China Explored, Part III: Lakes, Lanterns, and the Lights of Shanghai

China Explored, Part III: Lakes, Lanterns, and the Lights of Shanghai

I woke up for day 7 of our adventure in China feeling pretty crummy. The air pollution got to me and it hit hard. You probably noticed that in many of our photos from the first 6 days we are wearing face masks. Reason being, China has some of the most polluted air in the world and the masks are specially designed for lung protection.

The air quality index (AQI) used by the Environmental Protection Agency provides a measurement for how polluted and safe or unsafe the air is, as shown in the chart below.

https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

I used the weather app on my phone to check the AQI values daily while we were in China. The scores can vary greatly from hour to hour, day to day, and between cities. For example, the first day in Beijing the value was over 160, the next day in Beijing the value was only 100, and when we arrived in Shanghai the value was 205. Since I tend to develop a sore throat from inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke or chemical fumes from cleaning products, I made sure to wear a mask most of the time we were out. The problem with wearing the mask in cold weather is that condensation and moisture build up pretty quickly, especially when walking, and things can start to feel uncomfortable. I made the mistake of not wearing my mask as often when we were in areas where the value was under 150.

Pollution over Lake Lihu 

So, here I was, far away from home with a fever, aches, chills, and a hacking cough that wouldn’t quit. Mitch went for breakfast alone while I stayed in the room and slept. He talked with the guides about the possibility of seeking medical attention and brought me some fresh fruit and hot tea. Since we never get sick and don’t even own any medicine, we were terribly unprepared for this sudden change in health. Thankfully, the new friends we made from California and Texas kindly hooked me up with an assortment of cough drops, cold and flu medicine, and decongestants from their stashes. I popped a few pills, hoped for the best, and off we headed to a wetland park for a morning walk.

Although I wasn’t feeling my best, the Wuxi Lihu Lake National Wetland Park, part of the larger Lake Taihu, did not disappoint. The energy was very calm and even in the cold of winter, many of the trees and shrubs were lush and green. Scenic and peaceful, the park appeared to be a popular spot for practicing tai chi and strolling the trails around the lake with a cup of coffee or tea.

This beautiful wetland is also a place of mystery and romance. According to Chinese legend, the famous businessman and philanthropist Fan Li, gave away all of his fortune and possessions then disappeared to live a life of seclusion with his lover Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. The iconic couple retired to Lake Taihu, making their home on fishing boat and never to be seen again. Our guide prompted couples in the group to cross the bridge hand-in-hand if they wished to spend 5 lifetimes together like Fan Li and Xi Shi.

Our next stop was to a freshwater pearl market in Wuxi. I’m no pearl expert but others in our group said the prices here were very reasonable. There was a variety of pearl jewelry available in every color and setting from rings to bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. I didn’t purchase any but I will admit it was all very beautiful.

After pearl shopping we had lunch then settled into the bus for a nice, long 3-hour drive to Hangzhou. We purchased tickets for the optional excursion that evening which included a trip to the Songcheng theme park, also knowns as the Song Dynasty Town, to see the show, Romance of the Song Dynasty ($65/person). I have always loved performing arts and was glad that we had the opportunity to experience a variety of performances on our tour.

Just inside the gates of the Song Dynasty Town theme park.

The park was much bigger than I expected and heavily decorated with lanterns, lights, colorful paintings, and garland. The theme park is meant to tell the story of the song dynasty in ancient China and includes three components: high-tech facilities, performances, and cultural activities. Throughout the park there were lots of little shops and an abundance of snack stands.

Lanterns galore!

We had about an hour and a half of free time to explore the park before the show. By this time I was feeling awful and not very interested in walking around or checking out the exhibits in the park. I decided to take some Nyquil, which made me feel better but, as expected, super drowsy. After walking around for about 30 minutes, I plopped myself down on a bench for some people-watching. I soon realized that being some of the only western folk in the park meant we would be the ones who were people-watched. I felt as rare as a unicorn sitting there in my Nyquil haze being photographed and videoed by people passing by.

Needless to say, we didn’t see much of the theme park nor did I remember to take many pictures. We met back up with the group and headed to the theater. The show, which has been seen by over 60 million people, was completely sold out.

The performers all wore beautiful costumes and there were many set changes. At one point during the performance we were spritzed with water during a rain simulation. The show told the story of the Song Dynasty, and although it was very entertaining, the dark lights and pleasant music had me nodding off to sleep a few times. Hopefully no one noticed.

I hardly remember walking to the bus or the ride home. It’s possible that I sleep-walked my way back. The next morning I was feeling somewhat better as we headed off to West Lake in Hangzhou for Day 8 of our tour. Once the capital of the Song dynasty, Hangzhou was described by explorer Marco Polo as the “finest and most splendid city in the world.”

Situated in the center of Hangzhou, West Lake is another of China’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and credited as the source of inspiration for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean gardens for several centuries. We declined the optional boat ride on the lake ($35/person) and opted to enjoy its beauty by land instead. But first, a short walk for some coffee…

Walking along the street searching for coffee in Hangzhou.

We had about an hour of free time and decided to walk to a nearby Starbucks. There were many small shops and restaurants along the way and the streets here were very clean. I ordered a caramel macchiato and was pleasantly surprised to find that my drink was only a tad sweet, unlike the super sugary version served in the U.S.. I also loved the assortment of cute cups and different prepared foods. With our caffeine-fix met we headed back to walk along the picturesque lake.

Zooming in on the bridge.

Next we were off to the Dragon Well Tea Plantation in the mountains above Hangzhou. Also known as Longjing, Dragon Well tea is known for its high-quality and longstanding status as the most famous variety of green tea in China.

Garden at the entry.

If there was one thing I wanted to buy in China it was some good green tea, so I was thrilled about the opportunity to visit the country’s most famous plantation.

Rows of tea bushes.

We sampled brewed tea and dry roasted tea leaves while learning about tea production from plantation staff. Usually we think of tea as something we drink, but in China they say “eat your tea” because the flavorful leaves can be eaten with each sip or saved to be eaten after brewing several cups.

Eat your tea!

Even in China this famous tea isn’t cheap. We ended up purchasing two packed canisters of tea leaves and were given a bonus mini canister for free. For 300 grams of tea, approximately 126 servings, we paid about $85 USD, or 67 cents per cup. However, the leaves are so potent they can be re-steeped up to five times, assuming you don’t eat them all while enjoying your first cup.

We had lunch at a local restaurant near the tea plantation then drove to Shanghai, our final destination on the tour. We purchased the optional excursion for the evening that included a trip to Daning: The Life Hub followed with the acrobatic circus performance ERA: Intersection of Time ($60/person).

The Life Hub is an open-space multi-use center with restaurants, trendy shops, apartments, coffeehouses, hotels, and landscaped green areas with benches and walking trails. We had free time to wander about or grab dinner in the Life Hub before the show and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat pizza in China. We ate at Pizza Marzano, an upscale pizza chain with restaurants scattered over the United Kingdom, Europe, China, and India. It was delicious and a welcome change since we’d been eating noodle and rice dishes all week.

After dinner we strolled the Life Hub, admiring the bright lights and Chinese New Year decorations.

The Cirque du Soleil-esque, ERA: Intersection of Time was wonderful and featured many talented performers. While we didn’t think the storytelling was quite on par with Cirque, we still enjoyed the show very much. The most jaw-dropping act featured six performers on motorcycles riding around the inside of a metal globe.

Our last full day in China would be spent exploring Shanghai. Day 9 started with a visit to the Bund, a waterfront area showcasing the tall skyscrapers that make up Shanghai’s iconic skyline. These modern buildings lining the Huangpu River are known as China’s Wall Street. The view was beautiful though the air was heavily polluted. Masks on!

The other side of the river features buildings of many different styles and is sometimes referred to as China’s museum of international architecture. We enjoyed a bit of free time walking around the Bund area before heading to an art gallery featuring painted and woven silk.

After lunch we visited the City God Temple Bazaar. The streets in this area are filled with all sorts of shops selling artwork, clothing, souvenirs, and more. It’s also a foodie’s dreamland with teahouses on every corner and countless restaurants and stands selling local street food.

Perhaps the most coveted foodie item from the bazaar is the Xiaolongbao, a Shanghai-style dumpling invented by a street vendor in 1900 and still wildly popular today. Not your typical bao, these soft, delectable buns are filled with crab meat and hot, savory broth. Delicious.

Three’s company.

We also went on a hunt for the giant scallion pancake vendor after seeing dozens of happy people walking around with the jumbo-sized treat in-hand. The line was long but the pancakes were totally worth the wait. The best way I can describe the taste is to imagine a big, freshly-fried potato chip.

We expected to see more western tourists in Shanghai given that the city is known as China’s international hub, but seeing none, we definitely stood out among other visitors. One man asked if we would pose for a quick picture and was surprised when we asked him to hop in the photo with us.

We finished the evening with a cruise on the Huangpu River to see the Shanghai skyline all lit up at night, which was offered as the final optional excursion of the tour ($50/person). The architecture and colors have an otherworldly look like something out of a sci-fi flick.

