The Desert, CA

When the weather starts to turn colder, a favorite place to go for a long weekend is “The Desert”. Located about two hours east of Los Angeles, the Desert communities include Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, La Quinta and Indian Wells among others.

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The Desert’s popularity is largely due to its temperate and dry climate. The average high temperature in December is 69 degrees – the coldest month of the year. Average highs go up to 108 degrees in July and August but otherwise are pleasantly in the 70’s, 80’s and low 90’s for most other months.

Although the Desert communities in the past were known as a haven for retirees, they are now considered a year-round destination for people of all ages. With more than 350 days of sunshine per year, a popular outdoor activity is golf at one of the 125 golf courses that make this a premier golfing destination. Other outdoor activities include tennis, hiking and horseback riding in the canyons and visiting the natural mineral water wells. A good place to start a trip is at the Palm Springs Visitor Center on Highway 111  at the turn for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, another popular attraction in the Desert.

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There are many events and activities year-round that bring visitors to the Desert. Along with PGA golf events, the BNP Paribas Tennis Open is held every March and draws top professional tennis talent from around the world.  The Palm Springs International Film Festival is held annually in January and the Coachella Music Festival is held two weekends in April. There are art festivals held throughout the year as well as theater performances, fund raisers, museum events and architectural and design events. The Desert has world-class restaurants, accommodations of all types and an international airport. And there is shopping for everyone – from high end designers on El Paseo Road in Palm Desert to prime outlet shopping in Cabazon.

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Palm Springs is also home to one of the world’s largest collections of mid-century modern architecture. A magnificent example of this is Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage. Formerly the home of the Annenberg family and designed by A. Quincy Jones, it recently opened for tours to the public. It has hosted numerous dignitaries and Heads of State including President Obama’s most recent meeting with Chinese President Xi  Jinping. It is considered “a West Coast ‘Camp David,’ where global leaders seek to advance international agreement.”

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The Desert landscape is unique and breathtakingly beautiful. Jutting layers of mountains against a crisp, blue sky and endless palm trees. In addition to it’s beauty, gorgeous weather and tranquility, the Desert has evolved over recent years to really offer something for everyone. Although we have visited many times, there is still so much to explore and do. Or not do. That’s the beauty!

Santa Fe, New Mexico

One of our favorite places to visit for a long weekend is Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is unlike anywhere else we have been to in this country.

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Santa Fe has a unique style and charm. You cannot get very far without seeing these beautiful chile ristras. The southwestern architecture is unique and the gardens are abundant and flowing.

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There are many ways to keep busy in Santa Fe. Often there is an art show or festival going on. There are great museums, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum which is a favorite. Santa Fe is an enclave for artists and has many galleries to browse. Canyon Road is well known for it’s galleries and restaurants. Seeing the opera at the Santa Fe Opera House is a highlight due to it’s notoriety and it’s open air venue.

As much as the architecture, culture and style of Santa Fe are unique, so is it’s food. There are many, many wonderful restaurants to choose from. On our most recent trip, we had a memorable dinner at La Boca – a gourmet Spanish-style tapas restaurant with incredibly creative and flavorful dishes.

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A somewhat touristy spot but fun for people-watching is Coyote Cafe. We sat on the 2nd floor balcony for a drink and some ceviche, overlooking the busy street below in the center of town.

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I loved this sculpture of The Virgin of Guadalupe. In Santa Fe art is everywhere.

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Two of our favorite stops on this trip were the famous Cafe Pasqual’s Restaurant and the candy and curiosity shop – Todos Santos.

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Cafe Pasqual’s is a Santa Fe institution and once you’ve been here, you’ll know why. The food is the epitome of southwestern home cooking and is comforting, warm and inviting as if your southwestern grandmother was cooking just for you. We had avoided it in the past because of the long lines but got there early this time and waited it out. It was worth it!

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Todos Santos is primarily a candy and confectionary shop but it’s really so much more. The chocolates were handmade with interesting southwestern flavors and beautifully wrapped. But it was the decor, artwork, crafts and odd items that made this worth the trip. Something they are known for are their PEZ dispensers that are transformed into works of art. I had seen them at a friend’s house in her collection and had to bring some home.

