Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Cape Cod and Beyond

One of Martha's Vineyard's Lighthouses
The second half of our trip started with a day of rain so we did a few inside things; caught up with our laundry, visited the Cape Cod potato chip factory and visited the Kennedy Museum in Hyannis.  The latter is a small museum which focuses on the Kennedy’s time in Cape Cod.  Most of the exhibits focus on JFK, but there are also lots of mementos from the rest of the family including pieces from the Kennedy’s Compound in Hyannis Port.  Very interesting to see the more casual side of the Kennedys. 

Speaking of Hyannis and Hyannis Port: we were confused as to where these towns started and stopped and how they related to Barnstable (another town we had visited) so we asked a docent at the Kennedy Museum to explain.  Turns out that Barnstable is the town and Hyannis is one of seven villages within the town.  Hyannis Port isn’t even a village; it’s more like a suburb of Hyannis which includes one of the town’s (Barnstable’s) ports.  Oh, by the way, there is also a village named Barnstable and a place called Barnstable Port.  Not confusing at all!

The slow ferry coming in.
Next up on our agenda was Martha’s Vineyard.  We drove an hour across the Cape to Woods Hole and boarded the fast ferry to the Vineyard, landing after 45 minutes in Vineyard Haven.  This little town used to be called “Homes Hole” but locals got tired of explaining why their town was named as such so they renamed it to something more socially acceptable. (In case you’re wondering Wiki says: "Known by the original Wampanoag inhabitants as Nobnocket, this area was first referred to by the colonial settlers as Homes Hole; "Homes" from a Wampanoag term for "old man," and "Hole" meaning a sheltered inlet.")

The ferry ride is interesting in and of itself. The passengers cover the gamut; with day tourists like us, commuters who make this ride twice a day, and people who are going for an extended stay with lots of luggage and big dogs.  In fact, there were lots of big dogs and all were well behaved and quite friendly.  For our ride the ferry wasn’t crowded and there was plenty of space for all, even for the dogs.  However, we found out that beginning Memorial Day all the ferries are packed and sometimes you have to make reservations several days ahead to ensure you get a seat.  Lucky for us it was off season and we could ride anytime we wanted.  
Sea Captain's Homes on Water Street, Edgartown

Once on Martha’s Vineyard we caught a bus to visit Edgartown; one of the five towns on the island.  Edgartown used to be one of the primary whaling ports of the new world with ships from around the world docking here.  Water Street was where many of the sea captains built their mansions with their Widow’s Walks looking out to sea.  Most of these houses have been restored to their former glory and walking along them almost takes you back in time.

Edgartown was also the shooting location for the fictional town of Amity in the movie “Jaws”.  We can’t wait to re-watch the movie to revisit the town!

Victorian Mansion on Oak Bluff Commons
It was time to move on so we caught bus #13 and got off at the next town: Oak Bluffs.  Stepping off the bus is like stepping into a movie set.  The sea is on one side of the road and on the other side is the town commons, a sea of green grass centered with a picture-perfect gazebo.  Circling the commons is Ocean Avenue which is lined with stately Victorian Mansions, many of which were built by Portuguese mariners in the 19th century.  Beautiful!

A few blocks behind the Victorians is Wesleyan Grove, formerly a tent campground for Methodist camp meetings.  Many families returned to the campground year after year and over time the tents were replaced with small ornately decorated homes.  These homes are painted in bright colors and have elaborate trim and scrollwork bordering which led to them being labeled as “gingerbread cottages.”  Many of these homes have been passed from generation to generation and are as beautiful as the day they were built.  Walking through this village of over 300 homes is like walking through a fairy land!
The Pink House.  1 of over 300 Gingerbread houses

Martha’s Vineyard is incredibly quaint and photo-worthy at almost every turn.  Our visit spanned only a day but I can see how people would want to stay here all summer.  But we didn’t have all summer so soon we were back on the ferry and then in Hyannis having another great seafood dinner.

The next morning we caught the Fast Ferry to Nantucket.  This ferry had the same mix of passengers as yesterday’s, including the large dogs.  That mix of people makes for some very interesting conversations to overhear!  As usual, I spent most of my time on the outside deck scanning for whales and dolphins.  I’ve always done this and have never seen much of anything.  However, this ride was different in that I actually spotted spotted a fin whale!  Woot!

Sea Captain's Home on Nantucket

Unlike our Martha’s Vineyards bus riding, we decided that this would be strictly a walking visit.  We started with a mile and a half wander along the cobblestone streets to a restaurant high up on the bluff.  After yet another great seafood meal we wandered back and marveled at all the sea captains’ mansions.  In the 1800s Nantucket was the largest whaling seaport in the world, so there are hundreds of these beautiful homes here.  Did you know that the entire island of Nantucket is a National Historic Site and there are over 800 pre-Civil War homes here; the largest concentration in the country.  Many of these homes were abandoned after the end of the whaling industry in the 19th century but now they are almost priceless, commanding some of the highest prices per square foot in the United States.  

I must admit even though I was entranced by the stately mansions and the cobblestone streets I couldn’t stop thinking about….well….you know…those immortal words…

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
    But his daughter, named Nan,
    Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

I’m glad that’s out now and I can move on!

We really enjoyed visiting Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and would really like spending more time there when the weather is warmer.  The trouble is that with warm weather comes the influx of summer residents and thousands of tourists.  For now, our brief visits will have to suffice!

