The best of Bellagio

Lake Como, Italy is more than a single body of water

“Are we going back to Bellagio?” is how Rog remembers asking the question. My recollection is slightly different. I thought it was more akin to “We are going back to Bellagio,” the statement said with a bit of force.

The town holds a singular point of divinity for Rog, which would similar to a devout Christian would think of the Garden of Eden being placed in your back yard. In other words, heaven on Earth. Nope, this isn’t the hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada mind you, but the slim peninsula situated on Lake Como.

The beauty of the Italian Alps–this was just a random stop at a persons home, and I couldn’t resist (they were polite and pleased I adored their home/view)
It’s all about the food

The similarity centers on food, the apple in one instance, but meats, cheese, and yes, a few apples on this one. You see, by the time we arrived in Bellagio, we were starved. We roamed the streets, getting in a few sites before stopping at a restaurant situated half-way up a narrow allow, but wide enough o allow a two-person table. We took the waiters recommendation, ordering what we thought would be an appetizer-size plate. It turned out to similar in size to a large pizza, the wooden plate laden with an assortment of cold cuts, cheeses and fruits, fresh bread, crackers and all types of jams.

This was culinary nirvana for Rog: massive quantities of the authentic fair. So it is that we are taking the girls back this summer, his hope to find this exact eatery once again and replay the experience that made such an imprint. Shopping? Yeah, we did that, purchasing items for relatives at seriously discounted prices given the currency exchange. The ferry ride? Check. Walking the waterfront? Yep. Traipsing up and down the narrow streets, indulging in the local gelato? You betcha. But nothing…nothing ranks up there in Rog’s mind like that platter of food. Me? I was along for the ride, literally. I loved it all.

Narrow streets (this was actually one of the wider ones), no lane markers, the motorcylists racing between cars already packed like sardines in a can. This is where I got the idea to have one of my lead characters in the Danielle Grant series die while on his motorcycle. It’s real!
The journey, and I’m going to throw in Menaggio and a bit of the Lake itself

This day trip to Bellagio started out as a one-day itinerary once we arrived in Lake Como. To the uninitiated, the locals, and Italians spell the lake Como, pronouncing it “oh,” as in Lake “Coh-moe”, slightly different that Americans, who tend to spell it “Cue—oh-moe”, and spell it with a ‘u’. It doesn’t really matter, because the either way, it’s big, diverse and takes a while to drive around.

From Zurich, we went over the Swiss Alps, using the road favored by touring bikers (motorcyclists) and the sports cars who thrive on the twisty-turvy road. Along the way, you encounter the Contra Dam, cows and a dramatic change of scenery (which I partially cover in my blog on those topics).

What we didn’t expect to see was such a dramatic change once we reached the top of the mountains, seeing the planted Italian flag. The differences were stark. The roads, just as twisty, were not as well maintained, so we had to be careful of the potholes and general condition, yet we were so captivated with the views and architecture of the hillside homes it didn’t matter. Mountain lakes like Lake Lugano were dark grey, the clouds giving the glossy covers a matte finished look. The roughly three-hour drive from Zurich ended when we hit the first down on Lake Cuomo, Menaggio.

The top of the mountain has a mother Mary statue for safe passage of travelers. I was safe but I was cold!
A plethora of towns

Unlike my adopted home town of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which is 22 miles long, and retains the name wherever you are actually located, Como has townships dotting the shoreline. In the States, certain areas are named (Loffs Bay, Mica Flats, etc.) but those are informal neighborhoods. On Como, each township is just that: its own town, with a center, police force etc. We stayed in Menaggio at the north end, choosing a place right close to the tunnel for ease of access to what we’d call a freeway, but is more like a narrow, two-lane road. We also desired a pool, (thinking it was going to be hotter than it was), parking (hard to come by) walking distance to the center of town and most of all, the ferry.

Menaggio offered all of that, but then we learned, so do many other little areas. This summer we decided to be closer to Bellagio and are staying on the opposite side of the lake in Verena, the ferry ride to Bellagio about five minutes, versus the fifteen from Menaggio.

The official marker in to Italy was anti-climactic. I wanted officers and a stamp (as I wrote in one of my novels) and I got crickets.
Hillside rentals

The relatively low prices of rentals on the lake are what astounds most folks (Americans) we speak with. I believe it’s because the impression is one of such exclusivity for the lake itself as the vacation spot for celebrities and the wealthy. The reality is the hills are full of vineyards cared for by the full-timers, and the price of top floor penthouse is less than $2,000 US for ten days, the private elevator, parking, three-bedroom, three-bathroom flat with five decks a bargain.

Top deck view, the tunnel to the North in the background. It was quiet however, barely a sound. The hill behind our flat were vineyards.
Back to Bellagio

The first time we visited Bellagio, we decided to drive, and it was a journey of about five hours all the way down and around the southern tip of the lake, then up to the peninsula. Nope, we had no idea it was going to take this long, but with only a single, extremely narrow road to navigate and a ton of stop lights, we made it as quickly as possible. Needless to say, we took the ferry on the return trip, and the journey was shortened by about 5 hours (it was only a fifteen-minute ride across the lake!)

The ferry schedule is every thirty minutes all day, docking portside to the center of town

Bellagio has two faces, really. The center of town, which is flat and lakeside. This is where quite a few of the major shopping takes place (think Hermes and the like). Yet dozens (hundreds?) of smaller boutiques with Italian goods dot the steep alleys that extend from the center up the hills. The majority are perhaps the size of my living room, crowded with silks of all types, jewelry, shoes or purses—the kind of things favored by women from out of town (me!). You’d think I would go crazy, but actually, I didn’t. I stopped after purchasing a few leather bracelets, because I’d seen quite a few of the same items in Lugano (another township) at a lower price—roughly 30%. I held my money and went back to Lugano to purchase a purse and a few other things, still enjoying the experience of Bellagio without feeling like an irresponsible shopper. To give you an example, a purse I’d seen in the US was $700. In Bellagio, that same purse was $500, which is quite a discount. In Lugano, it was $300. No that’s called savings.

Steep, narrow walkways–this was one of the less traveled–others can be wall-to-wall people

The other face of Bellagio is just outside the center, within walking distance, and it’s what I’d call the local areas. Lovely, mostly empty beaches, gardens and what I’d call sitting areas—secluded spots with benches for sitting and watching the ducks on the water. We could only rationalize that those who come to this lake want to “be seen” at the hotspots either on a boat or on a packed beach, rather than enjoy the quiet and romance that’s actually available and free! So it was that we went exploring and, in an hour, counted four different waterside areas, all in the area of Bellagio, all as free of people as the next one. On several occasions, these public areas were right next to high-end hotels. Glancing through the trees separating hotel from the public area, we saw the pool area packed with sunbathers, the chairs right next to one another. It’s all a matter of preference, we surmised. If you want to come to the lake, sit poolside and be pampered, then you have plenty of options.

Lakeside pools offer slips for boats but also much warmer water than the glacier-fed lake
The waterfront

By now, you are probably sick of reading my commentary on “the waterfront” of whatever lake we’ve visited. Sorry, it’s going to continue. Upon reflection of my seeming obsession with waterfronts, perhaps it’s because they are all so different—country to country and town to town. Such care and attention is given to the trees, pathways and facilities, more than often I feel like I’m in some version of Cinderella’s castle and the ferry godmother is going to pop out and grant me a wish.

The lovely (and basically empty) pathway leading to the center of Bellagio

And on that note, don’t be afraid to drive that rental car to Lake Como or pick one up when you arrive. Parking is plentiful in the Lake and surrounding areas. Not all rental homes have parking, but many do, as well as the hotels.

What I liked best

Each township has its own vibe, culture, eateries and destinations to see. It’s no wonder people come for a month and spend days roaming the 146-kilometer areas. If you are bored and want to visit the celebrities, I found this guide just for you, which also gives you some options as to how to best get to the lake.

Up the hillside are villas and wineries
What I liked least

The driving! Whoa, never in our lives have we encountered the insanity of the one-way, narrow, basically lawless driving along the lakeshore, particularly between and within the smallest of the townships. Because we have gone at the beginning of the summer (June and to mid-July), instead of the high season, which is August, we didn’t even experience the worst of it, but what we did encounter was enough. Oh well, it’s part of the experience.

Feature image: taken from the deck of the flat


St. Moritz, crossing the Swiss Alps, Italy, oligarchs and cows

When the destinations create the scene

Today we spent the afternoon with an executive from a research firm and his voice over actress wife. As we toured the neighborhood, the conversation eventually went to the subject of travel, and if my journeys inspire my novels, or was it the other way around? Did I get an idea of a destination and then go there for the final research?

That led me thinking and discussing Switzerland, which is off schedule for my blogs, but I’m pausing to cover a few areas I realized I’d completely skipped over. The Swiss Alps, the “James Bond” Dam, handcrafted homes perched on the hillsides, defying the natural laws of gravity, the homes of the Russian oligarchs in St. Moritz, along with the painfully expensive whole hazelnut chocolate bars and handmade clothes in town, and last but not least, the cows. Yes, the cows, but I’ll get back to that.

Each and every one of those items found a mention in my books. For this piece, I’m mixing it up. Rather than give you the standard play-by-play route we took during this particular trip that served up the creative buffet, I’ll break it down in to the scenes I wrote. A fun change for me and perhaps more interesting for you.

Zurich

In a previous blog on the penthouse we rented, I mentioned the tree-lined streets along Lake Zurich, my fictitious, but not totally fictitious wealth management building. I witnessed a father in an overcoat, exiting a U-shaped building eerily similar to the Walldorf-Astoria in New York. He had a young boy and girl on either side, equally well-dressed.

The drive out of Zurich leads along the river, then up to the mountains, but this road was chock full of road bikers–and by that, I mean BMW touring bikes. Lots of them.

I thought to myself: he looks like a serious billionaire, and those are his fortunate offspring. It was the place a man like Lars Egle, one of the lead characters would live, and that’s where Danielle inadvertently runs in to Lars in the lobby near the end of Made for Me. The scene was exactly as I imagined, and it all came about watching that split-second interaction of the father and children. (I thought taking a pic was tacky, but more importantly, I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough and missed the pic).

On the way up and it’s getting colder–but I refused to put on a coat until the very top
The cows

Leaving the city, driving alongside the river to the Alps was another scene, this time with Andre, Danielle’s first love in Zurich (also in Made for Me). Escaping their struggle in their lives, they ride his motorcycle out of town, going up the beautiful, windy hills, seeing the cows. The inspiration for this was the very ride we took on our way to Milan, with a stop through to St. Moritz. We ogled at the green river to our left which looked more like a flowing glacier than river. The cows were so large and the fur seemingly so soft, we stopped the car, got out, and approached. They had the massive, old-school cowbells that I didn’t actually think existed outside the movies. The fence was a flimsy little thing, which wouldn’t deter a thief whatsoever, and the cow was completely unconcerned when I rubbed its head. Now, this may come across as odd, but I’ve touched a lot of cow hide-it had been rough, not smooth. This breed of Swiss cow was more like cashmere. I was so taken with the entirety I mentioned in the book, along with a grove where Andre and Danielle have a romantic interlude.

Yeah. The cows inspired that—and I really love that scene.

Look at that fur. You can see from the photo it looks like the hair on a child!
Not just in postcards or promotional videos. This is the real deal–the actual road. I snapped this as I turned around in the car to get “the view down the hill.”

This road had a scene between Kaitlyn and Rick, where he pulls over and asks they set aside their “convenient date” status to be something that’s special to this place and time in their lives.

The James Bond Dam

In actuality, this is called the Contra Dam, as well as the Verzasca or Locarno Dam, was made famous worldwide in Goldeneye when (as stunt man, standing in for) Pierce Brosnan bungee jumps over the edge, straight down, fires the gun, locks it, then penetrates the soviet stronghold. I’m telling you what: never in all my life have I seen a dam like this, and I’d thought the Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas was impressive. Not even close. Perhaps my long lens would have captured the magnificence a bit better, but my shorty had to do. The Dam gets a mention in several books, not just one.

Contra Dam–the best shot from the road looking up
St. Moritz

Now this town had its inspiration in my dad, who often spoke of going to St. Moritz (pronounced San, not Saint) when he was a young man, then later as he traveled for business. He’d speak of the town, the food and above all, the ability to get custom clothes and shoes made. It would be decades until I got to experience the town myself, and my that time, it had been so built up in my mind I wasn’t sure if it was going to meet expectations. Well, it exceeded all I’d imagined. The streets were/are still narrow yet uncrowded. The small shops with exquisitely made, half-million dollar watches next to an ounce of hazelnut chocolate for $15 francs and cashmere clothes that made me drool. I wrote about all these items in A Convenient Date, where the lead characters, Kaitlyn Reid and Rick Santos visit the small town for a conference.

Everything is appropriately expensive in this lovely little town, from watches to chocolate. I purchased the chocolate:-
The gondola ride and the Russian Oligarch

Now this was fun and totally unexpected. In June, the snow is gone, but St. Moritz is still rather chilly. Rog and I had been discussing (aka arguing) about where to stop and eat, but it was sort-of between seasons (ski/winter and summer/tourist), which meant most of the places weren’t open. Undecided, we went to the gondola and took a ride. In we went, over the town and up mountain, getting the birds-eye view of the spectacular homes resembling fortresses on the mountain. At that moment, I visualized a scene with Lars and Danielle (back to Made for Me), riding the gondola, her asking him about the home, and him telling her it was the resident of a client, a Russian oligarch.

