2018 - Trip to Seattle and Alaska

This year Ivy and I did a big trip to Alaska on a cruise from Seattle.  We had always wanted to see Alaska and decided on a cruise as it was the most cost effective and easiest way to see different parts of the state.  The cruise was a week and visited major sites along the inside passage, a coastal route between islands along the Pacific Northwest.  We also spent some time in Seattle and had enough time to visit Mt. Rainier National Park.

The beautiful gardens of the Chihuly museum

The beautiful gardens of the Chihuly museum

Seattle

In total we spent four days in Seattle and one day at Mt. Rainier National Park, dividing our time before and after the cruise.  Being a major city on the west coast, Seattle had plenty to entertain us.  For our first leg we stayed in the Capital Hill district to the northeast of downtown, a very nice and easily walkable area with amble transportation to all the major sites.  While in Seattle, we did not rent a car as we decided to walk most of the time or use the link rail system, occasionally taking the bus.  For our first day fresh off a plane we took it easy and spent some time in Seattle center, visiting the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum as well as browsing the sites in the area.  We did not scale the Space Needle as it was a very cloudy day.  Seattle is of course known for lots of rain and lots of clouds.  The Chihuly museum was beautiful and very cool, although if you have seen the travelling exhibit before (and we did in Boston once), you might want to skip it as it's not very big and does not have many exhibits that are different from the travelling exhibit.  Nonetheless the outside park is wonderful and the centerpiece display in the glass house is stunning.

Ivy with the Pike's Market pig!

Ivy with the Pike's Market pig!

During our next day we focused on downtown, spending most of the day in Pike's Market, our favorite part in all of Seattle.  Pike's Market is a fantastic outdoor and indoor street market with food, goods, a variety of vendors and stores and excellent florists.  The raw seafood and meat is particular good and the florists make beautiful arrangements with a variety of flowers.  The original Starbucks is also here, with a long line, as well as a cheesemaker, a soda maker and dozens of other food vendors.  We ate fish and chips for lunch and it was delicious.  It is very crowded, as it's one of the most popular areas, but it's worth it.

During the afternoon, we went on Ride the Ducks of Seattle, which was also really fun and enjoyable.  Aside from touring the city, we went into the harbor and saw many areas of Seattle we otherwise would never have seen.  The harbor is especially neat as you get up close and personal with the many houseboats along the shores, houses that literally sit on a barge and can be driven out on the water.  They've very expensive, and only deep pockets can afford them!

After the cruise we stayed in a hostel downtown.  Seattle is expensive and hotels can go for three hundred a night or more.  The hostel was a short walk from Pike's Market and Pioneer Square, the latter being our focus for the second leg.  Pioneer Square is in Seattle's old town, the place where Seattle started, and so that means lots of history.  After walking the area a bit we hopped on a tour of the underground where you go beneath the streets and learn how Seattle has evolved over time.  Like many big cities Seattle is built on top of itself, and with the underground comes a fascinating account of Seattle's history.

For our last day in downtown, we ate lunch in Chinatown and went to the Seattle Pinball Museum, a really cool place that houses pinballs machines from current day to years past.  You can play them still, and as opposed to paying per game, you pay a flat fee for the day and play as long as you want.  Definitely fun and recommended.  More so, the Klondike Gold Rush Museum in Seattle, part of the National Park encompassing the gold rush, was very well done and probably our favorite part of the second leg.  They have a movie, various artifacts and an exhibit that takes you through the entire history of the golf rush.  It's also a free exhibit, so it's definitely worth checking out.

the cruise and Juneau

On our cruise with Seattle in the background!

On our cruise with Seattle in the background!

For our cruise, we decided on Princess Cruises, not only because it was one of the less expensive options but also because the itinerary included a visit to Glacier Bay National Park, something you need a special permit from the National Park Service for.  We boarded from a port northwest of Seattle which was very easy.  I think we were on the ship in fifteen minutes after getting off our Uber ride.  Once onboard, we ate lunch, checked into our room and enjoyed dinner and entertainment that evening.  The cruise itself was very nice, although neither one of us are big cruisers so days at sea were a challenge!  The first day of the cruise was very warm and so we were able to swim in the pools.  Once on route to Alaska however, it got chilly quickly.

Nikki and her two cubs

Nikki and her two cubs

After a day at sea (we celebrated our anniversary that evening with dinner at Share, their specialty restaurant, which was very nice), we arrived in Juneau early morning for a full day.  We left the boat after it docked and proceeded to take a city bus to Mendenhall Glacier, one of Juneau's best attractions, about a thirty minute drive from the docks.  Once we arrived, our bus driver told us to take a separate trail away from the glacier as we might see bears, and boy did we ever.  We turned a corner to the local mom Nikki with her two cubs, no more than 15 feet away from us beyond the railing.  Being early morning, it was not too crowded, and we even saw Nikki catch a salmon and feed it to her cubs!

Mendenhall Glacier!

Mendenhall Glacier!

