning. It was, I thought, Florida’s answer to the Easter Lilies blooming in markets in the last few weeks.

Florida's Easter Lily - Alexis Creedy

Florida’s Easter Lily – Alexis Creedy

As I passed, flecks of sand sparkled off its trumpet-like petals, reflecting the bright, rising sun and twinkling like a diamond. The temperature was in the 70s with no humidity. A soft breeze came from the north.

“Another day in paradise,” I thought as we settled into our beach chairs that morning. Once again, I was amazed at our good fortune at living on this barrier island at the beach.

We began the day at our favorite restaurant – Sand on the Beach – where we celebrated Easter with breakfast. It had become tradition to bask on the soft warm sands of Melbourne Beach, Florida, next door and this time was no different.

It had been a busy morning at the restaurant and, waiting for a table, we sat beachside and watched a crab, its hard shell glinting in the sun as it scuttled along. Above us a huge flock of pelicans formed a broad V as they flew north. A few minutes later, five more passed overhead and my sister in law said what I had been thinking. They are teenagers intent on doing their own thing. We laughed.

A family appeared at the top of the boardwalk between restaurant and beach. The two little girls in their pastel finery began to descend, their silver shoes flashing reflected sunlight with each step. They carried Easter baskets and I suddenly noticed metallic Easter eggs peppering the sand in and around the nearby sand volleyball court.

“That brings a whole new meaning to the term Beach Bunny,” I said. The littlest girl, her blond hair bouncing in French braids down her back, spotted a shiny golden egg and did an ungainly run in the soft sand before her sister could snatch it. She turned, beaming like the sunlight surrounding her and held it in the air triumphantly.

After breakfast, as we settled into our beach chairs, I surveyed the beachgoers, noting empty groups of towels laid out creating colorful patterns on the light sand. Their owners were in the surf, skim boarding into the waves, or just walking in the gentle water. Umbrellas punctuated the beach with reds and blues and yellows, mirroring what I remembered of the colors on the inside of my children’s Easter baskets years ago. In the far distance, the surf rolled in, delivering a haze and obscuring a remote beach. At the same moment I felt a refreshing sprinkle cover me.

A tall, adolescent girl in a bright pink bikini practiced back flips with her mother. The girl was a younger version of her mother whose blond hair was tied in a ponytail and shimmered as it bounced as she spotted for each new flip. At first I thought the girl a gymnast but her long thin legs suggested more cheerleader than tiny gymnast.

Near the water, small children played tag with the surf before wading in to play. Nearby, their mother sat in a beach chair watching while helping her youngest who was beside her. The little girl’s peach bathing suit had a feathery bottom and, on the back were tiny wings. In her excited play, she fluttered like a fairy in the breeze.

Beach Fairy - Kathryn Creedy

Beach Fairy – Kathryn Creedy

I am always in the moment at the beach, acutely aware of my surroundings. Distractions find it hard to intrude. Pelicans, a crab, bright, sparkly water, warm sand, little children at play and a soft pink flower in the sand were the charm cast by the beach that morning. It was more than enough especially since my youngest texted me this morning to say that fresh snow had covered the trees at Ithaca College. She can’t wait until she graduates in May.

The Beat on the Beach – Family Fun at Nokomis

Creedy Girls Drums

Alexis, Kathryn & Brooks Creedy Sunsetting on Nokomis Beach

By Kathryn B. Creedy

Sunset on the Gulf Coast is usually spectacular during the high, wide and handsome days of a Florida winter. But this year, as the New Year dawned, my daughters and I experienced a unique sunset event that harkened back to primeval days when we joined a Drum Circle at Florida’s Nokomis Beach on the Gulf Coast.

Our hosts for the weekend mentioned a cool family event, which occurs each Wednesday and Saturday at sunset at their local beach. I had no idea what to expect when they said there were a lot of drummers on the beach but I was very intrigued.

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The Nokomis Drum Circle threw me back millennia. Despite the modern trappings surrounding me, I felt as if I were part of a pre-Colombian sun worshiping ceremony. January 3, 2015, was unique, however, with a simultaneous sunset and full moonrise as the drums beat a steady rhythm you could feel through the sand.

Drummers were all ages and all abilities from master drummers to people with simple tambourines. The audience was already large when we arrived having set up hundreds of chairs that completed the circle. Near the dunes, sat 25 to 30 drummers, men, women, young and old. Opposite were the sea and the sinking sun under a clear blue sky.

