The Great Smoky Mountains, USA

Ever wondered what it is like to visit the great wilderness of the Smokies? Two British Idiots did, and this is what they found.

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Look below for an English idiot’s view of the Smokies, including a stay in the deep forests, and visits to Clingman’s Dome, Elkmont, and Pigeon Forge. If you are travelling here, this is a must-read before you go.

Pelting rainfall followed by swift summer heat, incredible panoramas of mirror-still lakes, verdant trees and winding roads as far as the eye can see, slipping like gloves into thick cloud coverage. A Vegas-style town dumped in the middle of the wilderness—lights, music and alpine rollercoasters. Ghost towns nestled in the trees, a still image of times long gone. These are the most intense memories of a place beyond splendid.

The dream was a wooden cabin in the thick of the woods, quaint and secluded in trees, and fifteen miles from the nearest town. Branches hung thick over what might be described more accurately as a tree house; the perfect location—we thought. The reality was actually two English idiots living in the wilderness, frightened by the calls of wild animals and the worrisome nightly noses that seemed to close in after dark. Insects threw themselves wildly at the windows, yowls and barks filled the silence. We soon realised we were very poorly prepared to deal with the real American outdoors. The dark was a complete dark, open eyes or closed eyes made no difference. We made sure we had everything ready for the night to come before the sun fell. Feeling vulnerable was an understatement. In reality, we found, the thick of the wilderness was a daunting place to stay. Even during the day we didn’t stray far on foot and kept our eyes about us. We carried walking sticks, not really knowing what we would do with them, but they did offer a little comfort.

Clingman’s Dome is a major tourist attraction; the highest mountain in the Smokies, and therefore presumably, boasting the very best views. We looked forward to a secluded, possibly romantic spot, to look out over the clear horizon, over heads of trees and blue waters, and soak in nature at its finest. The reality, when we got there, was insufficient parking, thick crowds of people and a foggy outlook. We circled the inadequate parking lot for nearly half an hour before admitting defeat. Jumping out a short photo session was possible, only to realise the low cloud coverage had all but obscured what would have been an incredible view. Even at 2000 metres, the humidity was stifling, so I was glad to recline back into our air-conditioned vehicle. This is probably best visited on off-peak times of the year, or if this is not an option, early in the morning, before the crowds.

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Elkmont ghost town is also a stop worth seeing for most tourists. It is situated in the Little River Valley of the Smokies, in the state of Tennessee. In the early 20th century, it was the base for logging, providing nearby places with their building needs. Now it is deserted. The wooden cabins stand hauntingly like statues of times passed by. Being English idiots, we assumed an abandoned village would have hundreds of years of history; we were surprised to find that the buildings were just over 100 years old. This is old, perhaps, for America, but is barely scratching the history books for an English country couple; I was raised in a black and white cottage, in the English countryside, with a plaque over the fireplace reading ‘1601’, where my mum often digs up little medicine bottles from the 1800s, and arrowheads from the Stone Age in the back garden. Despite this, Elkmont had an awful lot of charm and told an enchanting story of a life and a time that is nearly forgotten. It was only a snapshot of what life must have been like, and undeniably immersive.

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Pigeon Forge was a town that immediately struck us as tourist central—it was Dolly Parton’s Vegas. A seaside resort, slash theme park, dumped in the thick of the forest. We enjoyed the ‘only in America’ feel of the area with its bright lights, and attractions in an onslaught of colour. There are all manner of entertainments to be found: alpine rollercoasters, go carts, mirror mazes, out-of-this-world crazy golf courses and a choice of excellent night time horse shows. It is a shame a lot of people might go here thinking they had seen the Smokies, when in fact there is a lot more to offer. It is in stark contrast to the tranquil hills and treetops half an hour’s drive outside town.

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Of the more ‘different’ attractions included ‘Goats on a Roof’. Which, surprise it or not, is exactly what it says on the tin; The goats live between a hilarious inter-network of platforms between the buildings, and can be fed by tourists by a pedal-powered conveyor-style device which lifts a cup of food to the storey above; the goats are well accustomed to this. Often, the goats allow the food to comically fall over their heads before devouring it. The best view for this is an upstairs window overlook, which can be entered from the ground floor shop. The goats seemed to worship this contraption, rubbing their head against the still mechanism, waiting for it to move.

