Orange Beach Eateries

Orange Beach, AL

My husband and I just returned from another trip to the Orange Beach area and I readily admit, one of my favorite reasons for visiting the gulf coast is the food. In addition to the gorgeous white sand beaches and warm blue-green water, the fresh seafood definitely makes this vacation spot a win-win in my book!

A favorite breakfast or brunch spot for my family is ANOTHER BROKEN EGG CAFE. This restaurant has a great menu full of Southern fare offerings. It is located in a little strip center and can be quite crowded during peak times. The Biscuit Beignets, Biscuits & Gravy, Blueberry Bread French Toast, Biscuit Sandwiches, Crab Cake Benedict and City Grits are just a few of my favorite menu items. You can wash all this goodness down with coffee, a Mimosa or a Bloody Mary. Service comes with a smile and the food is always delicious. Very Southern – very good.

Another great brunch place is the BRICK & SPOON RESTAURANT. Don’t let the crowds dissuade you – the food will be worth the wait! This restaurant serves a Cajun-Creole breakfast and brunch fare. They are well-known for their “Build Your Own Bloody Mary” with an extensive list of vodkas, veggies, herbs & seasonings, eggs, meats and cheeses to construct one that suits your own special taste buds. I saw a few of these specialty concoctions on nearby tables and they were towering works of art! The food menu is quite extensive. One of the standout brunch menu items for me was their Brioche French Toast. Delish! Whether you choose Cafe Beignets, Breakfast Tacos, Breakfast Shrimp & Grits or a Crab & Pepper Scrambler – there should be something on the menu for everyone.

If you want a quick and more casual breakfast, head on over to BUZZCATZ COFFEE & SWEETS. Drop in and pick up a specialty coffee, baked good or a weekly breakfast special item. You can take away their food & drinks or dine on-site. My husband and I stopped in here on a rainy morning and enjoyed dining on the patio. We watched all the “comings and goings” while eating a delicious Buzz Bowl and drinking chai tea. Our Buzz Bowls consisted of grits or potatoes topped with grilled onions & peppers, two over-easy eggs and cheese. You can also add bacon, ham or Conecuh sausage (similar to smoked sausage – yum!). The bakery cases are filled with Hollah breads, flavored biscuits, cinnamon rolls, quiches, muffins, sandwiches, salads, and cookies. I don’t think there are any bad choices here!

My favorite mealtime is dinner, or as we say in the South – supper! There are many restaurants along the Alabama Gulf Coast where you can have a great evening meal. I will share a few of my top picks. First and foremost is COSMOS. I have eaten here several times in the past few years and always have a great meal and dining experience.

COSMOS RESTAURANT & BAR almost always has a wait time, so just be prepared. This is a colorful, art-filled restaurant with outdoor tables, a full bar, indoor dining areas, live music, a pet-centered gift shop, and a wine shop all on the premises. There is a lively atmosphere with a celebration of some type always going on! The food is what I would call “eclectic Southern.” There are standard seafood and comfort foods on the menu with many having an artistic, global flare. I have always had delicious meals here. Be sure to stop in at the bar and have one of Cosmos’s specialty cocktails, a glass of wine, or local brew while you wait on a table. I highly recommend the BBQ Crab Claws for an appetizer (simply the best!). The Chicken Roulade and Banana Leaf Wrapped Sea Bass were the latest standout entrees we enjoyed. The food and service are always top-notch. I always leave here wondering when I can return – and it is never soon enough.

Another favorite dinner spot is COBALT, THE RESTAURANT. This restaurant gets extra points for location, location, location. This upscale dining venue is located under the Perdido Bay Bridge and next to the waterfront, which gives diners a bay view. When my husband and I dined here recently, we were lucky enough to get a patio table and had perfect weather with spectacular sunset views. We sat and watched waterfowl, pleasure boats, fisherman, yachts, tour boats, and floating tiki bars (gotta try one of these next time!) while enjoying delicious cocktails, entrees and dessert. Our appetizer, Garlic Parmesan Chargrilled Oysters, were outstanding and at one point I wished that I had ordered a double order for my meal. The Bronzed Gulf Grouper and the Gulf Shrimp and Grits were both delicious entrees. Add top shelf margaritas and a Bushwacker (alcoholic ice cream dessert) and we had an exceptionable meal overall. Food, location, atmosphere – check, check, check.

A more casual dining spot in the area is DOC’S SEAFOOD & STEAKS. Doc’s has several locations and is popular with locals and tourists alike. The fried shrimp is award-winning (according to all the billboards!) but we prefer the grilled shrimp and grilled fish. There is nothing fancy here, just good old-fashioned seafood, hushpuppies, and cole slaw.

COTTON’S RESTAURANT is another popular seafood restaurant on the coast but with more “upscale” prices. Cotton’s is located in an old wood-paneled 1950s beach house with several floors. They serve prime rib, steaks, lobsters, and all types of seafood and seafood platters. Many of the popular seafood dishes have been elevated (just a notch) to separate this restaurant from all the more casual fish & shrimp “shacks.” Service is very friendly and you may just feel like you have stepped back in time when dining here. Like most popular eateries on the coast, there is almost always a wait for a table.

On the final night of our visit to the coast, we had had a very long and tiring day. Instead of cleaning ourselves up, changing clothes or dining out, we decided to order in. My husband called in an order to MOE’S, picked it up, and we ate in the hotel room. It was delicious! Moe’s is a little BBQ beach shack serving up Alabama-style smoked meats, fried shrimp and catfish, and barbecue platters. We ordered Pimento Cheese ‘n Chips and Moe Nachos. Both orders were huge servings and absolutely delicious. Their white BBQ sauce is a “must!” Loved it.

There are so many more great eateries in this area and I have never had enough time to try them all! Hopefully if you are heading down to the Alabama coast in the near future, this will give you some ideas on where to dine. I have certainly made myself hungry typing up this blog! Now I get to search through all my food pics, which will just elevate my hunger even more.

Grilled shrimp tonight, anyone?

Bluebonnet Trail

Ennis, TX

For all of us Texans still dealing with the outcome of the devastating arctic blast, there is a positive. The freeze that wiped out many of our trees, shrubs and flowers and spelled disaster to our state’s infrastructure, spared the bluebonnets and wildflowers.

It seems that all the snow we received in Texas actually acted as an insulator and saved many of the wildflowers and their root systems from the low surface temperatures. The bluebonnets weathered the winter quite nicely and they are currently in full bloom throughout many parts of the state.

Now more than ever during this pandemic, Texans are looking for fun outdoor activities to get us out of the house and the Texas Bluebonnet Trail is a perfect opportunity. My husband and I packed a picnic lunch this past weekend and drove down to Ennis, the Bluebonnet City of Texas. I wanted to see the state flower of Texas in all its glory!

Located off Hwy 45 and south of the Dallas metroplex, the Ennis Bluebonnet Trail is the oldest in the state and has over 40 miles of viewing opportunities. The best way to follow the trail is in your car because trails are mainly on paved or gravel roads and in park areas. The rule of thumb is that you can pull off on the side of any road as long as you do not block roadways, driveways or fire hydrants. Everyone is also asked to take photos – not flowers!

I downloaded a driving map off the Ennis Garden Club website (which is updated frequently) and we headed off. Our map told us the North Trail and West Trail had “peaked” so we headed to the suggested South Trail. It was rural, uncrowded and had acres of gorgeous bluebonnets as well as other colorful Texas wildflowers. We had some great photo ops!

We also visited the Meadow View Nature Area (and had a picnic lunch near Lake Bardwell), scenic Bluebonnet Park and the Ennis Veterans Memorial Park. The Veterans Park had acreage off to the side of the park with a large “natural” area that we really enjoyed.

The pastures, roadsides, meadows and yards along the marked routes are bursting with color! We noticed sapphire blues, fiery oranges, citrusy yellows, dainty pinks, scarlet reds, and deep purples all adding to Mother Nature’s spring palette. Most bluebonnets range in color from a light sky blue to a deep, dark navy blue – and all shades in between. We read that slight genetic modifications can occur and render the flowers white, pink or maroon as well but they usually don’t last long in the wild. I only saw blue, blue, and more blue!

A word of warning – bluebonnet fields are usually in rural areas and can be so dense that they provide shelter to animals and reptiles, especially snakes! Be cautious when moving around and through these areas. Bluebonnets are also toxic to humans and animals if ingested so keep an eye on your kids or pets when taking photos in or walking through the fields. This past weekend was late in the bluebonnet season and luckily for us, there were well-worn paths through most of the fields and no unwanted varmints were encountered.

April is the best month for viewing the bluebonnets but it looks as though they will still have at least another couple of weeks of peak season left. If you haven’t driven the Bluebonnet Trail yet, make plans quickly before they have lost their vibrant colors and healthy blooms. Kingsland, Marble Falls, Burnet, Brenham and Austin also have bluebonnet tours so pick your favorite spot and plan a trip SOON! Become a part of this incredible Texas tradition.

Beavers Bend State Park

Hochatown, OK

Our pandemic trips continue and we recently revisited Beavers Bend State Park and Broken Bow Lake in Oklahoma for a long weekend. We had rented a cabin and stayed in this same area earlier in the fall and enjoyed it so much that we decided to go back.

Sweetwater Cabins has some lovely rentals in this area and we chose one this time called Just-A-Swingin. The cabin was appropriately named, with a porch swing on the lower level, and had a beautiful, open-concept interior. The neighborhood is a hilly, pine-forested area just minutes off the highway and a stone’s throw away from the park entrances. Location, location, location! This cabin was perfect.

My husband and I had taken our yorkie on the last visit and she did so well that she was invited along again this trip! She seemed to enjoy hiking the nature trails with us so we are turning this nine-pound, nine-year-old spoiled lap dog into a decent trail dog!

We were lucky enough on this trip to experience great weather again. We grilled hamburgers on our deck the first night and prepared for two days of hiking to follow. Our days were full of activity and our evenings were quiet and lazy – just the way we like it!

The first full day inside the park, we chose the Beaver Lodge Nature Trail for our first hike. This was a 1.2 mile hike that started at the base of the Broken Bow Lake’s hydro-electric dam and was a great one-way hike with gorgeous scenery. The trail head was a little tricky to find since it began away from the dam’s parking lot, across a stream, and was not marked. Once we spotted some people coming off the trail, it was much easier to locate and follow.

This trail led us through a forested area, along a high ridge, and stayed parallel to the Mountain Fork River. I enjoyed the busy sounds of the rushing water and the wind in the pines. It was a truly beautiful hike. We saw several trout fishermen in the water and a few tourists climbing on the river boulders. We hiked until the trail became too narrow and treacherous and turned back around.

We explored the shoreline on the way back, climbed over some boulders, and took a short rest in the middle of the rushing water on a rocky plateau . This is where “said trail dog” plunged into the shoulder-deep water after slipping on a mossy rock. She was wet and smelly but took it like the true trooper she is!

After lunch, we were back on the trails. Our next destination was the Lakeview Lodge Trail. This is a 1.4-3.5 mile trail that started at Lakeview Lodge on Broken Bow Lake. There were three loops to chose from and it is meant to be hiked in a clockwise direction. The trail had beautiful pine trees, great views of the lake, clear streams, colorful rocks and a varied terrain. It was very quiet and peaceful. We never saw anyone else on the trail and I was quite surprised that we didn’t see any wildlife other than birds. If there had been a chance of stumbling upon a wild animal, this would have been the place!

Day one was in the books. After a delicious dinner picked up from Rolling Fork Takery (wings and potato salad), all three of us were tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.

Day two found us inside the state park again on the 3/4 mile Pine Ridge Nature Trail. The trail looped like a figure-eight and winded through an evergreen forest, a lagoon, a piney ridge, and a floodplain. It was a short trail but had varied vegetation and different elevations that were unlike any other trails. We followed the path up, down and around some very beautiful spots on this easy, shaded walk. Lime green moss, ferns, cane, and new spring flowers were the highlights.

We took a break and explored the main areas in Beavers Bend State Park and played around on the rocks in the Mountain Fork River. We drove through the park and checked out the campgrounds, pony rides, train depot, fishing spots, and kayak/paddleboat/canoe rentals. There was more to do here than we ever imagined! Another trip may be in order.

Our afternoon hike was the toughest of them all. Cedar Bluff Nature Trail is listed as a “moderate trail with minimal terrain.” What the trail guide doesn’t tell you is that the 1-mile hike is all straight uphill through a pine forest! After a little huffing and puffing on my part, we made it to a beautiful rock cropping overlook. At that elevation, we were overlooking the river, bald cypress trees and rocky cliffs below. The stunning views were well worth the effort and we took a few minutes to soak it all in.

We met another couple at this overlook where we exchanged pleasantries and took each other’s photo before we headed off. Hiking down the trail was a much easier than the hike up!

We picked up a pizza and salad on the way back to the cabin and had a quiet dinner. All three of us were tired but energized from all that we had seen and done. Once again, our trail dog had done extremely well and exceeded expectations (she also slept the entire way home!).

Another great trip to Beavers Bend State Park was in the books. I would love to return in the early fall to hike a few more trails and see the colorful foliage. I highly suggest this area for a quick weekend getaway or for a longer stay to do more activities with family or friends. Check it out if you haven’t already – it is beautiful country.

I hope to see you on the trails soon!

Cedar Hill State Park

Cedar Hill, TX

Duck Pond

Between Covid-19 and Snowmageddon 2021 keeping us all indoors, it is time for a little outdoor adventure! Personally, I am very tired of always being inside and try to plan a weekend outing for me and my husband when the weather cooperates. During this pandemic, we have discovered that Cedar Hill has some great areas for hiking. We have already ventured to Dogwood Canyon, Cedar Mountain Nature Preserve and Cedar Ridge Preserve – all located in this area south of Dallas. Our last planned adventure was to Cedar Hill State Park.

