Scenic San Juan

How is it that a popular tourist destination at the height of tourist season can seem so…unpopulated? Welcome to the San Juans.

Enjoying a couple of three-day August weekends here gave me the chance to explore this archipelago’s namesake: the island of San Juan itself.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed prior visits to San Juan, as well as trips to Orcas and Lopez islands too, and I always reach the same conclusion. Once we leave the ferry, where does everyone go?

The town

Inches from the dock, Friday Harbor greets ferry passengers as they disembark, ready to take them into its many unique stores, restaurants, inns and other attractions. And so much can be accessed via colorful, well maintained shop allies.

Pedestrian friendly, even near the dock, this town takes walkable to a whole new level. Plenty of sidewalks and crosswalks accommodate visitors. And the drivers exhibit patience I usually witness only in Canada.

The beaches

When you’re ready to get outta town, you won’t have far to go. Just a few minutes from Friday Harbor, we found ourselves driving along the island’s byways through farmlands, forests and hilly terrain on our way to the not so distant shoreline.

San Juan island is home to several beachfront state and local parks, all very nicely maintained. But if you’re looking for one that features a few extras—like whale watching from rocky cliffs—Lime Kiln Point State Park topped our list.

Truth be told, the Orcas that happened to be swimming by just as we reached the cliffs were the highlight of our park visit. Watching the pod make its way through the channel, so close to the shore, was a treat I’ll remember forever. Lucky for us, we could hear some of their calls too, as well as hear—and see—their blowholes in action. A few of the whales even popped their heads out of the water for a bit, as if to sneak a peek at us too. Talk about cool!

Near the cliffs, we found lots of illustrations and information posted about the Orcas, which was helpful in understanding more about these magnificent marine mammals. Lime Kiln also features an interpretive center near its picturesque lighthouse, and a snack stand.

If you’re looking for a beach where you can feel the sand between your toes, well… we discovered one of those too: Jackson Beach Park. A long stretch of beach, driftwood and sand awaited our arrival. And for anyone who’d like to have a picnic complete with a bonfire, Jackson Beach provides the necessary amenities.

Cattle Point—part of San Juan Island’s National Historic Park—features a little of both: rocky cliffs, and sandy beaches. And trails too. Such a pretty place! It’s worth a stop, just for the scenery.

The activities

A little more inland, we found fields of purple at the Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Approaching the end of the season, their plants still offered plenty of color and fun photo ops. The gift shop and treats counter provided ample shopping and munching opportunities, and the looping video programs and attractive displays made learning all about lavender fun and fragrant.

The winner here for me was the deliciously different lavender ice cream sandwich. Locally made vanilla lavender icy goodness squished between two double chocolate cookies…YUM! 😋

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If you’re in the mood for cuteness overload, check out the Krystal Acres Alpaca Country Store. Well, the cuteness is actually behind the store, roaming the fields. Alpacas—over 50 of them—didn’t seem to mind being photographed as they grazed, sauntered and otherwise enjoyed the day in their own mellow way. Some even seemed willing to strike a pose for our cameras!

Inside the store, we found beautiful wool garments (many imported from Peru), as well as yarn produced by our wooly photo models out back. As yarn is my weakness, I made a purchase. The yarn’s tags featured the photos and names of the Alpacas who provided the wool—how fun!

When we were ready for a sip of vino, we made our way to San Juan Vineyards. Under new management, this quiet, beautiful location features a brand new wine bar that runs the length of the historic school house—a structure featured on all their wine labels—with several stand up tables to accommodate many patrons.

After completing a wine tasting, my friends selected a bottle of their favorite. San Juan Vineyards also sells their wines on the ferries that service the islands; nice to see the success of their efforts expanding off the island.

Time to stretch our legs! The annual IslandRec 8.8k loop fun run celebrated its 41st year this month! And we were lucky enough to be a part of the event. Also lucky (for me), walking the route was perfectly acceptable. So I did, along with a friend who didn’t mind not competing for a placement ribbon…

A quiet yet well supervised course, water stations and event volunteers greeted us at almost every mile marker. And at the finish line, another annual event awaited our arrival: the San Juan County Fair.