After that amazing experience, we continued on to the glacier, which was beautiful amongst the surrounding landscape.  Although retreating, it's a wonderful site to behold.  There's a waterfall nearby as well that is equally as magnificent.  You can view both a short walk from the visitor center, or you can take an easy hike that is about an hour round trip.  We did both and the hike is definitely worth it, especially for the waterfall.  Don't pass up the visitor center.  They have an actual block of ice from the glacier you can feel!

After coming back to the ship for lunch, we ventured out again in the afternoon to explore.  Our ship didn't depart until 9PM, so we had ample time.  We roamed the streets, popped into a few shops, and rested at a local dive with great views of the water and the landing sea planes.  Early in the evening, I took the local tram up to the top of the mountains in the area, which afforded me incredible views of Juneau and the surrounding landscape.  While at the top, you can take a trail that goes even higher, which of course I did.  There's visitor centers and gift shops of course, a restaurants, and a bald eagle who can no longer be on its own.

The view from the top of the tram

The view from the top of the tram

Skagway and the white pass scenic railway

Beautiful scenery everywhere during our train ride

Beautiful scenery everywhere during our train ride

Arriving in Skagway the next morning, we took our first shore excursion from the ship, a glacial lake kayak followed by a train ride along the White Pass Scenic Railway.  This was a great excursion and the best one we did out of the three from the ship.  We started in a bus and drove to the lake, which was actually on the Canadian border, requiring us to show our passports.  Once at the lake, we fitted up and kayaked around the lake, surrounded by mountains, a crisp air and beautiful sunlight.  The lake itself was almost a teal blue with greyish undertones, and you could see spots where water from glaciers met water in the lake.  We also saw a Caribou up in the mountains.

After kayaking, we ate a snack and boarded the train for the ride back to Skagway.  We had the last carriage, and during the whole ride we could stand at the back or off to the sides and view the beautiful scenery.  It was incredibly cool, feeling the wind, watching the train tracks go by and listening to the fascinating stories from the tour guides.  The ride took an hour and change with a few stops.  As with the kayaking, the day was sunny and beautiful, so the views were spectacular.

More bears!

More bears!

After a quick run to the ship for lunch, we came back out for a second excursion, a wildlife expedition to Haines, a town about forty-five minutes away by ferry.  Unfortunately for this excursion, the weather turned rainy and cold, as it often does in Alaska, so our views of Haines were a bit limited.  We did however have a great time exploring the town and searching for wildlife.  We saw many bears, eagles and a bald eagle's nest, and we spent time exploring Haines once the weather cleared.  Between this excursion and other, we didn't have time to explore Skagway, our only regret from this stop.

Glacier Bay National Park

There were some definite highlights from this trip, and Glacier Bay was one of them.  For this day, the cruise ship sailed into Glacier Bay National Park and spent the day exploring, while naturalists onboard provided information over the loudspeakers for various landscapes and glaciers that we saw.  It's truly an amazing place, one that is really hard to describe without seeing it in person for yourself.  Everything is serene and undisturbed.  There is a blue tint to most things, and the glaciers themselves are ragged, sharp and very blue in color.  There are various shapes, colors and textures to them, with one being completely brown and another one being blue, just a few feet from each other.  There are incredible mountains of course, lush green vegetation and colored rock formations carved over many years from the ice.  Most of the glaciers are retreating, but a couple are not.  And we even got to see one calve, which is when part of the ice breaks off.  It sounds like slow moving thunder, and it's breathtaking.

Glacier Bay was incredibly beautiful

Glacier Bay was incredibly beautiful

Ketchikan and Misty Fiords National Monument

The rock formations were so cool

The rock formations were so cool

Like Skagway, we did not spend much time in the town of Ketchikan, but instead took our final excursion to Misty Fiords National Monument, located in the Tongass National Forest.  To get there, we boarded a ferry in port and sailed about an hour to the park, where we were treated with breathtaking views of rock formations carved from glaciers over many years.  Some of them almost look like giant skate parks, as the rock is smooth and shaped in a half bowl.  A couple have features that look like faces, and some of the rock have distinct colors and textures.  We saw seals on this trip and were treated to a local resident on the return trip who discussed the culture and history of the native people in the area.

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Beautiful Victoria all lit up at night

Beautiful Victoria all lit up at night

Our final stop on the cruise was a short three hour call to Victoria in British Columbia.  Cruise ships stop at a foreign port in compliance with the Jones Act, as otherwise they would need to carry only American personnel on the ship, raising their costs substantially.  Although we only had a short time, we took a lovely walk from the ship to downtown, which is known for wonderful gardens and flowers handing from the street posts, as well as city hall, an exquisite hotel and numerous lights at nighttime.  It's a beautiful city, and one we wish we had more time to spend.

Mt. Rainier National Park

On the day of our flight home (we scheduled a red eye overnight to Boston), we rented a car and drove to Mt. Rainier National Park outside of Seattle.  The drive itself was a couple hours from Seattle's international airport, and although the park is huge with many trails to explore, we were able to see the highlights in a day.  By far the coolest, and busiest, area of the park is Paradise, an area reached by car on the south slope of Mt. Rainier.  Just the drive alone is breathtaking as you weave around mountains going higher and higher in elevation (reminds me of Italy!).