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There is much more to Santa Fe than can be included in one visit (or one post). Suffice to say that if you haven’t been to Santa Fe, it should be on your list. And even if you have been more than once like me, there are many reasons to go again. Next time I am going to try to stay at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese spa that a friend told me about.  And I’m sure that there will be no problem finding more amazing places to eat and beautiful art to view.

London

Our vacation last year to Portugal began with a stop in London for a couple of days to see friends. We stayed in the Knightsbridge area of London at the Rembrandt Hotel which was by London standards a pretty good deal in that the rooms are generously sized and a substantial breakfast is included. It is ideally located across from the Victoria and Albert Museum and about a 1/2 mile from Harrods department store.

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It had been about 10 years since we visited London and both my husband and I were pleasantly surprised how the dining landscape has changed. It used to be that the only good food to be had in London was Fish & Chips and Indian food. But that has all changed with the influx of immigrants from all over the world. Two doors down from our hotel, was a fabulous Italian restaurant called Orsini Caffe where we had lunch while waiting for our room to come available. The owners are from Naples and they serve traditional Napolese dishes. My husband and I shared an Antipasto with delicious meats and Buffala Mozzarella and a basket of assorted freshly baked breads.

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In the evening, we met our friends who live in London, and they took us to a fabulous Indian restaurant called Meghna in the neighborhood of St. John’s Woods. Although the service was not great, due to a staffing shortage. the food was delicious. The next day, we took the underground to the neighborhood of Islington where we had lunch at Ottolenghi, owned by one of the most lauded chefs of late Yokam Ottolenghi. The restaurant in Islington is his largest with small take away locations in other neighborhoods in London.

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The lunch menu is simple with a choice of about eight salads and about six mains. All the food is made with seasonal and local ingredients and beautifully displayed in the front of the restaurant as you walk in the front door. We chose 3 different salads each which were all unique in tastes and delicious.

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The second evening of our time in London, we met another friend for dinner, who was in town on business, at an Italian restaurant in Kensington called DaMarios. It is an old family owned restaurant and was a favorite of Princess Diana evidenced by photos and oil portraits of her covering their walls. Great Pizzas and Pasta dishes and a fun atmosphere with a retro disco downstairs. Our third day in London, we had just enough time to visit a few sights around town and prepare for our flight to Lisbon in the afternoon for the rest of our vacation.

Canada

We had some extra airline mileage that we needed to use or lose, so we decided to go to Canada since I had never been and my husband hadn’t been since he was a young child. We flew to Toronto, stayed a couple of nights and then took a six hour train ride to Montreal.  Toronto is a big city, much like New York. It was really late when we arrived, so we stayed in a Best Western near the airport and took a taxi into town the next morning. We stayed at the Westin in the heart of the city and a 20 minute walk to the train station. The weather was definitely Fall like requiring a coat, a refreshing change from the stifling 100 degree weather we had back home. Since we only had one day in Toronto, we didn’t really get to experience many sites other than what was within walking distance from our hotel. We did come across some large and modern Malls with some high end stores and eating establishments.

Our train ride to Montreal the next morning was early and our seats were in Business class which was very comfortable. We were served a substantial breakfast of omelette, croissants & fruit and a lunch. By the time we arrived in Montreal and got to our hotel, another Westin in downtown Montreal, it was the late afternoon. We rested up and then walked around our neighborhood. Montreal is more French looking than Toronto and quite the culinary hotspot. I had made reservations at Joe Beef, a restaurant, I learned about from Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, about Montreal. Our reservations were for a Friday night at 9:30 pm at the bar. We love to walk all over new cities whenever we travel, so we decided to walk to Joe Beef, even though it looked pretty far on the city map. We set out at 7:00 pm to give ourselves plenty of time to get there. The neighborhood we were going to was called Little Burgundy. We walked through some charming areas of the city, much like some of the neighborhoods in New York, like SoHo or Greenwich Village. We finally arrived at 9:00 pm and were told that our seats would be ready in about 20 minutes, so we walked around the neighborhood which had many great looking and busy restaurants and bars. When we were seated at the bar, we were greeted by Lawrence, the bar host who took our drink order and then our dinner order.

