Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sedona, Arizona

I never knew about this little gem in Arizona until I came across it when planning my first trip to the Grand Canyon.  The more I read, the more intrigued I became with the town nestled in the great red rocks.  I decided to spend one night there, just to see what was all about and have returned there for longer visits.  It is a beautiful and some believe, a magical place.

Sedona sits in the Arizona desert (about 113 miles from Phoenix to the south and 114 miles from the Grand Canyon to the North) and is surrounded by enormous red rock buttes, steep canyon walls and beautiful pine forests.  You can do your sightseeing by horseback, by jeep or even by hot air balloon. It is home to numerous trailheads and Red Rock State Park which offers great hiking.  We chose to investigate on our own and stumbled upon ancient pueblo ruins just outside of town.  A ranger took us on a private tour we actually could walk in the rooms of the ancient people that built these amazing shelters.

If wandering around in the Arizona desert (home to at least a dozen poisonous species) doesn't appeal to you there is plenty to do in Sedona.  It is home to more that 40 art galleries and artwork abounds in the town.  You can also pamper yourself at more than a dozen spa facilities.  Many tourists visit solely to experience the vortex energy centers in the area.  The Native Americans have always considered this area to be sacred and a place for healing and spiritual rejuvenation.  Modern man has contributed to the popularity of Sedona as well.  There is a recreated Mexican village, complete with cobblestone streets that is full of shops and restaurants and is a great way to while away a couple of hours.  One of my personal favorite man made attractions is the Chapel of the Holy Cross which was designed by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and sits nestled in the gorgeous red rocks.  It happens to be a Roman Catholic church but no matter what your belief it is well worth a visit.

Again, there all kinds of accommodations in Sedona.  There are many luxury properties (including spa resorts) but I have always stayed at the Best Western Arroyo Roble Hotel and Creekside Villas.  On our first visit, we just booked a standard room and the views were spectacular and when traveling with the kids we booked one of their villas, which was great.  It is close to  attractions, within walking distance of some restaurants and shops and offers free breakfast. It is a great mid-range hotel and I will stay there again when I return.  

There are a wide variety of restaurants in Sedona for every palate and pocketbook.  Depending on the time of year, reservations may be a good idea.  During peak tourist time, the lines can get long.  Again, I recommend that you try the local fare, we really enjoyed  buffalo burgers with cactus fries.  We ordered it again on our return.  Be adventurous, why eat something that you can get at home!

If you want to take a beautiful drive from Sedona, head for Oak Creek Canyon.  Words won't do it justice but if scenic drives are your thing don't miss it.  You will also find the local Navajo selling their wares along the way.  If you are a sucker for Native American turquoise jewelry, like I am, you will find everything imaginable at a really fair price.  We purchased an original piece of art painted on a piece of red rock and spoke with the artist at length.  It is one of our most cherished souvenirs.

So, if you are headed to the Grand Canyon, consider stopping in Sedona for a couple of days.  It is a place worth exploring and will leave lasting, cherished memories.

Until next time, safe travels!

Quote of the Week:  People don’t take trips, trips take people.     ----John Steinbeck

Friday, April 1, 2016

San Francisco

I was, recently, lucky enough to do a road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles with a stop in beautiful San Francisco.  It isn't hard to understand the song, "I Left my Heart in San Francisco", once you have been fortunate enough to spend some time there.

We entered the city by crossing the iconic, Golden Gate Bridge which is actually orange in color.  It gets its name because is crosses the Strait of the Golden Gate from the city to the Marin headlands.  It is 1.7 miles long and first opened in 1937.  At that time, it was taller than any other structure in the city.  There are vistas at both the north and south ends of the bridge with accessible parking lots or you can walk or ride a bike across if you are so inclined.

We chose to stay down on the world famous Fisherman's Wharf.  The wharf just bustles with activity all day into the night.  They are a myriad of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops within an easy walk regardless of where you stay at the wharf.  I really like the Sheraton for its accessibility but like most hotels in great locations, it can be a bit on the pricey side.  I must recommend Pompeii's Grotto for dinner at some time during your stay.  I had a pasta and salmon dish there that I have yet to find anywhere else in the world.  It was just delicious (I think of it often and may just have to return just for that dish!)  Of course, you also have to wander down the wharf to Pier 39 to see the amusing sea lion colony.  Now one knows why, but they started appearing at the pier in October of 1989, shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake.  By January 1990, these barking and boisterous creatures completely took over Pier 39 to the exasperation of the local marina tenants.  The marina sought advice from all the experts on just how to handle these marine mammals and it was recommended that the sea lions be allowed to remain in their new home.  So the marina gave up trying to chase them away and let them remain.  It is said that there can be as many as 1700 sea lions there at one time, depending on the season.  It is great fun to watch them as they slip and slide and push each other around.  Children especially love this activity.

