Book Club Pick: Into Thin Air

1898Title: Into Thin Air
Author: Jon Krakauer
Genre: Nonfiction Adventure
Publisher: Villard Books
Publication Date: May 1, 1997
Pages: 368
Format Read: Paperback book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Unknown
Date finished reading: May 11, 2020

Goodreads Description: A bank of clouds was assembling on the not-so-distant horizon, but journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that “suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down.” He was wrong. The storm, which claimed five lives and left countless more–including Krakauer’s–in guilt-ridden disarray, would also provide the impetus for Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s epic account of the May 1996 disaster.

My Review: When my book club voted for this book, I was thrilled to read an adventure story about Everest, especially since travel is so limited in the world right now. I had been wanting to read Jon Krakauer for a while. What better place to start than by reading about the highest point in the world from the comfort of my couch.

This story started off as an article in Outsider magazine. However, after some harsh criticism, Jon Krakauer decided to dive further into his and others’ experiences on Everest during that tragic May expedition in 1996. His interviews led to the realization that some of his memories from his time on and near the Everest summit had been inaccruate – most likely from the lack of oxygen.

Whatever the reason for writing this book, whether it be survivor’s guilt or trying to make sense of this event that costs the lives of his fellow hikers, Jon Krakauer wrote one hell of a great story. This book included a historical introduction to Everest and expeditions on Everest. The descriptions of Everest and mountaineering on Everest made you feel like you were right there with the hikers. An expedition on Everest is so much more involved that I could have ever imagined. A hiker spends days/weeks on this expedition. Much of that time is spent acclimating to the high elevation, and then the hiker gets one shot at reaching the summit, as one should not spend an extended time at that elevation.

By the time the final summit hike for Krakauer and the hikers came, I was very invested in them and their trek. That made this story even more heartbreaking. It was thrilling and terrifying. There were twists and turns and lot of moments that surprised me. The book club found lots to discuss.

Of course, we had to discuss mountaineering first and one’s motivation to climb Everest. Then we discussed the sherpas that risk their lives to pave the path for the hikers and assist them on their journey for very little money. I think Jon Krakauer tried to bring to light the mistreatment of sherpas.

Finally we discussed the actual tragic events that took place on May 10th and the following days in 1996. We debated on whether this was a natural disaster or a man-made disaster. We discussed the decisions made by everyone during the summit trek, when the storm hit, and the days afterwards.

Not only did every member of the book club read this book, but for days we have been sending each other links related to Everest. We have not run out of things to talk about when it comes to this expedition and Everest. It is surprising, based on this excitement, that everyone rated this the highest rating of all our previous reads. I personally am looking forward to reading more by Jon Krakauer.

The book club unanimously loves Beck Weathers! ♥♥♥

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

Book Club Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

St. Lucia – January 2019

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What better way to start the new year than by spending a day having adventures around sunny St. Lucia. St. Lucia was the third port on our Princess Cruise in the Caribbean.

While it may be scary to book an excursion outside of your cruise line (for fear that the excursion won’t get you back to your port in time for departure), we are so glad we did, as it was the best time of our trip! We managed to do just a little research before leaving for the Caribbean and found a wonderful excursion option suggested by Excursion Everywhere. This excursion was hosted by Cosol Tours and was an adventurous way to see so much of St. Lucia in a day. We were given clear instructions on a meeting point near where our ship docked. Here we met up with our guide, Cassius. He was fantastic! Here are some highlights from our day:

Banana Plantation: Cassius gave a tutorial on the production of bananas on St. Lucia, which is the second highest source of income for the island. Here we also got to try banana ketchup, banana bbq, and banana spiced rum.

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Fishing Village of Anse La Raye (see picture on the right)

Brunch: Multiple tables full of local cuisine

Overlook of the Twin Pitons (see picture at top of page)

Sugar Beach: We gook a water taxi to a beach located between the Twin Pitons, where we had plenty of time to relax on the beach, swim and snorkel.

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Soufriere Volcano & Sulphur Spring Park: We drove into the volcano, the world’s only drive-in volcano, and then took a mud bath in the hot 20190112_211452springs. (see picture on the far right)

Toraille Waterfall: We of course did not get all the mud off from the hot springs, but a quick soak under a rapid waterfall helped with that problem. (see picture on the right)

Another meal: We worked up quite an appetite after all those wonderful water activities. We were fed delicious bread and cheese and enjoyed some local beer.

They certainly filled our day with lots of adventures and got us back to our ship with plenty of time to wander around the port a bit, though to be honest, we were pretty exhausted. It was the best $75 per person we spent on this trip!