One of several shows available is the Dixie Stampede—which seems to get the best reviews of the area. It is a dinner show, with fantastically behaved animals. I was brought to tears by the beautiful bond the riders had with their horses, and there is the chance to pet them if you get there in good time before the show. You can see herded buffalo, ludicrous little racing Shetlands and baby pigs. If you are an animal-lover then this is a must-see! It was a powerful and entertaining show with a patriotic ending. I left with a feeling that I knew more of what America is really all about by the end of it.

The meal that came with it was more than sufficient—but that might be coming from an English girl with a very small appetite. I was saddened to see the waste at the end—whole chickens left uneaten—especially when there was the choice of a doggy bag to take the food home. Being that we were travelling, we took all our excess food back, and it lasted us two days and was superbly good. When booking seating, we didn’t understand—being English idiots—that you get to choose North or South, and on the night it determines whether you are on the North or South side of the civil war.

 

New Orleans and Plantations

If you are going to New Orleans or the area, make sure you read this first!

New Orleans

The city that defies America in a clash of colour, music, life. It is oozing culture from every street corner. The French quarter feels truly French with its filigree balustrades and shuttered windows—this centre of the city is filled with gossamer handrails. Foliage drapes over balconies; emerald waterfalls into the street.  This city didn’t have the hugeness and exaggeration of most things ‘American’ but was more of a pinch of finely selected herbs, delicate and very nearly European. The streets feel quaint and unassuming; a territory of quaintness, with its yoghurt pot colours—a western vibe, in fluorescent. There were ladies on bicycle wagons with colourful neckerchiefs, alive in art with the numerous galleries to be found around the centre.

It feels as though the outside world always associates New Orleans with the terrible tragedy of Katrina, but the people, and the city pulses with vibe and positivity—cheer, even. It is a city seeming to want to forget the bad and move on to the better.

Most of all, the area is not threatening. It is a very comfortable place to wander through. Despite staying on the outskirts of town, in what some may call a ‘questionable area’, we found the people to be very friendly, and more interested in us and what we were doing as tourists rather than causing us any trouble. The locals were excellent fun to converse with, and many had never met a person from England, which was an interesting experience for them.

It is also worth seeing the flea market in the French Quarter, and Audubon Park, which has a different vibe entirely. A Segway tour is a good way to see the city, taking you to all the major sites. Complete with training and knowledgeable guide. Summer is a bit warm for such an excursion though, unless you feel heat is not an issue. City Segway Tours is one of others to choose from.

At the waterfront can be found a softer atmosphere. A more laid back life, watching the Mississippi flow by. But this is still not devoid of culture. Listen out for the tones of the Natchez’s boat pipes, belching out tunefully from the riverside for a mile around. These are played by a pianist on the roof of the ferry. The boat itself seems to be driven by waterwheel and entirely made of wood but, as the waterwheel was running steadfastly when the boat was stationary, this may be a deceptive driving force of the vessel. Tickets can be brought from the water’s edge and you can take musical experience up and down the river. Even if you do not decide to ride, the atmosphere is enchanting.

Many people associate the city with its history in Voodoo. There is a Voodoo museum you can visit in the city. There was a lot of information which negates the classical idea of Voodoo, and although worth seeing, it was a dusty collection, and far smaller than expected.

The Mardi Gras festival, held in February, is the pinnacle of the year, although we were not lucky enough to be there during the festival itself, I understand it is a memorable and very colourful parade where the streets come alive with masked people, costumes and floats.

Plantations

Around the New Orleans area can be found a number of plantation houses. If you don’t have access to a vehicle, then there are numerous places offering excursions to visit one or more from the city. These will often pick you up from your hotel and give you a lift back afterwards.

We visited the Evergreen Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. which is what I believed to be one of the more well-known houses, due to its use in films locations for movies such as Django Unchained and hit series such as the new Roots, although this is one of a choice in the area.

