Oxford, England

I’ve taken 5+ trips to Oxford this past year for work, and each time a little more charm rubs off on me.  I adore this scholarly college town, and the history that comes along with it.  If you are planning a vacation to London, and want to include the countryside, I highly recommend including Oxford in the itinerary.  I always think of Oxford fondly as the place which inspires me to sit by the fire at one of the small pubs, write my life’s masterpiece manuscript, and then throw it in the fire and walk away smiling.  There is so much academic inspiration in this small town, I simply adore it.  Below are a few of my highlights.

HOTELS: I’ve stayed in a bunch of different hotels in Oxford, each one with its own benefits.  I booked through hotels.com so as to receive rewards.

  • Malmaison – Really cool ambiance.  Old prison turned into a hotel.  I have stayed in the main building (“cell” rooms) and the detached building.  I prefer the main
    malmaison

    Malmaison Entrance

    building as the rooms are larger and layout is better.  The hotel is a short walk from the main drag in town, but everything is walkable.

  • Old Bank Hotel – LOVE this hotel.  Great room setup and excellent location.  It was hard to get to driving myself (I am not familiar with high street traffic regulations).  The restaurant in the hotel was a nice surprise and I enjoyed the free walking tour that the hotel was able to set up for me (tip your guide!).
  • Old Parsonage Hotel – beautiful, high end hotel.  It has an intimate charm to it and is close to most of the campus and some historic bars.  A must visit, even if you don’t stay there.
  • Macdonald Randolph Hotel – I loved the bathtub in my room.    Afternoon tea is wonderful and the hotel has a vintage feel that is welcoming.
  • Vanbrugh House Hotel – My first room was too noisy due to a campus event, but the hotel moved me without an issue.  The reception desk was very friendly and accommodating.  Good location and less expensive than the others.img_4729

RESTAURANTS: Most of my meals were on the run there, but here are a few spots that stood out to me:

  • Turl Street Kitchen – wonderful farm to kitchen food.  Everything is seasonal and the menu is changed constantly.  Warm atmosphere and in the heart of campus.
  • The White Rabbit – great pizza and bar scene.  Lots of college kids having beers and pizza.  I ordered for takeout and was happily surprised by the pizza.
  • Isis Farmhouse – lovely outdoor seating along the Isis River (River Thames).  You have to walk down the river path a bit to get there, and their hours can be funny (check online first), but worth the adventure.

BARS: A good drink is always appreciated.

  • Eagle & Child – a cozy, quaint pub, deeply rooted in Oxford’s history. This rustic little pub dates back to the 17th century. It is best known as the meeting place of the Inklings, a literary group including J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who would regularly meet in the Rabbit Room at the back of the pub to discuss their own and other works of literature.
  • Turf Tavern – tricky to find (down a narrow winding alleyway) but another fun spot to have a drink and some fish & chips. The pub has a long list of famous patrons, from the fictional, (Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse), to the real, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Bill Clinton.
  • The Head of the River – excellent place for a casual meal and pint on a sunny day.  They have an outdoor beer garden facing the Thames River.
  • The Bear Inn – simply cool place to have a beer.  The ceilings are low in Oxford’s oldest surviving pub, whose history can be traced back as early as 1242. It’s in a dark
    fullsizerender

    The Bear Inn

    corner along some side streets. The spot is also known for its bizarrely large collection of old ties, representing sports teams, colleges and university clubs, etc.  Their Sunday roast is awesome too.

  • Old Bookbinders Ale House – Another traditional pub – cozy yet quirky, full of character.  Located in Oxford’s trendy Jericho area, the food is french-inspired and quite tasty.
  • The White Horse – GREAT English pub food.  The bar is full of nooks and crannies and the menu is very reasonably priced.  Yet another must-visit!

ACTIVITIES/SIDE TRIPS: Just a few fun things to do around campus and in the neighboring towns.

  • Christ Church Cathedral Choir Sing – a must.  The music is heavenly and completely captivating.  oxford
  • Old Bank Walking Tour (contact the hotel for details and signup).  There are a number of other free walking tours there as well – just google.
  • Harry Potter walking tour, if that’s your thing.  Here’s one: TOUR
  • Tours of other film locations (you can explore any of these on your own too). LOCATIONS
  • Drive to Bath.  This town is adorable to explore for a day and there are roman baths to enjoy.
  • Stonehenge – because you sort of have to if there.

    stone

    Stonehenge

 

Kauai, Hawaii

An oasis from the everyday chaos in our urban lives.  Up with the sun, down with the sun. We loved every aspect of our first trip to Kauai (May), so much so that we scheduled another for a few months later (October)! Of course, there is always the beach, surfing, paddleboarding, etc…but below are a few of my highlights from both trips, aside from the standard beach activities:

Type of Trip: Self Planned 

Hotel: St. Regis – GORGEOUS, luxury hotel on the north shore of the island.  They spared nothing in creating this beautiful hotel.  If you don’t stay here, then you must at least come for a sunset cocktail on the balcony – stunning views overlooking the ocean.

Transport: LAX-LIH (non-stop), then rental car at Advantage.  The first time we went, we tried to go cheap on the car and it was a mistake.  We rented at Fox.  Not only was it far off the airport, but it took an hour to leave the lot due to the sales associate trying to upsell us on every insurance policy (even after I had refused multiple times).  Advantage was a much smoother process and an easy return.