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A Day in Antigua – December 2018

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Our second port on our Caribbean cruise brought us to Antigua. We again did not have a plan of what to do or see in Antigua. I guess you could just say that we were winging this trip. Luckily after disembarking from the cruise ship, one of the first buildings on the main street was an information office. We stopped in there to try to see if we could arrange a zip-lining excursion, but we were unable to get others to join, which would have made the excursion affordable, so we opted to take the free self-guided walking tour of St. John’s that was included in the map that they gave us.

Here are some of the highlights of that self-guided walk:20181231_113858

  • St. John’s Cathedral – a focal point of St. John’s landscape was originally built in 1681 but destroyed twice by earthquakes. The current structure, built in 1848, is located on a hill overlooking much of the city.
  • The Government House – official office of the Governor General, a position created after Antigua and Barbuda became independent in November of 1981.20181231_105616
  • The Antigua Recreation Grounds – hosts premier football, international cricket matches and the annual Carnival festival.20190204_105630

We had worked up an appetite from the walk around the city and stopped at the Antigua Habour Cafe and Restaurant that overlooks the harbor for a relaxing lunch and tasty fruity drinks. After lunch, we found a cab just one block over. We wanted to visit one of the forts on the island and maybe go to a beach. The cab driver recommended Fort20181231_160614 James, which turned out to be right next to Fort James beach. We got two great options and only had to spend $25 (solely for the roundtrip cab ride), plus the cab driver waited for us and took us back to the ship when we were done. We walked around the fort for about 45 minutes, enjoyed the beautiful and secluded beach and then decided to have a beer at Beachlimerz, which is a high-rated bar and restaurant. Overall, it was a very affordable and convenient excursion.

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However, our day wasn’t without a little stress and excitement. We are going to share our little embarrassing story just as an example that even if you travel frequently like we do, you can still make mistakes. After paying and exiting our taxi, we started walking over to an outdoor market, when my husband realized that he didn’t have our backpack. We had either left it in the cab or at restaurant. While we had our money and identification on our bodies, we still didn’t want to lose the items we had in our bag. Unfortunately, our cab had driven away. We remembered what our cab looked like and who our driver was and, by nothing short of a miracle, found she hadn’t driven very far due to the busy traffic on the main road. Our bag was not in the cab, and she agreed to take us back to Beachlimerz to see if we left it there. She was super nice about it and chatted with us during the ride, which eased our stress a bit. Luckily, the bag was still sitting where we left it at the bar.

We met a lot of nice people that day, but our cab driver was the best! It is her kindness, generosity and selflessness that I will remember most from our time in Antigua.

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Princess Cruise Experience 2018-2019

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My husband and I decided to spend the holiday season after Christmas through New Years (December 27-January 6th) in the Caribbean. We’ve been on a few cruises before. Our most recent cruise was in the Mediterranean (see post 20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise). When searching for which cruise line to take, many people recommended going on a Princess cruise. As we did with our Mediterranean cruise, we booked a Princess cruise through Vacations To Go, which was super easy and efficient (shout out to Ernie for assisting us).

On first appearance, we were really impressed with the Crown Princess ship. It was far20181227_162837 larger than any ship we had been on before. I was still having to consult the ship map to navigate my way on the final day. Our room was spacious with a balcony. The Crown Princess had so many wonderful features, including many pools and hot tubs, multiple dining options and bars, a spa, fitness center, library (with books and games), a casino, entertainment venues and an outdoor movie theater. I am sure there were other wonderful features that I am not mentioning as well. As we wandered around the ship that first day, it all seemed like it was the beginning of a dream vacation.

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But how do you know if the cruise or cruise line is bad or if cruising is just not for you? Please, if you have been on multiple cruises I would love your input on this, because my husband and I are seriously starting to believe that cruising is not for us, and maybe it isn’t.

I’m sure we have all heard some horror stories regarding cruises, like the most recent cruise in the Caribbean, where hundreds of passengers got sick with a contagious virus.20190102_195542 Our cruise was not that bad, but it wasn’t the dream I had been hoping it would be. We did have some good moments. We enjoyed the company of the people we sat next to at dinner; got to see some movies we had been wanting to see (see picture on the right); got plenty of sun and fresh air while relaxing on one of the many deck chairs; was thankful for the housekeeping staff who were amazing and always kept our room clean and comfortable; appreciated the helpfulness of the guest service individuals; drank the best cappuccini at the International Cafe every morning (see picture below); and enjoyed every island visit that was made on this cruise.

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The cruise didn’t start off so well for me and many other passengers. We were in rough seas for two days. We actually could not get to our first port because of that, so I spent two miserable days on a ship that was rocking back and forth constantly. I had never suffered from seasickness before and the Dramamine I had with me did absolutely nothing for me. However, one of our kind dinner friends gave me a Bonine tablet, and that worked miracles. Wish I had taken that right away, so I wouldn’t have been suffering for two full days. Missing our first port made it that much harder to overcome seasickness too. A lot of passengers were complaining about not just the rockiness of the ship but also the fact that all the pools had to close because of that as well. I can only imagine how many angry or miserable passengers the guest service attendants had to deal with, and the cruise had just begun.

