Nueschwanstien : Also known as Cinderella’s Castle

After 38 years, I finally made it

Today’s castle-going journey is being split in to two separate blogs because I have too many photos, and suspect WordPress will collapse on me, which happens when I push it, which means Castle Nueschwanstien in one and Hohenschwangau (Hohen is Castle) in another.

A clear shot from the paved road up, where you can walk, or have a horse-drawn carriage (like Cinderella, actually, but without the slippers).
Thanks mom

The shout-out to my 79 mom is important because it was she who gifted me a calendar of castles when I was twelve. On the cover was Schloss (Castle) Nueschwanstien, which seared itself in my mind as the end-all-be-all of castles, and places to visit. For years, I promised myself that when I “arrived”, I’d go. Little did I know it would take me decades to arrive! In truth, it wasn’t that I couldn’t have gone before. It was just a tad out of the way when I’d go to Berlin, Hamburg or Hannover for business and later, with Rog and the girls, heading to southern Germany never made the top five on our list. Today, we realized that we were a lot closer than we realized, which made our visit that much more…how shall I say, impactful (embarrassing would be another word). We shouldn’t have waited.

Fun fact: this castle is conventionally known as “The Cinderella Castle,” because Walt Disney famously said he modeled the castle the animated movie on Nueschwanstien.

Cinderella lives, just like Elvis
Getting there

We were north about 90 minutes, the drive was fast, per usual, the traffic nil, despite us learning it was the weekend of a fair in the nearest town of Fussen. As a side note, we later learned the family history of the three castles I mentioned, and it was sort of “I’m going to out-do-you” mentality, regardless of the fact the parties were related. That made it all the more interesting.

An incredibly beautiful journey to the region, the town just outside Fussen and a pic of the mountains as we head to our destination.

The closest major town is Munich, but it’s not too far from Lichtenstein and Switzerland. On the Autobahn, time is always cut in half, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Arrival and parking was a breeze. Straight off the freeway about five minutes, in town, parking nearest the castle is to the right, with a sign identifying it was full, so we turned left, took a ticket and parked, front row. Tip: make sure you have 7 Euro in coins with you because they don’t take credit cards for parking and this can’t be purchased on line (we didn’t know this).

Tickets and prices

A short walk of five minutes to the one and only ticket counter, and another $28 Euro for two adults, as kids are free (at least 13 and under). Because we arrived at 2, our choices were limited for tours; either the Nueschwanstien or the Hohenschwangau Castle, but we couldn’t do both. We asked the ticket agent for his insight, and he balked. My husband, ever the man, leaned in, and asked, “if it were you, and it was your money, what would you do?” At this, the agent glanced around and told us the skinny.

“Take the Hohenschwangau,” he answered in a low voice. “The Nueschwanstien tour has 60 people for a 20-minute tour, and it’s so crowded you will hate it. The Hohenschwangau is limited to 20 people and a 35-minute tour, and it’s much better preserved.”

That was it. The translators are available in multiple languages, the most important being Mandarin from the number of visitors predominantly from China.

The view from the lot is top right and below, while the upper left is the building adjacent from the ticket office (which wasn’t nearly as pretty).
The journey up

Our time was in fact, very limited, because we were told the walk up to the world-famous castle of my dreams, Nueschwanstien, would take 30 minutes, unless we were going to take the horse-drawn carriage. None of that for us. Then we’d take some pictures around the external premises and inside courtyards, because it is open and free to the public. Only the tours charge a fee. We’d then have to go down, and walk back up the other hillside to Hohenschwangau.

Fortunately, the only sun on the way up is right at the base of the hill, the rest of the rather steep road is paved and in the shade. One shortcut on dirt stairs is available, and we watched an American couple and friend hand carry their stroller (with two kids) up the stairs—hundreds of feet. We were impressed.

By foot or carriage, the scenery is stunning

Sitting on the top step was a man drinking his bottle. He was in good spirits, inviting us to sit by him, but we thanked him and continued; stopping was not an option. I was going to reach that darn calendar destination!