Amazing Mt. Rainier

Amazing Mt. Rainier

At Paradise, we took the stunning Skyline trail, which gives you incredible views of the mountain and the landscape including the visitor's center and the various other peaks in the area.  There's also numerous lookout points that are fantastic in their own right, but the views of the mountain are the main attraction.  We were very fortunate to have a beautiful, cloudy free afternoon when we did the hike.  The morning and evening were cloudy, as well as the previous few days while we were in Seattle.  The hike itself is not too difficult, save for the elevation, and takes about an hour to two hours depending on how long you linger at various stops.

The remainder of the park is amazing as well, and big.  It took a few hours once in the park to drive around it, but the drives are gorgeous with many scenic lookouts, cool tunnels and changes in elevation.  Definitely plan for a full day at least, and ideally multiple days if you want to traverse the trails and get your full taste.  For dinner, we stopped in Enumclaw, WA on the way back to the airport, which we recommend.  It's a cute little town with numerous restaurants and a good vibe.

2017 - Trip to Toronto and Niagara, Canada

Niagara is one of those must see destinations certainly for anyone in New England (and probably anyone else), so when Ivy and I were trying to figure out how to spend out next holiday it was a obvious choice, given I had never been there.  Ivy had been before, when she was younger, but it was so long that going was a fresh perspective.  Along the way, we stayed in the Niagara lakes region and spent some time in Toronto, which I thought was a great city and certainly worthy of a trip on its own.

Niagara on the Lake

The beautiful wine fields!

The beautiful wine fields!

Niagara on the Lake was a ton of fun for me because it is one of the best areas for ice wine in the world.  Ice wine is a much sweeter wine that is higher in alcohol content.  It is made by harvesting grapes in the winter and it takes many more grapes to make ice wine than a more common wine like merlot or chardonnay.  We spent a few days touring the various vineyards in the area.  There are a ton of them.  Fields and fields on vineyards populate the environment, and the vineyards themselves range from very extravagant and fancy to a barn or a shack.  Each one has their own unique spin, adding aromas and taste from fruits, nuts, chocolate and others to the wine they make.  Each offers tasting and wine to purchase.  I highly recommend it.  The area is beautiful and a joy to drive around.

The area also features a central shopping avenue with restaurants as well as a theatre and other attractions.  Queen Street is the main hub and has typical window shopping and a very cool museum of apothecary, with tons of interesting artifacts from the old school pharmacy world.  The Shaw Festival Theatre is held in Niagara, and we were fortunate to catch a performance, which was a trial for me after drinking so much wine!  The area is wonderful to walk around and people watch.  The Prince of Wales hotel is particularly charming and the parks around the area are great to hang out and picnic in.

The cool garden clock!

The cool garden clock!

If you are planning on seeing Niagara Falls, you really should stay in the lakes region as opposed to a hotel near the falls.  It's less than an hour drive, maybe thirty minutes on a good day, and your drive takes you through great vineyards, countless parks (including the floral clock) and on windy roads along the waterways from the Great Lakes.  Stay in a bed and breakfast (ours was fantastic!).  As a bonus, the food options are better in the lakes region.  Really the area around Niagara should be reserved for kids.  It has things like Ripley's, mini-golf and other attractions more geared towards them.

The Falls!

Speaking of the falls, they are fantastic.  Definitely go with the Canadian side.  It's a far better view and offers more things to do than the American side.  We had the breakfast/lunch buffet at the Skylon Tower, which offers sweeping views of the falls from a very high location.  It's worth it, although the price is expensive obviously.  You'll have to take an open glass elevator to the top, so if you are afraid of heights that will be a challenge.  Fortunately, you don't feel the tower shake that much, even though it was a very windy day.

A shot of the falls from a high rise restaurant

A shot of the falls from a high rise restaurant

We also went on the boat that goes under the falls.  You'll need a poncho for that one, and it's a great way to experience just how intense the rush of water is for the falls.  I believe it is the largest water by volume fall in the world.  Afterwards if you are fortunate you'll get a nice rainbow.  The trip isn't long, although you may need to wait in line.  We also did the Journey Behind the Falls exhibit, which shows you some of the history and construction of the falls.  I would recommend both.

Toronto

From Niagara we ventured to Toronto, which is about a two hour drive along the major highway.  A few of the big attractions are the CN Tower, the aquarium and Casa Loma.  The CN Tower is extremely cool.  Again, not for those afraid of heights, but doable if you only have a minor fear.  It's a little steep in price but absolutely worth it.  The views are breathtaking and you are so high the wind whips so fast it almost knocks you over (don't worry, there are fences).  There's an inside and outside area, and you'll need a good sweater or jacket.  It's cold.

Toronto is a great city

Toronto is a great city

I really enjoyed Casa Loma because its various rooms offered many different photo opportunities.  The castle itself is beautiful, and I especially enjoyed the library and the garden.  I have a few favorites in the photo album for the library and especially the garden from the castle.  You can even go to the top of one of the towers and get a great view of the city.  Highly worth it and fun for kids as the castle acts as a sort of maze with lots of side entrances, stairs to climb and adventures to the upper attic areas.