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I love fairs! The exhibits, the animals, the food—and the competitions. Like chicken races. Nothing more adorable than watching young handlers release their fierce competitors at the words “Ready, set, GO!” Equally adorable is watching said handlers chase down and recapture their feathered friends, post race. (Okay, maybe more amusing than adorable…)

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The cuisine

Having a total of six days on San Juan allowed me the glorious opportunity to visit several eateries. Here’s a highlight of my favorites:

Vinney’s. When you’re in the mood for Italian food, this place tops my list—as in I wish it were closer to home! Excellent cuisine, great service and very popular with the locals. We dined here twice during one of my weekend trips.

The Cheesecake Café & Bakery. A dangerously delicious place. I enjoyed the ham & cheese croissants, lattes, and Nutella Rice Krispie treats. My friends enjoyed the cheesecakes—two of the many flavors, anyway. Tables available inside and out, in full view of the ferry dock, which just happens to be next door.

The Bean Café. Yummy lattes, cookies and more—just a very short walk from the dock. Seating inside and out, this location also features a TV displaying a live feed of the ferry dock; a noteworthy item for anyone timing an arrival or departure.

Blue Water Bar and Grill. When you’re up for seafood and wine, nachos and beer or something in between—all in full view of the dock—this is a great place to be.

McMillin’s. Located on the other end of the island in Roche Harbor, this place is worth the drive. An extensive menu and a wonderful view of its marina make it a great choice for an upscale lunch or an elegant evening.

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Downriggers. Facing Friday Harbor’s marina, very near the ferry dock, this is one of my favorites for a nice evening out. Excellent food and service; and excellent views too! We enjoyed watching float planes land behind arriving ferries, as well as dining in a lively—but not too loud—atmosphere.

From lively restaurants to quiet beaches, from Orca whales to wooly Alpacas, we enjoyed every inch of San Juan Island. And with plenty of elbow room too.

So are you ready for an island getaway? Come check out San Juan. The Orcas just might wave hello. J 🐳

 

 

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An absent waterfall

Road trip. What comes to mind when you hear these words? Family vacations, away games, work, Grandma’s house? Campus tours, time with friends, or just seeking adventures?

In my life, I’ve enjoyed all these options, along with various degrees of traffic, car troubles, weather conditions and a variety of pass-the-time activities my parents would give us (in the days before handheld DVD players and smartphones).

But for me, there really is no better way to pass the time on a road trip than to enjoy the scenery. It’s always changing! Sometimes gradually, sometimes drastically, but decidedly different around each and every corner, curve and hill. Take, for example, the highways of Central Washington…

Dirt & rocks

Just east of the Cascade mountains, Central and Eastern Washington boast a wide variety of terrain: a dry desert climate, snowy winters, fertile soil for thriving agricultural crops, lakes and rivers for the recreation-minded vacationers and an abundance of wide-open spaces. And rocks. Big rocks, wide gorges, canyons and giant waterfalls—absent the water.

Noticing the many different layers of rock and sediment exposed to the elements, it’s easy for me to marvel at the geology, and to wonder. How did it all come to be?

In 1923, geologist J Harlen Bretz posed a theory about this region’s past that no one—not even his peers—would believe. His infamously dismissed statement? That a giant, catastrophic flood tore through this area, compliments of the Ice Age.

About 40 years after sharing his theory, and thankfully during his lifetime, aerial photography and satellite images proved Bretz right.

Water & ice

In Western Montana, during the Ice Age, a sheet of the ice blocked the Clark-Fork River, causing water from retreating glaciers to back up behind a dam of ice. Over time, this activity formed a glacial lake about 2000 feet deep.

Eventually the dam, about a half a mile high, could no longer contain this lake. The water—some 500 cubic miles of it—burst through the dam.

Making its way to the Pacific, the water traveled at speeds faster than 65 mph, carrying boulders and top soil along for the ride, depositing much of the dirt and sediment in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Eastern and Central Washington, stripped down to their lava bedrock, became carved out areas of canyons, gorges, and waterfalls.

Over a span of no more than two days, the rush of Lake Missoula (the Ice Age lake responsible for the flood) all but stopped. The “lake” was empty. In time, the waterlogged sections of Washington and Oregon settled into their newfound topography, and most of the temporary waterfalls dried up.