Of course, when in San Francisco, you just have to take a cable car ride.  It is the world's last manually operated cable car system and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  We took it from the wharf all the way up to Union Square.  The views are just spectacular and watching the sharp incline as you get higher and higher is not for the feint of heart.  Use the cable car to take you up because a walk on these hills would be very taxing unless you were in very good shape.

Once at the top, we went to Chinatown.  It is said that San Francisco's Chinatown has more Chinese residents that any other place in the world outside of China.  (Though I know that Vancouver, Canada, argues this point as they have a significant Chinese population also.)  The residents here continue to practice their own customs, languages and religions that they did in China.  It has become a huge tourist attraction and draws more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.  And it is no wonder, there is great shopping here and bargains galore.  We poked around all the little shops until lunchtime when we found a great little rooftop restaurant for lunch.  Though the food was just mediocre, the views were great.

The Gate to Chinatown

Just love the traffic lights in Chinatown.

If you are a Baby Boomer (or just someone who is interested in that time), you have to visit the Haight-Ashbury section of the city.  This area was at the center of the 1960s hippie movement.  Youth from all over the country flocked here to experience the counter culture.  It became a concentrated gathering spot for those seeking the drugs, the music, the ideals and the freedom of the 1960s.   It became a haven for rock performers of the time like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin who all immortalized the area in song.  Today, remnants of that time remain and for us, it was like a stroll down memory lane.  Wonderful consignment shops with vintage clothing brought back so many great memories of a turbulent time in our history.  I found myself humming, "If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair....." , the great song by Scott MacKenzie of the Mamas and the Papas.  So take that stroll if you are of a certain age, it will really take you back.

Of course, if you have the time, take the trip out to Alcatraz, located in San Francisco Bay and little less than 2 miles from San Francisco.  Originally used for a lighthouse and military fortification in 1868, it is better known as the sight of a Federal Prison from 1933 until 1963.  During the 29 years that was used as a prison, some of the most notorious of all convicts were held here.  It housed the likes of Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, James "Whitey" Bulger and many more.    The penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped during its 29 years of operation, though many tried and were either caught, shot or killed during their attempts.  It is an interesting place to visit and is now operated by the National Park Service and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

So, I too, left a piece of my heart in San Francisco and hope to return one day for another visit.  It is an interesting place with its own personality and charm.  Try it, you won't be disappointed.

Until next time, safe travels!

Quote of the Week:  Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.     –Unknown

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Canadian Rockies

I am often asked, what trip is my favorite.  Impossible to answer.  They are all so different.  Some offer amazing scenery, others are so historically significant and yet others have a charm unlike any other place in the world.  So today, I will talk about my favorite scenic trip, so far, and that is the Canadian Rockies.

This trip is so spectacular that even though I rarely go somewhere twice (the world is such a big place with so much to see), I did return here.  The easiest way to get here is to fly into Calgary, Alberta and drive to Banff.  The sight of the enormous Rocky Mountain range rising out of the prairie is so awe inspiring that I had to pull of the road and take it all in on my first visit.  I highly recommend the experience.  Banff itself, is a bit of a tourist trap with accommodations that range from luxury (the Banff Springs hotel, is just gorgeous) to budget hostels.  It also boasts loads of restaurants, souvenir shops and of course the cable car ride up the mountain to enjoy spectacular views.  On my first visit, we witnessed a large elk just strolling down the main street, something that it did with some regularity, according to the locals.  While in the area, you might want to take a ride over to Lake Louise and have lunch on the beautiful emerald green lake which is unlike anything you have ever seen.
Lake Louise

But the real scenery is yet to come when you travel the Icefields Parkway to Jasper.  On my second trip with my husband and kids, it was so fun to watch their faces as they experienced this magnificent place for the first time.  Just when you think you have seen the best there is to see, you come around a bend in the road to see something even more amazing.  You will see glacier after glacier along the way and then you will come upon the Athabasca glacier, the Granddaddy of them all.  Not only is it incredible in its size and beauty but you can go up and walk on it, if you so desire.  A huge Sno-cat with wheels that are taller than the average man, will transport you to the top.  Drink the pure water of the glacier, it has no taste whatsoever because it has yet to mix with the minerals on its way to the oceans.  It is also said to add 10 years to your life, so I guess I am good for 20 more.  This particular glacier is a triple continental divide with water that originates there going to the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic.  Sadly, global warming is effecting the glacier and though it continues to move at a breathtakingly slow pace, it is losing density, some say it will be gone in a generation.