In the middle of the circle was a white opaque ball, surrounded at its base with fairy lights and palm leaves. Dozens of dancers swayed to the beat in both modern interpretive styles and traditional belly dancing as they moved around the circle.

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Was this what Florida’s Indians did in the earliest days of this peninsula, I asked myself as I looked around. Dancers weaved in and out of the circle some with children in tow like modern-day pied pipers. Some of the dancers had crafted elaborate wing-like costumes and seemed to float, billowing in the gentle breeze, as they made their way around the circle looking like giant, colorful butterflies.

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This is so primitive, I thought, as primal as a heartbeat. But it drew me in with the magnetism that draws many of us to the sea. I later found out that the allusion to pagan rituals is no accident since the Nokomis Beach Drum Circle was founded as just that. While the word pagan comes with baggage typical of the unfamiliar, at its core, it is simply a reverence for the natural world and seeing a divine presence in that world. As an environmentalist and one who cleans the beach every day on my two-mile walk, I related to that. Even so, drum circles may not have anything to do with pagan worship but can just be a group of people spontaneously creating music on drums and other percussion instruments.

It turns out the 20-plus-year-old Nokomis Beach Drum Circle is far from unique. Indeed, there are many such circles in Florida both beachside and inland and they can be found at The Primal Connection or elsewhere around the world at the Drum Circle Network. The Nokomis circle is an informal affair, according to the unofficial liaison between the County and the group, Frank Alexander. All you have to do is show up with a percussion instrument. If you go he suggested getting there an hour and a half before sunset.

The audience sat contentedly tapping hands on legs or bare feet in the sugary white sand typical of many Gulf beaches. They dined al fresco from the picnic baskets filled with typical beach picnic fare along with such libations as wine, beer and soda. It is a casual affair with few rules and is clearly a tradition in this small community, one that continues to resonate with residents and visitors alike.

As the drummers reached one of many crescendos, the light visibly softened signaling that duskish time just before sunset. Necks craned to watch the sun sink in the Western sky as the beat climbed. Many left the circle to stand at water’s edge to watch it descend into the cool, calm blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

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The sky turned from blue to yellow to a fiery orange red. Then, inside the circle a single individual joined the dancers and faced west. He lifted a conch shell to his lips and blew a single long note to mark sunset. He repeated this to the south, east and north then returned to his place among the drummers. Nearby, a dancer posed at water’s edge, the sun, the sea and a sailboat marking her backdrop.

Slowly, a full moon appeared veiled in gossamer clouds as it ascended in the Eastern sky. Drummers had quickened their pace to the setting sun and were now beating a calmer percussion. In the center of the ring, the opaque ball changed colors to the many hues of blue, green and red, pink, orange and yellow. Little girls stood mesmerized by this central focal point designed to replace the bonfire, which lit the Drum Circle in its early days. They gingerly touched the ball quickly drawing back their tiny fingers, clearly expecting it to be hot. They then leaned over, their small hands becoming colorful shadows as the ball cast its changing glow.

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As the moon emerged from its cloudy veil, dancers donned lit hula hoops, which provided a colorful counterpoint to the gathering dark. The swirling hoops created patterned lights dancing out from the bodies swaying to the beat.

Revelers stay for hours through the night. As it darkened, however, we headed home. Walking down the beach, the sounds of the drums followed us as stars emerged from the inky black sky.

Beat on the Beach slideshow with soundtrack

285 Surfin’ and 20+ Skydiving Santas and a Partridge in a Palm Tree

Kathryn B. Creedy

By Kathryn B. Creedy (Photos by Brooks and Kathryn Creedy)

While Christmas on the beach may not have the warm, Currier & Ives coziness of our usual white Christmas in New England, the Christmas spirit on the Space Coast of Florida couldn’t have been better thanks to the Satellite Beach Boat Parade, the Space Coast LightFest and the sixth annual surfin’ and skydiving Santas.

We were a little worried about missing the winter in New England where we have spent Christmas with our family for decades. Even so, we were determined to capture the spirit of the season and, thankfully, it was not hard.

We began as the last of the sun left the sky at the staging area of the boat parade where Christmas lights outlined large and small watercraft otherwise lost to the dark waters of the Banana River. The parade finished on Mathers Bridge near our home in Indian Harbour Beach where the 700-foot long, low-level, swing bridge, opened and closed as the festive flotilla made their way to the end of Merritt Island.

A few nights later we attended the Lightfest, a 45-minute drive through an electric wonderland of nutcrackers, candy canes, snow-flake arches and, of course, Santa. We passed trains, motorcycles and airplanes, all sporting Santa as giant poinsettias slid by. Jumping frogs and stockings with presents formed other arches as we made our way around a lake dotted with the reflected lights of the displays on the other side.

