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

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

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!

Prague Castle

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

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

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

Be informed and be vigilant

Two things right up front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back to Brussels

Family friendly top stops

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. Depressing.

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

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

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

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

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

Top castles around Prague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KarlstejnCastle

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

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

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

The original walkways connecting the buildings and the outer gardens below

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


Cesky Krumlov and the town of Cesky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost lost a daughter

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

Colorful and quaint is the town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beauty of Bruges

All the while we were in Belgium, my mother was sending me texts.

“Did you see Bruges yet? When are you going?”

“Soon!” I’d reply, having no clue when we were actually going to make it. When we finally went, Mom rapped philosophic about the beauty of the town. “The movie was to die for. Did you see the movie?”

New meets old walking down a main street

The movie she was referring to was In Bruges, a chase ‘em, shoot-em up flick that many of the locals blessed and cursed when we raised the subject. They loved it for the notoriety it created amongst people like my mother while simultaneously hating the crowds it created (at this point, they’d pause, stair at me and my family, and change the subject).

The stormy day was right out of In Bruges (without the hot actors).

If you haven’t seen the movie or ventured in to this part of the country, boy, go see it. We did it on a lark, as is our usual traveling selves and had wonderful food in the rain (it was pouring so hard when we went to eat the water was flowing off the umbrellas like a waterfall), and when the water stopped, took great pictures before heading to Lille, France.

What to know

If you are driving, don’t be afraid to get in close and park. We found plenty of free parking just as we entered the town. Hurray!

Parking Karma was amazing in Bruges (of course the rain might have helped)

The waterways are similar to Amsterdam, without the muck of the Red Light District and accompanying distractions. The food, shopping and atmosphere is quaint (e.g. safe) and welcoming. Every time I post a picture or two on Instagram of Bruges (see boat on water pic) some smarty-pants will say I have it wrong, it’s Amsterdam. Nope. Take a look at the actual sign, which says “Bruges by boat.” Apparently, Mr. Smarty Pants has the wrong country, let alone town.

Walking through the town, I got a shot off without being photo bombed

When you read up on the town, one of the most often quotes is that the entire town resembles a one, big, medieval castle. That’s spot on. It’s pretty much impossible to find a street that isn’t unique and picture-taking perfect. We traipsed around randomly, stopping about every fifty feet so I could take a picture of a red doorway, a red, brick arched doorway with vines hanging about or a boat floating on the water.

One just can’t get this in the States

Bruges by boat

No, we didn’t take a boat tour, because between our feet then the car when the rain came down too hard, we drove around and stopped on the mostly-empty streets whenever we wanted, completely illegally I might. The rain kept the tourists (and apparently police officers) at bay. Although in my (lame) defense, I’d yell “stop!” order the kids to jump out, smile and pile back in before the honking behind us began. Truth be told, no one honked. They probably rolled their eyes and waited, willing us American crazies to leave.

Smarty-pants take note: the sign on the left reads: Bruges, not Amsterdam. Gah

That said, we thought the prices were seriously reasonable, and had the weather been better, perhaps we would have gotten in the boat and toured the canals. As it was, two hours of driving and eating was enough for my little crew.

Bruges by Foot

I’ll admit with kids, when you’ve seen one colorful building and waterway between the streets, they start the blend. Ours were more interested in the food, but for adults, you see a lot of the top sites in a day or two.

The Procession of the Holy Blood 2019 is coming up on May 30, 2019, and commemorates the arrival of the Relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges. The biblical and historic evocation is well known as the religious procession which originated as a purely religious expression at the end of the thirteenth century. Lots of people will be dressed up in costume (kids and adults) with the procession taking place on land and water. It’s free if you want to stand along the route, but 12 pounds will get you a seated bench where you can enjoy the Procession in comfort.

Yet another walkway over a canal. Can you imagine living here?

If you are looking for a single day itinerary, without kids or even a partner/spouse whatever, Miss Adventure knocked it out with her insane schedule (see previous link). She does a much better job summarizing what you can see if you want. We didn’t even go to half of the places recommended, and we were just fine with that. (recall that with kids, one can only subject them to so many cathedrals and museums before this cry of parental abuse begins.

Like I said, I have a thing for colored doors

Where’d we go from Bruges? Jumped on the ramp and went to Lille, France for the singular purpose of purchasing clothes and Napoleans, but not in that order. My girls (and myself) care a LOT more about a great pastry than we do a pair of shoes.

Perfectly Prague

For solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable fun, Prague is truly perfect

Do you like castles and paddling in your own boat on the river? What about cheap food and luxury clothes for 10% of regular cost? Are you a fan of the Triple XXX movie with Vin Diesel? What about seeing the remains of Lucy, the 4M yr old artifact, or an Andy Warhol painting in person? I answered yes to all of the above after I’d been there, but I’ll be the first to admit that when we book Prague as one of our home bases for a month-long trip, I picked it mostly out of convenience. Throw stones if you will, but my glass house is now bullet proof, because we keep going back, and in a mere six weeks, will be there once again.

This is the first of a multi-part series on the city and the surrounding areas, because it’s perfect for solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable good times.

Book your stay and get ready to walk

Prague is one of the most popular destinations in Europe; and for good reason. Old town is walking distance to some of the most famed sites in the country; The Prague Castle, the Astronomical Clock, the old town main square and museums. The town attracts the visitors by the thousands because compared to so many other countries because it’s so unique and blissfully inexpensive. In a single day, you can hit the major hot spots in town, take your selfie and go. Here’s what you can do:

Park in Old Town, (or take the metro), and walk to St. Charles Bridge. The best times or morning or early afternoon, because during the summer, when the sun goes down, it’s a wall-to-wall visitor’s and pretty tough to take a picture. That said, in June, the crowds are quite sparse, so if you have the chance, go between now and mid-July and it’s not so bad.

This is a backward view when you are on the famed St. Charles Bridge. Old Town is in the distance, the tightly stacked buildings narrowing the crowds walking to the bridge.