Cedar Hill State Park is located just twenty minutes from downtown Dallas in Ellis County along the shores of Joe Pool Lake. We had to make reservations to enter the park ahead of time at the cost of $7 per person. This is easily done online prior to your visit. If you have a Texas State Park pass, the visit will be free but you still need a reservation to enter due to the pandemic or you will be turned away.

Once you are admitted into the park and pass the entrance, the roads are well-paved and there is plenty of signage to guide you. We studied our map, chose our destination and headed to the Talala Overlook. We parked here in the small parking lot at the trailhead and began our first hike of the day. The word “talala” is actually a Cherokee wood meaning “woodpecker.” I kept an eye out for one on the way to the overlook but sadly I never saw one.

Talala Overlook is one of the highest points in the park with great views of Joe Pool Lake. There is a 1.5 mile loop trail that led us through diverse terrain. The dirt path meanders through thickets, over creeks, and among the Blackland Prairie head-high grasses. This was definitely an enjoyable nature hike for me! I would rank this as a “moderate” trail for hikers due to all the ups, downs, tree roots, rocks and overgrown sections. We saw lots of wild animal scat on the trail making us wonder what animals had been on the same trail very recently! Yikes!

Dogs are welcome on all the hiking trails but they must be kept on a leash. If you do bring your pet into the park, make sure you have proof of a Rabies vaccination handy if asked by a ranger or upon admittance at the gate. It is a state park regulation.

After our first hike and a lunch break on the lakeshore, we loaded up and headed to our next stop – the Duck Pond Trail. This is the shortest trail in the park at just .7 miles long (unless you miss the signs like we did and make it about a 3 mile hike!). It is a partially shaded, wide trail that starts at the trailhead near the parking area and loops back. This is a very popular trail for families with children or anyone that prefers an “easy” trail.

The Duck Pond Trail runs through a forested area with several small bridges over the “rough” parts. The actual pond is located on the edge of the park and is a perfect place to spot deer, ducks and other wildlife coming for a drink. We saw several tracks but no actual animals. It is very pleasant, peaceful and beautiful here. This is a great spot for a picnic, rest stop or photo op.

When you take a wrong turn on the Duck Pond Trail like we did, you end up on the Plum Valley Overlook Trail. It was a fortunate mistake! This trail was a bit more intensive but still pretty easy. The trail led us mostly uphill, through prairie grasses and cacti, and ended up in a heavily forested area. The scenic overlook gave us great views of the Tallgrass Blackland Prairie and where it converges with the White Rock Limestone Escarpment that covers much of this area.

One area we did not explore within the park boundaries was the Penn Farm. Our trail map stated the following: The Penn family farmed this area for over 100 years, beginning in 1854. Today there are remains of old buildings, the estate house, and antique farm equipment on the grounds. There is a nice little trail here with old photos and scripted descriptions of what you are viewing. We will have to explore this area on our next visit!

Overall, we had a lovely day here. It was so nice being able to get outdoors, stretch our legs, exercise, and breathe in the fresh air. We truly enjoyed this state park and all the trails on a gorgeous winter day in Texas. The best part – our little spoiled yorkie is becoming quite the “trail dog!” Who knew?

Dogwood Canyon

Cedar Hill, TX

My pandemic adventures continue!

The only “safe” travel plans for me these days are those that are outdoors and where I can socially distance from others. This has led me to explore areas around Dallas when weather permits. This blog details a recent Saturday visit to Dogwood Canyon in Cedar Hill. Located just thirty minutes south of downtown Dallas, the landscape here looks as if you have driven five hours south, down around the Texas Hill Country.

Dogwood Canyon is a 200-acre wildlife refuge and forested nature preserve with hiking trails and bird-viewing areas. Due to Covid-19, the visitor center, classrooms, picnic area, restrooms, etc. are all closed but the trails are open. After researching the park, I made reservations online one week prior to our visit. The available admission times are Fridays and Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. and the center currently only allows 10 reservations per hour. The trails and parking lot gates are locked promptly at 2:00 so make sure you allow enough time to enjoy your visit.

Dogwood Canyon is a true canyon that rises 300 feet from the canyon floor to the highest hilltop ridge. Most of Texas lies in the Blackland Prairie region but this area is actually part of the White Rock Escarpment (once part of an ancient sea). When driving into the park on I-20 you will notice the white Austin chalk hills that reach an elevation of 800 feet in some areas. This is very unique geology for Dallas County.

This park opened in 2011 after the land was donated by a wealthy conservation-minded owner who had bought the land from a communications station. He had originally chosen to build a house but decided against it. There is an unusually large concrete pit in front of the visitor center that remains from the previous AT&T site when it was in operation. Instead of the land being a single-family home with acreage, it is now a natural ecosystem and home to many native trees, plants, birds and wildlife – some very rare or endangered.

As far as hiking options, there are three miles of trails within the forested canyon area. The Canyon Loop Trail is an easy half-mile trail near the visitor center. My husband and I took the more strenuous West Rim Trail which is a 1.65 mile trail with a modest 150 ft. elevation incline. This trail allows you panoramic views of the canyon, nearby areas, and Joe Pool Lake. It was very tranquil, quiet and most enjoyable. We only saw three other couples the entire time we were on the trail. Let’s just say this excursion was well within the Covid-19 guidelines for safety!

The leafy, unpaved trails are well-marked and lead hikers through wooded areas of oaks, junipers, dogwoods, and ash trees. We noticed many dormant greenbrier, grapevines, poison ivy and Virginia creeper vines in the undergrowth off the trails. There were rocks, boulders, fallen trees, small creeks, and moss-covered stumps all along the way. There was much more “color” on the trails than we expected during this time of year. We spotted lots of green winter grasses, blue & red berries, yellow & white lichens, neon green mosses, and many colorful leaves underfoot. With clear blue skies overhead and warm temps, it was a most enjoyable day.

We didn’t spot any wildlife other than birds on this hike but we did see scat on the trail. There are several species of plants (orchids and lilies) and birds (warblers and hummingbirds) that are very rare and call this canyon home. I would love to return here in the Spring months to see the forest wildflowers, flowering vines and dogwood trees in full bloom. I bet it would be beautiful!

I highly suggest visiting Dogwood Canyon for a day hike. It is a great place for a change of scenery and a nice walk in the woods. Get out of the house, unplug, recharge, connect with nature and get moving! It does a body good.

I’ll see you on the trail!

Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve

Dallas, Texas

During this pandemic, all travel plans had to be postponed. Since I am one who craves adventure and loves to visit new places and see new things, my only option has been exploring local nature preserves, parks and trails. My husband and I have a list of day trip options to choose from so that we can get outdoors and explore new places while socially distancing and staying safe.

We have had a couple of “just okay” excursions (trashy urban parks). Our latest really enjoyable outing was to Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve which is located about twenty minutes southwest of downtown Dallas. This is a 600 acre tract of “hill country-like” land that I didn’t even know existed!

Our research revealed that the park is maintained by Audubon Dallas and includes 10 miles of walking trails (13 trails total) that loop through a hilly, heavily-forested area that is well-known for its unusual topography. We were sold! Cedar Ridge Preserve sounded like a great choice for an excursion so we packed a picnic lunch, loaded up, and made the 45 minute drive.

We arrived mid-morning on a warm, sunny weekend and the parking lot was packed. Note to self: next time get an earlier start! The main park buildings, education center and water fountains are closed due to the pandemic (restrooms were open). I highly suggest bringing your own water or snacks and wearing sturdy shoes for the trails.

Once inside the preserve, there was a large signage board where the trail heads begin. It shows a detailed map of all the trails, routes, and the distances. There is also information depicting plants and animals you may encounter. There seemed to be trails for all skill levels. We began with the 1 mile Bluebonnet Trail and it was lovely and not crowded. The trail is unpaved with natural rocks, roots, and leaves this time of year. The Bluebonnet Trail had a gentle terrain with a lookout point midway that overlooked the valley and Joe Pool Lake. We also took a few minutes to stand in a “nature blind” to watch a rare bird species (black-capped vireos) dart to and from a watering hole. There was a wide variety of prairie grasses, trees, mosses, plants, cacti and birds that we spotted along the way.

After looping back to the main trailhead, we chose an intermediate trail for our next hike. This second trail had more limestone hills, good canopy cover, several bridges, and more steps. This more diverse terrain was rich with juniper, honeysuckle, yucca, sumac, prickly pear, oak and other types of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. It also granted us a pretty good workout!

There are trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Some are very flat. Some have more inclines, descents, and more cardio challenges. No matter what trail you choose, you will not be able to miss the unique and beautiful limestone hills, bluffs, and ridges that resemble the terrain found in and around the Texas Hill Country.

I was really impressed with this little slice of nature within the Dallas metro area and thoroughly enjoyed my day here. I think we all deserve a place where we can unplug, get outdoors, breathe fresh air, exercise and connect with nature in a personal way. Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve is a bright spot among all the asphalt, heavy traffic, and the grind of our daily lives. Check it out!

I’ll see you on the trail!

Note: Dogs on leashes are welcome. The preserve requires no fee but suggests a $3 donation. Check the website before venturing out due to closures of the park and trails during the pandemic.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden

Fort Worth

Run – don’t walk – to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Japanese Garden this November before weather changes things! You will definitely want to see all the colors on display this autumn before the freeze hits and the winter winds blow foliage away. The plants, flowers and trees are absolutely beautiful right now.

I researched the gardens a couple of weeks ago and discovered that November was one of the best months to visit. Truth!! The warm weather, the fall colors, the small crowds, and the colorful flowers all made for a perfect day.

I had never been to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden but had visited the Japanese Garden years ago when my daughter was a student at TCU.  The city has now combined these two gardens and admission is $12 per person (no charge for parking).

I highly suggest wearing your good walking shoes because the combined gardens now cover 110 acres and feature 23 separate specialty vistas/courtyards/gardens. I logged some very serious FitBit steps!!

The Fort Worth Botanic Garden is the oldest public garden in Texas.  There are over 2500 species of plants and flowers currently on display. The gardens are filled with beautiful fountains, pergolas, tiered garden beds, arbors, sculptures, bridges, waterfalls, trellises and animal-shaped topiaries. There seems to be a eye-catching surprise around every corner.

A new highlight for me since my last visit was the 1000-foot Texas Native Forest Boardwalk that connected one garden to the entrance of the Japanese Garden. This wooded boardwalk was an elevated walkway that led you through a section of dense natural forest. One side had all native trees, vines, and brush and the other side had non-native plants and trees introduced by humans to this area. Signage provided information on forest ecology, plant & animal life, conservation and wildlife tracks. There were also all sorts of interactive tasks for children. 

My absolute, hands-down favorite part of this visit was the Japanese Garden. The scenery was breathtaking this time of year! This eight-acre garden was created from an old quarry and was originally designed as a place for meditation and relaxation. Even though there were quite a few visitors here – the area still maintained an overall feeling of calm, tranquility, and peacefulness. It was all very Zen-like. 

Each and every view in the Japanese Garden was worthy of a photograph. The deep reflective pools, serpentine paths, Zen gardens, waterfalls, pagoda, teahouses, bridges, stonework, and koi-filled ponds were dramatic, peaceful, and colorful. The Japanese maple trees were bright orange, vivid red, and burgundy. The green waters churned with white, black, gold, orange and silver koi. It was all a delightful color palette.

Bright green foliage, silver evergreens, weeping willows and bamboo plants were reflected in the still water. Turtles napped in the sun on rocks and along the sculptured hillsides. A water snake calmly swam through a school of koi that were jockeying for positions to eat pelleted fish food being fed by visitors. Dramatic waterfalls tumbled onto the rocks below and stepping stones crossed babbling brooks. Every corner of the gardens had something new and interesting to observe. Photo ops abounded! 

From the Japanese Garden, we trekked to the Fragrance Garden and then on to the multiple rose gardens. I was amazed at how many roses and other flowers were still in bloom this time of the year! Colors abounded and all the gardens and terraces were beautiful. 

We ended our visit with a walk up the steps of the Shelter House for a beautiful view of the Rose Ramp and Lower Rose Garden.  We visited the Water Conservation Garden, the Rock Springs Garden and then called it a day.  We were off to a nearby city park to eat a late picnic lunch. It was a most enjoyable afternoon and a perfect day to be outdoors. I hope you can find time to visit in the next couple of weeks. It will be well worth your time!

Note: I suggest booking your tickets online prior to your visit with the Covid-19 regulations in place. The Rainforest Conservatory is closed and the cafes and gift shops have limited hours. Restrooms are open. Water fountains throughout the gardens are also closed. Picnics are no longer allowed on the property due to the pandemic. Masks are required inside all buildings and are “highly suggested” while exploring the gardens. Social distancing guidelines are encouraged throughout the property.

Beavers Bend

Oklahoma

It was time for a break! I needed a break from the house and a change of scenery from the four walls that have kept me contained since the pandemic hit in March. Between Covid-19, the husband working from home, canceling vacations, not dining out and social distancing – I was itching for a means of escape. An Oklahoma, long weekend getaway seemed like a perfect solution.

I researched, booked a cabin, packed up the dog, prepped food, loaded supplies and headed north across the Red River for a few days.

The drive from our home (the Dallas area) was a little over two-and-a-half hours. We traveled small highways and drove through many rural Texas towns with sprawling farmland and ranches. We actually stayed a few miles north of the actual town of Broken Bow in Hochatown (“Hoach”-a-town), Oklahoma where the entrances to Beavers Bend State Park are located.