Our week on Cape Cod was now at an end.  We loved the wildlife, the beautiful shore vistas, the history, the lighthouses and of course the seafood.  We had seafood virtually every meal: oysters, Quahogs, scallops, shrimp and fish of all kinds.  Yum!  However, by week’s end we were actually tired of seafood.  For our last meal on the Cape we snuck over to the Mexican restaurant next door and feasted on carnitas and taco chips.  Sad, but true…and oh so yummy!

We worked our way off the Cape via Route 6 and headed west towards home.  We weren’t in any hurry so we geocached along the way and stopped to see what could be seen.  We caught Interstate 88 which wanders along the southern edge of New York and eventually took I-86 to the Allegheny Mountains.  We ended up in Jamestown, NY which is the birthplace of Lucille Ball.  

Jamestown is a cute little town with lots of memorials to Lucy including several Lucy murals and two
No pics allowed inside.  :-(
museums focusing on Lucy and Desi Arnez.  Next morning Mona decided she wanted to visit both museums.  I reluctantly agreed.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Lucy, but frankly I didn’t think the museums would be that interesting.  I was wrong.  One museum was primarily dedicated to Lucille Ball with lots of memorabilia from her early life and video-taped stories from people who knew her when.  

The second museum was my favorite as its primary focus was on Lucy, Desi and their TV show, “I Love Lucy.”  There were reproductions of the sets from the show and film clips from some of the funniest moments of the show.  This turned into a nostalgic trip back into my childhood when I watched countless reruns of Lucy.  I’m still hearing their theme song as I type these words! 

The target for the next segment of our trip was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.  Just as we were heading out of our hotel we heard a news broadcast discussing the court ruling about police who had chased down a fleeing car and who fired 137 shots into the car with two unarmed people in it.  The encounter ended with an officer jumping onto the hood of the car and firing the last 15 shots.  That officer was on trial and was found innocent.  That verdict sparked protests in downtown Cleveland and we were concerned about getting into the middle of the protest.  Cleveland was a couple of hours away so Mona monitored Twitter and CNN to see if it was safe to visit.  Fortunately, the protests remained peaceful so we ventured into Cleveland and were glad we did.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits right on the waterfront.  The waterfront is awesome, with a science center, football stadium and lots of other attractions.  However, we stayed focused on our goal, leaving everything else for a future visit.

We both grew up listening to rock and roll and some of my earliest musical memories dating back to Chubby Checker and of course, Elvis.  My parents were huge fans of both, but most of all, big fans of Elvis.  Mona was the same, but I think her early favorites were Dion and Elvis.  From then on our lives paralleled rock and roll’s evolution: Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, Rolling Stones, and on and on and on.  Perhaps that’s why the Hall of Fame struck such a chord with us!  (Yep, pun intended.)

From the first exhibit to the last we were entranced.  There was music everywhere and seemingly each exhibit taught us more and more about the music we loved and the musicians who played it. 
Lady Gaga Costume
This. Place. Rocks!  

Ringo's Drums
The lower level of the museum traces the history of rock from its early beginnings in Blues, Soul and Gospel and then all the way to Lady Gaga.  Another floor that we visited had videos of inductions year by year.  Two upper floors had iconic rock stars’ (including Tina Turner, Cher, Madonna and Paul McCartney) photographs taken by Herb Ritts.  Many of these were familiar as they had been on albums that we’ve purchased over the years.
Herb Ritts Photo of Tina

We spent over 4 hours at the Hall of Fame and it wasn’t nearly enough.  We are already planning to return!

On our way out of Cleveland we saw a line of police officers in full riot gear advancing down the street.  We feared that the people of Cleveland were in for a night of violence, but luckily calm prevailed and the protests continued peacefully.  Hoping and praying that continues.

Now we’re home.  It’s time for laundry, grocery shopping and catching up with family and friends.  And of course, we’ll find some time in there to plan for our next trip!

Travel Tips

Cape Cod is expensive and we never saw a coupon book to help us save money.  Not only that, it’s against Massachusetts state law to have happy hours so you can’t get any bargains that way.  Parking along the street is inexpensive but it’s limited. Parking lots for ferries, tours, etc. cost about $15….and this is the off season.  All I can say is to travel in the off season and split a few dinners to help save.  Otherwise, short of buying groceries and preparing your meals in your room, there’s not much you can do here to save on food costs.

As I said in an earlier post, on our trip out we stayed for free at Choice Hotels using points earned on our Florida trips.  On our return Choice had another promotion so we paid for our rooms to earn additional points.


This will be my last blog in this format.  I'm changing my hosting site and my editing tools hoping to have more control over the published format.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Destination: Cape Cod

Destination: Cape Cod
We spent the first night of the trip in Bedford, PA.  There, we found a tavern/Bed & Breakfast that was built in the 1760s: the Jean Bonnet Tavern.  This building has seen a lot of American history including meetings of Pennsylvania farmers who were upset about the tax on whiskey.  This was the Whiskey Rebellion and in 1794 George Washington sent troops here to quell the rebellion.  Like the thousands of travelers who have visited this tavern in the past 255 years, we enjoyed a meal of local foods accompanied by locally brewed ale.  You can’t get much better than that!

