#CatTravels: Visiting nēnē in England

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My husband has never been to London, which is a big reason why we went.

Since I had already been there twice before — once as recent as last year — I decided to let him pick the places he wanted to go.

Tower of London, the British Museum, a pub to eat fish and chips — he rattled off the usual London must-dos.

Then he said he wanted to see nēnē.

As in the Hawaiian goose endemic to the Islands.

As in the ones we can see at the Honolulu Zoo.

So why did he want to fly 7,200 miles to London to see our own state bird?

Turns out, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in London was instrumental in the successful breeding the nēnē in captivity back in the 1950s and staving off possible (or inevitable) extinction.

My husband had heard about this and wondered if we could visit the actual sanctuary where the nēnē were bred and kept.

Tall orders for me. Luckily, I have mad Google skills and found the preserve where this all happened.

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It was a nature reserve Slimbridge, managed by the WWT, where the goose were bred for later re-introduction into the wild in Hawai‘i. It’s located halfway between Bristol and Gloucester on the estuary of the River Severn, more than 115 miles west of London. It opened in November 1946 by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott and sprawls over 120 acres.

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This place is a birder’s paradise, with a number of ducks, geese, swans and birds roaming around the preserve. You can see large flocks of white-fronted geese, clusters of pink flamingos, and graceful Bewick’s swans here, in addition to peregrine, merlin, coots, black-tailed godwits, lapwings, ruffs, spotted redshanks and curlew sandpipers.

And yes, the nēnē are everywhere!

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What’s great about this reserve is that you can actually walk around and feed these birds. In Hawai‘i, you can’t even get close to a nēnē, much less feed one. (Well, they’re also not the easiest to find in the Islands. The best spots are Haleakalā and Pi‘iholo ranches on Maui and on Hawai‘i Island.)

The nēnē are one of the world’s rarest goose. At one time, there were an estimated 25,000 of them living in Hawai‘i back in the late 1770s. But hunters and predators such as the mongoose, pigs and feral cats have reduced the population to less than 30 birds by 1952. Today, and thanks to Slimbridge, the population is at around 2,500 birds in the state.

And they can also be found at all nine of WWT’s reserves.

“They have the golden key,” said keeper John Crooks. “They can do whatever they want.”

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There are even otters here, one of the most popular stops at the reserve. And for good reason. These North American otters — a mother and her two daughters — are playful and adorable. If it weren’t illegal, I’d probably have 12 in my backyard.

The otters arrived at the center in 2009 as part of its wetland mammal area called “Back from the Brink.” Crooks, who handles the otters, gives a quick 30-minute talk about otters while he feeds them every day.

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After the otter talk, we ventured outside the park and into the preserve. It was just a 20-minute walk along the wetlands.

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It was really quite spectacular to spend the afternoon here. And it wasn’t just about hand-feeding the nēnē, either (though I will admit that was one of the highlights). It was seeing how much people care about their natural environment and the animals and plants that are an integral part of it. These folks at WWT really believe in the profound importance about the wetlands, and that was the most inspiring part of our time there.

So yes, the nature reserve was beautiful. But more importantly, it was about how to keep the world this beautiful for other generations to enjoy.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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#CatTravels: Visiting Harry Potter’s world

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I met up with a girlfriend before we shoved off to London who told me, rather enthusiastically, that if I did nothing else in London, I had to go see the studio tour, “The Making of Harry Potter.”

Because, she said, if you’re a fan — and we both are — I will lovelovelove it.

Let me just tell you how much of a fan I’ve been of the book series: my sister and I rented a hotel room in Waikīkī to read the last book. Yes, we sat in a hotel room and read a book. Cover to cover. It was awesome.

Going to the actual set where all eight “Harry Potter” films were shot over a span of 10 years would be completely mind-blowing to this fan girl.

The films were shot in an area called Leavesden, just north of London. Leavesden Studios — now owned by Warner Bros. — is built on the site of RAF Leavesden, a former World War II airfield and wartime aircraft factory. (This is where some of the James Bonds movies were filmed, too.)

Once production wrapped on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ in 2010, the studio was left with a treasure trove of props, artifacts, photos, costumes and sets, all created specially for the film series.

In order to preserve these artifacts — and, let’s face it, still make some money off the franchise — Warner Bros. set up a studio tour where fans like me can walk down the Great Hall, meander down Diagon Alley (top photo) and even drink the famous Butterbeer. (Oh, I’ve been dying to try that!)

So on March 31, 2012, two years after the last film was shot here, the studio tour opened, sprawling over two soundstages and a backlot used in movies’ production.

The tour costs 31 pounds (roughly $50) per adult, 2 pounds more each for the bus from Watford Junction to the studio. You have to book your tickets in advance — you pick a time slot so the tour groups don’t overwhelm the studio — and find your own transportation to Watford Junction, where the tour bus will pick you up.