I had booked a pet-friendly cabin through airbnb (Sweetwater Cabins) located on Eagle Mountain and just minutes from the park entrances. We lucked out and had a luxurious new cabin located in a very quiet, wooded area in a beautiful neighborhood. The cabin was perfect for us and we couldn’t have asked for more.

I had never been to this area of Oklahoma so I mapped out some hiking trails and things to do in Beavers Bend State Park and Hochatown State Park. The first day, we drove into each of the three nearby park entrances, walked along the shorelines, visited the marina, and hiked nearby trails. We watched the sunset over the lake. We marveled at the numerous white-tailed deer and colorful fall foliage. It was very peaceful and a perfect place to relax and immerse yourself with nature. Note: Dogs are welcome inside the park as long as they are leashed.

The second day, we woke up to a misty morning and had to wait until noon for the skies to clear. We loaded up Scarlett, the yorkie, and headed to the Forest Heritage Tree Trail. This was a 1.1 mile trail that began at the Forest Heritage Center Museum. This very scenic path led us past a large Indian sculpture and meandered along the shale floodplain of Beaver Creek, across a bridge, through the woods, and back to the Forest Heritage Center, with informational signs along the way telling the history of the area. The fall foliage was beautiful and the towering pines were marked in white to keep us on the path. With the exception of a few places where we wanted to climb on rocks and cross the creek, this was an easy trail, and perfect for a nine-pound canine on a leash. She loved every minute!

It would be hard to run out of things to do here at Beavers Bend and we really needed one or two more days. One could go hiking, biking, boating, fishing, golfing, jet skiing, kayaking or canoeing. One could also just enjoy the geographical beauty of this area – the beautiful Broken Bow Lake and Mountain Fork River, the pine and hardwood forests, and the rocky shale cliffs. We found it to be a fantastic way to reconnect with nature, to view spectacular scenery and remain socially distant. You could choose to do as much – or as little – as you want to do.

Along the highway near the park entrances, there is a one-mile strip with pizza parlors, wineries, souvenir shops, breweries, go-cart tracks, mini-golf, a saloon, coffee shop, cafes, etc. Due to Covid-19 we did not frequent any of these places but there seemed to be a very lively business going on regardless of the pandemic. To each, his own.

If you plan to visit in the future, cabins are available for rent throughout the resort area. Some are rustic and some are breathtakingly luxurious. Rentals range in size and style and feature any and all amenities. There are tiny houses and huge homes that sleep 24 people. There are also plenty of RV sites, tent campsites, and Lakeview Lodge – if you prefer more of a hotel-style stay.

A couple of days here turned out to be the perfect little vacay for my family. We enjoyed the fresh air and hiking trails. We enjoyed cooking all our meals and relaxing in our cabin. We especially enjoyed not having to enter a public facility or deal with crowds or congested hiking trails. I will definitely be returning in the future!

If you would like any additional information, please do not hesitate to ask about my experience. I would gladly welcome comments and other people’s experiences!

Palo Duro Canyon

Canyon, Texas

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I have found the perfect trip to take during these days of Covid-19!

Why not check out Palo Duro Canyon State Park and visit our nation’s second largest canyon? Consider it a mini Grand Canyon and one of Texas’s best kept secrets. This park covers 30,000 acres and is located a few miles outside of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. Palo Duro Canyon offers spectacular views, fun outdoor activities, lots of fresh air and few social interactions with others. Why not get a change of scenery, have a great time and enjoy nature  – all while social distancing? Win, win!

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My husband and I recently drove to Palo Duro Canyon (6 hours from DFW) and stayed in a wonderful cabin (Skyhouse @ Dove’s Rest Cabins) five minutes away from the park entrance and spent two days in the park. If you go, be sure to purchase your State Park day passes on-line a few weeks in advance due to limited availability. Tickets are only $8 per vehicle per day and the park is currently open 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

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The morning we arrived, there were only a couple of cars ahead of us checking into the park. After entering through the main gate, there were 16 miles of paved roads ahead of us that descended 800 feet to the canyon floor. We stopped along the park road several times and enjoyed fantastic scenic views, historical sites and markers, picnic tables, miles of hiking trails and the visitor center (with limited hours). There were also public restrooms, biking trails, horseback riding trails, a souvenir shop with grill, camping areas suitable for day trips, and overnight tent camping. Several areas were closed due to the pandemic, including the outdoor amphitheater and park cabins, but there was still plenty to see and do.

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We were there on a Sunday and Monday and may have seen two dozen people – tops! The parking lots, trails and roads were nearly empty. We passed a couple of people on each trail we were on. The most people we saw in one place happened to be at a snow cone stand at one of the major trail heads. It was great!

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Our first morning hike in the park was on the Pioneer Nature Trail that looped down to the river and back. It is a popular place to spot Texas horned lizards/toads/frogs (my daughter graduated from TCU so I will hereafter refer to them as horned frogs!). We found three snake skins (yikes! lots of rattlesnakes in the canyon), small lizards, tons of red ants (horned frog food), and a half-eaten coyote pup skeleton.  Near the end of our hike on this trail, lo and behold, we came across a Texas horned frog. He froze, we took pics, and went on our merry way. I was a happy camper!

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We then hiked a short distance off-trail around the site of the historic Battle of Palo Duro Canyon where the high red walls and percolation caves (caused by wind and water) reminded us of the rock formations in Sedona. This whole area has that eerie “battlefield” feeling I have felt other places – it just makes me feel sad and uneasy remembering the history and loss of life here. The vibe is unsettling and disturbing. You can read more about what happened here at the end of this article.

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Back on the main road, we chose the Sunflower Trail for our next hike and it was my favorite of the trip. This trail led us alongside a creek on one side and a large red, Permian wall on the other. This 300 million-year-old wall had beautiful horizontal veins of shiny white gypsum running through it. Most of the trail was shaded by tall cottonwoods and the clay-like ground underfoot was filled with animal tracks. We recognized raccoon, deer, rabbit, bobcat, coyote, and mountain lion tracks. I don’t think I would want to be on this trail at night! We also had to avoid stepping in piles of wildlife scat along the way that was teeming with iridescent dung beetles. The circle of life is alive and well in the canyon!

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The following day began at the visitor center where we enjoyed the scenic view from the overlook at the canyon rim. We drove halfway down into the canyon and hiked off-trail again to climb a large prominent rock that overlooked the canyon floor. The views from there were amazing. This trail was full of cacti and the climb was not easy but I made it! We had to be very careful where we were stepping and constantly be on the lookout for snakes, scorpions and centipedes. Many things were ready and willing to stick, bite or sting!

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We hiked back to our car, drove a little further into the canyon and parked near the Kiowa trail head. We walked along the Kiowa Trail and followed a dry creek bed through mesquite groves for great views of another prehistoric Permian wall formation that gives the river its red color. We didn’t spot any wildlife here but saw many animal trails and tons of grasshoppers that would suddenly fly up and scare the bejesus out of you!

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Later that afternoon we found ourselves at the Lighthouse trail head. This is the most popular trail and leads to the iconic Lighthouse Rock “hoodoo,” the symbol of the park. This is a six-mile hike round trip and where most of the park’s heat-related injuries and deaths for people and pets occur. We were warned to not start this hike if the temp was above 80 degrees (it was) and not unless you have at least one gallon of water per person (we didn’t). We decided to hike down the trail far enough to see the Lighthouse, take a pic, and head back – which is what we did. We then made a beeline to the snow cone stand in the parking lot! 

Note: the canyon floor is always 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the temperature on the canyon rim. It was hot! hot! hot!!

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Afterward our much-enjoyed snow cone, we made a couple of brief stops at pull-outs and had a picnic lunch. We saw more beautiful rock formations, a big green lizard, and a turkey.  After two full days of exploring the park and canyon, our trip was coming to a close. We enjoyed it immensely and I would love to visit again in the spring or fall when temps are a little cooler. One major highlight of our trip (besides the gorgeous scenery) was that the lack of crowds could not be beat!

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More information on the park itself:

People have been a part of this scenic canyon for 12,000 years where they hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison. More recently, the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa Native American tribes called this canyon home. They left behind rock art, arrowheads, and pottery shards that clue us into their way of life here. Early Spanish adventurers exploring the canyon, named it Palo Duro, Spanish for hard wood. The visitor center has a video and some of these artifacts, fossils and relics if you are interested.

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For you history buffs – a large part of this canyon’s history centers around the Red River War and the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon (mentioned above) which was an ongoing battle between the U.S. Army and the Plains Indians. In 1874, the U.S. Calvary attacked a large camp of Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes at dawn. Many in the camp fled throughout the canyon while the army attacked the surprised natives, captured 1,500  horses (and killed 1,100 after taking their picks), burned all the teepees, food, clothing, tools, and provisions. With no horses or winter supplies, the remaining Native Americans had no choice but to surrender themselves to the reservations. A marker now stands in the far end of the canyon and details this battle. As you stand in this spot, it is easy to visualize the haunting event that took place on these grounds and to imagine the sounds of the guns and the screams of the frightened people and horses. It is a bitter pill for me to swallow.

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 With the Native Americans out of the way, the canyon and surrounding area quickly moved into the “ranch era.” The resident buffalo were hunted almost to extinction for their hides and their carcasses were left to rot and be eaten by scavengers. The few small buffalo herds that remained were run out by the ranchers to make way for longhorns. The State of Texas bought this land for the park in 1933 after it had been used as a cattle ranch since the late 1800s.

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Currently Palo Duro Canyon State Park is ranked the “number one” State Park in Texas and ranks in the “top twenty” of U.S. State Parks according to several travel guides. No surprise there!

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our days spent in the park. It was a great little trip and a nice change of scenery. If you are a fan of the outdoors and enjoy hiking, rock formations and wildlife and don’t mind red dirt, cacti, and being up close and personal with nature – plan your trip today. I hope to go back soon so maybe I will cross paths with you there.

See you on the trails!

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Reykjavik

Iceland

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Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland and the northernmost capital in the world. It is only 40 minutes away from Keflavik airport, where all international flights arrive into Iceland. Over 60% of Iceland’s entire population lives in the community of Reykjavik, and there is much to see and do here in this very modern European city. 

I visited Reykjavik this past October with four other couples before we embarked on a bus tour of southern Iceland. We had two full days here and tried to see and do as much as we could in a short period of time. The morning our flight arrived, we checked into our hotel and immediately hit the streets to get our body clocks adjusted to the time zone. We had blue skies and temperatures in the high 50s. What perfect weather! We walked a few blocks from our hotel to the well-known Braud & Co. for some delicious, buttery pastries – all locally made. After some coffee, sugar, and a brief stop, we were off to a explore Reykjavik!

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Where to next? Reykjavik’s town center was relatively small, which made it easy for us to explore on foot. We continued walking down Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík and not far from our hotel. This street is well-known for its boutiques, brightly painted houses, restaurants, artistic graffiti, and bars. We strolled down Laugavegur all the way to Hallgrimskirkja church, which prominently stands on a small hill in the downtown area. A huge statue of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic Viking that sailed to North America, stands in front of the church. Hallgrimskirkja is a beautiful, architectural church and a tourist “must see.” We paid a small fee to ride an elevator and then to climb a few stairs to the top of the church for stunning views of Reykjavik. Hallgrimskirkja stands 244 feet tall and is the largest church in Iceland. It is visible from almost everywhere in the city and is very recognizable by its “step” design that is made to mimic the glaciers of Iceland and the basalt columns that are found throughout the countryside.

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After exploring the church, we visited a few of the many museums located in the downtown area. We walked to the Tales from Iceland Museum where we watched some beautiful videos that gave us a unique perspective of the country. There were two floors of exhibits here with 14 screens, each with a set of sofas in front of them. They provided us with free coffee, hot chocolate, drinks and snacks while we enjoyed the exhibits. This was the perfect place to fight the jet lag and “chill” for a bit, while still learning about the “Land of Fire and Ice.”

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Our next stop was the Icelandic Phallological Museum (giggle if you must!). This museum is pretty small, and we didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was well worth a visit just so we could say we have been there! There were over 200 penile parts from land and sea mammals in Iceland (from a tiny hamster member to a 6-foot-long specimen from a sperm whale). Some parts of the museum were very scientific, some were laughable. It was something I will never forget!

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As the day and time change began to wear on us, we retreated to the hotel for a little rest and some dinner. Later that evening, we decided to walk a few blocks down to the harbor to see if we could see the Northern Lights. The day had been clear and we were hopeful that the night skies would be. The chances of seeing the lights is always slim – but we thought we would give it a try. 

All I can say about this first evening in Reykjavik is  – OH, MY! The skies did not disappoint!

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How lucky were we? It was just our first night in Iceland and the Northern Lights started showing off for us. It was around 10:00 p.m. as our group sat on huge rocks that made up the harbor seawall. We watched as the skies swirled and danced with greenish gray, windswept lights of the aurora borealis. We were in disbelief seeing this phenomenon on of very first night! What luck!!

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We actually saw the Northern Lights again the next three nights in Reykjavik. The second night, they were not only visible from the harbor again, but we could actually lie in our hotel beds with the curtains open and watch them from our room. They covered the night skies and were more colorful this second night. The third night, we drove out to a secluded church yard, away from the city light pollution, and once again got a marvelous light show. This sight was incredible and an experience I will never forget. I could now officially check “see the Northern Lights” off my bucket list.