Jean Bonnet’s is said to be haunted and of course that intrigued us.  We had heard about their Ghost Book so we asked to see it.  It’s filled with photos of orbs, apparitions and stories of mysterious happenings.  Unfortunately, we didn’t witness anything strange, but we plan to come back and spend a night in the B&B.  Can’t wait!

The next morning we traveled backroads through Pennsylvania to Gettysburg.  We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center for a very moving video that relates the events leading up to the Civil War and then provides details about the Battle of Gettysburg.  This video really brings it home.  Afterwards, we were whisked up to the Cyclorama, a 360 degree painting painted in 1894.  The cyclorama is over 40 feet tall, over 370 feet in circumference and depicts Pickett’s Charge.  There is a narrative, special lighting and full sized artifacts that help tell the story of this failed charge and the men who fought in it.  During the viewing you almost forget that it’s a painting and you get really immersed into the battle!

Near Little Round Top
We spent a few more hours visiting the Gettysburg National Cemetery and several of the battle sites including Little Round Top.  You could spend hours or days here and not see it all, but it was time to continue our travels.

The next two days were spent with our “D.C.” friends, Margaret and Pete.  With them we geocached in Delaware (finishing up our counties, there!) and visiting the Eastern Shore.  The Eastern Shore is the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay which has villages and ports scattered throughout.  We stopped for lunch at the Crab Claw in a charming little town called St. Michael’s.  There, overlooking the harbor, I got my first seafood dining lesson of the trip.  

I really really wanted to have a plate of steamed crabs.  (If nothing else I wanted to post of pic of them for a Melissa “Ewwww”!)  However, I learned two things: 1. Twelve crabs are a lot of work to eat and probably won’t fill me.  2. Twelve crabs cost $63!!!  I’m all about trying new foods, but that’s a bit too much even for me!  I settled for two softshell crabs, which are the same crabs but which have molted their shells.  Biting off and chewing on the legs takes some getting used to, but it’s good stuff!

Next up was New York City.  We took a different route this time, crossing from New Jersey onto Staten Island then onto Long Island and Brooklyn via the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  This route gave us incredible vistas of Manhattan and at last we got to cross the iconic Verrazano Bridge!  Mona was driving during this part of the route so I really got to soak it all in.  What a thrill!!!

Then we took the Belt Parkway to Coney Island.  Coney Island!!! How many times have we heard about this legendary boardwalk?  How many TV shows and movies talk about it?!  Turning off the parkway into Coney Island felt like turning into a state fairground with rides and food stands everywhere, except these rides and stands are along busy New York Streets.  Another minor difference is that unlike a state fair, there are no livestock barns here.  Maybe they show up during prime season? :-)
On the Boardwalk!

It didn’t take us long to find a parking spot near our next stop: Nathan’s Famous!  Mind you, this is the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand which opened in 1916.  We got in one of the 15 or so lines and quickly got our chili dogs and fries.  Then we headed outside to eat our dogs on Nathan’s patio.  Yum!  The dogs were so totally worth it! 

We then wandered up and down the boardwalk, gawking at all the rides and enjoying the beautiful beach scenery.  It was about 65 degrees and on a mid-May Thursday so there were only a few hundred people around so we had the boardwalk virtually to ourselves.  I can only imagine what Coney Island is like on a mid-summer weekend!

Time to move on, so we headed further down the Belt Parkway and then north on the Van Wyck through Queens, the Bronx and finally to White Plains.  There we stayed in a hotel right in the city center.  The hotel reminded us so much of our old loft that we hated to leave.

The next day we continued to work our way east through Connecticut, making sure to find a
Mystic River Bascule Bridge
geocache in every county in the state.  We ended up, by plan, in Mystic, Connecticut where we revisited the restaurant where three years ago Mona starting loving oysters.  It was like a family reunion as she greeted her old friends: the Ninigrets, the Pemaquids and of course the Noanks.  We even had Noanks for dessert!

Next up was Rhode Island, where we also found a cache in every county.  That makes for three states on this trip in which we’ve found a cache in every county.  Woot!  Okay, that may not mean much to you but for these two geeks this is an accomplishment!

Finally, we were in Cape Cod, the primary target of this trip.  We quickly found our resort hotel, dropped off our bags and headed out for seafood at the closest harbor: Hyannis, the Kennedy’s old playground.  Here there are almost too many seafood restaurants to choose from but our growling stomachs quickly led us to the Black Cat Harbor Shack.  There we sated ourselves with oysters and lobster…..ahhh….we’re finally in Cape Cod.  Time for a nap!

Whales!  Whales!  Whales!  Cape Cod is well known for its rich whaling history so first on our list
was a whale-watching expedition.  We boarded a ship, three times bigger than our Monterey vessel, and headed out into the Atlantic.  All was well for about the first half hour but then we hit fog.  Lots of dense fog all around us.  We were resigned to no whale sightings because you couldn’t see more than 100 feet from the boat; looked like we’d be coming back for a raincheck ride. 

But wait, there at 1:00 (Think of the boat as a large clock face.  The front of the boat is 12:00.  Slightly to the right is 1:00, etc.) was a solitary blow…a humpback gliding along beside us in the fog.  He was huge and looked like a submarine coming to surface!  We traveled along with him for a ways,  watching him dive and surface, and then suddenly he was gone.  We then resigned ourselves to seeing only one whale and getting no raincheck ride.

