A Travellerspoint blog

Adventures in Iceland

Waterfalls everywhere!

overcast 50 °F

“The Icelanders are the most intelligent race on earth, because they discovered America and never told anyone.”
― Oscar Wilde

On a very hot and humid Houston September day we boarded up for the hopefully chilly and lovely far north. The land of waterfalls, volcanoes, and of course, Game of Thrones. We made a pit stop in Newark and caught a 5-1/2 hour flight from Newark to Reykjavik. A much shorter journey than I had imagined it would be until I looked at a map:

Wow! Iceland is small and really close to Greenland and Norway. In fact, you can traverse the outer ring of the entire country in about 12-14 hours (in summer).

We landed at 6:30 am on a nice 50 degree day in Reykjavik and proceeded to make our way through customs to pick up our rental car.

We thought we could make do with a little Yaris rental car, but luckily they were all rented, so Hertz gave us an upgrade to the lovely Skoda. There are quite a few warnings at the rental desk about not driving your rental down gravel roads and highlands, etc. We took our chances and headed out. Gas is about $2.50 US per liter, so every fill up makes you appreciate Houston gas prices.

One of the most popular destinations in all of Iceland is the Blue Lagoon. Iceland has a lot of geothermic activity and most of the electricity is provided by geothermal energy. There is a hotel and restaurant by the Blue Lagoon, and you can even take a dip in the Lagoon if you like (reservations very important). The Blue Lagoon is manmade and the water flows from a geothermal power plant a half mile away.

We wandered around outside the entrance to the Blue Lagoon and took a little hike down a path. It was quite an experience, and felt like we were on a different planet.

Then we went inside and checked out the actual Blue Lagoon. Nice!

After having our first serving of eye candy, we headed downtown (the airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik) to have a look around.

Our first stop was the Harpan Concert Hall, designed by Olafur Eliasson and Henning Larsen Architects. The hall is open for tourists to poke around and enjoy the stunning design:

From Harpan, we went to find the famous mammoth concrete Lutheran church Hallgrimskirkja, which was completed in 1986:

There is a large statue out front of Leif Ericsson, father of Iceland and apparently the discoverer of Greenland.

Right across the street from the church is a nice little cafe with lots of traditional fare. We headed over to find out about mashed fish and other Icelandic delicacies:

On Jeff's sampler plate was rye ice cream (odd but slightly like cookies and cream ice cream), herring on toast and mashed fish. Herring is a big export from Iceland, well after aluminum. My plate had tasty fish with carmelized onions, little potatoes and salad. We really should have been bold and daring and tried the fermented shark, but we thought we would have plenty of chances (we never saw it on a menu again).

The guide book warns you that Iceland is not cheap, and that's a true story. We got some Icelandic cash at the airport ATM and I was impressed with the festiveness of the Icelandic dollars. The exchange rate was about $.0078 US dollar to $1 Icelandic Krona. So we eventually just took off two zeros and discounted 20% for quick conversion. (So $1000 Krona was about $8 US).

To keep a reasonable budget, many people rent these camper vans to tour Iceland. We saw dozens of them during our stay, with a lot of different designs. We saw one camper park for overnighting during our stay, but there has to be many more hidden away, based on the number of people traveling like this.

After lunch we took a stroll down one of the main shopping streets in the city, Laugavegur. Reykjavik architecture is minimalist for the most part, but they really dress up the buildings with paint and murals:

We had read about a Big Lebowski bar on Laugavegur, and being fans of the Dude, went to check it out. It was only about noon, so we drank our White Russians and enjoyed the bowling balls, bowling lane and rugs on the wall in relative quiet and chillness, as befitting the Dude. We did not see any nihilists (that we know of) or Bunny.

Laugavegur has a lot of interesting shops to peruse, with art like this:

After all the activity, we headed to the Grand Hotel Reykjavik to catch a bit of shut eye/nap. All of the hotels we slept at in Iceland had this lovely set up with two single comforters on the bed. Two thumbs up!

After a few solid hours of shut eye, we ventured back out to find dinner. We found Hi Noodle, purveyors of decent tonkotsu and exceptional Dan Dan Noodles. Yum. We went back to get those noodles again on our way out of town, they were that good!

The next day we headed for the beautiful countryside and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Snaefellsjokull National Park. The views from Reykjavik to the National Park are gorgeous and breathtaking:

We found our lodgings for the evening, Hotel Budir, checked in and set out to discover the Peninsula. Our first stop was Djupalonssandur, the Black Lava Pearl Beach. We walked down to visit the surf and passed this fun feats of strength game:

Jeff could pick up about 120 pounds and I* picked up a stray stone that may not have been in the game (*recent back injury).

We rolled on to a nearby volcano that allows walking around the top. I was excited, expecting to see hot, molten lava bubbling away. Turned out to be an extinct volcano, but we did get the chance to walk up the equivalent of 19 flights of stairs to see the top.

There are a lot of interesting towns along the Peninsula, not the least of which is Hellissandur, which has its own amazing mural park:

Along the road, we saw this beautiful waterfall:

We wrapped up our day with a visit to Budakirkja, which happened to be right by our hotel. This church is one of the most photographed in Iceland, with many capturing the elusive (for us) Northern Lights with the church.

This fellow was just walking along the road to our hotel with his family. Sheep are ubiquitous in Iceland, but often are fenced in.

We ate dinner at the hotel that night. There are not a lot of stand alone restaurants on the Peninsula. Most of the hotels have a small restaurant that has four or five options for main entrees, usually one fish (arctic char = very popular), one steak, one vegetarian (cauliflower masterpieces) and other random items. We did not see any chicken or pasta on any menu - very interesting and explains why the Icelandars are in good shape!

The next day we set out for Borgarnes. We stopped off at the supermarket to see what we could find. There were many large legs of lamb in the freezer case, but they are not appetizing to look at, so no picture. You're welcome. We did see lots of delicious Skyr and other fun things like "enrobed" Oreos and other things we could not identify at all:

We also popped into a yarn shop to view their wares (which I am told by my yarn aficionado sister Deanna is expensive at $40 US a roll). You can find the classic Icelandic wool sweaters at most tourist destinations, ranging in price from $125 to $250 US. Living in Houston, I could only wear such a sweater once a year, in the middle of January, so, though tempted, I had to pass. I did get a fun hat to shield myself from the rather biting cold rain we would encounter over the next few days.

Next we went in search of the Gerduberg Basalt Columns, and they were impressive:

After the columns, we went to visit the Krauma geothermal hot springs. Very cool! There was a large pool for those wanting to take in the benefits of the water, but we were already freezing, so we passed.

We read about a goat farm that was open for visitors in the Fodor's guide book so decided to find it. While the main roads in Iceland all look freshly paved, there are many side roads that are a mix of gravel and pavement. After all the warnings at the car rental place, I was a bit nervous to go off-roading, but Jeff squashed my concerns and carried on the less smooth, less traveled road and we found the goat farm. The proprietress was a lovely Iceland native who raises lots of goats, a few sheep and makes all sorts of products with the goat milk, like soaps, lotions, feta cheese and also makes sausage from the goats who are no longer with us. She told us she has to put about twenty male goats a year down because they love to fight and will fight until they kill each other.

We bought some of her lovely cheese in olive oil, and goat sausage. We found out later that the US does not like (1) people visiting farms and traipsing around in the dirt or (2) people who try and bring back meat or food from another county. On our way through customs we had to take a brief foray to see the US Agriculture people in customs, who double x-rayed our luggage to make sure we were not carting in a bunch of other contraband and required us to give up the goat sausage. We never even got to eat it! We had to go through security again in Newark and TSA was highly suspect of Jeff carrying the remaining cheese in his carry on. Word to the wise - truthfully fill out the customs form at your own peril!

The goat farm was loads of fun. We got to frolic with the goats and eat goat ice cream and even manhandle the goats! Several of the goats that live at the farm starred in an episode of Game of Thrones (the one where the dragon picks up an unsuspecting goat in his fire-breathing mouth) - so they are kind of a big deal.

The cheese, which we may never eat and instead just keep to admire as a trophy of perseverance. I never even got a photo of the goat sausage!

After all the fresh air and goat fun, we carried on to our hotel for the night, the Icelandair Hamas. We were happy to get an upgrade to a little suite with a view of the golf course, where it appeared some type of tournament was going on. Jeff had a view of the hot tub from the dining room and noted there were many pale-skinned, shirtless people enjoying the hot tub. Two thumbs up for the Icelandair Hamas!

The next day we were all set to drive the "Golden Circle", one of the most famous areas in Iceland. Unfortunately, the day dawned blustery, cold
and rainy and someone (ok me) did not pack appropriately for the elements. Luckily, Jeff packed an excessive number of coats and jackets, so I was able to bundle up with several layers.

The first stop was Pingvellir, the only place in the world where you can see the convergence of two tectonic plates (Europe and Iceland) above water. We checked it out from the car for the most part, as it was pouring rain. Still cool though.

The next stop on the Golden Circle was the Geysir. There are lots of geysers, one which shoots an impressive bit of water every five minutes.

We stopped in to the large gift shop and were somewhat surprised to see an entire table of reindeer skins for sale. Rudolph! Comet! How could they? There were many other skins for sale, including fox.
EE890A2B-FD4F-4451-8361-D39D130FDC4C.jpeg 394453EC-40B8-480A-90F4-D391842B14E9.jpeg

The next stop was the largest waterfall in Europe, Gullfoss. (Not a great picture - more rain!)

Here's a professional photo:

For our next stop, we searched out the Secret Lagoon and admired the hot springs and all the bathers braving the chilly weather to take a dip. It's a social scene in the hot pools, at the Secret Lagoon, there were groups of people spending the day with cocktails in their hands. It looked good, except for the cold.

I was happy to see some elf houses at the Secret Lagoon!

Last stop of the day was the Hraunfossar waterfall. Stunning and well worth the trip.

That night we stayed at the Stracta Hotel. We enjoyed a few beverages and dinner at the hotel restaurant. I had lobster soup, which was delicious, and fish au gratin, also very good. Jeff had salad and steak. There are a lot of cows in the countryside of Iceland, and they do not allow any hormones, etc so the beef all tastes grass-fed.

The next day we headed across the street to a lovely little restaurant. The young lady behind the counter said "today we have fish and chips" and so that's what we had:

This sign made me glad we were there on a Monday, when they were serving fish.

The weather was chilly but only intermittent rain, so we headed to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which you can actually walk behind. We saw a lot of sheep, including one that was trying to follow his friends up a river bank to higher grasslands. He was having a lot of trouble hopping out of the river, and there was a crowd of people watching his plight, which I'm sure was not helping. He backed up to the field and his sheep friends baaaa baaa baaaad at him until he made another attempt. It was epic and really fun to watch. Oh and the waterfall wasn't bad either!

After the waterfall we thought we would see about the ferry to Vestmanneyja, a series of small islands where puffins live during the summer. Unfortunately, the ferry only ran at 7:45am and 8pm, so we missed the boat, literally. We got to check out the ferry landing, which was beautiful.

Next stop was the site of the volcanic eruption that disrupted European air travel for ten days in 2010.

We read there was an abandoned hot spring pool at Seljavallalaug that you could take a hike to, so we set off to find it. There was a bit of water to get across (and wet feet), but the views were spectacular. When we finally made it to the pool, it was very abandoned and quite cold due to rainwater runoff. Fun anyway.

