I love greenhouses and conservatories because they have the power to transport us into a another world: A world with its own unique climate – one designed to give the plants living there everything that they need to thrive.
But what happens when someone takes this concept even farther? When a giant corporation with progressive ideas collaborates with some of the most innovative architects and botanists out there?
The Amazon Spheres
One beautiful summer day, I stumbled upon The Spheres by accident. I was rushing to an appointment.
I’d seen photos of The Spheres, but I didn’t realize I’d be passing them on my route. I’d sort of written them off as another one of those poorly conceived pipe dreams that blight our urban landscape.
But in real life, they looked amazing – fragile, elegant, and unique. It was love at first sight.
I caught glimpses of the plant life inside.
Then from the security desk, which was as far as I was allowed to go, I saw part of the massive vertical garden. I wanted in!
But for me to get inside, I would have to get tickets in advance and come back on a designated Saturday. And I already knew who I would invite: Someone who enjoys gardens and futuristic stuff – my mom, Erika.
Reconnecting with Nature
The Spheres were designed as a place for employees at Amazon’s Seattle Headquarters to go to reconnect with nature and do a little creative thinking. Quite the job perk!
But on this Saturday, The Spheres were open to those members of the public who had booked a timed ticket in advance. Mom and I were among them.
Once past the security desk, we were greeted by the 60-foot living wall.
We’d already learned that The Spheres are home to 40,000 plants, most native to high-elevation cloud forests. And after seeing that living wall, I believed it!
The Spheres’ structure seemed much bigger from the inside. Aside from the living wall, we really hadn’t known what to expect. There was a jungle here!
With a massive indoor water feature,
Huge tree ferns,
And Rubi, the largest tree in The Spheres. A docent told us she was transported from California via flatbed truck.
Various species of flora are tucked into her trunk.
Lights wind through her upper branches.
Nature and Structure
Modern architecture usually strikes me as cold and impersonal. Not so with The Spheres. The curved glass structure (2,636 panes of glass!) lends a quiet, airy backdrop to the natural elements inside – while reminding us that we truly are in an urban jungle set in the heart of a major city.
A huge “nest,” one of many creative seating areas for employees, seems to hang in mid-air, reachable only by a springy wooden bridge that mimics a canopy walk.
The Right Atmosphere
As with any good conservatory, the comfort of the plants comes first at The Spheres.
The temperature is carefully controlled. With all the natural light filtering through all of those panes of glass, I was surprised to see additional lighting. There were also strategically placed fans and misters. Often, we were walking through mist.
With any garden tour, I look for inspiration that I can use at home. There was plenty here, even if it was on a grand scale.
Mom had recently started a vertical garden in her sunroom. She is using mostly ferns so, as she often is, she is right on trend with the giant living wall – although visiting here has probably given her a few new fern varieties to look for.
As for me, my plant crush continues to be my live Spanish moss. For the time being, they are still happy on my front porch. But when I bring them indoors for the winter, I might be looking to set up some scaled-back version of this idea.
I could go on and on about what we saw at The Spheres, but instead I will leave you with this little slide show (which is just a tiny fraction of what we saw on our visit) in hopes that you might find some inspiration of your own.
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Posts on this website are for entertainment only and are not tutorials.
At this time last year, I had no idea that, in early fall of 2018, I would be ticking off one of my bucket list items – a Danube river cruise. We built a three-week European adventure around it. That little adventure gave us some unforgettable moments, a few of which I’ve shared in Our European Adventure Part 1 and Part 2.
Planning a multi-destination trip abroad can be baffling. So in this post, I’m sharing a few little ways that I have found to cut down on confusion and make the most of our travel time – and money.
After I share my travel tips, we will head over to two lovely, old-world destinations in the Franconia region of Germany – the final stops on our European adventure.
Tips for Happy, Trouble-Free Travel
1. Finding Lodging
Find A Common Theme Among Reviews
Like a lot of people, I go to TripAdvisor when I start my search for a hotel. I look at prices, amenities, locations, photos, and, most importantly, ratings and reviews.
But when reading reviews, I keep in mind that one reviewer’s random experience, whether good or bad, might not ever be repeated. So, I look for a common theme among the reviews.
Take, for example, the boutique hotel that I was researching in Strasbourg. The most common complaint was that the rooms were small. So, knowing that, but also knowing that the hotel was reasonably priced given its great location, we decided to book it anyway.
And once we arrived, yes, our room was small. Luckily, it also had high ceilings and big windows, so to us it didn’t feel too claustrophobic.
But how did I really know that the hotel was in a great location? Here’s how:
“Virtual” Boots on the Ground
This doesn’t work 100% of the time, but it often does – and it’s very cool: From the comfort of my own home, I can stand right in front of almost any hotel.
I just go to Google Maps and enter the hotel address. Then I hit “Satellite View” to get a helpful, zoomable aerial shot of the neighborhood. Then, like an eagle swooping down on its prey (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I zoom all the way down to the ground by repeatedly pressing the little “+” button.
Most of the time, this plops me down right in front of the hotel.
From there, I can go on a virtual city walk.
In the case of that hotel in Strasbourg, I could see that it was located on a drab street. But I navigated my way up the street and, a block away, I found a beautiful little bridge. I crossed the bridge and wandered a very charming neighborhood – and I even stumbled upon Strasbourg’s Notre-Dame cathedral – which, as it turns out, was within walking distance of the hotel.
All this and I didn’t even leave my chair.
Even when Google Maps doesn’t work for a virtual city walk, it does give me a general idea of the hotel’s location, nearby restaurants, and amenities (along with reviews).
We Stay At Small Inns or B&Bs for An Authentic Experience
Large hotels can actually insulate their guests from local culture. So we prefer to stay in little inns or B&Bs – which are often less expensive than a hotel.
We get a more authentic experience. We can chat with our hosts and learn things like where the locals like to go for dinner or where the best bike rental shop is.
In the case of our stay in Bacharach, Germany, our hosts told us about a little-known hike that began across the street and offered amazing views and a stroll through ancient vineyards and stone towers.
One drawback, of course, is that these little inns often have stairs instead of elevators. This is usually not an issue for us, as we travel light, but it is worth asking about in advance of booking.
