New Zealand – North Island

An endless array of outdoor activities and a laid back vibe. Our main mistake was only spending one week there and not being able to explore the south island as well! We went over the week of Thanksgiving, and lucked out with incredible weather. While the wine was excellent, we were not overly impressed with the food.  Tipping is not standard but if service was excellent, we were told that 5-10% was greatly appreciated.  Since we were planning to be both hikers and tourists, we packed one normal carry-on suitcase with our basic needs and then our camping backpacks with our hiking gear.  It was easy to check both bags and be able to leave the stuff we weren’t using in the trunk of our car. One other tip – don’t be fooled by the weather forecasts.  Despite the expected top temperatures being shown as around 70 degrees, when the sun comes out there…it is incredibly hot!  Pack light, breathable layers and lots of sunscreen. Below is our itinerary and a few of the trip highlights!

Type of Trip: Self Planned 

Day 1: AucklandArrive in Auckland, direct LAX-AKL on American Airlines.  We picked up our rental car at Hitch (fair priced and easy to pick up/return) and drove to our hotel.  Get ready for driving on the other side of the road!  We dropped our stuff at the B&B, where they greeted us with a complimentary glass of wine and coffee.  We spent the rest of the day exploring Auckland – stopping at the Wharf for lunch, visiting the bridge bungee jump (didn’t do it though), and popping in a random bar on our walk home.

Hotel: The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel – lovely accommodation with a fabulous breakfast in the morning! Totally recommend this spot.

Day 2: Raglan –  After a restful, jetlag catch-up sleep, we took our rental car and began the road trip down to Raglan.  Beware of tons of road construction with gravel roadways and large trucks.  Our first stop was the famed movie set “Hobbiton”, where the Lord of the Rings movies were shot (The Shire).  While pricey, this turned out to be really awesome!  Either make your reservation in advance (it gets slammed) or go first to the Matamata Visitor’s Center and book your tickets there at the same price.  We ended up doing that and the bus picked us up and dropped us back at the Visitor’s Center.  Before the tour, we stopped for lunch at Redoubt Bar & Eatery.  The waitstaff was friendly and accommodating and the food was the best choice that we found in the small town.

Hobbiton was seriously cool.  Such elaborate art design and the tours are spaced out well so you don’t feel overcrowded.  The tour takes you through the set and provides fun movie trivia along the way.  The tour ends with a complimentary drink at the Green Dragon (yes, the bar from the movie).

IMG_9300

The rolling hills of farmland along the way was gorgeous.  Lots of cows and sheep, which added to the ambiance.  When we finally arrived in Raglan, the vibe shifted to chilled out surf mode.  Our studio hotel room was perfect, and ideally located.  We had an extended dinner at Orca Restaurant…the service was dismal (they didn’t come to the table for 30 min and when we did order, they forgot about our order)…so that turned into a 3 hour dinner of sub par food, but we didn’t seem to mind with the view of the water and it being the start of our trip.

IMG_1010

Hotel: Bow Street Studios – Rachel quotes “this place is amazing to meditate in!”  Two story apartment with lots of space and serenity.  Very enjoyable.

Day 3: Turanji – We woke up early on our own and had a lazy morning, with breakfast at this great cafe called The Shack. Driving out of town, we detoured to the Bridal Veil waterfall. It was much bigger than expected and made for a nice, steep morning walk to stretch our legs during a long day of driving.

Snapseed

We tried to stop at the Waitomo Glow Caves, however all the main tours were booked up for the day and it seemed a tourist sink hole.  There were people and tour buses everywhere and the cost of the tours were pretty hefty.  We opted to skip it on our trip, though other people have said it’s pretty cool.

We finished up the day by driving to Turanji, where we would be staying for the night before our big hike.  The town was a small trucker town, a bit run down.  We stopped at the local Tavern for bad cheese pizzas and some penny slots.  Rachel was the big winner, so that was decently exciting.

Hotel: Parklands Motor Lodge – simple, no-frills, inexpensive motel accommodation. Lots of truckers and few amenities.  The rooms were clean and it was nice to be able to order breakfast the night before and have it delivered at a certain time in the morning.  

Day 4: Northern Circuit The BEST part of our trip. We got up early this morning, had a big breakfast at the motel and finished packing our backpacks. Our carry on luggage went into the trunk and we began the half hour drive down to Whakapapa Village (our starting point for the Tongagiro Northern Circuit loop hike).

tong_map

***

Info on hut accommodations and our hiking route:

We had reserved our camping huts five months before our trip – which is highly recommended since the hike is highly sought after and the beds book up. Booking information and availability is HERE. The huts are awesome and well maintained.  Each has a Ranger that stays overnight and lays out important rules and information. The huts have varying numbers of bunkbeds, situated in a few rooms.  Privacy is limited, but the amenities are great for a camping spot.  There are gas stoves, bunks with bed pads, bathrooms (no showers) and heating/lights.  There isn’t a place to charge devices.  You should bring a sleeping bag, inside shoes (boots are not allowed), food and a pot to cook it in (along with dishware). The water is clean and can be consumed from the huts without treatment.

