To spend quality time in at least one area of every state. Quality time means exploring the area; rest stops, gas stations, airports or train stations do not count. The goal is to explore the natural and cultural environments of these regions. Each location visited has a story, pictures for my amateur hobby addiction, and maybe a piece of jewelry/art.

Friday, September 22, 2017

So, I had a Trip Booked To St Croix

The weather has been rough to the Caribbean lately... and that is putting it mildly.  So many gorgeous islands have been ripped to shreds by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So before I go any further, I urge any reader to think about the island communities and give to any number of charities out there... there are many!

This past winter I went on a trip that afforded me opportunities to see many of these islands, some for the first time - US Virgin Island (St Thomas), British Virgin Islands (Tortola and Virgin Gorda), St Marteen, Dominica... I am grateful I got to see them - and see more than just the beach by the cruise ship.  On each, I went out into the island.  I went hiking.  I experienced their market places.  And yes, I hit the beach.   This November, I had booked myself a getaway on St Croix.  This was to be my last US territory off the east coast, my last US Virgin Island (not to say I did not want to see the islands again). This year marks the 100th anniversary of the USVI becoming part of the US.   I planned the trip for 6 days with a fantastic literary of snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, golfing, food touring and having fun/destressing. I have been looking forward to this for ages.

But Hurricane Maria had other plans. 

My trip is in disarray.  And that is small potatoes compared to what these island communities are facing.  I have been in touch with locals (from tours I had booked), making sure they are okay... news seems to be that the island is a mixed bag.  Our food tour acknowledges that things are not good in Christensted and that the locals need time to regroup.  But, our kayak tour remains hopeful that they can reopen in October.  At this time I have not heard from our hotel, but a local contact promises to go see for me.  Pictures out of the island paint a grim portrait of the state of Fredericksted. 

I don't know yet what we are going to do.  These islands need support so much will depend on the hotel, reports on safety and the flight.  I do know that everyone is being as accommodating as possible. 

If we don't go now, we will go when they are ready. 

And if you are interested, here is the name of a local USVI charity that will help with the rebuilding.  https://www.usvirecovery.org/

Two days In the Maryland Panhandle

When you think of states with panhandles, you can easily name Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, but there is one much closer to home... Maryland.  I have never been into the Maryland panhandle - it is close, but not too close...a 3.5 hour drive.  It warrants some planning.  And after my best friend suggested I check out Deep Creek Lake, on the western edge of the panhandle months ago, its been on my list. 

Enter a Labor Day that happened upon us way too quickly and I did not have anything planned.  The weather was cold and stormy on Saturday but it was supposed to clear up.  We did not want to let that last bit of summer slip by.  We had to do something.  After some quick googling, I found a last minute room for a great rate in Deep Creek for Sunday night... our short road trip was planned.  We would figure things out along the way, and knew there was bound to be enough to keep us occupied for a 2 days... and we were right.

I texted my best friend Lesley to tell her I was finally going and she got back to me immediately with ideas from a friend.  She may run a successful website on the Pacific NW but she has contacts everywhere.  Her friend gave us ideas for all kinds of food & drink and many activities.  We were only going to be there for 2 days and I wanted to make the most of our time.  A local is always a great resource - ones you know, or ones you befriend along the way! 

Deep Creek Lake is not the kind of lake community I grew up visiting in northern New Jersey.  What we saw as soon as we got there looked more akin many fancy shore communities with houses on the water trying desperately to be bigger and grander than the next.  There was development all over the lake.  In fact the only public access to the water is through the state park - Deep Creek Lake State Park.  We drove past homes with secondary homes (the mother-in-law house) and found out way through winding roads to get to the lake.  Outside on the water, my stubborn streak prevailed as we walked on the beach and jetties, dipped toes in the cold waters and braved the winds on this day in the mid 50's!  Summer was obviously lost (Persephone must have went back to Hades early)... but the sun was out.  We stayed for a few hours to enjoy the reflections and pretend we went to the beach over labor day.  After we had enough, we headed indoors to the Nature Center to learn about the lake's ecology (I learned a new term for the lake's water cycle - the thermocline is the barrier between the upper and lower water layers that facilitates turnover)!