Sadly not the real cup!

Sadly not the real cup!

Beyond those two, Toronto is stacked with attractions.  They have two great museums, a hockey hall of fame (and the Maple Leafs) and a couple excellent food markets, Kensington and St. Lawrence.  I was very impressed with the food markets, as it's the one thing Boston really doesn't have (no, Faneuil Hall does not count).  They have a great variety of meats, vegetables, nuts, candies, dairy and tons of other cooking and baking ingredients and supplies.  The Hockey Hall of Fame has tons of history, endless memorabilia and some really fun exhibits such as a shooting and goaltending challenge where a machine fires pucks at you.  Oh and it also has the Stanley Cup.  You may have heard of it.  Sadly, the playoffs were going on while we were there, so we had to settle for a replica.  Next time!

2017 - Trip to Denmark

After much deliberation and planning, Ivy and I spent our holiday this year touring Denmark!  It was our first time in the Scandanavia region, and athough we didn't visit Sweden, Finland or Norway, we spent two weeks and saw most of the big hits Denmark had to offer.  Incredibly easy to tour, we stayed in five places: Copenhagen, Aero, Odense, Ribe and Aarhus.  Denmark is small enough that you can drive from one place to another in an hour or so, and even our longest drive from Aarhus back to Copenhagen was no more than four hours or so.

Copenhagen

Beautiful Copenhagen from our hostel!

Beautiful Copenhagen from our hostel!

We landed in Copenhagen on a Saturday morning.  The flight was great (we flew KLM) as we were able to overnight after leaving Friday evening, EST.  A little tired, but excited, we started with a walking tour, which was a great way to get oriented to the city and see some of the cool sights.  Our guides were fantastic.  Along the way, we sampled delicious Danish hot dogs, which were definitely consumed more than once, and walked the old city, as well as the various castles and cathedrals spread out in the city.

Our hostel was excellent.  It was located right near Tivoli, had excellent and safe amenities and provided fantastic views of Copenhagen.  We stayed there all four nights and had no issues at all, although the beds could use replacement :)

The traditional food in Denmark is nothing to write home about (which the Danes will definitely tell you) but the new Scan is top notch.  We ate at Host, which employs many of the cooks from Noma, which closed recently.  Noma was considered the top restaurant in the world by various publications before it closed.  We also visited the old fish market and Kodbyens Fiskebar, which was delicious as well.  Unfortunately for them, they were beaten by War Pigs, which served American barbecue (awesome) and tons of great local brews.  By the way, the Danes are really into beer.  We actually went to War Pigs twice, the second time on the night before our flight.  Both times it was packed.

Copenhagen is incredibly special.  It's one of the few places I could really see myself living permanently.  It's beautiful, filled with kind people, alive and brimming with festivals and life.  Their attractions are top notch.  To name a few, Nyhavn is a picture perfect port that today is a main tourist attraction.  It used to be seedy and dangerous before the city cleaned it up.  Rosenberg Slot is an excellent castle with the national crown jewels.  Christiania is a very unique, independent community of free-thinkers and artists who live an alternative lifestyle near the old packing district.

Tivoli is amazing at night.

Tivoli is amazing at night.

I could go on for pages on each attraction, but I'll pay special attention to Tivoli, which was our favorite place on the whole trip.  Tivoli is their amusement park, and it's the second oldest in the world after Dyrehavsbakken, which is nearby, also in Denmark.  We went at night, on our first day actually.  Their lighting is incredible.  They have very unique lanterns all throughout the park, as well as various rides with their own flair to them.  Within the park are restaurants, an old manually operated roller coaster, beautiful gardens, an open space for festivals and tons of stalls selling everything from candy to fried chicken.  This is where Walt Disney was inspired to create Disney World, and you can absolutely see it.

Roskilde and Aero

We spent four days in Copenhagen and loved every minute of it.  After picking up our rental car, we headed west to Roskilde, a town known for their cathedral and a Viking shipbuilding museum.  Both were amazing.  The Viking museum in particular was excellent, as you were taken through not only a history of the Vikings and their shipbuilding prowess but also the excavation process and how painstaking it was to put the ship artifacts back together.  The main museum displayed four partial originals of the Viking ships, and the grounds offered ropemaking, shipmaking classes, activities for kids and some excellent replicas that have been built by the staff.

Awesome shipbuilding!

Awesome shipbuilding!

We only spent the afternoon in Roskilde, and later that evening we took a ferry to the island of Aero (inaccessible without the ferry).  Aero is a picture perfect seaside town that also serves as a vacation destination for many Danes on the mainland.  Its main attraction is the environment itself, as it features fields of beautiful farms, cute little houses and great bike lanes and paths that allow you to tour the whole island.  The bike ride we did was phenomenal.  It was a gorgeous day (we later learned the good weather was highly unusual), and the wheat fields looked like an artist painted them.  I biked twice, going opposite directions from Aeroskobing (the main town) each day.  The variety of the environment was stunning.  If you are a biker, this needs to be on your bucket list, but go when the Danes go.  Shoulder season is a bit sparse for our taste.

