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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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