When we considered the fact that we paid 3x as much to cruise with Princess as we did when we cruised with Costa in the Mediterranean, I’m not sure it was worth it. The drink package was expensive but worth it in the end, but the food was just not great. They had a cafeteria-style restaurant that was open all day long. We tried to eat there a few times, but it was just horrible food – most of it was inedible. Our sit down dinner time every night had great food, but the service was so slow all the time that we couldn’t enjoy some of the evening shows, because we would still be finishing our meals. We often snuck out during the meal to get ourselves more wine, as the wait staff took forever to refill some of our drinks. On top of the food not being great, I had two separate occasions where food service workers argued with me that what they gave me was correct when it wasn’t. The thought it was a bit too ridiculous when I ordered a slice of Margherita pizza, and they gave me plain cheese pizza, even though the sign in front of the counter gave all the ingredients that are suppose to come on a Margherita pizza. It sounds like we are being overly picky, but it was just disappointing. So yeah…we weren’t happy with the quality of the food or food service.

During our Mediterranean cruise, we booked two excursions through the cruise line and enjoyed both. This time, we booked an excursion on our own through a company on one of the islands and one excursion through the cruise line. They were both around $70 a person, and the one we booked through the cruise line was just terrible in comparison. When we got on the ship, we signed up to take a beach/snorkeling adventure in Barbados. Basically, it was a 3 hour excursion that was suppose to include relaxing on a beach, snorkeling with sea turtles and snorkeling to see some shipwrecks. I figured that divided nicely to spending 1 hour doing each item. The excursion started off nice. The beach was beautiful. However, the boat that was to pick us up to take us snorkeling was more than 30 minutes late and then decided not to dock by the beach we were on, so we had to walk a mile through town to find the boat. In the end, we probably only had about 30 minutes total time of snorkeling, which was really disappointing. Then they docked the boat literally on the beach, not at a pier, so the waves made it near to impossible to not fall as you tried to get off the boat. One passenger fell pretty badly. It was not a great excursion. It was maybe worth half of what we paid for it. Luckily, Princess agreed and refunded some of our money, so I do believe they handled that situation well, but I may not book an excursion through a cruise line ever again.

The incident that bothered me the most on this cruise was when we got a notification in20190208_082909 our room that they would be doing balcony maintenance the following morning (see photo of the notice on the right). The notice clearly states that maintenance would start at 9am. We thought that would be a perfect morning for us to order 8am room service breakfast, insuring that we would be awake and out of our room by 9am. Our breakfast arrived on time and by 8:15am, my husband and I were in our robes on our private balcony enjoying our coffee and breakfast. That was also when a maintenance worker came onto our balcony without any warning. He actually opened the door right into my husband, as the balcony was pretty small. I personally was mortified as I was far from clothed, sitting there in my 20181231_083141robe. We booked the room we did for the private balcony and now our privacy was being invaded with no warning. When we told him to leave that it wasn’t 9am yet, the maintenance worker responded that they were starting early. I know he was just doing what he was told, but that didn’t make the situation okay. I am sure it was awkward for him as well. I immediately called down to guest services and was told that someone would call us later in the day, as the manager was not available at that time. No one ever called. Through our persistence, we did finally talk to a guest service manager, who offered us a bottle of wine for our troubles. Seriously?!! We purchased the drink package. What do we need a bottle of wine for? However, what could we do? That seems to be all they were offering us. They told us we could pick any bottle of wine we wanted, and since we had both been enjoying Chianti with our dinners, we requested that. They said that that was not something they had available but would bring us a Cabernet instead. Cabernet is not the same as Chianti, and that was not a wine that we both enjoy.

There seems to be so many people who love Princess Cruise Lines, but we just don’t understand. We didn’t have most of these issues on our Costa cruise (though that was far from a perfect cruise as well). While we did love exploring the Caribbean islands and soaking in some sun and warmth, I think it will be a long time before we cruise again.

If you have been on cruise, especially a Princess Cruise, please share your experiences below in the comments. Have you experienced similar issues or other issues?

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Weekend in Columbus, OH – October 2018

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I have not had a lot of adventures this year, but I was fortunate to visit some family for a weekend getaway in Columbus, OH this Fall. We were blessed with some sun and warmish temperatures. Also, the trees were turning colors, which added to the beauty.

As a booklover, I had to visit a local independent bookstore called The Book Loft in the German Village. The charm of the outside is matched by the extensive collection in the inside. If you are looking for something specific, I would highly recommend picking up a map at the front register – yep…that is how big it is!