Day 10 involved an early flight to Beijing, a long layover, and an even longer flight back to California. We felt lucky that our new pals were booked on the same flight so the fun time we were having together could continue for a bit longer. Overall it was a wonderful trip. We visited a ton of historical places, saw ancient relics and exhilarating performances, learned a lot about Chinese culture, and made great new friends all in just 10 short days. Until next time, China! Thanks for reading.

China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

I was pretty excited about day 4 of our itinerary when we would visit the Great Wall of China. Unlike the optional excursion we booked on our free day in Beijing that took us to the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City, the activities on day 4 were included as part of the guided tour package and participation was mandatory. If a guest chooses to bail on any component of the guided tour, Rewards Travel China reserves the right to cancel the remainder of the guest’s itinerary, including hotel and flight reservations. However, we learned that it is possible to opt out of certain days of the guided tour for a fee by making arrangements with the tour company. We made friends with another couple on the tour who opted out of day 4 so that they could visit a few families they knew in China. We stuck with the guided tour itinerary and off we went to the Great Wall…after a visit to a jade workshop and showroom, that is.

Another group of tourists from Rewards Travel China leaving the showroom as we arrived.

Here we had our first taste of those government sponsored shopping spiels I mentioned in my previous post. Our bus pulled up to a huge building where we were given a brief introduction on the history of jade, tips on how to spot the difference between fake and authentic jade, and information about the importance of jade in Chinese culture.

Afterwards we were given free time to shop (almost a full hour), or in our case, walk around the showroom attempting to avoid salespeople. The jade we saw was all very beautiful and many people from our tour group bought pieces to take home. We considered buying a few pieces and thought of giving some as gifts to friends and family, but after we converted the prices into U.S. dollars we realized it was a bit out of our budget. The salesperson who helped us followed us around trying to show us other things we might be interested in purchasing. Even though we explained we didn’t have enough money she still stuck to us like a shadow until another browsing couple caught her eye and we made a quick getaway for the exit. It all felt a bit uncomfortable though those who were interested in shopping seemed to enjoy the experience.

At last, we were off to the Great Wall and feeling excited to get outdoors and do some climbing. We visited the Juyongguan, or Juyong Pass, section of the Great Wall, which is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and known as one of the most popular mountain passes along the wall.

Juyong Pass is also known as one of the more steep and challenging sections of the wall. While a few sections of stairs were nice and uniform, most had steps that varied from one to the next in both depth and height, making it somewhat of a difficult climb.

There weren’t a ton of people visiting this time of year, so it was easier to find quiet, peaceful moments and to snap pictures of the wall unobstructed by hordes of tourists. The downside of visiting during winter is that it was windy and absolutely frigid. It was hard to hold on to the handrails because they were ice cold. The other downside is that much of the surrounding foliage is brown or grey, closely matching the color of the stone and making it more difficult to see how the massive wall travels for miles upon miles into the horizon. Still, the Great Wall was a beautiful sight and so much fun to climb.

Using a selfie as an opportunity to stop and rest.

Spanning just over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall of China is the longest manmade structure on earth. It is also sometimes regarded as the longest cemetery on earth because an estimated one million people perished building the wall, and in many situations it was not possible for their remains to be recovered.

We were given about two hours of free time to do as we pleased. We wanted to see as much of the wall as possible so we split our time in order to hike up both the eastern and western ends of the pass.

Next on our itinerary for the day was lunch followed by a trip to the Chinese Herbal Institute. A few of the provided lunches we had were hosted in typical Chinese restaurants where we ate among local patrons. However, most lunches were hosted in the government-sponsored facilities where we ate among other tourists from the Rewards Travel China group. Though the group we were assigned to was smaller, with around 25 people, Rewards Travel China had three buses of tourists that roughly followed the same itinerary and lunch schedule, each with their own local, English-speaking guide. I think it would have been nice to eat in typical Chinese restaurants more often for the typical experience of dining in China, but I completely understand how these private, catered meals are easier to manage with such a large group and probably save quite a bit of money. None of the dinners were included in the tour package, so it was still possible to visit a few typical Chinese restaurants on our own during our trip.

At the Chinese Herbal Institute we entered into a large room with big, cozy chairs, sat down, and were asked to remove our shoes and socks. Next we were given buckets of warm water for a relaxing herbal foot soak. After a few minutes of soaking, in came a troop of staff members who sat on a stool opposite of each guest and provided a 15 minute foot rub. It was pleasant overall, especially after our morning climb, although there were some awkward moments of silence and we sensed that rubbing the sweaty feet of tourists might not be a top career choice.

During the foot rub, we were given a quick but informative introduction to the principles of Chinese medicine and a few guests were treated to fire cupping therapy, a practice beneficial to reducing stagnation and improving one’s qi. Qi is the name for the life force believed to exist in each person’s body. Chinese medicine practitioners liken having balanced qi to having something similar to a super power that results in a healthier, happier, and longer life. Think of it almost like “the force” used by jedis in Star Wars.

While our feet were being rubbed, several Chinese doctors went around the room and met with guests to provide a quick health assessment, discuss any health concerns, and offer treatment. The doctors appeared to start with and focus on the older folks in our group and we were never visited. We noticed that the doctors were recommending expensive creams and health supplements to those they met with, and not wanting to deal with more sales pressure for the day, kind of felt glad we were overlooked.

For our last stop of the evening we visited the Beijing 2008 Olympic Center. This was a highlight for some of the sports fans in our group. While I enjoy the Olympics, personally I’m not a big sports fan and admit this wasn’t my favorite stop on the tour. Still, I enjoyed the free time we had to walk around the huge complex.

On day 5 we had the morning to ourselves. We were pretty tired after two packed days of sightseeing so we passed on the optional 1/2 day Beijing city tour excursion ($79/person) and took the opportunity to sleep in, grab breakfast and coffee at a leisurely pace, and enjoy a little nap before heading off to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Food served on the Chinese flight was pretty interesting and not bad for airplane grub. We were offered a shrimp cocktail appetizer and choice of entree.

Beef, rice, and veggie entree.

The flight to Shanghai was approximately 2.5 hours and after landing we met up with a local representative from Rewards Travel China who would be our guide for the remainder of the tour. Once we collected our baggage, we loaded into buses and drove another 90 minutes to our hotel in Suzhou. Our hotel in Suzhou was smaller than the one in Beijing but still very nice and had a great view of the sunrise in the morning. Breakfast was buffet style and delicious as always.

Day 6 was a jam-packed guided tour day. We started off with a trip to the lovely Lingering Garden, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally privately-owned, the 400-year-old garden is filled with beautiful stone walkways, ponds, temples, and pavilions covering approximately 6 acres.

We had a lot of fun walking around the garden, admiring the traditional Chinese landscaping and architecture, and of course, posing for many, many pictures with friends.

After some free time in the garden we headed over to a silk factory and showroom. Though mostly a stop for purchasing silk bedding and apparel, the factory did house a small museum with information about silk production. Here we heard a little bit about how silk is made and a lot about why we should buy silk. There was even spare luggage for sale and the showroom offered vacuum packing to ensure that travelers would have a way to take their new silk goodies home.

After lunch at the silk factory we visited the Suzhou Grand Canal, which is, you guessed it, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are actually 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide with 52 being in China, a huge number when compared to the U.S. where there are only 23. These special sites have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as treasures to all of humanity for their cultural, historical, or scientific significance. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few in the U.S. (the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes, Yosemite, Olympic, Yellowstone, Waterton-Lakes, and Redwood national parks) and was thrilled that I was able to see so many more through this tour.

We declined the optional boat ride down the canal ($30/person) and instead were given a little over an hour of free time to walk along the waters. This area is touted as the “Venice of China” but since I’ve never seen Italy myself, I have nothing to compare and may need to plan a trip. For research purposes.

The area where we walked along the canal was probably the most “real” and depressed bit of China we’d seen yet. Humble homes line the waterways and residents could be seen doing laundry in the canal. Clothing and bedding was strung up on a line to dry between trees, occasionally accompanied by pieces of fish and curious cuts of meat. Open, grassy spaces in between homes were covered in mounds of rubbish. No matter how intriguing, shocking, or different a neighborhood may look, I don’t think it’s respectful to blatantly photograph someone’s home as if it were a spectacle for someone else’s entertainment. Therefore, I saved my photo ops for shots of the canal, empty alleyways, and a cute local pup. Oh, and this one public squat toilet we used that had a beautiful window but no doors.

After our stroll we hopped back onto the bus and headed off to our next city, Wuxi. After about a two-hour drive we arrived in the late afternoon at the Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area.

The park covers over 70 acres and includes several stunning sculptures, gardens, fountains, and temples. Though China is technically an atheist country, it is home to the largest population of Buddhists in the world, making the park a very popular attraction.


We were given two spurts of free time, with the first being in the lower section of the park to view the musical fountain show known as, Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni, or baby Buddha.

The Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni fountain plays a musical water show 5x daily.
The fountain rotates, giving everyone in the crowd a great view.

