We’re Going Around the World (Again)!

Ever since Tim and I got back from our first round-the- world trip at the end of 2014, we knew we had to take time off again in the future for more extended travel. It’s totally a cliche, but once you have the travel bug, it’s a lifelong ailment.
After 3 years of saving and planning, we’re so excited that in January we’ll be starting a 20 month journey to 6 continents and 50ish countries!

Next year we’ll be traveling around Asia, Oceania, the Middle East and Africa, returning to the US for Christmas, and then heading out again in 2019 for Central/South America and Europe.

A lot of next year’s plans involve remote locales that require advanced planning, so we already have a pretty good idea of where we’ll be when.

Follow our adventure on this blog, or even better, come meet up with us!

Rough itinerary:

2018

January:

  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • China
  • Hong Kong
  • Macau

February:

  • Philippines

March:

  • New Zealand
  • Fiji

April:

  • Australia

May:

  • Malaysia
  • Singapore
  • Indonesia

June:

  • Borneo
  • Brunei
  • Thailand
  • Myanmar

July:

  • India

August

  • Sri Lanka
  • Maldives
  • Turkey

September:

  • Israel
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Madagascar

October:

  • Ethiopia (maybe)
  • Kenya
  • Uganda
  • Tanzania

November:

  • Malawi
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe
  • Botswana
  • Namibia
  • South Africa

December:

  • United States for a holiday break!

2019 (TBD, but loose outline below) 

January- April:

  • Guatemala
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador & Galapagos
  • Bolivia
  • Chile & Easter Island
  • Brazil

April- July/August:

  • England
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Hungary
  • Slovenia
  • Bosnia
  • Albania
  • Serbia
  • Kosovo
  • Macedonia
  • Montenegro
  • Bulgaria
  • Greece

Cleveland Rocks! No, Really.

Itinerary: 

  • Thursday – Fly to Cleveland, Ohio
  • Friday – Cedar Point
  • Saturday – Impromptu pub crawl
  • Sunday – Cuyahoga Valley National Park
  • Monday – Fly out

Dates: August 31 – September 4, 2017

Our Odyssey: 

What do Polish heritage, America’s densest concentration of roller coasters, Drew Carey, and a casino + Taco Bell + bachelorette party bar crawl all have in common?

Yeah, you guessed it – Cleveland, Ohio!

This unlikely vacation destination was my home base for 4 nights over Labor Day weekend with Tim and my best guy friend Jon. The idea came to me back in February when I was driving late at night from Madison, WI to Richmond, VA and passing through Ohio to sleep midway through the journey. I saw signs for Cedar Point, an amusement park famous for its roller coasters, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and Sandusky (which I only knew of from the movie Tommy Boy). It was those first two, though, that got me thinking – this would be a fun, and easy, place to come for a weekend getaway to enjoy the coasters and the national park. Since Jon and I went to Kings Dominion in Virginia at least once a week during summer breaks in high school, it seemed obvious he needed to come too.

We all arrived on Thursday to our Airbnb apartment in the Tremont neighborhood. Tremont is an up-and-coming area with a lot of shops, bars and restaurants, and a great view of downtown across the river. We got a delicious dinner at a taco and margarita bar a few blocks away and then retired for the evening. The next morning we would be up early to venture to Cedar Point!

As it was Labor Day weekend, I didn’t really pack any cool weather clothing – something I realized was a mistake after we stepped out of our car on the little strip of land upon which Cedar Point sits on Lake Erie. It was windy and cold, but not enough to be a real problem. Plus with all the walking around, I knew I’d warm up soon enough.

On our way into the park, a car drove by with their windows down yelling out, “Does anyone want free tickets?”. Even though we had bought ours online, Tim jumped at the opportunity for the tickets. With them in hand, he told me and Jon his plan – to sell them for less than the cost of admission by the ticket counter. Within 15 minutes he’d made $180, which we all agreed went to our food and drink fund for the trip!

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Cedar Point

We ended up having an awesome day at the park. Since it was chilly and a weekday, lines were pretty short. We were able to ride everything there that we wanted to (except for the 2 roller coasters that were closed due to wind).

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Jon and Tim on the Power Tower

That night, after talks of rallying and going out, we ended up ordering a pizza and crashing hard. Turns out a day full of walking and adrenaline totally wipes out 3 adults.

The next day, we ventured out to explore Cuyahoga Valley National Park, despite some chilly and rainy weather. When we got to the visitor center one of the rangers gave us some recommendations on hikes, but as we were driving out to get gas before making our way to the trail head, we decided, given the weather, that this might be a better activity for the next day…so back to Tremont we went, where we embarked on a mini-pub crawl through the neighborhood.

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Exploring Tremont – found a penny farthing

As it turns out, there is a large Polish influence in the area (as evidenced by the Polish Legion, the Polish festival going on that weekend, and the pierogis on offer at the bars), so after enjoying some potato-based food and drink we made our way downtown to the casino. We tried to teach Jon how to play craps, to no avail. We played for about an hour with no winnings to show for it and then headed to the Taco Bell Cantina around the corner. We had more luck there – at the bottom of each of the beers we ordered were little magnetic coins. When you collect all 4 designs, you win a free beer – which we did!

We ended the night at a pub where we met a bachelorette party. Things are foggy after that…

The next morning Tim and I made our way back to the national park. It was a beautiful sunny day and we loved hiking along a trail called The Ledges, which is lined with sandstone cliffs, a forest of green trees, and mossy terrain. We also visited the marshlands of Beaver Marsh. We didn’t see any beavers, though they allegedly do live there. We did see some mud puppies, turtles and birds in the water, however. To be a national park in the middle of Ohio (which is a little surprising in and of itself), it was very beautiful, and the park is obviously well-loved by the many people we saw hiking and biking around that day. One of the most unique aspects about this park is that it is spread out among and divided by various small towns, so you’ll be driving in the national park one moment and then out of it the next.

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Hiking the Ledges

That evening, our last in Cleveland, we all headed out together for dinner in Tremont. While I knew we would have fun going to Cedar Point and hiking, I honestly didn’t think Cleveland would be as fun as it really was. The city has a great vibe going for it, amazing restaurants and bars, and is close enough to Chicago and Detroit to be easily accessible from its larger neighbors. As unlikely as it may sound – Cleveland, Ohio makes one hell of a weekend getaway town!

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Tim taught me how to skip rocks on this stream below a covered bridge

Road-Tripping Around Portugal

Itinerary:

Dates: May 18-29, 2017

Our Odyssey:

An early morning flight back east across the Atlantic brought us into Lisbon around 11am that Thursday. After a cumbersome process, we procured our rental car and set out towards Sintra, Portugal’s palace playground about an hour outside of Lisbon.

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Town of Sintra

This is one of Portugal’s most heavily touristed areas, for good reason. Aside from the three castles we visited, there are mansions, monasteries ruins and gardens to keep you busy for days. A quick note on logistics – parking is difficult in Sintra. The city is old and its planning did not have car traffic in mind. People generally recommend coming via train or bus if visiting Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon. We were in our rental car of course as we were starting our road trip, but with a bit of research (thanks to our trusted Rick Steves guide) we were able to find easy parking just below town where we could take stairs up to the center of it all.

From there, we hopped on a tuk-tuk (not something I expected to see in Europe) for only a euro more than the price of waiting for the public bus to take us up a steep road to the Moorish Castle.

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View of the Moorish Castle Walls

This place, that changed hands so many times throughout history, now welcomes visitors from all over the world and of all ages. Looking around the castle grounds today, it genuinely looks like a large playground for adults and children alike. People are climbing towers, walking along castle walls, ducking into little nooks and picnicking on centuries-old ledges while taking in the stunning views surrounding the fortress. From various points in the castle towers, we could see the Pena Palace and the central area of Sintra, as well as many old aristocratic homes in the hillside. In many ways, this spot reminded me of Ehrenburg Castle ruins in Austria, though much more touristy given its location.

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Exploring the castle

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Exploring the castle

We ended our visit at the Moorish Castle with a picnic of our leftovers from dinner the night before sitting up on the castle wall. It was another one of those times where I realized that if I were to go back and tell my childhood self that in 25 years she’d be sitting on a castle wall in Europe having lunch with a man she’s wildly in love with, childhood me would have thought that was ridiculous. Thinking about it now as I type this, it kind of is.

Leaving the Moorish Castle, we walked uphill about 5 minutes to the Pena Palace. This palace is a real-life Magic Kingdom Disney Castle of Portugal – and so perhaps unsurprisingly it often gets compared to the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany for its over-the-top flourishes. The Pena Palace is pure whimsy from the first glance, with bright colors, dramatic shapes, and a splash of Moorish design beckoning your eyes to look at everything all at once.

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Pena Palace

After this palace and a brief meander through the garden, we caught another tuk-tuk back down to the town center and the National Palace, our last stop for the day. After the color overload of Pena Palace, the National Palace was a bit underwhelming. That said, I found some of the stories within far more interesting. The king who lived here was passive aggressive in a most delightful way. For example, when King John I’s wife caught him kissing a lady-in-waiting, rumors went flying. In response, he had the ceiling of one room painted in magpies (a symbol of gossip) and the words “Por bem” – for good. And then there’s the Stag Room – which honors noble families of Portugal with their family crests flanking the ceilings around the room. There is one blank space, however, representing a family that had schemed a revolt. The words encircling the room, “Honoring all the noble families who’ve been loyal to the king,” drive the point home.