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Day 2

Our second morning in Reykjavik brought more clear skies and warm temperatures. Our group decided to take the “Hop-on-Hop-off” bus since it picked up right in front of our hotel and went all over Reykjavik. We boarded the double-decker bus and headed down to the harbor. Our first stop was the cruise ship dock where we saw the John Lennon Memorial. We rode the bus for a brief time before heading off on foot down the seawall and harbor walkway. Our next stop was the famous Hofdi House. This house, built in 1909, sits on the shoreline and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and historically important buildings in Reykjavik. It is best known as the location for the 1986 summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the end of the Cold War. We stopped here for a photo op before heading on down the paved harbor walkway.

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IMG_0313As we continued to explore this area of the city along the sea wall, we took in the gorgeous sights of Reykjavik on this beautiful morning. There were many sculptures and works of art along our way, including one of the highlights of my trip – the Sun Voyager. The Sun Voyager is a large, abstract, metal sculpture resembling a Viking longboat. We took some great photos here with a view of Mount Esja on the other side of the bay. It was most impressive!

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Our group continued down the seawall and headed to the Harpa Concert Hall. Sitting on the bay in Reykjavik, this glass and steel, architectural building is nothing short of breathtaking. It is an impressive, contemporary structure with colorful, honeycomb-type windows that change colors in certain light. The Harpa is a city-owned building that hosts concerts, cultural events, movies, and exhibitions. We stopped in for refreshments, restrooms, and shopping at the high-quality gift shops. 

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We continued our walking tour and headed away from the bay to locate the Hard Rock Cafe (for shirts!). We also had plans to find a local lunch spot. I was leaning towards the Icelandic hot dog stand that Bill Clinton made famous on his visit to Reykjavik years ago. After a couple of inquiries from locals, we found Baujarins Beztu (translates as “the best hot dog stand in town”). We stood in a long line before ordering our hot dogs and cokes. We found outdoor seating nearby and sat and enjoyed our lunch. The hot dogs were unique and delicious!

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After lunch, we found ourselves in a very popular shopping area. A few of us wandered into the Flea Market, a large, indoor shopping area where the most interesting section was a fish market in the back building. The vendors here were entertained by tourists trying samples of the local delicacy “hakarl” which is the national dish of Iceland. It consists of a Greenland shark that is cured by a fermentation process and is hung to dry for 4-5 months before being cut into bite-sized cubes. Two brave souls in our group actually tried a sample and described it as tasting like urine, ammonia, and rotten fish. No thank you! I passed.

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Our group then walked around a nearby historic area that housed the Old Harbor, the Parliament Building, City Hall, the Pond, and the Cabinet House. We saw some very beautiful buildings, gardens, and  interesting local architecture. The next stop on our agenda was the Settlement Exhibition. This was an unusual, underground museum (due to it being built around an actual archaeological dig). In 2001 when nearby buildings were being renovated, relics were found and archaeologists were called in. This area turned out to be the oldest remains of human habitation in Reykjavik and included a tenth-century Viking longhouse. This was a most impressive museum and the site was very well-preserved. The longhouse dated back to 1000 AD where Iceland’s first settlers made their home. This was a very informative exhibition with original artifacts, iron-works, carpentry, etc. We enjoyed our time here and learned a lot about the Viking way of life.

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We ended up walking to the Old Harbor and “hopped” back on the bus. We rode a complete route back to the hotel after seeing most of Reykjavik and its highlights. The next morning we left on our bus tour.

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After a week touring southern Iceland, we returned to Reykavik midday. Several of us checked back into the hotel and spent the afternoon at the Perlan, a well-known sight in the city. The Perlan is a distinctive glass dome museum that rests on five gigantic water tanks perched high on top of a hill. We had a wonderful lunch here in the revolving restaurant that overlooks Reykjavik and enjoyed the great views. This was a very modern museum with many interesting videos, exhibits, and interactive displays. We watched the featured film about the Northern Lights. We learned about Icelandic glaciers, lava, and wildlife. We then dressed in cold weather gear and explored the Ice Cave. It was a most enjoyable afternoon!

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Reykjavik is a very vibrant European city with a diverse cultural scene. There are plenty of parks, museums, restaurants, galleries, shops, and bars to enjoy here. It is very modern but without tall skyscrapers, congested traffic, and crime associated with most large European cities. Reykjavik is also the perfect base from which to experience some of Iceland’s breathtakingly beautiful natural wonders. The famous Blue Lagoon is only 40 minutes away. You can go on a Golden Circle tour that leads you to geysers, valleys, waterfalls, and basalt mountains. Or you may choose to visit the South Coast from here and see the Glacial Lagoon, the Black Sand Beach, and Diamond Beach. 

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I loved my time spent in Reykjavik and would go back in a heartbeat! The sights were amazing, the people were friendly, and the food was very enjoyable. Who knew? We were lucky enough to have great weather, see the Northern Lights, and have some memorable adventures. It was a wonderful experience and we all had a fantastic trip. Two thumbs up for Reykjavik!

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Safe travels!!

 

Jimmy’s Food Store

Dallas, Texas

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I had been hearing rumblings regarding Jimmy’s Food Store in Dallas for many years. I finally made the trip into Dallas for my first visit before the Christmas holiday (which I would not suggest due to the crowds) and now I am hooked!

Jimmy’s Food Store is a local Dallas gem that has been owned and operated by the DiCarlo family since 1966. They carry imported Italian foods, fresh produce, and wine. Jimmy’s can best be described as a little Italian grocery store/deli/sandwich counter. 

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The neighborhood around Jimmy’s is a little sketchy. Parking is abysmal on weekends and peak times. The food aisles are narrow and crowded. Checkout lines are long.  Nonetheless, Jimmy’s is still worth a trip. It is essentially a NYC deli without the plane ride hassle. All the imperfections somehow make it that much more authentic.

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At the store entrance, grab a shopping cart or basket. There you may order a $4 glass of wine or cup of espresso to sip on while you shop or wait for a sandwich order. As you walk through the haphazardly organized aisles, you will find many varieties of sauces, pastas, olives, pesto, jams, relishes, olive oils, flours, etc. A couple of racks display freshly baked breads. Several shelves are stacked with Italian cookies, sweets, and candies.

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Jimmy’s carries anything and everything you would need to make the perfect Italian meal. And if you don’t want to cook, they sell frozen homemade lasagnas, pizzas, ravioli, manicotti, gnocchi, and desserts. All that I have tried are delicious! The refrigerated section is full of pizza dough, ricotta, mozzarella, and marinara sauces. One deli counter sells all types of cheeses, deli meats, olives, peppers, etc. The prosciutto, parma ham, and provolone were outstanding.

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At the back of the store is the sandwich counter that doubles as a cold meat deli counter. Meats that are sold here include homemade Italian sausages, cured bacon, steaks, and meatballs. There is a poster tacked up to the side with sandwich options. I have tried the muffaletta and the meatball sub and both were excellent and generously portioned. There are a couple of small tables scattered throughout the store and out front, if you choose to eat on location.

 

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Jimmy’s would not be a place where I would shop weekly but I will certainly shop here for special occasion meals. The meatball & sausage lasagna, panettone, fennel meatballs, cheeses and deli meats were well enjoyed by my family over the holidays. My husband and I have recently had the frozen manicotti, stuffed shells, prosciutto, and meatballs and all were easy and delicious.

Go there – get some – enjoy! Viva, Italia!!

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Diamond Beach

Iceland

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A recent trip to Iceland was filled with surreal environments. I saw moss-covered lava fields, towering volcanoes, basalt walls, gigantic glaciers, powerful waterfalls, and steaming geysers. One of my favorite sights of the entire trip was the beautiful Diamond Beach near Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.

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Diamond Beach is about a five-hour drive from Reykjavik along the southern coast of Iceland. This area is a constantly changing, natural environment and is breathtakingly beautiful. Every minute provides a different experience according to the weather, the lighting, and the number of icebergs and ice chunks that have made their way to the shore.

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Diamond Beach is exactly what it sounds like, except for the fact that there will not be any sunbathers on this stretch of sand! The sparkling black, lava sands are filled with bits and pieces of passing icebergs as they break away from the nearby glacier. These 1000-year-old ice blocks break from the melting glacier, make their way through the glacial lagoon, float down a glacial river, and enjoy their last moments before being washed into the Atlantic Ocean. This is where the smaller bergs come to rest as they are scattered along the coastline and the sand becomes covered in ice. Sizes range from tiny, glittering shards to car-sized behemoths.

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These polished pieces of ancient glacial ice get caught up in the ocean current and end up scattered back onto the black sand beach. Each one reflects the light and they sparkle like “ice diamonds” – hence the name Diamond Beach. The ice takes on may different forms and colors, ranging from clear to white to blue. Walking among the ice chunks was like visiting an outdoor ice sculpture garden. The experience was very unusual, beautiful, and unforgettable.

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My travel group visited the Diamond Beach one morning in early October. Luckily for us, the beach was not crowded. The weather was rather messy (cold, cloudy, and windy) and the tides were pretty rough so we had to use caution (sneaker waves are very dangerous in this area).  Fortunately, we got to take advantage of some great photo opportunities and we enjoyed every minute spent here.

 

It was a truly magical experience.

A few of us may have accidentally gotten our feet very wet and cold. Just sayin! 🙂

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The Blue Lagoon

Iceland

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I recently planned a trip to Iceland with my husband and four other couples to see the Northern Lights. We had an entire week to see some of the famous sights in the Land of Fire and Ice. One thing on our list of “must do” was to visit Iceland’s most famous geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon.

Located about 40 minutes from Reykjavik, the trip from our hotel to the Blue Lagoon was quite interesting. The highway took us over miles of moss-covered lava fields, beside rocky shorelines, and over barren volcanic wasteland. One common sight along the way on this cold morning was plumes of steam shooting out of vent holes from hot springs far underground. The landscape looked like a movie set from Land Before Time. Cue the dinosaurs! 

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First off – the Blue Lagoon is not a natural spring, though there are many in the area. The landscape is natural, as is the lava that shapes the pool area. The warm water is actually the result of runoff from a nearby geothermal plant in the area. The lava field here was formed in the 1200s and is called Illahraun (Evil Lava). It is currently a very active volcanic area. Yikes!

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The Blue Lagoon compound was much larger than I had ever expected. There was an expansive parking lot and a huge monolith of a sign on the walk to the entrance. A multi-storied, very modern building towered over acres of lava rocks and milky blue streams of water flowing in all directions. I was very impressed. So far, so good!

Check-in was a breeze since we had made reservations and purchased our tickets ahead of time. The cost was approximately $80 for the basic “Comfort” package that included the entrance fee, towels, silica mud mask, and a drink. We were each fitted with electronic wristbands that let us into the locker rooms, lockers, and shower area. The wristbands were also a brilliant way to pay for purchases in the water without having to keep an eye on a purse or wallet.

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Each person was required to strip down, shower nude, use provided shower gel and conditioner, and then put on a swimming suit (showers were private – changing rooms were not). Attendants made certain that no person entered the lagoon without first showering. Several of us females had read how bad the chemicals/algae/minerals/silica could be on our color-processed hair so we knew to bring and apply coconut oil, tie our hair up, and don’t submerge! The water doesn’t really damage your hair – it just leaves a thick, mineral build-up. We were prepared!

After showering and putting on swimsuits, we stepped from the locker area into the lagoon. What a view! Black lava rocks, green moss, black bridges and walkways, and beautiful milky turquoise waters spread out before us in all directions. We hung up our towels and stepped in. The water was not hot – it was more like warm bathwater. Swimming around to different areas, we did find that the water temperature changed from area to area. This particular morning, the temperature was in the high 40s Fahrenheit which made the lagoon nice and toasty and not so cold that walking outside was like a Nordic torture experiment. It was perfect!

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We explored for a few minutes and took in the surreal scenery. Steam was rising off the water and the cloudy skies were starting to clear. What a gorgeous day it turned out to be. The water felt awesome! We decided to try our complimentary silica masks from a swim-up bar. Attendants spooned the white silica into our hands and we used  mirrored panels located nearby to smear the mask on our faces. The rules were pretty simple: avoid your eyes, leave the mask on for 10-15 minutes, then wash off for smooth, hydrated skin. We had a lot of laughs while looking like poor imitations of clowns/mimes/geishas with our streaky white faces and oily, slicked back hair! Thank goodness one brave soul in our group brought a phone to snap a few pics (though the steam hampered the camera lens and the photo quality). Note: go outside and take photos with your nice camera or phone before entering the water, then return it to your locker. 

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We explored all the nooksskyr and crannies of the lagoon. There were bridges, overhangs, private coves, and lots of wide open spaces. There were rock “islands” to set your drinks on. The bottom is smooth like a swimming pool so it was very easy to walk or swim around. Most of the water was waist-deep to chest-deep.

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Several of us went to the swim-up bar together after washing our masks off and exploring the area. Our wristbands allowed us one free drink but we could purchase up to two more. I drank the frozen Strawberry Skyr (yogurt) smoothie which was delicious and refreshing. Several in our group had cocktails, Icelandic beer and imported wine. This is the memory I will keep in my mind – blue skies, turquoise water, friends & family standing around – laughing, drinking, and talking.

It was a great day and a very memorable experience!

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The Blue Lagoon was more than just the “lagoon.” It also had a sauna and steam room, spa treatments, and floating massages. There were a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, a lounge, and a gift shop. Everything was neat, clean and modern. All the service we encountered was very accommodating and friendly. The experience was a little pricey….but so is everything in Iceland! We expected that going in and still felt like it was worth every penny. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I highly suggest experiencing the Blue Lagoon if you ever get a chance to visit Iceland. It was a great place to spend a few hours or all day. It is a memory that I will never forget, especially sharing this wonderful experience with family and friends. LOVED IT!