After watching the fountain performance, we hopped onto trams and headed to the base of the Lingshan Grand Buddha statue where we were given more free time to explore and climb to the top.

The drive through the park was absolutely gorgeous and I could see spending hours walking the property and taking in all the beautiful sights. The enormous Grand Buddha statue was naturally the star of the show, especially later in the afternoon when the sun began to set.

At an incredible 289-feet-tall, it’s the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. There are 216 stairs to reach the statue, representing 108 troubles and 108 wishes. The panoramic view from the top was nice, though a bit of smog filled the air.

Candles.

An impressive museum spread over 3 stories is located in the pedestal of the statue, though unfortunately we were not afforded enough time to read through all of the exhibits. For those who want an even closer look at the big bronze Buddha, an elevator from the museum takes visitors to an upper terrace where it’s possible to touch the Buddha’s feet for good luck.

Our sightseeing for the day was over and we headed off to our hotel in Wuxi. This ended up being our favorite hotel from the trip. I was so happy to have a room with a large bathtub and a great city view.

We met some of our new friends for dinner at a Japanese restaurant located within the hotel then scurried back to our rooms and drifted off to sleep. And with that, day 6 of our adventure in China was done. Stay tuned for my final post covering days 7-10 where we caught some of China’s most famous performances, visited a green tea plantation, and experienced the beauty of Shanghai on a cruise after dark. Thanks for reading!

China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

I’ve always dreamed about visiting China and seeing the Great Wall someday but it seemed like a bucket list destination that was just too far out of reach. That all changed when I saw an amazing travel deal on Groupon offering a 10-day guided tour of China for $649. If you’re not familiar with Groupon, it’s essentially an online marketplace where you buy vouchers to redeem for activities, goods, and services. Groupon vouchers are usually available at a fraction of the usual cost for the purchase, making the service a great way to try new things. For example, when we lived in Texas I purchased a Groupon voucher for a beekeeping course for two with a local farm. The voucher was $79 and had to be used within 90 days of purchase, but had I bought the course without the voucher I would have paid $200.

From our 3-hour beekeeping course in November of 2016.

Since I use Groupon pretty frequently to try things I wouldn’t normally jump to spend money on, I didn’t think the fact that I booked this trip using Groupon was even worth mentioning. That is, until I started mentioning it to people who seemed surprised and eager to hear more. I also learned about a little thing I can only describe as “Groupon shame.” Our trip to Iceland back in December was also made possible through a Groupon deal and now that I’ve got two trips under my belt I’ve had several questions about how to book travel through Groupon. I’m working on a follow-up post that includes everything you need to know and how you can travel cheaply using Groupon that I will share later. For now, I want to tell you that there is nothing shameful or inauthentic about booking a discounted vacation package through Groupon (so long as you read and understand the fine print), and I hope to show you this as I guide you through our 10-day itinerary.

High rise homes in Beijing viewed from the airplane.

Our Groupon travel package was for a 10-Day guided tour of China with stops in Beijing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, including hotels and roundtrip nonstop flights. The package was offered by the company Rewards Travel China and also included transportation, 13 meals, and several day tours. The price was a bargain at only $649 per person, especially considering that the airfare and transportation between cities alone is over $600 when priced separately. So what’s the catch? A series of mandatory visits to government-owned showrooms featuring popular Chinese exports where visitors sit through tours and heavy sales pitches. That may be a dealbreaker for some but we considered the value and opportunity to visit a place we never thought we’d have the chance to see and decided to book our tickets.

Government owned jade factory and showroom. More on day 4.

So off we went! Day 1 and 2 were essentially travel days. We had a direct flight that left San Jose, CA at 1:30 pm and arrived in Beijing just under 13 hours later, which would be around 6:00 pm on the following evening, China time. We quickly spotted our guide with Rewards Travel China after we landed and he helped us through the security checkpoints and assisted with obtaining our travel visa. Prior to departure, Rewards Travel China applied for a group visa on our behalf- all we had to do was scan a copy of our passports and fill out a simple form. We waited for more travelers from the tour group to arrive, then loaded up into one of those giant charter buses that seat about 60 people and headed off to the hotel.

Checking in at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing.

I’ll admit I always thought traveling with a huge group of tourists in those big charter buses seemed kind of lame but it’s actually quite practical. You get to meet other travelers (we made some great new friends in our group), there’s always someone nearby who won’t mind taking your picture, and the massive carpooling is definitely better for the environment- especially in China where the air pollution is so terrible (I’ve been home for over a week and am still coughing from exposure to air pollution as I type this). They also sold water and Chinese beer on these buses for super cheap- so that’s also a plus!

Bus beer.

Our hotel in Beijing was very nice, 5-stars to be exact, and offered a massive breakfast buffet spread across 3 large dining rooms every morning. Not a bad place to call home for the next three nights.

View from our room in the morning.
Part of the buffet.

Our first real chance to explore Beijing came on what was technically day 3 of our itinerary. This was a free day but we decided to purchase the optional full-day excursion ($65/person) that included a trip to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square with a provided lunch. These are all popular attractions in Beijing and places I would want to visit on our free day anyway, so booking the excursion was the most convenient option.

Our hotel.

Our first stop was to the Summer Palace. We saw an interesting snack shack on our walk to the gates from the bus. In addition to honey covered fruit kabobs there was a variety of dried, fried, and barbequed critters, including scorpions, starfish, spiders, snakes, and beetles. Though our guide pointed out that finding critters on a stick is pretty common in Beijing, it seemed more like a novelty and less like an everyday food so we decided not to try any.

Outside the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace was stunningly beautiful, even in the winter, and rich with history. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this lavish royal retreat is filled with grand pavilions, colorfully painted halls, decorative statues, vast lakes and gardens, and an iconic bridge with 17 arches.

Frozen Kunming Lake below the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

During winter, Kunming Lake freezes over and people take to the ice on skates and sleds. I’ve visited several indoor and outdoor rinks but ice skating on a frozen natural body of water is one of my bucket list items, so I was tempted to head back to Kunming and give it a try.

The gardens in the Summer Palace are a popular meeting space for singing and dancing. We were treated to the sounds and sights of locals practicing Tai Chi and singing traditional songs.

Singing group.

Something I noticed on our first day out was the lack of foreign tourists. Since we were visiting popular tourist attractions in Beijing, I expected to see many tour groups filled with Americans and foreigners from other countries. Surprisingly, all of the people and tourists we saw were Chinese. In fact, I did not see any Americans or foreign-looking folks outside of our own tour group for the entire trip. Not a single one. This probably explains why many of the Chinese people we encountered tended to stare when we walked by and many whipped out phones to take pictures of us. On several occasions, we were asked to pose for pictures with Chinese people who admitted they had never seen Americans in person before.

We stopped for a quick lunch with rice, veggies, noodles, soup, tea, and beer before heading off for more sightseeing. All of our meals were served family style where dishes were placed on a large lazy susan at the center of the table.

Our next stop was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest city squares in the world and a place of deep cultural and political significance. I couldn’t help but feel a bit solemn as we walked through the area, knowing its dark history. In 1989, students who protested in support of democracy, were met in Tiananmen Square with gunfire and massacred by the Chinese Army.

Tiananmen Square.

The official death toll from the tragic incident is unknown. Following the attack, the Chinese government suppressed media coverage, discussion, and investigation efforts, ultimately reporting the casualties ranged from 100-200 civilians. However, files that were more recently declassified from the U.S. and British governments revealed an estimated death toll of over 10,000 people. There are no memorials to be found in Tiananmen Square, and in fact, those who appear to be mourning publicly without government approval can be arrested.

Bridge from Tiananmen Square to Tiananmen.

Next we moved on to Tiananmen, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. The gate with it’s imperial-style architecture is featured on the National Emblem of the People’s Republic of China.

At the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The Forbidden City was our final stop and had much more upbeat vibes. For nearly 500 years, this huge complex sitting on over 180 acres served as the home of China’s emperors and was the center for political proceedings.

The Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City.

Worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Forbidden City holds the worldwide record for the most ancient, preserved wooden structures. Building rooftops are covered with intricate patterns while their interiors and exteriors are adorned with bright, detailed paintings.

During our tour I learned that the Forbidden City took 14 years to build and it required the hard work of approximately 1 million laborers. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat and 32-foot wall. As the largest imperial palace in the world, it attracts between 14 million and 16 million visitors every year.

Frozen moat around the Forbidden City walls.
Rocks in the Imperial Garden.

Another new experience was using a public squat toilet. All of the hotels had regular old toilet bowls and it was business as usual. However, most public restrooms in China have squat style toilets and are strictly BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I kept a small baggie of TP in my pocket (except one day when I made the mistake of leaving it on the bus and had to borrow from a friend) and antibacterial wipes for hand-washing afterwards. The plumbing systems aren’t equipped to handle wads of toilet paper, thus a small trash bin is provided. Most of the public restrooms we visited had multiple squat toilets and usually one or more western-style toilet bowls. Typically the western toilet stalls had a line, so I ended up using the squatters. If the stalls are occupied, the protocol is to line up outside of whichever individual stall you want, vs. forming one single line and taking the stall that opens up first. If you stand back and wait, you’ll definitely miss your turn.