If you have amazing weather like we did, I would recommend a nice walk along the Scioto River (see picture at the top of the page). The Scioto Mile was developed just a few years ago with beautiful walking paths lined with trees and flowers. If you want to take a break from your walk along the river, you can stop in the COSI – Columbus’ Center of Science and Industry museum.


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Ohio is rich with Native American history. If you find yourself in Dublin, Ohio, make a stop at the Leatherlips Monument (pictured on the right). Leatherlips was a Wyandot Native American leader that was executed in the early 1800s.

There are so many great places to eat and have a few drinks in the Columbus area. A great place to get a drink and have some fun with friends is the Pins Mechanical Co. There are three locations in the Columbus area. Here you have a lot of drink choices, including a20181018_102740 large selection of draft beers, while you play a round of duck pin bowling or some pinball or other fun bar games. Some of the places we ate include Valter’s at the Maennerchor (German restaurant in the German village), which serves a nice weekend brunch, and Cap City Fine Diner, which is a wonderful diner with fantastic food and service. If you are from the Midwest or have a love of frozen custard like I do, you must stop and have some frozen custard at Whit’s Frozen Custard (see picture on the right). So amazing!

I am very fortunate to have family in Columbus now. It is a fun town with lots to do and lots of places to eat. If you are there and confused by the sea of red and white, Columbus is most well known as the home of the Buckeyes of THE Ohio State University. Don’t forget that Columbus is also the capital of Ohio (see picture of the capital building below). If you have any suggestions of things to do or places to eat in or around Columbus, feel free to let me know via the comment section below, as we hope to go back for another visit there soon.

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20 Years of Travel #19: Chernobyl

_DSC5065The 20 Years of Travel series continues with our day trip to Chernobyl in Ukraine. If there was any trip my husband and I have taken where people ask the question “Why?”, it would be our trip to Chernobyl in 2016. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl happened on April 25-26, 1986, when I was a little kid. When my husband and I heard that they were opening the13770367_267208830320350_1063754274685798828_n areas around the reactor for visitors almost 25 years later, we immediately put it on our list of places to visit. We were definitely interested in learning more about the accident and the reactor first hand. However, there is something unique and a bit post-apocalyptic about seeing towns that have been completely deserted and as a result have remained completely the same for the last 25 years. The only differences are that grass and weeds are overgrown everywhere and the buildings are rundown. When the people evacuated these towns after the accident, they were all under the impression that they would get to return to their homes in a week or so. However, as most of us know, that did not happen. Even the carnival rides from the fair that was being held in Prypyat during the time of the accident continue to hauntingly remain standing and abandoned.

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Journey to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone:
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is safe! It would not be open to public tours if it wasn’t. Actually, you are also allowed to stay overnight in the Exclusion Zone, however, due to time constraints, we decided just to take the one-day Chernobyl Tour that leaves from Kiev early in the morning. The drive to the Dytyatky checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone takes a couple of hours, so you have a chance to nap in the car or watch the Chernobyl documentary that they put on the television for us. This documentary was amazing, and I really wish I had written down the title of it. It gave an overview of what led up to the explosion, including power failures during testing. I think the most shocking part of this documentary for me, as I was very young when this disaster occurred so knew little about it, was the cover-up that occurred after the explosion. As this was a Soviet nuclear power plant, they tried to keep this incident a secret from the international community and even from their own people. Many individuals in the nearby town of Pripyat felt the explosion in the middle of the night. As firefighters were risking their lives, trying to contain the explosion, people in Pripyat were told to continue with their daily activities and enjoy the carnival that was in town, while fumes and smoke spread through the city. More than 24 hours later, they finally decided to start evacuating nearby towns. The international community became aware of the situation, when Sweden started detecting high radiation levels. If Sweden was detecting high radiation levels, just imagine the radiation levels in the towns near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

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Geiger counter & Homes:
Once in the Exclusion Zone, we started visiting some of the towns that were abandoned. _DSC5173To get a clear idea of the vast impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the picture above is a memorial to all the towns that were affected by radiation and had to be evacuated. When we exited our vehicle, our guides gave us individual Geiger counters (see picture on the right) to be able to track radiation levels. The Geiger counters were sound an alarm if radiation levels were above 2.0 mSv’s. I think I saw our Geiger counter hit 4.0 at one point. However, even when the alarm sounds, the radiation levels are not harmful. Basically we were just given our yearly dose of radiation in one day. We first started visiting some of the abandoned homes (see pictures below).

Abandoned Community Facilities
We also visited some community buildings including a local school, gymnasium and public pool (see pictures below).

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Duga-1:
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built this missile defense system, which was designed to detect the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles. This structure, located only a few kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was irradiated during the Chernobyl disaster but remains standing, as all the valuable metal has been contaminated and the surrounding sand too. Since it can’t be knocked over without releasing dangerous amounts of radiation, it’s one of the few remaining Soviet missile radars still standing in the former Soviet Union.