Activities:

  1. HIKING: Kauai has some epic hikes, many of which we have explored.  Our favorites (within an hour drive of the resort) were:
    • Nualolo Trail: (7.6 miles round trip) This hike in Waimea Canyon started out pretty rough.  The mud was slippery and you are mostly descending for the first half through covered forest (hence, poor traction led to multiple slips).
      img_7238

      Nualolo Trail

      If you wait it out, the trail opens up around mile 2.5 and then the extreme dropoffs begin!  It is gorgeous, and slightly frightening.  I have a fear of heights, so I almost couldn’t make it through.  Glad I did though, as the vista is crazy cool. We hiked back the same way. The Nualolo Cliff trail, which connects this hike to the Awaawapuhi Trail is closed due to erosion.  We hope to try the Awaawapuhi trail next trip.

    • Hanakapiai Falls Trail: (6.9 miles RT) This hike shares the first 2 miles with the famous Kalalau Trail (which you need to request a permit far in advance for).  After that, you head uphill to a massive waterfall.  We packed a small lunch, which we ate at the base of the falls.  A must do, especially if you do not have a permit for Kalalau.
    • Sleeping Giant:  (4 miles RT) This was a nice one, if time is an issue.  It was short and steep, with cool rock structures and views from the top.  We have done this one multiple times.
    • Secret Beach: It’s not really a secret…but you should go. Beautiful, expansive beach with huge cliffs behind you.
    • Okolehao Trail: (5+ miles RT) This one was aggressive as we couldn’t seem to locate the end…we hiked past the main vista viewpoint (2.5 miles) and continued into the rope-assisted trail.  It was muddy and didn’t seem to be much traveled.  The vistas leading up to this point were cool though, so next time we will likely stop there.
    • Wai Koa Loop: (5 mile loop) an easy, muddy trek that is all flat. It guides you through the botanical gardens.  Make sure to stop at the Stone Dam.  It’s like a little Garden of Eden.
    • Some other sites I found helpful: Full List and Top Five
  2. ADVENTURES:
    • Koloa Ziplining:  Super fun!  The guides were awesome and the ziplining cords are long and fast.  It cost around $150/each but we felt like it was one of the best activities we have done there.
    • Luau Kalamaku: We ordered discounted tickets HERE for around $95/each, which included dinner and the show.  It was totally touristy, but we enjoyed it.  I thought the food was fine but the show was a neat experience.  Either way, it gave us something different to do on our vacation!
    • Self-driving: We drove around the perimeter of the island to check out Waimea Canyon State Park.  The drive itself wasn’t that pretty but the views once you reach the canyon are indescribable.  It is not that dissimilar from overlooking to Grand Canyon.  fullsizerender-2
  3. RESTAURANTS:
    • Tiki Man Pizza: We really liked this place!  Went on a Saturday night, there was a good crowd and live music.  The pizza was fine, it was more about the atmosphere.
    • The Dolphin: felt overrated.  It was expensive sushi, and the service was slow and disorganized.  Not a favorite.
    • Bar Acuda: cool vibe, tapas.  Was expensive but nothing stood out to us.
    • Kilauea Fish Market: excellent fresh fish and poke!
    • Lighthouse Bistro: this was a favorite.  Romantic vibe but not overly done.  Our waitress made the dinner even better.  She was hilarious and honest about which items to order.
    • Foodland (Grocery): great spot to pick up a few items for hiking lunches, snacks and breakfast in your hotel room.  The sushi and coffee were great as well!
    • 9th Island Sports Pub & Grill: we were looking for a spot to watch the Cubs baseball game and stumbled across this gem.  Great crowd, solid bar food though they don’t have a liquor license.  However, they do let you go to the grocery store next door, buy beer and bring it into the pub at no cost!  Awesome spot to watch sports.
    • Kountry Style Kitchen: fabulous greasy spoon.  Breakfast was big and hearty.
    • Hideaways Pizza Pub: we were looking for a restaurant outside the hotel that we could walk to – this was it.  Despite the reviews, we thought it was just fine.  Lots of families with kids and local residents.
    • Tip Top Cafe: a bizarre favorite, near the Lihue airport.  Typical Hawaiian fare, we stopped here after landing both trips.  Full of locals and inexpensive.  We ordered the “surfer combo” (or something like that).  I still crave the macaroni salad.

Mahalo, Kauai!