2. We Ask About Free or Discounted Transport to Our Lodgings
If a hotel’s website or online listing hints at providing transportation, I ask about it when I book. I asked the proprietor of our little B&B in Bacharach if she could pick us up at the train station there. As it turned out, not only could she do that, she also helped me figure out the train schedule in advance so that I (and she) knew exactly which train we would be arriving on.
Which brings me to my next tip . . .
3. We Do As Much Practical Research In Advance As Possible
When planning a vacation, it’s important to look into activities, museums, restaurants, night life, etc. After all, it’s the fun stuff that makes a vacation worthwhile.
But I have found that, if we are visiting multiple destinations, it is a good idea to also look into every single logistical aspect.
Way in advance of the trip, I walk myself through the entire vacation, from start to finish. Will Uber be available or would we need a cab? If so, where could we find it? Would it be better to take a plane or a train to get from one city to another? Or maybe a bus? Which direction do we walk from the bus to the hotel?
As I do this, I create a schedule/spreadsheet of everything we will need to know on our trip: Hotel info, walking directions, car rental info, flights, trains, every boring little thing.
It’s a lot of work, but it really pays off later when we’re not standing on a dark street corner somewhere with our luggage, jetlagged and confused.
Once the chart is completed, with everything we need in chronological order, I print it and bring it with us.
Which leads me to my next tip . . .
4. We Bring a Paper Backup of Everything
I keep offline maps, hotel addresses, etc. on my phone. But one thing I’ve learned is that I can’t always count on my smart phone when traveling abroad. And I don’t want to find out while standing in an airport security line that my electronic boarding pass won’t load.
Keeping a paper backup with all our essential logistical information proved invaluable when the international sim cards we got from our cellphone provider didn’t work in Europe after all.
5. We Look for Upgraded Seats on Discount Airlines
For us, it’s an eight-hour flight to Europe. So it’s nice to fly in premium class when we can afford it. When can we afford it? When we use a budget/discount airline.
Some budget airlines offer premium-class seats, with nice amenities, at a cost similar to coach seats on the more conventional airlines. So it never hurts to do a quick Google search and get a list of ALL the airlines currently flying in and out of my local airport. I try to be flexible with travel dates, which can also save money.
Of course, I make sure to read reviews before committing to any airline, and I look at baggage policies and other restrictions.
6. We Get The Foreign Currency We Will Need Before We Leave Home
Our travel card makes it easy to get local currency once we reach our destination. Even so, we always make sure we have a little of the local cash already on hand. You never know how soon you’ll need it.
In our case, almost immediately upon landing in Frankfurt, having Euros in our pockets came in very handy indeed. The train ticket vending machine kept insisting that we enter a PIN for our credit card, and every time we tried to bypass that question our transaction was wiped out. A line started forming behind us, so we finally went old school and paid cash for the tickets.
7. We Are Careful Pedestrians
This might seem obvious but, since I witnessed a tourist possibly saving her husband’s life by pulling him back from a trolley track a split second before the trolley passed, I thought it would be worth mentioning that many areas in European cities that look like they are pedestrian-only are actually not.
What might look to tourists like a narrow cobblestone walkway could really be a street, and just because no cars have passed through for a while doesn’t mean one won’t at some point.
Here we pick up where Our European Adventure – Part 1, left off: Chris and I had been bouncing around Europe on our own for a week. But now, we were about to meet other passengers to board a ship in Budapest and begin an eight-day Danube River cruise.
That was the plan, anyway. But a few days prior, we had started receiving emails from the cruise company informing us of a problem: Because of the long, hot summer, water levels on the Danube River were low – too low for the ship to make it to Budapest. And perhaps too low for it to even reach Vienna.
It was almost certain, they said, that we would spend the first three nights of the cruise in hotels instead of on the ship. And instead of sailing, we would be going by bus.
I was very disappointed. I had been looking forward to cruising the Danube River, not riding a bus. But every cruise company on the Danube was facing the same problem.
So we checked out of the hotel where we’d been staying in Budapest and into the hotel that the cruise company had booked for us to replace our first night on the ship.
The hotel that the cruise company had booked for us was the Hilton on Castle Hill. It was a five star hotel. And once I saw the location and stepped inside, I started feeling like this was a pretty darn good replacement for our first night on the ship.
Not only was it nicer than anywhere we would stay on our own, it came with a fun history: Although constructed in 1976, it was built around the remains of a 13th century church and cloister.
So little pieces of ancient history were sprinkled all over the public spaces of this hotel.
Next we met our cruise director, Alex, who gave us some good news: Conditions on the Danube had improved. And, although we would travel by bus to Bratislava tomorrow, we could board the ship when we arrived. No second night at a hotel!
No More Going it Alone
From this point on, we were firmly in the clutches of the river cruise staff. I don’t particularly enjoy traveling in a pack or being told how I will spend my day. But we’d been on our own for a while now, so it was actually nice to let someone else do the thinking for us.
And one thing I do enjoy is being pampered. And on a river cruise, that definitely happens!
That evening, all of the ship’s soon-to-be passengers boarded a bus for dinner at a restaurant out in the Hungarian countryside. There, we were entertained with traditional Hungarian music and dance.
I was even pulled from the crowd to mix it up with the dancers!
Luckily they kept it simple for me.
The next day, we headed by bus to Slovakia.
Bratislava, or Pressburg as it was once called, had been the capital of the Hungarian kingdom. Later, it was under the rule of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Since Bratislava is fairly close to Vienna, it has a strong musical history. This is where Mozart performed as a professional when he was only six years old.
Later, Bratislava fell in (under duress, as our local tour guide explained) with the Nazi regime. And, of course, it fell under Communist rule.
More recently, it saw the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, which split into two separate countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
And Slovakia chose Bratislava as its capital city, making it currently the youngest capital city in all of Europe.
Now, Bratislava is enjoying a bit of independence. And, because of a strong auto industry, it is thriving.
To me, the city was a fun mix of old and new.
It has a vibrant and user-friendly old-town district with charming shops and cafes.
And its own UFO (with a restaurant inside) atop a bridge.