Odense and Egeskov Slot

Before heading to Odense, which was our next overnight destination, we visited Egeskov Slot, as I wanted to visit a true moat castle.  It's about halfway between Odense and Svendborg, the town where you board the ferry, and like most things in Denmark, easily accessible by car and their transportation system.

Check "seeing a castle with a moat" off the bucket list!

Check "seeing a castle with a moat" off the bucket list!

While the castle is stunning and rightfully so, the grounds are just as good.  Some of the most incredible gardens can be found here, and you can easily waste a day wandering around the vast arrangements, getting lost in a bunch of flower pictures, as I almost did.  You'll get a map of the grounds with your ticket, and a first time visitor should follow the path laid out in the map.  Otherwise, you'll find yourself doubling back, and seeing the whole thing will definitely take most of the day.

The inside of the castle features artifacts and rooms not uncommon from other Denmark castles, but one piece stands out.  Titana's Palace, a massive dollhouse built over the span of fifteen years for the daughter of Sir Nevile Wilkerson.  Taking up a whole room, it's simply the most incredible dollhouse I've ever seen.  The detail is so intricate it's incredible, and the shear scope of the time to build every piece and every room is mind-blowing.  My photos don't do it justice.  It's something you have to see for yourself.

We spent two nights in Odense, which is best known for being the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson.  HC, as the locals call him, is revered in the city, and we also happened to be there during the HC festival.  This meant lots of fun street performers and extra emphasis on the author best known for the Little Mermaid (although not the Disney version!)

The HC museum was fantastic and very well done.  It featured various artifacts and an excellent visual history of the author's life, from his small beginnings to the career he was known for.  Not much of the house survives, but it's part of the tour, and it's an excellent example of how cramped daily life was during his time.

Ribe

Ivy under tree cover!

Ivy under tree cover!

Our next stop was Ribe, an old medieval style town on the western side of the country.  Known as one of Denmark's prettiest and best preserved historical towns, it features a shopping area, great sideway streets and a central square with a massive cathedral.  On the weekends, many weddings occur in the square, sometimes up to four or five a day!  The town is also known for requiring owners to live in their residences, thereby preventing investors and numerous rentals in the town.

Maybe the coolest part of our stay was Hotel Dagmar, an old converted jail re-purposed as an inn.  You literally slept in jail cells, although in this case you had the key :).  And you couldn't beat the location.  It was located right on the square.  In fact, it was directly across from the cathedral itself, so on Saturday morning we woke up, walked outside and there was a wedding right there!

In the evenings you have the opportunity to walk the town with the night watchman.  He meets in the square twice a night and offers tours in English, Danish and German.  German is very popular in the area due to the proximity to Germany.  The tour itself is fascinating.  You'll hear numerous interesting stories about the town, the people and the buildings, of which some date back centuries.

The area around Ribe is fantastic as well.  They have beautiful gardens, churches, a few interesting museums and many places to just explore and get lost.  There is a walking history tour that is self-guided, and it's a great way to see the various history around the town.

Aarhus

Your Rainbow Panorama!

Your Rainbow Panorama!

Our final stay was Aarhus.  Aarhus is Denmark's second largest city, and features a thriving arts community, numerous restaurants, a cool riverway and an excellent college feel.  It's funky, artsy and alive as college towns tend to be.  Arriving in the afternoon, we stayed footsteps from the central square and visited many of the major attractions in the central city.

Aarhus's best attraction, in our opinion, is the ARoS modern art museum.  It is to me, the best modern art museum I've ever seen.  Multiple floors display numerous works of art from various artists all over the world.  The theme ranges from hell in the lower basement levels to heaven in the top levels.  It's greatest pieces are "Boy" by Ron Mueck, "Valkyrie Ran" by Joana Vasconcelos and "Your Rainbow Panorama" by Olafur Eliasson.  "Boy" is an incredibly lifelike sculpture of a young boy in a crouch position.  "Valkyrie Ran" is a massive, colorful and textile creature that spans the length of the museum. "Your Rainbow Panorama" is an incredible three hundred sixty degree circular walkway at the top of the museum where the city is shown in a circular display of color, as in a rainbow.

After Aarhus, we were exhausted.  We drove back to Copenhagen for our flight the next morning, and along the way, stopped for something different: the zoo in Odense.  It was a good idea.  The animals were fun and the layout easy.  Once you have two weeks of cathedrals and museums, you're done for a while, and the zoo was just what the doctor ordered.  Our flights home were uneventful, and so concluded our excellent and memorable trip to Denmark.

2017 - Trip to Cumberland Island, GA

It's becoming a yearly tradition every Februrary for Ivy and I to visit Patty and Judy (Ivy's mother and her best friend) in St. Simon's, Georgia.  Patty and Judy winter down there, and Februrary break provides a nice opportunity for us to get away and enjoy some 75 degree weather.  January and Februrary are usually the two coldest months of the year in New England, and so going someplace warm is a plus in Ivy's book.  Plus there's golf, a great town, beautiful nature, homemade dinners and cards.

It was a gorgeous day!

It was a gorgeous day!