Walk up one side of the river (river name) cross anyone of the many bridges and walk down the other side. Doing so gives you lots of pictures of both sides of the waterfront.

Paddle boats afford great photo opps that are impossible unless you have a long lense

Stop and rent a paddle boat on the Vltava River. This sounds cheesy, but it’s great fun. You paddle and pause to take a photo of the waterfront or colorful buildings, then stop at any of the sidewalk eateries for a long sausage and drink. Do you need to reserve in advance? Absolutely NOT. The site I referenced shows a great picture of the main rental area on Zofin Island, right across from the National Theatre. You can’t miss it. During our time, we rented a boat three times, and two out of the three, we just walked up, chose the type of boat we wanted and hopped right in. The single instance we needed to wait, it was sunset on a very hot day, and stood for 30 minutes until a boat became available. The time is limited (you can choose 30 min, an hour or more), but it’s long enough to go all the way up and one side of the river and down the other. FYI- barriers prevent you from going too far in either way.

If you’re going to be eccentric, let your choice of paddle boats say it all for you.

Don’t be shy—jump in the gerbil balls, releasing your inner child. I wasn’t going to get into a rubber ball, floating on the river while it was tethered to the side until after I saw my own kids. I didn’t notice or care about the heat wave of 100+ temperatures because I was racing along the bottom, trying to bump into my kids!

Put the pride aside and zip yourself into a gerbil ball. It’s hilariously terrifying.

Walk up to the Prague Castle. It’s going to take about 20-25 minutes from the opposite side of the river, but it’s not difficult; flat, then the rise at the end as you walk up the incline. To our slight disgust, the first thing you see at the top is a portable Starbuck’s, which we thought was the tragic commercialization of a castle, but alas. What can you do? There’s a McDonald’s in plain view of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, so we just ignored it and moved on.

A view from the Prague Castle

During two visits, filmmakers were making major motion pictures (no, Vin wasn’t in site) but the handsome polize were. They laughed at the blond American asking in terrible Czech if they’d mind posing, but were more than happy to do so.

Cajoling the security squad from the movie to take a snap

After you tour the outside and surrounding areas, you’ll probably be in it about 5-6 hours. Now’s the time to let the sun go down, pick a spot within the main square of Old Town and eat a casual meal The reason? Because the best pictures of the clock are taken during the evening. Of course, you’re not the only person who knows this, so be prepared for a lots of people. Tours are interesting, and we did one, but I don’t think it’s required. Just standing in the square, watching the performers and planning where you’re going to eat your next meal.

When you take a cab, these are the images you miss…looking over the edge of a bridge to the water as you walk up (or down) to Prague Castle.

Alternatively, if you’re not tired, and ready to do a bit more walking, then head in the opposite direction, away from the Castle. Across the bridge, through the shopping areas of Old Town, and up the long boulevard that leads to what is known as Wenceslas Square. Believe it or not, we found parking spots right on the main street-so it’s possible! Treat it just like Los Angeles parking and you’ll be completely fine!

Mini-Europe Park in Belgium

Absolute cool for the whole family>> kids-grandparents

In my piece on the Antomium, I referenced the Mini-Europe Park and promised to delve into magical, miniature wonderland. The creators must have concluded that most humans can’t possibly visit every major landmark in the European countries, so they decided to build it for all to see. The path isn’t restrictive, which means you can go up and around to the country of your choice, as opposed to being required to go in one direction. Even as an adult, I seriously enjoyed this, because let’s face it, even with as much as I travel, there are places that I haven’t been—or may not ever get to see in person.

350 buildings from 80 countries are represented, so keep your phone handy, because you my look at a replica and wonder “Huh, why is this here?” After you realize the importance of the replica, take a pic and see how many friends you can fool back home. I got away with a three on Instagram before some of my Euro friends busted me!

Not just replicas

The park also has live action models, like trains, working mills, cable cars and an erupting Mount Vesuvius. When I think of a family friendly place to visit, this is it. As an adult, I loved learning the history of the building, listening to my girls tell what they knew (or didn’t) and sparing with Roger over the details (as us type-A’s are apt to do).

Best time to visit, prices and more

I’d definitely recommend the morning or a cloudy day. There’s little/no shade as you are walking around. If you’re a lightweight (like me) you may seriously wait for the afternoon/evening, or bring a water-spray bottle as we had. Fortunately, on the day we visited, it became overcast by the time we’d finished up at the Antomium, and at the Mini-Euro Park it sprinkled, which was a nice break from the heat of July.

Prices: you have lots of ticket options. The Park only, the Park+Antomium or Park+Planetarium or all three combined.

Don’t scrimp on buying the catalog. We still have ours from the trip and its dog-tagged on the corners where me made notes. It’s been a constant reference.

Lots of exhibits are active–such as the windmills. They turn, water moves, lights go on.

Best parks for Trailering

Today the topic was to be Bruges, Belgium, but I can’t do it. I have camping on my mind, and specifically, trailering. In America, “trailering” has been converted into a verb, and now is the time to book before all the good spots are gone. This is a short compilation of our top stops we go to time and again, and you need to book now because they are worth it. PS- if the spots below are booked on your dates, make sure you check around midnight because cancellations take effect when the clock turns over. We have skated in several days before thx to cancellations. In no particular order, our favorites are:

Cape Disappointment State Park, (south of Oceanside, Longview, Seaside) Washington

The reason it’s so named is because of all the shipwrecks that occurred off the coast. This unique location offers Yurts that can be rented (rounded, tent like structures but are permanent), beachside slots for all sizes of RV’s and the inner “suburbs” for more trailers which are walking distance to the coast. Like most state parks, it offers showers among the amenities, and lots and lots of biking trails. We go annually for clamming—a task so easy even our then-four-year-old could do it. Beware, the top temperature is high sixties unless you go in August, and the clamming isn’t so great at that time, but the weather is better. Less rain, more sun.

This is the site to make reservations for ALL Washington State public parks.