 

 

 

 

 

Kyoto, Japan

Continuing on from my TokyoHakone posts…Day 6 marked our arrival in Kyoto, Japan.  Kyoto, the old capital, is full of religious sites and quaint neighborhoods.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part III: Kyoto (4 days, after Tokyo and Hakone)

Hotel: Guesthouse Sanjyotakakura Hibiki – very simple guest house in an AWESOME location (prepay via paypal), booked through Booking.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Odawara to Kyoto on Shinkansen Bullet Train), then taxi to guesthouse

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Kyoto in mid-afternoon.  Our hotel was simple but the location was fabulous.  Lots of little bakeries, coffee shops and boutiques.  I tend to prefer spending less on hotels during vacations, as we are never in them.  Location is preferable for me.
    • Samurai show and class!  Based on one of my client’s recommendations, we signed up for a show and full-costume lesson at the Kembu Theater.  Worth every penny.  The show was entertaining and showed us a glimpse into traditional samurai culture.  Afterwards, we got to pick our “costume” and learn a simple routine to perform.  The teachers were patient and funny – they took pictures and video with our phones.  Seriously so fun.img_7742
  2. DAY 2: Tour eastern Kyoto by foot – the best way to explore.  The trains are not as accessible, compared to Tokyo, so we ended up taking cabs a lot.
    • Fushimi inari taisha: the famous red gateway of the Shinto (God of rice) shrine.  The torii gates are a beautiful work of art, though I am terrible with crowds and this one was slammed with people.  That made the whole experience rather
      img_7769

      Torii Gates at the Shinto Shrine

      claustrophobic for me.  My recommendation is to GO EARLY (we went around 11am).  Another observation, the area surrounding these sites offer tons of kimono-rental shops…so you see hundreds of foreigners dressed in traditional kimono dress.

    • Kiyomizu-dera Temple: the views of Kyoto are excellent from this spot (as it is at a higher elevation).  Too many people for my taste though.  Pick your arrival time wisely.
    • Shopping: in this whole area (Higashiyama), there are lots of cute shops selling tea sets, pottery, etc.  We spent a few hours exploring this part of “old Kyoto”.
    • Gion: the Geisha District.  I LOVED this neighborhood.  Lots of wood-paneled facades on the private tea houses, lanterns dimly lit in the evenings, excellent restaurants.  Walk down Shijo Avenue and then alongside the canal that runs parallel.  Go around dusk (6pm-ish) for the best chance to see a Geisha heading into one of her appointments.  We were lucky enough to see one in a taxi!
    • Though we didn’t go out after dinner, we did have a local bartender tell us that Pontecho Street is an excellent place for food and Kiyamachi Street for drinks.
  3. DAY 3: Continued exploring the sites in Western Kyoto.
    • Ryoanji Temple & Zen Gardens: This was a highlight of the trip.  We woke up early so as to arrive to the gardens by 8am, when it opens (we took a taxi).  fullsizerender-3It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.  Super peaceful and a great place to meditate and reflect.  The landscaping is something to be admired as well!
    • Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion): you can walk here from the gardens above.  Still a great idea to get there early – we arrived around 10:30am and there were tons of school tours.  Still enjoyable with the crowds though.  The pavilion is stunning, especially reflecting on the pond.  We stopped at the tea house here, paid 500 YEN to enjoy traditional matcha tea and a small cake.  fullsizerender-1
    • Arashiyama: the bamboo forest.  This place was super cool and a free tourist activity.  The overhead bamboo made you feel like you were walking through a fairy land.  It was crazy crowded by the time we got there though
      fullsizerender-2

      Bamboo Forest

      (so a lot of sudden stopping when people decided to take a photo).  If you have an additional day, I would suggest doing this first thing that morning.

    • Togetsukyo Bridge: Walk over from the bamboo forest and check this out.  Magnificent views of the mountains and river.
    • Shiatsu massage: we needed massages after all the walking over the past week so we opted for a traditional massage, walking distance from our hotel.  We found this gem: Hiyoshido.  The women at the front were welcoming and the massage was fabulous – 90 minutes for 7,500 YEN (around $70 USD).  We were able to get the massages in the same room, as you wear traditional Japanese pajamas.  Totally worth it – we thought about gong back the next day for the 3 hour option!
    • Dinner: We were hoping to get a traditional kaiseki dinner (belated Thanksgiving celebration) but had trouble finding a restaurant that could accommodate us on the spot on a Friday evening.  We realized that this is because most of the restaurants are very small (sometimes just a bar) and the meal can take a few hours.  I suggest making a reservation in advance (this was the place we wanted to try but needed a reso: KARYO)  We ended up finding a place in Gion, and ordering the expensive chef’s selection.  I didn’t particularly care for the majority of the dishes, but we did try everything (including snails).  They brought out a sushi platter as one point with a lobster head on the plate.  It was still moving, which totally freaked us out.  Totally bizarre experience, but one that I was glad we tried. fullsizerender-4
  4. DAY 4: Depart back to airport
    • Our flight wasn’t until the evening, out of Tokyo…so we spent the morning walking and shopping in our neighborhood.  We bought silk kimono robes that I am pretty sure I live in 24/7 now.
    • Our reserved bullet train from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station left around noon.  Easy commute to Tokyo Station with views of Mt. Fuji along the way (~2.5 hours).  Once at Tokyo Station, take the local train (5 or 6) to Hamamatsucho, then catch the Haneda Airport train (<1 hour).  The JP Railpass covers these trains too.

That’s it for our trip!  We departed on a morning flight on 11/17 and departed on an evening flight on 11/26.  It was the perfect amount of time to see everything we were hoping.

じゃあね (See ya, Japan!)

Hakone, Japan

Continuing on from my Tokyo post…Day 3 marked our arrival in Hakone, Japan.  Hakone is famous for its relaxing onsen (Japanese hotsprings) and close proximity to the sacred Mt. Fuji.  We needed some downtime after all the commuting and chaos of urban Tokyo.  Hakone proved to be the exact oasis we were hoping for.