Halfway up is a rest station, consisting of two restaurants and an ice cream station. Sweating profusely, we continued up, reaching the top in another 10 minutes. Once at the castle, you can turn left or right. Left will take you up and around an side of the castle that’s being restored; the west-facing side towards the valley and lake beyond. Then you read the massive entry doors, walk in (again, all of this is free). You can take pictures in the courtyard, or continue up another set of stairs which takes you to the “real” main square. This area reminds me of Robin Hood, where the King walks out on the deck to great the crowds, but without the king.

The first thing you see from the base of the castle.

Back down the stairs you go, and those taking the tour look to the electronic sign identifying the next group. Through the turnstiles you go. The rest of us walk down, then back around the other side of the castle. It does have an overhanging, metal grate with invisible decking for pictures to the east, overlooking the rushing river below. It was freaky and awesome at the same time, and I thought I was going to get crushed by the onslaught of foreigners with selfie sticks, all battling for the corner spot. And I thought us Americans were bad!

The main castle entrance
The “bottom” entry courtyard, which requires one to walk left, and up the stone stairway to the courtyard
The main courtyard on one side….
And turning around is this opposite facing…all the views are to the valley
What I liked most

The castle is all I imagined it to be and more. In both this castle and Hohenschwangau, the artifacts are original, not replicas. If you’ve not been to lots of castles (we’ve visited 15 or so thus far), it might surprise you to learn that most everything inside is a replica, because the value is high, as is the risk of damage or theft. It’s just fun seeing all the gifts from other royalty and such, knowing they are the real deal.

Coming down from the castle…
And least….

Nothing that can be changed. It was disappointing to hear from the staff that it’s overcrowded, the tours so big and fast—but even this I have to defend a bit. We learned more from the staff that tourists had taken too many liberties with the original items—from silverware to lamps, coats of arms, porcelain etc., and event destroying items on the wall. For that reason, about 90% of Nueschwanstien is closed off. What a bummer, but it proves the sad saying true: the actions of the few destroy it for the many. GRRR

Recommendation

Absolutely. It’s a feat of mankind for a person to have a vision for a castle perched on a hillside as well as  the fortitude and engineers to design and construct the structure.

Feature picture: taking on site!

Legoland Germany

With or without kids, make the time & effort

When our attorney said he’d used his one vacation in four years to hit Legoland in California, we were skeptical. Yes, we loved Legos as a kid, but nothing like our second daughter, who sits for ours bringing to life imaginary worlds and peoples. Still, we were unsure until Rog informed me the first rental he’d chosen in Germany is 6 minutes away from Legoland Deutschland. It’s also close to Stuttgart and Frankfurt, so the average tourist to Germany doesn’t really have an excuse not to go!

Today, we arrived at noon, fearing the worst of crowds. As you can see, it was basically empty. The car lot wasn’t even half full, only one of the seven, entry booths were open, and once inside, the lines were about ten minutes long—if there was a line. Message to you: if you are ever going to travel to Europe, go in June or July, as we have done the last few times. August is high season, not early July.

Have you ever seen a happier sign?? From the exit, you see these 2-story high legos jutting from the hill. I want one on my hill as an ode to my childhood.
Fluency

As we walked around, we heard at least a dozen languages. All the signs and communication are in German and English, but the staff goes back in forth in about six (we periodically asked the staff). While my basic German is improving, my accent is laughable—and yes, they laugh at/with me.

Everyone needs a picture with a life-size adopted Lego family, and have you ever seen a happier bathroom? In fact, everything is joyful and triumphant in Legoland, including the music pumped out around the park.
Size and rides

Two, moderately adult roller coaster rides exist, and I use that phrase because the thrill is intense but short, the rides about 1 minute after the initial journey, in one case, through a Lego castle—which I took a video and it’s on my Instagram feed. The waterlog ride is fun, and cameras are everywhere, so beware or you’ll get scolded like Rog did, when he took out his Wi phone, and immediately, a woman’s voice came over a loudspeaker in the middle of the river and told him to put it away (in German). The other locals on the log ride with us laughed, and he got the message. He put it away.