LawrenceOne of the distinctions of Joe Beef is their generous servings of Foi Gras, something I can’t get anymore in Los Angeles since it has been banned. I went for a dish that was dripping in the stuff. It was called Duck ala Royale. It consisted of a Roasted Duck Confit that had the meat shredded off the bone and combined with Foi Gras and topped with a piece of roasted Foi Gras and surrounded with a very rich Demiglace and Caramelized roasted carrots.

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It was heaven and extremely rich. I couldn’t finish the dish, unusual for me, but that didn’t stop me from ordering dessert which was their signature Marjolaine cake topped with a quenelle of whipped cream. Another dish that Joe Beef has on their menu is Chevalier or Horse. Someone at the bar ordered it and said it tasted like a cross between Veal and Beef. Sitting at the bar was great fun because our bar host, Lawrence was entertaining and other people at the bar are friendly and talkative. The couple sitting next to us asked us where we were going and we mentioned that we were staying in Montreal for another night and then we were headed to Quebec for a couple of nights. They gave us recommendations for some good meals for the rest of our stay in Montreal and in Quebec.

The next day in Montreal, we decided to skip breakfast, still full from our Joe Beef extravaganza, and visit the Notre Dame Cathedral and then head over to Beautie’s luncheonette. One of the oldest diners in Montreal and the best place to have a Smoked Salmon sandwich on one of Montreal’s distinctive bagels which is what I ordered while my husband ordered a Beautie’s Signature Sandwich which was grilled cheese, fried egg and ham stuffed with fresh tomato on a homemade Brioche bread. My husband said it was one of the best sandwiches he ever had.

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We spent the rest of the day walking around town and came across a demonstration of City Employees protesting against having their pensions being cut by 50%. Good to know America is not the only one dealing with these kinds of changes. We had a good dinner at a restaurant called Bonaparte, another 9:30 pm meal but a close walk from our hotel. The next morning we took the train to Quebec which is about 2 hours North of Montreal. We walked to our hotel from the train station through old Quebec which is very much like walking through the streets of Paris. There are many small boutique hotels, called auberges and fine art, clothing, antique stores and restaurants. We stayed in a very nice Auberge where we had a large Suite room.

We immediately sought out a place for brunch at one of the restaurants recommended by the couple at Joe Beef, Cafe Monde. It has patio dining overlooking the St. Lawrence river.

We visited Hotel Frontenac, a hotel my Husband remembered visiting with his Father when he was 10. It is an impressive 1,000 room property that has a lot of history and strikes an imposing view from the river.

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The Frontenac is a real highlight of Quebec but there are also interesting Museums to visit, boat rides to the outer islands and a ferry that takes you across the river to a mostly residential area where many Quebecians live. But just walking around the city is a delight. I was wearing my Fitbit this trip and because we did so much walking, it was easy to hit my daily goal of 10,000 steps.

After our two nights in Quebec, we rented a car and took three days to get back to Toronto without an agenda. We decided to visit the Eastern Townships, between Quebec and Montreal, an area of quaint villages that were supposed to be more French than other parts of Eastern Canada. We decided to spend the night in a town called Magog. My husband had made a reservation while in Quebec at a B & B called Au Sait du Lit which has 5 rooms and run by a very nice couple.

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We arrived around 3:00 pm and they directed us to a hiking trail that had a wooden plank walkway around the lake. We walked for about 2 hours and saw incredible Fall colors of Crimson, golden yellow and various shades of green. The next morning after a rather large and delicious breakfast, we set off for Niagara Falls, a place that was still on my bucket list.

The city of Niagara on the Canadian side is trying to become like Las Vegas, with big hotels, casinos and chain restaurants. Everything Is super expensive and the food is just so so.
But the actual Falls is definitely worth visiting.

We took the Mist of the Maiden boat right up to the Falls and then the Journey behind the Falls. Both were thrilling. I was pleasantly surprised because we had been to Iguazu Falls in Argentina and in Brazil which is about 3 times wider than Niagara, so I thought it would be anticlimactic but it was an amazing sight to see how the Falls are situated on the American side and the Canadian side and the incredible power of the water. It was a real highlight of our trip.

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Canada is a country of great beauty, very easy to get to and you feel like you are traveling in a foreign country without giving up too many comforts of home.