Type of Trip: Self Planned – Part II: Hakone (2 days, after Tokyo)

Hotel: Mount View Hakone – ryokan with private onsen (cash only), booked through Hotels.com

Transport: JR Railpass (Tokyo Station to Odawara on Shinkansen Bullet Train)

  1. DAY 1: Arrive in Hakone in mid-afternoon
    • Commute: First, we took the bullet train from Tokyo Station using our JR Railpass.  We got off at the Odawara stop (~45 min).  From there, exit the station to the bus stop (on the East side).  Take the Tozan Bus Route (“T”) to the “Sengokuhara-bunka-center-mae” stop (~1 hour).  It cost us around $10 USD. The buses are easy to navigate and the stops are shown in English in the front. If you are going to Hakone for 2-3 days total…I highly recommend getting the Hakone FreePass at the Odawara station.  This would cover that part of your transit (bus) and you will use it again for the tour loop.  
    • Ryokan – we reserved a Superior Twin room with a Tatami area (make sure to order the breakfast and dinner for at least one night – the “half board” option!).  The room was gorgeous and simple.  A separate big-claw bath in the room and traditional Japanese sleeping arrangements.  When you check in, they provide you with traditional Yukata (a casual kimono) to wear during your stay.  When you get the “half-board”, you also get one free private bath session for your room (45 min, great for couples).  Most go nude in the onsen…the water was SO hot, but completely relaxing!  The hotel also has a public onsen for women only, men only and coed.  You do not need a reservation for these and you can choose to go nude or with a swim suit.  This was exactly what we needed after all the walking around Tokyo!

      img_7636

      Private onsen at ryokan

    • After enjoying our private bath session, we got ready for our traditional kaiseki dinner in the hotel.  I was not expecting how awesome it was!  There were about 15 plates set up in front of each of our chairs, in a private dining room.  You serve yourself, order sake as you please, and enjoy a traditional kaiseki meal.  TRY EVERYTHING! fullsizerender-3
  2. DAY 2: Hakone Loop Tour – in search of Mt. Fuji.  Pick a clear day so you can see it!  We woke up to the earthquake in Fukushima, thankfully it didn’t result in the tsunami that was anticipated!
    • Breakfast, like dinner, was epic.  Another billion courses…including a crab claw miso soup that was boiled in front of us.  So awesome and flavors I had never tried before!
    • We purchased the Hakone Freepass (mentioned above) at a local stop near our ryokan.  We bought the 2-day for 4,000 YEN.  It covers all of your day’s transportation and comes with a comprehensive bus map that is easy to follow. fullsizerender-5From there, we hopped on the bus to Gora (where the loop begins).  LOOP
    • We loved the loop adventure…four modes of transportation in one day (bus, cable car, ropeway, and boat).  The first epic views of Mount Fuji arrived on the ropeway.  You are inside a gondola…try to sit on the right side of the car (right side if you are facing uphill).
    • We ate black hardboiled eggs in Owakudani (where the ropeway drops you off).  This volcanic site was interesting but we didn’t find it appealing to stay long.  img_7691
    • Pirate ship across Lake Ashi to end the loop – sit on the top level.  It gets crowded but the views aren’t anything new.  fullsizerender-4We found it a great time to chill out, instead of fighting the crowds of tourists with cameras. 🙂  The Fall foliage is simply gorgeous.
    • The bus took us back to the ryokan and we had a late lunch at the Petite Prince (french restaurant).  We were craving some bread after days of fish and Japanese fare.
  3. DAY 3: Depart Hakone…on to Kyoto!

Tokyo, Japan

Japan…what a fascinating culture and country.  We spent nine amazing days exploring in November 2016, during the gorgeous Fall colors.  One overlying observation…I was surprised how many of the venues (hotels, restaurants, etc) were cash only.  So be prepared!  I will break this blog into three separate entries to cover the cities we visited.  Below are a few of my highlights:

Type of Trip: Self planned…9 day itinerary including Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto

Hotel: Citadines Shinjuku – booked through Hotels.com

Transport: American Airlines non-stop LAX-HND, then JR Railpass

Pre-trip Advice: Download the following Apps on your phone: maps.me (maps downloaded to your phone to use without cell data plan), currency xe (current exchange rates), HYPERDIA (train routes and planning), and Travel Japan (free wifi in many areas).  Use ATMs in Tokyo to pull out money (you get the best exchange rates and there are 7-11 ATMs everywhere).