Safe travels!

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Additional tips: No outside food is allowed in.

Leave all jewelry in your locker to prevent damage from the high silica content of the water.

Don’t wear expensive eyeglasses or sunglasses (or anything you value) in the lagoon. If they fall off, you will never find them in the milky water and the silica can damage certain materials.

Plastic bags are provided for your wet swimsuits.

Hairdryers are provided but you need to bring your own hair products and brush/comb. 

No one can go into the lagoon area in normal street clothes. Swimsuits only.

 

 

Majestic Yosemite Hotel

California

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Now is the time to start planning your next vacation! Early fall and late spring are perfect times to visit Yosemite National Park and avoid some of the summer crowds. My husband and I went  to Yosemite this past April and the weather was perfect. The crowds were also very manageable this time of the year.

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Plan your trip far enough ahead of time to stay at the beautiful Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which now may be called The Ahwahnee Hotel (after an age-old, legal name dispute). This architectural gem is located inside the park and provides premium lodging for a visit to this area. The hotel was built in the 1920s and was designed to fit in with, and reflect, its natural surroundings. It has a striking granite facade, magnificent log-beamed ceilings, massive stone hearths, large public spaces, and richly colored Native American art throughout. I was intrigued with the rather unique blend of Native American design and Art Deco. The 1920s era shines through in the woodwork, light fixtures, elegant stained glass, tapestries, and ornate stenciling on walls and overhead beams. It is beautiful.

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The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is all about location, location, location. Parking is hard to come by all throughout the park, even in off-season. If you stay at this hotel, you park in the property’s own parking lot (with a hotel pass) and never have to drive inside the park again. It is situated in the heart of Yosemite Valley near the base of Half Dome and Glacier Point and a short walk to Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Village. Many locations within the valley are very easy to walk to on well-marked paved trails. You may also choose to take free park shuttles from the bus stop right in front of the hotel. Staying at this hotel makes everything very convenient and hassle-free.

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Not only did we enjoy the convenient parking, walking trails, and shuttles – we enjoyed all the amenities that the Majestic Yosemite Hotel offered guests. There was a great bar/restaurant for drinks and casual dining on the ground floor. There was a very fancy dining room (reservations needed) for fine dining and nightly entertainment. There was a large gift shop, a candy/snack shop, daily kid activities, nightly star-gazing, afternoon tea and cookies, heated swimming pool, and large lawn area for relaxing. On the Sunday afternoon that we were here, the hotel had a full orchestra performing for its guests. It was most impressive.

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The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks. It has been the destination of queens and presidents, and now ME! We stayed in the El Dorado Diggins Suite which in the 1940s was a private dining room, a cocktail lounge, and a chapel. Now it has a king bed, a sunken living room, large windows, impressive tiled bath and jacuzzi, and a private, slate entry way. It was a large, roomy, and quite comfortable suite – loved it! If you can’t reserve this suite, try the Mary Curry Tresidder Suite where Queen Elizabeth actually stayed on her visit to Yosemite National Park in the 1980s. That room would be well-worth the bragging rights!

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I hope you get an opportunity to visit Yosemite Valley and the Majestic Yosemite Hotel sometime in the future and enjoy it as much as we did. Maybe our experiences will help you and others pick an opportune time to travel and influence you to stay at this wonderful, historic hotel.

Wishing you all safe travels!

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Desert Botanical Garden

Phoenix, AZ

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I credit my love of plants and flowers to my dear grandmother. She was one of those people that could grow just about anything and loved all kinds of flowers, caterpillars, bees, and butterflies.  It was from her that I learned names of insects, plants and flowers. She taught me how things grew and how to care for them. Today, I share my grandmother’s love of gardening and currently have a house and yard full of blooming things. Some friends and family might even say that I may have “a problem” (especially with my collection of orchids!).

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While planning a trip to Arizona this past May, the Desert Botanical Garden kept popping up on my “things to do” research. After reading several articles and reviews about DBG, I knew this place was something I definitely wanted to check out. Luckily I had a couple of like-minded friends traveling with me, so a day was set aside for us to check it out. Bags were packed. Agenda was planned. Arizona, here we come!

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The Desert Botanical Garden is located in Phoenix on 140 acres – 55 acres being the actual garden. It is nestled among the gorgeous red rocks of the Papago Buttes in the Sonoran Desert.

The DBG was actually started in 1939 when a small group of concerned citizens saw the need to conserve this area with its flora and fauna in a modern, fast-changing, and destructive world. Hats off to this far-seeing group of conservationists for this is now the home for several rare and endangered species of desert plants found no where else in the world.

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On the morning of our visit, parking was free and plentiful. Beautiful yellow Chihuly sculptures welcomed us at the entrance – that was an added bonus for me! A wonderful volunteer (thank you, David!) quickly approached my group of five women just inside the entrance gates. He gave us a map, some great tips, reminded us to drink our water, and had a joke or two for his captive female audience. He was most friendly and helpful, as were all the other volunteers we met throughout our day in the gardens.

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There were five main thematic trails in the gardens to be explored. Each garden trail was well-maintained with easy-to-follow signage. There were restrooms, water stations, and plenty of shaded places to sit and take a break from the desert sun. Every turn had something new and surprising. We wandered through the 50,000+ plants! All of the cacti, trees, and flowers were showcased in beautifully landscaped, outdoor exhibits – each more spectacular than the last.

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We walked under huge, towering cacti. We gawked at the colorful desert wildflowers. We enjoyed the shade under lush desert trees. We were buzzed by iridescent hummingbirds. We spotted doves sitting on their nests high up in holes of the gigantic saguaro cacti. We dodged huge bumblebees and butterflies that were searching out the brightly colored red, pink, orange, yellow, and purple blooms all around us. It was all wonderful. Mother Nature was alive and well in the desert.

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My favorite memory of the day was our visit to the Butterfly Pavilion. I have visited several butterfly exhibits in several different places throughout the years, but this one was by far the best. You could not step, stand, or walk inside the pavilion without sharing space with a brightly colored butterfly! They were everywhere!! The butterflies were gorgeous and all the flowers were breathtakingly beautiful. It was a sensory overload of colors and I loved every minute of it.

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As we followed the trails through each area, we saw many beautiful displays of plants and flowers. There were huge decorative pots, fountains, water walls, sculptures, native art, sundials, trellises, gardens, etc. We even saw squirrels, lizards, and native birds.  Every area was picturesque and every turn brought something new and interesting.

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My main regret visiting here is that we just didn’t have enough time.  A night-time visit would have been perfect. The Desert Botanical Garden hosts several night events including a florescent “Electric Desert Show” and  a “Flashlight Tour” (here snakey, snakey!). They also offer all types of gardening classes and specialized tours, as well as concerts and musical entertainment. This just gave me more reasons to return in the future!

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The Desert Botanical Garden was truly exceptional. The volunteers were all very friendly and helpful. The cacti and trees were spectacular and some were most unusual. The flowers and butterflies were gorgeous. The gift shops were first class. There is not anything negative that I can report on this fantastic place. It was hot – as are most deserts – so dress accordingly, take water and wear hats.  I would suggest going early (as we did) or at night and certainly not in the heat of summer. I do hope all of you plant-lovers get a chance to visit this wonderful place and enjoy it as much as we did.

For me, it was a lot like stepping into a Georgia O’Keeffe painting – pure desert magic!

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ShangriLlama

Royse City, TX

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If you are wondering if you read that title correctly – you did! ShangriLlama is named after the mystical Himalayan utopia from the novel Lost Horizon. This newly-named “Shangri-La” in rural Texas is home to a replica of an Irish castle, numerous barns, pastures, and a woolly pack of pedigreed llamas.

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The owners of ShangriLlama offer pre-booked educational visits, llama walks, llama parties, and llama lessons. I had the privilege of attending a couple of the Llama Lessons – once with friends and more recently with my two adult children. We had a blast!

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Llama lessons are one-hour sessions held in the castle’s fully enclosed and climate-controlled barn. This experience is a little hard to explain but I will give it a try! Once parked on the castle’s sprawling property, you follow the signs, check in, and enter a very nice barn. In the middle of the room, standing on a padded floor and munching on hay, are a pack of gorgeous, multi-colored, four-hundred pound llamas!

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You are then encouraged to mingle and wander all around these gentle creatures. Touch them, take photos (a couple will pose for selfies!), feel their different coats, and get up close and personal with each one. They do not kick. They do not bite. They do not smell. They are simply mesmerizing! 

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Once everyone has arrived and had plenty of llama interaction time, visitors are asked to sit along the barn walls on padded benches. Mama Llama (owner Sharon Brucato) hooks up a microphone and greets everyone before beginning the informative talk about her beloved llamas – myths and facts.

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Some of the myths: Llamas don’t spit on people. They spit on each other as they challenge another for rank in the group or if a fellow llama invades their territory. Sometimes people do get caught in the crossfire, but spit is never intended for humans. Good to know! Llamas also do not kick people. They can kick, but only kick predators such as coyotes that threaten their life. Llamas also do not bite. They do not have any upper front teeth and they have no inclination to bite anything or anybody.  After learning these facts, it was easy to understand how all of us were just turned loose in a barn full of llamas with no prior warnings, rules, restrictions, etc.  They are very safe creatures to interact with.

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Mama Llama introduces visitors to each of her llamas and gives their age, background, personality, and rank.  Dalai Llama, Barack O’Llama, Como T. Llama, Bahama Llama, Pajama Llama, Drama Llama, and Sir Lance-O-Llama all sit, lie, or stand around quietly munching on their hay as we are told facts about their ears, sounds, coats, feet, diets, breeding, medicines, and likes and dislikes. It was all very interesting.

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Did you know that llama sweat glands are in the lower legs? The smell is similar to popcorn! Did you know a llama can run as fast or faster than a horse? I didn’t know that either – they can run 35 miles per hour! Did you know that llamas can be litter box trained like a cat? We saw this first hand. Did you know that three of these llamas are stars? One was in a detective show, one is in a Game Stop commercial, and another is the mascot of a Dallas hotel. How cool is that?

 

This was such a enjoyable morning! I had no idea that llamas were such sociable animals and this interactive experience was so much fun. Hanging out with llamas is certainly not something I get to do everyday and I think all of us – friends and family alike – loved our “llama lessons.”  If you love animals and this sounds like something you would enjoy, contact ShangriLlama and book your own llama experience. I hope you enjoy these cool creatures as much as we did!

9041Note: ShangriLlama is a gated, private home owned and operated by the Brucato family. For their privacy and for the safety of their animals, the address is only provided when a reservation is made. All activities require an advance reservation.

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Yosemite Valley

California

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In early April this year, my husband and I visited California and explored three national parks – Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park. My previous blog detailed our trip to the first two parks and our journey along the Majestic Mountain Loop. Now we venture on to Yosemite.

After spending a busy couple of days exploring the previous two parks, we drove to Oakhurst, California and spent the night in this lovely little town located fourteen miles south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park. We felt like we needed some rest, a good meal (had some great Italian food!), and some time spent outside of the rental car. It turned out to be a smart choice for us.

We awoke that next morning, had a great breakfast, and began our short drive to the park. It was only a twenty minute drive until we crossed the border into the park but little did I know that Yosemite Valley and our hotel were at least 90 minutes ahead. The slow speed limit, road construction, winding roads, morning traffic, and park entry lines took a little longer than expected. Luckily, the drive was entertaining. We spotted mule deer by the roadside. I enjoyed seeing the snow that was still packed on the shaded sides of the road from the heavy winter snowfall. We passed through acres and acres of total devastation from last summer’s horrendous forest fires (this caused the traffic delays with crews removing trees and debris from the main road). Overall, it was an enjoyable and very scenic drive. About an hour into the park, following the curvy mountain roads – we entered Wawona Tunnel.

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All I can say here is WOW!

You exit the tunnel and you are at Tunnel View, the first of many astonishing sights. This view places you at one end of the valley looking straight out at Half Dome, El Capitan, granite walls, waterfalls, rivers, and vast evergreen forests. I understood immediately why this valley is referred to as “one of the most beautiful places on earth.” The Yosemite Valley is only seven miles long and two miles wide and this lookout point pretty much presents it to you in all its glory.  We parked in one of the large parking lots and joined dozens of others taking photos from this gorgeous, panoramic spot.

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After this photo-op stop, we  drove down into the valley and followed the circular one-way road that leads you past all of the major Yosemite landmarks. Sights that I had only seen in books, photos, and on screens appeared before me in real life: Half Dome, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, Cathedral Rocks, Arches Rock, and the Merced River. Everything was larger, higher, brighter, and more spectacular than I had ever imagined. I stood in the footsteps of John Muir and Ansel Adams and soaked it all in – another one of life’s “pinch me” moments.

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David and I were lucky enough to stay at the historic Majestic Yosemite Lodge (awesome place!) located within the park. The parking, rooms, restaurants, amenities, and location couldn’t have been any better. We could easily walk to several of the park sights or catch a shuttle at the hotel to venture farther. The free park shuttles run every 20-30 minutes and allow you to “hop on / hop off” at any stop within the valley – they were very convenient and saved us a lot of time.