Honolulu, Hawaii

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What can I say about Honolulu, Hawaii? So many things. I was born here and lived here my earliest years. Once we moved to California, I visited every summer. I feel like a native and this is my home. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And the ALOHA spirit is real.

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Growing up, I was lucky to have grandparents who lived in Honolulu. I would visit each summer for weeks, soaking up the sun, hospitality, spirit and culture of the islands. To me it was home. Some of my favorite memories are food memories. Rainbow Drive-In’s lunch plate – beef, chicken and shrimp with a scoop of macaroni salad and 2 scoops of rice. A Hawaiian classic.

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And Duke’s at the Outrigger Hotel on Waikiki Beach – ahi poke and their famous mud pie. A restaurant honoring the famous surfer, statesman and representative of the islands, Duke Kahanamoku.

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There are many beautiful places to stay in Honolulu. We like to stay in Waikiki just for a few days to take in the full experience. And although we have tried many of the hotels, our favorite is the Sheraton Moana Surfrider – an old, Hawaiian-plantation style hotel right on Waikiki Beach. It has a quiet elegance and a sense of being back in time. Here is the view from our room in the tower.

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Around the island of Oahu, one of our favorite activities is to visit the beach in Kailua – a vision of untouched beauty and not far too far from Waikiki.

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Our kids especially love Hanauma Bay, now a Nature Reserve Park. A cove protected by coral reef, Hanauma Bay offers amazing snorkeling, warm water and gorgeous views. It is a must on any visit to Oahu, Hawaii but you must get there early. Admission is limited to protect the reef and attendance can sell out early.

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Most visitors, including myself take a day to visit Pearl Harbor and the Memorial. It is a moving experience as you re-create what happened one morning almost 75 years ago. A boat ride takes you to visit the Memorial which has been built on top of the USS Arizona. It is difficult not to appreciate the sacrifice of the crew who gave up their lives and an important history lesson to children about the true devastations of war.

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A trip to Honolulu for us would not be complete without a visit to Leonard’s Bakery, a Portuguese Bakery that has been a standout in Honolulu for many years. The classic item that is unbelievably delicious is the malasada or Portuguese donut.

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There is so much more to Honolulu and the island of Oahu than I have touched on here.  The North Shore. Local neighborhoods. Punchbowl. Makapuu. The Fish Market. Ala Moana. Sam Choy. Alan Wong. Mai Tais.

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There will definitely be a follow-up to this Honolulu, Part 1 post. But, suffice to say – if you haven’t been there yet – GO. If you have, you know what I’m talking about and you can’t wait to go again. ME, TOO.

Mammoth Lakes, California

Have you ever been to Mammoth, California? I suspect many of you will say no. Why? Well, access may be one reason. It’s not that easy to get to. But it’s also not that hard to get to. You’ve heard of it but don’t know much about it? Fair enough. I’ll tell you what I know.

Mammoth Lakes, California is in the Eastern Sierra and is about a 5 hour drive from Los Angeles or a one hour plane flight. It is located less than an hour south of Yosemite. It is a year-round resort although it is most popular for it’s winter sports activities. Mammoth Mountain offers 3,500 acres of terrain for avid skiers and snowboarders. The average snowfall is 400” per year. It is a family-friendly resort with activities for everyone, including snowmobile adventures, a tube park, snowcat tours, scenic gondola rides and cross country skiing.

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Some of the most beautiful views of Mammoth are just after a big snow storm.

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A gorgeous, sunny day on the slopes in Mammoth. This weather is typical of many of the winter days.

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A beautiful, open and wide run on Mammoth Mountain. There are many like this as well as terrain for every level of skier and snowboarder.

The summer season in Mammoth, although much quieter offers stunning and majestic views as well as a plethora of activities. The beauty of this season is in it’s quietness and tranquility.

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In late summer, the foliage changes color. You don’t need to travel all the way to the east coast to see the changing colors!

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One of our favorite summer activities is hiking. With it’s proximity to Yosemite, Mammoth has vistas and scenery that rival those of the famous National Park next door. There are more than 2 million acres of National forest land to explore. Endless trails, bike paths, lakes and camping sights abound in the area. Fishing, horseback riding, mountain bike riding, zip lining and rock climbing are some of the many summer activities that Mammoth has to offer.

