Tag Archive | travelblog

Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park, CO

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Lace up your hiking boots and get ready to head to one of Mother Nature’s brightest stars – Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only is this one of my favorite places on earth, National Geographic agrees and named it “one of the best trip destinations in the world.”

The park entrances are located 75 miles west of Denver and on the edge of the scenic town of Estes Park, Colorado. The drive to Estes Park has some stunning views and once inside the park, the scenery is even more breathtakingly beautiful. This vast mountain wilderness is a natural masterpiece with views of jagged peaks, high mountain lakes, waterfalls, wooded forests, grassy tundras, and 130-million-year-old glaciers. The Continental Divide runs right through the center of the park and the headwaters of the Colorado River begin here. It is a very impressive place, to say the least.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and covers 415 square miles. It is one of those places that can be enjoyed by all ages and activity levels. You may choose to see the entire park while riding in the comfort of your vehicle. Drive along the Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in North America, to the Alpine Visitor Center (elevation 11,800 ft.) and you will feel like you are on top of the world! If you are a more active person, you can take advantage of all the hiking, rock climbing, camping, fishing and winter skiing that the park allows. There are almost 400 miles of maintained hiking trails throughout the park that go through the grassy valleys, aspen and pine forests, and around mountain lakes. Some of the more challenging trails run along rock slides, waterfalls and on up to several mountain peaks. How about a hike up to the 14,260 ft. summit of Long’s Peak? Yep, me neither!

I have had the opportunity to visit this park in spring, summer and fall and I must admit that each season was very unique in its own way. Early spring had many of the park roads closed due to snow and ice – but it was wonderful hiking around frozen lakes in the snow and watching locals suit up for cross county skiing and snowshoeing. It was truly a winter wonderland with pristine snow, bright blue skies and few people. Summer brought out the green grasses, new forest growth, and fields of beautiful wildflowers. The temperature was great and the streams and lakes were crystal clear and very cold from the icy snow melt. Fall was a burst of colors. The trees turned every shade of yellow, orange and red and stood out from all the green pines, spruces, and firs. Animals were more visible as they were “chowing down” and storing fat before the winter came. Each season brings something new and different to the park and I was lucky to witness the various stages.

I have many favorite memories from my visits here. I loved hiking at a couple of the lakes with my husband last April. We trudged through deep powdery snow and followed trails through the forest along the water’s edge. The weather was mild and the sky was bright blue. John Denver’s music played in my head, “the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake” could not have been more appropriate. We sat and drank it all in. On another visit the following year, we hiked over a field of granite boulders and enjoyed a picnic at the Alluvial Fan. The waterfall here was amazing! One of the best experiences I had at Rocky Mountain National Park was a late summer morning when my friend Britten Echols and I arrived early to spend the day there exploring. Our first stop was at Sprague Lake. We were immediately shocked at the sight of a nearby momma moose, a baby moose (hidden in the grass close to us) and a young male moose  – both calmly standing in the lake eating moss. It was a “pinch me” moment and certainly not something we were used to seeing everyday in Texas! We walked around this entire lake and had a great picnic lunch before heading off for an afternoon hike around Bear Lake. By the end of this magical day, we had encountered several chipmunks, mule deer, a huge rutting elk, and a whole herd of bighorn sheep. It was an unbelievable day.

If you enjoy wildlife, adventure and nature – add Rocky Mountain National Park to the top of your bucket list! This whole park encompasses a breathtaking collection of mountains (most with elevations over 12,000 ft.), high tundras, gorgeous vistas, dense forests, 7 glaciers, 2 waterfalls, 147 lakes, and a treasure trove of animals. You can camp, rent a cabin, book a hotel in nearby Estes Park, or drive from the Denver area for a day trip. The park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Cost can range from $20-$70 per day, depending on the season, and I can promise the trip will be priceless!

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Me too, John….me too.

Please feel free to leave comments regarding this blog. I love to hear about your experiences and insights pertaining to the places I write about. I would also appreciate you subscribing to my Southern Savvy Blog so that you can continue reading about my travel and dining adventures. Thank you!

Temecula

California

I have heard rumblings regarding Temecula for the past couple of years from friends who have visited the Southern California wine country. My husband and I had a tennis trip planned to Palm Springs and decided to add this excursion and La Jolla to the end of our California vacation. I must say – it was a great decision and we thoroughly enjoyed our day spent in Temecula. I just wish we had planned to stay longer, though it does gives me a reason to return in the future!