Thinking you can't see enough Icelandic waterfalls, we headed to another one, this one at Skogafoss.

Next stop on our way to our hotel in Vik was Dyrholaey, the southernmost point in Iceland.

We rolled into Vik and ate dinner at Sudurvik restaurant. Jeff got a pizza and I got a hamburger. It was my birthday so we splurged and had some delicious pie a la mode for dessert. Tasty!

Breakfast at the Hotel Vik was a pretty good representation of what is served at most of the hotels on the breakfast buffet. I never knew I wanted to eat beans with eggs, but I do!

We headed out to find Reynisfjara, Iceland's most dangerous beach. The tide comes in strong and powerfully on to the black lava beach, which has caught a few people unaware and pulled them out to sea. The beach has a remarkable cove with basalt columns that look other worldly.

Down the road, we saw signs for a glacier, Solheimajokull, so we decided to take a walk. There is about a half mile path that takes you to a viewing platform. We saw a few other people walking further down by the glacier, so we threw caution to the wind and trekked down. Pretty amazing to see a glacier up close. The glaciers in Iceland are melting fairly rapidly, and are expected to disappear within 100-200 years.

It was our last day in Iceland, so we headed back to the city for our flight out the next day. Along the path, we saw these racks of drying fish. There was a giant truck pulling out loaded up with fish heads, so there is definitely a lot of demand. The interwebs told me these fish heads are a delicacy in Africa, so that solves that mystery!

When we got back to the city, we headed to the Perlan, a museum all about Iceland. They had some terrific exhibits about glaciers and volcanoes and a recreation of an ice cave, which was -10 to -20 degrees and mighty chilly. Forget what I said about being cold before then! This was a great museum with an outdoor viewing platform and a Northern Lights show in the planetarium.

Sadly, the next day we headed to the airport and flew back to sunny, balmy Texas. We had a great trip. The natural beauty of Iceland is truly exceptional and a sight to see!!!

Posted by Fun Susie 23:27 Archived in Iceland Tagged volcano waterfall iceland geysir Comments (1)

Slinging Through Singapore

Oh what a country!!

sunny 85 °F

They call it Asia Light.....

My sister Denise, the one who defected to Australia about twenty years ago, called me up several months ago and said, "Hey, Kev is going on assignment to Singapore for six months". I immediately thought .... "heyyyy I want to go to Singapore!". She told me to check it out and if we could make it, she would join us there for an adventure.

My first thought was - this sounds very expensive. I got online, fully expecting exorbitant airfare pricing, but lo and behold, Singapore Airlines was offering flights from Houston to Singapore for right around $1,000 round trip. Hmmm ok well that seems reasonable, what about the extravagant hotel prices I've heard about? I checked airbnb (disclaimer: technically, airbnb is not permitted in Singapore, so you may be rolling the dice, as we did) and found a two bedroom apartment overlooking the harbor for about $250 a night. We (interepid explorer husband Jeff and teenager son Ryan) were in for an excellent spring break adventure.

After sorting out the passports, adaptors and getting the appropriate neck pillows for flying on a plane for 24 hours, we set our sights on Singapore.

We departed Houston on a Friday at 6:30pm and rolled into Manchester ten hours later. After a quick deboarding so they could clean the plane, we got right back on, in the same seats and spent another 14 hours watching movies, reading, and eating. They offered me my first Singapore Sling on the plane, but it was not super tasty. I had high hopes for future Slings. Here are Jeff and Ryan by the giant "seed" at the Singapore airport.


We landed and breezed through security around 8am on Sunday morning, Singapore time. We jumped over to Kev's apartment and caught a quick shower before hitting the streets.

First stop, a quick pop down to the subway. Most people use mass transit in Singapore, though taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced.


The subway has all of these funny signs, reminding people to be polite:


Most people ride the subway because owning a car gets very pricey. To own a car in Singapore you first need a Certificate of Entitlement - which can cost $50,000 then you need a car, which has a 100% import tax .... “Crazy Rich Asians” comes to mind. As a matter of fact, we saw this pink Ferrari and orange McLaren. $$$$


We rode the MRT over to the harbor and had a stroll down by the beautiful waterfront. That's the Fullerton Hotel on the right. Looking fresh!


Ryan was intrigued by a lady selling ice cream, who had a very lively disposition. Ryan was asking about the various flavors and she basically spoke animatedly at him until he was scared and walked away. Pretty funny and I'm just happy I caught her photo.


By the way, I'm not clear why they would make durian flavor. Hands down the worst flavor ever.

While we were walking, we saw this photo shoot happening - very glamorous!


We stopped in to the Fullerton Hotel (formerly the post office, now a posh hotel) and jotted off a postcard to our parents. Lots of lovely things to look at on our walk:


We stopped off for a non-airplane food lunch at a waterfront spot near the baby Merlion (the protector of Singapore), with a view of the Marina Bay Sands. The big Merlion was under renovation (see the big tents behind the baby.)


Nise and I shared the lobster risotto and the broccoli avocado salad, which was amazing.


We thought we would check in to our lodgings after lunch. After a little back and forth with our host, we checked in and were really impressed with the view from the apartment.


I flipped on the tv as we were settling in, and all of my wildest dreams were met when this popped up:


Yes, that's live sumo wrestling.

We decided to get a few provisions for the apartment, so went over to the small market in Kevin's apartment building. So much Australian milk! Quail eggs!


They have pretty much anything you might be looking for, including European and American brands.

We tried to stay up as late as we could, but ended up crashing about 6pm that day.

Bright and early Monday morning, Jeff and I met Nise (Kev had to work, Ryan had procrastinated homework to finish) for an adventure on the big red bus. With our Singapore Airline boarding passes, we were able to score a great discount on the red bus - more than 50% off. We hopped aboard and started taking in the sights. The bus took us all over Singapore, with the first stop being the National Orchid Garden, which was very, very beautiful. There is also a fun waterfall you can go behind to take fun photos.


They have a nice gift shop full of orchid memorabilia and these fun Chinese name signs.


While we were waiting on our big red bus to come by and pick us up, we got to watch these adorable school kids.


A very auspicious start to our day.

We got back on the bus and found ourselves very close to the famous Raffles hotel, home of the Singapore Sling. Nise thought it was a little early (11:30am) to be tossing back cocktails, but Jeff and I assured her we were professionals, and could guide her. Now THAT is a tasty beverage!


The history of the why the Singapore Sling was invented is a fun one, basically the ladies were not really allowed to drink alcohol in public, so a clever and enterprising bartender at Raffles came up with a very liquory beverage that looks like fruit punch!

I don't know if you can tell, but we had a large time at Raffles. We each had two beverages, though I could have sat there all afternoon, doing a post-colonial era lounge with a sling in my hand. We couldn't stay long, however, because the bill was racking up quickly. (The exchange rate was favorable to the US dollar, so we had about a 25% discount going the whole trip.)

We had attempted to get our first proper sling at Raffles the day before, but as it was a weekend, the line wrapped around the porch and we thought, nah, we will come back. So, word to the wise, Monday lunchtime is a great time to catch a sling!

Here are a few photos from outside Raffles:


We got back on the bus and headed to the Arab Quarter for a bite of Murtabak from Zam Zam to absorb our Singapore Slings.


The Arab Quarter is a fascinating area of town. It truly feels like you have been transported to the middle east.


We went back and had a post-sling nap, picked up Ryan and met Kev to go to the sate street for dinner (that's not what it's called, but there were more than twenty vendors making delicious sate). We ordered up a passel of sates and Ryan tried his first sip of beer, which he promptly disgorged
(sorry no photos).


After that full day, we were tuckered out and headed back for more sleep.

Tuesday morning came and we headed to the Sands area to check out the Super Hero Cafe, located right by the art/science museum in the Sands mall. Needless to say, teenagers are going to be wildly enthusiastic about this place.


The drinks even have capes!


I ordered a Wagyu burger ($32) and it came in a very fun Batman box. Best burger ever.


Every where you look in Singapore, there is something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing to look at. Right outside the Super Hero Cafe, was this beautiful light show.


After lunch we headed to the lotus flower shaped Art/Science Museum. They had two exhibits going on. Downstairs was an epically cool digital art experience that was a major feast for the eyes.


This exhibit had a cool section where you could color/draw a spaceship, or car, or house and feed your photo into a scanner. A few minutes later, it came up on the big projector screen. Super fun.


The last part of the first exhibit was a light exhibit with hundreds and hundreds of light strands that changed color with the music. Mesmerizing.


On the way out, we checked out a bunch of signs with famous quotes about art and science. Love.


The first floor of the building has a lot of cool architectural details, like the whole of Singapore.


We headed upstairs for the minimalist art exhibition. Ryan pronounced the art as "lazy" and we had a bit of fun taking photos in a filter room.


We carried on to check out the famous Gardens By the Bay/Cloud Forest by the Marina Bay Sands, several enclosed soaring gardens. This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Singapore, with good reason. Plenty of stunning flora, fauna and views.


There was a lovely Japanese Cherry Blossom tree festival going on, to add beauty to what was already over the top beautiful.

After filling up on flowers, we took the elevator to the top of the Marina Bay Sands to have a cocktail. It was crowded and it was a rough go finding a table at happy hour time, but the view was spectacular. Unfortunately, it was so crowded, it was hard to take a photo, but it's still worth a trip (earlier though).


Kev took us to a great Italian place for dinner, but I was so tired, I don't think I took a single picture. We weren't stopping though....

The next morning Nise had booked us into a cooking class in Chinatown. We made a classic Singapore meal - chicken and rice - and won ton soup. We had a nice group of Aussies join us and had a great time learning about Singapore history and traditional cooking. (Ok Ryan did not have a great time, but had a decent time.)


Here are the official photos the teacher sent us:


After cooking class, we headed to a virtual reality game room (Ryan's reward for being pleasant during cooking class). They put each of us in a separate small cubicle room with a VR headset tethered to the ceiling, and the game commenced. We had to solve problems and work together (virtually) to move on the next level. We all managed to catch on fairly decently, though Jeff and Ryan excelled at solving out the puzzles of what we needed to do next. For example, in one virtual room, we were standing around until these two figured out that we needed to pick up two flint rocks and light a fire with some twigs, so we could light our arrows and send them flying toward the grass on the walls. I would have been in there for days. It was a major blast!

Here is our virtual selves:


And our post-VR selves:


After coming back to reality, we decided to hunt down the famous food stall that has received a Michelin Star. It didn't take long, and it was largely forgettable. Our chicken and rice was better!


Across the street from the food stall was a cute mural that was very popular with tourists, so we jumped in.


After all the excitement, Jeff and Ryan decided to go nap, while Nise and I went shopping for comfy walking shoes for me (lots and lots of walking!). We wandered a bit around Chinatown. It's definitely the Year of the Pig.


That night, we decided to class it up and headed to a seafood buffet at the Edge at the Pan Pacific. They had just about everything you could ever want to eat, including many Singapore specialties. Delicious!


Thursday dawned and we set out to find some Ramen for lunch. It's not hard to find excellent food in Singapore, and this tasty lunch was no exception. Yum


The mall the ramen place was in had all sorts of fun things to see, including this ubiquitous orange juice maker. For $2, the machine squeezes a bunch of oranges and gives you a fresh cup of juice. Two thumbs up!


There are also many pokemon things to see. I wanted to play this game, but Ryan had to take over after I was seriously failing in catching pokemon (or whatever I was trying to do).


