Meet Shaun, a 5th generation Lexingtonian who knows everyone who’s anyone in horseracing. He’s been to 30 (count them, 30) Kentucky Derby’s, and runs a poker table attended by those who desire not to be mentioned, but pretty much dominate horseracing. He’s the man who drove us around, sharing the wonderful details that require an NDA, but oh, I see a suspense-thriller taking shape.
About every question posed has an answer where Shaun starts by saying in a low, rolling drawl… “Let ol’ Shaun tell you…” then we get a fantastic ditty about a person, place, event or whatnot. About an hour in, I learn he has the mind of a booky, and started testing him~~
– What happened in the fifth race at Belmont in 1983? – Who won the Kentucky Derby in 2009?
Not only could he recite the winners, but what happened on each corner, who came in second, third and so-on. When I said I didn’t understand the economics behind racing (ergo, with all the costs, does any farm really make money?) he proceeded to give me the PhD-level breakdown on the cost per breeding (actual mating expense) what the newborns then yearlings sell for, how many are sold per year, (by Farm!!), who they sold to, the gross amount per farm, the expenses then net profit. My mind started to melt half-way in. It was like me pretending to be a hedge-fund professional when all I see on the screen are ones and zeros.
The best part? He’s got three sons and a daughter who got her masters and is currently working on her doctorate at Oxford. Can we just say wow—and here he is, giving us the peek at the world behind the world.
It, and he, were, and are awesome.
The farm in this series is one where the owner breeds a variety of horses, but keeps the Clydesdales for fun–and when Shaun is calling a horse–its’ because so many of the thoroughbreds know him, they come when called. He got out just to show us–and sure enough, they came to the fence, and we took turns loving on them.
Another guy joined us who wasn’t much for talking. He was slightly disheveled, crumpled shirt, crazy hair–turns out he’s one of (if not the most) in demand horse trainers in the US. He came because he had a few hours to kill and apparently loves answering questions posed by racing Luddite’s such as myself. But I digress….
My theme for the
first week of January is the relationship pyramid, because really, isn’t it the
perfect metaphor for a long-term relationship? It’s hard. It makes you sweat. Starting
out, you’re on even ground, optimistic and know with certainty the view from the
top is going to be beautiful. A little bit into the journey, your lungs burn,
eyes dry out, muscles seize up, and quite honestly, those around you are
jostling and cranky; the external influences on your perfect couple-dom diminishing
the moment. Yet you think—anything that’s worth it is hard. It’s the mantra
preached by every therapist and parent around. You keep going…up and up, and finally,
There you are, relationship nirvana is the top of the pyramid. The view is…glorious. For about one minute. The heat is overwhelming, the water bottle has run dry, the noise from others is really loud and you look down, because like love, what goes up inevitably…you know. Goes down.
Life imitating pyramid
Little did I know this creative visual would spring to life on a trip to the Coba Pyramid in the Tulum Ruin region of Cancun. Located about two hours drive south of Central, Coba is one of the few remaining pyramids which are open to climbers. Chitzen Itza and all the others were placed off limits several back, and once there, it’s easy to see why. Beyond the steep incline, the rock is worn down from thousands of visitors. It’s steep. It’s slippery, and even after a great picture taking experience, the journey down is far more treacherous than the climb up ever thought of being.
To give a bit of detail, the road to Coba has long, desolate stretches, yet dotted with a few interesting bits–the trees and local towns unique, even if not inspiring enough for a closer look.
Past Tulum and into the area of Coba is the parking lot, which is close to the entrance, but the pyramid is a couple miles into the jungle. Its dry and arid, unlike Chitzen Itza which is hot and moist. One can cheat and rent a bike (and actually peddle) or rent a taxi, wherein you can sit while someone else peddles. The third option is you walk…all the way in.
Door number three
is what Rog chose, because as you well know from our travels, the motto is: why
take the easy route when we can get exercise? Now before you slay me with comments
about being lazy, you need the context (if you have forgotten). I have walked,
climbed, hiked and sometimes been on my knees around Gods-green-and-lovely-Earth
with this man. And for once, just once, I wanted the easy way. We’d arrived
late (3) which meant we had an hour to walk in, climb and get out. There was no
way. I begged for the 4 bucks US—this still required us to do our own peddling,
not be “full-lazy” as Rog described.
Of course, we were walking as we argued, moving further inland and away from the actual rental zone, all a part of Rog’s evil plan to get us there and make it a moot argument. A third of a mile in, I just went silent, knowing I’d lost the argument. This made Rog go quiet.
We kept walking. Nice trees. Cool ant formations and birds all around us. Trails and paths aside from the main soft-dirt road provided a few options and variety. Yet none of this mattered, by the time, we were half-way in, Rog gave me the silent treatment right back, found a rock and sat down. He refused to budge, and I looked at the time. He wanted to turn around (as I mentioned in the video) and I was having none of that. I told him he could sit and spin if he wanted, but I was taking the girls and going on without him.
To the pyramid
We arrived at the
base, being warned by security we had limited time. They clearly underestimated
the Gerdes girls. Up we went, scurrying like the termites we probably
resembled. It didn’t take ten minutes, mostly because it wasn’t busy at all.
Word to the possible visitor: if you go during rush hour, 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. it’s
so busy you don’t even have the option to hold on to the thick rope in the center,
which makes the climb rather dangerous. Definitely come right at opening or at
the end of the day so you can have room to climb, the ability to hold the room if
required, and lastly, take pictures at the top without the risk of being pushed
off. (Note: no bathroom, water or anything else and the platform area is quite
Instead of enjoying the moment, we look around and see what’s missing. Rog. Dad. Husband. Partner in all things good and bad. It was like winning the argument and losing the relationship, how one can feel victorious after the heat of battle but getting so badly burned you should have thrown the white flag.