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There are many choices of places to stay in Mammoth, especially in the rental condominium category. Having tried different places over the years, our favorite is Snowcreek Resort. In addition to beautiful properties that you can search for and choose on-line, the overall property is surrounded by scenic landscaping and gorgeous views. Rentals through Snowcreek Resort include the use of the Snowcreek Athletic Club – a 30,000 square foot facility that has recently been remodeled. There are tennis and raquetball courts, a full basketball and volleyball court, a full gymnasium, indoor and outdoor pools, spa, restaurant and numerous classes. There is also a 9-hole golf course and driving range which guests may enjoy at significantly reduced fees.

What else is there to do in Mammoth? The dining options in Mammoth continue to grow. There are established restaurants that thrive and new ones that open each season. The Mogul, Petra’s and the Tamarack Lodge are upscale steak and seafood options of quality that have stood the test of time. Some exciting newcomers include Mammoth Tavern and The Brasserie, located in the new Mammoth Rock and Bowl Center.

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There are events year-round in Mammoth including a Jazz Festival, Food and Wine Festival, and a Beer and Blues Festival to name a few. The Night of Lights Festival on Mammoth Mountain in December kicks off the holiday season and includes music, fireworks and a torchlight parade down the mountain. It is a beautiful site to see. Many sporting events take place as well – from mountain biking to fishing to mud-runs and triathlons. There is truly something for everyone.

So, now why haven’t you been to Mammoth Lakes, California? I hope you’re making your plans now.

Portugal

We traveled to Portugal last September, hoping to miss the usual European tourists that travel throughout the month of August. Other than being a European country, I didn’t know that much about Portugal but had heard from the few friends of mine who have traveled there that it is a beautiful country. My husband and I flew to Lisbon after a weekend in London and met up with my brother in law and his wife who had already been in Lisbon a couple of days. Our plan was to stay in Lisbon for a couple of nights, rent a car and then drive north along the coast to Porto and after stopping along the way at an interesting beach town for a night or two, make our way east from Porto through the wine region of the Douro Valley and then head south as we make our way back to Lisbon. We had almost 3 weeks to explore the country so we left our plans open in case we ran out of interesting things to do in Portugal, we could explore parts of bordering Spain or even take a ferry to Morocco.

Lisbon is very hilly with distinct neighborhoods. One of the first things, we noticed was the entire city, in fact the entire country, is lined with streets of mosaic tiles some with ornate patterns and others just plain. We observed some street repairs being done by the hammering of individual mosaic tiles. It looked pretty labor intensive and a technique that had probably been done since ancient times.

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Lisbon has a pretty active bar scene at night with many outdoor cafes and squares that offer food and drink until the wee hours. In many ways Portugal is still very old world. While I am sure a modern and hip culture exists, what tourists see is the Fado music parlors, simple food, baroque architecture and charming seaside and medieval towns. The beaches are beautiful. In September, the beach crowds are gone because the weather and water is not conducive to swimming, but the natural beauty and fresh grilled seafood is something to experience.

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While driving north along the coast to Porto, we stopped at a couple of medieval towns that had some interesting architecture, old castles, beautiful churches and Roman ruins.

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Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is the hub of the Port wine industry. It is a great walking town with many interesting street sights. While we were walking around one day, we came upon a square with a market selling every kind of bird imaginable. We also came upon a charitable event that featured previously married women were walking around town in wedding dresses. At the Port, we saw ships carrying barrels of Port wine, a beautiful double hung walking bridge, interesting tile faced houses and a food market.

TravelogueThe last area we explored in Portugal before we headed back to Lisbon, was east of Porto through the Douro Valley which is the wine growing region of the country. Breathtaking terraced vineyards line the Douro River which runs all the way into Spain. We found a Quinta (like a bed & breakfast) that was also a working winery to spend the night. It was Harvest season, so our evening was spent stomping on the grapes which is done for 3 hours a night for a month to separate the skins from the juices rather than using machines for the process.