After giving up we headed to a late lunch/early dinner at Mountain State Brewery... on my list of places to check out from my friend's friend, we were optimistic.  Driving away from the lake and into the rolling fills of farms, we found the small, and incredibly busy, brewery wafting smells of food into the parking area.  This rustic local favorite was practically full at 4pm - a great sign.  Our waitress helped up pick out an unique pizza of Thai chicken and John got himself a flight of their specialties.  We chowed down on a gigantic medium pizza and decided dinner was not needed (damn was that a big pie).  Everything was yummy (and warm) in this joint and we defrosted enough to venture out again.

Where did we go now... well to the ski resort, of course.  The Wisp was bustling with people, and we know something was going on!  That something was FUN.  They had an adventure course set up for kids and other for adults.  There was a toboggan ride down the slopes and you could ride the ski lift up to come down the mountain yourself (leg-power).  We settled on tickets for the toboggan cuz, hello, it was a roller coaster you could control yourself.  Yep!  You were put in a toboggan, and pulled up the mountain... and then when you were released on the tracks, you had the ability to control your own speed!  WOOHOO.  I hooted and hollered like a kid and let my yellow ride fly... well I did until I saw signs asking us to break around some turns.  When we both disembarked, we were ready to go again! 

After we left the Wisp, we checked into our hotel (there was a reason we got a room so late in the game - ick) and headed out for a rematch on the miniature golf course.  What happens when 2 competitive people play a silly game of mini-golf.... well, putts are taken seriously and I get to say I WIN!  HA!  A hole in one baby!  The course was a blast with truly unique water features you had to play through and some serious usage of hills.  Afterwards, we headed to the arcade for a wall sized version of Space Invaders (with different rules from my Atari version).  We bounced from air hockey to ski-ball to silly guessing games and gifted random kids in the arcade our tickets won... we did not need an eraser, and we made some people smile.  Who says you have to grow up?  (I am still a Toys R Us kid at heart).

After this mad-Karate Kid styled date, we headed to the Deep Creek Creamery - the hottest ticket in town.  Because even though the temperatures never got above 55 degrees, the line for ice cream was literally down the street.  We stood in line, talked to locals and got some creamy goodness that we ate while overlooking a full moon over the lake.  It was a beautiful scene. 

The next morning, Demeter (ye, I do love throwing in the Greek Gods) decided that we could have some warmer weather... and we were able to get on the water... finally.  We booked a lake tour on a pontoon.  And I was stuck singing that Little Big  Town song all day because of it.  With an afternoon tour planned, we headed out for a downhome local breakfast.... and according to our list, Sandy's was where we wanted to be.  So we drove past the sprawling lake looking for the local dive... eventually we found the rehabbed gas station, that was home to this local fav.  We ate at the counter and marveled with the crowds. Everyone ordered a cinnamon bun, so who were we to say no- splitting it was almost not fair - warm and gooey.  For our meals, we discovered the blueberry pancakes were the way to go.  Full, we headed back to the lake. 

After lollygagging for almost 2 hours (we were early and there is not much to do in the area) we finally made our way onto the Pontoon.  And on the water for almost an hour and a half was the highlight of the trip.  The day was warm, the sun was out and our guide was a local whom was relocating the next day... he waxed nostalgic as he toured the lake.  We explored some of his favorite spots, visiting secluded arms of this amoebous lake and insanely elaborate mansions. The tour gave us a better appreciation of the grandeur of the lake.  It is large!  In fact , the lake covers 3900 acres - making it the largest lake in Maryland .  It is called Deep Creek Lake, not for being the deepest in Maryland ( it's deepest point is only 75 feet near the dam), but for the name of one of its feeding sources.  The lake gets its water from a series of creeks in the area - no major river, no underground water source.  Deep Creek can get cold - ice goes 18 inches down in the right conditions.  The lake was created in 1925 by the Youghiogheny Electric Company, bought by Pennsylvania Electric in 1942 and is now owned by Maryland!