At the moment, we realized it was worth nothing, because the three of us wouldn’t ever be able to talk about the “remember when we climbed Coba?” since Rog wasn’t a part of the memory. The heat. The steps. The rude visitors. We all agreed we had but one choice—race down as fast as safely possible, run/jog back to where he was an convince him to come with us.
Relationship–round two (que Rocky theme)
My IG handle is
laughterwithasideofchocolate because laughing gets one so much further in most
circumstances that yelling. So that’s what the girls and I decided to use as a
relationship strategy. To laugh about the fact he was still sitting on the rock;
laugh about not having water and climbing the x9!* pyramid not once, but twice,
laughing about how funny it would be to laugh about this around Christmas time
as we create our annual card. Everyone was laughing, except Rog.
For five minutes.
When he realized he could sit and regret the decision to dig in his heels, or
appreciate the fact that we could in fact, make it without the assistance of a
bike or rider, he stood. But he started walking the wrong way. We stood there
and—laughed. We were going back to the pyramid, and by gosh, he was going to
come with us.
Now isn’t that just typical of a marriage or serious relationship? The moment you think you’re back on an even playing field—the fun isn’t quite over yet. You go along for a bit (which is hard because your still annoyed), then it hits. Up the pyramid you go. Forgiveness is hard. Admitting you’re wrong is equally hard. In fact, it’s quite possible you may say: weren’t we already here once before?
So it was with Coba. But strangely, it was sweeter the second time around. The pyramid only had a handful of people, the sun was going down, and the view was amazing. Most of all, we were a family, having gone through the fits and starts which are so typical of daily life. The smiles were genuine, the forgiveness real, and the memories all that we predicted. We laugh about the rock, recall how we thought we were going to die of heat stroke, how slippery and rather dangerous the slick rocks had become over time.
The top of the pyramid has a small (but closed off) building
But like working through all relationship issues, we were glad we lived through the burn, pushed as hard as we could and endured. And if you choose to go to Coba, you too will be glad you did. Heck, you might even want to do it twice, just for the fun of it.
We made it–as a family, the way it’s supposed to be.
Arrive early or go late
Bring a water bottle with a spray if possible. Water is sold at the entrance and at one other station midway.
Double check on the latest time to start your walk/climb so you don’t arrive overly late
Readers have observed I post more pictures of strangers I
meet on trips than my family. It’s true. I love my perfect strangers, because
that’s what they are: perfect. When one is on the shores of Scarborough asking
for local insights from the owner of the pub, or sitting on the boardwalk of
Bellagio, chatting with a Russian transplant about the best gelato for the cheapest
price I get the happy, helpful, always-answer-with-a-smile person. Beyond the effervescent
personality, it’s the attitude of: I’m living where I want, doing what I want,
and here you are, interested in everything I have to say, hanging on every
comment I have to share.
In other words, we are having a short, mutual and very strong
love-fest. It’s fleeting, as by definition, all love-fests should be, ending
before we delve into topics sure to end our affair: politics, race, religion, the
standard three, but oh, so many more exist. (How many tourists are too many? Do
certain demographics spend more or less? Should (and can) the world support any
more children? Messy topics sure to destroy the honeymoon stage of a new acquaintance).
During this last trip, I met so many more people that I neglected to snap photos, mostly because I was so wrapped up in the conversation we kissed cheeks and parted…and like the forlorn lover, I was left waving, my lips agape….. “Wait! I need a phot—” then Rog would stop me and mutter. “Oh, for heaven’s sakes, let it go, already.”
The world represented
I have Svetlana from St. Petersburg, Russia, who was spending three months with her art gallery manager boyfriend. She will be remembered for her amazing skin, bright smile, and our mutual agreement on the all the purveyors of gelato, as in: who sold the most, and the best for the least. Hence, why we were both in line at one particular shop.
Then we have Neal, owner of the Candy Confectionary store on the corner (it’s such an establishment it doesn’t need a name other than Candy Confectionary) at what must be the best, prime real estate on the entire Boardwalk. While we chatted him up, his wife (she with the longest nails ever) and his daughter were in and around, stocking the shelves, deciding what to order on the next go-around at the marketplace, he gave us the history of York, (founded by the Romans in 71 AD), also known as the Chocolate City (true story, look it up) conveying we absolutely, positively, must visit.
In between, he must have discerned we were homeowners, because the conversation digressed into what he’d paid for his place, what he could sell if for and how much he’d lose moving to York due to the inflated prices. “But oh,” he groaned, “I would so love to move there!” He was, and is, a big, bear of a man I just wanted to hug—which I did!
At the base of Schloss Hohenswangau and Neuschwanstein sits a little town, and in it, we met, a Tony, a software engineer from China, employed by Dell, and based in New York. Talk about a roundabout way to end up in the Bavaria region of Germany.
He was joined by his wife and son, spoke better English than many of my friends, and we got to chatting because he didn’t know German (perhaps the one thing he didn’t know). We helped him out and over plates of schnitzel we discussed his love of all things American.