After the gondola ride, we were able to take the car and go directly up the roads. No gates, no security guards. I guess St. Moritz is so secure and area so safe, no one bothers with such piddly things.
By this time, I donned my coat (still in St. Moritz), but Rog is sporting shorts and a t-shirt like it’s warm.
The crossing in to Italy

You can imagine my depression when we slowed down at the border between Switzerland and Italy, thinking the Italian guards were at least going to check our passports. They barely looked up before waving us through. I was ready, passport in hand, when Roger looked at me some undiluted pity. “That’s the whole point of the Eurozone.” Duh. I moped, putting it away, feeling stupid, but still disappointed. I channeled this scene in to A Convenient Date, when Rick takes Kaitlyn for a drive to his childhood home on Lake Como. On the way, she remarks on the slate-topped homes of Italy, which were so very different from those in Switzerland.

Slate, slate, slate….the change in materials once in Italy was dramatic and powerful
Feature image: the hills of the Alps, outside St. Moritz


Mayan Ruins: Coba, Tulum and Chitzen Itza

Which ruin to visit and why

Tulum, Coba and Chitzen Itza are three different spots with famous ruins of the Mayan Culture. Having been to all three, I’m using this blog to point out the differences between the areas, with a specific focus on ease of the journey, what you can expect to see, and if the experience will be worth your time, particularly if you have a family. Because you have the jungle (Chitzen Itza) and the beach (Tulum) with Coba right in the middle, you have variety!

The highlights

Chitzen Itza is approximately three hours outside Cancun, a mostly straight drive which allows you to speed right along. The best time to go is either before the buses head out of town (roughly nine-am) or in the early afternoon, which guarantees you’ll miss the crowds. It’s uber hot and muggy in the jungle of Chitzen Itza, with zero breeze. The area is expansive with incredible structures and lots of history, but after an hour, my girls were ready to go. The colosseum-size area where gladiators fought to the death (and if you remained alive but lost, you were beheaded anyway), weren’t enough to keep their attention. Most importantly, four years ago, the government closed off the pyramids; no longer is one allowed to climb the famous structures. The first year, we’d scheduled the trip to see Rio Secreto and climb the pyramids, but only got one out of the two done. Still, the history and area is a must-see if you are in the Cancun area.

Taken at three different locations around the city: the upper left is in the marketplace, the columns are a part of the 1,000 that were created, and the bottom visual represent enemies that were killed by the Mayans.
Since the government restricted climbing the pyramids, this is the next best thing. A view showing the incredibly steep climb.
Coba

Coba is the last pyramid in the Yucatan visitors can climb. It’s about two hours outside Cancun, offers great parking, and perhaps because it’s much smaller in terms of actual area covered, it’s about a 10th as crowded. We arrived late in the day, around 2 p.m., not realizing the entrance closed at 4 p.m. We paid the modest amount (about $7 US) and walked he 1.5 miles through the forest to the pyramid. Note that I call it a forest vs a jungle of Chitzen Itza. That’s because the jungle is hot, moist and dense, whereas in the area of Coba, the trees are sparse, the wood and type totally different and the air less humid. I pretty much suffered from heat stroke in Chitzen Itza, because I hadn’t eaten what I should have, nor did I drink as much water. At Coba, it was like being in Idaho, dry and arid. If you don’t want to walk, you can either rent a bike, or be transported (by bike) to the pyramid. The climb is a @400 steps up, and the view can’t be beat. It’s incredibly steep, with a rope to aid climbers—but the climb up isn’t that hard. It’s the way down that’s spooky. Be prepared—some of the steps are worn and slippery.

The drive to Coba was our favorite of the three. Long stretches of pavement with interesting sites along the way.
Yep, it’s as steep as it looks. You can tell the difference in building styles and structure from Chitzen Itza.
Tulum

Situated on the gold coast, the ruins of Tulum appear on about every photographer or traveler’s web site, so we were uber excited to go. Well….I just want to say this: the buildings are short and modest if you compare it to Chitzen Itza. That’s not to say the history isn’t fascinating, which it is, or that the architecture isn’t worthwhile! But for children 9 and 13, after seeing CI and Coba, Tulum was a total and complete let down (for them). As an adult, I found the historical tour fascinating, marveling at the engineering prowess of the Mayan’s, their ability to identify time, the setting and rising sun, building their structures to capture the exact time and place of both for specific rituals. All this was lost on our girls. However, the private beach which is open to the public did get their attention, so note to the visitors. You can swim in the area, but the park doesn’t offer showers or changing facilities, so if you go in the water, you’ll be sticky on the way back.

About the only picture I salvaged from Tulum!
Out of the three, what do I recommend to you, the person who may have only one day to travel?

Well, I must say you have to do all three, but the order is fully dependent on your personal preference. If you want to climb the only pyramid in North America which is available (outside Belize, which was seven hours away from Cancun, and that was just too far), then you MUST to Coba. Here’s the good news: it will take you less than four hours to drive, climb and leave, and there’s really nothing else for you to see down there. With that in mind, you can hit Tulum on the way back, and then you have hit both in one shot!

If Chitzen Itza is on your bucket list, then by all means, go the other direction. Sadly, my entire folder of shots got wiped out due to my lack of backup skills, so I can only offer a few I’d sent to my Instagram account.

From the edge of the top, looking down. Definitely think twice if you are afraid of heights. We observed grown men having serious issues going down.
Safety and security

We’ve found that most of the tourists we run into are afraid to drive a car or get on a bus to most of these locations. I’ll admit my personal utility for hopping a bus is low—it extends the drive time immensely! But if you have a rental car, which we always get, we’ve never felt unsafe driving in and around Cancun. Local patrols are everywhere in the city, and once outside the limits, it’s mostly farmland, cattle, cenotes and little towns.

Feature image: taken with the wide angle iPhone from the top of Coba

The underground world of Rio Secreto

Named National Geographic’s top 10 places to visit in the world

When we saw Rio Secreto on the National Geographic channel, we were skiing in Idaho, surrounded by snow. The show said Rio Secreto was one of the top 10 places to visit in the world (this was four years ago) and it was the reason why we decided to visit the Yucatan Peninsula in the first place.

Hundreds of cenotes exist in the Yucatan Peninsula, more than one could visit in a lifetime. A cenote is a waterway that’s either partially or wholly covered by rock. The cenotes are fresh water, some stretching hundreds of miles, making their way other waterways and to the ocean. About ten years ago, a farm watched a stretch of his land give way, revealing a secret river underground. Explorers converged, confirming that the area now called Rio Secreto, (secret river), the first and only known cenote that is 100% underground.

As you descend, you will see a few of the openings around the cenotes, so the guide will provide lots of warnings

Since the area is Mayan ancestral land, the government made a deal with the farmers (because the area is so big, multiple farmers are involved); the Mayans continue to own the land but will lease it to the government. After lots of exploration, the area was ultimately opened to the public. I’ve got some great news for you, along with bad. The good news is that it’s an incredible experience to be in the dark for hours, seeing animals, feeling the soft sand and water, and taking beautiful shots. The bad news is that in the last four years, it’s become so commercialized, it feels more like ants underground, stuck in a tunnel with other tour groups coming and going.

Reservations

If you use the concierge at your hotel, you are going to pay a premium of about 30%. That doesn’t necessarily include transportation, so watch out for hidden fees. You can go to the on-line booking center and save the money.

Getting there

Pictures are worth more than my thoughts, so I’ll start with the basics. You arrive at the main entrance, about an hour south of Cancun proper. By cab, rental car or bus, it’s a straight shot, only a single right turn off the freeway. In the last three years, the price has increased from $65 to $95, pretty steep. The first time we thought it a bargain, the second time, not so much.  This last visit we were grumpy about it, but still went, because 7 routes are available, and we’d only seen two. A bus will run you about $40 depending on your starting point.

No, not worms, but water hanging at the end of the crystalized rock formed over millions of years
The process

You arrive and wait for those in your group. The area is shaded, and one of the new additions (this year) is a small deli, just in case you are hungry. That said, once you are in your wetsuit (required), you can’t use the bathroom for 2 hours, so relieve yourself first, or you will be in a world of hurt.

Photographers tip: use the flashlight, put it under the water and then you have this effect

You are assigned a tour guide and photographer who gives you an idea of what is to come. First, everyone loads up in a bus which holds about 7-10 people, and what follows is a 15-20 minute drive on white, dirt roads to the actual cenote center. Once out, you are show the locker area, where you put on your bathing suit, or whatever you are going to wear under the wetsuit. Women and men have separate changing areas, but no inside showers. You are given water socks, and they require you wear shoes a size too small, because they don’t want you to slip. The rocks and underground trails are rather slick. That said, I made the mistake of listening to them once year, and suffered in misery for two hours. The next two times, I refused to wear smaller water socks, and just used my normal size.

Next, the group (of between 10-15) is led to an outdoor showering area, which means you stand under an outdoor shower, pull the wooden handle, and get sprayed with seriously cold water. One by one, you walk to the next station, which is the wetsuit area. (do you how hard it is to put on a wetsuit when wet? Nearly impossible. So, if you are uncomfortable pulling up a wetsuit over a sticky, wet body, you will need to get over it.

After this, you select a lifejacket that goes over your wetsuit. Imagine yourself with the water socks, wetsuit and now lifejacket, but wait, there’s more. You also don a hard hat with a light, and it has three modes; red, high and low. The tour guide will identify when to use what, and requires you listen and do what’s requested, or the tour group can’t move on.

Just before the tour starts, the guide pauses, the photographer stops and takes a picture of the group, who by now, are all sweating, even in the shade. (I took a moment to pet the pitbull lounging under a tree).

On the way to the cenote are all sorts of bizarre plants

Photo taken, we are counseled to pick a walking stick, which we later learned was useful in determining the depth of the water, and if a rock existed (or not). On my third trip, I slipped, fell forward and cut my knee. Darn thing left a scar, because I’m always resting on it and kept ripping it open. Guess I should have used that walking stick!

Almost ready

Depending on the which cenote is chosen for the tour, the walk is between fifteen and twenty minutes. You are in the effort about forty-fifty minutes by now. You have one more stop to make before you descend into the darkness, and that’s the blessing by a shaman priest. This is non-negotiable. As you stand in a semi-circle, the priest moves his smoking device up and down across all the individuals as the man speaks in his native tongue.

The shaman isn’t pictured in this photo, but his stand of ash, which gets on you, is to the right

Now we have another walk to the cenote, and all the while, the group is getting to know one another and the tour guide is dispensing information. Year one, we were spoiled; we had a graduate student of geology from the University of Mexico, who was a vault of information. Hanging bee hives, the trees, stones…you name it. Then we reach the actual entrance and down you go.

Underground ease

Each entrance and exit is different, some with a handrail or two, but most without. It’s pitch black as you are then led beside and in to the waterways, tunnels and lakes. The first time, our girls were six and 10, but they are hardy, adventurous and tough. Two hours in and out of warm water, even with a wetsuit, can be tough for anyone. At the end, my youngest was a little chilled, but fine. I’d definitely say any younger than that wouldn’t be advised.

Everyone at their finest

The time spent underground is nearly fifty minutes—but that reminds me of another rule. No watches or jewelry are allowed, which is mandated to preserve any toxins from getting into the ecosystem. Wedding rings and that’s it. No picture taking/cameras are allowed either, unless you have special permission, which I was granted once, then never asked for again (and I probably got this because I’m an author). Honestly, it’s a lot easier to have their group take the photographs and just enjoy the experience.

Taken just before the lights went out
Cleaning up, eating and returning

Once the tour has finished, we walk back, strip off the jacket, suit and shoes, take a shower, then drive back to the center area. Lunch is included, which is a buffet, open all day long. It’s actually quite nice, and one of the few benefits of the expansion, because it’s cool and well appointed. After that, you pay for the CD of the photography. That’s going to run you another $120. Is it worth it? Yep. Unless you’ve had the photography access, the only way you can get the images is to pay for it.

What I liked most

Seeing the underground world that has existed for millions of years, and the resulting photos. My absolute favorite part of the tour was at the end, when our guide took us out to the middle of the lake, asked us to hold hands, and turn off the lights. At that point, we were quiet for about five minutes in the complete, pitch black. Never, in my life, had I been in total and utter blackness, let alone in the water. It took about a minute for the group to get quiet, but after that, it was complete peace. wow.

My apologies for not recalling the names of these formations–but it looks like an upside down beehive doesn’t it?
What I liked least  

The crowds and commercialization have destroyed this place in my opinion. The first two times, they’d limited the tours to one at a time, per cenote. Now, we had four, count them four, different tours going at the same time as ours, so you didn’t get the feeling you were alone, exploring a new universe. It was more like the devil’s version of purgatory. It’s the classic example of destroying something that was perfectly wonderful and unique. Also, the last time, the experience we were hoping to have again (the five minutes of complete quiet in the black), was reduced to about a minute. So. Grumpy. (Management, are you listening??)

Would I go, and can I recommend it to you?

Yes, with the caveat that if you’ve gone before, it’s changed, and for the worse. BUT, if you’ve never gone, I do think it will be quite an experience for you, and your children unlike any other, even with the additional tour groups.

Nope, not eggs, but more great formations created only deep underground

Oh! If you don’t know how to swim, please, please, identify this right up front. On our first adventure, we had three individuals from India, two of whom couldn’t swim, and didn’t say so. The identified themselves as engineers, so they were smart, but didn’t want to be refused entry. The challenge with this is that when it comes time to the lake, you can’t touch the bottom, and must swim. For those who don’t swim, as we found out, it’s an issue. Imagine being an hour deep into the underground, and two people can’t swim. My girls were great, however, and offered to hold their hands and guide them along. The two adults were floating on their backs, and we swam them across. It all worked out, but it was a word to the wise—be honest. They can handle it.