After our tour, our guide gave us a great recommendation for a deli - we grabbed sandwiches and headed out to Swallow Falls State Park.   Another of my friend friend's great recommendations.  Swallow Falls is said to be one of the prettiest state parks in Maryland. Just about every person we spoke to told us not to miss it, so we knew we were in for a treat.  Once in the park, we sat in the giant gazebo to eat our delicious sandwiches and fuel up... camera at the ready, I was hopping for adventure.  The trail loop to 4 falls was under 2 miles.  You could add to the mileage by taking arms off the main line to get closer or different perspectives.  My camera was busy photographing the  water falling over bridal veils, cascades, and horsetail falls.  I pointed out basic geology to John - each time we go out he gets science lessons - this time in erosion and stratification.  (I need to whip out the old college texts soon and brush up on some lessons myself).  The forest around the falls is hemlock... I am familiar with Hemlock forests, as I grew up near large ones in NJ... The forest was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy, and it provided a great way to point out forest regeneration. Hemlock forests are unique in that they create their own mini-climates... they can lower the standing temperatures up to 10 degrees - so often you see flora in the area unlike any other.  Hemlocks and their shallow roots also help to keep the air moist... the area is ripe for fungus, mushrooms, lichens and mosses.  And all over we spotted some amazing shrooms.  They had plenty to do, breaking down trees felled by the storm.   Plenty of locals on the trail told us that the falls were low, but it didn't matter - the hike and the forest were wonderful.  Nature can take your breathe away if your let her!
After the hike and science lessons it was time to head back to DC.  On the way home, we took the scenic route through West Virginia (we were so close), and were treated to a sherbet colored sunset over the valleys between the Appalachian Mountains and views of wind farms stirring in the steady winds persistent through the area. 

With a trip full of beauty and fun, we will be sure to keep this place on our list for local get-aways when I need to see something more than traffic jams. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Finally Made It to Mexico

Groupon Travel is the most tempting thing out there.  I look at the listings and just itch to click. On the site, I see everything from opportunities stateside, the Caribbean, Central America, Europe and even dream trips on African Safaris, Australia... it's crazy.  And sometimes I think it's unrealistic... If you have ever been on Groupon, you know that some trips offer extraordinary discounts. Some of the deals seem almost too good to pass up.  And then there is that count down clock! It is all designed for temptation.  I wanted to test it out... but, I did not want to be completely at the mercy of the discount gods if it turned into a nightmare. I figured my best bet was somewhere outside where I could work around the system easily if it didn't work out - somewhere like the Caribbean or our neighbor to the South, Mexico.  I have never been to Mexico and a trip was long over due.  In Groupon, I did not want anything that included airfare because those deals scare me - I know I would be stuck in a middle seat, in the back of the plane, on some ridiculous low cost carrier that charges for air.  Instead, we found a "too good to be true" deal on an all inclusive hotel in Cancun for just under $200/night!  Not knowing what to expect, I did not want to stay too long, but wanted to be there long enough to take in a new area, so I settled on 4 nights.  Woohoo, my first trip to Cancun - only 25 years late for high school spring break!

So, excited for our trip, I researched options for tours and fun.  As enticing as sitting for days on a sugar white beach sounds, I did not think that was the best use of my money... I wanted to explore... I could sit on a beach at home.  Much to the chagrin of my boyfriend, I planned stuff everyday (all 3 full days there). Of course I wanted to relax too, so the days were not full days.  The activities picked gave us at least a half day at the hotel beach.  We were going to make the most of this trip. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Days 2&3 - Art, Alpacas, Lavendar, Parks, Orcas & Yachts in the San Juan Islands - Art, Alpacas, Lavendar, Orcas and Yachts

Historical Society
Topographical Interactive Map
San Juan Island
(Continuing my San Juan Island Trip in July 2017)

We hit the ground running Monday, starting with an interview with  town/island leader, Barbara Marrett, over an amazing Breakfast. (Seriously, I am going to have to try and recreate the baked eggs in tomato we ate at  Cynthia’s Bistro).  We talked about island life, the tight knit community, and their ties to the orcas and the Salish Sea.  It's hard to deny the beauty of the area that just draws you in, and her story reflected that pull.  I have always been curious about small town island living and what brings people there, and she let us pepper her with questions about Friday Harbor's growth and laid back nature, the (sometimes) hassle of being cut off from the mainland, and her history that brought her to the island.