The campus of Evergreen is enchanting with its abundance of the charming moss-draped trees that can be seen lining the long driveway. They remind me of hump-backed old ladies with weather-beaten faces; the ones who speak to no one and drape too many shawls over their shoulders, struggling with twenty shopping bags. And you wonder whether they have a home to go to as they pass you by.

There are grasshoppers the size of your hands that are fairly happy to be handled if you have bug-lovers in the party, and both outhouses, slave houses and machinery that has been saved from the time when this was a working plantation house.

Best part of all was the tour guide, a local, with all the charm, character and enthusiasm that you would hope for in a place with such a colourful history. He spoke melodiously about the architecture, the history of the slaves and their jobs around the plantation, the machinery, the local area, the foliage, the families who had inhabited the house over the years, the use of the location in film and TV, and he did it all as though it was the first tour he had ever taken. He was very informed, and his talk made the trip very worthwhile, despite being so far out from the city.

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There are also numerous books and photographs lovingly labelled in the reception which detail more information to fill in the gaps between the talk. You can spend as much time perusing these as you wish, plus, if you sign the visitors’ book then your next visit is free of charge. The Plantation has seen several major stars in its time, not including those on film location, including the likes of Patrick Stewart. Interestingly, although the exterior of the house was used in a number of films, the interior wasn’t, due to its deceptive smallness, which could not be guessed from looking only from the outside.

Pictures captured using Lumix TZ80, August 2016. Apologies for the focus, it was the first time I had used the camera, and with far too much enthusiasm, I took pictures which were terrible quality. Best viewed small! Later are much improved.

 

Florida, USA

Florida: the first of 11 states we travelled through this summer.

In a nutshell—what to say?

Hmmm.

I’m going to outline our travels around Florida 2016; the first of 11 states in our travels this summer. I hope to give you a feel of each of the places we visited, being Miami, Everglades, Kennedy Space Center and a lovely pretty island called St Georges. Then a bit of advice about weather, accommodation, dangerous things and other useful stuff. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, I feel a bit of poetry is always in order!

Into the undergrowth:

Airless humidity.

Tangles of mangrove forests and thick-legged spiders.

Scampering crabs and the shy shadows of manatees.

The lurking, blank menace of an alligator’s gaze,

And logs with senses sitting stock-still on a ripple of water.

 

A wild raccoon resting in a tree,

Humbly takes food from a human hand.

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Into space:

Gasping humidity.

 

Space shuttles spanning 10 buses in length,

Stonking great exhausts and silver sided space ships,

Pieces of moon rock and meteorite and astronauts’ suits.

 

I wonder: the future.

The wonder: what is out there?

 

In the suburbs:

Rows of metal mailboxes all standing sentinel,

The dense urban musk of day-old sun-warmed garbage

Hanging morosely like five-day-old body odour.

 

Diamond-touched beaches,

Breeze-tickled palms.

Sand stretching into blue and beyond.

Oh, and did I mention the humidity?

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Those are the images I get when I think back to Florida.

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-Miami-

We stayed in South Beach (SoBe). The air was rank with gently roasted garbage and warm sewage— having lived in the mild-climate of England for most of my life, this is not something I am used to. The locals seem to barely notice the stench as they pace on by in their daily routines.

As for many of the streets, you could be in almost any city in the world—almost any—the humidity and temperature was certainly notable, but the one thing that sold it for us, the one thing that set it apart from many of the other cities in the world, were the beaches.

What fantastic beaches!

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It’s palm tree paradise, and they’re so expansive, there was always a guarantee of finding a quiet spot if you’re willing to use your legs. Muscle beach was also a great place to sit and watch for a while—although it is probably more interesting for those who are attracted to men!

We found Miami to be much of a maze of one-way streets—which can make using buses a tad troublesome if you don’t check the timetable correctly. Walking seems to be the best way to get around in SoBe, but a bus is needed to get to the main city. We used a tour company to make sure we would not miss any of the best sights of the city: Miami to the Max.