We opted to take the route counterclockwise, which is not the normal direction most hikers take.  I opted for this for a few reasons: less people, flatter first day (elevation wise), and hut availability.  Our original plan was to stop at two huts for the nights, the Oturere Hut and the Mangatepopo Hut. This plan would make our first day the longest (distance) at 23.5km, but our legs would be fresh.  The second day would have the most elevation/climb (~1900m, and 12km) and the last day would be a short out back to the Village (9.4km).  Our hike ended up going a little differently, as described below.

PACKING LIST

***

Once in Whakapapa, we checked in at the Visitor’s Center and got our parking pass. We left our car in the designated lot and got on the trail about 9:30am.  It was easy going and gorgeous from the start.  We felt like we were all alone for many aspects of it.  Given that we had a long day ahead of us, we only made two specific stops.  The first was a side trip to the Tama Lakes (worth it).  We dropped our bags and trekked to the lake with just our water bottles, making the extra distance a little easier.  The second stop was for a late lunch at the old Waihohonu hut.  “This was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park (1904) and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It was the base for the first recreational skiing in New Zealand. It was in active use for over 60 years and remains standing on its original site. The hut was registered as a category one historic place by the Historic Places Trust in 1993.” Pretty cool stuff! You cannot camp there but it’s neat to check out. We also made a brief stop at the new Waihohonu Hut to check out the amenities and use the bathroom.  This hut was by far the newest and nicest!

Convincing ourselves to keep going after that first 5.5 hours was tough, but we pushed on to try and make it to our hut with a few hours of daylight left. The scenery begins to darken and become more volcanic.  Really cool…especially when you realize that you are hiking through Mordor (Lord of the Rings) and circling Mt. Doom! Absolutely stunning and we barely ran into anyone along this stretch.  Arriving at our campsite around 6pm, we immediately began an evening of easy dinner and endless gin rummy games.  I think we were hard asleep by 9pm!

Recommended items to bring: sleeping aid and ear plugs!  There are other campers at the hut with you, going to sleep/waking up at very different times.

Food we brought for the trip:

  • Snacks: Clif bars, individual peanut butter packets, gushers/fruit snacks
  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, instant coffee/tea
  • Lunch: Tuna packages (with little mayo packets collected from fast food restaurants beforehand) and mixed nuts
  • Dinner: Easy mac, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate

Hotel: Oturere Hut – best camping accommodation I have stayed in! Obviously, it’s a no-frills scenario but it was super nice to not have to lug thermarests, extra layers, stoves, etc.  They have a campsite there that you can book for less money, but we found the hut to be totally worth it…and warm! Our main complaint was that the hut was shared among many people so sometimes you had to wait to use the stove and sleep still was difficult, given all the different sleep/wake-up patterns.  

Day 5: Northern Circuit We were woken up at 5am, when another guy in our bunk room decided to hit the trail at sunrise and needed to pack his stuff up.  Once up, we just decided to get a move on as well. I don’t do well on limited sleep and our legs/hips were sore, so we made an executive decision to skip our second hut reservation and push through for another long distance day.

The first few hours were a gradual uphill climb with a few beastly ups that kicked our butts. The scenery was stunning though, as we were now totally immersed in the volcanic land.

IMG_1078

We came across the first of the Emerald Lakes and took a lunch break before ascending the steepest climb of the circuit.  These is also where the one-day “Alpine Crossing” intersects the main circuit.  Hence, people of varying hiking experience levels were everywhere! It was a bit chaotic and frustrating to navigate the traffic, but it definitely solidified our decision to NOT simply do the Alpine Crossing and instead hike the full loop. Since we hiked counterclockwise, we were forced to climb the uphill in volcanic ash…which gives a bit with every step (like walking in sand).  That was challenging but I preferred that to the opposite, where there were serious lines/waits to climb up the rocks. The view from the top was perfect, below shows “Mt. Doom” in the backdrop.

Once we came down the other side, we stopped at the Mangatepopo Hut to check it out and have a bite (it was around 1:30pm). This too was a nice set-up, perhaps a little cleaner than the hut we overnighted in.

IMG_1123

The final hike out was deceiving.  We noted that the signs said 3.5-5.5 hours, depending on weather conditions.  We quickly realized why that was – most of the final few miles is an uneven and not-maintained trail. There are challenging rocky areas and trenches dug in, making it difficult with boots and a pack.  We commented that if it had been raining, we would have been screwed.