After our breakfast education we were handed off to another amazing town leader - the executive Director of the Whale Museum, Jenny Atkinson.  She spoke to us for hours about the orcas and other whales that visit the Sound. Adding to what we learned the evening before from Maya's Legacy (whale watching tour), we were getting a crash course in the local ecosystem.  She spoke passionately about the resident orca pod and how connected people on the island are to it. The reason the whale museum started naming the orca's was the fact that locals are able to identify so many since the people and orcas grow up together and these orcas are often found near the island coast line. Islanders are able to pinpoint births and deaths in the pod since they are such a regular site around the San Juans.  Sadly, they numbers have plummeted.  The Whale Museum  mission is education everyone they can on the majesty of these mammals. After our talk, we were given a tour of the museum, and next thing we knew we were well past noon and well past the schedule that Lesley had made for us to maximize our time.  So, after some purchases (I had to adopt a whale to support their mission), we headed out.

Before we left Friday Harbor and drove into the heart of the island, we wanted to stop by the Art Museum.  Although we had planned for the Art Museum on Monday before our ferry, we found out it would be closed... quick schedule tweak and we made it.  The museum is small!  Really 2 main rooms.  It was hosting an exhibit on native masks  - masks from private collectors.  Much of this stuff was never seen in public.  And it was glorious.  These pieces tell stories but the museum let them speak for themselves - you had to pull up piece information on your smart phone using your scanner!  It was a smart way to show these pieces.


Friday, August 25, 2017

The BIG Event of the Year - I Was There

I planned this trip to Nashville over a year ago.  The Washington Post published an article asking "where will you be?" and it left me wondering "where."  So, I started researching over a year ago for this one day - August 21st. 

Nashville from the Cumberland River
After talking it over with my boyfriend, we started looking out west in Wyoming and quickly found out that even a year in advance, we were too late to the party.  Rooms were booked in the path of totality.  This was beyond frustrating - I wanted to be ahead of the curve and instead I was playing catch up.  So, out came that Washington Post map and we looked at areas all over the west.  With the path cutting from Oregon to South Caroline, we had options - or so we thought.  Everywhere we looked was booked.  So, we gave up on our western wishes and started looking at alternatives.  We already knew that Charleston would be out as a option since we visited last year AND the summer weather runs a higher risk of storms.  In the center of the country, a few mid-western cities had options - St Louis, Kansas City, Nashville... I had been to all of them but John had not.   Nashville seemed like the best option.  He really wanted to visit and my last trip there was over 10 years ago. It was the biggest major city on the path.  When I found a room with a decent rate in the burbs of Nashville, and I locked that in immediately.  With rooms booking around $700-$800/night, finding something under $150 was a treasure.  Decision made!
Months in advance, I purchased our solar goggles (not paper glasses) and I started shopping for camera necessities.  I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into trying to photograph this event.  I am much more of a nature photographer and this was beyond my area of knowledge... so out came the books, the research and lots of questioning others.... I ended up "wishing" for telephoto lenses for my mirrorless camera (wishes not granted), purchasing a fancy tall tripod and some new filters for the telephoto in my possession.  I was not going to wait until the last minute.

The Hermitage
I also wanted to plan the trip for fun outside of the main event.  Price gouging was already underway a year in advance.  This meant we needed to lock things down, but after looking at the airline prices, and fuming over the prices (of over $700/person), we decided to drive to Nashville.  This would give us more flexibility and add to our mobility in the city.

Flash forward a year, with an ambitious itinerary laid out, we left for Tennessee on a Friday afternoon, well ahead of the crowds... or so we thought. After a night in Knoxville, we arrived at the Hermitage to insane crowds.  People were parking in the grass fields.  As the afternoon temperatures soared, the line to view Andrew Jackson's house kept growing.  It was here, that we heard for the first time that Nashville was unprepared for the crowds of the weekend.  We waited for over 1.5 hours to walk through the home; afterwards, I walked some of the grounds, before we both retreated to the air conditioned museum.  But these lines meant that our plan to visit Belle Meade had to be scrapped.  We had enough time to make it to Brentwood, check into the hotel, change and head into the city for our dinner cruise. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Day 1 - Bucket List Trip - San Juan Islands

We landed in Friday Harbor on Sunday morning.  Immediately, we left the ferry and made our way to the first of many interviews my friend would be conducting while on the island.  Instead of sitting at the table quietly, she lets me flex my skills and ask questions.  When she plans these trips, she fills our time with stuff I love (and she loves too), so these interviews are great ways to learn more from experts first-hand.  This trip, the interview queue was filled with goodies – the historical society, the Whale Museum, a local town councilman, a kayak guide and a whale watching tour captain. 