Crow's Foot Glacier

The Snocat atop the glacier
Freezing atop the glacier (of course, it is a gigantic ice cube!)

Jasper is a lovely little town at the northernmost end of the Icefields Parkway.   Again, the accommodations run from luxury to budget.  My personal favorite is Becker's Chalets, just outside of town.  I have stayed there twice and it is a lovely place with a great little restaurant.  My first visit there was just two of us but on our second we had two of our kids with us and they have rooms that are plenty big enough for a family.  Some have kitchens and fireplaces which is just perfect for the location.  Though I confess, it has been a few years since my last visit, Becker's continues to get good reviews from guests. Just down the road from Becker's is Athabasca Falls.  Take some time and see them, they are stunning.

My twins at Athabasca Falls

The wildlife viewing on this trip is just fantastic.  On my two visits there I have seen elk, moose, deer, Bighorn sheep, Mountain sheep, marmots, otter, beaver and Black bear along with the everyday critters that inhabit most of North America like squirrels, skunks and chipmunks.  Seeing these incredible animals in their native habitat is a memorable experience. When close to them, you have to exercise caution as they are truly wild animals and as such, are unpredictable, especially the bear.  I have seen people do some pretty foolish things while trying to capture the perfect picture.  So enjoy it, but always be smart and careful.
Bighorn Sheep

If you are a bit adventurous, join a rafting trip and ride the whitewater on the Athabasca or the Fraser River. I have done this many times, in different parts of the world but this was the only time that I had to wear a wetsuit in the warm summer months because the rivers are glacier fed and are very cold. They are often said to be "drown proof" because the water is so cold you would suffer from hypothermia before you would drown.....such a lovely thought.  Never deters me though, I love the thrill of riding the whitewater on the raging rivers.  Most outfitters take every safety precaution and know exactly what they are doing and I have never felt unsafe.  It is a heart pounding thrill ride and I just love it.

This is a trip that is about the scenery and the wildlife.  Take your hiking boots and try one of the hundreds of trails available.  Take a boat ride out on one of the emerald green lakes or rent a canoe and paddle down a river.  Enjoy the great outdoors and the magnificence of nature.  Nowhere, is it quite as spectacular, as in the Canadian Rockies.

Until next time, safe travels!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Seville, Spain-Feria de Abril (April Fair)

What a spectacular explosion of color and culture and food!  Unlike anything that I have ever seen before.  Two weeks after Easter, in the beautiful city of Sevilla, the city comes alive with horse drawn carriages decorated with flowers and ribbons.  Riding in them are the people of Sevilla, all wearing traditional Spanish clothes.  The women have beautiful dresses and elaborate combs in their hair.  It is just an amazing sight to see.  The men wear their short bolero jackets and hats and are typically astride beautiful horses all decked out for the occassion.  It is a splendid celebration of their culture; their food, their drink, their music and their way of life and it is so exciting to be welcomed at their party.

It is believed that the fair evolved from a cattle fair that started in 1847.  The party loving people of Sevilla started erecting tents that became known as "casetas" for the local dignitaries to hang out in during the fair.  The number of casetas grew year after year until the 1920s when Feria de Abril had grown into Sevilla's largest annual event.

In the 70's the city opened its current fairground.  It is an enormous site that last year housed more that 1000 casetas and is known as 'Real de la Feria" and right next door is "Calle del Infierno" which is full of your typical carnival rides and circus show.  La Feria begins on a Monday at Portada which is the entrance to the fairground.  The Mayor of Seville switches on thousands of lights at midnight and let the party begin!!   The fairgrounds teem with traditionally dressed Sevillanas every day of the fair and they party well into the early morning hours.  It is very understandable that the poet Byron when referring to Seville said it was "famous for oranges and women".

The Portada lit up at midnight.
My daughter and I at the Portada on the first day of La Feria.

It always comes as a great surprise to tourists that most of the casetas are privately owned and admission is by invitation only but that doesn't stop us from enjoying ourselves.  There are several public casetas available.  We found the locals very welcoming and song and dance broke out all over the place.  So much fun to be twirled around by handsome Spanish gentlemen on your way to the restroom.

Dancing in the Public Caseta.

