Archive for the ‘Things to See’ Category

j’aime Paris

May 10, 2013

Yes, I love Paris.  Here are a few suggestions to help you love it as well.  Do as much research, book tours and buy tickets on line NOW – it gets busy!

Summer – particularly July – is a great time to visit Paris.  It’s warm, there are sidewalk cafes everywhere and Rose’ wine is both inexpensive and delicious!

Bastille Day is July 14th.  If you can plan your trip to be there, it’s well worth it!  Locals and tourists alike arrive EARLY at the Champ de Mars, the official site of the Bastille Day (French independence day) festivities.  Take a picnic and plan to spend the day.  We were actually on the other side of the river (both sides were lined with watchers) and as long as you have a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower, you are in for a treat!  The fireworks, set off from the Tower, are breath-taking!

Bastille Day, Paris

You can’t visit Paris without a visit to the Eiffel Tower.  On any given day, you will find the lines to buy tickets to visit the tower staggering!  Behind the scenes at Eiffel TowerThere is a fee so you will have to pay anyway, but the option I’m suggesting will cost you only a little more, give you a ton of fascinating information AND let you skip the line!  There is a tour offered called “Behind the Scenes at the Eiffel Tower”.  Buy your ticket up to 3 months in advance and print them at home.  You’ll get to see an underground bunker, the machinery that operates the elevators and learn the history of this iconic monument.  Once on the 2nd level, you can purchase a ticket at a kiosk to go all the way to the top if you want.

Very near the Cathedral of Notre Dame is Sainte-Chapelle.  Without a doubt, the most spectacular stained glass in all of Paris.  Due to the narrow Sainte-Chapellestairs by which you enter and the security, the line is always down the block.  Here’s my next “skip the line” suggestion.  On a board near the front of the line you will see posted flyers for concerts.  Check the dates – it will be in French so just look for the numbers for both time and date.  If there is one taking place during your time in Paris, ignore the line and ask the guard at the front how you buy tickets to the concert. He will send you in through security to a courtyard where a ticket kiosk sits.  Bring Euros!  When I was last there they didn’t take credit cards.  Get your concert tickets and go on with your day.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Later, return about 30 minutes before the concert.  There will beConcert in Sainte-Chapelle 20 or so  people in line with you, you will have all the time both before and after the concert to wander the sanctuary taking photos without being jostled by other tourists.  Then enjoy the way the setting sun bathes the room in colorful light as the  classical concert fills this majestic setting.

Of course there are a couple of more “must do” items you might miss so I’ll have to devote next week’s blog to Paris as well.  Time to go open a bottle of Rose’!

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Cave Tubing in Belize

April 26, 2013

On a recent cruise, one of our stops was Belize City, Belize.  Not one to indulge in “duty free shopping”, we look for unique activities in each destination.  Cave tubing definitely filled the bill!

Caves Branch OutpostThere was about a 40 minute, air-conditioned bus ride from the port to Nohoch Che’en, Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve.  There are more than one cave tubing company in the area.  We were with Caves Branch Outpost and we found them to be very professional in every regard.

All the touring companies require you carry your tube, life jacket and helmet about 30 minutes down a dirt and pebble trail to the spot in the river where you “put in”.  Closed toe shoes are also required.  No flip flops or aqua socks.  The path is rough underfoot and there are times you have to cross the river on foot so a sturdy sole is a must!

If you have a waterproof camera – bring it!  You can also use a “Shark Pack” for your cellphone which is what we did to get these pictures which we shared with our fellow travelers.

Jungle Walk to the River

The water is “refreshing”.  While cool, it feels great on a warm day after your half hour walk to the river.  You won’t encounter mosquitoes thanks to the bats that make the cave their home.  We also didn’t get a good look at the bats so if you are spooked by them, just don’t look up while you’re in the cave.

Your group of 8 riders will have a guide.  Our guide 20120105_170142strung our inner-tubes together and in places where the water is very shallow, tows the line of guests to deeper water so you don’t get stuck.  He also serves as an information source both along the trail and inside the cave.

Inside the CaveOnce you get to the river, you sit back and enjoy!  You are inside the cave about an hour and another hour out on the river.  Don’t worry, you don’t have far to walk once you get out (maybe 100 yards) and there is a great lunch waiting for you in the lodge building.

Cruise passengers Cave Tubing

If you are planning a trip or a cruise ship stop in Belize, Cave Tubing will be the highlight of your visit!