This is rush hour at Cape Disappointment. Strangely, some of the warmest days are in June
RimRock Lake Resort, Naches, Washington

Located on the opposite side of Washington (locally known as the Eastern side of Washington), this lake is large, rather remote while at the same time easily accessible. We have been going nine years in a row now, booking our spot at the RimRock Lake Resort a full year in advance. At this particular resort, the property has a pinnacle setting, wherein it’s located on two jutties. One has a 280-degree view of the lake, wherein trailers can be positioned all around the point. The resort also features a peninsula that only allows for a handful of trailers. You walk out of your trailer, and can jump off the rocks into the clear, cold lake below. We have rented three spots, one at the very end, and either one beside us for friends (or just for the privacy). The Resort has a small shop and tackle, and a restaurant but the hours are limited. We just usually drive down to Yakama, which is about 45 min east of the lake. Trails with soft dirt circumference the resort, leading down to a swimming area that’s naturally protected from the rest of the lake. The dock is a short swim, and thankfully, the bottom of the lake in this area is both rock and hard sand, not soft and gooey, which is a plus. The facilities include an indoor showering area which is known for the incredible water pressure and length of hot water (most showers are on a timer and go cold after a few minutes to force one out. Lastly, the Resort also has its own boat launch, and requirement for lakeside!

My friends served as models for these shots:) I chose both of these because they show how close the trailer is parked to the edge of the peninsula at RimRock Lake Resort. Walk out a few feet and jump off into the cold water. It’s glorious.

If RimRock isn’t available, a number of small, lake side resorts exist, some with cabins and other with the option for trailers, but I can’t recommend one in particular, as we’ve always stayed at RimRock Resort.

Lincoln Rock State Park, Wenatchee, Washington

If lakes or the ocean isn’t your thing, try a river. Our local favorite is the Columbia River, staying at the State Park. It’s always hot (think 90-100 degrees July-September), the river very cold and the park itself is laid out really well. For the premier spots, try for “the bluff.” This is limited to trailers and the massive diesel pushers. If you score a sport on the ride of the plateau the spots offer unobstructed views of the dam, river and valley below. You can take your dog for walks down the short hill, to the other areas of the park, which are segregated into tent-only areas, RV trailer areas and the like. For non-trailering folks, the loudest areas area always the tent-only locations. The reason should be obvious—they aren’t inside being boisterous, it’s right out there! The park has a boat launch and shore line where you can ride your jet ski up and park beachside.  

When your pitbull thinks she’s a lapdog, but conveniently keeps you warm as the campfire gets going.

If this Park is sold out, Wenatchee Confluence State Park is our second favorite. The downside is that the layout, which makes it seem far more crowded, and it’s not as easily accessible. This also has a marina and a rocky beach area but easy enough for jetskiiers to ride up to the short.

While many lakes have banned stand-ups, most of the State Parks have not, nor have the rivers. Hurray!
Mt. Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch Resort in South Dakota

This is the mother-of-all trailering parks, and the reason is fascinating—it’s the second oldest KOA in the country, and it’s located on the spot of a former golf course that went bust. From the glorious entrance and center (which is well-managed by through-lanes when you arrive), to the portioned areas.

As my husband says, “This is a camping Disneyland.” From the miniature golf course, outdoor theatre, three pools (at last count) horses back riding, rental bikes and an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast every morning for $4.00. One can even rent a guest house, which were a part of the golf course and were included in the sale. Some of the bigger homes are 5-6 bedrooms overlooking the entire valley. Quite lovely!

It’s right around the corner from Mt. Rushmore, no more than 15 minutes. We went mid-June, when the reservations were open (and we booked about this time, early May), and were pleasantly surprised to find the lines at Mt. Rushmore were non-existent. We went on a Friday morning, found front-row underground parking and had a great two hours. More on Mt. Rushmore in another blog, but for a visitor wanting the premier location to stay, this is it.

Medicine Lake, California

This region is prominently featured in Chambers: The Spirit Warrior, which is book two in the series. As I mention in the back of the book, it’s because I grew up spending every summer here as a child with my family. The lake is a long-dormant volcano, and the places visited by the characters are real: Glass Mountain, the undergound catacomb tunnels, which can be explored for miles, as well as Captain Jack National Monument.

Dozens of other wonderful destinations exist within the State Parks, to say nothing of private resorts, but time is short and I had to pick my favorites.

Tip: for booking on-line, each state has its own state park website. This is the one for the State of Washington. The reservations for booking is here.

Book away, and we might see you there!

Feature image: this was taken at Cape Disappointment. The ecology is so amazing- from the coastal waters to this almost rainforest-like area. the Yurts are located within these spooky woods–beautiful and sheltered from the blowing wind.

Antomium: inside the world’s largest cell

A silver ball, shaped like an atom, so large that it takes several escalators to reach the center, in the middle of Brussels. Sounds like the mother-of-all tourists traps, doesn’t it? That’s what we thought, but our inner science-geeks fell for it anyway, and we are so glad we did. It was a one-of-a-kind hands-on experience for our girls who literally learned from the inside out.

Walking up to the Antomium
What’s the fuss about?

The Antomium is a single iron cell magnified 165 billion times. That alone will get your kids to pause a split second. Enjoy the silence, because then the questions are going to come so rapidly, you might as well leave the office Brussels info site up and running. Nine individual pods (or spheres) are connected through escalators and lifts. For the claustrophobe in you, each pod is the size of a large apartment. In fact, the Antomium has pods for sleepovers available to schools and private parties. That’s almost enough to make me want to move to Brussels. Can you imagine getting the invite for a kid’s 6th birthday party, up five stories looking over the entire valley?

What you will experience and see

In addition to the amazing views of the area from the pods, inside are fascinatingly detailed exhibitions on permanent display about the World Fair of 1958 wherein it was created, and then rotating exhibitions on other feats of man. Four of the pods are open to the public full-time, but only accessible via escalators, so those with limited mobility or in wheelchairs will be disappointed. Other than the pods reserved for students or sleepover areas, the rest of open and accessible.