We finished the 26 mile loop at around 5pm that afternoon, back in Whakapapa Village.  After picking up our car, we made the hour drive up to Taupo, where we reserved a last-minute hotel room.  Embarrassingly enough, as true Americans, we stopped at Burger King for a much needed fatty, delicious burger and fries. The hotel was perfect, with an excellent (well-needed) hot tub and free LAUNDRY!  We threw our entire backpacks into the washer and were good to go. The hotel owners were really sweet and had excellent restaurant recommendations.

Hotel: Gables Lakefront Hotel – highly rated on TripAdvisor and worth the reviews.  The rooms were very clean and substantial, with comfortable beds.  Most rooms have private hot tubs, though those were booked up.  So we settled for the communal hot tub, which we had to ourselves anyways!  The rooms have home-made cookies and all the coffee, tea, etc you could ask for. It was also right on the shore of Lake Taupo, so this made for a beautiful sunset view. The laundry was an excellent addition.

Day 6: Taupo & Rotorua Our trip was beginning to wind down and we were exhausted from the hike, with sore legs and bruised hips/collarbones.  Hence, this day was more of a relaxing endeavor.  We stopped by a few of the tourist attractions on the way out of Taupo, including the Craters of the Moon geothermal area.  This was actually pretty cool ($8/person) and provided a nice excuse for a short walk around the grounds.  There are meteor craters, geothermal hot springs steaming, and lots of cool colors in the landscape.

IMG_1148

We decided to relax the rest of the day and drove up to Rotorua.  We booked 3-hour massage treatments at our hotel (yes, this was overindulging for sure).  They have an in-house spa and it was fabulous.  One hour massage, followed by a honey scrub/mud wrap and then a facial to end it.  Our bodies felt totally rejuvenated afterwards! We ordered great pizzas from Pizza Imperfetto in town and were in bed by 9pm. Perfection.

Hotel: Silver Fern – lovely accommodation with private hot tubs in the room and an in-house spa with reasonably priced treatments.  The hosts are lovely people! Short walk into town. Highly recommended.

Day 7: Rotorua It was nice to stay in the same hotel for two nights in a row. We spent this last free day completely chilling out.  We took private hot tubs sessions in our room, and ventured out to the Redwoods Forest and walked along the treetops.  That was cool and an educational experience.

IMG_1156

IMG_1161

Hotel: Silver Fern 

Day 8: Back to AKL The roadtrip back to the airport!  Car return was easy, as was airport check in.  The American Airlines lounge was a nice stopping point in the airport, where we enjoyed our final class of local Sauvignon Blanc.

Next on the list…the south island!

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

 

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).

permit2015

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)
      fullsizerender-4
  • 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

    fullsizerender-5

    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.

IMG_7729

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.

IMG_7917

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang (and Laos, in general) is an absolutely fantastic destination and I highly encourage everyone to try and make it there…I only expected to stay a night or two and ended up staying almost a week!  As I write this, I am stuck in Hong Kong, trying to fly home.  So here goes…my top five highlights from Laos:

Type of Trip: Self-planned

Hotel: Villa Laodeum (HIGHLY recommended and was only $35/nt…the owners were so accommodating and with me as a single female traveler, they made sure that I made it home each night before closing up) – http://www.villalaodeum.com/

Transport: Lao Airlines from Hanoi, Vietnam (HAN – LPQ); 1 hour flight

1.  The local people of Laos and the lovely, quaint Luang Prabang

I know I raved about Cambodia and the friendliness of the people, but I was blown away by Laos.  Everyone is genuinely warm and welcoming, always greeting you with huge smiles and the friendly “Sabaidee!” (Laotian general greeting similar to Aloha).  It rolls off the tongue quite nicely, and as everyone is so encouraging, I found it easy to pick up bits of their language.  I spent most of my mornings In Luang Prabang at a local non-for-profit “Big Brother Mouse”, tutoring and reading with young Laos kids to help them improve their English.  I worked with a teenage boy, named Thong, on three separate days, and it was wonderful to watch his improvement as he read and had me help him with pronunciation and definitions.  Most of the kids in the program are behind their classmates in English, but they are trying extremely hard to catch up.  Often, I would be exploring the city alone and a local resident or novice monk would strike up a conversation.  They seemed to particularly enjoy practicing their  English with you and helping to immerse you in their culture. Laotians are very traditional people, but they do not make you feel as an outsider when your customs are different.  It was easy to fall into their way of life though – conservative dress, shoes off in homes and restaurants, starting the day early and similarly, ending it early (generally everything shuts down at 11pm), sincere spirituality, etc.  Also, no haggling at the markets, the shopkeepers are honest and asked for fair and reasonable prices, with slight bargaining generally accepted.
Luang Prabang, now a UNESCO World Heritage city, is a wonderful blend of traditional Lao wooden houses as well as those infused with European influences – particularly french, as Laos used to be a part of the French colony Indochine.  The city is very clean and the many golden temples shining down on the roadways create an unspoken spirit in the town, you cannot help but to fall in love with its serenity and charm.  The Mekong River meanders gently through the city, and allows for some fantastic sightseeing boat-trips.  There are lots of french bakeries scattered throughout the town, and the food is exceptional. There were quite a few tourists, but more so than in the other cities I visited – a smorgasbord of languages being spoken on the streets. The town tended to draw a lot of older couples for a romantic getaway as well as young hippie/bohemian backpackers, looking for some R&R. One unfortunate occurrence that happened while I was visiting – there was a noticeable and irritating layer of smoke hovering in the air on the last day I was in town. Illegal deforestation by fires is becoming a huge issue in Laos, and as a resuIMG_0708lt, the air quality is sub par and the gorgeous forests are disappearing.