Before humans migrated to this section of North America, the ice-water-dam-flood pattern would repeat itself several times. Today, modern geologists, finding plenty of evidence in the canyon walls, coulees and rocky valleys, continue to prove Bretz right.

People & roads

Along highway 17 rests a particularly quiet, picturesque spot that features an excellent example of this catastrophically natural event: Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park & Visitor Center.

Visible from the road, the visitor center itself boasts the best view of Dry Falls. It’s totally worth the stop! Just a few steps from the parking lot, we were taking in one of the most spectacular and unobstructed views around.

Inside the center, we found museum-like exhibits, a theater running a documentary on Bretz and the area, large windows overlooking Dry Falls and a fun gift shop. Oh, and clean restrooms—an important discovery for any road trip.

Park rangers were available to answer questions about the history of the area, as well as help with recreational ideas. For anyone seeking a place to fish or play on or in the water—absent the large crowds—Sun Lakes has you covered. There’s even a golf course!

Food & drink*

When it was time to stop for a coffee, we found the perfect place. The Banks Lake Brew & Bistro sits just a few miles northeast of Dry Falls Visitor Center along highway 2 in Coulee City.

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Sharing its locale with a gas station, the bistro provides its patrons with a drive-through window, indoor seating, and a gift shop featuring crafts from local artists. And very yummy lattes, treats and entrees!

*Closed for the rest of this season due to a family emergency, Top Chef Concessions normally parks a very popular food trailer at Dry Falls Visitor Center. Top Chef’s trailer should be back in business at Dry Falls this coming spring.

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So, where are you heading on your next road trip? What will you tote along to pass the time?

Whatever your plans for your journey and your destination, remember to take in the scenery along the way. You just might discover something worth stopping for… J 🚗

 

Hutchinson Island Zen

Ah, summer—today’s the first day! The very name of the season evokes a Zen feeling. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Zen?” Meditation, relaxation, calmness? Vacation—a break from the everyday life? Associated with Zen Buddhism, this powerful three-letter word enjoys a positive place in our modern vocabulary.

It has come to describe people, places and things that equate to feelings of clarity and control, brought about by experiencing wonder, beauty and life’s simple pleasures.

These Zen moments can last just long enough for us to catch our breath, recharge our batteries and return to our daily challenges with a bit more energy—a fresher pair of eyes.

For me, Zen equals Hutchinson Island, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. No matter what I have going on in my life, time spent here in this quite beautiful place always gives me the clarity and calmness I didn’t know I needed until I arrive.

While this locale is very vacation worthy (think long weekend or longer), sometimes I only have a day… but I’ll take it! Time to share my recent island Zen day with you.

Sea life

Cute and cuddly critters like puppies and kitties can give us that warm-and-fuzzy Zen feeling in our hearts almost instantly. But what about H2O critters? One visit to the Florida Oceanographic and Coastal Center’s stingray feeding program with melt your heart and calm your nerves quickly, as you learn how to pet and feed these entertaining rays.

Time for a pop quiz! Rays are a type of:

A) Fish
B) Dolphin
C) Shark

Answer: A) Fish! They’re just a lot flatter then your average finned swimmer. And these Coastal Center residents have their barbs filed down regularly, so there’s no chance for human visitors to be hurt.

My family and I have paid them many visits over the years, and we never tire of interacting with these amazing sea critters.

Along with the rays, rescued sea turtles and game fish enjoy ocean-fed pavilions and lagoons throughout the 57-acre property. The nature trail and visitors center—even a butterfly garden—and several hands-on displays help educate (as they entertain) patrons of all ages.

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Watching this facility grow over the years gives me a good feeling inside too. The employees are friendly, knowledgeable and dedicated to sharing what life is all about for their marine residents.

Past life

Directly across the street from the Coastal Center sits a modern museum with a flare for transportation: the Elliott Museum. Since their invention, classic cars from almost every decade are on display in a garage-type setting.

But before you happen upon these vehicles, you’ll find variations of bicycles as they evolved from styles of yesteryear, leading up to the most significant style of all: the precursor to the automobile. Sterling Elliot was the inventor and manufacturer of this pre-auto contraption. He managed to own quite a few patents, several having to do with modes of transportation. Many of his inventions greet you near the front entrance.