Downton Abbey Tourism

March 1, 2013

Are you hooked on Downton Abbey?  We are!  I watched the first episode under protest – I was sure I wouldn’t enjoy it.  I’m not a fan of historical, period type dramas.   By the end of the first episode of Season 1 (watch it for free on Comcast on Demand, Hulu or Amazon streaming if you are a Prime Member) we were royally hooked!  We’ve since convinced several friends to try it and yes,  they are all hooked too.

DowntonAbbey

The show is filmed at a real castle, Highclere Castle, and you can visit!  Even though a family lives there, several times a year, the castle and grounds are open to the public.  Tickets for this summer are on sale now through their website.

If you’ve watched all 3 seasons, you’ve also seen the spectacular castle in Scotland where the family travels in the last episode.  That castle, Inveraray Castle is also available to tour.

ScotlandCastle

 

If a trip to England and Scotland is in your plans, a visit to one of these iconic castles should be part of your itinerary.  Imagine the envy of your family and friends when your holiday card arrives with a photo of YOU in front of the “Crowley family home”, Downton Abbey.

Under the Sea

December 7, 2012

The first time I went snorkeling it was at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida.  That was a long time ago and since then I’ve snorkeled in various Caribbean spots, Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji and even the Great Barrier Reef.  Returning to Pennekamp as a seasoned veteran, I was curious how I would view the experience.
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If you are new to snorkeling, Pennekamp is a perfect place to start.  About an hour south of Miami, Key Largo is the northern most of the Florida Keys so its easier access than all the other coral reefs.  The park is easy to find and the entrance well signed.

You can book your reservation on line and you’ll get an email confirmation. We also got a follow up call the morning of our scheduled tour. Be sure to arrive at the concession stand an hour before your tour time and park entry fee is extra.

The price was reasonable (under $30), less than most other snorkel excursions elsewhere. They rent fins, masks and a snorkel that’s yours to keep. If the water is a few degrees too cold for you (it was 77 and I found it comfortable after the initial shock) you can also rent a wetsuit for only a few dollars more.
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Its also the only place I’ve ever been where they provide and require snorkel vests which is great for new snorkelers or those uncomfortable in open ocean.

Christ Statue PennekampThe boat ride out to the reef was scenic and gave us a sampling of the mangrove forest you can also kayak through. The reefs are about 5 miles off shore and the one they take you to depends on weather and sea conditions. I had hoped to visit the undersea Christ statue but the ideal conditions gave us the rare chance to visit Banana Reef instead.

We saw a nice assortment of sea life from Parrotfish, Damselfishvarious Damselfish, Puffers and numerous Barracuda swimming through and around the fan coral. There are schools of tiny fish, colorful fish and squid that I can’t name. The water is clear with great visibility.

There’s a snack shop, gift shop, cold water showers to rinse the salt off when you return and clean restrooms with changing stalls so bring dry clothes for a more comfortable ride back to your base hotel.

BarracudaIts a well run operation, a relatively low cost outing and a great look under the sea.  It’s an easy “add on” to a Miami or Fort Lauderdale visit and well worth a day.  New snorkelers will be hooked, I know I was – and still am!

One Step at a Time

November 30, 2012

It was about this time last year when we decided to go to Bhutan on a hiking trip for our October birthdays.

Canary Islands

For Christmas I got hiking boots and we began breaking them in.  On every trip we scheduled at least 1 hiking day.  Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas, Saguaro Lake and Hole in the Rock while in Phoenix for Christmas.  Hikes to falls in the San Gabriel Mountains around Pasadena.  Even on a cruise we hiked  some of the 300+ volcanic cones on the Canary Islands.

Rattlesnake Ledge

As the weather warmed we got friends to join us on Rattlesnake Ledge.  We hiked a couple of days in Kauai on our annual honeymoon.

Waimea Canyon, Kauai

Then, in an attempt to prepare for the elevation of Bhutan, we went to Deer Valley, Utah – minimum elevation 8,500ft.  During our 2 weeks there, we hiked over 70 miles.

Deer Valley, UT

Tiger’s Nest Monastery Hike

All that and the hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still the single most physically demanding thing I’ve done to date.  Begin at 8,500 feet – end at 10,200.  Steep, thin air and 9.1 miles round-trip.  Add in the 1556 stairs cut into the sides of the ravines (300 in one stretch – 478 in the other) not to mention the 100 or so stairs within the monastery complex I didn’t even bother to count – well, you get the idea.