It had been a long day of sightseeing and new experiences but we still weren’t done. We went back to the hotel for a quick dinner on our own, then hit the town again to go see a Shaolin kung fu performance. We walked to a restaurant across from our hotel and managed to order by pointing at the items we wanted on the menu. A little embarrassment but ultimately a success!

The food at dinner was really good, though it didn’t seem too different from American Chinese food in my humble opinion. Of course there was no “General Tso’s chicken” but most places we visited served a variety of rice, noodle, and steamed bun options.

Kung fu performance.

The show was pretty spectacular and featured insanely talented artists who told the story of Chun Yi, a boy who went to a monastery to become a buddhist monk and faced many challenges before becoming a kung fu master and reaching enlightenment. My jaw dropped at the sight of children who did front and backflips landing directly on their bare heads. After landing the flip they balanced for a moment then continued to flip from feet to head over and over again, hands never touching the floor. I should have grabbed my phone to take a picture but I think I was in too much shock.

That’s a wrap on days 1-3. Initially I was concerned that since we were participating in a guided tour, we would have little time to do things on our own. However, at each place we visited we were allowed a specified amount of free time (usually between 45 mins and 2 hours) to explore and roam around independently. For me this was a pretty good compromise.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading along so far and I hope you’ll stay tuned for my next post detailing days 3-6 when we climbed the Great Wall of China, walked in the beautiful Lingering Garden, sat through a sales spiel in a silk factory, and fell awestruck by the giant Lingshan Grand Buddha. Thanks for reading!

Off the Beaten Path: Glamping and Offbeat Destinations

Off the Beaten Path: Glamping and Offbeat Destinations

Before we started living and traveling in our little 150-square-foot roaming home, my favorite way to travel was to stay in offbeat and unique places. I’m talking yurts, treehouses, cabins, and anything off the beaten path or different than a conventional hotel. I wasn’t able to narrow it down to my top three, so in this quick trip down memory lane I’ll be sharing my four favorite glamping and offbeat destinations, ordered chronologically based on our visit date.

1. Moonbeam Cottage- Uncertain, TX

Moonbeam Cottage at the Moonglow Lodge.

Picture a whimsical little cabin surrounded with flowers and ivy out on a small island in a lush bayou far away from the city lights, and you’ve got the aptly-named Moonbeam Cottage located in Uncertain, Texas. This quaint little retreat sits on Caddo Lake, which is on the border of Texas and Louisiana. Home to one of the largest flooded cypress forests in the country, this biodiverse ecosystem is also an internationally protected wetland.

The Moonbeam Cottage has a cozy and modest interior with a queen-size murphy bed, kitchenette with coffee pot, microwave, and mini fridge, and a bathroom with shower- but we spent most of our time enjoying the beautiful outdoors. During our visit in 2015, the cottage also had an awesome little indoor hot tub and screened porch but I believe the hot tub may have been removed after the property flooded in 2016.

The cabin has access to a large pier with a lovely sitting area, perfect for admiring the cypress trees and Spanish moss. Canoes are also available for exploring the peaceful waters and abundant wildlife. Caddo Lake State Park is just a short drive away and offers hiking, paddling, fishing, and camping.

Relaxing on the deck.

We enjoyed hiking in the nearby state park and just walking around the small island. One morning were joined by a friendly dog that we dubbed “swamp dog” after he jumped into the murky water to try and retrieve a turtle we moved from the road.

Caddo Lake definitely has a mysterious charm and some locals even believe the area is enchanted with special powers. Musician, and native Texan, Don Henley also treasures this special place and has played a large role in its preservation.

Caddo Lake

2. StoneWind Retreat- Chester, AR

StoneWind Retreat in Chester, AR

While we were still living in Louisiana we took a trip across the state line to Arkansas where we stayed in a secluded yurt up in the mountains. I had always wanted to stay in a yurt and this one was nothing short of magical with plenty of natural light, warm furnishings, and a beautiful deck with a jacuzzi tub and unbeatable view.

Jacuzzi with a view.
Outside the yurt.

The yurts were quite comfortable when we visited in late summer and are equipped with central air and heat, a full bathroom, and a kitchen complete with cooking supplies. The retreat center offers in-room massages and wellness classes including meditation and qigong.

Breakfast in the yurt.

There’s also plenty to do nearby, especially if you like playing in the dirt. We went out on a day trip and found some lovely hiking trails and walked around a serene lake. On our way up to StoneWind we went mining for crystal quartz on Mount Ida, the crystal quartz capital of the U.S. (this still ranks as one of my favorite adventures to date).

Years later, I used some of the crystal quartz points we mined in Arkansas to make the unicorn crown I wore at our wedding. Did you know that in addition to being beautiful, crystal quartz is believed to cleanse and purify energy? Arkansas will always be a special place to us and I still consider the state an underrated beauty.

3. Savannah’s Meadow- Celeste, TX

Another one of my favorite offbeat adventures was when we went glamping high up in the Majestic Oak Treehouse just on the outskirts of Dallas in Celeste, Texas. This definitely isn’t your average backyard treehouse fort. This bungalow is a real stunner with its shabby-chic decor and was featured on Animal Planet’s popular TV show, Treehouse Masters.

Room with a view at Savannah’s Meadow.

Literally built in, on, and around an old, majestic oak tree, the main cabin in this treehouse features a kitchen with sink, fridge, and cooktop, and a unique set of stairs that leads to a crow’s nest with 3 twin beds.

I really loved the floating sky lounge, which is basically a net suspended in the trees and the perfect spot for relaxing or reading a book. The shower was also a treat with large floor-to-ceiling windows. Don’t worry about peepers- plenty of privacy is provided by the trees.

Sky lounge in the tree.

My absolute favorite spot was the master bedroom where the walls and roof can be rolled up providing an open-air experience, ideal for admiring the trees or sleeping under the the stars. If you choose to roll up the walls like we did, a dainty mosquito net is provided to help keep any bugs away- this is Texas after all. We found a few friendly spiders hanging around on the outside of the mosquito nets when we woke up in the mornings but we credit them with keeping the mosquitos away. We didn’t have any encounters with any other bugs or critters during our stay and we found the treehouse to be very clean and peaceful.

Majestic Oak Treehouse.

In the heat of the summer (and likely most of the year in Texas), the small but private swimming pool with a floating rubber ducky provides the perfect place to cool down. There’s also a private jacuzzi tub on site, a few short hiking trails through the wooded property with interesting decorations, a large field of lavender, small fishing pond, rustic wedding chapel, and a friendly neighborhood donkey.

4. Stormking Spa and Cabins- Ashford, WA

I found the last on the list of my favorite little offbeat accommodations in Ashford, Washington near beautiful Mount Rainier National Park. Nestled in a grove of large, fragrant cedar trees, the round Bear Cabin and its private deck with jacuzzi proved to be the perfect place to unwind after a long day exploring the park.

This cabin sits on absolutely stunning property. We saw all sorts of beautiful birds and enjoyed the soothing sounds of a trickling stream right from our cabin’s deck. Sitting there you’d never even know you left the park boundaries. One thing to keep in mind is that the cabins were specifically designed for couples seeking a romantic getaway and children are not allowed.

We had a wonderful time lounging by the fireplace, enjoying the beautiful view from the deck, and soaking in the jacuzzi tub. There are a few other cabins on the property but they are spaced apart and feel very private. We actually never saw or heard any other guests and it felt like we were the only ones there in our own private little nature sanctuary.

That’s a wrap on my favorite glamping and offbeat destinations. If you’ve stayed someplace unique and would like to share, I would love to hear about your experience! I hope you enjoyed reading along and reminiscing with me. I definitely encourage you to try a yurt, cabin, or treehouse that’s off the beaten path for your next adventure.
Thanks for reading!

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

Our third full day in Iceland would be a long one. We woke up early to head out for a tour of the Golden Circle, a route that travels approximately 190 miles in southern Iceland, covering some of the country’s most scenic natural landmarks and attractions. But first, breakfast!

Our hotel offered complimentary breakfast every morning and I have to admit it was one of the best free breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen. My plate was a little boring but there was fresh fruit, fish, meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereal, pastries, eggs, bread, cereal, and a waffle bar. Everything was very fresh and paired with coffee, provided the fuel we needed to start the day.

First stop: Friðheimar grehouse.

The first stop on our tour was Friðheimar, a geothermal greenhouse where organic tomatoes are grown year-round. Agriculture can be tricky in Iceland because of the climate and shortened daylight hours during fall and winter. From May through August, Iceland’s sun doesn’t sleep and daylight persists for 24 hours a day. However, for the remainder of the year Iceland is under much darker skies with only 3-5 hours of light each day.

Visitors can dine on all things tomato right inside the greenhouse.

At Friðheimar, plants are grown using geothermal water and light is sufficiently provided through green electricity produced by hydro and geothermal power plants. A restaurant is also onsite serving up a variety of tomato dishes, drinks, and even desserts. We weren’t feeling very hungry since we had just eaten at the hotel, but looking back I really wish I would have tried the homemade tomato ice cream à la Friðheimar or maybe a tomato beer. Next time!