After some breakfast and the first interview, we headed to the “American Camp” side of the island.  American Camp is actually what it sounds like – a place where troops  stayed and trained.  American camp was on the southern tip of the island – some of the most inhospitable land on the rock.  Meanwhile, the English camp set up a community on the north western side of the island.  Why?  They were waiting out a conflict (almost war) over a pig! Yep – you read that correctly too.  When the maps were drawn during westward expansion, the San Juan archipelago was never taken into consideration.  England considered it part of Canada since Vancouver Island is right there and the official border line dipped around its southern point, but the growing United States viewed it as their territory… so residents from both sides lived there.  A whole whopping 35 of them.  And then came a fight about a pig eating in someone’s garden.  An American shot an English pig.  We almost went to war!   A compromise was reached where the fighting would wait, troops would occupy the island for both sides until a resolution could occur.  So 200 troops from each side came to the island.  The British claimed a protected inlet that afforded them easy access to calm waters, wood, and deep soil.  They built a community so rich that people did not want to leave; their traditions, such as the holiday balls continue today.  Conversely, the American side was exposed, pest ridden and the conditions were miserable.  Obviously, the United States ended up with the islands, but the British won over the local’s hearts.  Today, you can see Canada wave that British flag from someone’s front door (not really, but it’s a short ferry ride to Victoria).
Back to the National Park visit (really the National Historical Park)….

South Beach
Cattle Point
I was still seriously sick.  Miserable was more like it.  I had all the symptoms Nyquil was famous for… sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching… but I was not resting.  I wanted to see stuff.  Lesley had been working on this trip for months.  I wanted to rally.  So we started slowly, with walks along gorgeous Cattle Point and  South Beach, and holy moly, even in this protected area are there so many logs of driftwood.  We walked some of the beach looking at some awesome forts people made from the wood before we headed over to the lagoon area.  I had a bright idea that I could do some walking.

The plan was to walk the trail to Jakles Lagoon - it was a mile in and a mile out.  Being that I felt awful, I thought that was a good way to get my feet moving and not completely pass out.  So off we went, and we walked... and walked some more.  We laughed as a bald eagle soared over our heads, and I hacked by part of my lungs every time we walked up the slightest hill.   And we walked much more than a mile.  When we finally saw a trail marker sign for Third lagoon, we knew we missed a turn somewhere.  But that misstep turned into a glorious hike (if not for my incessant hacking).  We walked through temperate rainforest, and then out to the burnt exposed fields of the southern edges, and back into the forest to see lagoons filled with logs.   What was supposed to be a 2 mile easy walk turned into a 4 mile hike.  I was sweaty and thirsty and in desperate need of a shower... but before we could head to  our tiny (miniscule) hotel room, we had to hit up the National Park visitor's center, so I could get postcards, magnets, and check out the park museum (it was there we watched the informative park video about the war over a pig).
After getting cleaned up (and making sure we were presentable again), we went back to the docks for an amazing evening with Maya's Legacy.  We were going Whale Watching on a small tour - there were only 14 of us, and this boat was the best thing I had ever ridden for whale watching.  Small, fast, smooth and LOTS OF WINDOWS and SPACE.  If you have ever been shoveled out of the way on a tour so someone can get to the bow of the boat to see, you know what I am talking about.  Well, Maya's took care of all that.  Space on the bow and stern, and the cabin's windows all raise up.  You have a 360 degree view all the time.  Anyway, this boat was built for speed, and good thing too because the crew got word that the orcas were in Canadian waters about 45 minutes away. 
Off we went through some of the most beautiful scenery you can dream up for the Pacific NW.  And then, there they were... 5 orcas... a family... hunting!  We saw a mom, a few of her children ranging in age and a visiting male, and he was massive.  We watched for almost a half an hour.  Our guides we fantastic!  They were full of information - talking about natural behaviors we witnessed, talking about the familial bonds, their relationship within the great community.  We learned about the resident pod of orcas versus the transient pod (that we were witnessing).  We talked of food and the greater ecosystem.  Our captain, who serves as President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, spoke to us about the deeply declining salmon stocks, and how undamming Pacific NW dams could help the resident pod.  Heck - I even learned a few things I didn't know about these majestic animals.  The crew has so much respect for them, and this was evidenced by them never calling them killer whales (so much wrong with that term - they are not whales, they are related to dolphins... but I digress)
After several hours of eco-bliss, we were back on land and starved.  Luckily one lone sports bar was open to feed us because we had not eaten since breakfast when we docked, otherwise it was going to be a granola night.  We chowed down on BLTs and nachos, lots of water and looked over our pictures.  It was an amazing first day.  We headed back to our tinny tiny room and crashed hard.  We had another big day ahead of us. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Beginning of An Epic Adventure in the Pacific NW

