Las Vegas lite

A weekend in Las Vegas? Sure! Help celebrate a few extended family birthdays? Of course—happy to! Only—I’ve never been. To Vegas. And I’m not much of a gambler. Or a partier.

So, what does one like me (of the low-key variety) do for entertainment? As it turns out, there’s something for everyone in Las Vegas—lots and lots of somethings…

Sin city sips

Chocolate is an easy sell for me. So is New York City. And so is Death By Chocolate, the martini styled chocolate drink I enjoyed with a few of my travel companions at The Chocolate Bar, two steps away from The Hershey Store at New York New York Resort & Casino.

A Las Vegas nod to The Big Apple, this resort features a little bit of everything one would associate with NYC: the Statue of Liberty, Time Square, the many burrows and that infamous skyline—but with a roller coaster weaving inside and out—just in case you forgot which New York you’re visiting.

Signature seasoning

As a youngster, Lawry’s Seasoning was a staple in my mom’s kitchen pantry. We enjoyed many a meal with Lawry’s enhancing the flavors of our food. I had no idea there would be an entire prime rib dinner restaurant by the same company awaiting our birthday celebration!

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A savory supper place…

This wonderful dining room features formal table side prime rib carving and tossed salad, along with some of the best service I’ve ever experienced at a bar and restaurant. Nothing was over-seasoned; all flavors were just right.

Also, I enjoyed reading the history of this flavorful company posted near their hostess podium. (Oh, and for anyone not interested in prime rib, there are other options on the menu.) A little bit of nostalgia mixed in with great food and wonderful service made for a very enjoyable dining experience.

Stars of the sea

A shark dive in the ocean? No. Not really my thing. Sharks within inches of my face—a thick, clear aquarium wall between us? Yes! Much more my thing. The Shark Reef Aquarium and Polar Journey at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino features not only sharp-tooth swimming predators, but several species of underwater critters. Many tropical (and polar) land-based critters as well call this aquarium home.

Exploring this venue was the perfect activity for our entire group, ranging in age from seven to seventy-seven. All of us enjoyed watching the quiet grace and beauty of the sea life gliding before us, above us (and below) as they swam into our line of sight.

Lots of posted information, as well as a highly trained and experienced staff, answered all our questions. Queries like: “What’s the difference between venom and poison?” Or, “How do Stingrays eat?” We also learned that a Jellyfish is not really a fish.

Surreal stage

Calling “O” a stage show would be like calling Amsterdam a canal city. Both are sooooooo much more.

Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio Resort & Casino is beyond amazing. The performers sore, dance, swim—even dive—their way on-in-above (and below) the actual stage. The colors, costumes and scenery harmonize with the music to create a show unlike any other.

The stadium-like theater and tiered seating areas gave everyone an excellent and unobstructed view. This feature was most helpful, as there was usually more than one act in progress at any one time. Truly mesmerizing, this show was worth every penny. I would love to see it again!

Tuscany tease

Across the street from Lawry’s sits our hotel for the weekend: the Tuscany Suites & Casino. Hosting a convention attended by one of our family members, this place of lodging isn’t bedazzled like many a famous hotel on the strip.

It did however provide us with clean and spacious rooms, and a decent place to meet for breakfast: Marilyn’s. Understated but less expensive than many others in the area, we were comfortable here.

Next-time notes

Upon learning about our Vegas trip, many friends and family members gave us the following recommendations—places we ran out of time for, so they’ll just have to wait for a return visit:

Ziplining—over old Las Vegas! I love ziplining, so this event is definitely on my “next time” list.

Breakfast at The Egg Slut. The menu looks fantastic! And let’s face it—the name cracks me up.

Cosmopolitan hotel hair styling bar—because I’ve always wanted someone to serve me wine while having my hair styled…

I even dropped a dollar in a slot machine at the airport. Did I win anything? Let’s just say the city of Las Vegas is a dollar richer, thanks to me.

We really did have a great time visiting this surreal desert town. Maybe next time, I’ll get my dollar back. J 🎲 🎲

 

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Farming the sky

Ah… the sound of the wind as it rustles leaves, sways tree branches and orchestrates melodies on decorative chimes. Sometimes fierce and sometimes subtle, this element fills sails. It symbolizes change. It means business.

Windmills, historically common fixtures of countryside landscapes all over the world, have serviced single homes and farms for centuries. Pumping water or milling grain, these infamous symbols of agriculture use the wind to get the job done.

Wind turbines, first entering the history books in 1887, were built to produce—then “bank” electricity—a storable commodity that would help power the needs of entire communities. Talk about an industrial revolution!

Harvesting the wind

About 16 miles east of the city of Ellensburg, in view of I 90, I found Wild Horse Wind Facility. Surrounded by hills and sage brush—and wind—this PSE location collects electricity from 149 wind turbines.

I timed my visit to the facility’s Renewable Energy Center for the 10:00 am tour. Free to the public—my favorite price!—our guide walked us through the informational displays inside the center before we stepped outside.

All “dolled up” in our hard hats and protective eyewear, we made our way to an area just behind the building where we found wind turbine components (conveniently located at ground level for tour purposes) and solar panels. Wait—what? Solar panels?