Every evening, during LeFeria the year's top bullfights take place at the historic Plaza de Toros. Though  some find this tradition of Spanish culture objectionable, I attended with an open mind to try and understand its evolution and appeal.  Take the time to tour the Museum dedicated to the bullfights before you go to the fight, it helps you to understand what is happening as you watch.   It is not dissimilar to an American baseball game.  Music is playing, fans are yelling, booing and cheering the matadors as they fight the bull. It can be a bit disconcerting when the massive bulls get too close to their human counterparts and a bit gruesome when they kill the bull but I embraced the experience as an important part of the Spanish culture and never regretted attending.  If you wish to enjoy this experience, get your tickets early because they sell out every night during La Feria.

This is one of the best cultural experiences that I have had abroad and I encourage anyone visiting the lovely country of Spain at that time of year, to take a few days and enjoy this truly unique Spanish event.

Until next time, safe travels!

Friday, February 26, 2016

More Bucket List Additions

These are some of the places and experiences that gave me such vivid and treasured memories.  Everyone should add them to their Bucket list.

1. Enjoy cocktails on the African plain- this is one of my favorite memories of my trip to South Africa.  We were parked on the African plain watching the sun go down behind the mountains.  The sky was a wonderful shade of pink and our new favorite South African wine, Pinotage was just perfect.  As we sat savoring the day and all of the amazing things we had seen, two giraffes emerged from the bush and sauntered by.  It was just icing on the cake and quickly became a treasured memory.

2.  Walk across a live runway while crossing an international border-There is only once place in the world that you can do this, Gibralter.  Still a matter of contention between Spain and England, it remains a British possession and the only way to enter it by land is to cross a live runway.  Traffic lights let you know when it is safe to cross.  As we stood waiting we watched a plane arrive.  It was an interesting experience.

3.  Eat a frankfurter in Frankfurt-This just seemed like a really fun thing to do, so we did it.  It was really good!  There are just some things that you have to do.

4.  Stand in the room where William Shakespeare was born-As a voracious reader and a lover of Shakespeare, this was a moving moment for me.  Anytime that I can reach out and touch history, I feel emotional.  I could imagine him toddling around the room, totally unaware of the remarkable contributions he would  give to the world.

5.  Run the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum like Rocky-Not an easy task, I assure you.  Take time at the top to savor the view down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  Then enter this beautiful building and spend some time in this world renowned Museum which hosts wonderful exhibits from all over the world. (I am local so I love to see the tourists as they recreate the Rocky scene, makes me chuckle every time.)

6.  See the amazing gardens in Keukenhof, the Netherlands-This is arguably the most amazing floral display in the world.  It is only open 10 weeks a year when the bulb growers of the Netherlands all gather and try to out each other with there massive displays of tulips, daffodils, crocuses and other bulb plants.  It is just gorgeous and their creativity knows no bounds.  It is truly a unique experience that every one should do once.

7.  Sit and experience the Northern Lights-As a child, I lived far enough north that I experienced the Aurora Borealis with some regularity.  I really took it for granted until I moved south and never saw them again.  They are visible in so many wonderful northern destinations like Alaska, parts of northern Canada, Iceland and the Nordic countries in the fall and winter.  They are just incredible to watch and I hope to do it again in the not too distant future.

8.  Stroll the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown-The largest Chinatown outside of China offers so many great little shops for every pocketbook and Chinese restaurants galore.  The one we chose was a rooftop restaurant.  It was not exceptional but the setting was with great views of the city and the water.  After lunch, we poked around in the shops and brought home some real bargains.  Plan to do again in the future.

9.  Whale Watch off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts-I never tire of this amazing trip and I wish I had $5.00 for every person that I sent to Captain John and Sons Whale Watching tour in Plymouth.  They go out twice a day, morning and afternoon for four hours.  I have never been disappointed and have seen some spectacular things, like a Fin whale breaching which is extremely rare.  But mostly, it is the Humpbacks that do all of the entertaining.  They slap there enormous fins against the water and roll over on their backs and sunbathe.  I swear that they people watch as much as we whale watch.

10.  Walk the beautiful beaches and wonderful boardwalks of New Jersey-The much maligned state of New Jersey has some of the loveliest beaches on the East Coast.  From the Victorian splendor of Cape May at the states southernmost point, to the retro architecture of the Wildwoods, to the glitzy bright lights of Atlantic city and all the little beach towns in between, you will enjoy a marvelous beach vacation on Jersey's coast.  The boardwalk's offer great entertainment and every kind of food imaginable not to mention souvenirs!  I visit at least once every year to feel the warm New Jersey sand between my toes.