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We hiked up to the rock-strewn base of the three-tiered Yosemite Falls. We hiked to the base of Bridalveil Falls and got drenched with the ice-cold spray. We walked the trails through Ahwahnee Meadow and stood still as a herd of deer fearlessly walked by us. We stood and gazed up at the gigantic El Capitan. We enjoyed the visitor’s center and  the film that covered the history of the park. We browsed through the Ansel Adam’s Gallery and saw photographs from this area that brought him fame and fortune. We walked along the Merced River and relaxed a bit on the beautiful, sandy Cathedral Beach. We sat out on the hotel lawn one evening after a fantastic dinner and watched the stars in the night sky. We took a two-hour guided bus tour of the valley and learned a lot about Yosemite’s history, geography, geology, wildlife, and sights we saw along the way that are not in the guide books. When all was said and done, we crammed as much into two days as we possibly could and enjoyed every second!

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There was no way we could see as much as we wanted to in such a short amount of time, but we gave it our best effort. Yosemite National Park actually covers 1200 square miles and over 95% is wilderness, with the valley being a very small part of the whole park. Luckily, April turned out to be a perfect month to visit. The temperatures ranged from the fifties at night to the seventies in the day – and we experienced warm days, blue skies, spring flowers, and fewer tourists than other months of the year.

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The hotel, the weather, and the sights of Yosemite Valley were all better than we could have ever anticipated. Everything seemed to work in our favor. My one and only wish that was not fulfilled was a bear sighting! Maybe next time…

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Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

California

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I belong to a book club that read a lovely little book last year called “Dear Bob and Sue.” This book tells the story of Matt and Karen Smith’s travels to all 59 U.S. National Parks written as a series of emails to their friends, Bob and Sue. The book is funny, irreverent, unpredictable, and sarcastic – all in the spirit of humor. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy reading this book, I got some great travel ideas from it. I learned about the “Majestic Mountain Loop,” a three-day trip where you can visit Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite all in one fell swoop. I was sold!

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My husband and I flew into Fresno, California from Dallas and rented a car there. Fresno is a small airport and proved very convenient to getting a rental car and starting off on our merry way. We stopped for a wonderful lunch outside Fresno in Sanger and headed up the mountains to Sequoia National Park and the Wuksachi Lodge. The drive was spectacular! We went from wildflowers, farmland, and sunny, citrus groves to cloud-covered mountains and snowy roads in less than two hours.

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On our first day in Sequoia National Park, we visited the Lost Grove (the densest concentration of sequoias in the park) and General Sherman – my “must see!”  The General Sherman Tree is the largest living organism on the planet and the largest living tree in the world. It was just as magnificent as I had imagined! If you want to feel small and insignificant, just stand at its base and gaze up at its top 275 feet above you. I stood and wondered about all that this tree has lived through and witnessed in its 2200 years. If only it could talk…

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The next day we left for Kings Canyon National Park. The two parks intersect each other so you go from one to the other without much fanfare. We started at the Kings Canyon Visitor’s Center in Grant Grove Village and enjoyed the exhibits and a movie detailing the history of the parks – very interesting. The rangers were very helpful in letting us know which roads were open or closed and helped us plan our day.

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The park is at a high elevation (up to 14,000 ft) and on this particular day in April we experienced rain, sleet, and heavy fog – all in a matter of hours. Then lo and behold, the afternoon turned out to be sunny and clear. Luckily for us, the weather was a deterrent for crowds and we got to visit Grant Grove pretty much by ourselves. Grant Grove is only a mile from the visitors center and proved to be one of my favorite excursions. It consisted of a half-mile walking trail through the forest that loops to the German Grant Tree (third largest in the world and a “young” 1,650-years-old). The paved trail was easy to walk and we passed by fallen trees, crossed over streams, and wandered through giant sequoia groves.  The forest here was breathtakingly beautiful and on this particular day, the towering trees seemed ethereal and unworldly. There was no wind, no sound, sparse light, and a mystical fog all around. I loved it!

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Many of the higher altitude roads in Kings Canyon were closed to vehicles this time of year so we drove to a lower elevation and visited beautiful Hume Lake (a park ranger’s suggestion). The sun was shining, the water was glistening, and the temperature was perfect for exploring the area around the lake. We ended our afternoon after a relaxing stop here and headed for Yosemite National Park – our third and final stop!

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There is not anywhere else in the United States where national parks are located so close together as these three here in California. We spent a full twenty-four hours in each Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park before heading on to spend three days in Yosemite. I highly suggest trying the Majestic Mountain Loop whether it be for three days, a week, or maybe more.

I hope you enjoy your trip as much as we did!

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Mission San Jose’

San Antonio, TX

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I had a lovely girl’s trip recently to San Antonio and one of our highlights was visiting a couple of the old Spanish missions along the Mission Trail. I am quite the art history buff and had always wanted to see a couple of the missions besides The Alamo, which I always enjoy visiting. 

The Mission San Jose’ y San Miguel de Aguayo (proper name) is known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It was built in 1720, just two years after The Alamo was founded and only five miles downriver. Upon completion, it had the reputation of being the most beautiful church along the entire frontier of New Spain. It is the largest colonial mission still standing today.

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The five remaining missions are located near the San Antonio River and not far from downtown San Antonio. There is actually an official Mission Trail where one can walk, bike, or drive to each of the missions or just choose to visit a couple – which is what we did on this day. Mission San Jose’ was quite easy to find and parking was plentiful. We actually approached from the rear wall which gave us very impressive views of a garden, statues, the church, dome and bell tower.

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The church itself is quite stunning. It was constructed out of locally quarried Texas limestone by Spanish and Native American craftsmen. The flying buttresses, carvings, statues, bell towers, an ornate rose window, and quatrefoil patterns are very indicative of the European influence. The building surfaces are now worn and weathered but at one time were covered with brightly painted stucco. I imagine that 300 years ago the church facade was quite a sight to see with vivid blues, golds, and reds painted in large geometric patterns. I am certain the locals and natives had never seen anything quite like it!

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After walking around the outside of this main building, we passed through the large decorative doors into the sanctuary of the church. It was simple, ornate, and quite beautiful (regular services are still held here). We walked the expansive grounds of the mission and explored the walled fortification that provided workshops, storage spaces, a granary, visitor lodging, and homes for the priests and Native Americans. There were also wells and stone ovens scattered throughout the property that gave me a hint of what life was really like inside these walls in the 1700s.

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After exploring the property, we headed to the Visitor Center (located outside the walls) and enjoyed the displays and artifacts. We also watched a 23 minute film in the park theater that told the history of this mission, the land, and the people. It was most interesting and I highly suggest taking the time to learn more about Mission San Jose’ to fully appreciate its history and purpose. I now understand more about the pageantry, art, food, celebrations, and architecture of San Antonio after seeing how the blending of Spanish and Indian cultures began here and created the “Tejano” culture that we know today.

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Mission San Jose’ is an expansive, well-maintained property that includes the historic mission and grounds, a book store, a visitor’s center, free parking, and restrooms. It is well worth a visit when in the San Antonio area. Very interesting!

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The five San Antonio Missions are actually part of the National Park Service and are also  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  These missions represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.  U.S. Park Rangers offer guided tours at Mission San Jose’  (check times at the visitor center).

Poston Gardens

Waxahachie, TX

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I may never have the opportunity to travel to Holland in my lifetime to see tulips, but I have made it to a couple of tulip farms in Texas. That may be as close as I ever get! Does that count?

Last year my husband and trekked a hour north of Dallas to Texas Tulips in Pilot Point, Texas. This year, we drove an hour south of Dallas to quaint Waxahachie, Texas to check out the new Poston Gardens. 

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We visited  Poston Gardens this past weekend and were some of the first visitors on a beautiful Sunday morning. Parking was on-site and the entrance fee was $10 per person. Tulip stems run $3.00 each and you may keep both the tulip and bulb. The staff was most helpful and very friendly. We soon had a plan and a large plastic basket and were off on our way to pick tulips. 

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Several staff members drive carts throughout the fields and we quickly hitched a ride to the bottom (and largest) field that is home to over 400,000 tulips. The colors were a sensory overload! After picking and exploring here, we worked our way back up to three other fields on foot. Walking is easy, all the paths are well-marked. Rows of tulips are spaced far enough apart to make it all very easy.

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The flowers are breathtakingly beautiful! Candy colors, neon colors, soft pastels, pale whites – you name it – they are in full bloom!! There were 26 types of tulips planted this year and I loved and wanted them all. We managed to come home with 40 fresh stems (quite a few bulbs) and currently have two gorgeous tulip bouquets brightening up our home. A staff member gave us info on how to preserve our tulip bulbs so that we can plant them ourselves this winter. Hopefully we will be growing a few beautiful tulips in our yard next Spring! Fingers crossed.

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These tulip fields in Waxahachie are very new. Poston Gardens just opened on March 15th of this year. The owner, John Poston, has planted 40 acres of this 60 acre farm with over 1 million tulips. Mr. Poston decided to use his farm land to grow and sell tulips to help support Daymark Living (a facility located next door to Poston Gardens). Daymark is a resort-style community that teaches people with intellectual and developmental delays to live more independently. Poston’s 23-year-old son was born with Down syndrome and once he turned 18, there weren’t a lot of options for him to live a normal, independent life. Frustrated, Poston planned and built Daymark to help his son and others like him gain valuable life skills.  For every tulip sold, a portion of the profits goes directly to Daymark and its mission. Some of the Daymark residents even work in the gardens.

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The four large tulip fields are spread throughout the gently rolling farmland with some beautiful views. There are tents at a couple of locations where staffers will count, wrap, and prepare your tulips for the trip home. There are also restrooms, food trucks, and picnic tables located on the property. You can spend as little or as much time here as you choose. 

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If you are interested in tulip picking this year, GO SOON!  Poston Gardens will only be open for a few more weeks or as long as the tulips remain (usually through April). It was a fun experience for us both and makes us feel even better knowing that we contributed to a good cause.

Enjoy!

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(Suggestions: 1. Take a trowel if you want to extract the bulbs with the blooms.  2. Take a large container of cool water to place tulips in for the ride home  3. Wear gardening gloves to keep hands and nails clean!)  

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Mi Tierra

San Antonio, TX

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Mi Tierra’s is not your average Tex Mex restaurant. 

Walking into Mi Tierra’s is a sensory overload. The smells of the fresh-cooked Tex Mex dishes, baked goods, coffees, and tortillas waft through the air. The atmosphere is loud and energetic. Regardless of the hour, there always seems to be lines of people standing inside and outside waiting for tables. Laughter fills the air. You are surrounded by lights, flowers, seasonal decorations, pinatas, photos, murals, tinsel, flags, etc. as a variety of colors explode on every wall, counter, table and ceiling. Dozens of brightly dressed servers hustle around with food-laden trays. Mi Tierra’s is a party waiting to happen. It is not just a breakfast, lunch or dinner place. It is a true dining experience.

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The official name of this restaurant is Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia. This San Antiono landmark began in 1941 as a three-table restaurant to feed the local farmers and workers who arrived at the San Antonio Mercado in the early morning hours before their work shifts. Seventy-eight years later, Mi Tierra’s is a world-famous landmark known for their authentic Tex Mex fare, margaritas, desserts, and mariachis. The cafe and bakery now seats over 500 patrons and is open 24/7. 

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Every opportunity I have to visit San Antonio, I will try to enjoy at least one meal at Mi Tierra’s, visit the bakery for take-out items, and shop at the Market Square. I dined here three decades ago with my husband, as a young married couple. We dined here with our kids as toddlers, adolescents, and then as teenagers.  We took relatives from North Carolina here to introduce them to Tex Mex. They loved the mariachis! I recently ate lunch here with good friends while enjoying a girls’ weekend of shopping in the area. Throughout the years, every visit has been memorable and we have enjoyed each and every meal. This past week, we spotted Elvis (complete with jet black hair, sunglasses, and a glittery cape) enjoying a bowl of tortilla soup for lunch.  You just never know who – or what – you may see.

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I readily admit that my favorite part of Mi Tierra’s (besides the festive year-round decorations) is the bakery or panaderia. The pastries, sweet rolls, pralines, empanadas, candied fruits, cookies, etc. are the reason the line for the bakery is always out the door. Patrons may also purchase tamales, tortillas, and a variety of salsas here as well. The pecan pralines, pumpkin empanadas, fig empanadas and the beautifully-colored Mexican conchas are the things my dreams are made of! Flaky crusts, sweet fillings, crunchy nuts, and pastel-colored sugar toppings – what is there NOT to like?

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If you find yourself in South Texas within driving distance of San Antonio and have a hankering for Tex Mex, I urge you to give Mi Tierra’s a try.  And let me know if, or when, you plan to head that way in the near future. I may want you to pick me up a little something from the bakery! 

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Gordon Ramsay Burger

Las Vegas, NV

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When mentioning to an acquaintance about an upcoming trip to Las Vegas, she stated that she and her husband were going the same weekend that I was. She said, “the minute we land, my husband has to go get his Ramsay burger.” I had no idea what she was talking about.

I do now!

Gordon Ramsay Burger is located in the Planet Hollywood Resort Casino and next to the Miracle Mile Mall. It is pretty easy to spot by the 30-foot wall of fire display and by the line of people usually standing and waiting to get in.

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The stylish, open-concept restaurant is pretty impressive with bright colored walls, televisions, comfy seating, and an energetic atmosphere. The walls are covered with large pics of the one and only, Chef Gordon Ramsay. This restaurant is most well-known for its menu of high-end burgers, hot dogs, fancy drinks, gourmet desserts and shakes. My group decided to check it out the afternoon we arrived and managed to beat the regular dinner crowd (which is usually a 2 to 3 hour wait). We checked in with the hostess at 5:00 p.m. and only had a thirty minute wait. We were given a pager and explored some nearby Miracle Mile shops to kill the time. No biggie.