After lunch, we set out for Sentosa, sort of the Disneyland of Singapore. There is a Universal there, a wax museum, and the like. We went to check out the Aquarium. But first, we took a ride on the Cable Car for some more beautiful sights of Singapore.


On our way to the Aquarium, we stopped in to the Hard Rock Cafe for a quick cocktail. Sling #2 (first one didn't count). 31fb4890-53f7-11e9-ac98-61d40b34d855.jpeg

The Aquarium was nice and had a beautiful enormous tank.


Though we were pretty tired, we pushed on to check out the Singapore Night Zoo. This is also on the top of many lists of things to do in Singapore. We arrived around 8:30pm after the crowds had died down and took the tram through the park. It would have been better if we had walked, but we were tuckered. I would do it again, but not after a full day of activities. We had the pedal to the metal in Singapore!


We woke up on Friday, ready to max out our last day in Singapore. Jeff and I decided to check out the Sands casino. Ryan opted to relax and rest his weary feet in the apartment. I went to fetch Ryan a few snacks and perused the offerings at the local 7-11.


Jeff and I headed to the casino. While going to the casino is free for non-residents, Singaporeans have to pay $100 just to walk into the casino. The Sands casino is a bit different than the US casinos. There is a great deal of technology, so most of the table games have an electronic component. We had some fun playing a bunch of different games that involved sitting at a console while watching a lady push a button with dice inside of it. Jeff hit a run of luck at the slot machines (many gold coins to be found on the machines) so we just about broke even. Winning! (Disclaimer - photos are not permitted in the casino). Oh! Also - there is no alcohol in the Sands casino, which kind of defeats the purpose of having fun, but maybe that's just me.


After the casino, we headed to the Sands mall food court for dim sum. Oh yes! Yum and Yum. The square item at the top right is called "carrot cake", but is not at all like carrot cake.


We clearly had not eaten enough, so we headed to meet Nise and Kev for afternoon tea across the street from the Fullerton Hotel. It was about $45 per person and included all the tea you could drink and tasty snacks you could savor. This was amazing. I ate about eight scones with the most heavenly passionfruit/mango jam. I never liked either of those fruits until I had that jam.


Filled to the brim, we took a little post-tea stroll down to the water and took a ferry ride.


We wandered past this tourism commercial being shot:


We were getting ready to have to head back to the apartment to pack up for our 2am flight back to Houston, but before we went, we went to check out the Supertree Grove. We had seen the trees from a distance, but were ready to get up close and personal.


Nise mentioned a light show was going to start in a bit, so we settled in to wait for it and we got to see this bridal photo shoot. Kev said, 'he's going to put his back out!".


Well the light/music show was an amazing sight and well worth the wait. It was also a terrific way to cap our incredible week in Singapore.


  • * * * *

I thought I would really like Singapore, but had no idea that I would be constantly enthralled with its beautiful aesthetic. It's one of the most beautiful and interesting cities/countries I have ever had the good luck to be in, and I would recommend a trip to see it to anyone!

Posted by Fun Susie 15:00 Tagged singapore Comments (2)

Adventures in Costa Rica

Pura Vida!

sunny 86 °F

You know where you are
You're in the jungle baby
You gonna die
In the jungle
Welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your shun, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, knees, knees

-Guns N’ Roses



I started worrying about my personal safety on the zip line high above the Costa Rica canopy weeks before we even got on the plane. The night before we were locked in to go, I started having visions of either falling to my death, being unable to stop, or even (the horror) not being able to leap off the platform. The last one I could see with great clarity (and embarrassment). The three of us got on the bus, two reasonably happy and one quietly, with cold, dark fear in her heart. At one point on the half-hour bus ride, Jeff said, “Are you ok? Are you worried? You are very quiet.” Me? Oh I’m fiiiine.

We arrived at the house of horrors beautiful zip line company building (http://www.canopypuraaventura.com/) and after a short wait boarded an open-bed truck for the zip lines. After a nice ride, which Jeff said gave him the feeling that we were Sandinistas headed for battle (Nicaragua is RIGHT next door), we pulled up at the first zip line. The Aventura team fitted us out in very sexy zip line gear and gave us a brief demonstration of “do’s” and “don’ts”. Mostly, hang on, don’t brake with your glove the entire way, keep one hand on the line behind you and lean back. Ok sounds easy. I especially liked when one of our guides described the DOUBLE zip line we would be hooked into. Ok, breathing a bit easier now.


We all marched up to the top of the first zip line and watched a few of the guides nonchalantly clip on to the line and jump off the platform. No hesitation, no concern for safety. The guides had the kids leap to their death jump first and they all survived, though RJ did say before one of the bigger zip lines “If I die, tell all my family and friends that I love them!” I don’t know where he might have gotten this type of thinking.

Far too soon, it was my turn. I held my breath, took a leap and went sailing down the zip line. I started spinning about half way down, which I didn’t enjoy all that much. When I got to the end of the first zip line, the guides had to give me a refresher on the basic rules, among them, lean back, and by all means, keep your right hand way behind you on the line. If it wasn’t obvious RJ and Jeff had no trouble whatsoever on their first jump and did not need remedial rule review.


There were eleven zip lines in all, and after the second one (the one where I leaned back and kept my hand behind me) I started to really enjoy the ride. By the fifth zip line, one of the longest and fastest, I was a bird in flight. I LOVED it! Sailing above the canopy, beautiful, lush green trees many, many feet down and in all directions. Truly exhilarating and adrenaline releasing! AMAZING!

We had a fairly small group of seven on our tour. Luckily, we were paired up with a very fun family from California – Heather, Rob and their two sons Casey (14) and Tucker (11). Here they are:


While some of us took a more conservative approach to riding the zip line, Rob and RJ both were unbridled and absolutely fun and crazy on the line.


I did ask one of the guides how many people go down the first zip line and decide, “This is definitely not for me” or "No way in hell I'm doing that again." He said that happens very frequently, but there is no turning back after going down the first zip line. You have to go down five or six more until there is a place the truck can pick you up. The guides will go with those who are petrified, in a tandem run. Be warned!

After we finished the zip lines, the guides brought us back to the building and we enjoyed some delicious pineapple and even more delicious native Imperial beer (thumbs up!). Casey impressed me by ordering a fish dinner, and when it arrived as a full fish, he did not skip a beat before tucking in to it. Excellent!


On the way back to the building, we saw a bit of commotion on the side of the road. Two bulls were about to fight, with an impressive cow crowd gathered around. They stopped when our vehicle stopped, pretending nothing was going on.


RJ was completely pumped up after the zip lines and wanted to go back the next day, but we thought we could never top how great the first trip was. As an added bonus, we also saw howler monkeys while we were walking from the end of one zip line to the beginning of the next one.


Also, we had a great photographer for our tour, Amed. Another warm, funny, lovely Costa Rican!


We stayed in the northwest area of Costa Rica, near Tamarindo, because August is the rainy season, but the rainfall differs radically in different parts of the island. The Tamarindo area offered the best chance of clear skies, and in fact it only rained the day we arrived and one other day for a few hours.

Although the location was dry, it was also several hours away from some of the more famous Costa Rica tourist sites. We decided to visit Rincon de la Vieja National Park and take in the rainforest and some hanging bridges. After a three-hour ride, we arrived and set out with our guide to see the flora and fauna.

At the entrance to our hike, we saw this lizard, which our guide kept calling “Jesus Christ”. I’m still not sure why. He was a colorful little bugger.


A mile or so in to the hike, Jeff spotted this millipede on the ground. Pretty cool!


We also saw a bunch of neat trees, this one grows flowers:


This one looks like it will throw apples at you in a minute:


It was very lush and pretty and the bridges were neat. Here we are at the bridge photo op.


We didn’t see any other birds or animals in the rainforest. Booooo.

After the hike, we had lunch at a cute little local place. This young lady lives on the property with her mom. Super cute.


Looking for other activities during our week stay, we decided to hit the nearby golf course, Hacienda Pinella. In these photos, you can see why this was probably a very bad idea. There are at least ten things wrong with a few of the golf swings in these pictures. No need to rub salt in the wounds by pointing them out.


The golf course was very beautiful and full of large, exotic trees and some interesting birds.


We had a great time, despite the limited golf skills of some of us. I’m not naming names; I’ll just speak for myself.


We did manage to hang around the hotel pool for a day or two and have a very enjoyable time. We also took a walk down the beach in front of the hotel toward Playa Avellanas, one of the top ten beaches in Costa Rica. At low tide, the water recedes and uncovers loads of rocks you can walk on. In between the rocks, you can spy all sorts of little oceans filled with crabs, fish and moss. Really neat.


The sand in some places is actually tiny shells, here’s a close up:


We stopped in to Lola’s for lunch. It’s right on the beach, and is probably the best beach bar I have ever been to. Cold Imperial, tuna salad, view of the ocean, it’s hard to find fault with any of that.


The namesake of the bar lives in the back. She’s one of the less happy pigs I have met, but she looks fairly primed for the chopping block (sorry Lola!) and we were told this is, in fact, Lola #2. We spent a fabulous afternoon at Lola’s.


We also took a ride into Tamarindo to check it out and secure a few provisions.


On the way into town, we saw another group of howler monkeys and babies! RJ was smitten and asked if we could plant a mango tree and get a monkey for the backyard. Uhmmmmm.


We flew into Liberia airport, and took a pre-arranged shuttle to the JW Marriott. Our shuttle driver, Gino, gave us a twenty-minute verbal tour of the area and then began playing us all of his favorite Cuban music tunes. Loved him. He was the fuel manager at the airport up until about a year ago, but found it to be too stressful, so quit to become a driver. He’s well suited for his new job, full of life and cheer.

The hotel was very lovely, it is remote, so that left us a bit of a captive audience for dinner, but that was fine. Our room (324) had a view of the beach and we saw some breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Stunning. While we were there, the sun rose each day around 5 am and set around 6pm.


Interestingly, there was an Herbalife convention going on at the hotel while we were there, so on the last night of our stay, we were treated to a fireworks display right outside our window. Bonus!

Oh, and one other thing happened! The night before we left, we received an email that one of our seats had been upgraded to first class. We decided to let RJ take the seat and get a taste of the good life. We imagined he would have an excellent time, with the free Sprite and rolls, etc. He sat up in first class by himself, and we were very entertained to see him at the end of the flight waiting for us looking like this:


Very cosmopolitan! (Yes, the flight attendant let him take not one, but two, of the airline blankets home.) He’s completely adorable.

Pura Vida!!!!

Posted by Fun Susie 15:09 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged line zip tamarindo Comments (1)

New Orleans With the Family

Why yes, that is a naked bike parade.

Well I passed by this little place a time or two before
And I liked the words they had painted on the door
Social Aid and Pleasure club
Are they drinkin', are they dancing
Are they havin' a ball
Are they making plans for the next Mardi Gras


Would you rather your children not see a naked bike parade rolling down the streets of the French Quarter at 5pm on a Saturday? If the answer is yes, you probably want to reconsider New Orleans as a family destination. If, on the other hand, you think seeing naked people on bikes is fine, pack your bags, it's going to be a great weekend!

Where to Stay

We flew to NOLA on a quick flight from Texas. We checked in to the former Iberville Suites, now one of two NOLA Courtyard hotels. It's a great suite hotel, and we were happy to discover it has recently been renovated. It's right on Iberville Street, in the heart of the French Quarter, so you can walk everywhere fairly quickly.

