Category Archives: Vacation travel

Why winter is a great time to visit Catalina Island

Catalina Harbor view from Banning House
When you visit Catalina Island in winter be sure to tour the Casino Building

When you visit Catalina Island in winter be sure to tour the Casino Building

The seaplane windows sprayed with salt water as the pontoons hit the water. Slowly we slid to the dock and climbed out of the little airplane. This is my oldest memory of the island and my family returned to visit Catalina several times over the decades. Now my loved ones are scattered around the country, so it’s a rare treat to get together and over to the island.

View from the boat when leaving San Pedro Harbor to visit Catalina

Leaving San Pedro harbor

The Starship Express Ferry coming into Avalon Harbor

I’m not one for crowds. So stopping in Avalon briefly then catching a boat to the tiny landing at Two Harbors was the perfect way to begin our quiet vacation. We left from San Pedro by the Catalina Express and dragged our bags up the hill to the Banning House about three hours later.

One trail up to Banning House

One trail up to Banning House

The main sitting room in Banning House

The main sitting room in Banning House

The house was built in 1910 for the Banning family and sits perched on a hill between the two harbors. The craftsman style inn has only 12 rooms that are booked most of the year. We were lucky to score a family-style space facing Catalina Harbor. Each morning there was a modest breakfast, a happy hour in the evening and we walked down to the Harbor Restaurant for dinner. It was a relaxed and simple routine.

There’s not much lodging in Two Harbors. A campground is available and after the summer crowds have left you might book one of the modest staff cabins. I recommend booking well in advance.

Trans Catalina trail marker

Catalina Harbor viewpoint across the isthmus

Catalina Harbor viewpoint

For two full days, we hiked trails and explored. Our millennials took to the hills as they were training for marathons. There was little WiFi but I did my best to stay up with work for a few hours on the village cafe patio. We tried scuba diving but were thwarted by limited boat rentals. Note* Reserve a skiff ahead of time! Still, it was simple to stroll along the beach and snorkel along the point.

I’ve gone diving from the Casino steps in Avalon and from private boats before. It’s the main reason I feel that winter is the best time to visit Catalina – the water is warmest between October and early January! At least warmer compared to the Southern California coast and my base in San Diego. The coast is colder due to upwelling (where cold water rolls up onto the beaches.) It’s great for kelp but not so for warm-blooded creatures!

Beaches on far side of Catalina Island

Bays on far side of Catalina Island

Before long our group split with two needing to get back to the mainland and we said goodbye as they walked onto the ferry. Then it was off to cross the island by bus and stop overnight in Avalon. The island ranches still preserve the wilds of the interior but there are several small campgrounds where reservations are a good idea.

Buffalo sighting Catalina Island

Buffalo sighting Catalina Island

Crossing by car or bus also gives you a chance to see Buffalo and they’re magnificent locals.

Airport in the sky on Catalina Island

Airport in the sky on Catalina Island

Nature Center on Catalina Island

The small “Airport in the Sky” was full of kitsch and housed in a beautiful Spanish Colonial style hacienda. There’s a nature exhibit and alongside the souvenir shop, a large, casual dining room. Made me wish I had friends with an airplane although I understand there’s a bump on the runway!

Art Deco detail inside the Catalina Casino

Art Deco detail inside the Catalina Casino

Catalina Casino band circa 1930

Catalina Casino band circa 1930

We crossed over to the main town and headed uphill to stay at a small hotel. As I love all things retro from the 20’s and 40’s, I was thrilled to finally tour the old Casino building. It was easy to imagine my mother and her sisters taking the ferry over to dance to the big bands. In those days unescorted women were frowned upon, but if you took the ferry to join the ballroom crowds no one minded. It might have had something to do with Mr. Wrigley banning alcohol on the premises. (He couldn’t keep it off the ferry though!)

Segway when you visit Catalina

On the last morning of our trip, we rented Segways for a guided tour up into the hills. I was wary of scooting around those steep grades but soon felt comfortable. The views were wonderful and at one point we even spotted a rare Red Fox.

Fox sightings aren't as common as they once were.

Foxes are coming back thanks to the Island Conservancy.

When you visit Catalina Island there are so many ways to frame your journey. There are popular festivals, dance clubs, restaurants both casual and fine dining, gardens, camps and private beaches.

Bar scene in Catalina Island

Bar scene in Avalon

When you visit Catalina

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Travel Notes & Beyond

Go West – Driving four US National Parks

Road trip to Mount Rainier one of the US National Parks
One of dozens of trails available around Mount Rainier.

One of dozens of trails available around Mount Rainier.

The US National Parks are grand, wildly diverse and pretty far apart. Visiting several over a week or two takes planning. You don’t want to rush the ride! In too much of a rush to pull over and watch Buffalo sparing because you need to get to the next hotel? Miss the waterfall because you’re snacky? Forget it!
Plan well, stock the car and surrender to opportunities along the way. Here’s a quick, road trip itinerary from Yosemite, up to the coastal Redwood National Park, to Crater Lake and the wonders of Mount Rainier.
I’ve driven across the country several times as a youngster – whiling away the time by fighting with my siblings in the back seat, but I’d never done it as an adult. Over three weeks, two couples – my sweetheart, his son, and wife piled into their car and worked our way up the west coast and across to Omaha before parting ways. It not only gave us plenty of time to hang out, but we hiked, watched wildlife and cozied up to some of the most spectacular natural environments in the country. This first part of the trip took us about seven days but you could see these four US National Parks in far less time.
Yosemite entrance sign on a US National Parks Road Trip

Yosemite National Park

Heading north from Los Angeles we ventured into Yosemite first. We have family close to the Southern entrance, so it made a natural launching spot. While we were there it was heartbreaking to see huge swaths of trees killed by a devastating bark beetle. Forest fires have followed and we need to remember they’re part of a natural cycle. My hope is that the current fires bring new growth for generations to come. Still, once the smoke has cleared nothing surpasses wandering through Yosemite Valley. I highly recommend going early in the morning to avoid the crowds. We hiked a bit, enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and drove out as the line of cars coming into the park slowed to a crawl.
Redwood National and State Parks entrance sign
Nothing compares to looking up into ancient treetops in Redwood National Park

Nothing compares to looking up into ancient treetops.

Redwood State and US National Parks

To escape the summer heat we headed west, skirting the San Francisco Bay Area and up the Pacific coast to wander through the National Redwood Forest. Luckily the moist fogs that often wrap that part of the coast lifted for the day we drove through. There are many day hikes and campgrounds for longer-term term visitors but we were on a mission.  I wanted to stay in the area but we’d set up lodging at our next stop, near Crater Lake.
Crater Lake view and the water is more electric blue than a camera can capture.

Crater Lake view and the water is more electric blue than a camera can capture.

One glimpse of the Hoodoo formations on Pinnacles Trail near Crater Lake

One glimpse of the Hoodoo formations on Pinnacles Trail near Crater Lake

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake is one of the most startling of the US National Parks. Nothing can prepare you for the stunning blue of the water. The road up gives few hints and there are many trails around and into the crater. In the late summer, small boats navigate around the lake. We were too early in the season to catch that. After we’d wandered for hours, we wound down the far side of the ancient volcanic crater to walk Pinnacles Trail and see the strange hoodoos, towering ash cones, that have developed from ages of erosion.
Mount Rainier is one of the US National Parks in the Pacific Northwest

Mt. Rainier National Park

Our next choice of US National Parks was just a half-day drive away. While living in the NW during my college years, I’d admired it from a distance but never got close. The majesty of the mountain stunned me as we wound up the summit road.
Mount Rainierr Lodge is built of old growth redwoods.

Mount Rainier Lodge is built of old growth redwoods.

The mail bear inside the Mount Rainier Lodge.

The mail bear just charmed me.

The lodge is constructed of old-growth redwood and has been a destination for vacationers since it opened. There are hanging glaciers nearby and many trails from easy to advanced. The best part about staying at the lodge was a chance to hike as the sun set, watching wildlife, enjoying the flowers as most of the other visitors left the park. Mount Rainier is close to Seattle a wonderful city and with lots of flights available.
Deer on the flanks of Mount Rainier
Critters come out as the day fades inside the US National Parks

Critters come out as the day fades inside the US National Parks

Glacier National Park

Our next destination sent us east to Glacier National Park in Montana. The route leads from Seattle and through Spokane. Both are lovely destinations in themselves. Seattle is the better known, but Spokane has the River Park and waterfall. It’s a great stop on a long drive.
Glacier national park in its glory
The Red Car - Glacier National Park historical shuttle
The park has been plagued by recent fires but nature will rebound. I highly recommend driving or taking one of the many public transportation options up the Road to the Sun. No matter what the weather is you’ll enjoy the views.
Take time to immerse in the beauty of the US National Parks

Driving four Western US National Parks

  • Start planning early – reserve lodging in and near the US National Parks at least 6 months in advance to avoid disappointment and get the best prices.
  • The US National Park Service has free days and discounts for seniors.  Read my earlier post about the special days here. 

US National Parks Service websites:

Go West Four US National Parks road trip

Not just a boy’s club – Women Scuba Divers make a big splash

Whale shark women scuba dive

Whale shark women scuba dive

Let’s make this clear – You don’t have to be a jock or adrenaline junkie to start diving. If you love the ocean, there’s no greater thrill than scooting around the bottom, getting close to stunning wildlife, sliding through clouds of fish or tunnels. It’s no longer a boys club too and, single ladies, you don’t have to know a bunch of women scuba divers or have a bubble blowing boyfriend to start.

It’s a great community – even for land-locked regions. There are dive clubs with events planned year round in lakes and quarries. Many put together their own trips, pooling know-how and experience to find exotic places and the best times to go. Women scuba divers are a big part of the bunch.

Scuba diving is another way to help protect the oceans too. Jacques Cousteau said, “You protect what you love.” Here’s a sweet video about the mission to help the oceans with PADI instructor, Rocio Gajon.

I’m writing this as I prepare for Women’s Diving Day on July 15th. This is the third year that PADI has organized a day dedicated for women scuba divers. More than 700 locations internationally have participated past events designed to grow the dive community. New and expert divers have come together, in all kinds of activities from high tea on the high seas to shark dives and underwater cleanups. I’ll be stepping into the sea with the women scuba divers from Ocean Enterprises in San Diego. You don’t have to be a certified diver to participate but can tag along with your snorkel and fins, get to know the local divers and learn more about diving.

2016 Women’s Diving Day in La Jolla, California:

Want to join the scores of women scuba divers?

Getting certified as a diver is the first step. I’d recommend PADI dive courses and if you can manage it, take an accelerated course over 4 – 5 days in a tropical location. Perhaps you learned how to dive ages ago and need to refresh your skills? There are courses and events for that. Being confident as a scuba diver is freeing. The skill to let go and just enjoy the underwater world comes with regular practice.

I learned in Cozumel and found the dive masters deeply invested in making me comfortable and keeping me safe. The entire PADI course is set up for security and ease. The water in Mexico was deliciously warm and startlingly clear. I was in love from the first descent – while making every mistake I could. Still, it was much easier to do my open water dive from a boat on calm waters rather than walking in, back bent with tank weight, through cold waves as my son did. There are tips for new divers in an earlier post.

Elaine Titanic pose women scuba divers wreck dive

My son Josh, photo bombing my best Titanic pose.

It doesn’t have to be expensive.
  • Check out dive clubs for used equipment, even camera gear, and lights. Someone is always upgrading and happy to get something for their gear.
  • There are annual sales at dive shops and online. You don’t have to get designer gear to begin with or ever. Make sure the sport works for you before investing.
  • Rent gear. Dive shops will happily fit you with the right sizes. They’ll answer questions and find out what is best for your body shape and size. You shouldn’t worry about fins falling off or a suit that chafes.
  • Learn with a friend or as a family. Dive centers often offer discounts.
  • Dive trips don’t have to drain your bank account. Scour magazines for dive specials, ask at local shops, and join dive clubs. Watch for airfare sales too.
Spinner Dolphins at the surface, Kona Coast, Hawaii

Snorkeling with wild Spinner Dolphins, Kona Coast, Hawaii

I never anticipated becoming a scuba diver. I’m not particularly fond of high-tech sports and their expense. However, after snorkeling for decades, I wasn’t about to give up the opportunity to learn to scuba with my guy, a sea-urchin-diver-turned-underwater-photographer. Over the past eight years, I’ve managed a little over 300 dives. It started with me struggling to keep up, carrying his spare camera and sucking my air tanks dry long before he was ready to surface. That’s all in the past as I just invested in my own camera and lights – second hand – and often climb up the dive ladder with air to spare. I adore my dive buddy as well as joining women scuba divers. Legendary diver, Chuck Nicklin, is my model. He’s turning ninety this year and still leading dive trips around the world. I hope to match his record.

Here’s more inspiration about Women Scuba Divers and the groundbreakers who have helped us all become better divers.