2.  The temples and the monks

It seems as though you cannot walk a block in Luang Prabang without running into a temple of some sort, ornately decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha.  The temples are rather modern, in terms of when they were built (1800/1900s), but the religious history runs deep.  The temples (wats) are immaculately tidy and peaceful, with young men training to be monks roaming the grounds.  They spend their day in classes, studying language and Buddhism, as well as working on meditation, art and maintaining the temples.  I spent some considerable time speaking with one such novice monk, and found IMG_0733how far he had come to Luang Prabang to study, leaving his family far behind and knows not when he will see them next.  It is a honor and privilege to be training and these young men carry themselves so maturely (even though some seem as young as 8!).  Every morning, the monks from the various temples walk a specific route around the city and collect “alms” from the locals, who bow on mats on the sidewalks and offer sticky rice and other food gifts to the monks. I participated one morning and found it to be a nice start to the day.  After you give alms, you sit and meditate/pray until all the monks have passed.  It becomes a nice time to reflect.

3.  The waterfalls

There is a gorgeous, cascading waterfall about 30km outsidIMG_0792e of the city, called Kuang Si.  I spent an afternoon there, taking pictures of the local flora (learning to navigate my new camera like a nerd) and swimming in the clear, aqua pools at the various stages of the waterfall.  There were quite a few tourists, but it became a fun time to meet new people and challenge one another to a rope swing contest over the falls.  Never one to back down to a challenge, I had a lovely red mark on my back following a failed flip.  Nice move on my part.

4.  Elephant riding and bathing

In a word, amazing!  Spent one day learning to ride elephants bareback and bathe them in the river.  Incredible, to say in the least!  The animals are so powerful and I must admit, I feared constantly that I was going to be thrown forward as we descended the steep mountain to head into the river.  IMG_0901However, my wise elephant (61 and blind -which they informed me of afterwards, thank goodness) took great care of me and thoroughly enjoyed the bath.  She was spraying me with water from her trunk and submerging her head under for minutes at a time.  She especially liked it when we scrubbed her ears with the thick bristle brush.  It was awesome, though I think I had to bathe for days to get the smell of elephant off of me.

5.  Motorboating with helmets and cruising around the city on a motorbike

Another day, I took a speed boat trip down the Mekong…boating policy that, due to the speed of the boat, helmets were required.  Enough said.  After that, I rented a motorcycle for the day and explored some of the outer parts of the city and visited some neighboring towns, stopping to enjoy a fresh mango shake and play some pick-up soccer with the local kids.  Cruising around on a motorcycle was turning out to be the best idea in a while, until my bike broke down on a side street.  I immediately had a plethora of young girls running to my assistance, and then having me buy things from them afterwards.  I am now the proud owner of about 8 plastic/faded Buddha bead bracelets…but it was worth it to get my bike started again.  I continued to explore, without ever turning the bike off again (including when I returned it to the shop).  I have to admit, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to get used to the ebb and flow of traffic and try to adapt to the seemingly non-existent traffic rules.

—-

The trip was a great one, indeed!  I wrapped up my adventures in Bangkok and realized the truth behind the statement – “one night in Bangkok, and the world’s your oyster”.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

I am presently sitting in an internet cafe that is the equivalent of a sweat lodge…it’s about 90 degrees and humid as ever here.  So below are just a few of my top reasons as to why I respect Cambodia (in no particular order):

Type of Trip: Self-planned

Hotel: The Villa Siem Reap (HIGHLY recommended and was only $40/nt…they also picked me up from the airport in a Tuk Tuk for a small extra fee) – http://www.thevillasiemreap.com/

Transport: Bangkok Airways from Bangkok (BKK – REP); 1 hour flight

1.  Tuk Tuks

The most common form of transportation here – an open-air cart attached to a dirt bike/motorcycle.  It’s amazing.  If I had my way, I would take tuk tuks everywhere and bring them back to Chicago.  There are shuttleCambodia 003 buses and cars, but transportation is essentially dominated by tuk tuks, motorcycles and bikes.  I am absolutely impressed by the amount of stuff that people are able to load onto their bicycles…crates, at least 4 dozen coconuts, furniture, live animals, multiple children.  There seems to be few traffic laws, if any at all – the only rule I’ve noted is that everyone gives way to the bigger mode of transportation.  Walkers to bikes, bikes to motos, motos to tuk tuks, tuk tuks to cars, and cars to shuttles.  Despite the seemingly chaotic structure, it seems to work well and honks are merely used as a warning of passing by.  I am also amazed by the age of some of the drivers…I swear, mothers have their three yr olds driving these things.  Either way, I’m sold on the tuk tuks.