Next stop: Vienna! Chris and I had spent several days in Vienna on a previous trip. Since we only had a day here this time, we skipped the guided tour and revisited our favorite place: The Museum of Natural History.
This is where science meets stunning interior architecture.
The displays are interesting and unique. (They even have a coelacanth – that rare fish previously thought to be extinct.) But between the architecture and the Edwardian-era display cases, this museum always makes me feel like I’ve stepped back in time.
And speaking of time, we never seem to have enough of it when we visit here.
That evening, we joined other passengers to attend a concert in a small venue.
We would sail on later that night and wake to a very charming small town.
But let’s stop for a moment here and talk about the cruise ship itself.
Life Onboard the Ship
We were on one of the more budget-friendly cruise lines. In fact, as I mentioned in Part 1, the whole reason we’d decided to do this was that we’d found such a great deal on a river cruise.
Since it was a budget cruise line, I didn’t really know what to expect.
But we were pleasantly surprised. The deal we’d found came with an upgrade to a “balcony cabin” – although the balcony was really just a huge window with a slider. Still, I loved the big windows and fresh air. The cabin was larger than we’d expected and nicely appointed with lots of storage.
Every evening, the schedule for the next day would be waiting for us in our cabin. The schedule made it clear that we would not go hungry: There was early breakfast, breakfast, lunch, tea time, happy hour, a four-course dinner, and a late-night snack.
Between the meals, the tour itinerary, and the onboard activities, we were kept busy.
And we were making new friends. Sometimes we’d spend the day with them, sightseeing, and sometimes we would just meet up later, over happy hour or dinner, to share the experiences of day.
Often, the ship sailed at night, and we would awake to a new location in the morning. I usually left the curtains open so that, whenever I awoke during the night, I would see new scenery.
Sometimes it was just the water reflecting the moon. Sometimes it was a little town.
And sometimes it was a wall of concrete – because there are ship locks on the Danube. Lots of them.
One day while we were going through a lock, I stuck my camera out the window to catch this guy climbing out of the lock chamber.
Now let’s get back to that cute little town where we were headed.
Dürnstein’s claim to fame (besides being absolutely adorable) is that, in the 12th century, Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in the castle here and held for ransom.
The castle is now in ruins and accessible by a hiking trail from the village. To us, it was definitely worth the scramble. We started out early to get ahead of other tourists.
Views from the castle were gorgeous.
And the area was surrounded by vineyards, some of them within the old defensive walls of the town.
Back in town, we wandered the beautiful little streets. Old-world charm was everywhere.
I didn’t have much luck staying out of the shops. They were all so adorable.
But it was time to get back to the ship and sail along the Danube to Melk.
The big attraction here is the beautiful and impressive Melk Abbey, which sits, of course, on a hill above the town.
Touring this huge Benedictine abbey was a fun way to spend our afternoon. We learned about all the aesthetic changes that had taken place over the ages – and why they happened.
From there, we had a spectacular view of the city and river below.
But my favorite part of the abbey was the garden with its lovely Baroque pavilion.
Inside was a darling coffee shop. And although I will show you an even cuter (in my opinion) coffee shop later in this post, this one was a close second.
We chose to walk back to the ship (instead of taking the tour bus) so we could get a quick look at the town. It would have been nice to spend a little more time here.
But we had to sail on.
Our day in Linz was slower paced, which was a welcome change by now. After a brief guided tour, we spent the day with a couple of our newly found friends checking out the town center.
Then we all rode a tram to a church (called Postlingbergkirche) that sits on the hill above town.
The tram was filled with locals of all ages ready to enjoy their day – because up on the hill there was also a zoo – and restaurants, coffee shops, and other sweet little discoveries.
Linz is the home of the famous Linzer Torte, and near the church we found a coffee shop where we could sample this delicacy.
I have one more city to show you – Passau! It was raining when we visited, but I still loved this city.
Passau is called “The City of Rivers” because it’s situated on a peninsula where three rivers converge. This strategic location has been populated since at least Roman times.
But the city has an old nemesis: Floods.
The flood gauge on the side of this building shows you how bad it can get.
As you can see, the year 1501 was a humdinger.
With all this water damage, it stands to reason that Passau would have some of the quirkiest cobblestone around. This is not the place to wear stiletto heels!
Passau is home to the gorgeous St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
In it is the largest pipe organ in Europe.
But more importantly, just around the corner from the cathedral, Chris made a surprising discovery. While I photographed the town fountain, he ducked into an out-of-the-way coffee shop to get some change. And what he saw made him come rushing back to show me.
He had found it: The most charming coffee shop either of us have ever seen!
Of course we had to sample their cakes. Research, you know.
And this is where I will leave you for now – in Passau on a rainy day, enjoying cake and coffee in the cozy surroundings.
The final installment of my Europe trip is coming soon. In it, we’ll be driving to two cities that are near and dear to my heart – and I’ll share some of my travel tips!
Posts on this website are for entertainment only and are not tutorials.
Here’s a little unsolicited advice: Keep your passport current. You never know when you might need it.
Chris and I had been planning to take our little trailer, the June Bug, on a trip along the Oregon Coast in September. But then we stumbled upon a last-minute screaming deal on a Danube river cruise. And, unlike the screaming deals I’d seen in the past, this one offered a free cabin upgrade and some prime sailing dates – including late-September. We’d been wanting to try a river cruise, and this was our chance! So we jumped on it.
It was an eight-day cruise, and I started thinking about how silly it was for us to travel all the way to Europe for only eight days. No, we needed to add things to this trip to make it worthwhile.
So we did. And we came up with a crazy little itinerary that made sense only to us. But since we visited a few out-of-the-way places along with some more popular stops, I thought I’d share the highlights.
This post is only for fun. It doesn’t delve into the mechanics of how we did or found certain things, or how we kept the trip affordable. I’ll be sharing a lot of those details later in a “Travel Tips” post.
So for now let’s get to the fun stuff!
We would be flying into Frankfurt, Germany and arriving mid-afternoon. Since we’d probably already be tired when we arrived, I wanted us to spend our first night somewhere charming and fun – but close to Frankfurt.