  1. We took a 12 hour non-stop flight from LAX to Haneda Airport (recommended – much closer to the City compared to Narita Airport), and landed in the evening. We took a taxi to our hotel in Shinjuku, which cost us around $50 USD.  The Tokyo Monorail picks up in the Haneda Airport and takes you just about anywhere in Tokyo and is very easy to use…we were just exhausted and wanted to get to the hotel. We crashed early to get ourselves ready for the next few days.  Our hotel was similar to a small, efficient apartment with a little kitchen.  The location was excellent too, for exploring the various neighborhoods on foot!  I debated between Shibuya and Shinjuku and found that I preferred Shinjuku – seemed a more 30yr+ crowd and less chaotic.
  2. DAY 1: Due to jetlag – wake up at the crack of dawn and attempt the Tsukiji Market.  You will need to get there SUPER early (some say 3am, depending on the time of year) in order to get a vest to witness the world famous tuna auction (free).  They only give out 120 vests each day…it will be over in the early morning, when you can eat some of the freshest sushi ever for breakfast. 🙂 AUCTION DETAILS.  We then spent Saturday walking around the city.  It was a rainy day, which actually turned out to be a blessing as the streets were empty and we were fortunate to experience some of the sites with few to no tourists (rarity in Japan).
    • Shinjuku neighborhood – largest train station, entertainment center (bright night lights)
    • Stumbled upon the AWESOME ramen chain: Ichiran  img_7434You order at a vending machine (cash) and take the ticket into a little bar area.  You leave the ticket on a dish and they bring you your order.  Each seat at the bar is closed off to the others, so you can eat semi-privately, if desired.  We saw many solo Japanese business people come in for lunch. Theoretically, you could go there and never have to speak to anyone the whole time…wait staff included!
    • Gyoen Park (Shinjuku) – there is a small entrance fee to this magnificent park and gardens.  Again, we had bad weather so it was empty…which made it a little more magical.

      img_7554

      Gyoen Park in the Fall

    • Shibuya Crossing & Takakini Street (Shibuya) – crazy amount of people.
      Largest intersection crossing in the world and a must see!  Takakini Street was slammed with people but made for epic people and fashion watching (shops line the street).
    • Dinner at one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever tried.
      img_7531

      Sushi Chef and our dinner

      The quality is on par with those of the elite restaurants written up in our Foodie magazines and documentaries…  It was definitely still expensive (cash only, around $100USD/person), but totally worth it for the experience. You must make a reservation if more than two people. The owner is the only sushi chef there, and the restaurant only accommodates 10 people at a bar.  He is super friendly and welcoming, along with his wife who called herself the “mega boss”.  It was awesome.  HIGHLY recommended.  SUSHIRYORI INOSE

  3. DAY 2: This was another day to continue our walking adventure…and happened to be a Sunday.  We were pleased to find out how accessible Tokyo is by train too!  There are English translations on the ticket machines, as well as on the trains.  Google Maps and maps.me helped us navigate a lot!
    • JR Railpass Activation – we purchased the 7 day railpass, so we needed to be conscious of when we activated it.  We chose Sunday so that it would be able to cover our trips to Hakone, Kyoto, and back to Tokyo (Haneda airport).  You must purchase the rail pass well before your departure date (order from the US).  There are many sites selling them, I found these guys to be the most affordable and the order process was easy: RAILPASS .  Bring the vouchers they send to Japan with your passport to any one of the local EXCHANGE OFFICES to activate it.  You can activate it to start on a future date (if you want to go to the exchange office a few days prior to your first use day).  Using it is easy – the information centers have English-speaking staff.  I would highly recommend pre-reserving seats on the trains (it’s free)…if you know your travel dates and destinations in advance.  For instance, when we activated our passes, we also reserved tickets for the bullet trains to 1) Tokyo – Hakone, 2) Hakone – Kyoto, and 3) Kyoto – Tokyo.  The clerk gave us a print out of all the train options for each day for the routes we wanted.  It was nice to have this out of the way and know that we had seats.  It also gave us a more concrete schedule to plan around.
    • Meiji Shrine – there must have been a wedding or ceremony as most of the women were in formal kimonos, along with their daughters.  It was beautiful to watch and experience this traditional dress.
    • Yoyogi Park – Shibuya.  HUGE open park…similar to Central Park in NYC but felt more active.  Families everyone, playing frisbee and picnicking.  There was also an Elvis-impersonation sock hop dance situation happening near one of the entrances.  They sell grapefruit beers at the beverage tubs as well.  Really entertaining.
    • Robot Show – a must do, and an equally indescribable experience.  We did it as a dinner and show option.  I found discounted tickets through Veltra.com (around $60USD/each).  Book early to ensure availability.  ROBOT SHOW

      fullsizerender-1

      Robot Restaurant – Waiting Room

  4. DAY 3: Last day in Tokyo.  Get up early to explore more before checking out of hotel at noon to head to the next city.
    • Tsukiji Market – sushi for breakfast and $20 strawberries!  Yes, $20 is ridiculous for strawberries…but they were the best we have ever tasted.  Not kidding.img_7626
    • Train to Tokyo Station – Shinjuku stop to Tokyo station for 200 YEN…from there we caught the JR bullet train (Shinkansen Line) to head to Hakone (off the Odawara stop).
    • Arrive in Hakone (known for its traditional onsen (mineral hot springs/baths)…see my next post for details on Hakone.

 

 

John Muir Trail (JMT)

Originally, my best friend and I planned to hike the entire John Muir Trail (JMT) over 4 weeks, starting in late August 2015 (known as a “thru hike”).  Due to an injury and schedule conflicts, we realized that we would have to break the hike into a handful of trips.  Regardless, we spent a considerable amount of time planning for this adventure and I thought it would be helpful to share with others planning for the same epic hike!  Note: I am not a super rugged camper.  I can camp and hike with the best of them, but I do like to have a few small comforts along the way.  Basically, these recommendations apply to the average hiker (I couldn’t do ultra light).