2.  The temples of Angkor Wat (UNESCO Site)
Cambodia 222
I won’t go into too much detail here because the majestic power of this former city cannot really be put into words.  The temples are incredible – some look pristine and powerful, overlooking the vast city enclosed by an enormous moat.  Others look straight out of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom.  The Cambodian monks walk through the various temples, chanting and bowing their praise to the innumerable Buddha statuCambodia 117es.  The city of Angkor Wat has been around since the 12th century and at that time, boasted a population larger than London. The only disappointing part of the city is that it is operated (and therefore profited by) private companies.  It would seem to me that the city/country’s biggest tourist destination and largest revenue producing venue would truly help the government to assist their people in emerging from the severe poverty that has evolved.

3.  The food

I happen to love curry, so this place rocks.  Coconut curry is their signature dish, and it’s delicious.  They also pretty much make anything into a shake – watermelon, mango, banana, etc.  Their fruit selection is crazy exotic too…dragon fruit, rabutins (and other strange pulpy-seedy-fruit things), egg chicken bananas, lotus flowers…I’m getting pretty adventurous here.

4.  The massages

$6/hr for a full body overhaul.  I’m serious, these women work you over.  Last night, the woman who gave me my full body massage was 4’2″.  But judging from her strength and the way she walked all over my sore legs and back, I would have guessed 6’8″.  Incredible; I’m absolutely getting one every, single day.

5.  Friendliness of the people

Cambodians are extremely friendly people, who always manage to have a smile on their faces.  I don’t know if it’s because I am an obvious foreigner, but everyone smiles and says hello to you as you walk down the street.  It’s so refreshing and their laughter is infectious. Everyone is so helpful and eager to practice their English with you. The kids, oh the kids – so incredibly adorable. They want to learn and they work so hard in school.  Many aspire to be tour guides or work in the nicer hotels in the city, which pretty much requires them to be fluent in English.  The country is still emerging from a holocaust (Khmer Rouge war), so poverty is to the extreme here. Everywhere you go, there are orphanages, shelters for landmine victims, etc.  The entire city of Siem Reap operates off of tourism profits, which unfortunately, is not that much.  I have met so many foreigners that are here to volunteer, which has really inspired me. They volunteer in the orphanages and in the schools, mostly to help teach English.  It’s pretty amazing and I would suggest it to anyone looking for something to do with their time off…the locals are insanely appreciative 🙂

I’ve attached a few pics to show you examples of my time five reasons above.  As a forewarning on the pictures in the next few blog posts: it is absolutely and unequivocally impossible to look good, let alone remotely decent, when you are melting under the sun.  Pale Irish girls were not meant to linger in the Cambodian heat.  Please, no judgments.

Cambodia 060

Rafting the Colorado River – Grand Canyon (September Launch)

Upon returning to the world of technology, hot showers and flushing toilets, I wanted to share our inspiring adventure from the last three weeks rafting down the Colorado River, inside the Grand Canyon.  These excerpts come directly from my highly-classified journal.  For those not aware of my journal entry style, I assign a title to each of the 18 days of the trip, along with daily highlight.  Here goes!

Type of Trip: Self-planned on a private permit, 18 people among 5 rafts, used food service company to plan meals

Dates: September 2006

Hotel: The great outdoors!  Phantom Ranch is a great half way point to hike in/out

Transport: Fly into Phoenix and drive to the launch point via shuttle/personal car.

Day 1: “The Launch”  Lee’s Ferry in Marble Canyon

  • Final rigging of the rafts, rafting a bit too long and having to eat PB&J sandwiches in the dark….mmmmm, yum.  Everyone reveals their instrument (required by our trip leader…the Coyote, aka my uncle).  Dick manages to misplace his trumpet mouthpiece in the sand, sad being that it is only our first night.  The first box of fine Merlot is cracked open.