One great design of this park is that the designers constructed massive shaded areas for long lines. In the case of the rollercoaster, the lines snake through a mini lego castle, which really isn’t that mini!

The park isn’t massive, is well shaded and laid out, the three gift shops mixed between sections—think Safari, Aquarium, Egypt, China etc. I’d say the predominant rides and attractions are for age 6 and under, which makes sense, but that didn’t preclude the adults from loving or going on the rides where they’d fit (leg length is an issue). On the log ride, I needed to switch with Rog, even though he was boiling and it was his turn to sit in the front with a child, because his legs were too long and didn’t fit.

The line for the second rollercoaster was non-existent. Every ride has an real-time visual of the wait based upon where you are in line so you can make a decision if you want to continue waiting or bail. Love a choice! The bottom lego castle is where we go tomorrow!
Food etc.

Great fair all over the park, and actually rather inexpensive. The dollar is strong right now against the Euro, and everywhere we go, the quantities are overly large (e.g. we can’t finish a single plate), so I’ve taken to not ordering more than an app or salad, and taking bites from everyone else.

My favorite replica. Enormous, intricate and tens of thousands of lego pieces comprise this football stadium.
Cost

For our family of two adults and two kids (in Europe, they have a middle-range, teen cost), it was $185 with parking fees of $6. Both were less than had we shown up at the park, because we purchased on line that morning. A veritable bargain compared to Disneyland, but then again, the size is fractional.

What I liked

My favorite part/area was the cities built by Legos. It was a lot like mini-Europe in Brussels, but because these mini-city replicas were constructed of Legos, it was much more impressive to me. To this I’d add the life-size giraffes and elephants—can you even calculate the cost of that? Both girls liked the dragon roller coaster where she screamed the entire time as I laughed. Oh! The gift shops were insane—they have soooo many more projects than are available even on-line it was silly. Rog’s fav? A Bugatti race car with a working engine for about $300. You should have seen the men drooling over this endcap shelf.

What I disliked

Nothing! It was all good, and the lack of crowds divine.

Definite, absolute recommendation to go with kids.

Feature photo: taken at the entrance

Dinner and a dog attack

One of the iconic lines from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is: “Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K,” said in the driest of tones by an observantly sarcastic Bill (Keanu Reeves).

So it was that our day ended with the dog attack as we were having schnitzel, and because it’s on my mind, I’m writing about it first. (Blog on Legoland, which was this same day, will be up next).

Under the protective shade is the other half of the outdoor dining space of the Gasthaus Adler in the Holzheim area of upper Bavaria

We’d tried to go the night before, but it was closed due to the food fair in nearby Gunzburg. Tonight, we were on a mission, being hot, hungry and tired from Legoland Germany. The Gasthaus Adler Sudtiroler Speckstube, is a two-story, hundred-year-old building with an outdoor seating area located under three enormous trees, and a second vine-covered area. On the other side of a gazebo is a wooden playground area for kids, and on the other side is a pasture where the dairy comes in fresh, turned into cheeses and other livestock turns into the food that we were served. It’s about as farm-to-table fresh as one could get.

Traditional schnitzel with potatoes and mushroom cream sauce

We were effectively using our Google translate when the manager of 20 years took pity on us, and with a smile, spoke enough English we could order. Of course, all we wanted was schnitzel, but when she started to provide options, I was in. That mean asparagus soup, a meat platter of sausage, prosciutto plus a few other things I can’t recall but devoured. I’ll skip over the rest, and jump right to the part where we were eating, and a lab-looking like dog, who had been lazily sleeping under his parents’ feet (man, woman and 7 yr. old boy the whole time), jumped up and attacked a grandma who was making her way under the gazebo.

The gazebo where this all went down, and you can spot the dog lounging under his mom’s feet.