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Twin chimneys of the National Palace

After our Sintra day trip we made our way to Évora, a small town with a Roman past in Portugal’s hot, dry center, famous for its cork and olive trees. Since we were arriving in the evening and we had already had a packed day, we left the sightseeing for the next day and made dinner our priority for the night. We ended up at a place recommended in our Rick Steves guidebook called Adega do Alentejano. The restaurant makes their own wine and so the feel inside is much like a cellar. It’s dim, homey and the specials are scrawled on the wall. We were both excited for our first truly traditional Portuguese meal. We ordered a carafe of the house wine, kept the appetizers of meats, cheeses and olives that they bring to the table (whether you order them or not), and each got a different meal. Tim ordered what was basically a cilantro soup (there was also fish and bread, but it was very cilantro-heavy and thus not for me). I, on the other hand, got the most decadently rich buttery golden codfish meal. I still think about that meal.

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Our amazing meal in Evora

Slightly tipsy and quite sleepy, we made our way back to the Airbnb we rented for the night.

The next morning we set out on a self-guided walking tour of the town, exploring the Roman ruins- most notably the temple of Diana which stands proud in the historical city center and the ancient baths that have been uncovered inside one of the public buildings.

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Temple of Diana

The most exciting, and mysterious, part of the area was yet to come, as we left the town center and headed out in our car to find some relatively unknown monolithic sites from around 4000 BC (that’s quite old). We started at the Great Dolman of Zambujeiro. A dolman, we learned, as a burial tomb. This one sits like a small man-made cave in an empty sprawl of land down a dirt road. There is hardly a parking lot or any signs – quite a contrast with the more-famous Stonehenge not too far outside of London. We then stopped by the small and lonely Menir dos Alemendres (5500 BC). A menhir is a standing stone and this one is thought to have some astrological significance, especially in relation to the next site we visited – the Alemendres Cromlech. Also dating from 5500 BC, this grouping of stones is 2000 years older than Stonehenge. TWO THOUSAND. The stones are arranged to reflect a celestial calendar, and like the first spot we visited, is unguarded – no entrance fees, scant signage, and totally open to explore.

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Megalthic structures from 5500 BC

Leaving the ruins behind, we then made our way to the charming town of Obidos – which is about as picture perfect as a medieval town can get, complete with a city wall, cobbled lanes, a castle and an abundance of flowers. We spent the day meandering the streets leading up to the castle. After stopping for lunch and a beer at one of the cafés, we popped into various shops. While Tim and I do not typically make purchases, I bought a wool shawl and Tim bought a metal rooster (yep, you read that right).

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Charming Obidos

That afternoon we made our way to Nazaré, a beach town on Portugal’s west coast. The beach itself is large and sandy, but otherwise not particularly unique. The town, however, is very fun. After checking into our Airbnb, we headed out to explore, starting by taking the funicular up to  Sitio, a neighborhood up on a hill overlooking the city and ocean below.

Sitio is very different from Nazaré proper. Nazaré is a grid structure. Sitio is twisted, cobbled alleys. Nazaré is full of restaurants, bars and touristy shops. Sitio is full of churches, street markets and locals. Sitio is the old soul to Nazaré’s festive spirit.

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View of Nazare from Sitio

As the time neared when the funicular was going to stop running for the evening, we made our way back to the station to head down to the city for dinner and a night out.

We ended up at another Rick Steves recommendation – right next to another couple with a well-loved copy of Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook. We had a good conversation with them about our shared experiences traveling around the country (and a little bit of politics) while indulging in a decadent (but surprisingly inexpensive) seafood meal and a bottle of Portugal’s special “vinho verde” (literally, green wine, but translates closer to “young wine”). Vinho verde is not quite sparkling but does have a fizz to it. After dinner we headed out to a few bars, where we enjoyed some beers and cocktails along the boardwalk, just feet from the sand.

The next day, we drove northwards towards the college town of Coimbre, with a few stops along the way. The first was to Alcobaca monastery, which was hands down our favorite in all of Portugal. This monastery is massive, and the passageways, tucked-away staircases, and hidden rooms leading to more hidden rooms make it an explorer’s playground. Hardly anything is off-limits – in the refectory we could even climb the stairs to the pulpit, from which the 12th century monks would read the Bible while other monks ate.

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Alcobaca Monastery

Alcobaca even has a love story of Game of Thrones proportions. Dom Pedro (King Peter I, 1320-1367) is buried in this tomb, with his lover Dona Ines de Castro in a tomb across the aisle of the church. Pedro had been married to Ines’ cousin, but secretly in love with Ines. When his wife died, he and Ines married in secret. Ines, and they had four kids. Pedro’s father was concerned these children would threaten the right to the throne of his first born grandchildren, so he had Ines killed. Pedro in response organized a massive uprising, and, as the legend goes, had Ines’ body exhumed, dressed in a bridal grown, placed on a throne, and then had the murderers kneel and kiss her rotting hand. Pedro then executed the two murderers personally, ripped out their hearts, and ate them (with a glass of vinho verde). Whoa.

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Cloisters of Alcobaca

After touring the monastery we visited Pastelaria Alcoa, which is the home of the pastel de nata that won best in Portugal in 2014. It was pretty yummy, but to be honest I liked all the ones I ate in Portugal!

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Always yummy

We then went to Batalha and the fancy late Gothic style Monastery of Santa Maria (built from 1388-1533). The monastery feels very heavy inside – large and weighty. Though there is one unique section that is actually quite the opposite, because it has no ceiling at all. Known as the “unfinished chapels”, the chapel was intended to house royal tombs. The king who commissioned it, however, died young of the plague, leaving his 6-year-old son as the new king. The building efforts fell to wayside and the space remains open to this day.

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Batalha

Our last stop en route to Coimbra was to the religious pilgrimage site of Fatima. In 1917, 3 children claimed they saw the Virgin Mary appear to them by the tree in the right hand side of the photo. Shortly after, a large cathedral was built, and in the 2000s, a new 9k seat auditorium was built to house the large number of pilgrims. Today. believers will drop to their knees at the new church and shuffle on their knees all the way to the tree (follow the white line in the plaza). We happened to arrive here shortly before a service let out of the new church. It was an interesting scene to witness as the crowds carrying framed pictures of the Virgin Mary marched out of the church. There had to have been thousands of people there, but even so, there was still plenty of empty space in the large concrete expanse between the cathedral and the chapel. I can’t even imagine the chaos and crowds during a major event.

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Fatima cathedral

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Pilgrims leaving the chapel

We then drove the rest of the way to Coimbra, home of the most prestigious and historic university in Portugal. After checking into our Airbnb, we started out to explore the city, which had a distinctly different feel from others we had been in. In many ways, it reminded me of Lyon, France, the city where I studied abroad. It was gritty, cultural, artistic and historical. We found a small hole in the wall bar where we had a few drinks before deciding we should probably go find some dinner. The restaurant our Airbnb host recommended was completely packed, so we turned to our Rick Steves guidebook (of course) and found another restaurant nearby.

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Coimbra

They were also completely packed, but said if we waited a few minutes they would have a table ready for us, and in the meantime, here are two glasses of complimentary house wine while you wait! This ended up being one of our top 5 meals of all time. We ordered more house wine, a savory meat and cheese plate, tomatoes with cottage cheese and honey, beef tenderloin, duck breast, and then lastly an amazing chocolate mousse. It was all simply divine and so very satisfying. I would go back to Coimbre just to return to this restaurant again.

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And this was just the apps

The next morning we explored the university, which is essentially the Oxford of Portugal. It was also graduation day, so it was very exciting to see all the enthused students and their families. We were able to go inside a few of the classrooms and hallways from the old courtyard, but the highlight for me was the stunning King John’s Library, considered one of Europe’s best Baroque libraries. It is home to 55,000 books from floor to ceiling. In order to keep out the humidity, people are only allowed in during set times in small groups. No photos are allowed in the library, but if you imagine the library the Beast gives Belle – you’re pretty close to the magic of this heaven of literature.

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In front of the library

That afternoon we had to head back to Lisbon, for one last night before flying out the next morning. We had a leisurely evening over a bottle of champagne and reminisces of our first trip together as husband and wife. A perfect conclusion to a wonderful trip, and a fitting start to the story of our marriage together.

 

Azorean Amore

Itinerary:

Dates: May 18-29, 2017

Our Odyssey:

After our whirlwind day and a half in Lisbon, we flew to the Azores on Saturday afternoon. It was about a 3 hour flight west from Lisbon – back towards the US – so it feels much like you’re leaving Portugal altogether. The Azores are one of the only remaining areas claimed during Portugal’s age of exploration that is still part of Portugal today. Today they are an autonomous region that is still technically Portugal but largely independent. And very remote. The cluster of islands don’t really have much else around their space in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

I hadn’t even heard of the Azores (beyond just a general knowledge that a place of this name existed somewhere in the world) before starting to research our Portuguese honeymoon plans. I came across a few blog posts about the amazing nature views, hiking and slow pace of life on the islands and decided to fit it into our plans. After all, Tim and I have loved every remote nature experience we’ve had – from Antarctica, to Svalbard, to Tasmania.