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The tour did do exactly as advertised, but I wouldn’t have said there was very much ‘max’ about it; perhaps the name is a small part misleading. The tour stopped off at a variety places in SoBe and in the main city and we were able to mark them on our satnav to explore the next day with more time. On the tour, the art deco district was of particular interest, with its graffiti streets and walkways.

We saw Little Havana where we watched locals compete at Dominos and we brought a cigar from a heavy-smelling Cuban cigar shop—and we don’t smoke—they just smelled that good! We also visited a typical Cuban-style restaurant and had a traditional lunch. We thought it was wonderful—but then we had been living on saltines, sweet corn and almonds for nearly a week, so I am probably not the best to take opinions from!

We paid for a bundle to see the Stars’ islands boat tour. It was interesting, especially if you follow the lives of stars. Not something me or my husband do so we just enjoyed the air conditioning and views. The only problem we found was the person on the loudspeaker who was very difficult to hear against the engine of the boat; we felt we missed a lot of the commentary—which if we knew more about celebrities, might have been a real disappointment. You can sit on the open top deck but we saw people coming down afterwards looking like they were going to faint from the heat. Perhaps not recommended in the summer months…

-Everglades-

For us this was a whirlwind tour. We arrived late one afternoon and left the following morning, but it is surprising just how much you can fit into such little time if you keep busy.

Once again, we decided it was best to take some of the excursions. It seems difficult to see the area otherwise—especially in such a short time. On the afternoon we arrived we jumped onto one of Captain Jack’s Airboat tours. These are speedy air raft things that make a colossal noise and as they race through the natural mangrove channels; they are exhilarating. Despite being noisy, we still managed to spot some wildlife on our tour; the captain had an uncanny wildlife-dar and slowed the boat down well before so as not to spook anything. I was pleased to spot two alligators and a wild raccoon up close. The captains carry animal feed in their pockets and have partially tamed the raccoons who are happy to come out for a tasty morsel. We managed to take a few snaps. Some advice though: hold onto your hats, use the ear defenders (unless Tinnitus is now fashionable), and don’t take non-waterproof cameras. A well-tethered GoPro or similar is the only thing I would advise. Oh and hold on tight—to anything and everything.

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There are many mangrove and grassland tours to choose from, but Captain Jack’s included entry to an animal sanctuary which we were able to view after the airboat tour. At the sanctuary they had hourly alligator shows and we had the opportunity to hold a small gator.

We had planned to go on a Ten Thousand Island Tour  the next morning, but sadly it had to be cancelled. It was supposed to take us around the thousands of tiny mangrove islands spanning out towards the sea. There was also supposed to be the possibility of seeing dolphins. Instead we joined a more intimate and nature-focussed mangrove tour on a far smaller and quieter boat from the same company.

The boat could navigate into some of the really tiny channels and the chance of seeing wildlife is far likelier than on the airboat tours. We were lucky enough to see manatees and several alligators. There were also some frighteningly large spiders, some of whom had made their stretchy home right across the channel where our boat was traversing—we made a speedy head swerve to avoid getting a spider-plastered-on-the-face job. In hindsight, this might not be the best trip for those who suffer from arachnophobia.

The tour was very interesting and our guide very knowledgeable, but we were disappointed that we ended up having to pay extra for this tour—we felt they probably should have swapped this tour for the cancelled one and not charged the extra $10 as it was their fault we couldn’t go on the booked-tour we had been hoping for.

We stayed in a very nice motel called Everglades City Motel. It was spacious, clean and offered free use of Wi-Fi and bicycles. One of the guests said he had been going there for twenty years and he felt this was the best motel in the Everglades area—but I couldn’t vouch personally for the accuracy of this as we didn’t stay anywhere else.

The people there were very friendly—we met several, one of whom offered to take us out on his personal boat with beers the next day and go fishing around the ten thousand islands. This is something we would have loved to do (especially as our tour there was cancelled) but our itinerary was too packed—on these rare occasions some flexibility when travelling is very handy.