The huge fin of a humpback getting ready
to slap the water.  Eery in the fog!
The captain decided to take drastic measures to help find another whale.  He turned everything off and everyone on board was asked to be silent so we might hear whales.  Seriously? There we were in the north Altantic drifting about in the heavy fog.  You could hear the waves slapping against the boat and you could see nothing in the pea soup fog.  Suddenly, the on-board naturalist whispered through the PA that she could hear something at 11:00…just over there!  We all peered into the foggy mist and there were two humpbacks on the surface, lazily slapping their fins on the water and seemingly waiting for us to come by and watch their play.  The two kept at it for easily ten minutes when a third whale dropped by to see what was up.  Totally awesome!!!  Now, we weren’t resigned at all; instead, we had a wonderful new encounter to add to our list of whale memories!

We celebrated our whaling encounter with what else?  Seafood of course!  We headed back to Hyannis to Spanky’s Clam Shack.  There I got a bit of an education on language on the Cape.

It started when I ordered a stuffed Quahog pronouncing it as any normal midwesterner would “Kay-hog”.  (Or you might have said, “kwa-hog”.  Either would be correct in my mind.)  However, our server, Judy, seemed puzzled with my order until she brightened up and said, “Oh, you must mean “Ko-hog” right?”  Hmmm….I guessed that’s what I wanted so I said yes.  Turns out a stuffed Quahog (remember the “Qu” sound is "k" and the “a” is pronounced like a long “o” and hog is “hog”)…a stuffed Quahog is a large clamshell stuffed with diced clam and a spicy stuffing.  Total yum regardless of how it’s pronounced!

I then learned about “Whole Belly Fried Clams” (pronounced “Hole bel-lee fry-ed clams”).  Turns out that all the clam strips that I’ve consumed over the years are not sliced strips of clam.  Oh no, they are clam necks.  I guess the marketing whizzes figured that us midwestern folks would balk at eating deep-fried clam necks so they renamed them clam strips.  Clever! Anyway, this is what Judy told us and I haven’t checked it out on Snopes yet.  

Whole Bellied Fried Clams (and fries)
Nonetheless, Judy convinced me to try the whole belly clams.  They came out kind of looking like clam strips, but with a little round ball attached to each one.  Hmmm….  I popped one into my mouth.  The first chew was like a normal clam strip…a little rubbery clam taste with a hint of the breading and saltiness.  Then I bit into the round ball.  It kind of popped, but not, and then a soft almost gooey texture of warm clamminess spread throughout my mouth.  OMG, Yum!!!  I finished the whole plate!

Oh yeah, Mona had something to eat, too…um, shrimp I think.

Monday we decided to drive the Upper Cape and do some exploring.  Cape Cod was formed by glaciers and is essentially a dumping ground for all the rocks and detritus churned up by the glaciers as they moved south.  When the glaciers stopped their southern travels they dropped everything right here.  That left a lot of boulders just strewn everywhere along with lots of ponds created when huge ice chunks came to rest and melt.  All that glacial turmoil ended up creating beautiful scenery for us to enjoy.  Thanks glaciers!

Another key element of the scenery around here is what the colonials did once they landed here back in Pilgrim times.  Since there were so many trees and so little clay they ended up with a wood-based society.  Everything was built of wood, houses, ships, docks…everything.  They ended up clear-cutting all the trees that had been here.  Therefore, there are no old forests here and erosion has created sand dunes where there were no dunes before.  The result is still beauty but it’s sobering to see the effect of man on the ecosystem here.  (I won’t even begin to discuss the huge whale kills nor the lobstering and fishing that depleted so many of the natural resources here.  I’ll save that subject for another time.)

Highland Light
Anyway, we’re driving the Upper Cape enjoying the incredible scenery and visiting lighthouse after lighthouse along the way.  These lighthouses date back to 1797 when George Washington ordered the first one built on the Cape.  They had a variety of configurations and they were built in singles, pairs or threes, to help sailors better determine their location along the Cape.  We saw seven lighthouses and climbed up to the top of one, the Highland Light.  

At the top of the Highland Light
The Highland Light is the oldest lighthouse on the Cape and was authorized by Washington in 1797.  The light was initially provided by burning whale oil, then a six foot tall Fresnel lense using kersone, and now by a fist-size halogen lamp assembly.  Amazingly, this 420 ton lighthouse was moved 450 feet in 1996 to save it from coastal erosion.  They moved it as-as and it’s said that it moved so slowly that it was like watching grass grow.  Still an incredible feat!

We also visited the Old Cove Burial Ground where three of the original Mayflower Pilgrims are interred.  There were lots of gravestones with dates going all the way back to 1660.  Here we also saw lots of stones with the same flying skull engravings that we saw in old cemeteries in Maine.  Interesting!
Flying Skull Grave Stone

Further down the road was a windmill built in Plymouth in 1680 and moved to the Cape in 1770.  Who knew Colonials could move structures like that?!  

Another new experience for us was seeing cranberry bogs.  The bogs are in glacial ponds which filled up with plant residue over millennia creating peat and peat bogs.  The peat is leveled, dikes are built to create fields and then farmers place a layer of a few inches of sand in which the cranberries are planted.  The crop is harvested by flooding the diked area with about 18 inches of water.  Then huge egg-beater like machines churn up the water making the ripe berries separate from the vines.  I would love to come back and watch the harvest!