Feature image: taken from the inside of the cenote

Isla Mujeres: the island that has it all

By boat or golf cart, come and spend the day

Isla Mujeres is well-known and visited by the thousands of tourists a year, but it took us three before we decided to go. The primary reason was the split commentary from others we know and trust. “It’s just a tourist trap,” said a couple with teenage children, while the over thirty and single crowd gave it glowing reviews. Yet another demographic, the 60 and over, raved about the exclusivity and near-private beaches available to those fortunate enough to own vacation homes. Still, we weren’t convinced. It took a private excursion on a catamaran, seeing the island from the water to convince us Isla Mujeres was more than bars or private homes.

The first unique experience on Isla Mujeres was going to the tip of Centro on our golf cart. A storm on the horizon was no where to be seen on the other end of the island
First, the catamaran

Before jumping to the island, I’m going to touch on boating. Generally, we avoid boating in Mexico unless it’s fishing because the tour operators oversell, overstuff and overcrowd the boats with bodies. It’s misery. It’s also unsafe, and frustrating. Imagine spending money to go snorkeling off short (because that’s what most offer), only to arrive with to find five other boats, with all the occupants scrambling to get in as fast as possible. Most tours give riders 5-10 minutes in the water, then usher them out and on to the next venture.

Six of us guests had the catamaran to ourselves. It was superbly wonderful. And in case you are wondering, we paid full pop for this tour. It wasn’t sponsored or anything of the kind–which makes it all the better. The average tourist (us) can have the celebrity experience without paying the premium (e.g owning the boat).

We were lucky enough to sit by the owner of Caribbean Dreams at sushi one night at the Villa Del Palmar. We learned he spent a million on his French-made catamaran, and has a limit of 12 people on his boat (compare this to 30-50 for the others). We decided to spend the money and we spent nearly five hours (versus 2) snorkeling, then seeing Isla Mujeres. The experience truly spoiled us forever on the notion of a catamaran. The cost is higher, and justifiably so. From the food, quality of the boat, staff, length of ride and locations, it’s worth the extra $75.

Just compare and contrast the picture on the left; the standard bargain catamaran cruise, and our experience with girls on lush pillows and private snorkeling. Only one serves all-you-can eat and drink (ours). Which one would you take?
Now the Island

The owner/captain took us around the island, pointing out various sites on the island that’s only 5 miles long and 2,000 feet wide. We were able to see the primary beaches, so crowded the beach wasn’t super visible—but this was balanced with private beaches in front of hotels, which were less so.  On the far side of the island, where the shoreline was rocky, visitors zip-lined from high treetops, kayaked in peace in the nooks for paddle boarding. At that point, we realized a lot more existed to this island than what was depicted in the brochures.

We stopped just off the shore for an hour or more, swimming, snorkeling and lounging in the clear, warm water. This gave us the best of the island without having to battle the crowds. The only annoyance were the other chartered boats that came up with booming stereos, killing the vibe. Don’t get me wrong; great music and drunken people have a time and a place, but it wasn’t our groove with kids. Our captain lifted anchor and we moved elsewhere.

A marina with seaside eating is right next to a corridor for yachts and larger boats. The bottom photo is a peninsula home rumored to be formerly (or presently) owned by Rickie Martin. That’s the kind of funny things you get on tours by the locals.
Getting their and around: the ferry and golf carts

Ferry services to Isla Mujeres are available from every port in Cancun. Staying at the Villa Del Palmar, we were fortunate, because the state of Jalisco invested $15M in a state of the art super shuttle ferry here. We walked the 500 meters from the hotel to the marina, paid the $5 per person and had a perfect ride over. The double decker ferry has a kids play area, food service, televisions and air conditioning, pretty much all that’s required.

Big, beautiful and inexpensive from the Isla Blanca ferry terminal

Once on the island, all passengers without cars must hail a cab or walk the 15 minutes in to centro, which is the local name for the city center. Along the way are a myriad of golf cart providers. We mistakenly thought the price would decrease if we walked clear to the end of town, through main street. While this was wrong, (they are all about $60 for an hour), we took a left on a side road, and paid $45 for a new golf cart and were on our way.

The first part of the walk….
The second part, which lasts about a mile–“centro”- or the center of the city
The island itself

Drones are not allowed, which we were bummed to learn as Roger tried to get his airborne. The island has a single airstrip, but it includes military planes, and therefore, the island is considered a no-fly zone. Save yourself the weight and leave the drone at home.

Local art was everywhere–colorful and eye catching. We do all we can to expose our girls to local culture and attitudes, appreciating the differences, talking history and present day.

Zipping up, down and around the main area of the island will take a solid ten minutes, then you head out. The city planners have made the island easy to navigate, because you can essentially ring the land by driving on a single road and it’s a loop. It doesn’t matter which way you head out of town, you are going to end up back in the same place. On your journey, you will encounter itty-bitty communities, lots of stray dogs and open-door homes, replaced with dirt ballparks, small churches and larger homes. This eventually gives way to stretches of beautiful and deserted sandy beaches, private driveways and at the furthest tip of the island, a restaurant and shops. This is the dead end-turnaround.

The end of the line–the turnaround with a few restaurants and shops. One of the colorful private homes dotting the shore.

Unless you are driving slowly, you will miss the roadside activities offered, such as the ziplining. We did the first time out, but caught more of them on the return trip. We also slowed to enjoy the cemetery, where I wandered and took pictures, while Rog and the girls bartered for conch shells.

The Isla Mujeres Cemetery….beautiful and unique
The deals

On that note, I can relate the conch shells are legal to transport back to the States. I can also tell you that they are $36 dollars on main street in Isla Mujeres, and $45 or more in Cancun, and we know, because for three years, our girls have been begging for the shell. The roadside stand where Rog and the girls stopped? Five dollars. Yep, count it out. That beautiful, perfect shell now sits on our stands of collectables at home. Our oldest daughter purchased a rough, pearl necklace for seven dollars which was forty-nine in town. Score!

The spa on the beach….

Spa is misleading, but this is what the brochures and tourist companies would have you believe. The only “spas,” per se are the ones attached to the hotels, and I’ve not been, so can’t comment. What I can relate is the experience of two couples we know who did afternoon trips which included getting a massage on a beach. According to one woman, a flight attendant for Lufthansa (who we met on the catamaran trip btw), she thought the 90-minuate beach massage at $50 US was a steal, because that same massage would have been $100-$200 on the mainland. She said she’d go again just for that.

Isla Mujeres offers different eco-climates. Dark storm clouds at one end, centro was right in middle while the sun shone on the least populated end.

We saw a ton of places to eat that looked good, but didn’t stop once, other than to purchase freshly cut fruit, which we did several times. It was so hot, even with the periodic rain shower, we weren’t hungry. Sorry!

What I liked most

The accessibility, freedom to roam, empty beaches and ability to stop roadside and pick up great deals. The Catamaran ride is a must, but that’s outside the island itself.

Stopping at any point on the road is perfectly acceptable. It’s also perfectly lovely
What I liked least

About the island, nothing really. It was lovely, and a fun day trip, which in reality, is more like four or five hours, unless you stop to take advantage of the recreational activities.

Ziplining across the ocean is different from the view over a jungle. In the Cancun area, you can do both
Feature image: taken from the desk of the catamaran

Cliff Dwelling People: The Anasazi

A visit to the Pueblo ruins in Colorado

As a child, our ancient history lessons include what was then called the Anasazi Ruins, located in the southern-most part of Colorado. These ancient cliff dwellings, located on a high plateau, some thousand feet above the valley were impossibly glamorous to my then-seven and eight-year-old self. It wasn’t until this last year that I was able to actually see them in person.

This blog wasn’t supposed to come until the fall, when the heat of the area where the ruins are located has ebbed. Then I realized that we went in early July, and while it was hot, it was certainly endurable. Heck, if people can see the Grand Canyon in the middle of August, tourists can make it to the ruins!

One of 600 cliff dwellings, as seen from the opposite ridge of the Mesa Verde National Park
The backstory

Historians hypothesize the ancient pueblo people, as they are now called, searched for safe areas where water could be collected through the seasons, and used to supply their needs. Scouts are presumed to have found these cliffs, and heaven-only-knows why and who the first settlers scaled up and down the cliffs, then proceeded to car mini-cities from the rock, under the protective stone overhangs. More than 600 cliff dwellings dot the inner linings of the walls. The inhabitants were able to grow and harvest plants, which augmented a presumably meat-based diet.

Drive your car, stop and walk to the edge. Be careful, the park doesn’t believe in stopping selfie photogs from falling off the cliff.

For nearly 700 years, the cliffs were inhabited, and then archeologists believe they were abandoned due to prolonged drought. This made it impossible to grow plants and sustain life of any kind.

See those blackish/brownish stains on the top ridge? Those are water stains. The Anasazi identified where the water fell, captured it, made mud, then bricks, creating entire communities.
Getting there

It’s an easy route from almost any direction. Most non-US residents are familiar with the ski-resort town of Telluride, Colorado, or its sister city, Ouray, heralded for being “the little Switzerland of the US,” because of its ice climbing in the winter and off-road vehicle terrain in the summer.

Beyond glorious drive to and from Ouray/Telluride down to Cortez

If you are starting from Ouray, tack on another 30 minutes. But from Telluride, it’s less than a two-hour drive through beautiful mountain roads. Keep your camera handy, because you are going to see mountains that look painted with copper and gorgeous rivers.

When arriving at the Mesa Verde National Park, you will see the first of several famous peaks. Up and up you have climbed to reach this point, and you absolutely must stop at any number of the scenic spots.

Up, up you drive to get to the high plateau these incredible people found and homesteaded

Believe it or not, the picture-perfect shots are not to be had from the eye-level view. It’s from above, on the opposite ridge, looking down into the specific site. One doesn’t require binoculars to get a great shot, or even a long lens (I had neither). A regular camera will do. The ‘opposite view’ allows one to capture the full majesty of the dwelling.

The tours

We took one tour, and the rest we saw by car. We had no idea what to expect with a tour, and were mildly disappointed, so I want to pass a long a few things that aren’t conveyed at the ticket office or on the brochure. The tour of a dwelling, depending on which one you choose, take quite a while to get down to the dwelling, (it’s really hot, evening in early July) and then once you reach the bottom, are strictly limited to the path. The photos I thought I was going to take were completely impossible. Clearly, one has to be a professional photographer, with a magazine or have gained a special authorization to set in, or around inside the dwelling areas. I get it, we don’t want to disturb/erode the areas, and I’m cool with that. It’s just impossible to get more than a few (dark) shots of the dwellings when on foot.

Compare that to the drive and view from the ridge. The roads are alongside the cliffs, and multiple stopping/parking areas are available so one can get out, walk the short distance (some are right at the edge, others require less than five minute walk) then look down/across to the dwelling on the other side. This was far and away a better vantage point than the street level, per se.

An example of what a tour group must climb up/down to get to a cliffside dwelling
Don’t miss the center

Most of the time, I am seriously disappointed with park centers, but all four of us agreed the Mesa Verde center ranks in the top five. Perhaps it was the volume of items, or the presentation of original artifacts (and recreations of others) but we enjoyed it immensely. When a center captivates an 8-year old who doesn’t want to leave, but continue reading the small print, you know it’s good.

A restaurant, not located at the center, but in a different area, is open, but we didn’t stop, so I can’t comment on that. Just know you won’t starve if you neglected to bring food or water on the journey.

Entering and existing the Park, you will see famous rock structures like the above
What I liked most

Realizing the life-long dream of seeing the dwellings, walking the area where people lived and shaking my head in wonder at the incredible skill and fortitude of our ancient people.

What I liked least

The lack of public bathrooms and the heat!

This is one of my favorite national parks in the United States thus far, ranking way above Mt. Rushmore in my mind. Both feature carved rock, but whereas one is monuments of presidents’ past, these cliffside dwellings were, and are, a testament to the skills, determination and capabilities of the indigenous people. It’s truly awe inspiring.

Feature Image: taken from the ridge of the canyon

Isla Holbox: the perfect place to disconnect

With perfect beaches, pristine, unspoiled water and remote enough to keep most everyone away

We discovered this little island by speaking with the staff at the Villa Del Palmar, many who have proved to be well traveled and in possession of great locations for the adventurous visitor. Isla Holbox is not generally known to the American tourists, for in the three years we’ve been visiting the Yucatan, it’s not been brought up once, either at poolside discussions, or travel agencies. It’s always Isla Mujeres, and this is probably because it’s across the bay, large and offers all the standard recreational activities, from rentals to nightlife. Always up for exploring new territory, we piled in the car and got going.

The small marina where you board the ferry to Isla Holbox
Getting there

It’s about three hours by drive, a straight shot in the direction of Chitzen Itza. Nary a police officer in site outside the Cancun city limits, so we followed the locals who booked along at 80 mph. The road is flat, mostly straight with a few turns here and there, but eventually dead-ends at a pier. You will pay about $5 US to park your car, and another $2.50 per adult for the forty-minute ferry ride over. We saw loads of people crammed into mini-taxi buses, mostly young, honeymooners wanting to escape to the romantic, micro island for a few days. I write this with a caveat: those poor passengers were squished in like sardines, and we learned it cost them about $100 US of the three-hour journey. If you’re staying a week and not renting a car, then I suppose it’s reasonable. Just recognize you may want to splurge the extra $20 for a nicer minivan service. If you want to charter a plane, the small airstrip can handle a six-seater Cessna, and that’s about it.

Micro it is

This is perhaps the smallest island I’d ever been on. It reminded me a lot of Rarotonga in terms of vibe, and size. Both are roughly 26 miles long, but the difference ends there. Holbox is only 1.5 km wide, the island has virtually no cars and people walk, or rent mopeds or golf carts. The walk from the ferry the short distance of about 500 yards into central downtown. Most people are in flip flops, because anything more than that is overkill. The beaches are unspoiled and white, and most of all, because it’s facing west, wind doesn’t exist as it does on the eastern-facing Cancun side. Between the soft, white sand and lack of wind, it is simply heaven. It’s also hot.