With my mouth full of pickle, I about choked as the dog lunched, bit her arm, paws on her stomach, knocked her right over on her hip as she screamed, and kept after her before Rog, the owner or anyone else could stop it! The owner was closest and first, dragging the dog off, while the woman, whom I guessed about 80, was seizuring on the ground. The entire area, which was full of diners, simply watched. No gasps, no shaking of head, just a slight downturn of noise. The woman’s daughter came quickly, the dog’s owner smacked the animal’s head and sat town. In the meantime, the diners started eating, the chatting picked up and the injured woman was led out of the area.

Farm fresh prosciutto, cheese and sausage with an equally divine, thin-crust pizza

We pondered the incident, more intrigued by the non-chalance we observed. If this had happened in the States, well, the cops would have been called, someone arrested or a do-gooder might have just shot the animal. Not here. These folks have clearly seen it all, and been through enough to not worry about a dog. Shortly thereafter, the medics came, along with the doctor and the woman was taken away. Not before, however, the mother of the dog returned from where ever she was (presumably the bathroom) and promptly freaked out. She tracked down the injured woman, the daughter and was profuse in her response-which we couldn’t understand a word, by the way.

My 13-year old expressing her unhappiness at being asked to not drink her apple juice for a pico-second. The carriage house (cook house) behind her. ah. motherhood.

When we’d eaten our meal and completed the bill, we asked the manager if the woman was alright. She expressed all would be well, but that the dog was protecting the young boy, who was on the other side of the gazebo.

“Without it’s protector—the mom,” explained the manager, “the dog was only doing it’s duty as a protector of the child.” Those within hearing distance seemed to agree, and we thought about that after we left. It wasn’t the dog’s fault, in other words, it was being a dog. It wasn’t the injured woman’s fault either, she just happened to get between protector and child.

“In twenty-years,” she continued, “I’ve never witnessed such a thing.” Well, neither had we. All in a day in a foreign country.

Feature image: the back of the restaurant.

Two (Overlooked) Castles in Upper Bavaria: Burg Berghuasen and Saffig

Both come with small townships, local people and not a word of English

Ok. Maybe a word. Hello. that’s what we got and we were thankful for it. The rest of the time, we used Google Translate and smiled a lot.

Day two/37 amounted to three hundred miles , two castles, a butcher-bakery, finding our rental and trying to make an honest Bavarian food fair. Disappointment faded with the people, service and incredible cuisine however, and we ended the day at midnight, while I stayed up until 3 a.m. converting photos and writing blogs. ha.

No speed limits: everyone loves the Autobahn

Shooting down the Autobahn, where no speed limit exists, is the real reason we came to Europe, or so I teased him. He experienced nirvana for about 300 miles and I didn’t blink an eye. 100 mph are normal, and we were getting passed at 110. I won’t tell you how fast he got that Audi A6 touring mobile going as I want my mother alive and happy, not angry or dead.

Zipping through the mountains, we see this incredible (put perfectly normal) feat of German engineering–this unbelievable bridge connecting two mountains, and why? Because why go twenty miles around when that can be shortened to about 2, that’s why. No stopping allowed, so I did my best between trees going way-to-fast.

German roads are ‘da-bomb’ as my daughter said, and we made good time from Aachen through the countryside to our first stop at Burg Berghausen Castle in Keppen in upper Bavaria. This is a manor that didn’t even show up on Wikipedia or any other searches pre-trip, but our car (and Audi A6 touring sedan) showed it on our dashboard, we were going right by anyway, so thought, why not?

Each experience we created this day is special. The soaring tree which made us stop and say: God created this. The second was me thinking: I may need to write a book about a person inheriting a castle, and the last shot, with the girls, was taking as we hypothesized what the evening was going to be like for the couple getting married this evening, and the reception to be held on the deck behind us. What a night it will be for that couple.

It’s more of a manor than castle, but rightly got the designation because it has a bridge with a moat and lake at the backside. Across from the main building are large stables, servants quarters and substantial armory at the front entrance. It’s privately held, open only for special events, but walking the lawns and parks around is open and free. Muskrats the size of a small dog ate feet away from us, and a whole family of four (parents and little ones) waddled right on up expecting to be fed, as did the single, large swan in the lake and loads of ducks. The visit was short but impactful, with Rog and the girls identifying the muskrats and hundred-foot beech trees being their favorite parts.