What to Eat

It's hard to choose among all of the excellent restaurants in the Quarter. I let Jeff make the plans this time, and he did an amazing job. Over the weekend, we ate at Brennan's Bourbon House (a block from the hotel), John Besh's Domenica and Luke. We were not disappointed.

At the Bourbon House, I had the BLT Wedge Salad a Crab and Corn soup sent from heaven to the table. Best soup/chowder ever. Unfortunately, I've just discovered that chowder does not look appetizing when photographed.



Jeff had "Gulf Fish on the Half Shell", which I believe is redfish cooked with the skin and scales on. He thought it was very good, but not as good as a similar dish he had on a fishing boondoggle at the Red Fish Lodge. I had a bite and decided, definitively, that I do not like redfish.


John Besh now has nine restaurants in NOLA, so I guess he's the new restaurant king of the city. Bam!

Domenica is in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, worth a trip in and of itself to check out the lobby. I had the lasagna bolognese and it is just as good as this picture makes it appear to be. It's even good the next morning, cold. I'm not saying I know anyone who would eat cold lasagna, especially if they had been drinking the night before on Bourbon Street.


RJ had a bacon and ham pizza, the best pizza I have had outside of Rome. Pizzas are half off during happy hour, Monday-Friday from 3-6pm and they will deliver. Yes, you read that right, you can have one of these phenomenal pizzas delivered to your hotel room. OMG so good.


Jeff had discovered Luke when he was looking at Domenica and made a reservation for Sunday brunch. It's in an old Masonic Temple, so when you step out to the restrooms in the hall, it feels a bit like you are at church. They have a very nice raw bar, so I dug my heels in and ordered up some gulf shrimp to start. Yum Yum Yum.


While we were waiting for the shrimp to come out, I was watching the bartender make a fancy drink that involved liquor and champagne and sour mix. Sign me up. It's called a French 75 and it's delicious and packs a punch.


They have all sorts of tasty cocktails just like the French 75:


For the main course, I ordered up the Eggs in a Jar, farm eggs on top of jalapeno grits, with fried shrimp. In case that was not enough, they seem to pour butter all over the top of the eggs. So right, if you have no fear of death.


Jeff ordered the classic shrimp and grits, with sausage. He loved it. The picture came out very blurry either because I was rushing to get back to my Eggs in a Jar or because I was half way into my French 75. Sorry.

RJ had bacon and eggs, which they graciously agreed to make into a bacon omelette. He thought it was good, but thought the omelettes he gets at home are better. What! What! I'll take that!

Things to Do

The city actually has many child friendly things to do. There is an aquarium, a zoo, riverboat rides, etc. This trip, we went up to City Park to check out Story Land, a small park with fairy tale characters and buildings.


It's pretty cute. Right next door, there is a small amusement park. Very old school and very charming. We checked that out a few years ago. This year, we were lured across the street to the new City Putt miniature golf course. There are two eighteen hole courses, a New Orleans course and a Louisiana course. They put us on the Louisiana course and we set out.


City Putt opened in May of this year, so it's very fresh and new and tons of fun. We took a cab to the park from the Quarter, but it's also possible to take public transportation.

Some might be surprised that the National World War II museum is in New Orleans, within walking distance of the Quarter. We found out that the Higgins Boats, instrumental in the amphibious Normandy invasion, were primarily manufactured in New Orleans. Also, historian Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers), who spearheaded the movement to build the museum, is from New Orleans. The museum has several buildings. The second floor of the main building, where you buy tickets, has a history of the events before, during and after D-Day.

The Boeing building has several aircraft from WWII, including a B-17E (My Gal Sal) Flying Fortress Bomber, a B-25J Mitchell Bomber and lots and lots of other planes. RJ was enthralled with the interactive display that allows you a 360 look inside each section of each plane. Neat. I really enjoyed the displays offering personal accounts and memories by veterans, also in the Boeing building. If you don't have vertigo or a fear of heights, you can go up on the fourth and fifth floor walkways and look down on the planes. Don't fall!



If you like live music, drinking and fun people, you will want to line up a sitter with Dependable Care (www.dependablecare.net) so you can get out and explore the city after dark. We have used this service a few different times, always with very good results.

Bourbon Street is certainly full of lively entertainment, 80s cover bands, rock bands, strip clubs. All of that. You can easily have a few cocktails and have a very enjoyable evening out carousing in the Quarter.

If you want something a little different and of a different caliber, Tipitina's is one of the city's most venerable and definitely coolest spots. Established in 1977, it's been around a good while and brings a wide range of musical acts to town. On a previous visit, we saw Sol Driven Train and Eric Lindell play there. The place has a great vibe and a good mix of young and old. Highly recommended. You can get a cab from the Quarter.

Another one to check out is the Maple Leaf, it's outside of the Quarter, but another institution.

  • * * * *

We all, young and old, had a fantastic weekend in New Orleans. We will be going back as soon as we can. Laissez les bons temps rouler!!!


Posted by Fun Susie 15:49 Tagged new orleans house suites luke bourbon domenica iberville Comments (2)

Barcelona with the Family - Si! Si!

semi-overcast 85 °F

“I could give you my word as a Spaniard," Inigo said. "No good," the man in black replied. "I've known too many Spaniards.”
― William Goldman, The Princess Bride


Fresh off a week of the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes of Paris, we set sail for Barcelona. Well, we caught a plane anyway. My nephew, Joe is a huge fan of the Barcelona soccer team. He pretty much sticks to a daily uniform of “Barca” jerseys. Over two weeks, only once did I see him wear anything else. The boys were very pleased to find Barca potato chips in the vending machine at the Barcelona airport. I was disappointed that Leo Messi, or at least a picture of him, was not in the bag.


We rented adjoining apartments in the gothic quarter of Barcelona. Back in the day, to keep out the marauders, Barcelona was a walled city. Many of the buildings date from medieval times and the street plan is a labyrinth. As such, the quarter is pretty tricky and you could very easily get lost for days if you did not have a person with an excellent sense of direction (Jeff) with you.


We ventured out for a walk and found La Rambla a few blocks over. La Rambla is a beautiful, wide street lined with shops and restaurants. It was raining, so RJ convinced me to let him get an umbrella.


We found a nice restaurant, La Fonda, which had a line of about ten people waiting. Promising! After a bit of a wait, we were seated in a fabulous upstairs dining room that made me feel like I was in a Hitchcock movie from the 1950s. Fabulous. I decided to start my “tour de sangria” at this point. We ordered up the paella and the first liter of sangria and proceeded to while away a very pleasant afternoon.


We tricked RJ into breaking out of his chicken nugget diet and into eating octopus at La Fonda. Excellent fun for his parents.


We left La Fonda loving life and decided to do a little shopping. We passed this shop, with a smoking giraffe in the window, and dove in. The shop sold pottery from the different regions in Spain. We found five bowls and a small bull and bullfighter that we just had to have. We also saw many of the giraffe’s friends, who were also smoking, in the shop. Not sure what that is about, as I have never seen any animal smoking. Well, not since that Grateful Dead concert in 1989. Just kidding.


The next day, the sun was shining, and we got on the big red bus (every city has one!) to go to Camp Nou, the Barca stadium. We toured the stadium, including the locker rooms and pressroom and also enjoyed the museum of Barca history, which is very well done. Joe and RJ scored lots of loot at the Barca shop, including a pen that plays the Barca song.


We got back on the bus and hopped off at Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s awe-inspiring cathedral. They have been building the cathedral since 1882, and it will not be completed until at least 2026. It’s spectacularly jaw dropping. It’s said that Gaudi was inspired by nature, and the pillar and branches symbolize trees rising up to the roof. Wow.


Barcelona has several markets, one of the most famous being La Boqueria, on La Rambla. We went in searching for the jamon iberico, ham from the black Iberian pig that is raised on an acorn-heavy diet. Jamon tastes similar to prosciutto, but it’s cured longer and tastes a bit different (better). We found it quickly, most of the meat stalls in the market have jamon, and some even sell these great little take-away cones full of it for a few dollars. Joe and RJ ate lots and lots of jamon in Barcelona. Good thing too, because when I went looking for it in Houston, I was shocked to see that it sells for $180 a pound in America. ACK! No more jamon for us!


In La Boqueria, we found a nice sit-down place for lunch. I shared the “black rice” with Joe. After I ordered it, Jeff said to me “you know the rice is black from squid ink, right?” Yup. I wasn’t a huge fan of it, but Joe and Denise thought it was pretty good. You can see what RJ thought of it in this photo.


In case you want to make it, and after that ringing endorsement, who wouldn’t, here is Ferran Adria’s recipe for black rice. I did buy a paella pan at the market, which could be used to make black rice, but I think I will stick with making non-squid ink paella.

Black Rice

1 lb 5 oz fresh squid, cleaned
8 cups fish stock
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup sofrito
3 cups paella rice
3/4 oz squid ink (optional)
2 tbsp picada

If the squid has tentacles, pull them away from the body. Cut the squid into 1-inch strips. Then cut into 1-inch cubes. Pour the fish stock into a saucepan, cover, and bring to a simmer. Put a large pan over high heat and add the oil. Add the squid. Fry for 2 minutes, until golden in places. Add the sofrito and continue to cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add a teaspoon of water if the sofrito starts to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the rice, stirring it into the squid. Fry for 10 minutes, stirring often. Turn the heat to high and add a ladle of stock, stirring continuously. Once the stock has been absorbed, add another ladle and repeat until 5 minutes have passed. Dissolve the squid ink in a little of the remaining stock. Add this to the rice, and then continue adding the rest of the stock. Cook the rice for another 12 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the picada and continue to cook for another 2 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and is just tender to the bite. Season with salt, then serve.

After the market, we took a cab to Parc Guell for a bit of hiking and some fine views of Barcelona.


Surprisingly, there are quite a few entertaining things for kids to do in Barcelona (besides eating jamon). Within walking distance of the apartment was the Barcelona Aquarium. We walked down La Rambla to get to the Aquarium and passed all sorts of mimes and street performers. Here is RJ with some type of angel from the underworld.


The boys scored some European style cool shades from a street vendor.


The Aquarium was pretty standard. Nice enough. We had some fun with Crush, the sea turtle.


Toward the middle of the week, we decided to venture out into Catalonia and take a day trip to Montserrat. We took a cab to the rail station (the guidebooks advise you to skip the city trains and take an inexpensive cab) and caught the train to Montserrat. Montserrat is a monastery and home to the Black Madonna. It’s also a site of religious pilgrimage. Montserrat literally means “jagged (serrated) mountain” in Catalan. Makes quite a bit of sense when you see the spectacular view.


We did a bit of walking around on the paths and then found ourselves on a bit of a challenging path. A memorable and fun hike, despite the inappropriate strappy sandals I was wearing.


We stopped in to the monastery to see the Virgin of Montserrat, also known as the Black Madonna (there is more than one in Europe). You can touch the gold ball she is holding. I’m still not clear for what reason, but I’m all in on good vibes and positive energy, and that seemed to be what she had, so I went ahead and touched it. Nothing happened. I was not struck by lightening, but I did feel like the ball had some energy. I asked the other touchers if they felt anything, but they all said no.


You can’t go to Barcelona without being amazed by the stunning modern architecture, down by the beach, and all of the Gaudi branded architecture close to the quarter. This is the water company building.