Here’s what the tour looked like — and I’ve toned down the gushing:

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Here’s the bus at Watford Junction. You have to catch a train here. We stayed near Euston Station, so it wasn’t too bad getting here. Maybe 40 minutes.

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We booked one of the latest tours — around 6:30 p.m. — so we spent the rest of the morning and afternoon touring around London. We figured this would be a nice way to end a day of sightseeing and eating. It turned out to be a great time to go since the tour was small and there weren’t that many kids screaming and running around. (I would’ve done that had I been 10.)

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The first stop on the tour is the Great Hall, incidentally the first place Harry Potter himself visited when he arrived at Hogwarts. It was really only fitting the tour started here. This is the actual set where the Great Hall scenes were filled. And lining the wall were costumes from each of the four houses.

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This was the actual set for the common area of Gryffindor, the house of which Harry and his friends were part.

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Remember this from the Chamber of Secrets?

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Here are the actual horcruxes from the movie. How exciting! I wanted to take one home!

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These are the portraits that hung on the walls of Hogwarts. Some of them feature production crew members!

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There were even displays of the various animals used in the production!

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Even the wands were all handmade. The boxes — and there were thousands of them — were handprinted, too. Amazing, the detail!

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One of my favorite parts was walking down Diagon Alley. This is another real set. Just wish the shops were open for business!

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Some of the thousands upon thousands of props created and used in the movies.

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Last but not least, the Butterbeer. It was really cream soda topped with a sweet cream. I liked it, but some people didn’t. Oh, well. Guess they weren’t fans.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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#CatTravels: Today’s Happy Shot

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I’ve been slacking on the blogging while in Scotland, mostly because I don’t have WiFi for very long — and I crash out as soon as I’m anywhere near a bed. Or couch. Or flat surface. (Stonehenge included.)

So I decided to post an enticing photo of one of my favorite things in Scotland: the ice cream. Made with local cream and fruits, it really doesn’t get much better than this. And yes, it’s great in cold weather. Never melts!

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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#CatTravels: Inside the Scottish referendum

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We didn’t plan this at all.

It just so happened we ended up in Scotland the week of the historic independence vote. More than 5 million Scots will hit the polls Thursday to answer one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

And right now, it could go either way.

The latest polls have suggested the result is too close to call. One survey published Wednesday afternoon put support for “Yes” at 49 percent against 51 percent for “No” when undecided voters were excluded. Another poll released earlier on Wednesday showed support for independence was at 48 percent, with 52 percent support for Scotland staying in the U.K., once undecided voters were excluded.

And social media is a-buzz with reasons to #VoteYes or #VoteNo.

But the real action is right here in Scotland.

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We just walked from Leith to Edinburgh this afternoon and passed dozens of people wearing stickers and pins declaring their support for either side. There were people waving signs and handing out flyers with information about the referendum on street corners, urging people to take a side at the polls tomorrow.

We even saw a farm in East Lothian, on our way back from a whiskey tasting at the Glenkinchie Distillery, with the words, “NO,” plowed into the fields.

I mean, this is serious.

On our way back from dinner at Monteiths on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, we came across a group of people gathered around a van parked at the top of Cockburn Street. From the van shot a huge spotlight with a scrim that read, “Yes,” on it, boldly displayed on the side of the building. (See first image)

And that was after a #VoteYes rally spontaneously gathered there and walked to the Scottish Parliament, several thousand strong. (Some were chanting, “Where’s your cameras, BBC?”)

This referendum is not just the biggest news here, it’s the only news. No one is talking or thinking about anything else — aside from maybe where to grab a pint after the polls close.

This is huge. If the results are in favor of independence, Scotland will transition to its own country by early next year. That means Scots will need to vote in a new government, decide on a new currency and figure out what to do next.

And that’s not something the Scots aren’t already accustomed to.

It seems, in every chapter of Scottish history, they’ve always made do with whatever they have. They’ve always figured it out — and succeeded. And I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Scots.

But the vote right now is so close: there are people who truly believe they deserve independence from Great Britain and should be allowed to make their own choices about what’s best for their country — and there are others who feel separating from the U.K. would be detrimental to the country.

At the heart of it, though, these Scots love their country, unconditionally and unabashedly, and this referendum has split a very spirited and proud people. To me, both sides are looking at what they feel is best for the country and its people. I believe that. But what’s best is what’s on debate, and each side has compelling arguments.

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We’ve been spending a lot of time with Andrew, head of social media at an independent digital consultancy in Edinburgh, whose loft at which we are staying. (He’s the guy in the photo above, on the left.) And he’s pro-independence — for all the reasons that make sense to me. They finally get a say in what happens to their country. They can get rid of the nuclear weapons stored on their land. They can keep the tax and revenue made from its oil reserves. I can’t help but feel sympathetic toward the #VoteYes folks.

Whatever happens, though, we’ll be here for it. Voting starts tomorrow morning and runs until 10 p.m. Then it will take several hours of counting each vote to determine the outcome, which is expected to be announced around 8 a.m. Friday. And then we’ll know.