There is so much to see and do on Cape Cod and we’ve only just begun!  For now, I think we’ll go and get a hamburger.  NOT!

Traveling Tips

This trip we used the free hotel stays earned through the Choice Hotels promotion that we utilized on our California trip.  This included staying for free in a deluxe hotel in downtown White Plains.  Our favorite price is "free"!
My "Ko-hog"

Other than our friends' house and our final destination, we didn't plan where we were staying.  As we drove we'd talk about an interesting place to stay and would use Choice Hotel's iPhone App to find a hotel in our target area.  Then we used TripAdvisor's mobile app to read reviews about the hotels and nearby dining.

Learn the local pronunciations!  “Ko-hog”  “Chow-dah” “Lob-stah” etc.  It just makes dining so much easier!  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

California and Back

We began the second half of our spring trip with an expedition from Palm Desert to the Santa Anita
Mona's New Friend
At Santa Anita
Track in Arcadia, California.  As soon as we entered the gate we were impressed with the beauty of the track grounds.  There were exotic “poodle-trimmed” trees, along with lots of flowers and beautiful landscape everywhere.  Gorgeous!  We had purchased “Club” tickets for an extra $5 which gave us access to comfortable seating and terrace dining.  The terrace dining was an awesome experience…sitting high above the track at our table with tablecloths, silverware and great service.  We loved it!  Neither of us did that well in choosing winners, but we had a great time and will be back!

Sunday was another polo day.  We love horse events and polo is a way to see horses up close and personal. I love it when the horses thunder down the field after the ball and then turn on a dime when the ball is whacked away.  These ponies can run!  Note: they call them “ponies” but in fact, most are thoroughbreds with many coming from racetrack careers.  Virtually all of these ponies are 14 to 16 hands tall, kind of big for a pony!

All too soon it was time to leave Coachella Valley.  We said our goodbyes and headed west towards LA.  Earlier in the week we had taken the same route to Santa Anita, but this time we were headed further west.  However, just as we hit the 210 we ran into the famous LA traffic.  Mona quickly re-navigated us to Old Route 66 and we cruised right past the bad traffic.  

Vineyard Near Paso Robles.  Can you "drought"?!
Hearst Castle was our destination but on the way we found that the area around Paso Robles has almost 200 wineries.  Since it was lunch time we found a winery that serves food and we stopped for a tasting and a bite to eat.  We ate outside in the 80 degree weather and enjoyed the views of neighboring vineyards and soaring birds above.  It’s hard to beat that kind of lunch!

Indoor pool at Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle is unique to say the least.  It was built on a sixteen hundred foot hill overlooking the Pacific.  The site was where William Randolph Hearst used to camp as a boy and as an adult he wanted to live there.  The building looks like a castle with two turrets and the inside looks much like a European medieval castle with lots of tapestries and dark wood.  I loved the surrounding grounds as they brought to mind a Roman villa overlooking the Mediterranean.  Mona’s favorite was the inside swimming pool with it’s aqua colors and gold gilding.

Our next stop was Monterey.  We visited here two years ago and loved the area; especially, the sea otters.  On that trip we took a whale-watching tour but the seas were so rough the captain had to turn back to shore without spotting a whale.  That was a memorable boat ride; not only for the high seas but also because we went through a pod of about 1500 dolphins.  Since we didn’t see whales the charter service gave us free tickets for a repeat try.

This time the captain was again worried about the wind and high seas.  But, at 10:00 we set out.  
This time wasn’t nearly as rough but even so well over half of the forty people on board soon got sick.  Didn’t matter to us though!  We just hung onto the rail and kept our eyes peeled for blows.  Again, we saw hundreds of dolphins and 16 whales.  One huge 40 ton whale jumped totally out of the water making an enormous splash.  Awesome!!!  I didn’t get any decent whale pictures because it took both hands to hold onto the rail, but we both got the memories!

As I said, we love the sea otters around Monterey.  These guys are usually about 4 feet long and about 80 pounds.  They are like a sea- loving Irish setter.  They are everywhere in the area; around the docks, along the coast, and we even saw them several miles out to sea.  In all locations they have the same behaviors:  dive for mollusks, return to the surface and float on their back, and then use their special rock (that they keep in a pouch) to break the shell of the mollusk so they can eat it.  After they’re done eating their catch they dive back down and start all over again.  They have to eat about 25 - 40% of their body weight every day so they eat a lot!

After whale-watching we drove north of Monterey to a little bay where there are lots of otters.  There we climbed up on the rocks and watched otters and sea life all afternoon.  What a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.

Hard to get a sense of
scale on these giants
The next part of our trip was to check off another item on our bucket list: The Redwood National Park.  We drove up highway 101, the Redwood Highway, with thousands of redwoods and other pines along the way.  Before we got to the park we stopped at Leggett, California.  Mona didn’t know, but I knew that is one of the three remaining drive-through redwoods in California.  Mona got to drive her Highlander through the tree and she got such a kick doing so!  

Soon we were in the National Park proper.  We headed to the Lady Bird Johnson Grove to take a hike into the woods.  It was awesome walking among those giant trees.  Did you know that these trees live almost 2000 years and grow to over 375 feet!  They are huge!!!

Almost 375 feet tall...a 35 story building
would fit under here!
We spent the night in Eureka in Humboldt County.  Frankly, this is a weird area with lots of strange people walking around…..most of them unkempt with shaggy hair and only a few of their teeth.  They aren’t homeless but just odd and they are everywhere.  It's very unsettling and it made us be all the more wary when we parked our vehicle and when we geocached.