We landed mid-afternoon into the Sao Miguel airport. Being short on time, we chose this island as our home base for the five nights we would be there since it is the largest in the Azores, had cheap-ish direct flights from Lisbon, and had the most information available online in terms of planning a visit. Before heading to our Airbnb, on the central south coast of the island, we headed west in our rental car to Sete Cidades.

Sete Cidades is a beautiful lake nestled within the volcanic hills of the western part of the island, and is probably the most prolific site of the island – this is what is shown in tourist ads and postcards. However, it is very difficult to get a good view of it; not because of a lake of vista points (there are many right along the road), but because of the crazy weather the Azores are prone to. Basically, Sete Cidades sits in a cloud most of the time, so chances are, when you go to visit it, you will only see fog. And this was the case for our afternoon visit, despite relatively sunny and clear skies at lower elevations. The drive out of the way was not for naught, however, since we got to experience driving through the veritable cloud forest surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the bright pink flowers typical of the Azores, as well as find an old abandoned hotel that I’d heard was great for exploring (though not technically encouraged).

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Cloud view of Sete Cidades – not exactly inspiring

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Super creepy abandoned hotel – very inspiring!

It was just 30 minutes to our Airbnb in the town of Ribeira Das Tainhas. Driving through the towns of Sao Miguel really makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. The roads are all super narrow (not designed for cars), so for two cars to pass each other, they are literally mere inches away. Combined with hills and curves and it makes for pretty crazy driving. When we got to our place, our host came outside to greet us and show us around. We had the lower level of the house, which was fully equipped with bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen. The home sat on the top of a hill, with a sloping corn field separating it from the rocky shore, a perfect example of how dramatic the topography of the island is. All across the island, the terrain is hilly and the hills are steep. It resembled a landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book (oh, the places you’ll go…). As it turns out, the Azores are actually the tops of the tallest mountain chain in the world. It’s just that the base of these volcanic mountains sit on the ocean floor.

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Sao Miguel’s bright pink flowers shine bright even in the fog

Enamored with our home for the next 5 nights, we settled in and got to bed.

The next day, we woke up leisurely and explored the grounds around our place. Our door opened up to a large terraced yard overlooking the cornfield and the ocean. A makeshift path through the cornfield led us down to the ocean where waves crashed against rocks where local fishermen balanced with their lines cast. Oh and also to our private natural swimming hole and patio. The water was way too cold to jump in, but the fact that this perfect little spot exists made my heart happy.

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Inside of our Airbnb – cute and cozy!

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The view from our backyard

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Our coastal farmhouse!

Since it was a clear day, we decided to try our luck at a better view of Sete Cidades. We packed some sandwiches and headed out to the same spot we stopped at the evening prior. We were delighted to see that the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining down onto the view that the island is best known for. What makes this lake so unique is that it appears as though it is two lakes, one green and one blue – but it is actually just one, and the variation and color is an illusion that comes from a strip of land between the two sections and the reflection of the different types of foliage on either side. Crazy!

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Sete Cidades on a clear day – much better!!

As with many beautiful things in nature, there is also a bit of folklore around this lake. In this old tale, a grumpy widower King, who was obsessed with his daughter, forbade his daughter from talking with anyone other than him. Not wanting to live in such captivity, she managed to escape into the local hills while the king slept after his lunch. It was on one such escapade that she met a young shepherd. They continued to meet and fell in love. The boy proposed to her, and they excitedly returned to the castle to speak with the King to ask his permission. Of course, he angrily refused and forbade his daughter from ever seeing the  boy again. The princess and the shepherd cried all afternoon and their tears formed the twin lakes – one green, the color of the princess’ eyes, and one blue, the color of the shepherd’s.

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Green on one side, blue on the other

We took some pictures at the Miradouro do Rei (viewpoint) and then walked over to the abandoned hotel that had beckoned to us the night before. The Hotel Monte Palace was built in the 1980s to draw tourists to the scenic lake, but it turns out no one really wants to spend their vacation clouded in fog so after only a little over a year of being in operation, it closed its doors. Now, it stands abandoned and accessible to anyone bold enough to venture into its empty courtyards, hallways and rooms. We loved exploring the creepy remains of the luxury resort with its peeling wallpaper, graffiti and blocked-off elevator shafts. I’d never been anywhere like it before in my life – a place so large, so decadent and so empty and decrepit.

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Exploring the old hotel

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Abandoned lobby

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There was something hauntingly beautiful about the hotel’s raw decay

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But on a clear day, the view from the rooftop was pretty darn good

After we had our fill of this probably-haunted venue, we made our way to the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno, where we had read there was an amazing view over other volcanic lakes. After a wrong turn (we almost drove up a dirt walking trail on a hill because our driving instructions said to follow a dirt road, and only turned back when it was clear our little car wasn’t going to make it), we made it to the correct parking area. After a short hike up a steep trail, we arrived at quite possibly the most magical view on the island. Overlooking two volcanic lakes and their surrounding hills, the view somehow manages to create an explosion of color with a very small palate of blues, greens and browns. Inexplicably, the scene captures the rainbow and conjures up a feeling of traveling on the yellow brick road to Oz. It was, simply, a perfect spot.

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Boca do Inferno viewpoint is a fantastic spot for a picnic and a picture.

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These lakes are actually calderas of volcanoes – whoa!

After eating sandwiches Tim had packed for us, we pulled ourselves away from the magic and headed back to the car to make our way to the Ponta de Ferraria. I’ve mentioned a few times now that the island is highly volcanic, and thus is very geothermal. Ponta de Ferraria is one of the more unique spots on the island for experiencing  Sao Miguel’s thermal waters, because the hot springs flow out into the ocean. This creates a mix of hot and cold water, swirling around you as the waves bring in cold ocean water into the small swimming cove, then, as the waves pull away, leave hot water from the springs among the rocks. This was a really interesting place to swim, though not exactly relaxing – the waves were pretty rough so we had to hold ourselves in place using the ropes that served as the boundary between the swimming hole and the ocean.  After about an hour we climbed out and dried off on the hot rocks above, then made our way back towards our home.

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Path leading down to the Ponta de Ferraria hot springs

Our hostess had informed us of a grocery store nearby so we had done a bit of grocery shopping to be able to cook dinner and make sandwiches every day. We also stocked up on port wine (both red and white!) now that we knew how much we liked it! When Tim and I cook on the road, it’s typically one of a few things: 1. burgers and fried potatoes 2. some kind of stir fry 3. some kind of pasta 4. some kind of leftover stir fry mixed with some kind of pasta. Normally, we are very successful with these basic staples because you can pretty readily identify the ingredients in a grocery store in any country without needing to know the language. This got us into a bit of trouble later in the week, which I will come back to…

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Ponta de Ferraria – where hot springs and the ocean meet

The next day we were up fairly early as we had booked a whale watching tour from Vila Franca. The Azores are known for their fantastic cetacean viewing opportunities. While we did not see any whales, we did see many bottlenose and risso’s dolphins, the latter of which I’d never seen before! We also saw a few Portuguese man o’wars which were exciting to observe floating by, so innocent-seeming. Before returning to the shore, our boat took us around the Vila Franca Islet, a small, circular rocky island just off shore that is popular for summer sunbathing.

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Dolphin spotted by a fishing boat

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Portuguese man-o-war. More than a bubble, less than a jellyfish.

Our tour wrapped up just before lunch so we headed back to the house to eat and then set out by car to a trailhead in the town of Faial de Terra for the Sanguinho hike. The 4.5 km trail meanders uphill by farms and through forest to the waterfall Salto do Prego. On the way up, we ran into a rooster trotting down a side path towards the main trail. We stopped to watch him for a few minutes and take pictures (as tourists who find free-roaming chickens to be a novelty are wont to do). To our surprise, two hens then came marching down the trail to join him. Could this be a chicken love triangle? We took some more pictures of our cute new friends and set off on our way down the trail. We thought we were leaving them behind, but when we turned around, our trail buddies were prancing along behind us, seemingly eager to keep up. What were these chickens doing?? Were they seriously hiking this trail with us? They continued on right at our heels for 15 minutes or so before we had to cross over a small stream. That was the end of the road for our little pals, who turned around and went back to doing chicken things.

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Our new friends

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Just me and my crew #squadgoals

Soon we reached the waterfall, hidden deep and secluded in the forest. We stopped here for a break and enjoyed the solitude of the place, the sound of crashing water, and the humble vibrancy of the lush green foliage around us.

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Salto do Prego

The hike out of the forest took us a different way than how we’d come, this time bringing us to an abandoned old village of fairytale-perfect cottages. Apparently the village is being restored, though I am inclined to think they should keep it exactly as is – the air of mystery shrouding the rooftops sits like a fog over these empty homes, and I can’t help but think something precious would be lost if they revived the village.