First off, you will need a permit to hike most of the JMT and they definitely check.  A ranger asked my brother and I for our on the last day of my second JMT excursion.  Play by the rules, or else risk a hefty fine.  When we had to cut our trip shorter, we discussed with the ranger while picking up our permit and they were able to amend the days on the spot.  So basically, request a permit for the maximum amount of time you plan to spend hiking the JMT, and you can always whittle it down later.

Step 1: Request a permit.  This is the PERMIT WEBSITE.  You can begin requesting them exactly 24 weeks (168 days) before your requested start/entry date.  Be on the ball with this as the permits are in high demand and will likely be gone for your day if you don’t submit exactly 168 in advance.  You have to fax in the form or get someone on phone.  I ended up using a free online fax program (Nextiva or eFax) to send my request once every morning (I sent at 8am every morning).  It took me about a week of trying every day in order to get a successful permit.  So plan on building a buffer around your start date, for personal planning.  Only one person from your party should apply each day.

You will also need to know your start and end trailheads.  Our preferred trailheads were:

  • ENTRY: Happy lsles->Sunrise/Merced Lake Pass Through (meaning we had to hike a very long first day from Happy Isles up past the main camp to the Sunrise area.  A longer hike day, but higher probability of getting a permit).
    • First night camp: Sunrise Creek
  • EXIT: Whitney Portal (this is the exit trailhead for those planning to cover the whole JMT and hike Mount Whitney at the end).
  • Exit Yosemite Park via Donohue Pass – YES
  • Half Dome permit – NO (we weren’t going to do this side hike as a part of our trip)

We put in a few other entry trailhead options, with corresponding camp sites (in case our first choice wasn’t available).

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Example JMT Permit (full hike)

Step 2: Planning.  Once you receive the glorious confirmation email telling you that your permit has been reserved, now you can start planning the logistics.

  • Plan to have someone pick up your permit the day before the hike begins (so that you can get an early start on entry day).  We picked ours up at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center (open daily 8:30 am to 4 pm.) – Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Rd, Yosemite National Park, CA 95321.
  • Arrange to drop one car at the exit portal and one at the entry portal and leave them for the entirety of your hike.  Another option is public transportation or having a friend pick you up at the exit or drop you at the start.
  • Purchase or rent a bear canister.  This is required!  I got mine here and loved it: BEAR CANISTER.  I loved that it is clear so I could see everything inside.  Additionally, it’s lighter than most options and the lid doubles as a pan for cooking!
  • Get your gear.  Below is the gear list I created for our trip (I carried way too much on my first excursion on the JMT…then I leaned the list out based on the experience.  You really do not need as much as you think you do!  A light pack is key.)
  • Full JMT Notes
    • Total mileage: 221 miles
    • Plan on < 15 miles/day (we averaged about 10 miles/day)
    • 20-25 lb max for your pack
    • Expect cooler nights (esp at higher elevations)
      • Day: 65-70 degrees
      • Night: 30-45 degrees

Erin’s Packing List:

  • Camping
    • Cooking supplies
      • Stove (jetboil)
      • Stove fuel canisters
      • Dish soap (Dr. Bronners or Campsuds)
      • Dish sponge
      • Spork
      • Pot (lid of bear canister?)
      • Coffee Mug
      • Firestarter/lighter
      • Purification Drops (AquaMira) or Steripen
    • Bear canister
    • Sleeping
      • Camp pillow
      • Sleeping bag
      • Sleeping bag liner
      • Tent
      • Thermarest
      • Thermarest chair converter
      • Headlamp + batteries
    • Navigation
      • Map
      • Compass
  • Clothes
    • Warm coat/Insulating layer – down and/or wool (no ski jacket)
    • Fleece jacket (synthetic)
    • Rain coat – waterproof shell
    • Waterproof pants
    • Thin inner socks (polypropylene)
    • Thick outer socks (NO COTTON – preferably wool with high density loops)
    • Light boots with quality insoles (ArchCrafters)
    • Synthetic underwear (3 pair)
    • Cotton underwear (for night – 2 pair)
    • Long underwear (wool preferred)
    • Pants that convert to shorts (1)
    • Dryfit tops (2-3)
    • Quick-dry sports bra (2)
    • Warm pajamas (fleece)
    • Comfy socks/slippers for night (1)
    • Warm hat & gloves
  • Accessories
    • First Aid Kit
      • Moleskin
      • Hand sanitizer
      • Large safety pin
      • Neosporin
    • Wearables
      • Hat (that covers back of neck)
      • Bandanna
      • Small towel (dries quick)
      • Sunglasses (polarized)
      • Watch
      • Trekking Poles
    • Toilet Paper
    • Extra ziplocks
    • Garbage bag
    • Camera
    • Duct tape
    • Water bottles or Camelbak
    • Superglue
    • Toiletries (nothing scented!)
      • Toothbrush + Paste
      • Soap
      • Shampoo/conditioner
      • Chapstick
      • Nail clippers
      • Medications (Ambien, pain, inhaler, diarrhea)
      • Tampons (?)
      • Sunscreen
      • Bug spray
    • Baby Wipes
    • Rescue Devices
      • Whistle
      • Compact mirror
    • JMT trail book
    • Book to read
    • Deck of cards

Step 3: Food List.  This will definitely take some planning if you are aiming to hike the entire trail.  You will want to ship food supplies packages in advance to you various stops.  It’s nice to bring some fresh vegetables and fruit for the first few days.  We were also surprised to find that we were less hungry the higher and longer we hiked in elevation.  So we definitely overpacked on food, which made our bags super heavy!  My favorite foods along the hike were peanut butter packets, string cheese, beef jerkey, dried pineapple and mango, chocolate anything, oatmeal, and instant mashed potatoes.  We found that the less intensive the prep/cooking/cleanup was, the more we enjoyed the meal. 🙂  Emergen-C, lemonade and crystal light packets were phenomenal for covering the taste of the purification drops in our water.