Friðheimar also specializes in breeding Icelandic show and riding horses. We were able to meet a few of these beautiful animals who didn’t seem bothered by the snow or cold one bit.

Next we were off to the Haukadalur valley, an area with a lot of geothermal activity. Here we saw Geysir, Iceland’s most famous, though mostly dormant geyser. Although she’s been inactive for several years, Geysir is truly the mother of all geysers as she was the first ever to be recorded in earth’s history and all other geysers discovered after her have carried her name. 

These days the crowds tend to form around Strokkur, one of Iceland’s most popular and reliable natural geysers. Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes blasting its boiling water upwards of 49–66 ft on average.

Thar she blows!

The Haukadalur valley has over 40 more geothermal features including smaller pots of boiling mud, hot springs, and steam vents. The landscape in the area is also stunningly scenic, rich with colorful grasses and algae.

You might recognize this photo of Haukadalur from my last post. It’s one of my favorites from the trip.

I had purchased ice cleats for our trip just in case we needed them and was glad to have them when I started sliding around on the slippery walkways. Once I had the cleats on my boots I felt very confident trotting along through the ice and snow. After exploring the valley for a bit longer we ventured into the nearby visitor center where we had lunch- nice hot soup and cold Icelandic white ale.

I was really excited to visit our next stop on the tour, Gullfoss or golden falls.  This massive and powerful waterfall sits on the Hvítá river and is fed by the Langjökull glacier, Iceland’s second largest. It was so windy we had a hard time walking and an even harder time trying to hold the camera still for a picture. Nevertheless, I managed to snap a few without getting blown away by the wind or sacrificing my phone to the falls.

View from the upper observation deck.

Before Gullfoss became a nature reserve, the land belonged to a sheep farmer. Over the years foreign investors sought to use the waterfall for generating electricity.  The farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir fought to preserve the falls, hiring an attorney and even making the journey to Reykjavik barefooted for court proceedings. Though the court did not rule in her favor, plans to exploit the falls ultimately fell through and Sigríður’s efforts helped bring awareness to the importance of preserving Iceland’s natural beauty.

View from the lower observation deck.

The last stop on our tour of the Golden Circle was Þingvellir National Park, a site that is truly one-of-a-kind. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, runs through the park. This is the only location on earth where visitors can snorkel or dive between two tectonic plates. I’m definitely adding that activity to my list for our next visit! It’s also the only location where the ridge sits above sea level, allowing visitors to walk along the crest on land.

The rift valley from above.

In addition to the beauty and geological significance of this site, it’s also culturally and historically rich as the birthplace of the Althing, Iceland’s national parliament and the oldest parliament in the world. Þingvellir was also Iceland’s first national park, founded in 1930, and was designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 2004. Any Game of Thrones fans out there? The park was used as a filming location in season 4 and you may recognize the rugged terrain from the iconic battle between Brienne of Tarth and The Hound.

I made an eerie discovery about Þingvellir after we returned home. I took some photographs of what I thought was just a pretty pond with a small waterfall. I did a little research to see if such a beautiful feature in the park had a name. I learned the site is known as the Drowning Pool and it’s where at least 18 women were legally drowned by Vikings for behavior considered immoral, such as adultery. I also learned that a small memorial plaque listing the names of the women is posted somewhere near the site, but I didn’t see it during my visit. And, although you won’t find any informational signs revealing the grim details, there are several more historical execution sites which exist in the park. As tourists, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of a place, and in some cases, fail to fully understand its history.

Drowning Pool.

Back to our adventure…after a long day out on the Golden Circle we were feeling pretty famished and decided we needed to head back to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for some of those amazing hot dogs we had on the food walk tour. How could we not? We started off modestly ordering one each but then went back for seconds not feeling any shame.

Still dreaming of those hot dogs…

We also went back to Apotek for dessert and tried their Christmas special- spice crumble topped with a scoop of vanilla sorbet, a caramelized white chocolate mousse with apple filling atop a gingerbread cookie, dulce de leche sauce, raspberry and lime gel, fresh fruit, chocolate pearls. It was divine! They had a case full of adorable little pastries that they use for their desserts and I wanted to take them all home with me.

I’ll have one of each, please!

Since it was our last night in Iceland we decided to spend it exploring more of downtown Reykjavik, which was within walking distance of our hotel. One thing we absolutely loved about Iceland was the abundance of art. Art was literally everywhere and we probably looked a little silly taking photographs of beautiful, artful things that are probably just normal sights to Icelanders.

Another delightful and artful sight in downtown Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall. The design for this contemporary, steel-frame building that sits on the atlantic ocean was inspired by the basalt landscapes of Iceland. Harpa’s walls are adorned with geometrical glass panels, which after dark, are illuminated by led lighting and dance in every color imaginable.

Water feature in front of Harpa.

Everything also felt extra magical because of the Christmas season. The Christmas holiday is very important in Iceland and nearly every business and home we saw was decorated in some way. Our local guide explained that Icelanders enjoy having the extra light and cheer during December when the days are shorter. Even tombstones in cemeteries are often lit up with christmas lights in remembrance of lost loved ones.

There was no shortage of beautiful lights or Santas. The Icelandic Santas of folklore are known as the Yule Lads and there are thirteen of them. They’re also technically trolls and a bit mischievous, playing pranks on children, then leaving gifts for those who have been good and rotting potatoes for those who have misbehaved. We spotted a few of the Yule Lads hanging around on buildings while we were strolling downtown.

I wish we would have had more time to wander along the charming streets in search of the other Yule Lads. I wish we would have made it back to Cafe Loki one more time for another helping of that delicious rye bread ice cream.

I definitely wouldn’t have minded another visit to the Blue Lagoon or a trip to some of Iceland’s more remote hot springs. But, unfortunately our Icelandic adventure was coming to an end. The next morning as we begrudgingly headed off to the airport we saw the snow that had enchanted us over the past few days had melted away. It was almost reminiscent of when the clock struck midnight and Cinderella watched as the magic disappeared. Sigh. Overall it was a lovely trip and we left already planning for our return. For now, it’s back to California to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. As always, thanks for reading and may your holidays be blessed!

An Icelandic Adventure: Part I

An Icelandic Adventure: Part I

I’ve always wanted to visit a Nordic country and found myself intrigued by photographs of Iceland’s rugged, other-worldly beauty. When I used to think of Iceland, I imagined…Bjork, if I’m being honest. Now when I think of Iceland, I also imagine…

…dark fields of lava covering the rich volcanic landscape, streams of chalky blue, glacier-fed waters flowing to the ocean, and billowy mist from crashing waterfalls and steamy geysers filling the air under the green glow of the aurora borealis.

Dramatic, but accurate! Though our trip was short, it was packed with a ton of adventure and I’m already dreaming of a return voyage. After spending a full day hopping on connecting flights between California and New York, we finally headed off to Keflavik, where Iceland’s international airport is based. Maybe it was the excitement of visiting a new country or maybe it was the cool airplane entertainment system loaded with new movies, but we got very little sleep on the flight. When we arrived it was just after midnight and we were exhausted. Still, there was no time to rest because it was only 8:00 a.m. local time and officially day 1 of our Icelandic adventuring.

Lucky for us, our first day would be spent relaxing. What better way to start a vacation and cure jet lag than with a nice trip to the spa? Though not lacking in any natural beauty, Iceland’s geothermal hot spring retreat, the Blue Lagoon, is technically a man-made attraction. The lagoon was formed when runoff water from a nearby geothermal power plant began pooling in the surrounding lava fields. People began bathing in the pools believing the water possessed healing properties and eventually the site was transformed into a fully operational spa, becoming one of Iceland’s most popular destinations.

Sunrise on the lagoon.

Just a day before our arrival, southwestern Iceland had received its first snowfall of the season. It snowed lightly as we left the airport to board a shuttle that would take us directly to the lagoon. When we arrived, we checked in our luggage and headed off to the locker rooms to change.

Pathway from the parking area and luggage storage to the lagoon entrance. Dark at 9:00 a.m.

I was very pleased to learn that the Blue Lagoon is super accessible. Facilities in the main complex including the changing area, showers, and restrooms are all accessible. The pool is equipped with a mechanical lift and also has a ramp where visitors can enter the water using specialized waterproof wheelchairs. Another wonderful feature the Blue Lagoon offers is free admission for a person assisting an individual who has a disability.

Visitors enjoying the lagoon.

I was concerned that the Blue Lagoon’s water would be lukewarm given the recent snowfall and chilly 32°F weather. The water was actually quite pleasant and I learned the average temperature of the pool is between 98 and 103 °F.

Although highly visited, the Blue Lagoon’s water is completely replenished with fresh geothermal seawater, which has high levels of silica, algae, and minerals, every two days. There’s a fun mask bar where visitors can slather on silica and algae masks or purchase a lava scrub. And of course, there’s a regular bar serving drinks too. Visitors can swim-up for sparkling wine, beer, smoothies, or juice. At check-in, all visitors are given waterproof, electronic wristbands that can be used to make purchases anywhere in the Blue Lagoon, which means you don’t have to carry around cards or cash. The wristband also serves as a key to the provided lockers. Smart and simple to use!