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In the old town of Sanguinho

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The hike down

After our hike we carried on to the town of Furnas, which we had driven by to get to Faial de Terra. Furnas, like its name suggests, is known for its many hot springs, geysers and fumaroles. It also smells like rotten eggs, which is expected in such a geothermally active area. We walked around to see the geysers and then decided to reward ourselves after our hike with a dip in the hot springs at the Parque Terra Nostra, a resort in Furnas with a large hot pool, a few smaller ones and many walking paths through their gardens. The temperature of the larger pool is very inviting, but the mud brown color of the water is less so. Even so, this place has become known for the dirty color of their water, in a good way, and it doesn’t seem to deter anyone (including us!). We swam around the waters, stood under the water spouts delivering fresh hot water and generally relaxed for about an hour. We then checked out the smaller pools, which had clearer (and warmer) water, and a bit more privacy and comfortable seating areas. We ended our visit with a walk around the gardens to cool off followed by dinner at their restaurant.

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Bubbling hot springs in Furnas – don’t swim in this

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The golden (?) waters of  Parque Terra Nostre – swim in this!

While pricey, dinner was absolutely worth it. We even had a stew that was cooked underground by the heat from the hot springs.

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Furnas stew – cooked underground!

That night we were exhausted from our busy day, so it was a good thing we didn’t have much planned aside from relaxing for our third full day on the island.

We slept in the next morning and leisurely made plans for the day – which included stopping by a famous chapel and then touring a tea plantation.

The first thing you should know about the Vila Franca do Campo chapel is that it is easy to see up on the hilltop overlooking the town, but very hard to drive to. Google Maps has no clue how to get there and will send you in crazy directions if you take its word for it. We eventually made a turn on to a street that had a decrepit sign pointing the way and followed the makeshift markers up to the chapel. The second thing you should know is that it was built on this hard to reach spot because it is believed to be the site of a miracle. The third thing you should know is that you really won’t find much more information about it than that. There isn’t really anything online, and the plaque at the church just explains the story around the miracle.

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The legend of the chapel

What I can tell you, though, is that this is the prettiest chapel I’ve ever seen. Perfectly symmetrical stairs lead up to the chapel entrance, and every few steps it levels off at a small terrace with a blue and white tiled image depicting the story. Set among the rolling hills of the island with a view overlooking the town below and the ocean beyond, it is supremely picturesque.

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View from atop the chapel steps

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Beautiful Chapel of Our Lady Peace in Vila Franca do Campo

After visiting the chapel we drove north on the island to the only tea plantation in Europe – Gorreana Tea Plantation. Visitors can freely roam the production and packing areas as well as the fields of tea plants via a walking trail. The scenic path goes through the rows of tea, up hills and down, with views across the plantation and the ocean. They also give away free samples of their black and green teas, which you can sip while observing the staff manually picking out the tea leaves – I was surprised by the amount of work done by hand here.

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Sorting tea at Gorreana Tea Plantation

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Tea fields

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Walking among the tea leaves

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We had an awesome time exploring Europe’s only tea plantation!

That night Tim and I planned a delicious pasta meal. We bought a red sauce at the store and had lots of veggies and cheeses to accompany our meal. While we were cooking everything, we tasted the sauce we had bought. It was oddly pungent and sharp – not like a tomato sauce we’d had before. But, we figured, with the cheese and pasta and veggies it would probably be fine. So we combined everything in the bowl and set it to simmer. Maybe some of the kick would cook off, we thought. We gave the pasta another taste. We both tried to convince ourselves it wasn’t so bad, until finally I said, “I cannot eat this – but I think we can save it.” I put the pasta dish into a colander and ran it under water until all the sauce was washed off, while Tim got his shoes on to drive back to the store to buy actual tomato sauce. In the end our meal was delicious, but it goes to show that when you’re grocery shopping in a foreign country, you may accidentally end up with unfamiliar ingredients you don’t like very much. We still don’t know what kind of sauce that was – maybe an onion, garlic paprika sauce? In any case, if you travel to Portugal and the Azores and plan to make pasta, be mindful of what sauce you get!

That night after our satisfying meal and some port wine (our evening tradition at this point), we got to bed. While reading on my tablet, I saw a black shape scurry across the bedding between my face and my tablet screen. I leapt out of bed yelling that I saw something, still not sure what it was or if it had only been my imagination. Then I saw him on the bed – a house centipede. I dare you to Google Image it, and then imagine my terror at being in bed with one. Tim squashed him (sorry little guy), but I was too shook up to comfortably crawl back into bed. I paced around the house in anxiety, not wanting to be startled by such a creature again. The good news is there are harmless animals, and we read that they tend to come into the house via drains, so we plugged all the drains in the bathroom and shut the door, hoping this would keep any more from coming in. Reluctantly we got back to bed.

The next morning, we wrote our Airbnb host to let her know about the bug. We realized she probably couldn’t really do anything about it and accepted that this is just the price you pay for remote island life, but figured if she had any ideas, we’d be all for them!

This was our last day on the island as we’d be flying back to Lisbon early the next morning, and the theme for the day was lakes and hot springs! We started with a visit to Lagoa do Congro, which sits nestled among a forest, reflecting the vibrant green of the leaves in its waters. I’ve never seen such a perfectly green-looking lake.

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Lagoa do Congro – so much green!

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And a hint of blue in the shade 🙂

Then, a bit of a drive away, we visited Lagoa do Fogo, which sits among the island’s dramatic hills. On a clear day, from the viewpoints overlooking the lake, you can see the ocean on either side of you as you look to the north and the south parts of the island. The view is simply awe-inspiring and we spent about an hour just sitting at the top of one of the hills resting and eating lunch. We also had one hilarious attempt at a selfie using the self-timer on Tim’s camera that resulted in a very silly sequence of 4 photos in which we initially were not prepared, then angled wrong, then the camera tipped over, and lastly we just couldn’t stop laughing.

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We finally got our crap together and managed a decent photo

Our next stop was my least favorite thing on the whole island – the Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiros. It’s a park with some short trails and around a hydroelectric facility and some waterfalls. It’s “fine” – but very small, not very natural and nothing to go out of your way for, in my opinion. Shockingly, one travel blogger I’d read had said this was one of her favorite places in all of the Azores.

Afterwards we ventured to the Caldeira Velha, a very natural and almost prehistoric-feeling hot springs spa. The spa is really more of a lush garden with a few hot pools and walking trails. It’s truly beautiful and very relaxing to be in an environment that didn’t feel built up or altered for commercial purposes.

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Caldeira Velha

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Caldeira Velha

We ended our day laying out at the private swimming hole at our Airbnb. It was still too cold to swim, but laying there with the waves crashing on the rocks around us felt like such a perfect way to end our Azorean adventure. We spent the evening unwinding and repacking, gearing up for our road trip around Portugal that we’d start the next day!

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Our swimming hole

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Best Airbnb ever (minus the weird bug thing)

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Honeymooning 🙂

Springtime in Lisbon

Itinerary:

  • May 18, Thursday: Fly to Lisbon, Portugal
  • May 19, Friday: Explore Lisbon
  • May 20, Saturday: Explore Belem and fly to Sao Miguel, Azores
  • May 21-24, Sunday-Wednesday: Explore island of Sao Miguel
  • May 25, Thursday: Fly back to Lisbon, drive to Sintra and Evora
  • May 26, Friday: Tour Evora, Obidos and overnight in Nazare
  • May 27, Saturday: Tour Alcobaca, Batalha and Fatima and overnight in Coimbra
  • May 28, Sunday: Tour Coimbra and drive back to Lisbon
  • May 29, Monday: Fly back to US

Dates: May 18-29, 2017

Our Odyssey:

I promise this isn’t going to be yet another article about why Portugal is “having a moment” in 2017 – in fact, I’d like to go on the record saying that Tim and I had been planning a trip to Portugal for a few years now, long before Travel & Leisure, the Huffington Post, Forbes and many others bestowed such accolades on Portugal as “travel destination of the year”. This will, however, be a chronicle of our adventures in this lovely country that we just happened to visit during its “moment” (so-designated because all the other western European countries have been over-covered in the travel mags and blogs, it’s relatively cheap, and has not had the same level of terrorism threats as England, France or Belgium in recent years).

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View from our amazing hotel, the Fontecruz Lisbon

And though I’m normally the one who decides where Tim and I travel, this was actually a destination he picked out a few years ago, during our 2014 RTW trip. Portugal wasn’t on our itinerary then, but Tim had said we should plan to come back to explore this country within the next few years. So, as our first vacation as a married couple, we ventured off for a week in Portugal and the Azores Islands.

We tagged our flight on to our business trips to Atlanta, so we flew from Atlanta to Lisbon via Madrid on a Thursday night red eye, landing in Lisbon mid-morning on Friday. We checked in to the Fontecruz Lisboa, an Autograph Collection Hotel with Marriott (booked using points), and were thrilled to be upgraded to the presidential suite. We were groggy and the king bed was inviting, but we wanted to make the most of our time so after freshening up and downing an espresso each, we ventured out to explore the city by foot.

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Streets of Lisbon

We were following Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook recommendations and started with his three-part walking tour of Lisbon. We began by exploring the Alfama, the sailors’ neighborhood dating from the 6th century AD. Our first stop was to be the Sao Jorge Castle, but just getting there proved to be more challenging than we expected. Since you can see the castle sitting up on a hill from many points in the city, we thought it would be easy enough to navigate our way there.

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Castle on the hill – our destination. Shouldn’t be too hard to find, right?