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 001

Day 2: “Dancing for Twizzlers” Rider Canyon, just below House Rapid

  • The “young boat”, manned by oarsman Jess and passengers Matt and myself…established a fun game in order to prove one’s worthiness of a highly coveted Twizzler – dancing.  Chris’ boat was also quite competent at the game.  Soon, all boats were participating as a silly method to stay warm as our first few days were chilly and rainy.  This day marked the famous birth of the “underwear tree” (our clothes were perpetually wet), when beef stroganoff became a regular in the leftovers, the “Birthday song” made its debut, and “ziplocking” became a verb.  Group dance parties by the camp fire becomes a regular evening event, along with group jam sessions (Jess brought an electric piano, Matt – guitar, me – flute).  Apparently, if one is to depart on a river excursion and there is a portable, battery-operated piano along, it is in your best interest to memorize the words to Poison’s “Every Rose Has it’s Thorn”.  Lastly, Brian was the victim of a stealth robbery of his food bag…between those ringtails, scorpions, and soon-to-be-discovered vicious tent carolers…one must always sleep with one eye open.
  • Day hike: North Cyn – it rained quite a bit that day, but we were still able to explore a lot of the canyon.  We sought refuge under a large rock outcrop and had lunch there.

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 007

Day 3: “Three Chipmunks Band” Shinumo Wash, Red Wall Cavern.

  • Slow rapids day though the “Roaring 20’s” rapid definitely left its mark on the Hafner boat, Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 043with Linda at the helm.  In the Red Wall Cavern, the musical instruments saw their second appearance.  Pictures do not do the cavern justice – it is an enormous amphitheater carved out by high river flows.  A must stop for lunch.  I completed my first successful “high side” maneuver today – where you avoid flipping a raft in rapids by throwing all our weight up against the high side of the boat.  We finished off the day with Mike’s delicious halibut.
  • Day hike: Red Wall Cavern – Located along river mile 33, Redwall Cavern is a ginormous ampitheater carved by high river flows into the Canyon’s limestone walls. From afar, the cave looks deceptively small, especially compared to the towering cliff above it. It’s not until you get out of the raft and start walking into the gaping expanse, and keep walking and walking, that you realize just how impressive it is. John Wesley Powell estimated that it could hold upwards of 50,000 people. Modern estimates are considerably smaller, but this sandy cavern is still large enough to play an epic game of baseball or frisbee.

IMGP1038_edited-1

Day 4: “Commencement of the Water Wars” Nankoweap Ruins (~mile 40-53)

  • The river version of the Wild Wild West was born with the attack on Chris.  The plot and perfect execution of the attack by assailants, Jess and Erin, wrecked havoc on the Coyote Crew of 16.  Chris was standing on his raft, gazing off into the canyon walls (typical), when Jess strategically asked if there was a rapid approaching…both parties knowing full-well that there were no rapids for miles.  All the same, Chis stood puzzled, and turned his head for a split second.  In that second, a bucket of icy chocolate water soaked him from head to toe.  Erin, grinning devilishly, clenched the empty bucket…and two significant events occurred simultaneously: the beginning of the 1,000 year was and the nickname “Precious”.  This day also marked the beginning of our bocce ball obsession.  With a crew of adventure junkies and engineers, a new game was fashioned “Extreme Bocce” (names for it’s difficult, rock-laden courses).  Soon to follow – “Night Bocce”, with the reigning champions “Dos Beeches”.  For a sentimental reminder, the stars.  The stars. The stars.  Just wow, I have never seen a night sky the rivals the beauty of endless stars, shooting stars, planets, constellations and satellites.  So vividly cool.
  • Day hike: Nankoweap Ruins – super awesome Indian ruins carved into the side of the cliffs.  Incredible history lesson, and the views of the Colorado river from this spot are stunning.

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 054

Day 5: ” This is one big ditch!” miles 53-71

  • Nurse Mol (my mother) went overboard in Tanner!  Thus, the cocktail clinic opened a little late this day.  Mom and Brian were thrown overboard on a monster wave in the middle of the rapid.  They were washed a ways downstream, only to be rescued by Woody in the ducky (kayak) in knee deep water.  Alliances began to form in the water wars.  All teams were suicide diving…going for legs, empty buckets, wristwatches…whatever they could get their hands on.  Julie’s ruthless commitment to the war gained her the title “Zena, the Warrior Princess”.  The name stuck until we realized another Backbuster had already claimed that name, so Julie’s was promptly changed to “Athena, Goddess of Justice”.  That woman knows revenge.  Dick coins the phrase “This is one big ditch!”, referring to the Canyon.