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PADI Women Divers Day 2017


Travel Notes & Beyond



I wanted to be a biker – Milwaukee’s Harley Davidson Museum

The beauty of the beast inside the Harley Davidson Museum
 Harley Davidson sculptureIt didn’t take much encouragement. I swung my leg over the tank, leaned forward, my hands on the throttle, and mentally mumbled, Vroom, Vroom. That was just the beginning of my night at the museum – the Harley Davidson temple in Milwaukee.
(Disclosure: My visit was included as part of attending the WITS17 opening night party. More about that community of Women in Travel: .)
Harley Davidson Museum Milwaukee
Confessions of an aspiring biker
I grew up in Southern California’s Pomona Valley close to the base of the San Bernadino mountains. My first love was a biker wannabe, he was center stage in my Catholic school rebellion period after high school. I learned the wonders of motorcycle riding while riding out to the beach, loving the sense of freedom, being able to smell and hear everything and to hold on tight to my guy. He bought me a little motorcycle, a Honda 80, for my birthday and kept it at his house so my parents wouldn’t know until I moved up to college in San Francisco.
Elaine motorcycle Harley Davidson
I still remember riding over the Chino hillside, spooking jackrabbits and learning how to handle the bike. However, once I moved north, the relationship soured, as long distance couples often find out. I used the bike only a few times in the intimidating San Francisco traffic before admitting defeat and took to safer forms of transportation in the midst of buses, trucks and crazy pedestrians. Ignominiously the bike became a plant stand for a fuchsia in my living room. Then, like the relationship, I moved on and sold the bike to pay for furniture.
 old time motorcyelc sign at the Harley Davidson museum
Like a kid a candy shop, I trekked around the ‘campus’ as they call it on the river in Milwaukee. The sun was setting fast and I wanted to see things before dark closed in. There was a wooden shed on the edge of a field. It’s a replica of the original 10 x 15-foot shed that the Davidson brothers’ father built behind their home. He was a cabinet maker who probably grew from incredulity to amazement as the boys’ inventions led to a worldwide craze. The company headquarters still stand across the street from the original location in a large, wooden building.
Harley Davidson shed

Replica of the original Harley Davidson shed

The museum is really a reflection of the history of America. The Harley Davidson company stayed in the black by delivering bikes during the Great Depression and World Wars. They’ve been used by police and fire departments for decades.
The original Harly Davidson brothers

The original Harley Davidson brothers

There’s a culture to biking that I can only imagine but within the walls of the Harley Davidson museum, you can immerse yourself in it, biker or not. There’s a floor dedicated to pop culture. There are dramatically lit replicas of the Easy Rider bike and movie poster, the Elvis bike and the Rhinestone Harley, to name a few.
The Easy Rider motorcycle replica inside the Harley Davidson musuem

The Easy Rider motorcycle replica

The Harley-Davidson Museum is laid out over several floors and each is more interesting than the next. I wish I’d had more than a quick few minutes to walk through. Plan on spending several hours.
The Tank display inside the Harley Davidson Museum

The Tank display inside the Harley Davidson Museum

There’s even lots for kids to do. They’ll love sitting on the different motorcycles and playing the old school arcade game, the Evel Knievel Daredevil Challenge.
The Museum is a bit expensive ($20 per adult.) Look online for discounts and even if you can’t break for a ticket visit the store that’s overflowing with memorabilia and replicas of classic shirts, pants, and even pajamas.
Motor bar bike Harley Davidson

Motorcycle on the Motor Bar – open to the public without fee.

The Motor cafe is open to all and sits facing the river with a menu that boasts about “American Classics celebrating life on the road.” That’s a tall order but with Road House Chili, BBQ ribs and lots of Wisconsin favorites I won’t quibble.
The beauty of the beast inside the Harley Davidson Museum

The beauty of the beast

While you walk the grounds keep your ears alert for different languages. The Harley Davidson Museum is a mecca for international visitors indulging their inner biker too. It’s fuel for the fantasy. Vroom. Vroom.
Harley Davidson Museum Campus Map
If you go to the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee:
  • Address: 400 W Canal St, At the corner of 6th and Canal, Milwaukee, WI 53203-3208
  • +1 877-436-8738
  • The Harley Davidson Experience –

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How to find edible mushrooms – Forager, Adrienne Long

Wild edible mushrooms can be found in Southeast Alaska
A glimpse into the wilds of Ketchikan, Alaska where edible mushrooms hide

A glimpse into the wilds of Ketchikan, Alaska, where edible mushrooms hide


We met on a long weekend camping trip in SE Alaska. I had no idea that Adrienne was a fungi expert until the two of us took off on a trail into the woods and she began pointing out edible mushrooms and more suspicious varieties.
Adrienne Long works as a forager and guide based out of Mendicino County. Her biggest passion is getting out into the forest, into the wild, and being able to live off the land. Most of us don’t have a clue about where to find them, which are edible mushrooms or might be fatal.  I asked what got her interested in mushrooms?
A – I always really enjoyed nature and something called me to the fungi. I knew I wanted to learn more and it exploded from there. First I studied in botany classes, mushroom, and natural history. So, I know a lot about what we have growing wild in the Mendocino area, where I’ve lived about 16 years.
mushrooms on trees are sometimes edible mushrooms
E -You can learn a lot about mushrooms in a book but it’s also an experiential thing. Who did you work with to learn about mushrooming?
A – My husband taught me the basics, then I took a class at College of the Redwoods with Teresa Scholers. We had a Teacher’s Assistant, Dr. Ryan Snow, a well-known mushroom forager and internationally recognized. With Teresa, the class was half lecture and half in the woods. Every year that she taught I would T.A. so there was more opportunity to be out in the woods and learn about new mushrooms. Maybe one year you didn’t see it and the next year there’d be a bunch of them out, so with the quantity of mushrooms we have in that area, the more you go out the more you learn.
E – The conditions along the California North West coastal region are prime for edible mushrooms because of the weather?
A – Weather and the trees are important. A lot of mushrooms are reliant on a specific species of tree. That makes for prime mushroom habitat.
E – I used to think that mushrooms were a sign of death; that they broke down things as parasites but you’ve said that they often work with plants. Do you see that often?
A – Oh yeah. Mushrooms are the most important decomposers we have on this planet. If we didn’t have mushrooms we’d just have piles and piles of plant matter that would never decompose. But we also have mushrooms that work with the trees to survive. They help the trees to gather water. There are some that weaken trees and allow other pathogens to enter the system to weaken the tree. So, there are all kinds of fungi out there. When you’re out it’s important to know what kind you’re looking for; if you want a decomposer or a Mycorrhizal mushroom that’s connected to a tree.
Our SE Alaska crew, Adrienne is seated with her daugher on her lap.

Our SE Alaska crew, Adrienne is seated with her daugher on her lap.

E – I wasn’t a very good hippie but remember that some people loved to find certain kinds of mushrooms which were hallucinogens. Do you have those in your area?
A – Not so much. They’re some of the hardest to come by. They’re little and brown. The forest is full of hundreds of species of little brown mushrooms. You could pick one that is extremely toxic or one that is Psilocybin, those are the ones that are hallucinogenic but where we are it’s not very common to find them.
E – One of the most surprising things I learned from being in the forest with you is that the biggest part of a mushroom is not what you’re going to see.
A – They found in Oregon the largest mycelium, the roots of the mushroom underground. The largest one is four miles wide and it grows in a circle. So if you see a fairy ring, a circle of mushrooms, that circle is the mycelium and the mushrooms are on the outside. That ring if it’s large it means that it’s really healthy and the only reason the mushrooms are there are to spread spores and reproduce. The whole fungal body is either in the ground or in a tree decomposing and eating the tree matter.
E – It sounds like something out of a science fiction story but it’s happening all over the world. Is there anywhere you’d like to go to forage for edible mushrooms?
A – Anywhere and everywhere I possibly can. We’ve been to Mexico and I saw Chanterelles but they don’t really forage for edible mushrooms there. I’m willing to go anywhere in the world to hunt and see what species of mushrooms different places have.
Our chariot, the Resurrection, in a SE Alaska fjiord

Our chariot, the Resurrection, in a SE Alaska fjiord

E – One of the most popular edible mushroom varieties are truffles. Do you ever find them in your region?
A – Not along the coast, we don’t have the right tree situation for truffles. I think it’s more the Washington and Oregon areas that have those. But even going to Washington is a great thing to do because they have such a great foggy climate. There’s a lot of wild crafted mushrooms that come out of Washington and Oregon.
E – We’re sitting in Ketchikan, Alaska, and spent some time in the forest. Did you find some surprising things?
A – I found a slime mold but it’s not really fungal. That’s another whole organism.
It’s a single cell ameba that goes wandering around the forest and then when it finds something to eat it will send out a hormone. Then all the other little ameba join up and make this mass. It’s pretty amazing and comes in all different colors. The one I saw was a nice shiny black.
E – They come together and then come apart at different times too. Does it react if you touch it?
Here’s a cool, short video about the kind of slime mold Adrienne found in the forest:
A – This one kind of molded together when I touched it but you can watch them move if you want to sit there for a long time. Once it’s finished eating and full, then everyone re-disperses into the forest until they’re ready to procreate. Then they’ll have a big ameba orgy later.
E – There were yellow mushrooms coming out of a tree on our SE Alaska trail and you pointed out that some are better to eat at certain times.
A – Yes, that was called “Chicken of the Woods” and they’re better to eat as little buttons. Some species can be toxic though and you need to watch out. They’re also called “Chicken of the Woods!” if they’re growing on something that’s toxic they could be absorbing those toxins and possibly be toxic to you.
E – That brings us back to an important aspect of mushroom hunting, “Go with someone who knows what they’re doing, who has the experience” like yourself. You work out of Mendocino and Fort Bragg with different organizations. What is the best time of year to go foraging with you?
A – Usually first rain into February, so usually October to February is great. If you want really high mushroom count, December is the best depending on what species of mushroom you’re looking for. Google ‘Mushroom foraging in Mendocino County’ to find me or look for the Stanford Inn in Mendocino. I do nature tours and guided walks out of the inn.
Wild edible mushrooms can be found in Southeast Alaska
E – You have children, are you teaching them to forage as well?
A – Of course, I have a four year and a ten-year-old and that’s one of their favorite things to do in the winter time. My son loves to go out with his friends and bring home mushrooms. He’ll go, “Oh, see this gelatinous mushroom?” and he’ll eat it. Audrey just loves to carry her basket around and go hiking with me. I feel it’s definitely something they need to learn.
E – Do you have a favorite edible mushroom that you like to cook with? A lot of people are familiar with Chanterelles, but you want to find a particular kind, right?
A – Yes, but there are false Chanterelles but those can be toxic and give you gastro-intestinal disorders, so you want to be careful. You want to know your edibles but more importantly, you want to know the toxics and toxic look-alikes so you don’t mistake those. One of the most important things when cooking mushrooms is to do a double sautee. So you cook them in a dry pan with no seasoning and no oil until the water comes out and evaporates. Then you add butter, oil, garlic, or whatever for flavor and they’ll absorb all that flavor. It makes them much tastier that way.
E – So, when you’re cooking, all that moisture out is it also for safety reasons or just for the flavor?
A – Just for the flavor. You want to cook out the moisture first before adding other ingredients, say for a sauce. I’ve ruined a few just by adding raw mushrooms. It cooks all that water into your sauce and can be very overwhelming. With all mushrooms, it’s better to pick a small mushroom than a larger mushroom. All mushrooms have the same number of cells, whether they’re small or large. They don’t grow by cell division. They grow by cell elongation, so when they’re really big it’s because their cells are elongated and water logged.
E – So bigger is not better.
A – Right, bigger is not necessarily better!
This has been so much fun. What a world you live in! I look forward to seeing where you take all this.
Interested in finding edible mushrooms?
Find Adrienne at or at the Stanford Inn in Mendocino, California.