We stopped by Casa Batilo, one of Gaudi’s famous designs in the city. The house was built in 1877 and the roof is arched and is said to resemble the back of a dragon. Our cab driver told us locals call it the house of bones, given the skeletal appearance. I thought the building looked a bit like a beautiful fish with scales. Casa Batilo is in the “Block of Discord”, noted for having buildings by four of Barcelona's most important Modernism architects (Montaner, Gaudi, Cadafalch, Sagnier) in close proximity.


Just down the block is another famous Gaudi building, Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera. This one was finished in 1912 and was quite controversial due to its unique design.


When we set out to have a look at the Gaudi buildings, we were planning to have lunch at a tapas restaurant highly recommended by our guidebook. Our cab driver told us 1) it was waaay too early to eat lunch (it was 11:30) and 2) he knew of a much better restaurant we should go to, that was right around the corner from Casa Batilo, called Catalana Cerveseria. He told us normally there would be a line to get in, but if we went as early as possible (1pm), we should not have any trouble.

It’s always a good idea to take a local resident’s advice when it comes to culinary matters, so we headed for Catalana. When we walked in they had piles of all sorts of tasty looking sandwiches on the bar. We were seated at a table in the back and I ordered up prawns (yum) and cava (sparkling wine). I managed to totally gross RJ out by sucking the heads of the prawns (go ahead: ewwwww!). They were outstanding! RJ had more jamon and Jeff had some tasty sandwiches. Throwing caution to the wind, we also shared two desserts: a fantastic chocolate cake and a deliciously light lemon cake. Well worth the several pounds I gained (I think).


We were almost at the end of our journey, but we wanted to see the beaches of Barcelona, and it was Jeff’s birthday, so we took a walk down to the Mediterranean. We checked out Gehry’s fish sculpture, ate ice cream and dipped our toes in the water.


On the way back to the apartment, we saw a wedding party in the cathedral square. Very chic wedding guests and a novel interpretation on the "cans on the car" tradition.


Just before leaving for the airport hotel, we stopped in to a “fish pedicure” shop. We had walked by this a few days earlier and RJ was VERY intrigued. As a matter of fact, he could not stop talking about wanting to go back and try it out. I have pretty ticklish feet, and a fear of fish eating dead skin off my feet, so I told RJ he could go on his own. Unfortunately, the shop said children may not go alone, and must have a parent along for the ride. Oh. Jeff stepped up to bat (good man!). I will say I greatly enjoyed watching these two have fish nibble on their feet. Mostly I enjoyed the looks on their faces. And yes, they had very smooth feet after the pedicure. Fun!


All in all, we had a fantastic European vacation. RJ loved all of it (even the museums!) and we made some really wonderful memories! Two thumbs way up!

Details: We stayed at the apartments on the top floor of this apartment building (5A and 5B): http://www.regomir25.com/index.html. Great location, very reasonable rates and the air conditioning worked at least 50% of the time. Oh and it had an elevator! Yeah!

===Your subheading here...===


Posted by Fun Susie 11:35 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona gothic la quarter montserrat boqueria fonda Comments (1)

Paris with the family - Oui! Oui!

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”
- Oscar Wilde


At this point, I think it’s safe to say that my ten-year old son is living a much cooler life than I was living at his age. We just got back from a summer trip to Paris and Barcelona. World-famous museums, incredible food, international plane trips. This kid is pretty lucky.

We rented an apartment close to the Louvre with my older sister, Denise and her peeps, hubby Kevin and eleven-year old son, Joe. Denise was lured by Australian native Kevin many years ago to go live in the land of Oz, which everyone knows is full of convicts and their offspring (seriously, go look it up). The plus side to having lost my sister to the Australians is that we get to meet up in exotic locations every few years. Oh, and I have an excellent James Bond-like brother-in-law with a fabulous accent. Here's the view from the window of the apartment:


We took the red-eye from Texas, so despite really wanting to lie down and go to sleep after arrival, we pushed ourselves to head out to the Louvre. We hit the usual suspects, Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo (she has no arms but is very popular!), Nike of Samothrace and the Da Vinci collection.


At any time, there are at least a hundred people crowding in to get a photo and a look at the Mona Lisa. She has had a bit of a tough life. Over the years, she’s been stolen a few times and also more than one person has attempted to throw things at her. As such, she is behind bullet-proof glass and in a humidity controlled environment.


RJ was very intent on getting up to the front of the crowd for an up close view of Mona. I left him to it and went wandering around the Mona Lisa gallery. When I came back to find him a few minutes later, he was at the front of the mob crushed against the velvet rope holding the masses back from Mona with a panic stricken look on his face yelling “I can’t get out!” Luckily, a kindly guard unhooked the rope and let him out. His first mosh pit!

After a good night’s rest, we set out to find brunch. Just a block from the apartment, we came upon a fun-looking restaurant, Hippopotamus (http://www.hippopotamus.fr/). Mad cow be damned, I threw down the gauntlet and ordered carpaccio double chevre chaud and, despite the early hour, a bottle of wine. (When in France!) They had a nice cocktail menu, value priced at 4.60 euros, so Denise and Joe tried a few (nonalcoholic for Joe).



Full up on food and wine, we headed to the Metro to go to the catacombs (tunnels filled with bones). Denise won the challenging “figure out how to buy the tickets from the Metro machine” contest. I read later the Metro machines will typically not accept American credit cards (doh!). Unfortunately, once we arrived at the catacombs, we saw the line that was several hundred people deep. We might have toughed it out, but it was raining and the entrance was closing about two hours after we arrived. So, we threw in the towel and got on the big red tour bus (http://www.carsrouges.com/) for a rainy tour of Paris. Nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.


Right across from the catacombs is this nice little bar/restaurant called Café Oz. Fun.


We bought a two-day pass for the car rouge, so the next day we got right back on it. We disembarked at the Eiffel Tower, saw the long lines and decided to take the stairs. How bad could it be? Before we hit the stairs, we stopped and had a croque monsieur (yum).



We were happy to see a lovely gentleman pouring champagne at the top of the Eiffel Towe (clever!). Denise bellied up to the bar and secured our liquor and we all took turns toasting and sipping.


We also stopped off at the Eiffel Tower lounge on the way down and had a nice cocktail (lushes!) and listened to some groovy jazz. C’est magnifique!


For dinner, we stopped at L’Auberge du Louvre, where Joe impressed us all by trying escargot and Denise ordered to die for cheese fondue. The fondue was so good, I don’t remember what anyone else ate.


Our apartment was on a really charming street that had a fruit and vegetable market, a bakery and a small market. We brought home quite a bit of delicious bounty from these shops.


Around the corner was a bigger market, where I met and fell in love with French yogurt. The yogurt comes in these wonderful little ceramic pots that are so cute Denise and I both decided to bring one home. I’ve been hunting around to try to find French yogurt in Texas, but so far I have just found far too much Greek yogurt. Bah.


The next day was Joe’s eleventh birthday and to celebrate we got on the train for Disneyland Paris. While we waited, I checked out the vending machines, which are full of interesting snacks.


Disneyland Paris has a nice castle, designed to resemble the Neuschwanstein Castle. RJ was extremely delighted to see a Star Wars themed ride, called Star Tours. The ride took us on a space voyage, which disappointingly did not involve running into C-3P0, R2-D2, Luke or Leia. However, while waiting in line for the ride, we saw a multi-lingual C-3P0 speaking French, and for me, that may have been worth the price of admission to the park.


We were able to score a fast pass for several of the rides we went on (Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, Star Tours) and also for Space Mountain. I thought my head was going to fly off during the Space Mountain ride, so I think I may be reaching my sell by date for roller coasters. Denise concurred that it felt like we had just been blended. The boys, however, LOVED the ride.


We had Joe’s birthday dinner at one of the Disney restaurants. The most I can say about the restaurant is that it had cute plates.


As an aside, while we were walking through Disneyland Paris, Denise saw this cat (Marie from the Aristocats) on a shirt and laughed and said: “She reminds me of you!” The jury is still out on whether this is a sisterly compliment or insult.


Back in Paris, we decided to hit one of the more famous restaurants. L’Atelier de Joel Rubochon. Jeff and I had the tasting menu and it was pretty incredible, as was the bill.


A short digression: the morning of our L’Atelier lunch I decided to get a hair cut. I had been having a battle with my hair since arriving in Paris. The water is hard and my hair was looking a bit like I stuck a finger in a 220v socket. I thought it might help if got a little haircut. Just down the street from the apartment was what looked to be a hair shop, but turned out to be a hair school. Uh oh. After pantomiming that I wanted about an inch cut off, my student hairdresser began repeatedly piling all of my hair on top of my head and twisting it. “That’s odd” I thought, with foreboding in my heart.

When she started cutting, I was quite frightened to see different lengths of hair on the floor, some half an inch, some three inches. I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to adopt a horror filled look that would hopefully convey my emotions. I guess it did, because her teacher came over and finished up the job. My student hairdresser came back for the styling, which she completed with a multitude of round brushes, and it looked so good I didn’t wash my hair for six days. I am not making this up. I started powdering my hair and Jeff started calling me Louis XVI.

After the extravagant lunch, we walked over to Musee D’Orsay. Built in a former rail station, the architecture and contents of the museum are spectacular. I took a few covert (non-flash!) photos. I stopped taking photos after a security guard told me to put away my camera and mentioned “la police”. Luckily, Jeff and RJ were in another part of the museum and did not witness my skirmish with the authorities.


This Van Gogh self-portrait at the Musee D’Orsay is probably my favorite painting in Paris.


After the Musee D’Orsay we went and visited Androuet, a famous Paris cheese shop, and secured several unpasteurized and dangerous cheeses.


Here is the man in the cheese shop who helped us out. Yes, he had a lovely French accent and was delightful. (Forget what you've heard!) We had a nice cheese and wine party later that night.


On the walk back to the apartment, we stopped and added our own lock to the collections on a few of the Paris bridges. We heard that couples in love affix a lock to the bridge and throw the key in to the Seine. So that's what we did! (Kevin told us later someone told him it was illegal to throw the key in the Seine. Ah well.)


After all the running around, we rested up a bit the next morning, then headed to Musee Rodin to see David and the Gates of Hell.


Later that day, we took a lovely evening cruise down the Seine. Walking down across the bridge to the boat, we saw this photo shoot happening. I just like it.


The beautiful evening light made for lovely photos of Notre Dame.


For our last day in Paris, we took another train (the trains are clean inexpensive and easy to navigate) to Versailles. Denise had read that you can rent a golf cart to travel around the Gardens of Versaille. Jeff and Kevin decided to go with bicycles, so that left Denise, Joe, RJ and me with the golf cart.

The cart purveyors cautioned us that we should stick to the designated paths and if we went down a wrong path, the cart would automatically turn off.
Well, we had a map, but it was quite confusing and it was actually more fun to look at the scenery and listen to the classical music streaming out of the cart’s speakers, than to navigate, so we ended up with a dead cart inside five minutes. Hilarity ensued.


Inside the palace, we toured Louis and Marie Antoinette’s former rooms and marveled at the opulence. Marie Antoinette actually had a peasant village constructed behind Versailles so she could go and live like her subjects. Also, interesting fact, although she said "let them eat cake", cake flour was actually less expensive than bread flour, so it makes a bit more sense (maybe).


The next morning we said au revoir to Paris and headed to Barcelona for acorn ham, Gaudi and the intrigue of the Gothic quarter, to be covered in the next blog installment....