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The Temecula Valley Wine Country is located a short distance from Palm Springs (90 minutes), San Diego (90 minutes) and Los Angeles (2 hours). The name is actually a Native American word meaning “the sun that shines through the mist.”  This Mediterranean micro-climate with morning mist, warm midday sun, and cool evening ocean breezes makes this area perfect for growing all varieties of grapes.

For those of you who have visited Napa and Sonoma further north in California, the major difference is the landscape. Temecula has mostly hillside vineyards and more picturesque views with mountain backdrops. The wineries seem more casual, less commercial, less crowded, and are not spaced as far apart. This area reminded me more of Tuscany than the northern California wine country.

Though we did not have the time to experience all that Temecula had to offer, I would still like to share what we learned from friends. The Old Town area has historic 1800s buildings, antique shops and restaurants “fit for foodies.” There are over forty wineries in the area. Some are small & boutique, some are full-service wine and food resorts. There are spas, clothing shops, a casino, gourmet restaurants, golf courses, bike trails, horseback riding and hot air balloon rides. With three million visitors per year, there are a wide variety of places to stay. Choose from brand-name hotels, quaint inns, motels, vacation rentals or Bed & Breakfasts. Several of the wineries we saw also had their own lodging on-site.

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With only one day in Temecula we had to choose just a few wineries to explore. We began at Wilson Creek Winery and enjoyed their beautiful outdoor patio and sampled their high quality sparkling wines. This winery had come highly recommended from friends due to their Almond Sparkling Wine – delicious!  I also give two thumbs up for their Sparkling Sangria,  Sparkling Peach Bellini and Sparkling Rose’. This is one of the larger wineries with gardens, private tours, tasting rooms, and a restaurant.

Our next stop was Maurice Car’rie Vineyard (another friend’s suggestion) which was housed in a large Victorian-style farmhouse. We sat at a table on the front lawn overlooking the rolling hills and sampled their Chardonnays (oak and non-oak) and ate lunch. They serve up a huge crusty round of sourdough bread with fresh-baked brie inside. It paired perfectly with their crisp white wine.  This little winery was friendly, relaxed and unpretentious.

Next on our agenda, and only a couple of minutes away, was Bel Vino Winery. This was a little boutique winery sitting high on a hillside with great views from their back patio. I enjoyed their sense of humor with liitle signs leading up the walkway with sayings such as,”Wine not?” and “Get Merloaded This Way!” It was here that I enjoyed a most delicious port served in an edible chocolate cup. Perfection! This was a a very casual winery with picturesque views.

Our final stop of the day was chosen strictly because of location and the beautiful scenery surrounding the winery. Callaway Vineyard and Winery sat high on a hill surrounded by twenty acres of vines in the heart of Temecula.  This was a very modern, multi-storied building with lots of glass and clean lines. The outdoor seating areas were gorgeous with spectacular views below. I enjoyed something new here, a white wine called Roussanne. It was cool, dry, and tasted like a full-bodied chardonnay. My husband and I sat outside, drank our wine, snacked on mixed nuts, and hated that we had to leave this beautiful wine country so soon.

Though we didn’t have time to visit all the wineries and vineyards that we would have liked to, we enjoyed seeing many on our drive (this area is not too spread out). Architecture ranged from authentic farm settings, to Victorian style, to Spanish influences, to Tuscan inspired buildings.  All were unique and most were inviting. Besides the four wineries I mentioned in this blog that we experienced – other popular wineries in this area include Vindemia Vineyard, Avensole, Carter Estate, Gershon Brothers, Hart Winery, Foot Path, Lumiere, Miramonte, Falkner, and Fazeli Cellars. 

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I hope if you are a lover of travel and wine that this blog inspires you to take a trip to this little hidden gem in Southern California. I would recommend at least a two or three day stay here in Temecula. It is the perfect trip to add on to if you find yourself in the Palm Springs, San Diego, La Jolla, Orange County, or Los Angeles area. You will be glad you did!

Cheers!

 

 

Orange Beach

Alabama

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When was the last time you went on a relaxing beach vacation? Maybe it is about time to plan that next excursion! How about a visit to Orange Beach where the Southern hospitality is as warm as the sun?