The horse stables, side of the castle and another angle of the front
The world’s largest, tame muskrat, swan and servants quarters
Local eats in Keppen

Despite the luxurious foods offered at the rest stops, we wanted real German delicacies. Not two minutes in to town we found it at the town’s one and only butchery/bakery. Potato salad, the likes only found in my mother’s kitchen went hand in hand with marzipan and almond pastries, as well as sausage and cold cuts. It was sweet and salty, just the way I like it—so much that I took a pic of the mother-of-all bread making stoves and cajoled the owner to take a selfie. Her first ever. She was so embarrassed, she was fussing over her hair and giggling like a schoolgirl the entire time.

Today, Rog had his vehicular nirvana while mine was culinary. The marzipan pastry as long as Rog’s hand and the little town of Keppen. This was 5 pm-ish. Rush hour.

A note on Keppen: every person here has been incredibly kind and polite, but speak functional English (hello) at best.  We have not met a single person (in two days) who speaks conversational English, although we have two more days so things may change. I’ll keep you posted!

About ten minutes later, we were in Saffig, going up a dirt road to visit the local castle, which is only named Saffig Castle, another one that showed up on our Audio roadmap but not on Google or any listing anywhere! This castle is seriously old (13th century) and is undergoing complete restoration. Personally, I like the old, original stone, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos. Side note: we get that a lot, but usually ignore it, because it’s a ploy to get us to purchase stock photography. Yet sometimes, I ask for permission and get the wink and nod, thus allaying my guilt. That’s what happened with Castle Burg, but not here. I actually received a scowl instead of the nod, so I dutifully put away my camera, but did manage a single shot through the trees as we left the area.

My off-premises shot through the trees. See what I’m talking about on the restoration above? It looks fake and call me a traditionalist, but I like the original.
Our Bavarian rental

This time around, we wanted the fully country experience, which included cows, farmland, locals and meeting more German folks. We loved and appreciated going to towns where English wasn’t spoken at all, because it forced us to speak the language (or at least use Google Translate). Our desire came true with a home in Kammeltal, (pronounced like Camel-tall). From VRBO, we found the home, and are presently perched on the top floor of a two-story home, with three bedrooms, two baths, two balcony’s and modern kitchen, with views to overlooking the small town on one side, and farmland on the other. The backyard is grass, a trampoline and hothouse garden, all for our use. Check in time was 9, and we arrived at 8:40. It’s light here until 10:30, just like Coeur d’Alene. Our German hostess/owner and her family live below us, but we’ve only had a single sighting, which I expect will continue. The house, street and neighborhood are local, mostly older folks who ride their bikes the few blocks in to town—which is a completely different look, feel and style from Ashford, and that’s what we love. One day and veritable world away from what we experienced the day prior.

A few shots of our authentic Bavarian home
Baby room, front and back yard
What I love

People walk their dogs through farmland, which means strips of gravel separating wheat and corn fields, instead of paved paths alongside freeways or streets.

What I don’t

Only four restaurants exist that only has its name listed, without any other details. But the 4 km drive in one direction gives us one town, a 6 km drive in another direction gave us Gunzburg, and that’s where we went for dinner.

Gunzburg

Even before we knew that all four restaurants closed Friday night at 8 p.m. in Kammeltall, we were intending on hitting the food festival. Sadly, we missed that too! Yet the (slightly larger) town of Gunzburg has a much bigger Old-town/downtown (because a new/modern area doesn’t exist as of today). Fun fact: Gunzurg was founded in 70 b.c., although it does look slightly more updated. It features its own main square, where we found Greek, German and lots of outdoor pubs but after 9, only serve appetizers and drinks. Fortunately, one superb Italian restaurant is open until 11, and we were seated by the owner, referred to as “Uncle.” Love that. Pure Italian through and through, but has lived in Germany for 30 years. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but suffice it to say we want to go back to Guntia again before we leave, eventho we will be in Italy for 5 days in another week.