Details: The apartment we rented in Paris was on St. Honore and can be rented/viewed at this website: http://www.pad-a-terre.com/st-honore-paris-vacation-apartments). Disclosure: it’s a three-flight walk up, an excellent way to burn off Parisian wine, cheese and pastries.


Posted by Fun Susie 17:46 Archived in France Tagged paris musee d'orsay louvre rodin Comments (2)

Austin Food Trailers Redux

Revisiting a few fan favorites and meeting a few new favorites

sunny 95 °F

It’s becoming fairly obvious that we have no desire to be thin. People who think it’s a good time to travel to Austin, for the sole purpose of eating things from food trailers, do not have a Gisele Bundchon physique on their minds. I agree with the wise man who once said "Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." Amen brother and let’s go find some bacon!

First up, the city’s only pierogi cart, Hill Country Pierogi (E 11th St and Lydia).


We got crazy and ordered the Jalapeno Kielbasa sandwich and a selection of pierogi, including a bacon, carmelized onion and potato pierogi (so very right), a pulled pork with brown sugar sour cream pierogi, and a pizza-rogi (mozzarella, provolone, pepperoni and marina). Luckily, they were sold out of the veggie pierogi (the spinach stopped me cold).


These pierogi are not your grandmother’s (or even your mother’s) pierogi. The bacon pierogi was mouth wateringly good. My partner in crime and adventure, Jeff, loved the pulled pork pierogi. The woman behind the counter said they make the pork marinade with Makers Mark. Brilliant idea. I heard that the pizzas-rogi was also delicious, however, it was devoured by my junior partner in crime and adventure, RJ, before I could get in there to get a bite.

The jalapeno kielbasa sandwich sat ignored while we attacked the pierogi. RJ took one bite and said his mouth was burning. Jeff and I managed to finish it off without any trouble, and enjoyed every minute of it.


We were not down for the count by any means after a few pierogi and a shared kielabasa sandwich. We headed to Bananarchy (600 S. Lamar), a frozen banana stand. I couldn't help but hope Michael Cera would be behind the counter (see Arrested Development).


This banana stand was tended by two young ladies who looked like they just might spend a good part of each day adjusting their attitude with illegal substances. After a bit of thought, the young lady behind the counter told me they had two choices left: banana with coconut or banana with toffee. Uhmmmm. I'm not a huge toffee fan, and Jeff is an ardent coconut opponent, so I knew I would be entering the bananarchy experience on my own if I ordered the coconut.

I took a deep breath and dove in. Sadly, I was underwhelmed. Something about the chocolate was not quite right. Pass for me, though it's quite possible that under the right circumstances, these frozen bananas could be the best thing you have every eaten. I'm just looking for clues to solve the mystery.


Feeling like we needed to restore order after bananarchy, we walked across the parking lot to Osaka Soul, home of the okonomiyaki, a "Japanese style pancake containing several ingredients". According the sign on the trailer, Okonomi means "what you like" and yaki means "grilled". Oooo adventure!



We decided to order the wild mushroom okonomi. After a short wait, the man tending the Osaka Soul brought us our pancake. I'm not going to lie, when it arrived, I thought something alive was sprinkled all over the top of it, and I was slightly frightened. The very thinly sliced exotic mushrooms on the top were blowing in the breeze like strange, floaty insects. Appetizing? Not so much. Interesting? Definitely.


I can't say it was the best thing I have ever eaten, but I will say that Jeff found it interesting enough to eat at least half of it. It was salty and flavorful and like a dinner pancake.

In this same parking lot is Blue Dog Pizza. They serve up all sorts of interesting pizzas. RJ went with a plain cheese pizza and enjoyed it very much, as you can see.


The day wouldn't be complete without a stop at Hey Cupcake (Congress). I ate the best strawberry cupcake of my life and RJ had a delicious vanilla cupcake. I think they must put sticks and sticks of butter in these cupcakes. They even beat Sprinkles Cupcakes. Yummy.


We did try to walk off some of the calories at the shops on South Congress. There is a wonderful cowboy boot store right across from the South Congress food trailer park - Allens Boots. While we were there, I overheard another customer mention that Anthony Bourdain visited this store for his TV show, No Reservations. Lots of cool, very expensive boots. We did lots of looking but managed to resist the urge to get a new pair of Luccheses - it being 95 degrees outside and modeling the boots in shorts helped out tremendously.


We also stopped in another fun store on South Congress, Monkey See, Monkey Do. This shop is full of quirky, whimsical things like an entire collection of bacon themed items (be still my heart!). They had bacon soap, candy, mints, gumballs, drink tabs (eww?), toothpicks, wrapping paper, lip balm, wallets, gummies, and a humorous Mr. Bacon vs. Monsieur Soy bendable set ("You're going down soy boy!" "Not this time you greasy punk!"). Lots of chuckling is heard in this store.


They also had this great "I'm Sorry" set, which could be personalized based on the infraction. I thought it was hilarious, but Jeff only found it slightly amusing. I think it could be really handy. I probably should have bought it for future transgressions.


After a good night of rest, we headed to Stubb's BBQ for their gospel brunch. You have to make reservations in advance, and they have two seatings, one at 11am and one at 1pm. I emailed a few days before and the 11am was sold out, but we got seats for the 1pm brunch. It sounded like if you wanted a seat with a view of the band, you need to make reservations further in advance. The brunch is a a buffet with tasty brisket, chicken, jalapeno sausage, huevos rancheros, biscuits, grits etc. Delicious and the music was great too!


Here's my plate:


And here is Jeff's plate:


After Stubb's we took a tour of the Capitol. You can take a self-guided tour or catch one of the free organized tours.


We were not too hungry, but decided to go to El Arroyo (for Texans, Pat Green sings about it in Carry On) and check it out. We settled in with a Lone Star (the National Beer of Texas) and a "hit the spot" margarita. We backed it up with some guacamole, queso and finally, a nap.


All in all, we had a great trip, and lots of tasty things to eat and drink! Here's the happy crew waiting to get into Stubb's:


Posted by Fun Susie 12:13 Archived in USA Tagged food austin trailers stubbs Comments (3)

Key West with the Family

Tons of fun to be had in the Conch Republic with the youngling!

"Key West again? Don’t you go there a lot?”


Why yes, I do! I love Key West - it has the perfect mix of good, clean daylight fun (bike riding, walking, shopping, and eating at great restaurants) and nighttime fun (drinking, dancing and listening to live music). Not to mention the stunning sunsets! If I could live there, I probably would. For now, in my reality based world, I will keep living in Texas and visiting Key West as often as I can.

While I usually go to Key West with my girlfriends for a long weekend, my latest trip was all about the family. It promised to be different and interesting, and no doubt fun. We rented a two-bedroom condo in Truman Annex. Here’s the view from the living room at sunset. Sweet!


Great Places to Eat

Key West does not have a shortage of terrific restaurants. We did our best to hit all the favorites and a few new ones too.

Santiago’s Bodega – 207 Petronia.

Just a few blocks off of Duval is this little gem of a restaurant. Everything we ate was beyond delicious. Jeff and I shared the green beans (French style, with gruyere cheese and prosciutto, tossed in lemon-caper vinaigrette), the smoked salmon carpaccio (crostini, crème freche, capers), the beef tenderloin (seared and topped with blue cheese), and the spiced pan-fried patties of potatoes, house ground prosciutto and provolone cheese with scallion cheese butter). We washed it down with a pitcher of sangria (best ever). For dessert, I had the chocolate crepes. Yum Yum Yum!! These crepes, full of dark chocolate, are very close to heaven on earth.


RJ was very happy with the beef tenderloin and a big bowl of vanilla ice cream.


Latitudes - Sunset Key

If you are down on Front Street to watch the sunset, you will see "Sunset Key", a small island about half a mile from Key West. Westin has several cottages on Sunset Key, and there are also about twenty private homes. The Westin also has a great restaurant on Sunset Key, Latitudes, that is open to the public for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You can make a reservation online then go track down the ferry in front of the Westin on Front Street. Jeff heard the beach on Sunset Key is used for filming the Corona commercials and I can believe it. After a five minute ferry ride, we landed on Sunset Key. Latitudes is right at the top of the boat ramp, to the right.


We settled in to our beachside table and promptly ordered some frosty drinks. I had a key lime colada that was a lot like a key lime pie milkshake. Soooooo good!


For lunch, I had the lobster roll (yum) and Jeff had the grouper sandwich (also yum). Considering the location and included ferry ride, I was very pleasantly surprised by the lunch menu prices (sandwiches $12-$19, kids menu items for $6).


The service was fantastic, the setting lovely and the food delicious. Very much recommended. After lunch we took a five-minute stroll around the island to check out the cottages and homes. Not much else going on on Sunset Key - but worth the trip for Latitudes.

The Flaming Buoy Filet Co – 1100 Packer Street

I had read lots of glowing reviews on the Flaming Buoy and was pretty amped up for a tasty dinner. We were running a bit late, so we jumped in a cab to the Flaming Buoy (about $6 from Truman Annex).

We had the trio to start: a sampler of tuna and watermelon ceviche (I don’t even like watermelon, but loved this), lobster mac and cheese and grilled shrimp. I didn’t get around to taking a picture until we had attacked the trio for a few minutes – but here’s how it looked at the mid-point. Very good!


For entrees, I had the fresh catch (hogfish) with banana salsa (way more delicious than it sounds). Jeff had the snapper with lime butter sauce. RJ, livin’ la vida loca, had a steak, which he loved.

One of the owners is a big Star Wars fan, so his cell phone ringtone is a series of R2-D2 noises (cute!) and there is a Darth Vader helmet in the restroom, which you can play with if you ask nicely. He also had on an R2-D2 shirt, so RJ was beyond smitten with this place.


A caveat: RJ got sick right after leaving (not sure why).

La Creperie – 300 Petronia


Right across the street from the famous Blue Heaven is a very tasty crepe shop. We actually visited twice (it’s that good). The first trip I had a Galette (Organic Buckwheat) with Brie, Bacon, Granny Smith apple.


Jeff had the Galette with Prosciutto, Egg, Swiss cheese, with sautéed tomatoes in Herbs de Provence, basil. Jeff totally won – his was very, very good. I was not at all sure I wanted to eat a “buckwheat” crepe, but it was very tasty. Won me over for sure.


The second trip we brought our friends Audrey and Emilia along and I wisely ordered the Red Velvet (homemade raspberry chocolate ganache, fresh strawberries, almonds, English custard ice cream, raspberry coulis). Apparently, while I was in Key West, I no longer cared if I fit in my clothes.


The kids each ordered a chocolate crepe (they all could have split one) and gelato milkshakes. The kids loved watching the proprietor make crepes. If you can get a seat at the counter, it’s very good fun.


Blue Heaven – 729 Thomas Street (at the corner of Petronia and Thomas)

The path to Blue Heaven is well traveled by many locals and tourists alike. There are roosters/chickens everywhere, live music playing often, and giant trees to admire. Oh, and the food is pretty darn good. I had the lobster benedict (always good) and only considered for a few minutes whether I should have had the shrimp and grits (always divine). Jeff had an omelet, but I was absorbed in the flora and fauna and the joy of being at Blue Heaven and didn’t pay that much attention to what kind it was. My Benedict came with Betty’s banana bread – this stuff is magically delicious.