Portugal is a beautiful country. However unlike it’s neighbors, Spain and France, even the big cities of Lisbon and Porto are still very old world. For us three weeks was too long to spend traveling around the country because there wasn’t enough diversity in the sights, food, shopping and other tourist activities. Two weeks is more than enough time to get a good feel for the country and not get bored.

Sailing in the Caribbean

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone sailing in the Caribbean. So I was very excited about our sailing trip this Summer, even though I usually experience severe seasickness. We planned our trip with another couple we had sailed with 20 years ago who now had two children ages 10 & 8. We were bringing our youngest grandchild who is 8 and my husband’s daughter and her two kids ages 13 & 11. So there were 10 of us on this trip 5 adults and 5 young boys. We rented a 50 foot Catamaran which was new for my husband who is the Captain on our sailing trips and we are his crew. He has a lot of experience sailing a mono hull boat. Our vessel had 5 cabins and 5 bathrooms, a generous indoor salon and a great outdoor sitting area.

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We flew into St. Maarten to pick up our boat and in two and a half weeks we had planned to get down as far as Antigua before we headed back up to St. Maarten to return the boat. This was the first time I had been to these islands. The previous two sailing trips I had taken with my husband and our combined families began in St. Lucia and we sailed the Grenadine Islands.

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Now when I tell people we are going sailing and my husband is the Captain and we are his crew, they really don’t know what that means. It means that there are going to be two times a day putting up the sails and taking the sails down, anchoring or mooring and taking the anchor up, that is going to be hard work requiring all adults on deck and it will be a little stressful. On a 50 foot Catamaran it proved to be even more stressful because the size made it difficult to hear people’s commands and responses. We really needed walkie-talkies to communicate effectively. But instead we just did a lot of yelling. In between those sail management times when we are actually sailing not much is happening. We just enjoy the Ocean and waves and everyone including kids take turns driving the boat. We sail during the day, usually after breakfast until we get to the next island. Then we anchor or moor the boat and either take the dingy boat into shore or swim into shore. Each island is different depending on its history and inhabitants. There are Dutch Islands or French and in the case of St. Maarten, half of the island is Dutch and half is French. I believe one of the islands we went to was English owned. On the French islands, the boys had their first experience with topless beaches which made for some interesting conversations.

The kids got along great but they were more preoccupied with their electronics and finding WiFi than the sailing but we all had a great adventure exploring new islands, swimming in pristine waters and seeing incredible sunsets.

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We didn’t get down as far as we had hoped before we had to turn around and go back up to St Maarten, but we made a plan to do another trip next year so we could explore Antigua and Guadaloupe and some of the remote islands in between. This year I was prepared with a seasickness patch and two pressure bracelets and I didn’t get seasick, which really enhanced my enjoyment of the sailing experience.

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Aspen, Colorado

Traveling is one of our favorite family activities. And while we love the adventure of traveling around the world, there are also many majestic sites to visit here in our own country. With this in mind, by the time my youngest child was 11 and my oldest was 18 (2009), all 5 members of our family had visited the 50 United States of America. An amazing experience and so grateful that we did it.

So when it comes to planning current trips around our country, sometimes we are at a loss for where to go. One place we hadn’t been is Aspen, Colorado.

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We usually associate Aspen with the winter season and winter sports. And since we spend our winters in Mammoth, CA and Lake Tahoe, CA, we decided to visit Aspen in the summer.

We included Aspen on a road trip that we took through the southwest. Heading east through Utah, we drove into Colorado through Grand Junction. When you enter Colorado it’s immediately evident what a breathtakingly beautiful state it is. There is scenic beauty in every direction and we felt fortunate to be experiencing this by car in the summer, as many visitors fly in during the winter.

Our visit was brief but we were fortunate to stay at the Kimpton Sky Hotel, located at the base of Aspen Mountain. A boutique, chic hotel with an inviting outdoor pool and restaurant, we enjoyed spending afternoons lounging and basking in the sun.

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Not bad for pool snacks: kale salad with pine nuts, goat cheese, currants and beets and ahi tuna tartare tacos in fried won ton shells. Creative and unexpectedly gourmet.

One thing Aspen is known for are its’ music festivals. After leaving dinner one night in town, we stumbled upon an impromptu concert on a corner.