This year we travelled with Leah and Chris, two of our great friends who were also visiting the island.  Leah's parents have a home there, and ironically, it's five minutes away from the house Patty and Judy stay in.  Between the four of us, we arranged to go to Cumberland Island, a protected national seashore accessible only by ferry, and we took our "parents" with us.

The Island

It was a beautiful sunny day in the mid 70's.  We left around midday, which meant sunblock and a difficult time for me taking pictures :).

Our ferry was the Cumberland Queen, run by a private company I believe.  The trip took about 45 minutes, with plenty of space for everyone and their luggage.  Some people camp on the island, which you can do in designated spaces.  We decided to take our bikes, which turned out to be a wise move.  The island is big, deceiving so, and having our bikes allowed us to cover ground that would not have been possible on foot.

On the way we spotted some beautiful ships and a gorgeous sailboat.  We passed the time chatting and admiring the landscape.

Beautiful Scenery

Really cool tree growth.

Really cool tree growth.

Once we got to the island it was clear that it shared much of the same beauty as other places we had visited in the area, such as Jeckyl.  The trees were especially cool, winding their way around themselves in a labyrinth of twists and turns, all surrounded by trails and green.

The island divided itself into multiple parts.  There was the lush, green tree covered areas, as in the picture to the right, as well as marshland and the beach.  We stayed on the southern part of the island, as that's what was recommended, due to some points of interest and the proximity to the dock.

The beach was peaceful, serene and beautiful.  It extended for what seemed like miles in either direction and was unspoiled.  Dunes protected the marshland from the water, and the sand was pristine.  The bikes were most fun here, as we could ride them till our hearts content on the harder surface of the sand.

What a shot!

What a shot!

To the left is the best picture I got while shifting my body forty five degrees and riding my bike.  Someone I lucked out and got a nice symmetric pattern that included Chris in the front and two people flanking him to his right and left.  It even has a circular curve to it!

History, Mansions and Horses!

There were other cool parts of Cumberland as well.  A rich history was present on the island, with slaveowners, former slaves who found freedom and prospered on the island, and massive houses that were once the residences of the ultra rich.  One such house burned down after it was abandoned, and you can actually stay on the island in a remaining mansion, although it will cost you to do so.

But the most memorable aspect of Cumberland is the wild horses, who are protected and roam freely on the island.  They are very used to people and essentially live a happy life wandering around and grazing.  Brought by the wealthy when the island was home to them, they were abandoned as well when they left.  Today the National Park Service watches over them, and it was a thrill to see them up close.  Even in the midday harsh sun, I was able to capture some great, although very contrasty, pictures of them, up close as I pleased.

Horses!

Horses!

Our day ended before dinnertime with a ferry back to the mainland.  Maybe someday we'll go back and camp.  I'd relish the chance to photograph the island in sunrise and sunset someday!

2016 - Trip to New Orleans, LA

We recently took a trip to New Orleans and I have to say that it was a really cool place to visit. The food was amazing, the art was amazing and the city itself felt very alive. The hotel we stayed at was called Hotel St. Pierre and it came complete with about 20 rooms, an air-conditioned lobby, cookies in the afternoon, breakfast in the morning, cold water whenever you wanted (which was a plus in New Orleans) and a little pool in the back that served as an oasis during the middle of the day.

New Orleans itself was hot. Very hot. We knew this going in and I was prepared for the amount of humidity I was about to face, however, it was still brutal. The hotel in addition to being in the middle of the French Quarter provided a great place for us to go and relax if we got too hot or tired.

Food and Beignets!

They were super yummy.

They were super yummy.

The best part about New Orleans was by far the food. We had two really nice dinners, some amazing lunches and great desserts. Jonny’s Po'boys in the French Quarter is where we went for lunch one day. It was one of those hole in the wall places with a line out the door where people stood in various corners of the room, as close to the air conditioner as they could get, chowing down po'boys and gumbo as fast as they could. On our first night there we went to the Garden District west of the city and ate at a place called Petite Grocery.  It was fabulous and probably the best meal we had the whole trip.  During our last full day when we visited the World War II Museum we ate at a butcher that was more like an upscale lunch spot and had delicious sausages, pulled pork and other great Southern sides.

Of course I can’t mention New Orleans without talking about the beignets. We had them twice and they were as delicious as we thought they would be. Sort of a cross between a doughnut and a fried dough, it was presented in the shape of a square and covered in sugar; a lot of sugar. You got three of them and if you wanted coffee, hot chocolate or something else you could get that as well, but that was pretty much the menu. Café Du Monde was located right near the Mississippi River in the French Quarter. Most of the time it was pretty busy but we found time to get there as we walked through the city.  When the sit down area was busy you could also go to the take-out window and order without sitting down; a good solution if you planned on walking the shops.

Probably one of my favorite parts of the trip was Frenchman Market. This was everything Faneuil Hall in Boston should be but way better. It had lots of great food and a ton of vendors selling sometimes touristy things but a lot of times unique things. The picture to the left is a Piña Colada that I got from one of the food vendors. Ivy got a Strawberry Daiquiri and it was so big I think she spilled half of hers on her shirt. It was definitely neat to see how they made the drinks. New Orleans is an open container city where you can take alcohol in plastic cups, so lots of people walked around with drinks in their hands.