In Hungary, we walked around th block from our apartment and found Robert Maar (the store) and had no idea we were actually talking to THE Robert Maar. We felt so uncomfortable and were going to leave but then he told us what a “custom” garment in Hungary means (versus New York or Paris). What started with a simple, wonderful conversation about food ended up in a new wardrobe for Roger and two pieces for me. Only after we’d been in Budapest a week did we learn Robert is famous around Europe for his designer clothes that dress the celebrities in most of the countries. Blind luck on our part, and completely fantastic, more so because Robert was kind, gracious and ever so patient with us, the completely ignorant Americans. Love him.
Outside Verona, we happened by a three-story bed and breakfast of Locanda di Capitelli located at the base of Castle Suave, overlooking a valley of vineyards (can you already picture a scene in a book? I know I can). Once Rog was assured we were welcome no matter how casually we were dressed, the gracious hostess Julia sat us by the fireplace, and over the next two hours, go to know her, her mother and grandmother, all owners of the venue, a local winery and foodstuffs.
By the end of it, she was trying to convince Roger to invest in a new US-based restaurant that she could conveniently run. Her mother squished us with hugs and smothered us with kisses as grandma retired upstairs to bed (thus dodging the photo opp).
Outside Prague, at Czesky Krumlov (the town and castle) we dined with Tai, the chef of our favorite waterside restaurant, ordering not one, but two crepe deserts because we didn’t want to have a mortal stabbing fight with forks. What better compliment can be bestowed on food than that?
Perhaps the favorite meeting of strangers were a gaggle of girls preparing for wedding festivities on the shores of Lake Cuomo. We’d arrived early at the ferry line, and as Rog was flying his drone above and to the island of Bellagio 2 miles away, I watched as a dozen gals took turns taking pictures—invariably leaving one of them out. Porsche nudged me. “Mom, go take pictures. Help them out.” Me, she of the shameless and helpful, promptly stood and offered to snap group photos. Thirty minutes later, they have become the adopted, older, Indian sisters my girls have never had. They insisted on taking pictures of with my girls and me—thereby requiring Rog to come over and become lead photographer.
Different and Divine
Indian, Russian, English, Czech, Italian, German and Chinese…and so many more. I sorry I didn’t immortalize the helpful German man who saw we were stranded on the platform in Stuttgart, about to miss a train—may he get his angel wings for that alone, otherwise we would have been stuck for an entire day in the record-breaking heat with nowhere to go.
I regret not capturing the Philippino woman at the car rental location, who knew of one of my books (the Sue Kim authorized biography) and treated me like a Rockstar (a rare moment, and it took me going to Germany to get this—but then, now I can say me and David Hasselhoff have something in common. We are nobodies in the US, but HUGE in a foreign country).
And David (another, different David: this young man in his mid-twenties gave our family the best our of a castle during our 6-week trip. An engineering student, he doubled as a historian because of his vast knowledge of wars, rulers and cultures. So much so, that while I neglected to take a picture of him, we invited David to come over when he decides to visit the US. And guess what? Instead of going to New York, which had been his priority destination, David is coming to visit and stay with us in April.
We are thrilled, and this gets back to my Perfect Stranger
theory. We have many family members who have not once come to visit, for one
reason or another, and yet we have a perfect stranger flying in from Germany to
stay with us. Our continued correspondence and the deepening of a relationship
has been bereft of drama, issues or altercations—just fun, interest and a true
appreciation. Doesn’t that say it all?
Yet even with all that, while the perfect stranger remains so, these unique, wonderful strangers aren’t present to dry the tears, listen and help resolve the issue, or show up when the car breaks down. For those life events, it does tend to be family, or good friends, those who show up when it’s inconvenient and give until they have nothing left. In that regard, I don’t need the perfect stranger, I need the perfect friend. And perhaps at some point, the intersection of stranger, friend and loved one may meet, becoming one in the same. Now that would be both strange and perfect.
The town of Czesky Krumlov taken from the castle above
If you only skim my blogs or books, you will understand two things about my approach to food: use real butter and if you’re going to take in a lot of calories, make each one count. The town of Cesky Krumlov (and overall, the CZ culture) abides by both of these rules. As we’ve returned time and again to Cesky, we eagerly await the next new place we’re going to find culinary nirvana. This trip didn’t disappoint.
A waterwheel, a bridge and the literal sound of music
The same bridge, across from the waterwheel. Streams flow to and through the town, each one a picture-perfect snap opportunity. The Krumlovsky is just the right, opposite side (not pictured).
We heard the music first, drawn across the famed waterwheel bridge. The first image was a ten-foot diameter wood, wheel lighting fixture. Just below him and to the right was the source of the music, a silver haired man with a crooked back played piano, to his left, a medieval oven with its clay vent stretching to the ceiling roasted several times of meat (entire pig included) and we took a seat at an open bench. The Hungarian waiter, who we learned speaks six languages, including English amazing well, helped us out, but it was somewhat unnecessary. The menu offered both Hungarian and English; common enough in the town overall.
Big, warm and cozy. Riverside dining with views directly to the castle also available (not pictured), although I took a few snaps from the castle, looking down to the restaurant.
The Krumlovsky restaurant is mid-photo, dark roof. The bridge is to the left, just past the pinkish building.
Hungarian goulash (UR), the house special of pork meats, sauerkraut and potatoes (LL) and the dessert of potato pancakes with lingonberry syrup (LR). The steak tartar was incredible but we ate it too fast to take pictures!
Proud chef, happy customer
Stuffed beyond comfort, we agreed to walk for a while. As we made our way through the narrow streets, (only the main road allows for cars) Rog and I agreed the majority of shops in and around the most castle zones are geared towards tourists, e.g. shop owners think we will be affected by some euphoric haze of stupidity, willing to spend twice as much for the privilege of saying: I got this at X castle.