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Pripyat Carnival:
The nearest town to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was Pripyat. The town of approximately 50,000 people were enjoying a carnival that was in town when the explosion happened. The carnival rides are still standing (see pictures below).

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The Reactor:
Less than a month after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a cover was designed, called the Sarcophagus, to go over the reactor to contain the radiation. The Sarcophagus was only designed to be a useful cover for 20-30 years, so work was done to build the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (aka the Arch). This Arch would cost billions of dollars and be constructed next to the reactor. We got to view the reactor with the Sarcophagus and the Arch next to it from a safe distance (see picture below). In 2017, a year after our visit, the Arch was moved over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as a more permanent containment system.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was one of the most interesting places we have ever explored. We have never seen so many abandoned towns. The expansive reach of such a tragedy was astounding. It was quite a haunting and somewhat unnerving site to behold. We would definitely recommend visiting this area if you are ever in Ukraine.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #16: Iceland

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The  series continues by featuring Iceland. In 2011, we took a family vacation to Iceland. Since then, Iceland has become a favorite and popular travel destination as it should be. Here are my favorite highlights from our trip all around the island.

Reykjavík

Start and/or end your time in Iceland exploring its capital city.

——Music Scene——

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When you think about Iceland, do you think about music? If you don’t, you should. It is not just the home of Björk. Check out 12 Tónar, which is not just a music shop but also a recording studio.

——Puffins——

257484_10150214019212986_68884_oWho doesn’t want to see these adorable animals?! You can take the Puffin Express to get a good view of these interesting looking creatures!

Blue Lagoon

For a little relaxation, soaking in these hot springs is well worth the money in my opinion.

Thingvellir National Park

Here you will not be standing on a tectonic plate but will be walking on the Almannagjá fault line between the North American and Eurasian Plate.

Waterfalls

There is no shortage of amazing waterfalls in Iceland. Here are just some that we got to see.

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Viking Houses

In the rural areas, you can see remnants of a strong Viking past.

Horseback Riding

You will definitely want to ride the unique Icelandic horses. Not only are they beautiful creatures, but they have an interesting quick-step trot.

Geysirs & Hot Springs

You will find these in Thingvellir National Park, Blue Lagoon, and other places.

Glaciers, Volcanoes & Icebergs

In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted causing many problems not just in Iceland but around Europe. Due to a large ash cloud, air travel was restricted on the European continent and around 100,000 flights were canceled. Bárðarbunga erupted in 2014. We heard a bit about Hekla, while we were in Iceland as some natives believe that we should expect a potentially bad eruption from Hekla soon. From research I have done, Hekla usually has a large eruption in the 40s both in the 1840s and 1940s. We shall see if that trend continues. Meanwhile, that particular volcano once spread lava over a vast part of Iceland, which has now turned into fields of moss (pictured below). These volcanoes are covered with massive glaciers. The melting of these glaciers have created lakes with chunks of ice (like icebergs) in them.

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ATV Tour

At the last minute, we got to do a ATV tour in through the mossy lava fields.

Coastal geology

You can tell by looking at the cliffs on the coasts of Iceland that Iceland used to be part of the mainland not an island. Part of the coast even looks like the Giants Causeway in Ireland (see picture below).

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Our trip to Iceland was amazing. It is such a beautiful and peaceful place. There is a reason it has become a hot travel destination in the last few years.

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HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #15: USA Road Trip

In Memory of my Aunt JoAnn – thank you for housing me at the beginning of this trek around the US and for being a great travel buddy and friend!

The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a road trip in the USA with two of my college girlfriends. During freshman year of undergraduate school in Wisconsin, I became good friends with two girls, one of which was leaving Wisconsin to spend summer break at home in California. My other friend and I had an idea to come and join her in California, and then we would take turns driving back to Wisconsin for the fall term. That idea led to one month of exploring the USA (all places I had never seen before) in the summer of 2000. Here is our crazy and adventurous itinerary (with some old scanned pictures from my film camera):

Arizona

My Wisconsin friend and I flew from Midway in Chicago (sketchiest airport area – don’t get lost) to Phoenix, Arizona to spend time with family members that we had there. I got to spend a week with my Aunt JoAnn. It was the first time I really got to hang out with her just the two of us, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Even though she was working at the time, she did take me around Tempe, Scottsdale, and Phoenix. We also took a day trip to Sedona and Jerome. It was in the 100s, but we didn’t mind walking around a bit. There is something to be said about dry heat.