We were wrong – as you get closer and closer to the hills, the streets and alleyways take ambiguous trajectories, and it was not long before Tim and I had walked in a near complete circle before realizing we had no idea how to actually get up to the castle itself. After a lot of walking in the wrong directions, we found a stairway that led to the top. Once at the top, we still had to find the castle entrance and the ticket office (which aren’t as close to one another as you might want).

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View from atop the castle hill

Through all of this we ended up being very lucky- when we got to the ticket office, there was no line at all and the castle grounds themselves were not stiflingly crowded (a contrast, we would find, from some of Portugal’s other popular sites). Now a bit about this castle on a hill – it was originally built by the Moors in the 11th century as a home for the army, but was seized by Afonso Henrique (Portugal’s first king) in 1147 and was the royal home for centuries. The castle itself and the neighborhood surrounding it bare the marks of Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Portuguese dominance, testifying to the complex history of the region.

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From the castle window out to the city below

Departing from the castle hill, we meandered down through the castle town until we arrived at the Fado Museum. Wanting a break from the heat, we decided to pop in to the museum and learn about this Portuguese folk music. The museum itself was humble but informative. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for it, but if you are short on time and won’t have a chance to take in a live fado show (like us), then this is a good way to learn what all the fuss is about.

At this point we had worked up a substantial appetite, and when we saw the sign for paella at the restaurant across the street from the museum, we decided that was the spot for us (never mind that paella is more of a Spanish meal…).

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Walls are lined with tiles everywhere in Lisbon

After our meal, we continued on to the next part of the walking tour, into the historic downtown area (Baixa). The most fascinating stop for us in this part of town was the Church of Sao Domingos and the square just outside of it. This church is the most powerful visual reminder we saw of a tragic event that occurred in 1755 on All Saints’ Day Sunday – a massive earthquake that shook the entire city. The ceilings of churches like this one crashed in on their congregations, killing thousands in the rubble. Immediately following the quake, a 20-foot tsunami slammed the shoreline; meanwhile, candles that had fallen in the quake ignited what remained of the city in a fire that blazed for 5 days. All told, over 10,000 people died from this event. The Church of Sao Domingos has been more or less rebuilt, but the walls carry the marks of the earthquake and the subsequent fire. You can almost see the ghosts that must haunt this place.

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Church of Sao Domingos where you can still see the damage from the fire of 1755

The square outside the church has a story no less tragic. It once was home to a palace that was the center of the Inquisition (this palace was destroyed in an attempt to forget this part of history), was the site of a massacre of the town’s Jews in 1506, and served as the 16th century slave market. Between all of this and the earthquake/tsunami/fire, I can only think of a few other places Tim and I have visited with a comparably horrific history.

So yeah, that was heavy. Thankfully the next stop was for a drink! All around Lisbon small shops sell ginjinha, a potent mix of the cherry-esque ginja berry, sugar, cinnamon and brandy. It’s delicious, and inspired us to make our own take on it using a cherry bounce recipe back at home – yum!!

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Om nom nom

Following our ginjinha tasting, we made our way to the Bairro Alto neighborhood and to my second favorite stop of the day (the best is yet to come!)- the Port Wine Institute. Up until this trip, I thought I hated port wine. Tim and I had tried it once a few years ago when we were making a chocolate dessert recipe that called for a tablespoon of port wine and the only bottle at the store was a gallon size. We bought it anyway figuring we’d drink it (hey, it’s wine!) but it was so overwhelmingly sweet we ended up dumping it out. But coming to Portugal, the home of port wine, we opened our minds and decided to give it another shot (especially since our gallon of discount port was certainly low quality). We are so glad we did – at the Port Wine Institute (home of the most extensive selection of port wine) we tried both a white and a red port and loved them both. And we hadn’t even known there was such a thing as white port!

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ENJOYING port wine for the first time ever!

Our walk continued on through the Bairro Alto, where the highlight of the day was a visit to Cervejaria da Trindade, a bar that is actually a former monastery-turned-brewery. We enjoyed a few drinks each in the old refectory and soaked in the unique atmosphere before then making a tipsy visit to the largest used bookstore in Lisbon, Livraria Barateira. This is also the point at which we realized Rick Steves was trying to get us drunk. It worked.

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Tim looking strangely biblical by the pulpit

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Enjoying yummy beers at a monastery-turned-brewery

By this time it was evening and the city was alive with people eating and drinking on outdoor patios. The atmosphere was festive and energetic, though we were losing steam after a full day of walking (my tracker on my cell phone said we went 12 miles!) on very little sleep.

We made our way back to our hotel and got a dinner recommendation for a seafood place just a few blocks away. Motivated by hunger, we hustled to the restaurant, ordered, and then ate in a zombie-like stupor before practically sleep-walking back to the hotel.

The next morning we ventured out to the Belem area of Lisbon. This is an historical area by the ocean that I think is best characterized as the tribute to Portugal’s seafaring exploratory past. We started by visiting the ginormous Jeronimos Monastery (it would be the first of many monasteries we’d set foot in in Portugal). King Manuel directed the construction of this white limestone church and monastery in 1495 in celebration of the Portuguese explorers’ success. Fun fact, the church was built near the location of a small chapel where sailors would pray the evenings before embarking on long voyages. The church and cloister are good examples of the “Manueline” style (the name of which comes from King Manuel and the many buildings he commissioned during his reign), which combines late Gothic and early Renaissance attributes.

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Jeronimos Monastery

Exploring the monastery was – at first – very overwhelming. There were large cruise ship tourism groups funneling and shuffling into the church (which is free to enter). Tim and I were planning to tour the monastery itself anyway so we thankfully got to take a shorter line inside the monastery to buy our tickets and then set off to explore. The cloisters are the most notable feature here – beautiful arches and columns line the halls surrounding the grassy green lawn.

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Cloisters

We were also, thankfully, able to get a pretty good view of the church (without waiting in the maddening line) from the upper level balcony that looked down into the sanctuary.

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We thankfully were able to avoid the insane crowd below!

After touring the sanctuary, we headed over to the shoreline where there is a long boardwalk lined with craft stalls and food carts, all next to the Monument to the Discoveries. This monument, first erected in 1940, also honors Portugal’s age of exploration, but the coolest part, in my opinion, is the map of the world charting the exploration routes on the ground in front of the statue.

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Monument to the Discoveries

At the opposite end of the Belem area from the monastery is the Belem Tower, which has guarded the harbor since the 1500s. We were short on time and it was hot outside, so we didn’t make the schlep to get close, but allegedly it offers interesting views from the top.

Before heading back to hotel, we stopped at a famous pastry shop – Casa Pasteis de Belem – which is known as being the birthplace of Portugal’s delicious cream tart (pastel de nata). They serve them up fast and warm and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. I ate probably a dozen during this trip.

We then headed back to our hotel to catch a ride to the airport – we were setting off 930 miles west of mainland Portugal for 5 nights in the mysterious Azores Islands!

 

Rhode Tripping – A Day Trip to Newport, Rhode Island from Boston

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to Boston, Massachusetts
  • Friday: Drive down to Newport, Rhode Island (about 2 hours away) for the day 
  • Saturday: Wedding in Boston
  • Sunday: Fly back

Dates: June 29 to July 2, 2017

Our Odyssey:

While planning a trip for me and Tim to the Boston area for a friend’s wedding, we decided to take a day trip down to Newport, Rhode Island. We’d heard good things about the coastal town, and I’d not yet visited the state (it was my 44th one!). Bonus, one of my best friends, Ashley, was off work that Friday and free to join us on our mini-adventure.

We drove down from Boston and started at the Breakers Mansion. This is one of many old and historic mansions along the coast in Newport. What makes the Breakers noteworthy is that it was another family home for the Vanderbilts (who were a very wealthy family in the United States). Constructed in the late 1800s, it’s a good example of the “Gilded Age” – a time when it was very in style to show off your wealth in the most extravagant means possible.

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Not a bad view from the Breakers mansion!

Touring the home felt like touring palaces in Europe – not something you can typically experience in the US. Also, having listened to dozens of audio guides around the world, I can say with confidence that the guide for the Breakers is one of the better ones I’ve listened to.  The information was interesting, relevant and well-paced, and it was easy to understand where to go next on the tour. I would recommend touring this mansion if only for that!

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Fancy mirror selfie with Ashley

Afterwards, we ventured to downtown Newport and had lunch at an Aussie-style café, followed by a walk along the Cliff Walk – a walking trail at the top of the cliffs with the ocean on one side and the mansions on the other. The weather was great and the path wasn’t too crowded. It made for a scenic stroll and good conversation.

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Cliff walking!

All in all, Newport was a worthwhile day trip for someone who has already spent extensive time in Boston and wants to explore another state. I can see the nightlife being fun and the food great, as well. That said, there wasn’t anything particularly unique about Rhode Island as compared with other New England coastal locales. It was beautiful and a bit posh, but predictable.

Of course, the highlight of any day exploring with a good friend you don’t get to see often is catching up and spending time together – and for that, I’ll go anywhere!

Have you been to Rhode Island, or are from there? What do you love about the state? Where would you recommend I visit on a return trip to Rhode Island? Let me know in the comments!