Our dining experience in Gunburg was tops, the freshly made mozzarella caprese my favorite
Daughter number 1 passing out on #2’s lap, who then enjoys sparkling water at the white table clothe experience of Guntia
Feature photo: Burg Berghausen Castle

Ashford, Kent

From Manchester, through Eton and Windsor Castle, eating with the locals and preparing for the Channel Train

We’d traveled down from Manchester, choosing Ashford as the destination to spend the night, taking the channel train the following morning at 6:55 am. Sometimes, the best laid plans go awry, and we’d not been in Britain 24 hours when we learned that first hand, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Why Ashford? It was logical, pure and simple.  We chose Manchester as the airport instead of Heathrow as a forcing function to see a bit of the countryside going down the country (think Leeds Castle, Windsor Castle in Slough) and the farmland. Because it has the EuroStar channel train, we planned to wake up, have breakfast at the B & B, drop off the car and walk to the terminal. On the return, it’s our intention to drive up the coast, wandering along the rocky shores, connecting with an author friend I met on Instagram and have now virtually known for four years.

Reality of driving from Manchester to Ashford

We had no clue about the traffic from Manchester all the way down to London. Like the States, Britain chooses to use the summer months for road construction. Instead of an easy four hours, it was more like a stop and go six, slowing the pace of travel to 50 km per hour. It was torture for both rog and myself, but cameras are everywhere, so we kept alongside the locals to be safe.

So, we had pa-lenty of time to enjoy the cows, sheep and other livestock dotting the lush, green countryside, my girls claiming they’ve never smelled such a strong odor in their lives. Personally, I didn’t mind. Nothing like being thrown back to memory of being on the Alberta farm where my father grew up, in the youthful days of summer, when we thought digging in cow-pies was fun and had no issue jumping in to the slow-moving, leach-ridden, cow-trodden river that ran around the base of dad’s farmland.

Along with way, we stopped half a dozen times, each time marveling at the rest-stops which are more akin to a nice park and a bit of San Diego shopping mall experience rolled into one. I made and posted a short video on Instagram with visuals, but think hardwood floors, curving leather and modern couches, individual and group gathering areas under skylights have been designed in the center of the building, with the shops on the outer rim.

As time grew short, we were in jeopardy of missing our check in time, making us take a rain check on Leeds Castle, but did do a swing by in Eton and the Slough area, which conjured images of my last visit. I spent a few days in the area, and in my free time, went for what I thought would be an easy run to Windsor Castle and back. I became woefully lost, ending up back at home in the near dark, but the next time, was determined to do better. Once again, I got myself lost. The saving grace was it ensured I saw (and re-saw) the old town, castle and backroad streets, searing the map in my mind, which helped us out.

The charm of Ashford, all off High Street (and within two blocks of the B & B)

Back on the road, we hustled to Ashford, making it by eight p.m. Rog had selected a bed and breakfast two blocks from old town. The older neighborhood is quaint and traditional, red brick stand-alone homes with attached. While Rog took care of some business, me and girls grabbed the camera and wandered about the neighborhood. During an hour’s walk, we encountered two cats and a one man, standing on his front doorstep smoking.

First time Bed & Breakfast: Hayesbank B & B

The Haysebank Bed & Breakfast is on the corner the tree lined street heading in to town, the red brick, three story building with attached cottage offering 11 bedrooms. Gabriel, the proprietor, is German, a lovely man who helped Rog guide his car in the small, parking area behind the restored home. The rooms are quaint but tidy, the mattresses perfect and like most European rooms, lack sheets. Just a bottom sheet and a comforter. First-timers to Europe are usually quite distressed by this detail, but I don’t even think of it anymore. (Rog tells me to include these finer points in my blogs in the hopes they increase the actual usefulness of the piece. What are husbands for if not continual improvement?)

L to R: Haysebank B & B, which is on the corner of this street (upper right) and bottom is the neighborhood. Lovely, quaint, quiet, safe, and just two blocks from town.

For dinner, we walked about two blocks west, across a street and under a portico we emerged to see Old Town, instantly transported to the 17th century. The girls remarked the buildings looked original, and most certainly the streets and narrow passages were intact and unchanged from the forefather’s layout.