The largest street in Cesky Krumlov. The rest are carriage-wide lanes.
Thankfully, the town of Cesky does not swallow this pill of delusion, in fact, one is hard pressed to find the souvenir shops with the standard postcards, keychains and country pins. The town has kept the retail stores authentic, consistent with our last visit four years ago. One example is a shortbread retailer, who uses a 600-year-old recipe to produce cookies so intricate that could be framed and placed on a wall, not eaten. We didn’t feel morally right about spending eating a five-dollar work of art, but did indulge in a 1 dollar (all equivalent currency, for they use the CZ krona). It was divine.
Shortbread and liquors- one I tried, the other I didn’t; both proudly displayed by their creators in boutique retail shops.
Next to this is a honey and wine provider, with a wall full varieties
to be tasted for a krona each (about .25 cents). It’s so much fun to wander
along cobblestone streets when the people who sell the product make the
product. No, this isn’t true 100% of the time, but it’s dominant. You aren’t
going to find big retail chains here, although several boutique stores did
offer Fendi, Prada and a few other name brands. I stepped in to one, just to
check it out. A pair of slip on athletic shoes I happened to be wearing
(Michael Kors) were $140 in the states. Here, at this shop, they were the $260.
Clearly, they didn’t get the memo about not jacking up the price.
But that was anomaly, and I don’t come overseas to purchase items we can get back home. The whole point is to think and be different.
She looks awfully happy for a mannequin.
The street performer and the kiss
If you are in Prague at the Astronomical Square, a dozen different street performers fill the air with their acts. Here, there was one amongst the dozens of narrow streets. An older man spun his metal lever, drawing in kids and a few adults interested in playing the centuries-old device. I’m always up for a new experience and went for it. The man was so cute, reminding me an elf with a squish, wizened face of happiness. My laughing made him giggle (thought in the picture he looked unsure). I gave him a kiss at the end, the girls shocked by seeing me landing a plant on another man. The next ten minutes as we walked down the lane was trying to explain why kissing the mushy face of a seventy-year-old and did not qualify as cheating on my husband. My nine-year-old pointed out that the man blushed at my kiss and smiled. “Doesn’t that count.” Oh, to be so wonderfully naïve. It wasn’t until we rounded the corner, walking along the rivers edge did the girls tire of the subject of mom kissing a complete stranger.
He’s definitely uncertain about the American girl, but I warmed him up nicely with a friendly smooch.
Sometimes, taking the scenic route reveals the most interesting of destinations. As we traveled from Italy to Austria, we’d inadvertently requested the shortest route in distance, not in terms of time to our final destination of Salzburg. We didn’t realize that meant up and over the hills of Innsbruck, the largest city in the Tyrol province of Austria, and the countries fifth largest. We’d already rounded a curve coming down the mountain and there it was, looming in the distance. Despite the rain, we jumped out to get the best view of the Bergisel Ski Jump Tower. The futuristic tower has hosted two Olympics and many international ski jump competitions.
Summer is road construction time, and that includes multiple bridges. This is right outside Innsbruck.
We missed our window to go up in the tower and have a meal, worried that we’d miss our check in time in Salzburg, so on we went, having no idea the A4 would have saved us about an hour of driving. It was good luck, however, because while our road paralleled the major highway, we saw all sorts of global manufacturing headquarters and outlets we’d never have seen from the road.
Because the Tyrolean Alps sit high, even when descending town into the valley where Innsbrook is located, you get an idea of the massive size of the Bergisel ski jump. This photo was taken just off the road.
From pharmaceutical companies to high-end ski wear such as Bogner
(oh! But it was closed!!), our favorite was the Swarovski
corporate headquarters. We missed several of the attractions by minutes,
but were able to see the grounds, the carousels, the expansive play areas for
children, and of course, the shopping. One has to appreciate the marketing
approach the Swarovski team has taken: lure them in with free or very inexpensive
attractions and entertainment, making it a destination for an entire day or
weekend. Kids clubs, summer camps and a hotel are also on the corporate campus
(have you ever seen this type of thing at an Amazon campus? I think not).
My favorite image is of a massive crystal on the main entrance, glowing at night. It’s a literal beacon from the side road.
At the base of the Alps in Austria, off a non-descript road that parallels the A4. Who knew? Now you do!
Continuing on are dozens of bike manufacturers and other sporting retail brands we’d no idea were located within driving distance of Innsbruck and a few hours from Salzburg. If I spent much time in the area, I might have definite spending issues, so it was just as well the drive-through was short and it was past closing time for many of the facilities.
The Tyrolean Alps
Part of the fun on this stretch of the journey was going up and over the Tyrolean Alps and the associated small towns. Just on the other side of Innsbruck is Igls, overlooking the city and valley. Just five km outside the city edge, it has a handful of restaurants, a few massive homes, two grocery stores and a church, all within walking distance of several small hotels. We tried to get in for dinner but alas, it was a Friday and all the eateries were booked until closing. Next time!
It’s not always easy to capture the majesty of looming rock formations, but as a visitor, it’s hard not to take yet another snap when the rock faces, type and coloring change within a few miles of one another.
Our biggest mistake of the drive between countries was misjudging the closing of restaurants because each country is so different, we’ve had to remember or learn for the first time. Whereas Italians eat all day and late into the night, the Austrians shut down by 6 p.m. for grocery stores and eight-thirty for restaurants, unless the establishment is a bar or takes restaurants. Back in Hungary, it was late again but Germany and Switzerland were on the early side.