Even if you never plan to go on a hiking trip to Bhutan, hiking is a great activity.  You can do it virtually anywhere, you get to see some wonderful slices of nature, it increases your physical activity level and stretches your budget.  Other than a pair of decent shoes (even tennis shoes in many cases) you don’t need any special or expensive equipment.

Vasquez Rocks

So how do you find a hike that’s right for you?  Type into your favorite search engine an appropriate phrase such as “easy hikes near Seattle”.   You’ll get plenty of results to explore.  Look for the hike profile which includes information such as length of hike, usually a time estimate, a difficulty rating and the elevation change.  Some will even have photos and comments by other hikers.

A couple of safety notes, you should try not to hike alone.  Always carry at least a basic first aid kit, appropriate amounts of water and a cellphone.  It’s also a good idea for someone at home to know where you were headed and about when to expect you back – just in case.

Sarguaro Lake

There is a world of beauty out there – breathtaking vistas, colorful canyons, stunning falls, towering trees and an abundance of flora and fauna.  You don’t need any special training, just put one foot in front of the other and GO!

The Last Shangri la

November 2, 2012

The picture in the ads you’ll see in the back of travel magazines for Bhutan is always of the” Tiger’s Nest” Monastery.  Tucked in the Himalayas, this developing nation only gets about 50,000 visitors a year and it was the October destination for the Travel Queen.

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Bhutan's Tiger's Nest

The first thing to strike us was the natural beauty.  Staggeringly high mountains thick with untouched forests dotted with terraced rice fields.  Glacier cold, clear rivers and streams crossed by simple bridges decorated with hundreds of prayer flags.

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Bhutan

Access to Bhutan is only through organized, all-inclusive tours.  Group sizes range from 1 to about 20.  

This is not a country where you could successfully explore on your own.  There is only 1 airline, Drukair, the national airline which has only 4 planes in their fleet.  There are no rental car counters – your tour will include a vehicle and driver.  Good thing because there are NO stoplights in the country and street signs or highway markers are rare.  The roads are also narrow, winding and not in the best of conditions.

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Hotel accommodations are clean and simple – think National Park lodging in the US but with poorer quality workmanship.  Plumbing is Western so there are regular flush toilets and showers in all.  Just don’t be surprised if the plumbing leaks or the electrical is hinky.  The beds are ROCK HARD, so much so that we took the comforter, folded it and put it under the sheet in an effort to add some cushion. 

The government mandated that by the end of 2012 all hotels must have Wi-Fi.  Usually it’s only in the lobby and even then, service is hit or miss.  I had a peek inside the wiring closet of one of the hotels and suffice it to say, it wasn’t close to any US standard. 

Most meals will be at your hotel and buffet style.  Typically 5 items with rice being 1 of them.  The food is at best “uninspired”.  I brought my own peanut butter and was the envy of our group.

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But Bhutan is not about luxury hotels (there are only a couple), great spas or fabulous cuisine.  Its about the natural beauty which it has in abundance.  Next week I’ll cover the hikes and help you select the amount of activity that’s right for you.

Happy Haunting

September 28, 2012

Halloween is barely a month away – time to start planning your costume and deciding where and how to celebrate.

The Mardi Gras of the Pacific is Lahaina on Maui.  The annual parade on Main Street has a family friendly version early and then later it definitely turns more “adult”.  Costumes are definitely the order of the day and there is music all evening .  If you’ve never been – it’s worth doing at least once.

 

Las Vegas is another nearby Halloween haunt.  The Hard Rock Casino and Resort is hosting the “Fetish & Fantasy Halloween Bash”.  There’s no shortage of parties in the various clubs and hotels around Vegas to celebrate.

Want something closer to home?  Tulalip Casino just north of Seattle in Marysville is hosting “Monster Bash”.  Tickets are only $15 in advance so you can spring for a hotel room for the night too!

Snoqualmie Casino has the KISW  “Heaven or Hell” bash in their ballroom with tickets for $25.  They don’t have a hotel so you’ll either have to drive home after the party (so be sure you have a designated driver) or stay nearby at the Salish Lodge.

All these big parties are taking place on the Saturday night before Halloween.  Get your tickets – especially if you also want to get a room – early!  There are also costume contests at most so you could make it a profitable and fun evening.