And what to our wondering eyes should appear but eight tiny reindeer along with a giant dragon and a castle. Befitting our coastal Christmas theme were flamingos, alligators, crabs, lobsters, a lighthouse and sailboats.

But it was the Surfin’ Santas that really set the tone. They may have surfin’ Santa’s elsewhere in the world, but they would be hard pressed to beat the event at Cocoa Beach, FL, where 285 Santa surfers gathered on a bright and sunny Christmas Eve morning to ring in the season. About 20 Santas floated gracefully below an azure-blue sky dotted by clouds that would look at home as Santa’s white and fluffy beard.

Sponsored by SurfinSantas.org, the event raised funds for Grind for Life, a local cancer organization, and the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum. The organization was hoping to surpass the 210 Santas that surfed in 2013 and did so handily counting more than 300 either riding the waves or the wind in the sky.

The event began in 2009 when local Santa George Trosset, inspired by surfing Santas featured in a television commercial, gathered his family and dressed them in Santa suits for some yuletide fun in the sea. The following year, friends joined in for a total of 19 Surfin’ Santas, then 84 in 2011 and 159 in 2012. The small residential neighborhood was overwhelmed, forcing a move to a more central location in downtown Cocoa Beach with more space for the Surfin’ Santas and the crowds they gather.

With a backdrop of dozens of surfboards in all shapes and sizes, participants gathered on the sand, beachside of Coconuts restaurant at the Eastern terminus of the Minuteman Causeway. Drive any further and you’ll get wet. The occasional green Christmas trees and a single Frosty the Snowman costume peppered a sea of red suits. Hundreds of onlookers scrambled in and out of the Santa scrum to document the occasion which now grace the Twitter sphere at #SurfinSantas.

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My daughter, Brooks, and I pose behind the wall of surfboards

As they posed, the Santas, their collective entourages and the assembled merrymakers listened to a brief invocation and a tribute to recently deceased Champion Surfer Mike Tabeling, who, with Kelly Slater, were a treasured part of the Cocoa Beach scene. Santas continued to gather as local surf shop owner Balsa Bill played the ukulele, singing that Hawaiian beach-time Christmas favorite Mele Kalikimaka.

It was then time for the Surfin’ Santa official theme song performed by local singer/songwriter Anna Lusk who assisted in composing All About The Beach set to the tune of Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass.

“There is only one thing left to do,” intoned the announcer as the closing chords of the music wafted away on the wind. “Hit the surf.” A sea of red turned as one, heading for their boards. And off they went charging through the crowds lining the water. They emerged in all their Santa regalia and headed seaward, belly flopping on their boards as they crested the first wave. It took 10 minutes before the last Santa plunged into the cold, refreshing surf as others caught their waves to ride back toward the beach.

Back they came, suits, hats, beards plastered to their bodies. Smiles lit their faces as they turned and went out for another ride. One Santa smiled at the crowd gently patting his little round belly as he neared the beach. The surfers were backlit by the early morning winter sun as kite surfers joined them from further down the beach. The sun, the sea and the waves have never been more picturesque.

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The epitome of the Santa in Colbie Caillat’s Christmas in the Sand

Soon, organizers began clearing the beach as the de Havilland Twin Otter jump aircraft circled the sandy landing zone. All eyes looked skyward at the circling aircraft awaiting the first puff of a parachute to mark the start. Dressed in full Santa costumes, these high-flying wind surfers floated beneath their colorful canopies, wafting down through the clouds as they navigated their way between surf and crowds.

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Though we miss our family and friends up north deeply, it has been a great Christmas trading sledding for sand. Christmas in the sand has all the charms of its northern counterparts, just a little bit different. I reflected that most Christmas events are for kids. Not so for the Surfin’ Santas of Cocoa Beach. As I walked though the crowds and looked around me, it was clear the Surfin’ Santas gave the big kids in all of us the true joy, wonder and spirit of the season. Merry Christmas everyone! Surf’s up!

Click the link below for the slideshow of our Christmas in the Sand courtesy of Colbie Caillat. Her song is our new  Christmas theme song!

Christmas in the Sand

Cape Flattery: a Challenging Hike But Oh So Worth It!

Story and Photos by Kathryn B. Creedy

map Cape Flattery

There was something intriguing about going to the western-most point in the Continental U.S. After all, I’d been to the southern most point on a trip to Key West. Cape Flattery, WA, however, was far more challenging but it led me to a new realization about myself.