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After a week’s time, I met back up with my girlfriend and her dad offered to drive us to our friend’s house in California – with a few stops along the way. Our first night, we went camping at the Grand Canyon. I was 18 and had never been camping before. It was dark when we got our campsite set up – I was no help as I had no idea what I was doing. My friend’s dad decided that we should go on a little walk (in the middle of the night) to find the canyon. It was so dark and foggy, that I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me. Eventually I realized that there was no ground a few feet ahead and that we were actually at the canyon’s edge. I freaked as I am really scared of heights – mostly the falling part, so I didn’t hang out on the edge long before returning to the campsite. I didn’t sleep well that first night. I’ve always been a city girl, so the noises of the wild – coyotes and such – kept me awake for hours. It took me almost 20 years, but I’m a much better camper now. The next morning we drove around the canyon, took lots of pictures, and even walked down a bit before I freaked again (it was terrifying!), and we walked back up. It’s not like we were going to walk the many hours down the whole canyon anyway.

We hit the road again and stopped to explore Hoover Dam on the border of Arizona and Nevada, which is a very impressive dam that was built on the Colorado River in the early 1900s to minimize flooding and generate power. We then cooled off in the nearby Lake Mead.

Nevada

In the evening, we arrived in Las Vegas. I know Paris is the city of lights, but I have to say that sometimes I believe that it should be Vegas, since Vegas is surrounded by nothing but darkness, and then you have this town full of flashing lights from hotels, restaurants and clubs. It is quite a sight to see. We went to the Stratosphere, where there is shopping, food and casinos. Everything is in the Stratosphere. We also had a quick stop to see The Mirage at the Bellagio Hotel before continuing on to California.

California

My friend’s dad was a trooper and drove through the night, while we slept in the car. He woke us up to see the morning clouds of fog over the Pacific Ocean near Big Sur. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean before. We spent the next few days with some of my friend’s family near San Francisco. We got some sun while lounging at the delta and even took a day trip to see the California Redwoods. Then we met up with our other friend just outside of San Francisco in Davis, California. We spent a few days there, went shopping in Sacramento and spent a whole day wandering around San Francisco. Finally, it was time to pack up my friend’s van and start heading back to school in Green Bay, Wisconsin. However, we did make some stops along the way.

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The first stop on the road was Donner Lake, which if you don’t know the story of the Donner party and Donner pass, it is a very pretty place to stop.

Donner Lake

Idaho

While we did stop in Reno, Nevada, as we drove through Nevada, it was not a very impressive town, so I didn’t really even take pictures. I did the drive through the rest of Nevada into Idaho, toward Idaho Falls. Idaho is much more scenic than Nevada with greenery, rivers and beautiful bridges.

Wyoming

Our second day on the road, brought us into Wyoming for our next stop. We would spend multiple days camping at Yellowstone National Park. There are so many great sights to see and great hiking trails. Some of the highlights were: Old Faithful and many other smaller geysers, Mammoth Hot Springs, Morning Glory and swimming in the rapids. We spent a good amount of time searching for interesting animals. I personally wanted to see a bear (from a distance of course), but we had no luck, though we thought we came close with a black cow lol.

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After a few days we headed toward my friend’s family in South Dakota. If you aren’t a Close Encounters of the Third Kind fan, making a stop at Devil’s Tower before leaving Wyoming may not be for you, but it was amazing!

Devils Tower

South Dakota

Once arriving in Rapid City, South Dakota, my friend’s aunt took us around the Black Hills, and then we got to see Mount Rushmore. It is just as impressive as it is in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The skies were an interesting color too, which you can’t really see well in my old pictures, but there was a forest fire nearby that added a reddish tint to the skies over Mount Rushmore.

Black Hills

Minnesota

After our stay in South Dakota, we headed all the way up to visit my friend’s grandmother in Beaver Bay, Minnesota. We decided to camp one more night in a campground in Minnesota before heading toward Lake Superior. That was the oddest camping experience I’ve ever experience (I’ve now had a few outside of this trip), as the campground was completely deserted. There were no rangers to take our money and I don’t remember seeing any other campers either. To date this trip a bit, I had just seen The Blair Witch Project, and that is what this experience felt like, that we were all alone in the woods and would wake up to little rocks stacked outside our tent. We made the most of this odd situation though and built a huge fire and just behaved like the crazy teenagers we were.

Once we got to Beaver Bay, Minnesota, we ventured around the area. We went to Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse, which were all along the coast of Lake Superior.

Then it was time to say goodbye to our adventurous summer of exploring the US and head back for the start of fall term at school in Wisconsin. It was an amazing summer. I am very grateful I had that time with my friends and with all our family members that took us in along the way.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #14 – Galapagos

321037_10150282405697986_8079591_nThe 20 Years of Travel series continues with a very memorable family trip we took in 2011 to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. This adventure cruise was established with a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. This would not be your typical vacation with lots of relaxation. We were there to explore islands filled with unique creatures that are endemic to the Galapagos. Our days were filled with nature walks, snorkeling and lessons on Darwin, geology and photography. It was one of the most exhausting and rewarding trips we have ever experienced.