I enjoyed discovering those early bicycles and tricycles—many of their parts made from wood—as I made my way to the temporary exhibit: kites from around the world. I’d never thought of using these quiet, aerodynamic works of art to tell stories or share history, but show-and-tell they did.

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My price of admission to the Elliott Museum included entry to another museum a few miles down the road: the House of Refuge. So down the road I drove.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, walking into this structure was truly a step back in time. Located on one of the island’s backroads, the serenity of this area made it difficult to imagine the building’s once historical purpose: to serve as a haven for shipwrecked sailors.

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But the rocky beach was a reminder to me that the ease and success of navigation was largely dependent on the weather—and at what angle the shore and the ships met.

Beach life

Looking forward to dipping my toes in the sand, I headed north to Jensen Beach. Plenty of sand and shore awaited me, along with a very welcome ocean breeze. Time to stretch my legs!

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I start to relax just seeing this place from the parking lot. As I pass the Sand Dune Café (a nice walk-up by the way!) and head toward the water, I notice the most artful sandcastle I’ve ever seen: a sea monster of sorts 🦑, facing the ocean. Very impressive—kudos to the sculptor!

The monster facing the ocean. As I continued walking along the beach, I remembered some sage advice I hear often whenever I’m visiting the shore: never turn your back on the ocean. At least not when standing at its edge.

Ready for some refreshment and a little late lunch, I head a bit farther along the road to one of my favorite watering holes: Kyle G’s. Lucky for me, there was an available seat at the bar outside that included a perfect ocean view. James the bartender created a wonderful white sangria at my request. I enjoyed it very much, along with a delicious plate of fried oysters. My final Zen moment of the day.

Whatever your plans for summer, I hope you fit in a few activities designed to help you relax and recharge. Safe travels, and enjoy your Zen moments! J 🏖

 

 

 

Freeze-frame

A trail up high in the mountains is one thing, but a trail up high in the mountains—two yards off the ground—is something else. Like no other season, winter has a way of transforming a landscape. On a recent visit to Snoqualmie Pass, we discovered more than a new hiking trail; we discovered that trail elevation can be a seasonal thing.

The Ugly Scarf near Snoqualmie Pass
Me wearing The Ugly Scarf–putting it to conventional use–near Snoqualmie Pass

The snow

Part of the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, the Franklin Falls Trail (#1036) is accessible year-around, accommodating all skill levels. Beautiful any season, I’ve always wanted to visit this place, especially under facades of snow and ice. And now just happens to be the best time of year for such conditions, so, time to bundle up and head for the hills!

Our GPS options—always helpful—made sure we were there. And we were there. Well, close. We just couldn’t see the route to the trail’s parking lot—not even the trail head itself. A wall of plowed snow at least seven feet tall stood between our makeshift parking spot, us, and the way to #1036. Eventually we noticed a path of sorts (forged by ambitious snowshoers and other hikers earlier that morning) weaving its way up and over the icy wall. A starting point! So up and over we went.

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As the path continued, the compacted snow made for stable walking conditions, despite the fact we were several feet off the actual ground. As we walked, fluffy flakes quietly floated down around us, decorating the evergreens, contributing to this already beautiful wonderland.

The water

Running roughly parallel to our snowy trail, water flowed actively in the creeks. We could hear the Falls, even though they remained out of sight for the time being. Eventually our path reached ground level as we made our way under the sloping canopy of trees. Here we crossed small foot bridges over steady streams of moving water. Active despite the freezing temperature, the creeks went about their business, competing with the Falls—and falling snow—for our attention.

Arriving at the end of the trail (a little rocky and slippery the last ten yards), Franklin Falls was there to greet us in all its glory. Water pounded down, as snowflakes continued to do the same. And there was just enough level ground for us and about 20 other hikers to take it all in, as well as take photos without having to take turns.

The ice

What a beautiful site! But what truly fascinated me about the face of the Falls was observing the water that wasn’t moving at all: the ice. Like icicles that form on the eves of homes and buildings, water found a way to camp out for the season along sections of the rock wall. The freezing temps fluctuate in this part of the world just enough to allow Mother Nature the opportunity to treat the cliff face like a canvas, painting various rocks with broad brushstrokes of ice.