Well, the little village of Bacharach, on the Rhine River, is only about an hour’s train ride from Frankfurt. And we could catch the train right there at the airport. Once we figured out the slightly confusing ticket vending machine, we were on our way!
That short train ride transported us to a whole different world.
When we arrived in Bacharach, it was late afternoon. We were determined to stay up until at least 9 p.m. to adjust to our new time zone.
We dumped our luggage off at the B&B, which was located on a hill above the town center. Our host recommended a little-known hike that started across the street from the B&B. It wound through the vineyard hills and ended up in town.
Who could resist that?
Bacharach’s history of wine trading goes back hundreds of years. And the vineyards themselves seemed very old, with ancient-looking stone steps that lead workers to the terraced vines.
Several ancient towers dotted the hillside. The hike went right through some of the towers.
The sun was getting low in the sky by now, and we reached town just before dark to enjoy a late al fresco dinner. Not bad for our first part-day in Europe.
The next day, we rented bikes from our innkeeper and rode along the Rhine River. I had been dreaming about doing this since we first decided we were going to Bacharach!
As we rode, we saw castles on the hills along the Rhine. We stopped at the one our innkeeper had recommended: Rheinstein Castle.
Rheinstein Castle was built in the 1300s.
Later, Prince Frederick of Prussia owned the castle, and it was renovated.
But now the castle is open to commoners. And for us, it was definitely worth the stop.
We headed to Strasbourg next because Chris had been wanting to visit that city for some time. Strasbourg is located just across the border between France and Germany.
And that border has shifted several times in the past. So the city feels as much German as it is French.
The outskirts of the city were unexceptional but, once we got into the old town center, we found a college town with both old-world charm and a youthful energy.
The La Petite France neighborhood in Strasbourg.
Strasbourg has a huge Notre Dame cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg). Construction began in the 11th century and continued for several centuries after that.
Actually the photo above doesn’t really show how massive the cathedral is. Check out the photo below to see how huge just one entryway is!
One thing I hadn’t realized about Strasbourg is how much water there is. Several forks of a river with the funny name of Ill (yes ILL) run through the town center.
We took a sightseeing boat cruise – a great way to get acquainted with the highlights so we could come back to them later on foot.
Strasbourg is a very user-friendly, walkable town. There were an incredible number of charming restaurants and cafes, and several museums, within walking distance of our hotel.
We try not to eat too many sweets, but on day two of our visit we caved in and tried a local pastry at a charming patisserie. Plums were in season, and this pastry, some sort of plum torte, did not disappoint.
So we’d started in a small village (Bacharach), moved on to a medium-sized city (Strasbourg), and now we were headed to a big city – Budapest!
To me, Budapest was a study in contradictions: It was gritty yet glamorous. Stunningly ornate architecture sat side-by-side with stark Communist-era buildings.
Even the name Budapest is, in a way, a contradiction. The city that is now Budapest was once actually two cities: One called Buda and one called Pest. Buda was on the west side of the Danube, and Pest was on the east side.
And the two sides of the city are as different as night and day. The “Buda side” is clean, quiet, classy, and set on hills. This is where Castle Hill is located.
The “Pest side” is bustling, flat, noisy, and, in places, decaying. But the urban decay is embraced. Pest is home to the “Ruin Pub.”
Sooty, quirky ruin pubs are popular nightlife attractions in Budapest.
But I also enjoyed visiting Budapest’s rooftop bars. There was a wonderful rooftop bar just around the corner from our hotel.
From there, the city was all around us. And at night, it’s gorgeous.
The Chain Bridge.
Budapest takes advantage of the thermal springs it sits on. Soaking in a thermal bath in Budapest is a highly popular passtime. We spent a relaxing afternoon getting massages and “taking the waters” at the beautiful Gellert Bath and Spa.
But it’s not all fun and games in Budapest. The city is steeped in a rich and sometimes sad history. A small memorial museum on the grounds of the Hungarian Parliament Building help us remember the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian uprising.
And Heroes Square pays tribute to the important figures that shaped Hungary for over a thousand years – including the seven Magyar chieftans who, with their armies, conquered the area in the ninth century.
They are widely considered to be the ancestors of today’s Hungarians.
At this point, Chris and I had been on our own in Europe for over a week. But that was about to change, because it was time to start our river cruise right there in Budapest.
It’s healthy to unplug sometimes. It gives us a chance to slow down and actually see the beauty of the world around us.
Recently, we took a little sun break to Arizona to visit friends and relatives. So I wouldn’t be tempted to play around with my blog while I was there, I decided not to bring my laptop. Once in Arizona, I only checked email and Facebook occasionally (and not in front of our gracious hosts) – just to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And I didn’t post anything to social media. I didn’t even want to.
And I found that the longer I stayed unplugged, the happier I was.
I was free to be in the moment and fall in love with desert blooms, the saguaro cactus, and all the soft shades of the Sonoran Desert.
Of course there was no way that I was not going to take photos of all this beauty. But I figured photography was still okay since I prefer to use a camera instead of my smart phone. Visiting friends and relatives took us to parts of Arizona that we might not discover on our own. So today I’m sharing photos of my favorite places.
I like to learn about the history of places we visit. And at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, in Coolidge, the history goes way back. We saw the ruins of an advanced farming community built by the ancient Sonoran Desert people – including the huge and impressive great house that inspired the name Casa Grande.
The tiny person to the far left in the photo gives you an idea of how large the great house is.
Before the ruins were declared a national monument, visitors sometimes left graffiti behind. And even though graffiti on a national monument is less than ideal, it made me think about all the visitors who had come here over the ages. Here, history is layered.
The modern-day residents of Casa Grande are the owls that nest in its walls.
Other ancient structures dot the landscape.
Saguaro Lake – Butcher Jones Trail
Near Phoenix, relatives took us on this beautiful hike. We set out early to beat the heat.
But it was worth it. This six-mile hike had it all.
And that icon of the Southwest, the beautiful and fascinating saguaro cactus.
Our first few days in Arizona were spent on our own exploring Prescott.
Prescott was once the capital of the Arizona Territory. It has a colorful past, and Whiskey Row, with its vintage taverns and saloons, is a fun place to visit.