Bourbon Street and the Trolleys

The trolleys were cool!

The trolleys were cool!

Bourbon Street was nothing special at all. I had never been and I had heard that it was a pretty rambunctious place. We ended up only walking down it twice; once to take in the spectacle at night and another time to go visit the few Jazz bars. We passed by in the morning lots of times because our hotel was only two blocks away from the street.  Thankfully we couldn’t hear the loud music or the crowd from our hotel.  In the morning quite a sight. All the restaurants and bars tried their best to clean up from the previous night. They basically had buckets of soap and water and through them against the side of their buildings.  A big city truck came by to dump a whole bunch of soap and water, which they promptly used to mop up the sidewalks and streets.  Even still, you could smell the stench from a block away in either direction, whether it be North or South, East or West.  Yea, it was as disgusting as it sounds.

The trolleys were especially cool because New Orleans is so old at least comparatively to the United States. They have these old-school trolleys similar to what you would find in San Francisco. One goes West out to the Garden District while another goes North to City Park. Others go to various parts of the city.  We took the one West to the Garden District when we went to dinner our first night that was the coolest one because it was the oldest.

Other Adventures

Gotta love love!

Gotta love love!

As we began to make our way through the city stopping at shop after shop we eventually realized that we needed a break if even for a day. We decided to take a swamp tour as they were very popular with the tourists and a bus could pick us up from our hotel. We didn't rent a car because we knew we’d be walking around the French Quarter most of the time. That’s where we saw alligators, which were really cool to see, and the swamp itself was beautiful. We got into a twenty person boat captained by a gentleman who had grown up in the swamp and who knew everything about it. He told us stories, dolled out some history and discussed much of the environmental aspects of the swamp with us. Mental note: Don’t jump in the water and try swimming with the alligators.  They will eat you.

I am displeased...at something.

I am displeased...at something.

On our final day we went to the World War II Museum which was the number one rated attraction on TripAdvisor and something that I had deftly been looking forward to. At first I was little disappointed. The layout was kind of odd, the movie we saw was very pro-American and the museum didn't seem to have much information about some of the other countries besides the United States and what their impact was on the war. However, after we had lunch and we went back the main gallery, we saw a very good, very detailed exhibition about the drive of the Allies from Normandy to Berlin as well as some of the campaigns in Africa. The western theater with Japan was also covered. The coolest part of the museum, at least for me, may have been the end when we went into their newest building with many World War II era airplanes on display, hanging from the ceiling. Some of them were absolutely enormous, and I was floored at how big they really were. Because of the rain and the overcast sky, we were provided with really good lighting against all of the metallic surfaces of the planes.  They also had a great catwalk system that allowed you to go to various levels of the build and see the planes from a variety of angles, including from above, to the side and below.

Our beautiful inn!

Our beautiful inn!

So all in all we had a great time in New Orleans. I would highly recommend the food and the various shops in the Frenchman Market. If there is one regret that I have it's that we didn’t spend a lot of time traversing all of the art shops and the markets that were available. There were a great deal of very unique pieces and although we did get some pieces of art for our house as well as souvenirs for family members we definitely rushed through it a bit.  The music was great but go listen on Frenchman Street, not Bourbon Street.  Spend most of your time eating and you can't go wrong.

2016 - Trip to Grand Cayman

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Grand Cayman Islands with Ivy and some of our best friends; Gabi, Jess and Suzy.  We were there during April vacation of this year.  We left on a Saturday out of Laguardia in New York and returned one week later to the same airport.  Both flights were direct to Grand Cayman's primary airport in Georgetown.

Suzy is happy with Plantana!

Suzy is happy with Plantana!

Upon landing we rented a car and took a short drive to our hotel, Plantana, on Seven Mile Beach.  It was actually a condo with units owned and rented as owners lived somewhere else.  We loved it.  It was right near the beach and easily accessible from most of the island.  The rooms were spacious, well decorated and very comfortable.  We all stayed in one condo that had three bedrooms.  It had a small kitchen with all the essentials, a built in washer and dryer and a nice little deck that overlooked the rest of the complex.  For what we paid for it (which was not cheap but not overly expensive), we thought it was great.

The condo included a pool, some nice grounds to walk around, beach furniture and towels, games for the little ones and a hammock for afternoon naps.  The pool was especially nice.  It was in-between you and the beach, so you could start at the pool, venture to the sand, make your way to the ocean, and repeat the process in the opposite direction.  Everyone was quite happy to say the least!

Late in the afternoon while I still had my camera (more on that later), I thoroughly enjoyed taking pictures of the grounds, including the abundant plant life.  There was quite a wide variety.  My favorite was probably how the sunlight reflected off the trees in the afternoon.  Almost every day was sunny, so it was in full supply.