Day 6: “Poisidon’s Revenge” miles 71-87, including Hance Rapid

  • The oarsmen had their first scouting session just before the Hance Rapid (9/10 on the rapid scale) to determine how we should approach and tackle the beast.  Every oarsman had a specific method of attack.  Chuck always managed the courage to go first and be the “probe”.  Chris needed his angels down in the bow. Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 144 John needed absolute silence on his boat.  Coyote has a calm that manages to make one forget that they were in a smaller boat with a leak on the bottom.  Jess threw on his lucky bandana and smiled reassuringly.  Christine turned, non-chalantly, towards the dukcy and got ready to take Hance head-on.  Needless to say though, I think everyone was a little nervous despite appearances.
  • The aftermath: Jess, Matt and Erin were thrown out, Coyote was washed overboard, and Christine swam nearly all of the monster.  Jess somehow managed to hoist himself back into his own boat, row out of the rapid and rescue Matt…all in a matter of about 20 seconds.  Wendy, Julie and Chris graciously saved me and agreed to a temporary truce in the water war.  Christine was ultimately rescued as well, after a few unsympathetic encounters with boulders in the rapid.  I was pretty shaken up afterwards, and gagging on water for a while after.
  • Day hike: Clearwater Creek – on of the canyon’s best kept secrets.  We had the whole place to ourselves!  Great waterfall at the end.

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 059

**Reflections on the first half of the trip**

The biggest challenge of the first half (before Phantom Ranch) was getting to know everyone in the group and discovering each other’s comfort zones.  We spent a lot of time rowing the flat water, with little current, and learning how to prepare the meals and pack/unpack our bags.  A lot of work to do, little day light to work with (9pm being absolute bedtime) and I obviously cannot ignore the fact that whenever there was a lull in the conversation, “Groover chat” came up (the Groover is our portable toilet).  The women wanted to Groover set up in hidden forested areas, emphasizing privacy.  The men, on the other hand, preferred the edges of vistas, with great views…great views for the groover and great views from camp of the groover.  Not my thing.

Day 7: “Pumpkin and his Seeds” Phantom Ranch, mile 87-96.5

  • We said good-bye to some of our esteemed friends, including Linda, Jess, and Woody.  We were introduced to our new comrades, Tom, Jim and Willy.  Chris, donning all orange clothing, became known as the “Pumpkin” (he preferred “Great Jack-o-Lantern”, for a more masculine title).
  • Day hike: Phantom Ranch – the midpoint of the rafting trip and the only place where members of the group can hike in/out.  There was also a payphone where we could make calls to our loved ones.  

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 072

Day 8: “Day of the Gems” Crystal Rapid, miles 96.5-112

  • The rapids, named for precious gems, were fairly big in this stretch.  The crew scouted Crystal and all managed to find the line perfectly to avoid the big holes.  Excellent run by all oarsmen.  Chris’ boat, amidst the celebration, managed to find its way to another rock in the lower Crystal Rapids.  HIGH-SIDE!  Good thing he had the angels working for him.  Julie was also nominated for having the most adorable shiver in the group.

Day 9: “Longest Day Ever” Elves Chasm, miles 112-133.5

  • Covered a ton of ground today.  Grasshoppers have found their way onto our rafts.  ThIMGP1108is marked the day when Brian ran Bedrock and won the understatement of the year award “Yabba Dabba Do!”.  With a nonchalant, but somber, high-side instruction, Matt, Brian, Tom and Willy pin-balled down the water road less traveled.
  • Day hike: Elves Chasm– very cool hike where the oldest rock in the Canyon can be found (~1.8 billion years old!).  John was the first ambitious one to jump into the chilly pool beneath the falls and make his way up the cave to jump off the top.  

Day 10: “Mama and her Sherpas” Tapeats Creek

  • Note to self: a hike with the Coyote is never just a simple stroll down Main Street.
  • Day hike: Thunder River– this hike is absolutely stunning.  Cascading falls, water plunging out of every Canyon wall, vegetation so lush that you find it difficult to believe that you are in the middle of the desert. The picturesque landscape reminded me of a postcard.  The hike back to camp proved a little more difficult.  Molly was shimmied across the teeny excuse for a trail, hugging the side of the mountain.  Matt was in the front and Brian was bringing up the rear…that’s a family that knows the value of teamwork.  With the wind blowing wildly, the gravel trail narrowing, and the cacti calmly waiting at every bend for another innocent victim to embrace them…the group finally made it to the end.  The end of the trail, that is. We had gone the wrong way back!  Ultimately, we decided to free climb down the vertical face, with some scary exposure.  Not excellent for those with a fear of heights.  Luckily, with the help of some experienced climbers in the group, everyone got down safely and my mother was re-nicknamed “Mountain Goat Molly”.

IMGP1127 Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 134

Day 11: “Tent Caroling and Food Fights” Deer Creek & Pancho Camp

  • This evening, at the request of the “Old-Wise One”, Chris nominated himself as the “Sacrificial Pole” for the pole dancing competitions.  John took the heavyweight title for the foot war championship, Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 148beating out our exquisite chef, Mike.  The tent caroling began with earnest.  Caroler’s at Jim’s tent saw two full moons that night.  We learned the true meaning of “hit ’em straight” and finding a “tight spot” on the river.
  • Day hike: Deer Creek – a neat day hike along the Thunder River with Hopi Indian hand prints embedded into the Canyon walls and small, warm-watered pools at the top.  The pools, with small waterfalls cascading into them, provided a nice shower amidst a hot, sweaty hike.