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The motel advertised ‘free use of bikes’ however we soon found this wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We had planned two hours in the evening to cycle a short route around the area but once we saw the bikes we had to significantly lower our expectations; we barely made it around the next corner. All of them were rusting through or had no breaks (or both). None had working gears and the wheels wouldn’t turn on some of them. We tried to borrow the two best but couldn’t manage to get farther than several hundred yards before they packed in and were utterly unridable.

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-Space Coast-

We stayed in a place called Coco which we chose due to its proximity to Kennedy Space Station and price (locations closer to the station were dramatically more expensive). We had a wonderful time staying in a room of a house belonging to a local—we loved using AriBnB for this reason—what a way to meet the locals (and their many pets)! We also wanted to see what life was really like in suburban America (as we see on the television in England)—and we got to live there with a local and were fed so much cake we thought we could never face confectionary again. A lovely lady.

In Coco there was also a planetarium close-by which we felt suited the tenor of our visit well. This would be a great place to take a family—especially because of all the interactive exhibits to play with before the show. I also understand there is a really nice beach close by, but we didn’t have time to check it out.

Kennedy Space Centre is well worth a trip if you have the slightest interest in space and exploration or if you have a young family. There is easily a day’s worth of activities on just the basic ticket, but you can also pay a little more to do some really exciting things such as have lunch with an astronaut. Tickets can be bought well in advance and I would recommend this because the ticket queues were quite long, and you will want to make the most of the whole day (rather than waiting unnecessarily in queues).

Most outstanding activities during the day were the imax shows, the fake launch, the Atlantis, the bus tour and the rockets on show outside (where we took many fantastic piccies).

I left convinced I should have directed my degree towards the sciences and become an astronaut! I was revaluating all my life choices. Is there any chance they need librarians in space to categorise space-y stuff? I doubt it. Doh.

-St. George’s Island-

St Georges was supposed to be a fairly random stop between long driving days—a nothing special kind of stop—a night to collapse for respite before continuing travels the following day—kind of stop. It ended up being far more than that for both of us.

My husband and I are always looking out for potential places to move to that are warm and cultured. Almost every place we have travelled to hasn’t made the cut for one reason or another (Switzerland came the closest but we decided it was too expensive). St. Georges was different. We both felt we could have lived here. There is something tranquil about the vibe of the place, something special.

We stayed in AirBnB property ‘Bay View Room#1, St. George Island’ with John. I would thoroughly recommend staying there if it is still listed and available. John, (the owner) is a very likeable man who has an extremely quirky property; it has little carousel sitting areas, a pretty blue trim and the self-named staircase-of-completely-safe-but-uber-scary-doomy-doom. He keeps lots of charming parrots (who frequently find themselves on your shoulder), plus has a hundred and one stories to tell—we would have just loved to stay longer and spend more time with him. He’s the sort of person who would be great to share some beers with on a winter’s night up on the widow’s walk. Room was nice with lovely view. There is a large living space shared with a maximum of three other couples but bathroom and bed is private. Place was very unique and (we felt) rammed with charm.

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It is a short walk to the better-than-beautiful beach which seemed to be very quiet and private, and we had a strong suspicion from people-watching that it is mostly used by locals. It was a relief to have some respite from the tourist scene.

Now to pad it all out a bit if you have the reading time…

Weather

 Hot and humid but not unbearable. Of course I can only speak for the summer months when we were there (July/ August). We were forecast rain and storms every day, but actually found that rain showers tended to be intermittent: short and hard with swift return to the sun. These showers cool everything down for a short time but equally leave everything uncomfortably humid afterwards. Sun is strong; I suggest a sun brolly if you tend to burn easily, and lots of sun cream, of course.

Bity Things

Yes. Nothing but a minor inconvenience for some, but happen to be my premier nemesis. I swell up like a weather balloon and look like I have caught some blotchy lake lurgy—not a sure-fire way to do the cool look! Two months later and I still had marks from the ones in Everglades.

There is also one other reason you have to be careful—mozzies can carry nasty stuff. Yup, someone I know fell ill and suffered hallucinations from a mozzie bite. They were very sick.