Food Packing List Ideas:

  • Trader Joes or buy in bulk (~2lb/day)
    • Quick cooking grains & flavors
      • Couscous
      • Quinoa
      • oatmeal
    • Tuna + mayo packets
    • Nuts
    • Dried berries
    • Trail Mix
    • Powdered coconut milk
    • Powdered milk
    • Curry powder (and other packet seasonings)
    • Instant hot chocolate & tea
    • Oranges
    • Hard candies
    • Protein/electrolyte pouches
    • Freeze dried food
    • Water Flavor (crystal lite)
    • String cheese
    • Jerky
    • Tortillas
    • Energy Bars
    • Salami and sliced meats
    • Granola
    • Small candy
    • Mac & cheese
    • Instant soups
    • “Tasty Bite” – Indian food packs
    • Fresh veggies (for first few nights)
    • Freeze dried meals
    • Chocolate
    • Emergen-C
    • Cheeze its
    • Peanut butter
    • Sweet potato chips (salty)
    • Dehydrated foods
    • Instant pancake mix + syrup (spatula?)
    • Ramen noodles
    • Pop tarts
    • Instant mashed potatoes

Notes I gathered from various sites that proved very helpful:

  • Choose the right foods: Dense, high-calorie options are best: Tortillas instead of bagels; dried fruit instead of oranges.
  • Plan every meal: Avoid bringing too much (or too little). Lay out each day, divide portions, and pre-measure mixed foods like rice and pasta.
  • Repackage: Get rid of bulky boxes and inflated packaging. Put food and toiletries into resealable bags or small containers. This saves space and reduces garbage. Make sure to keep the instructions and label each item.
  • Check that it fits: Before you start your trip make sure ALL your food, trash, toiletries, and scented items will fit inside your canister on the first night.
  • Carry the first day’s food outside of the canister: Snacks, lunch, and dinner. Just be sure to keep that food with you at all times.
  • Minimize your toiletries: Just like food, pack small and don’t bring more than you need. Put toothpaste, sunscreen, bug repellent, etc. into small reusable containers.
  • Use your canister correctly: Establish your kitchen about 50 feet from your sleeping area. Make sure to properly close the lid securely at all times. Leave the canister on the ground in an open flat area away from cliffs or streams.
  • All scented items (food, toiletries, and garbage) must fit inside the canister when left unattended.img_1940

Step 4: Ship food packages to desired pitstops.  Check out each location’s website to determine exact instructions and timeline of when to send.  Most plan to send 3-5 days of food.

Resupply Points:

  • Address your package to:
    • YOUR NAME; c/o General Delivery; Address of the Resupply Point; HOLD UNTIL (date)
  1. Tuolumne Meadows (22.8 miles)
  2. Red Meadows Resort/Mammoth Post Office (59.2 miles) – redsmeadow.com
    • $35 for mailed packages (pick up btwn 7am and 7pm)
    • Red’s Meadow; PO Box 395; Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546
  1. Vermilion Valley Resort (88 miles) *Difficult to get to; NOT ideal
  2. Muir Trail Ranch (107.9 miles) – page 25 – muirtrailranch.com
    • $65/25lb bucket (5 gallon paint canister drum)
    • Has power strip to recharge electronics
    • Store carries fuel, batteries
    • Lodging available for a fee with reservation
    • Muir Trail Ranch; PO Box 176; Lakeshore, CA 93634
  1. Independence (179.4 miles)

In my research, it seemed the best options for resupply were:

  • Tuolumne Meadows (if you have a resupply package here, you can carry very minimal weight for your first few days.  This is awesome because you will be gaining a lot of elevation in those days and you will feel every pound!).  Tuolumne Meadows is right off the trail, so not much of a detour.
  • Red Meadows Resort.  Good place to stock up on your next resupply…
  • Muir Trail Ranch.  Excellent resupply point, basically marking the halfway point on the trail.  You can make a reservation to sleep there for a night or two, if desired.  You will want to send the largest resupply package here as most try to go from here through the end at Whitney without stopping again.  (Independence resupply is considerably off the trail so would cost you some time to get there).

Step 4: HIKE!  Our two short hiking adventures on the JMT are outlined below.

