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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!!

 

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).

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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Chris Evert

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