Focusing on not just one but two forms of renewable energy resources, Wild Horse uses electricity generated by these panels to power all of PSE’s facilities on this 10,880 acre property.

Time for a pop quiz! How tall is each Wild Horse wind turbine?

  • 132 feet
  • 287 feet
  • 351 feet

Answer: holding three blades measuring 128 feet each, the turbine itself measures 351 feet high. That’s about as tall as a 32 story building! The Vestas V80 Megawatt Wind Turbine needs a wind speed between 9-56 MPH to produce electricity. (To conserve its own energy, the turbine powers down and the blades stop in low or no wind.)

Pitching and turning to accommodate wind speed and direction, each turbine generates enough electricity to power—on the average—400 homes. If the wind speed is at least 28 MPH, 1200 homes would receive this resource.

Approaching #C2—the tour’s designated turbine on the property—I realized that the sound produced by each wind machine was little more than a hum. According to our guide, only about 50 decibels each. In terms of audibility, it was like walking among a row of very quiet automatic dishwashers.

However, what truly impressed me on the tour was learning just how much PSE puts into studying the area. Wildlife (in the air and on the ground), the terrain, local farms and ranches—even cultural and historical aspects of this place—are researched and honored when determining design and placement of equipment and other facilities.

For example, local tribes have access to roots dug for culinary and ceremonial or medicinal purposes. Understanding the flight path of birds and bats helps PSE with placement of the turbines, keeping the avian mortality rate from such devices the lowest in the country. In fact, the greatest nemesis for birds in our nation is not a wind turbine. Cats, buildings and cars win that unfortunate statistic.

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Inexpensive, generating electricity via the wind is pennies per kilowatt; it’s a little cheaper than solar generated electricity. Renewable and efficient too…

Milling the grain

Taking a step back in time, my next power stop was just a few miles away in the little town of Thorp. At the Thorp Grist Mill, a national historic landmark, I discovered another clean-energy way to generate electricity. In the 1880s, a water turbine at this mill did more than turn wheat into flour. It also provided this town with electricity; one of the first towns in Central Washington to benefit from such a resource.

By the way, do you know how flour is made? At this mill, grain entered at ground level, rode in small buckets attached to conveyor belts all the way to the third floor, then was dumped into chutes, making its way to the lower floors. Machines resembling large wooden cabinets broke apart the husks, then milled the kernels multiple times until they became the consistency of, well… flour.

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Enjoying the bounty

Ready to enjoy fresh and local produce and baked goods—a little something the nearby wind farm helped make? I was! My last stop for the afternoon: the Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall. It’s a big produce stand that’s kind of hard to miss…

Three floors of local treasures: fruits and veggies great you as you walk in the entrance, taking up most of the space on level 1. Also on that same floor, you’ll find a wine section (Washington state, in case you don’t already know, is the second largest producer of premium wines in the nation), along with other gourmet local items, and an espresso counter. Coffee break time for me!

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The two upstairs floors feature items any antique or vintage shopper would gladly peruse. Very walkable with plenty of natural light, this country store is an easy place to shop. Too easy…

As I made my way home, I saw these renewable resources in a whole new light. I’ve always appreciated clean, efficient ways to power our world, but knowing the harmony PSE—this local company—pursues in caring for its physical place on the map (and the surrounding communities), makes me feel a little better about our corner of the world.

It takes a lot to keep the lights on. Nice to know the impact of wind farming on our world, helping with electricity and more, is a positive one. J 🌬

 

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 🐳

 

 

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 🚗

 

My EPCOT day

How does one visit eleven countries in one day? Not easily. But what about a representation of countries—a circle of neighbors around a small body of water that just happens to find itself in Orlando, Florida?

Part of EPCOT (one of Walt Disney World’s epic theme parks) the World Showcase hosts this neighborhood of international places around its namesake lagoon.

With my family, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying WDW parks many times over the years, but this would be my first solo visit. Having only one day (roughly 24 hours) available on my timeline, I chose to traverse this particular park.

Why EPCOT? It always reminds me of a world’s fair, but with more permanent structures, and of course, Disney flare. And since I’m a big fan of fairs (and markets and festivals and Disney), this made my narrow-it-down-to-one-park decision a little easier. So I began my one day by stepping into the future…

The future

Extremely visible from just about anywhere in the park, Future World’s Spaceship Earth was my first stop. Since I wasn’t fast enough for Fastpass on this particular trip, I targeted this attraction early in the day so as to minimize my wait time.

I really like the ride through history, particularly as it covers the progress of human communication throughout time, beginning with the drawings of cave dwellers and ending with our prototypes and predictions for the future.

Near the end of the journey, each car’s interactive touch screen allows its travelers to make selections about how they might want to live in the future. Somehow my future self ended up in outer space, but the view of Earth was phenomenal!

For my next Future World stop, it was time to take flight. I made a beeline for Soarin’ inside The Land pavilion. Another very popular attraction, I noted the wait time for the Stand-by line to be 60 minutes. Knowing the wait time approaching noon would only lengthen, I walked into the entrance, preparing to spend a little “me time” on my phone.