Right outside Igls is Patsch, and it was here we saw our one and only Polizei (police) car in Austria. A mini-mini van stuffed with six officers in uniform, who we later passed by as they ate outside a deli.
That meant we…yes! Stopped again at a McDonald’s café, where the girls have continued their love affair with ham and cheese fries, croissants and hamburgers made with organic meats. I tell myself we didn’t really come to Europe to eat at McDonald’s, but I’m not being fasicious when I claim their food here is an improvement on most restaurant food in the U.S. It’s all about the requirements for fresh and organic, two elements demanded by the Europeans.
The one and only church we saw in Igls, where members of the congregation were streaming out in the misty-rain after a session.
Feature image: a picture of the Swarovski jewel in front of the corporate headquarters.
As we hit the hills around Lake Como, the longer switch-backs now single-lane, curvy roads requiring a whole lot of skill to avoid either rock wall or another automobile. Now that we were officially out of the Alps, into Italy, I downloaded the photos of the Alps onto my computer and started fresh, as is my protocol, then started a new.
Shortly after crossing the border from Switzerland to Italy, this fixture on the horizon appears – and you know you’re in Italy!
The size and scope of the lake usually takes first-time visitors by surprise; Menaggio, Lugano and other inlet towns dotting the lake have their own unique vibe and attraction. We’ve gotten to know each more intimately during our travels, which changes if looking through the lens of having teen and pre-teen children in the group.
The waterfront road in Menaggio; wide, relaxed and the vibe easygoing.
Menaggio is the first town you will reach, its small waterfront area having a street or two of shops, as well as restaurants. One of the four ferries used for reaching Bellagio is in town, but be warned; the ferries only allow about eight cars, so you will be waiting an hour if you don’t get your place in line. My favorite aspect of Menaggio is taking the short walk (or drive) nearest the ferry because the waterside villas are massive, ornate and the grounds worth writing about. In my novel, A Convenient Date, Rick and Kaitlyn are in Switzerland for a business meeting, have a free day and he takes her to his childhood home in Lake Como. A few of these photos are the ones I used to inspire my descriptions. During that original trip, I neglected to take photos, but this time around, I did.
The villa directly across from the ferry in Menaggio
Lugano, further down the lake, is larger, the residents
spread in the hills and has a denser downtown area, yet because of that, it
loses a bit of the small town feel. On the upside, it has fabulous high-end
shopping at half the price of Bellagio, so unless you want to say you
specifically purchased your Hermes in Bellagio, do your pocketbook a favor and
purchase it in Lugano.
If you are a first-timer, check out Rick Steve’s commentary on which city to visit first, and how to get there from your starting point.
Notice the slight difference in road width from Menaggio vs Bellagio? The above is a typical road in Bellagio, and what my daughter is doing was what all pedestrians must do–hug the wall so as not to get clipped by a car.
The scenic route around the lake or the ferry?
Once we decided to explore the lake and drive around the southern tip in order to reach Bellagio. That was a hair-splitting four and a half journey we’ve not made since. The ferry ride for 4 in a car was 28 Euro and took ten minutes, which we learned on the return ride after we’d spent the day on the peninsula (which is how Bellagio is typically called).
Lake Como from the sky as we took the ferry ride to Bellagio.
Today, we were second in line for the ferry, allowing Rog to send the drone up and over to our intended destination, and me and the girls to chat up a wedding party of girls. Sometimes, ferry’s with short rides don’t allow auto passengers to get out. This one does, and we took advantage of no-rule rule to walk around.
This is a view of Menaggio from the air. We shot it while waiting for the fery, which you can see is docked about mid-way in the photo. the villa I used as inspiration is right behind it.
Parking and walking off the ferry all happens in the same area, providing you with options. To the right, can walk down the quarter-mile, two lane white gravel path to sit under the blossoming white and pink trees nearest the water or on the grass, the shade provided by massive beech trees. City architects have made this picture perfect, as the center islands area bunches of colorful flowers and half-circle walkway extensions over and into the lake allow for the perfect pictures of either Menaggio in the background or the Bellagio center. This ends at the entry point of the expansive Giardini di Villa Melzi, and if you want to reach the other side (where our flat was located/the market square for locals), its faster and flat. Otherwise, you are walking on the road, up and around, taking your life in your hands.
A large villa overlooking the town of Bellagio and the main square
Now that we’ve been a few times, Rog and I have a different perspective than the first time. Whereas we were overwhelmed with the quaint main center, steep paths leading through the narrow buildings, gelato and shops, we now realize something so obvious it’s a little embarrassing to admit. The “picture-taking-tourist-zone” consists of literally two roads, two steep paths and the waterfront path I just described. It’s basically a big U-turn you are going to walk. These are relatively crowded, everyone with a phone in hand, taking selfies, eating gelato and buying scarves.
The shops close at 7:30–this was taken about 8:30 p.m. The restaurants are still open, but gelato and all the other stores closed. It being July, the crowds were manageable. That won’t be the case in another month.