Tragic tails of boats of the past dot the entry bay to Isla Holbox- enough to make it interesting but not so many that it scares the tourists
The food, hotels and tourist-y things

Unlike Isla Mujeres, which is diverse enough offer every type of water sports, hotel accommodations, eaters and lots of private homes and yachts, Isla Holbox pretty much has a couple of each, if that. The hotels are more like bungalows, but sit beachside. The nicest restaurants are those attached (or within) the boutique hotels. Quite a few outdoor, casual/beach dining eaters exist, but one shows up in the bikini, not the cocktail dress. Because cars and even private golf carts aren’t allowed, and walking is the norm, prepare to wake up and take a stroll from one side of the island to the other.

That said, locals couldn’t stop telling us about “swimming with the whale sharks” that take place between June and September. As we always go to Mexico around the spring break timeframe, we’ve not experienced that, but certainly have to mention it.

This is it: “Main Street” which you will walk from the ferry to downtown, which is about 200 metres in front of this shot. If you are with a boutique, a golf cart will be waiting. If not, you can hitch a ride (pay, actually) at the marina. Otherwise you are walking.
Smooth sand, quaint eateries and boutique hotels….so perfect for a couple
Family friendly but…

My girls loved the beach, for about three hours. At 9 and 13, they were looking for something…anything to do. If you consider Cancun, where one can rent a jetski, go parasailing, kayaking or anything other pleasure activity one can imagine, it’s not a reality in Isla Holbox. This place is quietly free from loud machines or rentals of any sort. Parked off the beach aren’t party boats, but multi-million-dollar yachts, and once or twice we saw the occupants step in to small watercraft to come ashore.

This was a Saturday. See how empty it is? Aww…the reason you go is because no one else is and it feels like you are all alone…mostly.
What I like best about Isla Holbox

The amazing street art, easy, low-key, local feeling of the area. It’s overwhelmingly populated with native people, leaving folks like us in a small minority. It’s definitely more Sausalito in terms of casual attitude than La Jolla, and we got a lot of practice with our Spanish. The amazingly soft, white sand and crystal clear waters is honestly the best we’ve experienced in the Yucatan thus far.

Those lucky enough to have an off-shore ride to and from the beach.
What I like least

How long it takes to get there. Since we drove, it was 3 hours, as I mentioned, but by boat, going from the tip of the Isla Blanca, where the Villa Del Palmar is located, would have only taken about 30 minutes, because it’s going tip to tip. By driving, we had to go all the way down, then back up the other peninsula. Of course, flying is another level, and we ain’t there yet.

Mainly a fishing community, tourism is increasing, but slowly–for which I’m very grateful
After you walk the beach, return to the casual stops twenty feet away
Take away recommendation

For honeymooners or a couple/individual looking to completely and utterly disconnected, Isla Holbox is your destination. Between the pace of the island, the clarity and beauty of the water and beach, Isla Holbox can’t be beat, at least not in the Yucatan Peninsula. For a family, well, I’d say it’s a nice, one-time experience, but we may wait a few years until they are older—or we return by ourselves. The girls recounted the four hours it took to get on the island, then the three hours spent on the beach, and the four to return. We had to agree with them—not the best place for active, mid-range kids, perfect for everyone else!

Perhaps this poor sea creature had suicidal tendencies, but he got there and stayed.

Tip: Be sure to check the ferry schedule, as it stops running to the Mainland early on weekdays

Feature image: on the beach just in front of city-centre

A penthouse in Zurich

When we arrived in Zurich, the drive across the bridge, then shoreline conjured visions of romance. How could it not? Glimpsing a couple walking under the trees lining the lake, I rolled down the window, feeling the breeze, watching the sailboarders zip by, wondering…what would it be like to live here, work at a high powered job, go to clubs and find love? ahh….that was the beginning of the Danielle Grant series, the last book which just released.

This was the first picture I snapped driving in to Zurich, going across the bridge to the (west) side of the lake where our place was located. Looks like just about every other lakefront strolling area….until you see the magnificent buildings on the left.

One of the elements I love about Zurich is modern convenience with trolleys and cobblestones, the metro quietly zipping through town, yogi’s on bikes navigating between Lambo’s and Ferrari’s. I also loved (and hated) the narrow paths leading up the very steep hillsides. Great for my calves but oh….hard on my fanny. Because they made (and left) such an impression, I use them to my advantage in each book of the series…up and down in the sun and snow.

The narrowed paths between the buildings in Zurich–the coolest little bars and hard to find delis were hidden in these alleys/paths.
Recall the scene where Lars and Danielle break up. right there, on that couch facing the fireplace. Imagine the fern replaced with a Christmas tree and grab a tissue.

There is was. The beginning of the three-book series on Danielle Grant, an American trader recruited to Switzerland. Of course, Danielle Grant, the lead character, didn’t come to mind until later, as we explored the streets of Zurich, noting the incredible number of wealth management and financial institutions. The owner of the unit is a physician, and while I initially thought that was interesting, the fast-paced, secretive world of trading appealed to me. Besides, the physician’s well-built, tattooed, very handsome but slightly mentally underpowered boyfriend was simply not believable—or rather, a reader would think it was cliché. The hot doctor (she was hot, and blond, and brilliant) with an equally hot enforcer-like boyfriend was beyond the realm of reality. I know you are thinking: but that would be cool?! Well, I thought it cool as well, but wouldn’t sell, and as I’ve already digressed terribly, I will tell you I raised this scenario up to my agent, who agreed with my initial feeling.

“Nope, you’re right,” he said immediately. “It is cliché and unbelievable.”

“But I actually witnessed this!” I said with frustration. Not that I was going to run with it anyway, but the notion that real life wasn’t acceptable was annoying.

“Sad but true,” Peter reaffirmed.

Let’s just have a collective sigh together and move on.

As I dutifully kept my eyes off the boyfriend and paid attention to the physician, I appreciated everything about the building, unit and details therein—all of which made their way into Made for Me, book on. When she slid in the card for the penthouse located on the fifth floor, I was impressed. The two-bedroom flat with views of the lake from every room was lovely. All glass and modern, shiny counters and cabinets, metallic tile butting against French maple—the vision was coming together. The grand piano in the living, the glass-enclosed dining room with sliding doors, the sauna off the second bedroom. I wondered to myself—who lived like this, really? I asked the physician.

“I have a much smaller flat downtown closer to my office,” she said. Okay, that answered the question. Not her. She then offered she has five similar units in other cities around the country (Bern, Lucerne, St. Moritz to name a few) and this was her second business. Rog was impressed.

Office on the other side of the glass-enclosed dining room, and the right is a (pretty poor) shot of the master bathroom, built-in sauna on the left side
Not behind in the scenes. In the scenes

Volumes have been written about real life inspirations behind a character, scene or setting, and I have fun blending fact with fiction, or rather, improving fact when I want something a little off. Well, I will give full credit to the unit’s owner who made it really easy for me to catalog every detail, up to and including the 5-inch solid steel door. It also came with five, count them five, different locks. So, imagine this: secured building, private elevator, five-inch steel door with five locks. It’s Switzerland, as I say in my book, the safest country in the world. Wasn’t this a little bit of overkill?

“One can never be too secure,” was the physician’s answer. Well then.

Upper left: one of the two decks opening up with views to Lake Zurich, Upper right, view from the kitchen, over modern office buildings (aka pull the blinds!) the bottom pic is on the waterfront, a ten minute walk from our rental to downtown along the waterfront
Left: Imagine this hallway where Danielle greets Andre in the foyer, and then upper right, in the second bedroom, which she transforms into a second bedroom

A little factoid in the book is the heat of the city. Few, if any, places in the city have air conditioning outside the hotels. The logic is that for the few weeks a year its unbearable, the winds gust off the lake, and up the hillside (or the reverse). In fact, our landlord told us that we were going to be liable if we left the penthouse without drawing in the awnings covering the decks. So we’d close everything up in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, open the windows and it cooled down immediately. The evenings were lovely.

Back to the door….

Guess what kind of door we have in Idaho, on a property in the middle of nowhere, which has a gate, and lots of security. Yep. That five-inch steel door. But lest you think we got crazy and had it especially installed, we didn’t. The house came this way. You see, the previous owner is a Swiss architect who built it for himself, and told us the same thing: “All good homes have doors like this.” Well then, there it is. At least he didn’t put on the five different locks.

Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up. Five solid inches of steel in our front door, emulating just about every front door we’ve had in Zurich.
Feature image: A water Polize, who’s big task for the afternoon was saving two geese that were ensnared in a net. The crowd cheered, including us.

Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock

As majestic as it is hard to reach

Ninety minutes south of Portland, Oregon, and about the same distance west of the state capital, Salem, is one of the most picturesque settings on the western coast of the United States. It’s Cape Kiwanda, home of the sand dunes and the “pointy” rock itself–Haystack Rock. The journey has a little of everything: parking on the long, flat beach instead of a concrete lot. Then traipsing up the dune in order to get to the furthest point of the jetty to snap that National Geographic-worthy photo.

Haystack Rock–and my apologies for the photo- in a moment of complete idiocy, I delted my dropbox for this trip, and the only photos I had were those I’d sent to my phone. So I “resent” them back to myself. Just take the essence of the shot, visualizing how good it was in the original form! 🙁
A regional overview

Take your time to this destination. The woods are beautiful coming from either direction. I just note that for those first-times to the west coast, which includes Washington at the northern most end, down to Oregon and California, you have two general routes. The major freeway is I-5, which runs from Canada (Vancouver, B.C.) to Mexico. This is the fast, straight and sure route, and many visitors take a couple of weeks and drive from one end to the other, hitting Seattle, Portland, Salem, Eugene, San Francisco, Los Angeles then San Diego.

For context, it takes approximately 4 hours from Seattle to Portland in regular traffic. Then 45 minutes south from Portland to Salem. From there to the northern California border (going through Klamath Falls) is another 6. From the border (which takes you through the National Lava Beds Monument, a marvelous home to underground ice caves and catacombs), then to Crater Lake (1 hour), which has the famous island in the middle of the former volcano. Shasta to San Francisco is five hours, an easy, gorgeous drive. From San Fran to Los Angeles is approximately 7.5 hours. From Los Angeles to San Diego is an easy five hours.

Got all that?

That was route 1. Route 2 is the “scenic” route, known as the Pacific Coast Scenic by-way, also known as Highway 1010, which will take you twice as long because it’s a curvy, gorgeous seaside road that begins in Astoria, Washington and goes all the way down to the Northern California. Unfortunately, between June and August, it’s smashed with tourists. The best time to go is After the kids are in school: think September. The winter months are glorious because it’s wet and raining, and really, what’s the northwest (Oregon and Washington) without a little drizzle.

But I’ve seriously digressed, although I felt it was important to give you the lay of the land. Back to Cape Kiwanda, it’s located in Pacific City. It’s a small, quaint town, which a few hotels and restaurants, the primary attraction being Haystack Rock.

Get in shape

The dunes are the primary obstacle to getting the best shot of Haystack Rock—but know this. You can approach it from the north or the south. From the south, you can’t actually get to the rock, as the long beach, nearest the city, is flat but doesn’t offer access. You must park on the north side, then once on the top of the dunes, you get the sweeping views of both north, south and Haystack Rock.

Taken on the walk from the car to the dunes. Just turned to my right, saw a bird flying between the cliffs and snapped. So perfect never a filter needed!!

Park on the beach, walk up the face of the dune. You have two options: going straight up (shorter but more painful) or along the ridgeline—longer and it drags out. I think both were levels of purgatory.

Once on the top, you are going to go up and down several different levels, following the well-worn path. It has some tricky spots, and I didn’t see any kids younger than 7, and you need to watch them like a hawk. The unobservant parent, or selfie-addicted tourist can slip and go over any edge and that’s all she-wrote. Bye-bye.

This is a view from between the cliffs as you make your way–post dunes. It’s all hardened sand–great for pictures but rather dangerous if you aren’t paying attention.

When Haystack Rock comes in to view, you must still go down, then up again to the final/closest point. The good news is by this time, most everyone else has given up the ghost, so it’s not crowded in the slightest. I would have taken more pictures, but honestly, I’d eaten at my favorite bakery and was seriously bloaty. No selfies for me!!

I’d definitely call this “the most dangerous” part of the journey. No rails, nothing, just your own sense of self-preservation. But sooo close. On the right (not pictured) is a narrow strip where you go down, then up, then across this hard rock bluff—then finally you arrive!

Grateful Bread Bakery

Whether you re wanting sustenance for your journey, or a reward for your victorious climb, you must—and this is must—stop by the Grateful Bread Bakery. Generous portions, daily homemade breads of all types, and a wonderfully, pure, Oregon-coast vibe make this my favorite destination in town. This glowing recommendation comes with a warning: the lines can be murder. Fortunately, the take out (if you call in) is super-fast. It’s a good-sized restaurant, but honestly, pick off hours and a small group (less than eight) or you are going to be waiting a solid hour.

And the reward….ahhhh…..

Whether you re wanting sustenance for your journey, or a reward for your victorious climb, you must—and this is must—stop by the Grateful Bread Bakery. Generous portions, daily homemade breads of all types, and a wonderfully, pure, Oregon-coast vibe make this my favorite destination in town. This glowing recommendation comes with a warning: the lines can be murder. Fortunately, the take out (if you call in) is super-fast. It’s a good-sized restaurant, but honestly, pick off hours and a small group (less than eight) or you are going to be waiting a solid hour.