Don’t want to bother with a costume but want to get in the spirit of the season?  KUBE 93 has their annual “Haunted Morgue” in Georgetown.  Buy tickets on line and spring for the VIP pass and skip the line – that’s $10 well spent!  Do a quick Google search and you will no doubt find other haunted houses including some that are “family friendly” such as the one at the Nile Country Club in Mountlake Terrace.

Want to do something unique on Halloween proper (rather than the weekend before)?  Try Private Eye on Seattle Ghost and True Crime Tours.  At only $28 they offer 2.5 hours of haunted history of Seattle from a comfortable van.

If you end up not making plans but decide you want to have some fun – take an empty wine glass and go “Adult Trick or Treating” door to door in your own neighborhood!  Anyway you choose to celebrate, have a haunting good time!

Rocky Mountain High

September 14, 2012

If you ski or snowboard you may only think of ski resorts only once the snow starts falling but they are great late summer/early fall destinations. For us, its Deer Valley, Utah in the Wasatch mountains but that’s not a song title!

Room rates are a bargain!  Lots of availability translates to discount rates.  Tons of time share condos sit empty during summer and fall offering you family size spaces for budget prices.

Outdoor concerts, parades, festival, markets and fairs. Summer through early September many resorts offer lots of family friendly entertainment.

 

More for your money.  During ski season spas are booked solid but during the shoulder season, the staff isn’t busy so you are likely to get extra pampering and some extras for free or reduced rates.  My friend spent the whole day there and is still raving about it!

Great weather.  The sun shines most of September so you can catch some late season rays by the pool and you won’t have to fight for chairs.
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Lots to do.  Hikes of all levels from tennis shoe trails to geared up mountain hikes.  Mountain biking trails.  Chairlift access to trails or just as a scenic rideZip lines are showing up at many mountain resorts.

There is likely fly-fishing, ATV rentals, kayaking, jet-skiing, tubing and more nearby.

Play golf?  Even the low cost public courses are beautiful and a great way to enjoy the emerging fall color.
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Fine dining.  Scoring a prime time reservation at the best restaurants during ski season requires planning months in advance.  Not so in the summer and fall.  Many have patio or rooftop dining options and promotional specials – especially during the week.

 

Stargaze.  Drive to the highest point you can and watch the sunset.  Bring blankets and lay down to watch the stars come out.  Away from city light pollution you can see the Milky Way without a telescope.

If you like to be active or just want to spa, lounge by the pool and enjoy fine dining – plan an early September trip to your favorite resort mountain.  You may decide to make it an annual event.

Kauai Fun

August 10, 2012

Kauai certainly lends itself to being active and many visitors are far more active than me.  However,  if you are not hard core but want a little adventure with your sun time, here are some options you may want to consider.

Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers both zip line and tubing.  We went tubing because they have exclusive rights to the irrigation canals – and tunnels – of an old sugar plantation.

The ride, about 3 hours included a sandwich lunch, sturdy inner tube, gloves and helmets with lights.

Sometimes its a lazy river, others the current picks up and once over the course of the 2 miles,  there is even a mini-rapids.

The best part though are the 5 tunnels that were cut through the lava rock about a hundred years ago.  Most are so long you can’t even see daylight from one end to the other!  They even encourage you to drift through the last one without using your light – totally in the dark!

TWear a swimsuit and shoes you can get wet but NOT flip-flops.  (No flip-flops on the zip line either.)  I wore my reef walkers and a T-shirt over my swimsuit and was perfectly comfortable.  Bring a towel and dry clothes for after.

As long as you can walk down a couple of steps into the water, turn around and sit in the tube – you can do this and you’ll be glad you did!

Waimea Canyon offers a wide variety of hikes.  I had a map from the internet and had chosen a route but without directions from the staff at Kokee Lodge, I’d still be looking for the trail head!  Most are slightly better marked than the one we did.  Some are dangerous and require permitted overnight camping.

Plenty of others take a couple of hours, some water, snacks or lunch (we took all 3) and get you off the paved walkways to see some breath-taking scenery.

If you want to explore the Na Pali coast without a death-defying hike or killer sea kayak trip, go rafting with Capt. Andy

The Zodiac rafts reach speeds of over 40 MPH.  You will get wet, bounced around and the next day you will feel like you’be been bull riding for 5 hours from holding on and holding yourself upright.