Sipping on sparkling wine and enjoying the colorful sunrise.

After wading in the pool for a bit we headed over to the Lava Restaurant for lunch. We toweled off then walked over in the flip flops and robes that were included with our admission. Entering a restaurant wearing a robe felt strange at first but we quickly realized how comfortable and cozy we felt.

The restaurant has great two or three course set menus but guests can also order a la carte. Hoping to catch a good variety, we ordered the seafood menu and the Icelandic gourmet menu. Our first courses were langoustine soup (basically icelandic crawfish) with dulse (a salty seaweed-like vegetable) and birch and juniper cured arctic char with horseradish, cucumber, rye bread, and pickled mustard seeds.

Complimentary wine with rye bread and butter topped with lava salt and herbs.

As soon as the food hit our bellies we drifted off into a state of sleep deprivation and food coma. I failed to take any additional pictures of our meal but we also enjoyed cod and lamb main courses and a caramel chocolate mousse for dessert. Everything we ate was absolutely delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed dining in our robes overlooking the lagoon. After we dined we planned on visiting the sauna and steam room but we were pretty tired so instead we showered, bunded up in our winter clothes, retrieved our luggage, and caught a shuttle to our hotel in Reykjavik.

Frozen pond outside of the spa.

Our hotel room was small but clean and quite cozy with a beautiful view of the ocean. The floors were heated and radiant heat warmed the room to a comfortable temperature. After getting settled in we took a nap before our 8:00 p.m. northern lights tour that evening.

View from our hotel window.

Feeling rested and suited up in our snow gear, we headed out to chase the northern lights. We eagerly boarded a shuttle and our guide, an enthusiastic physicist, shared some of Iceland’s history with us and the science behind the glowing green lights.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any beautiful bands of green illuminating the sky. It was snowing pretty heavily and we weren’t able to see the lights through the cloud coverage. The skies wouldn’t be any clearer for the duration of our stay so we decided against attempting to go out to see them again. But, we were having such a wonderful trip so far it was hard to feel disappointed and it was easy to say to ourselves, “guess we’ll have to come back to Iceland again.”

Food walk tour in downtown Reykjavik.

Feeling well-rested and eager to explore the city, we started off our second day with a food walk tour in downtown Reykjavik. Our guide was a local, born and raised in Iceland, who shared a ton of information about the city and Icelandic culture as our group toured the streets.

At our first stop on the tour- Islenski Barrin, a popular spot for food and beer.

Looking back, the food walk tour was one of my favorite activities on our trip. The other travelers in our small tour group were great and we all really seemed to enjoyed the food, conversation, information, and company. There was even another couple from Texas in our group. Yee-haw!

We visited six different restaurants and walked approximately 1.3 miles on the 3-hour tour. Our first stop was a popular bar for Icelandic lamb meat soup, a special schnapps made from potatoes, and a sample of hákarl, fermented shark. Yup, shark, which is a national food of Iceland, infamously known for having a horrible taste and odor. Honestly, I didn’t think it was bad, especially chased with the schnapps. Next we visited a cheese shop where we sampled black Gouda, Gull Ostur (gold brie), and bleu cheese. We also sampled cured Icelandic lamb seasoned with rosemary, thyme and anise, smoked Icelandic goose with raspberry champagne vinaigrette, and cured Icelandic horse seasoned with rosemary, thyme and curry. Yep, horse. Eek! I’ll admit I was feeling a bit reluctant while pondering the ethics behind eating shark, and especially horse. However, in the U.S. we eat fish, cows, and pigs (a species even more intelligent than horses) without a second thought. It was also somewhat comforting to learn that Icelandic horses and sheep roam free out in the wild, hopefully living their best lives, before farmers round up herds for slaughter.

Cheese and meat tasting.

Next we indulged in rye bread ice cream with whipped cream and caramelised rhubarb syrup from Café Loki. This was one of my favorite foods on the tour. The texture was similar to cookies and cream but the flavor was buttery and lightly sweetened. Our main course was at Messinn and served up family style. We had arctic char cooked in honey and almonds with potatoes, tomatoes, and mixed greens, and an Icelandic fish stew called plokkfiskur, a mashed cod dish with potatoes, onions, butter, cream, garlic, celery, white wine and lime served with fresh rye bread.

After a bit more walking we arrived at Bæjarins Bestu, for a treat that some sources have crowned the “best hot dog in Europe.” Established in 1937, this Icelandic national treasure serves up lamb-based hot dogs dressed with sweet mustard, ketchup, raw onion, crispy fried onion, and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. Possibly the best hot dog I’ve ever had! In fact, we returned the following day for more.

Our last stop was to the trendy restaurant and bar, Apótek. Here we had coffee and a Skyr mousse dessert with strawberry and lime gel, sponge cheesecake pastry, and fresh berries. So good and a great way to end the tour.

After our tour we decided to continue exploring downtown Reykjavik on foot. During our tour we passed by Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and one of the country’s most stunning works of architecture. We weren’t able to see the inside because a funeral was being held but we returned after dark to see the church lit up. In the photograph below, you may notice the national flag is flown at half mast, which is a traditional Icelandic practice for honoring a resident who is being laid to rest. I learned that the statue that stands outside of the church depicts explorer Leif Erikson and was a gift from the U.S. to celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the Althling, Iceland’s parliament.

Before sunset.
After dark.

The city was beautiful covered in a layer of fluffy snow. We had fun venturing into shops and galleries and admiring statues and art displays along the way. It was a great way to burn off some of the calories we consumed during the food walk tour.

We couldn’t resist a photo op with the yule cat sculpture unveiled earlier this year. Her proper name is Jólakötturinn, and this giant, red-eyed, feline beast from Icelandic folklore is believed to devour those who don’t receive warm clothing to wear for Christmas. 

The next morning we headed out early for the Golden Circle tour to see some of Iceland’s stunning natural beauty, which I’ll cover in part 2 of our Icelandic adventure. Thanks for reading!

Hitched Up: Desert Dwelling

Hitched Up: Desert Dwelling

We’ve parked our little home on wheels in all sorts of different climates and environments on our travel journey but setting up camp out among the desert cacti would be a new experience for us. My unorthodox way of planning our adventures thus far has been opening up Google Maps and zooming in on the green areas, which indicate a national or state park, and picking destinations that sound interesting. Through this method I stumbled across Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and began researching the area.

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Ranking as California’s largest state park, Anza Borrego is pretty remote with the nearest town being the small community of Borrego Springs. When I looked further into Borrego Springs, one of the first images that popped up in my search results was a huge metal sculpture of a dragon weaving through the sandy desert floor. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and since Mitch has always loved dragons I knew right away we had to see this work of art in person. You won’t find a Walmart or fast food restaurant in Borrego Springs but we were pleased with several locally-owned restaurants and markets to choose from. The Center Market had the best prepared foods in their deli section- if you get the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend the mango, jicama salad.  

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We camped in the Palm Canyon Campground located within the state park and surrounded by tall, rocky mountains. Our site had had full-hookups, which means we were able to run our air conditioning in the dry heat of November. From May until October, temperatures stay in the triple-digits and even in November the high of 85 felt more like 95. We had one of the pull-thru sites on the edge of the campground loop (#28). These sites offer more privacy, however the utilities sit on the same side as the picnic table and fire pit which means most RVs will either need hoses and electrical cords long enough to reach around the RV, or camp will be set up with the RV door opening to the road instead of the campsite. Luckily we have long hoses and cords and we were able to get hooked up with no problem.

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The campground has four accessible full hook up sites (#3, 21, 49 and 52) and three accessible developed sites (#118, 119 and 120) which have no hook ups. Accessible restrooms and showers are available in each campground loop and each building has an accessible parking space out front.

We went on a few hikes during our stay, the first being a canyoneering adventure on the Slot Canyon Trail. Reaching the trail requires a 2-mile drive down a rocky, sandy road. I had read 4-wheel drive was recommended because the sand was soft in some areas and cars can easily get stuck, but we saw several small sedans and low-clearance vehicles handle the terrain with no problem.

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A large parking area is located at the trailhead but beyond the parking area the road serves as a multi-use, 4wd and hiking trail. The Slot Canyon Trail can be hiked as a loop by taking the 4wd road back to the parking area or as an out-and-back by heading back into the canyon instead. There is one sign pointing to the trail near the parking area and from there the trail leads into the slot canyon without many opportunities for getting lost. The canyon isn’t as colorful as some of the famous slot canyons of Arizona and Utah but it was still beautiful and a lot of fun to hike through. 

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img_1701img_1700After exiting the canyon, identifying the trail becomes much more of a challenge. There are no trail markers along the way and the space opens up revealing 4wd roads in every direction. We ended up hiking to the top of the 4wd road and had an awesome view of the open desert. We hiked in the morning when temperatures were cooler but it was still hot. Beyond the canyon there aren’t many areas where escaping the sun is a possibility, so having enough water is critical.