Featured Image: Haystack Rock


An author’s logic

Otherwise known as mood & memory loss

Two questions have been arising that might as well be addressed in this blog. The first is: why all the travel blogs, and second is: why do you keep switching back and forth on locations instead of the chronological order of visits?

If I had any shame whatsoever, I wouldn’t admit that travel blogging is as much for me as it is for wanna-be tourists. For yearrrrs, after every trip, I vowed to keep a journey, record—image or written- of where I went, what I did, ate, liked, hated etc., so if I ever wanted to visit the destination again, I’d have the details. In other words, my own Sarah version of Rick Steves. Alas, like my teenage journal writing endeavors, it ended up being more vision than action. Here I am, a million years later, like Methuselah, wondering if I need another vision for the Almighty to strike me down to change my evil ways.

So, it was (yes, this is the actual answer) that in February of 2019, when we booked this summer’s vacation plans, I was forced to pull out all the pamphlets, business cards, and what-nots from our last two visits. That begat the whole “Since I have to write this down anyway, maybe someone will benefit.” Like unto that was the “oh! This inspired my novel(s), and that might be interesting for another reader as well.”

Yeah, I know. Long answer to the first question, but now you know the backstory, and I’m all about backstory.

My scenery & writing area switches with my moods: one moment sitting chair, then couch, table and usually in the mornings, my kitchen counter, half-looking at the neighbors yard above my toaster. More importantly, my back is to the lake, so I’m not distracted. Is it any wonder that gold trader Danielle Grant positions her desk to the hallway and away from Lake Zurich? Who can get a thing done with a great view??

Second question is more simple: I get bored, and so do readers of my IG, Facebook and Blogs. Too much US, then too much Europe, Mexico or wherever. So, my original intention to go alphabetical was quickly discarded, as was the timeline. Now it’s whatever strikes my fancy. I do have one goal, which is to get all my major trips for the last couple of years up, so I can figure out what to replicate, what to add and ignore. Honestly, I’m a little stressed since I leave three weeks from today (time to start dieting), so don’t be surprised if my blogs become a wee-bit shorter, with more visuals than text.

Lichtenstein, where the best things come in small sizes

Three castles, one McDonald’s and lots and lots of money

One afternoon in Zurich we decided to get in the car and just drive towards the Alps. Somewhere along the way was a sign for Lichtenstein, and we had nothing better to do so we hung a left off the A1 and bingo, ended up in another country. Given that we were entering from Zurich, the first town is Vaduz, the capital.

Vaduz castle, in the capital city of Lichtenstein

My previous reference to the country was a place where the excruciatingly wealthy of the world park their money. Funny thing is that in the US, bastions of money means huge, ornate buildings, fancy cars and snappy suits. Here, the environment is so understated you’d have no idea of what lurks behind the mostly grey, mostly one-story buildings. No flashy cars, just a single McDonald’s and corner cafes, which are themselves, nothing more than metal tables and chairs.

Still, we arrived mostly in the company of summer road bikers, nearly all on BMW touring bikes, their outfits not leather, but mesh, because as we were told, they “breathe better.”

About a mile or two inside the fourth smallest country in Europe is the town of Vaduz, pretty much the one and only city. It’s home to the Prince who lives in a great castle which is off-limits to tours (bummer) a few parks and lots of great shops for chocolate. As an aside, I know you are likely sick of my fixation of chocolate by now, but some people have wine, others coffee, me chocolate. Sorry. At least I can tell you what to purchase on Amazon, for most of it is in fact, for sale over here.

There are two interesting castles to visit, nonetheless. Some of which must be done on foot, because the hub is car-free on purpose. The winy roads rival Lake Cuomo for the width (which is about arms-length wide) and the goal (we presume) is to get visitors to spend more money on the local shops.

The Rhine cuts through the country, and nearly every exit off the A1 offers up a park. And keep in mind that there aren’t that many exits and then you are out of the country.

Vaduz Castle

Even though it’s not open to the public, take the path and walk up the 150 meters to take pictures. It’s lovely and really, just standing by all the wealth in this micro-country makes me feel good at a seriously temporal level.

Lichtenstein Castle

This is definitely my favorite castle in all of Europe-and it’s likely the smallest. First, it sits on an island of rock that juts up and out, requiring access by bridge. Second, it has a really cool ‘hunting room’ with the original pedestal the hunters would use to stand up and retell their adventures of killing the local boar with one of the original steins that line the upper molding of the room. Third, it has a “mistress” door for the Lord of the manner to sneak out and have a moment with his lady friend. The upper rooms, which are very small and off limits (though we cajoled a peek) are upstairs in the turret-area of the castle. The tour is SO worth it, you must, must, must do it. This castle has a great scene between Danielle (the American expat) and Zurich-born Andre, which is wrote specifically around this destination in the first book of the trilogy, Made for Me.

This is one of the few castles in all of Europe that offer such a glorious, unobstructed perch from which to take photos

Keep an eye out for the funky elements of the area. Rog found a side entrance for the dog, which begat my tongue-i-cheek phrases that when I get my next castle, I’m definitely going to make sure I have that bat-cave door for my four-legged companions.

The nearby armory to ward off the

The day was beautiful, crowds light and completely family-friendly. Easy parking with a bit of a walk in the heat (uphill) but no too bad. Pictures are not allowed inside the castle, as they encourage postcards, so my law-abiding self had to make do with the pics from all the angles possible.

Just a short distance away is the armory. Factoid: during WWII, the Germans tried to bomb the castle but succeeded in damaging only a fraction of the structure; the rest remained completely intact.

Hikers Delight

Two hikes are definitely worth making the effort. The first is the Prince’s Way Hike and the Eagle’s Way Hike. One thing I seriously love about Lichtenstein is they offer up a site detailing the location, level of challenge and more details so you can be fully prepared. (Unlike the States where it’s more of: you paid the park entry fee, good luck!) Check out this link for the details for the available hikes.

When we got hungry, literally no restaurants were open because we arrived (apparently) at an odd hour. The McDonald’s was crammed with road bikers, but the notion of being in Europe and eating at the sole fast-food restaurant in the country was a little offensive. So, we kept wandering up and down the side streets (below the no-car zone) and finally found an open restaurant. Rog had never had boar before, and I wanted authentic as well, so I just pointed and ordered, loving the meat, potatoes and schnitzel.

A lake that’s called a swimming pool

Now this was interesting. We were boiling up and thought- okay, we’ll see what’s around. The Grossabuent Leisure Centre popped up, and since it is billed as a swimming facility, we thought pool. Well, we look up the website and laughed, reading that it’s actually a lake, but billed as a non-chemical swimming area, so it’s named a Centre. Got all that?

The random monastery/church on the hill. We got lost, found a church-basilica overlooking the entire town and took a look around. Honestly, I think some of our best pictures came on that hour side-adventure, and I’m sorry/embarrassed to say I can’t find the name of the place—one reason why I MUST start writing these blogs real time during my travel.  (and NO, this isn’t the Cathedral of Vaduz, also known as the Cathedral of St. Florin. This is way smaller.

One of my personal favorite subjects is cemeteries or gravesites. They can be so exquisitely personal and though provoking I am always taking photos- so shame on me. I can’t recall the name of the actual destination but adore the photos! Arg!

Local cathedral

We love churches when the architecture, grounds and vibe is different from what we’ve previously seen. The Cathedral in Vaduz offers that, but then we found another, smaller church that for the life of me, I can’t recall the name. Perhaps one of my readers can help me! The pictures speak for themselves, especially the cemeteries.

I love cemeteries. We learned that this one was/is reserved for only the most stalwart families.

Gutenburg Castle in Balzurs

Open to the public after May 1 through October, the tours are by appointment only, and relatively limited, including the gardens and the chapel specifically. It’s also available for weddings upon request. The view from the grounds, however, are awesome and should definitely be seen.

After that, the tour of the country is pretty much over, well, unless you are there to discuss your gazillion-dollar account with a financial advisor. Sorry, can’t give you a recommendation on that one.

Feature image: in front of Lichtenstein Castle

Day trip from Portland

Bridge to the Gods, Hood River, Falls and Pizza

Portland is a great destination with wonderful sites in and around the city, from the OMSI to the waterfront with the world-famous Rose Festival. You can ride the Aireal Tram (gondola) that lifts you up and over the freeway to take in the famous “City of Roses,” and when hungry, eat at one of my favorites, Papa Hayden’s in the famous Pearl district. If you are just driving through and unable to do any of the above, you must take the exit, find parking and eat. It’s that good—well, actually the cakes and desserts are that good. They made the wedding cake for two one sister, whereas Jerry Franks’s in Salem, an hour south, made the cakes for the other.

Left: the aireal tram (but wasn’t going the day we were in town) and right: view of Portland heading out I-84 east

Hopefully, your trip includes getting out East, because visitors should set aside one really long day to head east out on I-84 for a day. The experience is like a veritable laundry list of sites and destinations you won’t forget. Bring your hiking shoes, camera and a rain jacket, because you are never going to know what you will experience on this journey. And if you simply can’t spare a full day, you can cram a few things in four or five yours.

The simple map of the bike trails. A more detailed link below
Getting out of the city

The Columbia Gorge is famous for it’s wind, drawing crazy sailboarding-windsurfers from around the world. Watching the surfers speed along the whitecaps, with sails or parachutes was so romantic I tucked it away for a book, (a three-book series actually). Turns out, Danielle Grant, the American recruited to Zurich to trade keeps up her windsurfing on Lake Zurich, which helped me continue my mental and visual love affair with the sport.

The wind starts about 45 minutes outside the city, as soon as the Columbia River comes in to view. Prior to that time, however, are some majorly cool sites that Oregonians take for granted. Well, this one took them for granted, because we never stopped until I left for college.

Vista House

Sitting on a majestic bluff that appears to have shot straight up from a volcanic event is an observatory. It’s perched on concrete, on rock, overlooking the Gorge. It’s rather famous, and is called the “crowning glory” of the Columbia River. Hikers, water-sport lovers might disagree, but your inner Einstein will be in vigorous agreement. The hours are 9-6 pm daily, but sometimes it closes depending on extreme weather. Bring your camera and a windbreaker—well, you need that regardless.

Left: clip from the website from the top, Right: my snap from the turn-off from the bottom of the road

Multnomah Falls

The Falls is a primary tourist destination, but I’m really sorry to say this: it’s pretty darn mundane compared to the so many falls that exist in Switzerland, Austria, Germany….the list goes on. I mean, nothing compares to water gushing from the Alps. Yet, the hike is beautiful, and for Oregon, the Northwest and yes, for much of the United States, Multnomah Falls is something to see. So if you are a European who has really seen some majestic falls, you take go back home and say “yeah, I saw these falls that are super cool to Americans but we have it better.”

That said—and here is the fun part—what very few, if any, falls in Europe (that we have visited) have is a lodge and the surrounding tourist areas. No such things as a “Gorge” exists in Europe, next to the Falls, next to Vista Point, sandwiched in between quaint, hillside towns such as Hood River. All of these attractions are literally within a 90 minutes (or less) on the major I-84 freeway. And that, my friends, is something you just can’t get anywhere else.

Several historic, amazing hotels are nearby, including the well-known Columbia Gorge Hotel which is very reminiscent of the old-school Beverly Hills Hotel in terms of 40’s glamour and style (at least the front). It sits right at river’s edge amidst lush, old growth trees. It’s a perfect site for a destination wedding, actually, especially if the couple are lovers of the outdoors. Skamania Lodge is another hotel with quite a reputation. It’s a different vibe, with a golf course, wellness and fitness center (as opposed to the “spa” of the Columbia) and has a full-fledged convention center etc. Yet some visitors want the higher-up view (it’s insane, check out the website photo gallery).

To backtrack a bit on the hotel aspect of Portland, if it were me traveling to the city (and because I lived in Portland for six years, I feel well qualified to say this), I’d go for the Heathman Hotel downtown (place of a sister’s wedding reception) because my mom believes that the Heathman has better food and cakes that Papa Hayden’s, which I’m happy to argue about. The Heathman is in a trendy part of downtown but it’s another old-school establishment with high, vaulted ceilings in the lobby and dining room, old and new meeting in a lovely, historical space. My personal fav.

Now back to the Gorge. If neither of those hotels are in your budget, you definitely need to stay at the Best Western Plus hotel in Hood River, or nearer the Cascade Locks location. Both hotels are right on an inlet of the river, perfect views, and all the amenities a visitor needs, price+convience  = you have more money to do and see everything on your list!  

If you recall the devastating fires from the summer of 2018, this area was partially blackened. Thanks to the amazing resilience and rains it’s only half spooky. In the upper shelves of the mountains, the trees resemble black skeletons.

The Cascade Locks

Normally, when one hears the words Locks it refers to a series of connected waterways, to be rather simplistic. This is somewhat different. It’s two miles of water create by a massive, ancient landslide. For history buffs, the Cascade Locks had the first steamboat west of the Mississippi in 1862, which is on display at the historical museum. After numerous boats fell apart after hitting the rapids, the US government started the initiative to create the Locks, and this work began in 1880. For nearly 50 years, the river was used to transport goods up and down the river, but after the Bonneville Dam was erected, the area gradually transitioned from a commerce-led township to tourist destination.

If you’re not into the history, then you are likely being compelled to come here because of the fabulous bike trails, and the “Bridge to the Gods.” Yes, that’s the name. It’s as beautiful from the freeway as it is to ride across from Oregon to the Washington side and back again.