Sled down a dark mountain! An Outdoor Interlaken adventure

mountain view interlaken
Night sledding from the mountaintop with Outdoor Interlaken

Photo: Outdoor Interlaken

There was no going back. Our small group piled into the last gondola of the night and glided up to the top of the mountain. Within minutes I was fanny down, legs splayed on a small, blue, plastic sled. I was also praying that I got through this without tumbling into the dark abyss on the far side of the road. The only way to steer or slow the descent was to dig my boots into the icy road. The only light was a tiny red glow on the back of the sled in front of me. That light soon disappeared as I kept breaking to catch my breath and slow the ride by grinding my lug soles into the ice and snow. This wasn’t my vision of night sledding. I’d imagined a well-lit ski slope like those in California’s mountains and a toboggan piled with quilted sledders to hold onto. Here I was, a boomer, flying solo through the winter night on a high, deserted road above Interlaken.
night sledding interlaken blue sled
The fear gave way to gumption. There was no way out but through. I swore that I wasn’t going to be the only person stranded on the mountain. Around a bend, I spotted the red lights moving in the dark. Voices then the group materialized, stopped to wait and strategize with our guide, Petr. I was with three young women from Korea and Japan. None spoke much English but we grinned till it hurt, our cheeks red with cold and climbed back on our blue flyers to follow Petr. The winter had been warm and there were icy patches ahead, he warned us, so be ready to stop and walk for a bit.
A fondue dinner after night sledding with Outdoor Interlaken

A fondue dinner after night sledding. Photo: Outdoor Interlaken

It got easier. Natural night vision kicks in surprisingly quickly. It really wasn’t that hard, as Petr suggested, to steer the sled clear of the big white shapes and stay on the road. Soon I was no longer last in line. Perhaps Petr slowed a bit too, but within 40 minutes we spied the pine tree strung with lights near our starting point. We stopped and dragged our sleds into the shed at the back of a restaurant. Our reward? A modest dinner of delicious fondue with chunks of bread, a bowl of cheesy pasta, salad, and a pitcher of beer to share. The best part was a sense of accomplishment. The worst – wishing I hadn’t come to Interlaken solo and could share the experience with my friends. I don’t know if they’ll believe that I’ve actually done this. No matter. I’ll convince them to grab a sled when we return to experience the wonders and challenges of winter in Switzerland and especially, all that Interlaken has to offer.
night sledding view of tree tops with Outdoor Interlaken

Photo: Outdoor Interlaken

Where did night sledding come from?
The story is that night sledding is a tradition. Swiss adventurers would hike up to Alpen Huts, eat and drink (perhaps a bit too much) before heading out and down the mountains after dark. Makes sense to me. I once went night skiing after a surprise Thanksgiving snowfall in Seattle. We slid around the snowy Arboretum slopes well fueled with turkey and copious amounts of wine. It’s no stretch to imagine the same in Switzerland and it’s the purest way to experience the glow of the mountain villages under a massive night sky full of stars.
About that Outdoor Interlaken sled experience
Since 2001, Outdoor Interlaken has been offering all manner of outdoor experiences for the adventurous traveler. John Fauver, an American, Benny Steuri, a Swiss local, and Riaan Mointjes, from Zimbabwe, all ex-guides, opened the company together. In 2009 they purchased and renovated the current storefront that was once a workshop space.
They’re open 7 days a week with activities year round and all within an hour of Interlaken. They offer packages and not only winter sports, there’s water, zip lining, parasailing and other land-based activities.
The Outdoor Interlaken site has great information on what to expect and bring for each of their trips. I was picked up at my hotel and we stopped at the shop to be fitted with gear (for rent.) There’s no need to pack bulky ski pants, boots and gloves when you plan to take a sled to the top of a mountain. Children under 12 need to be with an adult and I’d suggest that those with knee or lower back issues wait at the restaurant to celebrate with the sledding crew.
mountain view interlaken
Interlaken is full of surprises for outdoor adventurists. I’ll never forget walking through the central square as a parasailer descended expertly onto the snow-patched green less than fifty feet from me. That’s an adventure I’ll enjoy from a distance!
Riding to the top of Europe is another fun adventure when you visit Interlaken. Here’s my earlier story.
More about winter sports with Outdoor Interlaken
My night sled adventure was made possible by Discover Interlaken, Outdoor Interlaken, and Swiss Travel System. All opinions are my own. Alltures are from Outdoor Interlaken. 
Proud member these travel linkups.

Pebble Beach Golf Resort – Indulge in sustainable luxury

Pebble Beach Golf Resort greeen.
Between the petite village beauty of Carmel-By-The-Sea and the boardwalk diversions of Monterey lies one of the most iconic drives in the world – California’s 17 Mile Highway. The world class golf resort of Pebble Beach is tucked into that drive. The course is usually reserved there is usually reserved for the members, the wealthy and deep-pocketed international tourists. During tournaments, those willing to watch and party with the world’s best golfers can visit for a pittance of the price to play (about $500, if you can get a reservation.) Otherwise, there’s a guard house entry but that needn’t keep you from visiting whether you play golf or not.
Marker in the green commemorating the founding of the golf resort.

Golf course medallion commemorating the founding of the golf resort.

Historic sustainability
Nearly a hundred years old, the Pebble Beach Company has flourished through keen sensitivity and observation. Abundant water is a requirement for any golf course. In the 1970’s, a drought clenched water use throughout the state. Long before saving water became trendy the PBC thought about conservation. The efforts paid off and Pebble Beach gracefully sailed through the recent drought after investing millions in a water reclamation plant. Today it supplies all the water necessary to maintain their idyllic panoramas. Golf courses around the world have taken notice.
The 2017 IAGTO Sustainability Award
The PBC was recognized by the IAGTO for Resource Management, specifically for their water and renewable energy projects. The global golf tourism organization celebrates the outstanding sustainability achievements of golf facilities, resorts, and destinations around the world.
Tournament trophies in the Pebble Beach Golf Resort Lodge.

Tournament trophies in the Pebble Beach Golf Resort Lodge.

I spoke about the award with David L. Stivers, Executive Vice President, and Chief Administrations Officer. Solar panels built above the maintenance building were part of the accolades. A sophisticated sprinkler system helps avoid flooding in low-lying areas and makes sure sun-drenched spots never turn brown. Going green isn’t onerous, Stivers emphasized, “It’s also good business.”

journeys of discovery podcast

Listen here to the NPR Podcast interview about Pebble Beach Resort’s sustainability and conservation efforts

The Executive Vice President and Chief Administrations Officer, David L. Stivers talks with Elaine Masters about the award and the long-term sustainability efforts at the Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

David Stivers in the Lodge lobby of the Pebble Beach golf resort.

David Stivers in the Lodge lobby

At the upcoming AT&T Pro-AM Tournament, thousands of pounds of recyclable materials will stay out of landfills. Pebble Beach Golf Resort is working with partners to make recycling a comfortable part of the event. It’s no simple task with tens of thousands of visitors arriving for the event.

Sea Lions relax near the Pebble Beach Golf Resort greens.

Sea Lions relax near the Pebble Beach Golf Resort greens.

I’m not a golfer but appreciate golf resort landscapes. Scooting around the greens in a cart on a lightly overcast morning, I peered into a cove where sea lions lolled. Deer were munching near multi-million dollar estates bordering the southern greens. They’re such regular visitors that the staff rarely notices them!
The mobile amenities cart is available for players at the Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

A mobile snack and drink cart visits players at the Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

I asked about where to stop for lunch along the 17 Mile Drive to Monterey. It turns out there aren’t any lunch options along the coast drive, so we opted for a window table overlooking the 18th hole in the Bench Bistro.
The bench and plaque commemorating American ownership of the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

The bench and plaque commemorating American ownership of the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

Dirty Harry played here
In 1999 ownership of the resort came back into American hands. Significant among the names on the plaque outside the Bench restaurant (next to the actual bench) is Clint Eastwood, the actor-director who once was the Mayor of Carmel, a long-time resident of the area and a Resort investor.
Extraordinary! Wood-baked strawberries with balsamic reduction sauce at the Bench inside the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

Extraordinary! Wood-roasted strawberries with balsamic reduction sauce at the Bench inside the Pebble Beach Golf Resort

The sun shot rays through dark clouds as we ate and I saved room for dessert – a wood-roasted, strawberry cobbler. It was served directly from the oven in a small ramekin with a warm, balsamic reduction. A scoop of ice cream melted into the crust. I will never forget how the textures complemented each other, the sweet balanced with the sour, the crunch and the cream. It wasn’t a sophisticated presentation. It was simply perfect.
What a day! To quote a song, “I’ll never be royal,” but for a brief time, I felt like an American aristocrat.
Pebble Beach Golf Resort Lodge

The lodge with the Bench Restaurant lower center.

Can anyone visit Pebble Beach Golf Resort?
Yes, even without a reservation to stay (although the packages may tempt you.) There is a fee to enter but not to park. The website is welcoming, noting that, “While dining at our restaurants, please present your gate receipt to your server. With a purchase of $35, your gate fee will be reimbursed.”
Many thanks to the Pebble Beach Company for hosting our visit and congratulations again on the IAGTO award.
Spread the news! Pin this and thanks.
Pebble Beach Golf Resort Pin

Longwood Gardens – Winter lights and bright nights

Longwood Gardens Conservatory entrance
Longwood Gardens Conservatory entrance
The weather was unseasonably warm for Christmastime in Philadelphia. I unzipped the padded liner on my coat and joined the family for an outing to Longwood Gardens. We’d procrastinated and bought our tickets the day before – grabbing a few of the last.  The crush of crowds is kept to a minimum with numbers limited on the property at a time.
Longwood light reflections
What makes Longwood Gardens such a hot ticket for the holidays?
The lights!
Spread out over 1,077 acres, Pierre du Pont (Yes, of the famous Dupont family) built one of the greatest gardens in the world in the 1920’s. In winter it’s especially tantalizing with thousands of light displays spread across limbs and roots, across bridges and around fountains. But I think that the vast labyrinth of Conservatory buildings are the real treasure.
Tree decorated inside the Longwood Gardens conservatory
Boiler room of Longwood Lights worked to warm the Conservatories into the 1960's!

Boiler room of Longwood Gardens worked to warm the Conservatories into the 1960’s

A plaque on one Conservatory entrance reads:
“Longwood Gardens is the living legacy of Pierre S. du Pont, inspiring people through excellence in garden design, horticulture, education and the arts.”
I was unprepared for the impact that walking through the dark and acres of trails would have on me. The night was chilly for a Southern Californian but mercifully still. As we strolled, children and families chattered, giggled and strode by. Some brought flashlights but I was glad we didn’t; preferring to let my eyes adjust to the dark and splashes of illuminated color.
Longwood lights wrapped tree
Poinsettia display inside the Longwood Gardens conservatory.

Poinsettia display inside one of the Longwood Gardens conservatories.

At one point, four G-scale trains wound over a 17 foot steel bridge, past a 5-foot wide waterfall, and past miniature Longwood landmarks. The landmarks are built from natural materials – roof tiles are laid of magnolia leaves and there are handrails of honeysuckle vines.
Longwood lights miniature train building

Longwood lights miniature train building

Du Pont in Banana room

Du Pont in his Banana House

A Banana House for Philadelphia
Mr. du Pont had a passion for growing fruit indoors – including tropical crops. Just after the Conservatory was opened in 1921, the Banana House was one of many areas where he grew fruit for his employees, friends and family. In 1983 the space was reduced to expand the Orchid House. How times and priorities have changed. A plaque near the entrance is inscribed:
To Pierre Samuel DuPont and presented by the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for his ‘generous and unselfish service.”
Inside one Longwood Lights conservatory

Inside one Longwood Lights conservatory

The main house was closed that evening but we spent a few minutes listening to an organist as he brought the historical pipes to life. The space inside the Conservatory was warm and rows of chairs inviting. As the music lifted up to the lofty glass ceiling above us, our spirits rose in kind. It was a bittersweet moment – remembering the lyrics and mumbling along, remembering loved ones gone and missing, remembering childhood and how special this time of year was and remains. Misty eyed, hearts full of the spirit of the season, we left soon after to drive back to central Philadelphia.

Longwood Lights organist

If you go to Longwood Lights:
  • Miss the crowds at the ticket booth and purchase tickets online. (They do sell out!) Longwood Gardens Website.
  • Be prepared to walk and dress in layers.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and bring a little cash for hot chocolate or cider in the Gardens.
  • Read a pleasant exploration of Pierre du Pont and the Longwood estate history on The Short History Blog

Charlie’s always home in Chaplin’s World, Switzerland

Visit Switzerland and Chaplin's World Museum
Inside Chaplins World with Oona and Charlie

Inside Chaplins World with Oona and Charlie – © 2016 Marc Ducrest for Bubbles Incorporated

Visiting Switzerland solo was a leap for this tropics lover. I arrived in the midst of winter with my pack full of warm clothes and an over-flowing itinerary. Of all the places I looked forward to seeing, Chaplin’s World was high on the list.

Celebrities have always flocked to Switzerland. Charlie Chaplin ended up there almost by accident. While in Europe promoting his silent classic, Limelight, London-born Chaplin received a forboding telegram. America was in the midst of the McCarthy era. He would be banned from returning to the United States unless he testified before the House on Un-American Activities. He refused, saying, “I’m not going back.”

Visit Switzerland and Chaplins world to step inside Charlie's studio

Inside the Chaplin’s World studios, Switzerland, © 2016 Marc Ducrest for Bubbles Incorporated 

Eugene Chaplin remembers that his father was considering property in Southern France with it’s temperate climate. However he fell in love with the beauty of the Geneva region. After purchasing a 13-acre property facing the Alps, Manoir de Ban became the family home for the rest of Chaplin’s life.

“We love Switzerland more and more each day.” Charlie Chaplin wrote in a letter to Clifford Odetts, 1954.

More than sixteen years ago Michael Chaplin, the oldest son, told Yves Durand and Philippe Meyland, that the home was going to be sold. The architect and designer soon convinced the family to turn it into a museum. Today personal archives full of mementos, costumes and props are preserved in displays. The family dining table is set for dinner. Chaplin’s movie studio is intact and has been enlarged. Most innovative are the mannequins fashioned laboriously in Madame Tussaud style and placed strategically throughout. Charlie Chaplin is reincarnated. Wax actors stand in front of scenes from his silent films. Visitors can stand next to Oona Chaplin and Charlie in their private screening room. Everything is designed to be touched, to be photographed.

Video from the opening of Chaplin’s World.

Unfortunately, the museum opened after I left Switzerland, but on a chilly December night in Hollywood, I met Eugene Chaplin in the Raleigh studios where his father, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks worked under contract.