View of Brussels from one of the pods, and the inside of a pod–which hovers above the ground–available for sleepovers! You just have to get there.
Best times to go

We lucked out, going in the dinner hour, between 4-6. It was still crowded, but the line wait was only about 20 minutes, and it was quite open inside, not jammed packed. Even on the website, which we looked at briefly before going, it identified the best times are between 12-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.

Location

The Antomium is located in the Heysel district of Brussels. It’s the last stop on the metro, line 6 (and you wonder why I incorporate the metro in my contemporary romance series set in Europe. The metro is the way to get around within a city. The tram line 7 is the other way to reach the Antomium, or of course, you can drive or take a cab. It’s a short walk, and you simply can’t miss it.

Since you are there, you must stop at the Mini-Europe Theme Park, which allows you to see all the major sites from around Europe in miniature. I’ll like the blog when it’s up.

We’ll get to the Mini-Europe Theme Park next
Prices

Reasonable. Kids under 6 are free, and from there it’s 8-12 Euros with discounts for seniors. A note to Americans, the Antomium includes a price for the “teen” category, as is the norm with most Euro parks. Travelers from Europe who come to the States are always in for a shock, unaccustomed to either kid or adult.

Pictures and trinkets

We never, ever purchase souvenirs because it goes against our basic philosophy of living in the present. If and when we do buy an item, it tends to be “useful,” which I put in quotes because that definition, in our family, is constantly up for debate (what’s useful for one person is a ridiculous spend to another). Still, when we were at the Antomium, we couldn’t threw rules out the proverbial window and purchased three sets of pictures—teeny tiny ones- 1×1 inches, and then a larger one with a silly mascot. We are quite thankful we did, because it’s one of the only pictures we have the girls together at that age. Additionally, we bit the bullet and purchased, not one or two, but three Antomium replicas. Two, 2×2 inch size for the girls and then a larger one for us which sits on our glass stand at home. It’s side beside a handful of other items representing our best times together. That pretty much says it all: this was an incredibly fun experience and family day (again, we combined that day with the Euro Park). Eve if you are by yourself or with a friend, make the time to drop by. It’s so unique and off the radar of major sites, you’ll be glad you did.

Can you spot the Antomium? Just in front of other items that will explained in another blog

Tervuren, Belgium

Africa, an Empress and a Park

Brussels is known as a political hot center, home to 19 police forces, each using a different language, a great botanical garden and shopping downtown, but what’s not publicized across the Atlantic is the municipality of Tervuren, located in the Flemish Brabant province of Belgium. It’s a shame too, because history, aristocracy and nature–along with inexpensive accommodations–make this town a must-see in our travel itinerary.

Tervuren: What and where

But don’t let that little factoid scare you off. It’s perfect for travelers who want the proximity of the nearby cities in the summer, (a category in which we belong). The town butts against the Tervuren Park, also known as the Empress’s Park, a multi-kilometer destination so big it’s easy to get lost. Yet, it’s so safe, we feel like it’s Idaho. People walking the streets at night, taking strolls on the neighborhood and of course, crossing in to the Park that stretches for miles.

Another park? Really?

If it was “just a park,” I wouldn’t bother writing about it. But this is something to behold. Sun-lit gravel paths stretching for miles are separated by long, rectangular waterways, home to multiple varieties of waterfowl. On the other side of the water, the trails are paved, drawing bikers who race along the paths at a training clip. Shooting off these manicured lanes are dirt trails through the woods. It’s downright “shire-like,’ because only in the Hobbit movies have I seen trees to high and dense in a forest. It’s actually rather spooky, and one of my girls (6 at the time) asked if an Orc was going to come out. “No, Robin Hood lives here,” was my reply, thinking the analogy a little happier than a blood-thirty human-killing fictional character. The downtown of Tervuren lines one side of the park, allowing for waterside dining, strolls down the paths and a little (not much) local shopping.

The Empress’s Palace in Tervuren

As we were making our way in and around the park over a period of our ten day stay, we frequently walked by the Empress’s Palace. The story itself (Emperor builds massive structure for favorite daughter) and size of the park just makes any parent say: wow. Daddy really loved that girl.

Africa in Belgium

Indeed. The massive Royal Museum for Central Africa, simply known as the Africa Museum, is located right in the park. In the 1800’s, the museum was opened by a King Leopold II, who had conducted on a years long effort for colonization. What originally focused on the Congo gradually expanded over the decades (yes, this is a dramatic simplification. Read more here), the museum and research functions of the museum attracted scientists and researchers, contributing to the initial prosperity of the region. 

Note: It was closed for a 5 year renovation and reopened in 2018, so you are good to go. Where to stay? I address that in a separate blog on our accommodations. Think two-story, five bedroom house, pool, ten days, $1,000. Yep. Love Tervuren.

Vienna Amusement Park

Prater & the Ferris Wheel

Not, it’s not a palace or museum, but if you ask my kids, they will tell you that Prater was not just the best part of Vienna, it’s the only destination they want to revisit within the city. Not surprising. It’s was a short walk from the apartment we rented and was nearly empty at around three in the afternoon. If you want a change of pace from restaurants and shopping for furs (off season in July of course), go visit.

Adults and kids

I’m a thrill seeker, I admit it. For those of use who want to hang up side down like a bat going 100 mph for brief spurts, at least one ride offers this experience. I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten the name of the ride (did I black out?) but you get strapped in while upright, then it rotates you so you are literally parallel with the ground, about three feet up. From head to toe, you are horizontal, and then the fun really begins. My advice is this: build up and save all your fear, tensions, anger or angst and when the ride begins, be like Anna in Frozen and just let it go. Trust me, your screams will blend in with the others.

When you are boiling up from the heat, walk five minutes to the water rides and let your inner child go (e.g. raise your hands). The splash is worth second ride–and with the lack of lines, we just got off, walked around the end and got ride back on the ride.