 

Why South Dakota Belongs at the Top of Your USA Travel Plans

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to Rapid City, South Dakota
  • Friday: Explore Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Mammoth Site
  • Saturday: Explore Badlands National Park, Minute Man National Historic Site, Wall Drug Store, Chapel in the Hill, Dinosaur Park, and downtown Rapid City
  • Sunday: Fly back

Dates: July 27-30, 2017

Our Odyssey:

South Dakota is an oft-forgotten state. International and domestic tourists alike are more drawn to New York, Miami, Vegas, Disney and Hollywood than to a relatively empty “fly over” state that has only gotten attention recently for the protests against the unethical Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation.

But there’s a lot more going on in this hidden gem, and one day this past spring while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw an ad for South Dakota. I am very susceptible to Facebook ads (I got my former job via a Facebook ad, have subscribed to 4 different subscription boxes, and have spent hundreds in Beachbody products – all from Facebook advertisements). So if my newsfeed recommended it, I would probably like it. (I’m being tongue-in-cheek here – I promise I’m not gullible or a perpetuator of fake news).

I did some research – dinosaur parks, archaeological digs, several national parks and the weird existence of Mt. Rushmore all beckoned me. And I knew my best friend since (practically) birth would be into this wild west adventure too.

The excitement began before Tara and I even landed in Rapid City – because first we landed in Sioux Falls due to a weather diversion. Sioux Falls is straight across to the other side of the state from where we wanted to be, but thankfully Delta did fly us into Rapid City eventually. On the bright side, circling around the storm hovering over Rapid City lead to some amazing photographs flying over the Badlands and around a stunning rainbow jetting out of the clouds and down to the crazy terrain below.

Once in Rapid City, we picked up our rental car and headed to the Fairfield Inn and Suites, which I booked using points. Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, our hotel happened to be connected to the largest water park in all of the Dakotas. That’s right, all two of them, and with a total of, I think, 4 or 5 slides. Being a regular visitor to the Wisconsin Dells (the water park capital of the world and home to America’s largest water park), I can’t say I was very impressed. But the guy checking us in did say it had the only bar in the US with a water slide going through it. So there’s that.

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“Cruizzers” indeed, in a small town on our way to Mt Rushmore. We missed the annual biker rally Sturgis by just a week!

The next morning we were up early to take advantage of our free breakfast and make the most of the day. We had a packed agenda and it started with Mount Rushmore, which is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. First of all, it’s really big. I mean huge. And it was built with the express purpose of generating tourism in the area – which worked brilliantly as 3 million tourists visit annually. It was originally going to be built at the Needles (a site sacred to Native Americans), was intended to showcase famous western heroes like Louis and Clark, and was supposed to feature torsos (not just heads). In the end, it was built on Mount Rushmore (formerly known as the Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Sioux, and also a sacred site), featured 4 US presidents, and the money ran out after they finished the heads. The whole time we were there, I thought to myself how weird it was that this place exists at all. I’ve truly never seen or heard of anything else like it.

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Mount Rushmore, obviously

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Me and Tara with the dead presidents

After Mount Rushmore, we ventured on to another giant statue carved into a mountain – Crazy Horse. This statue was started as a sort of response to Mount Rushmore to honor a leader of the Lakota tribe who had died in a battle. The statue has been in progress since 1948 and is the largest statue in the world, even though only the head and face are completed. When done, the statue will feature the warrior on horseback, pointing out ahead of him. It is far from complete and I wonder if it ever will be – I can’t find a date anywhere online about it. The mission of the organization building the statue is to raise money to complete the memorial and also fund educational programs about the Lakota people. Which is very nice – but somehow was unsettling, when it’s being run by a white family, the cost for entry is pretty steep, and most importantly, the place had an element of artifice and theatrics that made me wonder if this is authentic or merely a production of what white people want/expect to see as tourists of Native American culture. I’m not the only one who senses controversy – you can read more here.

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Crazy Horse under a storm cloud

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Eventually, some day, allegedly…the sculpture will look like this much smaller model.

Leaving Crazy Horse we then headed to Custer State Park to see the Needles, at the recommendation of my high school English teacher (via Facebook of course). The Needles are a collection of eroded granite pillars that, frankly, are unlike any natural formation I’ve seen previously. They are truly like thick knitting needles pointing up to the sky. We followed the scenic drive through the park to a parking area for the Needles and got out to explore and take photos. Before long, however, the ominous clouds above opened up and dumped a fury of blueberry-sized hail all around. We ran into the car, barely escaping the accompanying rain, and laughing at how unexpected and random the sudden storm was. It left as quickly as it arrived and we were back on the road through the park and headed onward to our next road trip stop – Wind Cave National Park.

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Custer State Park

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At the Needles in Custer State Park

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Hail. Oh my!

Almost as soon as we passed the sign for Wind Cave National Park, we noticed mounds of darker colored dirt on top of the yellowish ground. We weren’t sure what they were at first but when we saw furry little critters scampering around, we realized – this was a prairie dog village! It would be the first of many we would see throughout the rest of the weekend as we passed by colonies of prairie dogs hopping, sunbathing, and eating with their cheeks all puffed out.

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Prairie dogs by the highway

It’s also worth noting that we saw the back half of a buffalo through some trees while crossing a bridge in Wind Cave – it would be the only one we saw all weekend (up close anyway).

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The mounds you see here are prairie dog homes. How cute!

Wind Cave is a park of two worlds – the prairie landscape above ground, and an extensive cave network below. I learned that Tara had never actually been in a cave before so this was her first one! We started at the visitor center with a brief film and then a guided tour into the cave below. The most notable feature within this cave system is the box work – patterns of very thin rock that resemble a honeycomb or tennis net. 90% of all box work in the world is found within this one cave system – making it very unique indeed!

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Box work at Wind Cave National Park

After the Wind Cave tour we were back on the road and heading just 15 minutes south through a charming town to a place called the Mammoth Site, the largest archaeological site of mammoth bones in the world. The story of how they all got here is actually quite sad – the area had been a pond or lake where mammoths would drink, but it became a sink hole and when it collapsed the mammoths fell in and got stuck, perishing in place and remaining there till this day. Now, curious tourists like us can go observe this active dig site and see the hundreds of bones already uncovered. What was really impressive to me is the completeness of the remains – full skulls with tusks that were actually easy to identify as a mammoth. This was my first time seeing remains that really looked like the animal they were from without having been assembled by humans.

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Mammoth bones

By this point, we were just an hour’s drive back to our hotel and pretty tired, so we set off and planned to stop for dinner close to our hotel when we got back. We each had a buffalo burger and a local beer before heading back to our hotel in a zombie-like state.

The next morning we got up and out a little bit earlier to make the most of the day. We headed east towards the Badlands and our first destination was the famous Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. Wall is pretty charming, though I hesitate to call it an authentic western town since it’s pretty touristy and developed. That said, Wall Drug used to be a small community drug store that is now a shopping mall onto itself with knick-knacks, restaurants, museums and random dinosaur statues. We stopped at a small grocery store to pick up some snacks for our trip into the Badlands and continued the journey east.

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Wall Drug – full of oddities and photo ops

Leading up to the National Park, we drove through Buffalo Gap National Grassland (another NPS-managed area), which was very flat. Exceptionally flat. And very monotonous on a surface level. Which is why coming into the Badlands is so dramatic. As if out of nowhere, the terrain turns into a desert of hills, canyons, ridges and valleys in subdued hues of red, orange and gray.

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The rim of the badlands

We started our visit at a grand viewpoint (we decided after a few hours in the park that it was the best viewpoint) where the land drops off into the crazy terrain and you can stand right on the edge of it all looking out into the expanse. We spent about a half hour taking pictures here and then set off for the loop drive throughout the park. We had initially thought about doing some hikes, but with the extreme heat and lack of shade in the park, we decided not to. We did stop at a handful of overlooks around the park, with Tara only a little anxious about the possibility of rattle snakes around.

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Um yeah – the Badlands are pretty crazy!!

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Cuidado

At the visitor center we watched a video explaining how the Badlands were formed, primarily from build-up of deposits of various rocks and materials over millions of years and recent (in geologic terms- the past 500,000 years) erosion. The NPS provides more information here.

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Besties in Badlands

Leaving the visitor center, we headed back in the direction of where we had entered the park, because we learned that down a dirt road near there is the best place to spot wildlife in the Badlands. We took a different route back, stopping by historic homesteads and making a surprise pit stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. We had no idea this place existed until we drove by it, and being curious, we stopped. It turns out they were celebrating an anniversary and were giving out free cake (yum!), which we ate while learning what the heck this place was. As it turns out, South Dakota was peppered with nuclear launch facilities during the Cold War, and this site was the center of it all. The site preserves the last remaining Minuteman II ICBM system in the United States – YIKES.

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Cake and nuclear weapons go together like PB & J

Shaking off fears of nuclear radiation exposure, we arrived back to the entrance of the Badlands and followed the dirt road in search of bison. We never saw any close up, but we did see hundreds of prairie dogs, big horn sheep, and goats.

On our way back to the city, we did make another stop at Wall Drug – we had to try some of the famous pie and coffee. And take more prop-enhanced pics.

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Mini Mt Rushmore at Wall Drug

Back in Rapid City, we hit a few more kitschy stops, starting with the Chapel in the Hill. This unique church is a replica of a traditional Norwegian stave church – built in this spot to take advantage of the tourism in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s a very beautiful, rustic structure and unlike anything I’ve seen previously in the United States. There is also a very quirky one-room museum to Norwegian countryside living that has creepy dolls and too-cheerful music. So there’s that.