Eugene Chaplin speaking in the Chaplin Theater inside Raleigh Studios

Eugene Chaplin speaking in the Chaplin Theater inside Raleigh Studios

Eugene spoke about his father’s perfectionism. The piano where Chaplin composed music for his silent films, still sits in the living room. A folding movie screen was set up and scenes were projected repeatedly until Chaplin felt the music was a perfect match. It was a ground-breaking transcription process for film music.

Me and Eugene Chaplin at Raleigh Studios

Me and Eugene Chaplin at Raleigh Studios

Of all Eugene’s stories this one makes me want to explore Chaplin’s World more than ever: A visitor told Eugene that her young son was a big Chaplin fan. Eugene asked which movie was his favorite. It’s not the movies, she replied, “He’s a fan because of the museum.”

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith on the day they signed contracts with United Artists

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith 1919, on the day they signed contracts with United Artists

“The Tramp never had a home,” Michael Chaplin has said. Today he has.

If you visit Switzerland and Chaplin’s World:

This holiday visit one fun park – Knotts Merry Farm

Charlie Brown Chritstmas

Charlie Brown Christmas

Strains of the music from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ swirled around me as I stepped into Knotts Merry Farm all decked out for the holidays. Memories flooded in. I’ve always loved theme parks. Riding rollercoasters, seeing shows and running around with family and friends was easy growing up in Southern California. Knotts Berry Farm was fun no matter what age and visiting the fun park kicked my holiday spirit into overdrive.

Photo Opp with Snoopy at the holiday fun park Knotts Berry Farm

Photo Opp with Snoopy

Snoopy and I go way back. As a young graphic designer I worked for Determined Productions adapting the beloved Charles Shulz characters for toys and accessories. Snoopy and Woodstock were the most popular and I met them once again in the fun park.

Snoopy on ice in Knotts Holiday Show

Snoopy dances in the holiday show!!

Knotts started in the 1930’s when Mrs. Knott started serving home-fried chicken and berry pies for pennies to locals. The home kitchen expanded, the hybrid Boysenberry was discovered and grown on the farm and Mr. Knott built a small ‘ghost town’ to entertain visitors while preserving local history. It’s all still there, if you look.

Mrs. Knott cooking in Knotts Restaurant

Mrs. Knott cooking.

Boysenberries are still grown on a memorial plot inside the park but today kids run around Camp Snoopy, teenagers get their thrills on towering rollercoasters, adults do too when they’re not taking in the Ghost Town sights and shops. Trains, stage coach rides and saloon shows run all day.

Santas Christmas Barn in Knotts Merry Farm

During the holiday season a tall Pine tree stands decorated in the main square and each evening at dusk a small crowd draws near. Carolers, dressed in Victorian garb, cover the stage. A ‘sheriff’ steps up to the microphone to address the good people and signals the lighting of the tree. It’s a lovely ritual in the middle of the fun park.

Here’s a short video of the fun park:

Snoopy dances and serenades families in a holiday show running November 19th to January 8th. There’s hot cider and chocolate in Santa’s Barn (and a fortified version for the grownups!) but most families gather for snow. Each evening right on schedule it falls from overhead. Even in warm Southern California the wintry spirit of the holidays perseveres.

The show inside the Mystery Lodge is a thrilling nod to Native Americans who once lived nearby

The show inside the Mystery Lodge is a thrilling nod to Native Americans who once lived nearby.

Ride the train through the Calico Mine

Ride the train through the Calico Mine

One thing I discovered is how affordable Knotts Merry Farm is compared to other parks. It makes sense that families and friends of all ages filled the fun park. Entrance is less than half of the other giant theme park near by and the experience is less crowded and more intimate.

Discount tickets can be found online and inside the California Welcome Center (see links below.) Housed in a historic building on the original stage coach line, it’s worth a visit on it’s own. There are tours, maps, brochures and ticket specials for all the Buena Park activities.

Photo opp outside the historical California Visitors Center Buena Park

Photo opp outside the historical California Visitors Center Buena Park

Whatever the reason or season, I look forward to visiting Snoopy again and eating more of Mrs. Knott’s famous berry pie in the fun park, Knotts Berry Farm.

Links for visiting the fun park, Knotts Berry Farm

Knotts Website:

Tickets at the Buena Park Visitors Center:

California Welcome Center:

Where to eat and drink well in El Paso, Texas

Breakfast at the Downtowner in El Paso
Whatever you prefer, you'll eat and drink well in El Paso

Whatever you prefer, you’ll eat and drink well in El Paso

El Paso, it was love at first bite. After arriving late and missing dinner, having breakfast was our first Texas task. We found deep mugs of coffee and a meal worthy of any hungry traveler at the Downtowner Restaurant. While I opted for a Rancheros Omelette, my sister ordered the Salmon toast. My tummy was jealous!
Food is a big part of any adventure. As I was soon to discover not all is Tex-Mex in El Paso. Here’s some of the best places to bite and sip when you’re in the area.

Breakfast at the Downtowner inside the Hotel Indigo in El Paso

Breakfast at the Downtowner inside the Hotel Indigo

Downtowner restaurant el paso

A relaxing and spacious dining room with just the right touch of elegance, the Downtowner became our go-to spot for meetings and snacks. The nooks and booths were tempting to linger in but we had much to explore in El Paso.

Camino Real Dome Bar

Drinks with a view inside the Dome Bar El Paso

Drinks with a view inside the Dome Bar


So lucky! We almost missed seeing the Dome Bar inside the historic Camino Real Hotel. Here’s a short video about the experience.

Local Brews

Dead Beach

Yes, El Paso has it’s own craft brewery scene! I fell for the smooth, nutty Abuelita Stout that Dead Beach Brewery creates. Infused with Pecaho Coffee, it was spicy and sweet – just like hug from Grandma. The brewery is just a year old and unfortunately for me only open on weekends, but several bars carry their variations.

Master brewer, Albert, at work inside the ODE Brewery, El Paso

Master brewer, Albert, at work inside the ODE Brewery


Ode Brewery

Ode Brewery is out in the University District. Bags of spent hops sat near the brewery door as we stepped towards the restaurant. The place is comfy, simple and authentic. There’s no doubt that the owners are fanatical about their passion. Loved the ‘Spoliated Barley Water’ Menu featuring seasonal beers and recent releases. La Gringa, their American Blonde Ale, is worth importing (Hear that, San Diego?) Look for the label across the country soon as the distribution ramps up.

Alligators in San Jacinto Plaza, downtown El Paso

Alligators in San Jacinto Plaza, downtown El Paso

Tap Room

No visit to El Paso is complete without seeing the Alligators in San Jacinto Plaza, the historic heart of downtown. The statue rises from a central pool and shifting lights flicker across the behemoths. In the 1950’s seven live Alligators lived in the pond. Shennaigans eventually led to them being moved to the zoo. Rumors continue about the Alligators showing up inside the Tap Room bar across from the plaza and other spots around town. Today the neighborhood hang out hosts live Jazz and a full bar. No Alligators in sight.
Craft and Social

A friendly spot around the corner from Hotel Indigo, Craft and Social hosts local and state wide brews, a tasting menu and live jazz. The happy hour specials are not to be beat.

Vin Valle Vineyards in El Paso, Texas

Vin Valle Vineyards

Vin Valle

El Paso has it’s own wine region and we sped out of town to check out Vin Valle Winery. The shop is hosted by the owners and the barrel room is worth seeing with the lengthy, hand painted table in the center. It matches the cheery and cheeky label designs too.

coffee box el Paso

Coffee Box

Finding local coffee hangouts is tantamount on my tourist list. Downtown, the Coffee Box rises from the edge of a parking lot. Made out of cantilevered box cars, a nod to the history of the railway in El Paso, the Box is open early to late. There’s WiFi and compact lounge areas indoors and out.

Monticello and Hillside Coffee


Monticello – Hillside Coffee

The University District has a new development brewing with housing, shops and restaurants. I found the Hillside coffee house a nice spot to cool off and check email for a few minutes. The shops carry local goods.

Crave El Paso East Location

Crave El Paso, East Location

Best Breakfast in El Paso – Crave

With several locations in the city, we decided to visit the east El Paso location of Crave Kitchen and Bar. Chiliquilles to die for, a playful interior, patio and deeply upolstered bench seating and bottomless coffee – I only wish we were there long enough to dig into a meal at each location. The locations are open for breakfast through to dinner.

Dinner in El Paso

Anson El Paso downtown

Anson soup in El Paso

Anson 11

In the central downtown district, this elegant Bistro focuses on the finer things from table to decor. Cooling sprays keep the sidewalk diners comfortable. Wanting a light dinner I focused on the soups and breads. My sister had a salad and we were thorougly satiated. A mighty painting of the restaurant’s namesake, Anson Mills looms over the space. His local roots run deep as a United States Army officer, surveyor, inventor, and entrepreneur who even named and laid out the city of El Paso. There’s nothing stuffy about Anson 11 with it’s trippy artwork juxtaposed with a librarian’s sensibility!

tabla entance

tabla serves native beef in el paso


Infused liquors, tapas and regional flavors kicked into high gear – that’s Tabla. Tucked into the warehouse district close to the stadium, generous servings and one of the best meals I had in the area.

Riviera Bar and Cantina

No visit to El Paso would be complete without enjoying Tex-Mex. We had platefuls at the east side restaurant, the Riviera. Satisfying, casual and full of locals.

cattlemans steakhouse

Cattleman’s Steakhouse

Even though I’m not a big red meat eater, I couldn’t leave Texas without indulging in a bit of steak. I only wish we had more daylight hours at Cattleman’s Steakhouse. The ranch has had lots of media attention; you’ve seen it in TV shows and movies. There’s a petting zoo and odd animal collections to walk around. The sunset views are some of the best – especially enjoyed over dinner. I had an appetizer of tender ‘beef cubes’ and it was perfect. No salads though on the menu! How Paleo can you go?!

Riviera Bar and Restaurant

Where to dine and drink in El Paso

Downtowner: Comfort food in a chic decor inside Hotel Indigo

Crave: Three locations open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Anson 11: Bistro and fine dining with regional, American cuisine

Tabla: Tapas, infused liquors from an award-winning team

Riviera Bar and Cantina: Tex Mex and local hangout

Cattleman’s Steakhouse: East of town but well worth the drive. Famous for steaks, movie sets and animals.

Coffee Box: Casual spot with WiFi, patios and lounge seating

Monticello: Shops, restaurants and the Hillside Coffee Cafe

El Paso Beer and Wine

Dome Bar inside the Camino Real Hotel: Historic decor and fine drinks.

Dead Beach Brewery: Promising new brewery in downtown El Paso.

Ode Brewery:  Ambitious brewery with first location in the University District

Vin Valle:  Family run tasting room in the panhandle vineyard region.

Tap Room: Neighborhood Bar with jazz nights across from San Jacinto Plaza Alligators.

This trip was made possible by the El Paso Visitor’s Office. I thank them for pointing me in the right directions and helping me discover El Paso. All opinions are always my own. 

weekend wanderlust April 2016

Revealing West Texas – Your Road Trip Planner, Part 1

Make sure that Balmorea is in your road trip planner
Mural in the Gage Hotel, Marathon Texas

Detail of one mural in the Gage Hotel, Marathon Texas

 Brake for Turkey Vultures, Javelinas and Auodads
Americana, escape and wide open places – West Texas is good for what ails the urban spirit. I didn’t know how far gone I was until silence swamped me at a roadstop. A literal road stop. Just before entering Big Bend National Park, I couldn’t help but stop the car in the middle of the road and run out. On a rock cropping, as if posed for a John Huston western, at least a dozen black Turkey Vultures swooped and sat. There were no cars for miles until a Park Ranger pulled his rig close and cautioned us to pull over. The last thing he needed was a pair of tourist road kills.
Texas critters for your road trip planner
Several times we did pull over for Javelinas. First we sped past an almond shaped creature who stood about four feet wide in the road. By the time we’d turned around he’d disappeared. They were good at staying out of camera range but I offer this picture, taken near Lajitas by the resort guide. The family of Javelinas, which are related to Pecaries, were in a canyon just beyond her home.
Spying Javelinas can be part of your Texas road trip

Javelina family spied near Lajitas

Auodads, large brown sheep, were imported into Texas after WW2 when soldiers returned from Africa. They’d learned what a delicious game animal they were. They also quickly learned that Auodads were not easy to keep. The animals escaped the original ranches and have flourished in the wild across West Texas.
One night in Lajitas, I looked out to the silhouette of a craggy mountain across the Rio Grande. The rocks moved! It was too far to capture on camera but there was a large four footed animal on the crest. I like to think it was an Auodad and so my only sighting.
  • Trip Planner Tip 1:

    Research your options. The best we had for our road trip was a loose schedule. Lodging was set but how to get there and what to see was left up to us. It’s too easy to say that West Texas has something for everyone. I look for the off-beat, the historical quirks, the local hangouts that are usually just off the tourist radar.  I’ve learned to surrender to the fact that you can’t see everything but look for the things that bring you joy and you’ll return home the happier.