(As I’m typing this piece as we ride the Eurostar through France, on the way to Brussels, thinking I should be looking outside—so I stop, and we are going by so stinking fast, I wouldn’t be able to take a picture if I wanted to. Oh well!)

The question of food

We searched for “authentic English” food, and you know what? Other than pubs, which aren’t the places to take our girls, instead, we found were Arab, Indian, Chinese and Mediterranean cuisine. It was a culinary melting pot, exactly what Britain has become and is. After twenty minutes of wandering, we gave up, going back to the Mediterranean, which was mix of Greek with a splash of middle eastern.

This is High Street, in Old Town, Ashford, Kent. About half-way down is The Fountain Kabob.

We were expecting Switzerland prices and serving sizes, but it was more like the outrageous portions of the Cheesecake Factory for under thirty dollars. I couldn’t eat half my meal, nor could the girls, and even Rog was hard pressed to finish his lamb and pita. The three gentleman at the Fountain Kabob on High Street, a hole in the wall eatery on the main old town street (and only establishment with a neon sign) were lovely.

Happy and full, we wandered up and down High Street, then branching off on either direction, ending up at St. Mary’s Church. It was closed to visitors but the grounds were open, and we did a full circle of the 17th century house of worship. The grounds are small but well-kept, the wrought iron fencing original.

St. Mary’s Church: straight out of a Pride & Prejudice novel
A neighborhood rap party

In bed by around ten thirty (well, they were, I was up until midnight), the breeze picked up, which was an answer to prayers, because it became very muggy around seven. The downside was someone, somewhere, in one of the local homes or flats, started blasting the UK version of Wiz Khalifa, LOUD. Now, I’m good with some wanna-be Wiz, but not at 1 a.m. on a school night. Ears ringing, windows rattling, the punctuated swear words like a rock hitting the wall, increasing in strength that it finally woke up Rog and Porsche, who can usually sleep through the zombie apocalypse. He mumbles for a bit, after at 2 a.m. rises and gives me warning: It’s coming.

Standing at the window, he shouts: “Are you kidding me? Can you turn it down please? We are trying to sleep!” Imagine Rog, yelling at the top of his lungs, waking the entire neighborhood as he seeks to quiet the music. Porsche jolts up right in bed, I hold my breath, wondering if we are going to have a incident far larger than the music itself, but the music turns shuts off immediately. The street goes dead silent. At that point, Porsche starts to mutter that on the scale of extreme, “Dad is a twelve,” she says. I start giggling, because I thought Rog sounded like a madman. The people upstairs, who’d been creaking around all night, also cease all movement. In fact, it seemed as though even the air was afraid to move because Rog might go postal.

Porsche continued wisecracking, which kept me laughing and we were up another hour. Hence, last night, I actually fell asleep at 3 a.m. and was up a bit before five.

Ashford Train station and final tips

The drop off area for rental cars at the Ashford Eurostar station is under construction, requiring a seriously out of the way drop off. Avis’ directions were worthless, and we spent over an hour going back and forth on a do-loop before it became clear we were going to miss the train through France to Belgium then on to Germany. That was $700 Euro I was not about to throw down the toilet.

“We are leaving the car in the lot,” I mandated, dropping the keys to security at the terminal and calling Avis. I hypothesized the price we may pay was far less than screwing up our entire itinerary. The great news is this: the attendant outside the Avis station (which was closed) willingly took the car keys, then the Eurostar manager (an equally pleasant gal) accepted our tickets, learned of our plight and sent a note to management, and in five minutes we were going through French customs just in time to be led to platform 4 for boarding. The girls thought it downright Harry Potter, the only difference being the bullet-like train speeding forth minutes after we made it to the platform.

The march from the international train to the massive, city-like structure within Aachen, Germany. Marble walls, clean floors, quiet and sooth running, like most German things.