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We also hiked the Palm Canyon Trail, which has one of the easiest trailheads to reach and is the most popular trail in the park. The trailhead is located in the Palm Canyon Campground and has restrooms and a water fountain. This 3-mile trek into the desert  travels between rocky hills and ends at a beautiful lush palm oasis. 

The Palm Canyon Trail is well-marked, making it much easier to stay on the correct path.  The trail is also lined with large boulders, some of which provide protection from the sun. Some boulder scrambling is required and there are a few sets of stairs, but otherwise the trail is mostly flat and an easy hike. The cool and shady palm oasis is a nice reward after being out in the heat. Though rarely spotted by humans, endangered bighorn sheep also take refuge from the sun and find water in the grove of palms. Because water sources in the desert are so scarce, visitors are reminded to stay on the trail to help protect wildlife.

 

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Most of the trails within the park are pretty remote and unfortunately not accessible. There are two accessible trails in the park, including the Visitor Center Interpretive Trail and the Culp Valley Trail (0.5 mile, located in the Culp Valley Campground).  The Visitor Center Interpretive Trail, also known as the All-Access Trail, is paved and provides great view of the valley and seasonally, beautiful cactus blooms. The trail travels through the desert between the Palm Canyon Campground and the Visitor Center 0.7 miles away. 

 So how about that metal dragon sculpture? It was awesome and so were all the other interesting pieces of art to be found scattered about Borrego Springs. I learned that the artist behind the work is Ricardo Breceda, who was commissioned by the late philanthropist Dennis Avery to create the 130 metal sculptures that are found around Borrego Springs. The dragon is one of the largest of the bunch at 350-feet-long. 

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Avery’s vision was to create an open-space museum, free and available for the public to enjoy. Breceda’s magnificent artwork is displayed on Avery’s estate, know as Galleta Meadows and visitors are welcome to drive through for an experience like no other. Most of the artwork can be enjoyed from the comfort of a vehicle, though hiking, biking, and horseback riding on the property is also permitted. 

img_1841img_1833img_1834img_1815-492095065-1542220182345.jpgContinuing on with our desert journey we headed northeast to Joshua Tree National Park and camped in the Indian Cover campground near Twenty-nine Palms. The campground does not have any hook ups but the weather was cool and there was no need to a/c. When we arrived I was stunned by the beauty of the giant, towering boulders that surrounded our campsite, then appalled by the amount of litter I found near our picnic table and fire pit.

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I was glad Gaius was not with us because all around our site I found shards of glass from broken beer bottles in every color. I picked up plastic bottle tops, food wrappers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, and bread ties, among other pieces of trash, some of which looked like it had been sitting there on the dirt for months. If you couldn’t tell, litter bugs me! 

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I felt much better after cleaning up all the trash and putting it in its proper place. Then after the sun had set, the stars really came out to shine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen stars so bright. The dark sky was literally filled with a twinkling sea of stars. We fell asleep gazing up at the sky from the window over our bed. The Indian Cove Campground is very popular with climbers, due to the huge boulders that line the campsites.  The posted climbing rules instruct climbers to ask permission before entering an occupied campsite to climb. I was a bit annoyed when a group of climbers walked right into our site, plopped their gear down, and started scaling the surrounding walls without checking with us first. After I watched for a moment and said “good morning,” someone from the group said, “Oh is it okay if we climb here? We’re already set up” while pointing up to the ropes. I imagined by eyes rolling out of my head while I smiled and said “Yeah, sure!” If we hadn’t been heading out I think I would have reminded these folks of the rules. Call me an enigma, but I believe you can be free-spirited, lead an unconventional lifestyle, and STILL show other people courtesy, and STILL respect the rules of places you visit. Okay, end rant. There’s also a really lovely nature trail located within the campground that we enjoyed hiking at sunset. Though there are some mild grades and unevenness in areas, this trail may be accessible for some. An accessible restroom is located within the campground. 

img_1980img_1953The Indian Cove Campground sits just a short drive from the park’s North Entrance Station, so we headed in for some hiking. The drive along Park Boulevard is beautiful with many pull-outs that allow visitors to stop and take in the otherworldly scenery, including the gnarly Joshua trees. 

img_1976We hiked the Hidden Valley Trail and drove down the unpaved Queen Valley Road which travels through the Joshua Trees. 

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The Hidden Valley picnic area is a great spot for lunch. There are several accessible picnic tables, accessible restrooms (pit toilets), and a few accessible parking spots. 

img_1894Unfortunately there are only a few accessible trails, including the Bajada Nature Trail near the South Entrance, Cap Rock Nature Trail at the junction of Park Blvd. and Keys View Road, Oasis of Mara Trail in Twentynine Palms at the Oasis Visitor Center, and the Keys View Overlook. I chatted with a ranger who told me the Barker Dam trail is currently under construction and will be accessible once renovations are completed.

Joshua Tree was beautiful and camping in the desert was fun but it was time to drop off our trailer for warranty work. Next stop- Lancaster, CA.

Thanks for reading!

Hitched Up: California Coasting

Hitched Up: California Coasting

The next leg of our journey involved a scramble down the California coast. We purchased our Lance travel trailer from a local dealership in Austin, TX back in November of 2017. We made the purchase several months ahead of our May departure date because we wanted to have time to become familiar with the trailer and its amenities before heading out on the road. Our fast-approaching purchase anniversary also marks the expiration of the manufacturer’s one-year warranty. Since we’ve discovered a few minor issues that need repair (cabinet locks malfunctioning, entry door not sealing properly, television image distorted, etc.), we made an appointment at the Lance factory in southern California to have the work completed while still under warranty.

Our first wedding anniversary also provided another reason to make a dash for southern California, and what better place to celebrate in than Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. We were married last year in Las Vegas on Halloween weekend so Halloween will probably always be special to us. I’ve actually always wanted to see Disneyland during the spooky season while the park is decorated with characters from the Nightmare Before Christmas. So, whereas we would normally spend several weeks traveling across the state taking our time to explore as many places as possible, we found ourselves making a dash for southern California to celebrate our anniversary in time for Halloween and to have our trailer to the manufacturer before our warranty expired.

The first quick stop on our journey down the coast was San Francisco where we stayed two nights at an RV park in the neighboring city of Marin. The RV park was walking distance from the Larkspur ferry, so we headed to the port via the accessible, paved trail and sailed into the city for some sightseeing.

Many popular attractions and landmarks can be seen from the ferry, including San Quentin State Prison, Angel Island, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, Treasure Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and of course, the city’s beautiful skyline.

We grabbed some coffee at the Ferry Building Marketplace then strolled the iconic Embarcadero, which is home to several piers loaded with restaurants, shops, street performers, museums, and more.

We weren’t planning on a trip to the Exploratorium, a popular hands-on science museum, but we saw that it was Community Day and admission was pay-what-you-wish. We were happy to leave a donation and head in to check out the exhibits.

A trip to San Francisco would not be complete without sampling some of its famous seafood. My favorite is clam chowder served up in a fresh, sourdough bread bowl.

After a quick bite we continued along the city’s eastern shoreline until we reached the National Park Service’s Aquatic Park Pier. On the way back to the ferry we popped in at Ghirardelli Square for an ice cream sundae.

Later we met up with my friend, her husband, and their baby girl for dinner. The last time I saw my friend was years ago when we traveled together to London and Paris. It was so much fun catching up over a great meal.

We headed further south and stayed with my mom in my hometown for a few days. We went out for dinner in historic San Juan Bautista and spent some time in one of my favorite places, Monterey. I remember visiting the beaches with my mom as a kid and taking trips to the famous aquarium. Later I would graduate from California State University Monterey Bay and work in the area for years before relocating to the sunny southern U.S.. We saw a movie, walked along the wharf, visited the farmers market, and had a lovely dinner. Since we’ll be spending the holidays with my mom, there will be many more adventures in Monterey and central California coming up soon.

It was nice to be home for a few days but we had to keep moving of we wanted to make it to Disneyland and the manufacturer on time, so we headed out on the road again. We stopped off in beautiful Morro Bay where we camped right on the beach.

The sunsets here were phenomenal, painted with purple and pink tones. When the fog rolled in, the beach looked like something out of a dream.

We visited Morro Bay State Park and walked the accessible Marina Peninsula Loop Trail, which provided stunning views of the bay and estuary.

The paved trail near Morro Rock was also accessible and was a great place to enjoy excellent views of the ocean.

We took a quick trip to nearby Sam Simeon to check out the elephant seals lazing on the beach. The Elephant Seal Vista Point is located right off of Cabrillo Highway (Hwy 1) and has plenty of parking, including accessible spaces and large spaces for RVs. A long, accessible deck and short trail runs along the beach providing visitors with an up-close view of the seals.

We were so close, we could actually smell the blubbery mammals as they soaked up the afternoon sun. The view was fantastic though the smell is something I’d rather forget.

Later we toured the magnificent Hearst Castle, built by the late newspaper and magazine mogul William Randolph Hearst. After his death, the property was donated to the state of California and it became a state park in 1958. The exquisite castle was designed by Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect, and is filled with antiques and an impressive collection of art.