The original El Caminio Real lobby

The original El Caminio Real lobby

Dig into El Paso
El Paso brims with energy, history and revitalization. The city is easier to visit than ever with new flights at the El Paso International Airport. At this writing, five major airlines fly in and out. Of all the treasures we discovered, discovering El Paso was our road trip gold nugget. The city is full of urban delights – a restaurant and craft beer scene, theater, classic architecture and contemporary upgrades, sports, concerts, plus outdoor adventures nearby and the percolating exchanges of a long history with Mexico, just across a bridge from downtown. Read more about it in this post.
Enjoying the Balmorea Pool

Enjoying the Balmorea Pool

Splash down in Balmorea
It’s not just the Tex Mex peppers, West Texas gets hot. The summers can be brutal and scorching. It was still warm when we visited in late September, after the monsoons passed, but comfortable. The idea of leaving downtown El Paso and diving into a natural spring pool less than 3 hours away, thrust us into the greening countryside early on our third morning in Texas.
The BIG Pool:
Part of the sweeping 1930’s New Deal plan brought workers to West Texas where the Civilian Conservation Corps built Balmohea State Park. Nearly eighty years later families, tourists and courting couples cool off in the waters of the ‘World’s Largest Spring Fed Swimming Pool.’ The depth goes from about three feet to nearly thirty and the water shelters small fish plus a feathery green growth coating the bottom. The fish were cute, the green slime bothered me, but the pool was clear and cooling. The reservoir is so unnusual that it’s a Texas Aquatic Science Certified Field Site and school field trips make good use of that in their curriculum. The idea that nearby fracking might impact the water tweaks my heart but it’s still in discussion across the region.
  •  Trip Planner tip 2:

    Don’t miss the drive from Balmorea to Fort Davis along Route 17. You could blast through in a half hour but leave time to meander and gawk. The canyon road is lined with rugged cliffs and on the afternoon we drove, sweetly devoid of big trucks that dog the main highways. It’s a short 32.4 mile drive but consider pulling over to hike or picnic.

The Drug Store Counter in Fort Davis

The Drug Store Counter in Fort Davis

Fort Davis
This small town is a find. The narrow main street hosts a few gift shops and small hotels. We stayed upstairs in the Drug Store in a large two, queen bed room with our own bath. Downstairs the old time drug store counter menu offers ice cream and milk shakes. A chorus line of round topped, red leather stools fronts the counter and wooden booths fill the dining room. The cash register sits atop a glass case full of fudge.
Fort Davis Drug Store Hotel

Fort Davis Drug Store Hotel

On our morning there I enjoyed a mug of complementary coffee downstairs before heading out for some exercise and to investigate the red rock bluff on the edge of the neighborhood. Turkey vultures caught the morning currents, their shadows crossed mine as I walked past small houses, churches and watched a backyard goat take to a tree. My sister and I had a fine dinner at the Blue Moon Restaurant across the street.
  • Trip Planner Tip 3:

    There’s an Ice Cream stop on the outskirts of town. The Red Caboose is a local favorite and came highly recommended, plus it’s pet friendly.

  • Trip Planner Tip 4

    History buffs can explore the old fort where Confederate General, Jefferson Davis, held his ground. The managers of Wall Drug Hotel are distant relatives!

Eve's Garden BnB

Eve’s Garden BnB Marathon Texas


One of our draws to Texas was seeing Marfa, but we kept it for the end of our trip. Our night in Marathon was like an appetizer of things to come in the ‘art town.’ We swept into town late on a cloudy afternoon and barely checked in before taking off for dinner at the Gage Hotel.
Eve’s Garden is a visionaries delight with bright walls, colorful collections of art and less than 10 rooms, each unique and hand textured from recycled Papercrete blocks.
Seeing is believing, check out my video:
Gage Hotel Dining Room

Gage Hotel Dining Room

  • Travel Planner tip 5

    Don’t miss the White Buffalo Bar in Marathon. The Gage Hotel nods to shotgun culture but the sophisticated menu and graceful layout make this spot worthy of a celebrity sighting.

Part 2 of the West Texas Road Trip Planner is the next post. Continue the road trip through Terlingua, Lajitas, a bit of Big Bend National Park and Marfa.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Road view between Balmorea and Fort Davis

Road view between Balmorea and Fort Davis

Links and other Trip Planner tips:
  • We used GPS but there are other sites with ample route suggestions for drivers and bicyclists, like:
  • Plan your trip around weather. Check temperatures and weather patterns, then pack for comfort.
  • This list isn’t exhaustive. There’s so much to explore in West Texas like the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis
  • Balmorea State Park has camping, trailer options and hiking trails as well as the famous natural spring reservoir. Check the website for hours and reservations.
  • Eve’s Garden in Marathon is worth a detour. The hospitality is warm, the organic cooking delicious and the space a unique, artful experience.
  • The Gage Hotel in Marathon is listed as #1 on many noted travel lists.
  • Fort Davis, – Spacious, comfortable and affordable. The upstairs room, with abundant WiFi, couches and tables is a great space for digital nomads!
  • Fort Davis, Lumpia Hotel: Fully restored historic property with a garden begging to be enjoyed.
Food Tips:
  • El Paso Craft and Social – Jazz bar, beer on tap and Texas wines by the glass or bottle.
  • Fort Davis Red Caboose Ice Cream stopna
  • Fort Davis, – They don’t make them like this anymore. Family style cooking and a full service counter.
  • Fort Davis, Hotel Limpia Restaurant – Blue Mountain Bistro a fine dining experience with a full bar menu or dining room. Tapas and much more.

This trip was spurred by an invitation from Visit El Paso and the Brewster County Tourism Offices. Many thanks for their arrangements and guidance. All opinions as usual are my own.

Share please (and thank you!)

Visit West Texas and stay at Eves Garden in Marathon Texas on your road trip

Junp into adventure in West Texas with a stop at Balmorea Springs

weekend wanderlust April 2016

Five casual dining spots serving the best food in Tijuana

Telefonica Gastro Park is the center of where to find the best casual food in Tijuana
Just one of the delireously delicious dishes inside Telefonica Gastro Park

Just one of the delireously delicious dishes inside Telefonica Gastro Park

Ban the thought of filling up on nachos, rice and beans when dining on a budget in Tijuana. You can save the bucks for fine dining, and there’s plenty of that here, and still explore the city through it’s more modest eating establishments. Here are five places with fine brews and some of the best food in Tijuana. You will eat very, very well!

After 9/11 it wasn’t easy to enjoy Tijuana’s culinary scene, but cross-border systems are being stream-lined and now heading over for a day or dinner is becoming simpler. Long before the 1970’s spring break bacchanals in Tijuana, the city was the west-coast Prohibition escape for celebrities and mobsters. During WW2, it was the drinking hole for the Pacific Fleet. Tourism dried up with terrorism fears as new passport restrictions were enforced. Recently innovations have made visiting Tijuana much easier (Border crossing tips here) and cartel business has moved south of Mexico City. The area’s opened up again to its glorious heart – full of feasting and celebrating life through serving the best food in Tijuana.

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the Mercado Hildalgo

Dia de los Muertos altar inside the Mercado Hildalgo

Here’s a few of the fantastico places to find great meals and drinks that will help you save money for shopping and more travel:

The bustling center of Mercado Hildalgo a great place to find the best food in Tijuana

The bustling center of Mercado Hildalgo

1.Mercado Hildalgo – The oldest open marketplace in the central city buzzes with activity every day of the year. It’s most fun to visit during the holidays, when sugar skulls and decorations abound for Dia de los Muertos and other Mexican Celebrations. Fresh fruit, cheeses, cafes and bakeries surround a central parking area where a permanent Chapel rises and seasonal altars rotate below. If you’re courageous, look for roasted crickets or Tequila imbued with rattlesnake!

Eating fried crickets inside Mercado Hildalgo

One adventurous bite! I tried fried crickets – salty, crunchy and delicious!

2.El Taller, Baja Med Cocina – Not far from the Racetrack (now greyhounds rather than horses, and casino.) Their celebrated pizza innovations slice easily with the thin crust and fresh, original ingredients (escargot anyone?!) A bit trendy, the open kitchen and lengthy dining room is often packed.

The entrance to El Taller, Baja Med Cocina

The entrance to El Taller

3. Telefonica Gastro Park – Set up in a large lot at the base of the old Telephone building, this food truck/small business courtyard is packed with fresh, local and creative drinks and bites, many based on traditional recipes. Black Zapote tea anyone? Craft beers, long tables and hammocks make it a perfect hangout for a meal with friends. Save room for coffee and desserts!

Telefonica Gastro Park is the center of where to find the best casual food in Tijuana


Humo chef and friend inside Telefonica

Humo chef and friend inside Telefonica

4. Norte Brewing Company – Not everyone enters through the parking garage but it’s easier to manage than finding the Norte Brewing Companyentrance via a narrow passage set deep off Avenida Revolucion. The effort is worth it for the breezy space looks out over rooftops and the beer is stellar. Flavors rotate but inventive beers such as Foreign Club Robust Porter (Nitro y CO2,) Penthouse IPA and the thickly delicious, Sugar Daddy Chocolate Oatmeal Stout just might be on tap. If you’re a true craft beer afficianado, and very lucky, ask about Súpermash, which uses the nugget of the hop flower. The blooms come direct from Rancho Loza-La Casa Del Lupulo, precursors in the cultivation of organic hops in the valle de Guadalupe.

Norte brewing company is one of the best food in Tijuana spots for the casual drinker

5. Hua Huis, Restaurante de Mariscos – Now that the Tijuana airport bridge is open you can walk in and out of the country, airplane reservation in hand, simply enough. It’s a great convenience but you miss visiting Tijuana. Should you be heading in or out of the U.S. at the Otay Mesa border crossing and find yourself hungry, stop at the blue storefront of Hua Huis. The seafood is traditionally prepared as ceviche, grilled, or marinated, and the meats are tender as well. A small bar keeps drinks flowing too.

The modest storefront of Hua Huis Restaurane de Mariscos

The modest storefront of Hua Huis Restaurane de Mariscos

Hua Huis Ceviche Plates

Hua Huis Ceviche Plates

Here’s a brief video on where to find some of the best food in Tijuana:

Where to find the best food in Tijuana for casual diners:
  1. Mercado Hildalgo – The central market isn’t far from the CECUT cultural center in the Zona Rio.
  2. El Taller Baja Med Cocina: Full bar, sauces and salsas, and famous for their Pizza Baja Med
  3. Telefonica Gastro Park: Full courtyard surrounded by food trucks and temporary vendors. Dog-friendly and open to all ages.
  4. Norte Brewing Company: In Zona Centro off steps from Avenida Revolucion.
  5. Hua Huis, Restaurante de Mariscos: Seafood specialties served minutes from the Tijuana Airport

Thank you to our Binational Liason, Juan Arturo Saldaña Angulo with Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau. The trip sponsors, Tijuana Tourism and Convention Bureau and Rosarito Beach Hotel. And the transportation provided by Ticketon and Turismo Express.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and will share! Three images to pin:

best food in tijuana bites and brews

Best casual dining for the best food in Tijuana

Best food in Tijuana Telephonica Gastro Park

Riding a Segway – See San Francisco with the Electric Tour Company

Riding a Segway in San Francisco with the Electric Tour Company
Riding a Segway in San Francisco with the Electric Tour Company is fun for the family
Where would we be without wheels? They keep us spinning, moving, exploring. We sing children’s songs about them and Tina Turner immortalized Proud Mary’s big wheel. In San Francisco, the city is full of wheel configurations. Bus, trolley, BART, cable car, taxis, bicycles and ride sharing – but none is as fun as riding a Segway through the city streets.
The morning was cool as we stepped from our Airbnb apartment to catch a bus. One ride took us entirely across town to within blocks of our destination, the Electric Tour Company in North Beach. The weekend was a first for my son, Josh, and me vacationing together as adults and he was more than happy to get up early for the chance to scurry around the city while riding a Segway.
We easily found the Electric Company space, between buildings just steps from the Cannery shops and cafes. Before touching the machines, we were ushered into complete registration, shown a safety video and given helmets. Questions were asked and answered, then the coaching began. I was assigned the ‘Sedgequey’ (a common mispronounciation we were told!) and soon we were confidently starting, stopping, and spinning our machines.
Riding a Segway is simple with these easy controls

My ‘Sedquey!’