Looking from the Oregon side to Washington, where the land is flat, encouraging the industrial activity to occur on the north side of the Columbia River

The Multnomah Falls

First up, I want to say we visited this last weekend (June 1, 2019). It was sunny, it was busy, and the signs in both directions of I-84 said the Parking Lots Full and Closed. Huh. Never seen that before. We ignored it of course, because the Dept of Transportation (DOT) hadn’t put up a physical barrier to the entrance, so we drove right on through. Sure enough, people left, we took a spot and walla! That said, it was about 10 am and already crammed, so if you are going on a weekend, go early or late, because the mid-day is pretty gnarly. (yes, that’s a technical term used by us authors).

Lots of fog in the early morning

As you’ve likely read on numerous sites, the walk is easy, the view great, so what’s not to like?

Hood River, the town

Over the last twenty-years, this town has been like the Phoenix rising. It went from downtrodden ashes of a former timber town to a trendy destination which reminds me of a tiny Telluride. E.g. it has the bike shop on mainstreet with $5,000 starter models, next to a stationary store, meat market, hardware then pizza joint.

Nearly every street in Hood River has a view to the Columbia

If you look past the bikes, the rest of the prices for everything is Oregon-style. No sales tax and reasonable. The public library and park are also on main, and you’ll get a nice workout starting at one end, going up the hill, turning around at the library then going back down. As you walk down, turn to your left for the views of the Columbia River, and take pics of the homes, which are totally 1920’s-30’s turn lovingly kept up by homeowners. Of all the places to eat, we chose Pietro’s Pizza. You have to understand I grew up with Pietro’s thin crust, which hasn’t changed in 40 years. Hallelujah. It’s on the main street from the high way exit, at the basement of a brewery.

Main street (original clocks and modern condo’s adjacent to a brewery; attributes that make up the trendy town of Hood River

When you cross back over the freeway, it leads to the marina, beach area (it’s actually rock, but that’s what the hardy Hood River residents call beach) and the inlet where the crewing teams row. If you are worried about cold/heat with the crazy winds, the gusts were ferocious, but we were still hot. As one local told us over pizza, “If we didn’t have the breeze it would be unbearable.” We agreed.

The inlet just off the freeway, next to the Hood River Best Western Plus, marina and beach

Starvation Creek State Park

Not real enticing as far as names go, but the scenery is glorious. It comprises almost 150 acres and receives only 200,000 visitors a year, mostly in the summer and fall months.

Hiking the trails is the main reason to come to Starvation Creek, because it connects major trails. You can use the day park pass and connect to the Mt. Defiance trail ridge. Going east, you connect the Columbia River Highway State treail, then Viento State Park. This the map for bicycle and hiking for easy reference. I snipped the top-view visual for the map, but the extended map is very intricate so make sure to check that out.

As a side note, many executives come over to the States for summer projects, yet the kids are miserable because they aren’t in school and it can be hard making friends when families take vacation. One activity is the OMSI camps and classes.

Feature Image: View from Vista House L (photo credit their website)


Destination Salem

Be it a wedding reception or simple pleasure, the Oregon State capital appeals to all

Travel with me officially kicks off with the first trip of the summer. The June 1st weekend coincided with a wedding reception in Salem, Oregon, a town about forty-five minutes of better-known Portland. Salem is the state capital, but most outsiders know the city for the many wineries that sprung up in the late 1980’s. The Willamette Valley, as it’s referred to, gets a mention in my Danielle Grant series book set in Switzerland, oddly enough, because the lead character is from the area. Wine people know wine, and therein lies the irony—I’m not a wine gal or a drinker, but grew up in the area!

Mid-size city with small town charm

This little town has several colleges, such as Willamette University, which is probably best known for its law school, the downtown waterfront, which the city invested millions of dollars in rebuilding. When I was growing up, the “waterfront,” didn’t even exist. For foreign visitors, a waterfront implies walking paths, eateries, parks, paddle boats, perhaps even a boat launch and then events throughout the summer. This waterfront has it all. The day we visited, a Corvette car show was taking place. The area has an indoor carousel, as well as a large, Mississippi style, two-story paddle boat that gives short tours up and down the Willamette River.


Floating casino doubling as an old fashioned paddle boat
The world globe on the left is just off the suspension bridge used by the bikers and joggers, the car show of Corvette’s

In terms of eateries, many exist, but we have several long-standing favorites we just can’t pass up on any trip. Jerry Frank’s Konditeri, which is now in new hands after the owner passed away. It’s on Commercial Street, about five minutes south of downtown. Easy to find and worth the short drive from the waterfront. Homemade, moist, decadent cakes is its claim to fame. Yeah, you can have lunch, but why bother when three slices of different desserts will do better?

Red velvet cake from Jerry Frank’s

Kwan’s Kitchen was the best in town for Chinese, and was on the way to Jerry Frank’s. But sadly, the dearly loved, and amazing owner/chef (Kam Sang) Kwan himself died a year ago June. He served us food for forty years, no kidding. I thought the man was going to be eternal. He never could really speak a lick of English, other than hello, thank you and wonderful! But he understood smiles and gratitude for his abilities just fine. Now that you can’t have Kwan’s, keep going straight and you will eventually hit….

This is always how Kwan (as we all knew him) looked- half-smile, half “I’m pretty busy can you make it fast.” Miss him still.

Los Baez. It’s on Commercial Street, but about five or so miles up the. It will be on your left, in an ancient-looking tile and brick building. Say hello to Angel, who has owned and managed the business for forty years (he supported my school’s winning baseball team!) Why Los, as it’s commonly referred to by the locals? Daily, fresh-made tortillas, homemade salsa, unique enchilada and mole sauce…my favorite is the cheese enchilada luncheon special, served anytime day or night. Instead of two enchiladas its one, and that’s more than enough to fill me up.  

Not the cheese enchiladas at Los Baez but jus as good!

Outside town….strawberry patches and wineries

If you want to get out of the city, drive east up to Santiam River. There you will find old-time covered bridges, many of which are perfect to jump off into the cold river below. Yes, you can still do that and no, it’s not illegal. Just for the adrenaline junky such as yours truly. Be careful to go for the deep spots, although that advice is a tad self-evident. The State Park is lovely but super small. Only about 2.7 miles of trails and less than a dozen spots. So, book early if you want to stay, but the best bet is just plan a day trip—or two hours really, then head back in to town when done.

Just one of the many gorgeous spots on the Santiam River, and the same goes for bridges!

The nearest town is Stayton, and you would take this road if you were heading down to Klamath Falls or the Redwoods hours beyond. Stayton is famous for covered the covered bridges I mentioned, but doesn’t have a whole lot else.

A ton of pick-your-own strawberry farms exist on the east side of Salem as well. My family favorite is Fordyce Farm, about 20 minutes from town (depending on your location). Perhaps the best road to take is Kuebler, which is at the far end of town. Use the search engine on your GPS and see what’s open and what’s freshest and in season. Bring some cash for the best deal on pies made on site, as most of the farms earn extra income by making homemade concoctions. It has events year round, but the pumpkin patch is my favorite.

Fordyce Farms is just one of dozens around the Willamette Valley

If amusement parks is more your thing for families, then you definitely need to stop at the Enchanted Forest. This is like a mini Lilliputian land, because it’s a fairyland on one part of the park, with mini-homes, and almost Hobbit-meets-fantasy land in the dense forest. The other side of the park is a more traditional outdoor waterpark.

Upper left: spooky entry! Upper right: entry to the Alice in Wonderland area, Lowerleft: the castle and lower right: the image of Old Lady in the shoe poem

As to location, it’s south of the Salem about another 5-10 minutes. As Kuebler is the last Salem exit, you are close by. Continue south and it will be on your left.

Two more rides- Upper left: an enchanted house (it actually has a name but I’ve forgotten! Upper right: water log ride

As to location, it’s south of the Salem about another 5-10 minutes. As Kuebler is the last Salem exit, you are close by. Continue south and it will be on your left.

FYI- if you blew by the downtown area entirely on I-5, coming south from Portland (or going north from Eugene), then Kuebler is your main exit. You can take the west-bound exit, and follow it all the way to Commercial. Turn right, and you will find Los Baez on your right as you head in to town. (Are you getting the hint that all good paths lead to Los?)

Feature image: A covered bridge outside Stayton on the Santiam River

Old Town, New Town and everything in between

Wenceslas Square, Noah’s Arc and Donuts

Just as one moves between the towns of Hayden to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho by crossing Prairie Street, a visitor in Prague walks from Old Town to New Town by crossing the road as well. Yet each foot equals a hundred years because the two experiences couldn’t be more different.

The famous Wencelas statue

The square is named after Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and is considered the historic centre of Prague, a World Heritage Site. To pause and clarify one item that confused us American’s, the New Town is invariably referred to as a “Square,” but it’s’ really a rectangle, whereas Old Town really is a square! This super long boulevard (what the French would call it, American’s would just say Street), the parking is easy to find right on main street. On the furthest end from Old Town, is the Czech National Museum. This is a wonderfully beautiful building, boasting the Wenceslas statue front and center.



Just around the corner and down 50 feet is the Metro . Entry and exit points are on either side of the Museum because a main, super busy street dissects the area

Of all the exhibits we saw, the girls loved the Noah’s Arc most. It’s a mini-Arc, with bent wood, animals and all sorts of other items believed to be in the Arc. It’s not the full Arc, but only half and then opened on one side. The sculpted wood is soft and rounded, the animals placed around the two-story area, which is fully accessible.

Over the week we spent in the country, we learned the Czech Republic is quite a religious country with strong, outspoken and unrepentant beliefs. We were told outright that those who didn’t eat certain foods weren’t welcome, just as we were told by restaurateur’s that we weren’t welcome with our children. One thing you can be sure of, you always know where you stand in this culture, and we really enjoy. A visitor doesn’t go in to another country expecting a change in values; you accept and embrace what it is or don’t go. (And that’s my strongly held belief!)

Upper left: A (bad) photo of the Arc area. Upper right: Daddy-daughter with “Lucy,” Lower left: recreation for an actual murder scene (yikes), Lower right: mummy

I’ve already covered the Death Exhibit in another blog, so won’t repeat myself, but it’s worth seeing, especially the mock-up murder scene. That gave me chills actually.

Electronics and donuts

You won’t starve in New Town nor will you lack for electronics. We “misplaced,” computer cords, broke a phone and something else I’ve conveniently blocked from my memory, but we went to the local electronics store thrice (yeah, I went old-English for a sec).

When one needs a piece of electronic equipment, one needs a donut. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you a name because the stations of donuts are roving around, but typically on the southwest end (opposite the Museum and closest to Old Town) on a corner to get the maximum exposure.

The Metro is right below

We took the Metro all around the Prague area as much as we could, and loved the fact that the main Metro station is right below the Boulevard. Drop down in to any terminal, jump on the line you need and off you go. A single above-ground tram operates, but the distance and routes are somewhat limited and quite crowded, but we road it once, just for the heck of it.

Featured Image: The Prague National Museum (Praha)

An American in Prague

Falling in love begins with Old Town

So many pieces on Old Town seem to fall in to the “come, take a snap and leave experience,” which doesn’t enlighten the potential tourist. Old Town and the Square is so much more than the famed Astronomical Clock(although it does lend itself to glamour shots). Old Town Square itself, with the extensions to St. Charles’ bridge, and on the way to Prague Castle deserves an least a few hours of wandering time.

Believe it or not, this is just “around the corner” from Old Town. These forties-era buildings are beautiful outside and may are restored apartments used by tourists and residents alike. Just off this street marks “Old Town,” proper, and in the other direction, is the Praha (Prague) Museum and Wenceslas Square.

But really, half the charm of the entire Old Town area is just that—the area. One can spend two hours or more going up one side of the Vltava River and down the other, which should be done. The museums and structures on either side are breathtaking, I’ve written about renting paddle boats and noshing on oversized hotdogs at any of the stands. The entire area made such an impression (as did the Warhol’s in the museum at the time we visited), it gets a mention the second book of my Danielle Grant series, where the lead character is recovering from the death of a loved one and journeys to this lovely town.

The Square

Those are the outer streets leading in to “the Square,” as it’s referred to. If you want to be right in the center, then book a night just to have the sunrise-to-sunset experience. The Square has boutique hotels, outdoor restaurants and museums lining the square-shaped center courtyard. Street performers work from dawn to midnight and come in all forms and shapes. Some were really excellent, but be wary of your wallet as you remove a few bucks to pay, or it will get swiped without your knowing.

Left: a close up of the Astronomical Clock, Left: in Old Town Square, outdoor café, the Clock is in the background.

St. Charles Bridge Museum is often overlooked, and I didn’t take a single picture of the insides because that’s how good it was. I wanted to read, learn and enjoy, not spend the entire time taking photos. If you like structures, buildings and mechanics, you will love this. My kids, who are Lego freaks, adored this museum, a whole lot more than paintings or the iconic images of Warhol.

Upper left: along the main street, Upper right: one block off Old Town, Bottom: beside the Vltava River, the St. Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the background, my look of “My feet are so tired can we stop yet?”

In and around the Old Town Square are all sorts of diversions. Yes, you can have the dry skin eating off your feet by small swimming animals (the girls had this done before but it’s always fun to hear them squeal), and yes, you must go to the Captain Candy, which I mention in the article on finding the best shopping experiences. Yes, this is a franchise, but limited to certain countries in Europe, so compare it to Rocky Mountain Chocolate, where you can only get it in certain States. If candy isn’t your thing (I took pictures, and only had a bite or two) because I chose to save my calories for…gelato!

The best trinket

If you want a single item to take home to put on your shelf, spend $50-100 on a laser cut block of glass with your picture inside. It sounds cheesy, but we get more comments on it than any other item in our home. At the time, we went for cheesy to thinking it was unique, and are glad we evolved. As an aside, we have a family rule: one family item (aka trinket) per trip). Not per country, per trip. We thought—huh, maybe this is it. After learning what this is all about, we stood in front of the laser (individually then as a family) and chose what form factors we wanted; a block, a keychain, a smaller weight. They are sturdy things and you’ll want to transport the in a box, but well worth it.