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Chapel in the Hill

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Tara’s face captures our feelings about this museum

Leaving the chapel we headed back in the direction downtown and stopped at the Dinosaur Park, where 7 life-size dinosaur sculptures overlook the city from their perch atop a hill. The attraction has been open (and free) since 1936, and was created to capitalize on the tourists coming to see Mount Rushmore. It is fascinating to me still how the amazing natural wonders of the Badlands and Wind Cave were not what drew people in – instead, it was these artificial constructions that, one could argue, mar the original beauty of the landscape that invited hordes of tourists, both then and today.

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Dino time!

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I’m pretty sure Dinosaur Park is a trick to get people to come to the gift shop to spend money on stuff like this.

Leaving the dino park, we headed downtown for a bite to eat and to explore. The downtown area is charming and thriving, with shops, restaurants and bars galore. We ended up at an old firehouse turned brewery/winery, aptly called Firehouse Brewery and Winery where we shared a flight of beer, appetizers and then a wine tasting. Between sips of wine (we learned we have basically opposite tastes in wine, though we did both like a white called – again, aptly – the BFF Sauvignon Blanc) we engaged in those deep and meaningful conversations that compel you to want to travel with someone to begin with. The kind that are the whole reason you wanted a weekend getaway with your BFF.

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Firehouse Brewery

We ended our night with a quick splash (literally) at the waterpark at our hotel and a few drinks at the hotel bar – a great conclusion to a weekend that was educational, adventurous, relaxing, meaningful and pure fun. I can’t wait to see where our next adventure takes us!

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Varied topography of the Badlands

Have you been on a meaningful getaway with your best friend? Where did you go and what did you get out of it? I’d love to hear about your adventures and get some inspiration for our next one!! Let me know in the comments! 

What It’s Like to be in Eclipse Totality

Tim and I work in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour and 10 minutes northeast of Atlanta. Earlier this year when we learned that Gainesville would reach 99% totality in the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017, we decided we’d take a late lunch that day to drive the 30 minutes further north east to be in 100%. Verdict – worth it.

A woman I work with said her church would be a good spot to park and view the eclipse – it was secluded, off the highway, easy to get to, and in the path of totality. Tim and I made that our destination and brought our picnic lunch to the River Point Community Church in Habersham, Georgia.

We got there right around 1pm, about the time the moon kissed the sun. We had our super-safe solar viewing glasses (thanks Amazon Prime!) and the company of about 15 other adults and children in the parking lot. With the naked eye (note – do not look at the sun with the naked eye), you could easily miss the fact that there was an eclipse going on at all – it was still bright, warm and partly cloudy. For the first hour, without the special eclipse glasses, you wouldn’t really be aware that something rare was occurring.

About 30 minutes before totality, things got weird. The temperature started dropping. There was a grey hue covering everything. It was different from being in the shade or being at sunset. The darkness was grittier and almost dusty-looking. The atmosphere was downright spooky. The automatic lights on the church and lamp posts turned on.

In the moments leading up to totality, which was at 2:37pm, the changes were more dramatic. Staring at the sun through the glasses, we could see the tiny sliver of sun fading away as the people around us shouted and yelled in awe and excitement – we were all amazed by what we were seeing.

I love this video because you can see the moment of totality and the dramatic change that occurs – but please note, due to Tim’s enthusiastic language, the audio is NSFW! 🙂 

And then, through the eclipse glasses, we could see nothing. We were in totality, and for 1 minute and 20 seconds, we stared at the sun with our naked eyes, looking at the moon and the faint rim of light surrounding it. It was dark. The earth was quiet, even with the excited yelling around us. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and it was as impressive as seeing the northern lights in Iceland last winter. And then just like that it was over – the sky brightened up and it was like the earth was coming back to life as the moon continued its path across the face of the sun.

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The progression of the moon blocking the sun. The first 3 shots are through eclipse glasses and the last is totality.

Trips to Puerto Rico, Say the Word and We Go

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico
  • Friday: Beach day and night out in San Juan
  • Saturday: Pool day and evening kayak trip in bio-luminescent bay
  • Sunday: Fly back to Atlanta

Dates: July 20-23, 2017

Our Odyssey:

Tim and I flipped a coin and it landed in Puerto Rico. Two weeks later on a plane from Atlanta, we did too.

In our very structured lives, where our work travel (and therefore, our weekend travel) is booked at least a month in advance, deciding to go to Puerto Rico with 2 weeks of lead time was very spontaneous for us. We had originally been planning to go to Charleston, South Carolina that weekend with my mom and brother,  but had to reschedule due to Travis’ university orientation schedule. Since this meant Tim and I needed to change our flights anyway, we decided to make it a relaxing getaway weekend. Work has been really busy for both of us lately, and while we always savor being home in Madison, the idea of escaping somewhere where we could just sit in the sun compelled us to write a short list (it came down between the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) and then flip a coin for it.

We arrived late Thursday evening and headed straight from the airport to our lodging. We stayed at the Caribe Hilton hotel just outside of Old San Juan using Tim’s rewards points. It was a decidedly fancy hotel, something we don’t typically treat ourselves to, so when we checked in we immediately set out to explore the property. The hotel has several pools, an abundance of lounging areas, hot tubs, a private swimming cove, hammocks, a swim up bar and restaurant, and a garden. In the garden, we were admiring the koi in the pond, and when we turned around we were startled to be face to face with a large female peacock perched on top of the railing. We would later discover that this garden was home to many more peacocks, ducks, geese, swans, iguanas, other lizards, and turtles! Near the garden was also an old historical fort looking out over the ocean. The whole place truly couldn’t have been any more unique.

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Me and Tim in front of the old fort at our hotel

Friday morning we got up leisurely and I headed to the fitness room to run 6 miles on the treadmill (I’m currently training for a marathon), and motivated by the gorgeous ocean view and my desire to get outside to lay by the ocean with Tim, I ran my fastest ever 6 miles (just under 59 minutes), all while getting watch lizards and iguanas shuffling across the grass and pavement through the window.

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Tim in the garden with one of the iguanas

After my run I joined Tim at the circular platform over the water to relax on cushioned day beds. We made this our base for napping, reading and then a quick swim in the bathwater-warm cove before then heading on a walk throughout the grounds and garden (to see all the animals!). When we got hungry we grabbed two stools at the swim up bar and ordered drinks and lunch. Our 5-beer bucket of Medalla (local beer) actually came with 7 and by the time we finished them off we were tipsy, happy, and a little sunburnt. Which meant it was a perfect time for an afternoon nap!

We did venture away from our resort that evening to walk around old San Juan and get dinner. We got a taxi from our hotel (even though it was walkable – but this was meant to be a lazy vacation) to the Castillo San Cristobal right at the entrance to the old town. This castle fort overlooking the ocean guarded the port of San Juan in the 1700s when the island was under Spanish control. Today, it makes up part the San Juan National Historic Site (part of the United States’ National Park Service). Walking around this fort and the walls reminded me so much of the Castillo de San Pedro we visited in October 2016 in Santiago de Cuba (which, I should note, was my favorite single site in Cuba).

 

We then meandered the streets of the Old Town, admiring the colorful buildings and the cats that call these streets home. The story of the cats of San Juan is an interesting one. They were originally encouraged on the island to combat the rat population and keep the city clean, but over time the population has grown out of control. In order to give these feral felines a higher quality of life and manage the exploding numbers, a group on the island has developed a process to tag, spay/neuter and immunize all the cats. The cats live out a happy life roaming the city walls, and the city isn’t overrun with cats. The numerous cats have access to handful of food/water stations scattered around town, particularly along the city wall, and that is why we saw upwards of 30 cats that evening during our walk. I was pretty happy about all the great kitty viewing!

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One of the cats who actually let me pet them!

Before stopping for dinner we also visited El Murro, which is another castle/fort overlooking the bay, and the Casa Blanca (White House) which was the family home of the 16th century Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. For dinner we opted for a small restaurant near some bars that offered mofongo (mashed plantains), a delicious local specialty, and then ventured out to find a bar for a few drinks. We ended up at a small pub with great people watching where we had a few beers and played cards. We stopped at a few more bars before getting tired and calling it a night. One thing we both noticed is that the structure of the bars here was very similar to the ruins pubs of Budapest, where old apartments are gutted and repurposed to be a bar with kitschy décor and dim lights.

We spent the next day much like we had our first day – lounging around the pool, enjoying a drink, and napping.

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A little bit of paradise

That evening we had an excursion out to the far eastern part of the island, where we kayaked out to a bay known for its bioluminescence. The glowing blue water is caused by micro-organisms called dinoflagellates that react to movement in the water (such as a hand or a kayak paddle). This was my first time kayaking in the dark, and it was really cool even without the bio factor to kayak through the mangroves on our way to the bay. Once in the bay, we were able to see the bioluminescence really clearly with each stroke of the paddle; however, it was faint. Our guides explained that the organisms had declined in recent years, and while they are making a resurgence, they are well below their former levels.  It was still a very worthwhile experience, especially since we really like kayaking anyway.

We didn’t get back to our hotel until after midnight, and had an early alarm set for our 7am flight back to Atlanta. Though brief, our weekend getaway was a perfect escape to decompress, and now we know with even more conviction that there is so much more to see and explore on this island and we will definitely be going back!