I have travelled to Laos and Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia and lots of other places with mozzies but I have never known them as tenacious as the ones in Everglades; they will do anything to get to their red nectar. The Everglades beasties bite though clothes, they don’t give a flying whatsit how much insect repellent you are wearing or how strong it is; they just grit their fangs and bear it. They are the vampires of the sky. My ankles were so swollen after that night that I couldn’t put my shoes on properly. Beware! There is only one way to avoid the worst of them: stay indoors after sunset. They are not too bad at all during the day but appear in their masses after dark. Just DON’T venture out. It’s not worth it! Stay indoors after dark.

Other things that bite are spiders and snakes, including the dreaded black widow. There are lots of them in the more remote places, but you are pretty safe in the cities. Be careful walking through long grass and anywhere off paths. It is very true that if you avoid them then they will most often avoid you.

Another thing that gives a really good bite are alligators, and yes, they are abundant in some places in Florida, but we never felt threatened by them because we never got too close. It’s the same rule again; don’t get near them and they won’t get near you. I’m also pretty sure they don’t go for anything that‘s not in the water, so stay well clear of the water’s edge and keep all hands and feet inside boats at all times.

Last thing that we came across (and luckily weren’t touched by) is poison ivy. As they say, “Leaves of three leave it be…” Although it doesn’t bite, it can leave a nasty rash and some people can have a dangerous reaction to it. At least I’ve never seen a poison ivy that can chase after you—that would make one hell of a YouTube vid though.

Food

Food is always an inconvenience for us. I often wish all bodily functions would cease during travelling. It would make life an awful lot easier. I am the antonym of a gourmet; I find eating an inconvenience when on the road. I aim to find the cheapest and least time consuming way of fulfilling my nutritional needs and then move on. I have been known to snack on a whole cucumber, chomping into it like one would an apple, so I am not the best person to ask about food unless you are similarly minded.

Cities are generally not the place to achieve this food efficiency. In South Beach where we were staying there were no large supermarkets; they were all small and selling poor quality produce at extortionate prices. If you have a car it would easily be cheaper to drive out to shop if you are looking to stay at least a few days and can stock up a little.

Lidl type stores seemed to be the best on price. Walmart was very cheap for junk food, but veg and fruit is expensive. Shockingly, we found it most expensive to eat healthily; you could buy eight large pieces of fried chicken for the price of one small bag of cherries. Interestingly, we also found people in the country were fatter than people in the cities even though eating healthily is so much more expensive. When we first arrived in Florida we purchased a cheap pan and one ring stove. This meant we could cook our own meals which saved us some money. Eggs were good value everywhere so we ended up with a very yolk-y diet for a while. We hardly ate out.

The people

The least friendly we had met of our travels, but I only say that because people didn’t go out of their way to meet us. People weren’t as interested unless there was money involved; in Florida there is huge tourism—people come from all around the world to be there—so I didn’t find this surprising; they must have met a million English people in their working lives and each one is pretty much like the last, I guess. In comparison, most other places in America people seemed really keen to meet us and get to know about our lives in comparison to their own, as we were theirs.

Travel

Buses around Miami itself didn’t seem too bad: they were on time, comfortable and clean. There is no subway that we could find, presumably because the land is so marshy. Taxies, as always, are expensive (for cheapskates like us anyway!). The rest of the time we had a car which is the transport method I would recommend, even in Miami. We didn’t use the public transport in Florida after we picked up the car so I couldn’t comment on the other places we visited—didn’t see a single bus in Everglades though.

Accommodation

Hotels seemed really expensive to us, many over $200 per night. Even hostels didn’t look that much better if you didn’t want a dorm room. We’re not willing to pay too much when we would only be in the room to put our heads on a pillow. If you look around there are some much cheaper Airbnb places. Some have some nice perks, for example, ours in Miami had a saltwater pool.

Hang on, that’s the first of 11 states we visited. (Although oddly enough we never noticed when we were travelling through two of them!). Guess I will catch you up on the rest of our travels another day.

Photography taken with Lumix TZ80 and GO Pro Hero 4 (fish-eye lens).

More than happy to answer any questions.