A note of warning- most of the rides do have an age or height restriction, so check your kids before you pay the money. Yes, lots of rides exist for younger ones, but then you are split with the rides between older and younger children.

Best time to go

We learned after the fact that 3-5 p.m. are the best times to go, and this is what we’d done, but it was unintentional. We looked out our apartment, saw the massive Ferris wheel and said “let’s go!” Of course, it was during a heat wave and we were seriously hot, but the park was empty. Just as we were leaving, about two hours later, a breeze picked up, the sun was going down and the crowds started to clog the lines.

The giant Ferris wheel is 65 meters tall and you should take your camera, because you can take incredible pics of the Danube from the top. A Madame Tussad’s Wax Museum, a trainride and the Planetarium.

We all loved the Vienna planetarium, where we watched an Astro show. Since I didn’t take pictures within the planetarium, read more about it here. All my kids recall were the thousands of stars from the laser lights beaming all around.

Trains and bus lines stop right in front of the park, so transportation is easy. I’ll also point out that the side streets to and from the park are lined with unique restaurants, one with a banyan tree in the center. We happened upon it, had a great meal and now you will hate me because I can’t recall the name! But I will say the owner told me it had been there for 20 years, so I imagine it’s there now.

Waterloo isn’t just a song

It’s also an incredible place to visit

“At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…oh yeah….And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way…”

ABBA was before my time, but the long-lost lyrics of Waterloo came rushing back as we drove up to “The Waterloo” in Belgium. Did you know the battle of Waterloo is actually in Belgium? Neither did we. In our ignorance, neither did we, but before I digress upon my lack of education (can I blame that on age?) let’s back up. How did we end up in Waterloo in the first place?

Blame it on the rain

Not to go Milli Vanilli on you, but it really was the rains fault. There we were, in a beautiful suburb of Brussels, looking out the home we’d rented, watching the rain hit the pool, we just couldn’t believe it. After an hour, we had consumed all the chocolate in the house (when one is in Belgium, one must consume copious amounts) and then we got on our phones. What else can we see? Ten minutes later, we had piled in to the car and were on the road.

Just off the freeway

Located 30km south of Belgium, Waterloo is off exit 25 from Ring East Road (the Butte du Lion” on the Ring O). What that means is you zip along at European speeds, see the side, take a right, flip around and bam, you have arrived. You are going to notice the craziest scene- a car on a roof, and thanks to my ever-present camera, I took the snap for proof the French have a quirky sense of humor, although Rog conjectured it was some crazy ex-pat American. There is literally no way to get lost on this journey. For new visitors who don’t have a car and trying to figure out transportation to Waterloo, use Rome2Rio for options specifically about getting to Waterloo.

The final battle

Napoleon was short. We knew that. But when you are standing next to a life-size replica of the little man, you get a full appreciation for the greatness of the miniature conqueror himself. Just behind the plexiglass covered timelines stands the grass-covered pyramid-esque monument in the background. Tip: go an hour before closing or it’s like the Coba pyramid in the Yucatan. The security guards don’t let you start because they know you’re inclination to take selfies at the top will result in the site being open another hour.

Why should you go?Why you should go?

If you aren’t a history buff (which I am) you may see Waterloo for bragging rights. How many people have you ever met who can say they’ve been to the place where the French forces, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, fought the coalition of British, Belgian, Dutch and German? A lot of people recognize the name “Duke of Wellington” but don’t always know why. It was he and Gebhard Leberecht von Blüche of the Prussian forces who led the battle and won. In all, 250K men from seven countries fought, 11K dead and approximately 33K wounded in what’s considered the largest and bloodiest pre-twentieth century battles.

Climb to the top & the Museum

The Butte de Lion, or The Lion’s Mound and panoramic painting of the Battle of Waterloo are the main sights to see on a day-trip to the battlefield (Champ de Bataille). Smaller monuments are scattered around what has been returned to predominantly grass fields. The museum has a 3D movie and lots of artifacts.

Food and parking

The parking is free and right on site, no long-distance walking. The cafeteria is modest but the food perfect as always. It never ceases to amaze (us Americans) that even the dingiest road-side stops in Europe offer fresh mozzarella, prosciutto in a panini sandwich which is better than most of the higher end restaurants in the US.

Local eateries and Monasteries

True to form, we finish up at Waterloo and decide to explore. For the next hour, we drive up and down the backstreets surrounding the battlefield and found restaurants and a monastery that weren’t even listed in our guide books (or Internet). I love that; French food and historical buildings, both hidden except to the locals.

The strange weather of Belgium

While it poured in Brussels, it only drizzled at Waterloo. As we left and decided to explore the surrounding area, the rain stopped entirely. It wasn’t until we started back to the city, the rain kicked in. When we returned, we asked a few locals of the weather. You know what we learned?”

“The weather is a lot like Seattle, Washington,” an older man said. Rog and I just stared in wonder and disbelief, because at the time, we were living just outside Seattle.

“Is it always like this in the summer?” I asked, keeping my face straight.

“Always. Raining and overcast with some sun breaks.” Huh. No wonder we’d gotten a five-bedroom house with a pool for so little! (another topic for another blog).

Rain or shine, Waterloo is a must see destination if you are anywhere near Brussels, and frankly, it’s so easy to get to from Cologne and Aachen, Germany, or a quick drive from Luxemburg and even Lille, France (great shopping! More to come on that).

Quick: close your eyes

Lessons from the road

“Quick! Don’t look!” Those were the words I mistakenly said to my girls, when driving alongside a river in Austria. What I meant to say was “quick, turn your heads,” but the better comment was to have kept quiet.

You see, while most Europeans are immune to nudity, not even registering a piece of uncovered flesh, us Americans are much more sensitive to those things, and thus, the necessity for writing this blog. It was this singular river-journey that I learned how to handle the unexpected with grace and a bit of education, perhaps saving another parent from making the mistake.