Within minutes of getting his Segway moving, Josh was racing in circles – well, racing is relative. The maximum speed is capped and each machine slows automatically as you reach that. Still, he had fun pushing the limits well before we took to the streets.
Our guide, Aaron, handed out small transmitters and ear buds, connecting us to his guidance and narration for the tour. I was concerned about riding a Segway through city streets packed with pedestrians, buses and cars, but didn’t need to be. Brilliantly, Aaron positioned our group of 12 in formation as if we were the wheels of a bus. We were assigned a place, riding two by two in parallel lines. It made us easy to see and simple to follow. Soon North Beach was whizzing by and while stopped at a signal, Josh reached over for a grinning fist bump. Nice!
Lauren and her birthday crown while riding a Segway

Lauren and her birthday crown

Aaron kept us entertained with bit of history and puns. We cruised close to famous landmarks and took at break at Washington Park. Riding a Segway uphill was fun and downhill was easy too. There was no way our Segways could runaway with us.
Pausing to check in at Washington Park while riding our Segway

Pausing to check in at Washington Park while riding our Segway

Near the end of the tour we left the busy streets behind and headed out along the breakwater near Fort Mason. Only a few hikers were on the path, intrepid swimmers splashed nearby and the views were astounding. A historic schooner sat in the bay with the skyscrapers of downtown behind. Ferries and sailboats scooted past Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge sat in full glory.
View of downtown San Francisco while riding a Segway
After time out for pictures, we headed back to the barn, as it were. What a great family adventure. My 20 year old had as much fun as mom. The youngest in the group, 14 yrs. old, had as much fun as his grandmother. Twenty five year old, Lauren, taking the tour as part of her birthday celebration, rode proudly – her helmet embellished with a tall, golden crown. She seemed to enjoy riding a Segway more than anyone and giggled street by street.
Riding a Segway bliss
Riding a Segway through San Francisco:
  • The Electric Tour Company has weekly specials and a detailed website. (Say hi to Aaron for me!)
  • Use public transportation to get around San Francisco. Save anxiety about meters, tickets and finding parking places. I used my cell phone GPS and Google Maps to find the best routes and buses. There are numbers to call at bus stops throughout the city.
  • If buses and trolleys aren’t your thing there are taxis everywhere plus…
  • The Uber and Lyft community is huge in San Francisco.
 Special thanks to the Electric Tour Company for hosting our ride. All opinions are my own.
weekend wanderlust April 2016

Road trip snack ideas – Tips for travelers

Road house stop full of snack ideas
Road houses are full of snack ideas - not all healthy!

Road houses are full of snack ideas – not all healthy!

Our road trip was packed full of adventure but unfortunately packed pounds on our waistlines too. We had three weeks to deliver the car to the East coast and started working our itinerary six months in advance. With all the planning however, we forgot about coordinating snack ideas.

Win a Hiking Backpack full of with snack ideas for your next trip (Details below)

My eating strategy whenever I fly has been whittled into a science, but a road trip with four adults in one car for days on end was in another league altogether. We took long hikes daily and expected that to burn calories but it wasn’t enough. Long, tedious hours of driving led to quick meals from limited roadside cafes and convenience stores. Too often that meant snack ideas of the high-carb, salt and sugar kind.

On the way to Mt. Rainier we stopped at the Viking Diner for burgers. Delicious and friendly, but low cal? Not.

Viking Cafe in Mossyrock was full of snack ideas

Locals in the Mossyrock Landmark, Viking Cafe

burger and fries

I’ll have fries with that.

When visiting cousins of course we couldn’t refuse to take their homemade sweets along.

Bazilian chocolate balls are snack ideas of the fattening kind

Rich, Brazilian Choco Balls!

My home breakfast schedule was demolished when the rest of the family needed a big meal before we hit the road. Too often hotel or road-side mornings started like this.

Waffles as road trip snack ideas

Resisting everything but temptation.

Fruit stands are a boon for summer travelers. Unfortunately, our rushed schedule kept us on freeways and off the smaller, country roads where fruit stands proliferate.

Road stand cherries are delicious snack ideas

Road stand cherries are delicious snack ideas

When you’ve endured long hours traveling in the back seat or driving, it’s too easy to ‘reward’ yourself with a big dinner or a few beers. When you do that over several weeks it’s no wonder vacation clothes get tighter and tighter!

Beer isn't on the list of great road trip snack ideas until you stop for driving for the day

Beer with dinner at Belton Chalet, outside Glacier National Park

The best road trip snack ideas include:
  • High protein, low salt and sugar, fruit and nut bars. Pick up a box before leaving home to stretch the travel budget.
  • Buy in bulk. Nuts and dates make satisfying snack ideas and travel well. Make your own mix and store in baggies or better yet, reusable containers.
  • Drink water often and limit the number of sweet, high fructose sodas and caffeine drinks. Avoid plastic bottles and refill your own.
  • Stop to eat well before you feel like you’re starving. Being overly hungry too often leads to impulsive and poor eating decisions.
  • Find grocery stores with salad bars and pick up fresh fruit at roadside stands.
  • Portion control. We were two boomers and two millennials driving together. Guess who ate most of the peanut butter pretzel crackers?! Take a few out of the bag and stick to that portion.

Golden Island Jerky are fine snack ideas

If only I had known about these Jerky packs for our trip. Most jerkies on the market are full of nitrates and preservatives. They’re overly sweetened with high fructose corn syrup as well. The Golden Island Jerky recipes are gluten-free and have no artificial ingredients. The unique flavors come from the founder’s Asian heritage and are available in resealable bags – perfect for travelers.

Golden Island Jerky snack ideas

Win a Hiking Backpack full of with snack ideas for your next trip

The prize includes:

  • Two packages of each variety of Golden Island Jerky ($65 value)
  • Four popular brand name, highly insulated Rambler 18 oz. bottles ($160 value)
  • $100 Visa gift card for gas
  • Hiking Backpack ($40)
Pack your bag and go! Enter here. Good luck!

This giveaway was facilitated by Golden Island Jerky. I was not compensated for this post but did receive free product samples, all opinions are my own.

How do you eat well on long road trips?

A pair of pins to share!

BBQ road trip snack ideas

Road trip snack ideas include happy hours

weekend wanderlust April 2016

How to connect with the real Puerto Princesa

The real Puerto Princesa includes this young boy in the Casa Linda courtyard

Puerto Princesa dancersA visitor seeing a new place for the first time has ‘Beginner’s Eyes.’ I was an absolute beginner when I stepped out of the airport and into the real Puerto Princesa. With dis-orienting speed, the tropical air filled with music and a group of dancers swirled and dipped into action in front of me. Pairs in ruffled costumes stepped and solo performers swished through routines. Costumes morphed and the music rose to final crescendo when they paused for applause. Then the dancers asked to take a picture together!** I’d just discovered the real Puerto Princesa – reflected in it’s people.

Many travelers miss Puerto Princesa entirely as they spin off to other parts of Palawan Island. The northern area is one of the most picturesque in the Philippines, but we didn’t venture to El Nido. We had been diving at Tubbatha Reef for days and wanted to see more of the local culture before returning home. Over four days we took several tours with the city as our base.

Where to find the real Puerto Princesa

While wandering on our own, we scooted around town in one of the ‘Tricycles’ that flow non-stop, 24 / 7. Often drivers would wait for us while we stopped at stores or restaurants and the service was very affordable. One driver helped us over several days. He waited for us while we had dinner, led us through the fish market, then took us shopping for medicine and souvenirs. I had a chance to talk with him about family and work, and cherished his kind openness.

Trike Driver in the real Puerto PrincescaTrim vans picked us up at our hotel for day tours. Filled with cooling AC, our guides would answer questions and regaled us with highlights of local history. Below are some of the spots we visited by van. Most of them were filled with tourists and well-rehearsed speeches but did offer glimpses of the real Puerto Princesa. We asked questions, made requests and listened, listened, listened.

Musicians on the Firefly Tour

Musicians on the Firefly Tour

Boardwalk and Firefly Tour

One evening tour took us across town to the city boardwalk. Families were strolling or riding bicycles. Food carts and small cafes filled one side; the bay sat darkening on the other.

Tricycle toddler on the Puerto Princesa boardwalk

Tricycle toddler on the Puerto Princesa boardwalk

Firefly tour boaters in Puerto Princesa BaySlim boats sat waiting for clients. Our group was motioned onto one vessel and instructed to put on life jackets. It was pitch black as we pulled up to a barge for a buffet dinner. The central table was piled with platters of seafood, stew, rice and salads. A small group of musicians filled the night with exotic rhythms. Soon after we slid into a dark mangrove forest where fireflies put on a nightly show. Floating into the shallows, lightning strikes sporadically illuminated the mountains above. Our guide’s banter was fashioned for the amusement of tourists but we played along and enjoyed meeting other visitors, most of them from Manila.

The Islands of Honda Bay

Tours of Honda Bay are fashioned with something for everyone on several of the small islands close to town. First we stopped to rent snorkels and masks. We were told it was a good idea to wear water shoes to avoid stepping on sharp corals or biting fish. The Pambato Bay park was disappointing with pens, murky water and few fish. Many boats went to the party island, Cowrie, with it’s water sports, bars, music and massages. We headed over to the quieter, Luli Island for lunch and swimming in the shallows.

Although it was late morning, I spoke at length with the bartender who introduced me to joys of Tanduay Rum. (A bottle came back with me to California.) He shared tales about the families who own the various islands. Finally, the excursion ended with a visit to Starfish Island where the roped off area sheltered dozens of unique starfish in the shallows.

Crowd scene on Luli Island

Playing around on Luli Island

Underground River and paddling through mangroves

The UNESCO site of the Underground River is the area’s biggest draw. It’s a 3 hour van ride from the heart of Puerto Princesa. The winding road led us to the Sabang wharf area where we joined scores of tourists while waiting for our turn to board small boats. The boats carry visitors to the Underground River launch area. It was a hot and steamy wait, but people-watching was fun and cold drinks were plentiful.

Boat guide to the Underground River UNESCO site

Our boat guide to the Underground river

The River tour was worth every melting minute. Once given a neck-piece audio device with narration in English, we stepped into a rowboat and were taken into the caves. Bats and Sparrows dove above our heads. Everyone was hushed, listening and watching intently. The undulating, limestone cave surfaces are unlike anything seen elsewhere. The fragile environment is being delicately developed with an eye to the future.

Mangrove river guide near Puerto Princesa

Our mangrove river guide

After a buffet lunch at the sleek Sheridan Beach Resort, we drove to the small encampment where row boats take visitors up a narrow, mangrove river. It was a stunning contrast to the crowds we’d endured earlier. The only visitors at the time, our guide and paddler led us into the wild world where we spied exotic birds, monitor lizards and sleeping snakes. I especially loved our guide launching into a song on the way back. She was shy and kindly sang of respect for the natural environment. As we disembarked, a group of Chinese tourists began filling the other boats. We were so lucky to have had the river to ourselves.

Pa'lawan tribesmen inside the Butterfly Garden, part of the real Puerto Princesa

Palaw’an tribesmen next door to the Butterfly Garden

Butterflies and Palaw’an Tribesmen

Our final city tour took us to several spots around the town. We walked through the private WW2 museum full of artifacts about the key role Philippine soldiers played in battles against the Japanese. A Crocodile Farm housed giants and babies, local animals and a huge souvenir shop. Driving up into the suburban hills, Mitra’s Ranch mansion was a pleasant spot to cool off for a few moments before stopping at the Butterfly Garden. There were few butterflies, but behind a wall in the back we stepped into another world.

Several natives from the Palaw’an tribe sat waiting for visitors. They shared their hunting prowess with blow dart demonstrations and, through an interpreter, we learned about their musical instruments. The tribesmen come down from the jungles to earn money to buy chickens, we were told. It was encouraged to help preserve wildlife, but I wonder who is preserving who! The outpost sold beautiful handcrafts and I think of those gracious, young men when I admire the trinkets we brought home.

Bakers Hill lookout platform

Bakers Hill lookout platform

Bakers Hill and Gardens

Bakers Hill and Gardens had a theme park ambiance with statues of cartoon characters, selfie spots, snack bars and climbing gyms for the little ones. We mimicked other visitors snapping up boxes of purple Ube in the bakery (More about the local foods in this earlier  post.) The small, creamy cakes are filled with Taro and traditionally made with ‘pork oil.’ We passed them around inside the van, trading more stories as we rode back to the hotel.

Plaza Cuartel and the market place

The morning we were to return to the US, we took a tricycle over to the WW2 memorial, Plaza Cuartel. The Spanish fort is gone but what does remain is a reverential space spotted with signs commemorating the Japanese massacre of American Soldiers. (Read more about that in this earlier post.)

Boy in Plaza Cuartel

A cutie in Plaza Cuartel

I played hide and seek with a young boy in the gardens. He was thrilled to get his picture taken and followed me across the street to the Cathedral where a funeral was taking place. His family were attending but his mischievous spirit was more interested in finding someone to play with!

Puerto Princesa is a bustling but modest town that is well worth exploring. Four days makes no one an expert but, while it’s easy to share pictures of the beauty and rich colors of the region, I found that the wonders of the real Puerto Princesa are found in its people.

**About that dance: We weren’t the only ones being welcomed to Puerto Princesa. There was a delegation of media from South Korea arriving at the same time!

A huge thank you to everyone who made our stay so special. I hope you visit Puerto Princesa one day and explore the Philippines. I look forward to returning one day. Disclosure: Our tours were hosted by iTravel Tours and Philippine Tourism offices in Los Angeles as well as in Puerto Princesa. As always though, all opinions are my own.