You Had Me at Yosemite

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to Fresno, CA and drive to our Airbnb in Mariposa
  • Friday: Day 1 in Yosemite National Park; hiked Mirror Lake loop
  • Saturday: Day 2 in Yosemite National Park; hiked the Nevada and Vernal Falls loop via the Mist Trail; dinner out Mariposa
  • Sunday: Fly back to Atlanta

Dates: June 8 to 11, 2017

Our Odyssey:

“Excuse me, you don’t happen to be leaving by chance are you?”

I can’t count the number of times Tim and I asked this question to strangers standing by their cars in Yosemite Valley’s overcrowded parking lot, swarming with vultures like us seeking a soon-to-be-open spot. It was Friday morning around 10am – which is apparently too late to find parking in the valley. We’ve visited 17 other national parks together, but had never seen one as busy as this.

During the summer, Yosemite Valley sees an average of 14,000 visitors per day, and they are all looking for parking in one of 3 main lots. When those fill up, cars park haphazardly on the side of roads or in random paved areas that park rangers would certainly frown upon.

After circling the lot for a half hour, we evaluated our options. Maybe we could check out another area of the park – like Mariposa Grove? Nope, that area is closed for renovation. Hmm, what about Tuolumne Meadows? Sorry, the road to get there is closed due to snow – you could go around outside the park but it’ll take you 6 hours. OK, so circling this lot is our only option, got it.

It was partly our fault – we had to call into work meetings that morning over on the east coast, so we couldn’t arrive at the recommended 8am (which would require a 6:30am departure from our Airbnb) for ample parking. As we navigated  the Disney-like infrastructure built all around the “village”, we couldn’t help our frustration with how many people we had to wrangle with during what was intended to be a relaxing nature weekend. There were lodges, restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, and shuttle busses galore. Were we in a national park or a resort town? As it turns out, both.

Like many of the United States’ older national parks, Yosemite’s infrastructure was built long before it became a faux pas to overdevelop our wild places. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel) opened smack dab in the middle of Yosemite Valley in 1927 (one night costs about $400 during the summer) to lure tourists to our nation’s newly-expanded wild west.

The park’s abundance of amenities and proximity to major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles make it an easy and logical stop for many tourists who haven’t previously had the opportunity to explore a national park in the US. And they should – after all, our parks are for everyone and it’s nearly impossible to visit a park without falling in love with nature.

But, my unproven and scarcely researched theory is that with novice hikers crammed into a tiny valley of less than 6 square miles, with an atmosphere akin to any amusement park where the attractions are controlled with the push of a button and safety is assumed, people make mistakes. They lean over a rail to take a picture. They wade in the rivers. They underestimate their food and water needs. About 15 people die in Yosemite every year, and 200 have to be pulled from the park by search and rescue due to injuries or accidents. Statistically, with such high number of visitors, your chances of dying in Yosemite are very small – but when the first thing you see when you pull into the entrance is a poster of a missing 20-something guy who was last seen at the top of Vernal Fall 3 days ago, you feel a little unsettled. And you should. These are, after all, America’s most wild and dramatic places. Our tallest mountains. Our biggest animals. Our most powerful rivers and waterfalls. Yet when you ride from one scenic viewpoint to another on a tourist shuttle that rides on paved roads all through the park, and there are vending machines, bathrooms and lodges abound, it’s easy to fall into a false sense of security and forget that humans don’t have actually have control here.

But I digress. This post is supposed to be about our amazing hiking adventures, right? I’ll get there. By this point you probably don’t have the most favorable impression of Yosemite, and frankly, we didn’t either. But Yosemite redeemed herself beyond our expectations over the next two days.

Once we finally found parking (an hour later), we walked to the Visitor Center, got oriented, watched a quick video, and used the bathroom, all while fending off the limbs and bodies of oblivious strangers trying to figure out where they were going. Okay yeah, I don’t like crowds. We headed promptly for a board outside with a map that listed out hikes in the area, picked one at random that we could do in a few hours, and then embarked on a shuttle ride to our destination – Mirror Lake. As soon as we got off the bus at our stop and started towards the trail, we felt instantly better. Finally, 2 hours after arriving, we were in the nature we were seeking.

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Hiking Mirror Lake – things got a little wet

The trail started off smooth and level until we reached Mirror Lake, which is actually dry much of the year but fills up in the spring with snow melt. Most people stop once they reach the lake (about a mile from the trail head) and picnic, take pictures and generally lounge around. We came to walk as far as we could, though, so we carried on, initially through trees, and shortly after through a rocky terrain with Yosemite’s most iconic rock walls surrounding us from this part of the valley.

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Mirror Lake

About a mile later, our path led to a small pool of water – our trail was flooded. Do we proceed or turn back? We kept going, of course. Pro tip- water proof hiking boots are only water proof until they are completely submerged in water, and then you’re feet are swimming in a solid water-tight boot-shaped bucket. But when you have the opportunity to frolic around puddles in the woods, you don’t complain just because your feet are wet! For much of the remainder of the trail, until it began looping back towards the start, we would trek through intermittent streams and pools, giggling at how unexpected our leisurely, easy hike had become.

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Tim always knows how to make a splash

Happy with the outcome of our first day in the park, we walked back to our car, musing about all the open spots that were there now at this late afternoon hour.

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Yosemite’s impressive rock formations as seen from the Mirror Lake trail in the middle of Yosemite Valley

That evening we stopped by a small grocery store on the way home, grabbed two small frozen pizzas and two beers for dinner, and curled up on the couch of our place reading and watching TV, making the day a perfect mix of action and relaxation.

The next morning, having learned from the day before, we got to the parking lot shortly before 8am. And sure enough, we had our pick of parking spots. Now that we’d mastered Yosemite’s logistics, we took the shuttle to the Happy Isles stop where we embarked on an 8-mile loop hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls. This hike was pure adventure of the highest caliber. It began with a gradual but long uphill climb to a bridge cross the river with Vernal Fall poking out from around the cliffs in the distance. A sign by the bridge warned people to stay out of the water with the story of a mother who lost both of her sons when they were wading in the river and got swept away. Another tragic reminder of nature’s power.

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Seriously powerful water

Beyond the bridge the hike continues up along the right of the waterfall via 600 steps through the fall’s “mist” – which is more like a torrential downpour (we later learned that this is the first summer in several years where the falls have been flowing with so much water due to the break in California’s drought). Breathless and soaking wet, we paused at a dryer spot. In front of us was a perfect rainbow- a beautiful reward for our grueling work to get to this point.

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A rainbow over the mist of Vernal Fall

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I made Tim stop in the middle of the downpour for a photo

But we weren’t out of the woods – err…mist – yet. We still had many steps to go. My boots were heavy with water and my pants clung to my legs. Thankfully my rain jacket kept my shirt and arms relatively dry and my hood kept the water mostly out of my eyes so I could continue to focus on my footing as we climbed higher, with the roaring river below the edge to our left.

Finally we made it to the top and were greeted by a community of hikers who had also just made the climb and were drying their socks out on rocks in the sun while snacking or sleeping. Tim and I found rock to sit on, pried off our hiking boots and socks, wrung out a lot of water, and laid them out to dry (it was a futile effort). From here, while catching our breath and restoring energy with Tim’s magical PB&Js, we could see over the falls, with a full view of the seemingly-permanent rainbow.

And then, shoes and socks still soaked, we climbed on, this time towards Nevada Fall. Just as my pants had finally dried, we came to a part of the trail where, once again, we would be going through the mist of the waterfall. This time  it was much more mellow, but still left us drenched.

Shortly after, we passed by another hiker coming from the opposite direction. “Grab a large stick, there’s a small black bear on the trail ahead,” she told us. Encountering a bear is always a mix of terror and excitement – it’s such a thrill to see these beautiful animals in the wild, but they are incredibly dangerous. By the time we got to the part of the trail where the bear was, he or she was about 20 feet away ambling over some rocks, beautiful in a honey-colored coat. I only caught a glimpse before he or she ducked below our line of sight. Fun fact – black bears can actually have black, brown, cinnamon, blonde or even white fur.

By this point we were along the left side of Nevada Falls, still quite far below its top with a lot of climbing to go. When we eventually made it to the top, we were once again surrounded by a gathering of fellow hikers taking a break and taking in the view. We followed a short trail down to an overlook, giving us a full view of the thundering water plummeting over the edge. And once again, a vibrant rainbow hovered over the falls. It was simply magic.

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Rainbow over the rushing water pouring from Nevada Fall

We paused on the rocks to eat the rest of the food we packed and to rest again after the long climb. We were officially at the halfway mark, and the rest of the trail would be downhill, following switchbacks past more views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall. The whole day had felt like more than just a hike – it was an experience. We had just climbed to the top of two waterfalls via a torrential “mist” and a wonderland of rainbows.

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Tim and me with Nevada Falls behind us

Back in Mariposa, we spent our evening at a microbrewery called 1850, sampling their beers and devouring a lot of delicious cheesy, meaty food. The food coma hit us both hard and we crashed into bed early, capping off a weekend that was simultaneously relaxing, physically challenging and awe-inspiring. Which, if you ask me, is the best kind of weekend of all.

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Half Dome

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Yosemite Falls