My annual trip out the Pacific Northwest was a bit early this year.  If you plan on visiting the San Juan Islands with your best friend, you have to make the summer venture.  Who wants to visit an island in the northern most corner of the Pacific Northwest when the temperatures start to drop – not I!
We started talking about this venture on the way home from last year’s girls trip to Victoria… and, again, I left the planning to her.  Lesley runs an amazing website for information on NW events, locales, and general fun.  WhatsupNW.com has really exploded and places we go are excited for her to visit and to be featured on the site.  That means, she has all in the “ins”.  I am just along for the ride – I get to help her interview amazing people in various fields, and we have a blast together.  Honestly, her moving sucked, but we make our visits count.  She travels like I do on solo trips – packing in much in as possible… so together, we power-tour and document for her site, take tons of pictures and soak in as much as humanly possible.
For once the weather was going to be perfect.  There was minimal rain in the forecast.  I was itching for a vacation.  And then I got sick.  I am not talking a little summer cold either.  By the time I landed at SeaTac, I felt like I wanted to crawl into a ball and sleep for a week.  I had no energy, I spike a fever 2 nights before, my nose would not stop leaking, and I was a sneezing mess.  I looked and felt great to see my gorgeous best friend (Jersey sarcasm).    She picked me up; I took some Nyquil and had to apologize to her doggies that are used to me rolling around to play with them on visits.  She let me sleep the first day before she and her husband took me to the small town of Leavenworth.  This place is in the south-central Cascades and completely Bavarian themed.  We walked the streets, and I stopped at a few adorable shops looking at things that caught my eye.  Outside town we stopped at the river dam to walk the salmon ladder and watch some fish jump their way through the waters (and a kayaker navigate the falls) and then headed to a state park to take in a gorgeous lake and mountain views.
The next day, we had a girl’s day with some of her friends (and mine) in Seattle.  Lesley was invited to the VIP rooftop lounge at the Hard Rock.  I rallied and we headed towards Pike’s Market.  The lounge over looked the market!  Incredible space!  We had a blast, eating lunch, grooving to music and playing with beach balls… and it’s all fun before someone gets hurt.  And our story ended not with someone getting hurt, but someone’s expensive bag getting doused in beer.  She was fantastically nice about the whole thing and the staff moved quickly to clean everything up.  We took our own ball away and went back to couch dancing.
After a few hours at the Hard Rock, we walked through Pike’s Market.  I love the market – the colors, the venders, the hassle and the flying fish.  So much to see… more so after the latest expansion.  From the market we played the largest game of Pac-Man ever… it was seriously wall-sized.  And wandered into Gum Wall alley.  Ewwww is the right word here.  It is colorful and uniquely Seattle, and as long as you don’t overthink it, it can be amazingly neat to look at.  Some people just stick some gum on the wall, others make something with it… me?  Andrea and I pooled our gum and made a peace sign… we can all use more of that sentiment today with the situation in North Korea looming out there.
We had an early evening because the real trip was kicking in (and man was I still sick).  We hit the road by 5:30am to make the drive to the port.  This was Lesley’s first trip on an auto-ferry and she was not messing around.  So, we made it to port by 7:30 and were on the water by 9am.  The ride over was seriously cold (this is the northern Pacific NW) and stunningly gorgeous.  The waters were calm, since they are protected by Vancouver Island.  Smooth sailing, clear skies and fantastic scenery meant we were docking in Friday Harbor in no time.   Bucket List trip… here I come.