MILEAGE CHECKPOINTS


 

JMT – Part 1: August 2015: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows (21 miles) ROUTEimg_2102

  • Day 1 – woke up at the crack of dawn in order to take our time on the continuous ascent.  Gorgeous views of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome.
    • Camp: Near Sunrise Creek, just past the fire-ravaged forest. img_2108
  • Day 2 – we had a fitful sleep as a bear tried to eat the stove of our neighbor’s fullsizerender-1campsite!  We woke with the sun and made our way to Cathedral Lakes (our second camp site).  The meadows outside Tuolumne are stunning.  They seem to go on endlessly.  We passed Sunrise High Sierra Camp, where we stopped for lunch.  We got to Cathedral Lakes fairly early, which gave us a pleasant break.  We swam in the frigid water and set up camp.  We enjoyed hot chocolate by the water’s edge and played cards.  Perfect end to an excellent day.
    • Camp: Cathedral Lakes (this is a MUST.  We could have stared at the mountain reflection all day)
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  • Day 3 – Due to the stress of the injury, we decided to hike out at Tuolumne Meadows. From there we grabbed the bus back to Happy Isles, where we picked up our entry car.  We enjoyed greasy pizza and celebrated with a glass of wine.  We then drove to get our second car from our planned exit point (Mammoth – Red’s Meadow).img_2213

JMT – Part 2: August 2016: Lyell Canyon (Tuolumne Meadows) to Devil’s Postpile (31 miles) ROUTE

  • Day 1 – hike from Tuolumne Meadows to Lyell Canyon.  Stunning!  Words cannot describe the vast open meadows and the sudden build of the mountains at Donohue Pass.  My brother and I opted to camp just before the footbridge that begins the ascent to Donohue Pass.  Lovely campsite that felt very secluded and close to a great water source.  A few deer even visited our campsite.
    • Camp: Lower Lyell (before the footbridge)img_6590

      img_6685

      Our favorite view in the meadows.  Too bad you aren’t allowed to camp here!

  • Day 2 – Our plan was to hike over Donohue Pass and onward to Island Pass, where we would stay the night.  Yet, as fate would have it, another conflict required us to shorten the excursion.  So we opted to pack up our camp and leave all the gear at our camp site.  We then took light daypacks and hiked up to the pass to take in the views.  Totally worth it!  We practically ran down the mountain back to our campsite.  From there, we picked up our packs and hiked back out at Tuolumne.  An intense 18-mile day!
    img_6619

    On the ascent to Donohue’s Pass

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    Upper Lyell…had we known, we might have camped here!

    img_6671

    Donohue’s Pass!

    img_6637

    My brother and I…another successful trek!

If you have any questions, please reach out at any time!  Happy to provide any insight on camp sites, mileage, packing lists, etc.  Bit by bit, I will get through this whole trail. 🙂

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” – John Muir

Iceland

Visiting Iceland was an experience unlike any other for me.  I cannot say enough about this incredible country. The natural beauty and vastly different landscapes as you drive through is astounding.  It’s the only place that I have been in the world where we would drive for a half hour and not see another person, car, animal, house…anything.  Just remote countryside.  Below are a few of my highlights:

Type of Trip: Groupon Getaway (yes, I actually tried this!)

Hotel: Best Western, Reykjavik 

Transport: Iceland Air (via a fun weekend layover in NYC), and car rental through Budget (via Kayak)

  1. We took a redeye flight from NYC to Keflavík, thus landing super early in the morning.  Since the famous Blue Lagoon is only a half hour drive from the airport, and on our way to Reykjavik, we decided toIMG_7648 stop there forst for the experience.  This turned out to be a brilliant choice as we were some of the first ones in (it gets crowded).  Freezing air, and warm sulfur baths with mud masks.  Absolute heaven and well worth the price tag.

photo 2

2. We headed north to check into our hotel.  Pretty basic accommodations, but worked well for the two of us, plus breakfast was included every day.  It was October, so the daylight hour were relatively short and the temperatures pretty cold (frost in the morning, definitely ski coat weather for us).  However, it was sunny every afternoon.  We photo 3spent a day exploring town and had a brilliant time at a local (though touristy) English pub – http://www.enskibarinn.is/en/ .  Lots of travelers during the week and locals on the weekends.  The bar/club scene picks up tremendously over the weekend (it goes all night), when the locals come out.  We also had trendy, wonderful (though expensive) dinners at the following:

Fiskmarkadurinn (Fish Market) – the mussels were a favorite.

Grillmarkadurinn 

3.  We spent the remainder of our time waking up early and simply driving to explore.  The first day, we drove the famous Golden Circle Route, stopping at the Gullfoss Falls, Þingvallavatn, and Strokkur (Geysir).  The next day, we drove the southern portion of the Ring Route (circling the entire country perimeter).  This was my favorite as we stopped at various waterfalls (Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss), IMG_7751glaciers, lava fields, etc.  When I make my return to Iceland, I am certainly going to plan for a full week of driving the Ring route, and staying at the various B&Bs along the way.  Another day, we drove north to some of the coastal towns.

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4.  The Northern Lights – a must!  It was FREEZING outside in the middle of the night, but we did get to see some of the lights.  Very cool when we did see them, but the cold was a bit much for us to handle.  Learn how to take night photos (no flash) before going – you only get a few moments to capture it!

5.  Our final day, we drove back to the airport, stopping at some of the sulfur springs/lavIMG_7916a fields in the south.  This adventure was an expected joy, as it was essentially void of people.  It seemed that we had the whole world to ourselves, and the landscape looked what I imagine Mars to look like.  Simply cool.

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