On our first day we ventured out to the western side of the island. We had two cars at our disposal but took one as we could all squeeze in. Thankfully I was used to driving on the right side of the road from Ireland last year, so the driving was painless and accident free. Our first stop was this GREAT fish shack called the Grapetree Cafe run by a local family. It was incredibly windy, but none of us cared. We devoured our lunch and continued onward past some sites, eventually landing at Rum's Point, on the tip of the island to the North.

Rum's Point was a beachy, sit down hangout complete with restaurants, shacks and places to rent jet skis. There was some snorkeling and fish for the vacationers, but nothing like we would see later. We hung out for a couple of hours before venturing back.  It was beautiful.  You could lay in chairs all day long and waste the days away!

Diving!

Ivy is ready to dive!

Ivy is ready to dive!

Of all the things Ivy and I did in Grand Cayman, this was the main event. Diving was the main draw here, with hundreds of sites to choose from and a vast ecosystem of life.

We went with a company called DiveTech, who were great from start to finish. They helped us with our gear, explained everything we needed to know and even drew maps for us at each dive site we went to! Was it worth it? You bet it was. We saw lobsters, fish as big as half my body, crabs, a small shark, turtles, more fish, beautiful coral and about fifty other marine life I've forgotten. Ever been swimming in an aquarium? This was it. We did five dives in total. One night dive, one wreck, one wall and two reef dives, each in a different spot and each sporting different marine life.

Jet Skis and Stingrays

Besides diving, the number one tourist attraction is probably the stingrays.  There's a shallow area of surf off shore, no more than waist high, where they congregate.  For many years, fisherman fed them their scraps, so they learned to always come back, as it was basically free breakfast, lunch and dinner for them.  Someone figured out that tourists might want to see this, and the rest is history.  At any point of the day you can find at least seven to ten boats around the area, each brimming with people eager to play with the stingrays.

For this, I have to give a hand to our tour operator EBanksWatersports.  They were fantastic.  They had not one but TWO jet skis break down and they were able to tow and mozy along.  We got a solid hour and change on the jet ski and an incredible experience with the stingrays.  They actually knew how to handle them, picked them up, and we got to hold them.  I even felt one on my back!  Slimy.  And for those of you wondering, no, they do not sting.  Why jeopardize free food? If I were a stingray, I certainly wouldn't.

Snorkeling and the Mangroves

The mangroves are beautiful!

The mangroves are beautiful!

For our next two adventures, we took a boat tour and a kayak tour, both from the dock of the marina. The boat tour was relaxing and enjoyable. We snorkeled twice, listened to Captain Crosby sing on the guitar, and just generally enjoyed the warm weather. The snorkeling, while not as fantastic as the diving, was still excellent in it's own right. Since Grand Cayman is surrounded by reefs, you can go to a plethora of sites that have shallow areas and watch the fish swim along, coming right up to you. This was also where I saw a shark, albeit a small one, but only for a few seconds. It apparently didn't want to get that friendly.

The mangrove tour was a nice break from the watersports we had been accustomed to by now. We glided along, weaving our way through the mangrove vegetation, watching for lizards and other wildlife along the way. While we didn't see much in the way of wildlife, it was still peaceful and enjoyable. The only rough part for me personally was when I dropped my camera in the water, effectively destroying it. Thankfully I had insurance, but I've learned my lesson. Always carry a waterproof case.

The Botanical Gardens and My Best Friend Eddy

This was a real treat. On the last full day on the island, Ivy and I were unable to dive (you have to wait 24 hours to fly), so we planned a day to go see the botanical gardens on the eastern side of the country. We piled into the car and hour later were walking through a very nice, well maintained park with highlights of all the vegetation native to Grand Cayman.

Eddy is a cool dude.

Eddy is a cool dude.

The best part of the park were the blue iguanas, and my new best friend Eddy. Blue iguanas are native to the island, and for a while, they were in danger of extinction. Grand Cayman authorities established a protective zone for them, and they've slowly made their way back. Some are wandering in the park, but most are in an enclosed space. We couldn't take a tour of the enclosed space, but we were able to see them through special viewing areas in the walls. I thought that was it, but when I looped back to see them one last time before leaving, I saw Eddy (yes, I named him).

Eddy was chilling out on the side of the path, just hanging out and minding his own business. Probably looking for lunch, I sat down next to him and watched. He slowly but surely made his way across the path and to the other side, high fiving me along the way (ok, that didn't happen). All the while I snapped some pictures, and warned passerbyers not to disturb him as he walked by. After about a half an hour, Ivy and Jess showed up and got to see him. We all waved goodbye, and Eddy went on his merry way.

Fish Tacos!

The food in Grand Cayman was great, especially for an island that doesn't have much in the way of making their own food. Besides the seafood, they have to import everything else. What took the cake, however, were the fish tacos at Sunshine Grill. They were made three different ways if you liked, and came with lots of different dipping sauces. They were so good that when Ivy and I went for lunch (and Gabi, Jess and Suzy went for lunch on their own) we agreed we needed to go back one more time before flying home.

A Final Ride Home

As we flew back home, we all agreed vacation was awesome.  For Ivy and I, it will always be extra special because it was our first real diving destination.  You can check out more pictures on my photography site, and I'll leave you with a final picture of the family, chilling at the dock.

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