We watched (and then did it ourselves to revisit our first experience) tourists disembark from the ferry. Instead of turning right, you turn left of Via Lunga Lario Manzoni and begin your exploration of the inner Bellagio. If you are following a map, continue on Via Lunga Lario, and assuming you have the strength not to imbibe on pizza or gelato, take a right on Salita Serbolloni, and up you go until you reach Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. This is the only road paralleling Lunga Lario, and it’s a T. You can go right, but the shops end about fifty feet down. The only course is to turn left, enjoy the tiny wine, meat or cheese shops, pause and take a picture at the most crowded place on the peninsula (because looking down, the image offers both narrow street at the lake beyond). After that, you turn left down Salita Bento Conzi Di Cavour, the second steep steps and you are right back on Via Lunga.
Yet another villa on beautiful Lake Como.
From there, you head back on Piazza Giuseppe Manzini. This is the same road as Via Lunga; the reason for the name change is that shopping districts in Italy are have the name Piazza in the front as the designation to identify it’s about shopping. Awnings extend from the buildings which offers a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Tables are set closest to the street but still under the awnings, the pedestrians walking between the tables and heading into the shops. Yes, we’ve purchased leathers and watches in Bellagio, because some good deals and lovely items are to be had, but we know when to wait and when to purchase.
The narrow path in Bellagio less traveled. This is totally common outside the “U-turn” as I call it.
No, not really. Bellagio offers many more restaurants and shops, but the truth is that tourists are usually walking and don’t bother explore either.
With the two main hotels a hundred feet from the ferry, and waterfront restaurants, you can literally spend your entire time within about 5,000 square feet of the Hotel Excelsior’s front door and be completely satisfied with your trip to the famed Bellagio shops on Lake Como.
This building is adjacent from the marina above, one of the many hidden marinas not far from the glitzy Via Lunga, but taking a few side streets open up the gems of every day Bellagio.
Ever the contrarians, we went for the anti-Bellagio experience this time around. We rented a top floor flat in a Bellagio neighborhood full of locals about two hundred feet from the waterfront, about half a mile from Bellagio center. This required we walk through tunnels, up and over bridges, using the 700-year-old lanes so narrow I could touch the rock walls on either side when extending my arms.
Unless you want to pay 10 Euro to walk one-way through the Villa di Giardini di Villa Melzi, you will be walking on the road to Bellagio. This is about 1/4 of a mile from the center.
Butcher shops in a space no bigger than bedroom at home provided hand-cut prosciutto for our breakfast, a kitchenette size restaurant in an alley filled served diners on metal chairs and a table the size of my lap, all that was needed for two plates and lots of wine glasses. Laundry hung two and three floors above us, out of sight until we looked up, hearing the squawk of birds. Three babies in a nest were being fed by their mom, which made us wonder about the cleanliness of the clothes hung out to dry. It doesn’t get much more real than that.
One of the many inlets we found simply by wandering our neighborhood in Bellagio. The water was brisk but swimmable–the wind invariably picking up around 3 p.m.
Marinas and waterfront bathing
One of the appealing aspects of renting a unit like we did was the community “square” right down our street. We’ve found so many squares in Italy are based either right of front of, or nearby, a large church. This held true in Bellagio. Our first night was punctuated with the sounds of a big party. We unloaded then went exploring.
The community church near our flat where the party went down!
Sure enough, in front of the church was a basketball-size square, with community tables set up and a massive buffet-style offering. A band played regional music on a temporary platform, the tanging white lights straight out of a movie set. As the adults drank wine and engaged in lively discussions, teens lounged against the thick, stone perimeter of the marina below. It wasn’t exactly ideal for our girls, but was fun to take in and experience.
This lovely beach is free (as all the hidden ones are free vs for pay elsewhere in Italy), and has an eatery steps away. Another area found by walking around.
A bit more walking (about two minutes) and we discovered a connected area of sloping gravel and pavement which had a t-shaped dock attached. The following day, we returned to find the area sparsely populated, even though it was about 95 outside. Our girls jumped the dock, then followed the locals by hurling themselves off the high rock walls in to the lake.
More steps! A short cut connecting the waterfront, local road to the (only slightly) wider road used by cars above.
Later in the day, we continued our waterfront journey, discovering multiple inlets where the water from the mountains met the lake. These were usually alongside villas hidden behind dense shrubs, but we saw enough of the bamboo trees and glistening blue water to appreciate the property.
Our favorite places
In Bellagio, we’ve had gelato from every shop in the main area, and yes, we do have our favorite. It’s under the Hotel Excelsior right on Via Lunga. While it’s .50 Euro more than anywhere else in the main area, the store also offers a broader selection and bigger serving sizes. Right across from this store is a marina equivalent, owned by the same company. The portions are smaller, same price and not as firm (as in, almost runny gelato). I know this is getting in the visitor weeds, but some people pay attention to, and care, about the little things.
Our favorite eatery…
Our favorite eater isn’t one of the waterfront restaurants. It’s on the first and most popular path the tourists take, including ourselves years ago. We love it for the homemade soups, massive meat and cheese plates, bean soup, and pastas. Despite our intention to branch out and not go here, no matter what we do and where we eat, this is our version of the pilgrimage to mecca. We can’t come to Italy and not go to this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
Another local hangout- I shot videos of the girls jumping off the end of the rock pier. They figured if the locals could do it, they could too.
One of my favorite elements of traveling is meeting new people. This is Svetlana, who was in front of us at the gelato shop with her dog. She’s from St. Petersburg, Russia, staying in Bellagio for the summer with her boyfriend, an art dealer. She was adorable, and of course, had great skin which she covered under an enormous white hat.
My new friend Svetlana, a beautiful woman inside and out.