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We flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador (pictured above) and then flew to San Cristobal (pictured below), where we would pick up our boat that would be our home for a little more than a week.

The National Geographic Endeavour (pictured on the right) was a smaller boat but had326327_10150281751942986_1913629_o everything we needed. Anyway, we wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the boat, except to eat and sleep.  Through an intercom radio in everyone’s room, the program director, Carlos, would make a morning announcement/wake-up call. These announcements would come normally between 5-7am in the morning.

Espanola Island

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We took many nature walking tours on Espanola. Our first stop was a beach full of lounging sea lions. Then we walked through piles of marine iguanas – never want to be that close to iguanas again if I can help it – to find one of the largest flying birds in the world…the albatross. We got to witness the albatross mating ritual, which was really fascinating. Our final stop lead us to some blue-footed boobies. These are marine birds that are known for their blue feet, hence the name. We got to see some babies that just look like little cotton balls – so adorable.

Champion Island

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We took smaller rafts around Champion Island to get a better visual of some of the water animals. The highlight was seeing penguins. After the rafting tour, we went snorkeling with all the amazing fish, penguins, and sea lions that like to play with you in the water.

Floreana Island

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On Floreana, we stopped to visit Old Post Office Bay. This post office box (which looks more like a barrel) has been there for hundreds of years. This postal system does not require stamps, you just leave cards for your family and friends and pick up other individuals’ cards who have addresses near you that you can hand deliver. This post office continues to operate just like this. We delivered cards and my family received their card as well.

Santa Cruz Island

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Santa Cruz is one of the four islands of the Galapagos that are inhabited by people. There is a lot to see and experience on this island. Here are some highlights from our time on Santa Cruz:

  • The Charles Darwin Research Station. At this station they look to provide safety and protection to grow endangered species. This was where Lonesome George lived, who was the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island. While we did get to see him, he did unfortunately die one year later. It is estimated that he lived for almost 100 years.
  • The fish market. This market was bustling with activity and we were thoroughly entertained by pelicans and sea lions begging for fish scraps. Yet, the fisherman had no problem doing their work.
  • Sugar cane production. We visited a family’s farm that produced sugar cane in an old fashion style. They let us try some of their 65% alcoholic drink (130-proof) that they can produced from the sugar cane. They also produce their own coffee beans and chocolate there which were fantastic.
  • Giant tortoises. With our giant rubber boots, we wandered around in a field full of giant tortoises, who were bigger than us and didn’t mind us hanging out with them.
  • Twin Craters. We continued to enjoy the natural lushness and greenery of Santa Cruz by taking a hike to two huge craters, that were caused by the sinking of empty magma chambers.
  • Cerro Dragon. On the opposite side of Santa Cruz is a place called Cerro Dragon, where you can see an abundance of boobies, frigate birds and land iguanas.

Bartolome Island

We had more opportunities for snorkeling off of Bartolome Island. On one of these snorkeling excursions, white-tipped reef sharks were spotted. We also got to enjoy a presentation by two authors, Jonathan Weiner and Deborah Heiligman, who wrote about Charles Darwin and his research (specifically regarding his interest in the finches). As a book lover, this was a huge highlight for me. I own books by both authors (see picture above).

Genovesa Island

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The highlight of this island was the red-footed boobies and the nazca boobies.

This was such an amazing trip for so many reasons, but mostly because we found ourselves doing things we had never done. I, personally, was never an animal person, but on these islands we were walking side by side with iguanas, tortoises and hundreds of other creatures. We had only been snorkeling once before but went multiple times in the Galapagos. There is nothing like snorkeling with sea lions that are blowing bubbles in your face. We learned so much about the evolution of nature on these islands thanks to our fantastic guides and experts. These guides also gave us photography lessons that helped us capture all of these amazing moments. This was such a memorable experience!

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HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a Mediterranean cruise that we took for our wedding anniversary in 2015. It was our first big cruise line cruise. We had done a river cruise in the USA, transportation cruise to the Bahamas, and an exploration cruise in the Galapagos, but never one like this. For beginners, I think we handled this learning experience really well and had a lot of fun along the way.

ITINERARY

Trieste, Italy

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Trieste was the port where the cruise would depart and return to. We lived in Italy at the time, so we just took a train to Trieste from our hometown but allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to tour around the city for a bit. This town is the bridge between Western Europe and the Balkans. You can easily access Slovenia from here if you have time.

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Bari, Italy

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Our first stop on the cruise was the small coastal town of Bari in the Apulia region on the eastern side of Italy. It was a great walkable city, so we did not feel the need to take an excursion offered by the cruise line. There are forts to explore, a nice waterfront and the beautiful Cattedrale di San Sabino (Bari Cathedral).