After waiting only twenty minutes, we were seated by one of the friendly hostesses. The menu had so much to choose from and we were all quite hungry. Decisions, decisions. We began with Cheddar Ale Soup, Beer Battered Onion Rings, Truffle Parmesan Fries, and Burnt Ends Poutine for all to share and “taste test.”

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Where to begin? The soup was served with crispy parma ham, pretzel croutons and fresh chives and was very tasty. The onion rings were sprinkled with parmigiano-reggiano and were served with chipotle ketchup and cheddar ranch dip. Yum! The hand-cut truffle fries were crispy and delicious and were served in a little British flag cone. The poutine was awesome! This popular Canadian dish consisted of a platter of fries topped with tender burnt ends (brisket), black pepper gravy, cheddar cheese curds, and pickled onions. I was in hog heaven!

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Soon we were moving on to our main course and trying hard to pace ourselves. Members of my group ordered the Ultimate Cheeseburger, the Blue Cheeseburger, the Ale Dawg, and the Lobster & Shrimp Burger. What a feast it was! All the burgers are prime cuts of meat, cooked over open flames, and served on delicious house-made buns. The Ultimate Cheeseburger had a slice of aged provolone, sweet dubliner cheese, and soft boursin cheese. It was rich, gooey, and delicious. The Blue Cheeseburger had crumbled blue cheese, manchego cheese, figgy jam, arugula, cider vinegar and mayo. This was easily my favorite burger. The figgy jam had such a delightful taste in combination with the other ingredients – what an inventive pairing.

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The Ale Dawg was fantastic and was HUGE! It came with a bacon-wrapped NYC Sabrett weiner (twice as long as the bun), cheddar ale sauce, caramelized onions, fresno chiles, and was topped with cheddar dusted potato crisps. Best. Hotdog. Ever.  

The Lobster & Shrimp Burger consisted of a thick patty made from pan-seared lobster and rock shrimp and was topped with pickled veggies, an herb aioli, and fresh lettuce. Delish!

 

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Gordon Ramsay Burger is also well-known for their special shakes and desserts- but this group was way too full to try anything else. We were all stuffed to the gills but very satisfied! We actually ate here one last time before heading to the airport to fly back home. We enjoyed our second meal here as much as the first one days before.

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If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the future, I highly recommend dining at this little gourmet “burger joint.”  Ramsay seems to have found a way to elevate traditional burgers by mixing regular ingredients with new fusions and coming up with some pretty spectacular combos. The prices are reasonable, portions are large, dishes are unique, and the food is great. Chef Ramsay cooks a  #@%&*! great burger in my opinion. Loved it!!

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BNP Paribas Open

Indian Wells, CA

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BNP Paribas Living Wall

I am a huge tennis fan, a Roger Federer groupie to be more exact. One of my all-time favorite vacations has been to Indian Wells, California to watch the BNP Paribas Open each March. I have had the opportunity to attend this professional tennis tournament several times and would go again tomorrow if given the chance!

What makes this tennis tournament so special? How long do you have?

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Roger Federer – greatest of all time

The location is spectacular! Indian Wells is located in Southern California in the gorgeous Coachella Valley. You can fly into Palm Springs or Orange County and easily drive to beautiful Indian Wells. This is the perfect setting for tennis in early spring and includes snowcapped mountains, blue skies, palm trees, citrus trees, colorful bogainvilleas, and dessert breezes.

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on the grounds at the Renaissance

The hotels and resorts located around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden are all top-notch. We have had the opportunity to stay at the Renaissance and the La Quinta resorts and both were enjoyable in their own way. The Renaissance is a favorite of the tennis pros and coaches and you get to “rub elbows” with some of the world’s top players on a daily basis. A beautiful pool, fantastic breakfast buffet, firepits, ping pong tables, and great restaurants make this a great choice. The elegant La Quinta is more spread out and provides you with a private “casita” and beautiful desert-landscaped grounds. Each set of 8 casitas surrounds their own private pool. There are several restaurants, bars, and grills on the property as well as nightly music in the common area. The spa and tennis center are both very upscale and everything here is near perfection.

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fire pit at the Renaissance 

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view from our room at the Renaissance

Transportation to and from the tennis matches is a breeze. This tournament has been going on since 2000 and travel options around the event are well-orchestrated. The local resorts offer bus service every 20-30 minutes. When staying at the Renaissance, we walked right out of the hotel lobby and caught a bus that dropped us at the gate. We purchased a parking pass when staying at the La Quinta and drove our own rental car and parked in VIP parking each day. We pulled into the designated lot and our car was valet parked for us – very nice! We left the grounds one day just to go have lunch in the town of La Quinta and enjoyed the freedom that a car provided us.

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behind our casita at La Quinta 

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La Quinta Tennis Center

 

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden is one of the best on tour. The 29 courts, the 16,000 seat main stadium, the grounds, the shops and restaurants, and the activities make this my “hands-down favorite” tennis venue. Try out tennis racquets, watch some pros warm up on the practice courts, buy some new tennis clothes, get some great vendor “freebies,”  take photos in a special photo booth, register to win prizes, or sip champagne under the palm trees. When you tire from all those activities, pull up a chair and watch matches on the big outdoor screen or grab a bite to eat from one of the various eateries and sit at a picnic table and enjoy people-watching. You may also see James Blake signing autographs, the Bryan brothers on stage with their band, Rod Laver walking around, or Chrissie Evert having a question-and-answer session with the crowd.  The grounds are alive and happening!

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night tennis

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maybe I can hit the ball with this!

 

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practice courts

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Now for the best part – the tennis! I have had the opportunity to see my favorite players play (and win!) only a short distance from me.  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovich, and Juan Martin Del Potro, etc. all speak about how much they enjoy this tournament every year and it is easy to see why. The stadiums give you the feeling of being “up close and personal” with the top players in the world. After having attended Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, I can honestly say this is by far my favorite tennis venue.

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Roger Federer

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Juan Martin Del Potro

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enjoying a match

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Rafa Nadal

 

There are also many interesting and fun things to see and to do while in the Indian Wells and Palm Springs area, so be certain to add a few days to the beginning or end of your tennis time here. Check out all the little restaurants and shops in Old Town La Quinta. Ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for great views of the Coachella Valley. Explore Joshua Tree National Park for great hiking and rockclimbing opportunities. Drive into downtown Palm Springs for a great meal, a museum visit, and see the Walk of Stars. Drive a few miles to The Cafe at Shields Date Garden for a great meal on the patio, see the “date sex” movie, and have a delicious date shake. Take a day and drive over the mountains to Temecula and enjoy exploring and winetasting at some of the finest Southern California wineries.  Take a guided jeep or ATV tour and visit a desert oasis. Many possibilities await you!

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enjoying chardonnay in Temecula

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bacon-wrapped stuffed dates at Shields Date Garden 

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view of Palm Springs from the San Jacinto Mountains

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cozying up to Sonny Bono in downtown Palm Springs

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the Palm Springs Aerial Tram

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a joshua treet in Joshua Tree National Park

For all of you tennis fans, I hope that you get the opportunity to visit Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open at least once. We have had four great experiences and loved each and every visit (we book through Steve Furgal’s Tennis Tours and let them handle the hotels, additional days, and tennis tickets).

If you are interested and or would like more information, I will be glad to give you my two cent’s worth.

Go Roger!!

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sunset at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

Lip Smacking Food Tours

Las Vegas

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I recently celebrated a milestone birthday in Vegas with friends and family and scheduled a food adventure with Lip Smacking Food Tours. What a great way to “spice up” the usual Vegas trip! We scheduled the three-hour afternoon food tour, considered this our late lunch, and had plenty of time left for a night on the town and a late dinner. It worked out perfectly.

I have not been to Vegas in almost fifteen years and had no idea how much the restaurant business had grown. There are now over 350 restaurants on The Strip and every celebrity chef has their own place. There seems to be an absence of the old 99 cent steak buffets that were so popular in years past. Those are now replaced by high-end, fine dining establishments in every hotel and casino. Times they are a changin’…..for the better, in my opinion.

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After researching “things to do” in Vegas before our trip, I came across the highly rated food tours. The Lip Smacking Food Tours seemed to be the  perfect way to visit four high-end restaurants and taste a sampling of some very raved about dishes. What was not to like? You visit four amazing restaurants to sample their food and drink their craft cocktails (optional). It is advertised to be an easy walk between all the stops. The guide will fill you in on local art, Las Vegas history, and give you inside information that only the locals know. Sounds good – I signed us up!

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We met at The Focus, a beautiful water wall at the Aria Hotel. There were seven of us and seven others who joined the group. Whitney was our awesome (and gorgeous!) tour guide. She was extremely knowledgeable about the food scene and about Vegas in general.  The tour was relaxed (but not too slow) and very informative (without being boring ). Whitney kept us moving but never hurried.  In addition to the food sampling, we got a cultural/art tour and an overall V.I.P. Vegas experience. There were also a couple of completely unexpected surprises along the way. The tour was way more fun (and way more food) than just going to dinner somewhere.

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After a brief introduction to the tour guidelines, our first stop was Javier’s, a high-end Mexican restaurant well-known for premium tequilas and beautiful art work. We were seated in a gorgeous, private dining room ($3500 per night rental) at a beautifully decorated table. We sampled a variety of tasty salsas and chips, enchiladas (crab and organic chicken), traditional rice and beans, and a pineapple margarita (yum!). Delicioso!

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Our second stop was Estiatorio Milos, a Greek and Mediterranean seafood restaurant. We were seated at round tables with great views and displays of fresh vegetables and seafood were all around us. Food here was served family style. We feasted on baked bread with Greek olive oil and sprigs of fresh oregano. The Greek Salad (with delicious feta cheese), grilled octopus, and the Milos Special (fried zucchini tower with tzatziki and cheese) was delicious and most enjoyable. Every item was fresh and tasty. Loved it all.

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Our third stop was Momofuku, a new Asian/Korean restaurant. We began with Spicy Cucumbers and toasted cashews. Our second course was Pork Buns which were large bao buns stuffed with thick slices of pork belly.  The last course was a fantastic Chickpea Ramen. The roasted chickpeas, scallions, miso and bok choy created a great mix of flavors and it was most enjoyable. We sat by a large, graffiti-style wall mural that was really cool. This stop was a feast for eyes and bellies!

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At this point in the tour, we were pretty full….but we were on to our final stop. Our last restaurant was Cucina by Wolfgang Puck. What a way to end a food tour! This is the celebrity’s chef’s latest rustic Italian restaurant. We had desserts here and what a treat it was. The Salted Caramel Budino was creamy and delicious. The Tiramisu was perfection. The Vanilla Zeppole (think donut hole) with raspberry sauce was sweet and tart, all at the same time. The Cremoso sponge cake and mousse was my favorite. Delizioso! Since it was my birthday, I got a specially decorated plate and a birthday serenade by an Italian singer. It was a perfect ending to a most perfect day.

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At each restaurant, the staff was welcoming, prompt, and professional. We were seated at the best tables in the place. Printed menus were provided at each stop detailing the food and beverages. We were served in a quick and timely manner and any additional drink order was easily handled. The entire tour was top notch and quickly became one of the favorite things about our Vegas trip. We had been entertained, educated, and fed the best of the best. The complete experience, from beginning to end, was perfectly executed and my group thoroughly enjoyed it. Lip Smacking Food Tours did it up right!

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If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas in the near future and are a self-proclaimed “foodie,”  I highly suggest trying out Lip Smacking Food Tours. I will leave you with a few simple words of advice: go hungry, wear comfy shoes, pace yourself, and wear stretchy pants.

Bon appetit!

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Mille Lire

Dallas, Texas

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I love having friends who are foodies! They are a wealth of information regarding new restaurants, new food trends, and the latest recipes. One of my best “foodie friends” just happened to turn me on to Mille Lire.

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Mille Lire is a great little Italian restaurant located in the Dallas Arts District near Cedar Springs, in the Centrum Building. From the second I walked in, I liked it. I was impressed with the chic, modern decor and the “homey” feel. The tables were beautifully set. Interesting art work was located throughout the dining rooms. A high glass ceiling, colorful floor tiles, big windows, and beautiful lighting fixtures created a warm, welcoming atmosphere. So far, so good!

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The hostess was welcoming and my husband and I were promptly seated at our table in the middle of the restaurant. Our server made us feel welcome and delivered the right amount of attentiveness throughout our meal. The cocktail and wine lists were impressive and the menu selections were very appealing. Now it was time to make some tough decisions!

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I opted for a glass of Amore Prosecco and it was cool and crisp – just the way I like it. My husband ordered the Italiano Mule and it was awesome! Limoncello was the secret ingredient that gave the mule its special  “oomph!” Delicioso on both counts.

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We chose the Roasted Cauliflower and the Roasted Beet Salad for our antipasti. The cauliflower florets were drizzled with Thai chili cream sauce and the flavor was amazing. The roasted beets were cut into bite-size squares and were served with goat cheese, toasted pistachios and orange slices. The textures, flavors, and plating of both of these appetizers was spot-on. Our server also brought over a complimentary bread basket, creamy butter, and dipping oil that was a nice addition to our other dishes.

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For our entrees, we decided to try a couple of the housemade pasta dishes. We opted for the Fettuccine Carbonara and the Pappardelle al Ragu. The fettuccine dish was served al dente with pecorino cheese, pancetta, a poached egg, and topped with crispy Brussels sprouts. This dish was rich, creamy, and delicious and made for some great leftovers. The pappardelle was also al dente and was served with a bold sauce of dry-aged beef bolognese, tomatoes, and fresh grated parmesan. This was authentic Italian cooking at its best – simple and flavorful.