This other side of Lake Como
Leaving for Verona, we took the direct path, which in reality, means the single lane, lake-hugging road. And when I mean single lane, that’s not one lane both ways. It’s actually a single—one—lane. Cars going either direction share it as best they can at speeds one can only describe as uniquely Italian. Turn outs are rare, buses are common, and it was a torturous hour to reach the other side. Once there, however, the pace of traffic slowed, the buildings, while less pretty, more functional and crammed together along the waterfront, wasn’t a turn off. In fact, we thought this was the where “the real people,” of Italy lived and worked rather than on the well-known west side of Bellagio.
Important tip for parking
If you are going to drive a car and rent a place with parking, be sure to dig for details. While our flat had parking, what the owner didn’t identify is that the 800-yr. old, single lane road was barely wider than my arms spread apart (we checked this). The Fiats, Volkswagens and other mini cars could barely make it through, and at the end, the parking was in fact, plentiful. Probably is we are driving a touring wagon, and it’s as wide as a normal car. We ended up parking a quarter mile away at a park, but only after we dropped our luggage by the entry to this small lane, and hoofing it like college students on a weekend getaway down to our place. It was an unpleasant surprise, but in our lives, we’ve never encountered this before. Lesson learned; ask about the proximity of the parking to the unit, and width as well!
I just love this photo- the boat reminds me of a massive whales mouth that will absorb everything in its sight.
Feature photo: a view of Bellagio from the drone as we rode the ferry
Outrunning rainstorms, motorcyclists passing on a blind curve, uphill in the sleet and more craziness from the Alps
Leaving Thun behind us, we were no more than a mile or two outside the city, on the windy road alongside Lake Thun before we started seeing a handful, then groups, then dozens of street bikes zipping by us, coming from the mountains in the distances. We stopped at Lake Thun to take a few pictures, test the water and grab a bite to eat, but we were being chased by storm clouds. They were already brewing beyond Oey, and by now, we knew the routine. If we were lucky, we had two hours before we’d get dumped.
Two different views of Lake Thun as you head towards the Alp passes. Lakeside eating, swimming and skiing all set in the world’s perfect location.
Scenery admired, pictures taken and more bread, cheese and meats eaten, we got back on the road, heading towards the skyrocketing peaks of the Alps. Grass fields replaced apartments and homes, trees giving way to grey rocks which appeared soft from the road. The number of streams and waterfalls grew with the size of the mountains, and at first, I insisted we stop at every waterfall. After the fifth, I realized taking a photo of every water effect coming off the Alps was unsustainable, plus, it would probably be boring to you, the reader.
Never one to disparage a good water effect, but this was the seventh in about a five-mile stretch and I had to put an end to the madness that I knew would befall me when trying to pic “the perfect shot,” for the blog.
The glaciers and restaurants
By the time we reached the top of Furka, the mist had turned to rain, and anyone on two wheels instead of four were in trouble. Then came the hail. I was seriously disappointed because the glaciers were now half-cloaked in grey clouds and my camera was pelted as I took photos, but I wasn’t the only one.
The windy, narrow road of switchbacks, underpasses and overhangs has multiple turnouts for stopping and snapping, or as we found, resting. These hardy pedal-bikers who have the stamina to climb for hours paused, stretched then got right back on their bikes, ignoring rain and hail, soldering on. It was impressive to say the least.
Riding on two wheels instead of four is impressive in my book; hills and sleet are dangerous and not for the faint of heart.
For those wanting a warm drink, a half-dozen eateries dot the road, all with indoor and outdoor seating. Although the rain was coming down, it was still quite warm the entire time, all the way to Gotthard Pass, which would take another hour to reach.
Two different restaurants along the way to Furka Pass, but both enticing to the worn out and presumably weary riders. The bottom picture is a very bored looking woman in front of her chalet, which is located directly across from the restaurant in the upper right.
My favorite Swiss cows–so soft and fuzzy, lounging just a few miles below this dam.
As we reached the top of Furka, the rock formations changed yet again, then it was suddenly green as we began a descent to the high valley. Here, we took a thirty-minute break, darted inside the eatery, waiting for a break in the storm before heading down and out on a peninsula to take a family photo. The rain momentary stopped, we snapped in the high winds, Porsche started singing in front of the fields while I recorded her and then bam. The rain came thundering down and we were soaked by the time we completed the short run to the car.
Descending into the town of Wassen
Through the high valley we drove, enjoying the town of Wassen, it’s church in the center of town and the gelato. Although we wouldn’t reach the Italian border for another hour, Swiss-German had ceased to become the primary language, Italian was now dominant.
Very quiet at this time of year, save for a few hikers who were in the outer lying areas, presumably staying in the quaint hotels located in Wassen.
Gotthard ski resort
We’d expected beauty and grandeur, tunnels and turns, but not the development of the town of Gotthard, near the top of the pass but not quite. What used to be a few moderately sized buildings in what I’d describe as a punchbowl community, encircled by high peaks, is now a Whistler-style hotels, connected and imposing. While the two areas are being built around a courtyard, and not far from the gondola, it’s still disheartening to see the transformation of the area, but such is life and progress. The train goes right to the center of the development, and for the thousands of ski buffs making the pilgrimage, ourselves include, it’s nirvana for residents of two countries on either side; Lake Como or Thun, Bern and Lucerne.
White and craggly, the rock formations change with each pass.
Up and up again we drove, then suddenly, the sign for Gotthard Pass announced we’d arrived. Our car identified it was about 50 degrees but dropping below 30 with the wind and rain. I donned Roger’s coat, grabbed my iPhone and recorded a short video for Instagram.