The hottest day

That’s where it started. On a day trip down the 56 south of Vienna, return it was over 100 degrees, the July heat practically killing the car’s air conditioning. On a lark, we went to Gloggnitz in lower Austria and started following a few motorcyclists and locals who seemed to know where they were going (we are adventurous that way). The straight road curved as the scenery changed from concrete to lush trees, the uphill climb cooling the air. We rolled down the tinted windows to get a better look and lo! There it was. A whole line if bar butts, four in a row, and male.

I uttered the now famous line, which made both girls (then 6 and 10) lean out the window. “Mom, is that a butt?” My six-year old asked. “What happened to their bathing suits?” My older daughter went silent, her shock registering in the fixed stare one has when going by a car accident.

Luckily, the rational me kicked in (as opposed to the mom-me).

“It’s Europe,” I replied. “They do this here.”

“But Mom,” my oldest started. “There are more people on the river.” I looked. “Yep, and some are even wearing bathing suits.”

It was then that Rog and I had the quiet moment parent’s share when the truth table has been pulled out. We were either going to live the European experience or eliminate half the things we could possibly see.

“We’ll do our best,” Rog said in an undertone.

“No naked men,” was my threshold. And with that, we continued up the river until we saw a place where the men were clothed, but not all of the women.

The invisible man

Kids are interesting. If you don’t make a big deal out of something, they forget it even exists. So it was that we parked the car, quickly changed roadside when it was clear, then made our way down to path. The Alpine water was freezing, the water crystal clear, and the other visitors rare. Yet a few women were topless, but they were mom’s who had clearly breastfed their young children and struck us as pragmatic instead of exhibitionistic. It was very hot: why wear more clothes than one had to?

The kids looked once, more out of interest, then moved on. It simply was a part of life, a part of nature, exactly how it should be.

The return trip

It was a good thing perspectives had changed, because two hours later we were driving back in to town.

“Mom,” my ten-year-old says from the back. “I just saw a man’s penis. Two, actually.” I can’t help myself. I look out the window. Sure enough, we were passing the spot on the river from whence we’d come, and two of the four men was now on their backs, sunning themselves.” The image was gone in the blink of an eye, my husband’s hand on my leg gripping with humor and angst combined.

“Yep,” I said. “Everyone needs to get a tan.”

“I guess,” my daughter said, already looking down at her book. “What’s for dinner?”

We did our best to shield the girl from egregious displays of nudity, but honestly, it wasn’t an issue. The rest of the trip, three weeks’ worth, were free of comments or looks about what saw, or rather, didn’t see. They came, played and were focused on having fun and the beauty around them, exactly as it should be.

Salzburg, Austria

Who didn’t grow up listening to the Sound of Music, dreaming about one day, floating along the green hillsides, twirling, arms out, singing “the hills are alive…” No? Doesn’t resonate? What about walking along the waterfront, looking at the muted, yellow mansion where the fictional Maria met her beloved Captain von Trapp? No? That’s what my husband also said

Channel my inner Maria

Thus, despite my life-long bucket list dream of seeing either hill or house, we opted for the Mozart residence and the Fortress Hohensalzburg as the two, primary destinations for our first trip to Salzburg. In our upcoming trip, we intend to take in more locations in and around the area, including Lake Mondsee, but we are going back to the two destinations because we simply can’t get enough.

Fortress Hohensalzburg

This imposing castle on the hill wasn’t one to pass up. Like Lake Mondsee, we found it by chance; the focus on Mozart and the Sound of Music tours changing the moment we caught our first glimpse of the enormous, white structure. Rog immediately started looking for street parking at the base of the Fortress, in town, and got lucky. Our walk was only five minutes to the base of the hillside entrance.

Train or tram

Rog and I were in a funny spot at this point in time, because I was realizing that with our limited time, I’d miss all the Sound of Music stuff. My fury grew as he expressed disbelief I would want to visit sites from a musical instead of a real fortress (do you see the marital tornado brewing?) Good thing that getting to this fortress offers both a tram and a thousand-plus long stairway, because we chose the stairs, sweating out our issues by the time we reached the top. Inside and out

Inside and out

Once at the Fortress, you can take several different routes to see the expansive structure. Cafes and mini-restaurants are located on multiple levels and areas. The fortress has many landings offering panoramic views of the valley’s below. Restrooms were plentiful (thankfully) but it was quite hot; the only shade was found in the restaurants. After this trip, we purchased combo water-spray bottles to keep us cool.

Even though the trams were full, the main fortress seemed almost empty because of the size of the area, reminding us of Czesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Yet, unlike Krumlov, Fortress Hohensalzburg has a mercantile, selling some of the best products we’ve seen. Unlike the silly shirts, hats or other items commonly sold, this mercantile had homemade soaps and honey, cream and wooden crafts. We spent nearly as much time in the store picking out items as we did the Fortress (well, almost).

Mozart

For thirteen dollars, we paid a visit to the residence of Wolfgang Mozart. While the inside is identical to the pictures on TripAdvisor or elsewhere, nothing replaces walking through the very home where Mozart created many of his masterpieces. The surrounding area is full of eateries and gardens, so one doesn’t feel obligated to rush in and out of the neighborhood. Parking was easy to find as well (right across the street).

street view of Mozart’s home

Salzburg Cathedral

Mozart was baptized in this cathedral the day after his birth, but it was historically relevant long before. The first Dom was recorded in 774, a fact completely lost on my girls because the center was hit by a single bomb during World War II, and has been largely reconstructed. Still, it’s a beautiful structure if you are in to comparing cathedrals (which we are—it’s sort of become a trivial pursuit-type family pastime…which one do you like best? Why? What do you think of the pipe organ? The tiles were better…. you get the picture).

Depending on the month and week/day, festivals about in Salzburg, but we seem to miss most of them, but fortunately, not all. Check the calendar for your trip because the local food and culture really come through during these festive times.