The next day we headed east across California on route 299.  This is a very scenic route through the pine forests with lots of twists and turns….and road construction.  Lots of road construction!  And did I say pine forests?  Mona has always been allergic to pine and I’m developing the same allergies so after a day and a half in the woods we were both sneezing and going through boxes of tissue.  We were anxious to get away from the scenery and beauty and pines!!!  But of course, not so anxious that we didn’t stop at the Bigfoot Museum.

The Bigfoot Museum in Willow Creek is one of the pre-eminent Bigfoot museums in the United States so of course we stopped there.  That was one of the reasons were on Route 299 in the first place.  We had done our research and knew that it didn’t open till 10 so we timed our visit just right; only to find that it doesn’t open until May.  We called a number posted on the museum door.  The lady who answered said she’d come over and open up for us.  Sure enough, in about 15 minutes a big old Cadillac pulled in and out jumped a little old lady.  Peggy was her name and she’s 84 years old and knows every Bigfoot story ever told.  She’s never seen Bigfoot, herself but she’s still hopeful!  

There’s a lot of stuff in the museum about the area, but all we cared to see was the Bigfoot room.  There were lots of casts of Bigfoot footprints, handprints and even thigh prints from where a Bigfoot had lain down on a muddy slope to eat a meal.  There were lots of newspaper reports and testimonials from scientists and doctors regarding hair samples found after Bigfoot sightings.  If you’re not a believer when you go in; you’re at least a wonderer when you come out!

We bought a few souvenirs and while checking us out Peggy told us about all the strange people in the area.  She says they’re mostly drug users and marijuana farmers.  They don’t mix well with long-time residents.  She said the newcomers are hot-tempered and threaten anyone who crosses them.  According to her, it gets worse when it’s time to harvest the marijuana because people come from all over the world to help bring in the crop.  We definitely didn’t do any hiking or geocaching in those back woods!

It took us a day to get across California and get to Reno.  There we stayed at the Silver Legacy and stayed in the artificially pure non-pine air all night.  Breath deeply!  The Silver Legacy had lots of restaurants and plenty of slot games we like.  Mona won and all was well!  (I lost.)

Our Eastward travels continued and on our last night out we stayed in Des Moines, Iowa.  There we linked up with an old friend, Mack Thompson, from Illinois Power.  He and his wife, Debbie, live downtown in a loft and it was highly reminiscent of our former place in St. Louis.  We walked downtown to eat making it even more of a STL-experience.  

You’d think we’d be tired of driving and anxious to head home after almost 6500 miles on this trip,
Hay Dude!
wouldn’t you?  Not!  We are still working on finding a geocache in every Illinois county and there were 10 counties in Western Illinois that we still needed.  So, we took a couple of hours and wound our way south through ten counties.  One of these counties is where Joseph Young, the founder of Mormonism, was shot.  Another county had a neat bridge over the Illinois river. And yet, another had the Hay Dude.  Always something to see and learn while you’re caching!

We finally made it home.  Time to do the laundry and start packing for the next trip!

Traveling Tips.  (The second in a series.)


We use an app called Gas Buddy when we’re looking for gas.  This app helps you find the lowest gas prices around; whether it be around the corner or the next exit.  We saved an average of 20 cents per gallon when using the app.

Airline Miles

Normally, we use our Starwoods credit card for everything.  That’s because they give you a 5000 mile bonus when you convert Starwoods points to American miles.  However, we recently got a US Airways card.  We got a 50,000 mile bonus for signing up for the card and these miles will convert to American miles when the merger is complete.  At this time, the US Airways card is giving you 1.5 miles for every dollar spent; making it the best card for American miles until late June.

International Calls on Your Mobile

While on this trip we received our phone bill and there was $44 in international calls from our cruise.  It was evident that these were Mona’s calls because I always have my phone on airplane mode while out of the country.  I gently reminded her that these calls are pricey and to be aware of the costs of talking.  She took the reminder in good form, but the next morning she challenged the calls saying that she had only used her phone while in US Territories where the calls are free.  She convinced me, so I called ATT to tell them about the incorrect billing.  

The ATT agent was most sympathetic and she was working with me to investigate. I was telling the agent how the calls were from Mona's phone when the agent interrupted me and said, “Mr. Sowers, these calls aren’t from Mona’s phone.  They’re from yours.”  “Hmmmm!” says I, “That makes it even more curious since I ALWAYS have my phone on airplane mode when cruising.”  (Practically perfect in every way, that’s me!)  The ATT agent was having trouble figuring things out, because I always have my phone on airline mode when cruising so she put me on hold so she could connect us with an ATT International specialist.  

As I was humming to the hold music I started backtracking in my mind…..the calls came from Grand Turk…what had happened in Grand Turk?…..hmmmm….  Suddenly, the horrible truth came to me.  In Grand Turk Mona had “lost” her phone and I had taken my phone off airplane mode so I could call her phone.  Just as I called she discovered her phone in the restroom.  Relieved, I put my phone in my pocket and immediately began making pocket calls….to the tune of $44!!!  I blame the medicinal rum that I had taken to mitigate the pain from stepping on a nail.  (What color is sheepish?)