The Yavapai County Courthouse, built in 1916, sits in the center of it all. In its basement is a small but interesting display about crime, justice, and punishment in old-time Prescott.
We stayed at the Hassayampa Inn. Built in 1927, it is located in the heart of downtown Prescott.
Our room was small, but it had a view of Thumb Butte and large windows that actually opened for ventilation. The service at the hotel was outstanding, the restaurant was good and, while we were there, the bar had live music every evening.
We did several hikes in the area, but my favorite by far was in the Granite Dells area – the gorgeous hike to Watson Dam.
Scrambling over boulders was well worth it. Even with a few other hikers on the trail, it felt remote and peaceful here.
It’s time for me to come clean and admit that I still used my smart phone navigation app on the trip. But then I put the phone away again.
And now that I’m back, I’m trying to be more thoughtful about the way I use my screen time. After all, time is precious. So I’m simplifying some things and restricting myself on others. I’m challenging myself to go for longer and longer stretches of time without looking at my smart phone.
I’m already happier for it.
Thanks for reading my ramblings about screen time, Arizona, and fan vases. I promise to have something very special to share with you in my next post. Stay tuned!
I took most of the photos in this post with our Canon PowerShot SX280 HS. I like it for travel because it’s more compact and portable than my good SLR camera, yet for such a small camera it has a great zoom – far better than my smart phone. Those turkey vultures were pretty far in the distance when I took their photo!
It’s an old model now. If I were to replace it, I might get the Canon PowerShot SX620, which has an even better zoom.
Chris and I are restless travelers. For us, exploring is more relaxing than sitting poolside with a mai tai. We’d rather be on a road trip than trapped in a resort. And if there’s a crowd, we can usually be seen walking in the opposite direction – unless it means we’ve found a really good farmers market.
So this is why we choose the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island, when we crave a tropical sun break.
What is the Big Island?
Before I explain why we love the Big Island, I should clear up any confusion. People often think that the term “the Big Island” refers to the island of Oahu, presumably because Oahu is home to the state’s biggest city, Honolulu, with its touristy Waikiki strip. But the term “the Big Island” is actually a nickname for a different island: The island of Hawaii.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the island of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii share the same name.
The island of Hawaii really lives up to its “Big Island” nickname. Its land mass is larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. The terrain is diverse and includes arid lava fields, snow-capped mountains, tropical rain forests, high-country ranch lands, lush plantations, and Volcanoes National Park.
You may have heard that the Big Island isn’t for everyone, and that is true. Some folks cite its shortage of white sand beaches as the reason to visit Maui or Oahu instead. There are long drive times between sites (for example, the drive between the city of Kailua-Kona and Volcanoes National Park takes two to three hours).
And the Big Island’s acres and acres of lava fields can seem barren and unwelcoming.
But we’ve learned to love the lava fields because hiking them can lead to some beautiful and secluded black sand beaches, snorkeling coves, or other natural treasures.
Since we just returned from another trip to the Big Island, I thought I would share the top five things that we look for when we visit.
1 Historic Sites
On the island of Hawaii, learning about native culture rarely includes a visit to a stuffy museum. Heritage sites are fun and fascinating. One of my favorites is a National Historic Park called Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau – or the Place of Refuge. I won’t give away why it’s called that, but it’s a gorgeous and peaceful place to visit.
2 The Green Flash
On the west side of the island, the sun sets over the water. Sunsets are legendary here, so much so that in Kona it’s not uncommon for restaurant patrons to applaud after seeing a particularly spectacular one.
Ever since our first visit to the Big Island, we’d heard about a phenomenon called the green flash. Apparently, when atmospheric conditions are just right, the sun gives off a quick green flash just before it disappears into the horizon.
But try as we might, we’d never seen the green flash for ourselves. Never, that is, until our most recent visit. So now I can say with confidence that the green flash is not a legend. It is real!
Looking for the green flash is only half the fun. Whether on a beach, a seawall, the deck of a condo, or a fun outdoor restaurant, sunsets are a wonder to take in.
3 Coffee Farms
The Big Island is the land of the coffee bean. Over 650 coffee farms, large and small, occupy the hillsides above Kona. Many of them welcome the public, and we try to find a new one every time we visit the island.
In addition to coffee plants, fruit trees and flowering shrubs keep things interesting.
Yes we love coffee. But most farms, by virtue of the where they are situated, also have sweeping views down the hillsides to the ocean. They are lovely, relaxing places to visit – and to sample coffee.
To us, “the book,” as we call it now, is like having a local tell us, in hushed whispers, where we can find the island’s hidden treasures. And more than that – entertaining us with backstories, history, and amusing anecdotes.
In pursuit of out-of-the-way gems, the book sometimes suggests hikes on (to put it mildly) uneven terrain, and it sometimes suggests activities, such as kayaking, that are dependent upon ocean conditions being safe enough. So we are careful and make sure not to bite off more than we can chew.
I always look forward to visiting the farmers markets. We like to be adventurous and buy fruits we haven’t tried before – even the ones that look prickly and menacing. Vendors are usually good about describing a fruit’s taste (sometimes samples are available) and advising us on the best way to enjoy it.
Farmers markets are also great places to get locally made art and gifts. There are several nice farmers markets, but my personal favorite is the one in Hilo. Wednesdays and Saturdays are the best days to visit.
And this time we discovered the Pure Kona Green Market, which takes place on Sundays in Captain Cook and features many local artists and live entertainment.
Til Next Time
Missile scares notwithstanding, we had a lot of fun on our recent visit to the Big Island. We’ve since left the land of sunshine and pineapples behind and returned to our home of rain and pinecones. And while there is a certain charm to the pinecones, we’re always looking forward to our next escape to the Big Island.
Posts on this website are for entertainment only.
What I read on the plane:
Prarie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. I may have been headed to and from Hawaii, but I was completely immersed in the frozen prairies of the Dakotas in the 1800s. Using the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and others, Caroline Fraser fleshes out the harsh reality behind the softened stories told by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books.