No matter what the outcome, there will be revelry in Edinburgh — on the streets and in the pubs. And either way, I’ll be toasting the beauty of democracy.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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#CatTravels: My take on London’s tourist spots

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London is one of the world’s top destinations for travelers — and no surprise why.

The city is packed with everything: world-class museums, Broadway shows, dozens of public parks, boutiques and restaurants galore, a historic castle in the middle of the city with dungeons and jewels, and a 443-foot-tall Ferris wheel.

More than 15 million people from all over the world visit The City every year, making it one of the world’s most visited areas in terms of international visits.

I’ve been to London three times now, and there’s always something new to see. This time around, I got to visit Borough Market, Harrods Food Hall and Warner Bros. Studio Tours London (read: the set of “Harry Potter”) for the first time. And there were a few other spots — Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, Kensington Palace and the Lamb & Flag, possibly the oldest pub in London — that I missed. But since this was my husband’s first time to London, we planned on hitting some of the usual spots.

I believe that there are some places, no matter how commercialized or crowded, are must-stops on any travel list. Can you really visit Paris without a stop at the Eiffel Tower? And why go all the way to Peru if not to stop and marvel at Machu Picchu?

Same goes for London.

There are some things you just have to see. Some are worth the long queues (British for “lines”) and others, well, are not.

Here’s my take on a few popular London attractions — and you can decide whether or not you want to put them on your list:

Tower of London, London. Phone: 0844 482 7777

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What used to be called Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress is one of the top attractions in London, with more than 2 million people visiting every year. Interestingly enough, it has been a visitor favorite since at least the Elizabethan period with the most popular displays being the Royal Menagerie and suits of armor. Today, people wander around this complex of buildings, with the longest lines outside the torture chambers — of course — and the tower housing the Crown Jewels. There are beefeaters — yeoman warders — still working the castle grounds (though now more as tour guides), which adds to the whole experience. I’ve never been here without hoards of other people, so if you want to see this place, you’ll have to deal with that. But this historic castle on the north bank of the Thames is worth visiting at least once. As my husband said, “It’s a living, breathing history experience.”

British Museum, Great Russell St., London. Phone: 020 7323 8299

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The British Museum is one of those things: It’s there and it’s free, so you may as well go. (The museums in London are all free, though it’s suggested — and advised, really — to offer up a donation.) But you’ll be surprised how much is crammed into this historic building on Great Russell Street. Its permanent collection totals some 8 million works, among the largest and most comprehensive in the world. And on display is everything from the famous Rosetta Stone to the stuff the Brits stole from the Parthenon in Greece. If you want a quick lesson in world history, this is the place to go. Cameras are allowed everywhere, and you can even touch Egyptian artifacts. Personally, I love the clocks and money exhibits.

Westminster Abbey, 20 Deans Yard. Phone: 020 7222 5152

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Who doesn’t love Westminster Abbey, the stunningly beautiful gothic church in the City of Westminster where countless royalty have wed, including Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. While you could just photograph the exterior — it’s one of the most photographed buildings in London — you can tour some exhibits including a collection of royal and other funeral effigies and the graves of such significant historical figures as Jane Austen, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. And with Parliament and Big Ben just across the street — not to mention the Tower Bridge and other attractions — a stop at the Abbey won’t derail your London plans.

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road. Phone: 44 (0)20 7942 5000

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This was the first time I’ve been to the Natural History Museum — or anywhere in that area — and I was pleasantly surprised. This museum is home to about 80 million life and earth science specimens in five collections, even some collected by Charles Darwin himself. The big draw here is its dinosaur skeletons, which weren’t accessible when we went. (The exhibit was closed for maintenance.) It was adequately interesting — but I probably wouldn’t go back.

Harrods Food Hall, 87-135 Brompton Road

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The last time I was in London, people bugged me about not going to Harrods, the upmarket department store in Knightsbridge. This store, which sprawls over 5 acres, is best known for its food hall. Like the department stores in Japan, the bottom floor of Harrods is dedicated to all things food, from tapas to high tea to gastropub fare to high-end produce and goods. We actually didn’t have that much time to wander around, but the quick walk-through — with a nice meal at one of the restaurants — was enough to entice me to come back.

An old-fashioned English pub

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The short answer? Yes. Pubs are a must. And it doesn’t really matter which one you go to. Most of them are the same, serving British ales (warm) and traditional pub fare like fish and chips and meat pies. We found this one — Jack Horner — by accident, walking around looking for another restaurant. It sounded inviting — who doesn’t love nursery rhymes? — and there wasn’t any line to get in (bonus). So we walked in, grabbed a table, ordered some grub, including a cottage pie and chips with London’s legendary Brown Sauce, and called it a night. A great night.

Follow Cat on her #FoxHoneymoon to England, Scotland and Ireland on Twitter @thedailydish and Instagram @catherinetoth. Track her travels at #CatTravels.

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