This 3×4 block wasn’t enough. We got a keychain (with the girls only) that lights up, a 2×2 square w/me and the girls. Rog? He was only in this one—the hologram-like changes depending on the direction of the light.

If you want a single item to take home to put on your shelf, spend $50-100 on a laser cut block of glass with your picture inside. It sounds cheesy, but we get more comments on it than any other item in our home. At the time, we went for cheesy to thinking it was unique, and are glad we evolved. As an aside, we have a family rule: one family item (aka trinket) per trip). Not per country, per trip. We thought—huh, maybe this is it. After learning what this is all about, we stood in front of the laser (individually then as a family) and chose what form factors we wanted; a block, a keychain, a smaller weight. They are sturdy things and you’ll want to transport the in a box, but well worth it.

The weather

This coming summer, it’s supposed to be a 50-year heat wave, but how can that be much different from a few years back when it was 101? The evenings were cool enough to require a light jacket for all of us (Rog wore a sweater). During the day we were dying and carried our water bottles that included a spray everywhere. These can be had for about $7 US at Walmart or Target so definitely pick one up before you go, because we didn’t find any over there (or in hotter locations like Mexico either). They are our travel accessory.

The safety

I’ve written about the downsides of Prague, specifically the cabs, but now you know that the base rate is 40 cz plus another 28 cz cap per kilometer, you are good to go. Yes, keep your wallet in your front pocket, or elsewhere that’s safe, but I always have my side camera case/purse/backpack everywhere. We’ve ventured over main areas day and night, and only once got ourselves in a pickle by taking the wrong train, ending up in the middle of who-remembers-where, got off (second mistake) and had to wait for a really long time for one to take us back to town. Maybe it’s because we don’t drink, are a family or generally people take pity on us for an easier mark, but we’ve never had an issue and don’t expect to next time around.

The next visit

In our upcoming trip, Prague is near the front of the journey, and it’s only 3 days this time around, versus 7. We plan on going back to the Prague Castle, Cesky Krumlov and the town and more gerbil balls on the water as well as the supersized hotdogs. I’m presently checking out the exhibits to see if that’s going to make it on the agenda.

If you are going to be overseas, or live there and follow me, keep an eye out for the official Travel with Me 2019 launch. I’ll be posting my general itinerary for author-reader meet ups!

Tricks & bits for the best shopping deals

Four step process to getting the best product & price

When we return from traveling, men ask Rog how much money we spent. The women ask what we spent it on. Notice the difference? Second to this is: “Where’s the best shopping?” I’ll tell you what I tell them, then I’m going to reveal the real truth.

Five places are failsafe. Italy first and foremost, because the goods are beautiful and inexpensive. Milan (across the from the Duomo Cathedral) has this amazing mall with lots of goods we can’t get in the States, and if we can, the price is quadruple. No kidding. Lugano, a township on Lake Cuomo, offers different brands but similar deals, then Bellagio, which is the peninsula on Lake Cuomo. Lille, France, downtown, always offers great prices on French-made goods. In Germany, if you like Porsche brand products, go to the car factory, hit the store and pick up watches, leather clothes and windbreakers also for one-fourth the cost in the States, assuming it would even be available.

Shopping rule of thumb: the brighter the street the worse the deals. The darker the streets, the more the proprietor will negotiate because they have to drive volume.

Examples? $800 Hermes belts for $250 in Bellagio. $1,750 Ferragamo purses for $400 in Lugano. Porsche jacket (unavailable in the States, but was listed at $350 on the website) for $75). Diamond and ceramic Mercedes watch in Milan (at the Mercedes clothing store—yes, that exists), not listed on-line or available in the States: $350.

Now the real truth, aka Sarah’s secret

Yes, all of the above are amazing, but there’s more. The real truth is you save your money, go to Old Town in Prague, wander up and down the narrow streets looking at the items—whatever your preference. You see which stores offer well-tailored, high-end leather goods. You walk in the store, which is on the main floor, and check out the wares. Typically, the okay stuff is in the front, the medium goods are in the middle, and near the back are the finer items. Once you identify an interest in the finer items, you ask “If they have more goods elsewhere,” which is a shameless rip-off of a similar line from Gone with 60 Seconds, and I’m happy to say, it works!

Captain Candy is a great store full of weird concoction, including candy eggs that look grossly-real but taste amazing. This is about one street away from the store I reference below for the great deals on coats.

You are then invariably led upstairs, to a warehouse-size room where you feel like Meghan Markle has just entered the private chamber for the Queen’s jewels. Stars are shining from above and every item is there, hanging by type first, then color, ordered by price.

What’s the price?

This is European-code for “whatever you can negotiate.”

Negotiation tip 1. Forget credit cards, this is all about the dollars. The first question you will encounter is “Will this be case or credit?” And if this isn’t raised by the salesperson, you need to raise it. This gets you a 50% slice right off the bat, not just the 3% fee saved in the States. Why? The transaction is unlikely to be traced on their end, because the owner of the establishment is running that entity according to their own rules.

I’m not sure why this little fact always perplexes American’s; probably the same reason foreigners are so annoyed they can’t negotiate the price on a piece of clothing. It’s just the way transactions are completed. If you think about it, negotiating isn’t all the foreign, it’s just that American’s usually only negotiate when they go to Mexico, not Europe. When we are south America, we dicker all the time. Then again, here in the States, both Rog and I always offer to pay cash to get the best deal, and why not? Money is hard enough to earn; who wants to give it away to easily?

Negotiation step 2. Real cash dollars, or money order? Hard currency all the way. This yields yet another discount.

A pause here for a moment. You are probably thinking we are idiots to be carrying around lots of cash. We don’t. Because banks are open, cash is easy to come by and we carry less than $100 on us at any given time. It’s just not prudent; the salient point is that you can get easily get cash, which leads me to step 3.

Negotiation step 3. Never buy that moment. No matter what we have on hand, we say we will come back. Did you know a sales statistic is that if you don’t get the target (e.g. customer) to spend that day/night and they walk off the premises (lot or store), the likelihood they will spend at all goes to below 50%? That’s quite an incentive to get you to spend!

It’s at this point, that Rog brings up the “what kind of deal can you give me?” e.g. buy one get the second free, or at least half off. (That just sounds like Rog, doesn’t it?) Me? Well, I’m just the long-suffering mother of two tired children who isn’t really sure she wants to spend the money in the first place.

It plays really well, and you know what, half the time it’s accurate. I’m usually vomiting about the money we are spending to feed our ravenous beasts of children, but on the other hand, I know I simply can’t get the shoes, purses, coats or watches at the same price anywhere near the quality, never mind the brand mark-up us American’s pay.

Negotiation step 4. The last-minute enticement to not back out

Rog had already committed to returning that evening, but the man needs to make totally and completely sure we are serious. I’ll give you an example of how it went down (and this is common).

In one store, we told the gentleman we’d be back around eight p.m. to pick up a coat. The girls were hungry, my feet were hurting, the coat I selected was a great deal and I loved it, but was ready to leave.

At that point, the salesman asks if we could be back by 7 pm. Nope, I tell Rog as the girls groan in the background.

“If you can be back by 7 p.m.” he starts, “I’ll give you a mink-lined black leather baseball cap.” That was a weird enticement. I don’t wear baseball hats of any kind because they don’t shield my face from the sun, and the rim invariably leaves a nice long dent on my forehead which doesn’t come out until the following day.

As I’m shaking my head no, the man lifts one off a shelf, encouraging me to try on. “It’s perfect for you,” he says.

Actually, it looked pretty good, but I didn’t need it, and I give Rog a gentle tug as I try to hand back the hat.

“How much?” Rog asks.

“$250 US,” the man replies.

“Seriously, I don’t need the hat,” I interject, handing it back. “The girls need to be fed. Let’s just come back later,” giving Rog the ‘lets-get-going’ eye.

“$150,” he says, hoping to entice us. I shake my head, already grabbing the girls. “Tell you what,” the man says, “I’ll give this to you for free if you come back tonight by 7.”

The man really wanted the money, and must have a hot date.

Rog looks back at the guy as I pass the had to my oldest daughter, not bothering to put it back on, and the guy goes to the next level.

“Tell you what,” he begins. “I’ll give you 75% off a second coat if you come back by 7, plus you can have the hat for free.”

Rog looks at me. I look at him. We go back to the top floor and try on more coats. We look at the prices and do the math. We figure out exactly what returning one hour earlier will save us so the man can get out to his hot date.

Done deal.

And that, my friends and readers, is how you end up with two coats and a mink-lined, leather baseball hat in your closet; by getting the very best shopping deal in Europe.

Happy shopping wherever you do it!

Feature image: a view of Old Town from one of the many entry points

Prague Castle

My previous write-up on Prague touched on my top five spots to visit, but this piece focuses on the Prague Castle itself, because when you’re a first-timer looking at web sites, then being accosted by people on the street hustling tours, it’s a bit overwhelming.

On that note, in the last two years, the number of folks trying to get you to buy a tour has skyrocketed. The potential of being scammed has grown accordingly, getting so bad it warranted coverage on the Netflix show Scam City. If you want to be really unnerved, watch the episode covering Prague. Because of this, I feel it’s my moral obligation to give you the street view of the American tourist.

Left: the view walking across the St. Charles bridge up to the Castle, Right: turning around, looking back towards town as you keep going

Be informed and be vigilant

Two things right up front.

1). Don’t purchase a tour from someone on the street, and this doesn’t apply to just Prague. It pretty much holds true for any city, from Cancun to Rome. Street tour sellers invariably promise a personal meeting with the Pope (I kid you not) to seeing the inside private rooms of the castle. Be smart. Buy your ticket the office at the castle entrance and learn more on the main web site. Saving the potential $10 Euros just isn’t worth it.

2) The cab fairs are set and standard in the city. It’s max of 40 CZ plus 28 CZ per kilometer per the laws. Some cabs are honest, others are not. (This aspect was profiled/caught on tape on Scam City as well). Do yourself a favor and print out the law so you can contend with the cab driver as required, as some will tell you the law is wrong. Tip: the wise traveler will get in, ask about, and confirm the fair, then get in.

On the other hand, you can walk. As I mentioned in my other blog, you’ll see Starbucks, pay for the entrance to the castle and you are on your way.

Upper left: When you reach the top of the walk, take a breather (note the Starbuck’s Coffee. I think that’s morally wrong, but hey, they gotta earn rent somehow right? Turn around and snap some photos from whence you came (upper right) and then Bottom: the city
The must-sees and the official Prague Castle Website

St. Vitus Cathedral is a great picture taking environment. Beautiful sunlight, lots of color and few crowds depending on the time of day (we prefer twilight). It’s impossible to miss is one can just stand in front and take a breath. The girls were impressed.

Tours are offered of most of the top spots at the Castle, but we missed the last tours, and a few we wanted to go on were booked, but that was OK, since we did Golden Lane (below).

Golden Lane is another must do. Originally created for the goldsmiths and servants, these colorful, small homes are like a miniature town. It’s seriously like a Lilliputian experience, and the kids absolutely loved wandering through the streets, taking pictures then finding hobbit-hole sized corridors leading to and from other points in the castle. (Actually, in hindsight, maybe Rog enjoyed it the most. He’s def transported back to his 14-year old self whenever I took out the camera).

Golden Lane is exactly what it looks like in the pictures! We were thrilled.

Three different towers exist, but I don’t have any pictures as it got too dark. The black, new white and Daliborka Tower. The Black Tower was used for prisoners (and got it’s nickname from a fire that blackened the outside), the White Tower was used to imprison nobleman, and the Daliborka Tower was a jail for noblemen and later for other members of the upper echelon of society. I still haven’t figured out the difference between a jail and a prison, and I’m struck that even back then, the class system (rich vs poor) was entrenched.

One of the back/hidden passage ways leading to the castle from Golden Lane (workers) area.
As you can see, the “crowds” were practically non existent. Either the cloudy-cool weather turned them off or we got lucky, or both.

After visiting the Castle, we bowed to the demonic pleas of our children and made a b-line to the gerbil balls on the Vltava River, which I’ve mentioned several times already. For roughly 4 dollars, 15 minutes of exhaustive pleasure is worth it.

The girls on the water–note the Castle in the background. How cool is that? More so because I was eating the world’s biggest Czech hotdog and Rog was basically sleeping in a chair.
Feature Photo: Inside the Castle Square


Back to Brussels

Family friendly top stops

Visiting this city was more about us, the adults, than the kids. You see, we made the mistake of going to Brussels at the end of a month on the road, and the kids were more excited to lay by the pool at the home we’d rented in Tervuren than wandering around to see yet more buildings or manicured parks. The rain killed that idea, and faced with being at the rental home, as nice as it was, got us out and about. We are glad we ventured to hit the top stops in the city; the others around we’d already been to and I’ve written up (see last paragraph).

One side of the Royal Palace: open July 21 through September
Warning to the out of towners (e.g. Americans)

The cell coverage is seriously intermittent in parts of the city, and after we’d seen our sites, found ourselves in a very unsafe area. Since the cell signal wasn’t picking up, my girls saw a few things that unfortunately, they can’t unsee. On one hand, it was seriously unsafe, and is a side effect of driving yourself. Yet, even as I write this, I must point out that this one really strange, scary detour is the thing we discuss most about Brussels because we saw the “real” city, as opposed to the beautifully manicured part visible to most tourists.