I confessed, both to the ATT agents and to Mona.  ATT was very gracious, even though they were laughing about the rum, and they took off $22 worth of the charges.  Mona was gracious too, but in a smurky sort of way.

What's the tip?  Keep your phones on airplane mode at all times if you don't want to incur international roaming charges.  Duh!

Microwaving Boiled Eggs 

This sign was at the next hotel.  
One sunny morning Mona and I were the only ones in the self-serve breakfast bar at our hotel.  Mona was busy making her own breakfast and I was already eating.  I noticed her turning from the microwave and I looked up.  SPLAT!!!  Egg all over my glasses, my hair and the entire dining area.  Mona said the eggs started jumping in the bowl just before they exploded.

Roadside Lemonaide


More tips next time!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

California and the Valley Zone

Near a Geocache in the Desert
We began our trip to California with a couple of nights in Norman, Oklahoma, visiting Monte and Aleta and helping out with a wiring project.  We set out early morning on Tuesday, with Las Cruces, New Mexico as our destination for the night.  Initially, our route was the same one we took on our first retirement trip; driving through Amarillo (by morning) and ending up in Santa Rosa, New Mexico for lunch.  There we stopped at the Silver Moon Cafe which is an iconic Route 66 diner.  (We stopped here in 2012, too.) It’s a perfect place for New Mexican chiles dishes….Yum!

At Santa Rosa we got off the interstate to bisect the state on Route 54 (which goes all the way to Clinton, IL) and then onto Route 76.  We love driving the back roads in New Mexico because of the awesome scenery, both plant and rock.  Just before Las Cruces we came to the White Sands National Monument.  
Can you imagine Mona sledding???

There, in the middle of the brown desert are huge dunes of white sand covering 275 square miles.  These dunes are still evolving and they move several feet a year.  There are trails to walk and lots of places where you can sled down the dunes.  Note: We didn’t sled but even Mona is considering sledding on our next visit.  As she says, “This would be sledding paradise; sled all you want and never get cold!”

After our night in Las Cruces we set out to complete one of our goals of 2015; i.e., to have found a geocache in every county of Arizona.  We already had all but six Arizona counties and five were to be found today!  We left the interstate and headed northwest towards Globe, Arizona.  Much of the first part of the road was desolate with no cars in either direction.  Frankly, I was a little creeped out so I sped up until I got within reasonable eyesight of the car ahead.  Finally, we got to a town, then a section of more traveled road and I was better.  You get to thinking how isolated out you are out in the middle of the desert…

Near another geocache
I had mapped out the route and the caches that would maximize our time while minimizing our distance.  Much of that route took us through the San Carlos Apache Reservation.  We traveled through several small towns in the reservation and I was dismayed at how trashy many of the yards were.  Along our travels we noted that many desert dwellers like to accumulate junk.  It could be that they aren’t any worse than midwestern junkers but, the midwesterners benefit from tall grass and bushes hiding their collections.  But anyway, I get junk collectors.  Midwestern or desert. After all my family had our share of collectors and I grew up with a big school bus sitting in our backyard…so yes, I get junk collectors.  But, getting back to the trash issues, these homes were littered with garbage, not junk.  Maybe a big wind had just blown through and they hadn’t had time to pick up the garbage.  Just maybe.

Arizona Highways!
Other than those few cities, the route was beautiful with plenty of scenes like you see in“Arizona Highways” which I guess stands to reason because we were traveling on Arizona highways.  Some things just don’t need explaining, but I guess I did anyway.   However, we saw virtually no animals.  Yes, most desert animals are nocturnal but we didn’t even see last night’s roadkill.  Nada.  Given as many miles as we drove we’d normally expect to see deer, antelope or at least a rabbit.  But, nada.  However, to compensate the desert was in bloom.  They’ve had a lot of unseasonal rain so we got a stunning display of desert colors!

We finally ended up in Tucson with our five counties achieved!  Thanks to time differences
we still had plenty of time to check things out.  We had planned on going to Old Town Tucson but we found that it was like old Dodge City, a stage set that charged admission.  Not what we wanted.  We settled for a restaurant that served authentic Mexican food (Unique in this part of the country, right?  Not!)  However, the food was wonderful with selections we’ve never seen before including calabacitas; a Mexican vegetable side dish.  Excellent!  We’ve tried several new Mexican dishes on this trip and have loved them all. Más favor!
Inside Lutes' Casino

Next stop was Yuma, Arizona.  We tried to time our visit for 3:10 but we arrived a little early.  We had targeted a cache in Old Town so we headed there and quickly made the find.  We have now found a cache in all of the counties in Arizona.  Our first completed state!

After finding the cache we walked the streets of Old Town Yuma.  Main street is very wide and come to find out it was designed that way so that teams of mules could do u-turns in the street.  We ended up at Lutes’ Casino for lunch.  You can’t gamble here but you do get to gawk at the decor.  The place is filled with posters, wall art and oddities.  Crazy!  The food was fun, but the walls and ceilings were even more so!

Prison Cellblock
Next up was the Territorial Prison.  Built back in 1876 by the prisoners themselves, this place served as home for over 3000 prisoners in its thirty three year life.  For its time, this was considered a model prison; however, I couldn’t imagine being one of the six people in a cell the size of a normal bathroom.  Soon, as is typical in the United States, the prison became overcrowded and the prisoners built a larger one and left Yuma Territorial Prison for good.