Another tip (while I’m thinking about it). We saved the money for the Ashford to Brussels leg of the trip, purchasing economy. It’s open seating (not assigned) and we lucked out with the girls getting two seats together. Me and Rog are spread out, but his mate is working and mine is sleeping, most of the occupants (as I surreptitiously glance around) are professionals heading to the city, and a few mid-twenties men clearly way too spry for this time of the morning. Quiet and comfortable, even economy is a great experience, no food or wi-fi, but plug-ins galore. The next leg is business class, assigned seating with tables and I’m hoping for a few photo opps.

Am I working at all??

For five of the nine-hour flight from Seattle to Manchester, I wrote the framework for two new books. I felt like a prisoner released on parole, because three months ago, Rog mandated I not start outlining or work on a new book, but focus on the family and travel blogs. Needless to say, the dam burst forth, but I’m telling you what. Like an explosion of water, what erupted from my mind was messy! After being out of it for that long, it felt as though my desire was cruising along in fifth but my car was struggling between first and second. It may turn out what I wrote ends up in the garbage, and that’s ok. At least I was able to get back to it, and it felt good.

Feature Image: off High Street in Ashford, an original building now housing an Indian food restaurant. A completely modern day representation of old and new worlds unified.

The Divinity of the Duomo Cathedral

The must-do of Milan

What would take us away from sunny Lake Como south to Milan? The Duomo Cathedral truly one of the most magnificent churches ever built. The construction required thousands of skilling craftsman, each specialized in their own trade, passing along their expertise and tribal knowledge through generations of time. After hundreds of years and plenty of archbishops, the Duomo stands as a testament to the ingenuity and sheer determination.

A view from the main worship area within the cathedral
The journey & parking

Milan, (or Milano, as the locals and country signs call it) is a city of approximately four million. The drive from Como took approximately four hours. Having never had our own car in Milan before, we were initially hesitant, then had a moment of clarity. We drive all over the place, from Los Angeles to New York, Berlin to Boston, which are far larger. Milan proved to be a piece of cake. Straight in we went, found street parking for a few bucks, and even got a caprese appetizer on a side street before walking a few blocks to the cathedral.

We arrived to find a part of the cathedral under reconstruction, and a whole lot of military personnel protecting the national landmark. Neither bother nor obstructed us whatsoever. The main square was less than half-full, the day overcast and cool. In other words, a perfect day to visit.

Every entrance is guarded (as you can see behind me) and parking on some of the closets streets is only for service or military vehicles
The fees and expectations

If you want to take your own photos, an extra charge of $5 is required, but completely worth it. The columns, stained glass windows, and 15,800 pipe organ make it worth the money. Because it was a slow day, the inside wasn’t crowded in the slightest, which was a good thing; the mausoleums holding the deceased archbishops were worth snapping a photo, which we did multiple times.

Street parking all around–this was a Thursday afternoon

The tourist information identifies which archbishop was responsible for a particular section of the Duomo, which shows the link between general manager, if you will, and what was created. Imagine the vision of these guys, who knew their contribution was vital, but they’d never see the completed work in their lifetime—or for several lifetimes to come. Talk about commitment. Most of us can’t see a few years in front our faces, let alone decades or centuries.

My number one recommendation is don’t go when service is in session!

My mother plays the organ, so I’m a bit familiar with the instrument. The long, metal rods scaling up from the balconies make it the largest organ in Italy, and in the top 15 instruments in the world.

Beyond the cathedral

If churches, architecture or history isn’t your thing, don’t despair. The Duomo Square has shopping area known as the Piazza Del Duomo. Think the Mercedes Benz clothing/jewelry store and the like, along with multiple outdoor eateries. If your traveling partner is at the Domo, you can easily spend an hour wandering through the shops or taking in a hot, chocolate mousse drink as I did (which was more like pudding, actually).

The entire visit will run you no more than two-four hours, depending on your tastes. That leaves a lot of time to explore other parts of the city.

Just one of many, many entrance doors
What I liked best

All if it, the area, the cathedral, shopping, eateries, you name it. I even got the military guards to smile and take a picture with me, and they accommodated!

What I liked least

Nothing. Nada. It was as perfect as the day could get.

Feature image: The Domo, taken from the main square

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


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!