Parking

We had great luck with parking around the cathedral. Street parking a two blocks away made the short walk quick and easy. In fact, no matter where we went in Mondsee or Salzburg, parking was no problem. In Vienna, we didn’t bother look for street parking, we go straight for the closest garage and call it a day.

Salzburg summary

This small-ish town has much to see and experience, but these were our higlights, and the best for kids <10. And in the end, I was able to see the Mondsee Abbey where the famous wedding scene between Captain von Trapp and Maria took place, which was cool. The mansion, hills and singing at the top of my lungs will have to wait for my next trip.

Lake Mondsee, Austria

We were coming from Vienna, driving to Salzburg on the A1, looked out the window and saw this big lake. “What, another lake?” I thought to myself, but the girls immediately pointed out the waterslides, mid and high-diving platforms and sailboats. Rog looks at me. I look at him. He takes the next exit.

Where is Lake Mondsee & why should you go

It’s outside Salzburg roughly thirty minutes. Perhaps we wouldn’t have stopped had it not been nearly 100 degrees as a heat-wave had hit that part of Europe, nor had we had an extra day on our schedule. We were so glad we did. The top three reasons to make the drive are activities, food and price.

Activities

From sailing to swimming, the compact but highly fun waterpark and lakeside dining, Lake Mondsee is relaxed and casual, the antithesis of so many lakes in the area. Unlike Area 47, which is more for thrill-seekers, Lake Mondsee, especially near the waterpark, is geared for families.

The high dive platforms are fantastic. Unlike the US, no restrictions exist about age or level of sanity. My 6-year-old launched herself off the mid-platform, about 15 feet up, and my older daughter, 9 at the time went off the 25 ft high platform. Like a numbskull, I did the same, but once did a handstand, landing flat on my back. Yeah, that knocked the wind out of me, and my ribs were actually bruised, which made for some painful walking the next few days.

Waterslides are easy to moderate, not the screamers of Area 47. Even the adults were going up, down in and around. We would have rented a sailboat, but the wind was absolutely non-existent. Perhaps this upcoming trip we will get lucky and get on the water.

Contrast this to Area 47, which is all about high-impact/thrill, daredevil and adrenaline junkies. As adults, we were completely drawn to Area 47, but the limit is age 12 for all rides and in the main area, competent swimming. So, if your kids are younger, or you want a more relaxing experience, the Mondsee water park is the one to hit.

Food

Several restaurants of differing prices sit waterfront, the foot excellent (we went to two of the three). Traditional Austrian dining is mixed with hamburgers and French fries; all casual dining.

Pricing

Waterpark prices are low (less than $10 per person) for an all-day park pass, and the parking in the central area was free.

For those wary of traveling due to language

One of the most consistent questions/concerns voiced about our jaunts to Europe revolved around language, and the reality we speak a few words of several languages, but none of them good. Our German is probably the best, and even that is basic. Our response is this: most of the Europeans speak better English than most Americans. It’s never been a problem, except when we are in the very inner parts of a country and stop at a restaurant. Usually, the owner(s) are older, and don’t speak a word. In those cases where the younger generation isn’t present, we simply look at the food on a plate, point and order. Easy!

Booking a hotel or VRBO

Hotels are plentiful, about 45 in the area, but a VRBO is a bit trickier. We tried finding and booking one six months prior to our next trip, and were out of luck. In general, the area does not lend itself to rental homes. We ended up booking two nights in Salzburg at the Hotel Turnerwirt. It’s small, quaint, local and right in the heart of the town, which is what we look for when we are going to be in and out relatively quickly. The price is also awesome.

Reserve early (at least 3 months ahead)

Since we found Lake Mondsee one afternoon, we decided to spend the night. Boy, that wasn’t fun at all. It was early July, and the only available room in the entire town was at a hotel which was really more of a cross between a hostel and a hotel. In other words, the lobby and rooms were fine, but the air conditioning barely worked and the rooms claustrophobic. Even so, we got up and out of the hotel the next morning, visited Fortress Hohensalzburg and the Mozart residence and then went back to the waterpark.

Mondsee Abbey

For those familiar with the Sound of Music, the inside of the Abbey is the setting for the wedding scene of for Maria and Captain von Trapp. This was about as close as I got to fulfilling the childhood dream of singing “the hills are alive.” It was a short, but worthwhile visit–but the significance, or at least my emotional attachment) was completely lost on my husband and girls.

Mondsee Abbey was the setting for the famous wedding scene in the Sound of Music

Featured image: taken lakeside

Ketchikan fishing at its finest

A father with his three grown sons, an older South Korean gal with her younger boy toy, me and Rog, a bit-time concert promoter from Florida with his grandson, a media guy from Los Angeles and his surfer father. These are few of the fellow men and women we encountered during our fishing trips up to Alaska. Of those I mentioned, over half had never fished if all. Worried about getting up early and bobbing up and down on an ocean inlet? Don’t be. If land-loving cowboys from Montana can do this, and I, a sun-seeking, fair weather fisherman who prefers lake trolling, so can you.

Casting a new rod

Rog is a die-hard, life long fisherman, preferring fly-fishing, floating on the river at 4 a.m. in the ice and deep sea tuna in the “blue water,” (if you know what that even means, congratulations). Me? I’m a straight up, trolling on the lake at sunset-while-talking-all-the-while girl. I started with my grandfather as a kid, and never changed—or evolved, as Rog likes to say.