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weekend wanderlust April 2016

Nomads in the desert, American style

nomads in the desert, galeta sculptures
Jim and Tina Kurtz, nomads in the desert, and the Galleta Meadows Sculptures in Anza Borrego, California

Jim and Tina Kurtz and the Galleta Meadows Sculptures in Anza Borrego, California

Jim Kurtz and Tina Ellis are American nomads. It didn’t happen overnight. About six years ago they sold their long-term home in Encinitas, California to move to Oregon. The idea was to start a vineyard and the new house stood on acres outside of Ashland. Retired as a Financial Consultant, Jim began sourcing grapes from neighbors. Tina, an artist’s rep, began making her own mosaics, but the open road called. Within a few years they ditched it all to become nomads in the desert.
Tamarask trees’ roots go deep to soak up water and Palo Verdes fill with yellow flowers in the Southern California desert spring. Ocotillo, with their long spikey branches, are frilled with red flowers at their tips then too. That’s what the desert was full of when I found Jim and Tina star-gazing outside of Borrego Hot Springs, a few hours east of San Diego. They were about to celebrate their first year as nomads in the desert: Dog, truck and fifth wheel. After exploring the U.S. for months, they’d set up camp for the winter at a plush RV Park. Their 5th wheel (a trailer home attached to the bed of a truck) is about 55 feet long. They chose it because, as Jim says, “There’s no feeling like the steering wheel is in the living room.”
Fifth Wheel set up for two nomads in the desert

Fifth Wheel set up

It’s hard to call their mobile home a trailer. It’s palatial with pop-out sides that create an open kitchen, dining and living room. The bedroom holds a king-sized bed and every nook has hidden storage. Jim installed heavy 12 Volt batteries at 150 lbs. each. As they criss-crossed the U.S. they could ‘boondock’ anyplace they chose for up to 10 days with plenty of power and a hundred gallons of water. Jim found out that ‘we don’t use that much.’
Inside the 5th Wheel for two nomads in the desert.

Inside the 5th Wheel for two nomads in the desert.

During the first few months on the road, Jim kept up his financial consulting practice but eventually enlisted the help of a firm associate and weaned away his clients. Now he’s completely retired. Tina keeps her creative and business talents honed, creating jewelry at the kitchen table. She builds tiny mosaics, using reflective glass in jewel tones, painstakingly gluing them into sterling silver settings. The pieces are irresistible, selling themselves as she wears them in town or by referral.
Nomads in the desert at the Road Runner Complex
At the Road Runner complex and RV Park they walk the perimeter with their dog, Ginger, and easily meet others doing the same. There’s a clubhouse where weekly wine tastings and BBQ’s dinners are set up, a pool, dog run, and doctor’s office where a nurse practitioner attends 3 to 4 days a week. On the other side of the Par 3 golf course, a few streets are filled with small houses. Most, built in the 1970’s, have three garages – two for cars and another for the golf cart. Purchasing a house in Road Runner complex runs about 19 thousand dollars. Jim quips, “You could pay for it with a credit card!” The demand is tempered by the $1,000 per month fee, paid year round for utilities, grounds upkeep, etc.
In the trailer section the best spaces book three years in advance and run about $60 a night. Short term visitors pay $100. Jim and Tina found that the best spots are on the perimeter where you can back in with one side facing the greens. The center section, ‘pull throughs,’ are in the middle with less privacy.
The complex owners enlist the help of volunteer camp-hosts, usually a couple, who work three, eight-hour days each week. They collect the garbage, help new arrivals back in, host weekly wine tastings and hot dog roasts. One couple, who had been long-term camp hosts, stopped returning. The wife had died and her husband said that he wasn’t coming back, but changed his mind after the owners invited him to return with free rent. He’s been there ever since. These are good people who share a real sense of community.
Ocotillo Restaurant in Borrego Hot Springs

Ocotillo Restaurant in Borrego Hot Springs

Seasonal changes
Spring was a comfy time to visit, however, summer in Borrego Springs means scorching heat. Jim says, “105 degrees isn’t a big deal but 110 to 115? That’s toasty.” For residents the summertime strategy is to go out before 10 am or after 2 pm. For others it means spending the hottest months of the year elsewhere. Good planning is important anytime Jim and Tina pack up and take to the road with their 5th Wheel. Routes from coast to desert mean getting over the mountains and north of the town of Julian, on Highway 79, there’s a graceful rise that’s relatively easy to drive. On twisting roads the trailer tends to swing over the middle line. While Tina likes the challenge, they carefully plan their routes.
Two other nomads in the desert, Galeta sculptures in Anza

Two other nomads in the desert, Galleta Meadows sculptures in Anza Borrego

This summer Jim and Tina are no longer nomads in the desert. They’ve taken to the foothills of the Canadian Rockies until the fall weather drives them back south.
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  weekend wanderlust April 2016

Filipino Foods – Tasty times in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Filipino foods, Palawan style, on a mural at Haim Inatu in Puerto Princesa
Filipino foods overflow tables in the Puerto Princesa market
Don’t miss these Filipino Foods in Puerto Princesa
A single Cashew ripens bizarrely poised above an ‘apple’ and yet in a shadowy market corridor in Puerto Princesa, tables were strewn with bags full of the local harvest. The work it takes to harvest them is boggling! But there they were – roasted, fried, raw or broken into chunks of sugary brittle. Seeing my interest, suddenly small bags were ripped open and samples offered. These cashews or ‘Kasoy’ had a milky taste due to how they are cooked that’s worlds apart from what my stateside big box store offers. They were fully ripened and harvested in the south of Palawan Island and dangerously inexpensive. Somehow I managed to restrain my snacking and carry several bags back to California. It was my introduction to the tasty treats of Filipino foods in Puerto Princesa.
Cashews are some of the Filipino foods to try in Puerto Princesa

Bags of cashews in the Puerto Princesa marketplace

There are so many things to see and do in the area and dozens of tours ready to guide visitors. We didn’t find a food tour and there should be! Put your own together with these suggestions of our favorite places and plates in Puerto Princesa. Most were recommended by friends, hotel staff and a few Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews. Thanks to all the help, we discovered a world of exciting eats beyond the expected Adobo (the Filipino national dish) and ubiquitous steamed fish.
Fish market for Filipino foods in Puerto Princesa
A friend had taken us to the old Puerto Princesa marketplace to see the local fish, the seaweed and fruit. Seafood tumbled into baskets, fish, eel, and crustaceans were arranged on cement stands raised to allow juices to flow into gutters. It demanded vigilant side-stepping for the uninitiated. Red leafy seaweed and small clutches of sea grapes were sorted into baskets. Cleavers bore down on Tuna torsos, shook through red crab and pressed fat bellies into fillets. I didn’t know where to look first, everything was happening at once and the show goes on almost daily.
Filipno foods include small, sweet bananasDon’t miss the bananas
After all the snacks en route and airplane meals, I wasn’t going to eat until noon on our first day in Puerto Princesa but came to the breakfast table with a few small bananas that we’d picked up from a sidewalk stand. The petite bananas were mottled with mushy tips but sweet and firm inside. Perfectly ripe and sliced onto my banana pancake they made syrup redundant.
Kalui Garden statues in Puerrto Princesa restaurant

Kalui Garden statues

Entree with sea grapes in Kalui, great Filipino foods

Shrimp with sea grapes in Kalui

We found our way into the Kalui Restaurant for lunch. My senses were reeling from the moment we stepped in from the heat and traffic along Rizal Road. Local artwork covered walls, courtyards and the rear gallery but more than that, the owners have a flair for design. Inlaid stones formed arches and flowed over walls. Dancing ladies, shell chimes, puka shell lanterns adorned other areas. Collections of dishes, globes and even a pattern of Aunt Jemima magnets adorned other surfaces.
A glimpse inside Kalui, Puerto Princesa

Inside Kalui, Puerto Princesa

Before entering we were asked to remove our shoes and placed them in one of several baskets by the door. At our table we had a garden on one side and watched a huge family feast on the other. The menu was in Filipino and English. Quickly we ordered the local craft beer, Palaweno Brewery Honey Nut Ale, which was perfect to cool a tropical afternoon. The set meal of the day was inexpensive but included several courses. Starting with a clear broth our appetites were kindled with ginger, lemongrass and light fish flavors. Each course was full of color and flavor. We loved the space and food so much that on our last day in town we returned for more fruit and sashimi.
Entrance to La Terrasse full of tasty Filipino foods in Puerto Princesa
 La Terrasse
You might think that we were finished eating for the day but after working in an internet cafe for hours and wandering downtown we caught a tricycle to the highly recommended, La Terrasse. I’d spotted the entrance on our way in from the airport but after dark it was a bit harder to find. Along the busy road one lane morphed into two or three and back again, but finally we spotted the sign and pulled up in front. The menu is French inspired but light, featuring fresh, organic and sustainably sourced ingredients. Significantly absent were prawns and lobster – the owners claim that they’re impossible to trace to responsible harvest practices.
La Terrasse cocktails underway in Puerto Princesa

La Terrasse cocktails underway

The space was open to the elements, a theme throughout the area, but with stark Euro flair. Walls were washed in deep red. The long, bright bar sat beneath a huge TV monitor and we watched a nature documentary unwind while waiting for our dinner. Our appetizer, housemade breads sticks and a small bowl of fresh pesto, was served with a pitcher of Mojito’s before the soup arrived. It was a pale squash, light and missing the thick cream so often found in French cooking. A small tureen of Spinach Gratinee came next. Dave’s pork and chicken adobo, the national dish, was a pyramid of tasty rice topped with spicy, crispy pork and succulent chicken. Chilled, filtered water came in a bottle. No plastic bottles here! It was a light, satisfying dinner. A lovely conclusion to our first day in the Philippines.
The entrance to Badjao home of Filipino foods in Puerto Princesa

The entrance to Badjao

The fish platter served in Badjao

The fish platter served in Badjao

Badjao Seafood Restaurant
A British Duke once ate at Badjao, which made the restaurant famous, but the seaside setting with the large, open dining room is enough to set it apart from other places in town. It’s a special occasion spot with exceptional service. In the tall, peaked dining room, small birds flitted into chandeliers hung with wafting strands of flowers. Set on stilts between bay and Mangrove forest it was the perfect place to watch the day fade. The bar menu offered wines, tropical cocktails and local beers. Seafood entrees and platters filled the dinner listings. We enjoyed our meal but, while the portions were large, they felt tame and uninspired. I’d recommend Badjao for the drinks, the experience of walking the covered bamboo entryway and the ambiance. Make sure your tricycle driver waits for you. The location is far from town.
Ready for our firefly tour in Puerto Princesa
A floating restaurant and fireflies
The chance to see fireflies set us off on an evening tour to the Puerto Princesa boardwalk. A van picked us up at our hotel and within twenty minutes we were stepping onto a pontoon boat with about a dozen other visitors. It was getting dark and across the wide bay lightning flashed along mountaintops. Out into the darkening night we set, passing silent ships but pulled up to a bright platform where dinner waited, buffet style. A trio of musicians stirred the darkness with drums and digeridoo rhythms. The meal was a bit rushed, but full of traditional and fresh dishes. We could eat as much as we wanted but paid extra if we wanted to drink anything but water. Soon we were invited to return to the boat to continue onto the river where fireflies make nightly appearances. It was a sweet excursion, pretty touristy, but worth the effort.
The bar in Kinabuch's

The bar in Kinabuch’s

Crocodile Sisig in Kinabuch

Crocodile Sisig in Kinabuch

Everyone mentioned Kinabuch as a must-do restaurant in Puerto Princesa. The beer garden restaurant is set back from the road beyond a small parking lot. In fact we’d walked by several times before stopping in. Kinabuch is laid out like a sports bar with big TV screens scattered through several dining areas and bars. There was one draft pull at the largest bar and I imagine it pours San Miguel, the ubiquitous Philippine ale. As our dinner came, the Blue Marlin steak looked and tasted more like Swordfish. The fresh spring roll came as a thick crepe wrapped around vegetables. It was decent but heavy and not as expected. The beer came late and we had finished our other dishes before asking when our Crocodile Sisig was coming. When it was finally served, the Crocodile Sisig was hot but a bland, ground meat dish. All the portions were huge and if you ask for a platter of rice, you’re served a shovelful. I can see why the place is popular. The music is loud, the prices are good, portions large and they have big screens showing sports games. It would be fun for a night on the town with family and friends.
Haim mural of wood worms a Filipino food

The traditional way to eat wood worms!

Haim Chicken
We’d been looking for a spot to try woodworms, the mollusk harvested from within mangrove roots. Finally we ventured into Haim Chicken which is close to the airport and a short ride from our hotel. Tables were arranged in raised bamboo huts We were happy to hear that Tamilok, wood worms, were available and soon Christian, one of the waitstaff was standing next to our table to make sure we knew how to eat them. He showed us how to lift the long mollusks and dip them into vinegar and garlic sauce before opening wide to swallow the wet creatures. It wasn’t as creepy as you might imagine! They had been thoroughly cleaned and tasted like oysters. If we chewed too much a darker flavor emerged, probably due to their diet of mangrove wood. It was a once in a lifetime taste-test that I’m glad I tried but probably won’t repeat.
Wood Worms, Tamilok, one of the traditional Filipino foods found in Puerto Princesa

The Wood Worm dish

Another special dish at Haim Inatu - Chicken Butts!

Another special dish at Haim Inatu – Chicken Butts!

The adventure didn’t stop there as Dave ordered Chicken Butts. I don’t care for chicken skin or fried foods that much but these were crunchy, moist inside and well seasoned. Everything else that we ate at Haim was flavorful, well cooked and served with care. The beer was cold, service attentive and prices moderate. I’d stop by again to try more of the menu.