Schooner Wharf Bar - 202 William Street

Over in the historic harbor walk is the place Charles Kuralt visited and said that it “must surely be the center of the universe”. Live music is playing seven days a week, beginning at noon, with a short break between 5-7, and then resumes until around midnight. Bands, duos, and single acts – all take a turn playing at the Schooner Wharf. One of the best things about the Schooner Wharf, after the music, is the food. The fried fish is fresh caught and some of the best you will eat anywhere. This trip we also tried the Tuna Nachos and were blown away by how tasty they were. Sashimi grade tuna on a seaweed salad over crisp wontons, topped with wasabi drizzle, sesame seeds & scallions. Jeff said it might be the best thing he ate the whole trip. I’m still thinking about them. (I don't think it's very nice of me to not have taken a picture of the tuna nachos either.)


Hogfish Bar and Grill – 6810 Front Street, Stock Island


Just a short jaunt from Key West (few miles at most) is Stock Island and the Hogfish Bar and Grill. It’s a little tricky to find, but there are signs pointing in the direction of Hogfish along the route, once you are on Stock Island. I had the “World-Famous Killer Hogfish Sandwich” (smothered with swiss cheese, onions and mushrooms, on Cuban bread). It was just ok for me, definitely lacking in flavor. I read later that you are supposed to use the “house” hot sauces on the sandwich. That would have made it much better.


Jeff ordered the lobster tacos, which, to me, were better than the world-famous hogfish sandwich.


RJ was very happy with a hot dog.

Courthouse Deli – 600 Whitehead

Right across the street from the Green Parrot (best bar in Key West) is the Courthouse Deli, serving up one of the best Cuban mix sandwiches on the island. It’s cash only and strictly take out, although there are benches right out front that you can sit at where you are almost guaranteed to meet some kooky characters. The Courthouse Deli also has snacks, sodas, ice and other provisions.


Family Friendly Activities


One of the most fun things to do in Key West is to rent bikes and ride around the island. There are sidewalks on most of the roads and there are bikes everywhere. You can rent bikes from a few different companies, who will even deliver and pick up for free. We rented a tandem bike from Eaton Bikes (830 Eaton) for $85 for a week. They threw in a free helmet for RJ and a bike lock. We had a blast riding around the island on multiple days.


If you go to the bike store, you can buy a really fun bike horn:



We had a pool at our condo that we spent quite a bit of time in. We also spent an afternoon at Higg’s Beach. Jeff and RJ took the float out beyond the rocks and seaweed at the shore to the clear sand and water. They saw all sorts of fish and had a great time. I stayed on shore and had a nice nap under a giant palm tree. Oh life is good!


Jeff and RJ went fishing off the White Street Pier with a pole we picked up at the local Kmart. They got a bite from a needlefish but that’s about it. They still had fun, so it’s highly recommended.

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center

Right by Fort Zachary Taylor is the Eco-Discovery Center, housing all sorts of ocean exhibits, a small aquarium and a mock up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory. This place was really neat and it was free to boot!


Sunset Sail aboard the Jolly Rover II

This may be one of the few sunset cruises in Key West that is not geared toward adults and evening cocktails. The price isn’t bad - $39 for adults and $25 for kids. The staff is terrific and full of stories. We “fired” upon a nearby boat full of boy scouts and saw a terrific sunset. RJ was able to steer the boat for a long time, much to his delight. Argggh!


Dry Tortugas National Park/Fort Jefferson

We took the national park ferry out to the Dry Tortugas ("dry" because there is no fresh water) to check out Fort Jefferson and do some snorkeling. It's about two and half hours each way on the boat. Loads of people used the journey time to nap (Jeff included). It's a full day, the boat boards around 7:30am and returns around 5:30pm. The ticket ($165 adults/$120 kids) includes breakfast, lunch and snorkel gear. On the boat, you can sign up for a guided tour of the fort. However, there are only about 50 spots, and about 150 passengers, so you have to be alert if you want to sign up for the guided tour.


After landing, we decided to flow against the crowd heading out to tour the fort and instead grabbed snorkel gear. We found a nice cove and dove in to check out the fish. (Dramamine – check!) Heading over to the submerged walls of the fort, we came upon what looked like swaying seaweed, but were actually thousands of small, silver fish. Amazing! We saw lots of small fish, some tropical, and lots of yellow fin tuna and (I think) I even saw a small nurse shark. I say “think” because it swam away quickly (luckily).


After lunch and a quick shower on the boat, we took a self-guided tour of the fort. RJ was "creeped" out quite a bit by the noises and shadows. If you believe in ghosts, you won't have any trouble finding them in Key West or Fort Jefferson.

About ten staff members live out at the fort full-time. One staffer, who teaches third-grade in Ohio the rest of the year, told me her stay at the Fort is a “spiritual retreat”. I can see that, as it is very much in the middle of nowhere and after the tour boat leaves each day, it’s likely very quiet. The Fort does allow a small number of people to camp at the Fort each night. Here’s a view of the campground from the top of the Fort:



If you are lucky enough to bring along a babysitter (as our friend Deanna was clever enough to do), you can get out and check out some terrific music at the myriad of bars and clubs in Key West. A few favorites:

Green Parrot – 601 Whitehead Street

The Green Parrot has been named one of the best bars in America on more than one occasion. It’s well deserved, considering the high-caliber music acts that play every weekend, the quirky décor, including the giant parachute hanging from the ceiling, an askew “Balance” sign, the popcorn machine in the corner, the beat up dance floor, the pool tables and the top-notch juke box. It’s a self-proclaimed “No Snivelling” zone, with a preponderance of locals and a fair share of in-the-know tourists. I have never been anywhere like it, though I have been in other bars and thought “this could be like the Parrot, but it’s not”, either due to geography or just a lack of old-school coolness. We were lucky enough to catch the Damon Fowler Group while we were in Key West, and as a testament to the cool bands that play at the Parrot, they took a photo with Deanna and me. It’s the best bar ever.


You can hang around outside the Parrot at night or during afternoon soundcheck (Friday at 5:30) where you will see things like this:


The Top - Crowne Plaza/La Concha - 430 Duval

The Top is a great place to watch the sunset, and is also a great place to have a drink before and after peak sunset viewing hours. It's a neat view and a fun time. Here are the two bartenders in residence, Pat and Zak. Memorable times are sure to be had at the Top!


Schooner Wharf Bar - 202 William Street

Mentioned above under great places to eat, the Schooner is also a great bar to hang out at any time of day or night for the music. The music ranges from the amazingly talented Raven (Raven Cooper Band), who is not to be missed, to the Paul Cotton Band (from the 70’s band Poco). The nighttime brings dancing and revelry to the Schooner. It’s always a good time.

Durty Harry’s – 202 Duval

Rick’s is a giant complex of several bars in one location right in the heart of Duval, across the street from the usual suspects, Sloppy Joe’s and Irish Kevin’s. The house band, the Durtbags, play nightly at Durty Harry’s, a bar on the lower level of Rick's in the back, beginning around 9 or 10. If you go early, you may hear 80’s pop hits, but as the night progresses, the music typically gets heavier. After midnight you are more likely to hear Soundgarden, Muse, Sublime, 3 Doors Down, Buckcherry, Rage Against the Machine and similar. So if you are down with that, this is your place.

Pier House – One Duval Street

If you are interested in a quieter time, away from the sunset crowds, the Pier House, at the foot of Duval, has a great beach bar where you can sit and take in the sunset and even dip your toes in the water. The Pier House also has great food.

All in all, Key West with the family is loads of fun. There is plenty to keep the kids busy during the day and plenty to keep the adults busy at night.


I'm counting the days until my next trip!



Posted by Fun Susie 15:10 Comments (3)

Adventures in Alaska - Fairbanks

“There’s gold in them thar hills, boys”
-Mark Twain

We didn't know what to expect to see in Fairbanks. I thought we might see an old gold rush era town, updated through the Cold War. Jeff thought we would see tundra with miles and miles of flatland and no trees.

We thought, well, we are this far north, why not keep going? Onward ho! After a full day of hiking in Denali, we hit the road for Fairbanks. Two hours later, we checked in to Pike's Waterfront Hotel. (The waterfront was not that easy to find and is more of a small river than a large body of water.)


We only had one day in Fairbanks, so we made our way to Pioneer Park bright and early. Pioneer Park is a city park that has all sorts of attractions, such as a retired paddleboat with extensive dioramas of early Fairbanks, the train car that President Harding rode when he came up to drive the “golden spike” to start the Alaska Railroad, and for the truly daring, a room that is kept at forty degrees below zero, the temperature it can get to in the winter in Fairbanks.




Naturally, we had to go for the 40 below room. You can pound a nail with a banana, see hot water evaporate when you throw it at the wall and generally get really cold. The first thing to freeze is your nose, followed by your non-sock covered leg. RJ exited the 40 below room after about twenty seconds exclaiming "I wasn't born in the north like you two!". Warning: you may have locals shaking their heads at you if you actually go in this place. I guess if you live it, it may not be amusing. Pretty fun for us former northerners!


We also ended up playing the furthest north miniature golf course at Pioneer Park. Yes, I did score a hole in one on the ninth hole! Woohoo!


Just behind Pioneer Park is Alaska Outdoors, where you can rent canoes and bikes. With some trepidation, we set out down the river hoping to not tip, argue too vehemently or swing oars at each other. Jeff and I have limited canoeing experience together, as it has typically ended with one of these actions occurring.


We had a great paddle down the river. RJ even paddled for a bit and we saw a few nice birds.


There are not very many places to grab lunch in Pioneer Park. We stopped off at Grizzly’s Tent Camp Foods (it was either that or souvlaki) and ordered up hamburgers. This actually took about an hour. On our first attempt, the lone older man behind the counter told us to go walk around and come back in ten minutes. We did, but when we came back there was a not-very-quickly-moving line of about five people. We checked out the paddle boat next door and came back. After waiting another twenty minutes we were eating some tasty burgers. So, things move at a slower pace in Fairbanks.

We had decided earlier in the week to drive south back to Anchorage along a different route than we had driven north. We left Fairbanks around 4pm, and headed toward Richardson Highway. About ten minutes in, we started seeing signs for the North Pole. What luck!


Note the electric plugs for cars. In the winter, it’s so cold you have to put a little electric blanket on your car engine so it will start back up. These plugs are in most parking lots in Fairbanks. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!


Within an hour along the Richardson Highway we passed Eilson Air Force Base. We passed an army base shortly after that. Now that’s remote!


The scenery quickly becomes stunning on the Richardson Highway. As might be expected, it's not an overly crowded highway. We mostly had the road to ourselves.


The US bought Alaska from the Russians back in 1867 for the relatively low price of $7.2 million. Not even taking into consideration all the gold that was found in the gold rush, that investment paid out, big time, when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay by Atlantic Richfield in 1968. The pipeline comes into view a few hours outside of Fairbanks. Still hoping to see a bear, we hopped out and loitered around the signs describing the pipeline. No luck.


The guide book warned us there are few services between Fairbanks and Anchorage along the Richardson Highway. We fueled up in Fairbanks and picked up a few drinks and some popcorn. At the Buffalo Rest Stop, about three hours in, RJ scored a hot dog and a pile of nachos. We also decided to load up on candy, just in case. (Note: Bottle caps are better in memory than reality.)


I was very surprised to see this extensive selection of Pop Rocks at the Buffalo Rest Stop. I thought Mikey died from these things!