Heading back up the trail, we encountered more evidence of ice finding a place in the scenery. Exposed root systems of large trees near creek beds allowed for mini stalactite formations of frozen water—water that will need to wait a month or two for warmer weather before it can reach the creek. A true freeze-frame shot of stillness.

Nearing the elevated part of the trail —close to our starting point—we noticed evidence of human interaction with the landscape we didn’t see before: a solar panel secured to a tree, graffiti on a freeway pillar and a road sign that barely cleared the snow drift. But thankfully not litter.

Lots of people visit this trail throughout the year, and for us, all were friendly. Everyone seemed to enjoy sharing this winter wonderland experience as we passed each other coming and going along the trail.

I look forward to visiting this place again, perhaps in the summer or fall. Until then, I’ll just have to imagine the landscape as it would look like without its winter blanket. J ❄️

 

On the lake

At the lake. By the lake. Along the lake. Lake shores offer us many ways to enjoy the day: parks for picnics and barbecues, soccer and softball games, family reunions and birthday parties, swimming, jogging and walking—with or without pets—and bird watching (along with watching other assorted critters). Lakeside restaurants offer spectacular views for the dining pleasure of their guests.

But what about on the lake?

The vessel

Marinas—many of them—offer more than just moorage. During boating season, you can rent anything from a canoe to a houseboat. And depending on the lake, many a watercraft are available to rent year around. If you or someone you know utter the words, “It’s a great day for boating!” On a semi regular basis, then you owe it to yourself (and your crew) to give it a try. And if you happen to own some form of water transportation, check the weather forecast and plan your outing!

The journey

On a very recent sunny day, we awakened our boat from its winter nap, fired up the engines and took it for a drive on Lake Washington. It’s like we had the lake to ourselves! January is decidedly the off season for boating, but it’s not off limits. So off we went. The lake, the bridges, the skyscrapers, the waterfront estates—and the mountains. All willing participants in the ever changing scenery surrounding us as we made our way to the southern part of the lake. Our destination? Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park.

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The destination

Established 1982, this beautiful waterfront park remains an exciting discovery for us: four-hour guest moorage, docks, sidewalks, restaurants, a covered open-air pavilion—even an interpretive walk that identifies various species of plants. All about a stone’s throw from the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington, Boeing and The Landing at Renton.

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The afternoon

Arriving about lunchtime, we parked our boat in guest moorage and made our way to Ivar’s Seafood Bar. Order in hand, we found a table just outside the restaurant facing the water. As we ate, seagulls cried, hoping for someone to share a bite. Students learning to sail practiced in the cove—their boat a rental from nearby. Families, joggers, walkers, and others taking a lunch break meandered throughout the park. We truly enjoyed our post-lunch walk. Time flew as it always does, which meant it was time for us to make our way home. Taking in the progressive scenery once more, I realized that it always makes me smile. I never tire of how Mount Rainier—its colors changing with the dipping sun—jumps out from behind the local hills, or how the buildings, homes and bridges are mirrored in the calm water of the lake.

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Do you know the difference between a boat and a ship? A ship can carry boats, but a boat cannot carry ships. To be honest, my favorite form of boating is a cruise ship. (So many ports of call, yet I only unpack once!) But for something less involved and more intimate, it’s tough to beat your own little vessel when it’s a great day for boating. J 😎⚓️

 

Wave meets rock

The melodic notes of wind chimes, the heart pounding roar of the Blue Angels flying over head, rain tap dancing on the pavement–all sounds that are music to my ears. But the one that always tops my list? When ocean waves meet the shoreline. Pounding against sand and rocks, waves crash like symbols in an orchestra, creating an odd combination of excitement and calm as I take it all in. The sound–and the view. I will never tire of this wonder. Sooooooo many places in the world can grant this amazing experience, but one location in particular has captured our hearts: the Oregon Coast. And one town in particular has become our favorite: Yachats.