Day 12: “Upset at Matkat” Matkatamiba

  • We successfully ran Upset rapid later in the day (a 7 on the rating scale with current water levels)

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 113

  • Day hike: Matkatamiba – hiking through the caverns of Matkat.  The pristine cavern, carver out by an ever meandering stream, was astounding simply based on its structure and color schemes.  Thin cavern walls in a symmetrical pattern of ghostly white, grey and blackish stripes accented by the water flowing through.  

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 157 Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 165

Day 13: “Eco-Quest: Are These Guys from New York City?” Havasu Canyon & camp at National Canyon

  • Layover day, due to the extended day hike.
  • Day hike: Havasu Canyon Hike – this was my absolutely favorite hike of the whole trip.  Known as the Garden of Eden in the desert, Havasu Falls is one of the most well-known waterfalls in the world. Located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, the beautiful turquoise pools and spectacular waterfalls are breathtaking.  Wendy, Chris, Matt, Tom, Christine and myself embarked on a 4-hour hike through river crossings, over rock ledges, past the famous and lush Beaver Falls, and into the Havasupai Tribal Lands.  We were walking so fast to make it to Mooney Falls, we were likened to an NYC city pace.  Mooney Falls was astounding – huge turquoise falls billowing over the edge of the Canyon about 50 yards up.  The Falls cascade down into a pool of water only ankle deep.  Large, droopy trees grow from under the water and provide ample opportunity for rope swings over the smaller, descending waterfalls at the base of Mooney.  Truly a magical place.  

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 170 Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 179 Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 182 Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 195

Day 14: “Eco-Quest: Part II?” National Canyon

  • Perfect layover campsite.  Chris, John, Wendy and Willy set up a ropes system to get our group up the Canyon wall and into some spots unknown to our veterans.  This evening marked the All-Team Bocce Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 198Tournament.  The teams included Scorpions, Sacrificial Poles, The Hobbits, Wet Willies, Bleached Bums, Dos Beeches, Big Kahoneys, and the Trash Tours.  The night’s festivities were made up of limbo competitions, Lava Falls shots in honor of the River Gods, tent caroling, Dick’s trumpet playing TAPS, wheelbarrow races, lap dances performed by men…and so it was, the “15-year laugh” resonated throughout camp.

Day 15: “SPAM & Not-so-smart Bombs” Lava Rapid

  • Lava Rapid has been on our minds since we started the trip.  This scary, mega-sized rapid is a challenge for all who embark on a Colorado River trip.  In our case, success.  The oarsmen all found the bubble line, missed the Greyhound bus hole and dodged the meat grinder…need I say more?? The celebrations to follow were unprecedented.  Everyone had been storing a costume in the very bottom of their river bags for this moment alone.  We saw everything from an obviously chilly “Julie” to an actual “Piece of Crap”.  Chuck might have been surprised an albino toothless beaver didn’t make it to the party…or did it?  About 5 Budweiser/Bailey’s/Early Times Bourbon shots later.. the tent carolers were on a mission for Chuck.  The chants and animal grunts could be heard all over camp.  Chuck even stuffed a sleeping bag to try and dupe the poor, drunk tent carolers.  Gas was set alight, Dr. Evil disciples emerged in the kitchen, “Build Me Up Buttercup” became a theme song, and the Hammus Alabamus still lingered in the pot.

Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 209

Day 16: “Tenacious Tadpoles” mile 191-205

  • The group all wore t-shirts and skivvies to breakfast in honor of their beloved trip leader.  Apparently, one big night can put an entire crew to bed by 8pm.
  • Day hike: Spring Canyon – not a very exciting hike. Minimal water surrounding the algae-laden creek filled with tadpoles and mini frogs.

Day 17: “I don’t see anyone here who is above the rim” camped at upper 200, Pumpkin Springs

  • Last full day and I cannot believe how far we have all come.  Tom’s boat officially became the party boat of the trip, manned by Dick, Willy, Jim and Tom.  The were armed with water guns and a full drag-bag of Budweiser.  Grand Canyon Trash Tours 2006 252The 1,000 year war saw a peace treaty after Chuck pulled out the secret weapon, and the water equivalent of an Atomic Bomb: the pee-bucket.  The Hobbits won the Bocce Tournament.  The theme of the trip became “Go Big, or Go Home”.
  • Day hike: Pumpkin Springs – cool little pool on the edge of the river but only the Coyote braved the arsenic waters.

Day 18: “Feeling Sedimental” Diamond Creek Take-out

  • Brian’s wit inspired today’s title.  Back to civilization.  Extremely sad saying goodbye to our new, but lifelong friends.  LAST CALL FOR THE GROOVER!  An epic adventure that will stay in my memory for a lifetime.