Coffee and Internet at iToys in Puerto Princesa
iToys Specialty Coffee Haus
For anyone looking for decent WiFi and espresso drinks, I think iToys would be hard to beat. The small dining room is set with tables perfect for laptops and the patio, shaded by large trees, is a gracious spot to while away a few hours. Their mango smoothies are reputed to be best in the area.
The Bakers Hill viewing platform above Puerto Princesa

Bakers Hill viewing platform

Hopia Ube traditional sweet from Banker's Hill in Puerto Princesa

Hopia Ube traditional sweet from Banker’s Hill in Puerto Princesa

Bakers Hill

It’s a tourist stop full of photo opportunities and selfie spots but the bakery is what made the hill a destination. The most popular items in the small shop are boxes of purple, bean-stuffed pastries called Hopia Ube.They’re made with ‘pork oil’ (lard) or a newer version with vegetable oil. The hill is covered with statues dotting the lush gardens including giant snakes and tigers, Snow White and entourage, and other variations on Disney characters. A winding viewing platform near the back of the property is worth climbing for views of the city. We bought a box of the Ube because everyone else was and broke it open in the van. So glad we did and yes, it was the ‘pork oil’ version.

Enjoying this post? check out more about our adventures in Puerto Princesca.

Flipino foods forever!

We wandered the city for four days and loved exploring the Filipino foods of Palawan. I hope that you’ll stop in Puerto Princesa to explore as we did and not simply pass through on the way to other adventures on the island.

Disclosure: The Firefly tour dinner and the stop at Baker’s Hill were provided through the Philippines Tourism office in Los Angeles and coordinated with the Puerto Princesa Tourism team. Our final itinerary and van tours were provided by ITravel Tours, Events and Consultancy.

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weekend wanderlust April 2016





Dangerous beauty – Yellowstone Park safety tips

Yellowstone Park holds many natural wonders, like Old Faithful
Old Faithful geyser path in Yellowstone Park
The National Parks are wild and extraordinary places to experience. In ever popular Yellowstone Park, the beauty and wonder can also be dangerous if you and loved ones aren’t careful.
Heart-breakingly, a young man died horribly after falling into a hot spring in Yellowstone recently. It takes some doing to fall into those lethal Yellowstone Park pools. Raised trails cross caldera grounds. Tourists get close enough to feel the heat and peer into the pools safely from raised boardwalks. Sulfurous fumes wash through the air. There’s no mistaking that you’re in a foreign and challenging landscape. The beauty is hypnotic but can be deadly if you don’t pay attention.
Thermal pool beauty in Yellowstone Park.

Deceptively calm thermal pool beauty in Yellowstone Park.

Many have walked off marked paths, decided to strike out alone and unprepared, felt the boondoggle was worthwhile. Why Colin Scott and his sister decided to walk off the path into an isolated area is an open question. The paths are marked. Signs clearly state ‘Danger. No Trespassing.’ Only a sheer crust of earth sits above the acidic bubbling waters below but it looks deceptively solid. Colin fell in and disappeared in a boiling, acidic pond. His sister will live to replay those shocking moments for the rest of her life.
Enter at your own risk sign in Yellowstone Park
I visited eight National Parks over three weeks and watched incredulously while several visitors left safe barriers in an effort to get pictures. Along the Crater Lake rim trail I witnessed a Japanese family climb over a fence and onto crumbling gravel above a steep ravine. Loose rock was their only footing, the only thing between them and sure death if they had slid into the crevices below. I couldn’t look until they returned safely to the trail. There was a sign posted about the danger a few feet from where they posed.
Uncle Tom's trail stair down to viewing Lower Yellowstone Park Falls

Uncle Tom’s trail stair down to viewing Lower Yellowstone Park Falls

Since 2013 there have been more than thirty-six deaths from falling in Yellowstone Park! Most have been falls into canyons. At Uncle Tom’s Trail it would be relatively easy to plunge from the 328 step stairway. The metal stairs twist down almost vertically for several hundred feet. Admittedly the view of the Lower Yellowstone Falls through rainbow mists and up into the rushing waters is worth the challenge but the ascent has its risks as well. Everyone climbs up from the scaffold with their hearts pounding from heat and exhaustion.

Death in Yellowstone Park Book about the dangerous beautyAccidents and foolhardiness in the first National Park
On the drive to Yellowstone from California I got acquainted with Lee H. Whittlesey’s hefty book, Death In Yellowstone. The subhead speaks volumes: Accidents and foolhardiness in the first National Park. It’s painstakingly researched. Twenty five chapters are crammed with injuries, deaths and rescue attempts. The grizzliest jobs are recovering the fallen, the parts, and piecing together what happened instance by instance. I read enough to get the message.
Buffalo in Yellowstone Park

Friend or foe? Our National Mammal sizes visitors up.

The park has been a killer from its creation. Several craftsmen fell from scaffolding while building roads and lodges. In the 1920’s a superintendent loaded his monthly report with cases of people being burned in the face as they looked down into the cone of Old Faithful. Today there’s a wide perimeter around the geyser with benches and explosion times posted near. Still distracted parents have lost children in nearby pools.
Too close to Moose in Yellowstone Park
Too close for comfort
Drawing close to wild animals is constant temptation in Yellowstone Park. Staying the recommended minimum of 100 yards from bears and wolves sounds excessive but they can charge without warning and you may need room to take evasive actions. As recently as 2015 bear attacks have led to disappearances and deaths. Again warnings and precautions are posted, illustrated in brochures and shown in movies inside the various visitor centers inside the park.
The NPS.Gov site reminds visitors that:
  • All of Yellowstone Park is bear country
  • If you go hiking, travel in groups of 3 or more.
  • Make noise while hiking. A surprised bear can be a dangerous animal.
  • Bear Spray works. Carry it where it can be accessed easily and quickly.

Here’s a short video of my close encounter with wildlife in Yellowstone Park.

For all the warnings, people still draw close to Bison and Elk in an effort to get a good picture. Most of the beasts seem nonplussed by crowds or posers drawing near, but again there’s no knowing if or when they might charge. Keeping something between you and a thousand pound wild animal is always a good thing!
Close encounter of the wild kind
In Yellowstone Park I had a close roadside encounter because I wasn’t paying attention. On our drive through the park we discovered that if you see a group of cars pulled over with no man-made attractions nearby, it’s a safe bet there are wild animals near the road. In one instance we stopped near a half dozen cars parked close to a lush hillside. About 50 feet away, a massive bull Elk was posing in the grass, his rack full and broad above a proud forehead. Camera out, I stepped next to a stand of trees lining the road. While I was there focusing, several other males sauntered over the hill just out of my peripheral vision. It wasn’t until I put down the camera that I noticed how close one massive male had come to me. I side-stepped to a narrow tree as the moose lowered his head to nuzzle tufted greens. There were less than eight feet between us! A few snaps later I slowly, steadily, backed away towards the waiting car, no worse for my clueless encounter.
Ambivalence or Ignorance?
In his book, Forever Wild, Phillip Terrie writes about our responses to wilderness. He calls it ambivalence, a state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about a place or someone.  The author states:
We react to wilderness as “an endlessly interesting mixture of sympathy and fear, of love and hostility, of the impulse to embrace and the equally powerful urge to flee.”
An entire chapter of the Death in Yellowstone book explores this fatal attraction.
Life, urban or wild, is full of risk. With luck we learn from our close encounters with danger. Stay safe and enjoy Yellowstone Park. You’ll live to tell the stories and share pictures for years to come.
If you go to Yellowstone Park:
  • Check out my post about National Park Passes and free days.
  • Be sure to review the National Park Service website.
  • Brace for crowds during peak months and the Park Centennial (2016.)
  • Start reserving your lodging months in advance.
  • Pack for hot days and chilly nights during spring and summer.
  • Stay alert. Take signage seriously. Have fun!

I hope you enjoyed the post. Here’s some pins to share!

Yellowstone park dangerous beauty pin.Visit Yellowstone Park Pin 2

Diving Tubbatha Reef – UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef
Lighthouse on the abandoned atoll in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tubbatha.

Dawn and the lighthouse in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tubbatha Reef.

The sky and sea met in a wash of peach and gilded light. Our small live-aboard ship bobbed and on the ocean’s surface a series of strange lines, rippled and in parallel, appeared. Within  moments they sank from sight. It was a puzzle until a flying fish emerged, barely jetting above the water. Within moments it disappeared, leaving that odd trail and then all was still again. If there wasn’t a witness I would have thought I was imagining things. Tubbatha Reef, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was like that – full of surprises.
Whale shark in Tubbatha - mottled with parasites.

Whale shark in Tubbatha – mottled with parasites. Photo: Dave Rudie

Superlatives don’t do justice to all that’s above and below the surface of the UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea. Whale sharks slip past steep underwater ridges. Manta Rays lift up from the depths to cleaning stations They pause to drift as small fish dart and peck, removing tiny creatures attached to their skin. Rushing ribbons of Jacks, Napoleon Wrasse and Barracuda race up from the deep and disappear. My small dive collective came upon a nurse shark sleeping in a crevice, its tail squeezed into the narrow space, nose to an unseen wall. Other sharks floated past – black tip, reef and white. Curious, they rarely followed us, always gliding back to their wanderings.
turtle spied in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef

Turtle surfaces for a few moments.

Turtle in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha

Photo: Dave Rudie

From the deck I watched a turtle, or was it two, fins splayed into the air, the shell humping up and then down. A face lifted to the sunlight and I wondered, “Why?” We saw many resting below, some tearing into coral, searching for tasty sponges before they’d move up the water column to breathe. What was this one looking at on the surface? Was it curious about our boat’s motor vibrating into the fathoms? Was it a mating dance?
Owner of the Palau Sport, David Choy, brings the boat to Sula for a few months each year.

Owner of the Palau Sport, David Choy, brings the boat to Sula for a few months each year.

A Philippine National Marine Park, Tubbataha Reef sits deep inside the Sula Sea, more than ninety miles from port in Puerto Princesa. The shallow atoll islands could be mistaken for small sand bars. They are merely the tip of an intertwining reef system that the UNESCO World Heritage Association found rare enough to add to its recognized natural sites. It’s now protected from fishing by Philippine rangers as well. One afternoon we stopped to meet them, to buy souvenirs and tour their remote outpost.
Walking from the chaser boat to the Ranger Station

Walking from the chaser boat to the Ranger Station

An abandoned lighthouse sits on another part of the atoll. It still works but is home to sea birds who swirl through the flaking arches and the low scrub trees. Lighthouse or no, there have been many wrecks. Their names remained on several of our dive spots but most have fallen apart or storms have pushed them into the deep sea trenches.
A clutch of giant sponges on the sea wall.

A clutch of giant sponges on the sea wall. Photo: Dave Rudie

The reef is the meeting place of deep, cold water and tropical warm currents that make it vibrate with life. Soft and hard corals proliferate. Huge fans reach out from walls. Mammoth, squatting, ridged sponges rise up in sizes a potter could only dream of. Fish peer from ledges of plate corals. They tempt divers near, turn on their sides and slip into slivers of space unscathed to surface once the coast is clear.
Nemo look alikes in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef
In the late afternoon things slow down. Knotted Chrinoids unfurl to capture the currents and walk, yes walk, towards new hunting grounds the night deepens. Eels abandon their solitude and slither along the sandy shoals. Octopus wander. Worms the length of yardsticks dig through the sand. Tiny drifters and jelly fish float.
Manta Ray in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha

Manta Ray. Photo: Dave Rudie

Nothing is wasted in the sea. It’s all eat or be eaten. I’ve seen a clutch of fish tear into the carcass of one of their own. For my species it seems savage but there is an economy at work that will far outlast our survival on the surface. For now, I’m am overjoyed to float by, witnessing the wild things who ignore my passing.
Sea Cucumber feeding

Sea Cucumber feeding

Two experiences stand out from diving the Tubbatha World Heritage site. At one spot I saw a sea cucumber arched up like a crawling dinosaur. I thought they only hunted at night but this one was hungry. It slid up and over a branch of coral. There was no telling what drew the mouth open but I released my buoyant air to settle in close and watch. The maw startled me as a handful of black fingers emerged. At the end of each, flower shaped suckers wrapped around the plant. The cucumber kept moving, each finger pulling forward, sucking and releasing to reach again. It was hypnotic but the current was tugging and I needed to keep up with the group.
Prepping gear on the Palau kSport dive boat

Prepping gear on the dive boat

On the last dive of our last day I kept reminding myself to breathe slow and calmly. The night before, while going over shooting strategies, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Bob Yin, mentioned how our heartbeats thrump through the water and can alarm the fish. When a diver is excited, the fish know it and fear that they’re being hunted!

striped fish in the UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha

In a shallow coral bed I spotted a small school. They weren’t feeding but bobbing around a small coral pinnacle. Very slowly I ventured ever closer until I was in the midst of them. My breath slowed to a meditative rhythm as I floated into the bunch. They hardly seemed to notice. Silently I took pictures then added a small burst of oxygen to my BC vest to float up. So very strange and beautiful – The best of diving the Tubbatha World Heritage site is like that.
Two divers, Dave Rudie, Elaine Masters in the waters of Tubbatha Reef

Photographer, dive and travel buddy, Dave Rudie and author, Elaine


Map of dive sites inside the dive lounge at Tubbatha Reef

Map of dive sites and features

Sharing is caring and here’s a pin to make that easier! Thanks.

UNESCO World Heritage Site pin

  –weekend wanderlust April 2016
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