One of the unique characteristics of Brussels we loved were the flower trees built around light posts or trees. A street might be considered “shopping” caliber full of boutiques, or a bit more downtrodden, but the added touches around town meant an eye for detail we appreciated.
Better when done wet

From the moment we drove from Tervuren in to the city, we were so pleased with the relative emptiness of the streets and the speed at which everyone travels. It was positively invigorating to have Rog drive normal and not like the Swiss, who are restricted by the absurdly confining rules of 45 miles an hour practically everywhere. I fear I left permanent nail imprint marks on the passenger door as a way of releasing my frustration. But I digress.

No such issues plagued me in this “beautiful but boring” city as my nine-year-old dubbed it. Entering the city is majestic, the thoroughfair providing the perfect photo of the arch, power lines aside. (As an aside, regular readers know I don’t photoshop my work, firstly because I don’t have the software, the desire to purchase or learn how to use it, nor do I have the time. What you get is what a visitor will actually see, cloud cover and all).

Yeah, I know. Me and “my thing” for colorful doors. I can’t help myself

Being most recently from Seattle, we are used to clouds, but I’ll admit I was wholly unprepared for all  dark grey and rain in late July. After we’d returned to Tervuren, I asked the owner of the home, a flight attendant, about the weather.

“I’ve heard it’s a lot like Seattle, Washington,” he remarked. “This is standard July weather.” Huh. Maybe that’s why the five-bedroom, beautifully appointed home with the pool sitting right beside the Empress’s Palace was so inexpensive, for who, in their right mind would ever come to Brussels in July?

Unwitting American tourists, that’s who. Still, it was a fabulous bargain, we did use the pool one day out of eight (if you count two hours between storms as using it) and it forced us to explore the surrounding countries with more vigor that we might have if the weather had been good.

Shopping and wandering in to cafes (or chocolate shops) is the best
Check the calendar

The Royal Palace in downtown Brussels is great, well, from the outside. It was no wonder we found street parking because we came the day before it opens to the public. ARGGGG!!!. We’d failed to read the fine print on the website (or our phones) that identified in black and white that the Palace opens for tours starting the 21 of July through September. We literally missed it by a single day.

You can zip through the photos that identify exactly what I’d wanted to see…the grand ballroom, the small and large white rooms, the Empire Room, the antechamber…man, all those will remain, for me, things I have only seen in photos on line.

So. Depressing.

You are now saying: “Who cares? You can see it when you go back.” The truth table here is that we aren’t hitting Brussels in our upcoming trip and I can’t see us going back for a while. Compared to the exotic nature of other places to see and things to do, it’s unlikely. I console myself that the digital pics on the internet are far better than what I could take in any case.

For those of you with children, I wish I’d seen this site for kids on the monarchy prior to going. At least it would have been educational, informational and fun for them in the car.

The Cinquantenaire Park is awesome (for the adults) because the majesty of the structure got no more than a gnat-like look from our girls.

We meandered the park as long as it took to get our kids to pose for some photos then piled back in to the car at made it to the Aboretum. This Aboretum is another word for Park Tervuren, which I covered in another blog. Then it was the Antomium, which deserved its own write-up as well.

Feature picture: a view of the street from the Royal Palace

Top castles around Prague

Close and far, Karlstejn and Cesky are not to be missed

When we were visiting the Karlstejn Castle outside Prague, I had roughly ten minutes of wait-time while Roger waited in the ticket line with the girls. Me being me, I’m scoping the scene before me, immediately zoning in on a tall man with a slobbering bull mastiff by his side. I wander over, dropping down to my knees, asking if I can pet his beautiful male mastiff. His eyebrows raised, and then it occurred to me I was awfully arrogant thinking the man could speak English.

“Of course, you may,” he replied in perfect English albeit with a Czech accent.

We get to talking because I’m an author, I ask questions, and learn the dogs name is Saffron, as in the herb. The reason he was outside the castle instead of in, was because it has a no dogs allowed policy, which he didn’t know. I learn he’s a contractor who specializes in private homes, and was a wealth of information what to see and visit.

The wonderful man who told us about Czesky and let me pet his beautiful mastiff Saffron!

“Have you been to Cesky Krumlov?” he asked me. Before I could answer, he told me I definitely need to go. “It’s the best thing you’ll see in the Republic.”

That was quite a statement, especially since we’d been in and around Prague, but he was so fervent I told Rog about it, and after we finished with our day at Karlstejn Castle, we cleared the deck for the next day and went.

KarlstejnCastle

This is a castle on the smaller side compared to Czesky Krumlov and the Prague Castle, but it has features we enjoyed. The 30-minute walk up on the white stones, and the tour takes less than an hour. The services are quite limited in terms of food and gifts, but the views are lovely. Because of its convenience to Prague, and it’s Gothic structure, it’s considered one of the top tourists’ destinations. You might think it would be really busy, but it wasn’t. We walked right up, and twenty minutes later we were in.

The walk up to Karlstejn almost resembles this rocky terrain–kidding–not kidding. It’s the opposite of Cesky

A few of my favorite snapshot memories are the small gardens below the walkways connecting the two buildings that were used for the ladies of the castle. The tour was also fantastic. We were incredibly grateful the majority of our small group of 12 spoke English (we were with a group of Australians) or we would have had to hear the tour in German and their rules is majority rules.

The original walkways connecting the buildings and the outer gardens below

What struck us most about this building were the size of the rooms, which are all compact, but we understood why when we got to the staterooms. The original, wooden beds where the King slept was sooo small!! And the height of the doorways was also very small. Back then, the people overall, were quite a bit shorter than we are today. The paintings were amazing, and we were most struck by the room where all the portraits of the royals hung around the room. The chapel stands out, and above all, near the end of the tour, we saw the replicas of all the tiaras and jewels. The real ones had long since been replaced with fakes, but they were still pretty neat to see (boy, those real jewels are HUGE).


Cesky Krumlov and the town of Cesky

According the history, the town of Krumlov was created around the castle by the Lords of Krumlov. Over 300 medieval buildings surround the town, along with the Vltava River. The grounds are large, the river wandering around the base of the castle goes through the town and beyond. We parked probably ten minutes from the castle, and walked through the town to get to the castle. Unlike the short tour of Karlstejn, this castle and town requires a day trip.

An original lower entrance for Cesky, and the Vltava River where you can boat, canoe or swim alongside

Forty buildings reside in the castle complex, with galleries, towers, churches, most open to the public. We thought one of the greatest parts was walking up the long entry way used by the previous Lords of the castle. Imagine being in a horse-drawn carriage and entering a long, stone laid driveway that’s 100% covered, the ground treatment perfectly laid and matched in the color of muted yellow. As I mentioned to Rog, it was the medieval version of the Batcave entrance except above ground.

The drive for those in the carriage might have been a few minutes, but to walk, it was about twenty. You go up, and up, and up, and I regret not taking pictures, but I was working hard!

Sorry about the iPhone pics but this was the best I could do! Left: the restaurant we ended up eating at (where they were nice–keep reading), right: walking from town to the Castle.

Then the levels and options within the castle are many, as are the perches, each providing unobstructed views down to the town. The original Lords knew how to position the castle, but we didn’t see a single view which wasn’t magnificent.

Almost lost a daughter

One of the things we love about Europe is the general lack of rules, restrictions and sometimes, guardrails. If you see a dangerous animal and want to put your hand it, no second line of protection stops you. It’s more like the universal DNA test of nature; if you are dumb enough to stick your hand in, then you deserve to lose it.

Colorful and quaint is the town

So, it was with Cesky Krumlov. No long-fanged carnivores, but multiple ledges without protective rails. My precocious six-year-old jumped up on one ledge and nearly toppled over the edge, which would have been a 700-foot drop to their death. I’d been partially turned to Rog when she leapt up, turned just in time to grab her foot while my other daughter caught her waist. We were able to stop her forward momentum, my oldest daughter at nine and myself just held her tight, and then I pretty much lost it. Never before or since have I ever gotten that close to death, and all I can say is this: watch your kids because it’s Europe, and I’m pretty sure I was the one who’d have been arrested for not being mindful.

A pic of the town of Cesky through a peek-hole, and the embrace after our youngest almost fell off the ledge….still shaking.

The trip is going to take you roughly 4-5 hours, because we kept to the speed limit and it was 4.5. We arrived around eleven, just as it started to sprinkle, but it stopped as we were inside, and we thought the grey clouds totally romantic. The tour we took was in English and completely worth it.

We then went down in to town for dinner, taking our time to walk up and down the streets. From the small, original bridges covering the brooks and streams to the bistros, cafes and restaurants, we were enchanted.

We had only one unfortunate experience during our time in Cesky, and this actually was relatively common in our journeys: it’s what I call kid-discrimination. The fact is that not all destinations, restaurants or eateries welcome kids, even those who are quiet and well-mannered. We entered to two restaurants—not bars, mind you, but actual eateries, and at the first, the hostess said: “We don’t serve children.” As we saw teens probably 13 and above, we were perplexed, but left. We walked a few doors down and although the male host scowled when he saw our girls, he sat us anyway, but get this, not on the main floor, next to the water, where four tables sat open (picture the windows open, the stream going by—enchanting), but he put us upstairs, in the far corner where the windows were closed and no air conditioning. Again, we were perplexed but went with it, right up until others were being served and we weren’t-water or menus. Finally, after about ten minutes, we just got up and left.

On the way out, Roger had a word with the host, and he straight up told Roger that restaurants are for adults and we should have known better. Well, then!

Culture is culture, and we weren’t delusional enough to think that we could change opinions and attitudes, so we adjusted our approach. Very politely, we approached the next restaurant, also by the Vltava River and still in town, asking the host if they minded children. He smiled and said “Of course! Come in!” We proceeded to have the most glorious, authentic dinner of pork, potatoes, noodles, soups and my favorite, hot chocolate that was more like thick, hazelnut mousse.

This is how happy I am when the chocolate hazelnut mousse is as thick as pudding. Yum!

Cesky was, and still is, hands down, our favorite town outside a castle, and we have another full day booked for our upcoming trip this summer.

Couldn’t help myself–I’d taken another selfie with Saffron just to show how big he was and how much he slobbered. LOVE that dawg

Feature photo: taken from one of the decks at the Karlstejn Castle

Kids and wigs: required reading

One of the considerations we had before heading to the wig shop was Porsche’s own self-esteem and sense of self. We always thought ourselves fortunate that she wasn’t sixteen and dealing with teen drama; instead, she was still an overall healthy, happy kid. It wasn’t until she started noticing all the stares her way, around 8, that she felt different.

Even then, we always emphasized that being different (no hair) was akin to being cool/unique. It wasn’t until people started asking about “our son,” or ask what our son’s name was that the flip with Porsche was switched. She had no issue being bald, but heaven forbid she be mistaken for a boy, when she clearly, and loudly, is a girl.

In the photos below, my daughter is smiling because as she told her daddy, “I feel like a girl again.” (Yes, I cried on the phone as I was watching this from home).

Wig shopping

She went wig shopping the day after Christmas because she’d wished for hair. We couldn’t give her that, but went for the next best thing; a wig. It was Roger who went with her for two reasons. The first is I had a toddler at home and we were told this was going to take several hours. Second, the wig shop specializes in leukemia patients, specifically children. Given my own fragile state of mind and the possibility that Porsche had a deeper medical issue, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.

Round one of trying on wigs. Keeping a positive thought, it’s one way to have her envision what a “big girl” will look like.
Wig selection: synthetic first. Too blond (upper left), too dark (upper left) then finding the right color but needs a cut. The back was trimmed to be more age appropriate and bangs

So off they went. As you can see from the smiles, the wig shop was a fun experience for Porsche. First, her head was measured. Second, the colorists started matching what they presumed/thought/ascertained to be her natural color. Because her hair was gone, Porsche pulled out pictures, and then they started pulling out colors. Up next was picking synthetic or natural.

Synthetic

Pros: It holds its shape no matter the circumstances, which is wonderful. Reasonably priced, between 300-$750 dollars.
Con: It can’t be washed, curled, or modified in any major way. The edges will start to fray so you need to trim occasionally. You must keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition (with special products)

Natural

Pro: you can wash, style and even color it if you want
Con: you have to keep it on a Styrofoam head piece after washing and condition, but you can use normal hair products. High prices- $3,000-4,000.

After choosing the perfect color, the customer is shown how to put on the nylon cap required to keep the wig in place. Then on goes to the wig. Size is very important for children because their heads are still growing, thus the requirement for the cap, which holds the wig in place when it’s a little loose in the first year or two. The final year, which is about how long a wig, real or synthetic, will last, the cap is no longer required.

The wig is then cut in to the shape desired. In our case, Porsche chose to have a few bangs which could be pulled back or tucked under. She walked out with special shampoo for the wig, a Styrofoam head, and a special brush for the synthetic wig. We also ordered a real wig, which took about 3 months to receive. We learned wigs are produced typically in Europe, and the color requested is matched to order.

Also, another note on natural wigs. They are made from untouched, or “virgin” hair. For this reason, they can be colored if desired, (unlike synthetics which can’t be colored).

Once the hair is cut to her liking, the big (really big) step was to take her out in public. Rog decided to feed her and just hang out at a café for a while.
Pass it on when you are done

As I’d mentioned in the first piece on hair restoration and loss, we found a young girl, aged seven, suffering from her second round of leukemia. She was the recipient of both wigs. Learn more about the issues we encountered when approaching the local Children’s Hospital to understand why we were unable to go that route (they were rejected).

This is the natural wig. You can see how it’s not quite as fluffy and lays more naturally. The hairline is also very well done–so much so you can’t tell it’s a wig unless you are standing right above her and know what to look for.

Tip: If you are in need of a wig, my suggestion is to call the local wig company themselves. Usually, they are the first stop for children/adults in need, and we have found they are very kind and willing to help connect families who are in need and don’t have the funds to purchase a wig.