I read about half of the book during our plane rides. Because of the hardships that the Ingalls family (and all farmers in the Dakotas at that time) had to endure, Prairie Fires was not always an easy read for me. But I marvel at the strength and endurance of these early settlers. Let’s just say I won’t be so quick to grumble the next time there is too much foam in my latte or my laptop is a little slow.
My husband Chris and I are pretty sensible people. We tend to plan and think things through – usually. But if you’ve ever read my About page, you know that our decision to buy our 1927 cottage was impulsive and driven by passion rather than reason.
And so was our recent trip back east.
It all happened because of Chris’s latest obsession: Collecting and restoring vintage Coleman lanterns.
I booked our flights before he could change his mind.
But of course, I told him, we couldn’t go all that way just for the convention. That would be silly. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to check a couple more things off my bucket list.
Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor
I feel so fortunate to live on the West Coast where we enjoy beautiful sunsets over the Pacific Ocean.
But I’m always curious about that “other” big ocean way across the country where the sun rises. Maine in particular seemed so intriguing and romantic to me: Rugged coastlines, old lighthouses, grizzled fishermen, colorful buoys – and Acadia National Park.
So as soon as our plane landed in Boston, we headed up the coast to the village of Bar Harbor, Maine.
I didn’t really have time to research Bar Harbor before our trip. I’d always pictured it as rustic and weathered: Crusty fishermen wearing heavy wool sweaters and pulling lobster traps off their boats.
But it was more gentrified than that: Lots of great shops and restaurants, and many intriguing lodging options.
Eventually I did find my colorful buoys.
The best part is that Bar Harbor is at the entrance to Acadia National Park.
As national parks go, Acadia is small. But there’s a lot to see. On our first day in the park, we enjoyed the rugged coastline.
We caught a glimpse of the remote Egg Island Lighthouse before a heavy blanket of fog moved in.
And watched water rush through Thunder Hole.
We took a murky hike to the summit of Gorham Mountain – all 525 feet. We learned that these mountains were once much taller, but over the ages erosion has worn them down to their granite bases.
I liked that we got to experience the Maine fog, even if it meant missing the views.
The next day the sun came out, and we made up for lost time.
We hiked at Cadillac Mountain.
We explored the carriage roads and magnificent stone bridges at Logan Pond. John D. Rockefeller, Jr had these roads and bridges built when he owned the land.
And we visited the Bass Harbor lighthouse.
This part of Maine smells so good. Everywhere we went, we were either smelling the fresh ocean air or the fragrant balsam fir.
The L.L.Bean headquarters are a few hours south of Bar Harbor in Freeport, Maine. There are several L.L.Bean stores located there and, when we walked into the first one, there it was again: That smell of balsam fir. So I bought it to take home.
I’m looking forward to making sachets with the large bag of balsam fir needles.
We also found a drying rack for our laundry room at an antique store. It’s still working its way across the country to its new home on the West Coast.
But it’s time to move on to the world of vintage lanterns.
All Things Coleman
We headed to rural, inland Massachusetts – to the tiny town of Winchendon. Here, collectors of all things Coleman, but especially vintage lanterns, were having their annual convention at the senior center.
Now coming from the Pacific Northwest, where our architecture is relatively new, I imagined the senior center to be a dated one-story building with dingy linoleum floors.
Here is what I found.
The Old Murdock Senior Center was built in the 1880s and was originally a public high school.
In the auditorium, Coleman collectors from around the world shared their treasures, their stories, and their knowledge.
From the unusual to the rustic, it was all here.
We were newcomers to the club, and everyone was so welcoming. On the second evening, we joined them in a “light up” outside the senior center. It was their way of honoring members who had passed – and it was beautiful.
But it was almost time to fly home, and we were only about an hour and a half from Boston.
We’d visited Boston before, and I just have to say that I love Boston. I love the architecture, the people, and most of all the history. This is where it all began for the United States.
On our previous visit, we only saw the first part of Boston’s Freedom Trail. So this time we started at Bunker Hill Monument and worked our way back to Paul Revere Square.
We toured the USS Constitution. “Old Ironsides,” as they call her, is actually made of live oak.
Launched in 1797, she was the second battleship ever to be built for the U.S. Navy. And she fought pirates.
No trip to Boston is complete without a visit to a colonial-era graveyard. We visited Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. Some of the deceased buried here were born in the 1500s!
I loved the timing of our Boston visit: Right before the 4th of July. There is no better reminder of what Independence Day is really about than touring the Old North Church, where the “one if by land, two if by sea” signal was sent from.
And admiring a bronze statue of Paul Revere.
So, to my American readers, Happy Independence Day!
Chris loves collecting vintage Coleman lanterns because he enjoys searching for them, and often the ones he finds are very affordable. They don’ take up much space to store or display. Etsy always seems to have a fun selection of all things Coleman. Remember though that there is a lot to learn about safely lighting these lanterns. Please use caution and do your research.
The drying rack I found at the antique store is probably not an antique. But I love it because it’s expandable, and it has a shelf and pegs for more storage. It look almost exactly like this one on Amazon.com.
Recently my mom, Erika, and I made a short visit to Victoria, British Columbia. Since we live in Western Washington, we’d both visited Victoria many times over the years.
The city is named after Queen Victoria – and the British influence is strong here.
We were looking forward to visiting some of our favorite sights – the Empress Hotel, the Inner Harbour, Chinatown, and stunning Butchart Gardens.
Victoria is a user-friendly, walkable city, but this time we decided to broaden our options by renting a car.
Maybe it was good that we only had a cartoon-like tourist map, no in-car navigation system, and no cellphone reception. Because while trying to find things, we sometimes stumbled upon unexpected gems.
So today I’m pairing each of my old favorite sights with a hidden gem.
Old Favorite: Butchart Gardens
The concept of Butchart Gardens began over 100 years ago and it evolved over the course of many years. Today it’s a paradise filled with inspiration for any gardener.
Its Sunken Garden is the site of an old limestone quarry.
There is also a Mediterranean Garden,
a Japanese Garden, and a Rose Garden.
As in many gardens, the best things sometimes happen by accident – like flower petals littering a pond.
The gardens are constantly changing with the seasons, so each visit to Butchart Gardens is unique.