You will see dolphins, turtles likely and even whales at various times of the year.  Bring a waterproof camera and you can even get great underwater shots like this!  You’ll also go inside a variety of sea caves along the north shore which only sea kayaks and these rafts can enter.

The day included lunch (tasty!), snorkeling (waste of time) and a visit to the ruins of a native village (interesting) .  They provide you with dry bags for your gear (towel, dry clothes, shoes, wallet and camera) and you will want sunblock.  Hats are nearly impossible to keep on but a tightly tied bandana seemed to help cover bald heads as protection from the sun.

This is a high adventure trip suitable for anyone over 12 and without back issues.

Kauai has a lot to offer beyond just beaches, golf and sunshine.  Whether you want a little adventure as in last week’s post, or a little more adventure as above, you’ll find a lot to see and do while on the Garden Isle.

Kauai “Lite”

August 3, 2012

Kauai is the Hawaiian Island known for it’s unspoiled, natural beauty.  As a result, it attracts active nature enthusiasts.  I have several friends and regular readers who have never been to Kauai because they don’t care to hike to a waterfall or paddle a sea kayak.  There is still a lot to do and see – much of it only a few steps from your car so plan a trip and here are the highlights:

Spouting Horn Blow Hole – It’s clearly signed and right in the middle of the Poipu Beach area on the southern part of Kauai.  There’s a parking lot and it’s an easy walk over to the viewing area.  Bring your camera and watch the incoming waves, when you see a “big one” get ready!  There are holes in the lava rock shelf and the waves come up through them spraying an up to 50′ geyser making an interesting sound at the same time, like a native blowing in a conch shell.

Locals have set up booths with jewelry, woven and wood crafts along the walkway so go enjoy the natural wonder then do some souvenir shopping on the way back to the car.

Wailua Falls – This is the most accessible of the Kauai waterfalls.  It’s a short drive north of Lihue (where the airport is) and again, easy parking, easy stroll over to the viewpoint.  The 80 foot waterfall flows year round.

Waimea Canyon – Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” this is a great day trip even for all ages and fitness levels.  Sure there are a TON of hiking trails but there is no need to hike to enjoy the natural beauty of this 10 mile long, mile wide, 3000 foot deep canyon.  There is a paved road and a half dozen “viewpoints” along the way, most with restroom facilities.

It’s on the west side of the island and though not far in distance, there are no “highways” in Kauai so from the Poipu resorts, it will take an hour to get there.  The drive through the park (no admission fee) is 20 miles each way and there are no gas stations so be sure you have enough fuel for the drive.  You can take a lunch or there is a lodge about 2/3 of the way in where you can have lunch.  We brought our own so I can’t vouch for the quality of the restaurant – just that there is one.

Each viewpoint is signed.  There is a parking lot and it’s an easy walk to the viewpoint.  Try to pick a clear day.  We turned around after the lodge and went to a trailhead to hike because the last 2 viewpoints were in the clouds and we wanted to have time to hike.

Sunset Dinner Cruise – We opted for the Southern Star which is operated by Capt. Andy’s.  It’s a beautiful catamaran and they not only serve, but prepare and cook dinner on board.  They offer snorkeling trips on this boat as well but the sunset dinner cruise is best for those who really don’t care to get wet.  Book on line 7 days in advance to save a little.

Some things you should know:  they sail “barefoot” and actually have you take off and leave your shoes on shore.  If you have orthopedic issues, just tell them and they will let you wear yours.  Sit in the back of the boat or inside the air conditioned salon if you want to stay dry.  Even on the more elegant outing such as this, the front of the catamaran rides the waves and you will get sprayed up front.  There are cushy seats in back and you will be very comfortable (and dry) there.   Bring a sweater or jacket, it gets cool in the ocean breeze once the sun begins to set.  You also walk about a block from where you check in and get your boarding pass to where you actually board the vessel, not a hard walk, just a walk.

You’ll find nice restrooms on board (down a few stairs but use the handrails) and the food was a generous steak and grilled shrimp meal with salad, veggies and dessert.  The dinner cruise includes wine and tropical drinks too as well as a great views of the remote Na Pali coast and the sunset!

With all those outings, you may find yourself short on time to just spend sitting  by the pool!  Kauai has a lot to offer for the more active as well.  Next week I’ll share some of our favorite activities that were more physically demanding.


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