Still, I’d heard the romantic retelling of flying to Alaska, watching the shimmering fish jump from the water against a glimmering sunset while in the comfort of the hot tub on a deck before having a gourmet dinner and retiring to a cozy lodge. It was with this ideal in my mind that I bid up the price for a fishing trip to Alaska at a school-sponsored auction. Two months later, we were on our way.T

The overview

Alaska, the fishing mecca for anyone with a pole, instills religion-like feelings about what place is the best and why. Some want the 5-star luxury experience, replete with the spa-like atmosphere, or a 10,000 square foot home and private chef. What’s important to me is one thing: the fish. I don’t want a plush, four-day spa vacation if I’m paying for fishing. If I wanted that, I’d hit Sonoma or Arizona and save the extra two grand. At the same time, I want great food and an authentic lodge experience—along with lots and lots of fish. After looking at the Sportsman’s Cove website, I believed this was right in the middle, authentic yet cozy, guaranteed to bring me home with lots of fish and great pictures. Rog had been fishing in Alaska before, but never at Sportsman’s Cove, and I was excited about this factoid. We would have a firstie—an experience unique to both of us at once, which, Rick Santos, the lead male in A Convenient Date, says, is hard to do.G

Getting there

From Seattle, Ketchikan was a 3-hour flight. With bags in hand, you take the short walk under a covered ramp to a pier where the float plane awaits. Sportsman’s Cove owns their own fleet of float planes which seat six. The flight is a short 25 minute during which you can take pictures of Ketchikan, the islands below, along with the cruise ships which come to Ketchikan daily. On every flight, I’ve seen bear as we near the island where Sportsman’s Cove is located.

the float plane arrives

Once landed, an assigned host greets guests, takes the bags up the landing, and guests are shown their assigned cabin. Depending on the package and requests, guests have a single or double (with a guest). Nestled into the mountain side, the cabins are an adult version of a tree house, the wooden steps leading up to the private rooms. Rustic but comfortable, the beds have flannel sheets, views of the lake, and incredible water pressure with plenty of hot water. 

The schedule

Dinner is set at 6 p.m., where guests meet one another and sit with their assigned captain. Over dinner, guests meet those assigned to their (limit of 6 guests). What I like about this is the administration works really hard at putting compatible groups together, and we’ve never been disappointed. During dinner, the boat Captain provides the daily schedule, preferences for fishing, how he determines the areas to fish, and options for taking the fish home.

The fishing days are simple: full breakfast at 6 a.m. (varies every day, but can be stuffed sour dough French toast, steel cut oats, biscuits and gravy etc.), on the boat by 6:30, fishing until 3 pm then return to the dock. After breakfast (or before, if you wake early) you make your own sack lunch with snacks).

Once back at the lodge, dinner is at 5:30, allowing time to hike, walk the beach, nap or hang out on the covered deck or living room, which has a guitar if a guest has the desire. Around 8:00 p.m., homemade cookies and milk are set out for the guests in the living room. A hot tub is located on a lower deck, which is much desired after a long day fishing.T

The food

The Cove has a master chef, who produces gourmet meals for breakfast and dinner. My fear of eating fish morning, noon and night was unfounded. Fish is only served one evening—the other nights includes every other meat available (beef, pork, chicken). If you have food sensitivities, the opportunity to do this is when the office sends a pre-arrival questionnaire. Dinner is a casual affair, jeans and the coziest top you want. The dining room consists of five round tables– nor more than 5 groups- or 30 in the session total. It’s large enough to have fun, while small enough to be intimate

The rooms

TRustic would fit the description, but it’s not much different than home rentals we have had in Austria, Germany or Switzerland. Think lots of pine wood, small bathroom, shower, sink in the bedroom, a well-loved bed (they are soft, not hard) and a great view of the lake. On my first trip, when I went in, I thought—really? Then I put it in perspective. This is a true lodge, not a 5-star resort, and any disappointment I initially had about the room left at the end of the first day, when I took a long, hot shower, ate an amazing dinner and fell asleep, nestled in the warm flannel sheets as the cool breeze came through the opened window.

The fishing- what to expect

Right after dinner, groups are led to the dock, where chest-high, one-piece yellow rubber waders, jacket and books are provided. You need to bring/wear your own gloves, hat etc., wearing your choice of jeans/pants, tops etc. I always bring my waterproof bag for my camera, but nothing else is required.

The boats leave the cove around 6:45 and then you are out on the water, the mist coming off the water, the Captain determining the location. A roll call of guests determines what will be fished—halibut, salmon, cod, you name it. The majority vote guests wins, but if certain fish are biting more in one area than another, plans change. Also, some types of fishing are more challenging than others. As an example, fishing halibut can test skills and patience, as the hook needs to be bounced along the bottom, then reeling up a 300-foot line can take some time and effort. I personally love halibut, because I’m like a goat. I’ll just keep going and going until I hook a fish. On the other hand, salmon fishing is fast and exciting—you throw the line in, get the hook (fish on!) is what you cry, and then it’s a race to bring in the fish. This can be a nice change of pace if the day is slow.

Throughout the day, you have flexibility to fish, relax, eat or warm up in the cabin, where the heater is blazing, offering comfort and relaxing when you need a break. On the ride back to the cove, the deck hand guts and cleans the fish, throwing the entails off the back. Overized eagles scream and dive for the innards, making for great photo shots.

Weather- the best times for fishing

We have gone every other year for six years running, starting the summer Rog got his snore guard! Why the two-year break? That’s how long it takes to eat all the fish we got.

We have had June, July and August. It was cold and rainy in late June/early July, and a good haul, which was 250 pounds of fish (pre-packaged). Mid-July offered two days of great weather, two days clouds, and almost 300 pounds of fish. August was incredible weather, but only about 230 pounds of fish. That’s because the week we arrived, the commercial fishing season started. Every other day, the larger vessels would chase our fleet when they saw the fish were jumping. Within an hour, four-to five boats would surround us and string their nets, forcing us out.

That said, we still came home with 230 pounds of fish for fishing 4 days. That incident proved that no “bad time” to go exists. The timing comes down to preference of weather (which is never guaranteed) and price.

Best deals

The July spots book fast, but cancellations occur. We are on a “call” list, which means we are alerted if a spot opens up, and you can be too. Call reception and ask to for your name to be added, but be prepared sometimes the notice is only a week or two out. You are always going to get the best deals through last-minute.

December is a good time to sign up because it’s slow, and of course, August slots and early June are often the least expensive, because it’s pre-season or commercial fishing.

Below are a few of my favorite photos from our trips.