Hidden Gem: Scenic Marine Drive
Butchart Gardens is a bit of a drive from downtown Victoria. Most visitors arrive via tour bus. But since we were driving, we decided to design our own route to the gardens – a bit windy but worth it.
We took Scenic Marine Drive, which starts near downtown Victoria on Dallas Road – a few blocks behind the Parliament Building. From there we drove up the coastline for several gorgeous miles before we headed inland and cut over to Butchart Gardens.
I didn’t get any photos, but we passed beautiful beaches and trails. We also saw some of the nicest homes and neighborhoods in Victoria. Taking this drive will cure anyone of the notion that Victoria is just a British-themed tourist town.
We relied on our tourist cartoon map and everything turned out okay. But for this journey I would advise either having a navigation system or a much better map.
Old Favorite: The Inner Harbour
One of the best places to sightsee and people watch, the Inner Harbour is the heart of downtown Victoria.
Surrounding it is the Empress Hotel
and the Parliament Building.
This is the kind of place where couples hold hands. And they don’t walk – they stroll. Old world charm abounds, and no one wants to miss anything.
Hidden Gem: Fisherman’s Wharf
But a more colorful and quirky marina is found at Fisherman’s Wharf, a short drive (or about a 20-minute walk) from the harbour steps. It’s also reachable by water taxi.
Colorful restaurants serve seafood in a casual al fresco environment. Equally colorful is the eclectic mix of houseboats.
And the locals are friendly (just don’t feed them).
Old Favorite: Craigdarroch Castle
Craigdarroch Castle is a quick uphill drive from downtown Victoria. The castle was built in the 1890s by the prominent and wealthy Dunsmuir Famiy. And what a castle it is.
Touring the castle is a great way to see how the upper class lived in Victorian times in . . . well . . . Victoria.
A large lawn surrounds the castle, but there’s not much of a garden. The neighborhood is beautiful, with so many old craftsman mansions.
So after touring the castle, Mom and I decided to just drive around. And we happened upon a beautiful garden – one that really should be married to the castle.
Hidden Gem: The Government House Gardens
The Government House is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor. I was jaded after visiting Craigdarroch Castle, so I didn’t find the Government House itself to be a particularly appealing.
Recently, Chris and I visited the Sedona area in Arizona. We’d always heard that the hiking there was great, and we weren’t disappointed.
We hiked the beautiful red hills that surround the town.
And we explored the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs left by the Sinagua people who occupied the area more than 1200 years ago.
Neither of us had been to the Grand Canyon before, and it was only a few hours from Sedona.
Meanwhile, back in Sedona, reservations were essential at almost every popular restaurant. There were spas, resorts, and upscale shops. There was everything that a tourist could want.
But that just wasn’t enough for me. I’m the weirdo who wants to duck under the velvet rope and see what’s behind the curtain. I always have to find a story.
So we found three little towns near Sedona with stories to tell.
We didn’t actually stay in Sedona. Thanks to Airbnb, we found a charming one-bedroom bungalow in the nearby town of Clarkdale for less than similar lodging in Sedona would have cost.
After we settled in, we sipped wine on the front porch and watched the neighbor’s chickens stroll through the front yard.
But on our first walk around around the quiet neighborhood, we noticed something interesting: Almost every house was a version of our house. They were all the same one-bedroom bungalow. Blocks and blocks of them.
Some had been added on to or altered over the years. And every paint job was different. But it was obvious that at one time they had all been almost identical.
Every now and again the pattern was interrupted by a different, and slightly larger, Craftsman-era house. And some blocks had only the same repeating Spanish-style bungalow.
A chat with a local confirmed what we were beginning to suspect: Clarkdale was built as a company town. It was founded in 1912 to house employees of a large copper smelter.
We learned there were several styles of repeating cottages, including Spanish Colonial, Craftsman, Tudor Revival, English Cottage Revival, and Eclectic. Most were built between 1914 and the mid-1930s.
What a fun little town! This brochure has photos of the different house styles.
Downtown Clarkdale is small.
But it’s home to the Arizona Copper Art Museum.
And the train station for the Verde Canyon Railroad – a pleasant four-hour train ride through beautiful, rugged countryside that is otherwise inaccessible.
And the bungalows and cottages weren’t the first buildings in Clarkdale. It’s also home to the Tuzigoot National Monument, an ancient pueblo that unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore.
So Clarkdale is where the copper was smelted. But where did that copper come from? Nearby Jerome.
Perched precariously on a hillside, many buildings in Jerome seem ready to slide. And some have.
In the early 1900s, Jerome was a bustling mining town of over 10,000. But by the 1950s, it had become Arizona’s largest ghost town.
Today, Jerome is a colorful tourist stop with a strong and active art community.
But despite the galleries, studios, shops, and restaurants, that old ghost town remains. These days, artists and ghosts live side by side.
A ruined building stands sentry over a glass blower’s studio.
Visitors toss coins into the skeleton of the Bartlett Hotel. In the 1930s, the hotel was declared unstable because of slides. It was slowly picked apart for salvage, and today this is all that remains.
We visited Jerome State Historic Park, which includes a nice local history museum in the Douglas Mansion.
Remnants of Jerome’s mining past sit idly outside the mansion.
Down the road a bit, a tiny pocket park encloses the 900-foot-deep Audrey Shaft of the Little Daisy Mine.
And this is how miners got down there – basically in a big tin can!
But it’s time to say goodbye to the ghosts of Jerome and head over to nearby Cottonwood.
The greater Cottonwood area includes conveniences like large grocery stores and big box home stores. But for a charming diversion into yesteryear, there is Old Town Cottonwood.
Formerly a farming community, Cottonwood today has restaurants, shops, galleries, and antique stores.
We enjoyed the relaxed, retro vibe. And we never knew what kind of old architectural detail we’d discover just by going into a coffee shop.
So would we visit this area again? Absolutely. There is much more to see.
But there are a few things we will do differently next time. Here is a breakdown of what we did wrong and what we did right.
What we will do differently:
Allow more time to get to and through the airport (we nearly missed our flight).