My Zen place

Pronounced “YA-hots” we trek to this small town about once a year to take it all in. Oddly enough, winter is our first choice of seasons for such a visit. The Pacific Ocean delivers storm after storm, and the storms in turn deliver spectacular wave activity. Wind is a constant, but the rain is not. The weather can change here as often as the tides. We end up wearing our sunglasses more often than our rain gear. The coastline is rugged, but the trails are very walkable. Our daughter refers to Yachats as “my Zen place.” As a family, we’ve come to think of it as our Zen place too.

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Our return trips offer us the chance to enjoy familiar places, but we always look forward to discovering something new–something we didn’t get around to doing on our last trip.

Interested? Here are some of our favorite discoveries to date.

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For accommodations, the Overleaf Lodge & Spa is woooooooooonderful. This location commands one of the best ocean views in town. And each room at Overleaf enjoys this spectacular vantage point. Breakfast is included for all guests, and when you return from your day’s adventures, the spa is waiting to pamper. Just remember to make a reservation–both the lodge and spa are very popular.

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Hungry? Thirsty? Not to worry! For a small town (and even compared to large cities), Yachats offers some of the best eateries on our best-places-to-eat-anywhere list. Allow me to highlight just a few locations.

Seafood is a must when enjoying the coast–any coast. And here, you’ve gotta try Luna Sea Fish House. Not only is the food fresh, it’s excellent! So very tasty. I love the steamers (clams) and Dungeness crab, but everything on the menu is fresh and delicious. They also feature Oregon beer and wine–just enough choices to wet your whistle.

Still hungry, any maybe for something other than seafood? Yachats Brewing. Definitely more beer than wine options (as the name implies), but the menu! Wow–truly some of the best food we’ve had anywhere. Recently I enjoyed a butternut squash and feta cheese risotto that is at the top of my list of “best restaurant risotto ever.”

But what about coffee or tea? I would not go a day without my fix. Not willingly, anyway. Green Salmon to the rescue! The coffee, and tea, and hot cocoa/chocolate drinks are out of this world. Although their menu names call out several places in this world–places that have inspired the very tasty beverage options that take up the entire wall behind the register. Well, almost the entire wall. The menu features breakfast and lunch options too–locally sourced–that are just as tasty and wonderful as the exotic beverages.

Normally I choose a blended coffee or tea drink, but I did venture over to the cocoa side our last two days there. So glad I did–another “Wow!” rating from me. I truly enjoyed the Mayan hot chocolate. It reminded me of the hot chocolate scene in the movie, “Chocolat”. (And for the record, no, there’s no such thing as too much chocolate, even when used multiple times in one sentence…)

On the go, and in need of a very good drive-up coffee/tea/cocoa place? The Village Bean will help you out with that request.

We always have a tough time saying goodbye to our Zen place. Sooooo… what helps to ease the sadness? Planning our next vacation! And in the first month of this new year, it’s time for me to look ahead to upcoming trips, and to include a few bucket list items in our travels–a few places I’ve always wanted to visit, but just haven’t been. Yet.

My bucket list

  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Alcatraz Island (no, really!), National Park Service, San Francisco, California
  • Arches National Park, Utah
  • Carnevale, Venice Italy
  • The fjords of Norway

Yes, I have many more bucket list items then you see here, but I’d like to focus on these places for now.

New Orleans:

I’d like to have a drink at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar, and a beignet at the Cafe Du Monde. And enjoy this historic place, a southern melting pot.

Alcatraz Island:

I lived in the Bay Area for two years, but never made it there. Time to go back, and learn a little more about this infamous former prison for the infamously notorious. Oh, and enjoy a little more of San Francisco while I’m there…

Arches National Park:

Having driven by this park not one, not two, not three but four times, it’s time to head up the hill and see–with my own eyes–the symbol that makes this national park so famous.

Carnevale, Venice:

There are many famous cities around the world that celebrate Fat Tuesday, but only one place where the masks and costumes are so elaborate–from head to toe. Add to that the lovely backdrop of canals in a fantastically walkable city, well… it’s time to officially add this one to my list.

The fjords of Norway:

By sea and by land, I would really like to take in the rugged beauty of this Scandinavian land-and-seascape.

What famous places and hidden gems are on your bucket list? Time to call out a few, and make your plans! Yes, schedules and budgets can (and do) play a somewhat limiting role, but with a little work, we can check a few of our items off the list. For now, I wish you safe and plesent travels! J 🗺