Well, I did spend time on my phone—playing an online Soarin’ trivia game with about one hundred other line occupants. Wall screens invited passers by to complete the quick login process, then presented the teams with True/False questions like “The Great Barrier Reef is larger than the Great Wall of China.” Definitely a fun way to pass the time.

As luck would have it, the line operator was looking for a single rider to board immediately, so after raising my hand (and shouting “Me!”), I was routed to my seat. I prepped for takeoff, and up-up-up-and-away we went. Such amazing birds-eye views and music! The Great Wall, the Golden Gate Bridge, waterfalls, plains, all as they appear from above.

The world

I fit in one last Stand-by attraction for the day, this time in Norway. Part of the World Showcase, this Northern European land was my first country stop of the day. The attraction? Frozen, which sounded really good on an 86 degree Fahrenheit day. Another 60-minute wait, but under cover, and with plenty of charming movie décor to admire before boarding the boat ride.

Young movie fans (and their chaperones) will love hearing the songs and seeing animatronic figures from the famed story as they glide along, enjoying a little drop (and maybe a splash of water) at the end.

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A trip to any of the Disney parks wouldn’t be complete without a character photo op. The trick is to queue up to the meeting spot before the Disney celebrity arrives. In Great Britain, I found the line for Alice in Wonderland just beginning, so I quickly took my place.

So very charming, Alice chatted with each guest for a bit, prior to signing autograph books and posing for photos. Watching the exchange between Alice and her fans made time pass quickly as the line progressed. And then it was my turn! She and I had a fun discussion about the Red Queen before smiling for the camera.

At the host country, I timed my visit just right to find a theater seat for an animatronic, cinematic and photographic tour through my nation’s history: The American Adventure. Narrated by famous Americans Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, the two took turns weaving our historical events via a chronological timeline.

Along the way, other famous Americans such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas, cultural icon Rosie the Riveter and Native American Chief Joseph, added to the compelling conversations. Inventors like Alexander Graham Bell joined the group too.

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Ending with images covering more contemporary moments, celebrities and events of our time/my time, I found myself truly touched—a little choked up even—but inspired by the messages conveyed during this quick tour of American history.

My early dinner reservation was fast approaching. Eager to stop by each remaining country at least briefly, I made quick visits to the following:

    • China
    • Mexico
    • Canada
    • France
    • Morocco
    • Japan
    • Germany

I’ve had longer visits to these locales during previous vacations, but I was still a bit sad I couldn’t hang out this time—dinner called. Speaking of dining…

The cuisine

Just in case you were wondering when I’d get to Italy, worry no more. My 24-hour visit actually began the prior evening at Italy’s Napoli Ristorante E Pizzeria. Nothing like a delicious Quattro Formaggi (four-cheese) pizza and a glass of vino to make me smile! Excellent service too. I finished off my meal with a delightful tiramisu. Ahhhh…

Between my visits to Norway and Great Britain, I ventured back to Future World’s Fountain View Café. Disney and Starbucks teamed up on this venture, and came up with something fun for fans of both. I stepped outside on the terrace and found a table in the shade where I could enjoy my icy usual and a sweet treat—and a partial view of the fountain.

Toward the end of my day—my last dinner at the park—I returned to Great Britain, and entered the Rose & Crown Dining Room. (There’s a fun pub attached to the restaurant, as well as a fish & chips stand too.)

I’ve enjoyed their fan favorite here before, but this time, I decided on a Scottish inspired salmon dish. A grilled and lightly breaded filet on a bed of veggies and lentils—amazing! Truly delicious. I asked my server to pay my compliments to the chef. I ate every bite. But not to worry; I saved room for dessert: sticky toffee pudding. So heavenly! (And yes, I ate every bite of that too…)

The shopping

Along with the marvelous food, souvenirs are tough to resist here at EPCOT. I made most of my purchases in Italy and Great Britain, but found a fun pair of suspenders in Germany, and a few co branded coffee mugs at the Future World’s Fountain View Café.
And just in case you become concerned about the lack of available space in your suitcase, WDW resorts can help you ship the souvenirs home.

When I returned to the Port Orleans French Quarter Resort for the evening (a fun New Orleans themed WDW resort), I headed to the gift shop. The cast members inventoried my collection of goods, gave me my receipt, and I was good to go! My souvenirs arrived at home in excellent condition about two weeks later.

The fireworks

Have you ever had the chance to enjoy Disney fireworks? In a word: spectacular! I caught the show from one of Italy’s Venetian style bridges, but the event can be seen from anywhere in the park. What a wonderful way to end my day.

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No matter how many times I walk this park, explore the pavilions, or dine at the restaurants, I always leave mentally planning my next EPCOT visit. Conversations with World Showcase cast members—all native to the countries they represent —remind me how enriched I feel, experiencing different cultures.

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So, if you’re a foodie and a Disney fan who enjoys exploring future concepts, walking through fairs and experiencing a bit of wonder from other places, you just might develop a taste for EPCOT. I know I have.

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 ❄️