Book the flight for when there isn’t a special event causing crowding at the airport and slowing airport security screening (see above).
Rent a 4-wheel drive. Roads to some of the best hikes are unpaved and bumpy.
Stay longer – and plan more time for the Grand Canyon.
What we did right:
Found a “home base” that really felt like home – that bungalow in Clarkdale.
Checked the weather forecast for Sedona before we left home and made sure we brought appropriate clothing. We were prepared when it snowed on one of our hikes!
Visited an old friend on the way back to the airport in Phoenix. She took us on a beautiful desert hike. It’s always good to catch up with old friends when you can.
Brought only carry-on luggage. We always do this, and good thing this time or we would have missed that flight.
This works especially well on road trips where I’m staying somewhere different every night. Keeping the clothes in the packing cube, I can easily plunk them into a drawer in the evening and them put them back into the suitcase the next morning. Then it’s off to the next destination.
It just feels more civilized than living out of a suitcase – yet it takes almost no time.
Of course, packing cubes come in many sizes and are also handy for larger checked luggage.
And after I get home and unpack, the air freshener stays in my empty suitcase to keep it fresh until the next time I travel.
Which I hope will be soon.
Posts on this website are for entertainment only and are not tutorials or endorsements.
That trip was trial run to work out any glitches before our September road trip to Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite has been on my bucket list for a long time, and since we just returned I thought I would share a bit about that gorgeous place.
But first, a couple of recent improvements to the June Bug.
The June Bug: A Work in Progress
With a vintage trailer, there is always something that needs fixing, doing, or improving. So before our Yosemite trip, we ticked a couple of little things off of our “to do” list.
I’ve always disliked heavy, light-blocking window coverings. For years I’d been meaning to do something about the curtains in the June Bug.
Good quality, but a little too drab and heavy for my liking. In such a small space, we need to bring light in, not block it .
And I wanted something whimsical. We only use the trailer a few weeks a year, so why not have some fun with it?
Of course there is no finding ready-made curtains for a 1966 Airstream. But sewing them was easy. We chose an inexpensive calico print with ladybugs and daisies.
Because the interior walls curve, we have a cable system to secure the curtains at the top and the bottom. It’s similar to the system that we used for our burlap greenhouse shades.
I think the curtains also look sweet from the outside.
A New Kitchen Faucet
The trailer came with a very small kitchen sink and faucet. We recently replaced the sink with a larger one, but that silly little faucet remained. It was almost impossible to rinse pots and pans.
So right before our road trip, we replaced it with a larger bar faucet.
So much better.
Now were were ready to hit the road! Hopefully. With a vintage trailer, you never really know.
On the Way – Sort of
We headed south from Washington State but veered west to spend the first evening at Nehalem Bay State Park on the always-breathtaking Oregon coast.
Chris immediately set up one of the vintage lanterns that he has been collecting.
Our next big stop was at Calaveras State Park in California, home to giant sequoias. They are some of the oldest living things on Earth.
The June Bug is only 17 feet long, so we sacrifice living space but gain convenience. I think it’s a great trade off because we can camp in sites that are often inaccessible to larger RVs.
Chris had researched the various campgrounds at Yosemite and White Wolf was high on his list.
Initially, I was not thrilled to learn that White Wolf had no “facilities,” as far as water and electrical hookups, at the camp sites. But we had a generator and propane, so it didn’t really matter.
And any reservations I had dissolved once saw the campground. Located at 8,000 feet, the camp sites were nestled among granite boulders. The air smelled wonderful. There was just something magical about this place.
And it was a great hub for enjoying high-country day hikes.
Of course it got cold at night, so a crackling campfire was always a plus and sometimes brought us visitors from other camp sites.
These high-country campgrounds are open only a few months of the year. By the time this post is published, all the tents and RVs will be gone, leaving nature to reclaim White Wolf until next summer.
The Little Things Matter
At Yosemite, everything seemed big to me. The mountains were right there, and they were huge. We learned that the towering El Capitan is the largest solid granite rock in the world.
But we also learned this fun little factoid:
Wrong. He’s a golden-mantled ground squirrel.
This sporty little guy is a chipmunk.
And he looks slightly insulted by our mistake.
I’ve decided that I’m not going to post any iconic big picture photos of Yosemite here because you’ve already seen the best of them by the likes of Ansel Adams and other great photographers.
Instead I thought it would be fun to zoom in on some of the small things that often get overlooked.
Like this little trace of past human presence, perhaps from an old farm or ranch, on a valley floor hike.
Or a rusty directional sign on a high-country hiking trail.
Farther down the trail, the waters of Lukens Lake were still.
And on our hike to Mt. Hoffmann, I was surprised to find the dreamy May Lake High Sierra Camp – a remote hike-in camp for backpackers.
This camp was already closed for the season, and a small crew was winding things down.
During breaks, they create art on an old chopping block behind the kitchen.
If you’re ever in Yosemite, I highly recommend a drive to Olmsted Point for sweeping views of the Sierra Nevadas.
And a walk among these otherworldly subalpine trees.
They are probably much older than they look.
One day we took a tour bus to the top of Glacier Point. But we chose to hike back down. There are two trails to choose from, and we chose the “Four-Mile Trail” which is actually almost five miles.
The switchbacks have old rock retaining walls which were likely installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
A Ghost Town
We had planned to stop at other parks on our way back to Washington State, but there was so much to see at Yosemite and we stayed there too long.
We did manage to make a few quick stops on the way home, and the most interesting one was outside Yosemite’s east entrance: The ghost town of Bodie.
It is a true ghost town – in the middle of nowhere. The road to Bodie stretches on for miles.
Bodie is now a historical park and is kept in a state of “managed decay.”
Inside the abandoned homes, dust is undisturbed.
Water damage is not repaired.
Weathered exteriors are not repainted.
Life in Bodie’s heyday was probably so much simpler yet harsher than life today. There were several funeral directors and undertakers in town, which tells you something about life – and death – in Bodie.
Time To Head Home
Whenever we take a road trip with the June Bug, it takes me a few days to adjust to living in such small quarters. But after that, I wish we could just stay on the road forever.
Posts on this website are for entertainment only and are not tutorials.