I’ve visited the castle a few times during the day but this was my first time visiting the property at night. We reserved tickets for the evening tour and arrived just in time to watch the sun setting. Though high up on a hill, the castle has an amazing view of the ocean.

The evening tour takes visitors up and down a few flights of stairs, but an accessible tour is also available.

We really enjoyed the beach but were excited to move on to Anaheim for our anniversary celebration in Disneyland. We stayed at an RV resort about a mile away from the park gates. Though we were technically within walking distance, we decided to purchase shuttle passes figuring we’d spend enough time on our feet while in the park. It turned out to be the best idea ever, as we averaged 12 hours standing and 8 miles walking every day. Even with sore and swollen feet, Disneyland was nothing short of magical.

We felt like kids running around the park, hopping on the rides and catching the shows.

We ended up spending 2 full days at Disneyland and 1 day at California Adventure. Both parks were awesome in their own way. California Adventure was modern, had more thrill rides, and offered a Broadway-quality production of the Disney hit Frozen.

We also caught an awesome sunset over the pond at California Adventure.

Still, Disneyland felt more whimsical, magical, and classic while offering a variety of attractions for all ages. The canoe boats were great for an upper-body workout.

The food in both parks was really, really good. Who knew Disney could pull off an authentic and deliciously southern shrimp and grits?

We loved the time we spent in both parks and did not want to leave. Both parks were also super accessible. We saw tons of visitors using wheelchairs, scooters, and walkers. Each attraction has an accessible entrance. Some rides require a transfer from wheelchair to the seat, but several rides have accessible buggies or cars that can accommodate wheelchairs. I wanted to snap a picture but every time I saw a ride with an accessible buggy there was a person in their wheelchair enjoying it. Awesome!

We also visited Downtown Disney one evening for an open-space, interactive virtual reality experience. Being the Star Wars fans that we are, we could not pass up the opportunity to visit The Void for their Secrets of the Empire attraction.

Paired with another couple, we suited up in vests and helmets then were given a mission where we would impersonate storm troopers to infiltrate the Empire. The screens in our helmets displayed a virtual world before us and we walked through mazes working together to meet our objectives. The attraction is also accessible allowing people with varying mobility abilities to get in on the fun. Though I’m not much of a gamer, I have to say it was pretty awesome and I’d definitely try it again. I liked it so much I even bought the souvenir photo instead of taking a blurry picture of it with my phone like I normally do.

While we were in the area we took a day trip to L.A. on Halloween to see Universal Studios and their Halloween Horror Nights. I was most excited about the Harry Potter attractions, especially the famed butter beer. It did not disappoint.

We purchased an afternoon pass which allowed us access to Universal starting at 2:00 p.m. and access to the halloween mazes starting at 5:00 p.m. As we roamed around the park we received many compliments on our matching Star Wars shirts we could not leave Disneyland without.

We also splurged on the Universal express passes that way we could avoid the long lines. We were able to get to everything in the park, including the hour-long studio tour, except for the Waterworld show.

We also were able to jump ahead of the long lines for the halloween mazes, where others without express passes waited 90 minutes or longer. Universal Studios was a lot of fun but we definitely preferred the magic of Disney. I didn’t get a ton of pictures at Universal after dark but I did catch a pretty cool shot in the Stranger Things maze.

Before we left the greater Los Angeles area we spent some time visiting with an old friend from Monterey. I hadn’t seen her in 10 years but it was like nothing changed (in a good way). It was so nice to catch up and to meet her husband and sweet little ones. Reconnecting with old pals as we travel has been one of my favorite things to do on this journey.

With our service appointment about a week away we still had some time to explore southern California. Next stop, the desert! Thanks for reading.

Hitched Up: Rogue Valley to the Redwood Coast

Hitched Up: Rogue Valley to the Redwood Coast

We headed off from the high desert towards Oregon’s southern coast in search of its beautiful beaches and redwood forests that lead into California. Before we would get there we stopped off in the colorful Rogue Valley. We had a great campsite in Valley of the Rogue State Park that backed right up to the Rogue River, was very spacious, and had full-hookups. 

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The park has plenty of amenities, including accessible campsites, picnic areas, and a large fenced dog park. My favorite feature is the new, accessible hiking and biking trail that runs directly through the park. The trail is currently being developed and only a few segments had been finished during the time of our visit. We rode about 3.5 miles on the completed section that runs from the park to the neighboring town of Rogue River. This time of year the scenic trail was bursting with bright autumn colors.

Once completed, the Rogue River Greenway Trail will span 50 beautiful miles. Accessible parking and restrooms are available near the trailheads in Valley of the Rogue State Park. The section of the trail we traveled had rewarding views of the Rogue River and only a few mild inclines. There is an accessible drinking fountain and water fountain for dogs along the trail located just before Rogue River. 

We also ventured out to hike the moderately steep Lower Table Rock Trail just east of the park. A 1.5-mile climb through the trees brings you to the top of the flat rock’s surface. Much of the trail is shaded although once you reach the top it’s full sun and wide open space.

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Operated by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the trail was very well-maintained. The Lower Table Rock Trail is partially accessible for the first 1/8 mile or so, but beyond this point the trail becomes steep with uneven surfaces. The shorter Oak Savannah Loop Trail is flat and wide with packed gravel. Accessible parking and restrooms are available at the trailhead.

Next we were headed back to the coast and our first stop was Harris Beach State Park. We had a large campsite tucked away into the trees and were only a short walk from the beach. Like other beaches we’d seen in Oregon, Harris Beach was gorgeous and Gaius had a blast running around on the sand. 

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One day we spent an hour picking up litter on the beach. Luckily there wasn’t a ton but we still managed to fill half of a plastic grocery bag with garbage in about a mile. I learned that the community regularly hosts beach clean-up activities where volunteers take to the sand and pick up trash that can be harmful to wildlife. The park’s day-use area is awesome and accessible. There is a long, paved, switchback ramp with rails that leads gently down to the beach. There are accessible restrooms, picnic tables (with a great view), and ample accessible parking. 

We loved being close to amazing beaches while also being just a short drive to majestic redwood forests. After a few days of beaching, we decided to change things up and enjoyed a lovely hike on the Redwood Nature Trail in the Rogue Riber-Siskiyou National Forest and the connecting Riverview Trail located within Alfred A. Loeb Oregon State Park.

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Neither trail is accessible although both have accessible restrooms and picnic areas near the trailhead. Loeb Park has accessible parking and an accessible trail that leads down to the river. Vehicles can also drive down the trail and park right on the bank.

We also spent some time traveling the segment on Hwy 101 known as the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. Along the picturesque route there are multiple scenic overlooks with trails and beach access. Accessible parking is available at most of the stops and a few includes accessible restrooms.

We crossed the CA border to continue our redwood journey and camped near the Redwood National and State Parks, a collection of four parks co-managed by the National Park Service and California State Parks. The parks include, Redwood National Park, Del Notre Coast State Park, Prairie Creek State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. I would love to explore all four parks someday but for this trip we stuck with Prairie Creek, home to some of the tallest trees in the state.

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Hiking through the stunning redwood forest was spectacular. We hiked the handful of the park’s accessible trails, including the Redwood Access Trail, Revelation Trail, Cathedral Trees Trail, and the Elk Prairie Trail. The trails appeared to be well-maintained with packed dirt or gravel surfaces and the occasional wooden bridge.

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Prairie Creek State Park was also a filming location for the sequel to the Jurassic Park movie. Scenes for the action-packed dinosaur adventure flick were shot in the park’s lush Fern Canyon. I had to see it for myself. To reach the trailhead, visitors have to either take a long hike (10 miles round trip) or take a long drive down a narrow, windy, gravel road shaded by dense forest. Access is limited to vehicles 8 feet wide and 24 feet long- and with good reason. Once the wild ride reaches the coast, it travels along the beautiful Gold’s Bluff Beach and through a few water crossings before ending at the Fern Canyon trailhead.

img_0189 The canyon features 50-foot walls covered in a variety of green ferns. A quiet creek runs the length of the canyon requiring visitors to travel through the water or carefully cross fallen logs. The trailhead is a gravel lot with an accessible restroom. The short trail to the canyon is wide and mostly flat with packed gravel. Once the trail meets the canyon is becomes submerged under water and is not accessible.

The park is home to a thriving herd of Roosevelt Elk which roam freely and can be very aggressive. We saw one of these magnificent creatures on the Fern Canyon Trail just before reaching the canyon. The elk was grazing a safe distance away so we passed on the trail behind him without incident. On our way back out we turned a corner on the trail and I had an eerie feeling. I could feel eyes on me and when I scanned the environment I saw a huge elk staring right at me through the trees just ahead. The elk stared. We stared. We slowly backed away and he went back to grazing allowing us to sneak by. Phew! Once we were at a safe distance I snapped a few quick photos of our friend from the creepy encounter.

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With that we ended our redwood journey (for now) and were off to explore more of California, starting with a brief trip to San Francisco.

Thanks for reading!