After Yuma we drove west on I8 towards California.  Just to the south of the interstate we caught our first sighting of the wall between the United States and Mexico.  It’s huge and stretches for miles.  Every few miles you can see clusters of border patrol vehicles waiting on some action.  It’s a odd feeling looking at this wall.  You don’t think of the United States as being walled.  That’s something for the Cold War or for the Middle East.  Sobering.  I wanted to take a side road to get a close up picture of the wall, but something told me that wasn't a good idea.

Speaking of Border Patrol: We went through three checkpoints.  This time I was driving so they allowed us to pass unhindered.  Even though Mona wasn’t driving we practiced her answers to any questions they might ask her.  “Are you an American Citizen?”  “Yes” would be her answer.  “Is this your car?”  Again, “Yes” would be her answer.  Seems simple, right?  But we know all too well Mona’s history with Border Patrol and Customs Agents.

Getting in the Valley Zone at Blue Coyote
After a few more hours we were at last in the Coachella Valley and the resort in Palm Desert.  Here we met up with Monte and Aleta again.  We were spending the week in  their Shadow Ridge villa.  I’ve written a lot about the valley and the resort in previous blogs so I’ll skip that this time.  Instead I’ll talk about traditions.  We have a lot of traditions when we stay here and we immediately began the process:  Step 1: Appoint a designated driver.  Step 2: Drive to Palm Springs and go to Blue Coyote.  Step 3: Order a pitcher of Wild Margaritas.  Step 4:  Inhale said Margaritas and begin to get into the “Valley Zone”.  That’s where you’re oh-so relaxed, and soaking in the desert air while watching palm trees sway in the breeze.  Ahhhhh….

Love to Birdwatch in the Valley
This little hummingbird let me get very close!
Other traditions include: stocking up on supplies at Ralph’s after Blue Coyote  (Always lots of fun for the designated driver!); In and Out Burger; Del Taco; breakfast at Pinocchio’s (with bottomless champaign and a designated driver); walks in the resort; swimming in the afternoons; hikes/geocaching in the desert; grilling out in the evenings; and finally Polo on Sunday.

Breakfast View!
Our Polo Sundays start with a visit to the Eldorado Polo Club.  Admission is free and we go to breakfast at Roc’s Firehouse Grill which is situated within 20 feet of the polo field.  We get a table on the edge of the patio so close to the field that we can almost touch the horses.  Sometimes when they overrun the field chasing the ball the horses almost get into our food!  We  dine and watch the 10:00 game.  Afterwards, we head to the Empire Polo Club.  Here admission is free too.  However, if you want to pay a little bit you get reserved seats under the shade.  That’s always our option!

As with the Eldorado Club, we’re about twenty feet from the field, but now we’re up on a patio about six feet above the field, giving us an excellent view of the games. There is the noon game which is fun, but the best part of the day is the 2:00 game.  This is typically a championship match and the highlight of the game is the half-time Champagne Divot Stomp.  You get a free glass of champagne for which you go out onto the field and stomp divots.  The primary thing you have to learn is the difference between a divot and a “non-divot”, if you know what I mean.  It’s a blast out there with hundreds of other people in the desert sun, sipping on champagne and doing their best to avoid the non-divots!
Mona and Aleta Divot Stomping

At the end of the week, Monte and Aleta headed home while Mona and I moved to the Westin Mission Hills resort in Rancho Mirage.  Here, we continued the traditions but yesterday we did something we’ve never done before: We visited Tahquitz Canyon.   The canyon is holy to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and they recently reopened it to non-tribal visitors.  

We walked to the Visitor’s Center with a backpack loaded up with bottles of water.  You’re not even allowed past the center unless you have at least one bottle per person.  We had two per.  We were a bit apprehensive about our walk as they had lots of signs warning about the rattlesnakes.  Mona asked the clerk and she assured us that it’s been awhile since anyone was bitten.  Oh gee, thanks a lot!  Feeling much better about the rattlers now!

On the Tahquitz Trail...see any rattlers?

This canyon is literally five blocks from the main street of Palm Springs but it’s like a step back into time.  You hear nothing but ravens croaking and lizards rustling in the sagebrush and creosote bushes as you walk by.  A least we hoped they were lizards!  (We didn’t see a single snake but I kept wondering how many saw us!)  The only desert critters we saw were lizards, tiny little guys only 4 or 5 inches long, up to desert iguanas which are 12 to 16 inches long.  Most of them run a little bit, stop, do a couple of push ups to impress us, then run ahead of us to the next piece of shade.

Tahquitz Falls
After about an hour of hiking up and down the canyon walls we got to the Tahquitz Falls.  Here the water gushes out of a crevice about 50 foot above us.  It’s ice cold water from the snow melt on the San Jacinto Mountains above us.  It was well worth the hike!  We cooled in the shade of the oasis and then headed back the rocky trail.  It was 95 degrees on our return; there is little shade for the next mile or so; therefore, we were very happy to get back to the Visitor Center's air conditioning.  Since we were so close to Palm Springs we decided to celebrate our conquering of the valley trail by visiting Blue Coyote for Wild Margaritas and posole.  Ahhh…..the Valley Zone again!

Now it's morning and I’m out on our balcony with a cup of coffee watching the sun start to peek over the mountain and through the palm trees.  A great way to start another valley day!