David (my husband) and I recently visited Orange Beach – my third visit and his first. I was born and raised in Mississippi and love returning to my roots in the deep South. You gotta love a place where several times a day you are addressed as “honey,” “sweetie,”  “sugar,” and told  “bless your heart”  in a friendly Southern drawl. Doors are held open for you, strangers strike up conversations, grits are a staple, and butter is served at every meal (whether you request it or not).

Orange Beach is located on the Alabama coast between Mobile and Pensacola, just down the highway from Gulf Shores. These beautiful beaches were a well-kept secret for many years but now more and more people, developers, and businesses have discovered this great little vacation spot. I guess it was just too difficult to keep Orange Beach’s 32 miles of  pristine white-sand beaches and turquoise waters hidden for too long. The soft white sand that makes up the beaches here looks and feels like powdered sugar. (It is made up of quartz grains that washed down from the Appalachian Mountains hundreds of thousands of years ago.)  These beaches are absolutely gorgeous and are now considered some of the best in the United States.

 On our most recent visit this February, David and I spent one morning at the Alabama Point East State Park. This park was located at the Perdido Pass Bridge and had plenty of free parking, picnic areas, restrooms, etc. What attracted us was the 6,000 feet of wide, white beaches and four boardwalks that led you over the sand dunes and sea oats and out onto the beaches. The sand, clear water, and unspoiled natural beauty of this area was breathtaking. One could spend hours or days here – loved it!

Another big perk about visiting Orange Beach is the wide variety of delicious food at your door step. Every season, there is some fresh catch-of-the-day being served! Choose from shrimp, crabs, oysters, grouper, flounder, or snapper just to name a few. Here are some of the places I have dined at in the past and enjoyed:  Cotton’s Restaurant is well-known for steaks and fresh seafood. It is located on the main drag in an old 1950’s wood-paneled, former beach house and has water views. Cobalt is located under the Perdido Bay Bridge with great views of the bay. They have tasty seafood dishes and are well-known for their creative happy hour drinks. Enjoy a meal or cocktail on their expansive patio located near boat slips for those coming by sea. There are some great sunset views here in the evening.  Cosmos is one of my favorite restaurants in this area. It is located a little off the beaten path and not near the beach, but is well worth the drive. Cosmos is an art-filled restaurant with outside bar, gift shop, live music and serves fancy Southern fare in a casual setting.  Lambert’s, just a short drive to Foley, is another area restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike. I can best describe it as “Cracker Barrel on steroids”. Lambert’s serves down-home Southern vittles with a flair. Fresh, hot baked rolls are thrown to your table from passing carts (or in Southern speak – rolls are “throwed” at ya!). Fried okra is spooned onto your paper towel and servers pass by your table serving up black-eyed peas, fried potatoes & onions, macaroni & tomatoes, and boiled cabbage as your side dishes. Other servers pass by with buckets of sorghum molasses and apple butter for your rolls. It is a meal and entertainment all in one! Another Broken Egg  and Brick and Spoon are both local, casual chains and are a “must do” for breakfast or brunch. They have wonderful service and top notch egg dishes, biscuits and gravy, French toast, beignets,  and many other dishes with a Southern or Cajun-Creole fare. Both had delicious brunch drinks including Mimosas, Bellinis and Bloody Marys….yum!

Orange Beach can appeal to old and young, couples or families. There seems to be something here for everyone to enjoy. There are several hiking trails, bird-watching areas and state parks in the area for those who want to get close to Mother Nature. There are dolphin tours, deep sea fishing charters, golf courses, biking trails and boat rentals.  Families with children can spend time at the water parks, miniature golf courses, and adventure parks. You can’t throw a shoe and not hit a T-shirt shop, beachwear boutique or souvenir shop for those who love shopping!

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sunset view at Cobalt

My favorite memories from here are the days just spent on the beach with no plans other than reading a good book. My “happy place” has always been sitting in a beach chair with an umbrella over my head and my toes buried in the sand. I can sit for hours listening to the sea breezes and the crashing waves on the shoreline.  I love walking up and down the beach searching for the perfect shell and laughing when a rogue wave tries to knock me down.  I always enjoy seeing the pelicans flying low over the waves and watching the speedy little shore birds looking for their next meal in the surf. In my opinion, days just don’t get much better than this. 🙂

Hope to see you on the beach soon. The “Redneck Riviera” awaits!

 

Sedona, Arizona

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Hopefully many of you are starting to plan trips and adventures for this next year. Check out Sedona  – it may be just the place for you!