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As we love to hike, we decided to explore Aspen this way – on foot! There are foot and bike trails all around the city. We viewed amazing homes, flora and fauna on our 5 mile trek through town.

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We thought these were Aspen trees, but weren’t really sure. They’re beautiful nonetheless!

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Our next destination on this road trip was a favorite city of ours, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Coming from Aspen, we took Highway 82 South as the most direct route. We had no idea how winding (and nerve-wracking!) the two-lane drive would be. But a wonderful surprise we received on the ride was crossing the Continental Divide at Independence Pass @ 12,095 feet elevation.

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Our only regret was that our stay in Aspen, CO was a bit too short. But we know we can always go back and I hope that we will. It reminds me of how many absolutely wonderful places we have to experience in our own backyard of the United States of America.

 

 

 

Japan

This summer I traveled to Japan with my family for 10 days. Although I am half Japanese in heritage and my children are one quarter Japanese, this was the first trip for us. We really didn’t know what to expect.

We split our time between Tokyo and Kyoto, two very different cities. Tokyo has the largest population in the world (38 million) but you would never know it as everything operates smoothly, efficiently and extremely politely. Although we expected to sightsee in Tokyo, we learned that the city excels more in it’s different neighborhoods and districts (Harajuku was a favorite), each offering a slightly different culture or specialty. Tokyo is also well-known for it’s shopping and food.

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Although we are not big shoppers in general, we could not get enough of the food courts in the basement levels of the enormous and often opulent department stores in the Ginza District. We also found them in many train stations. The food choices were endless and the presentations were incredible. Ironically as I walked around snapping photos, I was politely asked to stop as it was against the rules. Funny, as Japanese tourists are relentless photographers!

We tried as many types of food in Tokyo as we could. Here is our breakfast after we arrived on our first day. I could get used to having sushi for breakfast everyday!

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And for dinner that night, we snuck into a basement ramen shop and were assisted in paying for our dinner from a vending machine and taking the ticket to the counter. That took us awhile to figure out! The ramen broth was meaty, rich and satisfying. Not anything like the Top Ramen we whip up in 5 minutes at home.

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We did a lot of walking in Tokyo, we rode the trains and we did a lot of eating. By the way, June is rainy season (which we didn’t realize) so pack accordingly if you go at that time. It really didn’t damper our excitement in being there. Wagyu beef and more sushi.

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After a few days in Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The bullet train itself is an amazing experience and one we never tired of. We bought a pass before we left for the US that allowed us limited but good access to the trains for one week at a reasonable price.

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Kyoto is the city of temples and shrines. We found a few temples on our own when we had a free afternoon but found it more efficient to take a one-day bus tour of some of the more notable ones to visit. Although we usually prefer not to travel in large groups, we knew we had limited time and made an exception.

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It was exciting to see people dressed in traditional clothing at some of the shrines and temples. They were very gracious about letting the many tourists take their pictures!

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A definite highlight of this region was our one day visit to Nara, known for the largest wooden temple in the world and for the many tame and affectionate deer that roam freely in the park surrounding it.

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On our last full day in Japan we took the bullet train to Hiroshima to experience a part of history. We worried that the site, memorial and museum would be very difficult emotionally and perhaps too much for our youngest teenage child. But it could not have been more well-presented.

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Ground Zero of the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 is also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. This skeleton of a building is virtually the only thing that survived for miles because it lay just below the center of the explosion overhead. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park surrounds it with a number of moving monuments. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is informative and tastefully documents the events that led up to the world’s first nuclear attack. It’s theme focuses not only on the history but on prevention for the future of all mankind.

A touching part of the Peace Park is the dedication of 1,000 cranes in memory of Sadako Sasaki. She was 24 months old at the time of the bombing but developed cancer at the age of 12 due to the aftereffects of radiation. In Japanese culture, the folding of 1,000 cranes is believed to grant wishes such as recovery from illness. Sadako unfortunately passed away and did not finish folding her 1,000 cranes so her classmates finished for her. Since then, many, many people make pilgrimages to Hiroshima with thousands of folded cranes to add to the world prayer for peace. It is  beautiful and moving.

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Overall, Japan has left me yearning for more. More time, more culture, more experience, more immersion. It was so much more than I expected with so much more to know.