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Dessert might have been my favorite part of the meal…no surprise there! My husband and I shared a piece of Ricotta & Amaretto Cheesecake topped with wild cherries. At this point, I really, really wished I had not agreed to share. I would have licked the saucer clean if it would not have embarrassed my husband! The slice of cheesecake was creamy and smooth with the perfect amount of sweetness versus tartness. More, please!

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At one point during our dinner, I saw the chef come out from the open kitchen and talk to a few patrons. Giuliana Matarese is the owner and executive chef of Mille Lire. He was born and raised in Napoli and has over 20 years experience at top-notch restaurants, including in NYC. This new restaurant of his just received the 2018 Open Table Diner’s Choice Award, so they must be doing something right! Mille Lire is not open just for dinner hours. They also offer “Pranzo Veloce”  (quick lunch) specials Tuesday thru Friday and a Prosecco Brunch with a Live DJ on Sundays.

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My husband and I really enjoyed our visit and I would love to return soon to try their Sunday brunch and Prosecco Bar. I hope you will check them out the next time you are in the mood for some authentic Italian fare. Buon appetito!

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Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary

Cochrane, Alberta

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My husband and I are dog-lovers and I actually worked for veterinarians for many years, so canines are near and dear to our hearts. When vacationing in Canada a couple of months ago, we both were excited to visit Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary. 

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Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary (a non-profit) is an impressive organization that has put a lot of time, dedication, and thought into their facility and cause. As wolf hybrids became more popular in their area, this group identified the need for a knowledgeable and experienced rescue organization. They opened the doors in 2011 as one of the largest sanctuaries in Canada and the only one to balance education with adoption opportunities. Today, their main purpose is to educate the public on wolfdogs and to raise awareness regarding wolf conservation – all while providing some of these regal creatures a great home.

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The sanctuary sits on 160 acres of beautiful, tree-covered acreage with large, natural areas for the wolfdogs to live and run. Each enclosure is one to two acres with diverse vegetation to provide a happy, healthy, and stress-free environment.  When we visited in August there were 23 permanent wolfdog residents, 10 ambassadors, and a few adoption possibilities.

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As we explored the facility, we noticed small signs throughout the sanctuary enclosures that listed interesting wolf facts. Other signs identified their permanent wolfdogs with photos, names and information regarding that particular individual. The entire place was immaculate and paths were well-maintained. We enjoyed being on our own, taking our time, and wandering throughout the facility on the designated paths. I particularly enjoyed photographing these animals in their natural habitat.

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We paid for one of the sanctuary’s introductory tours and were escorted around by a volunteer who did a great job explaining all about the organization and their purpose. She gave us great information about the actual wolfdogs including their diet, history, care, training, appearance, etc. We did not get to physically touch any of the wolfdogs but did get to see them up close and personal with just a regular-height wire fence between us. We were told that all wolves and their hybrids have black-rimmed, amber eyes and their ears are full of thick hair. Their feet are extremely large for their bodies and toes are webbed. Bodies are thin and lithe with long legs. Tails are fluffy and never wag – they are usually held straight out or down. Coats are rough and thick. Blood tests can be done to determine how “low or high” each one’s “wolf ” content is but much can be determined by physical appearance and personality. We certainly learned a lot! 

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We were also told many other fascinating facts about these magnificent creatures and how difficult it is to own one. They are not “wild” enough to live as wolves and full-blooded wolves will not accept them into their packs. They are not “dog” enough to make great pets due to their wolf-like traits. They are master diggers and climbers and cannot be kept as backyard pets. They crave freedom and independence. They need excessive exercise and stimulation or they become very destructive. They are very possessive and territorial. They are naturally timid and shy. They have a high-prey drive. They have no desire to “please” or mind an owner. They do not want to be left alone for long periods of time. They will not learn tricks or commands.  At this point, our headstrong yorkie was starting to look good and a lot less challenging! We were quickly convinced that it takes a very special person to adopt these wolfdogs – what a challenge! 

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Why is there such a need for place like Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary? People want to breed dogs with wolves and think it will be “cool” or make one appear “tough” to have a wolf-hybrid. Hybrid puppies are sold for thousands of dollars to uninformed owners who have no idea what they are getting into. Little do these new owners know what the future problems and issues will be – many that I just listed. Most of these wolfdogs end up in shelters where they are euthanized.  Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary saves many of these wolfdogs from euthanasia. They also rehabilitate some, adopt others (most with lower wolf content),  and continue to educate the public on the plight of these hybrids.

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This facility believes in the ethical and humane treatment of all animals, so it was no surprise that there is also a barnyard filled with other rescued animals. We enjoyed visiting with geese, roosters, chickens, a coydog (coyote/dog mix), a donkey and numerous goats (who have their own Instagram account – #goatsofyamnuska) that have all been rescued and now happily live on the property. The goats were a hoot!

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The people working here all seemed very passionate about these animals and it showed.  Their dedication to these creatures was blatantly obvious. It was a most impressive place and the private tour ended up being one of our favorite parts of this Canadian vacation. We loved it – and learned a lot in the process.

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If you are the least bit interested in dogs and/or wolves, Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary is well worth the drive from Calgary or Lake Louise to experience this one-of-a-kind rescue center. It was a great, albeit unusual, experience and one that I will never forget!

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Icefields Parkway

Alberta, Canada

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My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada this past August and we set aside one full day to drive the Icefields Parkway. What a experience it turned out to be!

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The Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) runs from Lake Louise in Banff National Park to Jasper in Jasper National Park. This 144-mile scenic drive is rated the “Top Drive in the World” by Conde’ Nast Traveller and it didn’t take us long into the drive to see why. The double-lane highway winds along the Continental Divide through soaring mountain peaks, turquoise lakes, sweeping valleys, ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls, dramatic rock spires and thick pine forests. We looked forward to a fresh new wonder around every corner. There were  plenty of scenic stops, picnic spots, hiking trails and clean portable toilets along the entire route.  

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We filled up our gas tank in Lake Louise (there is only one service station along the route) and began our journey. Our first stop along the way was the Crowfoot Glacier. We took advantage of the many places where we could pull off the highway to take spectacular photos or find a trailhead to hike. We took our time driving and made many “must-see” stops along the way – with Crowfoot Glacier being our first.

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Just up the highway was Bow Lake, a beautiful mountain lake with turquoise water, framed by dark green evergreens on shore. Next up was Peyto Lake, the perfect Canadian Rockies photo op. We parked here and took an easy 15-minute stroll along a paved trail to the overlook. This viewpoint was the highest elevation on the Icefields Parkway and gave us spectacular views of the glacial valley and gorgeous lake below. It was breathtaking!

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The halfway point between Banff and Jasper was the Saskatchewan Crossing. Not only were the river views here very scenic (including bighorn sheep!), this was the only stop for lunch, gasoline, and cell coverage. There were a couple of small restaurants, restrooms, and a small general store as well. We filled the rental car up, grabbed a quick soup & sandwich lunch, and hit the road again. 

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One of my favorite stops was the Columbia Icefield – the largest glacial icefield south of the Arctic Circle. This whole area made me feel like I was in another world, on another planet. The landscape resembles the moon – or what I picture the moon surface to be. We hiked the area and climbed up on rocky mounds for stunning views of the glittering glaciers all around us. It was a 360-degree view of ancient glaciers, ragged mountain peaks, and rivers of silty, glacier water run-off. There is a huge Glacier Discover Centre here where tourists can actually board an Ice Explorer bus that takes you up on the Athabasca Glacier and lets you walk on the thick ice. We chose to bypass the crowds and the long lines and explore on our own. It was an experience that I will never forget. 

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We were lucky that there were so many other sights and experiences from that day that we will never forget. We stopped and enjoyed the beauty and serenity of Herbert Lake. We admired the scenic views from Big Hill & Big Bend. We hiked up to the loud and powerful Sunwapta Falls.  How could anyone with a sense of adventure not enjoy exploring a place with landmarks named Mosquito Creek, Tangle Falls, Weeping Wall, Mushroom Peak and Goats & Glaciers? What a great day!

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I can easily see why National Geographic referred to this route as “the most beautiful journey on the planet.” It was the most beautiful drive I have ever experienced and every few miles offered a change of scenery. Words really can’t describe it and photos really don’t do it justice. I am just so thankful that David and I had to chance to experience driving the Icefields Parkway once in our lifetime. I hope you get the opportunity as well. 

Safe travels!

I hope you enjoyed this blog! Feel free to leave comments. If you would like to read my future dining and travel blogs, please subscribe. Thanks!

Lake Agnes Teahouse

Alberta, Canada

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Let me start by saying I am not a very athletic person. I am not competitive and never have been. I am an out-of-shape, almost sixty-year-old female with an artificial knee. Keep that in mind as I share this story that happened last month when my husband and I visited Canada and we will call it “Susan vs the Mountain.”

We stayed in a lovely little hotel in Lake Louise and decided for our first full day in Canada to hike up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse that was located on one of the mountains behind the Fairmont Chateau. This is a very popular hiking trail and we were told to arrive early due to limited parking. So at 7:45 a.m. – carrying our backpacks, water supply, and bear spray – we pulled into the parking lot and headed towards the trail head beside the shore of beautiful Lake Louise.

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Our research told us that this is a half-day hike (1-2 hours one way) with a total distance of  7 km (4.5 miles). Our elevation gain would be 1300 feet (which soon seemed like 1300 miles!) and we would end up at 7005 feet. The trail began along the wooded lake shore and soon started leading upwards. When I say “leading upwards”…..I mean leading UPWARDS  (body bent in half, head forward, toes digging in) upwards. The trail zigzagged back and forth through the trees at a pretty steady incline. The trail was well-maintained, though we had to be mindful of loose rocks, gravel, and tree roots. Immediately the altitude became an enemy. Every few yards I had to grab a tree or sit on a rock and wheeze a little to catch my breath. Whose idea was this?

During these multiple moments of trying to breathe, I would look up and be amazed at the gorgeous scenery around me. We were in dense evergreen forests with colorful wildflowers,  scrambling chipmunks, and silence…..except for my wheezing. When the trail would switch back in one direction, we had gorgeous views of the turquoise Lake Louise which was now below us as we rose higher on the mountain.

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About halfway up this trail with a racing heart rate, burning thighs, and parched throat – my attitude changed. I went from “oh, how lovely” to “who in their right mind would build a  @%$#&*!  teahouse on the side of a mountain?” I was sweating, my face was bright red, and a cup of hot tea was not what I wanted at this particular moment in time. Tequila? Maybe. Chamomile or Earl Grey? Nope.

Being the hard-headed ole broad that I am, I pushed on and finished the hike in a little under two hours. The trail had been long and difficult but I was determined not to give up – I had come too far to quit at this point. We soon heard voices through the trees and knew that we were close to the end of our hike. A beautiful waterfall appeared around the final bend and the views below us were amazing. We stopped and caught our breath only to discover that the only way up to the teahouse from this point was a wooden staircase with what seemed like a thousand steps. Really? We hadn’t suffered enough? Once again I thought – who in their right minds would do this?

 

After a little more (okay, a lot more) griping, pulling and pushing – we made it up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse.  I was not prepared for what awaited us. The scene was breathtaking! The teahouse is a very rustic, two-story log structure situated on a scenic mountain lake and is surrounded on three sides by snowy mountain peaks. There were dozens of people here ahead of us (these crazy people hiked up here too?) and everyone was chilling and enjoying the place. We found a table on the teahouse porch, dropped our backpacks, and ordered lunch.

The Lake Agnes Teahouse was originally built as a shelter for hikers and began serving tea in 1905.  There is no running water or electricity so the menu is quite simple. All supplies and foods are transported manually by workers, by horseback, or flown in by helicopter. Staff members bring supplies up and carry garbage back down. They offered loose leaf teas, hot chocolate, soups, scones, sandwiches, salads and chips – nothing fancy and cash only.  We sat outside with views of the Canadian Rockies and Lake Agnes and enjoyed a pot of tea, scones, and sandwiches and it was all delicious. This was another of my life’s “pinch me moments.” I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment and contentment as I did at that very moment.

After enjoying our refreshments, a brief rest period and the views here for an hour or so, we decided to head back down the trail. Getting up there was the hard part but was well worth it. Walking down was going to be a breeze. Right?

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The first part of going back down was very pleasant and the trail was so much easier. I was riding on an emotional high – I had completed the uphill hike and had my bragging rights for one of the most difficult things I had ever attempted. All was well until I took a step and my left hiking boot felt “odd” and heavy. Lo and behold, the front sole was detaching from my boot! I found the nearest boulder to plop down on to examine the damage while David searched our backpacks for a cord or something to tie my boot back together. He found his earbuds and did a quite nice job of wrapping them around my foot and held the boot sole on for the remainder of my hike. David’s Boy Scout training had paid off. All was well.

“All was well” until five minutes later when my other boot came apart. Yep! The thick rubber sole almost completely detached from the bottom of the right boot as well. It felt like I was walking downhill on a rocky trail in swim fins! We didn’t have any more earbuds or anything string-like. The best thing to do at this point was go ahead and pull this sole completely off and hobble on down the trail on the thin leather bottom. That is exactly what I did. It felt like I was walking down a steep mountain while wearing one cheap house slipper and one utility work boot, with one leg much shorter than the other.

This was one of those days that covered a full range of emotions. We laughed, I cried, we worried, and then we laughed some more. I may have even cursed a little. When all was said and done, this day will forever be etched in my brain as one of the most memorable days of my life. I was so proud of myself for not giving up and pushing myself to my physical limits. I was so proud of my husband who deserves a medal for his patience and kin