My husband and I visited Arizona this past year and flew into Phoenix, rented a car, and drove through the scenic Verde Valley into Sedona. Nestled among striking red sandstone formations and surrounded by pine forests, steep canyon walls, and red rock buttes – the first views of Sedona will take your breath away. This area is well-known for majestic crimson and orange rock formations, a mild climate, lots of natural beauty, and strong energy forces (vortexes). Sedona had lots to offer and you can easily fill each day of your stay with a variety of activities.

The town itself is filled with restaurants, art galleries, New Age shops, spas, and shopping areas. It was mostly the variety of outdoor activities that attracted us to this area. Visitors to the Sedona area can run, hike, mountain bike, camp, rock climb, and off-road all around this vibrant, stunning landscape. We enjoyed a jeep tour, hiking trails, a psychic reading, and visited a popular energy vortex. We also used Sedona as a base for visiting The Grand Canyon one day.

Some of the places we enjoyed on our trip included:

Chapel of the Holy Cross – a small chapel built in a remarkable, surprising location.  It juts out of the mountain, on top of a red rock butte, with gorgeous panoramic views of the surrounding area.  Be forewarned! This was quite an uphill hike from the parking lot to the chapel….gasp….but well worth the views.

Cathedral Rock – a famous, huge red rock formation and one of the most photographed sights in Sedona. This place is very popular with experienced climbers and hikers. We enjoyed a scenic hike along the base of the rock and crossed dry creek beds, walked amid boulders, and saw all types of wild animal tracks.

Bell Rock – an upside-down, bowl-shaped rock that is very popular with the outdoor crowd. Trails run around and up into the sandstone formation. This location is frequented by the more advanced hikers and can be quite dangerous.

Honanki Ruins– We took a Pink Jeep Tour to view the cliff-dwelling remains of this ancient Pueblo sight. The ruin dates back to the 12th-14th centuries and has some stunning rock art and pictographs. Our tour was most enjoyable and our guide made the trip even better. He was very knowledgeable about the sights, the land, and the history – it made the visit much more interesting. 

Airport Mesa – this is a hiking loop around Table Top Mountain that gives you spectacular panoramic views of Sedona below. Hiking trails meander through basalt boulders and red rocks and end at a point where the strongest vortex in the United States is thought to be. This was one of my favorite hikes of our trip! Not only were the views fantastic, we met some really friendly locals and learned a little more about these mystical vortexes (which we never felt!).

McDonald’s – Sedona has the ONLY McDonald’s that does not have golden arches! What? I know!! The city government decided that the yellow arches clashed with the red rocks, so McDonald’s caved and allowed them to have the only restaurant with turquoise arches. You gotta love a color-conscious, artsy city who stands their ground.

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We thoroughly enjoyed getting red dirt on our hiking shoes every day and exploring a few of the trails around this area. There are countless trails all over Sedona and the rock formations that range from leisurely jaunts to long, challenging, backpack treks. Most of these areas have ample parking, restrooms, and well-marked trails. It truly is an outdoorsman’s and nature lover’s paradise.

One final word of advice if you plan a trip to Sedona – do not wear white shoes.

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Grand Canyon

Arizona – South Rim

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My first view of the Grand Canyon

Visiting the Grand Canyon has always been on my bucket list. It wasn’t until some close friends went a few months ago that the urge hit me again. Their photos were spectacular and I wanted to see it up close and personal for myself.

My husband and I planned a trip to Sedona, Arizona for a few days and decided this would be a great opportunity to drive on up to the Grand Canyon for a day. I had knee replacement surgery a few months ago and realized that days of hiking, riding burros, or camping overnight in the bottom of the canyon would not be for me. A day trip seemed to be the perfect option and it really was the right choice for us.

We had taken a Pink Jeep Tour to some ancient ruins on our first full day in Sedona and we had a wonderful tour guide named Stephen. He often drives tour groups into the Grand Canyon for the day and gave us some great pointers and advice. His suggestion was to drive into the park’s east entrance and return to Sedona through the south entrance, which is extremely busy and crowded. In other words, we would go against the traffic and crowds. It turned out to be great advice. 

The drive north from Sedona was quite scenic and enjoyable. It was a two hour drive with hardly any traffic. We drove through pine forests, curvy mountain roads, sparse desert mesas, and the flat red lands of the Navajo Nation. As we entered the Grand Canyon National Park’s east entrance, there were only two cars ahead of us. What great luck – thank you for the advice, Stephen!