A few hours later we made another gas station pit stop and I was happy able to cobble together a late night dinner of cup o’noodles and orange juice. Jeff settled on a bag of jerky. A gas station dinner is a small price to pay for scenery as beautiful as this!


Shortly after the cup o'noodles/jerky stop, and just before dusk, we were pulled over by an Alaska State Trooper. Jeff has been telling me for years that a police car can clock your speed while driving toward you. I never believed him until this day. It turns out the speed limit had dropped from 65 to 55 some miles back. Jeff was motoring at what he thought was a reasonable 69 miles per hour, 14 miles in excess of the actual speed limit. The very nice Trooper checked Jeff's license for outstanding warrants and sent us off with a warning about the moose being out and frequently walking into the road.


The beautiful scenery continued into the night. The sun “set” around midnight, but it never truly gets dark. Even after sunset, you can see the landscape pretty clearly. These pictures were taken around midnight.


We arrived in Anchorage around 1:30am and checked into the Captain Cook. After a good sleep we headed back to Snow City for more crab cake benedict. While we waited for our table, we ran into Patrick and Bekah! How fun! After lunch we carried on to the Anchorage Museum.


The museum has a fantastic Imaginarium for kids, and a rich and detailed history of Alaska for adults. It was fascinating and very well done. Six thumbs up!


We didn't see any bears on this final leg of our trip - except for this one!


Overall, we had an amazing trip to Alaska. It's a highly recommended journey!


Posted by Fun Susie 06:30 Comments (1)

Adventures in Alaska - Denali

In search of mountains and bears-at-a distance, we headed to Denali National Park.

semi-overcast 60 °F

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
- John Muir

We wanted to see the mountains and we also really wanted to see a bear. Just one bear, out in the woods, not so close so that we would have to employ the “brown bear, play dead; black bear, fight back” rules, but close enough that we could maybe take a clear photograph. A sighting from inside the safety of the park bus or our car would have been preferable for me. The Anchorage Zoo had some interesting advice for bear interactions, beyond the standard rules, including: “If the bear starts to feed, fight back.” Feed? You mean if it starts EATING me I should fight back. Oh my.

So we headed north. The trip from Anchorage to Denali National Park (and Mount McKinley) on the George Parks Highway is about a four-hour drive, depending on the amount of gawking at “scenic view” turnouts you want to do. About an hour out of Anchorage, the Alaska Range starts to come into view. The range is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (I am dying to insert a Nemo joke here). We decided to skip the “in-town” hotels right at the entrance to Denali in favor of a mom and pop (or mom and mom in this case, as it is run by two women) place down the road about ten miles, McKinley Creekside. It didn’t look like all that much from the road, but we soon grew to love the staff, restaurant (more later) and cabin. Here’s the view from the restaurant and the inside of our cute cabin.


Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain peak in North America and is very elusive. Only thirty percent of visitors to Denali see the top of Mt. McKinley, as it spends the majority of time hiding behind clouds. They have tee shirts in the gift shops that say “30% Club, Been There and Actually Seen It”. The forecast called for clouds for the three days we would be at the park, so we decided to go all in and book a flight-seeing tour with Denali Air. Prices for these flights are not for the faint of heart. In fact, for three of us, the one-hour flight cost more than tuition for my first semester of college back in 1984. Ok, so it was a state school (go SUNY!), but nonetheless, it’s pricey. Is it worth it? YES.


There are moments in life I call “Nemo” moments. I had one snorkeling in the Cayman Islands a few years ago. It was sunny, the clear water was shallow, the sand was pure white, and a burst of brightly colored tropical fish came into view that made me keep saying “WOW! WOW! WOW!” into the snorkel tube. Spectacular. The sight of the top of Mt. McKinley was a Nemo moment.


Truly breathtaking. We were left speechless.

The Park Service has taken great pains to keep Denali wild. To that end, the only way you can see past the first thirteen miles into the park is by boarding a park bus (reservations required months in advance). They offer various tours into the park. If you want to try to see Mt. McKinley, you have to go at least to Eielson, an eight-hour school bus round trip from the park visitor center. Tours leave all day long; we opted to leave at 8am.


We boarded our bus armed with a packed lunch from the Creekside restaurant, travel scrabble and one iPod. We took the last available seats in the second to last rows of the bus. Behind us was what appeared to be a nice family of four, two parents and two quiet young boys, one sleeping and strapped into a car seat. Our tour guide, J.J., introduced himself and started the narrated tour and told us if we were lucky, we would hit a “grand slam” and see wolves, bears, dall sheep, moose and caribou. Keep your fingers crossed!

About an hour into our tour, the boys behind us started waking up and getting restless (singing songs, poking each other, etc.) Shortly thereafter, we heard the first of many “Tritt! Cut that out boy!”. Tritt and Chase (we came to know their names very well) proceeded to annoy their father for the remaining seven hours of the journey. This was only kind of fun for the family who sat in front of them. I caved first and begged Jeff for the iPod. Ahhhh. RJ was not immune to the restless bug; he wanted to begin playing Scrabble almost immediately after we got on the bus. We thought he should enjoy the scenery for a while, but that’s a lot like torture for a nine-year old, especially when there’s a lot of mountains and no animals. So we played Scrabble for just about the entire trip. Here’s our first game (I was trying to have a theme.)


We made some new friends at the Creekside who were honeymooning in Alaska, Patrick and Bekah. They took the 7:30am tour and told us about two different buses they had been on (you can hop on and off if you want, but there’s no guarantee the next bus will have a seat). Their first bus had a crying baby and a very sassy bus driver who dropped off a passenger along the route with a long kiss and also hollered at another bus driver something about having her cooler. Their second bus had a family of about ten who did not enjoy each other’s company and argued for most of the trip. A sample argument between a teenage girl and another family included a very long discussion about Girl Scout cookies and ended with the teenager fuming: “I don’t even like Somoas!”. Suffice it to say, children of all ages do not appear to overtly enjoy the long bus ride.

Patrick and Bekah saw an actual bear and two cubs at the end of their bus ride. They opted for the full ride all the way to the end of park road (about eleven hours). We kept running into each other in the Denali area and also in Anchorage (at the Snow Goose!). Here's a photo of our new friends from the Chicago area (they are on the left). Also in the photo is their lovely friend from Alaska, who is a teacher on the Kenai Peninsula.


We got to Eielson after about four hours on the bus and exited the bus for a 45-minute break. Mt. McKinley was hiding, but it’s still a stunning place to have a picnic lunch.


Over the course of the morning, we had seen caribou, a moose and dall sheep. The dall sheep were described as “see those white specs on the mountain side, they are dall sheep”, so I’m not sure it counts. After lunch, we saw more caribou and a “grizzly bear”. The bear was about a mile away and was supposedly sleeping near a rock. Jeff said he could maybe see it, but it looked like a rock. RJ and I did not have any luck. Perhaps we should have gone for the really expensive binoculars. In the end, we had about ten animal sightings and Eielson was a fantastic place to have lunch. For the adults, it’s two thumbs up.


We went back to the park the day after we took the bus tour and drove the thirteen permissible miles and parked our car. From the parking area, we took a hike up Savage Rock and also along Savage River, both nice hikes. The hike up Savage Rock started out pretty reasonable until we arrived at the “trail closed” sign.


RJ was very bent on reaching the top of the mountain, so we kept going on an old trail that was made of a lot of loose rocks. I stopped about three-quarters of the way up because I thought for sure someone was going to break an ankle and would need assistance down the mountain. Jeff and RJ blazed on up to the top of the mountain. A good bit later, they made their way, very carefully, down the mountain. No injuries and lots of fun.


The Savage River hike is pretty and there are lots of places you can sit down and put your feet in the (very) cold water.


We all agreed the day of hiking was much better than the day on the bus. However, we didn’t see any animals on the day of hiking except this caterpillar.


Beyond long bus rides and short plane rides, there are all sorts of other activities around Denali for fun and adventure. You can go on a rafting trip or go fly-fishing, to name a few. We all decided fly-fishing sounded like a very good way to spend an afternoon. We didn’t have equipment or inside information on where the fish were jumping, so we decided to hire a guide from Denali Fly Fishing to take us out. Generally, the minimum age for the tour is twelve, but each tour only has three people, so they will take younger kids if you have three people in your group. The minimum age probably has a lot to do with the chattiness of young people and the potential of the other members of the fishing party getting hooked by a young person’s line. Of course, I am only guessing. But yes, I was happy to have had a recent tetanus shot.

We met our guide, Austin, at the fly fishing cabin, which was down a gravel road. When you rent a car in Anchorage, they make you sign a waiver that you will, under no circumstances, drive on gravel roads in Alaska. This is virtually impossible to avoid, so you will be lying when you sign it. We got a flat tire the next day, so I am sure the car companies know the score. When we called the rental company to ask them if they could help us with the flat, they basically laughed and said “You’re in Denali with a flat tire? You better go get it fixed.” Could we change out the car in Fairbanks? “Not without paying an exchange fee.” Lovely. Luckily, fifteen miles from the park entrance is Healy, where there is an auto shop that will fix your tire for thirty dollars. Crisis averted!


But back to the fly-fishing, we suited up in waders and hit the road in the company van.


At our first fishing hole, Austin gave us a quick lesson on fly-fishing. He kept repeating: “It’s like hitting a nail with a hammer”. Jeff took to the instruction immediately and was looking like a professional in five minutes.



With my lack of natural athletic ability, I was still struggling with that hammer hours later.


RJ got a lot of points for enthusiasm and fewer points for form. RJ was however, the only one to catch a fish all day. (In fairness, Jeff did catch a tree and had it on his line for about a half-hour).


RJ was also the only one to fall into the water, onto his bum. In this photo, RJ had just fallen and was telling us he needed to go home and get some dry pants. (Not going to happen.)


Despite the risk of a wet bum, walking in waders in the water and tall grass is really fun. You don’t have to worry about getting your shoes dirty or about animals, like snakes (they are not a worry in Alaska). I think I need a pair.

So what did we eat while we were in the Denali area? McKinley Creekside has a terrific little restaurant right on the property where we ate our best meals (chicken pot pie, meatloaf, pasta bake). All yummy. The most memorable part of the restaurant is the dessert case. I ate the best brownie of my life from that case (RJ agreed) and Jeff ate the best peanut butter bar of his life from that case. I am very sad I don’t have photographs of those two things to look back on fondly (what was I thinking!). I asked one of the waitresses who the baker was and she said, “Oh, Joe makes everything. To tell you the truth, I am having a very hard time not falling in love with him”. Well said. We tried two other places for dinner: 229 Parks, which is one of the fancier places in the area, and Nenana View, but were disappointed by the meals at both.

As a footnote, we did end up seeing Mt. McKinley! On the day we went back to hike at Savage Rock and River, as we were driving along the park road, Jeff suddenly said "What!" and pulled the car over. Lo and behold, the skies had cleared and we could see the top of the mountain from the park. It's huge, it dwarfs everything around it. We took lots of pictures, but it's tough to capture the white mountain on a sunny day. Here's the best effort:

And yes, we did pick up a magnet with a view of the mountain and "30% Club" written on it. Who could resist?

Next up… Fairbanks, the North Pole and the stunning Richardson Highway.

Posted by Fun Susie 07:26 Archived in USA Tagged fishing mount air fly denali mckinley Comments (3)

(Entries 1 - 10 of 12) Page [1] 2 »