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Corfu, Greece

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Our first stop in Greece was the island of Corfu. We again didn’t take a cruise line excursion, which you might want to consider doing if you want to get to the heart of the town in a timely fashion. However, we decided to just find a cafe, where we indulged in a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere of some locals.

Mykonos, Greece

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Mykonos was a highlight for me as I’ve been wanting to go there since I was a kid. It did not disappoint. We took a jeep tour of the island excursion, which was an amazing way to see most of the island. Plus, my husband loved driving around on the rough passageways. This excursion also included lunch on the island with an ouzo tasting, which is an alcoholic shot that looks cloudy and tastes like black licorice. After the excursion, we had time to clean up and catch sunset on Mykonos. The island lights up with amazing colors at sunset. We decided to eat a fancy dinner for our anniversary on the island, which I highly recommend. Though it is tempting to eat only the food that is included on the cruise you paid for, it is nice to give some money to the local businesses. Mykonos was just stunning!

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Santorini, Greece

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Our next island stop was Santorini, which was my favorite stop on the cruise. I had seen beautiful pictures, but pictures don’t seem to do it justice. We took the excursion transportation to Oia, which was 100% worth it. The guide gave us a great overview lesson of the island, its history and economics, and then we wandered around. We immediately found a cafe, where we could sit outside with coffees, enjoying an amazing view of the caldera. When you have finished viewing and taking pictures of the cliff-side architecture, I would do a wine tasting and purchase some bottles of wine if possible. Due to the eruption of the Santorini volcano many years ago, the soil on the island is rich for producing wine. You will have a lot of white wine choices, and Santorini’s specialty is the Vin Santo, which is a dessert wine. I loved everything about this island and especially Oia.

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

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This was not part of the original itinerary, but due to some bad weather, we stopped in Dubrovnik instead of Split, Croatia. Dubrovnik was the last stop before heading back to Trieste, Italy, where our cruising adventure would end. I went to Dubrovnik ten years prior to this trip (I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post about the Balkans), and it has remained very dear to my heart ever since. I was happy to revisit some of my favorite places, including the cafe that overlooks the Adriatic, where the owners gave us coffee and drinks even though they were not officially open. The weather was not great but we still got to walk in the ancient city walls and visit the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

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Lessons Learned

  • Make sure that you have a spare set of clothing (aka dress, underwear, shorts, etc) in the small bag that you carry on to the cruise boat. We had our luggage checked prior to getting onto the boat. The luggage check-in was located outdoors in the midst of a huge windy rainstorm. When we received our duffle bag full of clothes, everything was drenched. While the cruise line had all of our clothes dry cleaned for free, this took a couple of days, where we were wearing the same clothes.
  • The drink package is sooooo worth it! After finding out about our wet clothes and having my credit card canceled (even though they knew I was traveling – thank you Capital One), we wanted nothing more than to sit at the bar and have a drink or three. We decided to purchase the all-you-can-drink package, which we definitely utilized frequently. This includes water and coffee as well, so it is 100% worth it!
  • Pack multiple sets of dress clothes. Apparently dressing up for dinner on a cruise boat is sometimes mandatory. That bit of information can often be hidden on websites and can catch you completely by surprise if you have never been on a cruise before.
  • Find a good booking site. After getting frustrated on trying to figure out how to see some Greek islands on our own, without using an organized tour, I received an email from VacationsToGo, advertising a discount on a Mediterranean cruise for the time period we were looking to travel. It seemed like a sign, so I picked up my phone and called the 800 number on the website and within a few minutes an agent had us all booked on this cruise. It took barely any of my time to plan, cost a lot less than if I had set up travel to the islands on my own, and we even got our drink package for free as part of a special deal.
  • Plan excursions prior to being on the cruise. Before going on your cruise, check out the possible excursions and make a decisions on the ones you want to go on prior to being on the boat. We did not purchase excursions ahead of time and found at least one we wanted to do was fully booked.
  • Don’t be afraid to change dining tables. Cruises love to give you assigned dining seats, so you can meet new people. However, unfortunately we did not have a great experience with our dining table, and we waited too many days to change tables to sit with some friends. If after the first night, you do not enjoy your dining experience, talk to someone, so that you can be relocated.
  • Allow plenty of time before and after the cruise. Most people will travel to take cruises. If you are one of those people, make sure to leave a good cushion of time before and after your cruising experience. The cruise line took a long time returning passports to passengers at the end of the cruise (hours after we were docked) and madness erupted. Many passengers were furious, because they missed their schedule trains or planes home. While we had allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to catch our transportation home, it was hard not to feel for every individual who had to suffer missed connections because of this delay.

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While I am not sure I would recommend Costa cruise lines as the best option for cruising, we enjoyed our cruising experience overall. So much so that we have decided to take another cruise at the end of this year. If you have done some cruising, please feel free to leave some tips and recommendations in the comment section below. I would greatly appreciate it. Until next time…

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!