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Our first stop was at the Desert View Visitor Center. This was a great spot with few visitors, ample parking, restrooms, restaurant, and a gift shop. There is a tall stone tower (modeled after ancient Puebloan towers) and an overlook with fantastic views of the Grand Canyon. This is where I walked up and got my first look at the majestic canyon. I will never forget that moment and readily admit that photos do not even come close to doing it justice. We stood for several minutes taking in all the colors, the expanse, the depth, and the silence. This was most certainly a true “pinch me” moment. There were some great views of the Colorado River from this overlook (over one full mile below us!).

We took our time here and grabbed a quick lunch before heading out towards the Grand Canyon Visitor Center at the south entrance. We stopped at several of the overlooks and pull-outs that our tour guide had suggested for us. Each stop gave us different views and a different perspective of the canyon. Mather Point, Navajo Point, and Grandview Point were a few of the stand-outs. The scenery was spectacular and there were only a few people at each of these stops. It was a most enjoyable day with almost perfect weather. 

 Later in the day we arrived at the South Rim Visitor Center. It was packed with tourists, tour buses, shuttle buses, and cars. Luckily we found a parking spot relatively close to the center and we found our way to the overlook area. Once again, the views were spectacular but there were so many people that it was difficult at times to get to the railing to take good photos. We then explored the area and it was expansive: restrooms, snack bars, gift shops, movie theater, information & education centers, bike rentals, shuttle stops, etc.  The most exciting thing about this stop was getting to see two elk that had wandered up to drink from the water fountains! 

Everyone has a different agenda when visiting the Grand Canyon and for us – one full day was enough. It was glorious, spectacular, breath-taking and immense.  David and I lucked up and had perfect weather this particular day. We enjoyed every minute of it and the images will be embedded in my mind for years to come. If you have never made this trip, I hope you will make plans. It was well worth the effort.

Check this one off my bucket list. It is done. Now on to my next adventure!! 

 

Cosanti

Scottsdale, Arizona

When an opportunity presents itself to see an art gallery – count me in! On a girl’s trip this past year with my daughter and sister-in-law to Scottsdale, my research kept turning up a place called Cosanti – a Paolo Soleri Studio. This artist’s studio is internationally known for lovely bronze windbells. I had never heard of the place, but I was sold.

Paolo Soleri (1919-2013) was an Italian born architect and craftsman artist who came to Arizona as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. Soleri popularized the term “arcology” – architecture and ecology as one. His Cosanti gallery and studio near Scottsdale is an Arizona Historic Site and a perfect example of his innovative architecture.

As I first entered the studio property, my first thought was – this is very different. It was a unique and imaginative environment with an almost “enchanted” vibe.  Odd shaped domes, columns, arches, pathways, native symbols, etc. give the whole place an other-world feel. Words really cannot describe it – my best analogy is a cross between a giant Smurf’s habitat and Luke Skywalker’s home planet! It is not large, but spacious enough to display hundreds of gorgeous bronze windbells that hang in domes, corners, and alcoves throughout the property.

Not only is Cosanti visually stimulating, but the sound coming from all the windbells is unforgettable. Some bells had deep, base tones – others were light and airy. Some were quite loud, others were very quiet and delicate. All around us, a light breeze stirred the windbells and the sounds were amazing – an unrehearsed, impromptu concert in a very fitting environment. 

On certain days, visitors can actually see the bronze bells being poured in the on-site foundry. Unfortunately, we arrived late one afternoon and did not have the opportunity to see this. Visitors can witness the silicon bronze ingots being melted in the foundry’s furnace and and see the melted bronze poured into reusable bell-shaped molds (each bell-piece was originally designed by Soleri). The Cosanti Hallmark design is then pressed into each bell impression to make it authentic. When cooled and removed from molds, each artist then creates their own personal designs. Each bell is unique – some have an oxidized bronze finish while others  have the greenish, patina finish. Approximately 50,000 of these windbells are hand-poured each year. (Prices ranged from $30 – $7000.)

Since 1956, Soleri windbells have been hung on patios, in courtyards, and gardens throughout the world. I can attest that two of these beautiful bronze windbells now hang on a back porch in Rockwall, Texas. I will never tire of their clear, peaceful notes and will fondly remember my visit to Cosanti Studios.

Check out this gallery if you are ever in the Phoenix or Scottsdale area and have a few minutes. Pick up a nice windbell souvenir for yourself…..or better yet – bring me another!!