Just before reaching the highest part of the pass, the glaciers appear then are gone just as quickly.
The absolute highest part of the pass where I jumped out of the car, shot the video and jumped back in.
Now going down and down…the clouds are still following but we outran them!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
Don’t let your fear of signs, getting lost or wrecking stop your adventurous self
You rented a car? You must be crazy.”
My parents just about had a heart attack when I said we’d driven from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, over the hills and through the desert to see the zoo, fearing we were going to be kidnapped along with our daughters. I related that we’d arrived at the zoo and ate the churros we still claim are the best in the world. We also got lost in the suburbs on the way back, found a canyon that’s larger than the Grand Canyon right off housing community and met wonderful townsfolk in an artsy enclave. That’s been our experience around the world; adventure and the unknown, merging together to give our trips meaning. It’s also made me a car advocate for seeing the most in the least amount of time.
without a car, we would have missed all these sites….
Face the fear
the first ten of our twenty years of marriage, we took cabs out of fear and the
convenience factor. We truly thought those who rented cars were, in fact,
crazy. What changed our mind was our increasing desire to go places cabs wouldn’t.
We were pushed over the edge when kids arrived.
lost, unfamiliar road signs and parking are the top of all the concerns voiced
about car rentals. Road signs can be learned easily enough (thanks Google), and
taking a wrong turn is a part of the fun. In fact, this has resulted in seeing
some of the most amazing destinations we’d never have located on our own. And
parking? Bah. In Milan, a city that we’d been told was impossible for American’s
to navigate, we used Google Maps and had no problem finding the Duomo and
getting a spot two blocks from the Duomo Cathedral (that part we found on our
What’s the worst that can happen?
Tickets and fraud. When you don’t read German, tickets will happen. We’ve received more than a couple at castles or destinations because we didn’t properly understand the signs for permits (and didn’t bother ask). Had we used Google translate (or heaven forbid, asked someone who speaks better English than we do), we could have saved the ten bucks. Regarding fraud, our singular bad experience came about when a front desk worker at the rental office in Frankfurt decided to steal our credit card. The silly boy started making purchases about the time we drove off the lot, but was apprehended a few days later.. In 20 years however, that was the lone instance of pain, and it was rectified with a few days.
A few learnings
In Mexico, the rental policies are nuts, because you are expected to pay all sorts of premiums at the counter (even with Hertz, Avis and the others). Further, they require the credit card to be charged authorized for insurance, and security, which can increase a standard $400 for a two weeks to $3,500. No kidding. If you don’t have this kind of room on your credit card, you will be in a bind. Otherwise, here’s how the money breaks down. Tip: most credit cards cover car accidents, so we never purchase insurance. Check with your credit card company.
Yucatan Peninsula/Cancun Area
Cab from any one of the Gold Coast hotels, Isla Blanco or Punta Sam to town: $30 one way (US), round trip, $60.00. If you are going further south, tothe famous Playa del Carmen, tack on another $40 ($20/each way). For a single night in to town, it’s easily $100. Compare that to renting a car, which you can drive to Tulum (2.5 hours south), Chitzen Itza (3 hours west) or anywhere else, and you have already come out ahead.
Cabo San Lucas
is one place where we found a car is NOT necessary, but this is because our
lifestyle during our visits is….lounge lizard. We aren’t going to golf courses,
visiting the dunes, or eating anywhere we can’t walk to. So the car we rented
(once) stayed in the hotel except for the trip to and from the airport. A total
Puerto Vallarta, Suyulita, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo
We always get a car now, but in the early days, (pre-kids) didn’t bother when in PV, because the cab ride was 5-7 minutes to downtown. Once we started staying further from the center, we got a car. For the other three, yes, cars, always.
Of course, nothing compares to a train ride through the Alps (the journey isn’t even possible by car), and you still need to take a water taxi in Venice or a boat tour on the Danube to see the buildings from a different viewpoint, but these are not every day occurrences. Yet that leaves several dozen countries to explore with four tires. With open borders, the only thing you need to worry about is a full tank of gas, although a map is helpful.
A few tips for renting a car in Europe
The pick-up location makes all the difference in the world. The same car picking up in Calais France (for 5 weeks) is $3,400, whereas that car is $2,400 in Frankfurt, Germany, but $1,200 in Aachen, German. Guess where we are picking up our car? And it’s not a Volkswagon. It’s a four-door 5-series BMW touring model.
I’ll give you another example. One year, we picked up a Volkswagon Golf in Zurich, Switzerland for two weeks. Price tag? $1,100. The next year, we went for an Audio Quatto, but go it out of Frankfurt, Germany for 4 weeks. Total price with tax? $1,098. Are you seeing a trend here? Automobiles, for the most part, originate out of Germany. If you rent in another country, you are going to pay a LOT more. While we have used Hertz and others in the past, we find amazing deals with Sixt luxury car rental.
example. This year, we decided to see a bit of England, and are landing in Manchester,
getting a car, driving over the channel. We are dropping the car off in France
and taking the train up to Aachen. Even with the cost to rent a car for two
days ($120), then the four-hour train ride ($600), we are still saving over nearly
$1,500. Is a bit inconvenient? Only if you think the train ride through France and the Black Forest of Germany is ugly.
summary here is to not be fearful of renting a car. The benefits dramatically
outweigh the risks or issues you may encounter, so on your next trip, be brave
and start exploring. Your future self will thank you!
*Products and services mentioned are not sponsored by the respective entities. This is an independent editorial review based upon real experiences paid for by the author.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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.