As my daughter and I headed west on the two-hour trip from Port Angeles we passed through the remotest land I’d ever seen. We had lived in Vermont and it was positively metropolitan by comparison. Tiny towns dotted our path along with startling views of the Juan de Fuca Straight, separating the Olympic Peninsula from Canada. Huge, ship-like rocks stood off shore as if waiting to berth.

We traveled into the Neah Bay valley that is the Makah Indian Reservation and it was evident these hearty folk had followed their ancients; making their living from the sea. Fifteen minutes later we were at the end of the world.

As I stood at the trailhead I could only see a sharp incline under a canopy of trees. Down, down, down, down stairs made of tree roots and foot-worn earth we went. About half way down, soft rain began to fall.

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Suddenly I could hear the distant surf, out of place in the deep woods that surrounded us. As I stopped to listen, I surveyed the uneven path and began to worry whether my old legs would get me back up.

“Hmm,” I wondered. “I assume there is no cellphone service so there will be no calling a rescue helicopter.” Little did I know similar thoughts were coursing through my daughter’s head. “What if she falls and breaks something…What if I can’t get her out….”

I continued my decent suddenly realizing I was one of those people. You know the ones. They are in all the evening news pharmaceutical commercials. The ones who make you feel inadequate because you are not swimming across lakes or biking along beautiful wooded paths. “Who are these people,” I would ask myself. “They make aging look so fetching.” I knew better.

But here I was: A woman of a certain age, having already hiked to Marymere Falls earlier that morning, doing just that type of arduous activity. I just wish I looked like some of the women in the commercials!

My mind circled back to that earlier hike near Lake Crescent. Hard by a bucolic Blue Spruce green glacial lake, Lake Crescent Lodge and cottages looked fetching and bespoke of an earlier time in the National Parks. The October air was cool and wet as soft clouds settled in the far valley and the mountains reflected in the clear-to-the-bottom water.

The gentle flow of a brook spilled into the lake to either side of a huge stump lying on its side at the mouth. Yellow leaves swirled in tiny whirlpools. The Marymere Falls hike was to replace my daily two-mile constitutional on the beach at home. The guidebooks called it an easy walk to the falls but did not mention the abrupt climb as we approached the misty cove surrounding the falls.

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“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” my mind recalled a long-remembered Robert Frost poem. And they were, deep and light greens contrasting with sunlit dappled yellows, dew-covered ferns, fairy-like leaves and earth tones. Bird song provided the sound track which mingled with the earthy smell of autumn woodland.

Now, climbing carefully down, I thought the guidebooks should define the word “moderate” better. It didn’t feel moderate to me.

The surf was getting louder and just to our left was a promontory overlooking two sea-torn rocky sentinels, known as sea stacks. The sea swept in crashing at the base, spraying foam up the sides. On top was an unlikely forest of evergreens, cut from the mainland. Was this what it looked like as the continents drifted apart?

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We resumed our hike and were soon slipping along the wet, uneven boardwalk leading to our destination. Trail’s end was high atop a rocky cliff overlooking the Pacific. Huge swells flowed through the straight between the cliff and Tatoosh Island, home to Cape Flattery Light House, eerily adrift on the misty horizon.

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The sea had scoured towering caves in the cliffs on either side of the point. As relentless waves crashed into them, a deep rumbling arose from within like distant thunder, echoing the roiling surf.

Too soon it was time to turn and climb. I had my doubts as we picked our way carefully through the exposed roots traversing the path. I kept an even pace and stopped to catch my breath every so often, watching as tiny droplets fell from delicate leaves in the steady rain.

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It wasn’t long before my climb was at an end. It had taken me 20 minutes to reach the parking lot from high cliff top.

As I sat in the car, I felt my breathing ease, my heart rate slow. I was aware of thrumming in my legs and the uncanny energy that follows such exercise. If the guidebooks had actually described the stumbling path and high-degree incline, I would probably have been scared away. I’m glad I wasn’t.

We drove along the narrow roads and I felt pride that this woman of a certain age not only conquered the challenge of Cape Flattery but the hour-long hike to Marymere Falls. To both my daughter and me, I thought…Oh ye of little faith.

Kathryn B. Creedy is a freelance writer living in Indian Harbour Beach, FL.

Keywords: Olympic Peninsula, Cape Flattery, hiking, sea, light house, water falls, Washington, Port Angeles, Marymere Falls, Lake Crescent, lake, beach, surf, waves, a certain age